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The Prisoner of Ideas – a short story by Michael Fine

By Michael Fine

© Michael Fine 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

No man or woman can be trusted, thought Sonia Cano, but this one certainly is something of a distraction. I fall into the same rabbit-hole every time. They piqué my interest one day. The next thing I know it’s two years later and I hear their voice coming out of my mouth, their thoughts in my brain, and suddenly I realize that what I’m saying and thinking has nothing to do with what I actually think, or what I actually feel, and then I bolt.

There was nothing special about the house on Congress Street and Sonia didn’t give a damn about gentrification. It was a triple-decker, like every other house in Central Falls. Sonia bought it because it was cheap, and because the numbers worked. You get two tenants, they pay the rent, the rent covers the mortgage, and you live for free. Or, better than free, to be honest, because you can charge all sorts of expenses to the house and make that income invisible to the tax man, even though it comes in as cash every month. Why would a woman not buy a house?

But to Babatunde, Sonia’s house represented everything that was right and wrong with America, everything that was right and wrong with democracy, and everything that was right and wrong with Sonia herself, although before Babatunde came into her life, Sonia had never seriously considered that there was anything wrong with her at all.

Sonia thought she was done with relationships, just done, once and for all, and so she went back to college to finish her degree. She had three excellent children, each more interesting than the next, who were finally now old enough so that they didn’t need their mother’s attention every second. She had her sisters and brothers, whose ups and downs provided plenty of distraction in her life. The office ran like clockwork – there were plenty of people answering the phones, and Sonia had a list of per-diems – mostly college kids and Uber drivers — she’d ring up at the last moment if one of her regulars called in sick. The last two men had given her children and were steady enough to do their share when she needed someone to drive a child to school or pick up from soccer. But they had both fallen off the wagon one way or the other, one to another woman, one to beer and other women, but she had learned something from being with each of them and had no regrets. So now it is my time, Sonia thought. I’ll finish college one course at a time. Then I’ll go to law school at night. The lawyers in my office don’t have any better sense than I do.  They just got to this country first and make a whole lot more money for doing a whole lot less work.

But then there was Babatunde, who Sonia hadn’t counted on meeting. Poor beautiful Babatunde, the adjunct professor and poet, the man who would be a student for the rest of his life, who was pretty, brilliant, full of soul, and would never earn a living.  What did she see in him?

They are building a new train station in Pawtucket, Babatunde said. Gentrification! The rich will be coming from Boston by train! They will buy up all the property! Property values will go through the roof! Taxes will go up! You and your kids, you won’t be able to live in Central Falls anymore. Central Falls will be for millennials! They will destroy our communities! Where will our people go? How will our people live?

There was something about Babatunde’s blue-brown, dark skin and beautiful, brown eyes that Sonia could not stop thinking about. It made no sense. But oh, how that man had soul.

The first time they met for coffee it was to discuss her paper on Chaucer. Babatunde was earnest and polite. He focused on her usage and her construction, not on her ideas.

“Outline,” he said. “Think out what you want to say first. Then say it. Short direct sentences with active verbs and no adverbs. Don’t copy someone else’s style. You don’t need to sound important. Just say what you think and be yourself.”

“I don’t write well in English,” Sonia said. “I think in English but Spanish style. Flowery. A little overblown, like a woman who wears too much make-up.” 

“You are hiding, buried under words and sentences,” Babatunde said. 

“English thinking is cool, not hot,” Sonia said. 

With that, Babatunde raised his eyes to meet Sonia’s for the first time.

“Chaucer is quite hot,” Babatunde said. “But I understand what you mean. Yoruba thinking is also different. Complex. Textured, elegant, full of hidden meanings. English thinking has none of that richness. I’m sorry this course is so Eurocentric. You might prefer the Latin and Central Americans: Garcia-Marquez, Clarice Lispector, Octavio Paz, Isabelle Allende, or Boleno. Laura Esquivel, Neruda, and even Vargas-Llosa, that capitalist. And Garcia-Lorca. Yes, certainly Garcia-Lorca. Read them in Spanish, I think. But read the women first.”

