Here’s Your Outrage
Martha in the bathroom. On the closed toilet, fully clothed. It’s where she goes to cry on the rare occasions she needs to. In bathrooms, where narrow walls bound her, she can let go. In here, she can indulge in invisible self-pity, fists clenched, hunched forward, browser open on the phone that rests in her lap.
The financial reform package, already weakened by deal-making, risks being bled dry of nearly every meaningful protection.
She doesn’t cry often, and when she does, she doesn’t cry much. This has always been true. She is expert at holding in emotions. Today, they’ve been triggered. It’s not the news. At least, not only the news. She is just back from visiting the urn. The loneliness of these encounters. Her increasingly empty promise that she would get him out. She’s stymied, a series of bad options that feel like no options at all: be an adult, wait out the county and take Dad’s ashes home; pick a lesser-of-two-evils reform candidate to work for in the next election cycle. No. Throw a rock through Judge Haney’s window. Petulant and pointless, but satisfying to imagine. Torpedo Gaines, expose his skeletons. Intriguing. Bust up the sheriff’s office. Shoot crazy Prager. She indulged her imagination for a few minutes, then surrendered the ashes, came home, and checked headlines in the Times.
Now she picks up her phone. She can’t resist lingering.
Among the key compromises in the Senate is situating the Consumer Protection Agency inside the Federal Reserve rather than as an independent, cabinet-level agency.
She wishes it didn’t hurt. Almost wishes she could swallow it and move on. But then there’s a part of her glad she can’t swallow, that she’s here, on the toilet, half-crying, instead.
The Senate also agreed, under industry pressure, to withdraw limits on the size of megabanks, thus leaving institutions that are “too big to fail” and leaving the door open for future government bailouts.
The only piece missing is for Gaines to officially announce his Senate run.
A tear rolls, grudging, down her cheek. She is overwhelmed by lost causes. Hears her father’s voice inside. There are those who would say some of my fights were futile. Conjures his impish grin. What she wouldn’t give to talk to him. Argue with him about which windows to break, and then go smash some together, on principle. But what she visits each day is a container for the dead. Not a mirror in which she might find reflected her missing sense of purpose. Not a whetstone against which she can sharpen herself for the battles ahead.
Any regrets? she’d asked him in those last days. Not really, he’d said. What we choose to engage shapes our lives, one way or another. Determines who we touch, and how. How satisfying it would be to work against a Gaines campaign.
Martha adjusts herself on the toilet seat. Shifts weight to her other cheek.
There’s a knock at the door. She ignores it.
“Martha?” Senior’s voice.
“How long are you going to be?” She smells hay and vinegar. She wipes at a tear. A flash of anger as heat in her cheeks. It’s refreshing. Energizing. “Martha?”
She flushes away his voice. Gathers herself and opens the door.
Robert Senior leans against the wall no more than an arm’s length away. Red-faced, but making an effort at patience. Rooster-combed hair. He thrusts her coat at her. “Here,” he says. “We’re going out.”
“Don’t you need—?” She gestures behind her at the bathroom.
He wags his head. “I need to show you something.”
A minute later she’s got her pea coat over sweater and corduroys, and they’re walking to her car, a sensible Civic. He’s donned a thin scarf and pulled up the collar of his black suit jacket. Today’s is thigh-length. It reminds Martha of a circus ringmaster.
Robert Junior is on the porch, swathed in a sweater, listening to the sounds of play from the daycare across the street.
Senior walks the way he talks. Brisk. Forceful.
“Where we going?” she asks. A wind gust. The city doesn’t blow through her like this.
He seems oblivious. “To see the outrage.”
She turns away. “I’m going back to the toilet.”
He takes her arm. “It’s irresponsible to give up.” His pompadour stands stiff against the damp. His eyebrows narrow, a look Martha has learned to fear. “Go out there, stand on the stump and scream at people—one by one if you have to—until they understand. ‘Til they’re angry as you are.”
