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Traveling to Iowa, Jason encounters a vivid group of characters: Simon, the committed socialist willing to sacrifice anyone, even Gabriel, for the cause; Grey, Gabriel's Native American wife who sees all but reveals nothing; Leroy, the victim's father whose powerlessness and misguided anger lead him to violence; Costello, a policewoman hopelessly caught between her corrupt colleagues and her desire to do the right thing; and in the center, the enigmatic Gabriel, both saintly and naive.
Set against a backdrop of industrial and moral decay, Wrestling with Gabriel offers a gripping tale about the search for truth and justice. By the time the jury reaches its verdict, one thing is clear: Gabriel's fate will be decided but the larger questions will remain unanswered. Like Iris Murdoch, David Lynn has written a political novel that transcends the genre by confronting the moral complexities that go along with a commitment to an an ideal.
A remarkable accomplishment by a gifted short story writer, Wrestling with Gabriel is both a profound book and compelling story.
At 2:15 Monday afternoon, after morning arraignment and a percentage of $30,000 bail was raised, the police released Gabriel Salter. Released him: a guard let go of his arm and Gabriel staggered forward like a drunk six paces into the noise and chaos (shrieking children, bleary relatives, impatient lawyers) of the city jail's waiting room. Angry welts and bruises distorted his face. One eye was swollen shut. It was hard to tell as he stumbled towards us whether he was grinning in relief or grimacing in acute pain. His wife Grey, fierce in her worry, leapt to catch him. Simon Yoo helped settle Gabriel onto a chair to catch his breath.
His head hung forward, chin nearly touching his chest as he panted. Grey squatted next to him, whispering in his ear, hawkish and fierce, stroking his hand. Her long black hair brushed his battered cheek. From where I stood leaning against a bulletin board it was hard to tell whether Gabriel was taking in what she said or not. He gave no sign.
At last he gathered himself, wagged his head gently back and forth to test how wobbly he'd be. With an effort he looked up and stared directly at me. The one visible eye was unexpectedly sharp. What surprised me was his lack of surprise. He even managed a faint smile as he winced with pain.
Grey had been poised to catch her husband because of what we'd discovered at the earlier arraignment, though the lawyer had warned us beforehand. Grey's own immediate dismay—Gabriel's injuries were worse than she'd expected—were quickly displaced by fury. Not only the eye but the whole left side of his face was swollen above a cracked jaw. A large swatch of his scalp had been shaved around a seam of purple stitches closing a long gash. Two days old, the bruises were already yellowing. To the original rape charges against him had been added several counts of assault for attempting to snatch a policeman's revolver (from an empty holster) and wrestling wildly with two officers in the jail's elevator.
"Let's get him out of this place," Simon said to Grey as if Gabriel couldn't hear. Gently but firmly, they each took an arm and raised him to his feet. He seemed stronger now, more certain, and he strode steadily out of the jailhouse into the bright March afternoon. Grey helped Gabriel into the back of Simon's car and slid in beside him. I jogged around the corner to the Dodge I'd rented at the airport and gunned it through a changing yellow light. They hadn't waited for me—I didn't expect them to—but I caught them turning at the next block and followed them to the north side of town.
By the time I walked in the front door of the spartan two-story frame house, Gabriel had been arrayed on a ragged sea-green couch in the front room. His hair was matted with sweat. Although he was dozing, the business at hand was for Simon to snap a dozen photos of Gabe's wounds from different angles. A naked overhead bulb and a standing lamp tilted close to the couch illuminated the welts and abrasions.
Simon moved quickly, efficiently, snapping off shots as if he'd apprenticed with a wedding photographer. (He was striving for the close-up drama of the posed face. Were he a shooter sent along by my paper, he'd be circling further back, aiming for context, for the unposed, for the casually glimpsed horror.) As soon as he finished the roll Simon shifted the lamp away and Grey settled protectively next to Gabriel. She placed a wet cloth on his forehead and stroked his neck awkwardly with her fingers—she was wary of touching his face.
I'd only met Grey for the first time that morning after arriving on the red-eye from Baltimore. She greeted me at their door with a grim face. But as the connection came clear a certain flickering surprise, an unexpected recognition, crossed her face briefly. I assumed she knew who I was—the Salters, even Gabriel, were always big on family history. I'd certainly heard about her, though not as much as I might have; the family discovered she was living with Gabriel just about the same time three years earlier that Hilary, Gabriel's older sister, was divorcing me.
Her name was Grey Navarro, and as I learned later she was Laguna—not Cherokee as I'd assumed when told she was Indian. Apparently there'd never been any question of changing her name to Salter. There was a question of whether she and Gabriel had ever bothered with a wedding. It was hard to imagine him participating in any formal ceremony, especially one sanctioned by the state. Common-law traditions offered greater appeal.
I watched as Grey moved about their house with a powerful grace—that of a dancer who's neither feminine nor masculine. There was nothing particularly feminine about her at all, as if such a category were a confining irrelevance. Sharp, almost crudely chiseled cheekbones framed her dark eyes under a hawkish brow. Her fine hair fell to the small of her back, gathered by a turquoise barrette. The only contrast to the severity was her birthmark, striking as a brilliant flaw, a silver-dollar-sized dab of crimson that rode high on her right cheek, just brushing the corner of her eye.
