Saturday, January 29, 2011

Chapter 11 – The Secretary

 “I can’t face her down again,” Stanley Thorne said to Irene Hanley. He had opened the wooden door but still stood behind the tightly latched storm door.  “I can’t do it.”
“For god’s sakes Stanley, open the door. No one is facing down anyone. The committee is in agreement. I’m sure it will be. She’s our best bet and what’s the governor going to do? Refuse? I don’t think so. Besides, somebody must owe her something.”
“I lost too and I didn’t kill myself,” Thorne muttered. “And I certainly don’t have half a million dollars worth of checks to the governor in my closet either. I can tell you that,” he muttered as he unlatched and then carefully re­-latched the doors as Irene strode through.
“No one would ever think of looking, Stanley.” Irene patted his arm on her way past him toward the dining room where he kept the central committee files. “We’re always sorry you lost, Stanley. You know that,” she said over her shoulder as he followed her down the hallway.

“It is unspeakable,” Patsy said in her new, toneless voice.
“Seems more like poetic justice to me,” Matthew said, trying for levity and winning a rising of his wife’s eyes to his, but no smile. He couldn’t remember her smiling. He couldn’t remember the last time she smiled. He couldn’t remember her smile at all.
“It’s despicable,” she said and reached for the glass on the coffee table with its smidgen of scotch and three slivers of ice. Downing it she handed it up to Matthew who took it.
 ”What in the hell is wrong with all of you big dicks anyway? You can’t find Lucille’s fingerprints on any of this mess? What’s wrong with those big investigators up in Springfield? Are you all getting paid extra to stall? Just long enough for Snakes to slide through his final term untarnished? He just keeps smiling and bobbing that head up and down. He grins like a dog. He flippin’ nominates Carlene Deluccio to head the Licensing Bureau and now you can’t find anything on her either. How can you all find nothing on Carlene Deluccio? First she inherits the keys to the racetrack and now has bought herself a key to the governor’s mansion. You boys are just sitting around scratching yourselves. Probably scratching one another, too.”
“What exactly do you think I can do about any of this?” Matthew Grosen asked his wife. His voice was nearly as toneless as hers and he surprised himself realizing he wasn’t even angered at her words. After awhile, he supposed, you really just don’t hear it.
“You can bring me another drink,” Patsy said.
He went to the kitchen where the scotch and melting bowl of ice set on the counter. He put a handful of ice in Patsy’s glass and carefully poured a level shot of scotch and drank it back. He poured a second level shot, dumped it into Patsy’s glass and after looking at it put in another. He returned to her in the silent living room.

Patsy wasn’t alone in her tirade. It was the tirade of the newspapers and talk radio, accusations appeared everywhere on the goddamn public access channel and now some idiot kids were doing something on the Internet, blabbing or blogging or something. It was all they talked about in the Haden County State’s Attorney’s office. Matthew Grosen was sick of it all.
And it wasn’t just Haden County any longer. There didn’t seem to be a state investigator or a public counselor or a law official of any sort south of the sacred halls of Springfield who didn’t suspect the others of covering up what looked to them all like a governor tied into the racetracks in Southern Illinois. These men, “the dicks” as Patsy termed them all, crossed paths constantly. There wasn’t a one who didn’t believe the governor guilty of something. Few voiced such things to one another, though. They had no evidence to indict. There was no simple act that their superiors deemed strong enough to bet their careers upon. “This is the governor,” they continually reminded one another.
Not even the politicians wanted a stink. Not even, or rather, certainly not Paulie’s natural enemies, the Downstate Republicans. If anyone stood to lose in a Southern Illinois horse racing scandal it was them. Indeed, as it appeared to upstate and downstate pols, everyone stood to gain  the most if business continued as usual.
So as the barbs of incompetence and accusations of criminality were leveled at dicks from their friends, enemies, local newspapers and ultimately late night monologues, the dicks continued to bob their heads, purse their lips thoughtfully, repeat their commitment to following all leads and repeatedly reminded their accusers that no matter what, “In the United States of America a man was innocent until proven guilty.”
As Matthew Grosen and his colleagues choked out the words again and again Powell Paulie basked in the glow of a decent win and was exercising fully its rewarding doling out of appreciative patronage. “Deliver the bacon to their doors,” Buddy Nowak repeated his friend’s old adage while accompanying the governor on a number of swings through Downstate to cut ribbons on new highway projects and open  new branch agencies.
This was certainly not the first time Illinois politics had provided such fodder or that pieces had trickled across Matthew Grosen’s desk. But it was the first time it had radiated from his jurisdiction. And it was personal.
It wasn’t that Grosen was so above the fray he hadn’t ever greased things along, glanced the other way, appreciated campaign contributions of all kinds when needed. But the kind of money-handling and secret-keeping opportunities that returned the big bucks were gut wrenching to him. This was partially his moral code, which he attributed to his pioneer ancestors or, as Patsy called it, “the Grosen male indoctrination.” But his visceral repugnance at large scale malfeasance was also that even the rumored amounts of the various pay offs always seemed puny compared to the horrific risk: To be stripped of your personal honor.
So like most of his brethren, he hated the men he suspected of these things as despicable. But he did not hamper or expose those he suspected. For that would have been dishonorable as well.
In these ways Grosen suspected he was like the average American. He believed a certain degree of deal-making was inevitable, even advisory, to keep things moving; even if some of it would be distasteful to him. Even those who would never take a bribe, even those who would never offer – “all of us schmucks” Grosen would include himself – accept that some people did and that it was useful and necessary.
“And then we schmucks go back to our tiny piece of business-as-usual and continue to vote our self interests year after year.” If Matthew Grosen had told this once to Patsy and Kyle he had told them a hundred times. “That’s just how people are. Few of us are really crooks. But we all feel capable, thus slightly reprehensible and so we always feel a tad bit guilty ourselves.”
For all of that, Matthew Grosen and most of the rest of the dicks involved in the ongoing investigations, would like to find someone to blame for this. It wasn’t Lucille. From all accounts she appeared innocent of wrong-doing . So if she wanted to take her late husband’s seat back from Carlene, and the idiots on the Democratic Central Committee wanted to do that to themselves, well have at it.
“Poetic justice,” was Matthew Grosen’s take on it.  Even though, like Patsy, as the unacknowledged betrayal grew between them, Matthew Grosen had really hoped that Lucille Wolf would just go away.

Upon assuming the Haden County Commissioner seat that Carlene Deluccio relinquished with such protest, Lucille Temple Wolf reinstated her maiden name. She was in accord with the rest of Haden that Lucille Wolf did have to go. However it was Lucille, alone, who was pleased with Carlene’s big stink, which embarrassed the commission and the party. But it proved an opportunity for Lucille to say of her own ambitions, “I feel I owe to Bill, for the good of all Haden County.”
Deluccio had not resigned during the weeks it took for the legislature to confirm her appointment as Governor Paulie’s Secretary of Licensing., which it did overwhelmingly. But then she refused to step down from her commission seat, intending to hold both seats concurrently. She responded incredulously to Irene Hanley’s conflict queries the same as she had during her state confirmation hearings. Owning a racetrack, Carlene told the legislators, gave her expertise for the job as Secretary of Licensing. Similarly, she told the central committee, all the better for Haden County to have such a well connected state appointee sitting on their commission. Furthermore, she told the local paper, the governor said she could have both seats.
When that little snip Irene Hanley had found the prohibition in a deep subsection of state rules guiding central committees, Carlene ignored her. Finally Buddy Nowak called and expressed the governor’s wishes that Carlene serve only as his Secretary, that the post was too important to waste her time on county affairs as well.
 Indeed a schedule conflict arose immediately and Carlene did not attend Lucille’s swearing-in ceremony in late February.
 “This seems the exact definition of surreal,” Lucille told Shelby later that week. They were lunching near the community college in Vernon after a spa morning to celebrate.  “I am serving out Bill’s current term. It seems a century has passed since that victory.”
Her mother still wore black but they had decided earlier, during their pedicures, that Lucille would lighten to navy in the spring. Shelby thought this was adequate. Her mother looked great in both colors. She now watched her mother dab her eyes with a lovely handkerchief, ivory with deep brown embroidered lace edges. Where does she find this stuff? Shelby wondered.
“Well, I have a bit more surrealism for you,” Shelby giggled. “Grand-Mama wishes to know if you’re planning on adding ‘Prentiss’ back into your ‘á tois of names’.” Shelby giggled again and then sobered. “You aren’t are you?”
Lucille looked up dry-eyed, not startled by the question. “No,” she said.
Mother and daughter had agreed that long ago time they sat across the dining room table with Bill Wolf's body still upstairs that Shelby would not merely move into her grandmother’s home but would abandon the Wolf name all together. Even in the midst of that insanity, Shelby, also grieving and betrayed, grasped immediately that it was a sensible course out of the catastrophe. “Grand’Mama,” however, had been purely her idea.
“This will not define our lives,” Lucille had said at the dining room table all that time ago. And Shelby had nodded.
It was after this lunch that Shelby came to apply the word “surreal” to the house Bill Wolf had moved them to after he was elected to his first term. For the rest of her life, when she recalled that house, she tended to remember it as Kyle usually watched it, from across the park, at some distance. It appeared to Shelby as a surreal painting, at once seeming substantial and equally made of nothingness. She saw it as though only half the molecules were in place. In her memory it stood in the exact shape of a house but gaps surrounded every molecule, it was like a mosaic without its clay, seeming about to crumble into a pile of rubble.
Shelby had never gone back inside the house. Her mother had brought her clothing and her grandmother had sent for a few pieces of her bedroom furniture. That had been that. The school in the East was never mentioned. Without fuss Shelby enrolled in the region’s community college and attended in Vernon County, the most collegiate of its campuses. She would  transfer to Northern Illinois University for her degree. She and her mother had also agreed that Shelby would soon be done with Downstate.
Her mother had moved out within days as well. She put the surreal house on the market. She too took only her personal affects and a few pieces of furniture. She rented a townhouse in a new neighborhood near the old courthouse. It was a tad chic, Shelby thought, despite being in Haden.
“It wouldn’t help you in Haden anyway,” Shelby said, thinking still of the Prentiss name she had reclaimed. She found herself unable to hold her mother’s gaze. She picked up her fork to pick further at her salad.
“No,” Lucille burst out with a laugh, “the Prentiss name probably wouldn’t help me in Hades where surely Grand’Mama also owns an acre or two. Or more likely, those boys left her in hawk for that too. Maybe as a result she might just escape at the last possible moment.” Lucille laughed some more then again dried her eyes, this time genuinely damp and reached across to pat her daughter’s hand.  “Darling, you assure your grandmother that I have no intention of further sullying her name. I am working as hard as I can to get out of her precious quad-counties. You assure her of that.”
Shelby looked up surprised. “You’re leaving? You just got the seat.”
“You know I can’t stay in Haden County. Your grandmother certainly does. Or she’s getting dotty.”
“But your seat?”
“Oh my sweet dear, there aren’t even two years left in the term and in no way on this planet could I win Bill’s seat in a Democratic primary.  I’ve got to admit I even impressed myself that I wrangled the appointment. Not that I didn’t deserve it. But, truthfully, that’s my skill, wrangling, arranging. I don’t think this glad-handing and sweet-talking is my favorite side of the business. I think that’s your side,” Lucille smiled and with a final pat lifted her own hand to reach for the bill.
Her daughter raised her face which had lit up at what she took for a compliment, at what her mother had meant as a compliment. They smiled at one another, pleased with one another and with themselves. The pleasure slightly surprised both of them. This was new territory for mother and daughter.

The headlines moved slowly off Wolf’s shoebox and never touched Carlene. Her appointment fell deep into a story about five additional cabinet-level appointments. The headline was about the most controversial, pro-business environmental appointee and then the story was gone. The series of check-by-check discovery stories were still making the front page, albeit below the fold.
 The checks were turning out to be from dead people and long closed accounts. Others were from legitimate donors who ranged from complete innocents to outraged innocents. A few came from firms whose aggregate contributions had previously hit the legal limit. It was a grab-bag of potentialities, but still not a great deal more than a shoebox of loose ends. A gubernatorial campaign’s treasurer could have likely handled them all without a single headline. But they were found in the closet of a prominent suicide. The residue implications were of opportunism by Wolf inside the governor’s campaign. That’s what Nowak had said repeatedly to the investigating agencies. “But we’ll never know,” Nowak would shrug.
It seemed too coincidental to Matthew Grosen. In fact it seemed impossible for Haden County to have both such a big winner and such a big loser grow so quickly out of a gubernatorial election. Wolf had lost three times over, Grosen mused: His commission seat, his campaign and his life. And Carlene got two payoffs:  Wolf’s seat and then oversight of her horseracing industry. So finally, when the checks led nowhere, Grosen managed to push someone in Springfield to probe deeper into Carlene Deluccio’s affairs.
That Paulie owed Carlene was obvious, he argued, but no matter how you cut it, Wolf seemed nothing but a means. Maybe not even that, maybe Bill Wolf was nothing but a convenience. Grosen couldn’t see Paulie having anything to lose or gain from Bill Wolf.
 Paulie surely had plenty to gain from Carlene Deluccio. So much that not even a rather grandly orchestrated route to a commission seat filled the debt. Grosen suspected that Snakes must now have something to lose from Carlene as well.
So what was this stupid shoebox about? Paying off Wolf in traceable checks? Dumb. Not even Bill Wolf could be that naïve, Grosen thought. And payoff for what? Handling something with Carlene? He’d already given up his seat to her. Or was the shoebox just a convenient smokescreen to keep the audience from noticing the racetrack owner taking the reins of the licensing bureau? Who would figure to appoint the racetrack owner head of the racetrack licensing unless nobody was paying attention. Grosen could perfectly see Nowak setting something like that up. It reeked of his touch.
But no matter how Grosen looked at the suicide, that  seemed to be nothing more than Nowak’s dumb luck, extending the smokescreen well beyond the daily news cycle.
