All posts by dafiv

Comey’s Eyes

Share

Comey’s Eyes

A Short Story

by
Alexander Francis

 

 

New York, 1891 8:00 AM

A little shift backwards and to the left enabled more of his chest to be exposed to the morning sun, just arising across the street above Murphy’s. Effects of the radiant heat on his blue coat were nearly instantaneous and welcome, creating a warm sensation spreading from his abdomen. He leaned forward slightly, taking pressure from his hands, which had been resting against the rough cold brick behind him. He was in a slight depression in the line of irregular, though continuous, structures forming the south wall of Walker Street. From this position, he could see nearly the entire sweep of the north side and yet be partially hidden from casual view. The presence of police endlessly walking their beat was certainly a deterrence to crime, but regularity provided incentives to the so inclined to conduct their trade just out of view, skillfully timing the crime to the pace taken by the patrolling officer.

Comey had chosen this spot, this moment, with precision, knowing that his absence from the street would embolden thugs and other cockroaches, incentivizing them to roll someone right in his view. Comey’s beat was from Broadway to Broadway, all two blocks of it. On paper, it didn’t sound like much, but this was a street on the front lines between the large numbers of Irish poor and the expanding tribes of Italians just encroaching from the dock area on the east. Violence and theft were a normal way of life here, and the only thing preventing chaos and utter mayhem was a solitary policeman dressed in his tight-fitting suit of blue, brass buttons lined up vertically on his chest. Weapons were not routinely issued, no matter the need, but resourceful men like Comey obtained a firearm at their own expense or by fortune at the scene of a crime. Comey’s was resting against his left hip, bulging under his thick wool jacket, giving some sensation of of security, however false it actually was. His first line of defense, or offense, was the stout, black, ash stick dangling from his belt which he unhesitatingly, and frequently, used with vigor when needed.

Comey stood immobile, a statue enveloped in blue wool, taking in the activity of the street, but not visible by motion or attention. He was part of the scenery, no more or less. Up at the end of the other block was the house he was born in, twenty-seven years previous, and this block had been his in childhood, actually theirs, the group of dirty boys who ranged from one end to the other, playing games but also engaged in various nefarious activities of petty theft or assault on one of the Irish boys caught in the open without support. A wild, carefree childhood, which mostly taught that you would only survive by wits and quickness, not on the goodness of others, or even luck.

Directly across the street, moving along the yet unlit buildings in a furtive, hunched over demeanor was an old acquaintance from childhood and not a sight which recalled fond memories. Flach, little grubby Flach. A sneak, a liar from birth, a pariah, a vulture, but most unquestionably, a rat. Comey had learned long ago to never turn his back on Flach. He watched with interest, following Flach with narrowed eyes, nearly hoping that Flach would give him reason to use his bat. With a couple of rodent-like gestures, guiltily looking backward as if he were pursued by a muscular short-haired dog, he disappeared, oozing into a narrow alley. Comey knew very well that alley, appropriately named ‘mud cave’ by the boys of childhood. It lead to a brown wood hovel at its termination, infested by Flach and his kin. Comey had glimpsed it once or twice and would shutter to enter it, even if forced by duty.

Tapping toward him along the sidewalk, Noninna Pugliesi struggled her way toward his position. Comey shifted uncomfortably, wishing for a cloak of invisibility. Noninna was the ever-present godmother of the Italian sector, mother or grandmother to numberless Italian immigrants and the self-appointed conscience of the rest. In his youth, Comey had, many times, been singled out by Noninna for verbal thrashing in their native Italian. He mostly deserved it and more. Nevertheless he was always left feeling that he never measured up to her expectations and never would. Her presence was a reminder of his many failings in life, some he could have changed, others were more of fate than choice.

Noninna carried her head low, facing the sidewalk, not the direction of her slow progress. It was the hand of age on her, forcing her body to fold forward, her weight supported by her slender cane, contrary to natural balance. She was dressed as she always had been, a black dress of no ornamentation, and covered across the shoulders by a woven white shawl, long enough to nearly touch the concrete walk. Her head was partially concealed by loose black lace, the ends dangling freely near her painted rosy cheeks. The image of her as a young vibrant woman could not be summoned, even though it had to have occurred at some point. Comey held her in his peripheral vision, hoping she wouldn’t notice him, not be aware that he was present. It wasn’t as if his current position was one of shame but that he had always disappointed Noninna and forever would feel the weight of her utter contempt.

The last day in this neighborhood before he left for a four-year hitch in the Army, he ran into Noninna, not far from this very spot. “And what are you so happy about, Comeo Geniachotchi?” she had demanded, capturing him in her baleful stare. He remembered stammering, lost for words for the moment, then recovered enough to answer.

