Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Chapter Five -- Senator

“The boys at the barbershop say he asked him about being lieutenant governor,” Matt Grosen told Patsy and Kyle, after the Snakes diatribe had ended.  
 “Well that’s bullshit,” Patsy said.
“Yeah, I think so,” Matt laughed.
“Why?” asked Kyle.
“There aren’t enough Democratic votes down here,” Patsy explained. “Snakes needs someone from up north who can pull a whole lot of votes to keep us Republicans out of the mansion come next election.”
“Nothing like a born-again,” Matt said, grinning at his converted wife.
 The Harrisons were just about the biggest horse breeding family in southern Illinois and the only such family to be Democrats. Patsy grew up believing, as the whole lot of arrogant jack-ass Liberals believed if you asked Matt’s opinion, that they were the anointed party chosen  to lead the dumb-ass southerners into Liberal Lincoln Land. “Lincoln was a goddamn Republican,” was a phrase not often left out of any comments Matthew B. Grosen had to make regarding the races.
Although he alluded to others that it had been his influence,  it wasn’t Matt who had drawn Patsy to a new world view. Rather a chance eavesdropping in the horse barn when she was an impressionable thirteen. Looking at the event now, decades later, her shattering event couldn’t even garner a shrug. After the past four elections, winning the last two, Patsy Harrison Grosen doubted that much of anything could even raise her eyebrows anymore. But at thirteen she’d been deeply shocked overhearing her father agree to back the Republican congressman as a thank you for his support of Nixon’s wheat sale to Russia.
At the time it seemed her shock grew from seeing her father cheerfully negotiating profits with his most sworn enemies: the Republicans and the Russians. But over the decades of looking back at that scene what Patsy has come to realize is that what she was staring at throughout the men’s entire conversation was that they were both standing in horse manure. It had been her father’s favorite lawyer joke – and one he never failed to tell or at least quote when he saw Matt. The punch line was the lawyer, on his way into a farmer’s home, looking down at what he’d stepped in and crying, “I’m melting! I’m melting!”
That was also the day of the night she’d learned her best friend’s older brother – whom she’d had a crush upon since first grade and who had been recently, handsomely drafted – had been killed in Vietnam.
The day had coddled her into, not a Republican, but rather a non-believer.
 “No longer a believer,” was how she’d explained herself to Matt when they began dating a few years later. When a few years later she agreed to register Republican they both knew what she was actually doing was saying “Yes,” to a man who could do nothing less than follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
“I said ‘I do’ to a hundred years of outlaw lawmen and their idiotic version of womanhood,” was how she described her marriage to a dynasty of right-wing lawmen.
But there was no doubt in Haden County that Patsy Harrison Grosen relished her role. At forty she was slim and blonde and vivacious with time for volunteer work in the hospital, women’s center and Head Start. “I’m just a bleeding heart conservative,” she would laugh.
“That’s going to break Lucille’s heart,” Kyle’s father said now to his mother. “I’ll bet she’d got curtains picked out for the governor’s mansion already. That poor son-of-a-bitch,” Kyle and Patsy knew he meant William Wolf. Matt and Bill had played ball together in high school. They had been friends. Their wives had not. Indeed, neither Matt nor Patsy had liked either of Bill Wolf’s wives. And Patsy’s outspokenness didn’t leave much doubt that she didn’t like Bill either.
“You don’t much like anybody in Haden County,” Matt had once shouted at Patsy. They didn’t argue often but they argued loudly when they did. So Kyle didn’t feel particularly shocked or concerned when he overheard this argument. But he gained interest when he realized it was about the Wolfs.
“I like Kyle. I like you most of the time. I don’t lose you as many votes as I gain you. What more do you think you can ask?”
Patsy had not yelled this answer and his father had not yelled back. Something Kyle didn’t understand had been settled between his parents, but their dislike of Shelby had not been altered.
