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The first assassination attempt
Bushy liked to say his Ford Econoline was “infallible.” I loved Bushy like a brother, but he had a habit of saying the opposite of what everything was— that was his humor. He’d coaxed his baby all the way out to Detroit from Oakland and he had the empty Pennzoil cans to prove it.
When Temma told me we were getting a ride back to town from Bushy, in his infallible Ford van, she didn’t understand why I sunk my head in my camp pillow.
We were sixty miles out of Detroit, and I was looking forward to head home after a week of old-school Bolshevik history lessons, labor sing-a-longs, and organizing tips. I’d been cooking meals to earn my keep, for 200+ campers every night. It’d been a blast but I wanted to fall onto my sofa-bed at Barbara’s and go to sleep for a week.
“What’s your problem?” Temma said, swatting my bottom. “Bushy’s leaving camp tomorrow; it’s perfect. It’s only an hour and a half away.” She tucked her long hair behind her ears with their enormous gold hoops.
“Can’t you get us one of your ‘Cadillac Friends’ to chauffeur us?” I asked, and she screwed up her angelic face.
“That’s over,” she said, and then singing, “It was just one of those things, one of those bells that now again rings—
“But it’s all over now,” she said, switching lyrics and going flat. “And we have a very nice ride with Bushy, if you and Frank Runninghorse can keep your fists off each other.
Runninghorse was Bushy’s best friend from California— they did everything together. “Runningmouth,” as he was often called to his face, was as much a bully as Bushy was kind. But they had built an Oakland chapter of The Red Tide up from nothing— I had to hand them that.
“Anyone else coming?” I asked, resigning myself.
“Maybe Joe, maybe Steve P., I don’t know. But you have a seat.”
Four hours later, Bushy found me in the kitchen, stripping the clean dishes out of the Hobart. “Sue, I’m sorry, the Ford is screwed. The transmission only goes in reverse, and that’s with a lot of pleading.”
I looked around the camp kitchen. We were the only two left. “There’s hardly anyone here,” I said, “Who’s going to take us back to the city?”
Bushy said he’d already thought of that. He was a little too enthusiastic— or maybe he was playing his opposites game.
He told me an autoworker contact, named Earl, also had a Ford van, and he was going to take me, Frank, and Steve P. all the way back to the office, door-to-door service. “He lives in Hamtramck!” he added, like that was a plus.
“A new contact, up here?” I was a little startled.
The whole point of Commie Camp was to better educate yourself so you could be a better recruiter, but you had to be pretty deep into socialism to attend in the first place. It wasn’t for newcomers. I’d heard more obscure Trotskyite history in the past week than I’d hear again in a lifetime. Last night Neil G. had gotten drunk, peeled off his undershirt so that all his fur stuck out, and started bellowing out some dirty ballad about a Trot named Max Schachtman and a fat girl.
I had been in the I.S. for a year and a half now, and I was the closest thing to a “newbie” I’d met in camp.
“This guy Earl’s been mostly studying with the UAW caucus,” Bushy said, pointing behind him, like I would know anything about that.
I shrugged and told him I’d be ready in an hour.
Like young Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, if I could’ve taken Bushy’s hand right then, with great prescience, I would have said, “And there started the longest night of our lives.”
I wasn’t happy to be the only girl in the car. Temma had disappeared into the night with a new beau from the River Rouge plant who wore a silver spoon around his neck and had a Cadillac just for two.
When we gathered at the parking lot at noon, I started to get in the back of the van, not looking at anyone, ready to re-read my John Reed memoir in the back seat.
Runninghorse grabbed my forearm, and said, “No, Sue, you sit up front.”
It was impossible to think that Frank was being chivalrous. The best seat in the vehicle? What gives? Frank rejected all niceties of male-female etiquette as counter-feminist, and everyone who knew him understood that he’d let a door slam in his grandmother’s puss without a second glance.
I climbed up into the bucket seat, still puzzled, and came face-to-face with Mr. Earl’s big yellow grin, and even yellower hair, hopped up in the driver’s seat:
“Hey there, jailbait!” the goober cried out. “I’m Earl Van Nuys the Third, God almighty, don’t rock the ammunition, darlin’.”
He reached down into the console between us and came up with an open bottle. He threw his head back and gargled it down— which was saying something, considering the low head room.
I turned back to the boys in the back seat to accuse somebody of something, but it was too late.
They all looked at me with beseeching eyes, communicating one single thought: Humor him.
Well, Runninghorse’s eyes weren’t beseeching; they were more like, Maintain, bitch.
