On the first day I tell them: “When searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola, Coronado was so disappointed by what he found in the land that would one day become Kansas that he strangled the guide who’d brought him here and turned around.”
No one laughs. Their blank stares communicate only this: It’s the first day of class. Don’t get cute. Hand out the syllabus and we’ll see you on Tuesday. I ask them to find a partner, thinking I’ll have them introduce one another to the group, but cave when I see their eyes roll, hear the groans from the back of the room. “Actually, let’s start from here next time,” I say, and pass out the syllabus. A modicum of relief enters the classroom as they pack their bags and leave, suctioned from their desks to the door as if by pneumatic tubing.
Afterward, I head to the office I share with an emeritus professor who rarely comes around. I check e-mail and find my wife has written. We used to speak openly and directly. Now we e-mail, and hers arrive with all the formality of a communiqué. Paul, I would like to get some more of my things this evening. Please leave the house from 7-8. —Linda. Strange to think of her across campus, over in Sociology, composing this terse missive. Stranger still to think that when the divorce papers arrive, we could, if so inclined, settle the whole matter via intracampus mail.
I’m debating whether to reply when Brad, the chair of the history department, pops in to say hello.
“Welcome back, partner. How was break?”
“Cold,” I say.
He laughs and asks if my eleven thirty went okay.
Brad toes a fine line between administrator and concerned colleague, a fact that seems to color any conversation I have with him. I shouldn’t complain; he’s always been pretty good to me. When the university hired Linda almost twenty-five years ago, he took me on as an instructor. I was All But Dissertation with a focus on the post-Civil War period in the South, but those first several years I taught whatever they could scrounge up for me: general history surveys, even the occasional comp class. Brad had pushed me to teach a class on Kansas history, wanting me to be the department’s “Kansas guy.” And so I put aside my dissertation, telling Linda it was temporary, and educated myself as quickly as I could about a state I’d never given much thought. I understood, of course, that he hired me because the university wanted Linda, and, further, that without the dissertation I would never earn tenure. Even so, I’ve never forgotten his kindness.
“Are you going to watch the inauguration?” he asks now. “Ever think you’d actually see this back in the sixties?”
“I teach Tuesday,” I say, and turn back to my computer screen. I can feel him lingering there, the heavy breathing of a big man. “Well, I should let you get back to work,” he says. “Say hello to Linda for me.”
That night I walk downtown along Massachusetts Street while Linda loots our home. Lawrence is freezing, and everyone is inside watching the basketball game. I like having the streets to myself. Most of the stores have closed, but occasionally I stop to look in a window before I head to Louise’s for a schooner of Boulevard Wheat. Surrounded by folks fixated on the game, I wonder how many still remember that our innocuously smiling mascot, an imaginary blue bird, got its name from the militant free-staters, the Jayhawkers, who fought bloodily to bring Kansas into the Union. During a time-out, the mascot runs around the court, entreating the crowd to clap to the beat of the band’s brassy pomp. I watch the game clock, imagining Linda moving quietly through our house alone, taking things. When the game ends, I pay my tab and walk home in the cold January night.
By the time I arrive, she’s gone. She left the day after New Year’s, informing me when she came downstairs with matching blue luggage as I dozed through the final minutes of a bowl- game blowout. She said if she didn’t do it that second, she’d lose her nerve, and before I could even rise she was turning the doorknob. She says it’s too difficult to see me, that we need some time apart to get used to the separation. So far I have respected her wishes, resisting the fleeting temptation to stop by her office unannounced, or, in my lowest moments, to sneak over and watch her teach from the hallway. I haven’t made much of a fuss because I realized soon after she walked out the door that it was the right thing. Despite this, the last time I called her I made a halfhearted attempt to reconcile. When she refused, I pressed her. “I’m not going to lie in bed next to someone who doesn’t love me anymore,” she said. “The amazing thing is that you could. You could do that, Paul, and you’d never say a word.” I was hurt and started to yell, but Linda cut me off—“This is why I don’t want to talk”—and hung up. And though I know she’s right—we haven’t been in love for a long time—it’s hard to watch her undo a life together we spent nearly forty years creating. It’s awful, these nights she asks me to leave the house. Her incremental disappearance from my world. Each time I return home and walk slowly from room to room, opening drawers and closets, trying to find what she’s taken, trying to sense what she’s touched.
We talk Louisiana Purchase and Kansas Territory. We talk about Andrew Jackson and Indian Removal. We talk about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which left the question of whether Kansas would be a free state or slave state to be decided by its inhabitants. We talk about the New England Emmigrant Aid Society shipping abolitionist and profit-seeking easterners to Kansas—how they settled in and established this town, named after their founder Amos Lawrence. We cover Kansas becoming the thirty-fourth star on the flag and all the opposing constitutions and capitals. We talk Border War and Bleeding Kansas. John Brown and Jim Lane, Quantrill and George Todd. Do they know Quantrill led a raid on Lawrence in 1863, that he and his men rode right down Massachusetts Street and murdered 150 unarmed men and boys? Some do. We unpack terms like Jayhawker and Border Ruffian. We learn about Clarina Nichols and the failed attempts to gain voting rights for women and blacks. We talk broken treaties, Indian resettlement, and the Dog Soldiers who fought back against white aggression.
Through the first few weeks, the class is slow to come together. They yawn and rub their eyes, nurse their hangovers. They text-message and I pretend not to notice, but it eats at me. It’s tough to fail at the one thing you believe you do well, the thing you’ve come to depend upon. I want them to be as fascinated by the history as I was all those years ago in the library when I should have been doing research for my dissertation on the limits of Radical Reconstruction of the South, but was unable to pull my nose out of a volume on Kansas. But they seem largely uninterested. Finally, I ask, “Why did you take this class?” My tone carries my frustration and they look alarmed, sitting up a little. There are mutterings of “For my major.” No one says it, but I’m afraid a reputation as an easy grader has preceded me. Then a girl in row two says, “Because I’m from here.” Truth be told, my memory is poor and I still haven’t learned names, but she has stood out as one of the few willing contributors and attentive listeners. “That’s a good reason to care,” I say. “The history of one’s home matters. We should understand where we come from, the legacies we inherit.” The thing they need to understand, I tell them, is that the history of a state, like anything, is a history of change. What makes Kansas interesting is that here these changes tend toward social and political extremes. I soapbox like this for another minute, ending emphatically with: “Kansas is and always was a radical state!” I’m staring hard, half expecting the class to rise slowly from their chairs one by one and slow-clap my Stand and Deliver moment. But of course they just sit there. There is some nodding of heads, a few grins and smiles at the old prof getting animated. I tell them they can leave early.
A few days later, the girl in row two approaches me after class. Lauren—I’ve learned her name. She is petite, with a short black bob that accentuates the pallor of her skin. She’s holding a book against her chest as she approaches and without a word flips it around. The book’s cover announces it as an exposé of the most “dangerous” professors in the country, academics who indoctrinate students with anti-American values. She opens to a spot she has bookmarked near the back. Side-by-side pictures: one, a mug shot from 1968, and the other, a recent photo from the department website. Underneath is a list of “crimes and exploits.”
I look away from the book and meet her stare, but she says nothing. There is a long moment of silence that seems to confuse the nature of this encounter.
“Do you want me to sign it?” I say.
“It’s why I took your class,” she says.
“There are a few things you should know about that book.”
“I think what you all did was brave.”
“I wasn’t that much a part of it.”
“Sure seems like it,” she says, looking at the book.
I’m trying to think of how best to respond and can only offer: “That was a long time ago.” I excuse myself to head to a meeting but turn back to her. “I would appreciate if you didn’t go around showing that to everyone.”
The book isn’t a surprise. Brad approached me about it early in the fall semester. He’s familiar with my past and it’s never been an issue. This was a matter of PR. “We’ve had some calls,” he said, scratching at his bald head. “From parents and groups. With all the Ayers stuff in the campaign … they’re concerned about students taking your class.”
“You make it sound like I’m a pedophile.”
“You know I think you’re a great teacher, Paul,” he said, placing a hand on my shoulder. “We wouldn’t have renewed your appointment all these years if you weren’t.” He took his hand away, but the weight of his implied threat remained. Brad is big in ways I am not: He’s tall and thick, and I’m short and lean. I ran my hands through my thinning hair, sighing, and said from rote: “Like thousands of others who are today valued and contributing members of society, I protested the war and went to jail for it.” As I finished saying this, however, I opened the book and read my entry for the first time. “Half of this is bullshit,” I said suddenly. “I wasn’t involved in any of the bombings.”
Brad removed a pair of glasses from the breast pocket of his oxford, rereading the passage. “Technically he doesn’t say you perpetrated any of them.”
“He sure as hell implies it! Christ, I mean, I wasn’t even underground. Linda and I left before everyone disappeared.”