“I don’t have time to read,” Sonia said. “Because of children, my house and work. I pray I can get through the reading and papers for this course. But my writing and thinking…”

“That is why I, as a teacher, have office hours,” Babatunde said. “For teaching.” 

“Can I send you my papers in draft form?” Sonia said. 

“Better yet, send outlines first,” Babatunde said. “And we will meet once a week.”

Once a week soon became more than that.

But then a strange unexpected difficulty rose up and came between them. Babatunde came to the house to have dinner one night with Sonia and her kids. Sonia went all out – arepas, chicken, beef, chicharron, morcilla, costilla, tostones, fried yucca with cheese – not that she was cooking to impress, of course.  She only wanted to show Babatunde that she was good at something, that her clumsy sentence construction and poor word choice didn’t represent the full range of her knowledge and ability by any means. 

Babatunde didn’t eat much but Sonia’s kids loved him anyway. He had a poet’s appreciation for childhood, and he went there immediately when they sat down to dinner – he popped his cheek, in and out, when Sonia poured out wine. He spoke grandly, first in pig Latin and then in Middle English. He went from saying easplay asspay ethay altsay to Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote The Droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote, which he made Sonia translate for them, and then he made her say the next four lines of the prologue, and then made Yolanda say the next two lines, and Hector say the next two lines, and he even got Jasmine, who was only eight, to say a line. Before long Sonia’s kids were actually listening to the whole prologue to the Canterbury tales and loved every word and every note of what sounded like music, and Sonia could feel those kids falling in love with Babatunde’s soul the way she had. 

They had fathers, who were good men, but Babatunde was just on a different plane of being.  Sonia suddenly felt somehow thrilled to be alive.

Later, when they were together, when Sonia teased him about not eating much, it came out that Babatunde was a vegetarian, and couldn’t eat much of what she made and served. He had an elegant way of telling her that. He didn’t say anything about what he would or wouldn’t eat. He just talked about how much he liked the arepa and the yucca, about how much he liked reciting Chaucer to her children, and how much he liked watching them eat the rice and beans.  She understood. 

“Next time there will be more vegetables,” she said.  “I make mean maduros, and a fantastic lentil soup.”

So, Sonia couldn’t believe it when Babatunde told her he wouldn’t come back to her house.

“My children loved you,” she said. 

It was a Friday, and they were in his office at RIC, in the tiny little cubicle they gave adjuncts, which was jammed with books and papers. A desk. A desk lamp. Shelves and two chairs, one on each side of a desk. 

“I loved your children. They have life and energy, and a mother with heart and imagination,” Babatunde said. “But your house is in the danger zone for gentrification, and I can’t go back there. When I was with you I could hear the cries of the people who will be dispossessed, the people who have come to Central Falls from all over the globe, from Honduras and El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, from Liberia and Nigeria and Mali, after tremendous suffering and who are about to be forced to flee again, just after they reconstituted their lives. It is too much pain to bear.”

“The train station isn’t built yet,” Sonia said.  “They haven’t even broken ground.”

“This is not the point,” Babatunde said. “The capitalists and the materialists are rising out of the bowels of the earth, coming up from the lower depths, swarming and getting ready to strike.  First they buy up the old brick mill buildings on Clay, Pine, and Barton Streets. Then they buy up the triple-deckers and make them over into housing for Brown and RISD students. Our people, who already have to take two buses to get to work, will have to take three buses. They will have to move to Johnston, West Warwick, and Danielson where they are not wanted, where there are no others like them, where no one else wants to live. We must rise up! The time to stop the process is now. The souls of displaced children are already calling out!”

“Please tell me exactly how not coming to my house is rising up?” Sonia said. “Do you expect me to sell my house and displace my children today? For something that may or may not happen in five years? You are saying something else. You are saying my children and I are not good enough for you. I may not write English well, but I understand what you are saying loud and clear.”

Then Babatunde got on his knees in front of her, his hands locked together, and bowed his head in prayer. The door to the cubicle was open. Someone might see!