“She’s not even a Wolf,” he had screamed once at Patsy. He hadn’t been a teenager yet. Perhaps he was as young as ten. Maybe even eight. He and Shelby were still young enough to spend the nights at one another’s houses. His mother had, this time, said, “No.”
“No,” she had said, “the Wolf girl cannot spend the night and it would be better if you saw less of her anyway. You’re both too old for this.”
Kyle remembers his sudden rage. It was the first time he recalled that type of anger. He had never even been in a fistfight. He just wasn’t that interested in being right. But at this he had become enraged with an intensity that surprised his mother and shocked him. Nothing specific had ever been said to him against Shelby or her family, but at this comment of his mother’s he suddenly realized his mother did not merely dislike Shelby Wolf, he realized that like his father, his mother saw some people as enemies. And Shelby was an enemy.
“No, she isn’t a Wolf,” his mother had said, “she’s a Prentiss in Wolf’s clothing. And if you were about a decade older with a lick of sense you’d know enough to run like hell away from her.”
 “He shouldn’t have married her,” his father was saying now, regretting he’d made the curtain comment in front of Kyle, but unable to keep himself from once again making his point against Lucille. “He would have done better to fiddle about with her and send them on their way.”
“You mean, and marry one of those church ladies. You are all sons of bitches,” Patsy had replied. “I don’t like her either. But Bill Wolf knew exactly what he wanted and he got it. No reason to go blaming Bill Wolf’s problems on his wife.”
“You ‘re such a feminist,” Matt teased and tried to plant a kiss on her neck. She shrugged him off.
“Don’t start on me,” Kyle’s mother had said and dinner – which had consisted of open containers of various leftover on the counter and the three of them grazing among them with forks – was abruptly over. Like usual.
It was the next day Shelby had rushed over after school with the news. “He’s going to be Senator,” she told Kyle.
 “What do you mean?”
“He’s going to run against Johnson for Senator. The governor wants him to do it.”
This, Kyle realized, was what his father meant about women just not getting it.
“And,” she said and paused, “this is even bigger news, I think he’s going to resign his seat! Mother thinks he’s an idiot, that the governor is only going to screw him,” Shelby said.
“Your mother can be pretty smart, Shel,” he told her. “What does your dad say?”
“He says he won’t have that son-of-a-bitch Harrison saying he was using the office to run against him.”
“Yeah. They think there’s going to be a primary. Mom and Dad do.”
“Wow, Shelby. When is he going to do this? Give up his seat? Why is he going to do that?”
“I don’t know when. But soon I think. You know you can’t tell anyone.”
That bond between them, that what they shared could never be repeated to their parents or the other kids they knew whose parents were political was so ancient that it was nearly an insult for Shelby to have verbalized it. And Kyle shot her a look. And Shelby realized it. And they both relaxed a bit.
“It’s just that, well, I think Mom wants the appointment.”
“What appointment?”
“Dad’s seat.”
“What? Your mom wants your dad’s council seat? She thinks the Democrats are going to appoint her to your dad’s council seat? He just won. Why is he doing this? He isn’t really going to resign, is he?” Kyle made himself shut his mouth. Stop talking. He knew he’d already said far too much.  .
Indeed, Shelby just smiled. “You don’t think she can do it?” she asked. She had heard her mother ask her step-father just that. And she knew Kyle would say the exact same thing.
“No,” Kyle said, “that’s not it at all. It just won’t look right.”
“That’s just what Dad said. Exactly.”
They grinned at one another. They had been together their entire lives. There was a part of this life they shared that  was just like sitting next to one another, watching the same movie. When Shelby had once suggested something like this to Kyle he’d readily agreed. “Except we’re the only ones who see it as a comedy,” he’d added.
“What does it matter?” Shelby now asked. “If he quits; if she get it. You know what she says?” Shelby asked. “She says, ‘Who wants to stay a councilman anyway?’”
“That’s right,” Kyle said and quoting his mother launched into the line that had become his and Shelby’s private anthem, “there’s another election just around the corner.”

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chapter Four -- The Councilman

 “A senator, Bill.”
“Stop it, Lucille. I barely won re-election to the board. I’m honored to be a commissioner.”  But Bill Wolf’s smile quivered about him like a happy puppy.
“Senator.” Lucille sighed the word more than said it. “Bill, listen to how this sounds, ‘Senator William A. Wolf.’ Wouldn’t you want to be senator?”
“It was lieutenant governor a mere hour ago,” he told his wife, fighting the smile threatening to engulf him. They were the exact words in his head. Plus, the governor tapped him before Harrison, that little prick. Thinking of Harrison successfully tamped the puppy quivering. “A primary against Harrison wouldn’t be much fun,” Wolf said. And now he sounded as he wished, brusque, annoyed.
Lucille smiled. “You can wipe the floor up with Harrison,” she said. She cocked her head in what had become their connubial code.
Lucille Temple Prentiss Wolf had a good face. William Wolf’s grandmother, a Haden County girl, had told him that after he’d brought Lucille and Shelby to Thanksgiving dinner. “She’ll age well,” his grandmother had said, “if she stays busy.”
He smiled now at his wife, looking a decade younger than forty-three with that geometric face that William Wolf found attractive and knew others did as well, but which was not actually pretty, perhaps cute, but a bit too extreme for cute.  Lucille’s face was triangular with high cheekbones and round eyes almost too large, like in the waif paintings his first wife had found endearing. There had been two staring him down in the bedroom. He would see them over her shoulder when she was on top, rearing back her head and shaking her red mane and acutely boring him. The night after the impossibly long day following the accident he had taken them from the wall and slipping them conscientiously from their frames broke them into halves then quarters as he walked through the house and out to the garbage pails behind the garage.
Lucille kept her hair cropped short. It was so black it reflected blue in strong moonlight. She kept it clipped raggedly about her face like Liza Minnelli but neater. Much neater. He had grasped the meaning of the word ‘coiffed’ when overhearing one of the councilwomen describing his wife’s hairstyle to another woman. “It caps her perfectly,” Lydia Prince had said, “a precisely coiffed ragamuffin.”
 Lucille was lean and nearly as tall as William Wolf, the fair-haired and proverbial prodigal son of Haden County. He had been aware from the moment the pursuit began that she had targeted him for marriage. He had enjoyed every moment of the pursuit and, well into a second decade later,  still enjoyed the fruits of this power balance.
 All of these thoughts – though not examined, never made cogent  – flooded William Wolf when he saw desire come into his wife. She was game for yet another race despite the exhaustive campaign they’d just concluded. His grandmother had been right about her in so many ways.
“You nailed her PawMaw,” he had told his grandmother the night he lost the senate seat. “I’ll have Grandpop’s seat back on the council in two years. You watch.” Old Helen Wolf had died before that winning election but not without knowing her grandson would hold it. If that had been said once at the quad-county wake it had been said a hundred times. The election ten days after her death  made truth of it.
Lucille had both known that Bill was aware of her intentions and also that without that absolute constant gurantee from her that she was absolutely there for him he would not remarry. There had been no children. He wouldn’t have had to. He could have made a fine political career for himself as his grandmother’s fair-haired boy. A wife would be helpful. Very helpful. But only the right wife. Lucille knew this. William Wolf knew this.
She approached William Wolf more than sixteen years ago and worked side by side with him on his first campaign; his failed senatorial bid against the same Republican incumbent who still holds the seat.  John Johnson had not faced an opponent since, not in five election cycles.
Maybe he was vulnerable now. This was what crossed repeatedly through the Wolfs’ thoughts. Maybe the state party was right.
“What if it’s Thompson they want you to run against?” Lucille asked. “He’s going to go see Harrison too, right? The governor?”