“You’ve been very honest with me about your involvement,” he said, closing the book and removing his glasses. What hung in the air between us was the obvious: Truth, and its airy abstractions, carried less weight than the physical existence of the book. We thought it would die down, but in the final month of the campaign things got worse. The calls and letters continued, people demanding the university fire a “domestic terrorist.” I was really worried for a while. Without tenure, I knew, I was vulnerable. They could have easily let me go, but Brad went to bat for me, attesting to my years of excellent teaching. He dropped my spring-semester teaching load from my usual three classes to one. “Just till all the election fuss blows over. By next fall it won’t be an issue.” For a time I considered legal recourse of some sort, but when I talked it over with Linda she said it wouldn’t do any good. “This has nothing to do with you. This is about people who believe we’re going to have a black Muslim socialist as president.” We were drinking pinot as we stood at the island in our recently remodeled kitchen. After a moment of silence, she said, “A girl can dream, can’t she?” and we both laughed.
We talk about post–Civil War growth and the Industrial Revolution. We talk about railroads and unregulated monopolies. We talk about exodusters and Pap Singleton’s black colonies in Hodgeman County. We look at then-and-now photographs of Nicodemus, the oldest still-surviving all-black town west of the Mississippi. We discuss the People’s Party and the achievements of the Populists. We cover the Legislative War and the first female elected to political office in the country, Susanna Salter, mayor of Argonia. We look at the devastation of tribes confined to reservations. We talk prohibition and Carrie Nation raiding bars, smashing whiskey bottles. We talk Progressive Era. We decode the political and social commentary in the strange concrete sculptures of S. P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. Do they know that Appeal to Reason, the largest circulated socialist newspaper in the country, was published in Girard, Kansas? They do not. We discuss the granting of suffrage eight years before the federal government passed the amendment. We talk strikes and oil fields, the IWW and WWI.
One Thursday at the end of class, as everyone is shoving notebooks into their backpacks, Lauren stands and announces that there will be a war protest the following Tuesday near the union. “You all should come,” she says to her classmates. “It’s important we make our voices heard.” Everyone looks at me. The class has started to turn a corner since my outburst. They engage easier, the discussion is more lively. I repeat the homework assignment and tell them to have a good day.
After the others leave, Lauren asks, “What’d you do that for?”
I ask her to come to my office. We walk down the hallway quietly, but when I shut the door it comes out unbidden. I tell her about dropping out and moving from Boulder, Colorado, to Chicago to join the collective. I tell her about the Days of Rage and trying to organize revolutionary working-class youth. I tell her about false IDs and training ourselves to fight. I tell her about getting beaten by police and jailed.
“What’s the point?” she asks.
“I’m trying to explain why I couldn’t just say ‘extra credit for anyone who goes to the protest.’”
“Doesn’t mean you have to pretend you’re someone you’re not,” she says.
I try to explain about being a spousal hire and the uneasy state of my employment after the attention from the book. “It’s why they gave me only one class this semester.” To everything she asks why, and I try to rationalize and explain until all I can see in her expression is disappointment, the slight accusation of cowardice.
Next class I arrive to find a flyer for the protest taped to the dry-erase board of my room. Lauren doesn’t show. I leave the handbill where it is, writing dates and names from the Kansas past around it. Finally, someone asks what it is. I take it down and read it aloud. They are silent. I set it on my desk and continue lecturing until our time is finished.
Afterward I walk to the union, where the rally is under way. There’s a young black man standing on a stone bench. He’s wearing a heavy pea coat and a black knit hat that keeps inching higher off his forehead because he’s shaking from cold or anger. Suddenly he shouts: “We are at war, and we are the citizens of an empire. The crimes of our government are being committed in our names and we ain’t gonna stand for it any longer!” He goes on another minute and the crowd echoes back, chanting, “Not in our names.” Then I see Lauren. Booming forth from the crowd, she joins the guy on the bench. She looks around, taking in the sizeable gathering. She opens her mouth but hesitates. I think maybe the moment has gotten to her, but she steadies herself and begins reading the casualty figures—military and civilian, American and Iraqi—the Pentagon tries to keep secret. The crowd shouts its frozen approval, several fists raised. She is electric in her nervousness, gaining confidence with each response from the crowd. She tells us that on the count of three we will fall to the ground and lie silent for five minutes in recognition of the war dead.
I’m standing on the periphery with the other interlopers taking in the spectacle, but when she begins to count I move closer and lower myself to the snow-covered brick. Lying silently with the others, I look at the gray, sunless sky, and wonder what Linda’s doing. We never went in for something as static as a die-in. We were always marching somewhere or trying to occupy some building. Looking for confrontation. I think of the march on the Pentagon and trying to break the line of police and National Guardsmen. I see Linda spitting in a marshal’s face and feel the old wounds from the clubs in my back when they countered. We were begging to be arrested, and when we finally were, cuffed and put on buses that took us to separate detention facilities, I thought of her then, too, as I stretched out on the holding-cell floor. I wanted only to pay my fine so that I could return to her. I feel no such desire now, just the curiosity of what it would take for her to dirty her winter coat here in the snow.
