Ten Lords A-Leaping

This is the tenth installment of the series, “The 12 Days of the Tilley-Blandin Coronavirus Christmas.” More stories about the Tilley-Blandin family universe can be found here.

Act 1
Scene 1. Pier 46 at Hudson River Park
New York City
Hopper Tilley-Blandin

O, that these questions and dilemmas would
Themselves resolve and cast their light anon.
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason
Or that the Everlasting would fix all my sins.

Whither fairest Charlize lying next to me
Thaw and resolve thyself into a loving tincture
Should cleave herself unto me and I unto her
Comingling futures or attesting to thine own true self

And of sweet Alexis and Max, fated for Legend
Whose seed grows; handsome and treacly in nature;
Each a body and soul, yet each tethered to thine own
Seeking a King in one house, a Queen in another.

Queen Ingrid, her crown of thorns, drew your blood
Must I remember? why, She would hang me.
Love aligns, but thine own life craves more than love
Love an illusion, obscuring its lust in a fairy tale.

King and Queen engage on the battlefield of boys
Agents for swords, solicitors for shields.
Salt of her righteous tears stings my wounds
No more love, no more blood, just armistice.

My talents in danger of becoming weary and stale
Made flat and highly profitable through Reese.
Are my uses of this world to be seen on Netflix
And not on the pages I can touch, smell, and see?

So terrible a king that sired brazen progeny
Cast me as Hyperion to his Uranus
Satyr, creator, a king usurped by his queen
A man-child blown by the winds of heaven.

Let me not think frailty, is thy name woman?
Silver and Olympia, stars shining on a bright day
A cabal whose schemes finally collapsed under
The avoirdupois of the maiden FBI Sylvia.

Something is rotten in the states formerly united
A hoax bringing death and #COVIDIOTS has swept our land.
Friends and strangers have changed places,
And we wait for an old man from Scranton to save us.

*****

The actor Edward Norton was supposed to be preparing for rehearsal for the movie “The Living Canvases,” co-staring Charlize Theron, produced by Reese Witherspoon, based on the book by Hopper Tilley-Blandin, screenplay by Hopper’s mother and father. Instead, he found himself livestreaming the proceedings of the Electoral College in a so-called battleground state, Pennsylvania. He was impressed by the seriousness of the electors and the solemnity of the ritual. After about 10 minutes, he closed the tab on his browser.

“It was boring,” he told his wife Shauna over dinner. “Just the way it’s supposed to be.”

She smiled and nodded. They had not discussed their votes in the presidential election.

“Did you see that nurse Sylvia – no Sandra — get the first coronavirus vaccine in New York,” she asked her husband. “I think it was a hospital in Queens.”

“Yes, I saw her,” he said. “For our generation, I imagine it was like when our parents watching the astronaut Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. Inspiring. I admit that I wept.”

“Honey, you know the moon landing was faked,” his wife replied.

They both laughed.

*****

The weather forecast in Washington DC called for snow, unusual for the middle of December. Huey Newton Wallace resolved to get in a good workout before the snow came; he planned a long run that would stretch around Hains Point and back to his apartment in Tenleytown. Huey had enjoyed running with Hopper, his ex-girlfriend’s brother. They could talk about things that interested Hopper — like demographic trends among the children and grandchildren of refugees from Vietnam who had settled in southern California – or things that held his attention – like the dynamics of thrust required for space travel or when one of his students posted on TikTok – or the Washington Football Team’s resurgence or Hopper’s ex-wife Ingrid or Hopper’s sister Olympia, the one who had slept with Huey for several years. Huey had come to enjoy Hopper’s company during the time they quarantined together at the Tilley-Blandin Fortress. When they were both exiled from the Fortress, they fell in together at Huey’s apartment. He sometimes forgot that Hopper was white.

And then Hopper was gone to New York and the arms of a woman.

Huey was careful to look after himself. He made sure to get enough sleep, the eat healthy foods, and to exercise. As a teacher, he also made sure to look out for his students, also stranded at home or some other remote locales. School stretched into seven days a week, as he continued to offer meditation sessions over Zoom his high school math classes. He played keyboards in an online faculty-student band that practiced five days a week and gave a 20-minute concert every Saturday night.

Alone, Huey resolved that he would use his time running to ruminate on the issues of the day, but he found himself stuck on one subject day after day: what the new normal would look like. He kept hearing white people straining to get back to the way things were for them before the pandemic hit, before Black Lives Matter rattled their consciences, before the politics of the nation had gone ahead and touched its third rail. As the son of two academics who had sent him away to Milton Academy for prep school, he had been raised to value reason and critical analysis. At the same time his Black father had stressed for him a certain skepticism about canon and received wisdom. “Don’t trust what white people say just because they’re confidently smiling when they say it,” his father said. His white mother had not disagreed, going only so far as to whisper in his ear that she had seen her husband treated in ways no blood relative of hers would endure silently.

With the national political nightmare resolved by the Electoral College, and with the apparent triumph of the COVID-19 vaccine, people began to grasp at hope again. By people, Huey meant white people. White people could go back to ignoring Trump’s Twitter rantings, they could plan for Christmas office parties in 2021, and they could anticipate the return of brunch. Huey could look forward to these developments, too.

As he began his run to Hains Point and back, Huey wondered how much snow they would get tomorrow. Huey also wondered if he would no longer have to worry about being pulled over by police for Driving While Black. He wondered if the white parents of his students at the tony Sidwell Friends school would talk to him the same way they talked to white or even Asian teachers. He wondered how much trouble he would have with his dissertation advisor at the University of Maryland and the committee in front of which he would defend his dissertation. He wondered if he would get hired for his dream job at NASA after receiving a doctorate in applied mathematics. He wondered if his NASA colleagues would view him as the affirmative action token hire. Huey wondered if he would be arrested while jogging in his mostly white neighborhood because a white woman called the police complaining about being harassed by a Black man who actually did not come close to resembling Huey. He wondered when he would start getting good service from white waiters in restaurants who would assume that his tip would be commensurate with their service. He wondered if the neighbors harbored any unfriendly thoughts towards him because he had been living with a white woman. He wondered if he would be assaulted or even killed by a white supremacist who was attending a pro-Trump demonstration. He wondered if white people would stop asking him for the “Black perspective” on an issue. He wondered if white people would stop mistaking him for a store clerk while he was grocery shopping. He wondered what interest rate the bank would charge him for a mortgage when it came time to buy a home and if they would force his father to co-sign the loan. He wondered when white people would stop complimenting him on his articulateness. He wondered when white people would behave the same way around him whether he was dressed for a workout or in a business suit. He wondered when the white men at the preppy parties he attended would stop addressing him as “my man!” He wondered when the white women at the preppy parties he attended would talk to him when they weren’t in a group. He wondered when the Black bartenders at the preppy parties he attended would stop arching their eyebrows when he asked for a merlot. He wondered if he would get the vaccine, and he wondered why that was even up for debate. He wondered when a white person would tell him that their favorite poet was Langston Hughes. He wondered when his white friends would stop snickering when he applied sunscreen on their daytrips to the beach in Delaware. He wondered how long he would have to wait in line. He wondered when he could go home to Philadelphia to visit his parents and get a cheesesteak at Dalessandro’s without getting extra attitude from the waitress and the other customers. He wondered when the Uber drivers would be happy to have him as a customer. If he was in an accident, he wondered which hospital the ambulance would drive him to. He wondered how he would be treated in the emergency room. He wondered when white people’s dogs would stop barking at him. He wondered when Washington DC would be represented in Congress. He wondered when funding would be distributed equally and fairly among school districts. He wondered when he could waltz into a fancy hotel lobby just like Hopper simply to use the restroom normally reserved for customers. He wondered when he would walk into the Brooks Brothers in Chevy Chase and have one of the salesclerks proclaim, “Good to see you again, Mr. Wallace.” He wondered when the elderly white women in his apartment complex would ask him for help carrying their groceries. He wondered when his white students would stop asking him if he knew where to score some weed, even as an ironic joke. He wondered when he would have to stop talking about reparations with drunks in bars. He wondered when white people would stop wanting to talk to him about Michael Jordan or Nelson Mandela.

As Huey finished his run, he realized that the weatherman Chester Lampkin had said on WUSA that morning something about most of the snow tomorrow falling west and north of the city. He wondered if there was going to be a pre-storm run on necessities at the Whole Foods on Wisconsin Avenue.

*****

Though they tried to hide it, Alexis and his brother Max always got upset after listening to their mother and father talk on Zoom or Facetime or the phone. At the tender ages of eight and six, they had begun adjusting to their parents being divorced, living separately, and being merely civil to each other. With the onset of the pandemic, they and their mother moved from Chicago to their grandparents’ vacation home in Pennsylvania. They spent a month at the Tilley-Blandin Fortress each summer. They had their own room, which their grandmother helped them decorate. Their mother was with them, along with their aunt Olympia and her boyfriend Huey. What caused them confusion was the presence of their father and the way he and their mother treated each other. It was like they were a happily married couple.

And then they weren’t. Very quickly, their father left almost without a word and moved in with their aunt Silver in Washington DC. Then Huey left and their father then moved in with Huey. Then they got on a private jet with their mother and flew to California to live with the Aunt Heidi. Then Aunt Heidi left California to move to Washington DC. Then Aunt Heidi was going to move back to live with them in California. And now their mother and father were talking in angry voices, leaving their mother in tears after every conversation.

The last conversation they heard focused on their father living in their grandparents’ apartment in New York. Their father and both aunts had been raised in the apartment. Now, one of their aunt’s bedrooms had been converted to a room for Alexis and Max. All the toys and books that had belongs to their father and aunts now belongs to them. They usually visited the apartment at Christmas, when they would watch the ice skaters in Rockefeller Center and touch all the toys in all the toys stores. The grandparents would introduce them to strange foods like thin-crust pizza that they could not get at home in Chicago.

They heard that there was a woman and her two children living in their grandparents’ apartment with their father. The woman was a movie star, but their mother had told them that they were too young to have seen any of her movies. Their father was playing games with these strange children, letting them use the family games and family toys. Their mother was not happy about the movie star. She was not happy about the movie star’s children.

“Do you think that Dad is going to replace us?” Max asked Alexis.

“I dunno,” Alexis answered. “Maybe we’re going to get a new brother and sister.”

*****

Duane Shelby and Jeremiah Floyd-William had watched on TV as a post-election, pro-Trump rally formed at Freedom Plaza, a mile-and-a-half away from their apartment in the Watergate. They were law students at George Washington University. Louis Guidry had been their roommate until he convinced his girlfriend Silver Tilley-Blandin to form their own pandemic bubble in Silver’s duplex in Logan Circle.

Duane had been upset when Louis left. “We were a team,” he complained to Jeremiah right after Louis had left. “Louis cleaned the common room and shared laundry.”

Jeremiah was more philosophical about the situation. “Louis is in love,” he had explained to Duane. “If you were in love and you had a chance to clean the common room and share laundry and a bed with your woman, wouldn’t you make the same choice?”

“Yeah,” Duane had said. “Still…”

On their 50-inch flatscreen, they could see Freedom Plaza awash with sea of red and blue flags borne by supporters of the president, whom the mainstream media were calling a loser in the election by more than seven million votes. His supporters refused to believe the voting totals certified by all 50 states, claiming fraud, deception, and Deep State conspiracies.

“Let’s go,” Jeremiah said.

“Go there?” Duane answered.

“We are staring at history,” Jeremiah said. “Let’s get closer.”

“None of those people are wearing masks,” Duane said. “It’s a super-spreader event.”

“We can mask up and keep our distance. The vaccine’s getting rolled out. C’mon Knoxville, are you a pussy?”

Jeremiah knew that Duane could not stand being called a pussy. Once the P-word was invoked, Duane felt that he was duty- and honor-bound to take on the challenge. When Louis lived with them, Duane always managed to make the quarantine living situation interesting and fun because of the challenges he was forced to take on. Louis and Jeremiah had bestowed the nickname “Knoxville” on him in honor of the star of “Jackass,” [VIDEO] Johnny Knoxville.

“You know, Jeremiah, that we are going to be the last ones to get the vaccine,” Duane answered. “Young, non-obese, no medical issues, wealthy families. And you do know that the logistics of the vaccine rollout were designed by the Trump Administration, right? You and I will be lucky to see that needle puncture our skin by the end of 2021.”

“Maybe our wealthy families can cut in line for us,” Jeremiah answered, “you know, like usual.”

“Yes, but that would probably require us to return to our parents’ domiciles. I do not see that happening anytime soon.”

“You have an excellent point, Knoxville,” Jeremiah said. “Our mothers would never allow us to return to our fair nation’s capital.”

“So, let’s go watch some patriots infect each other!”

Duane and Jeremiah inspected each other before leaving the apartment. Not just the keys, wallet, phone, mask routine. Also: don’t wear a Biden-Harris campaign mask. Choose the mask with an American flag. Or, simple black. Don’t wear a university or law school sweatshirt that could identify you to the patriots as members of the educated elite. Choose the red sweater. The red Washington Nationals baseball cap. Don’t set yourself up to be a target of low-information zealots.

