T h e L o x T o p i a r y
From across the ballroom it could have been a strangely shaped bouquet of pink flowers, carnations maybe. Closer, it was obvious it was some kind of food, shrimp maybe. But even these "Once-A-Year" Jews wouldn't serve shrimp at a bar mitzvah, would they? It wasn't until she stood right next to it that Leslie was finally sure it really was lox. Each piece rolled up and pierced with a toothpick, stuck into Styrofoam the shape of a topiary. It was a lox topiary.
"Such a clever idea," her aunt Annette remarked, plucking out a piece. She was wearing a blinding red satin gown that looked like someone had vomited rhinestones all over it.
"Isn't what a clever idea?" Leslie asked.
"The lox! I saw something like this last year at a wedding. Who knows what they'll come up with next."
"Can't wait," Leslie mumbled.
She couldn't bring herself to pluck out a piece and pop it in her mouth. Not that she didn't like lox. Not that Communists had dietary laws. But one bite and she might find herself transformed into one of them, trapped in a Danish Modern nightmare, paying thousands of dollars in dues to synagogues that always seemed to have that new car smell.
And her family wondered why she had become a Communist.
She had taken time from her Party work to do this, to please her mother and father. They wanted her there for her cousin's bar mitzvah. It had been a long time since she had gone home, so she wrote to the chair of the local party cell and asked for permission. She got permission because she so seldom asked, so seldom wanted to ask.
What she wanted was to go back to her work. Tomorrow morning she would take the train into the City then a bus to Trenton. Right now she pushed through the feeding frenzy for some fresh air.
"They got beautiful weather," her Uncle Eli said as Leslie stepped outside. He crushed out his cigarette in one of the sand-filled urns that flanked each door of the temple. "Are you still doing that social work in Trenton?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered, having long ago decided not to contradict her parents' lie. In spite of what they thought, she hadn't become a Communist to hurt them.
"Is it very bad there?" he asked.
"Is what very bad?"
"The standard of living."
"The 'standard of living' is that you only eat at the beginning of each month when your welfare check comes and after that you don't. And then you probably die in your fifties of untreated diabetes or tuberculosis."
"If you ask me, the problem is education. Without education you can't expect to make a decent living."
"You never went to college."
"I was lucky. My father had a business. To tell you the truth, if I didn't finish high school it wouldn't have been a tragedy either."
"Well, not everyone's so lucky."
"That's why they need an education."
"Why do we need educated farm workers?"
"Is that what they do down there? In Trenton?"
"It's what they used to do before they got too old or too sick or got hurt." She had had this exact same discussion hundreds of times in the last few years.
"Well, a good education couldn't hurt," Eli said and went back inside.
On her infrequent visits home to Long Island, Leslie usually avoided these kinds of discussions, especially with her parents, who, she knew, were saddened and disappointed by her. She hated how they blamed themselves because their intelligent daughter, who got such good grades in school, went off to college in the seventies and was brainwashed by come communist organization. She was such a quiet little girl in the sixties. Always reading. Woodstock came and went and she barely looked up from her books. She should be dancing to disco like her friends. Instead she was working with no pay whatsoever for some crazy communist group, living in a decrepit storefront in the worst ghetto in Trenton.
"When you were twelve you argued with the rabbi during your bat mitzvah lessons," her mother had reminded her. "And I couldn't keep any canned food in the house! Before I could even unpack the grocery bags you grabbed it all up and took it to the soup kitchen. Remember the time she stole the brownies I made for my Mah Jong group and gave them to a poor family?” she reminded Leslie's father. “I had to explain to the girls why I had nothing to serve."
"You think you can change a country like America?" her father had asked back then, when she was first involved.
"Why not? Lenin did it. So did Mao and Castro."
"You think people will jump on the bandwagon just because you think they should?"
"Change is happening all the time, all around us. It's just a question of directing the change in the way we want."
"Ah, that's a lot of philosophical junk. Americans are happy with things as they are."
"You're happy. You're comfortable."
"Is that so bad?"
"How can you be so satisfied when others suffer around you?"
"You think there's a time coming when there won't be any suffering?"
"You could at least help."
"I moved us all out of that hole-in-the-wall apartment on East Fifteenth Street, that's how I helped. I sent you to a good college. Is it my fault you dropped out? My mother was sick as a dog for five years before she died and she never set foot in a nursing home. That's how I helped, too. Let's see what happens when I get old, how helpful you'll be!"
The last time they found themselves venturing towards this discussion, he suggested she give up all the Commie crap and go live on a kibbutz in Israel. After that she didn't go home for a long time.
It was a relief to get back to the office in East Trenton. As she walked along East Clinton Avenue, passed the boarded up storefronts, used furniture stores and fix-a-flats, Leslie promised herself that she would remember this last visit home the next time they asked her to come back.
