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Bourgeois

by John J. Clayton


Bourgeois, Peter says to himself. Bourgeois. The word came to him out of nowhere. It’s turned, in the last century or so, into a moral category. To be bourgeois is to be comically vulgar, self centered, pretentious, materialistic. Is to lack courage and independence. To spend money on comfort and image. To have money and feel you deserve it, use it to keep the world easy to handle.

Nowadays you hardly hear the word bourgeois. But half a century ago, it was a word we used to express our contempt. It had aesthetic and moral meaning: They are so fucking bourgeois. Like that. As if to put down all the old farts, who were prisoners of the culture. Which is what we were all afraid of becoming—what we secretly feared we were.

And now look at us, he says to himself. Leaning against the Carrera marble counter in our renovated kitchen in Newton, Massachusetts, look at us—we gripe and fuss about the appetizers we’ll serve our friends at the dinner party next Saturday.

He stops, he looks at his wife. “Did you ever believe—I mean when we were young—we’d become this bourgeois?”

“Is that so terrible?” Andrea asks.

“Oh, terribly terrible,” Peter laughs. Originally, he reminds her, bourgeois referred to free men in a town, a bourg; then, in France, to a class—the third estate. Marx used the word for those who owned the means of production. “But for us,” he says, “when we were young, it didn’t refer so much to class; it meant simply the opposite of real and free.”

“Not among my friends,” she says. “It just meant emulating the rich and safe and respectable. Especially the rich with no taste.”

“That too.  .  .  .  Yes. That too,” he says. They sit at the kitchen table. He pours them a good dry white to go with the fish. And as he sips, and as he cuts the fish, he knows enough not to tell her the story that, for a moment, just for a moment, went through his head. The story of himself and Shanti.

~

1969. Beautiful Shanti—she’d named herself; it meant, in Sanskrit, “Peace,” though, God knows, she was never peaceful—she drove, Peter sitting shotgun, through Boston, middle of one night, The Dead playing very low over the car radio, and in the back a bag of stickers reading “THE WAR!” Crouching on top of the car, watching for cop cars with their lights off, Peter slapped the stickers on STOP signs:

STOP
THE WAR!

Sure, the war, stop it, please—what were we doing in this ugly war? But the sign meant more: STOP everything that limited creative freedom, that took away our sexual freedom and imaginations and substituted the careerist, materialist values of capitalism for our free spirit, for the spirit of self-creation. Putting up the stickers gave Peter a rush of joy. He was working hard to be true and real and free, not bourgeois. You see? I’m not just a grad student in literature—I’m a political activist.

Both in their late twenties, both playing a little wild.

Now, almost half a century on, he and Andrea pay for long-term disability insurance. If they travel, they buy travel insurance and make plans six months ahead. How’s that for bourgeois?

He and the long-legged woman with him, Shanti—what was her real name?—were sexually charged by the taking of risk—protesting the system, all systems. Luckily the Boston cops, who snatched, beat, and jailed others that night, didn’t get them. Five a.m., stickers pasted or tossed, they ate morning catch at the No Name down by Fish Pier at Boston Harbor. Then they went to his place and made love and slept. Protest against the state and a generation of bourgeois parents gave erotic power. Politics were sexual, sex political—a gesture of freedom. Bombs for peace. Sex to break open the bourgeois self.

No, he wouldn’t talk to Andrea about all that. She’d wonder, old as they are, why you’re remembering this Shanti . . . you thought so beautiful. Of course there’s that; but even more, he simply doesn’t want her to laugh at him for his pretensions, his youthful self-seriousness.

After dinner, as he rolls up his sleeves and washes the dishes, he remembers the war against the bourgeois self; remembers:

Jimi Hendrix, his back to his stoned acolytes, on stage at Monterey, screwing his guitar, he gestured furious thumping sex, then burned and smashed the beloved guitar. A sacrifice at a black mass. In just a few years Hendrix would burn out—he himself the sacrifice. For good children of successful parents, the daemonic was unleashed. Unleashed in Hendrix and Jim Morrison, “King of Orgasmic Rock,” so it didn’t have to be enacted by the good children. Hendrix, Morrison did the dying. And on 11th Street off Fifth in Manhattan, theater of the self turned real and terrible when explosives blew up the bomb makers along with the townhouse.

