Beautiful Revolutionary

Laura Elizabeth Woollett

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Evelyn knows it isn’t Lenny’s fault that she has a hangover, yet in a way, she reasons, it is exactly his fault. Because if he wasn’t the kind of guy who liked getting high on weeknights, she wouldn’t have made the brownies, and if it wasn’t for the brownies, the wine wouldn’t have affected her so badly.

She keeps her eyes closed as Lenny passes in and out of the bedroom like a ghost in his white uniform, doesn’t acknowledge the touch of his lips to her temple. When next she opens her eyes, she’s aware of a sore, clenched feeling deep inside her, and thinks: Of course. The brown spotting on the sheets confirms what she already knows, and wearily she strips the bed and then herself, and showers, and dresses, and pins her hair, and does everything she can to feel normal. On the front page of the paper, Bobby Kennedy is splayed out like a broken puppet, and the write-up says the man who shot him was a kitchen worker, Mexican or Arab.

She turns on the TV. She makes herself a cup of chamomile tea. She lies down with her tea and a heat compress and feels herself shrink before the sweeping blood-tide of ugliness. On the screen, the students and blacks and Chicanos are mourning Bobby Kennedy who, though shot in the head, neck, and back, still isn’t dead. At least when JFK was shot, it happened quickly, skull and brains exploding like watermelon. Martin Luther King, just two months earlier, when she was completing her teaching credential. Never will she forget the way her students had cheered when the announcement came over the PA, nor how she had sat in the car and wept once school was out. But at least she didn’t have her period then, and at least she hadn’t been in Evergreen Valley.

The blood gets heavier as the day progresses. Evelyn cleans the oven, the floors, the bathroom, until her fingers are puckered and she can think of nothing else to clean. She sits on the toilet and wipes herself and is shocked to see a clot of blood on the tissue, the exact shape and color of a leech.

Evelyn turns the TV back on. She makes more tea. She takes up a picture of herself in bridal white standing with her parents and sisters, Vicky and Sally-Ann, both younger and prettier and fairer-haired than herself. She puts it down and hefts a pile of National Geographic from the shelf, occupies herself with the photographs of more beautiful places and people: sherpas in Nepal; Tongan children in flowers and beads; Czech peasant women cycling through yellow fields; Nuba tribesmen with scarified torsos and painted faces; red deserts; green lakes; turquoise icebergs; earth captured from orbit, just a milky blue marble in so much blackness. And that’s when she glimpses the insect on the wall.

‘Oh!’ she cries out — a feminine hobble of a cry, like an ankle twisted in high heels.

Is it a cockroach? A beetle? A cicada? Evelyn can’t tell; only that it is large and winged and has been watching her from the wallpaper for hours, as far as she knows. Fear spikes within her. She rises from the sofa and creeps toward it with a rolled-up magazine; she manages to knock it off the wall without killing it, then shrieks as it comes sputtering across the carpet toward her. Then she’s striking at it blindly until she feels the crunch of its exoskeleton, sees the smeared brown proof in the carpet fibers, and it’s so ugly and so typical of everything, and the house so empty, and being married so lonely, she can’t even find the heart to weep.

 

‘Hey, Evelyn—’

Like always, Lenny’s wife doesn’t answer when he calls her. Wouldn’t even if she was within earshot, and she isn’t. Where is she? Not in the bedroom or the living room, not in the kitchen cooking. The silence and cleanliness of the house unnerves him, as do the beads that clatter every time he enters another room. Mexican bead curtains from their honeymoon. Where is she? Evelyn?

And then Lenny sees the sheets flapping outside on the clothesline, his wife stepping out from behind them. She is wearing something long and loose-fitting and looks, from that distance, like a woman from another century. Lenny feels a surge of tender relief and goes outside to meet her.

‘Oh,’ Evelyn says. ‘You’re home.’

The whiteness of the sheets and the greenness of the yard shows him just how red her eyes are, and many other flaws: that her hair and skin are sort of greasy, her complexion too pale, her nose too sharp, the dress not one of his favorites, but one she only seems to wear when she’s sick or in a bad mood. He feels bad for thinking these things, and, as if she has read his mind, Evelyn sneers, making him suddenly embarrassed of his white uniform.

‘Did you hear?’ Her tone is harsh, almost accusing. ‘They say the gunman is an Arab.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Of course that’s what they would say.’ She unpegs a sheet corner and tugs it off the line. ‘The worst thing is, we’ll never know what really happened.’

‘Yeah.’

‘You know, it’s the blacks who’ll suffer most.’ She is dragging down the sheet like something caught at sea and showing him her witchy profile, the schoolmarmish knot at the back of her head. ‘Our grief doesn’t even come close.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I mean, we’re the lucky ones. We get to choose our battles. You got to choose your uniform. Have you seen any black men walking around that hospital wearing white?’

