by Maxwell James
A young man has become disillusioned. He quits the local collective bookstore when it becomes apparent that reality works differently from the spark he’s carried inside himself his whole life. He listens to his self-possessed friend, a brilliant electronics engineer, who tells him that his politics don’t mesh with human nature. And his friend should know: he’s the one who made it that way.
When I locked my bike to the railing above the stairs that led down to Schwartz’s apartment, I was surprised again.
He was standing at the foot of the stairs, working on a cigarette. He was allowed to smoke in his apartment. He was waiting for me. Schwartz had never waited for me. He always had some project going that he’d immerse himself in, and I’d have to pound on the door to get him to answer.
He looked up at me as I came down the stairs. The light from the lamppost just above his railing showered onto his ovular head, reflecting off the shiny flesh at his temples and shadowing his sunken eyes. His limbs were not thick but wiry, and his arms were covered by several tattoos of quotes by writers, mostly French ones. He told me he was embarrassed by them these days, and never showed them to me. The only one I ever got enough of a glimpse of to read said Vivez sans temps mort.
His shoulders always hung just a bit too tight, as if he were always engaged with something critical. That and the hunch he developed from all his hours bent over electrical components made him curl over me like a massive blade of grass.
He was wearing a red T-shirt that clung to his wiry frame and a pair of gray cargo pants, both threadbare and faded. But his face was all wrong. It was the look of someone treading water.
“Hey,” I said.
“What’s up?” asked Schwartz. He inhaled his cigarette and looked up at the lamppost, the smoke escaping from his nostrils.
Several heartbeats passed. I was surprised and disappointed I wasn’t more angry with him.
“So what’s the story?” I asked.
“In a minute,” he said.
I watched him finish the rest of his cigarette and stare past the lamp post towards the city skyline across the river.
“Come on,” he said when he was done, walking past me. He opened the metal sliding door that led into his apartment.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said, walking into his place. The building above it used to be a warehouse for a shipping company, but for the last several years had been rented out as private storage space. Schwartz had rented some space on one of the upper floors for his work room, then had a disagreement with the building manager over rent. Schwartz had taken him to court and gotten him fired. That had left the job and the free basement apartment open.
The sliding door opened onto a landing that led to three long steps. Earthy, organic punk rock churned in the background, along with the scent of cigarette smoke. The ceiling was covered in pipes, wires, and several fluorescent lights, most of which were on.
Unlike most people I knew, Schwartz didn’t seem to mind fluorescent light. It shone mercilessly on everything. I once asked him if it felt artificial. He told me everything was artificial. To the side of the door were several hooks built into the wall carrying several battered jackets, with shoes on the floor. Schwartz slipped his shoes off, and I did the same.
The main room stretched out below the landing. An enormous throw rug covered most of the concrete floor, and it was rolled up whenever there was music. A table sat in the center, with a light shining down onto several books and a notebook. On the far wall was a large work bench that carried a computer and a small bookshelf of technical manuals, with a window above it peeking onto the bottom of the street.
The rest of the basement was split into four cubicles made of varnished plywood. Two of them were on the right, the bedroom near the door and the kitchen towards the far wall, and two more to the left. I had only been to his apartment a few times, and when I’d asked about those, all Schwartz ever said was that they were his workshops.
As I walked down into the main room, I looked closer at those books on the table. They were history books on the twentieth century, even a fiction book about a president that was assassinated, plus a book of leftist alternative history of which the bookstore had always kept at least ten copies in stock. The page of the notebook was full of notes in Schwartz’s scrawled handwriting. These were not topics that were supposed to interest Schwartz.
He walked past me into the kitchen without a word. I picked up the alternative history, a thick, robust paperback. I saw the familiar handwritten price in the upper right-hand corner of the flyleaf. He’d bought it from my bookstore.
Schwartz walked back in with a whiskey bottle and two shot glasses. The look on his face as he saw me with the book in my hand made me feel guilty.
He put the bottle and glasses down on the table.
I spoke to change the mood. “Some new reading?” I asked. I hoped it would be funny, but Schwartz flinched. Usually he’d fire something back to keep the conversation in his world. But now I had the bizarre feeling that I’d picked on somebody weaker than myself.
“Research,” he said. He began pouring the whiskey. The punk rock stopped for a moment between songs
“Have a seat,” Schwartz said, indicating the chair in front of me.
I put the book down and sat. Schwartz put a shot glass in front of me, then poured one for himself. He raised his glass to me, and drank the shot. I paused, then drank mine. I felt the jerk in my throat, signaling the first instinct to spew it back up. But I tensed my lower body and breathed. I wasn’t about to waste my advantage.
Schwartz began stacking the books up, with the spines pointing towards me. Their titles stacked up next to each other seemed incongruent. Schwartz only thought of people one at a time, mostly when they annoyed him. The People meant nothing to him.
After he stacked them, he just sat there.
“So man,” I said, “what’s up?”
Schwartz didn’t answer. He poured himself another shot and drank it.
“So you were at the march today?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “How do you know?”
He ignored my question.
“What’d you think?”
“It was boring. I left.”
He gave me the incredulous look of the Schwartz I knew.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. Nothing happened.”
“When did you leave?”
“I don’t know. After a couple blocks.”
“Christ,” he said. He said that more often than any atheist I knew.
He got up. “Come on,” he said.
I followed him over to the computer and watched him open a web page. I recognized the earthy green background of the local independent media center. He opened a page, then turned to me.
“Read this,” he said.
“What’s this all about, man?”
“I’ll tell you when you read it.”
“But what did you call me for?”
“Just read it, okay, then I’ll tell you.”
His voice transformed again, and he looked me straight in the eyes. Schwartz never did that. So I sat down and began reading. He walked back over to the desk and poured himself another shot.
The headline caught my eye: “COMMIES SUPPORT FASCIST POLICE REPRESSION OF PEACEFUL PROTEST.”
The “article” was a ruckus of capital letters, exclamation points, “pigs,” “fascists,” and “collaborators.” I realized what I’d missed. I supposed it fit with my general luck.
About five blocks after I left, the police had still been bunched around that same section of dirty, silent marchers when they reached a four-way intersection. The route was leading one way, but several of those black-clad, masked marchers saw a large retail outlet and wanted to go in and scream a few anarchist slogans.
They broke off from the march and ran until they hit that wall of police. Immediately, those hateful glances had turned to the usual tactics, and the police bore down, holding several of the rowdiest marchers down and waiting until they calmed. But today it didn’t happen. It only provoked the rest of the marchers. A rather large group of them sat down in the middle of the intersection and refused to move, chanting anti-police slogans.
The organizers of the march got on the bullhorn and told the rest of the marchers to keep moving, not to align with those giving the “Movement” a “bad name.”
By the time the enormous police van made it to the intersection, the situation had worsened. The number of people sitting at the intersection doubled. The chants got more and more confrontational.
The police announced over the van’s loudspeakers that this was an “illegal assembly” and would be forcibly removed. The organizers chimed in. There were digital photos included with the article that illustrated certain points.
I could see several people I recognized on bullhorns calling at the sitting anarchists. The girl with long red hair was one of them. Beneath her picture, it said “Many of the march organizers proceeded to tell the protestors they got what they deserved.”
Eventually, the police shot pepper spray and rubber bullets. There was one picture that was bigger than the others: a police officer in full riot gear with his nightstick pressed over the neck of one of those masked protestors, whose long, oily hair spread out like a star from beneath the dirty beanie hat, the haze of tear gas obscuring the similar hand-to-hand struggles in the background.
The article said that ten people had been arrested with the complicity of the “COMMIES”-who showed that they were “BOURGEOIS HYPOCRITES” interested only in political clout, and not revolutionary social change.
“These so-called revolutionaries are only the dried-up DEAD REMNANTS of the PAST and its FAILURES. They have giving up their revolutionary agenda in the name of COMPROMISE and COMPLICITY, as part of their REFORMIST AGENDA.
“No longer shall I or my comrades take part in pseudo-’marches’ in which we are TOLD NOT TO WORK ‘AGAINST’ THE POLICE’!!!! We are revolutionaries dedicated to TOPPLING THE STATE and BRINGING FREEDOM TO THE PEOPLE, and we will no longer tolerate the HYPOCRISY AND BETRAYAL of those who would seek to CO-OPT THE MOVEMENT by COLLABORATING WITH THE POLICE!!!!!”
There were several comments already posted in the forum. Most were updates on the fates of the ten arrested marchers from a legal defense group. But there were several responses from members of the party:
“It’s militant extremists such as yourself who give the Movement a bad name by pretending to speak on behalf of all of us...
“We are seeking to ORGANIZE a PEOPLE’S MOVEMENT, not to engage in cheap confrontational STUNTS...
“...it is people like you, always looking for a fight, who make sure the Movement never moves... ”
Interspersed with these were responses from more like-minded people:
“I will NEVER march with them again! They are FASCISTS!
“The Commies have finally lost our support. We will no longer face being vilified for taking the initiative that they are TOO COWARDLY to take themselves.”
I felt disappointed. I felt angry at myself and that face. All because that bright, shiny, and silent authority disapproved; I had missed that vibrant center again.
I turned to Schwartz. He was writing in his notebook, the empty shot glass on the table in front of him. I was about to speak, but he beat me to it.
“Why’d you leave?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
Schwartz looked up from his writing. “Yes you do.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I’ve seen you in action for some time. I know there’s more going on in there than you let on.”
“And what might that be?”
“I wish I knew,” Schwartz said.
“Maybe you need to look harder,” I said.
“Something tells me it wouldn’t matter,” he responded.
That face. That almost-a-face.
“What’s your deal, anyway?” Schwartz asked.
I realized I’d been staring at the floor. “Nothing,” I said.
“That’s what you always say,” Schwartz said. “You’re always pulling back.”
“Why should my thoughts matter? I thought I was a child.”
Schwartz flinched again.
“Look, I didn’t mean that, okay?”
“What are you talking about? I argued with you about it, and you didn’t budge.”
“You told me I was a child caught up in a fantasy.”
“I know,” Schwartz said, “but... well... I didn’t mean it. Or I don’t anymore.”
“Which is it?”
Now Schwartz was looking at the floor.
Copyright © 2008 by Maxwell James