When Billy Bragg Opened His Mouth (Story by R.C. Peris)

I was a miner, I was a docker, I was a railway man, between the wars, I raised a family, in times of austerity, with sweat at the foundry, between the wars…Lalala…So come brothers and sisters, for the struggle carries on, the Internationale unites the world in song, so comrades, come rally…Lalala.

“For heaven’s sake, Bethany. Stop singing. You think you’re the first one to discover Billy Bragg.” My father spread the white napkin on his lap.

“Not the first one. Maybe the first one in the family.”

My father waved his hand. “Nonsense. But is this really where my money for your college tuition goes? So you can learn Leftist crap?”

I speared some salmon on the platter. Father took me to lunch at The Russian Tea Room. He was in town for a sermon and to spend time, so he said, with his daughter. He had a church in South Carolina. A huge one. His Sunday sermons were televised. His parishioners believed in him so much they funded a private jet so he could spread the Word. The Word of the Lord.

“I’m an atheist, dad.” I munched on the salmon.

“Don’t say that.” My father looked around quickly. No one was paying us any attention. “I think you should come back home.”

“No. No way. I can’t stand your wife.”

“Your step-mother.”

“Your wife. She’s not my mother. Mama died when I was seven.”

“I know that and she would cry if she knew you were an atheist.”

“I’m studying Russian literature.”

“Okay…” My father ran his hand through his thinning, dyed hair. He should be gray but his hair was black as night. “Do you read the Bible?”

“For a laugh.”

“Bethany…”

“It really is quite funny. There certainly was a lot of incest in the Bible. An angry God. But…that’s the Jew’s book. The New Testament is the Christian book. I’ve no idea why you talk about the Old Testament.”

His eyes sparkled. “You listen to my lectures?”

‘No. Not since I lived at home.”

Father sighed. “What’s with all this Russian nonsense?”

“What would you prefer? French and Irish nonsense. That’s what I am. International borders and race are superficial distinctions. My heart goes out to everyone who is oppressed.”

Father stabbed a piece of salmon. “That’s not how the world works.”

“You’re right. It’s divisive and cruel. Empathy is a sham feeling. You feel nothing for the poor of South Carolina.”

“I worked hard to make money for myself.”

“You worked hard to bend the word of Christ so that your parishioners would pay for the huge house and the jet plane. The huge house is tax exempt too. The IRS. They should charge you tax. Do you really need ten acres?”

“I’m going to stop paying for your education.” Father let the knife clatter on the table. It hit a spoon and bounced to the edge.

“Go ahead. I’ll get loans. I’ll work more hours.”

“Bethany…”

“Why take me to an expensive Russian restaurant in Manhattan? I guess you support oligarchs. You could have taken me to a Venezuelan restaurant in Brooklyn.”

My father steamed. His white cheeks went hard red. “I like this place. I wanted to spoil my daughter. Venezuela…their military should start a coup.” Father wiped his mouth on his napkin. “Awful things happen when you discard God.”

“Awful things happen when you embrace God. Dad…I’m not in support of any ideology. I’m a writer and artist. I question. But you can’t harden my heart to those who suffer and are in need. And besides, don’t you know Christ was a Socialist? Do you think he demanded a copay from the lepers before he would heal them? Do you think he refused to treat them for a pre-existing condition? Do you think he would want children ripped from their mothers at the border? Christ supported everyone on the fringes. He was on the fringe. Christ was not a Republican. He wasn’t even a Democrat. He professed no ideology other than empathy. My expensive education that you fund has opened me to empathy. You can stop paying. But I will continue on. I don’t approve of you, dad. Sorry. I’d prefer to be an orphan.”

My father blanched. The redness in his cheeks evaporated. “But you are my daughter…”

“And God sacrificed his only son.” I drank some water. The waiter delivered our meals and we ate in silence. I could hear the table next to us talking about a sale at Neiman Marcus.

On the street, as I hailed a taxi, my father gripped my head. “You’re my daughter,” he said.

“You’re…my father. It doesn’t change my thoughts.”

“God bless you.”

“I hope no one catches onto your scam. You wouldn’t be a very good poor person. Bitter and self-pitying. By dad. Goodbye.” I got into the taxi.

“I’m not sending next semester’s check.” He gripped the partially open taxi window.

“Fine. Fine. Let no one build walls to divide us, walls of hatred nor walls of stone, come greet the dawn and stand beside us, we’ll live together or we’ll die alone. Bye daddy. Bye. The wall of greed stands between us.”

The taxi sped forward. I looked back and could swear I saw my father wipe his eyes of tears.

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