It was a tumultuous year, and Kate was in full command of the storm she was brewing. Demonstrators demanding that the university divest from South Africa had taken over the administration building, and she was arrested along with several of her allies. Shortly after her release, she was calling for an end to the Reagan administration’s support for the counterinsurgency in El Salvador through a megaphone to a large rally that had gathered in front of the town clock. The police watched warily as the crowd spilled into the streets, and she was reminding the protesters of their constitutional right to congregate. On Church Street feminists and local artists were throwing raw meat and spilling blood on the steps of the civic auditorium during the annual Miss California Pageant, and she was taking photographs for City on a Hill, the university paper. Around the corner from the small apartment that she shared with Joanne, anti-abortion activists flooded the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood with signs that read, Jesus is pro-life, and Thou Shall Not Kill. Now there were counter-protestors across the street with their own placards, and Kate held one up that read, “If you can’t trust me with the choice, how can you trust me with a baby?”
As committed as she was to these movements, it was the nuclear nightmare that interfered with her sleep and threatened to obliterate her post-graduation plans. In the spring of 1985 Kate was telling anyone who would listen that the world was thirty minutes away from total annihilation, and now, peace activists were organizing a protest march that would be bigger than anything the world had ever seen. More than anyone, she wanted Joanne to go with her, and that was going to take some effort.
Kate and Joanne sat across from each other in the Saturn Café on car seats that once belonged to a ’64 Chevy Impala. Joanne was not as political as Kate, but she was closer to her than to anyone, and for that reason they were roommates. Despite her distractibility, Joanne was also more literate than anyone she had ever met, and that included her professors. Now, Kate had important news, and she needed to present it in just the right way.
From the street The Saturn Café looked like a spaceship that crash-landed a small storefront. It was frequented by university students and locals who were drawn to its cosmic, kitschy decor and vegetarian menu. Kate, who worked the front counter several nights a week, was taking a 10-minute break. Between sips of steamed chai, she was telling Joanne about a film she saw in her environmental studies class called The Atomic Café, and how the U.S. government had downplayed the dangers of nuclear weapons since the 1940’s.
As Kate talked, Joanne watched the shadows from the planets that hung from the ceiling and flickered across her roommate’s forehead. They were more than just roommates, and in the flickering light Joanne could see flashes of her own face. They were sisters, and though they were not identical, they shared a birthday. As she studied the interplay between the rise and fall of Kate’s voice and the music that was wafting from the wall speakers, Joanne was quietly playing a game of Name That Tune. The Grateful Dead. They were always playing them here. Scarlet Begonias?
“All of these things that are happening right now,” Kate began, “the racist regimes that we’re supporting all over the world, our aid to the Contras, and the cold war with the Soviet Union, they’re all linked.” She paused for a few beats. “But none of it will matter in a nuclear war.”
Someone from the back room turned up the stereo just enough for Joanne to notice, and she could hear the scale moving to a different key. Is it Scarlet Begonias, or Eyes of the World? She couldn’t be sure.
Kate allowed the information to filter through the porous layers of Joanne’s imagination, and she could see her eyes blazing with questions. She rested her thin elbows on the bamboo table that separated them, leaned gravely toward her sister, and lowered her voice. “And if they drop the bomb,” she continued slowly, “the survivors will envy the dead.”
Joanne knew she was quoting Khrushchev, but she was also trying to figure out the song. Yup. Eyes of the world. The dialogue inside Joanne’s head continued. Must be a live version.
Kate raised the ceramic cup with both hands and took a slow sip before continuing. “Have you heard about the cross-country peace march that’s being planned for next year,” she finally asked, before setting her cup down. “Next March we’re leaving L.A., and we’ll arrive in Washington D.C. in November.”
Joanne leaned against the back of the car seat. “We?”
“There’ll be thousands of marchers, Joanne, and this is a way to raise global awareness of the insanity of nuclear proliferation. We’ll have almost a year to prepare, and by then, we’ll both be college graduates.”
Joanne added more sugar to her dark roast and sunk the spoon to the bottom of the cup. “You’re seriously thinking about this?” She stirred slowly.
“Yeah, I’m seriously thinking about this,” Kate countered, leaning closer to the center of the table. “This is a chance to do something that people all over the world will see—and to tell the world that Americans don’t support what their president is doing.”
Joanne took a quick sip before folding her arms across her chest.
