Inspired by three (real) albums of protest music released in 2018 -- "Retake the Middle Ground," "Unfollow," and "World Almost Over?" -- the novel follows the travails of three (fictional) songwriters as they deal with issues from writer's block to physical intimidation, from trolls to the seemingly endless social media feeds devoted to politics.
Sheila Believes in Humankind
"I just turned 50," said Jenny's mom, "so I'm old enough to have been seeing Trump's stupid face on TV since the 80s. The whole time, his entire image has always been 'I'm an asshole and proud of it.' That's his thing. That's what he's always projected. And when I heard he was running for president I didn't think much of it because I just thought 'who in the world other than Donald Trump would want Donald Trump as president?"
"Fuckin' Russians, Mom," said Jenny, "Fuckin' Russians."
It was Saturday and Kim had swung by the small apartment that Jenny shared with her mother. Though Kim had lived in Bloomington for three months she had yet to set foot on the campus. So Jenny, who was a student at the university, had offered a tour. Jenny's mom had been getting ready to go to work at her second job (she worked at Bed, Bath and Beyond on weekends to help supplement her regular job's underpaid salary) and had been talking to the two young women as she rushed around getting ready.
Jenny said to Kim, "Mom blames us — women — for the fact that Trump's in office."
Jenny's mom jumped in, "They had him on tape — before the election — not only admitting to, but actually bragging about sexual assault. Every woman in this country — and I don't care what political party you've voted in the past — every woman in this country should've said 'no' to that guy. Women have had to put up with all that kind of crap from men our whole lives and here — Finally! — was a chance to say, 'Nuh uh, no more!' But we didn't. While all that was in the news I actually almost got into a fistfight with a woman at Wednesday Bingo who was all: 'women who have that kind of thing happen to them must've done something to deserve it.' Running her mouth with the whole 'they must have led him on' crap. I just wanted to hit her."
It was very obvious to Kim just where Jenny's fire had come from. The main difference between mother and daughter seemed to be that Jenny's mom was better able to control her cursing.
"Mom had a pussy grabber. Didn't you, Mom?"
"Oh, I'm pretty sure that until recently, any woman who had a job has at least one of those stories," she replied.
Kim asked, "So what was yours? If you don't mind me asking, that is."
"Mine was I was working late and me and my boss were the only ones there and while I was standing and looking at some files he walks up behind me, wraps his arms around my waist and goes — zoom! — right for the ol' crotch. This old, gross-looking guy who I had never in any way, shape or form led on thinks it's somehow okay to take his hand and rub my crotch. And this guy was a grandfather. I'd met his grandkids, for cryin' out loud!"
Kim asked, "So what did you do when he did that?"
"I turned around and pushed him away and I told him that I was married — which wasn't exactly true because I was separated — but that's what I told him and he backed off. But…"
"One thing that bothers me when I think about it — I mean, aside from the fact that what he did was way wrong. That's a given — is the whole dynamic of the thing. That part makes me mad at myself. Mad at society. Mad at the way women are expected to behave. And that's that, yes I pushed him away, but I was actually pretty nice about it."
Jenny's mom gave a big shrug, then continued, "It's what was expected, you know? I pushed him away but I acted like he had just made an honest mistake, like he was accidentally drinking out of my coffee cup instead of doing what he was doing — which was the kind of thing that you would only want someone you were really close to doing to you. But I was nice about it and that pisses me off every time I think about it. That and the fact that I felt that I had to tell him I was married. Like that should matter? Like if I didn't have a man in my life it would be okay to do that?"
Jenny said, "You should have kicked his ass, Mom."
"I should have. That's what a man would have done."
Both young women broke out laughing. Jenny's mom continued, "No, really! Imagine that a guy, let's call him Guy #1, is standing by a file cabinet and Guy #2, un-asked-for and unwanted, slips his hand around his waist and goes for Guy #1's penis. I'll bet ten to one that Guy #1 is gonna turn around and beat the hell out of Guy #2," she said with a laugh, "just… Bam!"
As Jenny and Kim joined in Jenny's mom's laughter, she continued, "But I'm a woman. So it's okay to do that to me. Right?"
She stopped, shook her head and loudly sighed, "But, you know, that was a long time ago and so here I thought that things were getting better. I thought that guys were getting better and then…"
Again she stopped. Again she sighed. "Actually I do think that things are better. It's not nearly as bad as it used to be. I think that there are a lot more men these days who realize that's not cool. Most companies will go on record to say that that's not cool. Women know that it's okay to call men out on it not being cool. So I actually do think it is getting better. I have faith in a future when all of this crap won't happen any more. I really do, but then somehow we end up with a president who acts like that? Acts like that and brags about it? It's disgraceful. It's a big step backward."
"But you do think things are getting better?" asked Kim.
"I do. I honestly do think that on the whole it's getting better, but girls: if anything like that ever happens to you, you march straight to a lawyer's office."
Kim asked, "Why didn't you?"
"Because I didn't know that I could. I didn't know that there were lawyers who would work on a percentage. I thought you had to pay lawyers up front. I couldn't afford that. I had two little girls depending on me. I wasn't getting any child support yet because we were just separated. My parents loaned me a little money to get by, but they were not wealthy people, so there wasn't that much that they could do to help. So, how in the world could I afford a lawyer? And besides there were no witnesses to him laying his hands on my crotch so it would be one of those 'he said, she said' deals where I would never win."
"But you found out later about that though, right?" said Jenny.
"Yeah. Years later I dated a lawyer for a while and I asked him about it and he said that if this guy had been that bold about grabbing a woman who had never shown that kind of interest in him then it was pretty much guaranteed that he had grabbed other women like that too, and that any good, or at least ambitious, lawyer would have tracked those other women down and Mr. Grabby would have settled with all of us before you could say the word 'settlement.' But I didn't know that at the time. And don't get me wrong: when it happened I just wanted to tell him to stick it where the sun don't shine and then walk out of that job right then, but I couldn't because I needed the money. But I did start looking for another job, but it took almost 2 months to find one. So I had to work with that creep for another 2 months."
Kim said, "That must've sucked."
"It did suck. And the part that sucked the most was that it was all on me, you know? This guy was in the wrong, but it was up to me to find another job and go through all of that disruption to my life while the person who was in the wrong just went on with his life like nothing happened. Everything was just great for him. And the fact that now a guy who's like that — a guy who has admitted to being a guy like that — is now eating Big Macs in the White House? It burns me up."
"But you haven't given up on men though?"
"Oh no, not even close. I do honestly think that men in general are getting better. And I haven't turned into a man-hater. I still go out on the occasional date and even though I am 50 years old I still hold out hope that someday I'll meet the man of my dreams."
Jenny's mom grabbed her keys and headed for the door. As she reached for the doorknob, something leaning against the wall caught her eye and she said, "Oh, and Jenny, do whatever you were gonna do with that thing. I want it out of my house. Got it?"
"Got it and on it!" Said Jenny.
As Jenny's mom stood in the doorway she said to Kim, "You know what, I'm sorry. I just met you and I laid all that on you. Sometime when I'm in less of a hurry we'll have a more fun conversation."
"Oh, I thought it was great," said Kim, "Thank you for sharing. It's something that a lot of people don't do."
Jenny said, "Speaking of sharing, I'm showing Kim around campus and since we'll be on that side of town I thought we'd drop that stuff off at the women's shelter."
"Good idea sweetie. That laptop is under the counter there. And a couple of other things too," Jenny's mom said as she opened the door to leave. "Have you ever been to a women's shelter before Kim?"
"No. I never have."
"Then it's good that you're going. I think that every woman who can should do some volunteer days at a woman's shelter."
"To be honest," said Kim, "I'm kind of nervous about it."
"Well, yes. Is it a sad place?"
"No, it's not that. I mean, the reasons that those women are there are definitely sad, but there are usually kids running around playing, so it's not like everyone there is crying all the time" she said, then paused, "The place fills you with a weird mix of emotions. There's the sadness, but it also gives you hope at the same time. Most of these women have been through some seriously bad stuff, but they're trying to get out, you know? They're not giving up. They're taking a brave step. And that gives me hope."
Jenny said, "Mom's an optimist."
"Go figure," said Jenny's mom. As she walked out the door, she called out over her shoulder "And I love to dance, too."« previous next »