The sky over Montgomery was a thin blue with the occasional bird dotting the horizon like a freckle. The vapor trail of a jet cut through the emptiness, laying a horizontal white trail in its wake that looked like shaving cream for what seemed like a couple of inches, but must've been miles, then it disappeared. David Lavine searched the blue through the diner window, trying very hard to ignore what was being said by Sean, on the other side of the table. He was getting pretty good at it. He hadn't heard a word in several seconds, only a sort of muffled noise, which reminded David of what a politician must sound like underwater. Not even that; a speech writer, albeit a very successful one.
"You remember them, Stan and Debbie? We all spent a week at their lake house in northern Ontario last summer? At Lake Kennessis?" Sean was saying.
David turned towards Grace; Sean's wife, who was sitting across the table. She was a pretty 35; thin and pink, giving the impression of someone who put a lot of work into looking like she was just aging naturally.
"No, that wasn't us. You're thinking of Roger and Pat," David said.
"Oh, am I?"
He nodded, glanced back into the blue, and noticed another vapor trail stretching vertically what appeared to be about three millimeters to the left of the first trail. The two were unconnected. Must be the same jet, he thought. Maybe it was trying to spell something.
He watched it for a little while longer, but didn't see any more activity, so he turned to the diner. It was the grubbiest, dirtiest place he'd ever been inside. Dingy, was the word that kept coming to mind. It wasn't exactly dark inside; there were three large windows along this wall, and one more on either side. The building was sort of squeezed in the middle, like a hot dog; there were tables along the wall they now sat at, and a counter along the other wall. It was very narrow in between, and full of customers, mostly African Americans. The floor was a dark, old concrete which was so worn that David didn't realize at first what it was. A threadbare, faded carpet covered parts of the floor, and the booths were wooden with high backs, and were very uncomfortable. Small, thin tables looked like they'd been wedged in between the high-backed seats, giving the illusion of claustrophobia, with the reality of suffocation. And the food, well, greasy, indigestible cholesterol-on-a-bun was one thing, but...a particularly loud outburst from Sean interrupted his internal monologue.
"The thing about Bush that no one, you know, outside Washington gives him credit for, is that seeming so dumb is really very clever."
"I just don't see it, Sean," Cathy, David's wife, argued.
"You're not supposed to see it, that's the point."
"Remind me again why we ate here?" David interrupted. A political argument between Cath and Sean was like the cold war; it could take years, and it didn't matter whoever finally won, it would take just as long to rebuild the other.
"Local flavor," Sean said. "Morris Dees used to eat here all the time."
"Probably using the same cooking oil." David began.
"You're so Starbucks," Cathy interjected.
"What is that supposed to mean, anyway, Cath?"
"She's calling you, I believe in the language of your tribe, it would be known as a yuppie," Sean said.
"If that means I have a more developed culinary sense, then fine, I accept the designation," David said, giving a little flourish with his hand.
"Try something different, for once," Cathy said.
"You're supposed to be on my side."
She smiled thinly at the table, allowing a momentary silence.
"We should go," Grace interjected. "What time is it?"
"Plenty of time," Sean said, digging out his wallet. David snatched the bill from the end of the table and studied it morosely.
"Do they come around and pick up the check, or...?"
"They do now," Sean said. He laid down some cash and slid out of the booth. "Don't worry, we'll get it."
"No," Cathy began. She stood.
"No arguing; our treat," San said.
"Well thank you," David said, pushing Cathy aside to make room for him to stand. He grabbed Sean's hand and shook it quickly to avoid having to talk to him. The group gathered their things and exited the diner. Outside, waves of heat slapped at their faces. David was sweating by the time they got to Sean's rental car, a shiny red Ford SUV; and he knew it would be even hotter inside. He opened the door and was greeted by a burst of not at all hot air.
"Thank God for technology," Grace said, sitting in the front passenger seat.
"Feel that?" Sean asked, grinning. He did that a lot, David noticed.
"I turned it on when we first stepped into the parking lot," Sean said. He held up the little black rounded plastic remote attached to his keys.
"You know, before Sean showed me how you do it, I didn't know you could turn on the air with those," Grace said. "I thought they were just for doors."
"We always just roll the windows down," David said.
"That's what happens when you keep your head in the sand, excuse me; 'when you adopt more environment-friendly technologies,'" Sean said.
"I don't see how someone so intelligent can be so stupid," Cathy stated.
"You know what, you're right. Let's do away with this whole, 'air-conditioner' thing, we'll just roll our windows down," Sean adopted a twangy southern accent; "an Alabama air conditioner they call it, roll your winders down and drive real fast."
Grace was laughing. "Oh, I remember those days."
"No you don't," Sean said.
"Let's not be hasty," David said.