When the five minutes are over, we all rise and dust off our jackets. I hang around, watching Lauren talk to a group of people who have surrounded her. I look away when she glances in my direction, but turn back to find her smiling.
“You came,” she says as she approaches.
The other speaker walks over and joins us. He’s thinner than, and not as tall as, he looked standing on top of the bench. She introduces him, Kwame, and we shake hands.
“Lauren’s told me about you,” he says.
“Don’t believe everything you hear.”
The shortest month of the year, February won’t end just to spite us. We’re all runny noses and shivering, Lauren’s fair skin almost translucent in the cold.
“What’d you think?” Kwame asks, blowing into his hand. I tell them they’re doing the right thing, that the pressure will build. He nods as he looks around. “What should we do now?” he asks. I start talking about how it’s not just one rally, the commitment has to be sustained, that power concedes nothing without demand, and suddenly I’m twenty years old and standing on a Chicago street corner haranguing some poor guy on his way to work to stop slaving for the Man and come to a fucking meeting. “Nah, I know all that, man,” says Kwame. “I just meant what should we do now? You wanna grab a drink or something?”
And so I follow them downtown to the Taproom. It’s off campus, and we’re the only people there, which I like. The bartender wears thick black glasses and a pearl-snap cowboy shirt over a white thermal. He’s just opened. While we lean on the bar, he kneels with his back to us, slowly flipping through a crate of records on the floor behind the extra liquor bottles. He picks one and sets the needle before finally turning to serve us. There’s the old familiar crackle of stylus threading groove and then Bob Dylan’s strange country croon fills the bar as Nashville Skyline begins. We take our pints to a corner booth by the window and discuss school. They are studying poli-sci and thinking about grad programs. They don’t say so, but I can tell Lauren and Kwame are together. The occasional touch on the other’s arm as they work to articulate a point, the hopeful expectancy that undercuts the seriousness with which they look at each other.
“So Lauren says you were in it deep back in the day,” says Kwame.
“Come on, man,” he says, scanning over the empty bar. “What was it like?”
“What, the movement?”
I think a long moment before responding and when I do I meet their eyes and say, “How do you think?”
When I say nothing else, it seems he might let it lie, but Kwame probes further: “What made you do it? How did you know you needed to go under?”
I tell him I knew the exact moment.
“I was in Chicago, walking past Fred Hampton’s casket after the police assassinated him and Mark Clark.”
“You knew them?” Kwame asks.
“The Panthers’ offices were close to ours. They used to come over, sometimes to plan joint actions, and other times, just to fuck with us, they’d take stuff to test how truly antiracist we were.”
“Am I supposed to be impressed you hung out with Panthers or offended you calling brothers thieves?”
“I’m just answering your question, Kwame.”
The look in his eyes betrays the edge in his voice. “Go on then,” he says. So I share some of the old stories, confiding how one of the last times I heard Fred speak he seemed to augur his own death: I might be gone tomorrow. I might be in jail. But when I leave, remember the last words on my lips: I am a revolutionary. “They killed him in December ’69,” I say. “By January we were moving underground.”
The ease with which I relate this story is familiar. The Hampton-Clark murders had a big impact on Linda and me. Over the years they became part of our personal mythology, a way in which to understand our past and to account for what had become of us since. However, usually when I tell it—now and again it will come up at a cocktail party or university function—it’s a cautionary tale meant to explain not why we went underground but why we left the movement altogether.
“Who’s ‘we’?” Lauren asks.
“My wife. We were there together.” There’s a pause as they nod and then I ask: “How’d you two meet?” The look they exchange tells me my hunch was correct. I learn they had a public-policy class last fall.
She says: “Even today people sometimes look confused when they see us walking together.”
“It’s all good though,” Kwame says, a cold smile on his face. “A black man’s in the White House. It’s like they say: we’re ‘postracial’ now, right?”
One night in early March, I receive an e-mail from Linda asking if I’ll leave the house so she can gather more of her things. With the first hints of spring in the air, I decide to walk downtown. As I pass an Italian restaurant we used to go to on special occasions, however, I catch sight of her out of the corner of my eye, having dinner with a man. I haven’t seen her since she left the house after New Year’s and can only stare. She’s straightened the curl of her long black hair, and she’s wearing an outfit I can’t recall. I don’t recognize the guy. They’re eating and smiling, and then she turns away from him and looks out the window near where I’m standing. Instinctively, I raise my hand, meaning, Why aren’t you at the house like you said you’d be? and Who’s this asshole you’re having dinner with? But she doesn’t acknowledge me. She turns her attention back to the man and raises her fork to her mouth. I leave, heading home, thinking maybe she didn’t see me after all. Must have been one of those tricks of the light where, inside the illuminated restaurant, she couldn’t see anything outside in the dark.