“Doesn’t work. Everyone screams all the time. Debate is a sport for cable TV. You’ve seen it.” Martha hugs her coat tight around her.
“You have to keep at it.”
“Don’t tell me what I have to do.” Martha’s fingers cold. They will remain so until June, and she will remain resentful.
“Humph,” he says. “You’ll see when we get there.”
He directs her to an address in downtown Buffalo, where she parks at a meter. They walk silently up Division Street, to Ellicott and onto the plaza where, Martha has heard, on blustery days in winter the wind is so strong the bank’s doorman uses a rope and pulley system to reel people in. But this is not a blustery day, and it is not yet winter. It is drizzly and raw and early November, and the M&P Plaza is barren, or nearly so. Tucked into a nook away from the building’s main entrance, a college boy shouts into a microphone about holding Wall Street executives accountable. A score of others, college age and early 20s scruffy. A bearded guy in a wool cap, staggering and shirtless, a refugee from a football game. Martha’s stomach sinks at the empty words, these powerless children.
Robert Senior’s face wears a satisfied grin. “They’re promising to occupy until one Wall Street executive goes to prison,” he says.
Martha overcome by fatigue. She had forgotten how much she hates this town, how even the smell of it—stone and rust and mold—makes her want to spit. She touches Senior’s arm to stop his momentum. She doesn’t want to get any closer.
“This is what you needed to show me?”
Wind ruffles his rooster comb. “You’re not alone,” he says with the force of epiphany.
Behind the speaker, tents in a cul-de-sac cordoned with police tape. Martha hears the boy’s words, the speech, as undifferentiated sound. She buries her hands in pea coat pockets. “This is your outrage?” She can’t tell if there’s a fine mist falling or if the air is just moist with sarcasm.
“It’s what you build on,” Senior says.
Martha looks around at the earnest, the unwashed and unshaven. She sweeps her arm over the scene. “This motley is going to succeed where months of sustained legal effort at the highest levels failed?”
He’s undaunted. “Never underestimate the power of an engaged citizenry.”
She’s cold to her aching bones. “Look around.” She can’t even muster anger at him. Just a sort of pity. “It’s denuded. Irrelevant.” She is damp. They both are. “A rite of passage. A month from now, they’ll be forgotten. Ten years from now, half of them will be social workers wiping drool from the mouths of the downtrodden and defeated.” She indicates the police tape and explains how the demonstrators, negotiating with authorities the terms of their vigil, allowed themselves to be cordoned off. “You can’t even call that protest, let alone outrage.”
Senior’s wet coat sags.
Martha flexes her fingers. Rubs her palms together. “I’d love to know what it feels like to force change. To take bread, and not settle for what crumbs the system gives you.” Hair droops into her eyes. She swats it away. “I wish they had a chance.”
Robert Senior lifts his head. Juts his chin. “Do you want to live in a world where they don’t at least try?”
She shivers. Stuffs her hands back into pockets. Wishes she could take comfort in the hypothetical.
“Come on,” she says. “I’ll buy you a hot chocolate.”
His face conflicted. Wistful.
“Sorry,” she says. “Steamed milk.”
Wichita, Kansas. 1912. Presidential candidate Robert La Follette Sr. speaks to a half-filled high school auditorium on a Tuesday night in June. Pompadour high, he exhorts the assembled crowd. “We must complete the work we have begun, to expose and contain the corrosive power of corporate interests.” He paces the stage, wiping at his face with a handkerchief. He’s a half-hour into the speech and struggling to find his rhythm. Only an hour before, he had hauled two heavy suitcases—one weighted down with documentation to substantiate every statement in his platform—into a classroom, where he attempted to gather himself and took his only sustenance of the day, a cup of hot milk with a shot of whiskey. The audience marvels at his fire. They have no clue what it costs him.
