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A View From the Fence
I have a copy of my mother's wedding picture. I keep it in a plain wooden frame on very top tier of the makeshift shelf that contains, on its lower levels, such diverse and sundry items as my Honors Thesis on supply-side economic law and a crawling Angora Rose plant which I have placed there because the room is too damn drab without something else alive in it. The Angora Rose is a special houseplant to me because, no matter _what_ you do to it, it _doesn't die._ Ever. I first acquired the Rose when I moved into my apartment several years back. Apparently, the previous tenant had left it there when he (or she) moved out, hoping that somebody else would take care of it. A few years ago, I was not a houseplant kind of guy. I had bought one for my dorm room (some kind of Western Jade or something) and it had shriveled and died less than a month later. This kind of turned me off to the whole concept of keeping plants, and so, rather than make any effort to take care of the Angora Rose (though I did not, then, know its precise species; that knowledge has been imparted to me over time) I simply placed it in the Dumpster and went back to the business of moving in.
Naturally, I had the dubious fortune of moving in on the very first day of the Seattle Sanitation Strike, often referred to in retrospect as the "Shit Picket;" from a Labor standpoint it was a stunning illustration of the power of "organization" to rectify the squalid and serf-like working conditions of the city's Public Works staff on a number of different fronts, including street sanitation, sewer maintenance and, of course, trash collection. For the rest of us, it just made life vaguely unpleasant until the council managed to get off their collective asses and start compromising. The Angora Rose was, for two long weeks of (get this:) Record Breaking Temperatures, at the very bottom of the largest heap of assorted household shit that my particular apartment had ever, or has since, seen. At the end of those two weeks, when I had _finally_ gotten my furniture to where I wanted it and was finishing up the last of the in-house cleaning, I had gone, somewhat reluctantly, out to the massive refuse heap that had spilled out over the edges of the overflowing receptacle to throw away some besotten rags. I had added them somewhat haphazardly to the pile and was just about to turn around and go back in when I noticed a faint tendril of green peeping out from underneath a polyvinyl bag. The damned Angora Rose was still alive, and, what's more, was _growing._
I do not normally consider myself an irrational man. But something about that scene sparked me to strangeness. Lickety-split, I was back up to my apartment and hunting through the closet for my galoshes and three-year jeans, and, after what had to be one of the weirdest half-hours of my life, I had successfully unearthed the Rose. I went out to Sam's Discount, bought it a beautiful mock-oriental pot and some really _quality_ dirt, and, well, the rest is history.
The Rose sits in a place of honor on my pinewood shelf, but it is never allowed to go as high as my mother's picture.
It's really the only vision I have of my mother. She died long before I could really remember. Y'know, funny thing, I don't even know what she died of. It's just one of those things that no-one ever talked about. She's young, in my picture. Couldn't be more than twenty, actually. She looks absolutely stunning. Light simply pours out of her. It's a wonder the photographer managed to get the contrast right; a less-experienced man might well have captured for eternity one great glowing glare of white, overshadowing everyone and everything else in the picture. As it is, my father is clearly visible to her right. He looks good, too. That's the point of weddings. Everybody looks good.
My father is young in this picture as well, probably not more than a year older than my mother. They were, reportedly, high-school sweethearts. My father was his class valedictorian and a state champion debater, and my mother was exceptionally skilled at mathematics. Both were young, bright hopes for the youth of the future. Both were expected to enter Higher Education and both were expected to succeed. The only dark spot in their lives: me. The tell-tale bulge of my mother's abdomen is still noticeable under the dress, despite their best attempts to conceal it under lace and ribbons. I imagine that it was a shotgun wedding, so to speak, carefully postponed until _after_ graduation. Mom and Dad had to put their dreams of higher education on hold. For my father, this was a temporary setback, as he later attended law school and became what everyone always dreamed he would be. For my mother, it was the end of the road. My father's fateful tryst with my mother was the first of a long, long line of mistakes that he made. I am the product of that first mistake.
