I read this book back in 1998 when it was first published. An obsessive Civil War addict, I’d read countless books about the conflict, from the most serious scholars to the writers of period fiction. I’ve traveled to innumerable battlefields, trying to make sense of how four bloody, grueling years consumed this country, something I’ve never been able to fully absorb. Ultimately I concluded that despite all the theories about states’ rights and economics, slavery was always the issue. Slavery and white power. Recently, my book club, which has been on hiatus since the beginning of the pandemic, met for the first time. We all discussed the books we’d read in the past thirteen months. Group consensus for this month’s choice settled on this book which was fine with me – I felt it would be worth revisiting one more time. When I read this book over twenty years ago, my heart must have been much lighter than it is now. The book is insightful and humorous and hard to believe. As someone whose life has encompassed all the fraught civil rights history in this country from the ‘60’s to now, l realize that ever-widening political divisions have hardened me. After the last administration peeled back the veneer of civilization which is so, so slim, unleashing a torrent of blatant racism, violence and murder, I am finding this book darker and more threatening than I did back then. I haven’t been naive. I’ve been oppressively aware of the power of irrational hatred some people bear toward anyone “other,” especially when it comes to skin color. During these last four years, which have enabled what’s always been here to get louder, uglier, more divisive and more randomly violent, I’ve become more grim, more strident and angrier in opposition to this poisonous reality.
I have been watching the case against the police officer who killed George Floyd. I could never have served on this jury because I can’t understand how there can be any doubt that this was murder. I understand how this justice system works. I’ve been on multiple juries. I’m also the parent of a federal public defender. I know that all it takes is one person to have a doubt, hang a jury and force a mistrial. The idea that such a possibility exists horrifies me. So many black men have been murdered by police officers. The blatant inequity between the way black and white men are treated by law enforcement is now recorded, seemingly every day. I feel the rage and anxiety of those people who are done with having a target on their backs because of their skin color. I wish I could stop watching but I can’t. Looking away from history and its ugly truths is not for me. So I’m afraid. If this jury excuses this crime, I fear for whatever is coming next.
If I could, I’d leave this moment behind and be elsewhere. Maybe I’d be savoring the best meal I ever ate in my life. When we visited Michael’s parents in Longboat Key, Florida, they took us out to dinner at a French bistro called L’Auberge de Bon Vivant. Two French couples ran it – the women were the maitre d’s while the men were the chefs. Trying to decide between the beef filet and the salmon was always hard, but in the end, I usually wound up with the filet. Not a huge meat eater, this piece of beef was more like a savory dessert. Wrapped in a delicate pastry, a winey mushroom sauce called forestiere covered the meat which literally melted like butter in your mouth. Served over a bed of tangy wilted spinach and a side of garlic mashed potatoes, it’s a dish I’ve never forgotten. For years, Michael tried to recreate that sauce. Yes. If I could, I’d be there.
If I could, I’d be hanging out with Flash, my dog who felt like a person. When he wasn’t doing his dog job, barking loudly at invisible flocks of sheep or trying to be included in the human conversation, he’d be right next to me, staring soulfully into my eyes. I always felt like he was trying to figure out exactly what I needed and was always ready to provide it. He was smart and he was beautiful. For almost eleven years, every time I looked at him, I was stunned by how gorgeous he was and in love with his perpetual sweetness. I somewhat abashedly called him “sweetie-baby-puppy-boy,” even when he weighed in at 75 pounds. If I could, I’d be right next to him.
If I could, I’d find a way to have my friend Fern be alive. We would have our heads together, talking in our secret code that we’d developed over thirty years. We’d be sharing our “in” jokes and skewering everyone and everything that we felt should be taken down a peg. Or two or three. We’d be harmonizing to Beatles tunes while we walked to the beach or even better, tooled down Lake Shore Drive in her brother’s convertible, sharing a bag of White Castle sliders and fries. If I could.
If I could, I’d be in the family car in Sioux City, Iowa, bumping along the country roads, all six of us plus King, the dog, entertaining ourselves just by going for a ride which was the cheapest fun for everyone. We sang all the time, with the windows down, looking at corn or birds overhead, waving at others we drove by while they waved back at us. When we stopped for gas, a real attendant would come to the car and dad would say, “fill ‘er up with ethyl.” The best rides would end with a stop at the Dairy Queen. Everyone would lick their cones as fast as we could before the ice cream melted all over us. King got his own Dilly Bar. If I could, I’d relive one of those afternoons in real time.
If I could, I’d be right next to Michael at the Fox Theater in St. Louis in October, 1972. A beautiful converted old movie theater, that might have been my favorite venue for seeing the Grateful Dead out of all the times I was lucky enough to see them live. An intimate, connected audience, fabulous music and the two of us flushed with the passion of our young relationship, started as friends in the summer of 1971, living together beginning in April of 1972. One of those shared experiences which can still evoke the swaying of a a whole crowd in a common bliss and rhythm. If I could. Oh I would.
If I could, I’d be standing by the Gulf, the place where I could be mesmerized by the waves and the colors and the creatures of the water and the sky. Michael would be next to me and we’d be silent, often just staring ahead, keeping our thoughts to ourselves while we were simultaneously exchanging quiet information. Sometimes we’d read or frolic in the water, me closer to the shore, with an eye out for him, as he always went too far and I worried about whether I could rescue him. As if the lifeguard and fine swimmer would need me for that. Still…if I could.
If I could. But I can’t, except for a brief revery to distract myself from what may or may not happen at any moment during the next days or weeks or who knows? The world has felt heavy for a long time. Thinking that the decision of twelve people can move such weighty issues seems almost impossible. But I’ve found myself thinking of the line, “one person can make a difference.” That former president certainly did, some of the worst and most consequential differences in my lifetime. Derek Chauvin made a hideous difference. George Floyd accidentally made a huge difference. If I could, I’d make one, a difference for the better, I would hope. I think I’ve made a few small ones. What’s next remains to be seen. If I could, I’d make sure justice was served. The anxious waiting continues while I wander through the comfort of memories.