TIPTOE STANCE by ATTILA PÉTER

 

Three

 

SIX DAYS LATER, I drive to Tuscaloosa for the first time since the assault in order to drop off the final tests and the assignments, and to meet the dean. I normally grade papers at the university in case I need a reference book to check something, but it would have been unwise to show up given the state I was in earlier in the week. The bruises I suffered still haven’t healed completely, but at least my face doesn’t resemble a chilling Halloween mask anymore. The doubts I had about the efficacy of the course have turned out to be unfounded: only two students failed the test, and they would have flunked no matter the content. There were some decent essays as well, with William’s and Larry’s standing out. Those two did excellent work on Gorgias’ sophistry and Pythagoras’ theory of antithetical principles, respectively. I’m glad that William did not disappoint me after all; his paper was well-thought-out, insightful, full of highly perceptive comments, and beautifully written. Similarly, Larry, whose choice of topic came as no surprise, presented his arguments in a reasoned, intelligent manner, supported by nothing but the original sources which he clearly had a really good grasp of. As for James, his paper wasn’t so much a philosophical essay as a political tract on the subjects he feels strongly about and therefore, as much as I agreed with everything he had to say, I couldn’t in all conscience give him a better grade than a B-. His emotions clearly got the better of him and that resulted in his wandering from the subject as well as somewhat idiosyncratic explanations, and although it was plain to see that he knew the dialog inside out, instead of relying on the text, he chose scenes from modern-day America to support his standpoint. Perhaps I ought to take some of the blame for that as he must have been encouraged by my putting across a point by drawing on current affairs. Either way, I’m pretty sure he won’t be too disappointed, and he must be well aware that he can’t expect to get an A for an essay like this at any university. His paper could be published in the organ of the movement, providing there is one; I may suggest it to him when we meet again.

 

 

‘‘Raymond,’’ the dean greets me jovially, but his expression changes to perplexity as soon as he sees the discoloration of the skin on my face. ‘‘Good Lord, what on earth happened to you?’’

 

I knew this was coming, so I have a ready-made answer. ‘‘I slipped in the tub and landed smack-tab on my puss. As a matter of fact, I look fairly presentable now. You should have seen me a week ago! I wasn’t a pretty sight, I can tell you. Lost a tooth too, but I’ve had that fixed now.’’ I grin as if to lend credibility to my improbable story. Well, I did lose a tooth.

 

‘‘Holy moly! You’re lucky you didn’t crack your skull open. Anyway, do sit down. You want a drink? Mind if I have one?’’ He pours himself a bourbon and sits behind his large mahogany table. ‘‘So, what is it you wanted to see me about?’’

*****

 

The receptionist cannot recommend any good restaurants in the vicinity, although she’s not exactly racking her brains. She babbles about some grill where the swordfish stake is excellent, should I have a liking for that kind of thing. I feel a rant coming on. Never mind that, old bag, but at least have the decency to stop filing your fingernails while talking to me. I remind myself that we’re staying for over a week, we’re bound to keep bumping into her, so I just thank her and leave. After walking a hundred yards or so, I get the feeling that I’m the only pedestrian. Cars keep driving by, but there’s nobody on the sidewalk. Indeed, it’s car after car after car as though there’s a race, with the odd diesel bus trailing behind. Where are all the streetcars? Doesn’t L.A. have the largest trolley system in the country? There’s not a single trolley in sight. I walk on and pass a church, then a red brick building, which turns out to be the University of Southern California, and there is an impressive, mosque-like construction on the opposite side of the road. It’s Shrine Auditorium, a place of worship for music lovers, so I cross on the off chance that some jazz band will be playing at the venue while we’re here. There are posters advertising the upcoming fall performances of the Bolshoi Ballet as well as December shows by Ray Charles, and a premiere concert by someone called Barbra Streisand, whose first name must have been misspelled. Either way, it reminds me of my once cheerful, now cantankerous ex-wife. And Pat, of course. Will she grow up to be happy? Is she happy now?

*****

 

A drum and bugle corps leads the way, its pounding beats further lifting the already sky-high spirits of the crowd. James is right in front of me, carrying a sign that reads WE DEMAND AN END TO BIAS NOW!, turning every now and then as if to check I’m still there, grinning from ear to ear. I smile back as the remnants of my unease from earlier dissolve. The people around me are singing songs, clapping their hands or holding aloft placards which attest that they have come from all over the country: Michigan, Iowa, California. A young N**** man, only a few feet away is waving a sign he must have made himself: ‘‘WE WALKED From New York City FOR FREEDOM CORE’’. The phrase puzzles me at first, but then I remember that CORE is an acronym for Congress of Racial Equality. Indeed, the races are truly equal here today, even though the colored demonstrators outnumber us white folks. I’ve never seen so many black people in one place, let alone been surrounded by them. No, surround implies that I am in the center and they are forming a kind of circle or fringe around me as though trying to prevent me from escaping. There’s no pivot, no nucleus here, but tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand humans that have congregated into this enormous mass, and yet each one of them is equally essential. Color simply doesn’t matter, and the thought strikes a chill into my bones. My whole life, I have been separated from people such as the ones I’m marching alongside now. Jim Crow has swaddled us all tightly, both blacks and whites, seeds encased by a thick shell, a carapace that was designed to keep the two apart, to protect one from the other. To protect us white people from them. Only white playmates in white parks, white friends to hang out with in white bowling alleys, white girls to take to white movie theaters on white dates. White carriages, white laundries, white toilets to shit in.

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