Although she'd quickly come to accept my presence, Grey's concern for Gabriel that afternoon swept up all her attention. Simon Yoo certainly didn't bother making me welcome. As far as he was concerned I could stand and observe by the door for the purpose of reporting to Gabriel's mother, but that entitled me to no special notice. Annoyed, bored, professionally curious about what Gabriel was accused of doing and what had been done to him, I decided to hang around a little while longer, as if witness must be borne or a vigil endured so that I could report in all good faith that my (former) brother-in-law, rather the worse for wear, had been delivered home safely.
As afternoon wore to early evening, three or four friends who'd helped raise bail drifted in to check on Gabriel, to pay quiet sympathy and declare the first blossomings of outrage. They stood in doorways or sat on the floor. An African American woman, Sara Oliver, silent but imposing, appropriated Grey's stool and sat next to Gabriel, holding his hand in her lap. But given Gabriel's political ministry this struck me as rather a paltry turnout. Others were probably waiting to hear more about what actually happened. The story in yesterday's Sunday Register (I'd lifted one that morning from a trash bin at the airport) had taken its lead, naturally enough, from the police blotter: 15-year-old girl brutally attacked. Local man, Gabriel Salter, meatpacker and socialist, charged.
I assumed Gabriel's other acquaintances couldn't believe he'd do such a thing, but ... Maybe that's why Simon Yoo was moving so swiftly. As Iowa chapter head or director or whatever (they preferred to downplay such titles) of the International Socialist Alliance, Simon stayed on the phone at the kitchen table, never for more than five minutes with the same call, jotting notes furiously on a yellow pad. His wire-rimmed spectacles were pushed up on his brow as he wrote. His dark hair was trimmed very short. At a distance his voice sounded perpetually hoarse, and he spoke in direct, impatient monosyllables. Every half-hour or so Simon would step out on the porch for a few quick tugs at a cigarette.
At five o'clock I rose to leave, my bad knee stiff already. Gabriel hadn't opened the eye he could for some time. His breath was shallow but steady. I waved a hand at Grey but said nothing. She gave no sign at all that she noticed. A reporter has to be patient, but I'd pretty well reached my limit. New developments seemed unlikely and I was spent. I'd arrived in Iowa at six in the morning—in fact there'd been precious little sleep since Hilary woke me two nights earlier. But as I reached the front door Gabriel called out, "Jason."
Limping across the room, I stood at Grey's shoulder. Gabriel was smiling at me, though faintly. I felt a distant but familiar twinge. Battered as he was, the smile revived something of the waifishness of his pale skin and sharp, thin features. That smile had always been the secret of his charm. It made the recipient special, the center of the universe for an instant, someone in on a precious secret. And although Gabriel was capable of self-mockery, he seemed to bank on the effect.
He tried to raise himself on an elbow then fell back. "You haven't even said hello and now you're sneaking away without a goodbye?" he said.
"Your mother asked me to check things out. She wants to make sure you're okay."
"You can tell her I'm better than I look," he said. He laughed (and winced again). "No, you better not tell her how I look. Do I look as bad as I think?"
"If you think pretty bad."
He shrugged and turned his head on the greying bed pillow.
Grey's lips were pressed thin. "It's their turn to look bad," she said. "Wait until Simon's pictures get around. They'll tell the story."
"Part of it anyway," I murmured. "So, what the hell happened, Gabe?"
He pressed his head back and closed his eyes. "There's this elevator in the jail, the one that carries you from intake to the cells. It's famous all over town. They call it the Wonderland Express. People step on feeling just fine and step off in a different state of being. If you're poor or Black or Latino in this city, you know about the Express." He coughed and reached for a glass of water on the floor next to him. Simon had emerged from the kitchen with his yellow pad and was taking notes.
"These two goons loaded me on and stopped the thing between floors. For interrogation, they said. This boy wants to help our wetbacks, one says to the other. I hear he loves nigger ass, says the other. And boy, did they interrogate me. Twenty-three stitches it took to close this eye."
"What about you going for a gun?"
"Yeah," he said with a laugh that twisted hard into the cough again. He took another sip of water. "I may be stupid, Jason, but I'm not blind. There wasn't any gun in any holster. "Anyway, they throw me naked in a cell for the night, no blanket, no toilet, no heat, nothing. How's that for a story your paper can run?"
He was looking at me expectantly. They all were. Their deliberate misconception first embarrassed then irritated me. "Yeah, well, I'm sorry—but like I said, I'm out here because your folks asked. Not on business." His story sickened but didn't shock me. These things happened and not only in Iowa. Besides, he hadn't answered the question. Did he know that? Tired, I decided to let it go for the time being.
"Amazing they can still make you jump after all these years," Gabriel murmured. I knew what he meant. "But I'm glad to see you, Jason. I'm glad you're here."
