Volume 33, Number 1

Finding His Way Home

Michael Royce

Constructed on the framework of a real bombing that occurred at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the entire plot and all characters of this story are fiction.

Talbot sits in a booth at Kelly’s, a family restaurant in Morningside Heights and ponders the quest, which brought him there. Spring in 1995 has arrived early in New York City, and the trees outside the wood-framed windows bud with a promise of regeneration.

A waitress approaches. “Coffee?”

“Thanks,” he pushes his cup forward.

She is in her mid-twenties, tall with high cheekbones. Dark hair pulled into a ponytail. When she leaves, his eyes follow as she pauses at another table before disappearing into the kitchen.

His thoughts turn to his wife, Mary Ellen, who helped him remain sober the last three years and waits for his return to their home. Slowly, he drifts further into the hold of long-ago memories.

Twenty-five years ago, he set the timer at 3:42 a.m. in the darkness of a sweaty August night. He feared the demons their action might unleash but insisted on being the one to place the bomb while others drove the get-away car, stood watch and planned logistics. The force of the explosion demolished a section of the building, and flames leaped into the sky as he fled. A supporter, notified by the blast, raced through campus, her face shrouded by a black balaclava, distributing the group’s Manifesto: “Bring the War Home.”

As Kelly’s fills with the early dinner crowd, he resurfaces and searches for his waitress, but she is gone, replaced by an older woman. He scrawls in the air to indicate he wants his bill and slips back into his reminiscences.

In the safe house where he hid that morning, he read newspaper accounts. “Grad Student Killed by Anti-War Activists.” He—they actually—had not wanted anyone hurt, but the bomb missed their target while destroying nearby departments. Of course, innocent death, “collateral damage” as the army called it, was always a risk. He knelt on scarred linoleum of the small bathroom and heaved into the toilet until nothing remained. He was now in a place, he knew, from which there was no return to a time before the bomb detonated.

He fled before discovery, eventually arriving in California. Although he remained outwardly committed to the revolutionary ideals that had motivated him, he experienced increasing uncertainty. He sought to escape his troubles with nightly drinking. Two years later, the FBI caught him on a commune in southern Oregon.

The older waitress startles him as she places his bill on the table. He pays and adds a generous tip before walking back to his nearby economy hotel. Stretched on the narrow bed, he is unable to fall asleep, not for lack of comfort—he long ago became accustomed to doing without—but because he is becoming aware how much more difficult revealing his secret will be than he had conceived. He picks up his journal from the night table to record an entry.


The following afternoon, he returns to Kelly’s. The restaurant is half-filled with students and young professionals, who discuss world events and the latest early-season Yankees’ victory. Propped against a cushioned backrest and sipping coffee, he straightens from time to time to write in his black notebook, feigning concentration but worried because he has not yet seen the young waitress of yesterday.

She abruptly appears and pours him a coffee before leaning back against the corner of the bench opposite him.


“Your second day?”

“Yeah,” he says, happy she remembers him. “I’m in town for a little bit and need a place to think.”

“Kelly’s the place for meditation, until the dinner rush.” She glances at his journal. “What’re you writing?”

“A book.”

“You a writer?”

“Becoming one.” The corners of his mouth struggle to form a smile.

“How about you? When not waitressing, what do you do?” He asks tentatively like when you really want to know something but understand it may not be appropriate to ask. She is young, and he is in his mid-forties with facial creases that cause him to appear older, a barely visible scar above his right eye and once-black hair now turning gray.

“Who says I do anything besides work?” she quips before pausing to reflect.

Talbot holds his hands up, open and in front of him, in surrender or to show there is no hidden message of flirtation.

She relents. “Just kidding. I’m at Columbia University studying for my master’s in teaching.” She extends her hand. “I’m Diane.”

“Talbot.” He forces calm into his voice.

“Looking for new story material?” She appears amused.

He taps his notebook. “Have to finish my novel first.”

“What’s it about?”

“A man kills someone by mistake.” Diane appears surprised, and he pauses while observing her face. “But that’s a little serious for a nice afternoon.” In a lighter voice, he continues, “Maybe I do need background on the teaching profession for my next project. Why do you want to teach?”

