I have a small house, just my size. The problem is that what happens in one room echoes in the next. The television in the living room I hear in the library, even with the door closed. The radio in the kitchen speaks into the hallway and downstairs bedroom.
All sounds waft to the loft upstairs: the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air.
I heard such sound effects forty years ago. The sound of explosives, the bombast of speech. This morning's mail brought me back to that other place in the most thrilling and terrible time of my youth.
I'm too old to be ducking the news. But the headlines continue to follow me. NOW, 2000+: The Mysterious Package
The eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch envelope has been tossed negligently on the porch, where it freezes. It is a chilly day in early spring, March 10, whose date will echo in this history. When I pull the envelope loose from the icy cement I find that the contents have been pried from my own life.
The face of the white envelope is gaudy with instructions: stickers in the green family, blue-green and forest green, and an imperious red sticker, all having to do with postal matters: completing the return address on the back, acknowledgment of certified mail, return receipt requested.
I am free enough and old enough to choose when to encounter weather. On this unpleasant day I stay indoors. No bell is rung. No postal worker requests a signature or acknowledgment. I become agitated. It is an old reaction to unsolicited mail, whose contents can range from mildly intrusive to threatening.
Studying the envelope, I note, among other data, that the cost of postage to sender is $3.21. Curiously, the name of sender is omitted, yet an address is printed. I phone information (at the cost of two dollars per inquiry), which gives me the phone number to the address. I am mechanically informed that the phone line to 2800 Palm Building, downtown in my long-ago city with its disappeared center, has been discontinued.
Then I open the envelope. Since I am warned not to reveal these contents, I determine to reveal all. I have only one question to ask. Sender. Tell me. If you please. Who was the spy who did your bloody work for you? Then, the Sixties and Grading
I was assigned endless classes of Comp 101: Writing the Term Paper. To prevent madness in the lower ranks, the department allowed the instructors one class of choice in literature or creative writing. In an inner-city university my students did not come close to literature, but each had a hardscrabble tale to tell. So I, a classicist in Greek, taught creative writing.
In those days I wasn't Helen of Troy, but I was of the same heritage, with a head full of curly black hair. I saw the films starring the regal Irene Papas, with her fall of raven locks, and of Melina Mercouri, a mischievous blonde.
My Mediterranean eyes were hidden behind the glare of glasses, prescribed after a semester of correcting the phonetic spelling of my students.
Hence the marginalia decorating their compositions, with "sp"; with "dis," not for "disrespect" but "discontinuity"; and "awk" for "awkward," that onomatopoeic abbreviation that crowed around their writings.
I was judgmental then, grading everyone and everything that came my way. In the university's gym, where I exercised before my morning class, I graded the person in front of me, unable to touch her toes or stretch her body to its full length (C minus). I graded people on the street for language and posture (also C minus). All "fucks" received an automatic failing.
I graded the cityscape, the slums that surrounded the campus (F as in "foul"). And I graded my office mates in the Bullpen of the English department, where I was the heifer.
I marked the priestly Kevin (A for height and brawn), the thorny Bernstein (B for loyalty but C for boring), the slight O'Dwyer (B for grace), and the skeletal, straight-haired Farmer, whose grade, as his persona, kept changing. Ron was our short, dark tribal leader for the time he was with us. He received an A for his rich baritone, elegance of dress, and patrician manner. He was the first of us commoners to be elevated out of the Pen.
Ron had his doctorate, Bernstein was taking his orals, and the rest of us were mere ABDs, stratification always present in the Bullpen.
Bernstein was the Bullpen put-down, his shrieking laugh bouncing off the walls of our cubicles.
"The Music department is having a fete," he said one day, exaggerating the French fête, "to be conducted by Dr. ABD, ably assisted by Master TIP. Who would go hear people in rehearsal to be themselves?" Bernstein was nasty because he was closer to the finish line than we. Between Ph.D., ABD (All But Dissertation), and TIP (Thesis in Preparation), we nervously laughed. Not Farmer.