Earl finished his gargle and fired the ignition, in a smooth stroke for someone who’d obviously been high for the past several days. He was so gracefully plastered that when his other hand fired up a joint I realized he was backing up the van with his knees. I checked my seat belt.
Earl was a ‘Nam vet— two tours, baby— but they must have gone on forever, because Earl would not shut up about it. He craved our audience, my ears in particular. I had to share his smoke and brimstone— he was a veteran of the U.S. Fucking Army and they had fucked him good.
But who was “they”? I mean, he was an I.S. contact, right? He must be blaming the army, or at the very least, the V.A. Hospital.
But within the first fifteen minutes, he was ranting about “fuckin’ Charlie” and “fuckin’ gook” about a dozen times. There wasn’t enough soap in the world to wash his mouth out.
I was cringing, and cheated a glance at Runninghorse, who silently shook his head side to side: Don’t do it. Don’t say it. Shut Up.
Steve P. looked like a skinny rabbit, his eyes getting pinker and pinker, his forehead a mass of sweating acne.
Bushy’s eyes held my wary sympathy, and I tried to imagine his meaning: This too shall pass.
Earl acted like the boys weren’t there. He didn’t pass the joint to them; I did. My heart was beating hard enough to hear in my head. I couldn’t stop staring at the bottle Earl kept between his knees. It must be nearly empty by now. He might as well have hung a sheet on the side panel, “Welcome Highway Patrol to Open-Container Drinking.”
If we got stopped, the shock of the booze and pot would soon give way to a full FBI investigation as to what was in our backpacks and boxes on board. We had a full load of incriminating evidence: socialist books, and rifles, and mailing lists. The holy trinity of a major bust.
Earl reached behind his seat and pulled out another fifth. I swore under my breath.
Frank moved forward from the bench seat. He grabbed Earl’s shoulder. “Hey, man,” he said, “Take it easy, we gotta get the youngster home in one piece.”
“Hey, man!” Earl cackled and shook him off. “I don’t take it easy, man; I take it!” he whooped, like a lunatic version of a Wobbly song he’d picked up at camp.
The van swerved, but there was no one in the next lane. Something long and silver flashed out from beneath my seat when Earl corrected the wheel, and I yelped.
It was something in a holster. I picked it up.
Earl shouted again, and temporarily forgot to unscrew his next bottle. “Open it up darlin’, see what's inside!” he urged me. “That’s my Lady!”
I heard Steve P. whimper, and Bushy and Frank moved forward. I was glad for a distraction from the whiskey.
It was a knife. No one would have known what it was at first glance, because it looked like a medieval instrument.
Earl snatched it from my hand, and said, “Isn’t she Bee-yoo-ti-ful! My Lady gutted Charlie many times; oh yes, she did.”
I thought I was going to throw up. The blade was a foot long, one side curved like a pirate’s sword. On the other side, it was serrated like a saw. The tip formed a hook. I could see why Earl talked about “her” like she was a person, a terrorist that could slay all the butter knives and steak cutters in a dishpan army.
Earl kept ranting with his knife in his hand. He gestured and gesticulated through a hundred more soldier stories. My eyes stayed on the western light playing on his blade.
Runninghorse tried to interrupt him, wanted to doubt him. Even Frank had never handled such a knife, and I could tell he wanted to. But Earl wasn’t going to let go of it now.
I could feel Bushy drawing closer to Frank, tempering him quietly. So familiar. If he could soothe Runningmouth, and I could calm Earl, and Steve P. could stop mouth-breathing, then maybe we could get back to the national office on Woodward Avenue in one piece.
We got inside city limits. Earl tipped the hook of his Lady at my head and then offered the knife to me, which I grabbed before Frank could make a pass. Earl was loosening his belt— shit, now what?
“Goddamn girl; I have to take a leak,” he yowled, like I was squeezing his tank.
Bushy spoke up, his first words: “We’re at 6 Mile— five more minutes.”
Earl took that inspiration to start describing what kind of havoc he and his “gook gutter” could wreck in the same amount of time.
“What’s Fleetwood like?” I asked, willing him to leave Saigon. He looked at me like I’d asked him what it was like on Mars.
“Fleetwood plant?” I began again. “Don’t you work there with Wendy and Neil and Jane and—”
“Work there?” Earl choked on his spit. “Well, we’ll just see tomorrow, won’t we, if I still work there or not!”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Earl was still bombing Hanoi. How could someone who gloried in his Vietcong kill count be a contact of a bunch of socialists, who despite our self-defense credo, were more the type to hold hands and sing Kuumbaya? This guy was a redneck Nazi drug addict. I’d watched my life pass before my eyes for the past ninety minutes, but now I felt something different: fury. Whoever had let this asshole into our cabbage patch— I might have to take Earl’s “Lady” and cut them into a million pieces.