Their plan was to approach Freedom Plaza, but not actually enter it. Watch people going to the rally and follow groups leaving it. They watched the guy dressed as a Storm Trooper carrying a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag (noting to each other that the Storm Troopers were the bad guys), two guys wearing “Deplorable Lives Matter” t-shirs, and a very good skateboarder shredding down Pennsylvania Avenue with his “Trump 2020: No More Bullshit” flag. They saw people dressed in colonial-era attire carrying blue “Trump 2020” banners on the same pole as American flags. They saw all forms of flags depicting Trump as Rambo, a WWE wrestler, as a Christ-like savior of the American people. They saw pickup trucks flying a dozen or more Trump-related flags in their beds. They saw cars tricked out with gewgaws, Trump paraphernalia, and political slogans focused on “tyranny,” “revolution,” and restoring the Constitution. They saw a very brave counter-protestor. They overhead denial, victimhood, and conspiracy theory. They heard every form of call for divine intervention in the electoral process. Thousands of Americans in close quarters, none of them wearing masks. All shouting and singing in each other’s faces, confident that the blood of their martyred savior would protect them from the hoax being foisted upon them by the usual suspects.

Duane and Jeremiah were especially struck by a group of young, white men wearing black t-shirts and what appeared to be yellow, patterned kilts. “I believe we have come upon the storied massing of pure testosterone, Knoxville, the Proud Boys,” Jeremiah whispered as if he were David McCullough narrating a scene from a nature documentary.

They followed a group of about 20 Proud Boys from the rally as they headed east along F Street, until they came to Harry’s Bar on the ground floor of the Hotel Harrington at 11th Street. Harry’s was not sleek like most watering holes that sought business from the well-paid, polished, professional class headquartered in downtown Washington DC. Harry’s looked to be one step (maybe a half-step) above the dive bar in your hometown that you always avoid because you are afraid of the restrooms. Several dozen people spilled outside the bar onto the sidewalk and the street. It would be notable in Washington DC at this time because everyone was white, about 90 percent was male, they seemed especially garrulous, and not one person wore a mask.

Duane and Jeremiah stationed themselves unobtrusively across the street, entertaining themselves with self-satisfied, snarky comments usually reserved for the educated elites. Everything was copacetic until Jeremiah pulled out his iPhone 12 and started to shoot a video of the bar and its customers.

One of the Proud Boys spotted Duane and Jeremiah and pointed them out to a couple of his friends, pantomiming how their masks marked them as the other. Then Duane and Jeremiah heard another one of the Proud Boys shout, “What the fuck are those two maskers doing, filming us?”

If, at that very moment, Duane and Jeremiah, had begun running at full speed back towards Freedom Plaza and into the remnants of the rally crowd, they could have avoided their fate. However, they chose to walk calmly in the opposite direction where there were few other pedestrians/witnesses and no law enforcement. They pretended as if they were just minding their own business.

The Proud Boys caught up to them before they reached 10th Street, surrounded them, and hurled all imaginable form invective in the direction of their prey. “This is not going to turn out well for us,” Duane said to Jeremiah. “When they start hitting us, just curl up into the fetal position on the ground.”

By all accounts only five or six of the Proud Boys actually connected body blows and kicks in the name of law and order and freedom to the law students. The assault lasted only two minutes because the attention of the Proud Boys turned to a trio of young Black men about half a block away.

Duane and Jeremiah counted their blessings as they walked back to the Watergate. They were relatively unhurt. Later that night, they read reports of far worse Proud Boys assaults.

“You know that those idiots on Johnny Knoxville’s show sometimes get seriously fucked up, right?” Duane remarked to Jeremiah.

“So what?” Jeremiah answered. “Damn, Knoxville, we got more stories to tell our grandchildren.”

*****

Louis Guidry received an unexpected phone call from the father of his girlfriend, Silver Tilley-Blandin. Louis did not know if her father was the Tilley or the Blandin, and it seemed to him to be the family joke that neither Silver nor her siblings knew, either. Louis had never spoken to the man, much less met him. Louis knew of the man’s reputation in the art world long before he started dating the man’s daughter. He painted individual and group portraits of people using a distinctive style that some critics described as a “mash-up of Andy Warhol, Ben Shahn, Eric Fischl.” It was this style that helped make his work sought out and driven his prices up. A single commission was now priced at $100,000. Silver had told him that her father, with the help of two assistants, he was able to churn out one portrait a week. Among a certain audience, displaying one of his works in your home was perceived akin to having your portrait in a Medici palace.