"Just tell me what's so funny," said Farmer, touchy about matters academic.
Inside the Bullpen, the atmosphere was heated, where desks yearned toward one another.
We were located next to the executive offices of the chairman, whose heavy tread we heard in the corridor. We Bullpenners were too lowly for his personal visits but received curt notes with his initials in our mailboxes, lying faceup. Anyone distributing notices to the department, pulling out noisy metal box after box, could have read of his displeasure.
We were aware that, on whatever door he knocked, he brought ill tidings: one experienced assistant professor, a gifted teacher with limited publication, would not be promoted; a well-published young woman was discernibly pregnant and that would interfere with her tenure.
The chairman was also the guardian of our proper behavior in those unsettling times. An instructor, whose hobby was building harpsichords from kits, was harshly reprimanded for dismissing his classes to hear an antiwar expert on Vietnam.
"This is an English department, not a war department!" we heard the chairman shout.
Mr. Bernstein called him the Kraut.
"That was a different war," I said.
"Same accent, same tread," said Mr. Bernstein, who holds a grudge forever. Germany was only the tail end of it. Bernstein was angry from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
"I will never set foot on the soil of Castile, Aragon and Navarre, Sicily, or Portugal," he vowed, "nor where the arms of the Inquisition traveled to the New World, to Peru, Chile, Argentina, or Brazil."
Because everywhere you looked, explained Bernstein, countries drove the Jews into the sea, he traveled nowhere, except from New York to the Midwest and back east again. If it somehow worked out, his last voyage would be to the Middle East to settle in Zion.
"You're lucky you're Greek," he said.
A lucky Greek? I had luck in my breasts, too much luck in my hips, no luck in my waist.
My mother said my face made up for it: earth-brown eyes, serious brows, and "lips from a statue."
"If they resist you," my mother said, "they'll be sorry."
There was only one person I found irresistible, and he was not sorry, but resisted me.
Should I have informed Bernstein that there was no luck, only volatility, in Greek politics between the democrats and the colonels? But that would have lessened his own myths.
Bernstein, Jack, was always a last name to me, like Farmer and O'Dwyer. Only Kevin, our temporary priest, was called Kevin. He was addressed as "Father" too long, he explained, and longed for informality. Now, 2000+
The files in my envelope have various heads: "Confidential Report-Special Investigation Unit." "Detroit Police Department-Interofficer Memorandum." "Criminal Investigation Division." "Criminal Intelligence Bureau."
The repeat of "criminal" and handwritten comments in the margins frighten me even four decades later. "Red Squad" at the top of the first page. There they were in the sixties, crouched, aiming their weaponry at Reds. It reminded me of other Red Scare times: World War I and the deportation of a third of the Italian immigrant population; the McCarthy era, and the fleeing of moviemakers and poets. I felt like the billboards of Sherwin-Williams paint, an open can spilling red on the globe of the world. To the Red Squad, whoever they were, I am also colored in crimson.
Everything I think about the present and the past will be dictated by the enclosures of that envelope. Why was it sent to me? A reminder, a threat? I filed no Freedom of Information request. In fact, I have spent these years distancing myself from that time. Now and Then: The Outline
Outside of the Bullpen, I taught my students in that dreaded Comp 101 to write outlines. Here is mine in regards to this odyssey:
Laughter and Subversive Planning
The Cast of Heroic and Villainous Characters
Partying on Down
Finking on Faculty
The Home of Mr. and Mrs. Farmer
The New War
Reunion of the Bullpenners
The Fates Spin, Measure, and Shear
Somewhere in the long list there had to be room for "Passion," for we were in our midtwenties, away from home, and full of longing. NOW, 2000+
I lift the sheets from the envelope and look closely at the listing of names. As I name the accused out loud, their faces emerge like flash cards.
They are our younger selves but filled with idealistic purpose. Some have stayed within the classroom, emerging for the arrival of the annual Modern Language Association meeting in places like San Francisco, D.C., New Orleans, or NYC. Others have dropped from academic sighting, not serving on boards, no longer read in the scholarly journals. They've been content to go local, showing up in Georgia at the Southeast Modern Language Association or the Midwest MLA in Laredo, Kansas.