The neon sign at Larry’s Diner on Woodward Avenue came into view, the coffee shop below our office. Steve P. was gasping, but I kept my eyes on Earl’s hands, willing them to move to the right, pull to the curb— yes, yes, easy does it.
“We’re here,” Frank announced, and leaned all the way over me to put his hand on the steering column and yank out the keys. The car shuddered, and we bumped into another parked vehicle in front of us.
Runninghorse put his face in Earl’s, and said over his shoulder, “Sue, open his door.”
Then to him: “Earl, you’re gonna take a piss now.”
Bushy climbed out the side panel door, yelling back at Frank, “I’ll get him, man, I’ll get him.”
How did Earl drive at all? He couldn't walk. He fell down into the street; I heard him, I heard the thud, and Bushy trying to help him back up. I was already running down the sidewalk, pushing open the lobby doors and praying the stink would fall behind me.
Steve P. was right at my side— when we got to the foyer, he gave me a bear hug. “You saved us.”
I looked at him, shaking my head.
“No, no,” Steve heaved, “You’re so sweet and nice-looking and you were so kind to that animal; he’s a monster!” He started weeping and I had to tug at him to keep him climbing the stairs with me. We didn’t want to get called back for First Aid.
“Nice to him?— I should’ve throttled him with both hands.”
“I know, you just kept talking like you believed in him, which is the only thing he listens to; he’s insatiable.”
“He’s suicidal,” I said. I realized something I knew so well.
Steve had his keys out for our next set of office doors. Our offices were at one end of the second floor of what had once been a small manufacturing firm. There was nothing at the other end except restrooms.
Our new British National Secretary, Glyn Carver, had tightened up our security since he arrived with his Manchester ingenuity. Now, instead of one set of glass doors and locks to the office, there were two sets of steel doors, each one so heavy that I routinely had to put my shoulder into them to push them open. The first set required one key you turned twice clockwise. The second door had a dead bolt that turned one way and a knob lock that went the opposite.
It took me five minutes to wrestle through the entrance, but noodle-thin Steve was so quick we spirited though. The second door made a groan. Everyone in the office looked up at our grand entrance.
Jack Bloom, one of our Executive committee members, said, “Allow me, sweetheart,” and took the sweaty backpack off my shoulders. Temma told me he used to be at Berkeley, or was it the University of Chicago? I couldn’t imagine. He had this way of listening to everyone in a room, like each person’s situation went right to his heart.
Secretary Glyn was in the middle of the room, pointing at pallets of new books that had just arrived, scowling in a lavender shirt with French cuffs.
Our chief copywriter, Jim, waved at me without looking up from his typewriter— and there was Tommy again, his Camp Chef toque replaced with a striped printer’s cap. I could hear Judith, our bookkeeper who looked like Mona Lisa, talking in the back.
Michael, my only Los Angeles comrade in town, sprang up from the back, and embraced Steve and me at the same time: “Your timing is perfect!”
I squeezed him back harder. “No, don’t even tell me what you need now. . . I’m not going anywhere except a shower. I’ve just been through a sewer.”
Michael loosened his hug, acknowledging the stench. I wanted the bathroom key— Steve P. went to get it for both of us.
But he came back and shook his head, “Sorry.”
He gestured at the doors where Jack Bloom had passed through, with the bathroom key set. Shit; I hated it when a middle-aged person beat you to the bathroom— you had no idea how long it would be.
“What happened?” Michael asked.
I realized he’d shaved his beard off, the one he’d sported since I met him our last year in high school. Any other day that would’ve shocked me. But not today.
Steve and I spoke almost simultaneously: “Who the fuck is ‘Earl Van Nuys the Third’?”
Everyone within earshot looked blank.
“A Fleetwood man?” I continued. “Someone’s contact? Supposedly came up to Camp from the UAW caucus?”
Steve P. delivered the full picture. “This racist inbred piece of trash almost killed us driving home from Camp, and he says that he just joined the I.S. yesterday!”
Wow, I hadn’t heard that part.
Tommy tried to make light: “Hey now, Steve, don't go talking ‘bout ‘inbred’ to your comrades.”
“You have no idea what we’ve just been through,” Steve spat.
