There’s Always Hope
Because of some things for the sorority, I was late getting away from Coventry to go to Annual Conference. When I finally got to the Wesley Woods Conference Center, the social witness group had already started their report. I only had time to wave at a few people I recognized as I hurried around to the far side of the conference hall and up to the front beside the stage. Wes was there along with fifteen or twenty other people, all nude. I started looking for Mom, but a number of people were hiding their faces from us. What was that about? Were they afraid of being recognized? The hall was too large for me to spot Mom. Wes was second in the line, right close to the foot of the stairs. Eli Sampson was just in front of Wes. There was no missing Eli. When I was in sixth grade, he had been at camp here, doing quite an imitation of John the Baptist, wild hair, camel’s hair tunic, eating grasshoppers and wild honey, the whole bit. Kind of scary. Now he looked like a homeless guy with no money for shaving, haircuts, or clothes.
The presenter started talking about the protest and the church’s official stand on the death penalty, and the line I was in started moving up onto the stage. It was my first time on the stage during Annual Conference. Eli stopped by the presenter, and Wes led the rest of us on across. Since I was last in the line, I ended up right beside Eli and the presenter. The monitor just in front of the stage showed that the camera was getting me, too, but there was nowhere to go. That was awkward. The presenter was talking about Eli being part of the strike since it first moved beyond the penitentiary on February first. That was over four months. For me, it was only a little more than a month. I was trying to spot Mom. Was she one of the people hiding behind papers? What were they doing? Bishop Jaspers was coming down the line shaking hands, so I was paying more attention to her.
“Blessings upon you, Iris,” she said. How did she know my name? Did she know all the preachers’ kids? “Stay strong in your witness.” She had a strong grip.
The bishop shook Eli’s hand last and said more to him before she went to the podium. I looked at the monitor. Oh my God! Wes was right at my elbow. How could I not have noticed? Don’t look at Wes in the monitor! It’ll look like you’re being vain. Listen to the bishop!
“No one is asking you to agree with their methods,” she was saying. “Each of them knew this strike was controversial before any of them joined it. If you disagree with what they’re doing, don’t simply hide your faces. Write to Governor Dityne and the state Senators asking for repeal of the death penalty. This report concludes our business for today, and I’ve asked one of these protesters to offer a prayer, which will serve as our final gavel until tomorrow morning. Stay in your places. John Wesley Milton IV is a candidate for the ministry from Bayfield in the Gardner District. He has just completed his second year at Coventry University where he is majoring in Leadership and is active at the Still Point campus ministry. Wes?”
Wes stepped up to the microphone, and there was rustling from the audience. Shut up! He’s going to pray! Wait a minute? What are you doing? The people who were hiding their faces were standing and turning their backs to us. I glanced at Wes. He was staring at the audience with his mouth slowly dropping open. I stepped over to the mike, too, my skin to his glorious skin.
“Stand, please,” I said, “and join hands with the people beside you, no matter what direction they’re facing.” I whispered ‘sorry’ to Wes and stepped back into place.
“Thanks,” he said and grabbed my hand like I was the only thing keeping him from falling off a cliff. I have no idea what he said in his prayer.
“That was brilliant,” Eli said as soon as the prayer was over. He had been holding my other hand. “Have you signed up yet?”
“For the strike? Over a month ago.”
“We’re all in that. I meant for the ministry.”
I shook my head. “She was talking about Wes.”
Other people on the stage wanted to talk to me, too, and pretty soon people with clothes were mixed in with us as well. None of the conversations came to a stopping place before there was someone else that I knew. Mom was talking with Wes and the bishop when Barb Maxwell dragged me over with them for a picture. Barb wanted us closer together, and Wes put his arm around me. Oh sweet torture! Fortunately, the photo shoot didn’t last long.
One of my high school friends had been kind of socially invisible until she became a kicker on the football team. As soon as the season was over, she turned invisible again. That’s how I felt. I knew lots of people, but I seemed to have developed an extreme case of attention magnetism. The people I really wanted to talk to seemed to get pushed aside by the people who wanted to talk to me. Mom kind of steered me out of the hall and to where the social action dinner was happening. The person at the door was checking nametags, but I didn’t have mine yet, so we had to go back to the Registration desk. There were other meals in other rooms, so lots of people were in the hallways.
By the time we got back to the social action dinner, many people were done eating, and Wes was making the award presentation to Eli. On a screen behind them was a slideshow of pictures from Eli’s career. Apparently, he had always been wild and crazy. One picture was from the camp I had been at with him, a group shot of all the campers. I was in the middle of the back row. I wasn’t quick enough to spot Wes before it changed to the next picture. Was it even the same camp?
Grampa Irv had saved places at a table for Mom and me. How could I have forgotten about him? He was the lay member from the Montgomery church. But why was he at a social action gathering? Eli had been the pastor at Montgomery when Mom got married. Grampa had been chair of the board, but they had been on opposite sides of most things. Mom obviously didn’t pick Dad because he looked like Grampa. Wes was slender like Dad and Grandy, but Grampa was like a boulder. Grandy was a runner, and Grampa was a rock. What could I say to him?
Wes sent me a text. ‘RU running in the morning?’
‘I’m always Running,’ I typed and then erased it. That sounded too… I don’t know… just too. I typed, ‘Of course,’ and erased that, too. ‘Yes. Why?’
I looked toward the part of the room where I last saw him, but too many people were in the way. ‘Are you a runner?’ How could I not know something as important as that?