Matthew Grosen had no evidential reason to think these thoughts. But he did have a feeling he could not shake despite the lack of evidence. When he stood in Bill Wolf’s bedroom, looking at the mess his former friend had made, listening to the semi-coherent Lucille down the hall with Officer Duane Jesse, Matthew Grosen had thought of Buddy Nowak, could nearly feel him standing in the room beside him.
The state people hadn’t yet arrived. Not even Jesse would have been there yet if Matt hadn’t told Lucille to call 911 when she hung up with him. As Matthew Grosen stood in Bill and Lucille’s bedroom – having somehow known the moment he answered the phone to Lucille’s voice what he’d basically find – he accepted for himself that it was a suicide.
 Yet as Matthew Grosen stood in that room, looking at Bill and looking away, the state’s attorney pictured Nowak and the increasingly haggard Wolf at last summer’s Hambletonian. Nowak had Wolf by the arm and was talking and talking. The grip looked tight and vaguely unfriendly. Bill was looking down and grimacing. Perhaps that was why Grosen thought the grip too tight. Wolf was looking down, grimacing and nodding and nodding.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Chapter 10 – The Suicide

Kyle and Matthew Grosen sat silently across the kitchen table from one another toying with the remains of yet another casserole left by yet another neighbor. Kyle wasn’t completely sure what prompted the neighbors to bring them casseroles the same as they were also carrying to the Wolfs, whether it was sympathy or cruelty.
They said it was for the two men left alone. Patsy had been away, spending some time with her family. That’s what Kyle and his father and most of Haden County said aloud and to one another, their eyes sliding off one another and then glancing away. Patsy’s mother wasn’t well. Her mother hadn’t been well for a while. What some people in Haden County said was that whatever the suffering of her mother, maybe Patsy’s suffering was greater.
 People in Harrison County thought simply staying with Cecelia  Harrison was punishment enough for anything. “Well good thing you didn’t take up poker for a living,” were the first words out of Cecelia Harrison's mouth when Patsy stepped into the kitchen. Matt set a suitcase on the floor, turned around and drove back to Haden County without further conversation with any of them.
Shelby was away as well, also in Harrison County. She was staying with her grandmother, Ruth Prentiss, the matriarch of a fortune based upon property and the livestock it produced. There was no finer farmland, no clearer running streams, no better timber in the whole of Southern Illinois than on the thousands of acres that generations had acquired and passed intact into her husband’s possession. Her husband, too, had added to the holdings and increased production of what were arguably the finest racing horses and best breeding cattle in the Midwest.
That reputation was lost during the brief tenure of their eldest son between his father’s premature death and then his own. The fortune was moving even more quickly through the hands of their youngest son who used much of it on a succession of trophy wives – even Ruth Prentiss knew the phrase – and to keep his own two sons out of jail. Shelby’s father, the middle son Philip, had never been given a stab at the company, showing himself at a shockingly young age to be not merely a natural dilettante but a wastrel and drunkard as well.
It was astounding how fast it could go, Ruth Prentiss thought about the fortune, but she never remarked upon the money. It would do no one any good to hear her speak such awkward truths, which did not mean she failed to make the point to her remaining sons and grandsons when she ever saw them. She had not yet thought what to make of her granddaughter. She had seen very little of her.
It was rumored her husband actually called her "Ruth," but no one in Harrison County had ever called her anything than Mrs. Harrison or “Ma’am.” That included her sons, Shelby  had been told  more than once by Lucille. Shelby was thinking about that after the deputy had handed her off to a maid who was now closing the parlor door behind her and her grandmother.
Once the door had shut Ruth Prentiss said, “I hear that now your mother thinks you should live with me.” After Shelby remained silent the older woman asked, “What do you think of that?”
“I think I shall call you Grand-Mama if I am to stay here,” Shelby said.
“You’ll call me the devil if you give me any trouble,” Mrs. Prentiss replied.
 Shelby was silent for a moment but then said,“I will call you Grand-Mama and I will return to my birth name.”
The old woman caught herself nearly smiling before she lifted and rang a small bell near her hand on a side table. Nearly immediately the door opened and the maid reappeared.
“Show Miss Prentiss to her room,” the old woman said, nodded at Shelby and returned to reading a pile of documents she had let fall to her lap. “I think we understand each other,” Ruth Prentiss said as Shelby stepped out of the parlor.
  That both of these hugely unusual reunions were taking place seemed somehow normal in the wake of something so irregular and unexpected as Bill Wolf shooting himself in the stomach on his and Lucille’s bed.
"Who would have thought it? Bill Wolf," Irene Hanley went around repeating like a drum beat. "I would have thought it of anyone before Bill Wolf. Who would have thought it?"
When Patsy heard she clutched her stomach and doubled over in an agony from which she could not emerge. She might as well have performed her exposure on the town square. As it was word reached her at Maxine’s. Patsy was done, blown dried and almost out the hairdresser’s door when the news burst in upon her and the women behind her.
To many the news of Patsy’s response was the greatest of the shocks and seemingly endless aftershocks which included Patsy’s husband, the state’s attorney, discovering in Bill Wolf’s closet a shoe box full of checks made out to the governor’s recently successful reelection campaign.
“A goddamn shoe box,” Matthew Grosen told Patsy that night.
Patsy was sitting on the couch when he returned home. Her red eyes were dry and swollen. “I’m going to go stay with my mother,” she said.
Matthew Grosen looked at his wife and finally said, “I think that is a terrible idea.”
It was rumored the first words out of Lucille upon discovering the body – which she did upon her return from her own hair appointment in the clever little arty town of Platteville, the other side of Vernon County – were, “Well you son-of­-a-bitch.”
But this was pure speculation. No one was in the house except Lucille who had a difficult time remembering any type of chronology from swinging shut the door of her small SUV and catching a pleasing glimpse of herself in the side mirror until sitting face to face with Shelby and holding her hands across the dining room table and repeating, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing any of us could have done to prevent this.”
“I’ve got it, Mom,” was the rebuke from Shelby that awakened Lucille to chronology and efficiency.
Lucille remained in black and in firm and complete control from that moment forth, which began with the decision to get Shelby out of town. Lucille handled the funeral arrangements, interface with the forensic people and the damage control. She made every decision necessary regarding the handling of the estate, declining assistance from the Wolf family attorney, the family physician, the husbands of either of Bill’s two aunts, a remarkable array of cousins some of whom she had never met and even from Al Plover.And, of course, from Bill’s dear baby brother Robert.
The inconsolable Robert was in no shape to question anything, he was grateful, repeatedly telling her how grateful he was for her ability to handle all of this. And that mousy wife of his certainly wasn’t going to poke her nose into it.
“You know he would never do anything wrong,” Robert kept telling Lucille. “I just can’t believe this has happened,” he would take off crying again.
 “Well Robert he has done something wrong,” Lucille finally said. “He shot himself on my bed.”
“It’s not your fault Lucille,” Robert said instantly.
“Thank you Robert. I know that. We need to move on now." Lucille said.
