Your month is up
Cathy meant to go home after the meeting in Berkeley. She was supposed to go home. She should go home. She intended to go home after the meeting. She had to go home. She ought to go home.
She would have gone home but her mental image of DC on his couch coincided with a phone booth on Ashby.
“You up for a visit?” she asked, a slice of challenge in her voice.
“Social or pu-lit’i-kul?”
“Where are you?”
“I’ll be done by the time you get here.”
She wanted to ask done with what, had no right to, didn’t, blushed from the base of her spine forward. At Emeryville she passed under a freeway sign that read It was 7:30. The hours of remaining daylight presented themselves as a moral issue. Ten daylight minutes later she waved to Malik, twisting, faking, passing a basketball with two friends on the sidewalk outside Mrs. Jackson’s. Malik smiled, a major breakthrough, nodded her past. She did not look up at the second-floor bay window, did not want to know if he was watching for her, or not watching.
They kissed at the apartment door, he patted her ass as she entered. She looked around. A box of folders sat on the kitchen table; there had been a meeting. DC straightened the loose papers, stashed the box by the radiator, took two beers from the fridge, popped them, handed one to Cathy, and with matter-of-fact grace, inclined his head toward the bedroom. The open bay window admitted the ponkponkponk of basketball, a voice saying heyheyHEY, maybe one of Malik’s buddies, a horn honk. They turned toward the bedroom door.
Cathy would actually remember four distinct consecutive sounds: an urgent angry HEY!, a boom from outside, the smash of disintegrating glass, and the slamming of shot, pellets, slugs into the wall above the couch a yard from them — a sequence imposed by the need to tell a story. At that moment, however, she experienced one continuous splintering ocean of impact within another. Inside the wave, DC’s hands were on her waist, lifting her, hurling her toward the bed, the tiny crashes of their beer bottles lost in the ferment of noise. She landed face down, rolled toward DC, who slid head-first to the floor, came up beside the bed with the shotgun he kept underneath, pumped it as he rose.
“Stay here,” he said.
“You know why. Don’t come down.”
She watched his back, the shotgun suspended, the apartment door open and slam, heard his feet take the stairs two and three at a time.
It was 1964 again.
EXT. TOTAL DARKNESS. MISSISSIPPI
That has to be the dumbest thing they ever did, get a flat tire at 9 pm, ten miles out of Greenwood, and no spare. DC curses and REGGIE kicks the white SNCC Plymouth, until good sense kicks in. Reggie remembers a family a mile, two miles off the highway, movement people. Do they have a phone, CATHY asks. Reggie doesn’t remember. The Greenwood Office’ll freak out when we don’t show up. Fuck a bunch of Greenwood, says DC, we have to get us and this car off the highway, drive it on the rim if we have to.
Over dirt roads, that takes four miles and forty minutes. The car limps to a stop outside the drooping wire fence to Mr. Williams’ place. Reggie flicks the headlights. You don’t go up to a door and knock, anytime, day or night. You wait. There's enough twilight for Mr. Williams to see the white Plymouth, the two black men. Cathy lies out of sight in the rear.
INT. WILLIAMS’ HOME. LIVING ROOM.
MR. WILLIAMS, a farmer, is not impressed by “movement folk don’t have sense to keep a spare.” He has no phone, promises to drive them to Greenwood first thing in the morning. MRS. WILLIAMS insists Cathy sleep in their bed. Cathy knows better than refuse. They bring blankets and an ancient down comforter for Reggie and DC on the living room floor. Mrs. Williams goes off to sleep with the kids. Mr. Williams takes the couch.
INT. BEDROOM. MIDNIGHT.
There is no light, no flicker, no firefly of light when the blasts and shattering glass begin. CATHY doesn’t know where she is, where the door is, where the walls of the room are. She feels her way with hands she can’t see.
INT. THE HALL. MOMENTS LATER.
She finds the hallway. Still no light. She orients herself toward the front of the house by the sound of moving bodies. Behind her, the children do not cry, MRS. WILLIAMS murmurs comfort. CATHY faces where she thinks the front door to be, which swings inward hard against the wall, opens a rectangle of faint night. A figure moves past the doorway opening, from inside to outside. CATHY flattens against the wall. She must not move. She can do nothing. She hears two blasts.
Damn. Oh God shit! Goddamn!
A cry like a cat. The bang of car doors. The clack of Mr. Williams’ shotgun breaking open, shells rattling on the porch planks. A car engine starts, the gun snaps shut. Wheels churn in dirt. Williams fires again. Pellets rasp, chime against metal, glass. The wheels catch. Cathy sees tail lights in a red gleam of dust.
MRS. WILLIAMS appears in the hall with a kerosene lamp.
