The Crispus Attucks Time-Space Continuum
short fiction by Ken Goldstein
Crispus Attucks likes to ride in the back of the train and look at the other subway passengers on their way into downtown Boston. Each year he finds it more difficult to fathom the new fashions. You'd think that, after two hundred and twenty years of roaming the streets of this city, it would get easier to adapt and flow with the changes, but he's still having trouble with the events of March fifth, seventeen-seventy. Two centuries of trying to make some sense of it, and each day just gets more baffling.
A young man of about twenty passes through Crispus Attucks and sits down beside him. It has been a while since Attucks could muster the strength to appear to the living. He'd grown impatient with trying to explain his death to them, and America had grown weary of apparitions of her revolutionary past. Let's face it, if Bostonians took the time to acknowledge and talk to every spirit hanging out in the downtown area, they'd never get any work done. It's easier to pretend ghosts don't exist; more serene to forget the past.
Crispus looks the younger man over, trying to decipher the message shaved into the side of his cut and block out the sound coming from the large black box he'd carried in on his shoulder. He reads the word "jet" on the cover of the magazine the young man is reading, then moves down the bench to a space not occupied by the living.
Attucks' mind travels back to scene in front of the Old State House. He pictures the British soldiers facing off with them and hears the crowd taunting the red coats with shouts of "Bloody back!" daring them to shoot. The shots ring out, and before he realizes what's happening he's fallen to the ground. The massacre takes only seconds, but the sound of the rifles' recoil is still echoing centuries later. Textbooks canonize it as the Boston Massacre, the first deaths of the American Revolution. But for Attucks it was just another unlucky day. He goes over it again and again. Who gave the order to fire anyway?
As the train pulls into Copley Square the young man drops his magazine and moves into the next compartment where there are more people his age. He's replaced by two older women carrying shopping bags. The first one puts their purses into one of the bags and then plants the bundles under the seat and plops down like she'd been carrying a thousand pounds. It's the same seat the young man just vacated. The second one is still shuffling up the aisle when the train starts moving, sending her flying back into her friend's lap. She has trouble turning herself over into her own seat. The first one speaks, "Well, at least we have the cah to ourselves." Crispus doesn't bother to laugh; things like that ceased to amuse him ninety years ago.
"Did you see that outlandish Negro boy, Mahtha?" the first woman continues. "He had words carved into his hair!" Attucks' ears perk up at "outlandish." Wasn't that how John Adams, the defense attorney for the British soldiers, described the crowd at the massacre? Didn't he say they were just a "motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes, mulattos, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs?" He did, and it worked. The court decided the soldiers were not guilty of killing Crispus Attucks and the four others. Of course, after the revolution was a success, Adams claimed he had been a patriot all along, but Boston knew better. They knew that Samuel was the only member of that family that was worth a damn. Crispus liked Sam; he got a real kick out of that tea-party idea.
But Sam's son-of-a-bitch cousin John, arguing that those people deserved to die! That's what two hundred year later Attucks still couldn't believe. So what if they had been a motley group of Negroes, mulattos and Irish sailors? He was proud of his heritage, he was partly a man of Africa, and his Indian blood gave him more of a right to call himself an American than any member of the Adams family. He had been both a free-man and a slave, and he was not ashamed of either. Could John Adams say that he was not ashamed of anything in his past?
He had been the first to give his life that a new nation could be born, "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." That's a laugh, he thought. The revolution did nothing toward ending slavery. That would take much more blood, and much more time.
If he could have known then what he knew now, would he still have been there that day? It had been a tense twelve days since the Tory tea importer, Ebenezer Richardson, fired into the crowd of Patriot hecklers outside his house and murdered Christopher Snider, an eleven year old boy. There were several incidents of curses and rocks being thrown at the Tories, and the soldiers who protected them, in the days that followed. The night before the massacre, he had heard a rumor that the soldiers of the Twenty-ninth Regiment were saying, "a great many men would eat their dinners on Monday who wouldn't be eating them on Tuesday."
Yes, no matter what he had known of America's future, he still would have been out on the evening of March fifth. If he had known then what he knew now he could have dodged that musket ball! He could at least have known to pay closer attention to Captain Preston -- to know for sure if he had given the order to fire.
Crispus went over the sequence of events again. A soldier had been knocked over by the crowd, he got up and fired one shot, hitting nobody. Then there was total silence as everyone wondered what was happening. One of the Patriots, Samuel Gray, reassured those assembled.
"My lads," he said, "They will not fire." But they did. Crispus looked back at Gray and saw his head explode with a musket shot, and then he felt himself sinking to the ground with two holes in his chest. But he was sure, there had been no order to fire. Damn the court testimony; the soldiers acted on their own!
The train stops suddenly, waking him from his dream. He still could not get used to the squeal of the metal wheels on the rusty tracks.
The first woman pulls on the sleeve of her friend's over-sized blue sweater and tries to whisper in her ear. The second woman is startled, she doesn't know what's happening and her ears are no longer strong enough to pick up a whisper.
But Crispus hears it and sees that the young man with the words on his head has returned and is walking toward his former seat, now occupied by the two scared octogenarians.
The young man sees the old women's expressions and smiles to himself. Then he moves fast, lunging at them and bending over till he's almost face-to-face with the more talkative of the two. While balancing the radio with one hand, he reaches under the seat with his other and grabs something. As quickly as he had moved in, he pulls away and jumps out of the car to the station platform, just as the doors close.
Through the window Crispus can see that what the young man had grabbed from under the seat was the magazine he had been reading earlier and left behind. Attucks laughs quietly to himself.
"My Lord, Mahtha!" the first woman says as the train pulls out. Martha doesn't hear, she is holding her chest and gasping for air. Crispus wonders if old Martha is deaf as well as dumb. "Thank Heavens he didn't find our purses under there! You just can't even go downtown to do a little shopping anymore without being terrorized." Martha nods her agreement. Crispus realizes she isn't dear; he's disappointed.
He thinks about what the first woman said, though. Wasn't that what happened to him? You go downtown to take care of a few things and you wind up a martyr for their God-damn revolution!
Ten thousand people showed up at the funeral for the victims of the Boston Massacre, and that's when the city's population wasn't much more than sixteen thousand. Crispus likes to remember that. He didn't know how many people mourned John Adams, but he knew it wasn't any ten thousand. That makes him feel good, so good that he considers getting off the subway and taking a walk past the Old State House and by Fanual Hall where Sam Adams used to hold his meetings.
He starts thinking of the Boston he knew when he was living and misses the stop. He hasn't actually been off this train in years. He replays the massacre in his brain again, only this time it's John Adams who gets shot. He laughs so loud that the first woman turns in horror, looking for the source.
"Mahtha? Did you hear that?"
Martha looks up at her friend. "What?"
© Copyright Ken Goldstein