‘Not like u. May I go with u?’
Of course. Definitely. Please. I typed, ‘Sure.’
‘Don’t know. Early.’
‘Campus min bkfst is at 7. Will 6 work? Don’t know how long or far u run.’
‘6 is great. By front door?’
‘Sure.’ Wes was a runner? How many more reasons were there for me to drool all over him?
It was a good thing Mom was keeping track of the time. I ate only a little supper before it was time to go to the women’s meeting. At least Grampa Irv wasn’t going to that.
Thinking in the room full of women was easier. They were presenting several awards, so Mom and I had a chance to sit down for a bit. We talked with another jillion and a half people before going to meet Grampa Irv in the main dining hall. They were serving cookies and iced tea, and Grampa had a table way off on one side. Did he think people wouldn’t see me over there? No other naked people were in the room so far as I could see.
Grampa stood when we came over and held a chair for Mom. It was old-fashioned, but I always thought it was nice when he did that for Gramma Elaine. I was going to just be quiet and let Mom and Grampa do the talking, but he wanted to talk to me. He started with the Mayor’s 10-K; I’d had too much of that already. Then he asked about the running research. He could have gotten most of the information himself, but I was polite and answered his questions. Then he asked about saving Nate’s life and getting the Crime Fighter award.
“Grampa, why don’t you just ask about the death penalty protest? The guy I saved is in it; I am too now but not then, and so are a bunch of my friends. You support the death penalty, so why don’t we just get it out in the open?”
He looked at me in that way he has where you feel like he’s seeing right through and focusing on all the shit you don’t want anybody to know about. “Are your thoughts the same as the official word from… what’s the name of that organization?”
“Citizens Against the Death Penalty. Mostly. There isn’t anything I totally disagree with.”
“There’s only one for me.”
“You’re for it, and I’m against it.”
“Not exactly. I think it should stay on the books. I can’t see that killing any of the guys on death row right now will help anything, but I don’t think we should completely throw it out.”
I stared at him. “You…”
“This sorority you’re starting, tell me about it.”
“S-some of the g-girls will b-be in it.” Damned stutter!
“The protest? Tell me about the sorority. The rumors about it don’t seem likely.”
“N-no.” Was he on our side? With Mom’s help, I told him how the proposal came out the way it did, why it seemed like a good idea, and some of the questions we hoped to answer with our research. And I didn’t stutter at all.
“Sounds pretty ambitious,” he said.
“Yeah… I… Yeah.”
“She really is a lot like you,” Mom said, “in the way she sticks with things until they come out better than anyone imagined.”
“Don’t start on the farm again.”
“I’ll never stop. When we moved there, about all I understood was that you argued with your dad all the time. Now I know that we wouldn’t still have the farm if you hadn’t gotten away from corn and soybeans.”
“Some of those farms survived.”
“But they aren’t doing as well as you and Al with your Methodist vineyard.”
“I don’t know if I’m like you or not,” I said, “but we’re trying to set up the sorority so girls will have good, decent lives.”
“That’s the only thing about what we’re doing that you and Gramma should have any problem with.”
After a bit, he looked at Mom. “Do you remember when we visited that FKK resort in Germany?”
“FKK? What’s that?”
“It’s what they call nudists. Al was just a baby, so you were pretty young. Your mother was feeling bad about how she looked after two babies, but I thought she looked mighty fine. Her appearance didn’t change, but after a few days there, she was happier with herself.”
Grampa? And Mom and Gramma Elaine?
Mom was rooming with Jonna Lane, her super-good friend, and I was going to share Mom’s bed. I wanted to go for a run but was pretty sure I couldn’t outpace the mosquitoes. Was Grampa Irv for real? He was always the one that would be totally against everything I was doing.
It was five to six when I got to the front door the next morning. I had lain in bed beside Mom for over half an hour before leaving the room quietly. Wes was there already. He didn’t say anything about the time, and I didn’t ask.
“Thanks for saving my skin,” Wes said while I was stretching. “It was bad enough when they were hiding their eyes from us, but when they started turning their backs, I didn’t know what to do.”
“I didn’t, either.”
“Having ’em all hold hands was brilliant. Lots of people were talking about that last night. I even talked to some that decided to give us a chance because of that.”
I didn’t want to talk about that. We set off running. “I didn’t know you’re a runner.”
“Not like you. I’ve been running with some other interns at the capital.”
“Gonna join the research?”
“Uncle Brad says I can’t ’cause he’s family.” I kept forgetting Dr. Randall was his uncle. I didn’t know what else to say. I wasn’t pushing the pace, and Wes was doing fine.
“Did you see the picture of us in the slideshow for Rev. Sampson last night?” he asked after a while.
I frowned. “Us?”
“The group picture from the camp we were at. I was the short kid in the back row right next to you.”
“Really?” Right next to me? “Guess I’m too vain.”
“You? Too vain? Come on!”
“I saw me and Eli but nobody else I recognized. Mom probably has a copy of that picture in the scrapbook she made for my graduation.”
“I have it in my photo album.”
You have a picture of me? No, calm down. God, it was nice running with him. All the new construction had made the camp much bigger, but it was still only about a mile and a half around the outside edge. A few people were out walking, but mostly it was just the two of us in God’s awesome creation. Wes was up for another lap, so we went around again.
Mom was ready to go to the campus ministry breakfast when I got out of the shower. Some of Mom’s friends were waiting for the elevator when we came down the hall. “Have you considered going into the ministry?” one of them asked me. “I don’t know how we would ever appoint a nude pastor, but there must be a way.”