One night—he was organizing papers, getting ready for bed—Shanti called. Said, “This phone not tapped?”

“I don’t know.” A mark of prestige in 1969, your phone being tapped. Some were.

“I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

He’d been working that night on an essay on Theater of the Absurd. He put it aside and got dressed.

She wore a work shirt, sheer black panty hose under cutoff jeans, a jeans jacket, a poncho for the rain. Her hair was long, sleek black. He pulled her to him, but she stiffened. “No time. We’ve been given a job,” she began. Stopped. “Has this apartment been swept?”

“It’s not dirty.”

“Fool!” She laughed. “I meant swept for listening devices.” She didn’t wait for an answer. He felt like a dope. She put Beethoven on the stereo. Loud. She crooked a finger. In the kitchen they whispered together. “Someone at MIT,” she said, “you know who I mean—wants me to drive this guy—a deserter, won’t fight in Vietnam—up to Canada. Safest we go right away. Now. Tonight. My car’s downstairs. Come with me?”

Right away he was falling into a terror-hole. Still, it puffed him up that she wanted him to help. If he asked questions, she’d get annoyed, she’d get judgmental, pissed that he didn’t trust her. Sometimes she eased up, she grinned, Shanti. She had a nice, sexy smile. But usually she played tough cop. Which somehow—God knows why—turned him on. Well. That plus she was so cool. That plus her beautiful yoga body, lithe and firm, and her hard Wasp face. Even if she didn’t put him down, he’d feel like a wimp if he asked questions. Which, of course, he was. Exactly. So without a word he put on his boots, as if they were going to—what?—walk to the border? He filled a thermos with water and ice, pulled his raincoat off a peg, and, feeling the pounding Beethoven bass through his body like the thump of his blood, flooded with energy and fear, he took the needle off the record, switched off the stereo, and in five minutes they were out of there. Their laughter, tension somehow released, echoed down the stairwell.

Getting into the car, he said, knowledgeably: “We’re going up I-89? It’s about five hours to Montreal. Less. I’ve done it once.”

She pulled out into traffic. “We’re not taking him across. We’re meeting someone by the Mohawk reservation in upstate New York. They’ll bring him through the reservation and over into Canada.”

He was relieved. “By boat?” he asked. “Across the St. Lawrence?”

She didn’t answer. “He’ll be in a bar near Central Square,” she said.

And he was. Or rather, right outside the bar, at the corner. It was drizzling lightly; he wore a raincoat, hood pulled up. Shanti slipped into a no-parking space and, keeping the motor running, looked the guy over. He carried a backpack; a rat-like head strained forward on his skinny neck as he peered through the rain at the car. He pulled down his hood so they could see him. Scruffy, unshaven, face tense. Peter’s stomach took a roller coaster ride. Suppose he’s a plant, suppose it’s a setup by the FBI. “You trust your source?” Peter asked.

Trust? Sure. You know who it is, my source, right? Sure.” Then: “Don’t you?”

He nodded slightly. Like, ridiculous question. Guy came toward them. Tall, lanky white boy. Raincoat over chinos. He looked cold. Peter rolled down the window. “I /get /a /lift /north?” the kid asked, saying the words separately, slowly, as if reading them from a book.

She leaned across and nodded. “Magnetic /north,” she said. “Yeah, we’re your ride. Hurry up. Hop in.” Then, to Peter, “You okay to drive one way?” She walked around the car, opened the door. Peter took the wheel.

He drove just below the speed limit. Meantime the kid in back began singing, and in the rearview mirror, Peter noticed a bottle—kid was tippling from a bottle of Wild Turkey. 101 proof. Shanti, wearing earplugs, tried to sleep, passenger seat of the old Volvo tilted back. But she wasn’t asleep; her lips were set tight in disapproval. This was a serious matter; she didn’t want the kid to fuck it up. He sang, song blurring into song.

“Will you stop drinking and take this seriously?” Shanti said slowly in sleep voice. “You’ve got to be on your feet when we get there.”