“I joined up, and I leave tomorrow,” he had responded. Noninna nodded while looking him up and down slowly as if to determine if the Army had made a poor selection and should think it over.

“Try not to get yourself killed,” she had said before turning her back and walking away. Since he returned, he had seen her in the distance a couple of times but had not been brave enough to speak with her.

The tapping stopped right in front of him, and he could see her right eye looking at him, her face turned toward him as far as it probably could. Her head went subtly up and down a couple of times before she spoke. “Glad to see you came back, Comeo. Always knew you would turn out good.” With that, the tapping started again, and she slowly moved away, a small awkward black mass but the conscience of the community, and one that had little time left in this life. Comey felt his eyes moisten as she receded into the distance and inevitably into history.

It was a jolt seeing Noninna again, and it brought back a flood of memories. There was no spot anywhere in sight that something memorable had not occurred. Just across the street in the doorway of Murphy’s Butchery was where he had taken his first stolen kiss. Her name was Gabriel, like the angel, and she was standing in the alcove of the doorway just out of reach of the rain which was pelting the hot summer street, creating steam as well as splash and noise. He ducked in beside her, and before she could object or ward him off, he seized the unguarded moment and planted a big kiss on her cheek. He pulled away expecting a slap as a reward but instead found her face pleasant and upturned toward him.

“Why Comey,” she said, using the Americanized version of his first name. “I didn’t think you even knew I am alive.” Her delicate hand went absently to her face in the area of his kiss. Gabriel wasn’t beautiful, but had that rare intensity about her that some women are blessed with, making up for any minor imperfections in features or shape.

“Of course I can see a pretty girl…even from a mile away. You especially.” His remark sent a shower of color to her cheeks. He surmised that few had called her pretty, especially to her face. She reached out and grasped his hand by the fingers, turning toward him and moving slightly closer.

“If you are really interested, you could drop by my house someday.”

“And get beaten to death by your brothers? You know I can’t do that.”

She let his fingers go and moved back a pace, fingering her hair as she thought. The rain was continuing and thunder muttered in the distance, an indication that more was coming. Her clear eyes flashed at him then back to the street, deciding which direction she should go.

“It’s not my fault, Gabriel, you know that.” he said, trying to prevent her from leaving without additional conversation.

“If you were brave enough to chance it, then I might have been…..”, she paused, and with a last look into his eyes, bolted into sheets of rain, one hand over her head in a futile attempt to ward off the pounding water, disappearing down the street, leaving Comey struggling with his emotions and his regrets and his hesitations.

Comey had never again spoken to Gabriel, though she continued to live on this very street. She had married, as expected, to another Irishman, and produced four children, likely more some day. They passed occasionally and each time met eyes. She still had the same inner fire, still had that Irish pride that she would carry until the day she died. It always gave him unexpected agony to see her and realize that, with some effort, he could have had a wife who would have given him everything a man could have ever wanted. Instead, he shared an apartment with another policeman, whom he rarely saw. The loneliness, up six flights of wooden stairs and two rooms. As much as he would ever own or have in this life.

A rhythmic clattering of iron shoes against brick announced the arrival of horse-drawn carts full of fresh produce straight from farms just outside the city. One slowed and pulled to the curb just east of Comey’s position as two muscular men sprang free and hit the street in a crouch, proceeding to noisily pull out wooden display stands. It was the rhythm of New York, the heartbeat of the city, the familiar and ordinary but that which more than anything signaled that life was eternal, and New York was its home.

Women appeared with shopping baskets draped over one arm, leaning and talking with one another as they walked toward food lined up with remarkable order in so short a time. The noise level was increasing by the minute, consisting of a blending of independent wills, needs and souls as they gathered their staples, sold them, sang out prices, haggled, walked, and sharing their lives with horses who shifted from leg to leg and watched and listened, their ears flicking from side to side.

Comey had missed this beginning of morning in his days roaming the dry and empty West. To an outsider, the street and sidewalk was the essence of chaos, but to a New Yorker, especially one born to this very block, it was the expected start of an ordinary day. A fragmentary glimpse of a young woman in a scarf made Comey reflexly look again, studying the crowd with intensity, his mind recalling similarity with a young woman who had once held his fascination.

She was named Mary Beth O’Rielly and was as radiantly beautiful as any young man could ever imagine. When her green eyes fell on him, it was like a punch or bolt. She knew her power and followed her visual caress with a bright smile and a soft welcoming voice. Their first verbal contact was at a food cart, similar, or perhaps exactly the same ones, as those being rapidly installed on the sidewalk. She had reached for a melon, and his hand fell on hers quite by accident or perhaps provenance.

“Hi,” she said, and laughed. “That’s mine, sir, kindly take your hand away,” she spoke in jest then picked it up and tossed it to Comey. “On second thought, I don’t want it.” she giggled. That’s all it took, a brief moment close to heaven, and he was caught in her web.