“After all I’ve seen Mom go through, I’m not sure I’d really want to, even after the death penalty protest is ancient history.”
“We can hope that won’t be long.”
We had just gotten to the room for the breakfast when Mom got a phone call and went off to talk where it was quieter. Wes was already there along with several other college kids, mostly but not all justice interns like Chelsea. They were from different colleges around the state and other states. Barb had a table for Still Point, and an empty chair was beside Wes, but I went across from him and saved a place for Mom. It’s a good thing nobody was trying to have a deep conversation with me.
After a couple of awards, the head of the state campus ministry board asked Barb to tell about Still Point; the chaplains took turns every year. She got us to stand up with her. Of course, everyone had seen Wes and me on stage, and people were talking about what happened during Wes’s prayer. How did I always end up beside him? “Another new venture on our campus,” Barb said after talking about other things, “isn’t actually part of the Still Point ministry, but the leader is one of our active students. Iris, can you tell the group about your sorority?”
Hadn’t people heard enough about me already? Wes touched my shoulder, and I went forward slowly. Okay, I can do this. I gave the short version and was going to sit down, but there were lots of questions. After too long, the head of the board finally said it was time to go to worship. A lot of people still wanted to talk to me, most to ask more questions but a few to tell me how wrong it was. I didn’t see Wes leave. Worship had already started when Mom and I slipped into the back of the hall. Grampa Irv had saved seats for us. A naked guy should be easy to spot in a group like that, but I couldn’t see Wes. Maybe he had already gone to the campus ministry booth he and I were supposed to staff. I went out when the sermon was nearly over. Maybe people were right about me being a minister. I’d been around church enough that I knew when the sermon was winding down.
On the way to the exhibit hall, an elderly black woman with a walker stopped me. She said she had been on a statewide committee with Mom. “I never thought I’d see the day when a naked woman was at a church event.” She was very soft spoken.
I stared at her and pulled back, trying to think how to respond without blasting a sweet, white-haired, little old lady right out where everybody would see and know about it.
“Don’t get your back up,” she continued. “When I was your age, I never thought I’d see the day when my people would be at a church event with white folks. They’re saying nasty things about you, but you gotta be strong.”
“You’re supporting me?”
“You ain’t got nothin’ the rest of us don’t. Pardon me. I forget myself sometimes when I’m angry. You look just like we see in our mirrors except younger and prettier. They’re probably angry because they never were as pretty as you.”
“Thank you, but I’m not doing it because of how I look.”
“Oh, I know that, honey. Anybody who watches you for more than a couple of minutes can see you aren’t showing off. They just think you are because they would.”
“Maybe. I try not to believe I always know what other people are thinking.”
“A lot of ’em aren’t thinking anything. They’re just reacting. I was in my first office job when my boss apologized for reacting all the time like I was a certain black man he knew in the Army. I never was in the Army, and I’m obviously not a man.”
I smiled. “Not as obvious as me.”
“Obvious enough. I’ll let you go on now, but I wanted to tell you to be strong. Anything worth doing is going to upset people.”
I was watching her hobble away when my phone rang. It was Wes. “Are you coming?” he asked without even saying ‘hi.’
Is that an invitation? “On my way.”
“Good. People want to talk to you.”
I hurried to the exhibition hall, but there were enough booths that it was hard to find the one for campus ministries. Wes was doing fine with the people there, but I started talking with some of them, too. Most were willing to hear my side of the story, not just accept Jason Green’s side. The business meeting started up again after worship, but a bunch of people were in the exhibition hall. It got even busier during the break. Judging by the people we talked to, the ones who had turned their backs while Wes was praying were also avoiding the booth.
“It’s almost eleven thirty,” Wes said during the first lull since we got to the booth. “Our time is up.”
“Go ahead, if you want. Mom and I are going to have lunch with my grampa before I go back. I’ll stay till they meet me here.”
He studied me for a bit. “I do need to get back to the capital, but I wanna say something first. It would be a whole lot easier to be your friend if you’d talk to me when I’m not holding you captive. I’ve heard you with other people. You’re a great talker.”
How can your heart stop and thud at the same time? “Sometimes I g-get all t-tongue-tied.”
“We all do, but I want to be your friend.”
“I do, too. I just… I don’t know.”
“Okay. Are you busy on Saturday? I’m going to a play with Damien – actually, you could come along – but I want to talk over some things for the rituals committee.”
How can your heart sing for joy and cry at the same time?
[Transcript Jason Green Show, June 13, 20__, 95.5FM, Coventry, Nitoma]
Well, folks, we’ve been talkin’ about the Mayor’s race on Memorial Day weekend, but nothin’s been done about it yet. Don’t look like nothin’s gonna get done neither. The newspaper and other media all seem to be in on it. Nobody’s got the guts to stand up and call this what it is. Pure, shameless, exhibitionism. Instead, they wanna talk about the way the nudie-toons Crime Fixer finished. Wise up, people. A naked girl floppin’ around in everybody’s face ain’t about the way she’s runnin’. Just exactly how long do you think a male politician would last if he had a naked girl runnin’ around? So, who in their right mind thinks it’s okay for a woman politician?