Some we lost: the amateur harpsichordist, the pregnant assistant professor. Recently, there was recognition of one of us, not of name but of face, on the front page of the national press.
But all of us were under suspicion. Then: The Frozen Contract
Ron Ivory, ironic surname, was the first Black instructor in the English department (his thesis: "The Influence of Color in the Victorian Novel"). He found the contract offering him tenure also frozen to the porch. He had previously been summoned by our chairman ("Nineteenth-Century English Writers in Davos, Switzerland"), who sat so icily behind his desk that Ron knew the chairman had been outvoted by the Tenure Committee.
Ron didn't belong in the Bullpen. He belonged in the offices of the other instructors who had completed their oral presentations and dissertations. Space was the problem in the more private offices, he was told.
An extra desk was shoved into our Pen, scraping against O'Dwyer's.
"I hope you don't mind," Ron apologized.
Soon, O'Dwyer didn't mind at all.
At first we were cautious, treating Ron either as royalty or native. Then we became casual and profane. Ron rolled with it. Until he rolled right out of there.
Why did Ron buy a gun? Was it the concealed or revealed racism? Was it his living in the heart of the city without family? (But none of us, except for the married Farmers, had family.) Or being of small stature? Or simply his ebony color?
To us, his former Bullpenners, Ron made light of (intentional pun) circumstances. We heard him in the Bullpen conversing in French with a graduate student from Lyons. Nearby, one of Ron's freshmen, waiting for remedial help, watched with amazement.
"Do you people speak French?" he asked Ron.
"You people" speak the language of diplomacy?
I inadvertently discovered Ron registering for a gun at Sears, Roebuck, where Guns abutted Household Appliances. He looked up at me from the form he was filling out and said nothing. It would turn out later that Ron would not be the only alarmed and, therefore, armed person in the English department.
Ron took the stiff contract and used it as leverage. He was the first and only one of us to leave the Bullpen with the revenge of being hired from an inner-city university by a prestigious eastern college.
Ron returned regularly for his friend O'Dwyer, as well as Detroit music and a royal visit to the Pen.
We got on, Ron and I.
" 'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,' " he greeted me. He never said anything personal. Motown, the Four Tops, in this case, spoke for him.
"How's 'My Girl'?" he would ask, then sing, " 'My girl, my girl, talkin' 'bout my girl.' " (Or Smokey Robinson for the Temptations.)
"How's 'My Guy'?" Ron asked O'Dwyer.
Looking at Kevin out of the corner of my eye, I sang, " 'Nothing you can say could tear me away from my guy (my guy).' "
" 'My Guy,' 'My Girl,' " said Farmer. "Maybe Smokey swung both ways."
We were surprised to hear from Farmer. We thought of him as bluegrass. Farmer had never impressed Ron. "Everybody listen. A Farmer is speaking," said Ron.
Farmer was skinny. You could see the shape of bony knees beneath his pants. His face had no cheeks and thin lips. But he was flexible, rhythmic in that skeletal frame.
Bernstein showed no interest in music or anything hopping and popping. With his long nose, wiry hair, and rounded shoulders, he was the Pen Yid.
Kevin, the physical opposite of Bernstein, swiveled his desk chair and smiled. Motown was new to him, and he was open to it. The Irishman (A for biggest, most muscled) in the Pen was also (C), the most innocent among us.
"How about 'Shotgun'?" Farmer persisted. " 'Buy yourself a shotgun!' " he sang. "Isn't that radical?" he asked.
"Are you saying that Jr. Walker and the All Stars were inciting?" asked Ron. "Right there in full view, in Detroit?"
Or did Farmer, too, know about Sears basement level and Ron's purchasing a gun?
Ron came to us but never we to him. Maybe trust can only go so far. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Red Squad by E. M. Broner. Copyright © 2009 by Esther Broner. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.