"I guess I just can't picture it," Darwin said about the lox topiary.
"You know what a topiary is, don't you?"
"Sure. It's the lox part I don't get."
"There's nothing to get. It's the descendent of the chopped liver swan."
"The chopped liver swan?"
"You have to be Jewish," she said.
"I went to a bar mitzvah once."
"Well, it was obviously the wrong bar mitzvah."
"I had a good time," he said. "I never saw such an abundance of food and drink in my life."
Darwin Smith was the third son and fifth child of working class Lutheran parents. He had never seen an abundance of anything.
"You might consider being a little tolerant," he suggested.
"In the face of a lox topiary you can't expect me to be tolerant."
"Poor taste is not exclusive to Capitalism.”
Of course not. But once upon a time Leslie was sure that people would get good and fed up with disco, hot pants and television and see them all for the diversionary tactics they were. Ways of keeping people too preoccupied to really think about their lives. But somehow it never seemed to happen. Sometimes she wondered if it ever would. Living and working in the ghetto it was abundantly obvious that poor people's lives seemed as fixed as orbits, the women around their storefront churches and the men around their bars. On the block of their office alone there were two of each.
Last week, at two a.m., when the bar across the street closed, Leslie awoke to a commotion. She was covered in her own sweat on the still summer night and peered out the curtain on the front door to get a look. Darwin came running up front from the back room.
"What's going on?" His tee shirt was dotted with sweat and his shorts were so short his long skinny legs and knobby knees resembling a giraffe's. When he was dressed he looked as if his torso sat atop stilts.
They both watched as a woman ran wildly from the bar and turned down the adjacent alleyway in the light summer rain. A fat man stumbled out of the bar, obviously drunk, and chased her, slipping on the wet sidewalk. He was shouting incoherently. And, he was completely naked as he got up and ran down the alley.
They stared, speechless.
"Do you think she needs help?" Darwin asked, finally.
It hadn't even occurred to her. "He's stoned out of his mind, he's stark naked and he can barely stand up. I doubt he can even catch her no less hurt her."
"I guess he isn't hiding any weapons," Darwin observed, in earnest.
"And it's so hot I guess if he passes out he won't freeze to death," Darwin continued to evaluate.
"What the hell happened to his clothes?" Leslie wondered aloud.
"He got drunk and shed them."
Leslie found it funny. " 'Shed' them?"
Darwin gave her that confused look, which only made him funnier.
"Most people don't just 'shed' their clothes when they get drunk, you know."
"There's probably an explanation," he said.
"He was probably hoping to have sex with her and being so drunk didn't realize they weren't alone."
"Or that she obviously isn't interested."
The situation had the potential for hilarity, but at two in the morning, in the company of Darwin-The-Humorless, it was obviously not going to rise to that level. Her desire for a good long laugh ebbed out into the wash of her fatigue. "I'm going back to sleep," she announced.
"I'll watch for a little while longer. Just in case…"
"In case what?" He was such a damned do-gooder. He should have joined the Peace Corps not the Party.
"You can go back to sleep."
"Don't be a martyr," Leslie said.
"Just a few minutes."
He pulled up a chair and situated it against the door so he could look out of the lower of the four small windowpanes.
Leslie was manning the front office, near the phone, and crawled back onto the old sofa with its erupting kapok. Darwin sat watch silently, barely moving. The air inside the office was dead from cigarette smoke and sweat. Their one fan needed a new cord. No one had the time to deal with it.
Her fatigue felt like a huge sand bag but she couldn't get back to sleep. She and Darwin had tried to make love before they went to sleep at midnight, alone in the office, but he passed out on top of her. It wasn't the first time. Now, even through the weight of her fatigue, she could still feel that small tug of desire.
"See anything?" she asked.
"Then go to sleep. You'll be exhausted for the canvass tomorrow."
"What if the police come?"
"It's old hat to them, Darwin."
"What if they hurt him? A fat, naked, drunk, black man…defenseless? It'll bring out the worst in them "
This, too, Leslie hadn't considered.
The next day, five of the six cadre from the Trenton office and two of the cadre from the New Brunswick office were gathering together with a dozen high school students from Princeton University to canvass the projects of Hightstown and the rural roads on the outskirts. Though they were bringing along food and clothing to distribute, the real reason for the expedition was to expose the students to the poverty in their own county. Sometimes one of them would be moved to spend more time volunteering. And, once in awhile, they were moved to make an even greater commitment.
Leslie herself had met up with the Organization three and a half years ago. She had become an English major because she had enjoyed literature in high school, but as it turned out, most “literature” was just self-indulgent and petit bourgeois. All those words never fed one single starving person.