“I am saying that we will take this on together,” Babatunde said. “I pray for your forgiveness.  To me, ideas have souls. Some are the congealed pain of our history, the history of the oppressed, and some days I feel that pain in the center of my being. But you are my liberation.  In you I see the beauty of all our people, the story of people who were cast down but find in themselves the strength to rise up, the seeds that germinate in cool darkness and push their way up through dirt and decay into the light.”

What can a woman say to a man like that? Babatunde’s words made her skin tingle. Sonia leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. She took his clasped hands in hers, lifted him from his knees, and stood up herself. The she closed the door.

After that, every Friday night when she didn’t have to work the next morning, her sister Claudette – who had two little kids of her own – came to stay with Sonia’s kids so Sonia could be with Babatunde at his place in North Providence. He lived over a butcher shop, next to a lemonade stand, in a place that was in the middle of nowhere and that would never ever be gentrified because no one in their right mind would ever want to live there. But it worked fine for one night of the week, and Babatunde somehow made Sonia’s soul glad and let her body be at peace.

Sonia took the summer off. There wasn’t any rush. The plan had always been to take one course at a time. Her kids needed her attention in the summer. It was going to take her six or seven years to finish her degree anyway. Some days work just didn’t matter that much. It was better to load the kids in the car in the late afternoon and drive to the beach, to Horseneck or East Matunuck, when you could slip through after the traffic had come and gone, and park for free. It was the same beach after six, the same lime green sea grass moving in waves with the wind, the same tawny white sand still warm on your feet from the day’s sun but not too hot to walk on, the same glorious ocean, which was still ready to snatch you away from yourself, lift you, twirl you around mercilessly and throw you wherever without restraint.

 She registered for the fall semester in August. Disappointing as it was, she just didn’t need another English course for pre-law. Best to find a course that met twice a week and late in the afternoon, but that wasn’t too dry, and where she might learn something she actually needed to know.  POL 201 – The Development of American Democracy. POL 202 – American Government. PHIL 205 – Introduction to Logic. ECON 200 – Introduction to Economics.  HIST 201 – US History to 1877. Too many choices! Babatunde said he’d help with her writing whatever she chose, and he forgave her for her choice: ECON 200. But he brought her a new book to read every time they were together. And talked about the papers he was grading for ENGL 207 – American Literature Beginnings to the Present.  He hated teaching Dreiser and Steinbeck, but loved Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Richard Wright, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Bakara, Allen Ginsberg, and Martin Espada. Hope, Babatunde said. America is hope, however irrational, and the inappropriate expectation of justice in a world where no justice has ever existed.

Sonia found herself waking at 3 AM, strangely disquieted, and reading the books Babatunde brought. I don’t have time for this, Sonia thought. I need to be alert, on my game all day long.  But there was something about the summer’s heat that was disquieting, that woke her and forced her awake to read, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on that was wrong about all this that kept eating at her. Still, the new thoughts she had kept Sonia firing on all cylinders all day long, even when, in a late afternoon meeting, she felt her eyelids get heavy. I can do this, Sonia told herself. I must resist. And she’d stand and commanded more attention by standing as she brought herself back from the brink.

But one Monday at the end of summer, when the nights were still hot and the drone of air conditioners still drowned out the rumble and groan of the trucks on Route 95, Sonia awoke. Friday nights were sweet. But what about all the other nights? Why wouldn’t Babatunde come to her house?  All of a sudden, Sonia realized that Babatunde was feeding her a line. Gentrification?  What a strange idea. He was a man and all men are created equal. All of them are full of deceit.  She had been down this road before. How could she have been so blind?

She dressed. There was no light in the sky. She checked on the children, who were still sleeping. Seventeen minutes there, she thought. Seventeen minutes back. I can be back in my house and back in my bed before six-thirty. But I must know the truth.

She drove to North Providence.

There is an unusual peace in the city before dawn in the summer. Nothing moves. Everyone is sleeping. Everything is blue, grey and brown, as if standing in the fog. No one looks, no one sees, and no one knows. There is enough light to see what you need to see. You can learn what you need to learn, and no one knows you have been there and gone.

Babatunde’s beat up old blue Saturn was parked at the curb, sandwiched between other old cars: Fords and old Toyotas, Kias and step vans – the tired cars of the poor, cars that spend every night on the street. The light in his kitchen was on. 

