When I heard the crowd coming, I remembered the campaign buttons pinned to my jean jacket—bright, conspicuous and suddenly twice as big. In all the hurry-scurry of my new handbill gig I’d forgotten them, along with the fact that I wasn’t the only one out stumping this election.
I want to record here and now that I did not turn tail and run. Even when they rounded the corner onto Washington Street and headed my way…and the only thing between me and them was three blocks of parked vehicles whose windshields I’d just adorned with flyers.
A wind too cold for October sliced through me. I wanted to fasten the two top buttons on my jean jacket, but if I didn’t hold my phone-book sized stack of flyers with both hands, the wind would grab and scatter them.
The crowd approached with the steady, relentless purpose of all such gatherings, slower than a stampede but just as unstoppable. Their voices rose up here and there, shouting and shrilling like the sirens I heard too often downtown. The ones in front noticed the flyers and responded accordingly. Paper hit the sidewalk, blew away in the wind or tumbled in crumpled-up wads. One lady took her time dispatching hers, tearing it into thumbnail-sized bits that she tossed like confetti.
I backed through a pair of glass doors into a donut shop. Entrance bells jingled over my head, but I didn’t really notice them. I stared through the glass, hugging my bundle of flyers to my chest like they were some kind of security blanket.
Mobs have always been a fact of life. Right? But seeing one with my own eyes, the raw hatred on their faces–real hatred–a cold fear seized me. These people meant business. It was like watching Nazi tanks roll into Warsaw.
The last flyer I’d placed fluttered under the windshield of a chrome-decked Plymouth Fury, right outside the donut shop. In loud starry capitals it proclaimed:
AMERICA NEEDS LINCOLN AGAIN
One of the men claimed this one, a waddler in a trench coat. Unlike the lady, he preferred to dispose of it all at once, tearing it in half and tossing the pieces in opposite directions.
I lugged four kinds of campaign fliers, having grabbed too many at headquarters. One of them had an eagle at the top, spreading its wings and clutching a shield in its talons. All were emblazoned with the same tall capitals meant to resemble the original campaign posters, ringed with stars. They read:
IT’S TIME FOR LINCOLN’S 2ND TERM
AMERICA NEEDS HONEST ABE
LINCOLN’S WORK IS NOT THROUGH YET
Some of the crowd held up hand-lettered signs of their own, most of these reading,
WE DON’T NEED A RECYCLED PRESIDENT!
“Recycled.” I heard that almost every day, and I’d already tired myself out explaining that, No, this isn’t anything like that. Other signs read:
LINCOLN ALREADY PUT AMERICA THROUGH A WAR
LET SLEEPING BLACK REPUBLICANS LIE
COLORED PEOPLE HAVE STARVED BECAUSE OF ABE!
Their ranks included a half-dozen blacks, one holding a sign saying WE DON’T NEED A RECYCLED PRESIDENT. Although Rhode Island was a long way from Jim Crow country, they brought up the rear, shuffling along with expressionless faces. Only the man with the sign looked like he meant it, eyes all ablaze.
The ugly cold sensation burned in my stomach, like when you hear people in the next room gossiping about you. With a hand that slightly trembled, I unbuttoned my jacket and stuffed all the papers inside. Pretty pathetic, actually; the bulge they made was plain to see, and of course my three campaign buttons showed the candidate’s well-known, fringe-whiskered face big as life.
One of the eagle flyers fell out and swished to the floor. I stooped down…but a hand appeared and took it.
I looked up.
A man in his twenties sat at a table by the window, dressed in a brown frock coat that was open to show a necktie. His matching bowler hat sat on the table, along with a newspaper and a cardboard cup of coffee. His face, stretched long like a horse’s, was pink and hairless save for a faint line of mustache. His hair was dark and full and cut to military regulations. Holding the handbill next to his nose, he scrutinized it with a look of faint amusement, as if checking out a copy of Confidential.
I raised myself up and waited. Three people stood in line, and one of the girls in their orange uniforms was taking an order at the register. No one had noticed us. Good!
The man’s eyes scanned side to side, his lips moving silently. At one point he raised his eyebrows. He seemed in no hurry to finish, and I guess that should have given me an advantage: get ready, muster my arguments. I knew the political party to which this man belonged and that I was about to be called upon to stand up for my candidate. But, as always, my mind seized up and went blank.
