A Gentle Heart
He was just a boy, and already his life appeared to him as a trickling down of failure. He had not grasped Biology and American History as high school graduation approached, and he would have to attend summer school. His father lived with another woman and their other child in a home the boy could not locate, though he had tried. His mother often cried late at night, but made sunny side eggs for him in the morning, and none of his efforts seemed to comfort her. All of the victories appeared to reside with his older brother, now a man. The brother received an Honorable Discharge from the Marine Corps and had been an assault weapon squad leader. He attended New Jersey Community College during the day, and spoke proudly to the boy about the Sovereign Citizen Militia meetings he snuck off to at night. The mother never questioned why he returned home so late, though he came to breakfast dark eyed and smelling of bourbon. But the mother was clear-eyed and watchful of the boy, so much so that he thought he could only become a man if he left her. At least, that was what his brother told him.
Each morning, the mother came downstairs dressed as if she had somewhere to go. She favored paisley button-down blouses tucked into pastel skirts with elastic
waistbands, and wore support stockings even on the hottest Jersey days. Her shoes were sensible, the scuffs polished every two weeks, and her dark hair was pulled into a tight braid that laid flat against her back. She enjoyed the quiet daybreaks when she and the boy woke early and the brother stayed in bed. On these mornings she felt better for awhile, talking to her boy as the skillet blistered on the flame.
“You ready for school? Let me make you a nice lunch.”
“Yes Mama. Thanks Mama.”
“Did you get your homework finished?”
“Well I tried, I sure tried.”
“That’s all anyone can ask of you.”
She had raised the boy well, but the world was not done with him yet. The boy loved his mother and he loved his brother, but he was not so sure about the world.
Some mornings, the brother drew the boy away from the kitchen to take him on long, winding walks through their neighborhood streets, and the mother let it be so. Her husband had called her a ball and chain, and that was something she would never be again, so she watched them leave her, and tried to quiet the fearsome visions that rose up in the waiting places behind her eyes. Donna Baldwin’s boy was an addict. Barbara Jones’ son was dead. But those were not her boys. The mother was certain she could not carry the burden of knowing what her sons talked about or where they went together, so she sat in her husband’s easy chair, and watched television shows with laugh tracks. But she was not an ignorant woman, and she did not pretend to herself that she was innocent.
On a particularly hot evening in June, the boy walked with his brother to the secret night meeting, held at the Blue Rose Pub in Nutley. The squat, red building looked like a rectangular block of Lego bricks, with a heavily leaded black door that only opened fully when pulled on by strong, determined arms. The air inside was thick with the scent of grilling meat. The boy felt his pulse race and his breath quicken, and he mistook these sensations for hunger. He ate and drank, but his heart did not quiet. As the night grew dark, an elderly man wearing a cowboy hat stood up and walked deliberately to the center of the bar, dragging a chair behind him. The loud, slow, scraping of metal chair legs against floor tile was a call to attention, and everyone, even newcomers, knew it. The room settled.
“Men,” the elder said, though the room held some women too, “My name is Calvin, if you don’t know it already. I’m here to help you.” He paused, took off his hat, and held it to his chest. His hair was a shaggy white, and he ran his fingers through it. Then his hand stopped and gripped his skull, like he was struggling, thinking what to say next. He waited so long that the boy began to wonder whether that was all there was. An offer of help was a fine enough message, the boy supposed, but more of a toast than the speech he expected at any kind of meeting. Then the elder put his hat back on, and when he continued, what he said struck the boy as rehearsed and nonsensical.
“We’re in a fight for our rights and liberties against this so-called US government. You need to know that you are individuals, not persons. Do you know what that means? You know what a person is? A person is a corporation, created by the government, using your name, to take all that is owned by you the individual. You are the settler, the agent, the individual, but not the person. The government is stealing millions of dollars from every one of you! You have to claim your rights, under common law, under God’s law, every man and woman. So claim what is yours! You are being used! Stop paying taxes, tear up your driver’s license! Free yourself from the police and the government!”