Other than that not even Al Plover – who witnessed her pulling every penny of the Wolf money out of his bank – ever received any comment from Lucille regarding her opinion of Bill Wolf or regarding her legal or financial standing. Lucille hired her own attorney, an almost young man from Platteville, but already turning middle aged. He was as circumspect as a choir boy. With him at her side she dressed consistently in a black suit. He wore medium gray. Together they met and  were candid with the police and the investigators. She also had him accompany her to all meetings with the governor's aides, to Buddy's particular annoyance. They all came at her furiously for the first month, at which point the state investigations went on but she became a lesser and lesser piece of  their inquiries.
This was because even the state investigators ultimately came at the truth of the matter, which was that Lucille had been completely and totally ignorant of the shoe box of checks in Bill Wolf’s closet.
 She wasn’t surprised that Bill would be involved – albeit in a minor way – with campaign fraud. He was a pragmatic man. But a box of un -cashed, after-the-fact checks made out to a campaign entity struck her as just some kind of stupid oversight on someone’s part, as stupid as Bill perhaps forgetting to turn them in to someone. Nothing to kill yourself over.
She had sent a sizeable chunk of cash with Shelby. She’d known exactly where Bill kept campaign cash. She’d accepted Bill’s explanation that the cash came from contributors who wished to remain anonymous. Lucille expected she and Bill would use the cash themselves as an unreported reimbursement of the debt they had accrued on behalf of the campaign. Not legal perhaps, but not really cheating. That was how Lucille saw it. It never occurred to her those few thousand dollars, well, maybe even ten thousand, would constitute campaign fraud. Never in the weeks of interrogation by police and investigators did she even in her mind make any link between the improbable checks and the cash she hoped would prove enough to get her and Shelby out of Haden.
When she awoke from her hours of shock and sat facing her daughter Lucille knew she would never understand why he had done it. She wouldn't understand anymore than Haden County itself understood how their fair­-haired Billy Wolf, one of the finest and most upstanding among them, could do this. And as time and investigations wore on, it seemed Bill Wolf crashed so hugely and irresponsibly into a scandal that was never defined. No one would ever understand.
“It was just scandal for the sake of scandal,” Lucille would soon tell Irene Hanley. “He was pilloried to death, Irene. And no one came to his rescue. No one.”
 Lucille was as angry at Bill as a scorned woman, as a threatened mother. But despite it all, the long and the short of it was this, Lucille made a convincing grieving widow, for Lucille did grieve.
Despite her jaw-clenched tenacity to see through what she viewed as a humiliating personal tragedy and its attendant anger at her husband beyond anything she had imagined possible, she sobbed nightly. She sobbed for hours into the pillow in the guest bedroom, which was as far as she could pull herself from their bedroom which remained gapingly empty where the bed had stood.
While Lucille proceeded with her clenched jaw and ramrod spine and abrupt behavior  -- winning her a begrudging admiration but no love – Patsy’s grief verily oozed from her house, which she didn’t leave, not even for the funeral.
The ladies at Maxine’s attempted to stop by that first week and for the first few days were greeted at the kitchen door by a bathrobe clad, slack-faced Patsy who did not invite them in. By the end of the week Patsy wasn’t opening the door. By the weekend Matt took her over to Harrison where it had been agreed her mother needed her.
Irene Hanley wasn’t any longer than an hour bringing a plate of chocolate chip cookies to Kyle. “I saw your dad taking your mom out 231,” she said after rapping at the window in the top of the Grosen’s kitchen door and seeing Kyle look up from the kitchen table. “I figured they were heading over to her people,” Irene called through the door. “For some reason I just thought you might like some cookies. I just baked some for Bobby. With your mom out of town and all.” She stood at the door smiling brightly and held the plate in the air a though she were an advertisement for fresh baked cookies.  “May I come in?” she finally asked.
Kyle stared at her. He couldn’t imagine what to say, he could only formulate things not to say. He got out of his seat and felt he was somehow hypnotized, walking toward the framed face of Bobby Hanley’s mother at the kitchen door. He suddenly realized his fists were clenching and unclenching. “Yeah,” he finally said and reached to open the door. He held it open and let her into the kitchen where they both stood staring at one another.
“Well,” Irene finally said, “I’ll just leave them here on the table.” Placing them there, with her back to him, she tried again, “I hope everything is all right. Is your mother all right?” she asked.
“Uh huh,” Kyle said which thankfully released him from his daze.  It had made him sound like Bobby Hanley.  “Oh,” he said, “oh, absolutely. Mom’s fine. Gee. Thanks for the cookies Mrs. Hanley.”
“Well, I was just worried,” she said.
“Nothing to worry about, Mrs. Hanley. Tell Bobby hello,” he said and stared at her until she walked away from the table and back to the door. She stopped then and looked him in the eye. She was shorter than him, but not by a lot. Her smile twisted at one end and her smile turned briefly into a slight smirk and then righted itself back to her thin smile. She didn’t say anything more until she was out the door. “Bye Kyle. Enjoy the cookies,” she said and got in her car and drove home.
Kyle stared at the cookies and felt suddenly that he might vomit. He turned to the sink and got a glass of water and held on to the counter until the sensation passed. He drank the water and filled the glass again at the faucet but this time only drank half of it before setting it down on the counter. He couldn’t even tell for sure if he was angry, let alone who he was angry at. Who wasn’t he angry at? Shelby. Maybe he wasn’t angry at Shelby. He could think of no reason to be angry with Shelby. But he knew that somehow they would never be the same kind of friends again.
He had driven over to the Prentiss’ house the morning after William Wolf had killed himself. He had learned that night, from his father, where Shelby had gone.
“What?” he had screamed at his father, “why didn’t you tell me? I could have taken her.” He plunged toward the kitchen to get his truck keys when his father yelled.
“Kyle! It’s nearly midnight. Get hold of yourself.” It was unusual for Matthew Grosen to raise his voice. It stopped Kyle and he started to cry but made himself stop as his father entered the kitchen. “Go to your room, I have to talk to your mom, I’ll come by your room in a little bit and answer what I can for you.”
 “Her grandmother?” Kyle said. He had been on his computer, trying to see what the news had about Mr. Wolf when his father came into the room. It hadn’t been long, maybe twenty minutes. He’d heard his father talking and then he presumed putting his mother to bed. She was acting really weird, he thought.
“Keep your voice down,” Matthew confirmed as he closed the door behind himself, “I’m hoping your mother can get some sleep.” He ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “Doctor Bean sent over a sedative,” he said and only now looked at Kyle.
Kyle pursed his lips but said nothing.
“We were all good friends in high school,” his father said and sat down on Kyle’s bed. “Bill, your mom and me. He hasn’t had a happy life.”
“Yeah, I guess not,” Kyle said.
Matthew Grosen gave his son a sad, acknowledging smile. “Right," Matt said, "I mean before too. I mean his whole life. It never made sense. His life. Everything should have been perfect for him. He always had everything he needed for it to be perfect. And he knew it. He was appreciative. He worked hard and was always a good friend but, but, I don’t know. It would end up, whatever it was, that nothing about it had gone perfectly. Not at all.  This isn’t making much sense, is it?” Matt suddenly asked, turning back to Kyle.