Finally, he held out the flyer. “Well now.” A full grin bloomed on his face, no longer a hint of amusement but an uncaring display of it. “I’ve heard of people like yourself, sir, but until now I never thought I’d actually meet one.”
That can’t be true, I thought. Trying to psych me out—
“You gonna’ take your flyer back?”
Too hastily I snatched it. Did he carry a Derringer under that coat? Some of them were rumored to, the more die-hard ones. I’d seen them, the dedicated few who devoured all the books and library microfiches they could find about John Wilkes Booth, and spent shameful amounts of money on the right period clothes and accurate grooming. This guy, like most, just looked like someone dressed up for Halloween as Lincoln’s assassin.
Finally, I found my tongue. “You guys really think you’re all Booth?”
A derisive snort—undisguised disdain, undisguised amusement, undisguised everything. The donut shop had gone silent; we had everyone’s attention now. His loud mouth had seen to that. I tensed still more, feeling all eyes on me, but my opponent relaxed and perfectly at home, crossing his legs and shifting a bit in his chair.
“Our purpose—” He spoke with an exaggerated twang that a real Southerner would see through in an instant. “—is to be living reminders that if one man can be re-created from bones, so can another.”
He stopped. It was plain he was pausing because he chose to, not because he was groping for what to say next. Meanwhile, I was fighting to keep calm.
You’re in a roomful of voters! Say something…anything!
What would Lincoln himself say? How would he handle this? He was an attorney, legendary wit…but he wasn’t here. Nor were any of my flyer-posting, placard-carrying, door-knocking comrades, the outgoing and eloquent ones. There was only me.
“Seen the polls?” I said. “People want him brought back.”
The man sipped from his cup. “Polls are never that accurate, you can’t always go by them. And the sheer novelty of the thing… Of course, it’ll get everyone’s attention for a while. But folks like us—” He waved out the window where the mob had passed, their shouts fading but still audible. “—you see us every day, don’t you?”
“No,” I lied.
“Hogwash. We’re all over New England. Boston’s progressed a long way from its shameful abolition days—”
“Hogwash!” I threw his word back at him.
He continued as if he hadn’t heard. “And how right were the polls in the last election?”
He had me there. They were off, way off, and I couldn’t stand in the middle of everyone and deny it.
“And this is just Providence. Are you aware, sir, how many of us are in D.C.?”
I knew exactly what he meant by that, of course. “He’ll be very well protected—”
“If he’s elected, which isn’t going to happen. You know as well as I do, this whole idea is nothing more than the senile fantasy of another Black Republican—”
I bristled. “Sir, if you are referring to President Eisenhower—”
“And you must have heard, Lincoln won’t be the same as you’ve always remembered. You’re expecting a titan of granite like his memorial, the damn-near saint people have built him up over the years. You know what? I hope he does get elected. Then everyone will see he’s just a man after all. Not only that, a recycled man with barely any memory, much less ability to lead. He’ll have to be taught half the things he’s famous for. And then there’s the whole matter of adjusting to a world that’s a full century ahead of the one he knew.”
“Last I read, they were very optimistic—”
He thrust his newspaper at me, funny pages first. “See this here?” He pointed to the strip at the top. “Read that.”
I backed away as if the paper carried typhoid. “Booth” waited. Everyone waited. Cursing my weakness, I bent forward to read.
It featured—wouldn’t you know it—a man carrying a LINCOLN AND EQUALITY sign. Like myself—yeah, right, I get it. The guy beamed with pride. At the bottom of the panel was a caption showing the current year. One other panel followed, showing the following year and adding two characters: one, a young woman, the other every bit the male “darky” stereotype, coal-black skin, kinky hair, teeth flashed white in a bojangles-grin. Girl announces, “Daddy, we’re to be married!” Daddy puts both hands to his face, horrified.
The paper rustled as my opponent took it away. “You still want to spend your time and effort on this man?”
I bit my lip. I’m not even married was what I was about to say. But I didn’t want to advertise that I had survived the Battle of the Bulge only to miss out on the Baby Boom, and was still missing out; I didn’t even have a steady yet. “Now that makes sense,” he would say. “A poor square who’s all into Lincoln-politics instead of pulp magazines.” I could see him (and everyone) rolling their eyes.
