‘You know how men are. Why dream worthless dreams when they will never see the world like we do?’ She didn’t have to say anything. I could read it on her face.
I felt obliged to add more. “The people down south need to find just and fair ways to educate children inside the reform zones. I believe that’s the biggest challenge we have right now. We can’t raise another generation that believes in this mess.”
I could tell Maddy’s mother wanted to laugh. A young and naive Southern conservative young’un is up here seeking justice for the rest of us. When did your daddy take you off the Kool-Aid, honey? Now tell me more about the world you think we’re living in. And you think children in the zones need to be educated. Look at the bigger picture—all the zones need to close.
Maddy’s mother didn’t say it, of course. Carol Garner had lived in the South long enough to know proper manners; she would never say such things to a guest. But she couldn’t hold back everything.
“And that’s why you’re here in Cincinnati? If it is, you may be wasting your time.”
“One day, I hope I can help…once the zones are closed.”
“Well, this zone, the one down there where Maddy lives, will never close if folks in the South have their say. I don’t know why they hate Ohio so much, but they do.”
I knew she wasn’t asking me to tell her why the South still hated Ohio so much, but I answered anyway. “This was where those two elections were lost. Ohio was the must-win swing state that the old Republicans didn’t win. All this is about revenge…retaliation,” I said, and then decided to work the conversation back to small talk. “Enough of that. You sure do have a nice home, Mrs. Garner.”
“Oh, this place…it must seem like a shack compared to all the new mansions I hear they’re building again in Buckhead. I’ve heard about all those neighborhoods coming back to life. Crest Valley, Tuxedo Road, and Vining must be so nice. Your house is on Habersham Road…on the Vining side, right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered shyly, ashamed of my privileged status.
“That must be so nice,” she replied.
I didn’t really care what Maxwell Garner thought of me, or which part of Buckhead our big white mansion was in. But I wanted Maddy and his mother to think I was just like them. Far-fetched as it sounded, I thought maybe I could somehow be normal in their eyes. “It’s nice down there, but I like it up here too,” I replied. “I mean, Mrs. Garner, you made this a home…Maddy’s home. My mother would like it too. She knows the difference between a house and a home.”
When Mrs. Garner spoke, I could tell by her tone that she understood what I was saying. “Your mother would like it. I think so too, but she’d never make it all the way up here. And as much as you like it, don’t let this place fool you, Mary Catherine; it will start to wear on you.”
“But you’re okay living here, right?”
“We’re surviving, and that’s about all any of us can say.”
When I didn’t respond, she added, “You have to understand, Mary Catherine; this place is nothing like it used to be, and it’s still not perfect. But it’s safe now and that’s all that matters. I wish….”
“You wish what?”
“I just wish the areas nearer downtown were safe.”
I knew she was referring to Maddy living inside the zone on Mount Adams. “Why does he live down there?” I asked her.
“He wants to,” she replied. “And he is….”
She never finished her point so I pressed her. “He’s what, Mrs. Garner?
“It’s nothing, Mary Catherine,” she answered. “He does what he has to do. We all have to do what we have to do to get by.”
I had no idea what she meant, but I knew the time to ask more had ended. As we walked out of the kitchen to join the others, she confided in me. “There are some things up here you shouldn’t discuss with Maddy’s father. Maddy’s work on Mount Adams is one of them.”
When we went back to the living room where Maddy and his father were talking, I saw Maddy’s mother smile as she observed his silly boyish focus on everything that came out of my mouth. I adored this side of him far too much and wondered whether I’d ever grow out of it, take everything about him for granted, and miraculously fall out of love. But we all know that last part never happens, and I loved more the way he tried so hard to be innocently in love in front of his parents. His mother saw that happiness in his eyes, and I think that worried her the most.
As for his father, I couldn’t tell what he thought. “Does your father know you’re staying inside the zone…on Mount Adams?” he asked me, showing a slight smirk.
“No, he doesn’t. But he’ll be okay, Mr. Garner. My mother will tell him. He’ll sulk for a few days, and then he’ll move on.”
“I’m not so sure that’s correct,” he replied. Both Maddy and his mother intentionally stayed out of the conversation. “Living on Mount Adams, in payback-is-hell Cincinnati, may not go so well with your father. I can only assume he has gotten tougher over all these years. He will not be okay with that so easily. It’s Hell Town we’re talking about.”
I couldn’t determine whether he was alluding to “all these years” in the Red State Party or all the years since they had seen each other. In any case, I was the only one with a say in the matter. “He may be upset, but it’s too late now,” I responded confidently. “Coming to Cincinnati…and staying with Maddy…was my choice.”
I could tell Maddy’s father wondered where his son stood in my privileged world. I looked at Maddy and his mother, and they appeared anxious for a straight answer too. “I came here because I wanted to see this place for myself. And I wanted to see it with Maddy. I know how much your son cares and wants change.”
“Just be careful how you say that word C H A N G E,” he said while shaking his finger at me like a demanding, overachiever teacher in junior high school. He was nice enough, but he still had that edge. “That word was unofficially banned up here for five years after the Crash; the bumper sticker—‘End the Southern Invasion’—is still banned. The concept of change coming any time soon is pretty much a nonstarter. In most people’s minds, what happened after the Black Crash was just another Civil War, and this time y’all won.”
“Mr. Garner, if you don’t mind my saying, sir, I don’t think either side won. Everyone lost after the Crash.”
“The problem is, my dear, some are still losing while the others have moved on.”
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