About Mr. Speech (Added Content)
Mr. Speech: A Novel (Added Content)
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 Andrews’ rumpled suit. Nelson was an okay sort. Sort of. I probably wouldn’t say that if he hadn’t gotten me the job and been a member of the moderately tolerant set in grad school. I thought to engage the unfolding situation on some level, the bustle occurring just feet away, 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. Nobody protects the typical.
I was on my back, feet up on an old couch. It smelled like my Mimi’s house. Probably a donation to the campaign. Matriarchs Against This. Grandma’s For That. Old ladies liked him for reasons I imagined but didn’t fully understand. Thinking about old ladies made me sad. Thinking about 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, and it seemed an unreasonable time to abandon a lifelong philosophy.
I drew the old novel closer to my clenched face. Attempts at blending in were of course ridiculous, but I felt frozen, 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, hunched over a wobbling desk for a year in a sad flat in Paris. Obviously not. 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. His voice caught every rough edge that decades of smoking had carved out. “It’s not cutting it. People want passion. Inspiration. Your approach, whatever you call it, 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. Probably not so good.
Little things I was picking up along the way. The man currently getting the sack taught me that one.
Nelson pulled at his tie, droopy cheeks red as he tried to gather one full 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. Soundbites 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 might sound that way to some people.”
“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 Connell’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 campaign 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 a 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 grandpa was screwed. He was destined to become a person that spent his retirement years hoping through labored breaths, 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. Besides having no upper lip and tiny ears, he was a large man. Not fat. Large. 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 one of the most talked-about men 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.
The candidate crossed his legs and looked away from my perspiring face, staring at the little laminated table. His gray eyes went soft and his posture slackened. He was suddenly professorial—maybe even protective. It was as weird as everything else that was happening. “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. My radar was to be trusted. As a writer, I lived contrivance.
“‘And with the flood that was their faith, 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.
There was a tickle in my throat. Catching it was loud enough to change my own thought direction.
Karl Connell 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, breathed upon by two overly familiar strangers. “We want you crafting the message. We want someone that doesn’t care about the game.”
“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 respiration.
“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. One of those disclosure things.”
Whatever a lawyer feels like, I felt the opposite.
“Good enough,” said the candidate, thumping the table with a closed fist. The bus’s 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 it wise to have drivers listening in on important strategic decisions?
I was thinking too much.
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 Connell must’ve said process ten or fifteen more times before it was over. 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 speechwriter. I was 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 pop 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. My holy education. Three degrees in little frames, hanging on a wall in a lonely apartment I never saw. They represented honest toil, no doubt, but I couldn’t help thinking they were utterly meaningless. Still in a bar. Late at night. Harboring 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. It’s been a little one track lately. Not much chance for normal conversation.” I deliberately set down my pen and looked over her head, catching an unflattering reflection of my face over bottles of high-end liquor. “Can’t remember having an actual conversation, actually.”
“Weird for sure. Again. Apologies.”
“You work for Karl Connell? The guy running for president? That’s the big time, I guess.”
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 my 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 here 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 girlfriends 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 normally 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 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 Connell 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. Being an adult. 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 a 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 Connell. 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 suggestion. 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 back under my arm and held out a hand. “Harold. Abbot.”
“What say I close up shop 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 was 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.
Yes, 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 exact connection, though obviously he only pictured the great writer in sweaters. It was annoying, because now I could picture him in a sweater. A really gray, really comfortable one.
“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 immediately cold.
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.
“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 perceived persona. He’d always been amiable to crowds, even electric, but the man needed some 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 wiser than the 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. 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 actually 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 Abbot 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 suffering a bit, though it hinted at a time when the young ladies in town might’ve secretly wished for his advances. “Better or worse. 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 if things were really raw.”
“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. Keane always speculated. Said two boys 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. Keane 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. Keane 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 Keane to keep me from trying to kill 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. He said that until the day we got a call that she had died.
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. They’d 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 Beros, 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 of apology 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 to 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 Keane reminded me of the main character, Dez Wilshire. I bit my lip thinking of times I sought refuge in those very pages, a way to escape the Son of a Bitch.
They kept trading clipped wisdoms and funny anecdotes as I attempted to give myself over to Davidson’s prose, the way I used to, hiding under the bed. It didn’t work. Grady’s Barber Shop didn’t need escaping. It felt like apple pies and loud, happy families, and there wasn’t a threat coming from anywhere. Closing The Fields Song Easter, my thoughts drifted to Gail Frasier. She was meeting up with the campaign, sometime on the next swing. We’d decided. It had me a little nervous. We’d been talking a little bit every day, enough to stay excited, but not enough to wade far out past the shallow end. There was probably nothing to worry about, but that wouldn’t stop me. I looked to my left and caught a wink from Agent Vera Beros. What would she think if she saw me sneaking around with a grad student? Why did I care all of a sudden?
Stop it, stupid.
“You’re a good man, Grady. You chew on things that matter. Really enjoyed talking to you.” They were shaking now, two tough hands with so many miles between.
“Got to say, it’s been a pleasure,” the barber said, reaching for a little mirror. Connell waved it off, like somehow he knew Grady had given the haircut performance of his life.
“As far as the pills coming through the area, it’s one of my top priorities. It pisses me off, hand to God. You’ve got my word.”
“And watch out for the kid. He’s a good tipper.”
The candidate walked by me and did a thing with his eyes. It took a second to realize that it was a call to pay. I mumbled something like of course and rifled around my pockets. Nothing but a fifty and assorted change.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Grady said, backing up from the bill.
“Do me a favor. No time to argue.”
I pivoted quickly to follow Connell out to the cars. The sticky floor against my sneakers took me back to underperforming in high school gym class.
Half my body was through the door, into the fresh midwestern air. I turned back to hear the rest.
“I hope it all works out. Take good care.”
Agent Beros placed a guiding hand on my back and said something into her cuff.
We were already riding silently back to campaign headquarters when it occurred to me that I still had the little copy of The Fields Song Easter curled in my hand. I turned to Connell, just about to ask him to reverse the caravan. He was asleep.
“Everything okay?” Beros whispered, rolling down the glass separator just enough for me to see those eyes.
“Oh, I used to love that one. The movie sucked. Are you using it for research?”
“You know, getting a feel for the heartland, what they go through. If you really want the inside track, just ask me. I grew up in a place just like this.”
“Actually,” I started, wanting to tell her that I was an accidental book thief and that we needed to interrupt the schedule of one of the world’s most recognized people to right a fifty-cent wrong. “Never mind.”
Entry Five: Caring—Not Caring—45
I was forming a habit. Watching Connell deliver my speeches, usually from the side stage. It was helpful to see how he delivered my words and how the crowd reacted. The candidate had his own ticks and cadences, and I was trying to fine tune the music for him to sing.
So to speak.
It was electric. It was strange. Beautiful Bridget Waterton would tell me what was to be served and it was my job to embellish the presentation for maximum efficacy. Connell might push back with varying levels of fervor, but usually he’d acquiesce to my opinion. Bridget was usually on my side. It was her idea to hire me in the first place, apparently. She’d read most of the articles I’d written over the years at whatever college newspaper I was working at. She’d read my novel.
Maybe she felt a sense of loyalty to me, seeing as how I’d been physically assaulted for her affair with Connell. Also, I’d convinced the great man to stay in the race.
Maybe she liked having someone raw and easily manipulated. The writing came natural, sure, but I didn’t know the first thing about taxes or markets or health care schemes.
“You’re starting to understand,” she said, sidling up next to me behind the curtains off stage at a middling college in Kentucky. It was the first time I’d ever been surprised by her presence. It was common for the aroma of heaven or a chorus of angels to precede her visitations.
“Understand what?” I asked, loud, through an eruption of applause from the student body.
“The whole thing. It’s in your eyes. In the way you’re standing there, chewing your fingernails.”
I looked at her and said nothing. Making eye contact with her would mean game over on account of sensory overload. Traveling with her had provided me with sufficient data. Bridget Waterton was proof; there was such a thing as too much beauty.
“You’re beginning to give a shit,” she continued, probably aware that I was incapable of speech in her immediate vicinity. “I’m glad he has you,” she added, almost with a smile. “Glad we have you.”
Another crack of applause. It was strange. Something I wrote was eliciting exuberance from a hall full of previously jaded undergrads.
Could be that. Or could be Karl Connell was just the next thing to get behind, the next in a never-ending line of idols that would ultimately leave them bereft of hope or happiness. He might spit out the same inane drivel as all the other candidates and the people would be as enthralled. More enthralled, maybe. I’d raised my doubts to various people on the staff, but they all seemed to think our message was on point and razor sharp; Karl, Bridget, even Trig (whoever he was) and a woman about my age named Lydney. (Whatever she was doing)
“Are you going to get that?” asked Beautiful Bridget. I looked around and down until I realized she was talking about my phone. It was in my front shirt pocket, lighting up through the fabric.
I mumbled for an answer. Walking behind the last set of curtains, I hit talk.
“Harold Locke Abbot. Are you finally answering?”
I said hello to Gail Frasier. She sounded playful and maybe a little admonishing, but it was hard to tell. I snuck down into a small walkway where I could better hear. “I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back sooner.”
“That’s okay, big time. The TV says the race is tightening up. Imagine it’s all pretty intense.”
“Eh, who cares about all that. Is everything going okay… classes and all that?”
It was labored stuff between us. The sure feeling that I had was waning. The night in the hotel was almost a month ago. A month that was starting to feel like years.
“We don’t have to keep doing this, Harry.”
I could hear her sigh. “The talking, trying to make this more than it is.”
“If it wasn’t something, neither of us would’ve persisted this long.”
“Not necessarily true, pal. I’ve done things that made a lot less sense for a lot longer.”
That made me laugh. The way she said it, the quickness. Gail fired machine gun tracers of wit when her barrel was warm. “We’re swinging back through town next week. Let’s stick to the plan and get dinner. Still a good plan.”
“Fine,” she said, “but I don’t really think we should talk too much till then. These conversations are sucking the life out of something that was fun. Only call me if it’s something you really want to get off your chest.”
The moment came and went for me to fire my own winsome burst back. “Sounds good.” Best to button it up.
She said to get back to work and I said I’ll see you soon. I hung up the phone and started hitting my head against a rail.
“Didn’t think anyone would be back here.” The voice was male. Sounded like it belonged to a smoker. I pointed my cell phone light and saw the outline of a man in a dark suit pressed against the wall next to an exit.
“Who are you?” Though I did my best not to take note of individuals in the Connell camp, I was sure he hadn’t been around. “Speaking of not supposed to be back here.”
“Don’t you tell me,” he said, pulling out a chrome pistol from underneath his jacket. I think it had a wood handle. Either way, he was making his point. “Don’t you tell me.”
“Yeah,” I said. It was all I had.
“I’ll shoot you right here. I used to work in this theater. Know all the nooks and crannies. I’ll shoot you and get out. Hide and slip away. Whatever I want. Don’t you tell me.”
The crowd was erupting with more frequency, meaning the speech was drawing close to its conclusion. After that, Connell would take questions from the student body. Questions I vetted beforehand and rewrote so they wouldn’t sound so damn dumb. Young people. Mostly stupid. Not their fault. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, you want to get to know me? Understand me?”
I said, “Didn’t mean anything that deep by it. You’ve got the gun. Scary.”
“Who are you?” he asked. “What do you do for that scumbag?”
“I’m the speech guy,” I explained, surprised at my own level of calm. It didn’t seem real. The guy wasn’t all that menacing. Sure, the gun, but other than that. He was maybe a little taller than an average girl, early twenties and already balding, craned neck like he’d spent most of his life under a hoodie, trying to avoid the tougher kids. “Oh shit,” I said.
It was then that I realized, the proper feeling should’ve been terror. The pussies were the ones that always went around shooting everybody. This guy had all the telltale pussy indicators. “Dude.”
“What?” he repeated, waving the gun with a flagging wrist. “What are you thinking?”
I was thinking he wasn’t a dude. Dudes hardly ever did the real nutty shit. Dudes rarely made manifestos. Dudes got laid and did normal stupid shit. That’s what I always heard in high school, anyway, and why I had said dude aloud in the presence of the armed, limp-wristed pussy.
“Is it okay if I go?”
“Don’t you move.”
With a sigh I said, “I knew I would be punished. This makes sense. God’s hand is all over this one.”
“What are you babbling about?” asked the young gunman. I couldn’t see much of his face in the dark, but he was close enough to get a strong whiff of halitosis. I thought about Beautiful Bridget and how she smelled five minutes ago. Gail a month ago. Agent Vera Beros the night before.
“Things were going really good for me,” I pleaded as he forced me to sit down. “Getting laid. Respect at work. Kind of an important job. And these paychecks are fat, not going to lie. I was thinking about buying a car when this was all over. Leasing sucks. Don’t lease. What was your name?”
“Eton Hayle. You’re babbling. Stop.”
“Eton. I like that. Distinguished. Institutional. Not that you belong in an institution.”
Eton was right. Babbling.
“Shut up.” The gun metal was pressing against my forehead for a few seconds, but he couldn’t hold it there. He was too jittery.
“What’s the plan here? You hide behind the stage and hope Connell walks out this way? What if you can’t get a shot? What do you do with a gun that size? After, I mean? It’s a big gun, by the way.”
“One more word and I’ll do it.”
I looked down at my phone in my front pocket. It was facing my chest, but I could tell the light was on. “Can I—just one more thing.”
“If maybe you’re rethinking this whole episode, you can give me the gun.”
Eton Hayle began laughing. He had a distinctive laugh, high and clashing. It was the laugh of a ghost that haunts the basements and the belfries of an old middling Kentucky theater. Maybe I was imagining things. No. That halitosis was beyond my imagination. “There are tunnels that run underneath this place. I could get out if I wanted to.”
“Do you not want to?”
He was still laughing, but now there were tears mixed in. “It’s never been about my wants. Never, never, never, never.”
The audience questions were coming now. I heard the smack of the mic as it was passed to the next student. The nervous delivery of some wobbly-kneed kid, so sure of himself just seconds before.
“Going to be sick,” I said, turning away and bending over. In truth, I was feeling pretty rotten, but not enough to vomit. With my back between myself and Eton, I pulled out my cell phone and hit the second number down before putting it back in my front pocket.
“Stop that. Turn around.” He had the gun raised up, like he was readying to knock me over the head with it. Not a complete idiot. Didn’t want to give away his position for a nobody like me.
“Before you hit me, why would you do this? Why hide out in the back of theater to kill Karl Connell?”
“You’re so stupid. Could never understand. Never, never, never, never.”
The way he said never, trailing off, it was like something I’d seen or heard. “What is that?”
“What?” he asked.
“The never thing.”
“It’s from a movie. The only we had when I was growing up.”
“Huh. Yeah, I quote stuff when things get stressed. What movie?”
“Desert Walrus. Idiot.”
“Oh yeah. Decent book. Never saw the movie.”
“Never heard of the book,” Eton said.
“That happens. More than you might guess, actually.”
“I have to knock you out now. You can’t get in my way. Speech guy. Be glad I don’t want to kill you.”
I was glad, but I wasn’t in the mood for traumatic brain injury, either. Playing for time seemed the best option. “Just wait. Answer my question, man. I want to understand. What did Connell do?”
My eyes were doing a decent job of handling the darkness, and it was clear that Eton was warring with himself, gnashing his teeth, biting his lower lip. “He doesn’t matter. He’ll never matter. I’ll never matter. Never, never, never, never.”
“But there is memory.”
He stopped pulling at his hair. That was it. That was the point of Desert Walrus, too, though it was up for interpretation. No real reason for anything, so you might as well leave an impression. Not that compelling of story when you looked under the hood.
“People will talk about it. They’ll say my name because right now they’re saying his name.”
“It won’t last. And you could get killed, man. I get the hopeless bit. Lived it, maybe longer than you. Just don’t go out like this.”
“Things will get better?” Eton said, trying bad to sound like he didn’t care. Of course he cared. Cared so much he’d driven himself mad with all the caring. He was a vessel that had been emptied by the world and circumstance, abuse or neglect or the other billion things that take from people. Filled back up with up with bad movie lines and failed attempts at relationships and wrong choice after wrong choice until the whole drama of life, all the possibility, became reduced to a little nowhere theater in a nowhere town. The only thing playing starred Eton Hayle and Karl Connell, and the new arrival, me. Eton was where the desperate find themselves all too often, breathing hard, trying to live and adapt in a place they aren’t meant for. Shit, I was thinking too much.
“Never, never, never, never.”
“Geez, Hayle. That story got into your blood.”
I could sense the end coming quick, but I wanted to avoid it. Not for Karl Connell’s sake, or even mine. Not for Eton Hayle’s either, necessarily. It was like I didn’t feel like throwing another wrench in the works. Something along those lines. Like watching over a placid pond, being desperate to keep anyone from throwing in a stone. “Look,” I gasped, straining to ignore the increasing pressure of the gun metal against my head. “You can still get out of this. Jump in one of those tunnels you were talking about and just go.”
“You know my name.”
Shit. “Whatever. The whole turnaround starts with you handing me the pistol. We get some people to listen to you for a change, and who knows.”
“I’ll be in jail.”
“Maybe not. You’re looking too far ahead. It’s all about right now. I’m asking you, please. Feeling stranded isn’t just a you thing, Eton. Been dealing with it all too long, myself. Trick is keeping it in check, knowing the limits. Usually you can tell a line’s been crossed when you’re holding a gun to someone’s head. Come on, man. I just want a car. And new pants. Two things, whole new person. Change changes things. That’s why there’s a word for it.”
I thought I heard him laugh. Finally, a semblance of regular humanity. Maybe I want to remember it that way, considering what came after.
The door underneath the little exit sign burst open and two agents rushed in. I was facing them. The bullets must’ve whisked over my head. Hard to be sure, it was so loud in the little space. They left me alone for the next little while. Thought that was a little cold, actually. One of the agents stood over the body of Eton Hayle while the other went to secure a perimeter that was supposed to already be secure. I mumbled something about the tunnels, the ringing still overwhelming my ears.
Maybe they asked me if I was okay.
It’s true what they say about hard situations being hard to remember.
It was a just a little rally in a little Kentucky town, after all. Placid waters. They were. I couldn’t keep them that way. The blood was hard to wash off that night. The extinction of Eton Hayle had me thinking about his story, all the shit that had led him there. A lot of things would be said about me in the coming days, some in the camp even calling Harry Abbot a hero. The story had been suppressed at my demand and Connell had agreed, but a few blogs picked up on rumors of the involvement of an unnamed staffer. Secretly, I wanted to feel like a hero. Agent Vera Beros treated me like one in bed that night and the night after. She was getting a commendation. It was her I had called, second number down, right under Gail Frasier, who still had no idea that it happened. This was something to get off my chest. I’d probably call her.
The gunfire from the agents caused a panic in the theater, obviously ending the event with a crash. After we’d moved to the next town and the next hotel, Connell came to see me that night. The particulars of the incident had trickled down to Bridget Waterton and now to him.
I was drinking, sitting on a plush couch in Cincinnati, looking to my left out at the big river moving steady below. They’d given me a better room. I was just a few away from the big man.
“You getting drunk, Hemingway?” he asked with a knock.
We were developing a shorthand by then.
I got up and unlocked the door, bowing as he stepped heavily through. “Nice.”
“I think the hoteliers call it the Held At Gunpoint package. It’s big with these Ohio River Valley types.”
“How much have you had?”
“Not enough,” I said, passing him the bottle. He took a big drink and gasped from the bite. It was good stuff. He nodded his big head in acknowledgment of the quality before passing it back.
“Sounds like you did a brave thing, kid.”
“Sounds like you don’t believe what you’re saying, sir.”
He snapped his fingers for the bottle. “Don’t be an ass. I have a hard time with this stuff. You know that by now; if it was difficult finding time for emotions before, the campaign turns you into a damn robot. We’re all turning a bit. Changing.”
I nodded and we sat on the couch in silence before he eventually turned on the TV. It was a local reporter, reading a statement prepared by one of the minions I never talked to. A comment on gun violence and mental health in America.
“Vague,” I said, rubbing my eyes as I turned down the volume.
“You don’t like it?” he asked.
“No, it’s perfect. I’m training the minions well. They hate me. It just started that way, so I went with it.”
“Probably for the best.”
“What do you actually think?” I asked, motioning at the TV. “About guns and crazy assholes.”
“I think there’s a lot of guns and a lot of crazy assholes, and one of them almost killed my speech guy tonight. I don’t like it. Anyone with a smattering of humanity doesn’t like it.”
“You want to do anything? Change things for the better?”
“I’m not Caesar,” he said, reaching over to apply one of his massive mitts to my shoulder. “Not Caesar, meaning I’m not running for dictator. Guess you could call me Caesar in the way that people want me dead.”
It was funny enough, but all he got from me was a solemn nod.
“Hey, kid. This is the United States. There are limits on leadership.”
I sighed, probably adding a bit too much breath and frustration. It was out of character, but I felt like he was allowing for a drop in decorum, considering the circumstances.
“Come on, Hemingway. You want me to be anti-gun guy? Pro-gun guy? Whatever the hell those things even mean.”
“I don’t know policy,” I told him. “Don’t want to know. It’s just messed up. That guy’s dead. He was a loser, but I’m not convince he was all that crazy.”
“You’re too nice, maybe. Or maybe you don’t see enemies.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t bite my head off, kid. Could be, this guy shouldn’t have threatened you. Shouldn’t have been there at all, being sad and armed.”
“It’s what led up to that moment.”
“A series of sad stories. I feel sorry for the kid’s family. Wish it hadn’t happened. Wish he’d never gotten his hands on that gun. Slipped through the cracks.”
“Another glorious, fix-all platitude.”
“I don’t know if this qualifies, but tonight, he was my enemy. Almost killed my guy.” Connell’s smile was controlled as he pointed at my chest. “And I think he was there to kill me.”
“Yeah, he was. To be remembered, mostly.”
“Is it okay if I call the guy that wants to kill me and my guy an enemy?”
I took another drink. “Seems logical.”
Entry Six: Writers—Politics—Dark Thoughts
Meeting Augusta Riser, it would be fair to see that I was woefully unprepared. It was one of those event storms, everyone engaged with something of vital importance. We were on every screen in the States, number one with a bullet, working for the guy that was good enough to kill, just one week after what’s his name’s ill-conceived attempt at Connell’s life. This meant my minions were busy. Hashing things out. Formulating jet-fueled messaging strategies for come what may or may not.
Boiled down, there was no one to watch my back.
I was sitting in a restaurant, thinking about Gail Frasier, doing my best not to requisition my phone for some insipid midday text salute. The sun was blasting through the chain restaurant against the cheap polished wood, redirecting hazy light through tacky snowy glass insignias. “Gail,” I mouthed, trying to find some comfort in one of the section’s four booths. Besides a uniformed middle-aged bartender who I couldn’t blame for giving up on life, I was the only one in the seat yourself section. Seventeen televisions. All but two were broadcasting tired video packages of teams that weren’t even in season, going over past seasons, talking about seasons to come and all the unprecedented that might transpire once again.
Ridiculous programming for ridiculous people, unable to live in the moment, looking behind or ahead.
A ridiculous observation for someone doing exactly the same thing. Stop with the woeful self-analysis. It was a hard ask. My situation had been compromised. Someone with the power to put me on the front page was threatening to do just that.
Facing the front door was pointless, sun doing what it was, so my plan to take stock of Ms. Riser was in vain. She was on top of me before I had any chance at sizing her up.
Whatever that might’ve done. What did I know of sizing people up?
“Mr. Abbot,” she said. The suddenness gave me a jump too dramatic to play off.
“Hello,” I said. “Hello.” My legs hit the table as I tried to rise. She had me trapped, blinking against the light and trying not to cry out in pain. My right knee exploding with pain.
“Are you okay?” she asked, so concerned she couldn’t turn herself away from some invaluable treasure that seemed to be lodged in the bottom of her purse.
“Old sports injury,” I managed, trying to give her an approximation of the truth with a face ridiculously red.
“I thought you just took a knock,” she said, English Midlands accent coming to the fore.
“You nailed it. That’s what happened. Man, it’s a really bright day.”
“It might not remain that way.” She slipped into the booth opposite me and placed a notebook and recorder on the horrifyingly busy tabletop. It seemed she was big on right angles, making the corporate mess underneath stand all out the more.
Her resolute manner and the searing in my knee precipitated in my calling over to Lonnie the time-worn bartender, asking for another drink. He went through the motions and brought over a full glass of something murky, asking the lady if she’d like anything.
“Yeah. Would you?” I followed, awkwardly rubbing myself under the table. Sweat was forming on my brow, a result of holding back tears.
Things weren’t going so well.
And then she set down my novel, The Reasons Remaining, the only thing she’d brought that wasn’t lined up straight on the table.
“Is the lack of alignment supposed to be symbolic?” I asked, making sure she took note of my chagrin.
“You’re a pretty good writer, Harold. Especially when you know what you want to say. Suppose that’s the way of it, though.”
“Huh. Vague. Less than helpful, if I’m honest, though, I’ll take the trade. If you made it to the last page, that’s more than most people who endeavored the same. Coming from an award-winning journalist, maybe I should be flattered.”
“Don’t be. I was an assessment fueled by politeness, mostly.”
“Don’t get your overeducated knickers in a wad.”
“Sure. No wadding.”
“You obviously know what you’re about. The characters are good. Some are wonderful, actually, or something close to wonderful. I went back and forth about the theme.”
“Debatable and multifaceted, as is most good literature.” The drink felt good in my throat. The idea of my book being the real deal felt good. But that was only an idea. It’s not like there was a litmus test. Some readout that says good literature. A writer has to have others say what a genius or moron he or she is. Or, maybe the writer’s moron enough to not care and get by on their sense of worth. I could choose to be either type, in theory, though my propensity for self-loathing and self-doubt had me firmly stationed in the former camp, awaiting early release by reason of late onset self-esteem.
“I’ve written six myself.”
“Not sure I’ve seen them in stores.”
“You know you haven’t. If I publish a bloody novel, my writing career, making lots of money and getting over on big shots… it’ll be flushed down the shitter.”
“Sounds complicated. I wouldn’t know.”
“To be clear, the moment you sat there and started organizing your knickknacks, we’ve been off the record. Is that something to be relied upon? Skip over the judgment about my naivety and lack training in whatever the hell game you people call this.”
Augusta showed me her phone to put me at ease that she wasn’t recording, adding a smile laced with mockery. It looked practiced, like mockery was her full-time gig and the writing thing was just something she did for vacation money.
“Your teeth aren’t perfect,” I said. The moment the words came out, I closed my eyes and readied for a slap. Nothing happened. I lifted my lids to see that same smile.
“I meant it as a compliment. The teeth thing.” It was true, though explaining it might prove difficult. Everyone I worked around had annoyingly perfect teeth. Beautiful Bridget and Connell, of course, but even the lowest of my Ivy League Minions. I’d always had pretty good teeth. Lucky. The Son of a Bitch wasn’t the type to take me to and fro to an orthodontist. The intrepid reporter looked to be rocking the natural look as well, and it didn’t stop with her mouth. Her light brown hair was hastily pulled up, leaving her high-cheekbones and the few lines on her forehead unobscured. Not much in the way of makeup, either. I was instantly a sucker for her eyes. They were almost too big for her face. Another way of saying perfect, like they could take in the whole world with one short gaze.
“You need to stop staring, Abbot.”
“Here’s the deal. I know it was you. And I know what you do. How integral you are to the campaign.”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” I said. I held up an unsteady finger as I went again for Lonnie’s concoction. It smarted. It wasn’t exactly top-shelf. Lonnie’s bar only the one.
“Don’t fence. You wouldn’t have met if you weren’t already nailed. Dumb not to bring anyone. Whatever it is you’re good at, this isn’t it.”
It was hard to know what exactly the journalist was referring to. My lack of backup, the fact that I was sweating profusely and drinking nervously—maybe she was referring to the ease in which she’d drawn me out. Two damn text messages and she had me feeling like a criminal.
“I’m not a criminal,” I gulped.
“No, you’re not a criminal. Well, maybe obstruction of justice, but that wouldn’t go anywhere. Especially if Connell wins. Do you think he’s going to win?”
“Obstruction of justice? I’m a novelist.”
“Harry, you’re a guy that’s been lying about a criminal investigation. Not divulging certain facts. I’m no expert, but that’s in the ballpark. Of course, there’s the affair that you’re covering up between Connell’s and his campaign manager, but there’s nothing criminal there. Just your old pedestrian seediness.”
“It’s not my seediness. I didn’t do anything.”
“You look like you did something. Trust me, I’m looking at you.”
“Are we still off the record?”
“We are until you say we’re not.”
“If you want to print something, print this. Harry Abbot resigns from the Connell staff. You got me. No idea where you heard all this, but it won’t matter. I’m going to Europe.”
“You can’t go to Europe, Harry.” Augusta Riser snapped her fingers in the grimy bartender’s direction, then made a signal with her hand. Apparently, it meant something in the realm of drink-making; Lonnie quickly got about his business.
“Can go anywhere I damn please.” It wasn’t as defiant as I’d hoped. There was a good amount of trembling in my voice. Something like a kid willing to fight a losing battle with intractable parents. “This was the best damn job I ever had. Made more damn money than I’d ever made.”
“Do you always get hung up on a word like that?”
“Sorry,” I said, putting my head down as Lonnie came over with something clear and dry for Ms. Riser. “There’s no doubt I have a gift with words, but writing is more my milieu. Talking is still a work in progress.”
“Well, don’t worry. It’s nice to meet a man who can unironically praise and humble himself in the same sentence.”
“It is, actually. And it’s not unique or anything. All I do is meet smart people that hate themselves most of the time.”
“Ever think you could be the common denominator in the second part?”
She laughed, but only just. “There you go, Harold. Pretty stiff jab for an amateur pugilist.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“So, you’re not stupid. You’re not a criminal. Anything else you’re not? I can start writing things down whenever you give the go.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked her about as dry as a person could, the way I imagined a desiccated KGB agent would ask something to a prisoner in a blinding interrogation room somewhere in Siberia. The battle was getting to me, and I couldn’t win. “This is blackmail, right?”
“No. But if you want me to keep your name out of papers, we’re going to have to open some lines of communication.”
“So, it’s blackmail.”
“Not important. Just know, I’m trying to help you. Whether you know or care, there’s something not right about Karl Connell. He’s going to ruin this country.”
It was my turn for a just-so laugh. “This you come by through years studying politics and economics in journalism school? You read some tweets that didn’t agree with you?”
“Are you saying you like this clown?”
Nobody had ever asked me before. A quick no was my first and natural instinct, but it didn’t go that way. The truth was, I was teetering toward affection for the man. More than teetering.
And so I didn’t answer.
Augusta drank her entire glass and wiped her slightly-chapped lips with the sleeve of her blue blouse. “Okay then,” she said. “Either way, I just want to know this or that. Nothing big.”
Maybe I was sinking deeper, even sitting there. At this point, there was no way to know. She was Bobby Fischer and I was Spassky’s brain dead second cousin that no one in the family liked to talk about.
“If I’m wrong about him, stay in the game. Protect him. You’ll be protecting yourself. Ride this thing out, and maybe you can go back to what you wanted. Be a real writer.”
She knew too much. My eyes went left and right, trying to recall every face and name in the campaign. It could’ve been anyone.
“A real writer like you,” I said, sinking even lower.
She lowered her guard for a minute. “I like to see my thoughts on a screen. On a piece of paper. Something about it. That act of transfer.”
“I know what you mean. Like that phrase as well. Act of transfer.”
“Probably stole it from some nerd like you.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Thirty-two. Sixteen months older than you, Harry. Is it Harry or Harold?”
“Either. Friends call me Abbie, actually. The few I have.”
“A few more than me, Abbie,” she said, lighting up a cigarette, blowing it in Lonnie’s direction as he pointed anemically to a No Smoking sign. “Always found friends to be a hinderance.”
I felt like a summation, like she was offering me the chance to have a go. Clearing my throat: “We’re both a couple of assholes, too many notions and not enough time on the clock to know if they matter or mattering is even possible. Deciding the fate of the world without all the information, just like all the assholes that came before.”
“It’s pretty good. Not sure about the asshole bit. But still.”
“And you already know this, but quoting from your own novel is sort of disgusting.”
“Afraid I’m clutching at air when it’s down to clever. This is my third drink.”
We sat under her cloud of smoke and tried to ready for an admonishing visit from Lonnie. “To being an asshole,” I said, raising my murky glass, not as high as the first time.
I didn’t notice at first when she lifted her chin for a look over my shoulder. I turned to see a swaggering frame heading in our direction, dressed in cheap suit pants and a tie made of something other than silk. Figured him for something like sales, making his own hours and taking in a long lunch. Eh.
“Have I seen you before on TV or something?” he asked, stopping square to our booth. Looking out the side of one eye, it was clear I was a non-entity.
It was safe to assume she would dispatch the kid sharply, leaving him with a stiff lesson and flagging ego in need of healing and reassessment.
“You might’ve,” she said, batting her eyes. It was the first time I’d ever noticed a woman batting her eyes. Batting eyes were a myth until that moment. I was buzzed from Lonnie’s pour and starting to get ticked off in a prehistoric sort of way. Sitting there, taking her abuse, then this kid walks over and gets an open door and the four stars. “My name’s Augusta. I’m a writer, but I do a lot of TV.”
“I knew it,” the kid said, taking a confident pose with crossed arms, one hand raised up to play with his chin hair. “You’re like, a big deal. I should’ve known your name right off.” He followed the comment with a manufactured laugh.
I officially hated him.
He shot out a hand to Ms. Riser and said his name was Reece Naples like it meant something more than three annoying syllables, still unwilling to acknowledge that she was sitting with another man.
“Hi, Reece.” Rather than meet his hand, she held hers out to be taken. In the span of fifteen seconds I’d seen a predator morph into a fawn. “You should meet my friend Harold.”
“Hey buddy,” he said, still holding her hand. “Nice to see you.”
I found myself unable to return the greeting with anything more than a mumble. Nice to see you? He hadn’t seen me at all. Ms. Riser’s Jane Austen routine had him transfixed. The entire exhibition was absurd and done to rile me, though being armed with the knowledge had me playing the role of cannon fodder all the same.
“Tell him what you do, Harold,” she said.
There it was. She was using Reece Naples as a living example. A test of my pliability. We sat there on pause until I made the next move. “Reece, we’re in the middle of something. Nice meeting you but get lost.”
Since leaving the ugly bosom of my broken home, it was the most confrontational thing I’d ever done. The kid was rightly offended and straightened his posture.
“Whatever’s on your mind to do, leave it alone. Ms. Riser doesn’t want to talk to you. She’s a shit person and you’re nothing in her eyes. Trust me on this.”
“Pretty sure she’s digging me, bro. How about you be the one to leave?” His toes hit the baseboard below my seat. “Maybe I kick your ass outside. That sound good?”
It actually entered my mind to take him up on it. Hitting something might be therapeutic, though the exchange would most likely end with me with taking a beating. “Fine, kid. Lead the way.”
As I started to get up, Ms. Riser grabbed young Mr. Naples by the arm. “You really should piss off, Reece. I don’t have time for this.”
“You’re an attractive lad. Might be good for a five shag and go in the bathroom. But I don’t have five minutes. Find a nice farm girl somewhere. Imagine you’re top draw stuff in these parts.”
“Just let me take care of this guy.” Reece wasn’t getting the message. He’d been listening, but to him the only part worth hearing was the bit about five minutes in the bathroom. A cause worth fighting for, apparently.
“Please go.” She blew smoke in his face and looked over to Lonnie. The bartender had been watching the scene play out and already had a phone raised to his withered face. “Sir, would you mind calling the police? Our mate here is making threats.”
“If you put out the cigarette.”
“Of course. Apologies for the bad form.”
“Last chance to bugger off,” said the reporter, putting her cigarette in my drink.
Reece appeared to be well and truly confused. “Get out of here man. Really, I’m asking nicely.”
“You people are fucked up,” he said, turning away with his hands up. Lonnie held up the phone with his thumb out like a bomber threatening to press the trigger.
“We’re okay. Thanks so much. Lonnie, isn’t it?” She clasped her hand together an bowed her head at him.
“Just behave yourselves. I don’t need this shit.”
“Right you are. We’ll be leaving a healthy tip.”
I turned around to make sure young Mr. Naples had conceded in earnest, then nodded apologetically at Lonnie. “We’ll get out of your hair, sir. Really sorry.”
“That was bloody well interesting. Would you have had a proper go if hadn’t stepped in?”
“It’s been a few years since Oxford. I’m not sure what you mean by proper go.”
“Got stuck in. Put your man down.”
“I was trying to spare the kid from your witchcraft is all.”
“Good on you, then.” She picked up my book and opened it wide before turning it my direction. The margins were full of notes. Words circled. Underlined passages.
“Speaking of stuck in,” I said, acknowledging the display.
“That’s the way I do things, Harold. Abbie.”
“It’s probably too much to ask for an honest answer, but what else were you trying to get out of that situation?”
She leaned back and set the novel down, this time square with the rest of her things. “I’ve been in and amongst it, Abbot. Head down in battles. Refugee camps. Seen shite that would pass as over the line in the Middle Ages.”
“I want to follow what you’re getting at, but…”
“When things matter, it’s important to know who you’re dealing with, quick and first-hand. To know as much as possible. You’re about a bit of spine, not such a bad sort. Also, you’ll play ball, long as I’m reasonable.”
“Already come to that conclusion?”
“You didn’t want that kid knowing your story. Preferred a fight to it.”
“Gleaned quite a bit.”
“That’s right. Keep in mind I know what you did in Kentucky to stop that bloody shooter. And that your ass was kicked shortly before. In a bar. In this very town.”
“So, what I heard was accurate. Oliver Andrews didn’t give you a chance, otherwise you would’ve at least defended yourself.”
A dark thought started growing in my brain, but it wasn’t whole. I started to take a drink for a moment’s respite before she reminded me of the drowned cigarette butt. “I’ll go get us a few more. See if I can’t make nice with Master Lonnie.”
My heart was racing. Hands shaking. It was hard to pinpoint the cause, but one of three. Either the row with the young Mr. Naples, the fact that I was going behind my candidate’s back, or that dark thought still lodging a place in my mind.
“It’s not the end of the world,” she said.
I took the drink and decided the day was officially lost. As long as I wanted to be the great artist, it was a jam with no clear out. Not yet. Time to think. Time to be strategic, and not just with words for someone else’s teleprompter. She saw me like the kid, a tool to be used. I’d have to find a way to use her.
I had a swallow of fresh murk. The dark thought from before was starting to unpack its luggage upstairs and take up a full-time residency. “So, who’s Gail Frasier?” I asked. “And how long has she been working for you?”
Entry Seven: Keane—Burn—Help
After the meeting with Augusta Riser, it was clear I needed assistance. I left with a thousand things on my mind and a thousand things that needed doing. There was one obvious choice to supplement my insufficient efforts, and painful as it was, I made the call.
“Well, look at this guy. No time for your worthless older brother anymore. I’m guessing little Harry-nuts is in trouble.”
I closed my eyes and allowed the frigid Wisconsin air to attack my senses while he sang the wrong words to the chorus of Billy Joel’s “Big Shot.” There was no point interrupting. It had been a long time and I’d declined more calls from him than I could remember.
Finally, a lull.
“So, where are you these days?”
“I deserved that.”
“Ah, my baby brother. What’s going on with you? I’m glad you’re alive, but sort of disappointed. My feelings are complicated, you might say. Though you’d probably say it with bigger words.”
“Don’t be dramatic.”
