Excerpts from The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani by Julia Lee Barclay-Morton
April 4, 1968
My phone was ringing off the hook at around 6:30, and I thought perhaps it was someone calling to wish me Happy Birthday, since Earl is away, and as far as I know everyone – aside from Robin of course – has forgotten. I love Robin, but I worship Teddy, and the boy will not talk to me these days, and I don’t know what I’ve done this time. Barbara rarely will talk to me, and if her husband picks up, he usually slams down the phone without so much as a how dy’a do.
So when I pick up the phone and hear Ted’s voice from Mississippi, and he’s crying, I am surprised. I don’t know what is wrong, and all I can hear is him hyperventilating, so I ask him to try to breathe. He yells and cries, and I can’t understand a word he’s saying, but something about him looking like Earl and all Southern white men are evil, and I don’t know what to say. “Ted,” I keep asking, “What is it?”
“Don’t you know?!” he yells. And No, I don’t. I am just waking up with the hangover from hell, because I decided to celebrate the day myself with a few cocktails and Lithium with a Valium chaser, and I don’t know what time it is. If Robin hadn’t called a few hours earlier, which roused me for a few minutes, I wouldn’t even have remembered it’s my birthday. So I just say, “No.”
After some muttering, I hear Carol’s much more reasonable voice saying quietly, “They killed Martin.”
“Martin who?” I ask stupidly, thinking for a moment that they have a friend named Martin I don’t know.
“Martin Luther King,” she says testily, which I frankly don’t think I deserve, not on my birthday, but the news does shock me awake.
“Oh, dear God, whatever for? And who did?”
“Someone who – Ted’s right – looks like Earl.”
For a crazy moment I almost hope it was Earl so they will arrest him and that will be that. I’ll be free. No more violence, no more drunken fights, no more drunken sex, no more pathetic scenes or bruises I have to hide. Free at last!
“Do you think-?”
“No!” she says, “Of course not, Jane. His name is James Earl Ray, but you know he’s a good old boy so Ted’s upset.”
“Oh,” I say, unable to mask my disappointment. Though his middle name is Earl, so there’s hope.
“I’d be careful if I were you.”
“Why on earth should I be careful, Carol? I live in Baltimore and teach at a mostly Black – oh, yes, I see.”
“There are riots.”
“I’m sure there are. There should be. I hope they burn this whole godforsaken city to the ground, Carol, I swear to you. It’s a dump, and it’s a racist dump. As you know.”
There is a pause. I hear her talking to Ted in muffled tones. He gets back on the phone.
“Don’t set your own house on fire.”
“You heard me.”
“Ted, I’m not insane.”
There is a very, very long pause, long enough for me to emerge from the fog of my hangover enough to realize my own son thinks I would actually take this opportunity to burn down my own house. That for whatever reason, he thinks I have lost even the last few marbles I might have ever been in possession of in the first place.
“OK, I understand I have not been the most rational – but no, Ted, I will not burn down my own house.”
“But I do hope the Blacks burn down Baltimore, God forgive me, but I do. This is a dump, Ted. A hell hole, a-“
“Yes, Mother. I know. I’ve been there, and I didn’t marry-“
“OK, Ted. Enough. I know I married Earl and guess who has to live with that fucked up decision every day of her Godforsaken life?”
“Well, you know, we all did for a while-“
“Ted. I really can’t. Not right now. Can you just-“
“OK, Mother. Why don’t you just leave him? You know you can stay with us while-“ Then hand over the receiver again – muffled voices – I can hear Carol’s voice in near hysteria – probably over the idea of me at their house, though she’d never say so to my face. Poor woman is a Lutheran to the core. Couldn’t be rude if her life depended on it.
And now it’s Carol, “Ted had to go and make sure the house was OK. We are white in a black neighborhood and no matter what we do and at times like this – as you know – people don’t care about your politics. Do take care of yourself, Jane. Oh, and Happy Birthday.”
More muffled muttering.
“Happy Birthday, Mother.”
“Thanks, Ted. Guess as a day of celebration it’s sunk now, but thanks. Unless of course, the Panthers burn down the neighborhood.”
“I can dream, can’t I?”
After we say our goodbyes, I turn on the television in hopes of seeing Baltimore burning, but instead Cronkite – who looks almost as upset as he did after Kennedy got shot – is showing Martin Luther King’s speech from last night at a Baptist church in Tennessee. King is sweating and looking up a lot. Goddamn but he is a handsome man. Was.
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats… or talk about the threats that were out there. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. [applause] And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! [applause] And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
While he speaks, I feel tears rolling down my numb cheeks. I am so sad he is dead and inspired by his speech and also so relieved I can still feel anything real besides self-pity that I don’t even know what to think. One thing is clear. He knew he was going to die. All martyrs do.