For some reason that caught me by surprise too. He didn't look at me again. The pain had reasserted itself. It rolled in surges across his face. Grey left to fetch more pain killers. I slipped away and drove to the motel I'd checked into that morning.
"I am almost sorry my wife dragged you into this. You don't deserve to be haunted by us for the rest of your life." There was an echo on the line and Joseph Salter sounded very far away. He might have been in India as much as on the Cherokee reservation in Arkansas. Yet even with the lousy connection it was good to hear his voice. Thirty years of various exiles had only faintly marred his Hungarian inflections.
"I'm an old friend of the family, Joseph. Whatever went wrong with Hilary and me, well that's recent history. Tell Marianne that everything's fine—Gabriel's home, a little scuffed up, but okay. I'll report back when I know more."
"Is everything fine?" Joseph asked carefully.
I hesitated. "I still don't know what this is all about. Gabe's in trouble, no doubt there—he's been charged with attempted rape. But you don't have to report any of that to Marianne, at least not yet."
"If only I could come up there too," he said bitterly. "But how can I leave her, the condition she's in? She'd worry herself sick. A nurse—I suppose I could arrange for one from the village." I heard him sigh. "But Marianne would work herself frantic if I left. It would only make everything worse."
It was true that his wife would whip herself into a real state if Joseph came out by himself, though as far as I knew her condition, as he called it, was no worse than it had been for ten years. She was a recluse more than an invalid. But since they'd moved to Arkansas Joseph had faithfully accepted her complaints without question.
"That's the last thing you need," I said. "And you've got your classes to worry about, not to mention running the school. Maybe later you'll be able to get away. Hilary can help work it out if it comes to that. In the meantime, I'll find out what I can and keep you up to date."
Joseph capitulated with another sigh. "I wish I could be there with you for this, Jason."
Not for the first time in my life I wished he could too.
I timed it just about right. I figured I could shower, grab a steak across the street—what did you come to the Midwest for?—and be back in my room for the call I expected from my ex-wife. Joseph would report to Marianne, and Marianne in turn would relay the message along with commentary to her daughter in Washington. Hilary, no doubt, would demand firsthand corroboration.
Two nights earlier, late Saturday or early Sunday, it was Hilary who phoned first, waking me at three a.m. "My mother's going to call and ask a big favor," she said. "It's a lot to ask—way too much—but I hope you'll do it."
"Unh-huh," I replied, groggy, not committing to anything. So Hilary recited the story of Gabriel's arrest on Friday, or at least as much of it as her mother had received earlier in the evening from Grey Navarro.
"Lenny's already been on the phone to a friend from law school. Jeremy Stanton. Apparently the best defense lawyer in Iowa. Woke him too, if it makes you feel any better."
"Why the hell doesn't your Lenny fly out there himself?" I demanded, probing a vulnerable spot. "Isn't this his line of work?"
"He can't, damn it, not right this second. He's in the middle of negotiations here, important talks that'll fall apart if he's not on top of them. Besides, he doesn't do criminal work."
I lay on my back in the darkness. Her nostrils would be flared just so, skin stretched white across the bridge of her nose, hazel eyes squinting. It had been a long time since I'd managed to pry some good honest anger out of Hilary.
"I get it. He can't, but I can. Hey, I know, writing for a paper doesn't have the same cachet as being a corporate lawyer or a Congressional aide de camp." I was trying to sound jocular.
"Oh, brother—now you're starting with the self-dramatizing? Don't bother, Jason. Just don't bother. You don't have to do this at all," she said acidly. "And certainly not for me. Mother suggested I call. Now I can't believe I did. Anyway, I'm flying out in the next few days, soon as I find someone to stay with Hannah. The Congressman's already given me leave. I'll take care of things in Iowa myself."
The mention of the daughter she'd had with Lenny soured my brief pleasure in baiting her. The two-year-old girl represented a world of intimacy I was no part of, that had nothing to do with me. Hannah made the point far more completely than did the husband himself, who as far as I was concerned was little more than an opportunistic bystander of our earlier battles.
"Just hold on, okay?" I said with a long sigh. "All you want is for me to find out what happened and make sure everything's being handled right, right? Doesn't sound like you have much confidence in Gabe's compadres in the Party. Or his wife."
"Okay, so I'll talk to your mother. The timing could be a whole lot better. But if my editor lets me put a couple of assignments on hold, I'll fly out there for a day or two."
"Fine," she said. "Thanks." I could hear her teeth grinding.
Marianne Salter did call later that early morning and I agreed to run out to Iowa. Perhaps because I was tired from the start, I was acutely aware of how strange my mission seemed, that I should be the one they asked. But what I said to Joseph after my first day was true enough. However uncertain my status as a former in-law, I'd known the Salters all my life, had grown up with Hilary and much later Gabriel—I was eleven when he was born—in the small college town in Pennsylvania where both our fathers were professors. Our parents were the best of friends. We practically lived in each other's home. For most of my boyhood I'd all but worshiped Joseph Salter, wishing, as secretly as I could manage, that he was my own father.
Excerpted from Wrestling with Gabriel by David Lynn. Copyright © 2011 David Lynn. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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