“We should call them what they are—power-mad criminals—and stand firm against such greed.” He can go on like this for hours, and will. His energy stems from what some call arrogance, what he calls a principled refusal to compromise. Such refusal has always cost him politically; in recent years it has also taken a toll on his body. Recurring stomach issues, liver trouble, and grippe plague him. Anxiety and depression knock him down for weeks at a time. Swollen joints have led him to suspect gout. He says to the crowd, “Less than one percent of manufacturers hold more than one-third of the nation’s capital.” He feels dizzy, struggles to hold the thread of his thoughts. He drips with perspiration that falls faster than he can wipe it away. His starched shirt is soaked through, limp. Two days previous, in Des Moines, he’d suffered diarrhea so severe he could not eat.
He struggles to focus on faces, but his gaze is drawn to empty seats. He forgets the accompanying statistic to the one he has just quoted, and instead says, “No bread is sometimes better than half a loaf.” He hears murmurs in the crowd, sees puzzled faces trying to follow. He has spoken an average of eight hours a day for 48 days, printed enough literature for every voter to receive four copies. He steels his will, girds his unruly stomach, determined to regain momentum. If he can finish his speech, he will win over the room. He strikes a fist into the palm holding the moist handkerchief. “The power of business interests encroaches on the rights of every American, becoming the thing we must destroy if we are to preserve our freedom.” His mind is back; he’s ready with a host of supporting specifics. Now his body won’t cooperate. His stomach rebels, launches a wave. He mutters “Excuse me” and propels himself off to a small anteroom where he vomits into a bucket.
This is a bad night. On the good nights, audiences can still be swept up in the passion of his powerful voice. Feel the fight in his footfall on floorboards. Marvel at the high pompadour and the high collar and the high-fuel fire, unbanked through the years. La Follette gathers himself and returns to the stage, determined to finish. And he does, though he has to excuse himself multiple times during the two-hour speech.
On the train the next day, he writes to his wife, “I am not quite right, and have a steady pulling across my back.”
Martha absorbing the finality of the facts; her laptop on the kitchen table. She came in hoping to make tea, but Robert Senior has turned off the water supply. He lays on his back, head and shoulders wedged into the cabinet under the sink. Martha has decided not to be distracted by this. She scans the Times, the Post, HuffPo, ProPublica, all to the accompaniment of taps, bangs, and occasional oaths. The facts make her head hurt, but she can’t turn away.
The best one can say about the final reform bill is that it’s better than nothing. The Democrats’ bill is weak tea that doesn’t fix the problem of too-big-to-fail megabanks or prevent the cycle of boom, bust, and bailout.
“Shocking,” Martha says.
Under the sink, metal banging on metal.
The bill is a bit like proposing new regulations on jaywalking after the biggest car accident in recent history.
A vein in her forehead throbs. An ache at her temples.
From under the sink, the unmistakable sound of a slipping wrench. A cry of pain, and Senior’s voice: “Damnation!” He bends his right leg so the foot is flat on the floor. Pushes up on it. A grunt.
“It’s the faucet that drips,” Martha says. “The faucet is out here.”
“You also had a leaky trap.” Senior’s displaced voice. “May as well do the whole job, do it right.”
While the original Senate bill limited banks from putting money in hedge funds and private equity funds, according to the final bill the Fed will impose curbs only if abuses pose a threat to the financial system.
The events, the actors feel far away. She will never again have the same fierce purpose. Never work with the same zeal. Her fingers fidget.
The clatter of metal falling against metal. “Christ on a cracker!”
Martha slaps her hand on the table. The sound sends a hot knife through her skull. “Will you get out from under there before you get hurt.”
She closes the computer. Opens it again. The persistent itch—the lifelong habit—do something. But it’s all done.
Knocking sounds from under the sink, then Senior worms his way out onto the floor and up. “There,” he says. He reaches under the sink again and turns a valve tight. Runs the water until he is satisfied. No drip.
“Thank you.” Martha musters her polite professional voice.
