American Dilemmas

A work of fiction where a family, embattled in a game of chance, deliberates a greater game of chance, one carrying with it the ultimate of stakes…

by: Frederick Foote

George sees the end coming. He perceives it on the chessboard and on the face of Mansa, his smirking thirteen-year-old grandson. George concedes.

“My problem, Mansa, is I’m too good of a teacher. I taught you too well.”

Mansa smiles as he resets the board, “Or, I’m just too good a chess player for you. Right? You know I’m right.”

“I doubt it, but if it’s true, where do you think those brains of yours came from? Have you thought about that?”

Mansa makes his opening move, “I have. And, you know, looking at your chess skills, I must get my smarts from Mom’s side of the family.”

“Oh, you rascal, looks like you get your humility from there as well.

“Winners.” Femi, Mansa’s twelve-year-old sister, shouts as she bursts into the den.

George greets his granddaughter. “Hey, High Pockets, where you been?”

“I been to the city and back again / Shopping for a husband or boyfriend / But I ended up with a Mercedes-Benz.”

Mansa shakes his head in disgust. “That is so lame / You got no game / You is the family shame / I won’t even speak your name.”

George adds, “Two Jay Birds, squabbling on a river rock, neither could win / So they both fell in. The End.”

Femi laughs and slaps hands with her grandfather and brother. “Old school rules.”

Mansa and George laugh and exchange high fives.

Femi looks at the chess board. Hey, you guys are just starting. Let me play the winner of the last game. Please.”

“Can you beat your brother?”

“Grampa, is fat meat greasy? I will crush Mansa.”

“Sis, you got a big mouth and even bigger dreams. Too bad you don’t have the big bucks to back that up.” Mansa pulls a five-dollar bill from his pocket and lays it on the table next to the chessboard.

“Mansa, you know I just spent my allowance in town with Mom. That’s why you’re flashing that Lincoln like that.”

George stands and offers Femi his chair. “I got you, baby girl. I’ll cover that bet.”

Mansa laughs, “Okay, if you want to be a two-time loser, OG.”

Femi takes George’s chair, gleefully rubbing her hands, “Easy money. Mansa, just slide that bill a little closer to me so I don’t have to reach so far to pick it up when I win.”

Clio, the sibling’s mother, steps into the room bearing a tray with juice for the kids, an Old Fashioned for her, and a beer for George.

“George, I hope you are not encouraging gambling in my house.”

Femi shouts, “Mom, it’s not gambling if it’s a sure thing.”

Mansa adds, “She’s right, Mom. I have this. No doubt.”

Clio takes a seat on the couch next to George. “Who did you bet on, George?”

“Me, of course.” Yells Femi.

“Really? If you have another five, George, I would like to bet on my son.”

“Yes! Thank you, Mom. I dedicate this annihilation to you.”

“I hate to take your money, daughter-in-law. I know how hard you and your husband work for your cake.”

“Ah, that is true, but things are going to slow down. We will start distributing our vaccine in two weeks, and then Elihu and I can take a little break — maybe even a vacation.”

“Do you think so? I would have thought you would be even busier.”

“Why do you think that? Our distribution strategy is thorough and successfully field-tested. We also worked the plan through dozens of computer simulations. We are as ready as we could be.”

“I hope so, but we may have done better without a vaccine. It may be more trouble than it’s worth.”

“George, are you serious? You are joking, right?”

“Mom, Grandpa is just messing with you,” Mansa adds.

George sips his beer. “Clio, do you have a distribution plan for Central America?”

“George, you know we are just dealing with California.”

“Do we have any federal distribution plan for poor countries?”

“I think we are working on one, but we have to take care of our own first. Surely, you can agree with that?”

“Not if I’m a Nicaraguan grandfather watching you save your own while all my people die.”

“Can’t the Central Americans buy their own vaccine?” Femi asks.

“Right now, it looks like there will not be enough vaccines to meet the needs of even the rich countries. Many of the poor countries won’t be able to buy, beg, or steal vaccines.”