"See there," Sean said. "That's a true liberal; at the first sign of discomfort, he calls foul. The problem with all that moral mindedness is that life gets in the way."
"Hey, I never asked to be a liberal," David said. "I just do what I think is right and hope other people do too."
"Shut up, David," Cathy said. "It's people like you that make life so hard for people like them." She pointed out the window at a couple of kids walking down the sidewalk. They were both black, dressed in dirty jeans and tee-shirts. "Instead of making speeches, and building a "wall of tolerance," all that money should go to educating them, teaching them how to use computers."
"Then why did you give them a hundred bucks to put your name on?" Sean asked.
"I mean that it shouldn't just end there. It should start there."
"I never expected there to be so many black people here," David said. "It's strange."
Sean laughed loudly. Cathy glared at him, and David sat in the back and watched the ugly city streets limp past until they pulled up to the Civil Rights Memorial Center.
"I would've thought you'd be working," David said, breaking the silence as Sean looked for a parking space.
"Hey I wrote it. How he delivers it is his business," Sean said.
"It's a very good speech," Grace said.
"It's passable. "'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?' " Martin Luther King said that."
"Wasn't he a liberal?" Cathy interjected.
"He got things done, which is more than I can say for most people," Sean said. "Liberal or otherwise," he added.
They piled out of the SUV and approached the building. It was brand new, clean and offered a complete contrast to most of what they'd seen so far of Montgomery. The walls were glass and stone, with marble steps. People were wandering around outside, gawking.
Sean steered them through the gawkers, up the steps where more people were gathered around a stage. The Wall was to the side of the stage. David studied it. It resembled the Vietnam Veterans' memorial. Plain. Made of stones. Very wall like. There was a yellow ribbon sort of hanging from it, tied into a big bow tie.
"I didn't know this was going to be outside," Grace said.
"Would you like a tour of the place?" Sean said.
"How do you know where things are, you said you'd never been here?" David said.
"I read the pamphlets."
"As long as the air-conditioning is on inside, Sean, honey," Grace said.
Sean led them in between two pillars, to the side of the wall, through the glass doors and into the air conditioned interior. Murals hung on the walls, paintings and huge photographs depicting scenes of struggle in the civil rights movement covered the walls.
"Over to the left is the Memorial Theatre, and the Martyr's Hall is to the right. Let's go that way," Sean said.
"This is really impressive," David said.
"This is the Martyr Collage, I believe," Sean said. He led them through to a wide hall, which had more pictures of struggle on the wall. David fell behind, studying the pictures. Grace hung back as well.
"It's much better than I thought it would be," she said.
"Oh really?" David replied. Cathy and Sean had moved ahead, and Sean was saying something, but David couldn't make out what it was.
"I expected, you know, something more..." She trailed off, waving her hand. "I mean it's sort of pretentious, but not as much as I thought."
"It's the marble."
Grace nodded. Ahead, David saw Cathy laugh. Sean leaned in and said something to her, and she laughed harder.
"Now who is this?" Grace said, pointing at a picture on the wall.
"I believe it's..." David raised his glasses and peered at the name under the painting. "Ralph Abernathy ."
"Oh, it says it right underneath, doesn't it." Grace laughed a short, loud laugh.
"We're losing them," David said. Ahead of them, Sean and Cathy were leaving the room. David ushered Grace ahead.
The speech would have been very nice, but David was too busy sweating to notice. He stood behind Cathy, who stood beside Sean in front of the stage. Grace was beside David. Sean had declined an opportunity to sit beside the congressman, to remain in the audience.
"It's better out there, you can see if it flies better," he'd said.
David watched the scissors in the hands of some faceless, beige suited man standing on the edge of the stage. Finally, the congressman finished his speech and everyone started clapping. He climbed off the stage, and the faceless man handed him the scissors. He raised them, turned and smiled. There were several flashes from photographers. Then he cut the ribbon. The audience surged towards the congressman, and he shook hands with several of them, and then discretely left. Sean held the others back until the crowd had thinned, then led them to the wall. He pointed out his name, and Grace's. David admired it, and scanned the wall, lost. Sean pointed, showing David and Cathy where their names were engraved in the stone.
"There we are," David said, "in stone."
"Yep," Sean said.
He turned away, followed by Cathy and Grace. David lingered.
"It's very symbolic, you know. It's a good thing." David turned to Cathy but she was gone, heading towards the parking lot with the others. He hurried to catch them.
After the speech, they went back to the hotel. David immediately lay on the bed and sank into a book and didn't notice for some time that Cathy was gone. He glanced at his watch. It was almost seven; time to eat. He wandered out into the hall, and knocked on Sean's door. After what seemed like a long time, Grace opened it.
"Have you seen Cathy?" David asked.