The kid was singing Dylan, singing Motown. He stopped drinking. “See? No bottle,” he announced, rolled down the window and tossed the half-empty bottle, like a Molotov cocktail, into the air, off the highway. It cracked and splattered. “Next stop, Leavenworth,” he groaned. “They catch me, my sorry ass goes straight to prison. Military prison.” Now he was crying, encouraging tears to come.

“How old are you?”

The kid didn’t answer. “Tell you, I been getting laid all over the place. Get to a safe house, some eighteen-year-old chick be dying for my bod. I tell you!”

Sure, Peter said to himself, You burn a draft card or make a speech on the sidewalk, six in the morning, young men lined up waiting for the draft board physical to open its doors, it’s no big deal, nothing exciting. Worst that can happen, you get taken to the police station. It’s a hassle. But this kid represented danger, real risk, abetting a deserter. And risk was sexy. The dumb kid probably telling the truth about the sex, oh, inflating it, sure, but telling the truth.

“Scares me,” the kid said. “Go to jail, I’ll go for years without sex. Hey, babe, oh, I c’d use some comfort back here,” he kind of sang. “You want to crawl into the back seat with me?”

Shanti ignored him.

Peter caught the kid’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Hey! You cool it or we’ll dump you right here. You want that?”

Shanti tapped his shoulder. She shook her head. “Come on. It’s cool. Be cool.” She climbed over the seat, into the back. Peter knew it was because he’d gotten annoyed. She wasn’t going to be limited by anything. In the mirror he saw Shanti nestle the kid. He burrowed between her breasts. To show he was giving her privacy, Peter flipped up the rearview mirror. Playing with the radio dial, he found a country-western song—trailer park heartache. He left it on as ironic comment.

And it went with the weather.

The drizzle had turned to mist. Almost no traffic as diagonally he crossed New Hampshire, Vermont, northwest into New York, above Lake Champlain and along N.Y. 11. They were whispering in the back, then for a long time something was happening that made the kid sort of moan, sort of sing out. Now he laughed, mumbled something. Shanti climbed next to Peter and flipped the mirror down. “What’s the matter? You don’t like it? You got a complaint?”

He said nothing, looked at the road.

“See,” she said. “That’s your problem right there. Bourgeois deep down.”

“Hey! If you’re happy, I’m happy,” he said. He blurted a laugh. “You’re happy, I’m happy, the kid’s certainly happy.”

She laughed. “I comforted him. You stick to your driving, Mr. Bourgeois.”

Bourgeois, babe, that’s when you get suckered into somebody’s pity party.” He grinned at her, and that’s all she needed. They were okay again. She reached past the shifter knob and gave a squeeze between his legs.

In the mirror he saw the kid close his eyes and curl up into the back seat. Shanti looked at Peter and lifted her eyebrows. It was a question: Are we cool? Peter nodded, ran his fingers through her hair, and drove on, his head buzzing, turned on, body suffused by adrenaline, breath hot. Maybe, he thought, maybe on the way back we could stop at a motel. But no. Don’t want a record on some motel ledger. He felt strong, not too tired from driving—felt all through his body the juice given him by the drama.

Almost six in the morning, sky lightening, the road circumvented a small town, another, woods, woods on both sides of the road. Shanti unfolded the map and gave him directions, and there they were, a road into the woods, a big faded, painted wooden sign across the entrance: Mohawk Akwesesane Reservation. In those days there was no casino.

They pulled over and waited. Nobody. What would they do if nobody came?

The kid got out, strapped on his backpack. He stretched, yawned, turned to Peter. “Fucking woods.” Then: “Thanks, man. Are we cool? About her?”

“No sweat.”

Shanti got out, kissed Peter’s cheek, put her hand on the kid’s shoulder. “You’ll be okay.”

A big guy in a checked woolen shirt and jeans slipped out of the woods, rifle strapped to his back. He stayed where they could see him, lifted his hand and waved the kid to him.

“Go ahead,” Peter said to him. “And good luck.”

“Truck’s off the road back a ways,” the man called. He turned and walked down the reservation road. The kid turned back to Shanti and Peter. “Hey! Thanks. Thanks!”—and followed, kicking his boots down the gravel road. Stopped, turned back—“Thanks. Hey. You think this is okay?”

“Sure to be,” Peter said.

“Sure. I guess,” the kid said. He laughed a big, ringing, high-pitched laugh and trotted across the paved secondary road, down the gravel road. The Indian kept walking.

