i am scraping and painting, scraping and painting. i am scraping by in this kennedy youth jobs program on sub-minimum wages. i am painting pretty pictures in my mind about making good money by scraping and painting old preserved houses like the one in which i am working on this cold november friday.
i am getting more plaster and paint in my hair than on the floor. this after all is a training program. and i train anything but well. tonight after cleaning myself from head- to-toe i will meet tony at saint mark’s. ex-inmate like me he wants to make it in music. but tonight he merely wants to pull together a foursome me as lead- singer. he wants to do a christmas show at lyman reform school. my throat is dry from all this plaster. tonight i will rehearse. tomorrow i will need medication for a raw throat.
warren, one of the paint and scrape crew just loves to watch television, especially while the rest of us are all working. and today is no different. worse still this house has a big- screen color set. we’ve long given up on warren, especially since that day when we all went to the crew boss and complained–and nothing got done. it may take an act of god to get him booted.
right now though, warren is rushing into the kitchen where we’re working.
he’s been shot! warren is screaming. he’s been shot, been shot!
who’s been shot? i ask.
kennedy! warren screams. it’s all on television.
we all rush into the living room to view the t.v. that’s not supposed to be on, in someone else’s house, while we’re working. on the screen, huntley and brinkley are somber and ashen-faced even for pink-fleshed white folks.
huntley and brinkley. six-thirty news team. on screen at one-thirty in the afternoon. no second movement of beethoven’s ninth in the background. huntley on the phone taking the information. brinkley relaying the facts as known so far. a motorcade in dallas. a shot (or was it shots?) fired. the president rushed to the hospital in worse than critical. and we’ll keep you updated with late breaking news.
warren is crying. the gravity of his report has just hit him full force. today he got more than he bargained for turning on someone else’s television. but he’s only one in a world full of people who on this day hasn’t figured a shot president in their planning.
we clean our tools, seal the paint cans and dry plaster. we need no one to tell us to go back to the project office where gus, our panamanian work boss, tears streaming down his cheeks, tells us to go home as he hands us our
paychecks. his eyes tell us : kennedy is dead.
bah-baam-boom! medgar evers
ba-ba-ba-ba-baam-boom! william moore.
ba-ba-ba-boom! the children of birmingham.
ba-ba-ba-boom! president ngo dinh diem.
the el train on which i ride to dudley station is ghostly dead quiet. there’s only one other passenger on the entire train. at dudley i take the bus to columbia roadwalk to saint mark’s church. rehearsal with tony is obviously not going to happen today, but for some reason i feel a responsibility to be here in case even one of the other guys shows up.
the sanctuary has never felt so empty. it has never seemed so quiet. it is not the sunday of episcopal pageantry. i sit in a back pew. and think. and think. and drift off to sleep.
i am awakened by a tap on my shoulder. tony.
thought you’d be here, he says. and then thinking of this day: things are fucked! and bites his lip upon remembering we’re in a church. i nod reverently in agreement with his secular truthfulness. we agree to call the other two of our quartet and to meet next friday.
the weekend passes at the speed of light. but there are slow motion vignettes clear even thirty two years later. streets are empty. buses and trains run, but they are as empty as a boycotted montgomery alabama rush hour. on t.v. we learn that someone named oswald has been arrested.
in days to come, i will hear so many of my people especially those who are older- say: thank god he wasn’t a colored man. as though a black man would have reason to shoot a president? i think.
once in those days, i think this out loud to an old woman uttering those words. she looks at me for an instant, smiles, and walks away.
what do days like these portend for us? i avoid having to think about matters like this by taking in a saturday movie, “it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world”. a comedy about how stupid people can get in their greed over money that’s not theirs.and then it’s home to study for french and algebra classes that will probably be cancelled next week.
i fall asleep. i wake up at two in the morning sunday. i have a light snack. i read some more, fall asleep again. i am awakened at noon by screams from the living room. i jump out of bed and rush down the hall to find my mother staring at the television set right hand over her mouth, eyes lit up in fear. oswald was shot right there on t.v., she whispers.
right there, in black and white. simplicity. clarity. the kind of clear truth about events that straddles the border between what you can’t believe happened, and what officially did not happen. at least not in the way it did. in months and years to come other people will die who may or may not have known too much about something. all as erasable as an episode of mass grandeur in tiannanmen square.
johnson is sworn in as president. male tenors at makeshift memorial concerts sing beethoven and bach creation arias and requiems of all kinds. there are endless lines of people passing by the sealed casket in the capitol rotunda.
and finally the funeral. the mass. the funeral procession. the stoic patrician widow, children by her side. the little boy who only yesterday played with toy torpedo boats now gives full salute to the flag-draped casket. he is too young to know what stoic is but old enough to know the feel of being sucked into the end of childhood.
the marine honor-guard escorted caisson with flag-draped casket is horse- drawn down the wide avenues of our district of confusion. behind, a black stallion saddle and stirrups mounted backward. naval hymn.
eternal father strong to save, whose arm doth bound the restless wave.
and the drums. the drums. malcolm citing chickens coming home to roost. and already the assassins have been assigned new victims.the drums. the drums. martin saying the same thing only baptist preacher nicer. and already the assassins have been assigned new victims.
that bids the mighty oceans deep, their own appointed limits keep.
the drums. the drums. beating as that death march leads us on into a world neither familiar nor comfortable. from now on what will keep my sanity intact will be a trained capacity to welcome surprise as a pleasant guest.
oh hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.
Gary Hicks is a poet and political activist who relocated to the SF Bay area from Boston in 2009. In recent years he has been a contributor to five anthologies. He is the author of two collections of his work. This prose poem is an excerpt from his 1996 graduate project at UMass Boston, which completed his work for an M.A. in American Studies. He is a retired schoolteacher.
* “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan