by Maxwell James
A young man has become disillusioned. He quits the local collective bookstore when it becomes apparent that reality works differently from the spark he’s carried inside himself his whole life. He listens to his self-possessed friend, a brilliant electronics engineer, who tells him that his politics don’t mesh with human nature. And his friend should know: he’s the one who made it that way.
The morning of the march was halfway over before I finally gave up on sleep. The diffuse light billowing in through the sheet that covered my window signaled another overcast day. It was just enough to show me the piles of books, clothes, shoes, magazines, and empty boxes strewn across the scarred hardwood.
I sat up and winced as my muscles told me the different directions they’d been pulled and pressed. The dank smell of my own sweat wafting into my nostrils and the sight of the shelf full of unread books and the wall covered in cracked paint didn’t help curb the resigned sense of failure that came with a sleepless night. The face had done its work again.
But this morning was the same as all the mornings that had followed all the nights since the one Schwartz called me a child. All ‘nights of the face chasing me’. That was what I called it, although it was not quite that. An almost-a-face. A suggestion of what a face could look like were it allowed to exist. Like it was projected on the roof of my head as I was dangled into this dirty puddle of life.
And since I screamed at Schwartz and stormed out of the bar, I’d been stuck in this house wrestling with that face. He used to wait for me to take him on but these days seemed eager to challenge me. I don’t know why we kept meeting. I guess we’d both gotten into the habit. Maybe Schwartz had just wanted to create another of his own.
When I met him, he’d been alone. Two mutual friends and I showed up at one of the tiny dive bars that dotted the neighborhood, and one of my friends saw Schwartz sitting alone at a table near the back, sipping a double whiskey and reading a thick book amidst the noisy patrons.
He’d been brusque and dismissive. But something struck me about him. Schwartz was the most self-contained human being I’d ever encountered. He was tall and lanky, but carried himself as if his body were Hellenistic perfection. His head was long and angular, his brush-cut hair receding from his temples.
That night he wore khaki work pants, a battered T-shirt, and a torn sweatshirt. I learned he made his living running a computer programming and repair business through the online classifieds and lived in a large basement apartment in the warehouse district, where he occasionally had heavy metal and punk shows. He gave us a flier for his next one. I ended up going.
I was intrigued. He hadn’t remembered me at first but in the following days and weeks I began bumping into him at local bars, and finally started meeting him regularly at the bar down the street where we drank double whiskeys and talked about music, art and literature at first but then mostly politics, which led to me telling him I was a volunteer at a local collective bookstore.
The first thing he’d asked was: “Why?”
I told him I enjoyed helping the world move forward. At the time, I’d believed it.
So he’d made it his business to tear me down. Not all at once, but over time. And the events of my life seemed to help him, most notably when the large woman stormed out. Maybe that’s why I kept listening. Until now, when the face was all I had.
I heard about the march over the radio in my drafty kitchen while I was scooping coffee into the French press. I still listened to the community station. For a time, I’d tried to clog my mind with its world of marches, non-profits, and paradigm shifts. And even though I’d given up, I still peeked in and struggled to see it the way I had before.
The kitchen was no better than my room. The mud-stained floor, the ceiling dusted with cobwebs and the counters speckled with breadcrumbs and coffee grounds all looked uglier and more oppressive. Everything looked worse every day.
From the start, Schwartz had given me a look resembling pity whenever I mentioned what I believed in. I told myself he was like everyone else — looking at the world from the wrong angle — his own.
I knew now that I hadn’t wanted him to bring back the face. When I was young I thought many girls I knew were it. It took time for me to realize I just wrapped them around it because I wanted to pry it out of my mind. But the girls had slowly become women until there were fewer and fewer of them and I became aware that the face had a spark of life to it that the world around me could not explain. After that, I’d done my best to push to bury it. And for a few years, I’d succeeded.
So I said he wore blinders, that he saw nothing except himself.
He told me the same thing. Except my blinders had pretty pictures on them.
And eventually he won. He tore down every pretty picture and left me with nothing but the face.
But I knew it was useless trying to explain it to Schwartz. I could barely explain it to myself.
So I’d put up a wall and let his arguments bounce off.
His frustration finally showed. He said I was a child stubbornly clinging to fairy tales, that there was clearly something dark I was hiding.
I jumped to my defense.
He was just another aggressor in a world of aggressors.
And I refused to live in that world or to justify myself to it.
Hot frothy embarrassment had burned beneath my skin as I spoke.
I stormed out of the bar, down the street, and walked home. Since then, I hadn’t gone anywhere but the corner store where I worked. Just me, the house, and the face.
The canned voice came on the radio, stating that the march would begin in two hours at the waterfront park downtown. And I thought to myself that it was my day off and I didn’t want to be here anymore, in this house, living this life.
On my bike I plowed through the puddles full of dead leaves and litter. The moisture hung heavy. I arrived at the waterfront just as the rally was ending. A large crowd was beginning to mill towards the streets, revealing a make-shift stage and P.A. I could hear a female voice calling out chants over a megaphone.
I biked awkwardly through the people, finding all the bike-racks, railings, and trees already covered in oblong piles of bikes. I had to ride to the other end of the park and lock up to a tree and walk briskly to catch up with the rear of the march.
Whenever I came to a march, I always felt an intense need to find the absolute center where all the anger, frustration, and passion welled up and spilled out, and I’d always ended up running in circles. I wanted to choose carefully today.
So when I found myself surrounded by Carpenters’ Union members in bright orange polo shirts all marching in a rough formation with somber expressions that suggested they were eager to get this over with, I moved on.
Up front, the slogans flew like fireworks. I headed there.
I passed two elderly men in blue jeans and work boots attempting a duet of an old union song. Their voices knocked up against one another and sloshed around the tangled chords. The confusion was too much, so I moved forward, closer to the woman’s voice, barely audible above the clatter of drums, pots, pans, maracas, and whistles.
As I walked forward, there began a thunderous crash that drowned out all the other attempts at rhythm. I knew what it was before I got there: the members of the I.W.W. all lined up in a row with enormous drums lashed to their bodies. They would create the front rank of the march, and provide the rhythm for everyone else to follow whether they wanted to or not.
I suddenly found myself face to face with a tall, slender young woman about my age. She was dressed about the same as everyone else here: dungarees with the legs rolled up to reveal multi-colored socks, scarred workman’s boots, and battered second-hand clothes; for her, two layered torn T-shirts beneath a battered hoody covered by a pastel polar fleece vest. A yellow bandana around her head barely covered a mess of dark dreadlocks that I knew hung down towards the middle of her back. The ring through her eyebrow drew attention to her dark, intense eyes.
Her face remained gently placid but suggested there was more going on inside.
“Hey, man,” she said barely above a mumble, with a half-smile.
I nodded my head.
“Hey,” I said, trying to sound as upbeat as I could. They were the first words I’d spoken in several days, and their curdled sound increased my self-consciousness. The last words I’d spoken were the ones I’d yelled at Schwartz, except for short exchanges over the counter-top at work.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“Oh... around,” I said.
Several of her friends were moving in the opposite direction. She looked after them.
“Well... good to see you,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
She walked on. I felt disappointed but unsure of why. A part of me always hoped that this time it would be different.
She was from that previous life when I tried to clog my mind. She’d been there the day the large woman stormed out. That exchange was like all the exchanges I had with people from that life. They knew the barrier between us. They’d been aware of it before I was.
She and everyone else there seemed to be enjoying the very thing I’d come looking for in the beginning: a sense of unity and completion. Being parts of the same whole. They always had a lot to say to one another, but never anything to me. I’d never been able to manage the feelings that those hugs, kisses and smiles were rooted in. Now I wondered despite myself if their demonstrations of unity concealed a deep inner remoteness. It was them or me.
But I had reasons for believing this. It first occurred to me at the last meeting I ever attended at the bookstore, when the large woman stormed out.
I’d first come there when I made a circuit of different bookstores throughout the city, dropping off resumes and trying my best to glad-hand dour owners. But I walked in and met a middle-aged man with a nose-ring who informed me that the store was a volunteer-run collective. All I had to do was show up at the next meeting.
The time was exactly right for me. I had just ended a long-term college relationship. I felt that need that comes from such an event: to get to the bottom of all of these forces that had caused reality’s failure to measure up to my expectations. To find the solution that had evaded the entire world for so long but that would of course not evade me.
The bookstore was run by an always-changing group of volunteers who met bi-weekly on Sunday mornings at about the same time most people went to church. All decisions were made by consensus. People were reasonable. You had patience. You worked together.
I thought all I had to do was allow that reality to spill into me and push out everything corrupted and underdeveloped. So I kept waiting for the differences between these people and everyone else in the world to become obvious.
