Pretension and deception.

Aoraki by David Rogawski

Change—the bubble of all time.  Extraordinary promises of change heralded every day by our leaders, our peers, ourselves.  Our souls tethered to brightly-colored balloons, propping up false dreams and atrophying our strength with their illusion of hope.  Shells of ornate, eye-catching cellophane microns thick, surrounding a vast core of hollow emptiness, all of it exploded by a tiny stab.  What a challenge to instill fundamental change in something, to replace the balloons with wings of truth, powerful and tireless.  Politicians trumpet “change” in every speech and debate, but their instruments are plastic and their music is derived from the same tired ditties.  The maestro of revolutionary rhetoric, Obama has changed little.  While global warming bares its teeth, we cover our faces and turn away, ignoring its fiery breath and saliva raining down in storms on our cities.  While unemployment skyrockets, families are evicted, and children drop out of failing schools, we throw up our hands in defeat and comfort ourselves with television and French fries.  While the freedoms of expression and choice are now celebrated in far-reaching corners of the world, we fail to recognize the rights of some of our own citizens.

Why so hard, change?  Because our beliefs are not whisps of cotton which we cling to for transitory comfort and then let go; rather, they are held tightly to our core, and changing them means changing our being.  Likewise, our institutions and government are welded to our culture and traditions.  If we want to change things on earth, we have to change people.  The difficulty derives from evolution, which after millions of years has programmed us to fear any unfamiliar idea or action.  If our bellies are full and our genetic legacies secure, yet there remains a better way to educate our children or a more sustainable way to farm, natural selection does not care.  We may be compassionate, kind, generous, and wise, but if our behavior does not yield more offspring, natural selection remains indifferent.  Virtue is rare because it is simply not required for procreation.  Many people strive to be viewed as virtuous; alas, pride and pretension run rampant in our society.  Why be virtuous when for much less energy, you can pretend to be and derive the same benefits?  Respect, fame, love are given away like candy in our society.  All that’s desired can be acquired by encasing oneself in a façade of virtue, like a fresh paintjob on the same dilapidated used car.  Anybody can be honest when it’s convenient, or recite a memorized sentence of sympathy.  The reality is that changing ourselves into upstanding citizens requires patience, resolve, and most importantly, assistance from others.

I think about life as a game of cards.  Each of us is dealt a hand of characteristics—virtuous and not.  To improve our hand, we need to play the game.  Perhaps a little thoughtfulness is desired?  It may be attained only by sitting down at the table and struggling and laughing with others.  One may have to take a risk, place a few bets, put themselves in jeopardy a few times.  Alliances need to be formed and favors exchanged.  Maybe that thoughtfulness card becomes available in some high roller’s self-assured discard.  Or more likely, one strikes a deal with another, and acquires thoughtfulness in exchange for support and friendship in the game.  Cards are swapped and traded, and our hands begin to take on characteristics of those we love.

Which brings me to my brother.  Paul thought he could transform himself from evil to good, with no one’s help, in an afternoon.  If only he understood—you can’t win if you don’t play the game!  Making cards appear out of thin air…magic tricks don’t work in the game of life.  It had been ten years since my brother got out of prison, and twenty-eight since I last saw him.  He sent an email saying he was sorry to have been so out of touch, but he was in the area and he’d like to visit me.  I had never been close to Paul, and I had little desire, now that he was a felon, to rekindle a relationship that never existed.  After years of pain he caused my family and me, I had only recently been successful in removing him from my daily thoughts.  Nonetheless, I found myself replying to his email with my address.  I think it was out of curiosity mostly—I’d always wondered about life behind bars.

A solid knock on my door came at precisely 7 o’clock—surprising as I couldn’t remember a time when Paul had been on time.  I cracked the door, still a touch nervous about my safety.  Standing on the porch was a stunningly attractive man, who at best was related to my brother.  He was clean-shaven and smiling confidently, eyebrows raised and forehead wrinkled, as if praying for my acceptance.  My eyes lingered on his plump blood red lips—was he wearing lipstick?  He stood taller than I remembered, and his wire frame had been filled out with a thick neck and puffed out chest.  He was wearing a red scarf and a jet black coat that further accented his lips, and he was carrying a bottle of wine in one hand and a backpack in the other.  He was 44 years old.  “Greg.”

