Fiction by Alan Brickman
Frank was late to the four o’clock staff meeting. When he got to the conference room, he saw all the other community organizers, but not Mike Arsenault, the Organizing Director, which meant the meeting hadn’t started yet. Frank was aggravated because he really didn’t have time for this meeting. He was busy with the million details necessary for next week’s action – picketing the downtown office of one of Boston’s worst slumlords, Sid Brown, who owned about fifty apartment buildings around the city, mostly in Frank’s neighborhoods. And Brown was an absolute monster. His units were rat-infested, no plumbing or heat, broken windows, cracked plaster, and if anyone complained, he’d evict ’em in a heartbeat, keep their security deposit and whatever rent they’d paid, then find some pretense to sue them! This demonstration was the culmination of nine months of organizing, and it had to go right.
Jeff, a longtime organizer who was ten years older than Frank and his best friend on the staff, stood at the far end of the conference table and stabbed the air with his pen as he spoke to the group. “My members have this insane hard-on for street hockey. They decided to pressure the Mayor to build a street hockey rink in Fallon Field, and then fund a youth league with refs and uniforms, the whole bit. A hundred of them showed up for an action at City Hall with hockey sticks. It was hilarious! There were about thirty seniors who looked more likely to settle in for checkers or whist, not hockey.” Jeff looked up. “Oh, hi Frank. Nice of you to join us.”
“I was trying to avoid the street hockey story again. But I think that’s officially the thousandth time you’ve told it, so you win the steak knives and the all-expenses-paid trip to Revere Beach.”
“Okay, okay,” Jeff said sheepishly. When they both sat down, Jeff punched Frank on the arm, surprisingly hard.
Annie, the only woman on the organizing staff, just over five feet tall with a booming voice and short hair dyed eggplant-red, said, “Hey Frank, I’m glad you’re here. I’m dying to know what you’ve got cooked up for that scumbag Sid Brown.”
“Plenty,” Frank said with a smile. “But let’s wait for Mike to get here. I know he’s gonna want an update.”
On the far wall of the conference room, Frank saw the political posters that immortalized some of the left’s greatest hits. Uncle Ho and heartthrob Che, of course. The National Mobilization Against the War. The Free Speech Movement, Free Huey, Free the Scottsboro Boys. Those were heady days, Frank thought. The Movement stopped the war and fought racism. And now, street hockey? He knew campaigns like this were necessary to build a neighborhood chapter. He knew how it worked, organizing people around the issues they were passionate about. But only as a starting point. When he took this job with the Neighborhood Action Network, he imagined himself part of the next generation of progressive activists. He wondered what posters their work would leave behind that people would look to for inspiration ten or twenty years from now.
Arsenault strode into the room with an armful of file folders, wearing an Oxford shirt with the Neighborhood Action Network logo on the pocket and new jeans with a crease down the front. “Alright, let’s get started,” he said as he took his seat at the head of the table.
Mike was one of the reasons Frank originally came to Neighborhood Action. He admired his boss’s history of radical politics – SDS in the ’60s, anti-racism and anti-war organizing with the Red Fist Collective in the early ’70’s, and starting the Neighborhood Action Network in ’75 with three other veterans of the New Left. But working for Mike was a different story. He seemed more of a bureaucrat, everything formal and measured, safe to a fault. A machine politician, not a Movement organizer.
Mike began, “I want to make sure we talk about the citywide property tax campaign, but first, let’s hear from Frank about next week’s Sid Brown action.”
Frank was proud of how the campaign was developing. “So far, we’ve had three demonstrations at the worst of his blighted properties, and next week we’re going to his downtown office to present him with the ‘Slumlord of the Year’ award. My people are psyched! I think we’re going to have a couple of hundred there, and lots of press.” He thought to himself, “And no hockey sticks!”
“Do you need any help for this last push?” Jeff offered. “A couple of my members saw the articles in the Globe, and now they ask about it all the time. Sid Brown is not a well-liked man.”
“No, thanks, I think I’m good,” said Frank. “The leaders and the speakers are ready, the buses are set, and the flyers and signs are good to go. And like I said, the press is all over it. We’ve been door-knocking the neighborhood and phone calling the members for a couple of weeks now. I figure we’ll get a couple of hundred to show up. And you all know Bill Thompson, right? And the youth organizing he’s been doing in Roxbury and North Dorchester? Well, he’s going to bring about a hundred kids who live in Sid Brown’s properties. I’ve met a couple of Bill’s youth leaders, and believe me, they really hate the guy.”
