by Allison Gehlhaus
Excerpted from a memoir manuscript.
The unconquerable soul
This is their beginning. Not mine.
She is young. She has long black hair, thick and coarse. She is a union organizer. It is the kind of day when the sun hangs low and illuminates the edges of things. It is autumn in 1967 in New York City. She strides into my father’s classroom. I need to see her stride in because it says so much about who she is and why my father fell in love with her. I need her to fling open that wooden door carrying a clipboard and an attitude. He is in the middle of teaching a lesson about prepositions to sixth graders who don’t care much about prepositions and probably suspect that my father doesn’t either. He is amused by her boldness, her list of grievances, her righteousness. She wants him to sign something on the clipboard, a petition maybe, and urges him to join the other teachers on the picket line the next day. My father is amused because he is lucky to have a job. He is lucky that he finally has custody of his kids. He is lucky that when he awoke that morning, he could put one foot down and then the other and that somehow he was walking. He cannot afford to go out on strike. She hands him the clipboard and the pen. He hesitates. She is ready for any resistance and begins to detail why he must. She is articulate and persuasive.
And these are the moments that change your life.
He tells her he will go on strike only if she agrees to meet him on the picket line. She looks him over, deciding. He is at least ten years older. Except for a thin wreath of salt and pepper hair, he is bald. She can’t decide if his eyes are green or gold. His face is strong like it has just been carved from a tree trunk. She thinks he looks as if someone just plugged him in.
She says no.
She says yes.
The crisp light continues through the next day. A breeze blows in that is warm and cool at the same time, like it also can’t make up its mind. They meet in front of the Board of Education building on 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. He is not surprised that she came. They are with hundreds of other angry teachers, yet they are alone. He is how she remembers him, only more so. She hands him a picket sign and she takes one for herself. The throngs of teachers are chanting, hoisting their signs up and down, walking in a long oval on the sidewalk. They slip into the line. She walks ahead of him. He is close enough to feel her hair blowing in his face.
He taps her on the shoulder and asks her to join him for a cigarette. They lean their signs against the building. My father takes out a pack from his shirt pocket and turns it upside down and flicks it twice on the bottom, causing the cigarettes to stagger out. He presents her with the pack and she takes one, not the one that is the tallest, but the next one. He does not take his eyes off her. With his unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, he pats his pockets, first his shirt and then his pants, looking for matches. When he can’t find any, they walk together to a drugstore. He is about to ask the clerk for a pack of matches but instead decides to buy a lighter. For her. It is shaped like a matchbox, made of brushed stainless steel with a top that flips open exposing a wheel that you spin with your thumb to get it to light. It has a sharp, acrid metal smell that lingers long after the flame goes out.
She still has it.
That night my father is on television. He rushes into the apartment, turns the channel, and lies down on his side on the floor of the living room. My brother and I retreat to the couch. We watch him watch the news. There are stories about the war, about a murder in the city, a burglary that had gone terribly wrong. My father jumps up and yells loud, loud, loud, “There I am!” And we see him, there in grainy black and white, carrying his sign. He looks grim, like he means it, like he wants the Board of Education to give him what he wants. I think they had better listen to him. He gets within inches of the screen and he whispers, “There she is.” Or maybe I just want to remember it that way.