We shook hands.  I had never before greeted him with touch.  Paul and I grew up in Mississippi in the 1980s, long enough after the Civil Rights Movement for racism to be called dead by politicians but still very alive in the conscious of redneck Southerners and the subconscious of just about every other white person.  Our family had a black maid named Natalia, who came to clean the house and cook dinner every Monday evening—boiled potatoes, collard greens, and fried chicken.  One night as she was leaving I asked where she lived.  “Three miles south of here, with my mother and grandmother.”

My parents took me north, east, and west of where we lived, but never south.  South was a mysterious, forbidden land.  In school they could have taught us “Never Eat Wheat” for the cardinal directions and that would have sufficed for me.  The black section of town had its own restaurants, bars, grocery stores, bowling alleys.  The Civil Rights Act hadn’t changed the realities of segregation; the Northside and the Southside might as well have been on different planets.

I hadn’t been to the Southside, but my brother had.  Many times.  I discovered later through one of his friends that in early adolescence he had been indoctrinated by a neo-Nazi group that met in a Southside clubhouse twice weekly.  From their rooftop hangout they’d terrorize blacks with bb guns.  My parents didn’t find out about Paul’s whereabouts until it was too late.

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At the age of sixteen, Paul left home.  He taped a note on the front door, saying that life with us in this sheltered suburban community was holding him back.  He wanted to see more, and he couldn’t wait until he grew older.  We received letters from him every month or two—first he joined the KKK in Kentucky, then he enrolled at Bob Jones University in South Carolina for a semester, and astonishingly, obtained a job as a preacher in rural Wisconsin.  When he was 24 he was arrested for assaulting one of his parishioners, who confronted him after one of his not-so-subtly racist sermons.  Later that year he was involved in a race riot in Georgia, during which he orchestrated the destruction of several local government buildings, ultimately leading to one death and several injuries.  He was sentenced to ten years for manslaughter.

“It’s amazing to see you,” I croaked, still taken aback by this deity impersonating my brother.

I led him into the living room.  “Nice Cézanne,” he said, referring to a copy of a painting on the far wall depicting two men playing cards.  “By the way, I got darn good at Texas Hold ‘Em in the lock-up.”

I raised my eyebrows.  His juxtaposition of French and American culture struck me as odd.

“Yeah, we’d play for desserts.  There was one guy who always won an extra serving of chocolate pudding.  I noticed that he held his cards in his left hand, the hand with a watch on it.  He would hide a card or two in the wristband of his watch, underneath his sleeve, which he’d change out with a card in his hand.  Once I slapped his wrist, revealing everything, he retired for good, and I won fair and square.”

“Ha, well done,” I mused.  People are always trying to obtain more than they’re dealt.  “So what have you been up to after achieving poker fame?”  I asked, finding him a little easier to talk to than I expected.

“I’m working two jobs now.  I went to cooking school right after getting out, and now I’m working as a chef at my instructor’s Italian restaurant in Baltimore.”  Another surprise—he was a hamburger-fries kid growing up.  “A few months ago I started teaching math at Baltimore County Community College.  You want to see the textbook we’re using?” he asked, motioning to the backpack.  He pulled out a book entitled Calculus.

“Is this for real?” I exclaimed.  He barely reached algebra in high school.  “Paul, you’ll have to excuse me, it’s been a while for both of us.  I have to admit, you’re not the kid I remember.”

He smiled again, his lips bulging even more prominently.  “I was severely depressed in prison,” he said.  “I had always been an active person, always doing things, unwise may they be.  In prison the only thing to do is play cards, and early on I wasn’t even allowed that.  My sentencing permitted one half-hour per day outside my cell.  After a couple years of good behavior, a social worker saw how depressed I was and took pity on me.  She requested to have me join the road crew that cleans up trash along the highway.  I hated it.  There were prisoners of all stripes on that crew…it was insulting to work alongside them.  I think you know what I was like back then.”