Bill was actually a big part of the reason Frank decided to become a community organizer in the first place. When Frank was in college, He read Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals in one weekend, then met Bill at a campus event a few weeks later. Bill was a former Black Panther who fought Frank Rizzo’s thugs in Philadelphia and as a result, did time for assault and battery on a police officer. Bill had originally come to Boston to work with gang members in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the City. He was a published poet, a linebacker at East Texas State, and, in Frank’s mind, a modern, radical Renaissance man, driven by anger at injustice, fearless and tough, but also smart, charming, and funny. Ever since they met, Frank was inspired by the power of Bill’s example. They had become good friends, and while Frank was grateful, he was also a little puzzled that this street-tough Black Panther would bother with a white boy from the suburbs.
“That’s great,” said Mike. “Get everyone copies of your flyers and press releases, so they can see ’em. Okay, let’s move on to the citywide campaign.”
Arsenault gave an update about the long-simmering campaign about city property taxes and tax abatements. He described – exaggerated, Frank thought – the prospects for the success of the campaign because of a secret ally we had in City Hall who was passing us information. Arsenault said he didn’t want to reveal the source because the guy was taking a real risk, but Frank wondered if it was even true. Either way, Frank thought this double agent approach was bullshit. The mole behind enemy lines was not what community organizing was supposed to be about. Mobilize the people, hammer the assholes, and keep at it until you make ’em do the right thing.
This wasn’t the first time Frank wondered if Arsenault was making shit up in the service of some grand scheme, and it wasn’t the first time he questioned Mike’s too-cozy-with-the-enemy tactics. He remembered last year, when Mike bragged about how he convinced the head of the Business Alliance to talk to the Governor about Neighborhood Action’s legislative campaign to reduce Massachusetts’ ridiculously high auto insurance rates. But of course, the guy fucked us at the last minute by opposing, and essentially killing, the measure. The organizing staff was told to hold off, and we all sat on our hands and watched a solid year of work go down the drain.
Arsenault was wrapping up. “Annie, can you can pull together the materials for the press conference?” Annie nodded. “And Jeff, will you do the preparation for the Leadership Council meeting. It’s Monday night. Richard, you help him.” Richard was the newest organizer, on the staff for about six weeks, who was a tall, thin movie-star-handsome African-American man from Chicago who was brought in to organize Boston’s Black neighborhoods.
Yes, sir,” Jeff said with a military salute. In that moment, Frank noticed that Arsenault had recently put on a lot of weight, and was sweating through his shirt, despite the air-conditioning.
All heads turned as Clare from the front desk came into the conference room. Six feet tall with flowing strawberry blond hair and green eyes, Clare always turned heads. She and Frank had had an intense affair for about six months after he broke up with his girlfriend last year, an affair they rekindled from time to time, usually with Clare initiating. She said, “Frank, someone’s here to see you.” Her voice cracked slightly, and Frank thought she sounded nervous.
“Duty calls,” Frank said with a smile as he gathered up his stuff. Arsenault called after him, “Come see me later, Frank. I wanted to talk to you one more time about Sid Brown.”
At the front desk, there was a small wiry man, unshaven, wearing jeans and a work shirt. He was agitated and fidgety, like someone loitering in a public park looking for trouble. Frank extended his hand. “Hi. I’m Frank. What can I do for you?”
“So, you’re the guy,” the man said, refusing Frank’s hand. “I finally get to meet the notorious community organizer, whatever the fuck that is.” This amused Frank. None of his friends really understood what he did. The man got louder as he continued. “I came here to tell you that if you and your people picket my father one more time, you’re all gonna regret it. You got me?”
“Excuse me, but exactly who are you?” Frank said, even though he was pretty sure he already knew.
“I’m Stan Brown, you piece of shit. Sid Brown’s son. Ever heard of him? I came here to tell you to quit tryin’ to ruin my father.” He was yelling. “These fucking protests will stop. Now! You got me?” Frank noticed that the man’s jeans were greasy – auto mechanic greasy – and wondered why he didn’t come here dressed in a suit like his rich father. Several staff members walked toward the reception area to see what was happening.