By her junior year she considered dropping out, but the world was a closed fist. There were no jobs. New York City was near bankruptcy. Her father told her she could always come home and help him run his Army-Navy store. That thought alone kept her going to classes. And then, one day, in her Sociology class, a speaker from the Organization showed up. She put her name on a list of volunteers. They called her the next day and the very next Saturday she drove out to their offices on the east end of Long Island to meet with two of their organizers. To her great relief they never asked, “Why do you care?” when she explained that she was looking for a way to make a difference in the world. Instead, they told her they were absolutely serious about doing just that. And, they had a plan.
Two years later she was the one to recruit Darwin from the Princeton Theological Seminary. She had dropped out of college to dedicate herself to the Organization and was sent to the Trenton office soon after. She was told about the clandestine party and was offered the opportunity to become a member. She accepted. It was when they had a literature table at the seminary that she met Darwin. He wasn't your typical in-front-of-the-supermarket suburbanite she was used to. He knew much more than she did about most things. What he didn't know was that she was there representing a party that intended to take over the United States and they were looking for potential cadre. People with a passion for change. People like Darwin Smith.
She had wanted to ask about his name the first time she met him but decided against it. Getting personal with potential recruits wasn't allowed. Not that some cadre didn't do it. Even went so far as to sleep with them, which they called "horizontal recruitment." But after Darwin started to come down to the Trenton office regularly, Leslie relaxed a little.
"So, is Darwin an old family name or something?" she had asked.
"No. It was my father's ill-fated attempt to get back at his father."
She liked how he used epithets like 'ill-fated.' "An act of rebellion at your expense?"
"I actually like the name. It's distinctive."
"My father's father was a bible-thumper. A Creationist."
"I get it. But why ill-fated?"
"Because in his old age my father became more religious and regretted it."
"Naming you Darwin?"
"Among other things."
"But it's a last name," she pointed out.
"Yes," he said.
"Why didn't he just name you Charles?"
"I don't think it would have made the same statement."
Darwin was born a Lutheran but had become a Quaker in his late teens, and had considered joining a monastery in his late twenties. Instead, he enrolled in seminary. If he hadn't met Leslie that day at the literature table, he told her he would have dropped out of seminary anyway. To become a Jew.
"A Jew named Darwin Smith?"
"I always thought the name Dov might be nice."
"How can you equate Jews and Communists?"
"How can you not? Jews are the original people with a mission."
"My mother's mission right now is to find a picture for over the couch," Leslie smirked.
If he heard her, he ignored her. "Marx was a Jew," he stated.
"Even I know that."
"Did you know his grandfather was a rabbi?"
"Why do you think he was so obsessed with the science of change?" Darwin pressed on. "And that obsession is absolutely typical of the Jews. In fact, it's the quintessential Jewish issue."
"Then I guess that makes me a good Jew after all," she had joked and walked away.
At first Leslie was wary of him. She knew outsiders considered all of them fanatics, but she personally felt Darwin was the only one who really fit the bill. “A fanatic’s fanatic,” she had described him to the Central Committee. He never laughed except at very stupid jokes she thought everyone had heard in junior high school. He recognized irony the way he recognized a new fashion trend: hardly at all and then only with puzzlement.
But then he did something that drew her to him in a way she couldn't have predicted.
After three months of working with the Organization, the Central Committee had approached him and offered him membership in the Party. To help him make the decision, they invited him to sit in on one Party meeting. During a break in the meeting Darwin came over and without saying a word grabbed Leslie and lifted her off the ground for a hug. His face was flushed and he was beaming.
"I've made my decision," he said as he put her down.
During the entire second half of the meeting Leslie could think of nothing else. Suddenly she had found herself in his arms, instinctively grabbing him around his neck, feeling the fine bones of his shoulders, his upper vertebrae like small sharp stones, and breathing in the musty smell of his straight hair and wiry beard. His excitement moved her deeply, reminding her of her own sense of purpose when she met up with the Organization two years earlier.
The fact that Darwin could talk about Thomas Aquinas and Tillich and Buber, that he had read and understood Marx , Engels, Lenin and Feuerbach, and was fluent in the history of philosophy, impressed Center. But they were suspicious of intellectuals. To entice him to make a full-time commitment they made him Education Coordinator for the Trenton office, but in their memos to Leslie, as the Political Coordinator, they admonished her to be sure he had frequent exposure to the local poor and their problems.
On the day of the big Hightstown canvass Leslie and Darwin drove the old Chevy van up to Princeton. The high school kids stood waiting on Palmer Square, their hair shiny, their clothes embroidered with the logo of the month. They climbed into the van hesitantly, no doubt nervous about the hood of the van being held down with wire.