“And even if you’re not married, sir—”
Too late I pocketed my ringless right hand.
“—there’s still the matter of your job. Do you, or don’t you, want a nigger bossing you around?”
I bristled. “Don’t say that word.”
He laughed. “Why not?” He looked around. “Is anyone offended?”
Hell no. No blacks in the place except two girls behind the counter, and of course they knew better than to speak up. A puffy white man in a shirt and tie stood by the register, arms folded, the manager no doubt, likewise keeping mum.
Booth spread out his arms. “There. You see?” His grin made me want to kill him.
“This is only one establishment,” I pointed out, gesturing at the diner we argued in.
“I’ve seen it everywhere, and so have you. I’m just saying this as one citizen to another. Didn’t the rail splitter do enough damage the first time around, taking it upon himself to announce everyone’s ’emancipation?’ Well. All he emancipated them from was their means of food and shelter. Down South, the states graciously conceded to the whole ‘separate but equal’ business, but who still sits in the back of the bus? The fact is and always has been that subservience is the natural state of the colored peoples, and they were better off as slaves cared for by benevolent masters seeing to their Christian instruction.”
Oh, great, he had to bring Christ into it. “You call chains and whips benevolent?”
He talked over me. “You can see it now. They shine shoes and open hotel doors or—” he nodded to the two girls. “—mind donut shop counters. Doesn’t that tell you anything?”
“Little Rock. You read the paper, don’t you? Everything going on down there—”
“Only underscores my point.”
“Those mobs are tearing the whole city apart! They’re screaming, they’re rioting, and it’s all just to keep nine black kids out of school—”
“What’s wrong with their own black schools? But it wasn’t their idea; the government’s forcing it all. The state of Arkansas knows what’s best to maintain the peace, and none of that violence would be happening if Ike wasn’t so hell-bent on ‘desegregating.’ And even sending troops. Sending troops—sound familiar? It’s the same story all over again, friend.”
“And, naturally, it was Ike’s idea to bring the rail splitter back. I almost wished they hadn’t done it with Ben Franklin.”
“Yes, living proof,” I said, the DNA taken from Mr. Franklin’s femur, a whole new one of him grown.
“Have you noticed he’s keeping mum on all this, minding his own business?” Booth took an unhurried sip of coffee, lifting his cup, setting it down. “If only Eisenhower was as smart.” He shook his head. “Reviving a man and throwing him into office. What is he thinking?”
“The election,” I reminded him, “includes Ike staying on until Lincoln is rehabilitated and ready.” With a three-month deadline set by Congress. Plus Vice-President Nixon would still be there to help him along.
“Rehabilitated?” The man’s eyebrows shot up. “A man who needs to be ‘rehabilitated,’ is supposed to lead our whole country?”
I squirmed. “Well…”
“Well what? Now look. I have a good sense about people, and you just seem like someone who’s been…homeless? Correct me if I’m wrong.”
He was right on the money, and everyone in the room knew it. “A vet,” I said. “Twelfth Army Group.”
“I stay at a V.A. home in Olneyville. They care for us very well there.”
“All right then—”
“And I can tell you right now, this country doesn’t fool around when it comes to taking care of those who served. And we have Lincoln to thank for it. He said, ‘To care for him who has borne the battle, his widow, his orphan…'”
“Booth” didn’t reply. This was a futile attempt on my part to gain an upper hand that we both knew I wasn’t going to gain. When I fell silent again, he picked up where he had left off: “Get any disability?”
“No. Not service-connected.” I’d always thanked God for that. Some of my buddies hadn’t been so lucky.
“No benefits of any kind?” He drained the last of his coffee.
I could see where this was going. “I’m healthy.”
“And so you took this gig for the pay. That’s it, just the pay. How much, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“You don’t have to tell me—”
“Eighty-five cents an hour.” Spoken louder than necessary.
Another nod. “All right, then. But has it occurred to you, there are some things more important than money?”
Only afterward, of course, would the answers surface in my mind: Absolutely! That’s why I’m doing this.
Look at Frederick Douglass, look at George Washington Carver. You’re telling me they couldn’t get along without some master taking care of them?
I follow a man who set people free; you follow a murderer!
