Fiction by Dave Barrett. Originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Prole.
Will Ailing heard the word often enough growing up during the late ‘60s and the 1970s. His hometown, San Francisco, was the center of the leftist universe on the “Left Coast” of the United States. The Cold War was really hitting its stride. The national news broadcasted footage of communist insurgents crawling like ant armies through the jungles of Africa and Asia and Latin America on the Evening News. Local news channels televised pro-Maoist marches in Berkeley and the City. Op-eds in the Chronicle and Examiner newspapers linked the Black Panthers and other radical groups to the movement. In Will’s conservative Catholic household, the word was uttered with only derision and scorn. Godless Communists were considered a notch lower than even drug-dealers and gays. Will’s real-estate broker father, Ben, would fly into a spittle-producing rant and rage at mere mention of the name Fidel. His mother, Myra, would dramatically pause, lower her head and sometimes even shudder if the word was so much as spoken in her presence. Will didn’t know what to make of all the hoopla surrounding this word. And he might well have remained ignorant of what the word meant to him if not for an incident he witnessed at Fisherman’s Wharf when he was seven years old.
It was during Lent, and may well have been Good Friday. The Ailings were practicing Catholics then, and on Fridays Will’s mother sometimes took a cross-town bus to buy filet of sole from an old Greek fish seller she’d known before Will and his younger brothers were born. Will had always hated this species of fish, but he’d loved the white wax butcher paper Mr. Theotocopoulos wrapped the fish in, and the gentle manner in which he handed the wrapped package to his mother as though the fish was a sleeping infant.
“Here you go, Myra!”
Mr. Theotocopoulos would wink at his mother. Then, smiling at Will, he’d lift his thick white eyebrows, lean over the counter and place three wrapped chocolates into the palm of Will’s hand.
“One for you, Will. The other two for your brothers.”
Will also loved these trips to the wharf because it was one of the rare occasions him and his mother shared each other’s company without his siblings or his father present. “When you get as old as your brother, I will take you!” Myra would respond to his brother’s lament that they were allowed to go too.
On the day of the event, Will remembered two things happening prior that seemed to shade what was to come. First, when they arrived at Mr. Theotocopoulos’s fish stall, it was only to learn (from one of his sons) that the old man had died. Will’s mother was overwhelmed by the news. She became so distraught that Mr. Theotocopoulos’s sons had to invite her to sit down on a folded chair until her tears and grief had subsided. Will himself had felt a tug on his heart strings, but there was no way he himself would be caught crying now if only for the sheer spectacle of his mother doing so with all these tourists and strangers milling past.
It was with heavy steps Will and his mother left the fish seller’s stall (with fish for their supper but no chocolates for Will or his brothers today). Though it was a remarkably clear sunny day, Will felt the bite of fridgerated air coming off the bay through his windbreaker jacket. He remembered how eerie and strange, how surreal the German accordion music (that came from a landmark restaurant at the wharf) sounded as he and his mother walked hand-in-hand through the market throng. He sensed sadness in the faces of the Koreans, who worked the fruit and vegetable stands, he had not noticed before. Beady-eyed live crabs—pressed against the walls of their glass tanks—seemed to watch Will as he squeezed past; some even lifting their brilliant over-sized scissored claws over the lip of their tanks as though to reach out and pinch him.
The light was dazzling as Will and his mother exited the tunnel of the wharf and hurried along a side street to catch a cable car to the top of Russian Hill (where they would catch a city bus home). A hippie couple sat cross-legged on the sidewalk with what looked to be all their earthly belongings in backpacks behind them, selling sticks of incense, smiling at no one in particular, not even at each other. A theatre marquee across the way advertised LIVE GIRLS!!! with three bold XXX-s beneath. A beautiful redheaded woman in mini-skirt and fishnet stockings smiled briefly at Will as she walked past, and he smiled unwittingly back. Moving past a series of pawnshops, Will was literally stopped in his tracks by the spectacle of a one-legged man standing on crutches outside the open doorway of a tavern. He was a tall young man who looked old beyond his years, dressed in Army fatigues, with war medals dangling from the lapel of his jacket. He was having a terrible time simply remaining upright on his crutches, and was obviously drunk– yelling obscenities at the small crowd that had gathered to look at him.
“Mom? Why is that man yelling at us? And why is he crying like that?”