We talk about the pressure to move from agriculture to industry. We talk about the development of the urban centers of the state. We discuss John Brinkley, the Goat Gland Doctor, who injected goat glands into men to improve virility. We marvel at how he manipulated early radio to nearly steal the 1930 gubernatorial race. We talk Depression and Dust Bowl. We read excerpts from the WPA Guide to 1930s Kansas and look at murals. We cover the war years, how Wichita doubled in population overnight after receiving bomber contracts from the government, how German POWs were relocated to Kansas to relieve the shortage of agricultural workers. We talk NAACP and Brown v. Board of Education. Do they know that the sit-ins at Dockum’s Drugstore in Wichita preceded the famous Greensboro sit-ins by two years? They do not. The sixties get their own unit, culminating here in Lawrence with the 1970 riots after police shot two students, one black and one white.
On the last day before spring break, Lauren stops by my office. She’s been doing this more and more, sometimes to talk about class, but usually just to talk. She says she’s going to DC for a rally on the Mall to bring the troops home. “Me and Kwame chartered a bus and we’ve been organizing people to come. It’s almost full,” she says. “You have any plans?”
“In this economy?” I say. “Thought I might stay home and listen to some fireside chats on the gramophone.”
It feels nice to have developed a rapport with her, one of the small pleasures of teaching.
“You should come with us,” she says, setting a hand on my arm, which is what I’m looking at when I hear Brad’s loud voice from the hallway, asking if I have a second. “Sorry to interrupt,” he says. “Didn’t realize you were holding office hours.”
“It’s okay.” I wave him in. “Lauren was just leaving.”
She shoulders her bag and heads for the door. I wish her good luck in Washington.
“What’s in Washington?” asks Brad affably. “Family?”
“A protest against the wars,” she answers.
“Ah,” he says, looking from Lauren to me and back again. After Lauren leaves, Brad closes the door and pulls a chair close like he’s going to give me a real talking-to. He leans forward.
“I heard about you and Linda.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “What’d you hear?”
“I bumped into her earlier today. She said you two were separated.”
We let that silence just hang there awkwardly for a few seconds.
“I’m sorry,” he says, putting a big paw on my shoulder. “I wasn’t aware. Are you doing okay?”
I tell him I’m fine, that we’d been growing apart for years. “Really,” I say, “it’s the best thing for both of us.” He takes this in with a series of hurried nods. He seems to want to say more, but I tell him I need to go.
“I’ve been through it myself,” he says. “I’m here for you if you want to talk.”
When Linda left, it felt strange to have time to myself again. Between teaching and our life together, my attention was always directed by the concerns of one or the other. Since January it seems all I’ve had is time, and without marriage, teaching has rushed in to fill the void. And so over spring break I’m not on vacation or visiting family. I stay home and tinker with my syllabus and course schedule, reading a new book I want to incorporate into class next fall. The Friday before returning to school I get an e-mail from Lauren. For a brief second I misread the name, mistaking it for another please-leave-the-house note from Linda, and feel relieved when I realize the error. Lauren’s message is brief. She says the DC trip fell through and asks if we can meet. I type Come by my office Monday. My cursor hovers over Send, then I delete and type Walk tomorrow? giving her my home address and the time.
The following afternoon I’m grading papers when Lauren knocks, forty-five minutes late. She’s wearing jeans and a red sweatshirt too big for her. Kwame’s, I imagine. “Sorry, I lost track of time.” I pull on my jacket and step onto the porch. A cold front has come through and a heavy gust of wind kicks up over the railing. She lowers the hood of the sweatshirt and says she needs to make a phone call before we head out. “Forgot my cell,” she says. “Would you mind if I used your landline? It won’t take a second.”
“Of course,” I say, pointing toward the kitchen. She takes the handset from the cradle on the wall, looking at me over her shoulder before dialing. I walk upstairs to my study to give her some privacy. A minute later she calls out my name and I tell her to come here. I’ve taken off my jacket and slung it over the back of my chair. Linda and I used to work here together, our desks at opposite walls, surrounded by bookshelves. But for a few stray paperclips, hers is cleared out and the bookshelves stand half full. The wooden stairs creak from Lauren’s languid ascension. When she appears in the doorway, she’s looking all around herself like a thief casing the joint. “Last throes of winter out there,” I say. “I thought we could talk here.” She agrees. “So tell me what happened with Washington.”