“Seriously. I haven’t heard your voice since that book of yours came out.”
“Sorry, Keane. Really. Things have been weird. I’m not just saying that.”
“It’s okay, kid. I’m not hurt.” His tone was too compassionate. I readied for something harsh. “To be honest, after some time passed, figured you killed yourself. They say it’s the coward’s way out, but I wasn’t about to blame you. If it was me who’d written that piece of crap, probably I wouldn’t have seen a way out either.”
There it was.
“But it’s great that you’re alive and everything. I’m sure it makes someone out there very happy.”
“Are you still with Francine?”
“Ouch. I was just playing around, but if you wanna get rough.”
“Seriously, Keane. I’m asking because I need your help. Yes, just like you said. And let me save us both some time. I’m a shit little brother, ungrateful, horrible, unloving, soulless, and irredeemable in every way. My perdition is a foregone conclusion.”
“That’s not bad. Why couldn’t your book have more stuff in it like that? Damn thing was a beating.”
“She hit me with an iron. Another scar. No big deal, except that it left a big where my beautiful eyebrow can’t grow.”
“How’d you let that happen?”
“I was hurt after she burned my ass cheek with it.”
“She got a lot of mileage out of that thing.”
“No kidding,” he said, sounding muffled. I could tell he was lighting up a cigarette. “She took it when she left me. Funny thing is, never once do I remember that woman ironing anything.”
We both started laughing. Francine had gone and come back before, but this time a feeling of permanence seeped through the line. Keane didn’t seem to have the fight to get her back. Hard to blame him. A frigging iron? It was hard to know if he was serious. I could write, but he could tell a tale. We could talk about it later. “Are you on a job?”
“Just about wrapping. Been in Arizona for two months. Sucks down here.”
“I really can’t go into it on the phone, but can you be in Milwaukee by tonight? I’ve got work for you. The money’s good.”
“Wisconsin? Just like that? Unbelievable. You’re an unbelievable little bastard.”
“Could be several months, steady. And I’ll throw twenty grand a month. I can transfer the first payment right now.”
“It’s clear you’ve landed yourself in some industrial-weight bullshit.”
“Nothing illegal or dangerous. Not really.”
“Twenty grand a month…”
“I need you, brother. Need you quick, though. Things move fast here.”
“I’ve heard that about Wisconsin.”
“What’s your answer?”
“Send the money, I’m on a plane. This job better not piss me off.”
“I can’t promise anything.”
“Aw. Don’t start telling the truth now.”
“So, you’re on the way?”
“You’re gonna have to give it until tonight, kid. They don’t run the Flagstaff to Milwaukee shuttle every quarter hour.”
“I’ve tried to find better ways to say it, but in the end, you’re just an unpleasant person.”
“Call you when I land, Nutsack.”
“Harold? Why’s it so dark in here, handsome? Wow. I guess the campaign’s booking suites for you now. Must be moving up in the world.”
“And you’re moving down. Sit at the table, Ms. Frasier. Move slow, little lady. That’s right. Drape your coat over the chair. No sudden moves. I’m not the kind you want spooked.”
“Who are you? Where’s Harold? Why are you talking like that?”
“Harold’s ain’t a face you’re ever going to see again. Hey. Maybe you have a short memory. I told you to sit down.”
“Why are you sitting in the shadows? It’s scaring me.”
“You should be scared. The Lord doesn’t like it when you go around lying to people. Harold doesn’t like it. Most important, I don’t like it.”
“That’s the last question you get to ask. The clock on my sweet disposition just ran out.”
“I’m going to stop you right there, because who sounds like the beginning of another question. This will take three minutes or less. Open ears and closed mouth, nothing bad will happen. If I wanted you out of commission permanently, already would’ve happened. Lucky for you, this Harold fella is a soft touch. Go on now. Take that chair.”
“She ratted me out. Augusta, that bitch.”
“She’s got some balls. Got to give her that.”
“Are you going to sit?”
“You got a gun, Bogart? Sorry, a piece?”
“What’d I say about questions…”
“Might as well shoot. Because if you don’t, I’ll catch up with you. My next two stops will be Augusta Riser and that pussy Harold Abbot.”
“That’s enough, Ms. Frasier.”
“Maybe I go sing a song to the papers. They’ll be some asshole with a laptop out there, some wimp like Harry that’ll want to write what I know about the great Karl Connell, family man. That he gets his talking points refined by a two-bit novelist who couldn’t explain to me what social security was.”
“You’re cold, lady.”
“I do what I have to do to survive. Connell was just a gig.”
“You’re not bad, looking at your history.”
“What do you mean, my history?”
“On the table you’ll find your laptop.”
“You went in my house?”
“Yeah. You’re a criminal, and now you’ve had your own wares purloined. It ain’t the oldest story ever told, but it’s close.”
“This was all encrypted.”
“I’ve got a thumb drive in my pocket that says it wasn’t encrypted too good. Lindsay Perch from Buffalo. Or is it Shayna Rosen from Sacramento? We can go down the list or just agree that you’re completely full of whatever the kids are calling shit these days.”
“Who are you?”
“None of your business, cutie pie. Just know that if you don’t disappear and stay quiet about Abbot, a lot of your unsolved crimes get moved over to the closed column. I’ve got friends in every department, from here to wherever you want to take your chances.”
“I should’ve known Abbot would get nervous. What I get for picking a fag for a mark. I should’ve picked the pollster. The one with the muscles.”
“Take your computer and go. Go somewhere nice, and hey, maybe change the attitude. Get married, steal from someone the way God intended.”
“So that’s it?”
“Unless you want to be on the line when I call your ex-partner. The one serving time for a crime you committed. Sure the rest of the drug-pushers in his happy family would love to know you’re still out there screwing guys for information.”
“Trust me. That was work.”
“Go on. Take the burn and walk. Don’t let me catch your act again.”