“People call me Comey,” he offered. “What shall I call you”?” He extended his hand open for a shake or even simple contact.

“Oh, I’m sure you know, and if you don’t, you can ask around.” With a toss of her golden hair and a sideways smile, she left him standing, watching her leave, still holding the melon.

“Buying the melon?” an accented voice inquired. Comey looked down and saw an older Italian vendor, his hands on his hips in a somewhat confrontational posture. The man was old enough to be Comey’s father, thick and mustached, with hairy arms.

“Know that girl?” Comey inquired, tossing the melon up and catching it in a manner designed to irritate.

“Surely. Everybody know her. Some dish, yes? Problem for you that she belong already. You don’t go there, capire?

“Who? Got a name?” The man had stood silent, watching the melon go up and down. Comey dug into his pants and produced a quarter, much more than the worth of the melon. He flipped it toward the vender, and it was caught in the air. The man hesitated for a moment as if deciding.

“The big man. His. You leave this one alone.” He pocketed the quarter and turned his back.

There was only one person fitting that description, and Comey knew him by sight and by name. Feido Feddichoria, the slick dressing, smooth talking killer most called “Mad Freddie,” at least behind his back. Feido had also grown up in this neighborhood and even in childhood was one to avoid. At this time, Feido kept company with two others just like him. They traveled as a group, always in dark suits, always outwardly pleasant, at least in a superficial way. It was the dark darting eyes and the fake smile which projected their actual propensity. Feido was favored by street juveniles, their kind in abundance, who frequently loitered around ready to pilfer or grab and run. Each time Feido appeared, they gathered, expecting and receiving whatever was in his pockets, at times candy, other times coins. Feido owned them, and it paid off because they were his eyes and ears keeping Feido informed about everything and everybody of interest on the street.

And it was Feido who claimed to possess the beautiful Mary Beth, keeping all suitors in fear of reprisal or even meeting silent death in an alley some starless night. Mary Beth obviously did not agree to the arrangement and had her own opinion about whom she belonged to. But Mary Beth, by nature’s design, was drawn to flirt with danger and with tough, hard men, whom she collected as if captured prizes at a fair. It thrilled her to have these big men stammer and speak softly to her, as if they were the one to have a chance at capturing this glamorous butterfly. Mary Beth would laugh, bat her eyes, and move away before they could gather courage to press their issue. But when she did the same to Feido, he was not flustered by her beauty, instead moving quickly to claim his prize. Mary Beth had made a grave and irreversible error in judgement.

Comey, in his youthful vigor, had decided that he was the one to break Feido’s hold over the lovely Mary Beth. He had decided that very morning, with the odor of melon fresh on his hand and the memory of Mary Beth still in his heart, that he would pursue her and take on these street thugs his own way.

He knocked on her door one evening, his face fresh from a hot shave, a slender package of chocolate held behind his back. When she arrived home, he had been waiting in shadows, anticipating her arrival, while practicing his lines. When the door opened and she stood before him, backlit, her blond hair aflame with gaslight from within, her marvelous face cloaked in shadow, Comey realized that he had forgotten every word stored for this occasion.

“Hello, Mary Beth,” he stammered, then hesitated, recovering slightly. “I came by to give you this.” And he awkwardly produced the foil-wrapped package and extended it toward her. She took it and stood in silence, regarding and accessing this young puppet as to his merits.

“You called yourself Comey,” she stated. “Not Comeo, as your friends call you.” It was a statement designed to show in what regard she and others of her Irish race held the newcomer Italians trying to adapt to the strange ways of New York. But it also revealed that she had taken the time to learn more about him.

“I would be honored if you would call me by either name.”

“Exactly what do you want, Comeo Geniachotchi?” she asked softly, still regarding him at a distance, but her change in tone indicating an opening.

“It will take a lifetime to answer that question, but for now, just a bit of conversation will do.” He smiled, hoping his glib answer would thaw her resistance to yet another amorous Italian suitor.

“Come in, Comey,” she murmured and backed away from the opening.

An older woman slowly rose from her chair, and with a sideways, disapproving glance at the Italian alien standing unfortunately in her domain, she retired to an adjacent room, making a point to leave the door open as propriety demanded.

Once in, Comey glanced at the apartment and its humble furnishings. The contrast between the obvious poverty of its occupants and the utterly breathtaking woman standing beside him was hard to merge or rationalize how both could exist together in the same universe.

“Sit there, please,” she requested, indicating an old brown rocker near the center of the room. Comey did as she asked and watched her be seated on a small stool, much lower in height. The grace of her movements, her willowy suppleness and her penetrating yet unforgettable eyes made him forget their surroundings.