She explains that the donors who fronted most of the money pulled out two days before, an unforeseen result of the ongoing financial collapse. She’s looking across the hallway where I’ve left the bedroom door open. I imagine what she’s seeing. The built-in bookshelves we put in ten years ago that span an entire wall. The green leather ergonomic reading chair by the window imported from Sweden. The attached bath we added with a whirlpool and a dual-head standing shower. “Look at this place,” she says, unzipping her sweatshirt. “This could be my parents’ home.”
I feel a rush of embarrassment followed by anger and disgust. She’s right. I’d often found myself wondering what the hell had become of us over the years. When we were young we’d believed in Karl Marx and permanent revolution but in middle age had come to find our faith in Martha Stewart and the permanent renovation of our home. It wasn’t always this way. For a number of years after leaving the movement we were still active politically, but slowly, after returning to school, the concerns of the professional began to eclipse the political. We used to spend entire days knocking on doors and now we write checks to progressive organizations and donate to Democracy Now before dashing off to the university for a meeting.
“It was my wife,” I say. “She wanted all of this.”
“Your wife,” Lauren says. She takes a step across the hallway to look farther into the bedroom, as if it were a diorama in a natural-history museum. She leans against the doorframe, and I rise from my chair and move to stand behind her. “Where is she?” she asks. “Ex-wife,” I correct. I touch her shoulder and my hand moves to her nape and down her spine, but her sweatshirt is so baggy, I wonder if she feels anything. “She did this to you?” I say nothing. I follow her eye-line to the California king, where pillows we bought from a hotel while on vacation after claiming the best night of sleep of our lives are stacked neatly at the head of the bed. “Why’d you let her?” I take her hand. “You didn’t have a say?” Then I lead her inside.
Afterward, we lie silent. I think maybe she’s fallen asleep, but then she rolls away from me and asks, “Do you sleep with many of your students?”
“This is a first.”
“Sure it is.”
I feel defensive, then strangely flattered by the awful cliché. “And you and Kwame?”
“We have an open relationship.”
She pulls on the red sweatshirt, zipping it up over her bare breasts, and drinks from a cup of water I set on the nightstand the previous evening. I tell her how when Linda and I lived in the collective everyone slept with one another and how much I hated it. She asks if that’s where we met. I shake my head. “In school. SDS. We’d been active for a few years but dropped out when it felt like protesting wasn’t enough.”
She stands and the sweatshirt falls past her underwear, hanging mid-thigh.
“How’d you learn to make bombs?”
She looks out the window, glass at her chest.
“Don’t get any ideas,” I say.
“Oh, please.” She turns, a cruel smile on her face. “Do you know how easy it would be to find out? I was just curious how a bunch of college dropouts became underground bomb-makers before the internet.”
“We weren’t underground,” I say. She has a bemused look on her face. “The book got a few things wrong.” I’m explaining, watching the pale of her skin start to rouge, when she cuts me off.
“Were you planning on telling me this after you fucked me, or had it crossed your mind when you were holding court at the bar, talking Fred Hampton and bombs?”
“I did know him,” I say. “And I never said anything about bombs.”
“You said you’d been underground!”
Her body’s tensed, ready to pounce on any answer I might give, when I hear a funny sound I can’t quite place. She stoops to the floor, pulls her jeans from under the bed, and removes something from the back pocket. Her cell phone. “Thought you forgot it at home,” I say. She looks at the screen, shaking her head. Quickly she pulls on her jeans—“You’re a liar and a bad fuck”—and leaves.
In the following days I try to get hold of Lauren, but she has stopped coming to class and won’t respond to my e-mails. When Brad calls me at home in mid-April, I’m sure she’s gone to the administration, but he only asks how I’m doing with the separation. Often this is his way of priming you for taking on some extra duty—advising an additional thesis, letting a prospective student observe class, filling in for someone on sick leave—and I wish he would cut to the chase.
“We’re getting divorced,” I say.
“So you’re not going to try and work it out,” he says. “It’s mutual, then?”
“This was my decision,” I say, feeling resentful of his prying.
His response, a plaintive hmm hanging in the phone’s static ether, makes me furious. This could go on all night. I tell him I have papers to grade. “Hang on there a minute,” he says. “I was just flipping through my calendar here and thought we could pick a time for a year-end lunch.” Almost a decade ago Brad began the tradition of taking each member of the department out to lunch after finals, a nice gesture that allowed him to “check in,” as he likes to say. We set up a time after my last class and I’m thankful to finally get off the phone.