Leslie sat up front as Darwin drove. She twisted around in her seat to face the kids and brief them but they were too busy teasing each other. It only took twenty-five minutes to get to Hightstown but by then their faces were dotted with sweat and their crisp clothes had started to stick to them. It was amazing how quickly even these fresh-faced kids could look like cadre.
Etra Road lay out in front of them, one long sandy mile, on one side an abandoned racetrack, on the other, wooden shacks surrounded by weeds and junk. They got out of the van and waited for the rest of the team. Leslie passed around a canteen of water. As Political Coordinator, there was so much she was supposed to say to these kids. About who these poor people were and how they got this way. About the hard work they had done all their lives and how it had left them old and sick and penniless. About what it would take to make it all right. But her mouth was parched and she felt too awkward to interrupt them as they talked to each other.
Darwin distributed the folders and pens. He explained to the kids what their mission was, "To ascertain who needs what and to learn about what the current issues and concerns are around here."
Soon the rest of the team showed up. They broke into groups of four, two cadre and two volunteers, and headed out. Darwin and Leslie took two of the girls with them and approached the first house, Lula Mae Lawson's. It was a tiny two-room shack without even a fan in the window. Darwin stepped up on the old wooden porch and tapped lightly on the screen door.
"Come on in," Lula called. She was sitting at her kitchen table. In her hand was a black plastic fan with oriental flowers on it. Her one leg was propped up on her only other chair.
"How are you Lula Mae?" Darwin asked.
"Oh, not so good," she said.
"Do you mind if we all come in? These are some volunteers from Princeton." Leslie said.
"Sure, sure. Come on in," she said, and wiped her forehead with a rag.
"What's the problem?" Darwin asked.
The two girls stood tightly together, their eyes the only part of them that dared to move.
"The welfare ain't enough. My rent was raised you know."
"By how much?" Darwin asked.
"It's a hundred a month now," she said.
"And how much is the welfare?" Leslie asked, so the kids could hear the answer.
"Have you ever applied for SSI?" Darwin asked, then explained to the girls what he was talking about. They said nothing.
"They turned me down flat."
"Do you still have the papers?" he asked.
"Somewheres. But it's too hot today to move around much," she said and kept up with her fanning.
"Tell me where and I'll find them," Darwin suggested. "We'll appeal it for you."
"Well, go on in there," Lula pointed to the bedroom, "I think there's some papers on the table near the bed."
Darwin went in the bedroom. Leslie turned to talk to the girls, who looked like a bas-relief, plastered to the wall.
That night, at six, all the cadre left the office for their weekly cell meeting. It was one in the morning when they returned and too late to send anyone out for housing, though they all needed showers. Darwin and Leslie settled into the cots in the back.
Leslie turned over on her side to face Darwin. The old army cot sagged almost to the floor. She wished she could change out of the clothes she had worn all day, but when they slept in the office they had to stay dressed in case of an emergency, or if they were busted. A bunch of white kids sleeping in a ghetto storefront would be tough enough to explain. Finding them in their underwear would be even tougher.
"Christ, what a long day. This morning seems like two days ago," Leslie said.
Darwin was quiet.
"I’m going to be doing that appeal for Lula Mae,” he said.
“Good for you, Charlie,” she said and turned over on her back. She had first called him 'Charlie' to tease him, but soon enough it had become an endearment.
Four weeks after Lula Mae's fair hearing, Darwin got the notice in the mail. He had studied everything there was on SSI, but he lost anyway.
"We'll appeal it again. Legally, we’re allowed," he told Eva, operations manager for their office.
"Only if Center approves," Eva stated, and crushed out her cigarette in the coffee mug she was holding.
"Why would we need their approval? Fair hearings are one of our standard benefits."
"You've already put in a lot of time on this. Use it as a tactic to educate Lula Mae politically," she said and turned to walk away.
"But there's a good chance we can win. According to their reasons we didn’t provide adequate proof that she’s unable to work. I can fix that."
"I can't spare you the time, Darwin. It's only sixty dollars a month difference anyway," Eva said.
"Sixty dollars is a month's worth of food for Lula Mae," he fought, his voice tightening.
"You’re not working for the United Way, Comrade," Eva said "Remember, the benefits only exist to educate people politically. Let Lula Mae see how the system stinks."
"She's an old farm worker who’s already lost one leg to diabetes and the other one may need to be removed soon also. She only eats one meal a day as it is. Don't you think she already knows the system stinks!" Darwin yelled at Eva. To Leslie he sounded like her younger brother when he was losing an argument with her parents.
"She's a heartless bitch," Darwin told Leslie later, about Eva.
"She's only repeating the Party line."
"Why can't we just follow through on a process?“
"Because the process was never about winning or losing," Leslie said.