I looked away.  His racism, of all his faults, was the most nauseating for me.  “I had so much anger pent up inside me,” Paul continued.  “Road crew was the only time I could let some energy out.  One morning some guy in a pickup truck flicked a cigarette butt at me.  Anger turned into rage, and I chucked the beer bottle I had just picked up through his rear window.”

Paul’s eyes twinkled, just for a second, as if he found the memory slightly humorous.  “I would have been immediately banned from road crew for the rest of my term.  But one of the black guys on the road crew, Frank, told the supervisor it was him who threw the bottle.  I couldn’t believe it.  Why would anyone do that for a prejudiced prick like me?

“I saw Frank at dinner that night.  I asked him ‘Why the hell did you do that?’  He said, ‘I could tell you needed that road crew work.  You need at outlet.  Me, I keep to myself in my cell and don’t mind it one bit.’

“Never had anyone done something like that for me.  Never had anyone made a thoughtful observation and then acted on it to help me out.  I realized my childhood had been one giant disaster.  So I started over.  I went back to age 8, and had to start making friends all over again.  It was like being reborn, in a way.”

“How did you just toss aside your past like that?” I asked.  I didn’t understand how this one event, however significant, could trigger such a profound change.

“It sounds crazy.  But I hated myself.  Frank’s gesture was a wakeup call that made me realize there’s another way.  People different than myself are still people.  The rest of my prison term, which was still several years, I did everything I could to become a good guy.  First I had to find out what good guys are like, so I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and decades-old copies of GQ I found in the prison library.  When I got out, I was still pretty shaky.  People were freaked out because I acted too nice.  I’d say hi to strangers and they’d pull their kids away.

“Anyway, it took me a while to adapt back into society.  Now I’m head chef at Piccolo’s.  But I thought, ‘I can do more with my life.  I can change the world, make up for all my old wrongs.  To start off, I’m going to do a little teaching at the community college.’”

All of this was overwhelming.  Was this really my brother?  Part of me wanted to believe in this miraculous metamorphosis, but part of me said it was bull—-.  And then a casual addition, “I’ve been seeing a girl.”

“What’s her name?”

“Emma.  She teaches at the community college with me.”  He paused.  “She’s great—smart, funny, attractive.  You know, I wasn’t planning on this, but she’s waiting outside in the car.  Want to meet her?”

We walked to his car, where she was sitting in the passenger seat wearing sunglasses, strange for this gray winter day.  Still, I could tell she was beautiful with blond hair, high cheek bones, and an expertly crafted nose.  But her back had an unnatural rigidness, and her lips were pursed shut.

“Hey baby,” Paul said.  “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

Maungatua by David Rogawski

She stood up and stared through her sunglasses lifelessly at him.  Something didn’t seem right.  “Hi Emma, I’m Greg.”  I held out a hand.  She reluctantly took it.

Back in the house I opened Paul’s wine.  Paul and I talked about his restaurant.  Emma remained silent.  She sat in her chair like the back was made of glass shards.  She hadn’t taken off her sunglasses either.

“What’s wrong, baby?  This is just my kid brother, he won’t hurt you.  Why don’t you reveal those gorgeous eyes of yours?”

Emma didn’t respond.  She started to tremble, then vibrate.  Her voice barely above a whisper, but deep and guttural, “Tell me what happened in Georgia.”

“Baby, I haven’t seen Greg in decades.”

“Tell me.”

Baby, I thought I already told you about it.  I was 24 years old, as stupid as Stephen Hawking is smart. There was a riot and some buildings were lit on fire.  That’s how I ended up in jail.”

“Paul, my father was a firefighter in Georgia.”  I heard Paul gulp from ten feet away.  Her voice got louder and she stopped trembling.  “He was my hero.  When I was in high school, he responded to a fire in the county courthouse.  He was on the roof trying to ventilate the smoke, but the fire extended farther than they thought and he fell through the roof.  The fire raged out of control and they never found his body.”