An uncomfortable period lapsed with no speech between them. Being able to look at her for so long at one time made Comey forget the world and its ticking clock, inexorably counting away the moments their lives, one second for each, until they were all gone.

“I would give anything to know you better,” Comey blurted, unmasking the truth in his heart.

“You are most interesting, and I am willing…but…” she let her voice trail off, unwilling to say what they both knew. She was owned, not by choice, but by brute force.

“But another claims you,” Comey suggested. She didn’t nod or answer, letting silence speak for her.

“Perhaps I could convince Feido that you are not taken, that you have a free will.”

“You will be killed. I don’t want that.”

“All I want is for you to say that you will give me a chance to properly court you.”

“And all I can answer is that I would if it were possible.”
Comey fought to bring his focus back to reality and to clear his head of emotion, just now hovering at the brim. The sun had made it fully past the tops of the buildings across the street, and its warm rays caused him to inhale a deep breath and relax. All the players in this memory, except him, were long gone and buried, but images and voices remained fresh and potent, once again stirring his soul with both hatred and passion. There are turning points in life, and he had already experienced plenty of them, enough to understand that life’s path can hinge on one moment, even one word at times. And so can a man’s very life.

Across the street on the sidewalk marched a familiar group of workmen, dressed in rough clothes and brimmed caps. They carried the tools of their trade on their back and in wooden boxes and in smears of plaster left on their garments. On their way to work after having a substantial breakfast supplied dutifully by their loving wives. Something Comey had never experienced and the loss of it tore at him. His father had died young, falling from a building under construction near the park. They had received a letter of sympathy and a payment of fifty dollars to cover their loss, but the death of the principal breadwinner meant that Comey and his mother were now and forever paupers. Comey had done what he could, but a ten year old isn’t capable of earning very much, even after giving up his education and his youth in the effort. Margo had been popular and had many friends who contributed what they could, but slowly they descended into that deplorable state of occasional begging. Comey was tortured by it, not for himself, but to see his mother stoop so low as to ask strangers for help. She had lasted for eight more years before succumbing to gathering poor health and its inevitable conclusion.
Whatever Comey was or wasn’t, one thing was certain. He was tough because he had to be. At first, he became a dock worker, but only when there were ships to unload and when others didn’t show up to work. It was enough to get by while he searched for that singular pivotal moment in life which would show him the way forward. Any of the trades required years of apprenticeship. The police preferred some military experience, and the clerkships paid poorly. There was also the lure of the gangs, who paid the best and required only guts and muscle. But Comey was taught by his mother to avoid that type and to obey the law and so he did.

Word got back to Feido regarding Comey’s visits with Mary Beth. In this small tight community, no action went unnoticed. Comey knew it was coming…the inevitable confrontation. And he wondered if it would emerge in the open or in the dead of night. He had guessed night, and he was shortly proven correct.

One day the docks provided plenty of work; in fact Comey’s shift labored late into the evening and then into night. Comey at last signed out and started walking toward Walker street, down dark streets which were now nearly empty of pedestrians. A sixth sense came about him that this was the night things would come to a head. His only defensive weapon was a moderate-sized hawkbill knife used to cut rope and bindings, but it was exceedingly sharp from constant whetting. Without thinking, his hand went into his pocket and pulled the knife out and opened the hooked blade. At necessary times, he would move to the center of the street to avoid dark alleys, the favored site of so many of New York’s muggings and stabbings.

He had visited Mary Beth exactly seven times, and the visits were becoming longer and longer. She repeatedly refused his offer to go out, and he didn’t need to ask her why. Feido had trapped them both in some way, both condemned to hide their developing relationship from the public eye and from Feido’s spies. Each visit was better than the last, and they were getting to know each other in this way, perhaps beyond any other method. She had loosened up with him, as he had done toward her, and their mutual attraction was nearly at the point of some physical contact, at least a respectful, brief embrace.

Comey heard footsteps behind him just where he expected, a particularly dark street of warehouses with no other people in sight. He stopped and turned. Three men were silhouetted in minimal light coming from a great distance, and they were coming toward him with purpose. He could almost see the objects they carried for weapons hanging from lowered arms. As they grew closer, they spread out like pack dogs do to surround their prey and to enable attacks from different directions making defense difficult. But Comey had seen this simple strategy many times on the street as gangs of young toughs fought pitched battles for control of home turf. There was only one desperate way to counter a group, and bears and other creatures had figured it out long before street thugs. Each oncoming aggressor has to be taken out one at a time. An aggressive attack on one, if successful, causes the others to pause, even if briefly, and then the next will fall to the same technique.

