I used an orange pencil to print 768 on the sheet of butcher paper spread out on the kitchen table. That was the year Charlemagne became king of the Carolingians. Joel and I sat next to each other at the table, sipping big mugs of tea. He had the book; I had the pencils to map out a time line to help me prepare for my history final two days from now.
“Okay,” Joel said. He turned a page in the big red-orange book, History of Western Civilization, Volume I. “Now put the year 800, when he got crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III.”
I used the same pencil. Orange, a mixture of red and gold, was a good color for Charlemagne. The name made me think of a lion, muscular with a thick golden mane like Joel, who happened to be a Leo… Otto, farther down the line at 962, was green. Popes were red. It had gotten dark while we worked; the kitchen window was night black now. Under the table, I slid my bare foot across the green linoleum and nudged Joel’s foot. I wiggled my toes. His foot pounced and pinned mine down. He appeared to be engrossed in the book, but gave me a wicked sideways glance, the corners of his mouth turned up. My foot pretended to struggle, but it didn’t try very hard.
“You think Charlemagne played footsies?” I said.
“No way, girl. Men and women didn’t play with each other. You’re lucky to be living now–women had chastity belts in those days. They had to just lie there and not move. Sex was not fun.”
I picked up my mug of tea and took a sip. Earl Grey, my favorite. “You’re probably right. The popes though… sex was forbidden for them. They couldn’t get enough.”
Joel scooted his chair closer until our arms touched. “I’m going to get a red nightshirt,” he growled. “It’ll be my pope robe. When I do, you’d better watch out.”
“Mmmmm. Pope Leo.” I leaned my head on his shoulder. “I had no idea doing a time line could be this much fun! History the way it’s written in the textbook is so boring. Tedious. It’s torture.”
“Really? I think this time line idea is cool.”
“Yeah, but it’s just power shifting back and forth between popes and emperors. Where were the regular people in all this? The ones like us, scratching out their existence, trying to survive on farms, in their little hovels–”
“Oh, you mean serfs?”
“Yeah. Those people couldn’t have had a clue about politics–corruption, power struggles, greed, and shoving back and forth going on at the top. They probably went to mass, thinking it was about God, but the church wasn’t any different from the emperor–they were all overlords.”
“Yeah. No wonder Karl Marx called religion ‘the opium of the people.'”
I pressed my palms over my eyes. I’d been studying all day. Time lines helped me see the whole picture at once while I studied for the exam, but I didn’t like the big picture. It was too familiar. Young people, poor people didn’t exist for the Nixon administration any more than the peasants had for the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, except as draft fodder.
“You know–it would be way more interesting from a different approach,” I said. “Look at Tolkien. Everybody‘s read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that was fuckin’ long! It was crammed with the history Tolkien made up for his Middle Earth world, which was really medieval, but everybody stayed glued to the very end because they cared about the people in the middle of that history. A lot of cats and dogs around here have names like Gandalf, Baggins, Frodo…”
“You’re right. That story–it’s part of our mythology. Frodo is the hero, maybe the last hero we’ve got now that they’ve killed Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King…” Joel sighed. He looked sad all of a sudden.
“I know–and we’re all hunkered down with the police hassling everybody, threatening, illegally searching and busting people all the time. Like the dark riders.”
“Nazgul.” He spat out the word for them. “And the war and the draft sure do play into it all, don’t they?”
I pulled a long, dark-brown strand of hair forward, held it in front of my face, and examined it for split ends like I always did when I felt uneasy. All the shampoos and cream rinses promised to mend split ends, but none of them did jack shit.
“Let’s hurry up and finish this fuckin’ thing,” Joel said. “Then we can go over to my place; I’ve got steaks we can broil.”
“Really? Far out!”
“Okay. 1085 – Heinrich IV attacks Italy and drives the pope out of Rome.”
I made that one purple.