“No, I don’t got you,” said Frank. He saw Clare smile, and this small show of support strengthened his resolve. “Look Stan, I mean, Mr. Brown. You want the protests to stop, it’s an easy fix. Tell your deadbeat slumlord father to pay his back taxes and fix up his blighted properties. Problem solved.” Frank wondered if this tough guy pose was something he could credibly back up. Routinely, if not actually that often, there were times in this job that required Frank to act tough, and at those times, he tried, unnaturally and with effort, to stand his ground. He had been threatened before, but never physically attacked or beat up, so he hadn’t really been tested, and wasn’t sure what he’d do if he was.
“Fuck you!” the son bellowed and threw a punch at Frank. It missed Frank’s jaw but landed on his shoulder and knocked him back a step. Frank instinctively lunged forward and shoved the man with both hands. Frank’s co-workers rushed in to separate them. Jeff held Stan’s arms, and Richard stepped in front of Frank.
“You know what, smart guy,” Stan said. “You’re dead. I can’t wait to see you out in the street.” He shook off the man holding him, grabbed the collar of his shirt to straighten it, then walked into the hallway and slammed the door, rattling a nearby supply cabinet.
Frank looked down and saw that his hands were shaking. Jeff put his hand on Frank’s shoulder, and said. “The Brown family is losing their shit. I love it!”
Richard chimed in. “Does this happen here all the time? I thought Chicago was rough.” Frank forced a smile.
Arsenault’s voice came from the doorway of the conference room. “Who was that?”
Frank didn’t answer. He was annoyed that Arsenault had done the chicken-shit thing by hiding in the conference room until everything blew over. Let someone else explain it him, Frank thought. He walked back to his office to prepare for tonight’s meeting with his Steering Committee.
After his meeting let out, Frank headed to Sully’s, a dive bar around the corner from the office that was the regular late-night spot for the organizers to unwind and swap stories. The bar’s dark walls were covered with political campaign posters from Boston’s past. Michael Curley promising the moon to the common man, Kevin White extolling the virtues of the “New Boston.” There were also a few from World War II reminding the citizenry that “loose lips sink ships,” and others that had racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers. Frank ordered a shot and beer, downed the shot, and scanned the room. Toward the back, he saw, at the usual table, Jeff, Annie, Richard, and, surprisingly, Clare. She was not a Sully’s regular. Frank figured everyone needed a drink after this afternoon’s excitement with Stan Brown.
As Frank walked toward the table, he heard Annie bellowing. “Remember last year, when my members blocked traffic at the entrance to the Callahan Tunnel? During rush hour!” She was gesturing wildly and knocked a napkin dispenser off the table to the floor. She reached to pick it up and kept talking. “They were protesting the noise from airline flight patterns that had the planes practically buzzing their rooftops all day. Every … fuckin’ … day. They never would have done anything like that, but they were stonewalled at every turn. The City, Massport, even the FAA. And what’s-his-name the state rep, that worthless shit-for-brains? He didn’t do shit for them. So, … they were desperate, and they got radicalized. And they finally got some movement from the bureaucrats. It couldn’t have been more perfect, right out of Alinsky. I love that shit when you see it happen.”
“All praises to Saint Saul,” said Frank, stepping to the table. This did not get the laugh he thought it would.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Jeff said with a smile, “the winner by unanimous decision and still champion…” There was light applause from the others. Frank rolled his eyes.
“Oh, hi, Frank,” Annie said, then continued her story. “We pissed off everyone. The Mayor, the police, the airport, the poor bastards driving to work. But hey, of course we did, that was the idea. It’s like Chairman Mao said. ‘If you want to make an omelet, you gotta break a few eggs.'”
Frank couldn’t resist. “Hey Madame Chang, you know what they say in China these days? I see broken eggs everywhere. Where’s my fuckin’ omelet?” Everyone laughed at that one.
Richard said, “Hey Frank, I’m new here, but I already figured out you’re the resident iconoclast. In the last minute alone, you’ve dissed Alinsky and Mao. I mean shit, the philosopher king of community organizing and the Great Helmsman of the Chinese Revolution? Are you having a crisis of faith? A privation, as my grandma and her church ladies used to say?” Richard flashed his hundred-watt smile. Ever since they met, Frank thought it was the perfect mask. Whenever Richard smiled, Frank could never be sure what he was thinking. Was he joking? Angry? Disappointed? Hurt? All of the above? Who knew?