‘I don’t know, Evelyn.’

‘No.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘I guess you don’t.’

Lenny watches his wife fold the sheets and bundle them in her arms, then squint at the distant hills and sunset. ‘God,’ she says, ‘I almost wish we were somewhere with sirens.’

He thinks he understands what she means by this. He tries to think of what they’d be doing at this time of day in Davis: of the house they shared with their married friends, and music playing as the women cooked barefoot, and smoking grass at the kitchen table, or maybe Evelyn’s parents coming by with covered dishes and funny stories. Davis was fun. She wasn’t so uptight in Davis, was she? He catches sight of the Mary Jane across the yard and is hopeful.

‘Want to get high?’

‘No, I do not want to get high. Is that all you ever think of?’

‘Sorry. I just thought … if it makes you feel better …’

Evelyn laughs, a snapping-cold sound. ‘Has it ever occurred to you that maybe I don’t want to feel better?’ Before he can say anything else, she’s pressing the sheets into his arms and slipping her hand into his trouser pocket, so sinuous he doesn’t know whether to be frightened or aroused. ‘Take these and give me the car keys. I want to go for a drive.’

‘I don’t know, Evelyn …’

But she’s already jangling the keys in the air and giving him one of her dirty looks. ‘A week in this damn town and you already think women can’t drive? Salut, Leonard.’

And with a flounce of her dress and a slam of the gate, she’s out of the yard, and he’s still holding the sheets, and then he’s hearing the thump of the car door and the rumbling of the engine and the screeching of the tires and nothing. He listens to the silence. He hears a mewling and looks around to see a white cat near the Mary Jane. ‘Here, kitty kitty,’ Lenny says, but the cat won’t come, so he goes inside and takes off his shirt and pours a saucer of milk and scoffs two brownies without thinking, and by the time the milk is being lapped up he’s already feeling regret.

How is it that things are always changing so quickly from good to bad? Has it always been this way or only since he’s had a woman in his life? Is it this way with all women or only his wife? Lenny drinks some milk. He thinks deep thoughts: how perfectly round and white the milk looks in the mug, how white that cat was, how he’s more truly himself when things are good with Evelyn, and less himself when things are bad.

Lenny smokes. It’s a bad idea in the long run, he knows, but he also knows that it’ll make him feel better in the short term and more like himself. He switches on the TV. He feels his mind slide into that more comfortable place — detached, but wiser, more empathic. Bobby Kennedy isn’t dead yet. It’s sad and bewildering what happened, but not that surprising; similar things are happening all the time. Lenny remembers how when Martin Luther King was shot Evelyn came home from her TA job distraught. ‘There’s no hope,’ she had said dramatically. ‘I wish I was dead.’ And yet, she had let him hug her, and they had gone to a candlelit vigil where Reverend Burne spoke, and had sat in her parents’ kitchen until late, talking about the world and how there was still hope after all.

Lenny wonders why Evelyn couldn’t have just called her parents this time.

He tries not to think of Evelyn driving alone; of the scenic, winding roads in and out of the valley, and how the walls around him are getting darker. He lies back on the sofa. He thinks instead of the summer before, driving down to Mexico; giant rocks in the sea, her bright dresses and her hair still with the bangs, and how good the music was the whole time — ‘Incense and Peppermints’, ‘Somebody to Love’, ‘Happy Together’.

There’s no hope. I wish I was dead.

The white cat doesn’t come inside, though Lenny wishes it would. He closes his eyes and sees the white cat, white sheets, white sails, or are they black sails? He opens his eyes and the walls are black. He is trapped by the walls, and by knowing time has passed, but not how much time. Where is she? Evelyn?

Lenny realizes he is hungry.

Lenny is glad to be hungry, since it means time has passed since he ate the hash brownies, and Evelyn will probably be home soon. Lenny is terrified to be hungry, since it means time has passed, and Evelyn should be home already. Lenny imagines Evelyn buying them take-out somewhere, like a regular young wife who hasn’t figured things out yet. He imagines the keys jangling at the door, a smell of fried food.

He is only imagining.

If the phone were to ring, Lenny doesn’t think he’d be able to get up and answer it. If too much time were to pass, he doesn’t think he’d be able to get up and call the cops or Evelyn’s parents. His heart hurts, and his eyes. He tries in earnest to close his eyes, to concentrate only on the good feelings radiating through his body, and he does, and he sleeps, and when he awakes it’s to a sudden sense of weight and whiteness, like a ghost walking through him or that cat landing on his chest … But in fact, it’s Evelyn kneeling before him with folded arms and eager hands and her face close to his.

‘Oh, Lenny,’ she says. ‘I’ve just met the most wonderful group of people!’

Beautiful Revolutionary Laura Elizabeth Woollett