What have I learned? Sonia wondered. Only that his car is here, and his kitchen light is on.  Nothing else. She parked in front of a fire hydrant across the street and sat for a few minutes.  Then she drove home.

It was raining the next night when Sonia awoke, a wind driven rain without thunder or lightening that spattered and clicked on the glass windowpanes.  The children were sleeping.

She dressed and hurried out. She eased the front door closed so that it nestled and did not slam and so that the lock closed instead of clicked. She guided the screen door back into its frame so that it didn’t bang.

Then she drove to North Providence in the rain. She couldn’t see much, of course. The rain brought darkness, made her headlights murky, and made the trees hang over the road into angry spirits that wanted to smother Sonia, her car, and the road itself.

I will know the truth tonight, Sonia thought. Better to know now than to delude myself.

Sonia didn’t see Babatunde’s car at first. Dread, sadness, despair and anger, the emotions that had been waking her, grabbed her throat, eyes, kidneys, and the pit of her stomach.

But then, as she passed the house to find a place to turn, she saw the blue Saturn half a block away from the butcher shop. When she turned and parked in front of the fire hydrant again, she could see the light on again in Babatunde’s kitchen, partially obscured by the branches and leaves of a big maple that were swaying with the wind and rain.

Sonia awoke Wednesday night, but she stayed home. She paced inside her bedroom for an hour until her feet got cold, so she made herself a cup of coffee. She sat in front of a window at her kitchen table and stared at the pink vinyl siding of the house next door. This is craziness, she told herself. What am I doing? I don’t own the man. I’m not sure I even really want him. He wants his space. I want my space. There is nothing to be learned from going over there in the middle of the night. I can’t change him. I can barely control myself.

But she woke again Thursday night with the same panic, dread, sadness, despair, and anger she had been waking with all week.

She drove to North Providence again. The kitchen light was on.  But there was no car. 

She drove slowly down the street, twice, and three times. Then she circled the block once and circled it again. There were no open parking spaces in front of Babatunde’s house but there were plenty on the street that ran parallel to Babatunde’s street. There was no light on in Babatunde’s kitchen window. 

No car. He was pretty and he was sweet. But he was just like all the rest.

She drove further up the street and circled the blocks on both sides of the street and the block behind Babatunde’s block and parked again in the space in front of the fire hydrant.

Then Sonia collapsed. You couldn’t tell by looking at Sonia that anything had changed. But inside her, everything was different, as if her soul was sugar or salt that was all pouring away through a funnel, all spilling onto the ground, until there was nothing left inside. Her breath got short and she sobbed once as she put her head in her hands, but she held onto the world, nonetheless. I am stronger than this, she thought. I will not cry.

And then she drove home.

The old blue Saturn was parked in front of the house on Congress Street. Babatunde was asleep inside it, a book on his chest.

He jumped when Sonia wrapped on the car window. He appeared confused, his eyes unfocused, as if he didn’t know where he was, how he had gotten there, or even who Sonia was. He found his glasses, which were sitting on the top of his head, and put them on. Sonia didn’t wait for him to roll down the window. She marched around the car and tugged on the handle of the passenger side door, which was locked, two or three times, until Babatunde could understand enough about where he was, who she was, and where they were to unlock the door, which she opened and then came inside.

“What are you doing here?” Sonia said. “It is five o’clock in the morning.”

“I fell asleep,” Babatunde said.

“That is apparent,” Sonia said. “You are sleeping in a car in front of my house, on my street, in my city. It is five o’clock in the morning. You did not answer my question. What, just what, are you doing here?”

“Why are you angry?” Babatunde said.

“I just left your house. Your car was not parked in front of your house. You have other interests, it appears,” Sonia said.

“I am parked in front of your house,” Babatunde said. “On your street. In your city. Not anywhere else. I saw you across the street from my house, in my city, every night, parked in front of the fire hydrant, when I got up to write. And then you didn’t come last night. So, I came here to see for myself, to surprise you, and perhaps to talk. But then I fell asleep.”

