About A Fresh Fade: From Mr. Speech (Added Content)
Mr. Speech: A Novel
Entry One: Mr. Speech—Beliefs—Buses
It was never the plan. I was reading my old fingerprint-stained copy of Samuel Thatcher’s Orders From the Mountain, doing my best to shut out the muted but unflagging sound of the crowd outside. He came charging in the tent, cumbersome, hands full with Nelson’s rumpled suit. Nelson was an okay guy. Sort of. I probably wouldn’t say that if he hadn’t gotten me the job and been moderately cordial in grad school. I thought to engage the situation on some level, but it was complicated. The Secret Service was on the other side of the flap, poking their heads in every second or two, ever watchful of their charge, ever aware that he was far from typical. Dumb thought. They didn’t protect the typical.
I was on my back, feet up on an old couch. It smelled like a grandmother’s house. Probably a donation to the campaign. Old ladies liked him for reasons I imagined but didn’t fully understand. The thought made me sad. Being old and confused. Sadder still, I’d probably think it again before it was all over.
Stay out it. My lips tightened to prevent any fugitive comments. It seemed an unreasonable time to abandon one of my life philosophies.
I drew the old novel closer to my face. Attempts at blending in were of course ridiculous, but I felt as frozen as a child caught in a game of hide and seek. Samuel Thatcher and his wonderful prose couldn’t begin to save me; I thought I’d perfected the art of shutting out my surroundings, but the tent was steaming, full of anger and noise and the pushing and pulling of waning testosterone and waxing frustration. The nerves started to pile on; my toes curled tight inside my old 80s-style Adidas as they hung over the end of the couch.
“You’re fired,” he said, letting Nelson collapse to the floor. “It’s not cutting it. People want passion. Inspiration. Your approach doesn’t make me feel anything. If I don’t feel anything, how can they?”
A reasonable enough question. Sort of. Having the candidate worry about the feelings of others was double-edged. It meant he cared. That was good. It also meant he was thinking. Not so good.
Little things I was picking up along the way.
Nelson pulled at his tie, droopy cheeks red as he tried to gather his breath. Another peek away from Mr. Thatcher told me the poor guy was on the verge of tears. I felt bad. He had a reputation to think about.
I tried not to think about it.
That I was quitting at the end of the week gave me some comfort. This was no place for a person like me. Me and the couch made sense together. Made for another time. I liked to read Mr. Thatcher and write novels with ideas buried so deep down, I wasn’t even sure what I was driving at. Sound bytes and sociopaths weren’t my scene.
Out of touch narcissists were more my speed; people with too many degrees and love for the world but no one in particular.
As Nelson’s head fell at the candidate’s wingtips, I closed my eyes. He was crying. It was horrible. Male fragility. A fine thing, but better in theory.
“You,” he said, snapping his giant thumb and giant middle finger. I swung my feet around and stood up with a straight back, trying my best not to be Nelson.
“What’s your name again?”
“Is that your last name?”
“No—sorry, sir. Harold Abbot.”
“Do you want the job?”
I’d been around enough for the last few months to know that he didn’t like to wait for rejoinders. I took one more look at sad, snotty Nelson, and gave the man lording over him as firm an answer as I could. “Eh. No thank you.”
He didn’t seem offended or surprised, which I found rather surprising. He smiled mischievously and asked, “I’ve seen you around, looking like you’re someplace else. Where is it you’re going?”
“Europe, I think. My first novel did okay. Trying to finish another.”
“That sounds small and I don’t like it. Small talk, while there’s giants to be slain. You realize that makes you ridiculous?”
“Yes, sir. I suppose it does.”
“We’re all stupid in youth,” he said. “But you’re the message guy. I need you. It’s time to matter. Europe and novels don’t matter.”
I should’ve been horrified. Nothing mattered more to me than novels, and I rather liked Europe. Slender streets. Quaintness. Real romance. Imagined romance.
Loaded with all that, I still acquiesced. My resolve had flown. As Nelson continued to blubber at our feet, I tentatively accepted his job, shaking Karl Donnell’s bulky, hairy hand. The bones felt thick, like they’d been broken and healed without proper setting.
I thought about Mr. Thatcher and a fresh batch of shame asserted itself.
“Let’s go get a beer, Speech Man.”
“Are you going to call me that all the time?”
“I like it. It’s a title. Titles are important. You don’t like it?”
I didn’t answer.
“What were you reading?” he asked, manhandling me through the trucks and tents, people I’d tried to ignore and who’d tried to ignore me for the last few months. They were all leering, thinking the same thing I was: What’s Harry Abbot doing at the side of the big guy?
“Orders From the Mountain,” I said, trying not to crumble at the hands that had just crumbled my predecessor. “By Sam Thatcher.”
“Always liked that one,” he said, loosening his grip on my shoulder as we walked into a trailer. Inside was the head of the campaign, Bridget Waterton. She had one of the most beautiful faces I’d ever seen. It was impossibly symmetrical and without blemish. She was well into her forties and somehow looked brand new. Her dark eyes and warm olive skin made it hard not to stare.
I buried my chin against my chest, looking down to my Adidas and their fraying shoelaces. A fitting compliment to sweaty khakis and rolled-up sleeves. My only salvation was a white dress shirt—it was days from a wash, but the color hid the pools starting to collect underneath each arm. Though the entourage was sitting in the shadow of a massive stadium, my skin was just about cooked from our hurried walk from the tent. “I’m sorry, sir?” I asked, having forgotten his last comment.
“I said I always liked Orders From the Mountain. A rich commentary on the dissemination of belief.”
I looked at the candidate and tried my best for a poker face.
“Or is that wrong?” he prodded. A look over at Beautiful Bridget told me she was interested in my response.
I smiled tightly and said he was right.
“Then what’s so funny?”