That was on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day itself is supposed to be for honorin’ all the soldiers that died for our freedom. You know what happened instead here in Coventry? There was a bunch of CADP people in one of our parks. CADP -- Crazy Ass Drunk Perverts. The Mayor wasn’t there, but she must have okayed it. Nobody has come up with any connection at all between strippin’ and treason against the government. Yes, I said treason. Those Crazy Ass Drunk Perverts are tryin’ to undermine the laws of the United States. That’s treason. And what do we do? Let ’em have a party in our parks. That ain’t right.
Okay. Our lines are open. Give me a call at nine-fifty-five-fifty-five-fifty-five-fifty-five; that’s a nine and nine fives. I’m Jason Green, and this is the voice for common sense. Call and give us your nickel’s worth. You’re worth more than two cents, and you know what law and honor mean.
My shift in the Lab on Monday was almost finished when Wes called. “Is this a bad time? I can keep it short.”
“No. I’m just about to sign out, and I won’t go running until later.”
“Good. Mom’s excited about meeting you and your family.”
“Why not? She’s always excited about meeting new people.”
We were still chatting several minutes later when I got to my suite. “So, was there a reason for this call?”
“What? Oh, yeah. It’s actually for my internship. They finally let me take over one of the events on Senator Parsons’ calendar. She’s on the planning committee for the Run for Hope there in Coventry, and I’m going to be the staff person working on it for her. It’s in the middle of September, after my internship is officially over, but I told ’em I want to work on it anyway.”
“It’s on my grandmother’s birthday, the one that died of breast cancer.”
“Oh! That’s… sad? ironic? I don’t know the right word.”
“Yeah. Most o’ the women on my dad’s side of the family have to deal with it. Jake’s gramma has decided to stop her treatments.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“No. Fortunately, my breasts are pretty healthy. They get a thorough check every month for the running research.” If you ever wanna check ’em out…
“Well, you can be thankful for that.”
“Listen. Senator Parsons and some of the others on the Planning Committee are going to meet over lunch at the Burning Bush Golf Course on Thursday, and they’d like you to be there if you can.”
“They have a guest of honor every year, and they want to ask you.”
“Really? Haven’t I had enough publicity?”
“You have had a lot. If you really don’t want to do it, you can say so on Thursday, and you’ll at least get a fancy meal out of it.”
“Wouldn’t that be rather dishonest?”
“Just tryin’ to offer a way out.”
“Was having me do it your idea or theirs?”
“Actually, it was Senator Parsons’, I think. She came back from Memorial Day with the idea.”
“Wow. A senator wants me to be the guest-of-honor for a big run. Does she know I’m in the protest plus I’ll be naked for the sorority?”
“I don’ know. Maybe. She knows you’re in the protest.”
“So are you. Four months tomorrow. It’s just over a month for me.”
“This isn’t a contest.”
“The governor seems to think it is. Have you seen him?”
“Only from a distance.”
I wanted to keep Wes on the phone as long as I could, but both of us had other things to do.
As I was running past the campus library that evening, I heard a shriek and a small crash, followed by one woman’s voice screaming and then more crashing. Reflexively, I went cautiously toward the sounds and found Angie screaming and using a rock to beat something on the pavement, something electronic. I had gotten Angie to drop the rock and was trying to get her to calm down and stop sobbing when a campus security officer came running up. It took a while to convince him that everything was okay, but Angie was still crying when he left. We started walking, and eventually Angie calmed down.
“Don’t try to call me,” she said finally.
“Why would I try to call you?” I asked. “We’re together.”
“I don’t know. That was my phone I was smashing.”
“Whoa! I sometimes get irritated at mine but nothing like that.”
“Yeah.” Angie sighed. “It’s a good thing it was just the phone and not Dad.”
“He’s why you were mad?”
“Yeah. I told him I was thinking about trying out for your sorority. He called me…” She wiped at tears. “H-h-he c-called m-me a G-God d-damned, f-fucking wh-hore. M-m-my own f-father.”
Angie stopped and looked around. “Where are we? I haven’t been paying attention.”
“We just passed the Chem building.”
“There’s a restroom in the park, isn’t there?” she asked, looking across the street.
“Yeah, more than one, or we can go back to the library.”
“No. The park.” A few minutes later, when she came out of the restroom, she was wearing a blue CADP medallion and her sandals; her clothes were in a trash can inside.
“That’s not a good way to get back on your dad’s good side,” I said.
“He can go fuck himself!”
“Tomorrow when I do my CADP volunteering, I’ll make it official. If I don’t get into your sorority, I’ll still be naked, and Dad can just, can just…”
“You know, when you’re really upset isn’t a good time to make major decisions.”
“I’ve been working toward this one for a long time.”
At my counseling appointment on Wednesday, I was hoping to talk about Wes. However, my counselor, Victoria, didn’t know much about any church, let alone Methodist, so I had to explain a lot about Annual Conference and all that. She wanted to know more about Grampa Irv and why I was so surprised he wasn’t totally against me. That was always just the way it was. We never saw much of him and Gramma Elaine while I was growing up. Grandy and Gramma Iris were always closer. About Wes, Victoria said she had some attractive gay friends, but she never worried about relationships that weren’t likely to change much. Good for her, I thought as I walked back to the ARC. She might as well tell me not to worry if I couldn’t run for the rest of my life. If that was the best answer she had…
The lunch meeting on Thursday was at the city’s newest and fanciest golf course. When I drove into the parking lot, I wished I had run rather than driven even though the temperature was way too hot for running. Every car in the lot was a whole lot newer and a whole lot fancier than mine.