How quickly a semester moves. I struggle to learn their names, and then I have them, and then our time together is over. I feel good that we rebounded from a rocky start. I take pride in what I feel is their genuine interest in the complexity of the state. In the final weeks we’re almost at the present. We’ve covered the rise of cultural conservatism, the growing activism of the Right over the last few decades. We’ve talked about the Summer of Mercy in 1991, when men and women chained themselves to fences outside clinics in Wichita and laid their children down before cars trying to enter the parking lot. We don’t know it yet, but in a matter of weeks a member of an increasingly militant antiabortion movement will murder abortion doctor George Tiller in his own church. We’ve discussed the state Board of Ed considering banning Charles Darwin from science curriculums. Do they know that it wasn’t until 1986 that liquor by the drink was legalized as well as other “sin amendments” like the lottery and wagering? They do not. We’ve looked at clips on YouTube of Fred Phelps and his followers protesting at the funerals of the Iraq War dead, shouting at aggrieved families that their sons and daughters died because God is punishing us for homosexuality. We’re reading What’s the Matter with Kansas?
At the last class, I walk the aisles slowly as I collect their final papers. Lauren’s chair, a long time empty, has become the spot where a neighboring student places his backpack. I’ve checked with her other teachers and they report she hasn’t been in class for weeks, but it’s only when I e-mail Kwame that I find out where she is. She’s taking a break from school, he writes. Went to San Francisco to work for a single-payer group on healthcare reform. I write back asking for more details, but he doesn’t respond.
When I meet Brad, he’s already sitting at the table of the restaurant he suggested, the Italian place downtown where I saw Linda having dinner. “Fancy,” I say, taking a seat across from him. Usually we just grab a burger at the union.
“It’s the end of the semester,” he says. “We should celebrate.”
It’s late afternoon and the restaurant is nearly empty in these dead hours between lunch and dinner. We reflect on the semester’s classes, float plans for the summer. He tells me about his divorce and I listen politely, occasionally commiserating, though I realize my regret at having stayed in the relationship too long is no match for his pain at having been unable to save his. Our plates have been cleared and we’re finishing our glasses of wine when he says, “There’s something I need to tell you. Something difficult.”
“It’s only been an hour,” I say. “Why cut to the chase now?”
He smiles, but it turns into a grimace. “This isn’t easy for me.” He looks down at the white tablecloth. “The administration has decided not to renew your teaching appointment.”
“I’m so sorry, Paul.”
“You’re serious? Why?”
“Did Lauren come to you?”
I look around the restaurant. People, like us, doing what they do in restaurants.
“Because I left Linda?”
“No, of course not.”
“I’m a good teacher, Brad. You’ve read my evals.”
“I know you are. That’s why I’m sure you’ll find a good spot at another school.”
“I’m sixty-one and never finished my Ph.D.,” I say. “No one is going to hire me.”
He tells me he can make some calls, that he has friends at many colleges. I’ve had only one glass of wine, but I feel flushed, florid, as though I’ve had several carafes. Then I put it together. Of course: “This is because of the book.”
A look of confusion comes across his face.
“You’re scared of having me on staff.”
“The book?” he says. “No, we’re past that.”
“The book’s history, Paul.”
“You’re caving to their pressure because I was a revolutionary.”
“Revolutionary? I defended you, remember,” he says, exasperated. He puts his elbows on the table. “Look, I know this is a shock, but this isn’t about the book or Linda. This is about the economy. The university is hemorrhaging money—they’re trying to figure out how to keep the people they have to pay.” He says things like “tuition spike,” “massive cuts,” “furlough days,” but I barely take it in, dazed.
“What about my classes?” I finally say. “Who’s going to teach them?”
“Someone with tenure, most likely.”
“Who?” I ask. “You?”
“Maybe,” he says. “I don’t know.” He leans back in his chair. “Honestly, I’m not sure whether the Kansas class will survive. They want a more global, international focus. They’re talking about restructuring the major, combining departments even. It’s a real shit storm.” He shrugs. “We have no idea what’s going to happen.” I’m trying to imagine which is worse, the thought of Brad teaching my class or the idea that it won’t be offered at all. All that history, forgotten again. And then I’m standing. And then I’m walking away from the table.
A few weeks into summer vacation, Linda asks me to leave the house a final time while she gets the last of her stuff. I e-mail back saying I will, but I don’t. I wait in the study, updating my CV for the first time in years. When I hear the keys in the lock and the groan of the front door, I don’t say anything. I listen to the pop of her heels on the wood floor, the rustle of her turning over mail that still comes in her name that I collect in a pile on the kitchen table. Then she’s coming upstairs. She goes to the bedroom and I hear her rummage through the closet, the sound of hangers sliding over the metal rod. As she leaves the bedroom, she glances toward the study—“Jesus, you scared me!”—and drops an armful of clothes to the floor. “What the hell are you doing here, Paul?”