"It was to Lula Mae!"
"But not to the revolution. To the revolution it was only a tactic." Leslie paused. Darwin’s hands were open, imploring, his eyes wide with the passion of his conviction. He was obviously expecting more from her. She struggled for something to tell him, to convince him, to make him understand, to satisfy that need he had that scared her. But she hesitated too long.
"The people who rely on our benefits program don't care about tactics. They only care about getting what they need to survive," he said.
"If you think we should revise our policy on the benefits program, you should write it up and submit it to Center. There are protocols for disagreeing with Party policy." It was the response she had been taught in her training as Political Coordinator.
Darwin dropped down on one of the old chairs and looked up at her. "They don't take my suggestions seriously."
Since when did Darwin have an on-going communication with Center?
"After the revolution, when we supposedly own all the resources, then we can indulge our compassion. That's what they tell me," he said.
Leslie sat down too. Her hands trembled slightly. She put them in her lap.
Darwin shook his head slowly. "But it doesn't work that way. After the revolution, even if we do own all the resources, the culture will be in place. If it's not about making it better from start to finish then it's just about power and ego, right?"
"You're being an idealist."
"It's unethical. It's contradictory. It's -"
Leslie couldn't take much more. "Look, it's the way it is."
"It's the way we make it. It's our revolution. We create it in our own image!"
"We who fight for kindness cannot ourselves be kind," she quoted Brecht.
"We who fight for kindness must ourselves be kind," he shot back at her.
Two weeks later, Darwin didn't return to the office after spending the whole day in Princeton doing fund-raising. He had called in at five o'clock, but when he didn't show up by seven they all worried. Procedure required Eva, as operations manager, to call local hospitals. Something told Leslie he wouldn't be found there. As Political Coordinator for their office, she had to notify Center that he was missing.
At ten o'clock he wandered in tired and very hesitant to explain where he had been. It was up to Eva to debrief him first and while she did, Leslie turned the thing over and over in her head, trying to make sense of it.
Later, when she got him alone, he explained, "I was in the university library."
"Then why didn't you just put in a request for the time?"
"I didn't want the questions."
"And you didn't think disappearing would generate any questions?" she asked.
"It was easier to say I fell asleep than that I needed library time."
"For God's sake Darwin, you're the education coordinator! They always give you study time."
"They used to. Didn't you get a copy of that correspondence from Center about me spending too much time on classes?"
Leslie vaguely recalled it. She had been one of several recipients, but since Eva was responsible for the daily scheduling, she didn't pay it much attention.
"Did Eva buy your story?" she asked.
"She seemed to. She always considered me somewhat odd anyway I think."
Everyone considers you somewhat odd, she thought. "So what was so urgent in the library that you had to break discipline?"
"Not now," he said and fetched his sleeping bag. "I'm leaving for housing with Chuck."
She was disappointed. Had hoped she and Darwin would be sent out together. But she couldn't do anything about it. They weren't supposed to be having a relationship anyway. Any time together was found time, she reminded herself.
The next morning Darwin and Chuck returned from housing at eight-thirty. They were preparing for the morning briefing, gathering up clipboards and pencils as they all waited for Eva to get back from housing. Darwin spooned instant coffee into a paper cup.
"Do you realize what the percentage of Jews is on The Left? I mean, historically?" he asked Leslie, who was alone with him in the back by the kitchen area. He ran the hot water until it steamed then held his cup under the tap.
"How can you drink that stuff?"
He shrugged. "Especially American labor history," Darwin said and stirred his coffee.
"Do you realize that Center is never going to buy your Sleeping Beauty bullshit?" she asked.
"You don’t think it’s believable that I was so tired I passed out on Kay Schneider's couch after making my phone calls?"
"And why were you so tired?" she played devil's advocate.
"Who isn't tired all the time in this place?"
"Good little cadre who aren't screwing each other, that's who."
"You think they know about us?"
"Do you think the Central Committee can pull off the overthrowal of the world's largest super power but can't figure out who's screwing who right in their own party?" His face finally registered something like comprehension. "And where was Kay during your beauty rest?" she asked.
"And when she came in?"
"She woke me and I took the bus and came back."
"Darwin," she stated, and stared at him. There was nothing lurking behind those eyes.
"Leslie, a lot of modern Jews have redirected their energies into movements for social or economic change. The eight-hour day movement was pretty much their idea. It all stems from the concept of a Sabbath."
"Darwin," she repeated.
"The Jews invented the concept of revolution, too. What do you think the Exodus was? Back then, if you were a slave, that was it for life…for you and your children and their children. Do you realize what a leap of consciousness it took for them to decide one day that they weren't going to stand for it? "
"Charlie, they'll try to verify your story."