~

Back before noon, they showered together, slept till it was time for his graduate class. That night Shanti called the professor, their contact. The package, he told her, was delivered a couple of hours ago. They’d done good work.

One afternoon a few months later over coffee, Shanti showed Peter a postcard. “Basking in this fugin’ tropical paradise, Love, Andy,” scribbled diagonally across the card—color picture on the front of a chalet half-buried in snow, a path to the door through snow shoulder height. By the time they met, Shanti was sleeping with someone else, Peter sleeping with someone else—with Libby, who became his first wife.

“Remember how scared you were,” Shanti laughed. Laughed, got past it, not wanting to put him down, then remembered something funny, fell into laughter again.

“Scared? I don’t remember that,” he lied. “Anyway, we got him out. It was good.”

Good, though he knew they helped him mostly in order to appear to themselves as righteous, brave, wild. Still—that terrible war—how could he not fight against it? He’s proud of what he did back then, false as he was.

~

Now, half a century years later, here he is, Peter, retired from the career he never tired of, career he was proud of, as professor in Comp Lit, though in those days of the war in Vietnam he was a little ashamed to work toward any career.

He looks at Andrea across the table; she smiles at him. She’s making a list for the Saturday party. She’s changed him. Doubtless, for the better. They’ve been married thirty years. Love, stronger over the years, has changed him. Maybe tamed him. Made his life more true.

And of course they’ve both been changed by time.

It’s been over forty-five years since he took that trip with Shanti, thirty-five since he met Andrea. We’re getting old. There are lines in her face, lines in his. Of course—so what? It’s that they were a generation he felt would never grow old—it seemed impossible—and never give in. Now wrinkles are worn along with designer jeans. Peter sees hippies of three score and ten, with pony tails and moustaches, in fashionable jeans and work shirts—youthful at a distance but, ah, look a little closer: dragged-out, lined faces, fearful, tired, a bedraggled walk. The world has gotten to them, but they’re still fighting not to give in.

Or folks like us, he thinks, with a respectable look, we’re the establishment we once ran from. We’ve given in plenty. We’re comfortably buffered from a suffering world.

The world still as terrible as it was back then, 1969. No—more terrible. Millions running from their homes across borders, nothing waiting for them, thousands kidnapped as child soldiers or sex slaves. Millions addicted to heroin or crystal meth or alcohol—a way of coping. The world—world as hell. He feels guilt, writes checks. Does some volunteer work. That’s all he does. Guilt that he’s okay in the midst of hell. The suffering of so many—he can hardly bear to face it even on a TV screen. If it’s not Libya, it’s Nigeria; if it’s not Indonesia, it’s Syria. Children flee on the top of box cars; a ten-year-old girl is strapped inside an explosive vest.

Yet, bourgeois that he is, that suffering is not what he worries about most of the day. He worries about mortgages, investment portfolios, their children, their grand­children. Andrea is a curator of photography at the MFA. Will her budget get axed? Will Sheila find a good job when she gets her doctorate? Is Noah stifled in his Chicago ob-gyn practice? Their granddaughter Leah, is she safe on the streets? Everyday, useless worries.

Andrea refills his wine glass. “So how are we fixed for cheese and crackers?”

“Plenty of crackers—we can use some nice cheese. Or I’ll make hummus.”

“So does it bother you, truly, I mean it, to be so bourgeois? Have I done that to you?”

“It’s not you. And it’s not ‘terribly terrible.’ As long as we remember the people who would give anything to be so privileged.”

“Have it your way,” she says. A big sigh: no point in arguing.

He reaches across the table and takes her hand. “Okay. Let’s discuss something serious. Saturday. Are we roasting lamb or baking fish for the main course?”

 

John J. Clayton is the author, most recently, of the story collection Many Seconds into the Future (Texas Tech University Press, 2014). His earlier books include his fourth novel, Mitzvah Man (Texas Tech, 2011); his third novel, Kuperman’s Fire (The Permanent Press, 2007); and Wrestling with Angels: New and Collected Stories (Toby Press, 2007). His stories have been reprinted in The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and The Pushcart Prize. He is professor emeritus at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. (6/2015)


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