“You refused to come to my house,” Sonia said. “You have ideas about gentrification and the dispossessed.”

“Those were just ideas,” Babatunde said. “And not very good ones. So, I came here tonight to surprise you.”

Sonia paused and suddenly she could see and feel something she hadn’t seen or felt before.  These were not particularly beautiful words, or particularly beautiful ideas, but once again her skin was tingling.

“Would you like to come in for coffee?” she said. “It’s almost time for breakfast.”

What thrills Sonia most today is not who lives where. What thrills Sonia most today is knowing that she has someone who loves her and who listens. Sometimes she writes papers for class, and Babatunde edits those papers. He doesn’t give her ideas. He helps her say what she believes instead of hiding it behind words.

Sometimes Sonia slips into one of Babatunde’s classes toward the end of the class period. She doesn’t come to protect her investment by walking out with him arm in arm. She comes only to hear what he has to say, and to listen to the beauty of his ideas, which are just a little less beautiful than his rich and imaginative soul. 

Babatunde comes with Sonia on Saturdays in the spring. She coaches soccer. He sits in the stands and reads, or sometimes talks to the parents of other players about immigration, gentrification, justice, and democracy. But most other times he keeps his ideas to himself and is pleased how much he is learning about unconditional love.

The world now seems full of life and hope, despite its many difficulties.

__________

Dr. Michael Fine

All of Michael Fine’s stories and books are available on www.MichaelFineMD.com or by clicking here.

And check out his podcast: Alternative Fictions: New Stories from Michael Fine https://linktr.ee/drmichaelfine

Michael Fine, MD is currently Health Policy Advisor to Mayor James Diossa of Central Falls, Rhode Island and Senior Population Health and Clinical Services Officer at Blackstone Valley Health Care, Inc. He is facilitating a partnership between the City and Blackstone to create the Central Falls Neighborhood Health Station, the US first attempt to build a population based primary care and public health collaboration that serves the entire population of a place.

He has also recently been named Health Liaison to the City of Pawtucket. Dr. Fine served in the Cabinet of Governor Lincoln Chafee as Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health from February of 2011 until March of 2015, overseeing a broad range of public health programs and services, overseeing 450 public health professionals and managing a budget of $110 million a year.

Dr. Fine’s career as both a family physician and manager in the field of healthcare has been devoted to healthcare reform and the care of under-served populations. Before his confirmation as Director of Health, Dr. Fine was the Medical Program Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, overseeing a healthcare unit servicing nearly 20,000 people a year, with a staff of over 85 physicians, psychiatrists, mental health workers, nurses, and other health professionals.

He was a founder and Managing Director of HealthAccessRI, the nation’s first statewide organization making prepaid, reduced fee-for-service primary care available to people without employer-provided health insurance. Dr. Fine practiced for 16 years in urban Pawtucket, Rhode Island and rural Scituate, Rhode Island. He is the former Physician Operating Officer of Hillside Avenue Family and Community Medicine, the largest family practice in Rhode Island, and the former Physician-in-Chief of the Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals’ Departments of Family and Community Medicine. He was co-chair of the Allied Advocacy Group for Integrated Primary Care.

He convened and facilitated the Primary Care Leadership Council, a statewide organization that represented 75 percent of Rhode Island’s primary care physicians and practices. He currently serves on the Boards of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest service organization for the homeless, the Lown Institute, the George Wiley Center, and RICARES. Dr. Fine founded the Scituate Health Alliance, a community-based, population-focused non-profit organization, which made Scituate the first community in the United States to provide primary medical and dental care to all town residents.

Dr. Fine is a past President of the Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians and was an Open Society Institute/George Soros Fellow in Medicine as a Profession from 2000 to 2002. He has served on a number of legislative committees for the Rhode Island General Assembly, has chaired the Primary Care Advisory Committee for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and sat on both the Urban Family Medicine Task Force of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the National Advisory Council to the National Health Services Corps.

Author of  Abundance (PM Press 2019), Health Care Revolt (PM Press 2018) and The Bull and Other Stories, available November 2020

To Preorder: https://www.stillwaterbooksri.com/bull-and-other-stories-pre-order