She could see he hadn't considered it. Not for a moment. His expression brought her back to being five years old herself and coming home from her first day at Kindergarten to ask her mother why God made mean people.
"Center will have Eva call Kay on some pretext or other and casually mention the incident. Kay won't quite know what Eva's talking about. And that's that."
"That's what? What'll happen?"
"They'll know you were lying."
"And…" she considered the worst case. "They may decide that your breaking discipline was so serious it should go to trial."
"Or," she hesitated. "They could decide to transfer you."
Her stomach clenched. His ridiculous breach of protocol, his more ridiculous naivete, the prospect of losing him, that awful instant coffee. She dropped down on a chair and held her head with her hand.
Darwin snuck a peek over the room divider to see who else was around, then placed his large hand on her head, his ropy fingers rubbing her frizzy hair, massaging her scalp and neck.
"So you went to the library to read about all this Jew stuff?" she asked.
"It's an amazing history," he said. Then he stopped touching her and sat down beside her, with his coffee. "And there's so much of it."
Leslie jumped up and turned to face him. "So I guess you'll be needing more library time so you can pursue your Jewish studies?"
"Leslie, you're a Jew," he stated simply.
"This is anti-Communist crap!" she hissed.
"You just don't understand the revolutionary potential in Judaism," he said.
"And you don't know what the hell you're talking about!"
She grabbed the cup of coffee from his hand and threw it in the garbage. The hot liquid flew up and soaked his shirt. He jumped back as Leslie raced up front and told Chuck that they were out of coffee and she had to go down the street for more.
Outside, on North Clinton Avenue, it was a brilliant summer morning, the sun so strong she had to shield her tired eyes with her hand. She headed in the direction of the grocery store on the corner but kept going. Crossed State Street and the vacant lots and storefront churches. Passed the Salvation Army and abandoned gas station on the corner. It was only nine in the morning but already she could see those heat waves shimmering above the road up ahead.
She walked around the block, went into the White Palace hamburger joint and sat at the counter. The breakfast crowds had mostly gone. The place wasn't stifling yet, the one ceiling fan just barely keeping it tolerable for now. She thought she recognized the waitress.
"Coffee?" she asked Leslie.
"Sure. Light and sweet."
She put down the coffee and a small decanter of cream. Leslie smiled.
"How's business?" the waitress asked.
"Not so great."
"Things are tough everywheres, I guess."
"I forgot your name," Leslie confessed.
The waitress pointed to the name tag pinned to her blouse.
"I guess I needed this coffee more than I realized."
"I saw some of your people in front of the Shoprite last week," Gwen said.
"I gave them a buck."
"Thanks. It's appreciated."
"What all do you folks do anyways?"
She didn't feel like giving the spiel. "We're organizing folks for change."
"You don't mean pocket change, do you?" Gwen asked, seriously.
Leslie didn't laugh. "No," she said, and threw back the last of her real coffee with cream.
That night Darwin and Leslie were sent out together for housing at Rhoda Levy's house in Princeton. It was midnight when they took the Chevy van and rode north on Route One in silence. Rhoda Levy was a supporter who had taken a liking to Leslie, though she disagreed with the politics of the Organization. While she and her family were on vacation she allowed them to use her home whenever they needed it. The house was a large raised ranch, sitting on a sculpted suburban cul-de-sac in Princeton Township.
The late summer night was silent and still as they pulled into the driveway and cut the motor. The air was still warm from the ninety five degree high it had reached earlier.
"I'm taking a shower," Darwin announced as soon as they opened the door. He took his backpack and darted upstairs.
Leslie went into the kitchen and brewed a fresh pot of coffee. Then she nosed around the fridge. Rhoda had told her it was okay to use anything she wanted. She pulled out some left-over meat loaf, found a pan and put it in the oven to warm up. Then she found a few vegetables and decided on a salad, something she hadn't had in weeks. The lettuce was a little limp but useable. She cut away the mold on the tomatoes, but the cuke was beyond hope so she tossed it. She set the table and figured the meat would be ready pretty soon.
"Darwin!" she called up the steps, hoping she wouldn't have to trudge up and get him. But he didn't hear her.
"Hey! Charlie!" she called, "Supper's ready." She opened the bathroom door a crack. The steam swirled out around her. "Jesus! Like it's not hot enough."
She stepped inside the bathroom and got her bearings but still couldn't see his shape in the shower. She pulled back the shower curtain and saw him sitting in the tub, the water raining down on him.
"Darwin! What's wrong?" she said and dropped to her knees by the side of the tub.
He was sobbing into his large, water-wrinkled hands. His legs were pulled up to his chest, his chin rested on his knees, his penis was shriveled, his heavy testicles rested on the floor of the tub. The word "wretched" came to her, and she knew it was the kind of word he would use.