Even though I knew he sounded like a baby, he was right. I was freezing even though it was June; I wanted a blanket and a hot cocoa.
Steve held court about the “Lady” knife and Michael put his hand on my shoulder. Elise, the typesetter, came over to me with her purple afghan she always kept on her chair.
There was a thud against the first set of locked doors. Not the inner ones, but the thick outer doors— the ones you had to unlock counter-clockwise.
I wondered if Runningmouth had lost his keys again— but it wasn’t his impatient banging. No, it was like a giant package someone had shoved into a wall.
Christ, I didn’t care. Send in the deliveries, send in the clowns. I wrapped Elise’s blankie all around me and closed my eyes, so tired.
“Tommy!” Glyn yelled. “Bloody hell! —Jimmy, Michael!”
Glyn always snapped orders, but I’d never heard him yell like this.
I opened my eyes, and saw Glyn trying to hold up a bigger man, failing to push the second doors open, and Neil and Michael rushing up help him. The heavy man collapsed to the floor, and Glyn broke his fall.
It was Jack Bloom. He’d just gone to the bathroom with the keys. But now he was lying on the floor, with a dark puddle of blood spreading across his chest. Glyn struggled out from under his weight, his lavender shirt soaked scarlet-red.
My mind went as blank as a stone. A single line entered it, a dialog balloon: “It looks just like it does in the movies.” The blood looked like ketchup.
Glyn tore off his shirt and pressed it over Jack’s chest. It was leaking like a faucet. I heard Elise’s voice behind me, summoning an ambulance on the phone, her voice breaking up.
But that wasn’t the only thing cracking. I heard one, two, three rifles behind me, pulling their magazines back.
In the seconds since Jack had hit the ground, every man in the office had reached up, down, and behind shelves and desks to appear with firearms. Michael, Tom, and Jim, they all looked at each other like a night patrol, like something Earl had told us about. They approached the front doors, anticipating an ambush. I realized they didn’t have a clue who had done this; they thought we were under siege.
“Michael,” I whispered. Then I realized I was whispering.
Mikey heard me anyway, and held up his hands to the gun guys. “What is it, Sue, who is it?”
“It’s not the FBI; it’s the guy who drove us, it’s Earl,” I said, “He has a special knife—”
The new battalion doubted me. The guys started taking positions to head down the hall to the bathroom and the front gate.
“Secure the front doors!” Gay screamed. She was Kim’s wife; right? Glyn’s current lover. The only woman there besides me and Elise.
Glyn excoriated her for calling 911. ‘You fucking idiot!”
“Jack’s dying, Glyn, you bastard; he’s dying!”
Glyn stood bare-chested in the middle of it all, as if Gay’s revelation had brought his own self-interest to heart. “I have to get out of here, now,” he ordered, and she ran up to him, car keys in hand. He turned to Michael, “Give me your shirt.’
Michael ripped off his T-shirt. Glyn put it over his head, stepped over Jack’s body, motioned to Gay, and barked, “JFK. Meet me at the airport.”
I didn’t get it. This supremely selfish man was leaving town because one of his underlings was drowning in a sea of blood on his fresh-scrubbed floors?
Michael saw my disbelief. “He’s illegal, Sue, he can’t be here when the cops come . . . this is bad.”
I could hear thunder coming up the stairs; everything was loud. Michael asked me for my jacket, so he wouldn’t be half-naked, so I took off my mom’s Navy sailor coat, and he squeezed into it. He looked ridiculous, his muscles in my skinny sleeves, like Popeye in dress.
He took me by the shoulders again. “Sue, look at me, and talk to me now, because the Detroit PD are coming through that door in one minute.”
Jack was moaning. I could hear his labored cries, and no one else’s.
“Sue,” Michael tried again. “Are you are sure it was this guy Earl, this guy with the hunting knife? There’s no one else?”
I nodded. “He talked about carving people up the whole ride; he’s hysterical about... Communists . . . he’s still fighting in Vietnam.”
Michael took that in. His eyes were dotted with red. “Sue, I have something very important for you to do— I want you to leave, now, out the fire exit in the back, and go to the Betsy-Do Laundromat, right off Pasadena St, you know where that is?”
Yeah, I knew, but—
“Joel’s there, you need to go tell him what’s going on and get him over here.”
Joel Geier was our National Chairman, the one guy above Glyn.
Our National Chairman was doing his laundry? I had never seen him do a single practical thing, not even fill a glass of water. I’d never even talked to the man, I’d only listened to him expound on the minutia of the “U.S. economy in crisis.”
