Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman by Regan Burke

In Beth Finke’s latest book, Writing Out Loud, the following brief memoir was excerpted. I post it for those who’ve asked for the full story.  Check out Beth’s book for more stories from Chicago writers: Writing Out Loud.

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Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman

I worked in politics my whole life, always hoping for the perfect politician, one who acted in the best interest of the whole. Bill Clinton could have been my hero. I loved his rallying cry in the 1992 campaign, “personal responsibility.”

But I had doubts. Could I work for a candidate who was pro capital punishment and unsure of his view on abortion? Those were two issues I thought every Democrat knew to be against and for.

The “personal responsibility” message won me over. In October 1991 I abruptly left Chicago for Arkansas to work as Clinton’s campaign scheduler, a grueling job that required 24/7 attention. One cold January night Clinton and his entourage, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey, returned to Little Rock in a small private jet from all-important New Hampshire. I met the plane on the dark, deserted tarmac to give Clinton his next-day schedule. He descended the jet stairs with a big smile, came directly at me, grabbed my coat and ran his graceful elongated fingers up and down my long furry lapels. “Nice coat, Regan,” he whispered in my ear.

This encounter may be the reason I love Bill Clinton.

When he won, I relocated to Washington to work in his administration. I moved into the first floor condo of an 1880 townhouse on Church Street in DuPont Circle. In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected. Both policy shifts were spearheaded by White House insider, Rahm Emmanuel, who decidedly did not have the public good at the forefront of his self-serving mind. But Clinton loved him. Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next six years.

In the early still of a hot D.C. August morning in 1995, NPR told me Jerry Garcia died. I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my phony world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia. Reality glared back at me in the mirror as I brushed my hair, seeing for the first time a wrinkled face and rubbery neck. I dressed in soft yellow, a flowery cotton frock, and pinned a silk flower in my hair, ready for the grieving day.

My dog Voter squirmed away from my extra long hug and I went out the door to my old friend, Keith Lesnick waiting to drive us to work. As soon as I got in the car tears spilled out. He asked about the sadness, and I slobbered out a few words, “Jerry Garcia signed into rehab last night,” I said. “He died in his sleep.” Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat—don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”

Hazmat Blues by Regan Burke

One hundred and seventy days into the Trump Administration I flew to Washington DC for the annual board meeting of the national anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN.org, (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network). Lively meals with DC relatives, the board meeting and coffee afterwards with old political cronies were old-shoe comfortable and safe, though conversations periodically broke into expressions of danger. This is, after all, the nation’s company town, Trump’s ground zero.

I arrived at the Washington National Airport an hour early for the non-stop flight home to Chicago. Packed with fellow travelers, pop-up phone and sunglass vendors, fast food and maintenance workers and airline personnel, the terminal sizzled. I managed to nudge a stool into a space at a long table rigged with outlets and nose-dived into the computer-news rabbit hole: click, Trump crashed a wedding at one of his resorts, click to an old story about a sinkhole in front of Mar-a-Lago, click to a twitter storm of jokes about draining the swamp.

Annoying conversations buzzed my ears about a hazmat incident at the control tower. Click! a local TV station reports fumes from roof construction at the Leesburg, Virginia control tower has shut down all flights for 4 airports around DC. Click. Is Steve Bannon, the President’s sneaky architect of distraction, trying to terrorize awaiting airline travelers?  Or did he sabotage the timetable to turn the screw on some disagreeable Administration insider?

The announcement came. “…we don’t know when flights will continue, we’ll update you as soon as we know.” It was 10:00 pm when I learned my flight was cancelled until the next morning. The United gatekeeper told us all the hotels were booked for 50 miles around and that maintenance crews would be handing out blankets for those who’d be sleeping in the airport.  No problem, I’d just contact one of the five people I know in DC and ask to lay my aching bones down on a couch. Click. Click. All five were non-responsive. Travelers were staking out their spots on the floor. In front of the gatekeeper I pleaded, “I just cannot sleep on the floor. I’m old and have arthritis. Is there no other solution?”

He shook his head.

“How much would it cost to get to the nearest hotel?”

“Sixty miles away? About $100.”

“Oh no. Are you giving vouchers for cabs?”

“No”

I was dragging my carry-on away from any hope of a reprieve, doomed to slumping to the floor by Dunkin Donuts, when a young man pressed something in my hand.

“Please let me help you. Take this.”

A $100 bill. Before I could thank him, my FaceBook message lit up with a query from Dan Murphy whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years: Click. “FB is telling me you are nearby! Can I see you?”

And right then, I was no longer afraid to die.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Casper the Holy Ghost

Casper the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost appeared to me in the first grade on the day our Catholic school nun taught our class about the three persons of the Trinity.  My shimmying skin signified Casper the Friendly Ghost had floated into our classroom with his new, deeper nature as the Holy Ghost’s doppelgänger. A 1950’s cartoon character, the bubbly, happy, peaceable Casper tried desperately to befriend humans because his fellow ghosts were too sinister.But the poor guy terrified most people even though his spirit was warm-hearted and affable. Now he was one of the persons of God. And I needed Him.

My original first grade at Stone Ridge Academy of the Sacred Heart in Washington DC was interrupted by illness. I didn’t learn about the Holy Ghost until I got to my next first grade in a parochial school in Terre Haute Indiana. I was happy to repeat the first grade so I could be with my younger sister and best friend, Erin.

Third-gader Mara, my older sister, teased me relentlessly about flunking first grade in front of her friends – and what would have been my friends if she hadn’t poisoned them against me. I prayed that my one new friend, Casper the Holy Ghost,would scare Mara away from tormenting me.

I never had any trouble with the Trinity. Catholics bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, tapping the head, heart and each shoulder, while reciting “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The concept of the Trinity was and is still simple – three persons in one, just like a cross. For the life of me I don’t know why theologians are always trying to explain it. Perhaps they didn’t have Casper to guide them in the first grade.
I dressed as Casper at Halloween –  many kids still do. My mother wasn’t the least bit interested in dabbling in children’s holidays, much less making costumes. But my Casper costume was a cinch. As long as I didn’t cut holes for my eyes, she let me drape a white sheet over my head and Erin, in her hobo costume, led me around trick-or-treating. Mara, in her I Love Lucy outfit, ridiculed us surrounded by her pack of friends.

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I started collecting Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books in 1952 when I was six. By the time I was ten I had them stacked up alongside Superman comics in my closet. One day I came home from playing baseball and Mara had thrown away my comic book collection. She said it was time for me to grow up. The slick odor of those mistreated keepsakes haunted me for a time but the quivering feeling of Casper’s friendship and protection eventually evaporated.

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About that time Catholics started using Holy Spirit instead of Holy Ghost. The only image I had of the Holy Spirit was an inanimate white dove hanging open-winged over statues of Jesus. He certainly didn’t look like he needed friends. I slinked away from the Holy Ghost until years later when He fell into my own spirit and turned my old fear of Mara into forgiveness. She’s still scary. But not to me.

Vampire Portrait

Vampire Portrait

The portrait represented my not-surprisingly-sad six-year-old self. People told me as far back as I can remember that I looked sad. Some would even ask why I looked so sad. How does a small child answer such a question?

The oil painting, a three-by-four foot gothic with a gilded oil-rubbed frame looked like an antique. I have a vague recollection of my mother taking my two sisters and I to the artist’s home in Washington, DC, where we had moved for a few years after World War II. We all sat for separate portraits. Mine was the only one the artist completed before my father ran out of money. The artist gave them all to my mother nonetheless and it was one more reason for me to feel superior to my two sisters – my portrait was the best.

I was painted from the waist up seated in a mahogany armchair. Dressed in black velvet with a rounded white lace collar, I held a doll similar to the one my father gave me when I had to stay home from school with the mumps. He bought her in the gift shop of the hotel where we lived when we were evicted from our home. The painting’s forest green background mimicked the dark green velvet of the doll’s coat.

Our family moved around the Midwest for many years before my mother left my father in 1960 – Terre Haute and Indianapolis, St. Louis and Clayton, Chicago and Lake Forest. Those childhood portraits made it through all the evictions, storages and moving vans until I finally got married and my mother gave me my portrait. I hauled it through my own two marriages, divorces and geography. Wherever I hung it, someone inevitably asked who was that sad little girl. I once wanted to rid myself of it when a friend said, “It’s your heirloom.” And so I brought it to a new home in Chicago, where I returned after a stint in Washington, DC during the Bill Clinton years.

My home of 15 years is the first condominium where I’ve had a storage locker. I don’t have a lot of storage items. I figure if you can’t wear it, sit on it, or hang it on the wall, there’s no point in keeping it. For a few years my sad childhood likeness laid in darkness in the basement next to some pictures of my grandchildren and a large suitcase.

Then one day, I needed the suitcase for a two-week trip to San Sebastian, Spain with my California friend Cappi Quigley. I thought I’d bring the portrait upstairs while retrieving the luggage. I couldn’t find the keys to the locker’s padlock so I asked Marcel the building engineer to meet me in the lobby with a bolt cutter. We descended to the basement where Marcel unlocked the steel door to Locker Room B. We located the locker assigned to my condo unit.

The padlock was gone and so were all the contents of the locker.