She was crying now.  “I just got off the phone with my mother.  Paul, you set the fire that killed my father.”

Paul opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off.  “I never want to see you again.”  With that she was gone.

I looked at Paul, noticed my jaw was hanging open, and slammed it shut.  “A tragic coincidence,” was all I could muster.

Paul’s eyes were shut.  His cheeks were pale and the fullness to his lips was gone.  His appearance now more closely resembled what I remembered as a teenager.  He had been a miserable, bullying big brother.  Once while I was at a friend’s house, he covered my bed in snow and left it there to melt, soaking the mattress.  That night, as I lay on the floor in my sleeping bag, I was too livid to sleep.  I kicked my bed frame and tore a gash in my foot.  He had teased me and hurt me, and now he had forced me onto the floor like a dog.

But Paul was different now, and I should say something to cheer him up.  “Paul it was a fluke.  I mean, what are the chances?  You’ll find somebody else, no problem.”

Paul opened his eyes.  In them I saw profound despair.  “For the first 24 years of my life, Greg, everyone who I had contact with hated me.  The kids in high school who I insulted because they were too poor, too rich, too skinny, too fat.  The blacks I robbed and assaulted with the neo-Nazis.  The people I offended in my congregation.  The others injured in the Georgia fire and their families.  My invariable depression and the life it sucked out of anyone who met me.”

“You don’t seem depressed now, and you’ve got two great jobs.  Put that behind you and start fresh,” I said.

“Don’t you get it?” he cried.  “Emma was no accident.  There are people all around this country who have a right to hate me, and that’s not going to change just because I teach math at a community college.  Hell, I could donate 100 million dollars to hospitals in Africa and I would not be exonerated from my crimes.  I must be one of the most despised men on this planet.  I’m going to die alone.”  He sniffled pathetically.

At this moment I knew that my brother had not changed.  An intense wave of anger smothered any hope I had for his reformation.  Paul was the same self-obsessed, egotistical maniac he was 28 years ago.  He cared only for his own image, his own ranking in the world.  Did he feel guilty for having caused such suffering?  No, he talked about the fire like it was a joke.  Did he feel sorry for the death of Emma’s father?  He didn’t say a word to console her.  Did he have any respect for our family?  He came to see me today, after 28 years of silence, to show off his clothes, his jobs, and his girlfriend.  He wanted my support, and probably my money.  “I’d like you to leave,” I said.

“I thought you might be one person I could confide in, one person I could call my friend,” he said.

“Paul, first you barge in here after either ignoring me or actively hurting me my entire life.  Then you claim to have changed, but really all you’ve done is wrapped a fancy new coat around the selfish, offensive old Paul.  You’re not going to get sympathy from me, and you’re certainly not going to get a friend.  I hope you at least maintain your crust of virtue—you might teach a few kids calculus, but underneath you’ll always be an —hole.”

“Screw you Greg.  I have the wherewithal to do big things in this world.  I don’t need anybody else’s help.  You and everyone else can go to hell.”  Spit flew out of his mouth—it was disgusting.

I stood up to indicate that we were done.  My teeth clenched, I heard a low hiss involuntarily emanating from my lips.  Paul stomped to the door, threw his backpack violently around his shoulders, and slammed the door behind him.

Something fell to the floor, and I discovered that his aggressive exit had caused an ace of hearts keychain to fall off his backpack.  I picked it up and gripped the thick plastic covering the miniature card.  It was a worthless trinket, and I threw it against the wall in revulsion.  The plastic wasn’t as thick as I thought, and the key chain shattered.  To my surprise, several other cards were hidden behind the ace of hearts.  There were also a king, queen, jack, and 10 of the same suit—a royal flush.  To fit in the plastic key chain, the cards were tissue paper-thin and torn.  Paul’s fragile hand was a fraud.  And the balloon of virtue he had paraded with into my house had popped.

Since that night with Paul I’ve met others who are lurching clumsily through life, recoiling from person after person, striving toward heavenly greatness, never realizing that all they desire is plainly contained in the humanity around them.



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