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by Michael Fine
Woke – a short story by Michael Fine
Copyright © 2019, 2022 by Michael Fine
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.
It wasn’t hard for Crystal to get what she wanted because she didn’t want very much. Crystal didn’t want to be the boss. She didn’t need much money. She was content with her lot. Nothing she ever tried that might change her life had ever improved it. But what was hers was hers, and all she wanted was for things to stay the way they were.
Jake was hired late one September to take over the organizing, and Jake was everything Crystal wasn’t. Jake was 27, 6’4” and thin as a rail. He had dreadlocks and crème colored skin. Crystal was 58. She’d been through a liver transplant. Her skin had a grey tinge from the anti-rejection drugs; her face was puffy from the steroids. She kept her once brown hair short and plastered in place so it didn’t get in her eyes and so she didn’t have to mess with it all day, like the pretty girls with no substance who spent half their lives in front of a mirror, though it wasn’t that long ago that she wore her hair long and tied it behind her head, so she could let it down when the wind blew or when she was just fed up with being polite.
It took a month for Jake and Crystal to figure out who was who. Jake was quiet all of October. He spend a whole month just reading so he knew the history of the place and the struggles of its immigrants and working people, the poor people from around the globe who had come in waves from all over the world, from England, Scotland, Ireland and Italy and Poland, from Quebec, Syria, Portugal, the Azores, Liberia, Nigeria, Columbia and Cape Verde, and now from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, all to work in the mills and to live in cramped overpriced hot in summer, cold in winter, bed-bug infested mill housing, people whose labor had made the mill owners rich. He made phone calls and met other organizers. He broke bread with the undocumented, the disabled and the poor. He went to meetings at which he sat in the back and just listened. He went to the State House and sat in the gallery, learning about how things worked, or, at least, how things never did seem to quite work out for working people, regardless of who was right and who was wrong, about what was fair and what was just and what was smart and what was dumb. He shook hands, went to the bars where men gathered to tell jokes, and went to libraries and churches where women gathered so he’d understand their lives as well, because Jake was someone who always treated everyone equally. Along the way Jake learned who was who in Providence, Warwick, Cranston, Pawtucket, and Central Falls. He learned who ran the show, and how things worked, or if they didn’t work, how the people who ran things got them to run the way they did, so everyone got a little piece, and so nobody who couldn’t pay up-front to do so rocked the boat.
In late October Jake hit the street, in full on organizing mode. They had flipped into daylight savings time so it was dark in the evenings — you could tell the short days were coming by the way the sun stayed low on the horizon, and there was always sun in your eyes when you moved from place to place. Jake transformed himself from a quiet guy at a computer to a man consumed, a man who was on the phone all the time, a man of boundless energy, who was totally, and only, about the work. That was when Crystal and Jake began to encounter one another for the first time and realized how different they were after all.
Jake was from Chicago and though he was young, he had walked the walk. Obama for a little while in 2007, but then Jill Stein once the numbers were mailed down. Occupy in Atlanta and then Portland. Black Lives Matter in St. Louis. Antifa in Charlottesville. A little time at the Industrial Areas Foundation and Asset Based along the way. He knew how to listen, he knew how to shape an issue, and he could work with lawyers when he had to get bills passed and regulations written. He knew how to pull a meeting together, get the media to turn out and sometimes, when the timing was right, he even knew how to get people into the streets. Yes, he was an outside agitator, but no one cared about that shit anymore — Jake lived to make it happen, to make change real, and he lived pedal to the metal, every single day.
For Jake, organizing was a whole body experience, a contact sport. You live free when you are totally engaged. No spectators and no prisoners. If you aren’t part of the solution, you are the problem. We create democracy and liberty in action. Only the dead stand still, and you are going to be dead a very long time. It doesn’t matter if only five people come out to a meeting or twenty people turn out for a demonstration at the state house. It’s the keep on keeping on that matters. People, or sometimes, the people, will respond when they are ready, when they are tired of the lies and the bullshit, when they have been objectified enough and can see it for what it is. Frame the issue. Call out the racists and the fascists. Organize, phone bank, and organize again. Chance favors the prepared mind. One day we’ll get it right.
But while Jake organized meetings, painted signs, walked picket lines, made phone calls, spoke at actions, and accosted anyone who came within a hundred feet of him, Crystal stayed in the office, doing what she had always done and living how she had always lived.
