“I Am Ora Thomas” by Natalie Long
by Mark Chmiel
I am pleased to share the following from compañera Natalie, who reentered my life with a bang five weeks ago. She is an environmental lawyer, educated at DePaul Law School by way of Chiapas.
When class wraps up, she hurriedly packs her things – computer in case, mouse, notepad. Her professor stoops – “Whose is this?” he asks, holding up a charger. “Mine, thanks!” she responds, hand extended to take the device.
Backpack loaded, she switches gears, from student to sister, making a quick stop at the bathroom then walking out of the law school, waving to classmates as she passes them in the hall. Stepping out into the night, she distractedly notes that, despite it only being mid-February, her fur-lined red jacket is a bit too warm for the night.
Reaching her car, she drives off campus and straight into town, making a left at the strip. Already 6:25pm; hopefully she wasn’t too late. She pulls into the parking lot by the old train car, pushing down the fleeting thought that, despite her wishes to the contrary, she’s still driving around in this dreary town. She keeps saying she’s going to find a way to get out…
Shoving that thought aside, she parks, feeds the meter a dime – 24 minutes, that should be enough – and walks up to the restaurant. Glancing in the main window at Cristaudo’s, she sees a full gathering of people in a warmly lit room, a cozy environment featuring an attentive crowd.
As a couple walk out of the side door she slips inside, passing by the items for sale, and pulls up next to a young man and his friend who are spilling out from the seating area into the bakery. She scans the room – there was M, T, R, L – but no sign of him. He wasn’t onstage; the current orator was an older man giving a monologue.
Reaching for her phone, she pulls up Signal: “You already present? Just snuck into the back.”
Quietly, she turns to speak to the woman at the register. “Do you have any more baked goods for the night?” The woman directs her to the display on the other side of the counter. Ears trained on the presentation in the other room, she picks out a peanut butter cookie, pays $2.25 in cash, takes her change, and ducks into the main room when applause breaks out and acts change.
She crouches down, punching R lightly in the left shoulder, balancing herself on the balls of her feet. “Hey!” she says with a smile, and he greets her back, happy to see her. As the next act takes the stage, she quietly breaks off the outer crust of the cookie, slowly chewing each piece, saving the center of the cookie for last. She rubs the fingers of her right hand together to dust off the sugar crystals that stick to them.
Her cookie lasts through two vigorous recitations of feminist poetry, performed by a woman with a booming voice and lump in her throat, as well as a rendition of “Fuck You,” played by a teenage girl strumming a ukulele.
Leaning over, she asks, “Has B presented yet?” “No, not yet,” he whispers back. Looking around the room for him, she notes that a man in a suit, carrying a banner, has appeared to her left, standing above her crouched figure. She keeps looking.
As the teenage girl finishes her song, the emcee comes up to the mic once more to introduce the next act. “And now: I’m pleased to ask our own B to the stage.”
The man in the suit.
She knew that suit – she’d seen him in it once before, years back.
The man in the suit was her brother.
She stares at him as he makes his way up to the front.
And then she begins to smile. The smile starts slow, then creeps up her cheeks, reaching up to her ears on both sides, then up to her eyes as they crinkle softly. Looking a fool, she grins, because there was her brother, in a suit, and damn did he look fine. Tan suit with a blue tie, shirt tucked in, beard cleaned up and cut close to his face, hair washed and combed to the side, and…was that just a hint of hair product she saw reflecting in the light?
He started…and before the audience, out of this clean-cut man emerged a man from the early 1900s, from the days of Prohibition and the KKK, of union strikes and gang wars, stepping out from the fog of history and into the cozy bakery.
“I … am Ora Thomas,” he told the room.
He feigned surprise.
“What, you don’t know who I am? This is … southern Illinois, right?”
Ora Thomas, founder of the southern Illinois Knights of the Flaming Circle.
Ora Thomas, freedom fighter who gunned down S. Glenn Thomas.
Ora Thomas, who lost his life killing the man who promoted the KKK’s reign of terror throughout the region.
She smiles, but her heart pounds.
Do others hear his message the way she does?
Do others hear the call to battle, the call to embody uncompromising fierceness against evil, against the storm slowly gathering force in the corners of their world?
Her eyes, her ears, her heart, behold her brother – a man to whom she has committed herself, her adopted kin in a community rooted in a lineage of struggle that stretches both far behind them and, she hopes, far into the future. His performance was their family’s story, the history of people who choose freedom over life, death over enslavement.
Ora Thomas was her brother, and her brother was Ora Thomas.
When he finishes, the crowd bursts into applause, and she whoops her approval from the back of the room. He maneuvers to the back past her, and she touches his arm lightly as he passes, beaming – “Great job.” He smiles back – “Thanks.”
Checking her clock, she lifts her backpack to her shoulder, waves quietly goodbye, and slips out into the night. She’d seen what she’d come for; on to the next meeting.