“Glad to do it.” He wipes his hands with a cloth, first the palms, then each joint of each finger. He notices the computer. He has become an avid reader of political blogs. “What’s happened?”
“The husk of the financial reform bill has passed. It’s dead on arrival.”
Robert Senior waves a hand in the air. “That’s unacceptable.”
A flare. She shifts in her seat. “Don’t start.”
“I’ll never stop.” His chest out like a rooster. “Neither will you.”
Martha closes the computer again. Fingers drum against the table. She wants, she needs, to scratch. “You’re wrong.”
Senior pulls out a pocket comb and sweeps his hair back into place. “I’m not.”
Martha rubs her temples. Makes a gift to herself. A promise. She grabs her pea coat and heads out, closing the door soft behind her.
Thirty minutes later, Martha has a quieter head and a giant sundae before her. Toffee ice cream. Hot fudge and butterscotch. A mountain of whipped cream and a cherry. On Canal Street in Lockport, at a table covered in blue-and-white checked vinyl, Martha indulges in an annual treat. She eats with her right hand, scrolls her phone with her left.
“Let me guess.” There’s Spitzer, holding a cone. He’s in flannel shirt and big-boy jeans. Aviator sunglasses perched atop his head. “Checking in on Facebook, let all your friends know you’re in Lockport, living large.”
She closes her eyes. Shakes her head. The throbbing at her temples returns. “Close,” she says. “Reading up on ineptitude among local crime labs.”
“You don’t let up, do you?” He’s looking at her like she’s some exotic animal.
She shrugs. Raises her spoon. “I’m here.”
“What’s the occasion?” Sunlight through the shop windows.
He laughs. Then, when he gets no reaction: “For real?”
“For real.” She is conscious of what this says about her. The truth of it. “This was kind of a tradition, with my father.”
“To come here?”
Again, she can’t tell if he’s playing or the question is real. She makes a choice. “No. I was lucky. Parents were split. Dad lived in the city.”
“I guess.” The ice cream on Spitzer’s cone is green. Pistachio or mint chip.
She’s ready for him to leave, but he’s thinking something, and then he says it.
“The scale of things here just makes sense to me. I don’t need but one ice cream shop. Big business is my grandfather starting an insurance agency because his neighbors needed protection against losing their homes.”
Martha takes a city-sized spoonful of sundae. There’s nothing for her to say.
“Well.” Spitzer toasts her with his cone. “Happy birthday.”
Martha craves oatmeal. All this food, and Junior has not let her snack. She pulls on her pea coat, grabs a foil-covered tray, and heads to her car.
Mid-morning. Overcast, frosty. When did they last see sun?
Robert Senior sits cross-legged on the Civic’s trunk, satchel on his lap. “Muffins all set,” he says.
Martha nods. Senior hops down and opens the back door. She sets a tray of French toast on the seat.
A car door bangs shut across the street. A mother and toddler son walk hand in hand. Senior watches them.
“At that age, they are boundless possibility.”
Martha follows his gaze from the pair back to her door, sees Robert Junior emerge, carrying two pans. Hands clad in oven mitts.
“If he could, he’d untether himself,” Senior says. “I don’t begrudge that. But it’s not easy for me, either.”
Martha leans against the car next to Senior, watches him watch his son carry the pans of eggs. She has not escaped the pull of oatmeal, but they will eat after they deliver the food to Occupy.
Senior’s face reddens as if he’s been caught at something. “You don’t stop asking yourself, could I have done more?”
Martha has her arms folded against the damp.
“What do any of us look for,” Senior says. “What do any of us want? To feel valued.”
Martha feels cold metal through her pants.
In 1894, two weeks removed from his mother’s death, 39-year-old Robert La Follette visited the Green’s Prairie Cemetery to supervise the disinterment of his father’s remains, an act he’d dreamed of for years. With him, William Jonas, a physician and family friend.