“You mean like Mrs. Wolf? It looked like it was perfect but it was horrible.”
Matt looked still at his son and finally said. “Like both Missus Wolfs. But I don’t mean, Kyle, that they were horrible. It just was somehow everything turned horrible.”
“So was that always the problem? You and mom never liked either Mrs. Wolf?”
“That was a problem,” Matt said and his eyes slid off his son onto his hands clasped between his knees.
“So why did he kill himself? Because of Mrs. Wolf?”
“No. No I don’t think so. No I’m certain not. No,” Matthew said.
"Why?" Kyle asked.
"I don't have any idea."
“Right,” Kyle said. “How’s Shelby?”
“She’s fine. She’s tough. She will be fine. She's like Lucille, no crying, just practical.”
“In shock,” Kyle said.
“Yes. Probably in shock. Lucille sent her over to the Prentiss’ which, I have to say, was a piece of good clear thinking on her part.”
“Mrs. Wolf is okay,” Kyle said. “I don’t know why you and mom hate her so much. I mean, I know she’s kinda a pain in the ass. But she’s okay.”
“We don’t hate her, Kyle.”
“Stop it,” Matthew said quietly. “It isn’t the time for us to be bickering about this.”
 “I’ll go see Shelby tomorrow.” Kyle glanced at his father and saw no rebuke so hazarded one more remark. “Maybe now you and Mom can be nicer to her. She thought of Mr. Wolf as her father.”
“Kyle, it isn’t the time for this either, but I’m going to tell you what I always tell you about Shelby Prentiss, she won’t be staying in Haden County. Not for you. Not for anybody.  And this is just going to speed that up.”
“Well maybe I won’t be staying either,” Kyle said.
Matthew slapped his knees and stood up and walked to his son to put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He squeezed it once and turned to leave the room.
Kyle was right thinking his father hadn’t heard him. Even if Matthew Grosen had heard, it would never occur to him that Kyle would leave Haden County.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chapter Nine – The Candidates

“WINNING IS EVERYTHING!” Buddy cried out.
About thirty-five men and two women tried to raise their right arms in imitation of Buddy and tried to raise their voices in imitation of Buddy but it was a weak echo. The contingent of downstate candidates out of the primary were gathered for their first pep rally with Governor Powell Paulie. The governor would be arriving “soon” they had been told twice and were starting to grasp that they themselves were the warm-up act.
Few Downstate Democrats had faced contested primaries so hadn’t actually won anything yet. They were still new to the silly things that accompanied one-on-one campaigning or slate-building on behalf of the Party. This hollering and jumping up and down in an Elk Lodge  was embarrassing, seemed juvenile to them. They still expecting gravitas and strategic conversations about policies and issues. They were to be disabused of that today. That was the purpose of today, to turn them into candidates running below the governor’s ticket.
“We got to all get on the same page,” Buddy Nowak told them. “We gotta get on the governor’s wagon and we all gotta push. We gotta push to the win. Let’s hear it.”
“Winning Is Everything,” cried Bill Wolf. He believed it. He was a winner. Harrison had been gracious in conceding but had made no effort to throw his party support to Wolf. Instead it appeared his people were moving into Johnson's camp. Harrison had been seen politically only once since the primary, at a Paulie fundraiser. Wolf had seen him deep in conversation with Buddy and hoped Harrison was being encouraged to bring the Harrison County Democrats out for him in November.
  Bill Wolf looked to the men on either side of him. They stood with their right fists clenched but not raised and said the words looking at the floor. “Winning IS everything,” Bill suddenly cried out again and the men to his sides slightly jumped and then turned and smiled at him. Bill reached out and patted both men on their backs.
“WINNING IS EVERYTHING,” Buddy called back. And now Bill, the men on either side of him and the men next to them cheered louder than before.
“BILL WOLF – WINNER IN HADEN COUNTY,” Buddy called back. A cheer went up in the room and Bill grinned and raised his arms into the air.
He was on his way. He could feel it. The room was electric. He was electric. Electric and alive. He had won a grueling race. He was a winner. He was on his way.
“Congratulations,” boomed the governor who stepped upon the plywood stage set up for military recognitions, fire department installations and politicians. “We stand here today as winners and in a few months will stand together in Springfield as leaders representing the citizens of the Great State of Illinois. But first we gotta get ‘em to the polls,” the governor said.
The renewed cheering partially obliterated the rest of the governor’s sentence which ended as did so many of his campaign pledges, “…if we work together.”
“Well that is sure as shit the fly in the ointment, isn’t it,” Lucille said that night. “Working together,” she snorted. She, too, had attended the rally, but she had attended to the seminars and orientations filled with the mishmash of campaign aides and treasurers and spouses. She had been surprised to realize Bill’s campaign committee was far more organized than most. She was surprised and disheartened. She’d expected to find support systems at the rally only to discover Bill’s primary win was drawing other campaigns to her, asking her for help on their fledgling efforts.
 “Tell Carlene Deluccio about working together. I didn’t think Carlene Deluccio could work any harder than she did for Harrison, but she’s outdoing herself for Johnson. She’s not even pretending she isn’t supporting a Republican. And she is holding your goddamn seat, for god’s sakes. You should never have resigned. That seat should have been mine.”
William Wolf was flat on his back on one of the two beds in the Holiday Inn where he and Lucille had decided to “take an extra night, away from the campaign, for a slight breather.” His right forearm was thrown over his closed eyes.
“And don’t just do that big sigh,” Lucille said into the silence.
“You know what I’m saying is the truth,” Lucille said into the continued silence.
“You know she’s just a snake in the grass. They’re all snakes,” Lucille said.
“Now that,” Bill said, taking down his arm, “is the first true thing you’ve said. Carlene isn’t for Johnson, Carlene is for Paulie. Between her personally and three businesses she’s contributed about $350,000. Public contributed. God knows how much more she’s given.”
Lucille was silent and then asked. “What does that mean?”
“Let me rephrase that. Carlene is for Carlene. The public contributions came in four installments. One of them a year and a half ago, about the time the governor visited.”
“What?” Lucille tried to catch up. “Your old seat is worth $350,000?” 
“No,” Bill Wolf said, replacing his arm over his eyes, “Carlene is worth $350,000 to the governor. More.”
“I don’t get it. All this just to give her a commissioner seat? All of this?” Lucille looked around the motel room, their clothes strewn from open suitcases, a bottle of bourbon next to the coffeepot just outside the bathroom. “How much are you worth to him?” Lucille asked.
Bill was silent.
“Well you’ve just got to become more valuable,” Lucille said.
Bill turned away from her and in a moment she realized he was sobbing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Chapter Eight – The Campaign

It wasn’t until putting the decorations away Shelby began shaking. Shaking so she nearly dropped the ornament she’d been told her paternal grandmother had given for her first Christmas. She’d been slightly more than six months old.