Jeff said, “Hey Richard, don’t pay any attention to him, he’s too young to be cynical. He’s a zealot. A true believer like the rest of us.”
Frank took a theatrical bow. “Better than a former zealot,” he said. “Like some Organizing Director I know.” He lowered his voice because on any given night, Sully’s could be filled with City officials. “I can’t stomach Michael’s bullshit about the double agent in the tax department. And I’m not sure I even believe it.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jeff said, clearly a few drinks in and slurring. “He’s been cultivating these douchebags for years. We bang our heads out in the streets with the members, and he has dinner with legislators so Neighborhood Action can have clout.” Jeff stroked his goatee and smirked. “I actually thought a mid-level tax guy from deep in the bowels of City Hall was a little low-rent for him. I mean, I thought he was going to say he had the Deputy Mayor in his pocket.” They all laughed. Annie and Jeff tried to high five, but missed.
“Look, Frank,” Jeff went on. “What do you care? You don’t even have to think about the citywide campaign, or Mike’s guy in City Hall, or any of that shit for now. All you have to do is focus on next week’s demo and kicking Sid Brown’s ass!”
Frank shrugged and nodded. He couldn’t disagree.
After a couple of hours, everyone was gone, leaving Frank and Clare at the bar having one last drink. Earlier, Clare had whispered in Frank’s ear that she wanted to talk about something, so Frank lingered until it was just the two of them. They’d had plenty to drink, and were holding hands. “Alone at last,” Frank said, trying to sound gallant. He turned serious. “What’s on your mind?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay after today’s …,” she searched for the right word. “Altercation. You know, in the office. I didn’t want to talk about it in front of everyone, but I was freaked out. He was really scary.”
“I guess. I’ll bet he’s just a bored rich kid, slumming it as some kind of wannabee enforcer. I’m not gonna think too much about it.”
“But he made a real threat. What did he say? ‘You’re dead?’ Aren’t you worried?” Clare looked like she was about to cry. She leaned in to hug Frank.
“Come on, Clare. Don’t get upset. Nothing’s going to happen. He was just blowing smoke. And he’s a skinny little shit anyway. I outweigh him by, what, thirty, forty pounds? If he tries anything, I’ll just snap him in half.” Frank began to wonder if he was kidding himself. If he should take all this more seriously.
Clare looked skeptical. And rattled. She shook herself out if it, smiled unconvincingly, and said, “Okay, Frank, if that’s what you think. I’ll try to stop worrying about it.” She shifted her weight on the barstool. “Can we go back to my place and fuck? I think we both need it tonight.” With this, Frank knew she was drunk. She usually found a much more delicate way of saying exactly that.
“You know what?” he said. “Yes we can, yes we do, and yes we will!” He was just as drunk.
The night before the demonstration, Frank couldn’t sleep, and finally drifted off around 2:00 AM. When the alarm rang at 7:15, he felt both exhausted and adrenalized. He showered and shaved in minutes, and grabbed a coffee and donut from the deli on the corner. He headed to the office to pick up the stuff he needed for the demonstration, then drove out to the neighborhood to meet the buses.
When Frank got to the pick-up spot in front of St. Rita’s Church, his members were milling around on the sidewalk, looking nervous, but when they saw him, all tension seemed to evaporate. They loaded into the buses with their bullhorns and signs, and headed downtown. The members were in high spirits, and chanted, “Hey hey. Ho ho. Sid Brown has got to go!” and “The people … united … will never be defeated!” This is why I do this, Frank thought. They disembarked from the buses a half-block from Sid Brown’s office. Frank saw five police cars clustered in the street and wondered what was going on. He gathered an arm-load of flyers, stepped out of the bus, and directed his members to a spot directly across from Sid Brown’s building.
He saw a man in a gray business suit calling him over from across the street. It was Tom Wales, a lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s office that Frank had been feeding information on Sid Brown in the hopes of a prosecution. Frank walked over to him, and they shook hands. “What are you doing here, Tom?”
“You’re one lucky son of a bitch, you know that.”
“C’mon, Tom, I’ve got a shitload to do. What’s going on?”