Two gravediggers work in half-moon light. La Follette, in black suit and string tie, now stares expectant into the grave, now stalks its perimeter. Dr. Jonas a few paces back. The diggers maintain a slow, steady rhythm. Spade thunks against packed earth. Two lanterns cast as much shadow as illumination.
He would mark the night as one of the most significant of his life though, understandably, he rarely spoke of it. He maintained that the idea had belonged as much to his brother Donald as to himself, the primary motivation being to rebury their father in Madison next to their mother.
A clank of something hard against the metal blade, and La Follette is back hovering at the edge of the wide hole, lantern in hand.
“Guard your efforts,” he calls. His face framed in lamplight, high hair extending into deep shadow.
Dr. Jonas adjusts his waistcoat. Starts to speak, then doesn’t. He steps away to smoke a cigarette.
One gravedigger continues uninterrupted. The other, after a sideways glance above ground, parks his shovel and bends down, bouncing shadow around the dirt walls. He hoists something, swings it above his head, and sets it on the ground at La Follette’s feet. A stone.
La Follette makes a low noise and resumes pacing. Traces of winter linger in the night air.
Righteous perfection was his constant aim, and much of his passion to create a record that moral men would admire surely came from this desire to please an idealized father he never knew.
He counts to twenty, then twenty again.
His ears strain for any change in the sound of contact between spade and earth. He feels Jonas’ eyes on him. He brushes dirt from his pants and finds himself back hovering over the grave.
“Leave it,” he calls. “The doctor and I will see to the rest.”
An awkward silence ensues as the men regard first him, then one another. Finally, they nod assent. La Follette paces the perimeter, in and out of small circles of lantern light, while the men gather their things and leave.
Dr. Jonas makes no move toward the hole, nor is he asked.
The coffin has long since disintegrated. La Follette, on hands and knees in the damp soil, removes the remnants of his father’s skeleton, sieves his fingers to sift out dirt and stones. Each bone he uncovers—femur, sternum, rib—he sets gently on a piece of canvas spread on the ground. The spinal column, mostly intact. He works in the light of a lantern set in a corner of the deep grave. He doesn’t linger over any bit until he holds in his hands the skull, minus its lower jaw. “Alas,” he mutters.
The bone chills his hands. His back aches. He squats, shifts the skull from hand to hand. “William,” he calls. He brushes away bits of dirt from bone. “William.”
According to Dr. Jonas, “La Follette laid the relics out on a piece of canvas on the ground, and sat among them. He had forgotten I was there, or ceased caring.”
He examines each bone, cradles them in his hands. Caresses brittle fingers and toes to conclude small hands and feet, like his own. He lingers with the skull. Traces its contours to discover a prominent forehead. He pays special attention also to the tuft of hair. It is long, of a slightly auburn hue and streaked with gray.
It’s a Thursday. Stuffy inside the Sheriff’s station. Martha leans against the metal counter. Martha has in her head a resolve, an evolving birthday promise to herself: Gaines will not benefit from betraying his principles, his colleagues; she will not allow him to present himself as reformer. She has in her bag a surprise: two zip-lock bags containing four pounds worth of fireplace ash and crushed limestone, with a little sand for texture.
Deputy Spitzer at his desk. Behind him, a man cop and a woman cop talking.
“So.” She rests her elbows on the cold metal. Her arms tingle with fear, and something like satisfaction.
“Only another week or so.” The Deputy sips from a styrofoam coffee cup. “You’ll miss me.”
That draws a glance from the male cop, a microsecond pause in his conversation.
Martha smiles as Spitzer opens the center desk drawer for the keys. “Terribly,” she says.
The routine. He handles the urn. Places it on the table for her. Locks the cage and lingers a purposeful moment in the doorway before he leaves.
“Just holler when you’re done,” he says.
Resolve feels like cool, clear water.
