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.
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.