“We can see America. You and me. We’ll travel to cities and towns all across the country and talk to people about something that affects everyone on the planet. The movement is growing, and we could both be part of history.”
“Have you told Mom?”
Kate glanced at the ceiling. “I wanted to talk to you first. I think she’ll freak out less if we went together.”
Joanne squinted as the shadows from the swinging planets retreated from her sister’s face.
“When enough people raise their voices in solidarity,” Kate continued, her face brightening, “world leaders will have no choice but to listen.”
Joanne shifted in her seat. She was counting the months.
“It’s also a chance for us to be together,” Kate pressed.
“Joanne exhaled. “That’s nine months.”
“Right. It’s not even a year out of our lives.”
“I just don’t-”
“I’ll bring my camera and I’ll teach you how to use it,” Kate added. She would take her Minolta-X 700 that she used to photograph the protests outside the civic auditorium that led to the departure of the Miss California pageant from the town of Santa Cruz. She was a Journalism major, and this was a gold mine.
“I don’t know. It’s a lot to take in.”
She was her twin, and Kate knew her in ways that couldn’t be explained. She just needed time to process the information.
Her break had ended 5 minutes ago. She glanced at her watch and stood up from the table. “I need to get back to my shift, but we can talk about this later.” If Joanne agreed, and she was sure she would, the earth would align with all the heavenly bodies, and the road would stretch before them like a welcoming hand.
While Kate held court with her co-workers in the tiny kitchen that she and her sister shared, Joanne sat cross-legged in the beanbag chair and studied the inserts in the vinyl record album that she bought at Bookshop Santa Cruz earlier that day. Side B was playing, and she was listening intently to the banjo and the stand-up bass on Gun Street Girl.
“Hey Joanne,” Kate’s friend, Annika, called out to her from the kitchen. “What’re you reading there?” Why was she always trying to start a conversation?
Annika left the kitchen and walked the narrow gauntlet to the beanbag chair, where Joanne was hunched over the sheet notes. “Is he the one who’s always playing Vegas?”
Really? Are you kidding me? She sucked the words back as a gesture of respect to Kate, who had asked her to try to be polite when her friends were around. “No.”
“Right,” Annika said. “Am I thinking of Tom Jones?” She looked embarrassed.
“I don’t know,” she said flatly, and resumed her reading.
For Kate’s sake, Joanne had tried to assimilate into the group she was friends with. The hippies, the protest kids, the Deadheads and the vegetarians, the Marxists, they all seemed to converge around her sister. This was Kate’s scene, not hers. Joanne had her own scene, which was quite a bit less populated. She was too cerebral, too tethered to her own ideas to be swallowed up by a tribal society that she didn’t belong to in the first place. Whatever Kate had
that she didn’t, Joanne found the little subcultures that converged at the Saturn Cafe to be no different from the high school cliques that made her want to escape to the forest. She had survived Catholic school with Kate at her side, they were both accepted into U.C. Santa Cruz, and besides their DNA they shared a one-room apartment downtown. Joining her on the march made a kind of superficial sense, but something else was calling to her in ways that hiking up mountain passes in the snow while singing protest songs did not.
Joanne left Santa Cruz for L.A. a few months before Kate. She had squeezed the last box of books into the back of her Ford Escort outside the one-room apartment that they had shared on River Street. It was a little before noon, but the drive to Southern California would take at least six hours. She would stay with their mother in the San Fernando Valley, who took the news better than they expected her to, and she would sign the contract at the district offices on
Tuesday. Then she would wait for Human Resources to call her when a position opened. They exchanged a long embrace in the street as the Saturday morning traffic whooshed past them toward Highway 1.
“You know, Joanne,” Kate reminded her, “you can always teach after the march.”
“Look,” Joanne countered. “If you don’t trust me with the choice, how can you trust me to be your walking partner?”
It was clever but cruel, and she regretted it even before the words tumbled out. She had explained to Kate that she would never be able to teach public school without a credential, and credential programs were expensive. When she learned that LA Unified was recruiting college graduates with the promise of a full-time teaching position and an opportunity to earn a credential in the evenings, she didn’t have to think about it. She had seen the full-page ad in City on a Hill when she was waiting for her sister to finish one of her shifts, just weeks after they had both bought matching footwear for the march. She held the paper under the table, removed the ad from the paper and put it in her back pocket.