He sobbed softly but didn't speak. Leslie knelt, transfixed, against the side of the tub. "What is it?" she asked, softly.
His hair and beard dripped, and when he took his hands from his face, his eyes were red. She reached over to hold him. He leaned in for the embrace and they hugged.
"I never went to the library," he said softly.
"It's okay," she said and held him closer, his bony chest, like a large bird cage, pressing against hers. Her body shook a little with each of his sobs.
I went to a synagogue."
"It's okay," she said again. It wasn't right, she thought. He was a grown man. If he wanted to go to a synagogue, why shouldn't he? Why should he have to collapse in a stranger's shower? Weep like a child tormented by the neighborhood bully?
"I just needed someplace to go," he said softly. "Someplace where it's acceptable for me to …"
"I know," Leslie said and loosened her embrace. She moved out from under the shower.
Darwin still sat there, the shower still raining down on him. "You're soaked," he said.
"Look who's talking."
"But I'm naked," he stated.
"So I've noticed." She stood up, took off her shirt and bra and wrapped herself in one of Rhoda's fluffy sea green towels. Then she put down the toilet seat cover, sat down on it and wrapped her hair in another towel.
Finally, Darwin stood up and turned off the shower. She handed him another sea green bath towel as he stepped out of the tub.
After they had dried off and dressed they sat down at the large oak kitchen table with its claw feet, and ate their dinner and drank some old red wine.
"So, what was it like?" Leslie asked, finally.
Darwin took his time and chewed his meatloaf. She watched him as he thought about what to tell her. She could just about see him sifting through hundreds of different epithets to find the ones that he would choose. Even as he chewed his food and sipped his wine his small button eyes looked like he was trying to bring something into focus that was far away.
She reached across the large table and took his hand in hers. He mistook her gesture for impatience.
"It was beautiful and ancient," he said.
It was the last week of August when they went back to Hightstown to distribute food and clothes. Volunteers were scarce until after Labor Day so it was just the two of them.
They drove out to Hightstown, then out to Etra Road, to Lula Mae's. Her shack was nearly eclipsed by wild shrubbery. The screens in the windows were torn. A fat caterpillar crawled lazily across the porch railing.
Inside, Lula sat on one of her two kitchen chairs and fanned herself with her plastic fan, white talc spread across her dark neck and chest. Darwin led Leslie inside, carrying a box of food and some summer clothes.
"Hey Lula Mae, how's it going?" Leslie asked as Darwin placed the box on the table.
"Oh I'm alright," she answered, still fanning herself. "Sure wish this heat would break."
"Don't we all. Listen, why don't you take a look at some of this stuff and see if you can use any of it?" Leslie suggested.
Lula bent over and picked through the clothes, quickly deciding none were appropriate.
"Where's the other box?" Darwin asked Leslie.
"What other box?"
"I put a second box in the van. Why don't you go and get it?"
"Sure. Maybe there'll be something you can use," she said to Lula and then walked outside. The second box was full of all kinds of women's clothes. Leslie picked through them herself rather than bother Lula to do it. She found two housedresses that might just fit, though they seemed a little heavy for a heat wave. She threw the dresses over her arm, closed the van and headed back inside. But as she approached the screen door she saw Darwin make a quick gesture that caught her eye. He seemed to push something under the spaghetti boxes on the table in front of Lula Mae, and Lula seemed to be clutching at them.
"I think these two might fit you," Leslie said as she walked inside and handed the dresses to Lula, who kept one hand on the spaghetti boxes and reached for the dresses with the other.
"Oh these look fine," Lula beamed.
"Why don't you try them on while we're here?" Leslie suggested. "That way if they don't fit we can find someone else who might need them."
"Oh they'll fit," Lula said, nodding.
Leslie tried to get a glimpse at what could be under those boxes. She was sure she saw something get pushed underneath. "Well, just in case, why don't you go in the bedroom and see? That way if they don't fit we can make a note to come back with something else next time."
Lula was confused. She looked at Darwin but he didn't meet her gaze. Leslie offered Lula Mae her arm to help her up, and Lula helplessly complied. When Lula was in her bedroom and the door was shut, Leslie came back into the kitchen and picked up the boxes. It was an envelope, flat and heavy. Her heart sped up. Her face flushed. She looked at Darwin whose own face revealed nothing.
"Please don't tell me you're giving Lula Mae money!" she whispered. Her cheeks felt like they were in Hell.
Darwin said nothing.
"Please, don't tell me you're actually giving her money now," Leslie pleaded, and went to the sink to splash cool water on her face and ears which had turned red. As she leaned over the basin and let the water run down her cheeks and neck, seeping down under her blouse, she felt suddenly like her legs might give out.