Instead I discovered that the bookstore was a dream shared by many people at once and, just like the face that was not quite a face, never quite emerged. What it actually was was always being debated, and — most importantly — always existed in a more real form within the minds of its members. It was not a common dream, it was a group of several different, similar dreams milling around one another.
When she was younger, that large woman was probably a lot like these marchers. Like them, she lived off hope. She’d been part of that very select group that was going to seize control and direct the change of civilization. When it never materialized, she’d spent some time underground, although all that meant was that she’d changed her name and moved to a different city and waited for the tide to turn but instead watched as the world marched in the opposite direction.
Eventually, she’d turned herself in with no consequences except a lingering dissatisfaction with most everything. And she’d grasped the same hope for the last four decades, that she was the victim of a world twisted out of its proper shape. That the sense of disappointment and rage that accompanied her transition to adulthood would someday be vindicated if she held on long enough.
She was not alone. All of these people had been rallied together today by one of the groups that remained from the same era as her, a revolutionary communist party that had resisted the movement towards an underground but instead maintained a party apparatus from their headquarters in the wealthiest bohemian neighborhood of our country’s wealthiest bohemian city.
They’d been a constant presence at protests over the years even though their credibility was — like that hope — a part of history. They were run by a mysterious leader who fled to Western Europe to avoid being charged with assaulting a police officer at a march in the early 1980s and whose only communication with the outside world were essays published in the party’s monthly paper.
The bookstore carried four issues, brought in each month by a soft-spoken, bespectacled man who walked with a limp from a police officer’s night stick. Nobody ever bought them.
But this woman still read them. She’d clung to that hope tighter than she’d ever clung to anything or anyone, and became more and more irate until she was reduced to a bitterly abrasive need to wrestle her small world into submission. Even if that world was nothing more than this bookstore and the people who helped run it.
She was not one of the founding members, but had been involved for a long time. She had gone unchecked for so long that she no longer had any recourse but to assume that her wishes were for the best. She was usually able to shout down anyone who disagreed, leaving her permanently lost inside the maze of her frustrated desires.
We began discussing the magazine ordering situation. Everything at the bookstore was a “situation,” somewhere between a moderate and pitched crisis, and we always focused on dealing with the results of these crises as opposed to their causes. For many of them, it was the only form of intoxication they had anymore.
The agenda was written on a dry-erase board in a shaky hand, and came to “Magazines.” The large woman took out the catalog of a new distributor, and asked everyone to look through it and decide what they wanted to order. Many people were hesitant to start ordering again. We’d held off due to financial problems.
One of them was the book orderer, who played in a local punk band even though he was in his early thirties. He was the child of former radicals himself, and seemed to enjoy prodding the older collective members in the same way he’d prodded his parents. Another was the girl I’d just talked to. She did the accounting and was regularly belittled by the older women in the collective, most likely because she possessed a maturity and composure they never managed.
“I just don’t feel like, at this point, I know enough about what’s going on,” she was saying in that quiet, even voice. “I think we need to have more information.”
The response was so incongruent that it took a moment for everyone to understand what was happening.
“Then I quit!” woman screamed, throwing the catalog onto the floor. “I am tired of this bullshit!”
The girl didn’t move. Neither did anyone else.
“This is... unnecessary,” she finally said.
But the woman hobbled up out of her seat, slung her purse over her shoulder, and continued her tirade.
“I’m so sick of this,” she continued, looking straight at the dreadlocked girl. “I’m so tired of this all the time.”
Instead of explaining what “this” was, she marched out of the store and out of my life. The collective was hysterical. The punk rocker left the room and sat by himself in the small office for a few minutes. The dreadlocked girl stayed where she was but the puzzled expression on her face remained.
One of the other members followed the large woman out the door but couldn’t get her to come back. Another older member who had heart problems splashed water in his face and breathed in and out. Everyone expressed various levels of agitation and regret but a desire to continue forward.
But I just sat there. It felt as if all the objects and people around me had just shifted position, that I was seated in a completely different dimension than I’d been in five minutes before.
Emerging from my mind was an unstoppable conclusion. This did not work. Any thoughts of a higher cause floated away as soon as anyone felt like they didn’t have as much control as they wanted. Here was somebody who’d been involved in the movement for most of her life. If she was not liberated from the need for power and control, who could hope to be? There were tendencies in human nature that could not simply be wished away.
Copyright © 2008 by Maxwell James