Just as the first weapon was lifted to strike, Comey lunged toward one on his right, his knife slicing an arc terminating at the mans’s exposed neck. He felt the contact occur, and before the assailant grabbed his wounded throat on his way to the street, the center one came under assault. This time the knife was swung up, the hook point leading the way as the knife entered a soft abdomen and continued upward in a sweeping thrust. Something hit Comey in the neck and caused him to stagger, then buckle to his knees. Just before a second strike could be made, Comey grabbed a leading leg and pulled with everything he had. Once the man had landed on his back, the hawkbill knife plunged deeply into his leg just under his crotch and was violently pulled toward his knee accompanied by an agonizing scream.

Comey stood calmly and viewed his three adversaries from above. Two were writhing amid loud moans and calls for help. The one with a neck wound wasn’t moving. He knew that he should finish the wounded before they could point the finger of the law at him. That was the correct and wise thing to do but not the right thing. Comey paused to wipe the knife blade on the clothing of one of the fallen and then calmly put it away and continued his way home. The facts are what they are, and he would deal with the result later.

And there was a result, a very bad one, and one that still haunted his dreams. The very same morning, Mary Beth was taken from her mother’s arms and disappeared from the public’s watchful eye. No amount of persuasion from Comey, no threat, no level of violence could uncover her location or determine her well-being. Mary Beth had ceased to exist that very day. The culprit was obvious and should Comey have encountered Feido, his moments on earth would have ended with blinding fury. But Feido had moved on, as had his band of thugs, yet Comey still searched in vain for months before giving up. The tough Irish cops were of no help and had no interest in looking for an Irish lass who had taken up with Italians. As far as they were concerned, she had deserved her fate, whatever that was.

Two of the thugs encountering Comey in that dark street had died, the other nearly succumbed, so the word had gotten out that Comey was not a man who should be challenged. He didn’t want that reputation, or that stigma, and it burdened him. Thankfully, his dear mother was no longer there to be humiliated further than life’s pitfalls had already taken her.

At times, Comey regretted his decision to return to Walker Street after his discharge from the Army. After all, he had no living relatives, no prospects to earn a living and most importantly, no woman to connect with. Still, he did return, and here he stood, a blue statue in shadow, trying to maintain what passes for civilization, at least in this block, this block of memories.

During his absence, some things had changed and glimmers of truth slowly emerged. Fiedo had died in a gang war across town, and afterward, news of Mary Beth had reached the surface. She had been taken to the northern border of New York, to the area of slaughterhouses and stockyards, to the most foul-smelling stench of city anywhere in the known world. And there she was installed in a one room apartment across the hall from the headquarters of Feido’s mob. The beautiful Mary Beth was used until she was used up, passed around, eventually being discarded as trash. She died alone, in poverty, infected with Tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases yet her only crime in life had been being attractive to the wrong men. When he heard the story, Comey had wept openly, an un-manly thing to do in public in those hard times. It was the reason that Comey had joined the police force, the only thing that separated him from others who had grown up in this very block, who were indifferent to the ugly gutters of life, who accepted things rather than struggled against them.

This was the reason that Comey loitered in shadow this very morning. He wanted the vermin to swarm the street while he watched. The lawful ability to crack their heads with his baton was what he lived for, the only thing he lived for. Each one falling to the street, bleeding and unconscious, was a blow for Mary Beth, a small retribution for the foul short life she endured because of his interest in her and his innocence in thinking he could outwit the mob.

The collective intelligence of the street always knew when Comey was on duty, even though they could not always see him, the street felt his presence, and it was enough to thwart knowledgeable criminals. The unaware, the newcomers, the mindless, felt his wrath and were removed like garbage while lying in the back of a horse-drawn police wagon.

Comey’s eyes followed a small group of women carefully threading their way across Walker street and coming toward him. One of them, a slender young girl with long dark hair, seemed to be looking right at him. Then he remembered seeing her earlier among the carts, her headscarf cloaking her features and hiding her hair. As they grew closer, he studied each face trying to recall the family name and their relationships. The Italians had imported many of their old world customs to New York including an obligation for formality and, at times, excessive politeness. One social mandate had stuck and continued in the new world and that was the introduction of young people to each other by parents. It was a very old custom, likely rooted in the ancient Roman concepts of paterfamilias and the important role of extended family. The young simply could not be permitted to choose a mate on their opinion alone.

The group stopped in front of him, inspecting him thoroughly before speaking. He remembered the family and especially the father, who had been murdered for pocket change in an alley not far from this very spot. Comey himself had apprehended the assailant and had watched his execution by hanging one month later. Afterward, he extended his regards to the victim’s widow, offering any support he could give and this was the very woman now standing before him and smiling.

“We have not forgotten your kindness, Officer Geniachotchi. Do you still recall us and all that you did to help after the loss of my husband?” Maria Petroni asked while nodding affirmative to assist his memory.