Mansa looks serious, “What? No way. That’s not cool!”

“Mom, that’s not true, right? Grampa is wrong this time, right?” Femi insists.

Clio grimaces. “There may be initial shortages and even the developed countries may suffer delays. But I’m sure eventually everyone will have access to a vaccine.”

Femi looks skeptical. “Mom, are you talking about days, weeks, months, or years?”

Clio frowns at George as she responds. “This is a global problem. I think the UN and other organizations—”

“Mom, the UN is not a drug company or a bank. They can’t—”

“Femi, you need to let me finish. The UN is providing leadership on this. Distribution is a very tricky issue.”

“Your Mom is right. There is no easy solution. However, there are ways to speed up vaccine production and lower cost, George adds.

Mansa grabs his Grandfather’s hand. “I knew there had to be a solution.”

George sips his beer as he responds. “The developed nations can waive their patent rights and allow any company capable of producing drugs to make generic vaccines. This would make it possible for every nation to have access to vaccines.”

“So, why don’t the drug companies do this?” Femi asks.

“Money, profits, and control,” George responds. “The rich nations and the drug companies want to command all three. And you know what? All the vaccines were developed with at least some government dollars. We are paying to get screwed, and to screw the world.”

“That sucks, Mansi chimes in after a moment of silence.

Femi turns to her mother. “Mom, is that true what Grandpa said about money, profits, control, and government dollars?”

Clio takes a deep breath. “Yes, I think that is, there is some truth in that.”

There is more silence.

George pats Clio on the shoulder. “The other problem is that here in the U.S., only about half of the population would even take the vaccination. Just having the vaccination may increase tensions between takers and those that won’t. And if only half the people take the vaccination, that will not be enough to take care of the problem.”

“So, we would still be wearing masks and social distancing, and stores and stuff would still have to shut down?” Mansa asks.

“And schools? Would they have to shut down again?” Femi inquires.

“All that is possible,” Clio responds. Our plan is to have much better control over the virus spread than we do now. We have a vaccine. We must try it. Half of the population wants the vaccination. We have to meet that need.”

“And we will have conflicts over who gets the vaccine first,” George chimes in. “Will the Black, Brown, and immigrant communities who are hit hardest by the virus get it before middle-class White folks?”

Clio grinds her teeth as she responds. “Health care providers, care facilities, and first responders will get—”

“What about people in jail and prison?” Femi interrupts.

“No way are prisoners and poor Black and Brown people getting vaccinated before most White people — ain’t gonna happen, Mesa declares.

Clio raises her voice. “Look! There is no perfect answer to these questions. George, you are better at criticizing than creating solutions. We have struggled to be fair and open with our decisions.”

Femi shakes her head in confusion. “So, poor people everywhere go to the back of the line if there is a line for a vaccination. Totally sucks.”

Femi and Mansa bump fist.

George turns to the kids. “Femi, Mansa, this is the school of hard knocks. You need to pay attention to what is happening to all of us — the first, the last, and the left out. This is probably the best education you can get on who we really are.”

Clio snaps back. “We don’t have a lot of good choices here. Your Grandfather knows this as well as I do.”

“Clio, you right on the money. I’m just saying the vaccine creates its own moral, political, and social problems.”

“Grampa, will you take the vaccine?” Mansa asks.

“Most likely, I will.”

Clio stands. “Listen, we are all doing the best we can in trying times. We just, just must trust each other and work through this. That’s what I believe. I’ve got work to do. Excuse me.”

Clio gives George a despairing look as she leaves the room.

Mansa sighs, “Well, that could have gone better — a lot better.”

George drains his beer. “I don’t think so. We had to have that discussion. I think we are better off thinking our way through this than trusting others to think for us. Alright, I’m going to talk with your mother for a minute or two. Femi, I got money on you. Remember that.”

George rises slowly and leaves with a wave to the kids.