“If I’m being honest, most people know at least that much about the book. It doesn’t mean you’ve actually read it.”
Beautiful Bridget’s beautiful eyes were as open as hangar doors. She was aghast at my cheek. So was I.
The candidate held out an admonishing hand as a signal to take a seat. I buckled at the nonverbal request and gave Beautiful Bridget a look like Tell my parents where they buried my body. It was then I realized she was might’ve been interested, but she didn’t care.
Shit. I was screwed. My parents were screwed. They were destined to become people that spent their retirement years hoping underneath their breath, waiting for my return.
“Ms. Waterton. This is Mr. Abbot. He doesn’t want to work for me. I like that about him, but it needs to stop.”
“Sir,” she answered. I guess it meant yes or that’s great, though you could’ve said it meant this guy’s a complete joke and it wouldn’t have surprised me.
He sat down next to me. Close. I scooted over. It was one of those L-shaped cushions that half-surrounded a small table. There was very little room. He was a hefty man. The trailer didn’t seem appropriately sized, thought I’d never been in one. I thought of cruel, tiny cages at zoos where they keep magnificent beasts. I imagined them, to be more accurate. Like most people, I didn’t know much about things. Things like zoos and airplanes and political campaigns and talking to the most talked-about man in America. I’d just turned thirty. I was a great, obscure artist, and my greatness had just begun. Nascent. A sap. No. A sapling. Whatever.
The candidate crossed his legs and looked away from my perspiring face, staring at the little laminated table. His eyes went soft and his posture slackened. He was suddenly professorial—maybe even protective. It was weird. “I love the way Sam Thatcher ended up using Davis’ wife as the agent of his end. You could feel the irony coming all the way, but it didn’t make it any less horrifying.”
“I agree.” I did agree. His assessment of the novel wasn’t bad, but I was still unconvinced. Maybe the wily bastard had read a synopsis on his phone. Part of prep for selling me on the job. Connell was a political figure now, so it seemed a safe assumption that every word he uttered was contrived.
“‘And with the flood that was their belief, it mattered little. He smiled and wept during his last breaths. The voice that had inspired a few and then millions was forever silenced. If he’d mattered more to a few, it might’ve been better. He slipped off, regarded by millions, regarding himself no more. She hung over him half-proud, half-remorseful, as he’d been during those last years.’”
“Not bad, sir.”
“I’ve read it.”
I nodded. “The quote aids my credulity.” It did. Still. I was most likely just one more dupe in a long cue. My mind wandered to an especially rough encounter involving my undercarriage and a rusty turnstile at Fenway.
There was a tickle in my throat. Catching it was loud enough to change my own thought direction.
Karl Donnell was still looking at the table. His superhero jaw was disengaged. The candidate was holding to his avuncular settings. Beautiful Bridget was still impossible with her beauty. I was twitchy and needing a haircut. “What’s going to happen to Nelson Andrews?” I asked, not fully understanding why it was first on my docket.
“Andrews will be fine,” said the candidate, issuing a dismissive wave of his giant hand. He was five moves down the line from a moment that felt five seconds ago.
Huh was all I could manage for a rebuttal.
“We’ll make sure he lands upright,” said Beautiful Bridget, snapping closed her laptop with an air of accomplishment. “Punitive isn’t our style.”
“Really? Because the guy looked stooped. For life. That was watching a time lapse video of a person succumbing to arthritis.”
“We’re giving him a lot of money to go away. You have no idea.” Bridget Waterton came over and sat down on the bench. It was ridiculous. There were other places to sit. Now I was crumpled between them, feeling like a guy in a Scorsese movie right before he gets whacked, pinned in by two overly familiar strangers. “We want you crafting the message. We want someone that doesn’t care about the game.”
“No you don’t,” Bridget said, smiling, applying a hand to my knee. I looked down and prayed she wouldn’t plunge her blood-red fingernails through my khakis. “You’re here for a paycheck, and you’re smart. We like that.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We know that too,” she returned. “Smart and understanding aren’t the same thing. But it’ll start making sense. The world is too strange for the same old tired sentiments. We need someone to do a job. Someone creative, ready to innovate, and completely dispassionate about politics.”
“Isn’t that your job?” I asked, wrinkling my eyebrows at Beautiful Bridget. She smelled too good. It was the first time I’d ever been terrified of breathing.
“It’s all our jobs. But someone needs to put the words together. Do it, and we’ll pay you enough to write novels for the rest of your life. Not yet, but eventually. The money, if you do the job we think you can. Then your little books. People will actually read them. Reputation. Status. It’s a great deal.”
I had no idea what to say, but I didn’t feel like they were going to let me call timeout. “I’ll do it. Pay me double what you were paying Nelson, and I never get mentioned as the speechwriter. Not until I want. Or if I want. That’s the deal. It’s important. Needs to be in writing.”
“Good enough,” said the candidate, thumping the table with a closed fist. The bus’ hydraulics bellowed and the engine immediately started. It was like a magic trick. A very creepy magic trick. Was the bus driver listening in? Was that wise? My eyes were dilating in disbelief as I mentioned that all my stuff was back in the tent.
“We’ll get you new stuff. New. And no more laying on couches. Actually, check that. Do whatever it is you have to do. I understand process.”
Karl Donnell said process ten or fifteen more times. It was like sitting before a more robust Howard Hughes. Suddenly he went quiet and leaned back, falling asleep.
Part of his process, I assumed.
A thin man came out from behind a partition wearing a suit and looked at me unflinchingly. I asked if he was on the protection detail and he continued staring until he gave me the courtesy of a microscopic nod. Beautiful Bridget went back to her little table and started whacking her laptop. I could breathe now, but thinking wasn’t coming so easy. Was this how the universe worked? Maybe so. It hadn’t worked according to any of my previous theories. Maybe there’s life and then there’s a bus and you get on.