“I wanted to see you.”
She looks down at the pile of brightly colored summer dresses and skirts. She’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, the way she used to on the weekends when we’d run our errands or spend a few hours knocking around the yard. “You’re not supposed to be here. You said you wouldn’t.” I tell her I didn’t mean to scare her, that I was just enjoying the sounds of her being in the house again. The curl in her hair has returned and she’s pulled it back in a ponytail. Though Linda’s only a year younger than me, she’s always looked youthful, and now I’d wager she could pass for late forties. She squints, sharpening the pierce of her brown eyes. “This is exactly why I didn’t want you here. We’re not getting back together, Paul.”
“I know that. I don’t want to,” I say. “Just talk to me a minute.”
She comes into the study with a huff—“One minute”—and leans against her old desk. I used to love working here together, our fingers hammering at our keyboards in a seductive kind of call-and-response. I swivel slowly back and forth in my big chair, staring at the gaps in my book collection, the parts of the alphabet she has boxed somewhere in storage. I point at Reform or Revolution. “Remember when I bought that for you, the Luxemburg?” She turns and picks it up off the shelf. The spine is heavily creased, like it might break if someone so much as coughed near it. I bought it for her in a used bookstore in Boulder. The previous owner’s ink ran blue all over the margins. She flips through the pages, smiling. “Poor Rosa.”
“You forgot to take it.”
“You keep it,” she says. “I remember well enough.”
“You want to quiz me about the dialectic of spontaneity and organization?” She closes the book but doesn’t put it back on the shelf. She holds it in her hand as if maybe she will take it with her after all. She looks at her wrist, but she’s not wearing a watch. “I told you I didn’t want to do this. I want a clean break.”
“There’s no such thing. We have a history.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Who is he?”
“The guy you’re seeing. I saw you having dinner together. That night you said you were coming here but didn’t.”
She thinks a long moment, trying, I imagine, to conjure that winter night. “Richard? I’m not seeing him,” she says. “He was interviewing for a position.”
“There’s a hiring freeze,” I say.
“He’s taking my place,” she says quickly.
“What are you talking about?”
She gathers herself and says: “I was going to tell you. I just … I was offered a job in New York. At Columbia. I’m taking it.”
“You’re leavingthe university? You’re leaving Kansas?”
“I couldn’t turn it down, you know that. Ivy League, Paul,” she says, smiling now, as if expecting me to congratulate her. “Besides, I need a new start.”
I sit there, silent, trying to imagine her strolling along Broadway instead of Massachusetts Street. Impossible. When I finally respond, I don’t tell her not to leave or that I’ve been let go by the university. When I speak, I describe everything I remember from the day we filed past Fred Hampton’s coffin in Chicago. I ask if she remembers.
“Of course,” she says. “That’s when we left.”
“What happened to us?”
“What do you mean?” she says. “We grew apart.”
“No, what happened to us.”
“We grew up.” She raises the book, its red cover showing a picture of Luxemburg. “Is this what you wanted? She was killed by reactionaries and dumped in a canal. We were training ourselves to shoot guns. The Panthers were storing bombs in the housing projects. What did we think was going to happen? You don’t win an arms race against the Pentagon.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t have gone underground, maybe I wouldn’t have set bombs—”
“Do you actually wish you had?”
“—but I never would have ended up like this if it weren’t for you.”
She pushes herself off the desk, looming large above me in the chair.
“You’re fooling yourself. Even then you didn’t have it in you. You want to know why we didn’t go underground? Why we lived in this house? Because you wanted this, too, you just didn’t have the guts to take responsibility for making it happen.”
“That’s not true.”
“You let me be your excuse to leave the movement, just as you let me getting hired here be your excuse to not finish your dissertation. You’ve used me to not be accountable for decisions you couldn’t make and now you’re blaming me for it.”
“You’re wrong, Linda.”
“You couldn’t even leave me when you were miserable.”
“I would have.”
“Because you’re a coward.”
“I am not.”
“You’re craven and you always were.”
It’s the small laugh after she says this that sends me out of the chair, my hand reaching back as I rise. The force of the slap sends her to a crouch, holding her face. I’m saying her name, touching her shoulder—“Linda, are you okay? Linda, I’m so sorry”—when she springs from the floor, her arm flailing wildly. The book strikes me across the side of the head and sends me backward a few steps. We are looking at each other, silent, stunned, and below us the book lies open on the floor, pages sticking out, half torn from the binding.