Martha searched weight of human cremains and cremation scams to determine plausible construction and proportions. Bought driveway-sized bags of sand and crushed limestone then left them, barely opened, in the parking lot. She waits a couple minutes. ‘Til she’s confident her ears are attuned to the slightest sound. Distant voices down the hall. The split door, upper half opened. She feels a rush of adrenaline and a flicker of anxiety. She likes it. She eases the lid from the urn. She takes her time. A wash of deep sadness takes her by surprise. She gathers herself. One deep breath. Two. A metallic smell.
“Let’s get you out of here,” she says. She takes two folded gallon-size zip-lock bags from her purse and a white kitchen scoop. She works slowly. Lovingly. Careful not to spill. Voices down the hall, still distant. When in doubt, do what’s in front of you. One thing she and her father had always agreed on. She feels as though she’s conspiring with him on a prank. What he would call an action. She flinches each time scoop makes contact with ash. The dust that rises in the air and dissipates. All she can do is tend to what remains.
She seals the zip locks carefully. Checks each twice and places them in her bag. The other process much simpler. Faster. Two full zip-locks she opens and pours into the emptied urn, careful to minimize dust.
Resolve is like freedom—nourishing, and sweet when it comes with a taste of justice. No one knows better than her where to hit Gaines, or how. Worst case, it’s one more Republican Senate seat. But truth always comes at a price.
She looks around the room. All quiet in the evidence locker. She lets out a long, slow breath. She replaces the lid. Takes a cloth from her bag and wipes the urn clear of residue. Of fingerprints. Wipes the table. Eager to leave. It’s a Robert Senior kind of eagerness. One deep breath. Two. She wipes her bag of dust traces, wipes it even after it looks clean. She will continue to visit Spitzer until she can officially reclaim her father. She is already enjoying how that will feel each afternoon. The secret knowledge.
Martha is on her way out, walking the long corridor of flat, institutional gray, when she sees the woman Emma Goldman walking toward her, unshackled. The woman displays no signs of recognizing Martha, but stops to speak.
“Think of your most restful memory.”
Martha snorts. She does not want to appear hurried. She breathes through her mouth so as not to take in the Emma smell. She asks the woman, “Are you alright?”
She hears Spitzer footsteps. Then he’s in the hall.
“I’m done,” she tells the deputy. “You can put him away now.”
He edges past her. Bumps her bag. Looks back with an apologetic gesture.
Martha fights the urge to rush out.
Emma Goldman shuffles along the wall, listing a little to the right.
Martha calls to Spitzer. “Is she okay?”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” he calls back before he disappears into the evidence locker.
Emma stands looking at Martha. Says, “What is your most restful memory?”
Martha lingers. Finds herself thinking. Remembering. With her college friend Molly after a party. They walked all over town, imagining their lives. Bone tired but unwilling to give in, that sense that sleep is for some later time, that you don’t want to miss out on anything. It was a warm night, spring, but feeling like summer. They walked across a field, bright hazy moon, fuzzy stars. They sat on the grass talking, then lay there, until talk petered out and it was just stars, the moon, and their wide-open futures. They fell asleep. Woke up to sunshine, still on their backs, side by side in that field. They couldn’t have slept more than a couple hours, but Martha was amazed by how rested she felt. How refreshed.
The woman squints at Martha as if in deep study. Then touches her own hair. “I usually use Malaysian Cherry. This is Egyptian Plum. It’s got too much brown. I like a brighter red.” She continues down the gray hallway, leaving Martha alone with her father. The smell of old leaves through an open window.
Meanwhile, on Martha’s porch, father and son bundle against the chill. A turned-up collar. A faded scarf.
“We should say goodbye.” Junior fingers his scar.
“You know better than that.” Senior’s arms folded across his chest. The sky is the color of his brushed-back hair.
Down below, children run and play.
Senior hoists his satchel. He collects himself. Turns to his son.
“What is your mission?”
“To disturb privilege and encourage the powerless.”
“What is your curse?”
“To forever leave those I care for.”
They start down the steps.
“Stop sulking,” says the father. “We have work to do.”