I think the most striking thing about my mother's wedding picture is that she looks _happy_. Damn happy. I don't know why. Maybe she didn't know who she was marrying. Or maybe he was faithful to her. More faithful than he was to my step-mother, for instance. Or maybe she was just completely under his spell. People got like that around Dad. I could have told you that Dad was probably a second-rate debater, technically. No better than the hundreds, maybe thousands, of others in the state. It was the _way_ he said what he said. Absolutely hypnotic. Had his ambitions been towards the military instead of towards the government, he could have been another Washington, or a MacArthur, or a Hyden-Pierce. Men would happily slaughter themselves on a word, a gesture, from their Fearless Leader. As things actually worked out, it was almost as bad.
My mother's picture and the Angora Rose are still in my apartment in Seattle. I didn't even water the Rose particularly well before leaving. I could shut the damn thing up in my closet with twelve thousand leaf-cutter ants and a Bunsen burner and when I got back it would still be alive and kicking. Even after a week. It's the perfect houseplant. Even if it is, as one of my step-sisters once commented, "Butt-Ugly." Ah, well, you can't have everything, can you.
I am walking down a street in my hometown. The street where I used to live. The sun is wandering towards sunset, and probably will get there in about an hour. Back in Seattle, it's probably not even dim yet. But I'm not in Seattle. I'm "home." Back East. Visiting what remains of my family.
"I can't tell you how good it is to have you here, Jay." My stepmother's face is still streaked with old tears, and her eyes are red from crying. Another funny thing: she doesn't look angry. You'd think that there'd be a _little_ sense of anger, of betrayal there. Not a chance. Pure, unadulterated sad. Of course, she was under his spell too. There can be no other explanation. All of them were. My stepmom and all the little stepsiblings. They're all in quiet mourning.
Me, I don't know what to think. So I just nod to her. "It's good to be back," I lie.
"I just wish it were under happier circumstances," she says. "Do you need me to press your suit, or anything?"
I brush her off. "It should be fine, Gloria."
She looks hurt. "Jay, you _can_ call me Mom, you know."
I nod. "Sorry. Mom."
She nods. We've _never_ been close. We get to _civil_, and, well, that's about it.
"You _will_ be up there in front of everybody, Jay... I imagine that there's going to be a lot of people there."
"I steamed it before I went, mom."
"You're sure? I mean, I could take a look at it. Goodness knows I'll be ironing Bobby Junior's things... it wouldn't be any trouble..."
"Whatever." I say. It's not worth arguing with her, tonight.
She nods, and I know it will be done. "Now. You _do_ know that there might be... some unpleasant things tomorrow. Your father had... well... enemies. I don't want you getting hurt..."
"I know, I know. Leave it to the Police."
"I just don't want you trying to be a hero or anything."
I want to shake my head. I _want_ to say that there are no such things as heroes, no such things as villains, just people and situations and their reactions to them. But I'm not in the mood for philosophy tonight. Besides, I'm not convinced of it myself. So I just nod vacantly and agree.
"Look at me." She commands. I blink; it's more stern than I've ever heard her sound. I comply. She speaks, slowly. "I've just lost a husband, Jordan. I've no wish to lose a son too. Be careful."
You lost Dad a long time ago, Gloria. You never _had_ Dad. It's all been a lie, Gloria. One big huge goddamn lie. He's dead and that's the best thing that could ever have happened for you and Stephen and Cindy and little fucking Bobby Junior. Maybe now you can start living again.
I simply nod. "I'll be careful."
"Good." She says. She turns back towards the kitchen. "We're all having a little supper in here, Jay. Nothing fancy. Just some stew made up of anything I could find laying around. Care to join us?"
I shake my head. "No."
She purses her lips. "Jordan, I _think_ that this might be a good occasion for us to... well... sort of come together as a family. I know you and your father had... difficulties. But that doesn't mean that we all can't get re-acquainted. Lord knows, I've hardly even seen you this week..."
I shrug. "That's because I haven't been here."
"I know." She shakes her head slightly, and then looks at me. "You look more like him every time I see you."
"More like he _used_ to," I correct, blithely. Bad choice of words. I do not entirely share my father's gift of loquation.
"Jordan. What an awful thing to say."
"It's true." The damage is already done.
"Well." She says, obviously directing at me emotions of sadness, confusion, miffed-ed-ness, the whole nut. "I guess we'll see you when you get back. Whenever that is."
"Guess so. Don't wait up."
"Jordan, you had _better_ be in at a decent time tonight. You have an important job tomorrow."
"I know, Gloria."
