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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 26… in which I meet myself

Picking up from Part 25, in which I told the truth and lived.

I stayed home Friday and Saturday. Part of it was lying low in case someone had somehow tracked me, and part of it was simply to unwind. I read the first half of another John le Carré novel I had picked up. It wasn’t as good as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, but it was entertaining.

I also let my moustache come back right away. The more camouflage the better and that was the plan when I shaved it anyway.

On Sunday I woke up needing two things: some time spent in spiritual thoughts and some time with family. Taken together, that meant going to church. And so I did.

I ignored the doctrinal things and the various sacraments, but I enjoyed the atmosphere of several hundred people reaching out to their creator, however imperfectly and even impurely. They could think their thoughts and I could think mine. If I didn’t feel like standing and kneeling with everyone else, I simply sat in a prayer-like position… like a lot of old folks in the church.

I loved watching the families come in. These were poor working people with their children, outwardly ignorant by my 2016 standards, but training their children in the ways of respect. It warmed me to see the children learn to extend their hands to others and to greet them. These parents were, whether they understood it or not, instilling civilization in their children, and it had a deep beauty to it.

In one way this made me miss home, but in another, it gave me a taste of what I was missing. And as I looked around the church I could see the faces of my own friends and family members in theirs.

In a very real way, that church healed me. Or rather, the people in it healed me. The truth is that a part of me wasn’t really opposed to being shot dead on my way out of that news conference. It would have gotten me back home.

But I had found the fix, a temporary replacement for my real family, whom I still wouldn’t see for a year. Now I needed to be Gabriel Ruis well enough to create close relationships with families… not just good people, but families with children.

* * * * *

The noose closed quickly around Johnson and Hoover. Within a week a dozen past associates were spilling what they knew and four congressmen went on record as having been blackmailed by Hoover.

Half a dozen people were being deposed in Austin about Mac Wallace walking away from a murder conviction. The effort stood upon shaky legal grounds due to statutes of limitations, but the information was being made public all the same.

The week after that, Johnson resigned the presidency, citing health concerns. A week after that so did Hoover. But the resignations only sped things up. More or less everyone in the country – in the literate world – knew that they had cooperated to kill John Kennedy and to cover it up afterward. Now public attention concerned who else was involved and how deep it all went.

Moreover the entire Warren Commission was disgraced… powerfully disgraced… as in store clerks refusing to serve them. At least four of them committed suicide that I knew of. It felt rather Roman in that way.

After another few weeks, stories of Johnson’s disgusting behavior were being published in adult magazines. No general circulation magazine could print this stuff without offending a large portion of their readers. Even Playboy wouldn’t print some of it. Photos of Hoover and Tolson followed.

Johnson ended up in a psychiatric hospital, and Hoover killed himself with sleeping pills.

No one mourned them save for their disappointed partners in domination. And then, one by one, a string of politicians and intelligence bosses were either indicted, exposed by newspapers, or died unexpectedly. Faith in leaders crashed.

I debated writing a few letters, informing reporters about MK-Ultra and the Tuskegee Study, but I decided it was better to let people find their own ways to them.

The general level of anger was still on the verge of spiking. There was some violence – the house of an implicated oil magnate was burned down – but it thankfully hadn’t passed from a few scattered cases to anything broader.

Still, it was clear that “more fuel to the fire” was not a good idea. I let it go.

* * * * *

As half a dozen congressional committees were investigating the “attempted coup,” as it was by then being called, I got a job offer… and took it.

One of my neighbors, Carlos Mendoza, worked at Ryerson Steel, a big operation a few miles away. He said they needed a part-time electrician, which was the kind of work I told him I had done. I confided in him that I had no Social Security number, but he assured me that he had a number I could use.

Carlos arranged an interview between me and the boss at Ryerson. I showed up at the designated time, trying to look right, sound right, and to not go too far in impressing the man. I was more qualified than I wanted to appear.

In the end it all worked well enough, and I started working two and a half days per week reorganizing the maintenance of their many electric motors. It was a perfect job for me, and it was something Ryerson very much needed.

And so, for three weekdays and Sundays, I lived fully as Gabriel Ruis and enjoyed it. I liked being productive, I liked the camaraderie of working with others, and I liked being part of the neighborhood. I got to know the kids, the grandparents, and the shop owners. Even on my days off, I stayed in character most of the time.

But one or two days per week I went downtown, changed clothes in Marshall Field’s basement restroom, and lived a version of my 2016 life, moving between bookstores, libraries, restaurants, occasionally concert halls, even going back to the Alter Cocker’s Roundtable a couple of times. I liked that life a lot too.