Comey smiled back at her and tipped his helmet back a bit while nodding yes. The young woman behind Maria had not taken her eyes from his face, and one glance at her confirmed that the young girl he remembered had become strikingly beautiful as she morphed from a child into a woman. Her ivory face was encapsulated by her dark hair and outlined by the feathery scarf she wore. He simply could not recall her name and perhaps had never heard it previously.

Comey waited on the reason for their accidental reunion, or had it been purposeful? It seemed likely that he was noticed earlier, and this small family had returned just to speak with him. Maria had brought both daughters to meet him, and there must be an important reason for doing so.

“You have no father to speak for you, Comeo, and I have no husband to speak for me,” Signora Maria Petroni stated. “So I have to take this responsibility in asking you to come to our home for a meal. If you will.” Maria’s English was heavily accented but deliberately and slowly spoken even though she was aware that Comey could speak Italian like a native. Her smile faded as she waited for his answer. From behind her, the angelic face of her daughter smiled broadly, exposing her white even teeth and her tinkling eyes. She was the reason for the invitation. Maria’s daughter had come of age and proper introductions were necessary, and Maria had selected Comey as a suitable mate, likely after much thought and inquiry. This was an invitation to marry, though that event was still long into the future.

Comey slowly unbuckled his helmet and took it off, tucking it under his left arm. “My dear, I do remember you, and I have thought of you and your family often. I am flattered by your invitation, humbled in fact. Of course I will come, and also I am grateful to be asked.” He understood that formal introduction to her daughters would come at her home and before sitting for a meal. A street was no place for a young desirable woman to be offered for inspection, even in an informal way. There was a proper way to do things and a time and place for everything.

“Then Sunday at three?” she offered. The dark eyes of her daughter glowed at him, and she lifted her chin as if to say, “I am especially desirable, and you will have to work hard at winning my heart”.

“Sunday it is, and thank you again for remembering me,” Comey accepted, and turned his focus on her daughter who had turned away and had her back to him. It was enough of a view to establish that she was indeed lovely from any angle.

Comey watched them as they slowly disappeared from view, merging with the panoply of humans, each with their own tasks and destinies. He put his helmet on and smiled as he fastened the chin strap. Perhaps life was about to improve after all.

 

 

Alexander Francis

Walker Street

End of Truth (Excerpt #10)

Share

THE GREAT FALLS

 


Light rain started splattering his windshield as the sign for Old Dominion Road came into view. Rain had been intermittent since he left Georgetown and, given the low, grey November clouds, expected. Short days, cold nights… the season was sliding into winter, autumn’s furious color lying extinguished in mats of brown leaves, leaving behind the bones of an unattractive landscape, the hope of spring still too far away to contemplate. Whatever beauty remained was obscured by the grey attitude of a cool, wet, morning. It was the natural way; time for everything to come to an end.

He turned on the wipers and concentrated on finding the parking lot he knew was not far ahead. Just past the park buildings, an extended asphalt slab crept into view to his left, abandoned of cars, and for good reason. He pulled in and parked, his car pointed toward the Great Falls, flickers of white visible just past the rocks and trees, more so at this time of year than any other. For a moment, he just sat there, the wipers continuing to make slow arcs punctuated by a faint clunk at either end, the car motor still obediently running.

Michael faced forward, lost in thought, recollections and despair. He had started driving this morning, first heading south across the Potomac, then turning west to follow the river, more an effort to escape Washington than achieving a destination. The Falls area had beckoned him, an old pleasant memory had resurfaced, pushing itself in front of his present life, its stress, its mistakes. He remembered the Potomac of his youth, but farther west, near Harper’s ferry where the snaking Shenandoah adds its volume to the Potomac. The spot he recalled was far from the Falls, the narrow river there more at peace with the lovely Virginia countryside. And he was just a boy then, tanned, innocent, the world an adventure still waiting on him.

Michael shut the car off, leaving the wipers stopped halfway through a cycle, the blades intersecting the windshield at an odd angle. Indeed, he could feel as well as hear the great falls, even from this distance, the power released shaking the ground and pulsating the air, especially today, as the run off from heavy rains in the mountains surged toward the Chesapeake. The large parking lot reflected how much the public loved this place, how much in awe they held it. But on occasion this area was under water when rain coupled with snow melt of early spring, the gorge then returning to its fearsome natural state.

Across the river, along the Maryland shore, were the remnants of the Ohio and Chesapeake canal and railroad. An early attempt to enable navigation of the river from the mountains to the bay. Toward the Virginia side, the river crashed through a restricted channel, dropping seventy-five feet in a short distance and creating a spectacle of nature’s primitive forces, in fair weather drawing people from the nearby megalopolis to stand and marvel.