Crystal had a desk, and that desk was hers. She had a phone that was hers and a computer that was hers and nobody had any business touching either. She didn’t approach the people who came into the office. Those people needed to come over to her if they wanted help. She came in at 8:30 when she was feeling up to it and she left at 1:00 pm, more or less. She kept a copy of her job description in her top drawer, and she never did one thing that wasn’t in it. She wrote policies and procedures and memos. Lots of memos. She did what she did. Not one thing more. Not one thing less.
Before long, most of those memos were about Jake. His desk was a mess; he let a volunteer use the copy machine; someone had left the lights on after an evening organizing meeting; Jake had called an ad hoc work group committee together and didn’t reserve the conference room before using it.
It didn’t take long for Jake to see that Crystal was not a friend, not a colleague and not even a co-worker. She was the enemy incarnate, everything he resisted, all the walls he wanted to tear down. She wasn’t like the machine – crony capitalism, the deep state locked in institutional racism, the hegemony of banks and bureaucrats over the lives of working people. She was the machine, someone who used her position to stifle the innate creativity of people struggling to be free. Every time Jake started to work on a new issue and every time he identified a group of people who shared a concern, Crystal found a way to deflate his progress. The conference room is booked that day. The Board hasn’t approved this strategic direction. It isn’t in the budget. Even though Jake was supposed to be in charge of organizing, Crystal found a way to derail many of the new initiatives Jake began work on. Pictures of his desk and the store room where Jake sometimes slept were circulated to the entire organization. Phone bank lists were lost. Copies of emails were leaked to newspapers and to the organizations that Jake was getting ready to call out publicly. People who were oddly dressed or impolite were threatening to women. Unsafe. Before long, the Board was discussing the hostile work environment, and was trying to decide which of them – Jake or Crystal – had to go.
One Monday morning, a Pawtucket fireman in most of his gear, wearing boots and fireman’s overalls, but without his helmet, walked into the office, carrying a room sized air-conditioner on his shoulder. The fireman was forty-five years old and freckled. Fair complexion, ruddy skin. Lots of time outside. Blue eyes, a receding hairline, and a big moustache. A big Irish guy, like most Pawtucket firemen, who was used to getting his way. He dropped the air-conditioner on Crystal’s desk with a bang. Crystal jumped.
“Got a use for this?”
“It’s almost winter,” Crystal said. “It’s an air-conditioner.”
“Give it to an old lady with a bad heart. Kid with asthma, something like that. Out of a warehouse. The warehouse burned but the office was ok. They said clear it out. I saw your sign.”
The front window had a big picture of the Statute of Liberty, with the words, ‘Give us your tired, your hungry and your poor’ next to it, and then WELFARE RIGHTS. FIGHT FOR 15. HEALTH CARE FOR ALL. FOOD STAMP ADVOCACY. ENVIROMENTAL JUSTICE POOR PEOPLES CAMPAIGN written in big letters across the top, and big pictures of Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the window. Jake and Crystal knew that no one who was hungry, tired, or poor had any idea what the signs in the windows meant, but they left them up because neither of them could think of another sign, and because they were unlikely to agree about any change.
Jake came bounding to the front of the office. He stuck out his hand.
“Great to see you, man. Thanks for coming by. I’m Jake.”
“Carl, this is Jake,” Crystal said. “He organizes the poor people. Carl’s a firefighter.”
“So, you know him?” Jake said.
“Knew him. I live in Pawtucket. I know people.”
“Thanks for the AC, man.” Jake said.
“No problem,” Carl said.
“We’re not a warehouse,” Crystal said.
“It’s all good,” Jake said. “We’ll find somebody who needs the AC. Hey, we got a meeting tonight about this bill in front of the legislature that…”
“No meetings,” Carl said. “I put out fires. I don’t start them. Later, Crystal.” And then he left, the bells over the door jangling when it closed.
“He works for a really regressive union,” Jake said, as soon as Carl was out the door. ”Lousy record on diversity. They don’t support the fight for fifteen.”
“He’s a Pawtucket firefighter, for Christ’s sake,” Crystal said. “Not Mahatma Gandhi. Give it a rest, will you? But get this goddamn thing off my desk.”
Three days later, there was a little dorm refrigerator sitting in front of the office door when Crystal unlocked it in the morning.
It was Jake and not Crystal who was in the office when Carl came back one night the following week. Three volunteers were on the phones. This time Carl carried a brown paper bag.
“Oxygen sats,” he said. “For people who have bad lungs. People drop these off at the station after somebody dies. We’ve got four or five of them. Maybe some of your people can use them. People who can’t breathe.”
“That’s very cool,” Jake said. “Very thoughtful. We’ll find people who need them. Hey, I gave the air-conditioner away. And we are using the little refrigerator. What got you thinking about us?”
“I don’t think about much,” Carl said. “I know Crystal.”
“She’s a critical member of the team,” Jake said. “Hey, we have lots of interesting things going on. Sure I can’t interest you in coming to a meeting? You part of a union?”
“I don’t want no part of any meetings, “Carl said. “I heard Crystal is sick.”
“She comes to work every day,” Jake said. “She stays in the office. Works for us part time. I’m out in the field.”
“So, nothing like liver cancer or anything like that. I heard her liver is bad.”
“She doesn’t talk about herself much,” Jake said. “She shows up most days to work. I probably couldn’t tell you if I knew more than that, but I don’t. There’s a pretty cool demonstration at the State House on Saturday. Think anybody in the firehouse might be interested?”
“We don’t do demonstrations. We put out fires. Once in a while we have to picket the Mayor over contract stuff. But nobody likes that shit,” Carl said.
“So how do you know Crystal?” Jake said.
“That’s one long fuckin’ story. From before you were born. I’ll be back,” Carl said, and then he was gone, the bells over the door jangling again in his wake.
The war between Jake and Crystal escalated. One day Jake accused Crystal of making racist comments. The next day Crystal accused Jake of submitting false receipts. Each day there was a new insult or accusation, as if they were brother and sister fighting for their mother’s or father’s attention or were siblings fighting over their parent’s will. Crystal worked in the morning. Jake worked in the afternoon and evening. So, they were rarely in the office at the same time, and they kept it that way.
Instead, their war was conducted like any war between two people. It was conducted in silence, by email, and through other people, as each of them said at least something obliquely critical about the other when they spoke to anyone at all who knew or interacted with both. Or said something more pointed than that. Before long the war had spread to others, as everyone they knew chose sides, and who would be fired first became the only question still to be answered. But the Board, like some distant, indecipherable God, was itself unable to act. It was also now divided, each person recruited by either Jake or Crystal to take up the cause of one or the other. They were the whole paid staff, just the two of them. So, there was no one to mediate a truce, and no one to put either on notice that each of their behavior had to change.
One December early afternoon they found themselves together in the office, despite the better judgment of each. It had been a snowless December, which left the world thin, deprived of leaves and light. The sun, which now rose only ever so barely above the southeast horizon, was already starting to set. It was dark and cold — the magical long red light of summer evenings was only a distant memory. An arctic cold front had enveloped the region in a deep freeze. The city had opened emergency shelters for homeless people, who were dying of exposure in the street, nonetheless. The pipes froze and burst all over the city. People bundled themselves in long underwear and put on layer upon layer of extra clothing and hurried as they went from car or bus to a home or office, to the extent anyone was willing to be outside at all.
To Jake, the cold was an emergency, which required more of his energy and attention than usual. The city and state needed to be confronted with their failures; the Governor should open the schools and public buildings as sanctuaries to the poor and make sure everyone had food and oil for heat because it was too cold for poor people to go out to shop. To Crystal the cold was a bother: she couldn’t go out for her walk at midday, and the office heating system didn’t keep the place warm enough. There was no emergency. The city had plenty of plumbers to fix broken pipes. No one Crystal knew was freezing to death: the state opened some emergency shelters to take care of the homeless. No one Crystal knew was going hungry.
Jake had come in early. He was in the office working when Crystal arrived. He was on the telephone, but he raised his hand and pointed at his wrist as if he had a watch, as if to say something about the time of day Crystal had chosen to appear.
“What happened to the air-conditioner Carl brought over?” Crystal said.
“I gave that to a family in Elmwood a month ago,” Jake said. “Little girl with asthma. They live in a crappy apartment with peeling paint. Absentee landlord. The mother comes to the lead poisoning prevention coalition. They’ll have it to use in the summer.”