* * * * *

The very hard decision during that last year was whether or not to visit members of my family. Something about it had gnawed at me ever since I looked across Rogers Park from Mike’s steps and considered seeing my mom or dad.

I went back and forth on that decision until spring, when I decided to go for it. Really, I was afraid of being disappointed by them. I didn’t want to see them – my mom especially – be venal or petty or just stupid.

But eventually I decided that I could forgive them for their shortcomings. I knew pretty well what they were, and my memories of them were not false or even very much embellished.

And so I began slowly, by stopping into my grandfather’s restaurant. Unfortunately I picked a day when he wasn’t there. But I did see my Uncle Louie, a brief encounter as he sat me at a table.

Aside from seeing him at a few family events as a boy, I never really knew Louie, though when I checked into family history many years later, it became clear that his house was a hub for all the relatives coming from the old country. I decided that I would have liked to have known him better. This particular encounter was very brief, but it was at least something, and the more I came into the restaurant the more familiar we’d become.

* * * * *

After my lunch I emerged back into the city, having nothing to do for the afternoon. And try as I might, nothing was appealing to me… except one thing. In the back of my mind was an image of my finding my almost-seven-year-old self. Not to speak to him, just to see him.

Again I got the strange feeling that I couldn’t pin down… and again I had the feeling that I should go observe the young man. And so I walked up to an elevated train platform and headed north.

I took the Ravenswood line all the way to its end to buy myself a few extra minutes, then took a Kimball-Peterson bus north, getting out on Sacramento Avenue and walking the last mile or a little more to Greenleaf Avenue, where I spent most of my childhood. (My family had moved there – about a mile from their Rogers Park townhouse – in January 1965.)

I got to Greenleaf a little before 3:00 and waited for the little school on the corner to get out at 3:15, as it always did. That was when things began to roil around inside of me.

Briefly I recalled a line from a sci-fi show about things “we’re not meant to know,” but I worked through that pretty quickly. It was just repackaged fear.

I sat on the steps of a house we almost never saw anyone come or go from. But the viewing angle from those steps wasn’t terribly good, and so I walked down the block, away from the school, then turned around and headed back just as I heard the school bell ringing and saw the first kids, the oldest of them, running away from the school.

Amazingly, I recognized most of the children coming down the street toward me. I didn’t remember most of the names, but I still knew the faces.

And then I saw myself. I was a young boy, walking alone out of the school’s south door – the one used by the lower grades – and moving slowly toward the street and its crossing guard.

The thing that riveted me to the boy and froze me in place was that I understood his facial expression in a very deep way. Seeing the subtle changes in anyone else’s face might convey meaning to me, but this was my own face, and it seemed like it broadcast what he was feeling directly into my core.

He was thinking about something, trying to understand what it meant. About that much I am certain. I watched as he diverted his attention to the crossing guard, looked at another young child nearby and then went back to his search for understanding. I started walking again, so I’d be out of his way before he got close; I wasn’t interested in a direct encounter.

Then, as I was still perhaps 30 yards away, just about to pass out of his view, two large boys came running by. They weren’t threatening in any way, but their much larger size, their speed and strength, surprised the boy and frightened him. And again, his expression conveyed everything to me. I knew that feeling… I remembered that feeling… and I began weeping.

I made my way quickly to the steps, out of his view. But I couldn’t stop crying.

I seldom cry, but when I do, I try to let myself do it rather than suppressing it. I think there’s something cleansing and healthful about it.

But this time was different. I wanted to suppress it, to avoid creating a spectacle in a sensitive situation. But while I could prevent any sort of whimpering, I couldn’t stop the tears that were streaming down my face.

In his face I saw, I knew, exactly what I had been. And unbidden, I could feel all the pains, all the disappointments, all the tragedies that would crash down upon this innocent boy… and it tore me up… to the point where I did start to whimper.

This decent boy, who would have thrived in a better world, was doomed to endless opposition. I could feel profoundly the pain he’d be feeling in the future. That face, my young face, my young self… it pulled me back into him, and it pulled out of me all the memories of that boy being hurt in his path through life.

I remembered my first encounters with malice, which shocked me and wounded me. I remembered realizing that people hated me because of my virtues, which further wounded me. I remembered all the times that people who should have loved and protected me either hurt me or encouraged others to hurt me. I saw all these things as happening to this innocent and unsuspecting child… and I wept hot tears for him.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

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