What this all comes down to is that you’re afraid you won’t have someone to look down on anymore. It’s been said a man can be king as long as he has someone to look down on. You don’t want to lose that; it’s as simple as that.
And on and on and on… Yes, once my mind settled and began working normally again, then it would present its perfect rebuttals. But now, squirming in the heat of confrontation, all I could manage was a weak, “Yes.”
He stood up, adjusting his coat. “So you agree with me?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Ah. Well, I expected as much. Your mind’s made up; the facts don’t bother you.” He looked toward the counter. “Girls? I’m in a generous mood today.” He pulled out a five and stuffed it in the tin can with a piece of paper taped around it marked TIPS.
“Booth” ambled to the door and tipped his hat. “Good day.”
I wanted to call out, tell him it wasn’t over yet. But I hovered in place, painfully awkward, as the door opened and swung shut, the bells above it jingling.
The place was too quiet for a busy donut shop. Everybody was looking at me: customers, manager, the girls in their orange uniforms.
What are you all looking at? I wanted to snap.
Instead, I smiled and said, “Democracy in action, hey? That’s what makes our country great. Hey, um—everyone have a great one.”
I slunk out, trying not to look like I had my tail between my legs, and continued up Washington Street toward the plaza. A real estate office lay between me and my destination. A wood-grain television propped the door open, and from its small screen spoke a wobbly black-and-white image of a man. The set’s rabbit ears were all askew, barely picking up the signal. I could hear his tin voice as I walked past.
“New scientific evidence…negroes are genetically inferior…but I guess some people will choose to see this through their political eyes and refuse to believe this…”
Striding past with my bundle of flyers, shivering in another gust, I muttered under my breath. “So if I disagree with you, that alone means I’m ignorant and an N-lover and I willfully wear blinders…if I agree with you, that alone makes me a smart and nobody’s fool. Sure, buddy, sure…”
I reached the square. Downtown Providence is compact, with narrow streets, and all roads seem to lead to the central plaza overlooked by City Hall and the Army-Navy memorial. It was more or less the headquarters for my stumping, where people always milled and raised a ruckus of chatter, with a narrow building on one end where ticket girls worked behind bullet-proof glass.
I entered the building by the back door, glad to be out of the wind, and sat down on a bench by the window, putting my stack aside with a sigh. I was not looking forward to tonight when I would lie in bed hearing my roommate’s snores, thinking about the day and the encounter I wished had never happened; having to face the bitter fact that once again, someone had gotten the best of me.
A pair of shoes appeared, pointed at mine.
I looked up and saw two young folks, a white woman and a man with a small afro and chocolate-brown skin. Their faces were friendlier than Booth’s.
“Hey,” I said.
“It’s a good thing you’re doing,” said the man.
“Lincoln’s gonna win it,” the woman said, talking quickly, her words tumbling over one another.
“The polls say he’s ahead.”
“Yes.” I nodded, and kept nodding. “That they do.”
All I was thinking was, he’d better win and then I’ll have something to feel good about, that I’m vindicated and this wasn’t all just a big waste of time. And then I would search out Mr. “Booth” and laugh in his face. Except I knew damn well I’d do no such thing. I never did. Too passive, too nice, and anyway I was never one to gloat.
What I would say was probably more like: “No, I did not sign up for the pay. Whatever arguments and rationalizations you dream up, it’s self-evident that humans are equal, and calling any person inferior is wrong. Lincoln understood this. And he was going to do all he could do to remedy it; it was the very reason he was born into his time. But he was killed first, and we haven’t been able to finish it. In all these years, with presidents coming and going, our nation progressing in some ways, but we were still divided with abuses and discrimination.
And what’s going on in Arkansas is a wake-up call. Liberty’s supposed to be complete, but it isn’t. Only the man himself can finish what he started. That’s why Ike pushed for this, got his party behind it.
“You really think so?”
The man said this, tilting his head. With a start I realized I had been thinking out loud: “Yes.” I spoke quietly. “I do.”
The couple invited me to lunch; I took them up on it. Why not? I still had all afternoon to unload the rest of my handbills.
BIO: Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then his stories have appeared in Weird Tales, Dreams & Visions, and Aurora Wolf. He currently lives and writes in Providence, Rhode Island.