THREE

NEW ORLEANS

 

 

Gideon blinked. He squinted his eyes and looked around at all the opposing colors under a glaring Louisiana sun. He stood in the center of an army of field jackets and blue jeans, a Jeckle and Hyde clothing issue of one part military discipline, one part anarchistic freedom. All the faces he could see below their long, flowing hair blended together in a mixture of fearful anticipation and determination.  

     Surrounding Gideon's army was an even larger army. In this other army there was no confusion of intent. Bored, sweaty faces stared blankly from beneath shiny helmets, their eyes lost behind dark sunglasses. They wore dark blue shirts even darker, almost black, around the armpits. They stood at parade rest in straight, even lines, riot sticks held lightly across their belts as though preparing for a mass vaudevillian tap dance. They were New Orleans' finest.

     Gideon searched with his eyes for Carmen. She had wandered off earlier with a stack of newsletters, saying she had to distribute them before the march began. It would be almost impossible to spot her in this crowd. She was wearing a field jacket and blue jeans. For the first time, Gideon asked himself, "Why am I here?"

     The night before, Gideon had been ready to march a hundred miles for the freedom of anybody. He had been leaning against his bedroll, Carmen sitting beside him with her hand on his knee, listening to stirring speeches by several community leaders, white and black.

     The bombings were an outrage, they all shouted. The murderers must be stopped, they all agreed.

     After the speeches, as the students were unrolling sleeping bags and the bittersweet smell of marijuana began seeping through the still, hot air, a guitarist stood alone at the microphone. The podium was dark and no one could see him. He sang until everyone was asleep. Gideon went to sleep hearing one of the verses.

     Once I was lost

     But now I am found

     And I'd rather be dying

     Than just hanging 'round

 

 

Now, however, under the bright sun, Gideon was having doubts. St. Charles Avenue was lined with people who pushed beyond the curb and into the street to gawk at the idle marchers. They weren't smiling.

     Gideon looked around again, hoping to find Carmen, and noticed something peculiar. All of the marchers were white. Blacks on the sidewalks, all lifetime veterans, either ignored the students or glanced at them curiously.

     There was a sudden agitated movement, spontaneous but instant, like the rush of birds from a tree top. Whispers became shouts as the strange army stirred.  Someone began talking into a bullhorn and his booming words, though incoherent, broke the calm and the protesters began lining up on the street. The march had begun. Gideon felt his stomach tighten and hoped he wouldn't lose the chicken dinner he'd been fed an hour ago. He fought his way through the marching bodies, desperate now to find Carmen. Finally, feeling more alone than he'd ever thought possible, he gave in to the shuffling cadence.

     As they marched farther down St. Charles Gideon experimented with sending sincere smiles to the onlookers.   A woman spat at him. A man looked at him sadly. A black teenager laughed at him. Gideon stopped smiling.

     As the line of marchers touched the edge of Canal Street Gideon looked to the curb and saw a vision. A young, dark haired girl was smiling at him, her brown eyes flashing a message he welcomed. Gideon, nervous and shaken from the reactions of the people watching the march, looked around at the sea of unfamiliar faces then stepped smoothly to the sidewalk. He walked up to the girl and smiled.

     "Hello," Gideon said. The girl looked straight ahead into the lines of marchers.

     "It sure is hot," Gideon said, wiping his forehead. The girl produced a slight smile but stared into the street.

     "But it sure is a nice day for a parade," Gideon said earnestly. The girl laughed and turned to him.

     "Yes it is," she said.

     'After all,' Gideon said to himself, 'the rally will last for hours.'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOUR

THE FORTUNE TELLER

 

 

The window fan hummed loudly, competing with a small table radio. From its little speaker came the rasping of a delta fiddle, the sound a combination of chain saws and bagpipes. The song was Jole Blon. Gideon and the girl lay on the bed, the covers thrown back. She had just asked him why he'd come to New Orleans. He told her he didn't know.

     The girl's name was Jean. She was five feet and eight inches tall and had a dark olive complexion. Her hair was shoulder length and full of thick curls. The apartment was fresh and open to the sun and Gideon smiled, temporarily broken from his bond of revolutionary brotherhood. The walls were without posters and the only painting was a Wyeth copy.

     "You want a beer?" Jean asked, pushing herself up and swinging off the side of the bed.

     "Yes, thank you," Gideon said, watching her as she walked into the tiny kitchenette. She returned with two Dixie beers and handed one to Gideon.

     "No, really," Jean sat on her feet and drank.  Her dark hair rolled like thunderclouds as she positioned herself in front of the fan.

     "Really, what?" Gideon muttered, watching her sway in front of him. Every movement accentuated the partnership between Jean and her apartment. She moved inside it like a man moves inside the woman he loves, caressing as she stirred, absently sweeping dust from the top of the night table with her fingers as she placed the bottle gently against its surface. This was her home and hers only and anyone who came here would stay under those unspoken terms.

     "Why did you come all the way down here to Noo‑Awlins?" It seemed to Gideon ever since he'd started college the only thing anyone ever said to him was 'why?'

     "Why did you decide to go to college here?"

     "Why do you think we're in Vietnam?"