“It was the thought that did it,” Shelby told Kyle. “I thought, ‘This is the last time I’ll be doing this.’ And I suddenly realized that with everything I placed back into its box I was thinking the same thing, ‘This is the last time I’ll be doing this.’ Just like I was going to be dead before next Christmas.”
“You know that’s crazy, right?”
She was silent after that. So Kyle remained silent too. They sat huddled in separate sleeping bags in Kyle’s father’s Jeep. Neither Kyle’s truck nor Shelby’s compact had four-wheel drive. The snow had stopped only a few hours ago.
It was after just this type of a snowfall, a snowfall heavy enough to take down small branches, followed by a north wind, you could hear the wolves.
The cemetery had huge old markers in the center. They configured just right for the wind to howl through. It was a small cemetery, deep within the forest that for the most part was what constituted Haden County’s Jefferson Park.
Unlike in the counties of the Metro East, the park in Haden County wasn’t named for the third president. It was named for its donor, Bernard Coates Jefferson, a man made wealthy in the Metro East from the railroad and riverboats and then made poor buying acreage in Southern Illinois. Jefferson had given five-thousand- plus acres to Haden County a century ago. The land at the time included the small cemetery, a large lake and thick woodlands abutting acres of inactive farm fields.
“Mr. Jefferson saw a future in land, expected to capitalize on land in and of itself,” the executor of the B.C .Jefferson Trust explained on a field trip Shelby’s and Kyle’s ninth grade history class had made. “An idea before it’s time,” he said.
“Still is,” Shelby had said within hearing of their teacher who smiled broadly.
“Precisely, Shelby.” The teacher turned to the rest of the class, “Do the rest of you grasp this economic concept?”
Shelby had overheard Mr. Plover and her stepfather talking while mixing drinks for their wives in the Wolf’s kitchen. There was apparently to be a new racetrack in the southeast portion of the state. Haden County needed a state interchange built there to make it profitable according to the banking officials who were working on securing private investors for the region.
“There’s plenty of land over there at Jefferson,” Mr. Plover had said. “There are acres and acres the bank would love to move on.”
Shelby didn’t know how this was what Mrs. Turner meant, but treasured that five-year-old commendation and as a result registered for a freshman economics class first semester at her small private college in the East. Her grasp of economics in that class were a precise D on the bell curve. Her standing among her peers was a bit lower. A further surprise was discovering that she had an accent and that it was openly referred to as a “twang” and audibly behind her back called “hillbilly.”
 “They all went to pre-school together,” Shelby explained to Kyle her decision not to return. “Besides, Mom and Dad could use my help on the campaign. Even Dad said it would help. They can’t get the donations they need to hire any help at all. And Harrison is rich. He is so rich. The campaign manager says Dad has to compete no matter how much Harrison spends.” Shelby paused and looked at Kyle. “I think they took out a loan,” she said.
They both knew the adage: If there isn’t enough money to support your candidacy, there aren’t enough votes to elect you.
“They just need help,” Shelby said. “And I don’t plan to go back there anyway. It was so phony.”
The wind shook snow from the trees that surrounded the parking lot and the road in to the forest.  A few other cars had crunched quietly past but presumably found their own private coves in the snaking lot circling the cemetery. Or they had driven on, content to repeat the ghost stories of Victoria Forest while driving past.
  Jefferson had named the thick stand of hardwoods and pines for his maiden sister. Her tall grave stone was among those creating the winter cries. The forest had been long ago nicknamed Voodoo Forest. It stood alone on the horizon, one of the first stands of trees to mark the edge of the ancient prairies. There the land becomes increasingly hilly as it descends  into the great rivers convergence at the tip of Southern Illinois.
Shelby and Kyle had brought sleeping bags so they could turn the car off and listen for the wolves. They each had climbed into one and sat in the front seat of the Jeep. Snow had fallen all day, quitting only a few hours before sunset. It was early evening now but dark as night. The cemetery felt just barely beyond their sight. Sometimes it seemed one of the tall gravestones could be seen amongst the lean black trunks that swayed as the snow blew past.
They remained silent, unusual just a few weeks ago but having become typical as Shelby’s winter break wore on. She received a crash course on how the campaign was running since returning home in mid-December. She returned looking brittle and unhappy and at first seemed quickly revived. But that was short lived.
 Shelby arrived home on a Thursday and went with Kyle Friday afternoon to the Starbucks in Vernon County – he had taken her out of the county, knowing she wouldn’t want to be in Haden and still it hadn’t mattered. Susan Prince was there with a handful of her student council cheerleading bitches and asked loudly if anyone had ever heard of a Political Gold-digger?  “They don’t do it for the money,” she said, “they do it for the party.”
“I get this is for me,” Shelby said to Kyle, “but I don’t get it.”
“Harder to deny.”
“Ah,” Shelby said. “Brilliant in its own way.”
Whether she had known then, whether she had always known, Shelby couldn’t dodge the bile her mother was acquiring as William Wolf ran a grueling campaign that made the phrase no-holds-barred meaningless.
Harrison hadn’t hesitated to paint Wolf as the husband of a two-timing floozy who took the life of a good upstanding county man she’d tempted him into disaster and then death. And  Harrison went on colorfully noting that Wolf’s current wife was so slatternly as to be tossed out by the wastrel Prentiss. Wolf himself, explained Harrison, was a man who had only come home from the city to help his old man drive the once illustrious Wolf Farms into bankruptcy.
 “Pains me to say of a native son of my neighboring county, but Bill Wolf is more akin to a carpetbagger than a prodigal son,” Harrison intoned at any number of church picnics. “Now Billy Wolf might be nice enough,” Harrison would concede. “It’s nice to have your commissioners be coming from the salt of the earth, and all like that. But you surely don’t want some ne’er-do-well with a questionable ability to choose uplifting company for himself to be representing your god-fearing interests in Springfield. Do you?”
That Richard Harrison, better known as Dickie Harrison, could call anyone a ne’er do well with a straight face was testimony to a life lived unexamined. Richard Harrison was happy with his life, happy with himself, happy that his plump little wife stayed home with his plump five children leaving him most of the time to take care of his business and his pleasure elsewhere.
Business for Dickie Harrison was running his daddy’s harness and tack shop which provided a nice little income for Dickie so long as it was attached to the Harrison’s huge farm interests which produced thoroughbreds with Kentucky Derby trophies in their careers.
Dickie didn’t so much run the store as conduct a farm to farm to convention to convention door to door service that did indeed increase orders and kept him on the road – sometimes for a couple of weeks in a well outfitted travel trailer – at least six days out of ten. He could be found as often at a home’s kitchen table in the middle of the day as in a man’s barn or a neighborhood bar. Conducting business and pleasure.
Betty Jean did not seem to mind. She had a beautiful ranch house with a swimming pool and a maid.  No other girl in her entire graduating class had anything even close to it. Dickie was agreeable and charming when he was around and usually threw a party every week or two when he was home. She felt neither lonely nor maligned by any of the talk that surrounded her husband. “Dickie loves me fine,” she would giggle if anyone braved hinting with her about his antics.