Mansa looks at his sister. “Man, this is a mess. A vaccine may not make things better.”

Femi nods in agreement. “I think Grampa is right. Things might get worse. We need to think about all of this stuff.”

“Yeah, and we will right after I double my money. Your move, sucker.”

They play to a draw as they try but fail to avoid talking about a Covid-19 vaccine disaster.

“A vaccination hesitation messed up a nation / Nations without a vaccine screwed up international relations / Drug companies celebrated their financial salvation / And the virus rolled on and on and on.”

“Your last line is wack Femi.”

“You wack.”

They play another game of chess, but their minds are on other things.

Elihu 

Elihu enters his four-car garage from the kitchen, bearing two bottles of beer. “Hey, Pops, the kids said the new carburetor came today. Aw, man, you got it on already.”

George accepts a beer with a smile. “Yeah, I did the easy part. You and your young mechanics are going to have to adjust it.”

Elihu climbs into the passenger seat of the 1967 Sunbeam Tiger. “This rebuild is more than a notion. But I love it — working with you and the kids on this.”

“Alright, son, what’s on your mind. I know that look.”

“Pops, Clio said you were knocking the Coronavirus vaccine in front of the kids, and it has them worried.”

“Oh, who’s worried, Clio or the kids?”

“Shit, man, we all are. I just think you should not stir the pot on this. I mean, the kids need hope and positivity. Things have been pretty bleak for them — for all of us.”

“Sure, you right. I get it. But, son, you don’t get it. Mansa and Femi are way too smart to be fooled with fairy tales and happy endings.”

“Pops, the vaccine is real. It is not a fairy tale. It will produce positive results.”

“Is that the party line?”

“That’s the truth.”

“That’s a partial truth. The question is, will we be better off after the vaccine? And the answer to that is we don’t know. The odds are we will not. Not immediately for sure. They need to understand that.”

“Pops, these are Clio and my kids. We decide what is good for them to know, not you.”

“Well, that is as clear as mud. Your grandmother and I babysit them, saw them through fevers and broken bones, and helped them with homework when you and Clio were working and in school. You should have told me this back then.”

“Pops, that came out wrong. I know you mean well, but these are novel times, and we have to do things differently.”

“Oh, shit, this sounds ominous. What are you trying to say, son?”

“Pops, we love having you here, but you have to go with the flow.”

“I get it. Go with the flow or go someplace else.”

“No, no — I mean help us help the kids through this. This is your home too.”

“Right now, I feel like a tenant on the eve of eviction.”

“No. No. I love you. The kids love you. We want you here.”

“If I shut my mouth and mind my manners, I can stay?”

Elihu looks at his phone which is buzzing. “Dinner is ready. Come on, let’s eat. We can finish this later. Just know this is your home too. Always.

“Sure, I just get the feeling your always ain’t forever.”

At Dinner, Mansa elbows his Grandfather in the side and whispers, “What’s going on here? Why is everything so tense?”

George whispers back, “Good question. Ask your Dad.”

Before Mansa can speak, Clio raises her glass for a toast. Guys, I just want to make a toast to the return of science and reason in the White House. I think better days are ahead for all of us.”

Elihu raises his wine glass. Amen. I will drink to that.”

Femi lifts her water glass and says, To the end of tweetstorms from the Klan man in the White House.”

Mansa clicks glasses with the other three. “Yeah, the orange clown is down.”

Femi yells, Wait! Grampa, raise your glass.”

“Femi, I’m going to pass on this one. Get back to me when we toast free beer and BBQ.”

Mansa puts down his glass. So, I know you support science and reason, and you hate Trump. So, why aren’t you joining the toast?”

“I’m just not in the toasting mood this evening.”

Femi sets down her glass. “I don’t buy that. Why are you guys so rigid and tense? What’s going on?”

Elihu sips his wine. “Your grandpa and I are trying to iron out some things. But it will all be just fine.”

Mansa asks, “What things?”

“Adult things that do not concern you,” Clio responds.

How can it not concern us? We are concerned right now. See, this is my concerned look, ” Femi challenges as she crosses her arms, furrows her forehead, and squints.

Mansa tugs at his father’s sleeve. “Do you or Grampa or Mom have Covid-19?”

“No! Nothing like that. My father and I just had a difference of opinion. We have had differences of opinion for my whole life. And we always work it out.”

Femi frowns. Okay, we get that. So, why is it a big secret? Whatever it is, maybe we can help.”

I think we can manage,” Clio sympathetically responds. “Thank you for your willingness to help, though.”

Mansa turns to his Grandfather, “What’s up, Grandpa? Tell us what’s going on.”

“Your parents can explain it better than I can. But I can tell you why I did not drink that toast. Science is not all that. You have to keep a real close eye on scientists and never give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“Whoa! Pop, where are you coming from. You always supported me in studying science in school. I’m a biologist, in large part, because you were so proud of me.”

F”You are always telling me to get a solid base in the sciences Grandpa,” Femi adds. “If I’m going to be a doctor. So, what’s up?”

George turns to Elihu. “Son, I would have been proud of you if you were a garbage man. You are serious about your work, and you work hard at whatever you do. You and Clio have that in common. That’s probably why you are such a good match.”

“Thank you, George. I appreciate that. But I don’t understand your remarks about not trusting scientists.”

“Me neither., Femi adds.

George turns to Femi. “Science is not divine. It is a product of society. It reflects the imperfections of the society that creates it. Early science provided a scientific rationale for anti-black racism.”

“Dad, what are you saying? Who are you talking’ about?”

Well, let’s start with Isaac Newton. In one of his most influential publications, Opticks, he created a theory of whiteness to justify white superiority over other races.”

 The kids have their phones out, and their fingers are flying over the keyboards.

“And Robert Boyle, the father of chemistry and leader of the Royal Society, expressed similar ideas and limited membership in the Royal Society to white males.”

“Yes!” Mansa shouts, “I found it! Opticks. Some historians say it was racist.”

“Wow! Isaac Newton was a racist,” Femi adds.

“Not just racist. He provided a “scientific” justification for racism. Science has provided justifications for racism from The Enlightenment right up to today. I will not be toasting science for a while yet.”

Elihu looks frustrated, “But you wanted me to be a scientist.”

“No, I wanted you to be whatever you wanted to be. And I was glad you chose science because you could counter some aspects of White racism just by being a Black scientist. You and Clio had to fight to be accepted because you are Black.”

“But most science is objective and bias-free,” Clio counters. “Wouldn’t you agree with that?”

“No, Clio, I wouldn’t. The whole idea of “race” is a scientific construct with no objective or factual basis. The idea of race has caused millions of deaths, enslavement, and discrimination. Science has supported a great evil in our world.”

“So, what do we do about science?” Mansa asks.

“Recognize its limitations. Learn about the history of science. Remember what you learned about the Tuskegee Experiments. That was science, government, and racism working hand in hand like something out of Nazi Germany. Handle science with care and be critical and suspicious about its claims.”

“Like you said about religion and government? Right?” Femi says.

“Right! Think for yourself.”

Elihu turns to his father. “But you admit that science is our best hope for dealing with our environmental crisis, right?”

“Look, the transportation revolution is based on the internal combustion engine, which is based on scientific principles. Automobiles, planes, ships, trains are major contributors to air pollution, which is a critical part of our environmental crisis. Science helped create our environmental disaster.”

“Science discovered the principles for the engines that make the modern world work, but science is not responsible for how those ideas are used,” Clio rebuts.

“Daughter-in-law, do you believe that we are not responsible for our actions? Do you really believe that if I create a virus or a deadly gas, I have no responsibility for my creation?”

Mansa is emphatic. “Yeah, we are responsible for our inventions. I mean, we take credit for them. We should take responsibility for them.”

“It’s not that simple,” Femi counters. “The government can take your invention and turn it into a weapon. What can you do about that?”

“If you know that your government will steal your work, why would you do that work in the first place?” Mansa snaps back.

“Because the government funds your work,” George responds. “And they spend a lot of money on weapons research.”

“Wait! Hold on! Science works,” Elihu responds. “Science gets results. No matter its shortcomings, we are not going to abandon science.”

“Son, who said anything about abandoning science? My point is we must understand its history and limitations. Science probably causes as many problems as it cures.”

Clio points at George. “I disagree. I find your views so negative and depressing I don’t want them shared with our children.”

There is total silence.

Femi looks from her Grandfather to her mother. “What are you saying? Do you want Grandpa to shut up? What do you mean?”

Elihu speaks, “Your mother means—”

“Elihu, I can speak for myself. I don’t need your interpretations of what I mean. Your father is a disruptive and subversive presence in this household. I think we need to resolve this issue right now.”

“Resolve. How?” Mansa asks.

“Mom wants Grandpa to leave. To move out,” Says Femi.

Elihu stands. “No one is moving out. Dad, this is your home, always.”

Clio joins Elihu standing. “Elihu, you need to make a decision. You need to choose between your father and your family.”

A few days later, Mansa, Femi, and George are sitting on the front porch. There are three suitcases at the bottom of the steps.

“Thank you two for helping me with this luggage.”

Femi is wiping away tears. “This is so wrong. Mom is just evil.”

“No, granddaughter, your mother is doing what she thinks is best for you. She’s standing up for what she believes, and that is exactly what I expect both of you to always do. Stand up for what you believe in.”

Mansa wipes his eyes with his T-shirt. “We’re going to come to visit you. A lot. It’s only three miles.”

Femi grabs her Grandfather’s hand. “Can we come next week? We can ride our bikes on Monday after school.”

“If your parents approve and they call and let me know that you are coming.”

The kids exchange real quick looks.

“This is so much bullshit,” Mansa states emphatically. “We should come and live with you.”

“Your parents need you. This is not easy on them either. You need to be there to support them and help us all get through this. You two have to be the really strong ones.”

“Femi asks, “Who is going to take care of you?”

“Well, I might have to lean on you every now and then. Hey, my friend, Alonzo, has a twenty-four foot Bayliner. We can get out on the water anytime. We can go up to the lake or to the river. Going fishing with you guys would lift my spirits really good.”

Mansa hugs his Grandfather. “That’s a deal. How about next week?”

“We’ll work it out. Hey, there’s Alonzo. Come help me with these bags.”

Elihu steps onto the porch and hugs his father.

“Take care of your family, boy. Come pick me up when you get the Tiger done.”

“I love you, Pop.”

“I never doubted that.”

The three wave to George as he and Alonzo drive away.

“Can we go see Grampa on Monday after school?” Mansa asks.

“Just to make sure he’s all right,” Femi adds.

“Of course. I’ll pick you up after school.”

The kid’s exchange looks.

Mansa looks his father in the eyes. “We would rather ride our bikes. If you don’t mind.”

Elihu dabs at his eyes with his handkerchief as he nods yes. He reaches out to embrace his kids, but they slide under his arms and slip back into the house.

Elihu sits on the porch until the sun sinks below the horizon, and the mosquitoes drive him back inside.

Clio 

Motherhood is not for the faint of heart. It is incredibly frustrating dealing with Elihu and his father. And now our offspring look at me as if I had assassinated Santa and banned Christmas. But George was insufferable. Father warned me before I married Elihu that George was a radical leftist on the FBI watch list. It was either George or me. And I was serious.

I had thought about this a great deal. I had lived with my frustration for a year, and I had reached my limits. I did my research. I found some excellent adult living facilities in River Lake, only twenty miles from us. George would have been a good fit in that active elderly community.

Instead, George moved in with Alonzo Sims, the Jazz keyboardist, political activist, and ex-state senator. Sims lives in the Sierra Hills gated community less than three miles from here. Apparently, George and Alonso went to college together and are still friends.

The kids have insisted on visiting their Grandfather. So, now they get a double dose of socialist propaganda with each visit. Even at the age of seventy-five, Alonzo is a well-known womanizer. On their last visit there, the children met Sharon Stone, the actress. It is a residence I would prefer my children not to visit. It will take time, but I will redirect them to other activities.

Elihu is another matter. He and his father argue constantly. They disagree on so many issues. Apparently, that is how they communicate, and it seems to work for them. However, it frustrates the hell out of me. My husband misses his father’s presence. And as touching as that is, it does not sway me one iota. George is a bad influence on our children, and he gets on my very last nerve. George had to go. And, he will stay gone.

However, now that George is gone, I now must confront the more significant issue that I have avoided for far too long. Yule is Femi and Mansa’s thirteen-year-old, gender non-conforming best friend. They were friends from the day Yule’s family moved across the street three years ago.

Yule does not have a favorite gender reference. “Ms. Foreman, I don’t care what gender terms people use as long as they respect me.”

To add to the absurd situation, Femi refers to Yule as male, and Mansa’s uses female references.

The three are inseparable. Fortunately, they spend most of their time across the street at Yule’s house.

I think George encourages the relationship, and Elihu did nothing to discourage it. I blame myself for not taking more definitive actions immediately. How are our kids going to get a sense of right and wrong in this murky, muddled gender mess? And, as always, it is left up to me to correct this situation. Still, I’m at a loss as to how to go about it.

Mansa dashed into the kitchen from the garage and shouted, “Mom, it’s running! It’s running! Come on.”

Restoring the little English sports car is another George project that I will be glad to see gone.

I stepped out of my kitchen into a celebration in my garage and driveway. George and Alonzo and our next-door neighbor Kevin and his wife, Tiva, are there. Elihu is pouring champagne for everyone. Even the kids get a sip of the bubbly. Elihu hugs me, gives me a quick kiss and a glass of champagne. He raises his glass. “To the Tiger Restoration Team.”

Tiva’s thirty-eight-year-old sister, Vika, joins the celebration and is immediately subject to Alonzo’s attention.

George gives me a quick hug, and Alonzo nods in my direction. The first ride is reserved for George and his son. Yule races across the street and into the arms of my kids. It was all too much.

I retreated into the house before they returned from there around the block Journey. Of course, they bring the party into the house with pizza, champagne, and beer. I do my best imitation of a happy hostess.

“Yes, I know Buddy Guy and Junior Wells too.” Alonzo has Vika enchanted.

Femi and Yule are explaining some obscure quantum physics ideas to Kevin and Mansa. George and Tiva are discussing the guaranteed annual income concept. All at once, I get the most powerful insight; I do not belong in this picture. I do not want to be part of this political, social community. The whole idea of just giving people money for existing is absurd. Equally disturbing is the idea of flexible genders, three or more sexes, and an infinite number of sexual orientations. And all the people in my kitchen seemed to accept some version of these ideas. Our children are contaminated with this kind of liberal nonsense. I see now that I am wrong to have moved George out. I’m the one that should have left years ago. I need to go and take my children with me before it is too late.

Trump is an ass, and his politics are limited to ripping off whatever he can get whenever he can. But his public loves him because he is not a conventional conservative or liberal. Both of those approaches have pretty much failed us. I think it is time for a new pragmatic politics that avoids ideology.

Elihu can stay here while we work out our terms of disengagement. Or he can stay with his father. I’m sure Alonso has plenty of space in his mansion. My children and I will be moving on to a world with fewer changes and greater stability. To a world with respect for authority and time-honored traditions. A world of common sense with homogenous communities celebrating individual rights. I’m sure a lot of Trump followers and former conservatives and liberals will join us there.

I see freedom on the horizon.

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