Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chapter Eleven -- 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.

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