     "Why are you going to New Orleans?" Gideon didn't know why about anything.

     He pretended not to hear the question, then hurried on with a question of his own. "Why did you pick me out of that crowd today?" he said, thinking of the direct way she called out to him, her eyes speaking clearly, openly. Jean threw her head back, her smooth throat rippling as the first bubbles of alto laughter broke the surface of her open lips and bounced free to dance inside the walls of her apartment.

     "Oh, my God!" she said as she laughed, trying to control it but getting only a loud hiccough as a reward. She choked and shook her head from side to side, then looked at Gideon's stricken face and almost started laughing again.

    "It wasn't my magnetic personality, then?" Gideon asked with a sweep of his arm. He was hurt. He thought he looked brave in the march, walking along in firm, steady strides, his face telling the world he was a man with convictions. His body had been lying to him.

     "You looked like a puppy on the highway," Jean said, taking his hand. "Your eyes were so wide and you were walking on tiptoes.

     "And I loved you for it," she said. Suddenly, her face lost its glow. She stared into Gideon's deep-set eyes. Her fingers touched his face briefly, like raindrops, then they were gone. Without a single feature moving on her smooth face, it changed expressions to one of sadness. She squeezed Gideon's hand.

     "Gideon," she said, "My gran'mama told me you could truly see a person only through his eyes." She paused and Gideon didn't interfere with the long silence. "You must leave this foolishness of saving the world to someone else, or terrible, terrible things will happen to you." Her voice had dropped to a whisper.

     Gideon had been warned. He laughed nervously, pulling her tense hand to his lips and kissing her fingertips. "It'll all be over by the time I get back to the park," he said. "And I'll be back in college trying to remember who the Druids were."

     Jean sipped her beer in silence. Gideon wasn't brave, he had no visions of being a messiah or martyr but, unfortunately, he didn't believe this dark-haired girl could know his future by looking into his eyes. If he had believed her, he would've shipped out that very day as a deckhand on a boat headed south for bananas, he would've signed on to work an oil derrick, he would have done anything but what he had been doing and would never have said the word "revolution" again.

     Gideon wasn't brave or dedicated but he didn't believe in Cajun fortune telling, either.

     "Aaaaay‑eeee!" the radio shouted as the solid footstomp of a beat warned them another zydeco song was headed their way. Slowly, the sound of a fiddle worked its way through the small speaker then leapt across the room like an erratic paper airplane. Gideon looked at Jean's face in the light of the afternoon sun and knew the spell was broken. She had taken him in to give him love and a message. She had done both. Gideon slipped his hand from hers and she followed it with her eyes. He sipped his beer.

     The music was interrupted in the middle of an instrumental bridge and the disc jockey's voice immediately filled the air with its trained resonance. "We've just received a report from Leon Carpenter, who's covering the protest rally down in Jackson Square. He says the rally, which was peaceful up until now, has erupted into a full-scale riot. We'll issue other reports when we receive them. Thank you." A slight pause.

     "Now, here's Clifton Chenier!"

     "Aaaaay‑eeee!" the radio screamed.

     "God‑a‑mighty!" Gideon shouted. He jumped from the bed and slammed the beer down on the night table. His mind spun with thoughts of Carmen, cowardice and negligence as he scrambled for his clothes. He frantically pulled at his underwear and pants, slipping his bare feet into his boots and stuffing a pair of socks into his back pocket. His head was filled with gruesome pictures of his new friends as guilt climbed on his back and wrapped wiry hands around his throat.

     He thought of Carmen again and his heart slammed against his bare chest. Was she searching for him, was she hurt? His stomach churned. Gideon scooped up his shirt, dancing a crazy jig on the floor as he did so, trying to push the boots up over his heels. He saw Jean watching him, her face pale and without expression.

     He kissed her cheek and mumbled, "I'm sorry." Then, shirt in hand, he raced out the door. As she heard his footsteps leave the stairwell and enter the street, the music was once again interrupted by the same voice.

     "We're pleased to report the trouble in Jackson Square was only a minor skirmish and an uneasy peace has settled once again."

     "Oh, God," Jean said to her apartment.

 

 

 

 

Gideon ran like the wind down the side streets of the French Quarter, his mind focused on the maps they had been shown before the march. He swiftly passed Bourbon Street then crossed Royal, his legs flying down the narrow sidewalks of Dumaine as he tried to twist into his shirt. He turned onto Chartres just as he buttoned the last button.

     Around the corner was a tense crowd.

     The police stood in a circle around the marchers in tight lines, unmoving, their blank faces hiding a readiness for action. Inside the circle stood a silent crowd of students, still and indecisive. The earlier incident between two of the marchers and the police had served as a prelude for a violent confrontation. No one moved.

     Around this corner raced Gideon, looking down as he pushed his shirt into his pants. His feet hit the curb and he went flying, arms and legs waving furiously. It was as though he was trying to fly above the scene that appeared in a frightful blur before his startled eyes. He looked up to see the backs of two dark blue shirts in his path just as he crashed into them.

     "Oof!" said one of the policemen.

     "Shit!" shouted the other as they fell to the ground. Then, as if by magic, everyone began shouting and falling down.

 

 

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