“Hello, Iris” said a woman who arrived at the door of the clubhouse just ahead of me. She looked like she had just come from a beauty salon or maybe had stepped out of the pages of a women’s catalog, one that was too expensive for anybody I knew to even look at, anybody except Lina Martinyuk. It took me a little bit to remember Margot Black. Her husband had been Grandy’s college teammate. She seemed to be trying hard not to let it show how nervous she was.
Just inside the door, I turned to her. “Listen. The guy who called me said you want me to be the guest of honor for the Run for Hope. I’m not a cancer survivor.”
“With your award this spring and the Mayor’s race, you’re the best known runner in the city right now. We hope to capitalize on that. We’ve also been wanting to involve younger women. The sororities helped for several years, but they moved on to other causes. We never ask a large amount of time from our guests of honor. If you’re comfortable speaking to groups, you could do as many as your schedule allows. That’s entirely up to you. There would be several activities on the weekend of the Run.”
“You want me to talk to groups?”
“You’re in the death penalty protest, are you not? Bud and I are supporters of Governor Dityne, but Bud is actually hoping that your nudity will be decriminalized.”
Senator Parsons and Mayor Mansfield came in before I had a chance to ask about that. After we had all ordered, the Senator turned to me. “You need to know why we were late.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m sure your jobs keep you busy.”
“This was bigger than our jobs. Do you know who Senator Hogue is?”
I nodded. “He was on that news show about the strike back in May, but I’m registered in my home district.”
“That’s good. How about Jason Green? Do you know who he is?”
“The guy on the radio.”
“He’s also been one of my most outspoken critics since before I was elected and one of Senator Hogue’s strongest supporters.” She paused, studying me.
“Not all supporters of the Governor are that crazy,” Margot said.
“Of course not,” the Mayor said, “but they’re asking the state police, the county sheriff, and the city police to rescind their agreement with the researchers and arrest them and you followed by the other strikers and anybody else who is nude in public.”
“They’re also threatening Marsha with recall for asking you to marshal the Mayor’s Race and calling for Chief Bertram’s resignation for naming you Crime Fighter of the Week rather than arresting you.”
“They’re also calling for the firing of any university officials who support you or the running researchers in any way.”
“You aren’t in this alone,” the Senator said. “All of that’s been on their agenda for quite a while. But this morning my… esteemed colleague asked the state Supreme Court to issue a summary ruling to enforce the statute on nudity and to block any contravening agreements.”
After several seconds of silence, I looked at my plate. “I guess the real surprise is how long it took ’em.”
“It isn’t over yet,” the Senator said. No one at the table had taken her eyes off me. “Your protest has First Amendment protection. Our state Supreme Court can’t and won’t overrule that.”
“But when the strike ends…” I bit my lip and tried to blink back the tears that suddenly filled my eyes.
The Mayor put her hand on my arm. “Let me assure you of continued police protection.”
“That’s… that’s not it.” I wiped my eyes with a linen napkin.
“Yes, well, it does take a while to get calloused about personal attacks. They still hurt, but I’ve learned not to let it show.”
“I’m sorry. I… That’s not really it, either. This is so weird.”
“It certainly would be strange for me to be sitting here so calmly,” Margot said. “I certainly admire your courage.”
“That’s not it. It’s almost the opposite. It was…” I paused when our waiter brought our salads. “When you were talking about what they’re trying to do to make everybody wear clothes all the time again, it was like… I don’t know. Like… Really? That’s more important than keeping people from dying?”
The Mayor patted my arm and sat back in her chair. “To be perfectly honest, my job would have been easier in the past few months if the running research had never been approved, and the governor would certainly prefer that nobody had joined your strike. However, the easy way is seldom the best way.”
Senator Parsons said, “Marsha and I had a long conversation before the Mayor’s Race when it was announced that you would be the marshal. Personally, I’m uncertain that nudity should be allowed in public, but I am firmly convinced ending the death penalty won’t destroy life as we know it and that nudity is not the threat Green and Hogue are making it out to be. They’re trying to stir things up to further their own private agendas. You happen to have given them a quite visible target.”
“You don’t need to apologize.”
I looked at Margot. “With all this, your committee probably won’t want me to be part of your Run.”
Margot chuckled. “You don’t know our committee.”
The Senator took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Hogue and Green mostly object to what comes from their own imaginations.”
“Yeah. Actually watching somebody run naked is a lot less exciting than imagining it.”
“I suppose so.”
“So, I don’t know this stuff. If the Supreme Court does what they’re asking, how quick would that be?”
“They usually take at least a month to study the issue and prepare their ruling.”
“And the Run is about three months away. And the Governor could stop the death penalty any time, couldn’t he?”
“He could, but that’s not likely. The Governor is trying to wait out you strikers. Despite the claims of Green and Hogue, your open nudity has caused no problems.”
“It has caused some problems for me, but I know what you mean.”
“I wasn’t at the Mayor’s Race on Memorial Day – only the preliminary events the night before – but some of my staff were. Frankly, because of the advance publicity, we expected problems. You could have been wearing a Muslim burka for all the problems my staff observed.”
“There wouldn’t have been as many cameras. If I was wearing a burka, I probably would never have been asked to be the marshal.”
“Probably not. If your sorority were going to wear burkas, we would probably hear about it, but I doubt it would cause much of a stir.”
“Yeah. That’s one thing the conservative Moslems and Christians on campus agree about.”
Senator Parsons laughed out loud.
That evening, when I got back from running, Angie was studying in the lounge outside my room. She was wearing only the CADP medallion and sandals and had spent the afternoon at the CADP office, but she hadn’t officially signed up for the strike. She wanted to see first if she could go without clothes for a full week. I laughed and took her to the snack bar for ice cream just before it closed.
Soon after I got to the Lab on Friday morning, there was a phone call from the Dean of Student Affairs, who wanted to talk with me as soon as possible. There were plenty of people working in the Lab, so I headed for the Admin Building. The Dean was concerned about the same legal maneuvers by Senator Hogue and Jason Green as Senator Parsons and Mayor Mansfield had been the day before. He had already talked with Dr. Randall and wanted to assure me, too, that the University would support us completely and would not back out of the agreements they had made. I walked back to the Lab, rather than running, wondering what he had said that he couldn’t have said over the phone or why he even had to say it at all. Dr. Randall had gotten calls from Chief Bertram, the county sheriff’s office, and the state police headquarters assuring him they wouldn’t change their agreements without a complete negotiation or a direct order from the courts; they said the same applied to agreements for the sorority.
“If nobody’s going to change anything,” I asked, “why are they making such a big deal about it?”
“We have a state senator and a talk-show host with a big audience trying to stop what we’re doing,” Dr. Randall replied. “Some things you just shouldn’t ignore. I’m glad for the new recruits we’re getting for the research, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be wise for all of you to be running indoors for a while.”
“Maybe, probably, but my sorority isn’t about hiding inside.”
In the midst of everything else, I began working that evening on my sorority application. I should not automatically be in just because it was my idea. If twenty four other women better fit what the recruitment committee had set up, they should be the ones in the sorority. Maybe next year, if the sorority was successful, we could get more than six four-person suites and make it bigger. Lily wanted to come to the University and join the sorority. It would be a bummer, though, if my little sister got in and I didn’t. Not likely. The obsessing I used to do about racing had kicked in when I was working on my Scholar’s Project proposal – apparently like Grampa Irv – and it was going strong on the sorority application. If this didn’t get me in, there was something wrong with Cassie’s process. Angie’s application was pretty strong, too. I had gotten her to promise that when – not if! – she got into the sorority, she would make her participation in the strike official one way or the other and let her family know she was okay.
The one thing that might keep me out was grades. Partying too much didn’t go along with good grades. The spring semester had been all A’s, but before that, before I started running again, not so much. Actually, I didn’t know my overall average. I had the letters about all four semesters, but I never had the guts to open them. With them all in a nice, neat pile beside my computer… I went over to the chapel to hang out with Angie. Having the lead project for the Scholars Program felt so good that I just couldn’t face ruining it all by looking at grade reports that should have gotten me kicked out of school. Angie was studying, so I took along my computer to read background research for the studies we were going to do.
Just a few minutes after I started work on Tuesday, I was trying to figure out why one of the treadmills wasn’t working when a call came in for me on one of the Lab phone lines. Dr. Mabharati – Amaryllis’s boss – wanted me to meet the full organizing committee for the Run for Hope on Thursday. After I got the details and we hung up, I stared at the phone. The meeting was going to be at the St. James church. I didn’t know who the pastors there were, but it was pretty likely they knew Mom and had been at Annual Conference. Should I have asked about clothes? No, that would have been dumb. What do people who aren’t blonde call their blonde moments? If Senator Parsons was at the meeting, maybe Wes would be, too. Stop it! Wes was just too… too… too perfect. Before going back to the treadmill I had been working on, I checked my cell phone. There were a couple of silly messages from Wes and one from Angie asking about lunch. If everybody I knew kept wanting to talk to me over food, my weight would start going back up.
A call to the treadmill company revealed that the problem was a required driver update, so I spent the rest of the morning downloading and installing drivers and updating all the computerized equipment from that company. On the way to the chapel – where Angie wanted to meet for lunch – I listened to an excited voicemail from Piña and then called her back. The director of the marching band had sent a message to everybody in the band saying that the band members who were in the death penalty protest wouldn’t be required to wear band uniforms for their performances. Piña still hoped the protest would be over before then, but she was really excited about the support. I was almost to the chapel when I got a text message from Wes with the same news.
The weather was already hot and muggy on Wednesday when I went for an early run in the morning. It felt like a good day to stay inside in the air conditioning, but running outside was really great even when it was hot. When I mentioned Wes to Victoria, she asked about my relationship history. Well, okay. Maybe that would go somewhere. I had a boyfriend in middle school, but it was only for a couple of weeks. The closest we even had to a date was Cokes at the mall.
Things got more serious in high school. I was with Tyler from the end of cross country season when we were freshmen to Christmas break when we were juniors. His father was a Lutheran minister, so we had being preachers’ kids in common, too. We didn’t break up; his family moved away from Gardner. We tried to stay together long distance, but it didn’t work. Since Tyler, there wasn’t much to tell. I went out with groups sometimes in high school. In college, when I was drinking, it wasn’t about relationships.
“So,” Victoria said, “you haven’t dated since the middle of your junior year in high school.”
“It seems… I don’t know. Over spring break, my little sister asked if she could borrow my prom dress. It doesn’t seem like something anybody would forget, but I honestly don’t remember going to prom. She pulled a dress out of my closet, and I didn’t remember it, either.”
“You’re certain it was your dress?”
“She thought it was. I really don’t remember it.”
Victoria let it go at that and asked about my relationship with Wes. I could talk about him all day. When the session was over, I had a lot to think about. Not many answers, but a ton of questions. The wild thunderstorms that afternoon and evening seemed appropriate.