The boy tried to ask his brother what the speaker was talking about. A settler? An individual but not a person? And he’d only had his driver’s license for a year; he wasn’t tearing that up. But the brother put his finger to his lips, so the boy turned back and listened.
Calvin continued, “And buy yourselves guns, big guns. We have to be stronger than this government that doesn’t take care of us, it takes from us. We have to take care of ourselves, and use all means necessary!” The old man went on about farms and cattle and free land, which further confused the boy because everyone here, except Calvin, seemed to be from their town of Nutley, and there were no cows anywhere except those that lay in parts on their dinner plates. “We should be able to live where we want, live in freedom, without all this government domination.” There were random murmurs and shouts of approval throughout the bar, but they seemed to come at all the wrong moments. Like when the bartender called out, “Drinks on the house everybody,” several men responded, “That’s right Calvin, you tell ‘em Calvin!” The boy wondered for a moment whether drunkenness might help him get into the spirit of things, though he doubted it. The boy saw that his brother and a few of his Marine friends listened carefully as Calvin spoke, holding back on their drinks so that they only took small gulps at the pauses. Calvin looked at the brother approvingly. But most of the other patrons seemed anxiously disinterested, and ever more focused on filling and emptying their glasses, then sinking into the embracing darkness.
Toward the end of the Calvin’s speech, a girl- or was she a woman?- approached the boy, and he recognized her from his English Literature class. Without asking, she sat gracefully on the chair next to him, and for the first time all night, his racing pulse made sense and felt pleasing to him. When the dim overhead bulbs caught the girl’s black hair, it shone like a crown in glowing relief, framing shadows of almond eyes. The girl held a bottle of beer, but did not drink from it. She leaned toward the boy, her skin so close that he could feel her in the air between them.
She whispered, “Are you buying this guy? I think he’s a cracker.”
“Yeah, seems like he just likes to hear himself talk,” the boy responded sincerely, though he was prepared to agree with anything the girl said. She smiled broadly, then leaned back and sat for awhile. Neither of them spoke, but the boy felt the hair on his arms stand up and reach for her. After awhile, the girl took the boy’s hand in hers. She pulled out a pen, and wrote her phone number on the inside of his wrist, then looked up at him and smiled. He wondered why she noticed him, and assumed he was the only one here who looked her age. The girl stood up and walked back the way she came. Several men’s eyes followed her as she disappearing into clouds of cigarette smoke that parted up and away from her in great, sweeping waves. Calvin saw her too, and as he stared at her back, he became overwrought, his face glistening with sweat. When he finally finished talking, he sat down with the rest and drank until his eyes closed.
When the meeting ended around midnight, the brothers walked back home. The boy asked his brother what Calvin had been talking about. The brother did not answer right away, and when he did, the boy stopped walking and stood like frozen water in a deep well. The brother had asked the boy if he wanted to go see their father.
“You know where he is?”
“Of course, he lives in Atlantic City. We can get there on the train. Well, a few trains.” Atlantic City was near the southern tip of New Jersey more than one-hundred miles away, and the boy had never had a reason to travel that far. In fact he’d never been further than Manhattan, less than fifteen miles away, and that was only for a school field trip.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Mom didn’t want you to know. She thought it was better that way.”
“But why do you know if I don’t?”
“I was older when he left. I heard a lot more than you did. And he kept track of me for awhile. Kept on me, more like.” The boy remembered loud arguments between his father and brother, but he didn’t remember any reason.
“I thought he didn’t want us to find him.”
“He probably doesn’t want me coming to see him. But maybe he’ll want to see you.” The brother spoke of his father in a low mutter, but did not sound jealous or resentful of the boy. “So do you want to go?”
“Yes,” the boy finally answered.