“You’re gonna love this. The powers that be in my office have decided to charge your friend Sid Brown. It’s a twenty-three-count indictment. Fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, all of it – I mean, this guy’s a huge crook – and that’s just the beginning. When the Feds are done with him, he’s going to have to deal with all the state charges related to how he runs his properties. He’s cheated or stolen from everyone he’s ever dealt with. The marshals are in there right now, arresting him. He’s going away for a long time. And I’m not going to say this too loudly, but you and the rest of the Sandinistas at Neighborhood Action made it happen.”
“That’s amazing, Tom. Really great. And today, of all days! But let me go. I’ve got to deal with this.” He pointed to his members marching and chanting.
As Frank walked away, Tom said, “I’d tell you where to send my check, but I’m a public official and, you know – corruption.”
“Yeah, you’d hate to have to prosecute yourself,” Frank called back over his shoulder.
When Frank got back to the buses, Bill Thompson was leaning against a lamppost and smiling broadly.
“Hey, Bill. Great to see you! And thanks again for helping out today. How many kids did you round up?”
“About a hundred, maybe more. Turns out they all know exactly who Sid Brown is and they hate his guts. And about twenty of ’em are from families that have been evicted in the last couple of months, so they can’t wait to shit on the guy. They don’t often have a chance like this. By the way, who’s your friend in the suit? FBI? I can smell pig from here.”
“Close. U.S. Attorney. They’re arresting Brown on twenty-three federal charges. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Look, can we talk later? I gotta go deal with the press. I see them standing around over there. Do you have a couple of minutes to make sure the members are squared away?”
“Sure, sure. Great job, by the way.” Bill walked around to the other side of the buses.
A man Frank didn’t know, at 6’5″ almost a head taller than Frank and dressed in an ill-fitting brown suit, approached him and asked, “What’s going on here?”
“We’re protesting Sid Brown, the slumlord.” He pointed to the police cars. “But the cops beat us to it. They’re inside arresting him.”
“Yeah, motherfucker, I know all about it,” and with that, he pulled a heavy baton from somewhere and smashed it across Frank’s arm, scattering the flyers. Frank yelped in pain, and looked down to see that his arm was broken, badly. Before he could look up, the man hit him again, this time in the ribs, and Frank fell to the pavement. The man reached back for one final blow when he was tackled by George Riordan, Frank’s chapter president, a retired dockworker, who even at 78, was strong as an ox. The goon dropped his baton and it rattled into the street. Frank’s members were running in all directions and were being chased and attacked by five or six other men with bats and chains. Some of the police officers standing in front of Sid Brown’s building looked to see what was going on, and came running to break it up.
Frank saw Bill and a couple of his kids struggling with one of the other thugs. The man freed his arm and punched one of the kids in the face, knocking him down. Something snapped in Frank, and he became electrified with rage. With his good arm, he picked up the baton that his assailant had dropped, walked over the where George was still subduing the man, and swung down hard, hitting the man’s shoulders and back repeatedly as hard as he could. George stepped away and the assailant lay motionless on the pavement while a small puddle of blood formed. Frank felt a wave of nausea come over him as he was being pulled away from the scene by Bill, who hands were around Frank’s waist. Bill deposited him on a concrete bench, took the baton, and went to see where else he could help.
Frank’s pain started taking hold. He looked up and saw Stan Brown sitting in a pick-up truck on the other side of the street, staring straight at him and giving him the finger. Then, Stan raised a pistol and aimed it at Frank. A police officer approached the pick-up from the passenger side, gun drawn, and barked, “Drop it, shithead, and put your hands where I can see ’em.”
Frank was dizzy and delirious from the pain, but saw two things that almost made him smile: The son being handcuffed and thrown into a police cruiser, and Sid Brown himself, also in handcuffs, being led out of his building by the federal marshals. Then he passed out.
Frank had one long week in the hospital, and three weeks of slow and painful recovery at home. Arsenault came to the hospital with a cohort of college interns so he could show them the famous street fighting radical hero. Once Frank realized what this visit was about, he rang for his pain meds and zoned out.
Once he was home, Jeff, Richard, and Annie came over a couple of times. They played cards, drank beer, smoked pot, and ate Chinese take-out. It usually went on until after midnight.
Clare came by twice, hoping Frank would be well enough for sex. Nothing happened on her first visit because of Frank’s injuries and pain meds, but the next time, they made out, then moved on to hand jobs, which after some fumbling and painful acrobatics, became intercourse. “Now that’s what I call home health care,” Frank joked through his post-coital sexual haze.