She nods and disappears into the kitchen. Everybody else is already there, sitting down like ducks in a row. I shake my head. Stepsiblings are always hard to get to know. Especially when you haven't made any real effort to get to know them. Add to that the fact that there is about a decade's difference in age between me and the eldest of them, and you can just about call it quits, from my perspective. It'd be like chumming with the goddamn Romper Room Club.
I wander out towards the street and the coming sunset. I am walking down a street in my hometown. The street where I used to live.
* * *
A lot of people are surprised to learn that my father and his family didn't live in the city proper. To many, my father seemed like a creature of the city, his body and soul dedicated to its welfare and upkeep. It would seem almost incongruous to such people that every day my father would drive the twenty miles in and out to the nearest bastion of Suburbia that the city offered, the sleepy little bedroom community of Edgerton. But the American Dream was a powerful force in my father's life, and he'd be damned before he'd tell his chums at the statehouse that he lived anything other than the picturesque fantasy that you find in domestic women's magazines. Never mind that he drove a car that was probably more expensive than my stepmom's net financial worth, and never mind those unusually long "nights at the office" where he did godknowswhat with godknowswho. Check that -- screw the "godknows" business. Everybody was well aware of what went on. Nobody said a word. Another one of those things that no-one ever talked about.
But if my father wanted to build the appearance of the American Dream, he couldn't have picked a better community than Edgerton. As I walk, I pass rows and rows of duplexes and split-levels, each with their own beautiful Kentucky Grass yard, some with assorted large toys scattered thereon. Each perfectly kept. Some with little vegetable gardens around back. The very image of tranquil suburbia, maintained behind-the-scenes by harsh zoning regulations and ludicrous property taxes. I walk a familiar route, passing an imposing Public Safety building, a few scattered storefronts and acres and acres of suburban lawn until I come to the place that I guess I had intended to go all along: Edgerton High School. It's still much as I remember it. There's a new wing around back (modular, but what isn't nowadays...) but all in all, it looks about the same. It sits there, low and strangely imposing against the setting sun, a sprawling dark shape of careful angles, a strange cubist ground fungus growing unattended in the midst of the green lawns. Around back is the football field. From here, I can see the vague willowy shadows of the light towers. rising above the fences surrounding the field. It looks like they've put in a new PA system. That's about it. Surprisingly little has changed.
I amble up towards the front doors and give them a little pull. Locked. It shouldn't surprise me. No matter, anyway. The grounds themselves should provide more than enough memory-lane-ing for the evening.
I wander away from the doors and begin my walk. Smiling vaguely to myself, I walk to one corner of the grounds and begin counting my steps as I walk the perimeter fence. One, two, three, four, five...
* * *
"One hundred seventy-six, one hundred seventy-seven, one hundred seventy-eight, one hundred seventy-... eight and a half. Mark it, Jay."
"Marked." I carefully tally the figure on our sheet. "Shall we multiply here, or you wanna just get the pace number?"
"Just paces for now." Says Kim, my lab partner. "We'll work out the figures back inside."
"Y'know," I say, leaning on my meterstick, "Everybody else is using triangulation or whatever the hell. If Premack catches us pacing the distance, she'll kill us."
"Screw Premack." Says Kim. "You wanna do this _right_, or you wanna do it the mathematical way?"
I grin. Kim is not only my lab partner; she's also a friend. Has been since way back. Ever since first grade, when we shared a coat cubby together. Sure, we went through the usual "cooties" stage where we hung out separately, but for the most part, we've been inseparable since we were both little teeny rugrats. "Platonic" is such an incredibly trite term nowadays, but I'm afraid that Kim is a Platonic Friend.
"'Right' is good enough. We can fudge the equations post hoc."
"You and that legalese garbage, I swear."
"Comes with the territory," I say. Then, "This has gotta be the dumbest Physics project anybody's ever thought of. Ever."
"Leave it to Premack."
"To Premack!" I say, lifting an imaginary glass. Kim lifts her own and makes a clinking sound. We "drink." In synchrony.
Kim flops down on the ground. "This is stupid. Tell me again why we're doing this?"
"Because we want to pass." I remark.
"No. What all this is for...?"
"We are _Trying_..." I say, gesturing, "to hit That fence with a pneumatic rocket."
"And this is to illustrate...?"
"Principles of Projectile Motion."