“Run against Thompson? Don’t be crazy. Stanley Thorne is going to run again. I’m not challenging Thorne in a primary. And certainly not for an unwinnable seat.”
“And Johnson’s is more winnable?”
Into the silence they both thought back sixteen years. They hadn’t at the time any idea at all just how young they’d been.
“You’d slaughter Harrison in a primary,” Lucille finally said. There was no doubt in her mind.
Nor William Wolf’s.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chapter 3 – The State’s Attorney

“Now what in the hell do you think Snakes wants with that poor Bill Wolf?”
Kyle and his father exchanged familiar smiles as Patsy Harrison Grosen revved up the diatribe against her cousin. Cousin once or twice removed , or something like that. Kyle didn’t know how the relationship wove exactly. But he’d been weaned on stories about Snakes, known more widely as Powell H. Paulie, governor of the Great State of Illinois.
Snakes had not gained  this familial nickname for the most obvious sounding reasons but because he’d carried a pair of dice upon his first visit to the far-removed relations in the south. He had been five, maybe not quite that, and knew how to shake the dice in his right hand and say “I want snakes, I want snakes,” as he rattled them.
Kyle didn’t misunderstand the unimportance of the connection to the man who rose from congressman to governor. “He doesn’t remember us, Honeybun,” Patsy had told her only child when he’d asked why her cousin never came to family reunions. He’d perhaps been ten when Powell Paulie began making big enough news that local talk about him revived. “At best Snakes remembers there were some distant relatives in a diminished past living down south.” In Kyle’s memory it was the first grown-up thing his mother had said to him, despite his equally strong memory of his chin in her hand as she told him this.
He’d grown to recognize, but not understand, how importance and unimportance were like two ends of a telescope. While the governor had little or no memory of his downstate connections, since running off to marry a Chicago man, Patsy Harrison’s grandmother’s sister had never fully dropped from the conversational circuits in Harrison or Haden counties. When the increasingly convoluted and risqué liaisons, marriages, divorces and elopements ultimately produced a governor, well how could the story help but grow?
“He doesn’t care shit from shineola about us,” Kyle told Shelby when she’d first confided in him that the governor was coming to her house.
“Well,” Shelby had said, annoyed that Kyle would – as usual – downplay the whole significance of it all. Act like he was something because he was related. “So what? So what that he doesn’t remember being five years old in good ole Harrison County. Would you want to remember getting dumped for the summer in a farm full of these inbred brats?” Shelby paused but couldn’t hold the pause for long before adding, “Present direct relations excluded, of course.”
“It has something to do with something,” Kyle had tried to explain the strange reverse telescope-thing. It was not the first time he had tried to engage her in conversations about how importance worked. He stopped when he realized she was becoming angrier.
“So what, Kyle? So what? The governor of the entire state is coming to my house to ask my dad to be lieutenant governor. Only you would want to ruin that for me.”
“And that is great for your dad,” Kyle said, knowing already that in his household that would not be the twist. “It’s just strange how that works. How he doesn’t even know about us and we know all about him. It’s symbolic or something.”
“Symbolism will get you nowhere in life,” Shelby snapped.
“Fact,” Kyle  conceded.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Chapter Two - The Governor's Aide

“You can’t carry Downstate, Governor.”
“It’s not the electoral college, Buddy. It’s a simple majority. Votes. It is about the number of votes. I don’t need to carry it. Downstate just has to hold Engleson below sixty percent.
“Well you’ve got forty percent. You’ve maybe got fifty.  You’ve given these farmers everything they’ve asked for.  You don’t need to go courting these gee-gaws down here for forty percent.”
“You’re wrong Buddy. I need every gee-gaw I can get.  I need their vote and their wives’ votes and brothers and their dear old moms. So who can carry more gee-gaws? Wolf or Harrison?”
“Wolf,” Bud Nowak said without hesitation. “Haden is the biggest county of the quad, it has the four-year college and Wolf is easier to deal with than Harrison.”