Bill came to Frank’s house once during his recovery, when he was back in town after a series of speaking engagements and national meetings he had to attend. Frank had been reading Bill’s book of poetry Slice the Dream Maker’s Throat, when the doorbell rang. He had laughed at the poem Notable Quotables (“Do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what it has ever done for you.”), but he had to stop and read the poem She was Aged, Tired, Beautiful and in Danger several times. It was a vignette in which the first-person narrator, presumably Bill, came to the aid of an elderly Black woman who was being menaced by a group of white teenagers on a subway platform. There were two passages he couldn’t get out of his mind: “First, she had to be sure of me / Had Malcolm taught me anything? / I wanted to let her know quickly / so I winked proudly and flashed my knife,” and later, “Soon it was over / My knife and her sewing scissors / providing bloody short-term answers to a / cruel American reality deeper than time.“
As Frank got up to answer the bell, he saw the framed print of Picasso’s Guernica that he had grown up with, and that he salvaged from his parents’ apartment after they died. It was a fraction the size of the actual masterpiece, the famously block-long Colossus of Cubism. He loved seeing it each day as a bit of family nostalgia, but also as a testament to the power of art to make strong and lasting political statements. But looking at it now, he could only see the chaos and violence of war, shredding the social fabric, leaving behind an anguished, unlivable hell. Frank wondered, How inevitable is all this violence?
Bill brought a six-pack, and the two sat in the living room with their beers, Bill on the couch, right below the Guernica print, and Frank in the brown leather easy chair with the large plush arms where he could rest his cast. “How are you feeling?” Bill asked.
“Okay. Not exactly raring to go yet. It still hurts.” Frank downed half his beer in one long gulp, hoping it would ease the pain.
Bill obviously had something on his mind, and sat up straighter and adjusted his knit cap before he spoke. “Let me ask you a question, Frank. How many fights have you been in? You know, real fights, out in the street?”
“Truth be told, not that much. Mostly one-punch affairs, you know, playing sports, but …” Frank shrugged, embarrassed by his answer.
“You’re naïve about what goes on out there, and you don’t know how to fight. You’re gonna get hurt. You may not be cut out for this.” Frank noticed how big and strong Bill’s hands looked.
“C’mon, Bill. Really? I know I’m just a college kid from the suburbs … but so are a lot of the organizers. Hell, even Che was solidly middle class, not some street tough. And he changed the world.”
“Are you comparing yourself to Che Guevara?” Bill said with a smile. Frank shrugged. “Look, Frank, I grew up tough. I fought all the time, and got the shit kicked out of me more than once. There was no other way. I mean, we fought with the local gangsters who wanted every dime in the neighborhood, but also with the racist police who hated us because we were Black. I learned when to expect it, I can see it coming, and I know what do to. You do not. And you haven’t had enough street time to be able to talk your way out of dangerous situations. I don’t think you really understand what power will do to protect power. You’re could get killed, Frank. Seriously, if George Riordan hadn’t tackled that guy at the Sid Brown thing, he would have bashed your head in. I’ve seen guys try to punch above their weight, and maybe they get away with it for a while, but it rarely ends well.”
“What am I supposed to do with this, Bill? Quit? Go hide out somewhere? Be a school teacher? Sell insurance? I mean, what the fuck?”
“You have to figure that out. I’m just trying to get your attention. You’ve got to make a change, something’s got to give.”
They chatted for another hour or so, about Bill’s work, about Frank’s physical therapy, sports, movies. But Frank could barely concentrate, he was so disconcerted by what Bill said.
Frank walked up one flight and faced the door with the green and white Neighborhood Action Network logo. It had been over a month since he’d been back to the office. He looked down at the sling supporting his arm in the cast that wasn’t due to come off for another week. He knew his co-workers thought of this as a badge of honor, but he didn’t see it that way. To him it was a symbol of the craziness in the world, the hate in people’s hearts, the impossibility of common ground.
It somehow ate at him that he’d actually won, and how much of a win it was. Brown and his goons – including his son the psychopath – were arrested. The City took all Brown’s rental property into receivership and used the funds from his string of phony shell companies for the necessary repairs. There were fines as well as double restitution to the tenants, all on top of what’ll probably be significant jail time. Frank should have been proud, even triumphant, and he was, sort of, but ….
