Three of us sit around the dining room table. We’re talking about the way the world should be, as if any one of us owns even an idiot’s notion of the way the world is at that moment.
I lick the hair that grows above my lip and wonder if it might get in the way of a kiss.
Pink wallpaper flowers bleed rust rings on the walls, and a spider weaves its web in a dusty corner near the ceiling. Dylan moans through stereo speakers about times that are achangin’. I ask myself how much change Bob earned by selling vinyl records.
The skin on Cord’s high forehead rises and wrinkles while he delivers yet another political harangue, giving me a hint of how he’ll look when he is old. At twenty-four his chest muscles pull at the seams of his madras-patterned shirt. A red, jagged scar interrupts his left eyebrow and serves as a reminder of his rugby days when we were college roommates.
Sally passes me a two-quart jug of syrupy soda. Her pale-blue eyes grow wide and liquid as she giggles. We’re both addicted to the carbonated drink, in spite of the fact that we claim to despise the corporation that pimps the poison to oppressed sugar junkies who ring the globe, from New York City to Saigon.
“Guess we’ll wait until tomorrow to quit,” she says. We clink our jelly jar glasses together and guzzle down the bubbly brew.
Our apartment is on the third floor of a typical Philadelphia redbrick colonial building in a bad neighborhood that we pretend is a good neighborhood that gets a “bum rap” because members of the bourgeoisie — whoever the hell they might be — don’t like hippies, poor people, revolution or reefer.
That’s The Line. The Line is required reading for any self-respecting counterculture college graduate dressed in bell-bottom bluejeans and work boots. In fact, this always evolving mission statement is an essential article of the The Movement’s constitution.
Each of us can recite this and every other article and subsection of the We Shall Overcome decree verbatim, because we study the underground newspapers that are stacked above ground throughout Center City, and we memorize the mimeographed posters that are tacked to telephone poles at railway stations.
This evening’s constitutional convention, however, has nothing to do with pontificated proclamations or reefer revolutions. Tonight we gather to display our denim uniforms and gorge our guts with a peasant’s proper battlefield feast. Yo, King Henry, pass me the second drumstick!
But our kitchen smells more like a farmer’s fart than a pheasant, because Sally cooked us Tuna Supreme. Again. Boxed mac and cheese, canned tuna and frozen broccoli, all swirled together inside the one cracked casserole dish we own, then baked in the oven until the broccoli struggles to the top and spits out noxious gas, and the cheese sizzles and splatters onto the oven’s floor.
Tuna Supreme is the only meal Sally knows how to make look edible. So whenever it’s her turn to do the honors Cord and I smile and say silly things like, “Damn, Sally, the broccoli came out tender tonight,” or “Did you use a different brand of tuna this time? It doesn’t taste the least bit fishy.” Keeping a straight face while flattering Sally — who knows she’s not being flattered or insulted — is an unwritten rule that Cord and I never needed to discuss.
We have several other House Rules, however, all of which we voted into our By Laws after intense but cordial debate, and then posted on the bulletin board that hangs in the foyer.
Four of these rules, paraphrased for sake of jocularity:
1. No kicking Sally’s cat, Lester, when it spits up hairballs on the vinyl-covered stairs, and I step in the cold muck wearing no shoes or socks at 4:00 am on a frigid winter’s morning. Instead, put on a pair of slippers and thank Lester for her contribution to The Cause (yep, Lester’s a she).
2. If the subject of sex comes up in conversation, talk about your appetite in respectful, cleansed and metaphysical terms. If need be, cross your legs and wait till later.
3. If you can’t play good guitar, then play bad guitar.
4. Be a man and wash the dishes.
Cord and I don’t mind washing dishes; not even Lester’s crusty metal bowl escapes our diligent attention. And we both love Sally, in a Platonic Way of course. As well, we respect the fact that Sally’s not supposed to be able to cook just because she’s a woman. Truth be told, not only is Sally a dedicated Communist; she’s also a Liberated Woman who owns a tattered copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971 First Edition) to prove her commitment to The Cause (whatever the hell that might be).
I stare past the mac and cheese that Cord just scooped onto my plate, through the tall bay windows of our apartment and then again through the shattered windows of the place across the alley. No one lives there anymore. Not one piece of furniture sits on the floor, because there is no floor. Not one picture hangs on the walls, because there are no inner walls. The building is a redbrick colonial that at one time matched our own, until an angry stranger — or maybe an insurance-money hungry landlord — lit the place on fire. Cord, Sally and I weren’t here for the celebration, but each day we’re treated to the pungent aroma of burnt wood.
“What time’s your night class?” Cord asks me.
I know that I answer his question, but only because I see Cord nod in recognition of my words. But I hear no more than what runs through my mind. “Why am I going to graduate school? I don’t want a career in academia. I just want to get out of this apartment, away from bad neighborhoods and mimeographed revolutions and the pretense of The Cause. Tuna Supreme I can almost handle, although I hate the smell of broccoli even more than that of burnt wood, but the spider webs and the campfire atmosphere tipped me toward earning advanced degrees.”
Six days a week, Sally works long hours helping women who are victims of the depressed husbands who beat them up because they’re sick and tired of getting drunk and beating on themselves. Sally’s a witch, but a kind witch who owns an intense sense of loyalty. When my wife walked out, and I claimed the banner of self-pity, Sally first kicked my ass and then let me cry.
And Cord, I love Cord Cataleatto. Before Sally moved in with us, Cord and I signed the apartment’s lease. The cranky landlord thought we might be gay, which thought gave the crank cramps. So Cord and I said we were brothers, and we felt as if we told the truth.
Cord’s a romantic after the fashion of Lord Byron or Keats. His idea of springtime romance is taking a girl on a Saturday afternoon picnic in Fairmount Park, apples, cheese, and Rod McKuen’s corny poetry tucked into his backpack. Pink wine — sun-warmed, sweet and swollen — inside his leather canteen. The day topped off with lust dressed up to resemble love in a pool of evening shade provided by a maple tree.
The young man owns his serious side, too. He’s a self-styled community organizer, an upper-middle-class kid who tries his best to walk soul-to-soul with blue-collar steel mill workers, janitors and trash collectors. Organize! Unionize! Prod, poke and picket!
I leave half my meal uneaten. With my spoon and fork I scatter the remains around the plate in order to disguise the fact that I can’t stomach any more Tuna Supreme.
Cord volunteers to wash the dishes. I gather my textbooks, don my jacket that has an Omega sign patch sewn onto one shoulder, and make my way to the nearest trolley stop.
The squeal of train wheels combines with blue-fire sparks where pantographs meet overhead wires. I board the car and let my body rock and sway with it, so I won’t fall down. We dip down below street level, where the air smells like sweat and urine.
I pull the cord that signals the driver to stop and let me out on Broad, near City Hall. I follow a crowd of people whose combined stare is empty of hope or regret, and together we climb down the stairs that lead to the subway.
As I stand waiting for the next train, I shiver with shame and guilt. Cord and Sally are courageous soldiers, while I am a hypocrite who hides behind the front line. I say what I need to say to keep a roof above my head, and all the while I plan and plot my escape.
Any escape, even the easiest one.
Inside my mind I am still running, as I walk into the classroom.