Sunday, November 22, 2009

Prompts, Jack, and Lines

by Elizabeth Milligan

"I felt the consecration of its loneliness" - Charlotte Bronte; "I don't know what it means, but the sign is very clear – Watch out for your mouth" – Gabriel Garcia Marquez; "All that road rolling and all those people dreaming in the immensity of it." – Jack Kerouac; "What a strange trip it has been" – Jerry Garcia; "Too bad people change and forget to tell each other...too bad..."— Lillian Hellman


One October day fifteen years ago, I was in our small town's library copying official minutes relating to a controversial local issue. The issue revolved around a man who I felt had been seriously mistreated by our town government. His name was Charlie. At a rangy six feet two, Charlie had faded-but-bright blue eyes, crooked teeth, and a Big Sky smile.

Two months earlier, Charlie had cycled into town where he unintentionally irritated powerful people with his frequent questions about starting a community garden. Now, they were making very public noises about their irritation.
Near the copier, Steve, the Library Director hunched over a desk inside his flimsy glass-and-metal office. At the time, he and I were the only people on the floor. Then, a tall man with short salt and pepper hair and wearing a brown pork pie cap and a quilted tan jacket walked through the doorway and strode quickly across faded industrial carpet to the Director's office. His name was Jack and he clutched a thin white paperback book in his right hand. Steve stood up to greet Jack and the two men exchanged warm words. Jack's voice dropped and because I did not want to appear visible - or at least, not too interested - I picked up only a few of Jack's words - signed copy, blacks, and Civil Rights. Then, he left.

I poked my head into Steve's office, Who was that man? Steve leaned back in his chair, smiled, Oh, that was Jack Mendelsohn. When I was growing up, my parents talked about him a lot at the dinner table... He just donated an autographed copy of his latest book to the library; Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age.

That month, I wrote an opinion article about Charlie and submitted it to the local paper. The editor was not going to run it. With a little coaching from a much larger newspaper, she changed her mind. Her headline was Some Think Man Treated Unfairly at Town Hall. The column ended by stating that Charlie had been committed to a psychiatric ward and declared legally incompetent.

Before Charlie was moved to the state hospital, he told me about his anti-war activities in Boston and Washington. Curious, I asked whether he had ever heard of Jack Mendelsohn. Charlie startled and then exclaimed: Jack Mendelsohn? You mean the Reverend Jack Mendelsohn? Why sure, I was his driver when he headed up the Committee against Political Repression in Boston.

That evening, as I was trimming green beans, watching that a pot of water did not boil over, and moving a pan of four-cheese spaghetti sauce to the stove,the phone rang and my son handed me the receiver. It was Jack. I had not yet met him and I was surprised to hear his voice: Very nice article in the Beacon. Very nice. I would like to pay a visit to Charlie. Do you know how I can contact him?

A few years after his visit with Charlie at the state hospital, Jack and I would try to meet every other week for coffee and talk at a popular bakery a town over. Major topics of conversation were our families, civic affairs, books, my weekly writing assignments, and politics. One day, Jack told me, You know, Ted Sorensen and I used to sit across the table at a coffee house and have the same kind of talks as we are having right now. Judiciously impressed, I moved on to discussing my writing assignment for the week. Often, Jack and I talked about the stories behind my favorite lines.

• Like a lily pad on tepid waters, the waitress sashayed across the restaurant and careened into our table.
• A ten-year old girl hooked her thick eyeglasses over one of the metal spokes on the underside of the beach umbrella.
• My father jumped into the pool fully dressed in his long terry cloth robe, CIA-style black sunglasses, large-brimmed straw hat that looked like a Mexican sombrero with tentacles, and worn black flip flops
• It was a dark and dreary winter night and we had a week to covertly transport the treasure from Cosca across the continent to Trevi.
• On just about their last night between the edges of their bed, Sofia's husband icily articulated for her a remark too horrible to bear repeating.
• Rivulets of red stage make-up dripped down the faces of two women who appeared to be mother and daughter. With fake blood and strips of linen wrapped around their heads, the women held high a sign that read, No Blood For Oil.
• That morning at the coffee house, Jack recalled a decades-old shopping expedition with Louis in a Syrian souk. Mrs. Farrakhan was very fond of beautiful hats and her husband hoped to buy her one.
• This time, she went inside and fixed lunch. She mistook plain black beans for his favorite, black bean soup.

When Jack needed to use a cane we moved our meetings to a coffee shop in town and we continued to talk about our families, civic affairs, books, and politics. He and his wife, Judith, asked me to help him archive his personal papers. So, for one or two hours a week, I would archive with Jack. I would ask questions that helped me decide how to label files and he would tell me stories. In the end, we had twenty-seven large boxes of tightly packed papers. Some are with the Meadville Seminary in Chicago, some with Harvard Divinity School, some at Jack and Judith's home here in town.

• Harry, the birds are out for their exercise; please hold the cat.
• With brisk hand gestures and words like shards of ice, Stella's mother told her Not right now, I have eleven guests arriving and I have to see them.
• Gingerly, cupping the tiny corpse in his latex-gloved hands, he wrapped a rag from the basement –the mourning shroud- around its stiff body.
• That morning in County Kent, somewhere north of the English Channel, the sun peeked over the ancient emerald hills threaded with a single dirt lane and, as if on cue, their VW Bug's radio trumpeted Here Comes the Sun.
• Silence like a kinked rope
• Henry's incredible good looks and charming personality belied his problem.
• This time the tight thin lips turned up slightly at the corners. For just a nanosecond – a shimmering of lime green space – the four of them breathed together.
• Where life's seductive dust and noise are relegated to a sane perspective.
• Like all Jews living in Budapest in 1945, my parents had been rounded up by the Nazis and shot.
• How can you be in the same room as a fire-eater and not ask how he eats fire?
• After the Marines played Taps and my children cried, my friends from the House of Peace in Ipswich prayed and my friends from the Japanese Buddhist colony in Leverett drummed, chanted, and burned incense on my grave. Although I knew I could not make up for the horrors of WWII, I did what I could.

Last year, Jack gave up his driver's license. Now, I bring coffee and lunch for two and a jelly-filled donut to his home every week or so and we continue to talk about politics, family, civic life, books, and my weekly writing assignments.

• In the evening late in Spring, the scent of cherry blossoms mingled with the hot fragrant steam from red beans, rice, steak, and plantains which wafted across the park from the Brazilians' open kitchen windows.
• Some will always operate completely in white space/More will merely trail their fingers in it/Most will never leave the outlines.
• It had rained everyday for the past thirty days in El Progresso.
• The canary yellow streamer is for Billie; satin jazz laced with blues, sprinkled with gardenias and cocaine.
• Silences like spaces between the drips from a faucet.
• Draped in red flags, she teetered on a precipice.

On the eve of California's 1968 Democratic State Convention, Jack addressed the delegates: People who say 'Don't let's get into politics', are in effect saying 'Don't let's get into the world.' This world is political.

Is it any wonder that one of my favorite quotes and one of Jack's favorite quotes are both from Robert Frost?

In three words, I can sum up everything I have learned about life: it goes on and

Forgive me O Lord my little jokes on thee and I will forgive thy great big one on me.

Elizabeth Milligan ©2009

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