Dickie would grab her ass at a party and squeezing it say to the people nearby, “Betty Jean’s got it good. I give her everything she could possible need.” And then he would growl and she would squeal.
The one time Lucille had seen the display – the one time she had attended a Harrison party – she had made a slight gagging sound and said, “I think I need a glass of water.”
 Dickie overheard her and hollered, “Getting’ too hot for you in here, Lolita?”
Bill Wolf had blushed to his hairline and looked first at Lucille and then at Dickie and then back at Lucille to see what he should do. Lucille smiled. “I’m older than I look, Ducky,” and took to calling Harrison Dickie Duck when she had the chance.
As insinuations of these attacks began appearing in Harrison’s ads and radio spots William Wolf began demanding his dwindling local committee come up with some counter slings. Lucille was adamantly opposed to the idea.
“Buddy Nowak thinks it’s a good idea,”  Bill hissed one night to Lucille as once again the campaign committee shrugged and failed to take up his request.
“”You can’t fight him back by saying Dickie Duck cheats on his wife,  squanders his daddy’s money, is a redneck and a racist. Who in Harrison County doesn’t already know that? If Buddy Nowak wants to go around calling Ducky a sleazebag, more power to him. But don’t let him have you do it.”
“What makes you think you know so much,” Bill Wolf would snap. “You’ve already said what you think. But it isn’t you out there, is it.”
“Right,” Lucille said.
“ Well I just want to remind you that Buddy Nowak has won a lot of campaigns.”
“So have you,” Lucille retorted.
“Not like this one,” he said.
They didn’t need to argue to gauge how grueling the campaign was. All they had to do is look at one another.
 Since Shelby had left in early August Lucille had gained two dress sizes and found strands of gray hair. She began dying immediately. She lost her chair on the central committee as well as seats on three charity boards. Two of the boards lost major donors, both Harrison supporters. She was reappointed to neither and her third board announced she would have an honorary early retirement luncheon in light of her increased duties on her husband’s campaign. “Kicked me off before I had a chance to kill off another donor,” Lucille told her daughter. Shelby had escorted her mother to the luncheon the day after she returned from college.  They gave Lucille a plaque.
Bill had lost two pant sizes, a collar size and looked haggard and old. He looked as Shelby remembered old Mr. Wolf, Bill’s father, who she’d known for the few years he’d still been alive when Shelby was a child. Those were the years the Wolf farm was finally lost and the old man died. She worried her step-father would die. She had heard her mother warn him he would have a heart attack if he kept it up. Shelby had heard him say the same thing to her mother. Shelby had thought about her mother dying, but could not conceive of such a thing and did not worry about her.
During the months Shelby had  been away, Bill and Lucille’s bickering had become mean and intense.  There had always been times when the three of them had perchance sat a meal together and found themselves all talking and seemingly speaking separate languages and talking about completely different topics. When they caught themselves all would laugh and they became a family again.
Shelby looked up the kitchen counter that first Friday morning she was back from college expecting the same experience to end their bickering. They h ad scheduled this morning to eat breakfast together,  joking that family time now had to be scheduled. Shelby had expected it would be the time for her to tell about her first semester and begin convincing them of her desire to leave the school.
So when they quickly fell into a tussle and caught themselves and fell silent, it was Shelby who first looked up with a chuckle, expecting them to all laugh.  Instead Bill and Lucille gulped down the remains of their coffee in unintended unison and pushed abruptly back from the counter with barely a farewell to Shelby.
 She sat alone at the counter and began to feel afraid. Shelby herself had lost a dress size and her appetite and her perfect complexion. Her grades were abysmal compared to high school. Her mother hadn’t noticed any of these things.  Shelby had seen the envelope  from the school, surely her grades, unopened on her mother’s desk. As the days of her vacation passed the letter was buried in more envelopes which also remained unopened.
It was some days after Christmas Day before the three of them found themselves again at the kitchen counter. Shelby blurted her intentions of remaining home for the next semester and helping with the campaign. Her father had looked up from his meal first at her and then questioningly at her mother. As soon as his eyes hit Lucille’s she turned to Shelby and said, “I think that’s an excellent idea, Shel. Do you know how to use Excel?”
By then Shelby had gotten a full dose of the campaign. In addition to Susan Prince’s Starbucks show, two other girls had let her hear “gold-digger” at holiday parties and one had even called her mother a gold-digger to Shelby’s face.
“How do you figure that?” Shelby had asked, stunned more into curiosity than anger.
“You know what I mean,” the girl had said and walked off.
“My mom has been married to Bill Wolf for longer than she’s been alive,” she said to Kyle.
She heard and overheard her stepfather called both an opportunist and a buffoon. She heard people say it in adjacent restaurant booths, in store aisles, saw it on the growing local blog entries. The newspaper had always been Republican so she’d long ago learned not to expect kind treatment there. She’d been surprised, however, by how many of the old Democrats were quoting the paper they had spent her lifetime scorning. They quoted its criticism of her stepfather.
“Not all of them,” Kyle said.
“Only the ones talking,” she replied.
“Well,” Kyle said.
 She herself had been called a slut by Bobby Hanley who had become a rabid member of the Republican Youth Club to spite his councilwoman mother, Irene. Kyle punched him in the jaw and landed in a great deal more trouble than Bobby.
“I was a Republican in my youth as well,” Irene excused her badly behaved son.  Irene called his behavior “independent thinking” and indicative of a well-adjusted son despite a  no-good father who had walked out on them when Bobby was four. The abandonment forced Irene back to her parent’s farm next to the Wolf’s old place where Bobby grew up. Shelby had known him as long as she had known Kyle.
  “There,” Kyle whispered as a burst of wind slightly rocked the car. He turned the key to allow him to lower his window about an inch. He was on the lee. It was how he always parked at Voodoo Forest just for this reason.
Shelby nodded.
The faint howling grew with the wind and the fresh snow blew across the windshield and it was exactly what Shelby had asked for, “I’d like to be neatly packaged inside one of those snowballs you shake and then set down,” she had said to Kyle, . “let’s go listen to the rocks.”
“The winter wolves,” she said now as the howling picked up and then drifted away.
Kyle said nothing but kept his eyes on her. It felt he was more than watching her, more even than guarding her, he felt ready to rush in quickly and save her. Save her from what? He kept asking himself. As if what? As if she was about to whip a razor blade across her wrists? He had never seen her act like this. As if she had deflated. Except that she was angry, he knew that much. She was really angry and swallowing all signs of it. She just grew more silent. That had never been her style; his style, perhaps, but never hers.
 “You know he’s going to beat Harrison,” Kyle finally said. “Even my mom says it. “
“Do you think so?” Shelby asked so suddenly he reflexively pulled away.
“Yeah. Yeah, Shel, he’s going to win,” he leaned back toward her, reaching an arm out of the warm bag to touch her shoulder..
“Senator?” she asked, without turning toward him.
“Sure,” Kyle said. But he had merely meant the primary and she knew it. There was no consideration in his household that William Wolf stood any chance of taking the seat from John Johnson. “Maybe it will get better in the general. My dad always says primaries are worse than  generals.”