He opened the door and stepped into the office for the first time since the melee. Clare jumped up from her desk and practically knocked him over to hug him.
“Frank, it’s so great to see you up and about. Everyone’s waiting for you.” She took him by his good arm and lead him down the hallway.
The conference room door was open and Frank peeked in. He heard Arsenault’s voice, which annoyed him for some reason and he thought about turning around. Clare nudged him forward.
Arsenault stopped talking and all eyes fell on Frank. After a brief moment of silence, an explosion of applause. Frank saw pinned to the bulletin board on the far wall an enlarged reproduction of the front page of the newspaper from that day, with the two photos – him being lifted into an ambulance, and Sid Brown being dropped into a police car in handcuffs. My poster, the thought. My legacy.
Frank waved off the applause. “Thanks, everyone. I appreciate it. I don’t deserve it, but I appreciate it.” People laughed, and Frank said, “Hey, we put Sid Brown in jail, didn’t we!” and raised his cast above his head. More applause, which Frank let go for a bit, then waved off again. “None of this is my accomplishment alone. Everything we do, we do as one.” He cleared his throat before he went on, but stopped when he heard a voice from the conference room door.
“Making speeches, Frank? You running for office?” It was Bill Thompson, mysteriously appearing, as he often did, at yet another crucial moment.
“Hey, Bill. What are you doing here?” Frank said.
“Michael asked me to talk to the staff about the youth organizing we’re doing, maybe plan a joint campaign. I think he scheduled it for today because you were coming in and he knew I wouldn’t miss the prodigal’s return.
Frank smiled and turned back to the room. “Look everyone, I appreciate your … appreciation.” He shook his head. “Everyone knows what happened at the demonstration. Whatever preceded it, I lost it. I mean, I was about to pass out and I still almost beat a guy to death.” He rubbed his forehead. “I initially thought I was going to come in here today and quit, leave Neighborhood Action…,” his voice trailed off. There was audible mumbling. “The violence of that day, by Sid Brown’s goons and by me, it all makes me kind of sick. I refuse to see it as ennobling or heroic. And at the end of the day…,” he pointed to his cast, “I may not be cut out for this.” He looked around the room and tried to make as much direct eye contact as possible. “I know some of you are thinking this means I’m just cowardly, easily intimidated.”
“That’s not it,” said Michael. “Nobody thinks that. Not at all.”
“Mike, let me finish. I am resigned to the sad fact that violence is often unavoidable when we confront powerful assholes. The Sid Browns of the world don’t un-scumbag themselves out of altruistic love for humanity. Not when there’s money involved. Everyone knows that. I know that.” He looked down and hoped that people wouldn’t see his eyes welling up.
He looked up again, then right at Bill. “You were right, Bill. I’ve been naïve. I’ve wanted to do this work so badly, I’ve imagined a reality that doesn’t exist, which can be deadly for an organizer.” He startled himself with his use of the word “deadly.”
Bill looked like he was about to say something, but only gave a slight nod that, with economy and nuance, conveyed affection and support for his young comrade. The room got very quiet.
Frank went on. “But guess what. I’m not gonna quit. I can’t quit, this is too important to me, and it makes a fucking difference. But I’m gonna be smarter about it, I’m gonna think things through, take the threats – spoken and unspoken – more seriously. Maybe I’ll take boxing lessons, or carry a knife.” There was some nervous laughter. He looked at Bill. “Had Malcolm taught me anything?” Bill smiled and nodded. “I’m staying because I love the important work we do, I love the members, and, most of all, I love doing it with all of you.” He smiled gamely, his face wet with tears. “I’ll be back here when my cast comes off, probably in a week, and I’ll be ready to work. Ready to organize!” He raised his fist in the air, then rolled his eyes. “How fuckin’ crazy is that?”
“Not crazy!” three of the organizers yelled out in unison, and everyone laughed. The whole staff rose and encircled Frank in a group hug. After saying his goodbyes, he left the conference room and walked out the office door, which closed with a soft click.
Alan Brickman works with nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and program evaluation. Raised in New York, educated in Massachusetts, he now lives in New Orleans with his 17-year old border collie Jasper, and neither of them can imagine living anywhere else. Alan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Heist, Variety Pack, SPANK the CARP, Evening Street Press, Sisyphus Magazine, and October Hill Magazine, among others. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Ahmed M Elpahwee