Michael opened the door and got out, at first just standing and looking toward the river, a moment more of indecision than hesitation. He pulled the collar of his raincoat around his neck, preventing the damp chill of November from engaging his neck. One last look around reassured him that he was indeed alone, just himself and the Great Falls with no one to interfere nor console him. He started walking in a deliberate manner toward a path behind the park office, one paralleling the river and leading toward one of the lookout stations near river’s edge. His polished black shoes and grey wool trousers were out of place, and the continuing drizzle quickly soaked both. What was appropriate for the Capitol was impertinent while visiting the wild river. As he walked, the white noise of the river grew louder, each torn wave contributing to the collective roar as black water foamed grayly over black rocks. Water, in the form of mist, was being projected into the air above the massive rapid, drifting along with the light wind created by moving water, then settling down by river’s edge, mixing imperceptibly with rain from above.

He turned left onto the first path, heading directly for massive grey rocks bordering the river. Picking his way between and over the wet, ancient schist, he slowly came close enough to stand and survey the gorge. From his elevated position, he could see the river foaming through the big cut nestled against the Virginia border, frothing down against rocks, boulders and massive formations of stone, hissing threateningly close to the stone buttress he was standing on. The violence and vibrations stabbed fear into his chest, rendering him hesitant to look too long, lest he awaken the river, alerting it to his proximity. The immense power flowing through the gorge was too awesome for Michael to actually comprehend. In abstraction, the cubic feet per second, the drop in height, measured and calculated would give a numerical sum for the water flow, but a fragile human body standing close by will see it in different terms, more personal terms. Cataracts, such as this one, demonstrate ancient and inevitable forces, the same ones which have created the planet. Rock and water mixes here, fights here, and is inseparable here. The resultant roar is the voice of the planet, the entity which ignores the existence of fragile and temporary human beings.

Michael recovered somewhat from his instinctual fear of this place and moved closer to the edge, his leather soles slippery on the wet and mossy rock. Without warning, his footing gave way and he fell, inches from the canyon edge, impacting the rocks with his hip and face. As he lay there for a moment, too stunned to move, he realized that he was perilously close to falling into the raging torrent below. With his face against the stone, the pulsating throb of the river came into his ear like a voice, a voice which spoke of the fragility of man, his meaningless existence, his nothingness. Water and rock and sunlight are important, never mankind. Six more inches and Micheal would cease to exist, his problems, his fears, his proud moments would disappear, all being restored to their proper place among the molecules heading for the endless ocean of other particles, their original form extinguished, their purpose forgotten.

Slowly, he pushed himself to a sitting position, his legs extending over the wall, the torrent of water racing just below. His arms trembled… fright, injury, or his dropping body temperature all equally responsible. A warm sensation drew his hand to his face and found blood, and he realized that the fall had enabled a stone to impact his hip and face with destructive force. He wasn’t sure he could stand without assistance, and the position he found himself in made him feel that his body was inching toward the edge, pulled by gravity, lubricated by the ever present slime and water.

He became calm, forcing his eyes to follow the water and waves, the sound now, for some reason, restful, purposeful. Michael felt part of the rock, the water, the power of the rapid. He was meant to be here, nothing else was important any longer, a sensation of freedom, of belonging came over him and he smiled.

 

Alexander Francis

End of Truth (Excerpt #6)

Share

We’re On The Same Side


Congressional Dining Room, Longworth House

Chuck looked up from his meal and put his fork down. “You mean to say that you have nothing…NOTHING for me?” His practiced smile was still there, and Michael knew that Chuck had raised his voice for emphasis, not anger. It was his way of bullying without seeming to, a friendly but firm backslap method of speech.

Michael looked around quickly, trying to determine if Chuck was drawing attention to them on purpose. It was here or someplace similar that they usually met, a place more public than not, the principal eating place for the entire Congress and as such was always crowded and noisy. “Look, Chuck,” he began, speaking softly but without humor in his eyes. “Tone it down. I mean, everybody knows that I’m your little spy already, but you don’t have to get it in the news. Anyway, I always tell you what I have, you know that. I can’t really tell you every bit of speculation and wild talk I pick up. Realize, will you, that they are likely using me to pass false information, just waiting for you to grab it up so that they can laugh at you.”

Chuck Dehauder resumed eating and laughed before putting another sandwich in the vicinity of his willing mouth. His pendulous neck moved aside as his jaws accommodated one more bite. “Sure, you’re right, you always are. I depend on you to keep me up, you know,” Chuck said with his mouth full. “Over here on the Hill, we don’t like to be caught unawares. That’s all. You’re doing a fine and thankless job, Michael, and you have the entire delegation’s appreciation.”

Michael didn’t respond to this bit of cut and paste. He could have easily mimed Chuck’s response before he spoke. He had finished eating some long moments ago and was politely waiting for Chuck, the current Minority Whip to finish his lunch.