“All God’s children need travelling shoes,” Kate had gleefully announced as she sported her new pair of Nike Dashers.
The bit about what all God’s children needed was the title of a book Maya Angelou had published earlier that year, and Joanne read it on the beanbag chair in one sitting while Kate showed her study group how to make spicy-pepper tofu in the kitchen. Kate liked to quote people without citing her sources, no one ever called her on it, and Joanne couldn’t decide which was more infuriating.
When Kate first told Joanne about the peace march, there was no way to tell her that it terrified her more than the bomb. The high desert with its punishing heat and deadly-cold nights, the torrential rains, and the unforgiving winds that would turn their little, polyester tents into low-flying aircraft were all she could imagine. All the trouble that awaited them—the venomous counter-protesters calling them Communists and hurling rocks, the blisters, the hypothermia, the altitude sickness, the sunburn, the unrelenting exhaustion, and worst of all, having to pee at night in the middle of the desert—these were not experiences that called to her.
The whole escapade seemed mad, and the most maddening of all was Kate’s unrelenting certainty. She also had a gift for finding people who thought and felt and viewed the world as she did, and though Joanne had convictions too, most of them came from books. As far as Joanne could tell, people rarely told the truth. Shakespeare did, and so did the poets and philosophers and novelists who helped her to see the wider range of possibilities for herself.
Joanne was never a joiner, and here was a chance for her to walk her own path. Teaching in the inner city was an opportunity to be in a place where she wouldn’t have to try to fit in, or to pretend to for Kate’s sake. Here was a chance for her to be an outlier for reasons that had nothing to do with her introversion. It suited her. No one would know her, and that suited her, too.
The Jordan-Downs Housing Projects never saw much of the federal funding that came in after the 1965 Watts Uprisings. By 1986 they were home to a street gang that ran a robust drug trade, and with more than a hundred 2-story apartments that were marked according to the building number, they looked like massive cement barracks that stood on dirt and grass. Across the street from the public housing complex, Joanne’s eighth grade class was sheltering in place from the late-morning heat. The room stayed a few degrees cooler with the windows closed, and when she opened them after lunch, she could position an electric fan in the open window. If she
stood in front of it, it would circulate the air just enough to dry the sweat from her face.
She was finally hired in February after her predecessor took a leave of absence for unknown reasons. In those first few weeks, as Kate and Annika were attending non-violent civil disobedience workshops in L.A., Joanne imagined that her 4th period class was taking bets on how long she would last. They didn’t know that she was not the type to face facts or admit to being an imposter even when it was obvious to the casual observer.
It was Spring now, almost three months since she introduced herself to her classes, and there was just enough time left in the semester to try a novel with them. The Catcher in the Rye was the first book she had ever read that spoke to her, and Holden Caulfield was her favorite protagonist when she was the age of her students.
But this was 1986, not the mid-20th century when Salinger published the book, and Washington Junior High was not a private school in a fictitious town in Pennsylvania. This was the heart of South-Central Los Angeles. In recent years the streets that bordered the chain link fences that encircled the campus had seen a steady rise in semiautomatic weapons, now preferred among the Grape Street Crips, and her students were more interested in their immediate survival than the artful musings of a prep school misfit. It didn’t matter. Catcher was the only novel in the textbook room that had enough class sets, so she distributed the books to her classes and gave each student a book of post-it notes that she purchased at the teacher supply store.
“When you have a question or a comment, write it on a post-it,” she instructed her classes. “Put the post-it on the page that made you ask the question.”
She circulated the classroom as she read from a copy of Salinger’s novel that she held in her hand. There were close to 40 teenagers, the rows of desks were narrow, and the fan was no match against the late-April heat. She traversed the room, one eye on the page and the other on the furtive movements of her eighth graders. Everything happened in real time, and she could not allow herself, or them, to get distracted. Janelle Bates called out to her as she stepped over a backpack. “Your shoelaces are untied, Ms. Hardy.”
She reached down to tie the laces of her Nike Dashers, and her eighth graders stirred restlessly. It was fascinating how quickly you could lose the attention of a group of 40 teenagers just by tying your shoes.
“Are you guys reading along with me,” Joanne asked the class, looking up from her novel. Several of her students had their books open, but she could see that the rest of the class was engaged in activities that did not include her. Terrell Jones was miming something incomprehensible. She could see hand signals in her peripheral vision, and the girls were passing folded post-it notes underneath their desks.