The next morning was the third Sunday in June. The brothers boarded the Montclair-Boynton line to Newark Penn Station. The train filled with passengers, but each person maintained their own private space, so the boy did not feel crowded. The brothers sat together on a bench, traveling southwest, making several changes, and then moving southeast toward the shore. The landscape transformed dramatically from the city sprawl of Newark, to the urban dank of Trenton, to the casinos of Atlantic City, the ocean breeze near the southern tip, where they exited. The brother pulled his cell phone to make sure of his father’s address. The boys walked a mile in the rising sun, finally reaching a split Maple ranch with a small yard, and a winding brick walkway leading to the entry.
The boy looked at his brother, who seemed to be waiting for him to knock on the door. But the boy was too gentle, so the brother pounded with his fist, hard and fast. When the door opened, inside of the blue painted frame stood a dark, gangly girl who looked just like the boy, who flinched with recognition. Behind her, hand on the doorknob, stood a large, muscular man the boy knew to be his father, though his skin had grown leathered, with folds of skin hanging at his jowls. Ten years was a long time in a father’s face. The father’s body looked intimidating in the blue uniform and badge. Yet there was a weakness in his gaze; he would not let their eyes meet. He looked away into the distance, and the boy perceived that his father was ashamed. The boy felt sorry for him, and this was a betrayal of his brother and so another failure.
“What are you doing here?” the father spoke roughly to the brother as he looked with feigned boredom off over his shoulder. The brother glared back, spat on the ground, then pulled the boy in front of him so the father would have to look, like a crime scene he had run from. The boy had his father’s attention for a moment, and they looked into each other’s eyes. The boy did not know what to say, so he said nothing, and put his hands in his pocket, slouching more and more as his father continued to stare. The father recoiled.
“You look like me, but you remind me of your mother,” he said to the boy.
The girl caught the boy’s eye and her face apologized.
“Dad, can’t we…” she began, looking so lonesome and eager, but the father pulled his daughter inside the house by her arm, and shut the door without looking back.
The boy stared, unable to make sense of what his eyes saw. Was the door really shut in his face? He stared and stared, asking the door a question. His brother stood with him for awhile, gaping at the peephole, listening and waiting for activity behind the door, but there was none. Then the brother kicked the door with the bottom of his sneaker over and over again, kicking with all of his strength, shouting curses at the door, motherfucker and bastard and going to kill you and going to burn your house down. The brother left black footprint patterns all around the entry, but he could not make a dent. The door was completely unyielding.
“Let’s go home,” the brother said in a worn-out voice. The boy followed, and they returned to the train.
That night, the brother took the boy around to the back of their apartment building, and they stood in a narrow alley, between their apartment building and the next.
“Don’t be telling Mama what I show you.” The brother pulled from his backpack a special plastic he had purchased online. “You take this thing here, and detonate it, and boom!” The brother’s arms made a large arc around his body like he was the center of the whole, glorious world. He handed the boy the long, thick cylinder that felt like putty, and the boy took it uncertainly, then more firmly. The boy looked at it with wonder, and knew he would not tell his mother. He began to hand the cylinder back, but his brother stopped him and said, “You keep it now, you’re going to need it tomorrow.” The boy did not understand, but very carefully put the explosive in his own backpack.
“Tomorrow, you get on that train again. Get on early, before Mama wakes up. I’ll meet you on the other end.”
“But I have school tomorrow.”
“Skip it. This is important. We’re going to the police station where he works, and we’re going to get ourselves free like Calvin said.” The brother smiled and waited, until the look on the boy’s face told him he understood. The backpack felt electric against the boy’s back, and the power excited him.
The next morning, the boy boarded the train alone at five am, and though his backpack was otherwise almost empty, he felt a new kind of weight to his thin frame. The sky was still dark, with only the artificial light of the station, and a hint of sunrise far below the earth. The ride was over four hours long, so he had time to sleep for awhile, but he was not tired. He tried to close his eyes, but an elderly woman stared at him from across the aisle. Several times, the boy closed and opened his eyes to see if she had looked away, but her eyes stayed on him with friendly interest. The woman sat nestled between quilted bags topped with snap-lid containers, and she seemed settled in, as if she had and would always be on this train that rocked like a broken cradle. The boy’s body relaxed into the molded plastic seat, his eyes drooping, and he began to dream of a globe exploding from it’s center, beautiful blue and green fragments separating, revealing a core of flowering earth.