September 25, 1952
Milford to New Haven, CT
I couldn’t sleep last night at all, because I was trying to figure out which of my new outfits to wear to my first day at the Bank. I decided to wear the navy, pleated skirt with the cinch belt and white blouse with the black flats and the white gloves. I hate stockings, especially these new nylons, but they are a must. I bought a cute blue plaid coat that I love. I am so excited! I haven’t had a job since Jimmy was born. He’s almost 15 now and can take care of himself after school, so George and I agreed it was time for me to find a job. I decided to look for work at a bank so I could get off early, so even though I won’t be home when Jimmy gets out of school, I’ll be there soon after. Because of my time working at St. Peter’s on the Keynote and doing the Treasury (even though George is the Treasurer, I do the calculating, believe you me!), they decided to hire me at N.B.A. in mail deposits. That and a reference from the Pulitos and Mr. North did the trick. I have to hand it to Mr. North; I never thought he’d give me the time of day, but in the end he gave me a reference. He always joked that I could do George’s job, and maybe twice as quickly, but I thought he was putting me on somehow, or George.
I hope once I get started working we can get another car, but for today I made sure Jimmy got off to school with his lunch, dropped off George at the train to go into New York and am driving to my office in New Haven. I’ve never had an office job! My last job was at the rubber factory, which was smelly, dull and back-breaking. I hated it, but I wish young people these days had to have that kind of work. They loaf around without a care in the world, vandalizing things and just making trouble. We never had the time for that kind of nonsense! Jimmy had a newspaper route, but now he’s only doing his schoolwork and playing around with drawing and making strange little sculptures. George says that’s OK, and we should give him an allowance. Allowance! We used to give money to our parents at that age! We’ll spoil him! But George insists, and I gave in on this one, once I got this job.
A job! Something besides cleaning and cooking. I love driving, too, feeling the cool autumn air through the window, seeing the morning light, even if the air is filled with car exhaust fumes, it still smells better than all those factories on the Naugatuck. There are so many new buildings being constructed now! Skyscrapers and new roads, everyone in their new cars. After not having anything, it seems like we have everything, and it’s all bright and shiny and brand new. But I like to keep even our older things looking new and don’t want to throw things away like I see some people do. They don’t remember how fast everything can disappear.
Since we moved to Milford, we are considered middle class, not working class. No one needs to know we started in the factories or that our name used to be Bukoski, and they don’t. We don’t tell people George is an Executive Assistant for Mr. North at Farrel’s in Ansonia, instead that he works with Vitro Corporation in New York. We also tell everyone we got married two years earlier than we did so there won’t be any questions. When I walk into the office today, I can be whoever I want to be. Now, that’s freedom.
Oh, there’s the office and here’s the parking lot. Oh, I have butterflies in my stomach! It feels like the first day of school! As I open the front door to the bank offices, I hear that horrible whine. Another damn air raid siren. I have no idea where anyone is meant to go in New Haven. People are running every which way on the street like it’s real.
Lillian sees me, standing outside looking confused, and runs toward me to open the door. She’s one of the other Deposit girls I met at my interview. She says, “Betty, come with me!” We race down the stairs into the basement, along with what seems like hundreds of other people. I’m having a hard time running in these new heels, and I wonder if I should tell them how futile this all is, because I know from George what really happens, but I decide against it, since no one really wants to know that – and try not to laugh. We are meant to crouch under the desks in the basement, just like Jimmy has to do in school. “Duck and cover.” Oh dear, it’s just too absurd.
“Welcome to NBA!” Lillian says chirpily, though I can tell she’s nervous. I know this is a drill, already, because if it wasn’t, we’d already be dead by now, but there’s no way to say that either, so I decide on, “Yes, it’s quite a reception!” That makes the others around us laugh, and they seem grateful for the humor. Phew! That could have come off as cocky, and I don’t want to ruin my chances of having friends on the first day.
“You’re alright, Betty!” says Larry – my new boss – from under a nearby desk. I recognize his gravelly voice. “You’re going to get along just fine with an attitude like that. You’re a tough broad, aren’t you?”
I snort, which makes everyone laugh a little more, but I am horrified to have just sounded exactly like Mother.
“I suppose so!” I say brightly – again with Mother’s fake voice – oh this is horrible, but I can’t seem to stop, “I have been known for my independence and quick wit!”
Lillian says to me conspiratorially, “Which I’ll bet no one wants to be on the wrong side of?”
We laugh together, and I know we’ll be fast friends. She seems like the popular type, so that’ll help me here right away.
I hear a female snicker nearby, and Lillian whispers, “Oh that’s Pat, don’t mind her. She doesn’t want anyone else to get any attention, one of those types.”
I nod and peer over our desk to see if I can make out Pat in the dark basement. I’ll have to watch out for that one.
Larry says all is clear after a few minutes when the lights come back on, and we get up and straighten out our clothes. Lord knows what has happened to my hair and skirt since crouching down under that desk, but I suppose no one else is doing much better. We blink at one another, everyone a little happier for still being alive. A woman with bright red lipstick and a lemon yellow suit that’s a little shorter and tighter than everyone else’s comes up to me to shake my hand. “Welcome to NBA, Betty!” says the voice that snickered.
“Oh,” I say, “You must be Pat!”
She peers at me then Lillian suspiciously, “How did you know?”
“Your reputation precedes you.”
Lillian bites her lip and turns away.