“Is Jack going to live?” I said.
“Just go get Joel, okay?”
I ran past Larry’s Diner, past the 5-7-9 dress shop where I got the tight jeans I was running in, past The Pretzel Bowl where Pepsi waitressed and introduced me to gin and tonics and Bob Marley on the jukebox.
I was amazed I could run this hard and think at the same time. It was like I couldn't think at all crouching in the office watching a man with blood pouring out of his chest— but with my legs moving, I could see it all.
Jack was alive, yes, he hadn’t passed out. I heard his voice. The I.S. wouldn’t want a murder investigation, because the Feds would have an excuse to tear the place apart.
Everyone was armed to the teeth because of what the FBI did to the Fred Hampton. Or look at what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. God knows what revenge the current Teamster president, Frank Fitzsimmons, might exact against our reform efforts.
And Earl Van Nuys the Third? Why did he attack Jack in the bathroom? He didn't even know the guy.
And Earl had been in such a merry mood when I last saw Frank helping him stumble up the sidewalk. He wanted to take a piss, right? He didn’t want to kill anybody, not then.
Steve P. said I had charmed him, he’d been charmed into drunken bonhomie. I thought he was going to piss all the whiskey away, and fall into a dead sleep.
Jack didn’t have anything to do with it. Jack was alive.
I walked into the Betsey-Do laundromat. Its hot-dryer smell, the waves of heat, rendered me stupid for a minute. All my running endorphins left me. I was in a hot room with dryers spinning, old ladies, old ladies washing, some kids with toy trucks on the floor.
No Joel Geier in sight, but I kept scanning the machines and rows of orange plastic chairs, like there would be a revelation.
One of the figures in the chairs rustled a newspaper to turn its pages, and I saw it said Wall Street Journal on the front.
“Joel!” I called, and he lowered his paper, his limpid eyes looking at me like I was a stranger.
I pushed someone's cart out of my way, and came to kneel in front of him.
“Joel, it’s Sue, Sue B., I'm from the L.A. Red Tide, remember? I’m Jane’s friend?”
He used to sleep with Jane, surely that must register. I could see it was dawning on him that I was there for a reason. He dropped the paper. His skin was yellow in this poor light, it complemented his eyes.
“Joel, I’m sorry,” I said, my voice sounding strange even to me. “It’s Jack, Jack Bloom, he’s been stabbed at the office by one of our contacts, in the bathroom.”
Joel and Jack were very close.
Joel said, ‘Would you please say that again?”
“Is Jack alive?”
“Yes, yes, I heard his voice; the ambulance is coming— he was alive when I left, and that was five minutes ago.”
He looked down at me, the child at his knee.
“Um,” he said, as if he’d wanted to say something else and stepped on it. “Would you stay here until my clothes are dried and then take them back to my house?”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a key. ”It’s 23 Pasadena,” he said, “and David won’t be there, he’s in Philadelphia this week.”
David Finkel was another one of our Executive Committee members. He wouldn’t have picked up a gun, either. I wondered if Joel had.
“Would you do that?” he asked again, sharp, and I realized I hadn’t answered him.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, looking past him.
“Which dryer is it?” I finally asked.
But he was gone, and had taken his WSJ with him.
The children had left too, and the last old lady was walking out the door, struggling with her cart. I went over to help her, and she looked a little jumpy, like she’d rather I didn’t.
The door shut behind her, and even though it was so loud in there, with both dryers groaning, it was finally still— no more wash cycles. I could see Joel Geier’s socks flipping in circles through the plate glass of the front loader. I sat down on the orange chair that faced his dryer and watched them go a few revolutions like I was watching the most interesting television program in the world.
I saw that my reflection was part of this program, “Susie and the Flying Socks.” My hair was crazy, falling out of its pony tail, and my glasses were half-cocked like they’d been since I mended them with Scotch tape. Maybe that old lady had been freaked because without my jacket; it was obvious I wasn’t wearing a bra. My face looked weird, but I couldn't see it well enough in the dryer glass to figure out why.
I rubbed my eyes, I felt something sticky on my face, and I wondered what time it was. It was twilight outside. Michael had my coat, Glyn had Michael’s shirt, and I had all these socks— what? To fold?
I found a pillow case someone had abandoned and piled all Joel’s dryer laundry into it. I pressed it to my chest. The heat felt wonderful, the most wonderful sensation spreading across my heart. Joel lived across the street, just a few steps away. I walked out with the hot pillow in my arms, not feeling the cold at all, and crossed Woodward Avenue against the light.
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