"How're you doing?" Darwin called out to Lula.
"Oh, just fine," Lula answered. "I'm about to try the second one."
"How much is it?" Leslie whispered, not turning to face him. "Where did you get it?"
Still, Darwin said nothing.
Leslie held on to the sink. Looking at the thin dark cracks in the porcelain and the rust stains, she felt nauseous.
"Well, they fit fine," Lula announced as she emerged from the bedroom, wearing one of the dresses. She saw Leslie at the sink. "Why don't you sit down, Child? You look like you're having a heat stroke."
Leslie did sit down and Lula handed her a cold wet rag to wipe down her face.
"I think we should get back to the office," Leslie said, wiping her face.
"Drink some water first," Lula ordered, filling a plastic tumbler full and handing it to her.
Darwin gathered up the clothes and put them in the box. Then he carried everything out to the van. Leslie followed.
"Drive up the road and pull over," Leslie ordered. Darwin did so. "It was sixty dollars wasn't it? In that envelope."
He nodded as he turned off the engine.
"And you stole it from the office."
"It's Party money that I used for the good of the Party," he said, looking straight ahead.
"You used it as an apology to Lula Mae!"
"I used it to give the Party a good name in this community. To show that we can be trusted."
"And how are we supposed to pay the rent on the office?"
"The money is better spent this way," he said and finally turned to face her.
"We don't hand out cash! That's crazy! And it's not part of our benefits program!"
"But the Party doesn't actually take the benefits program seriously anyway. And if we don't take it seriously we demonstrate that we're no more trustworthy than the present government." He paused and looked at her. "Why are you crying?"
Leslie felt the tears on her face. An ache in her chest. A twinge in her gut.
She brought her hands to her face and covered her eyes. "Oh Charlie," she said.
"The Party is wrong, Les, that's all. They're not infallible. They're not God."
She pushed open the van door, leaned out and threw up. Hanging half out of the van, suspended over the parched grass and the puddle of her own mess, she felt sicker and threw up again. Then she waited, feeling her stomach contract against its own emptiness, bringing up only a thin, sour stream of fluid that she spit into the brush.
She took a deep breath and saw her own tears fly off her cheeks and land in the vomit below. They were tears brought on by the heaves mixed with the salt of grief. She wiped her hand across her eyes and cheeks and stayed still, suspended half in and half out of the van, holding on with one hand, waiting, as she looked into the brush on the side of the road, beyond the vomit, into the thick twisted bushes and vines, the honeysuckle and thistle. She detected a faint floral scent, a high sweetness.
"Have some water," Darwin offered, handing her the canteen.
Leslie slowly brought herself inside the van and took a swig of water, then spit it out, cleansing her mouth.
Darwin took the canteen back and poured some water onto a bandanna he pulled from his back pocket. Gently he wiped her forehead and cheeks. "You'll get heat stroke."
She took the cool cloth from him and rested it against her forehead as she leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes.
"We could sure use a breeze right now," he said.
At the end of September Leslie went home for a day, to be with her family for the Jewish New Year. It was the only time they bothered to go to synagogue and the only reason they even belonged to begin with. Last year she had refused them. This year, even though she had been home only a few months earlier, she accepted.
It was the middle of the day on Rosh Hashanah and Leslie and her family had been at the service since nine. She got up to stretch her legs and use the ladies' room. Afterwards, she was hanging out in the foyer with the crowds of flirty teen-agers showing off their new clothes and the cranky little kids with their over dressed mothers, when she saw him come towards her in his one wrinkled suit, his one goofy tie, those stupid moccasins.
"How long have you been here?" she asked.
"Not long. I didn't want to go inside and disturb anyone."
"You got permission?"
"I left," he stated.
"No. I quit."
"And there's a difference?"
"Once you quit there's no concept of 'leave.' "
"And you came here? They'll think I had something to do with it."
"You have everything to do with it."
She knew they would be calling her house all day until they reached someone. She'd have to brief her family on what to say. Someone from Center might even come out to the house if she didn't get back on time tomorrow as she had planned. She would call the office early to let them know when to expect her. No. That would be suspicious. She would take an early train, the seven thirty-three, into the City and try to make the eight forty-five bus back to Trenton. Just show up as normal. Act like nothing happened. Deny having seen him.
"I left a note," he said. "So they wouldn't worry."
He looked puzzled.
"And now what?" she pushed.
"I'd like to go inside and hear the rest of the service."
"And then what?"
"Then I'd like to celebrate the New Year with you and your family."
"We have all night to figure that out," he said, and ventured inside the crowded sanctuary, scanning the large room, his head moving slowly back and forth, like a lighthouse beacon, searching for two seats together.
Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine