Although presented as short fiction, this is a true story. The only changes made to the reality were the changing of the character's names and the season of the courthouse scene. Although set here in the chill of mid-fall, the actually faux-trail took place in the heat of summer, early August if I remember right. At the time there was a desperate attempt made to strip the students around the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel of their right to vote in the coming election. Actually there was one more fiction. In the story Frank and Jeannette register to vote the same year as the rest of the story. In truth, the real-life counterparts (gee, who could they have been) had registered a couple years before the subpoena was received by "Frank". The year of the court scene and subpoena was 1971.
TOWARD LAST NOVEMBER
New Year fireworks exploded over the river. City high glass and steel flashed with color. But City Hall hid in shadows, frozen in time; a stonemason’s nightmare festooned with gargoyles and carved angels holding swords. It dripped with ice cycles and the deserted courtyard echoed with howls from the wind.
Another election year began.
Frank visited old haunts and found ghost voices fading with the decade. There were no Beatles on the radio; no Peter Max posters on the walls. Woodstock died at Altamont. There was still Vietnam and Nixon in the White House, but venues of his generation were closing. His favorite was boarded up and no more coffee served at its tables; no more folk singers gracing its stage. There was a paper nailed to the door: “Closed by order of City Council…falls beneath community standards…gathering place for Communist sympathizers and street trash, hopheads and the indigent…”
The primary was a month away.
Jeannette had returned from a long separation neither wanted. One day he called her and she came back. He found an apartment on the west side near the universities. It had a small living room/bedroom, a kitchen; a bathroom. The paint was chipping around the tub. The kitchen sink dripped with an iambic beat and every night the roaches came out to dance.
The rent was incredibly cheap.
In late summer there was a voter drive. They registered to vote, answering questions from an elder lady. She asked their age. She asked their citizenship. She asked if they lived in the district six months. She asked their occupations and Jeannette answered secretary, but Frank paused before saying writer.
The lady gave them a little card to carry.
The subpoena came in September, not delivered into his hand, just stuffed into the mailbox. It charged him with voter fraud. As Frank stood in the apartment building anteroom reading he saw subpoenas poking from mailboxes all around him. There was none for Jeannette. There was a name and address for someone swearing Frank was not a legal resident of the district. He left the apartment building and walked to the address.
It was a vacant lot.
Frank was fortunate to have a seat for the courtroom was thronged with people. Even if the rows of benches were not cushioned and uncomfortable they were still better than standing, compressed together shoulder to shoulder like fish in a tin, as was the mob in the rear and out in the hall. It was hot. The room was large with a high ceiling and if empty would have been cool on a chill October day, but humanity overwhelmed the space and body heat turned it into a furnace and due to the cold weather clothes everybody was wearing there had already been two fainters.
He hoped the process would be quick.
"Anderson", called the bailiff.
A tall, skinny kid struggled from a row and down the aisle. He stood before three judges, none real. The middle one was the political party committee chairman. The other two were ward healers. They asked Anderson some questions. The lawyer for the boy, for them all, objected, argued, was reprimanded, told to shut up, and he shut up. The boy shrugged his answers. The middle judge pointed to a table to the side. The boy nodded and took something from his wallet handing it to the person behind the table. The person looked at what she was handed, wrote in a ledger, handed the card back, and Anderson left.
"Andrews," called the bailiff. A carrot-haired boy came forward.
Frank March sighed.
"Baum," said the Bailiff.
Frank looked at faces. Most were younger than his, obviously students. There were some older. There was a guy with a long white beard, knurled and twisted hands and a bewildered look. There were some older women clustered near the door, like him, not students.
Along the front right wall sat the witnesses: two wizened men and a shriveled woman, all down on their luck and high on booze. He had never seen any of the three before. Occasionally the judges asked the three if they had seen so-and-so falsely registered and one or the other said they had. Sometimes they spoke at the same time and sometimes stumbled over the words and sometimes looked blankly off into the distance.
After questioning, each called forth went to the table, then left. The lawyer went to the bench and whispered to the man on one end. The man on the end whispered to the other two judges. There was a recess. The judges left the room. The lawyer left with them. A moment later the lawyer came back and stepped to the front of the room. He told the crowd if they had valid driver’s licenses, show the clerk and they would remain on the register and be free to go.
Frank stood in line a half hour.
A citizen with voting rights has choices. Frank thought about his as he walked to the polling place that year. Far to the north he heard sirens. There were always sirens in the city, but there were more lately. He walked from the poling place through a park empty of life. Some forgotten men claimed the concrete benches and pigeons pecked at the hardening ground. The air was chill. The sky was November gray. Another winter was coming soon, another winter in a long line of winters, and he was tired of winter. He was tired of the cold. Each year it was harder to find warmth here.
He thought it might be time to leave the city.