Tears were streaming down the man’s reddened face. Will had never seen a man cry so openly in front of so many people, and it kind of frightened him. Because of the man’s long hair and beard, and his piercing eyes, he reminded Will of a very pissed-off Jesus Christ.
“Nevermind . . .” Will’s mother whispered in his ear. She mumbled something
about “the war,” then jerked harshly on his arm to get him walking forward again.
“Keep moving! And don’t stare!”
“But why not?” Will protested.
“Because . . .” his mother answered. “What if that man were you or I?”
Will and his mother were a bit out of breath by the time they reached the Hyde Street station. A cable car was only a block or two away, its bell clanging evenly as it descended towards them like a ship coming into port. His mother had been exhorting him to hurry these last few blocks, as the next car would not arrive for another hour after this one.
Will saw at a glance that he and his mother were not the only ones anxious to
catch this ride. Men and women—with briefcases and lunch pails, shopping bags and backpacks—were already pushing and shoving to be first in line. Two men— one dressed in a three-piece suit, the other in jeans, T-shirt and long hair—seemed on the verge of coming to physical blows.
“People! Please stand back from the approaching car! Give me room! Ladies!
Gentlemen! Please stay in line!”
The exasperated driver of the cable car was attempting to settle the crowd. But this little crowd—which was beginning more and more to resemble a mob—would hear none of it. Cones marking where people were supposed to wait were already trampled underfoot. A large woman with a New York accent was laughing and taunting the cable car driver with obscenities. Several men were actually standing on the rails, drawing praise and chuckles from their peers as they feigned playing chicken with the oncoming car.
“Back, I said!”
The driver was ringing his bell with real urgency now, and continuing to demand
that people remain in line. But the defeated look on his sweating face betrayed any hope he actually believed this might happen.
Sun flashed off the shiny metal roof the cable car as it reached the station. Those who had been standing in front of the rails stepped back just enough to allow the car room to stop. The driver, standing at the center of the open-sided car, pulled hard on a thick lever bar and the car came to a stop with a piercing metal-on-metal screech.
“Those waiting to board please wait until all passengers have exited the car . . .”
The flow of riders exiting the cable car kept the mob in check. But as soon the last departing passenger had stepped off, a Bastille-like yell went through the mob and they boarded the car in mass—like a pack of hyenas upon prey.
The result of this was that an old woman—who had been standing near the original front of this “line”—was knocked to the pavement and severely trampled by those rushing in behind her.
Will and his mother, along with several others, had been standing back from this mob even before the cable car arrived (reluctantly realizing there would be no room for them). Led by Will’s mother, Myra, they rushed to the aid of the fallen woman. A middle-aged black man wearing spectacles and a tweed jacket raised the woman to a sitting position. Will’s mother straightened the woman’s flannel skirt (which had been thrown immodestly over her hips during the melee). She was a nicely dressed old woman, probably well to do, and seemed quite in shock by it all.
“Sssh,” Will’s mother said, when the woman began to panic at her apparent inability to utter a word. “You’re all right, dear. Just a little shaken up. That’s all. Sssh.”
Other men and women arrived to help. One held a handkerchief to a cut on the woman’s cheek; another placed a shoe back on her foot. Will retrieved the old woman’s cane, and handed it to his mother.
“She dropped this . . .”
Will’s mother’s focus turned with a fury upon the mob that had taken the cable car. Stepping towards them, she brandished the old woman’s cane in the air, shook it at them and shouted:
“You people ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Look at what you’ve done! Shame on you!”
Will watched the cable car driver shake his head. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he angrily motioned a passenger to stand aside, and slammed his lever bar forward. With a great mechanical creak and groan the car lurched forward, began its lonely climb to the top of Russian Hill. For a long moment the street was nearly silent: only the sound of cables popping as the car was winched away on its rails, rocking slightly side-to-side like an overburdened mule. A flock of pigeons fluttered past. Then, like the fart of a theatrical extra, the drama of this sad but maudlin scene was rent asunder when some faceless joker on the car shouted back:
“Bunch of friggin’ communists!”
And right then—as Will watched his mother’s jaw go slack, and heard that pack of hyenas on the Hyde Street cable car laugh themselves into oblivion—Will Ailing knew—with all the fire in his young veins—that when he grew up that’s just what he wanted to be: