First Edition | Prose

A Time to Cast Away Stones

by elise frances miller

April 1968. U.C. Berkeley student Aaron Becker struggles with his conscience after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Sheila Delgado is his stop-gap girlfriend while his sweetheart Janet Magill is off in Paris, waiting for him to join her in June.

According to Walter Cronkite, rioting broke out in 125 cities in 29 states, so eventually I surmised that half of the campus must have gone over the bridge to San Francisco to add to the general mayhem there.

Well-practiced at avoiding the fray, I remained chez moi. But still, I mourned, as outraged as the next guy. MLK had been a hero to me all through my teens, and I knew it wasn’t just because the whole white liberal sector of the country was taken with him. To me, MLK was part of a particular childhood memory, one of those few intense moments when you know you’re in the presence of something that matters to someone who matters to you, in this case, dear ol’ Dad.

My father was living with us, just before he wasn’t anymore. We were sitting in front of the old Philco together before dinner, watching events unfold in Little Rock, Arkansas. “That could be the Jews, running through a tunnel of hate to the schoolroom door,” he said. I remembered that “tunnel of hate” thing. He put one arm around me, drew me to his side, and I heard his gruff whisper, “That could be you, and don’t you forget it.”

I’ve speculated in recent years that the whole civil rights revolution inspired my father to clear the path toward his own private revolution and head for Ecuador. I’ll never know. But I realized now that I felt as secure with MLK as I had with my father. I’m sure I was one of many who had seen the great black preacher as a safe, non-threatening, acceptable kind of guy who would get white Americans to do what was right. He was leading us, along with his own people, drawing us gracefully away from generations of vile prejudices and behaviors.

So I understood all those rioters and in my anger over his murder, part of me wanted to be out there. I thought maybe if Janet Magill were still around, she would have been across the Bay raising hell. And then there was freaky Sheila who didn’t give a damn.

When classes resumed on the Monday after the assassination, it was all I could do to be civil to Sheila in lab. Somehow in my mind she had become associated with the crime itself, which was ridiculous, of course. I tried to get rational about it, but it was tough. Maybe it was a Chicano thing. Chicanos and blacks. I’d have to check that out.

On an evening of televised nationwide chaos, I comforted myself with fantasies of Janet returning from the streets, flushed and gorgeous, smelling like hot asphalt and perspiration. She’d gab on and on about events as if her relating them to me was an affirming part of her participation. Then, of course, the best way for her to calm down would be to rest in my arms. I would comfort her. Feel the sweet wilting of one kind of tension and the mounting of another. I covered Dork’s cage and climbed into bed.

My fantasies accelerated. I was jetting across the Atlantic with a hard-on as powerful and destination-bound as a DC-10’s, when right over the ocean, Sheila Delgado rose from the waves, her face as frozen as North Atlantic ice, and the plane started to dive. A cold wind rushed in on me: Wasn’t I Janet Magill’s “Sheila” after all? When Janet was trying her best to play a part in the antiwar movement, did she experience the same twist to the gut with me that I had when I realized Sheila didn’t give a shit about MLK?

The truth about the similarities between Sheila and me made me squirm. I got myself out of bed and pulled up my PJ bottoms and paced from the bedroom to the front room and back, lifting Dork’s terry to peer into his cage. He was sleeping peacefully, lucky ignorant bird.

I resumed my pacing and my deliberation: I wasn’t out there on the streets now any more than I’d been then, but, I reasoned, Janet did know I cared about ending the war. I tried to recall precious time we’d spent together in my cottage. So what if my cynicism had been a disappointment to Janet? She’d come back to me, even if only as a friend, and she’d written to me, expected me in France… but Janet knew that I still had no way to France, and she was not here.

It took me seven hours of fitful sleep, and the next day and a half of complaining to Dork that faraway Janet was driving me insane, to realize that I ought not to judge what I did not understand in Sheila Delgado.

Elise Frances Miller
holds degrees from U.C. Berkeley and UCLA, wrote art criticism for the Los Angeles Times and several national publications, and worked in communications at Stanford. Her novel “A Time to Cast Away Stones” was published by Sand Hill Review Press in 2012. She lives in San Mateo.