The weather was cooler on Thursday with a predicted high only in the low to mid-eighties. According to the Internet, it was just over four miles from the ARC to St. James church. Wes had texted me not to show up sweaty and out of breath. He was probably joking, but the church’s website said they had pick-up basketball games in their gym, so they might have a place where I could shower.
The HP Lab was busy in the morning, so I didn’t get away quite as soon as I had planned and had to run a little faster than usual. It was still well within what I could do easily. Running through a beautiful warm day reminded me again how grateful I was to be able to run again. I was floating along, letting my mind wander when suddenly I was at the door of the church.
And there was Wes! And he was talking with Craig Colborne, a little bit older friend of Mom’s.
“There’s the city’s most famous Methodist,” Craig said as I came running up to them.
I said, “hi,” and turned to the brick tower next to where they were standing to start immediately on my warm-down stretches.
“Hey, Running. You’ll make more points with her,” he said to Craig while still looking at me, “if you don’t emphasize that.”
“Oh, sorry,” Craig said. “Wes was just telling me you’re… Oh, I shouldn’t mention that, either.”
“Are you serving here now?” I asked.
“Yup, believe it or not, starting tomorrow, and they haven’t run me out of town yet.”
“I doubt they will. The Senator’s intern said I’m not supposed to be sweaty for our meeting, so I hope your shower’s working.”
“So far as I know. The air conditioning is, too, but you’ll be happy to know that we intentionally keep it set a little higher than most places. I hope you two will be comfortable.”
“We’ve had a lot of practice getting used to it,” Wes said.
When I got to the room where the meeting was going to be, I was especially glad the air conditioning wasn’t any lower. There weren’t any towels in the locker room, so I had dried off only a little with paper towels and a blow dryer. I didn’t have much time to think about that. Senator Parsons, Mayor Mansfield, and Margot Black seemed to be competing with each other to see who could introduce me to the most other committee members. Dr. Hall was also on the planning committee, and Dr. Mabharati had invited Amaryllis, apparently like Wes and Senator Parsons. I didn’t realize Craig Colborne was in the room until Margot Black called for everyone’s attention and asked him to say a word of grace.
While people started through the catered buffet line, Margot called me to the front, introduced me to the group as this year’s guest of honor but without going into all they had probably already heard about me in the news, and asked me to tell them about Gramma Iris. It was easy to talk about Gramma Iris, but I started by having Amaryllis wave and pointing out that Gramma Iris was her aunt. I briefly told about Gramma Iris’s diagnosis, treatment, and death.
“I understand,” Margot said into her microphone when I stopped, “you also had a life changing injury on the day before she died.”
“It was the day after.” I looked at Wes in the back of the room. “I was an athlete in high school, a runner. The day after Gramma died, I was in an accident and broke my ankle… and had to stop running… for about two years. I don’t… No apologies. My first year and a half here at the University had a lot more alcohol than books. It was a mess. I was a mess. When I got into the running research back in February, I got my life back. It’s that simple. I got my life back. You’ve probably heard a lot about me in the news, but that’s the more important part you haven’t heard.”
I paused for a moment, studying Wes. “When I was in high school, I studied so I could run. I had to keep my grades up so I could be on the cross-country and track teams. I didn’t do music or theater or any of that. I was in Speech because my mom’s a preacher. I thought I would go to college on a track scholarship like my dad and grampa both did. And then I broke my ankle. If it wasn’t for the research, I’d just be one more statistic about how college kids drink too much and put on too much weight and flunk out. I’d probably be on the way to having really… I don’t know… sick? breasts, too. On Dad’s side of the family, most of the women do. Amaryllis, can I tell ’em about your mother?” Amaryllis was standing with about half of the others by the buffet line but giving more attention to me than to food. She nodded.
“My Aunt Violet, Gramma Iris’s sister, was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts just after Easter. Amaryllis can tell you all the nasty details if you want ’em. She started treatment but stopped again right away because of how sick it made her. She’s on pain pills now, but that’s about all. If you talk to Amaryllis about it, you better have a good supply of kleenex. Aunt Violet told me she doesn’t wanna go through what Gramma did. Gramma had a double mastectomy, and they took a bunch of lymph nodes, too. Maybe some of you have been through that or know somebody like Gramma. At Christmas time about two and a half months before she died, my mom’s church had a mother with a new baby in a Christmas play; the baby was fussy, and the mom nursed it right during the play, covered up, of course. It was in a church.” There was light laughter.
“My sister and brother and I stayed to help Mom get ready for the late service while Dad took Gramma and Grandy home. We’re their only grandkids. When we got home, the three of them were in the living room by our Christmas tree, and Gramma had her shirt off. I don’t know why. She never did that. She’s probably pretty scandalized if she’s looking down on us right now. But she had her shirt off, and she was crying.” I put my open palms against my chest, between my breasts, not hiding them. “That’s… the only time I saw her… her scars.”
I chewed on my lip, looking around the room at everyone. “I want you guys to do something. None of you are eating, so put down your forks or plates or anything else you’re holding. Yes, put ’em down. You can pick ’em up again in a minute. Now touch your breasts. You don’t have to take your shirt or anything else off. Wes and Craig, you do it, too. Guys can get breast cancer. Don’t worry about people looking at you; I’m the weird one in the room. You may only have one breast left or – like my gramma – none. But you know what they feel like and how beautiful they are. When Amaryllis is doing her computer magic in Dr. Mabharati’s lab, she puts all kinds of amazing colors all over the screen, but it’s nowhere near as beautiful as what you’re touching right now. Nobody should ever have to cover that up just to nurse a baby. Nobody should ever have to have that cut off.”