"And this is going to come in handy because...?"
I smile. "No fucking clue, Kim. Maybe if we want to become artillery officers or something."
She shakes her head. "I dunno, Jay. I think it's time for another Chat."
I bite my lip. "We really should be working on this, Kim."
"No," she says, "We are going to have another Chat." And with that, she starts off towards the Tree.
The Tree is a white maple of truly gargantuan proportions occupying the clear commons area between the baseball diamonds and the football field. It predates the school facility, and, heck, probably the whole goddamn town as well. Kim and I have been coming here for aeons, even before we were technically in high-school. Kim appreciates a good tree, she's always said, and when she saw this one, she fell absolutely in love. We come back here every few weeks and have a Chat.
Kim is first up the tree. She's always been a natural at this. Artfully, she swings her leg over one of the lower branches and hoists herself up. Me, I'm a bit slower, but I always make it.
From her position well up in the branches, Kim begins the Chat.
"Obi-Wan Kenobi." She says. "Good? Or Evil?"
I grin. It's always like this. Out of the blue, Kim picks a topic. Completely at random. And we sit here in the Tree, and we Chat. Hours upon hours, sometimes. And Kim's always been a master at old films. "Good." I say, taking a firm opening stand.
"Intrinsically." I say. "The Force is divided into two halves: the Light and the Dark. Obi-Wan espouses the Light, ergo, he is good."
"Pretty weak." She comments.
"I know. I'm just getting started."
"Can I interject something?"
"By all means." I gesture magnanimously.
"Does Obi-Wan ever specifically note that he espouses the Light? In fact, is the 'Light' side of the force ever even mentioned?"
"Not by name, no." I admit. "But he does warn Luke away from the Dark Side."
"Okay. But _is_ there a 'Light' side at all? Or is there just a group of organized 'Dark' Force users and, opposing them, a group of ostensibly 'light' individuals who are really just doing whatever they feel is morally right and using this compass to give a blanket condemnation to the Dark?"
"You're forgetting that we aren't really dealing with a _group_ here. By the end of the third movie, Luke is the last of the Jedi."
"No." She says, stone-cold deadpan. "There is another."
And so on. You get the picture.
Kim is a friend.
* * *
From my position at the first corner of the field, I can see the Tree. It was _going_ to be my very first stop. I've got a lot of memories from the Tree. A _lot._ But something is warning me away. Perhaps I should wait on it. After all, we probably should go in sequence here, right?
Right. This narrative has to have _some_ sort of internal order. Nothing else about it is going to make sense.
I continue my walk. To the First Corner Hill. It's a high point along the fenced-in campus, built up along an old highway embankment, long abandoned when the orbital motorway made the concept of actually passing through Edgerton (or any town, for that matter) on the way to the city a thing of the past. The First Corner Hill has served, for generations of high school cross-country athletes, as an intensive training ground for uphill running. Football was more my style. It was the generally-held opinion of the Football Team (The Edgerton Hawks, if you must know; it's banal, trite, and absolutely perfect for the school) that the Cross-Country folks were, no offense intended, a bunch of lily-spleened pansies. I, too, held that opinion. It's sort of pointless to feel guilty about that sort of thing, however. High School is a place for learning the right and the wrong.
With that thought in mind, I climb the Hill. My breath is coming a bit hard by the time I get to the top, but the view is worth it. Here are the entire school grounds stretched before me, and some of the town as well. From the Hill, I can just barely see my house. I imagine Gloria's well on her way to finishing dinner. How many times have I sat up here, looking out at my faraway home...
Too many times.
* * *
I stare. I don't acknowledge her presence. My brain is elsewhere.
"Jay..." she says, somewhat more insistently.
I finally give in. "What." I'm still not looking at her. I'm still staring at my house.
"Jay, you look like you're gonna kill somebody or something."
"Mmrph." Translation: You bet your _ASS_ I'm gonna kill somebody, Kim.
"Bastard." I remark.
"Him?" She says.
"Uh-huh." I say. And she understands. She sits down next to me.
"Ya wanna talk about it?"
"Bastard." I repeat.
She sighs and flops back into the weedy grass. "You know, you _could_ take the standpoint that you don't _care_ what he thinks."
"Oh. Real smart, Kim. Just outright ignore him. Me."