Louis had also come to the understanding that Silver’s father was a bit of a – in Silver’s word – “lecher.” He had always shrugged off her comment until the nanosecond before he accepted the call from said lecher. All the memories of him she had described, as well as the incident where he had propositioned Silver’s former sister-in-law, flooded through his cerebral cortex. Sweat formed on his forehead.

“Hello?”

“Yes,” the voice said. “I understand that you have an interest in my daughter. I want to know what your intentions are toward her.”

Louis, who had been raised in genteel nobility in New Orleans, knew exactly what the man wanted from him. Louis, also training to become a lawyer and, possibly, a politician, was not without his wits.

“Please be assured that I love your daughter, sir, and wish to do right by her,” he answered. “However, the answer to the question of whether or not we will get married lies solely with your daughter.”

“My daughter?” he seemed confused. “Have you proposed marriage to her?”

“Sir, speaking as one gentleman to another,” Louis began, believing in his heart that Silver’s father was anything but a gentleman, “your daughter knows my heart. She is still searching for hers. When she ascertains her own intentions toward me, she will either consent to marry me or throw me out.”

“Son, I hope you understand the sacred nature of our conversation,” the man stated soberly. Louis was not sure that Silver’s father was sober.

“Yes, sir.” Louis paused a moment, then continued. “Silver has impressed upon me the importance of family to the Tilley-Blandin’s and the gravity with which you, your wife, and your children take promises and vows.”

Louis and Silver’s father had succeeded in painting the man into a corner of his own making.

“Well, then,” the man said. “I have made my expectations on your situation with my daughter known. I hope that you to live up to these expectations. It’s a different world now than when I was young.”

Silver had told him that her parents had eloped. Silver’s maternal grandmother had told her daughter, “Never, ever marry a painter. They are poor, you never know where their heart will take them, and their fingernails are always filthy.”

*****

Berry Johnson sat in a bathroom stall of the Shreveport-Bossier Rescue Mission, where had had lived since returning to Shreveport on the bus from Washington DC. He had been famous for about 24 hours after his “Death by Nugent” attempt had been foiled by a law student named Louis Guidry. Louis had been jogging by when the DC police were about to execute him for violating the PPE Act of 2020 (before the law was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court).

Berry had been distraught over being unemployed, fights with his girlfriend June, and by what he called “the general plight of the white man in an America destroyed by a Kenyan Muslim atheist president” (part of his manifesto that he carried around in his pocket, which he expected to be discovered after his death). Because Louis had intervened and saved his life, Berry had returned to Shreveport. When he returned, he found that June had placed all his belongings on the front porch.

“I don’t want nothing to do with no fucktard who spends his last dollar on getting all the way to Washington DC just to kill his self because he feels sorry for his self,” she had shouted through the locked door. “And you better be wearing a mask. I called the cops. These motherfuckers will finish the job that Negro police officer woman in Washington couldn’t.”

With no money, Berry found himself a bed in a homeless shelter. Whatever job prospects he had before his trip to Washington had evaporated because of his newfound notoriety. No stimulus check for him, no unemployment compensation. Berry felt that he had been shoved outside the system to a place where he was utterly on his own.

He began to write another suicide note, when another resident of the homeless shelter banged on the bathroom stall.

“Berry, man, I know you are in there,” the man, a creole whose name was Boniface, said. “You gotta see this.”

Berry got up from the toilet on which he sat, opened the door to the stall, and said, “What?”

Boniface pulled out an ancient iPhone, tapped “Ted Nugent fake video” into the Google search. A grainy black-and-white YouTube video appeared on the screen with a single man and a guitar. The man, named “Tedd Newgent,” claimed to be speaking on behalf of the rock star and gun enthusiast. “Newgent” mentioned that Nugent was upset about the “Death by Nugent” episodes and sang a song purported written by Nugent.

When Berry heard the last verse, he believed that Ted Nugent had written the song expressly for him:

I didn’t ask for your sacrifice, didn’t ask for your pain;
People dying all around you, you got nothing to gain;
I never told you nuthin’, never told you to die;
Now you’re just another white boy whose momma will cry.

“Thanks, Boniface,” Berry said. “I’m glad you showed me that.”

Berry reached into his pocket, pulled out the draft of his suicide note, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash. He resolved to find Ted Nugent and thank him for the song.

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