Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955.
Sol Eaglin, Important Communist, had rung her telephone. A "committee" wished to see her; no, they'd be happy, delighted, to come to her home, this evening, after their own conference just across the Gardenswas ten too late? This a command, not a question. Yes, Sol knew how hard Rose labored, what her sleep was worth. He promised they wouldn't stay long.
How did it happen? Easy. Routine, in fact. These things happened every day. You could get exiled from the cause for blowing your nose or blinking at suspicious intervals. Now, after so long, Rose's turn. She'd cracked the kitchen window to hear their approach. Brewed some coffee. Sounds of the Gardens filtered in, smokers, lovers, teenagers sulking in the communal lanes. Though winter's dark had clamped itself over the neighborhood hours ago, this early November night was uncannily balmy and inviting, last pulse of the earth's recollection of summer. Other kitchen windows were spilled to the lanes, voices mingled: Rose's plentiful enemies, fewer friends, others, so many others, simply tolerated. Yet comrades all. According Rose their respect even through their dislike. Respect to be robbed from her by the committee now entering her kitchen.
There were five, including Eaglin. They'd overdressed, overcompensated with vests and jackets, now arraying themselves on her chairs like some Soviet oil painting, postured as if on some intellectual assignment. In pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectical Whosis, when really there was to be no dialectic here. Only dictatorship. And the taking of dictation. Still, Rose sought to be forgiving. These men were too young, apart from Eaglin, to have survived like she had the intellectual somersaults of the thirties, the onset of European Fascism and of the Popular Front; they'd been children during the war. They were drones, men costumed in independent thought who'd become slaves of party groupspeak. None mattered in this room except the sole independent or thoughtful among them, a true and famous organizer, after all, a man of the factory floors, Sol Eaglin. And Rose Zimmer's former lover. Eaglin in his bow tie, hairline now gone behind his high cranium's arc like the winter's sun setting. Eaglin the only among them man enough not to meet her eye, the only to grasp anything of the shame of it.
Here was Communist habit, Communist ritual: the living-room trial, the respectable lynch mob that availed themselves of your hospitality while dropping some grenade of party policy on your commitment, lifting a butter knife to slather a piece of toast and using it in passing to sever you from that to which you'd given your life. Yet that it was Communist habit and ritual didn't mean these boys were good at it, or comfortable: Rose was the veteran. She'd suffered one such trial eight years ago. They sweated; she felt only exhaustion at their hemming and throat-clearing.
The oil painting made small talk. One leaned over and noodled with Rose's Abraham Lincoln shrine, the small three-legged table bearing her original six-volume Carl Sandburg, a photograph of herself and her daughter at the memorial's statue in D.C., propped in a little frame, and a commemorative fake cent-piece the circumference of a slice of liverwurst. The young man was fair, like Rose's first husbandher only husband, yet Rose's brain persistently offered this slippage, as though some next life lay before her, waiting to be enumerated. The man hefted the medallion and tilted his head idiotically, as if being impressed with the weight of the thing constituted a promising avenue of discourse.
Excerpted from Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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