"Kim, he's my _Dad_. He controls when and if I _breathe_ for crissakes." I pause. "He's thinking of keeping me off the team this year."
"Sucks." She says.
"Damn straight it sucks. He says that maybe I should be concentrating more on my fucking academics. Like it's my fault I'm getting a 'D' in Speech and Rhetoric. Let _him_ try and work with goddamn Turner. No. Screw that. Dad would get an 'A' in Turner's class. He'd get an 'A' in fucking everything."
"You're not him." Kim remarks sagely.
I round on her. "Of _COURSE_ I'm not him! Whaddaya think, I haven't tried to _tell_ him that? I'm not a fucking Dad-Clone, no matter how much he wants me to be."
"What can I do, here?" Asks Kim.
I stand up, ignoring her offer. I steady myself, take a quick, deep breath, and scream, over the roofs of suburbia, towards my distant house. "I... AM... NOT... YOU!"
The sound echoes for some time. I grit my teeth and close my eyes. Then, Kim is beside me.
"Feel better?" She asks.
"No." I say, sullenly.
"Pleasing him means a lot to you. Doesn't it."
"How would you feel if every fucking time anybody saw you, all they could do is see that you weren't as good as your dad is? Huh? That you were a shitty student, a bad speaker, a fucking social pariah? Goddamn it, Kim, the only thing I'm good at is football. That's _it._ And now, the bastard is threatening to take that away too. The _only_ fucking thing I'm good at. Just so I can work at being more like him."
"You didn't answer my question."
I nod, then, my voice thick. "Yeah. It means a lot."
Kim smiles. "Chat?"
I look at her. "Now?"
"Why not? Looks like you could use it."
"I'm not gonna be very good at it, you know."
"All the better for me. Means I'll probably win." She grins, wickedly.
I smile, despite myself. "Not without a fight, you won't."
"Race you there." And she takes off towards the Tree. She beats me there running, and she wins the Chat to boot. Her chosen topic: "Tom Servo: Straight, Bi, or Homosexual?"
Kim is a friend.
* * *
From the Hill, it's a fast jog down to the Ditch; The Ditch having gotten that name both from its obvious geographical features and its tendency to serve as a hangout for students taking an unscheduled break from class. It was, and judging by the cigarette butts strewn about, still is, the high-school burnout gathering spot. It's simply a rock-lined drainage canal, ill-maintained, but far enough away from the public face of the school to keep it from being an eyesore. At one end is a huge old horizontal concrete sewage pipe with a rusty metal grating in front of it. If you stand on top of the drainpipe, you can get a good straight-on view of the back outside wall of Rohmer Auditorium, the High School's combination stage and assembly-hall. Rohmer Auditorium was completely refurbished several years ago, with a generous grant from my father, the philanthropist, who noted in his public statements that speech and the performing arts were too important to the full and well-rounded development of the student to be overlooked in the curriculum of the school.
That's what I hate most about my father. Even after everything he did, most people are going to remember him as a self-sacrificing martyr for the Public Good. Look at the last years of his life, for example. They did everything they could to besmirch his squeaky-clean reputation. Broadcasting those videotapes, for example. (Successfully denounced as fakes in court, by the way; my father knew how to pick his lawyers, all right.) Nothing helped. The city just fell into line behind him. He lost his last election by an impossibly narrow margin, where any other candidate would have been utterly routed.
If he had won, the city would have entered a new golden age. His vision of the American Dream would have enveloped the entire city like a holy, glowing nimbus centering around his Lordship, the Mayor. There was _nothing_ he couldn't have done.
And, of course, an entire class of people would have been utterly decimated.
The SCAB's, of course.
It was inconceivable that I should make this walk through memory without bringing them up. My father's bitter relationship with this often-abused minority will be remembered by many on both sides as his primary "cause." It came to suffuse every facet of his life. Now, after his death, his name has become almost symbolic. To some, a symbol of hatred and oppression. And to others, a symbol of vision and sacrifice.
I bear his name. I am become that symbol. I am the eldest son, and to me, in the eyes of some, falls the burden of carrying it on.
It's a hell of a yoke to bear.
And I have coped with it by bringing it out of the level of symbol. And into the level of man. To try and see each person involved, not as a symbol or a concept, but as a human being.
And that includes my father.
And it also includes me.