It was a poor save. It wasn’t a save at all. Shelby looked at him and grimaced.  “Yeah, fighting you Republicans will be clean after this,” she said.
Kyle grinned.  “I wouldn’t bet on it,” he said and pulled his arm back inside his bag.. Shelby gave him a brief smile.
Shelby knew from Carlene Deluccio that primaries were worse than general elections. In the general election at least most of your own party puts on a face of supporting you. In a primary it is  rigueur de jour to support no one but yourself.
“Dad keeps saying that too, ‘Once we get through the primary, Shel.’,” she mocked a gruff voice, “ ‘ Once we get through this primary.’ They both say it, Mom too, to the campaign people, to the volunteers, to Lydia Price our loyal treasurer,” she says to Kyle and looks at him. “But they never said what that means. Once we get through the primary it gets worse? And which is worse? Winning or losing? Once we get through the primary, what? We eat our young? Float our dead into the sea? Throw the whores and money changers over the cliff? What?”
  Three months. She was only eighteen years old. Her big shot college had shot her down. Her acquaintances of a lifetime had turned vicious in her absence. She could hardly eat. Her big shot parents were unraveling. Shelby had never been so unnerved. Kyle had never seemed so tedious. But there he was. There was no one else. Absolutely no one else.
“You might all be right,” Shelby said, “it  really can’t get much worse short y’all eating us.”
Shelby leaned into Kyle and they touched heads, watched the snow swirl and listened to the wolves.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chapter Seven - New Councilwoman

     Carlene Deluccio was a lot smarter than people gave her credit for. “Doesn’t say much, does it?” Carlene Santano Deluccio would loudly proclaim. “I just tell ‘em it doesn’t say much to be smarter than the zero they think I am,” she would tell her brother Alex, “and then I just laugh and laugh in their faces," she told her brother, "and look like a loud-mouthed Wop.”
     “You’re not a Wop,” her brother invariably snapped back.
     Carlene would laugh some more and then she might grow suddenly annoyed and snap, “If I was as dumb as people say, what am I doing here?”
     It was a trademark line with her. She would snap it out any time at anyone who annoyed her.  But even victims of this line – for Carlene Santano Deluccio heard insults to her intelligence frequently – admitted that few other things annoyed her at all. Carlene was an affable, welcoming, even mothering type of woman, although she’d never had children. This was well known since her childlessness could prompt grand emotional outbreaks. “What am I doing here?” she would ask at the conclusion of these outbreaks as well.
     What was she doing here? That was the Haden County Democrats’ perennial question. An immigrant amongst such WASPs they would confess to one another.
     She wasn’t an immigrant herself, but from an immigrant’s family. From Chicago. The Haden countians actually meant by this her husband’s family, the Deluccios. Her husband, Victor Deluccio, had been two decades older,wealthy and now dead.
    It was assumed in Haden County that Victor Deluccio took care of the Chicago mob’s southern Illinois interests in horses and horse racing. According to his IRS filings, so said First National Bank of Haden County President Al Plover, Victor Deluccio reported ownership of a single racetrack and a few horses at Stovepipe Farm, which had, from the day the Hansen boys sold the place, been placed and remained solely in Carlene’s name.
     Victor Deluccio was a big campaign donor, lending credence to his reputed  mobster connections. He gave generously to both parties in all level of races. He himself was unelectable, too shady in reputation for appointments to local building committees or economic development boards, too rogue to fit with the local chamber or community chests.
     But Carlene joined everything, childless and tireless and with Victor’s checkbook in her hand. Each year she passed in Haden County brought more invitations to join foundations, boards and trusteeships. She worked for child welfare, battered women, cultural development. She ultimately became both a trustee of the local hospital and the college.
     “If I’m so dumb,” she said in accepting the latter trusteeship, “what are all of you doing here?”  The laughter was polite and quickly drowned in her own guffaws.
    Sooner or later most people came to, if not exactly like her, at least appreciate her, albeit, preferably at a distant table instead of at their own table. She was loud and opinionated and generous.
     Victor had been so careful in his giving neither party considered him a member of the other.And despite all those volunteer hours and the couple's appearance at social and fund raising events within the quad-counties, her political yearnings were unsuspected as well, indeed, as far as anyone could recall, unexpressed. No one remembered a single political or even general civic conversation with Carlene for all those years. She talked about money. Raising money. And she did it well on her own and leveraged that successfully on behalf of her boards.
     Yet Victor’s corpse wasn’t cold, so went the talk in both parties, when Carlene Deluccio filed for a county council seat as a Democrat, within hours of the codified deadline, she forced a primary with the well liked and clean-cut WASP, William Wolf.
     It was obvious from the start she would lose and lose big. Wolf was popular enough to be a Democrat able to securely and hold a council seat in the largely Republican county. His respect from members of both parties routinely landed him the presidency of the board. He had honorably paid his party dues and his civic dues. He had served on boards and fund-raised for others. And throughout he had remained friendly with all.
    Carlene’s move was too sudden against too solid of an incumbent, said the shocked Democrats of Haden County. It appeared such a spur-of-the-moment peccadillo that many Democrats were surprised to see how many votes she did garner. Then further aggrieved when she did land a seat on the party’s central committee. Her numbers were so striking, some Democrats in Haden County speculated that had Carlene run as a Republican she might have beat Wolf in the general election.
         “If I’m so dumb, what am I doing here?” Carlene slapped the various committee members on their backs and upper arms as she attended her first meeting, the first freshman member in more than a decade. Money and elect-ability gained Carlene Deluccio credentials other party workers had spent decades attaining or more often, failing to attain. Now it would be she, little more than half a year later, being asked to accept the seat she’d sought.
     “She outfoxed the wolves,” was how Irene Hanley saw it and repeated the phrase a number of times after first tossing it into William Wolf’s face when he told her he planned to resign.
     “Yes,” Wolf had said without inflection, “she did.”
     “And what does that tell you?” Irene had asked.
     He didn’t dislike women, which William Wolf reminded himself when he found himself sparring with Irene. Not because of Irene intrinsically but because somehow Irene made him think of all women rolled into one. That was just too much. That was just too much all-knowing, condescending and general priggishness rolled into a great big shaking finger.
     “That I’m a chump?” Wolf asked.
     “But loyal,” Irene smiled, reached up and patted him on the cheek before returning home and launching the telephone tree that would bring them all together to give Carlene Deluccio William Wolf’s council seat as soon as Bill resigned and Lucille got through with her hissy fit.
     “Poor boy, he didn’t know his granddaddy long enough to learn that honor comes even before loyalty,” she told Stanley Thorne as she started the telephone tree.
     “So he isn’t a Marine,” Stanley had replied. “He could still beat Johnson.”
     “Not even his granddaddy could have beat Johnson,” Irene said.
     “Well, he’ll beat Harrison,” Thorne retorted, deciding he would not tell Irene at this moment that he would, again, be launching a campaign against Thompson.
     “Yes,” Irene sighed, “yes he probably will. But why does it sound like some kind of Carlene joke when you say it?”