“You need to read this part carefully,” she said to the class. “This is where Holden realizes that he can’t protect his sister.”
She leaned over to confiscate the post-it that Janelle Bates had just handed to Shanika Williams. She held out her hand, and Shanika placed the small, yellow origami in her hand. She unfolded it carefully, trying not to allow the adhesive to tear the paper. She read it silently:
“Ms. Hardy think she be matchin but she aint.”
She looked down at the lime green sneakers, the burnt-orange socks and the red pants, and it was an indication that dressing in the dark was probably not a best practice. A wide smile spread across her face, and she grinned down at Janelle, who had taken a sudden interest in her own shoes. Then she pinned the note to the Student Writing Board with a thumbtack.
“It’s a good one,” she said to the class, “but I think our next lesson will need to be about apostrophes.”
They were kids, that was all, and she needed to find a way to see the classroom through their eyes.
A car backfired. She heard a second one, and a third, and then a barrage of pops that sounded like fireworks that were too close. This was not a car. Her vision narrowed as shots were firing from down the street. Terrell was the first to dive under his desk. Phoebe Caulfield was reaching for the brass ring at the center of the carrousel, Holden was crying in the rain, and several rounds of ammunition were pummeling the project yard several buildings down the street from her classroom windows. The students sitting closest to the glass dropped to the floor and slid to the side wall. Everyone else scrambled to take cover, and Simone Gaines was shouting at her teacher to crawl underneath her desk. From below the fiberglass Joanne heard the screeching of tires followed by shouting from the public housing units where the big-name dope dealers comingled with mothers and grandmothers and toddlers. From the dust balls that covered the floor below her desk she lifted one of the overhead markers that she thought she’d misplaced, and she felt the grimy residue of the mustard that had fallen from her sandwich and worked its way into the cracks of the linoleum. Then she heard doors slamming and the rapidly
accelerating engine of a fast car taking off in the direction of Alameda Street. She tried to make out what the voices were saying from underneath her desk, but the grime on her fingertips was all she could focus on when she gave her statement to campus police at lunch.
“Stay down,” Terrell shouted to the class, and before the second hand had a chance to budge, another barrage of gun fire pierced the air.
Jesus Christ, how did he know?
In the deathly stillness of the classroom a bullet pierced the window and ricocheted off the fire extinguisher. From the puncture wound the steel device was now spewing dry chemicals into the air as it shot out of its brackets and flew past the bookshelf in erratic vectors before crashing against the wall. A dense cloud of fine, corrosive powder filled the air and hovered over the heads of the occupants. Through the smoke, Joanne could see a small hand turning the doorknob, and she could see her kids pouring out into the open space below the awning on the sheltered side of the bungalow. They didn’t run. They didn’t cry. They stayed small to avoid the shots that were raining down on the other side of the bungalow, and they huddled together to form a tight knot of flesh and bone.
She followed the last of her eighth graders to the bottom of the bungalow steps, and they watched the squad cars peel out of the school parking lot and up 103rd Street. The shooting had stopped, they were putting up police tape now, and there was a crowd of what looked like 50 residents, none of whom were talking to the police.
“It happened so fast,” she told the officers at lunch, “and I was under my desk most of the time.”
They glanced at each other without turning their heads, and she was not sure they believed her.
The postcard was small, and the handwriting was so tiny that Joanne needed a magnifying glass to read it. It said something about being trapped in a sandstorm somewhere outside Barstow. The organization that was sponsoring the march had gone bankrupt. Many of the marchers had gone home. The ones who remained made it all the way to Nevada, then Utah, where state troopers had tried unsuccessfully to prevent them from crossing the state line. They were less than 20 miles from the Colorado border now, and Kate and Annika were working with a documentary filmmaker who joined the march in L.A. Nothing would stop them, she wrote, and Joanne believed her.
She could only imagine the experiences that awaited her and her students, and she couldn’t guess what awaited the marchers as they headed toward Loveland Pass. Still, she was sure they would make it all the way to D.C. because Kate was one of them. She admired her with a deep, biological knowing, and she could even forgive that friend of hers for thinking that Tom Waits was a lounge lizard. And in those moments when she allowed herself to feel the full weight of her own ambivalence, she knew that if uncertainty was the only constant, then everything was possible.