We smile at one another broadly, shaking hands. She sees my wedding ring, and I see the lack of hers and we draw our own conclusions, but as she looks me up and down, she is relaxing. She can see that I am not svelte like her, dressed like her, or on the prowl like her. A hot war has been deterred, but our own private little cold war has begun.
When we return to the office, and as Lillian settles me in to my desk, she whispers, “Pat’s divorced, so be kind if you can. She has a kid at home who’s apparently a bit out of control and her husband just up and left – I think he was a drunk, or at least that’s the scuttle-butt.” I nod.
OK, I’ll do my best, but no wonder she’s divorced. Probably drove the man to drink with that bitchy attitude. Some people just rub you the wrong way from the get go.
Pat looks over at us, smiling and suspicious at the same time. I smile back.
Oh my, it’s just like being back at high school. Lillian’s a good egg, though, and lots of the girls seem swell. OK, so time to focus on the work. Open envelope. Find account, add amount, file. Another envelope, find account, add amount. File…Well, this won’t be hard.
This isn’t too different than the factory, truth be told, but at least it smells better, isn’t as loud or hard on my body, and I can sit down at my own desk and wear nice clothes. The first thing I did when I sat down was pinned this quote to my bulletin board from Norman Vincent Peale, and I keep looking up at it when I flag, because I thought the first day might be hard:
“Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.”
I need to stay positive, and then I will enjoy this work, because as Peale says: “any action is better than no action at all!” Housework and cooking is just as repetitious, but here I’m getting paid! And hopefully can make some new friends. Lunchtime will be soon, and I can get to know the other gals.
I think Peale is a little hokey, and he certainly doesn’t understand the nature of evil, but he is right about one thing, it’s better to be working than not. George uses this philosophy to think positively about his work, too, but sometimes I wish he were a little less positive and a little more restless to move up. However, I don’t want to discourage him, because everyone’s reading Peale these days who wants to get ahead, and I want us to try to make something out of this life, no matter how absurd, because it seems like we’re stuck here.
February 22, 1965
The Alameda, Baltimore
She sits. She cannot stand. She has seen herself in the mirror, and her eye is bruised. She was meant to go to class today, but she cannot bear the embarrassment – to argue with the young professors about women being equal while her eye is turning a deeper purple-red. Her husband has gotten sloppy and forgotten to not let his violence show. She barely remembers the moment. He was in a blackout and remembers nothing. He has left for work and feels no guilt or remorse. He says she’s making it up. That she fell down the stairs herself, as drunk as she was, as drunk as she always is. How can he be to blame for her klutziness?
She only has a foggy memory, it is true, but she does remember that he hit her. She remembers the feeling of his knuckles on her eye – her glass falling – the sound of ice scattering and glass shattering. She fell backwards and yes, once again, down the stairs. He is right about that. But the punch is what pushed her. Did they argue about Malcolm X, was it that? She thinks maybe it was. She was upset that he had been shot, and her husband told her he was a dangerous man, and she said, “No, honey. You are a dangerous man,” and he thought she was joking so he tried to bring her to him, and she spit at him and then –
But when he leaves, she says nothing. She has nothing left. She tries not to take so many pills, so she can study, but sometimes she still takes too many. She knows only that she did not fall on her own. That is not true.
But she cannot say it. Her mouth hurts. Her head hurts. Her teeth hurt. Her ribs hurt. She feels tears – not of pain but of shame – coming down her cheek. She doesn’t know whose tears they are, perhaps someone else’s? She is not here anymore. She is simply not here.
She wants to go to class. There is some small part of her that remembers she has a goal. That remembers that she can get this degree, that she is so close, that the degree means freedom. Some part of me is still here, yes.
I want to-
No, she can’t get up. She can’t.
No, she can’t. She’s gone. It’s over. You’ve lost.
No, I haven’t.
Yes, she has. She just sits there and lies back into the puke-green sofa. She closes her eyes and lets the pill take away her pain. She lets-
No. No, I don’t. I throw up the pill. Yes. My body. It throws up the pill. And I am in pain. Lots of motherfucking pain. But I am alive. The door is right there in front of me. I can just pick myself up. I can. And-
No. Not today. Today she does not move. She cannot bear the thought of exposing herself to the humiliation of all those young people seeing her like this. It is too much shame. She is the fighter at college. She is the person she wants to be when she is there. This sad body, this pathetic victim, is not who she wants to be. She will not contaminate that place with this self. She will not.
Shhhhhhhhh. It’s OK. She is simply tired. She can rest now. She can-
Julia Lee Barclay-Morton, PhD is a NYC-based award-winning writer and director of experimental theater, whose work has been produced and published internationally. She was inducted into the Indie Theater Hall of Fame in 2014. She lived in the UK from 2003-11, where she was awarded a fellowship to complete her PhD and founded Apocryphal Theatre. Since moving back to NYC in 2011, she has focused on writing The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani, which was long-listed in 2015 for the UK Mslexia prize for an unpublished novel. Her story “The God Thing” was nominated by Stockholm Review for a Sundress 2015 Best of the Net anthology. She is an adjunct professor at Fordham University and blogs at http://julialeebarclay.blogspot.com.