“Are you in some kind of trouble?” The boy heard the woman through his sleep. He opened his eyes and sat up, but was not sure how to answer her. Was carrying explosives called being in trouble? The answer seemed so obvious, yet he had not thought of it until now.
“You know, I had a son once, but he died. Got into all kinds of trouble, but I still loved him, because he was mine. You remind me of him.” Because a mother like this one sees her own child even in birds and baby animals. She offered the boy a piece of sweet potato pie, and he accepted. The pie was the best he had ever tasted. They continued their ride together in a radiant silence, and the boy felt that the woman had given him something important.
The boy said goodbye to the woman as he got off in Trenton, and instead of making the necessary transfers to Atlantic City, he took the northbound train back to Newark. It was only 7 am, but he did not want to go to school now. Instead, he called the girl from the pub, and asked her if she would come to meet him.
“Where are we going?”
“How about the beach?” The boy felt a prescience in this choice, this meeting, this girl.
“I love the beach,” she answered with the breathiness of sweetness and longing.
As the boy waited in the terminal, he entered a convenience shop and purchased a cheap beach towel, two rolls with butter, a large bag of chips, two soda bottles, and a bag of cherry licorice. The boy put all of these items, very carefully, into his backpack. When the girl arrived, they boarded the North Jersey Coast Line and road all the way to Spring Lake. They talked, but the words were not yet important. It was the sound of their voices mingling that mattered, their molecules bouncing off of each other like puzzle pieces searching for their match.
As they exited the train, the boy and the girl could feel the changed air, salty and moist on their skin. The girl shivered, though the day was warm, but the boy was still too shy to put his arm around her. Instead, he opened the beach towel, and gingerly placed it over her shoulders.
It was easy to find the ocean; it called to them in an orchestra of singing gulls and water’s cymbals and children’s laughter. When they reached the sand, the girl removed her shoes, took the towel off of her shoulders, and walked to an empty, private spot where she spread the towel like a bedspread. The boy and girl sat together on the thin fabric, very close to each other. The boy placed his pack on the sand, removed the food, and then placed his hand around the plastic cylinder. He showed it to the girl, and told her everything - about his brother, his mother, his sister, his father, about all of his fear and longing. The girl lay her hand on his chest, right in the center, and held it there. The boy place his hand firmly on top of hers, feeling her pulse beating over and under his own. He felt his heart as it swelled with the sound of crashing waves, and all of his power was in that beating.
The boy knew then he had never planned to go to Atlantic City with the explosives. As the sun reached it’s height, he walked toward the water, and threw the cylinder high and far, watching it go up and up and up, reach it’s peak, and then fall, losing itself inside the vast sparkling ripples that welcomed and took it in. After, the girl and boy lay together peacefully. They ate and drank, and fed each other licorice sticks. When the sun slipped away, and the air cooled, they returned to the train and headed back.
It was very late when the boy returned home. His brother and mother were waiting.
“Where were you? “ The brother railed at him. “I waited in the morning, and then I waited all day, and now Mama and I have been waiting all night!” The boy’s mother did not ask these questions, but reached for him and held him in her arms for a long time.
“I was at the beach,” the boy told his brother simply as he pulled off his empty backpack. The look on his brother’s face was ambiguous, and the boy could not tell whether he understood, or judged him as weak. But the boy knew he was not weak, and that was all that mattered. He was hungry for breakfast, though it was still the middle of the night. He thought about his little sister, and that he would like to see her again. He pictured the girl whose hair was flecked with sand. He even thought about his father.
About the Author: Amie Wolf is a graduate of the University of Michigan, Columbia, and Fordham University, with a PhD in psychology. Born and raised in Nebraska, she currently live in New Jersey, and works as a psychologist in private practice. She is also a mother and grandmother, with six grandchildren, and one on the way.