That Terrible Night in June, 1968

(This is an excerpt from my novel Not Our Fathers’ Dreams.  Alexander “Fong” Fongold is about to graduate from a New England liberal arts college, in June, 1968).

The recent June night of 1968 when Fong’s sixties began had actually started off well.  Nothing in the day had indicated the night would set courses that veered towards his destruction.  Donna was with him, up from Vassar, to celebrate this weekend his soon-to-be, not-entirely-expected graduation.  Helping him slough off everybody solemnly saying, “plastics,” then laughing hysterically at their original interpretation.  He had begun taking for granted the entrance to the mysteries that once confounded him:

— lying on his bed, naked, her raised toes painting pictures in the condensation on the window.  With him there;

— a letter from her, saying, “Today I got a note from Mrs. Wompel, Head of the Sociology Department, telling me I had passed my comps.  I haven’t taken my comps yet.  Perhaps time is unreal after all;”

— an arm to hold, a person to dance with, a partner to talk with at parties and meals, a date, him, dateless guys now looked at him;

— a slap on her butt, and her angry response, which surprised him but told him he was in a relationship;

— sitting on opposite ends of the bed, he clipping his nails in his underwear, she drying her hair, the noise surrounding them like a warm bath, looking up, smiling at the realization of each other, all in the silent conversation of lovers.

Donna.  His first love, his first lover.  Yet her presence was forbidden.  She needed to be hidden from the boot steps and check-in clink of the night watchman as he made his rounds, acting to the last day in loco parentis, enforcing Old Society parietal hours like guardians of an open gate.  He spread two mattresses next to each other, taking the one from Meteor’s room, his former roommate who had burned out, failed one too many course, and was now exposed to the swift cruel cravings of the Selective Service System.  Fong turned the bed on its side against the wall, its four iron legs pointing out like a faithful dog waiting to be rubbed.  In the mornings he restored everything to its place, and from his single bed greeted his Mom with excessive innocence and adherence to ritual, she could still form him to that side of custom.  During the festivities of the day, Fong overheard his mother having an urbane, witty, intellectual conversation with the extraordinary Professor Martino.  His Mom!

Donna lay exhausted, from traveling, parties, screwing and screwing again.  Something stirred him, though, at four a.m. that June morning, what sense at work he did not know, his first suspicion of an adult revelation: that most moments in life which cause irrevocable change are not for the better.

Fong’s room was on the top floor of one of the new residential houses that had replaced fraternities.  His class of ’68 was the first to inhabit its egalitarian brick and glass, each room the same, in which residents were placed by lottery, the discrimination of chance, not selection — a different fate to blame.

He wobbled heavy-lidded down six flights of stairs to the basement, clutching the cold metal railings, the rough brick walls scraping his shoulders.  On what impulse, he did not know.  A harsh static noise drenched the air as he entered the bleak bottom dwelling room where they allowed the house television, the dank gathering spot for weekly views of “Star Trek” and “The Man from UNCLE.”  James Steele sat there, alone.  He was one of the few black students in Fong’s class: this was a rare sighting, since even in the classes they shared, neither of them qualified as regular attendees.  He was short and stocky; a couple of weeks ago, Fong had kidded him about his farmer’s tan, his arms darker with the longer days.  Thinking, in the interstices of thought, it was cool to kid a black guy about his tan.  James’ white t-shirt and white boxer shorts were almost all that was visible against the black vinyl chair.  He clutched his knees with his arms this four a.m., staring at the TV, its images a blur to Fong’s unfixed eyes.  But they were loud, random, demanding.

“What happened?” he asked.

“They shot Bobby Kennedy.  He’s gonna die too,” James said.

Fong’s vision phase shifted.  The patterns on the screen cohered into chaos, pandemonium, an overhead view of Bobby lying down, in the stillness that preceded the end of dreams.  A dark pool haloed his head.  A stunned crowd screamed.  A suited man stared.  A sitting woman sobbed.  The camera was insistent.  If you have tears… look at the lens.  Fong gaped, his head drew forward, unable to hear what was being said, shouts and whispers, cries and prayers, Oh, God, Oh, God, a murmur of hurt and confusion.  The pictures repeated over and over, didn’t improve, a carousel without a stop and no ring to catch, swirling past other images:

high school economics class with Mr. Carlton; Ricky diAngelo, of all people, the lightest weight in the class, opens the door without knocking and before Carlton can get off a blast announces that Mr. Gregor, a moron of a history teacher, had just learned that President Kennedy had been shot and wanted to let them know;

            – next period in French class he sees through the window the flag at the Veteran’s Hospital lowered to half mast, downwind of the chance of recovery, and as he watches, Monsieur Duprés catches him and says, “We must do our jobs, too,” as if he and Fong had to carry on, as if it mattered;

            – in the diner on Major Street; word spreads about Martin Luther King, shot and dead, and Fong asserts to the rest of the booth that King preached the most un-American of philosophies, non-violence, and the true country has caught up with him.

Now another moment to always remember where he was when.  He was just twenty-one, he’d had enough of such moments.  He wanted the men, not the memories.  It was as if they all lost their fathers at the same time, cut loose from the framework that shaped their assumptions, and his dad was already once dead.  He wanted him back, and the others, public and private fathers to explain to him important things in the time to come, so he wouldn’t have to invent new answers to new questions, and become an aberration.

The TV went on without him.  He left James unmoving, cradling his legs and rocking slightly in the chair, the vinyl sticking to his skin with a sucking sound.  He climbed the six flights back to his room, pulling on the rails to raise himself up.

“Hey, Donna.”  He pushed her, softly.

She groaned, plowed her head more deeply into the pillow.  He pushed again, harder.  She turned her head slightly, so that he could see the thin film of moisture on the faceside she’d been sleeping on.

“It’s Bobby Kennedy,” he said, as if the context was obvious.  He waited, wanting to cushion the blow, be another pillow.  There was nothing between him and the words.  She just lay there, made a little, innocent squeak.

“Bobby Kennedy, he’s been shot, he’s dead.”  They were the only words that could be spoken.  He didn’t care who heard him, let the night watchmen descend; follow their rules, you end up in their hell.

She lifted her head off the pillow.  Hair wrapped her face so that he couldn’t see it.  She groaned a short hollow sound of incomprehension, near-shouted “What?” and dropped back asleep.  He tried to join her, but sleep was a threat, an exposure to more mysteries he didn’t understand, the isolated back alley shortcuts he wouldn’t take as a child, the whisperings of adults, the deaths of men.  He wanted to know who had the meaning.  A vacant place in America permeated the room like God’s mist before Passover, killing first-born hopes.   He had volunteered for Bobby.   Bobby was going to end the war.  Bobby was going to set him free.  But now Bobby wasn’t there, the idea of him gone, there was no one to lead them to peace, open up his possibilities, restore his path, there was just war on the horizon and now more shots fired at home.  Time to duck, you sucker.  But where?

 

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