The three civil rights workers apologize to the Williamses, blame themselves. If only they weren’t there. But if they’d been followed on the highway, why hadn’t they been shot in their crippled car? Had someone seen the car outside the house? Was it coincidence? Cathy is certain of her fault. In the home of the Williamses — the first Negroes in Leflore County to register to vote — someone had seen a white woman.
Her sandals crunched on fractured glass. Do something, Cath. She knelt, plucked shards in her fingers. The room glittered. This is dumb. She found a broom beside the refrigerator, began to sweep. The street voices loudened, people looking up at the bay window, best not to appear in it, as on a stage.
Feet on the stairs and a woman’s voice following. “I told you not to mess. You got to mess in police business, you got to mess with them Panthers, now you got me in this mess, I could of been murdered!”
DC at the door, shotgun in hand, turned to the climbing woman, “Miz Doss.”
“Mrs. Doss to you, DC.”
“Mrs. Doss, they shot up my apartment, not your apartment. It’s not like you’re the landlord.”
“Some day they gonna shoot you and hit me,” said Mrs. Doss, still advancing, “Who’s this woman?”
“My friend, Cathy Cohen. You’ve met her.”
“Don’t recall.” Mrs. Doss peered into the room. Malik and another man pushed past her.
“Hello, Mrs. Doss,” said Cathy.
“Don’t ask me to clean,” she said.
“We won’t,” said DC.
“Shit, man,” said Malik. “Look at Malcolm.”
Malcolm X in shreds above the couch, an upraised finger all that remained of his hand.
“Put that thing away,” said Mrs. Doss. DC ejected a shell from the shotgun, pocketed it, parked the gun against the stove.
“Oakland pigs,” he said. “In broad daylight in front of everybody.”
“Slowed down right in front of us,” Malik said, “stuck their fucking, excuse me Miz Doss, shotguns out the windows and blasted away.”
“Did you get a license plate number?” asked Cathy.
“From a car fulla shoot-em-up pigs? Shit! You crazy?”
“Plainclothes car, not a black and white,” said his friend. “I chucked a Coke bottle at em.”
“Lotta hurt that did. Hit somebody else’s car.”
“What was I supposed to do? Carry heat to play basketball?”
“Damn I forgot the basketball.”
A man and women entered. Neighbors, Cathy assumed.
“I get it,” said Malik’s friend. “Ball’s brand-new,” he explained to no one in particular.
“I’m Irma,” the woman said to Cathy.
Irma took the broom from her, started to work on the glass.
“Do you have a dustpan?” Cathy asked DC.
She pulled out the box of papers, fashioned a dustpan from a manila file folder, went to help Irma.
“Will some of you boys do something?” Irma demanded, “like get Malcolm down off there and brush the glass off the damn couch?”
“Malik, help out,” said DC, “I need to call the Party and give them an incident report.”
Malik grumbled, scrunched glass fragments into the cushions with his sneakers, pulled Malcolm off the wall in three pieces. Irma’s friend John started on the glass teeth still in the window frames, extracting them with a dishtowel wrapped around his hand.
“Jesus, girl,” said Irma, “You’re bleeding.” She made Cathy stand while she inspected. “Come in the bathroom.”
Not much Cathy could see in the mirror. Three cuts on her back and right arm from flying glass, the one Irma saw had soaked through her blouse. Irma washed her off. “So you’re DC’s girl,” she said.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“What’s a girlfriend in a manner of speaking?”
“It comes and goes,” said Cathy.
“He come, you go?” said Irma. She opened the cabinet. “Just like a man not to have mercurochrome or rubbing alcohol or anything.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You love him?”
“I’ll be fine.” She pulled her blouse down over her head, turned round to Irma. “Sometimes.”
“If you don’t know, sister, who does?”
A workcrew had arrived, hauling a city trashcan up to the living room. Someone was using a flatblade shovel as a kind of super dustpan. Four of the bay windows were blasted out. Each time someone moved a piece of furniture, they found more glass, fragments of wood and plaster, dust .
Mrs. Doss returned with a bucket of fried chicken. “Don’t ask me to do anything more,” she said.
“I didn’t ask you to do that,” said DC.
“You’re a troublemaker and you’re hopeless,” said Mrs. Doss, headed back downstairs.
Irma’s John measured the windows, called his brother-in-law on the next block. “Four pieces,” he said. “Yeah, all the same size. You got a hammernnails, DC?”
“Naw man.” DC was looking down at the street.
“Nails too,” said John, “and a hammer.”
“You ok?” DC asked Cathy.
“Should of been me.”
“Why? Cause there’s a God?”
“Look at that,” said DC. “I told Hilliard not to send anyone, we didn’t need anyone, it was all over.” Two black-bereted, black leather jacketed, shiny shotgun armed Panthers stood guard on the sidewalk on either side of the chainlink gate. “He said No we protect the whole community, not just Panthers.”
“You think they’ll come back?”
“That’s why I invited everyone up here to clean. Keep ‘em off the block. Defuse the situation. That’s the fucking ambiguity about the Party. Half the time they intimidate the cops, other half they incite them to riot.”
“I’m bad luck, aren’t I?” said Cathy. “The last time, I was with you too.”
“You’re the best bad luck I ever got,” said DC, and kissed her in front of the whole room, bringing oohhs and woowoos from what was becoming a crowd, even Malik. The kiss alarmed her. Out of character for DC, maybe the excitement, maybe goodbye. She remembered something, found her purse, checked her appointment book, took him aside near the bathroom.
“The incident with Officer Whatsisname,” she said, “when they stopped us in the car.”
“He said you had a month. That was a month ago. They mean it, DC.”
“You mean, as Dick Gregory says, they’re gonna put that first warning shot right in the back of my head?”
In town for the first time, one flicker only! Anxiety in DC’s face. The sound of his anxiety was the sound of a car leaving town. His father’s Dodge leaving Greenwood in 1941 to get a Good Job on the docks in California, steady war work loading ammo to the day he died, when a sound he never heard, the Port Chicago ammunition explosion of July 17, 1944, reduced him to human film smeared across the shards of the Liberty ship S.S. E.A. Bryan. That and the sound of the California State Dept of Corrections bus conveying his sister to her place of indefinite correction, Frontera Prison.
Irma shooed three kids from the doorway who came to see if there was blood. Someone went out for beer. Cathy sat at the kitchen table, dialed Jimmy.
“Should I come over?” he asked.
“No no no.” His cracked rib was still bound, healing. “There’s plenty of people here.” She held out the phone for him to listen, as two men entered carrying plywood panels.
“Anyway, I have the car,” said Cathy.
“I’ll get a ride.”
“I’ll be back soon as things are secure.”
“Tell DC anything he needs, I’m there.”
She opened a pizza box on the table. Still hot. All that wells welled up in her; she gripped the pizza slice as if that were what one grips when one gets a grip on oneself. She was a stranger among friends, a loyal dissembler and cheat, a faithful traitor at home among strangers.
“You can’t just put it up like that,” said Malik to the man with the plywood.
“Got to decorate it, brother, put some protest into it, tell the pigs we’re not going to stand for this shit.”
Someone went for Elmers Glue to fasten Malcolm’s fragments to the plywood, while argument intensified over the other three boards.
“I don’t care what you think about Rev. King, it don’t matter, they just killed him, you got to think of his memory.” DC didn’t have a poster of King. One of the plywood men did. He’d donate it. He left.
“He’s not dead.”
“Why do you got to be dead to get in the window?”
DC allowed as to how he hated that poster of Huey in the wicker chair with the rifle, spear, and African paraphernalia.
“They almost shot the man,” said Irma, “You want to get him killed again?” There was confusion as to who she meant. She meant DC.
“The cover of the Black Panther paper. You got that?” DC did, brought one out with a drawing of an African mother and child, acceptable to all. Cathy suspected he chose which copy to happened to have at hand.
A student from Merritt College proposed Toussaint L’Ouverture, about whom he was reading but could not provide a portrait in time.
The plywood man returned with a framed photo of Martin Luther King, removed and stapled it to the plywood. An argument as to whether Fidel Castro was white or not ended in deadlock. One panel remained.
“Death to the Fascist Pig,” the Merritt student suggested.
“Why don’t we just paint a big red target and hang it on DC’s back like one of those sandwich man signs?” suggested Irma.
By ten the gallery was nailed in place. Cathy called several reporters, who promised to drop by the next day and get DC’s version of the story. Mrs. Jackson, who had seen it all from across the street, agreed to talk to the press. A ONE MAN, ONE VOTE poster arrived too late to be attached to the outside. The ominous mess was hauled away, the neighborly mess left until tomorrow. DC kissed Cathy goodnight upstairs, walked her down to the front gate, thanked the brothers from the Party, convinced them he didn’t need an armed guard, that their continued presence would more likely give Mrs. Doss a heart attack, introduced Cathy, asked them to escort her to her car.
“In fact,” he said, “you got a car?”
“Stay with her to the freeway ramp. I don’t trust them not to lay in wait.”
“We got your back, sister,” said Brother Avery.
They followed her to the freeway, flashed their lights and waved. The on-ramp might as well have been a border station with striped crossing-guards and concertina wire.