“That was my air-conditioner. Carl brought it for me,” Crystal said.
“That wasn’t what Carl said,” Jake said. “He said we should find somebody sick who needs it. Which is what I did.”
“The hell with what Carl says,” Crystal said. “Carl is my… contact.”
“That’s not what we’re about,” Jake said. “Nothing we do here is for you or for me.”
“This is impossible,” Crystal said. “You are harassing me.”
“I’m not harassing anybody. Or at least I’m trying not to harass anyone. Carl said you go back, that you know him for a long time. He came by one day and brought us more stuff.”
“My personal life is none of your damned business,” Crystal said. “More harassment.”
The bells over the door jangled.
A man with a blue face and a runny nose, lost inside a puffy, red, down coat and a purple scarf stumbled though the door. A blast of cold air came with him.
“Close the door, Hector, it’s cold,” Crystal said.
“Door closed. Door closed,” Hector said. He stopped just inside the door. His voice was strained and distant because he was talking from his throat, not his chest. He struggled to say even those few words. He started to cough and wheeze. His eyes were red and wet.
“Come in, Hector, “Jake said. ‘Do you need a glass of water?”
Hector tried to answer but he was interrupted by a fit of coughing, which kept him from speaking and from catching his breath. He put one hand on a table to steady himself, but he kept coughing, his face strained and ashen. He was a small man with short grey hair and receding hair line, a goatee, and tattoos on his neck, and with two blue teardrops tattooed under his left eye.
“Let me help you,” Jake said. He came to the door. Hector kept coughing, his body shaking, while Jake grabbed a chair and put it behind him, and Hector let himself fall into the chair, still coughing uncontrollably.
Then Crystal was there with a glass of water.
“Take some of this stuff off,” she said. She unzipped Hector’s coat and unwrapped the long purple scarf from around his neck, but he kept coughing.
“What happened?” Jake said.
“Boiler… No heat,” Hector whispered as he struggled for air.
“Get me a moist cool cloth,” Crystal said. “Now.”
Jake, who had been standing by, trotted off.
Crystal helped Hector out of his coat. He was wearing three sweaters underneath it.
“You are going to sweat yourself to death,” Crystal said. But Hector still coughed and struggled to speak.
“No air,” he whispered, and he leaned over a desk, his head in one hand to steady himself.
“We’ll get you air,” Crystal said.”Try breathing in through your nose like you are smelling a rose. Nice easy long smooth breaths. Like its springtime.”
For a moment, Hector’s cough relented, and he stayed quiet, trying to catch his breath. Jake came back with a wet towel and with a brown paper bag.
Crystal wiped Hector’s forehead. She put the towel on the back of his neck.
“Do you have a landlord or do you own the house, I don’t remember. There’s a program..,” Jake said.
“Mia madre…” Hector whispered, and then the cough and wheeze started back. He bent over double, coughing, and his eyes started to bulge out from the force of the cough.
“No questions, how about,” Crystal said. “Can’t you see he is doing all he can just to breathe. What’s in the bag?”
“Carl brought them. He said they’re for people who can’t breathe. I don’t know what you call them, and I don’t know how they work,” Jake said. He handed the bag to Crystal who opened it.
“Pulse oximeters. No shit,” Crystal said. She took a small black cube the size of a makeup compact out of the bag, squeezed it open, and stuck it on one of Hector’s fingers.
“God only knows the last time anybody checked the batteries,” she said. But the little black cube lit up anyway, emitted flashing lights for a few seconds and then displayed two numbers.
“Goddamn it, your friend, Hector here, is in trouble,” Crystal said. “Call 911.”
“I didn’t know you had any medical training,” Jake said.
“There’s a lot you don’t know. Let’s not have a discussion about strategies and tactics please. Just call 911. Before your buddy Hector, here, is out on the floor. Because I am pretty fuckin’ sure you don’t know CPR either.”
The good news was that they were two blocks from the fire station. The better news was that the fire department rolled through the door in under two minutes. A fire engine rolled up just before rescue got there, but the whole parade rolled in pretty much at once. They lit up the street with the flashing lights and they blocked traffic.
Carl was on the engine that day, so he showed in fire gear. He walked through the door first and squatted in front of Hector. As soon as EMS arrived he got out of their way and let his crew do their jobs.