I dropped my hands to my sides. “Okay. You can quit feeling yourselves up now. My feelings won’t be hurt if you decide you don’t want me for your guest of honor. But please don’t ever stop working so nobody ever again has to go through what my gramma went through and what my Aunt Violet is going through right now.”
After a few seconds, the applause started. After a couple of minutes, Margot Black quit trying to stop the standing ovation.
“You don’t have to give me a ride back to campus,” I said to Wes after most of the people had left the meeting. “I’m a runner, remember? I can get back the way I got here.”
“Senator Parsons wants to give you a ride, and I always do what my boss wants.”
He tapped his phone to look at the time. “Half an hour ago?”
I looked away. “It’s a good thing I don’t hate you.”
I frowned and sighed. Why couldn’t I think straight when I was around him? “I thought it was only scary movies where politicians kidnap people.”
“Look,” Wes said, turning to me fiercely. “Just hear her out. Okay? She wants to tell you something. I don’t know what it is, but you can go when she’s done.”
“You don’t… you don’t hafta… I’ll stay. I was just… I don’ know… being a bitchy blonde, I guess.”
I drew a slow breath. Before I could think of any way to respond, Senator Parsons broke off from her conversation and came across the room. “We’ll have to hurry back to the capital. Thanks for waiting. Do you need anything before we take you to campus?”
“If you’re in a hurry, I can…”
“No.” She turned toward the exit. “You certainly erased any question anyone might have had about whether we have the right guest of honor. How many speaking engagements do you have?”
“I didn’t count.”
“Nine,” Wes said. “I was putting them on her calendar for her.”
“I don’t even know how to use my calendar.”
The Senator chuckled. “He’s helping a lot in our office that way, too.”
“I can sit in back,” I said as we approached the car in the lot.
“No, you’re in front with me.” As she was backing out of the parking place, she went on, “If there was any way we could pull it off, you’d have another engagement on your calendar.”
“Well, I’m going to be busier once school starts, but I can…”
“You can’t get around the Supreme Court’s rules about proper attire.”
“I thought… the First Amendment and all that.”
The Senator accelerated out of the parking lot and onto the busy street faster than either Wes or I would have. “The Court has rules about how one must be dressed if one is to address the Court. They probably date back to the sixties or seventies and some hippie lawyer. The point is the Court has set August ninth for oral arguments on Senator Hogue’s request for a summary ruling. We could get around the fact you’re not a member of the bar or licensed to address the Court, but we can’t get around their rules.”
“Sorry. Let me give you some background. You and Wes are both so sharp I forget I have to do that sometimes. Summary rulings from the Court almost never have oral arguments. The last one was in the sixties when we were trying to figure out how our state constitution fit with the federal voting laws. Hell, it’s not even clear what they want argued.”
“Is that the call you got on the way here this morning?” Wes asked from the back seat.
“One of ’em.”
“Maybe we can learn more when we get back to your office.”
“Maybe. When we get out onto the interstate, I’ll have you drive, and I’ll see what I can find out. Iris… your mother’s a preacher, right?”
“Yes. She’s chair of the committee that’s helping Wes toward becoming one.”
“What about you?”
“Me? A preacher?! I don’t think so.”
“With the way you can move a crowd, you might be surprised.” She pulled into the left turn lane and signaled to go onto campus. “If only Hogue and Green could see how little you two threaten our normal way of life, we could save considerable time and energy. Governor Dityne, too.”
One of the phone calls I had missed while I was at the committee meeting was from Barb Maxwell. I called her back after checking in at the HP Lab. Barb had already heard from Dr. Hall and was full of praise for my speech. “Mom says, when you’re preaching to the choir, you don’t have to try hard to be successful.”
“According to Dr. Hall, this was even better than your speech to the Scholars Program committee.”
“That one had more planning. This one was just off the cuff except I’m not wearing cuffs these days.”
Barb chuckled. “Listen. I’m looking for people to be on the Worship Planning Team for the coming year. I could explain it all, but you probably can guess from being around your mother. Wes will be on the team.”
Why should that make a difference? “You know, one of the things Dad does for Mom is help her say no when she’s already too busy. The hardest ones are ones she wants to do.”
“Is that a no?”
“I wish it wasn’t. Honest. Already just today, I have nine more times when I’m going to give speeches to different groups here in town about the Run for Hope. Between that and the sorority, I might have to quit sleeping. I won’t quit running.”
“That would be a non-starter. Listen. You’re already working through the University with press contacts, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. I basically told ’em no interviews or pictures. That may have to change for the Run for Hope.”
“Maybe. You might see about working with the Speakers Bureau in the University Public Relations office. They have a lot of experience working with professors.”
“I already have a contract with the PR offices. I probably should let them know about all these speeches I’m gonna give.”
I was surprised when I called the PR office to be talking with McKenzie Gregory. She had gotten a student job there. We chatted briefly about Nate and the sorority. Then McKenzie helped me set up my calendar so the PR office had access to the speaking engagement part of it. McKenzie told me that Carmelita Lopez-DiGrigorio had joined the strike, though she had a business suit handy for some occasions.
With the distance to the St. James church, I could have passed on my evening run, but I really wanted to talk with McKenzie. It wasn’t that I had any particular topic, although there were plenty. I just wanted to be with her and to run.