“And he’ll show?”
“Yeah. Wolf will show better than Harrison.”
“So it’s decided. Wolf becomes the lamb.”
“Are you going Biblical on me, Gov?” Most of Governor Powell Paulie’s staff thought Bud Nowak’s use of such a nickname was pretentious and used to make clear his lifelong status in the governor’s life. But the name “Gov” was given decades ago to his friend Paul  – as the governor had been known since birth to Powell Paulie the third and his father’s ambitious third wife, Annabelle – when the two teenagers attended the Illinois State Student Government Convention the year the fourth Powell Paulie was voted governor.
“We’re asking a man to accept a sacrificial seat,” Paulie said to Nowak and turned to look at the short almost gnomish looking man who had been sitting next to him, informing him for a lifetime.
“Not necessarily.”  
Both men knew Bud Nowak had meant, ‘not necessarily sacrificial’ even though both men knew perfectly well the sacrificial seat they planned for William Wolf to seek. Nowak had not meant to say ‘not necessarily asking’ even though both men heard this in the comment as well. That was true. Both men knew that they certainly weren’t asking.  
“How long does he have left in his seat now?” Governor Powell Paulie asked.
“He just won re-election. It was close. But it’s always close. He’s a Downstate Democrat.”
“Why don’t they stagger their terms?” the governor asked.
“I think they do.”
“So we’re asking him to give up his seat and take yet another hit for a party that is all but in exile in his home town.
“No. There’s nothing in the county code that demands he give up his seat while running for another office,” Nowak said.
Both men were silent at this partial truth. Once a man lost an election it was easier to lose the next one.  But Nowak forged onward as was his job.
“That is no way to go into it, Paul,” he said, leaning in toward the governor from his traditional spot in the limousine that was so thoroughly his there was a slump in the seat .  “John Johnson isn’t as strong as he used to be. He’s getting old. This would be good exposure for Wolf.  This guy has some genuine attributes.”
“Genuine attributes,” Paulie repeated and turned to smile at perhaps his only friend.  “Is that what I have, Buddy? Do I have genuine attributes?”
“You have sex appeal and Cook County,” Nowak said.
“Ah yes,” the governor sighed and closing his eyes leaned back into his seat. Keeping his eyes shut he said, “Those are the stronger attributes, aren’t they.”
“And maybe this guy could make some inroads. Wolf is a decent enough guy. Hard campaigner. It sure in the hell wouldn’t hurt Springfield any to have a couple more Democrats representing Dixieland.”
“I’ve told you about that,” the governor snapped at Nowak, his eyes opened but he didn’t turn. To his aide’s well-tuned ear, convivial conversation was closed.
 The governor considered himself a liberal. “A practical liberal,” he said. He demanded his chauffeurs be black. The Dixieland  reference might have provoked a grimacing smile from Paulie in another venue, but not within sight of the chauffeur. It didn’t matter, Nowak knew, that there was no way the driver could hear them.
A black chauffeur played well in Chicago and it played well Downstate. “Not many good deeds get you points the full length of this great state,” Paulie would say during his not infrequent arguments with Sandra Craleck on this demand. Sandra ran  interference between personnel and a great deal of other agencies and the governor’s office. Paulie was exacting .
Sometimes the governor’s mood would go darker even than cynicism and he would add to his good deed quips,  “But we’re not really in the good deed business any more, are we Buddy?”
“Yes you are, Governor,” Buddy Nowak always replied. “You’re doing good every day.”
Buddy Nowak believed that, and believed it as ardently as when the conviction was born in junior high when Class President Powell Paulie knocked nearly senseless in a single blow to the chin  the class vice president who had called Nowak Paulie’s “ grubby little Polack friend.”
“You don’t deserve elected office in a democracy if you believe that,” Paul had said to the vice president whom he had immediately bent over and extended a hand to help to his feet. “That isn’t how things get done.”