"I think she and Sean went down to the bar." Grace stretched. "I must've dozed off. I was taking a nap."
"Yeah, me too," David said. "Thanks." He went back to his room, and sat back on the bed. After a moment, he picked his book back up.
Later, after eating supper, as Sean called it, in a much more expensive restaurant than the previous, they gathered in Sean and Grace's room for drinks. The rooms were cookie cutter replicas; each had balconies, which were thin and obscured by the curtains covering the sliding glass doors. There was a table in the center of each room with four chairs, a big, soft bed on one side, a bathroom on the other. But somehow, David found himself thinking Sean's was nicer.
Everyone was full and slowly getting drunk. A comfortable silence had fallen over them all. Sean wasn't even talking. He was just sort of staring at the floor, drinking. Cathy was also quiet. Grace was sitting on the bed, reading a magazine. David was slowly drinking a scotch.
"It was a very good speech," David said.
"Don't flatter him," Cathy said quietly.
"No, it really was. You should publish it."
"No, really, I'm good friends with Jake Williams, at the University Publishing House. I could definitely get him to read it."
"Have some dignity," Cathy muttered.
David grew quiet.
"Well David, I appreciate it," Sean said. "And no offense, but if I were to try publishing, I think I'd want to go with some place a little bigger, if you know what I mean."
"Why are you sucking up to him? You're so pathetic," Cathy said.
"Hey, now," Sean said.
Cathy got up and went outside onto the balcony. David watched her walk and turned to Sean, who was also staring outside.
"So these are your old stomping grounds, huh?" David said, after a while.
"Not really. I'm from Birmingham, a little further north."
From the bed, Grace spoke; "I grew up a little west of here: Selma, on the Alabama River."
David turned towards her. "Dr. King started out in Selma, didn't he?"
"Oh yeah. You'd like it. The people are very friendly. It's not as much of a powder keg as people think. They always exaggerate these things."
"The south is the scapegoat for America's guilt," Sean said. "It's unfortunate that so many blacks live in poverty, but it's up to them to pull themselves out of it. Blaming the south won't help."
"I don't think that's what happens," David said, carefully.
Sean shrugged and went and fixed himself another drink. David watched him walk slowly outside.
"You think Dr. King was exaggerating??" David asked, directing his attention back at Grace.
"Well, no, I mean, things are different, now. But people won't accept that. They refuse to move on."
David looked towards the sliding glass door. He could see shadows of them both outside, through the curtain, talking. She was leaning on the balcony. Sean was beside her. Sean said something, and David was sure that Cathy laughed.
Grace said, "Alabama, or really, anywhere in the south, has been labeled as this hotbed of racial intolerance but it's just not true."
David said, "There are reports of racial violence all the time." He added, giving the conversation his full attention for a moment; "How about in Kentucky, where those kids dragged that poor man behind their truck till he died. Or in Mississippi, where the black churches keep being burned. The KKK have marches, I see it on the news. It seems like there must still be something going on."
He looked outside again. They were talking. He could barely hear the low murmur of their speech.
"If you look at the statistics, actually, violent crime, including racial violence, is down in America. But like Sean says, that doesn't sell detergent so the media doesn't report it."
In the shadows, David could see Sean's hand on her arm. Grace was speaking, but he wasn't listening.
"Well, anyway. Listen to us, we sound like Sean and Cathy," Grace said.
In the shadows, Sean looked at her, she turned to him. Their shadows met. She jerked away. They seemed to be speaking again, but David couldn't hear them.
"We-ll," Grace said, splitting the word into two. "I will admit I am glad to be away from this place, if for no other reason than the heat."
David turned a horrified look at her, stunning her into silence. He stared at her for several seconds.
"What?" She asked, worried.
Behind him, David heard the glass door slide open. Sean's heavy footsteps moved to the opposite side of the table from David, and he heard Sean sit and pour himself a drink. The door slid closed. Cathy came in and sat on the bed. She refused to look at him, still annoyed. David kept staring at Grace. He was afraid to look at anyone else. Instead he rose and staggered towards the door.
"What's wrong?" Grace asked.
"Going to my room," he muttered.
"You alright, pal?" Sean said. He stepped up behind David and put a hand on his shoulder. David stepped to the door, shrugging Sean's hand off feebly in the same motion.
"Going to lie down," he added. He opened the door and stepped through, pulling it closed behind him. Back in his room, he stared at the fake wood grain pattern of the door, which was supposed to make it look more expensive, but made it look cheap. He thought about what he'd seen but his eyes kept following the spirals, picking out designs in the grain, taking his mind away. The book he'd been reading earlier was lying open on the bed. He went and sat beside it, staring at the wall for several minutes, then he picked the book up, and after a few more minutes he was able to read.