Maybe. I found my own nook and went back to reading Orders From the Mountain. It was hard. Suddenly Samuel Thatcher didn’t understand me at all. Joey Bottoms, the main protagonist, had nothing to say about my situation. He was a soldier from the Appalachians who killed his brother after the Civil War. Joey Bottoms was an idiot. Whatever the reasons, they’d made it through a conflict famous for pitting brother against brother. Joey couldn’t just let it go. What an asshole. Samuel Thatcher was a silly man. He didn’t understand being whisked away on a magic bus with a guy running for president. Sam Thatcher was dead. And they didn’t even have buses when he was alive.
“I’m going insane,” I said, quite loud.
Beautiful Bridget stopped key pounding and turned to me. “Just do your best to manage it. Try going through a divorce at the same time.”
It was a normal thing to hear, oddly. Domestic. A thing normal people go through. I sat up from my stupor and said, “Sorry to hear about that.”
“It’s fine. The whole thing with Nelson’s going to make the break a lot cleaner.”
“I’m married to his brother.”
“Jesus. You people.”
Bridget shrugged her shoulders and put on a giant pair of white headphones, recommencing the destruction of her keyboard.
I grabbed for my book and immediately started apologizing to its wrinkled pages. Joey Bottoms wasn’t an asshole. Buses or no buses, he was more real than the surreal storm of shit swirling around me.
Entry Two: Mattering—Red Hair—Slugger
It was almost two in the morning. A few weeks into my job as the campaign’s head speech writer. I hunched over at the bar of the Hotel America Dryden. It was almost completely dark, making it challenging to work up my notes for the following day’s event. A rally in Milwaukee. I squinted and let out a rudely audible sigh. The sound caused the bartender, an attractive redhead about my age, to pause and look up from cleaning glasses. “Everything okay over there?” She added an oblique look, unique to service industry folks at the end of a long shift. I’d thrown similar shade at many a customer over the years, pouring drinks to pay for the completion of my PhD. Three degrees in little frames, hanging on a wall in a lonely apartment I never saw; they represented honest toil, but I couldn’t help thinking they were utterly meaningless. Still in a bar. Late at night. A sense that something had gone wrong.
“Can I ask you something?”
“You can ask.”
“Do you give a crap about politics?”
“Sort of an odd question. Well I guess not, considering the circus.” She leaned on the bar and her face caught more of the low light. She was prettier than my initial assessment; a little thin, but kind. Her hazel eyes were open and interested. I blinked away a wave of fatigue and tried recapturing my manners.
“Sorry. Been a little one track lately. Not much chance for normal conversation.” I set down my pen and looked over her head, catching an unflattering reflection of my face over bottles of high-end liquors. “Can’t remember having an actual conversation, actually.”
“Weird for sure. Again. Apologies.”
“You work for Karl Donnell? The guy running for president? That’s the big time.”
I hesitated. My attachment to the campaign remained unofficial and had to stay that way. I was a literary man. One couldn’t be known to jump from political hack to purveyor of prose. The two worlds didn’t mix, both full of the most judgmental and exclusionary lunatics anyone would ever have the good sense to flee. “What’s your name?”
“Can I buy you a drink, Gail Frasier?”
“Scotch like yours?”
“Anything you want. Figure it’s fair play after sitting over here sulking.”
“You are a bit of a brooder,” she smiled, refilling my glass and pouring herself a double.
“A handsome brooder.” A small smile formed on her lips before the glass met her mouth. I drank mine dry and did what I could to keep from coughing.
“Kind of you.” The low light saved me. I was blushing like a little girl.
“Answer to your question, though, I do care. About politics. Concretely. Tonight it’s sorta ruining my life. That doesn’t make sense. But you know what I mean.”
“You mean business is slow.” My eyes were a little fuzzy and my insides fought the sting of the fifteen-year-old whisky.
“Exactly. Big shot comes to town and completely has the run of the place. We fight for shifts here. Nicest place in town. Friday night. But I’m out a half month’s rent because his people aren’t allowed to drink.”
“And as a corollary, the press guys find a cheaper spot.”
“You get it. The Commodore Room. Shithole down on the corner. My girlfriend’s are cleaning up down there.” Gail Frasier set down her glass and put a hand to her forehead. “Geez. That wasn’t cool.”
“Don’t worry about it. Seriously. I worked bars for years. Tended. Played music. The door. A pendulous trade.”
“A pendulous trade. That’s a way of saying it.”
“Stupid to talk like that. Bad habit.” I knew I shouldn’t, but I held out my glass for another. It was cloudy from my ink-stained fingers. She switched it for a fresh one.
“Not if it’s the way you talk. If that’s the way you are, then screw the rest of us for not speaking the same language.”
I hid a smirk. It was one of two things. The lovely Gail Frasier was buttering me up, making a final play for a big tip before closing, or, she was interested in taking it upstairs.
Or maybe she just wanted a few free belts.
The two or three customers sitting at little tables in the back began closing out. “I’m going to—”
I stood up and slipped a stack of yellow notepapers into my journal, smiling what I hoped to be a disarming smile. I didn’t work. She seemed mad, which meant maybe she did like me. Did like me.
“There’s three hundred dollars.”
Gail Frasier nodded with an air of quiet satisfaction. She’d expected more. That I could afford more. I couldn’t, not yet, and the fact that I couldn’t somehow found a sweet spot with her. Women in bars at night, drinks going back and forth. Not exactly hard and fast rules.
“You headed to your room?” she asked.
“I am. Long day tomorrow. Can I ask you one more question?”
“Suppose the three hundred buys you a little leeway.”
“You ever read Claire Lauren Sees Through?”
“In high school. Don’t remember much of it. Think it was boring, the way anything you have to do is boring when you’re that age. Why?”
“You remind me of the main character. Rosaline. Red hair and pretty. Independent but sweet. Not one to suffer fools.”
“Wasn’t she the one that refused the what’s his name? Some rich guy or something?”
“Yeah. Rosaline found exactly the thing she wanted. Society told her one thing and her own morality told her another. It’s a good story. Classic. Good.”
“Sort of a weird guy. Aren’t you?”
“Probably. Definitely a bit of a brooder.”
“Never got your name. What do you for the Donnell campaign?”
There was a half finger of scotch still in my new glass. I breathed it in and set it gently down on the smooth dark wood, close enough to Gail’s hand to just about feel her skin touch mine. “I never said I did. Goodnight, Miss Frasier.”
A bit abrupt. The thought occurred to me, just walking away like that. Maybe a little bit smooth, but mostly just rude. Still, it seemed the wisest course. I was tipsy and might reveal my position to a girl I knew nothing about. I considered lying. Lying was always a viable option, though it wasn’t the sharpest tool in my kit. A story, perhaps. Giving out a fake name, regaling her with tales of my burgeoning fake real estate empire on the way up to my limp queen mattress for a roll that would probably be a little bit great and a little more awkward.
I was choosing sleep. It was time to get it together. If she was objecting to my quick exit, I couldn’t hear it. With my journal and notes clutched against my stomach, I just about gained the door to the lobby when Oliver Page Andrews lumbered to a sweaty stop, completely blocking my path. He was holding a porcelain vase by his side.
Moving was hampered by sheer surprise. Ollie Andrews was the brother of Nelson Andrews and soon to be ex-husband of Bridget Waterton. He wasn’t a particularly intimidating guy, but there was a chilling sort of desperation written on his face. “Are you screwing her, too?”
The question didn’t make sense. I hiked up my shoulders and made a noise to signal disbelief. He then hit me in the head. With the vase.
When I woke, Gail Frasier was holding a rag full of ice against the bridge of my nose. I seethed and bit down and asked where I was. “On the floor,” she told me. “Pretty much where you fell.”
“Well, like I said, you dropped like a rock. He hit you two or three more times, but it looked like the first one had done the trick.”
“Noted,” I groaned. There were jagged little pieces of the vase all around. My neck and shirt were wet. “Then what?”
“I told him I was calling the cops and he bolted. They usually don’t. But he didn’t seem drunk. That was like… something else. That guy was really pissed at you. Seemed like he was crying.”
The bartender continued to apply the ice as the pain lingered, strangely serving to aid my comprehension. “I probably deserved it.”
“So you and his woman?”
“No. But I took his brother’s job. Not sure about the woman thing.” I climbed slowly to my feet. “Sounds like drama and he got the wrong guy.” My tongue was loosening, but I was beyond caring. Deception felt silly. She was looking at my notes. The pages had spilled on the floor, and even a cursory glance would tell her it was a political speech. The papers were populated with nothing but banalities and empty expressions of hope, tailored for a Midwestern audience. Words like better and tomorrow ran rampant. I was still getting the hang of things. “I’m helping Donnell. Kind of an outside consultant. It’d be big if you didn’t say anything. Really big.”
“Outside,” she said, handing over the notes. “Is that why you get to drink in here? Special privileges?”
I was on a roll with the honesty thing. Figured might as try it with both feet. “Yeah, I feel bad about that. The drinking ban was my idea. Thought it might look good. Put a wholesome face to our merry band. The press being someplace else didn’t seem so horrible, either. Far as ancillary benefits go.”
Gail shook her head. I readied for a chiding. “What’s your name, slugger?” she asked. The inquiry was mercifully sparse, considering the circumstances.
I slipped the notebook under my arm and held out a hand. “Harold. Abbot.”
“What say I close up and we take the bottle to your room, Harold Abbot?”
She was beautiful, of course, and sure, I’d just received a beating. But that’s not why I said yes. It was what we talked about before. How we talked. That we talked. A mostly real conversation. I didn’t realize how isolating this journey had left me. If keeping her company meant a few other things, I guess I’d just have to bear it.
Entry Three: Jackie—Gail—Love
One thing most people don’t know about Karl Connell—he’s a bit strange in the mornings. There was a guy on the campaign that handled him from six to ten. Everybody felt bad for that guy. His name was Jackie, but most people knew him as Worthless or Disgusting or Infuriating, as these were the most common appellations employed by Candidate Connell. Jackie was around my age, but it was more complicated than that. He was descended from a form of Irish that aged particularly fast and stopped growing particularly early; he just a whisker over five feet tall. Jackie had the strangest hair; it was balding in one distinct spot on the top, but he did nothing to cover it. The rest was dark brown and thick as a crow’s nest. Surely someone had told him it was an easy fix. Surely Karl Connell had observed it from above during one of his diatribes.
Jackie was a nervous little guy and made a mistake here and there, but it wasn’t as if he was inept. One couldn’t last around the candidate if they were incompetent. Just ask the guy whose job I now had.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of Jackie rapping his little knuckles on my heavy room door. The Hotel America Dryden was a high-class place and spared no change on things like doors, light fixtures and nonsensical modern art prints. Doors, light fixtures and nonsensical modern art prints keep rich assholes coming back to the Hotel America Drydens of the world. It’s the little things, turns out, even with the wealthy.
So, Jackie was rapping and starting to shout. It was just after six when I noticed it. Correction. Gail Frasier noticed it. “Someone’s knocking,” she mumbled. The mumble went straight into my ear. We were waking in a position I wasn’t all that familiar with. It was nice. I didn’t want to slip away. My arm was under her body and somehow not uncomfortable. The part of me where my shoulder and chest and arm came together served as her pillow as she breathed gently into my face. A little bit of morning breath, but nothing that would stop me trying my luck again. I sunk my nose into her soft red hair and remembered everything in an instant. It was almost dark, except for a little light sneaking out from the bathroom. “Your job,” she said, adjusting to set her chin on my chest. “It’s calling you.”
I moaned and snuck another glance at the clock. Something had to be wrong. They’d been pretty good about leaving me alone early. Mornings weren’t my thing. If Karl Connell was a supernova at sunrise, I was a black hole. “Maybe they’ll go away,” I groaned into Gail’s hair. Her shampoo and my boozy tongue combined strange and started making moves on my baser instincts.
The knocking continued. The struggling voice was getting louder to the point of an unbearable squawk. She ran a finger down the middle of my torso and kept going. Despite the unsuitable hour, all was becoming right with the world. Except for Jackie. “Go find out what it is.”
“I don’t care. I’ve never cared. Did I mention that last night?”
“Many times. Go. I’ll be here when you get back.”
A kiss on the lips and an ardent push confirmed she meant business. And she’s right, I thought. Deal with it. Back in a flash. “I’ll make this quick.”
In fewer than ten seconds I was at the door in last night’s pants and nothing else. A herd of wild horses wouldn’t deter me from immersing myself back in that messy, smelly, wonderful bed.
I looked through the hole and saw nothing but the vacancy atop Jackie’s head. I raised my toes for a stopper and opened the door short and quick. “Little early, isn’t it?”
He smiled and I closed my eyes long enough to be inadvertently rude. The lines in his face grew deeper as he said, “These are the big leagues, Mr. Abbot.”
“Don’t do that.”
“I’m sorry?” Jackie asked. He wasn’t annoyed or flexing. He was truly surprised.
I opened my eyes as wide as I could to the bracing hallway light and said, “Don’t be like that. I have a… thing.”
“Not sure I understand.” Jackie was rapping his scrawny knuckles on a thick white binder. He was nervous. Overwrought. Overwhelmed. I didn’t need to make him understand. That would mean explaining how phrases like big leagues and playing for keeps made me sick to my stomach. The self-evidential manner in which everyone involved in politics bandied around those words annoyed me to an illogical degree. I couldn’t tamp down the feeling; it was like we the anointed were in the big leagues and nothing and nobody mattered except our heightened importance. We were the only ones facing stakes. People fleeing machete wars in Africa, homeless veterans dying in the streets—they couldn’t possibly conceive of the mountains we had to scale.
I said it was illogical.
“Don’t worry about it, Jackie. How can I help?”
“That looks pretty bad,” he grimaced, taking full stock of my face. “I can’t believe he really hit you.”
“Several times. Once with a piece of décor. The rest, I can’t say.”
A door slammed down the hall and the singular sound of the candidate rumbling toward us grew loud until he was standing in Jackie’s previous spot. “Let me in,” he said, motioning me back with his massive hand. There was fire in his eyes. Crazy alertness. It was like he’d been awake for hours and was hitting his stride. The oil in his hair had already dried. “This woman thing isn’t going to work, Hemingway.”
Connell had taken to calling me Hemingway. It was because one night he’d seen me wearing a sweater. I was still trying to figure out the connection.
“Let me in,” he repeated, adjusting the thick, gleaming knot of his red necktie. “And go away, Worthless,” he barked, waving at poor little Jackie.
It was a tight spot. “I can’t let you in, sir. Whatever you have to say, it’s going to have to wait.”
“To hell with that.” He growled about something being his. He might’ve been referring to the campaign, the staff, the strategy, the rules. I honestly couldn’t hear him. My brain had gone ten seconds into the future, where I was being read the riot act for my unchecked libido.
My foot and shoulder were no match for the candidate’s heft. He was by me, searching for the light switch. I leaned my bare back against the wall and closed my eyes. Gail would be under the covers or caught in the open, naked. There were certain activities frowned upon on the road. One was shacking up with the local help. It was our duty to be as unsexed and wired as little Jackie at all times and in all places. It made sense. The scrutiny was hard to get your head around.
The lights came on. Connell sat down on the end of the bed. There was no sign of Gail. There was a clear line of sight to the bathroom. Empty. With this new data, I thought it best to defend myself.
“You need to know what’s going on,” said Connell. He didn’t look very dignified. His pant legs were almost halfway up his calf. For such a thick man, he had slender legs. I hated seeing them.
Sir, if I could,” I started. I had a case to make. Lies to tell. Wonderful Gail had been too good to be true. She was a vision that had apparently evaporated.
“No, let me,” he continued, hunched over and rubbing his forehead. His perfect suit went wrinkly from the lack of posture. “The girl.”
My eyes jammed closed.
“I’m really sorry about all this,” he said.
My eyes shot open. “Excuse me, sir?”
“That face of yours. Ollie Andrews couldn’t attack me, so he went after you. It’s inexcusable.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
Connell stood up brusquely and shoved his hands into his pockets, frittering with what sounded like a hundred dollars worth of loose change. “Andrews left five drunken voicemails last night. He knows about me and Bridget. He obviously came here last night and hit the first thing he saw.”
“You and Bridget?”
“Completely not a thing. And, even if it was, to come and do something like that…”
Connell charged close and put his hands around my neck. The openings in his flat nose were dilated. He was expelling sulfur on my scrunched, battered face. He loosened his grasp and dropped his head. “I’ll quit the race. And don’t worry about writing up the speech. It’ll look more dignified if I speak from the heart, tell the people straight.”
“This is a lot to process.”
“I’m very sorry, Hemingway. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
I was thinking a lot. Clearly, Connell and Beautiful Bridget were a thing. I wasn’t hit out of Ollie’s fraternal duty to his brother’s usurpation. My battering was the result of Ollie’s jealousy toward the candidate. The girl wasn’t Gail. This had nothing to do with me. Except for getting knocked unconscious.
It was a warm blanket of relief, and yet, I found myself saying the following: “Maybe you should take a minute before you do anything drastic.”
“It’s no use. My wife will find out. My kids.”
“Is this a first time thing?”
“Not really. And my wife bounces between at least three men at any given time.”
“You’ve seen my kids. They’re grown. The only thing they care about is my money and the businesses I’ve had to abandon for this fool’s errand. I’m sure they’ll revel in my failure.”
“This is a lot to process.”
“You said that already.”
“Take it as an indication that I’m being truthful. Sir?”
“Would you mind letting go of my neck and stepping back a bit?”
“That’s okay. I’ve seen you in the mornings.” With room to breathe, I let the thousand thoughts swirling in my head collect into manageable pockets. “Do you want to resign?”
“It’s really not about what I want at this point.”
“Speak plain, Hemingway.”
“This may be small. Something you can work around. Does Oliver have any tangible proof?”
“He didn’t mention anything concrete. But he suspects. And whatever the case, it’s true. I was lying a minute ago.”
“So he may not have anything at all. I’m not saying it’s possible to kill this in the crib, but at least find out. If so, it’s small. You move by it, go back to slaying giants. All that stuff you said to me when we met.”
Karl Connell turned sideways and started sifting the change in his pockets once more, lost in contemplation. I considered putting on a shirt, but instead leaned back against the wall. What was I doing? I had a clear way out. Torpedoing my clean escape from the world of politics unscathed had been a constant desire since the day Nelson Andrews knocked on my door:
I’m working on my next novel, I told him. Fifty-thousand words so far. Thereabouts.
He inquired as to how to when it might be finished.
I’m actually going through a bit of a lull, I said.
He looked at the state of my apartment and wondered how I was fixed for money. A question he and most of the people I went to school with never had to ask once in their lives.
I’m a little lean. The last one didn’t exactly break any records.
Nelson walked his casual blueblood walk around my living room and with an elevated nose began to describe my history back at me like I hadn’t been there for it. The degrees from Texas, Yale, and Oxford. How I should at the very least be teaching at a distinguished institution. Wondering if I recalled outshining him and most everyone in most every class. That writing novels in the twenty-first century made as much sense as enlisting a horse and buggy for a trip down an expressway. He wounded my pride and sense of direction, but he killed me with money. It’s a paying gig, he added, and all you ever talked about at Yale was the magic of making the rent with words.
I’ll try it, but no promises.
He assented. To him, I was worth the risk.
I’m serious. No commitments. Nothing I can’t get out of the second it feels unmanageable.
Two days later I was an anonymous part of the retinue, slumping wherever I walked, finding dark corners, passing Nelson notes; we became schoolgirls in the hallway between classes. Now he was gone. His brother had thrown me a beating. And I was inexplicably talking myself and Connell into keeping the train rolling.
Light was beginning to poke through the thick curtains. “I have people that can look into these things.”
“Yes you do. There’s people everywhere around here. They’re all yours.”
The candidate slapped his time-worn cheeks and reengaged his standard bombast. “If we make it through the day, you’re going to have a check for fifty-thousand dollars waiting at the next stop. A bonus.”
“Sir, I’m not even sure that’s legal.”
“Are you the legal guy? I thought you were the word guy?”
“I’m the word guy.”
“Don’t worry about the law. This is America, son. Nobody ever got to the top worrying about the law.”
He shook my hand and offered an expression of gratitude and resolve. “I’m sorry about your face. And do I need to say it?”
“I can’t talk about this. Ever.”
“This can’t leave the room. I’ll make you sign something. Something legally binding.”
Considering what he’d just said, I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.
“I wouldn’t even entertain it. But the fact that it’s you. That’s why I may go on.”
“Sycophants. That’s all there are. All except you, Hemingway. You don’t give a damn. This is beneath you, and yet you care. There’s something to that. Maybe I’m worth saving. Just maybe. And Harold…”
“Really am sorry about your face. No matter what happens with everything else, I’ll make it up to you. That’s my word.” It was a few seconds of true tenderness, and then once again he was a heaving mass of energy, out the door to sift the fallout of his dalliance with Beautiful Bridget.
I looked down at my bare feet. The motion of this life was so rapid. It didn’t allow for much more than flash reaction.
“That was kind of hilarious. And kind of strange.”
Gail poked her head from the curtains. Not a magician or a figment, after all. I smiled immediately and then went cold immediately after that.
Hopping back into the bed she said, “Don’t worry. I can see that you’re worrying. Don’t.”
Of course I was worrying. The man who might still be the front runner for president had just unwittingly spilled his guts to my one-night-stand.
She vaulted from the bed, naked and wonderfully charged, but I had sense to notice. “This is crazy.” It’s all I could manage.
“Come back to bed. I don’t have class for two more hours, and you may not have a job at all.”
There wasn’t much in the way of an objection. We made some of the sleepiest, coziest love two strangers had ever made. That’s how it felt, anyway.
I rolled over and looked at the clock. Eight. No news. No rapping on the door from Jackie. I could infer nothing. In less than two hours I’d made the journey back to caring very little about my job, but I did care for the woman next to me. Though I might never see her again, I couldn’t betray the small time we’d spent together by avoiding what needed addressing.
“Dammit,” I sighed, staring at the ceiling while she played with the hair over my ear.
“How are you so relaxed? You sound really relaxed.”
“Buddy, if that didn’t relax you, nothing will.”
“I need to say some things.”
“All that stuff you heard. It’s up to you. I mean, you’re a person. Rights and protection and a woman and everything.”
“A woman and everything,” Gail repeated, barely opening her lips. She was mocking me, but too calm to sting. Half of her face was planted on the bed where the pillows once were. “Are your speeches this eloquent?”
“It could be serious. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m really not.”
“I think I believe you. But seriously. Why did you tell him to stick it out?”
In one night this woman had me figured out perfectly. She was already asking the same questions I was asking myself. It was either a testament to my transparent nature or my shallowness or both. “Not sure. It was like for a minute he was just another guy and I was trying to say it’s not the end of the world. You say things like that to people. Only, he’s not people.”
“Seemed human to me. As crazy as the next one. Crazier, maybe, but that’s partially because we think he shouldn’t be. Us thinking he’s above being a little crazy because he’s running for office makes us crazier, could be.”
I was in love. I might not be in an hour, but I was right then. Gail Frasier could make sweet love and talk elegant sense back-to-back. “Can we stay here for a few weeks?” I asked.
“Don’t trust me,” Gail said, still motionless.
“Seriously. It’s not logical. You can’t trust people. I promise I don’t want any involvement, but the stakes are too high for you to just go take my word for it.”
She went on to explain that if Connell’s affair was still a secret, it might be wise to remind the guy that hit me that there was a witness. “Say I’ll testify. No way he won’t cut a deal. Or whatever these people do. I think that could work. Everyone’s happy.”
I was in love. It scared me that Gail Frasier was so clever and calculating, but not enough to make a mark.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s really good.”
“I want to nap.”
“Thought you had class?”
“Who cares. Read to me. That book over there.” She closed her eyes and drew closer, waiting for a story. I turned on the bedside lamp and started from where I’d last left off.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s called Notes on Weather and Roads. By Davidson G. Wright.”
“Yeah, but it’s not. It’s about a group of people that find all these crazy deep messages in the mundane everyday happenings of existence. Like finding the meaning of life just by living. It’s heartening.”
Gail’s voice was growing softer. “You’re the opposite. In a cute way.”
“You’re at the center of everything, and you roll your eyes.”
She was asleep before I could start reading. And I was still in love.
Entry Four: Magical Places—Grady—Son of a Bitch
Ten days later, and somehow we’d managed to come through. The situation appeared as if it was healing faster than my face. Campaign staffers buzzed all around as we went from small town to small town. The middle of the country was nothing like I’d been told. While Bridget directed the fold, I snuck away to explore magical places like feed stores and family diners where magical people looked you in the eye and told you what they were thinking. It helped my work. A little bit of Americana was seeping into my speechwriting, a quality sorely lacking in Connell’s persona. He’d always been amiable to crowds, even electric, but the man needed grounding. Life as a venture capitalist didn’t make him the most relatable figure in America, but most folks didn’t expect a friend. The people inside the magical places weren’t naïve in the ways I was told. They figured on being lied to and realized that was the way things were; they’d vote, if at all, for the man or woman they could trust the most or distrust the least. As I began to lose track of the towns, it became clear that the magical people were far less naïve than people with three degrees and a view of the ocean. They could see us on TV and hear us on the radio, after all. To us, they were mere imaginings to be used for power or political gain.
In the end, they still were. I was talking to a man named Grady at a barber shop as he swept up my hair when it occurred to me it wasn’t just conversation; I was mining him for information on the plight of the common man. “I just wonder about my grandson. There ain’t much work around here,” he said, shaking his head with a kind of practiced reservation. “Ain’t much work at all.”
I snuck a glance in the mirror and glanced at my new style. Tight on the sides, with just enough left on top to do something stylish. Grady was pretty good. Back in New York, the same job would’ve cost me a hundred bucks. The back of my neck felt tingly and new; it had been years since I’d gotten a straight-razor shave. “Not bad,” I said, turning back toward Grady.
“You’re a good-looking kid,” he said, finishing up with clippings. “Need to remember to keep your left up, though.” My hand shot toward the wounds healing around my eyes and nose. “Guess politics is as tough as they say.” He laughed a little, but not enough to be intrusive or rude. I realized that Grady wasn’t just a barber. He listened to people as he cut their hair, and he knew how to respond. An occasional jest. A little free advice. A few measures of silence. It was instinct. I realized that I could probably learn a lot from Grady. For a moment I thought about taking him with me. That would really get the worker bees in the campaign talking. What makes Harry Cabot so important? And what’s with the old pocked-faced man that keeps following him around wearing a barber’s apron?
“How long you been at this gig, Grady?”
“Forty years, thereabouts.”
“Opened up right here on main street.”
“You think things have gotten better or worse?”
Grady leaned his hair mop against the wall and straightened his back. He was a sturdy man with big forearms and head full of gray hair. His appearance was average, but it hinted at a time when the young ladies in town might’ve secretly wished for his advances. “Hard answering questions like that. You need a poet or a priest to handle that one.”
“Poet or a priest?”
“Something my dad used to say whenever we asked him something tough. ‘Find a poet or a priest and let me know what he makes of it.’ One of his go-to phrases.”
“Get along with him? Your dad?”
“I guess so. We probably would’ve had it out by now.”
“He’s still around?”
“Ninety-four. He’s lived with me and the wife ever since my mom died. Going on ten years.”
It was too much magic. I could handle the straight talk and the straight looks, but something about Grady’s uncomplicated face and the way he reeled off his family situation had me crossed up. He asked what was wrong, the way you do when someone in the room turns white and looks like they’ve been kicked in the balls.
“You ok, kid?”
I said yes, barely noticing the slick as I resumed my previous post in the barber’s chair.
Dad talk. I knew better. After my mom slipped out the back door when my brother and I were too young to understand such things, dad was left with the whole show. Maybe he did his best at first. Roddy always speculated. It was a lot to put on a guy in his late twenties.
If the son of a bitch tried, it didn’t last long. By the time I hit middle school, he’d given up any earnest attempt at being a father. It was gradual until it wasn’t, the way a lot of descents are, and we dealt with it the best we could. Roddy was a few years older and probably took a lot more of the suffering than I knew or was able to understand.
One woman followed another, and drunk became his default setting. Those were the good times. His discovery of cocaine really put that extra bit of excitement in our lives. After a few lines with his friends down at the local, he’d stumble in a state of bliss or madness. He never was much for the middle of the road. Roddy got tough from the beatings. It was almost like he was grateful for them. I learned to defend myself, but it never stopped there. The two or three times me and my father really went at it, it took Roddy to keep me from killing the Son of a Bitch.
The next day was always the worst part. You couldn’t yell or make him feel regret. The memories were gone. He held his head at the breakfast table and mumbled at the sports page like nothing happened. I asked him how he could look at himself. Told him we’d be better off if he was dead. Said that I prayed each night mom would come back and the devil would take him down to get a head start on everlasting damnation. He’d laugh and tell me to go stick my head in another book. Dismissively remark that I didn’t know how good I had it. That my mother was a dirty, useless whore that didn’t give a shit about any of us.
Barely anyone outside the house knew a thing. The surface of the lake seemed calm. It was amazing, actually. People in the neighborhood would see him driving us drunk to school, looking more or less normal, and remark what a strong man he was. To keep a home and raise two smart boys. What a feat. What a guy.
Maybe it was all part of a plan. Make us tough. Make it so we’d will ourselves to be good at every sport and activity offered at school, if only to keep away from home a little bit longer. We thought of achievements as reprieves. Little vacations away from the asshole pounding beers at home, wishing the world hadn’t been so unfair.
Just to clarify, it wasn’t part of a plan. He was a nasty Son of a Bitch that did enough to maintain illusions. A nasty son of a bitch that happened to have two kids that knew their only chance was getting the hell away from him. When I was just about to head off to undergrad, he met a nice woman named Louisa that got him to kick the drugs and even curb the drinking. She moved in and took his ups and downs as her cross to bear. She even gave me spending money to supplement my scholarship “until I got settled.” The woman was a saint. Her entrance into our lives almost made me hate him more; it seemed like Sons of Bitches were always getting saints and angels. Clarence only showed up in the movie after George became a selfish Son of a Bitch ready to throw himself off a bridge and leave behind a teary brood. Clarence was an asshole. George was a Son of a Bitch, another version of the horrid thing I grew up with.
“You want me to call somebody, kid?” Grady asked, chewing on that toothpick. I looked at his tattoo and started to gain a little composure.
“No.” I decided to lie. For the best. “It’s a blood sugar thing. Need to grab something from the deli, is all.”
Grady seemed relieved to hear that it was only my physical health. “Oh. I’ve heard that can be tricky. Let’s get you of here. Twelve bucks.” He grabbed a hose with a nozzle that sparkled like 1950 and shot air up and down my body. It finished waking me from my stupor.
I held out a twenty in my left and told the barber to keep the change. He looked down and said it was too much. I insisted. That old routine.
I walked across treated hardwood toward the door when three black SUVs pulled up in front of Grady’s storefront. Karl Connell stepped out, flanked by his secret service detail. Vera Baros, the hot agent with the bedroom eyes, opened up the door like they were performing a drill. It was pretty comical, really. The candidate gusting in. Agents talking in code into their shirtsleeves. Old Grady standing there, twenty dangling from his fingers. “Hello, Hemingway! Surprised to see me?”
“A little bit, sir.”
“I asked for you back at the campaign office. They said he’s one town over, going through his process.”
“Yeah, but how did you find me here?” A quick look from Vera was all I needed. I mentioned my need for a haircut right before I left. She obviously said something. My frustration lasted about a half second. The young agent was one of the only friends I’d made in the entourage.
“Everyone out,” he said, walking assertively toward Grady. “I like what you’ve done with the kid. Give me something similar.”
“Are you sure?” asked the small-town barber. “Don’t you have someone that does your hair the way you like it?”
“I do, Grady,” Connell said, throwing me his suit jacket and taking to the shiny chair. “But I haven’t exactly blowing away the field, lately. It’s time to go with something new. Lay it on me. I like things done fast, but care is more important than speed.”
I nodded at the barber to give him some assurance, feeling guilty and a few other things I couldn’t quite name just yet.
As the candidate sat receiving a trim, he made me stand and watch. “Just delivered that farm subsidies speech.”
“How’d it go?” I asked.
“Best damn farm subsidies speech ever given, I’d imagine. They went crazy.” He turned slightly, almost running into Grady’s shears. I winced. So did the barber. “Sorry,” he said. “I was going do some bragging about you. Tell you what, my friend. If I become president, that kid right there is going to have a lot to do with it.”
My hands were in my pockets. My eyes were at my toes. Old Grady didn’t deserve this infringement on his day. “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Connell,” he interjected, adding an authority to his tone I hadn’t yet heard. “Seeing how I don’t much care how it goes either way, I’ll promise you my vote.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes sir. On one condition.”
“Make sure the boy doesn’t get overworked. He’s got some health issues. What was it, son?”
I had to think for a moment. Lies requiring a memory and all. “Blood sugar. No big deal.”
Karl Connell looked indefatigable and almost angry. “You have my word, Grady. He keeps a lot to himself, the kid. Lives in his head most of the time. I didn’t even know there was a problem.”
The presidential hopeful ordered me to sit down in one of the chairs by the door. I listened casually to the back and forth between my two elders. It was hard not to smile. Connell was coming across like a protective father. Grady sounded like a man that couldn’t be bought. I crossed my legs and sifted through the magazines strewn on an old wooden end table. Underneath I found a few old paperbacks. I didn’t recognize the first one I came across, but the second was all too familiar. The Fields Song Easter. One of my favorites. Flipping through the pages, I saw paragraphs almost friendly enough to quote. Quinn Robson’s classic about a few ailing families coming together to plant a crop that will see them through the winter. A few laughs gathered under my breath, thinking how much Roddy reminded me of the main character, Dezzie Wilshire. I bit my lip thinking of times I sought refuge in those very pages, a way to escape the Son of a Bitch.