Placing her pad in her apron pocket, she shifts her hip to settle in for a longer talk. “My mom teaches, and I like how important her students are to her.” Diane commences a long story about how her mother helped a teenage girl, who wrote angry poetry about feeling different, in one of her classes. She is clearly proud of her mother’s ability to draw out a struggling adolescent.

So, Jenny became a teacher, Talbot thinks. Makes sense.

He met Jenny in a history class in 1967, early in their first year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their first date occurred on a sunny Saturday early in October. They lay on a blanket under the half-shade of an old oak unfolding above them, drank beer and talked about who they thought they were and what they hoped to become. A beetle scuttled between them, frantic to find shelter. She cupped it in her hand and returned it softly to the earth at a safe distance from them. He loved this gentleness in her.

As he dreams, Talbot is only half-listening to Diane, struck by how much she resembles her mother. Same cheekbones, although Jenny’s hair was shorter.

“I’ll be right back.” Diane interrupts herself to race over to present the bill to another customer, who flaps a fleshy hand to catch her attention.

While she is gone, Talbot remembers that 1968 started with the TET Offensive in Vietnam and witnessed a huge increase in U.S. troops and the war’s cost. He and Jenny joined protests against the war behind a rainbow-colored poster she painted proclaiming “Make Love Not War.” In April, Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated, riots swept the nation, but Jenny and Talbot still believed the world could change. They volunteered for the peace candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had entered the presidential race against President Lyndon Johnson, irrevocably tainted by the deteriorating war. Two months later, Senator Robert Kennedy was killed. Hubert Humphrey, the Establishment choice, became the Democratic candidate after a chaotic convention. But it was Richard Nixon who won the race for President. Their optimism fractured, and the Silent Majority appeared ascendant during that winter, but he and Jenny kept on protesting. That summer, they moved together to a dumpy studio apartment near the campus.

In bed one morning, Jenny traced a map on his chest with a fingernail. “We’ll live here.” He was not sure if she meant inside their hearts or a magic place of her imagination. “There’ll be a garden on the side, children playing in the long grass and the sun will shine over us.” She said sun, but what he heard was a promise to hold him within the cocoon of her radiating warmth. He stroked her side, but he never discovered how to reflect back the light flaring from within her.

By their second year, a section of the student anti-war movement was becoming radicalized. At a planning meeting for the continuing antiwar protests, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society insisted opposition to the war was not enough because “the whole capitalist system must be brought down.” Later, Jenny told Talbot about the activist seated next to her at this meeting, who jumped up to yell, “Hell, yeah.” His neck was swollen like he was about to hemorrhage, she reported. This deepening anger scared her.

Talbot, however, came to agree with the militants as the year progressed. Peaceful rallies were no longer enough. He was prepared to fight in the streets to end the bloodbath in Viet Nam. As the movement heated up, his faction began to march under the flag of the National Liberation Front. In April, they took to the streets, stopping traffic while chanting, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/NLF Is Going to Win.” When a motorist flipped them off, Talbot kicked in the car’s door and fled before arrest.

Upset by the spiraling violence and the memory of Talbot’s contorted face as he trashed the car, Jenny refused to attend any more demonstrations. “I’m for peace…not for bringing the war home,” she said.

Anger was not part of Talbot’s childhood growing up in a quiet middle-class suburb of Milwaukee. Although his father, an insurance agent, exercised control in his family with tight-lipped certainty in the rightness of his own ideas, there was never a hint of physical violence or even a raised voice. In response to her husband’s inflexibility, his mother withdrew. She did not argue with her husband because she believed it did no good, only raising the temperature in the home.

Talbot, their only child, followed her example. He learned to keep his opinions to himself, but in the quietness of his mind, he determined that as an adult he would do what he knew to be right no matter what others said or thought.


“Where was I?” Diane’s reappearance startles him.

“You were describing the poetry of one of your mom’s students.” As she continues, his head nods to the beat of her story, but his mind stays in the past.

He remembers they continued to live together that summer, and in the Fall of 1969, he told her, “I’ve joined a study group to prepare for the revolution.” She accepted his absences because she believed in his fundamental goodness. He talked about his ideas but hid his progress in constructing bombs and timing devices from her. She would be horrified, he knew, but he would have told her…if he could without implicating her in what he intended to do.

The week before the August 1970 bombing, Jenny told him she was pregnant.

“Oh, God.” Talbot reacted before he thought. “Not now.”

“Do you want me to have an abortion?” Anger strangled her voice.

 “Of course not,” he stuttered.

Doubt about their relationship appeared in her eyes for the first time. She slept on the couch that night and left early in the morning.

Talbot, a bullet primed to explode from the muzzle of a rifle, was unable to see beyond the next seven days. He could not fashion how he felt into words, to let Jenny know he loved her but that he was committed to do what he believed was his duty. They never resolved their argument before the bombing.

Diane finishes her story, and she glances at Talbot.

“How about your dad?” he asks as his focus snaps back to her.

 “My birth father died while mom was pregnant.” Her words are hesitant. “Mom married my stepfather when I was five. I love him but still wonder about my real father, what he was like.” Talbot’s clothes whisper as he slides back across the leather and settles into the embrace of the backrest, but his eyes remain locked on her face.

“Mom said dad’s parents were both dead, and he had only an older sister left when they met.”

“An orphan,” Talbot mutters, remembering how his mother and father had severed all ties with him after the bombing.

“In their junior year, his sister needed a kidney but wasn’t high enough on the list. Dad volunteered to donate even though the procedure was dangerous.”

Talbot covers his confusion by pretending to store this information for a future story he will write.

“He died from infection a week after the transplant,” she says. “Before I was born.” He lowers his eyes to focus on the pattern in the grain of the wood tabletop. “His sister didn’t survive long either. Dead from cancer before I was two.”

Talbot shrugs as if to confirm that Fate is in the hands of uncaring gods. “Hard,” he breaks his silence, “to lose a father before you knew him.”

“Mom said he helped others no matter the cost.”

Talbot looks up and asks, “What was his name?”

“William,” Diane answers before walking off to serve another table.

Talbot ponders this version of his past in which his name changes, he gains a sister he never had, and he dies before Diane is born. Jenny had excised him from their lives. William, the fabricated father in Jenny’s fable, acted from love of an imaginary sister whereas Talbot followed his concept of social justice. He does not blame Jenny for this revision of history. He had left her pregnant and alone at twenty.

So, he was supposed to have donated a kidney, huh? He recalled how had been fortunate not to lose one in prison. In line for breakfast on the second day, a sharp object pressed against his lower back.

“Tonight, you dance with me,” a disembodied voice said. No one looked at them, but a guard approached, and the prick of pain disappeared. Talbot turned quickly and head-butted a gangly white guy with a death head tattoo on his bicep. His attacker had hesitated too long to retrieve the sharpened spoon from his pocket where he had concealed it.

Blood splattered, and the man yelled, “You broke my nose.”

Two screws jumped Talbot, who hoped nobody saw how he had pissed himself during the fight. By the time they dumped him in solitary, he smelled more of sweat and dirt than urine. A cut above his right eye required six stitches when they finally took him to the infirmary, leaving a thin white line when it healed.

Talbot strokes his scar as other images from his years in prison crystallize.

After release from solitary, word circulated that he had managed Mr. Death Head satisfactorily. On discovering he was a college boy, prisoners asked for advice. He drafted writs of habeas corpus, managed the library and led a drama club, submerging himself in long days of work.

Jenny never contacted him in jail. He got that. He had deceived and hurt her too much for her to forgive him or want to try. Still, he obsessed about their baby.

Being a model prisoner was easier than being on the run. He liked the solitude where no one expected him to understand anything, only to follow rules. His sentence was twenty years for manslaughter, but after twelve, he became eligible for parole.

At the hearing, the parents of the graduate student killed in the bombing testified how their son’s death tormented them as they aged. He was simply a researcher working late at night who probably never thought of Dow Chemical or napalm, nor paused to consider the bloom of flames consuming the villages and forests of Vietnam. Talbot grimaced at their grief, the unending pain of those who have lost a child.

The researcher’s wife described raising her two young children as a single parent but then added something surprising. “I don’t oppose parole. Further punishment won’t bring him back.”

Talbot stared. Tears rolled down his cheeks. For a bleak moment, he considered demanding the panel remand him to serve out his whole term. But he did not, and the board, believing he no longer represented a threat to society, reduced his sentence to one additional year.

When released from the cage which contained him for so long, he realized prison had insulated him from a final accounting. Freed from the structured life of prison and thrust into an uncaring and unstructured world, he was unsure he had suffered enough.

Nobody needed him on the outside. He earned money as a temporary laborer or by selling blood plasma. Drinking to dull memories became a habit. He lived in shelters and sometimes the street. Over seven blurry years, life passed. Drink, sober up, work a few days, buy more booze, until he woke one day in the hospital.

“If you don’t stop, you’re going to die,” the doctor told him.

Two weeks later, he met Mary Ellen at his second AA meeting. After months of meetings, relapses, and new determinations, they pushed a grocery shopping cart containing a tarp, two second-hand sleeping bags and other possessions to a tent encampment under a bridge. He claimed she saved him, and she said the same about him.

It was not until halfway through their first year in AA that he told her about prison and why he ended up there. They leaned on each other until they discovered the right angle to keep standing. After faltering toward sobriety, she found work as receptionist at a social service agency and he, amazingly, as a paralegal at a leftist law firm based on his experience as a jailhouse lawyer. “Fucking war made us all crazy,” the attorney who hired him said.

His biggest temptation to surrender again to alcohol occurred when he recalled how he had deserted Jenny. “Find out what happened to her and the baby,” Mary Ellen pleaded. “Reach closure.” His pal, the law office investigator, did some sleuthing and reported Jenny was married and had a daughter.


Diane returns and giggles. “I talked nonstop about myself. Tell me more about your novel.”

“My main character struggles to do right after a wrong he can’t undo.” He begins to improvise. “My book’s called ‘Redemption’.”

“Is it sad?” The graceful curve of her upper lip flattens in concern.

“Not necessarily. What he does afterward defines him.”

“Yeah, I guess.” She sounds unconvinced.

“Joe, my protagonist, interferes to save a woman from a beating. Her attacker turns on him, and he hits him, but too hard. The man falls and strikes his head against a concrete curb. He dies before the ambulance arrives.”

“But he tried to help.”

“That’s not how it appears. Turns out that the woman is the guy’s wife. She swears Joe starts an argument because their dog isn’t on a leash. Without warning, she maintains, he assaults her husband.”

“She lies?” Diane’s face crumples.

“They charge Joe with murder, but he flees before trial, leaving his wife and baby boy. Years later, he is hiding under an alias, working in a dead-end job, and seeking to untangle where life has gone.”

Talbot believes his fabrication as justified as Jenny’s. “What should he do?” he asks Diane.

“I don’t know.”

She is too young to understand how convoluted the course traveling forward from the choices we have made in life can be, he thinks. There are no easy answers. Ultimately trust your heart, a lesson he has been long in learning. To break the silence, he answers his own question. “He lives as best he can.”

Diane interrupts. “That’s no way to end.”

He wonders if her dissatisfaction lies in a need for answers about her own birth or a desire for an ending that ties everything together.

Suddenly, he conceives a conclusion for his novel. “Joe realizes he can never see his wife and child again without entangling them in the misery of his past. Sometimes what you hope for is not what you decide, in the end, you must do.” To return light to her eyes, he adds “in the last chapter, he learns his son grows up to be a fine man.”

Diane, however, has listened as a daughter seeking to solve family riddles, not a parent discovering how life turned out for his child. Tears pool on her lower eyelid and confusion obscures her face, but there is no more to say

“I’ll need the check now.” Talbot suppresses a tremor. “My wife called last night, and it’s time to go home.”