They had Hector boxed and wrapped in about twelve seconds. 02 on, two liters nasal cannula. Gurney in and Hector on it. Bp 160/94. Pulse 116. Sat 84 percent. Patient diaphoretic and not moving air. Quick IV in the field, running half normal saline at 125 an hour. Lung-er in exacerbation. Pretty routine. These people, they wreck their lungs smoking and then they fall apart in their fifties. The least challenge does them in – a little infection, a little allergy, even the cold dry air from a big freeze. Their houses are a mess – boilers that don’t work, moldy basements, people crowded together like rats. It’s a set-up for bad disease. All absentee landlords. The city doesn’t do squat to clean these places up.
Boxed and wrapped, and then they were gone. Carl’s crew went back to the truck, but Carl lingered. First in, last out. Something like that.
Crystal ignored him at first. She got a broom and began to sweep the floor, sweeping up all the papers and plastic Rescue leaves behind after a call, the wrappers from tubing and the little plastic needle caps and whatnot. We make a mess when we roll through, Carl thought. The tall black kid was rearranging the furniture. He pushed the desks and chairs back to where they belonged because the crew had pushed it all out of the way to make room for the gurney. He was clueless, that kid. Lots of energy. And really tall. Reggae man. Rasta man. Something like that.
“You saved the day, lady.” Carl said.
“Bullshit,” Crystal said, her back towards him. “I just did what I was trained to do. Didn’t matter. He would have been out on the floor in another minute or two, and the squad would have scooped him up and run him in just the same.”
“He was sick as shit,” Carl said.
“They’re all sick as shit. Everyone. Each in his or her own way. There’s no end to it,” Crystal said.
“You too?” Carl said.
“Me too. A little. I’m okay. Nobody lives forever. Listen, Carl, thanks for bringing what you brought, the AC and the sats and so forth. The sat helped today. The kid didn’t know what to do. I should have said thank you. I just, you know, I get like this,” Crystal said.
“You’re welcome. What do they say now? De nada,” Carl said.
“And you can bring more… stuff, if it comes to you. Lord knows this whole world is sick. Or poor. Or hurting. Each in their own way. The kid talks to them. They come here. Sometimes we help.”
“No sweat. When something comes to me, I’ll bring it over,” Carl said.
“But nothing about you bringing stuff changes anything between you and me,” Crystal said. “That’s history. That’s over.”
“I know that, Crystal. I did what I did. You did what you did. We can’t get any of it back,” Carl said.
“Nobody lives forever,” Crystal said. “We can put what you bring by to good use. It’s okay to come by then.”
“I will,” Carl said. “Nobody lives forever.”
The bells over the door jangled as Carl left. There was a blast of bitterly cold air. The heating system blower switched on with a dull roar, countering the cold with a warm wind that seem to come from some other place in time or space.
“So, what’s the story with you and Carl,” Jake said.
“We go back,” Crystal said.
Crystal turned, went back to her desk, and woke her computer up so she could finish her work.
Some people will never change, Jake thought. She’s just not woke, completely closed off, always secretive, completely unable to say what she thinks or feels. She’s probably writing another memo about me.
But I’ve got that base covered, he thought. The moment of reckoning is coming. I’ve got friends in the community. We’re ready. Soon we’ll make our move and she’ll be gone. We’ll shut her down. Fire her ass. Run her out of town. We’ll do what we’ve got to do. Sweep away the old and corrupt. Bring in the new and the just. History is written by the victors. And history will absolve us.
In his own mind, he envisioned a great battle, in which he and poor and working people everywhere would win a great victory by finally defeating this woman and everything she represented. Jake and those poor and working people would build a new Jerusalem together, which would be everlasting, and racism, selfishness and greed would vanish forever from the earth.
All of Michael Fine’s stories and books are available on MichaelFineMD.com or by clicking here.
Michael Fine, MD was the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health from February of 2011 until March of 2015. His career has been devoted to healthcare reform and the care of under-served populations. He served as Medical Program Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections; and 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, and rural Scituate, RI. He is the former Physician Operating Officer of Hillside Avenue Family and Community Medicine, 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 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.
Dr. Fine is past President of the Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians, has served on a number of legislative committees for the RI General Assembly, chaired the Primary Care Advisory Committee for the RIDOH, 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.