“Say, how is your lovely wife… Jennifer? Haven’t seen her in a while,” Chuck said between bites and smiles. The glint in his eye wasn’t smiling. Chuck was a lot smarter than his southwestern twang or his penchant for wearing western wear at all times made him appear.

“She’s fine, Chuck. I’ll tell her that you asked.” Michael knew that there was to be a follow-up question, and he started to feel uneasy. How much did Chuck know? He resisted shifting in his seat or touching his face and continued to look pleasantly back at Chuck.

“Boy, I remember her at that ball… two years ago I think…best looking woman in the place…and given all the fresh young women there that night, that’s saying something!” He laughed again and looked away as if he was still remembering. It was an old trick to get the conversation going about a subject having nothing to do with the real point. Michael decided not to respond, to see what else would surface. It didn’t take long.

“Funny that her name would come up, Michael, just popping into my head that way. Now I recall that my exec told me recently that she saw your wife at the Kennedy, attending an opera. That’s what made me remember.”

Michael knew now what the issue was. Jennifer was there without him, frequently in fact. There were questions raised, people interviewed, tut-tutting all around. Michael was being asked for an explanation of real facts, rebutting speculation and rumor. “She likes opera, I don’t. Is there some reason that I have to go to the opera?” Michael was already put on the defensive, but he had no weapons to resist whatever was coming. In fact, he was guilty as not yet charged.

“Hell no! I don’t like the opera either,” Chuck spat out with a loud laugh. He put his linen napkin over his mouth to catch whatever food was to be expelled. He took a drink while holding Michael in his penetrating look, apparently deciding how much to open this topic up. “You know there is a double standard in this town. The party in power can do no wrong; the other one has to watch their ass. You and I are the ones with our asses out, waiting to be kicked, not kissed. I need some ammo, some tidbit from you to shoot back at them. You’re inside over there. Surely you know something.”

Now Michael understood. Chuck was aware of Michael’s affair, and he was using the threat of this knowledge to force him to be the little stoolie that everyone in the White House thought he was. He was played by both sides, one giving him false disclosures, the other prying it out of him. There was to be no ethical middle for him, no pretending to be a servant of the people.

“If we are going to be frank with each other, you have to tell me what you know, and I’ll try and confirm or deny it. I’m not about to give you information that is supposed to be privileged,” Michael responded.

“Privileged! That’s a laugh. They are never going to tell you any secrets. We both know that. You don’t know any secrets other than what they want you to know. What I want is your opinion of what is really happening over there, what they are really working on. It’s only your guess I’m after.” Chuck had pushed his plate back and had his arms resting on his elbows.

“Let me put it this way, Chuck. I know something, and you know I know it, because I know you know it. There is a big event in the works but I’m told that you’ve already been informed. Quit being a bully. This shared secret that we all know about, I think, is rather a stupid one, and I said so over there, not that anyone cared. We are talking about the same issue, but this is not a place for that type of discussion. Anyway, I resent you bringing Jennifer into it.”

“Thought you should know, buddy, that tightrope you are on is in full view. You are useful, at times at least, but if you fall off, we won’t catch you. Can’t.”

“Why don’t you just say it, Chuck. What are you talking about?”

“Michael,” he shook his woolly head back and forth. “There are dames and then there are dames. A dumb blonde from the beach is one kind of dame. All of us like that kind. The other kind…is who raises eyebrows. The wrong ones. Just telling you.”

“What do you know, Chuck?”

“Not as much as I should but more than I want to. My suspicion is that you are about to be visited by Justice. My advice is to tell them the truth. Play it straight.” His message made Michael hot, his face and lips feeling it first. He knew that his face flushed and that Chuck was looking at him for this same sort of telling change, confirming that Michael had something to hide.

“No kidding?” Michael asked, trying to make his voice sound unconcerned. His mind raced. It was Sonia, her Eastern European origin, perhaps even her history. He had never pursued her background, didn’t want to because of the possibility of finding something. Something that might cause him to lose her.

“Afraid not. It’s this way, Michael. We can’t afford a scandal, not right now when we are already weak. If they find something on you…well, we’re not involved. Unless,” Chuck hesitated, letting the word hang in the air, letting Michael’s mind seize it and play with it, turning it around and grasping at it.

“Unless what?”

“Unless we have, you have I mean, something on them. Something so big that they can’t take the chance to pin something on you. A fear that you would spill to me or the press. A big thing. It would protect you.”

Michael felt his judgment coming back to him. He sat back and took a long look at Chuck. It was just possible that Chuck had nothing, knew nothing. It was all based on someone seeing Jennifer without him and guessing that an affair was the reason. Chuck could be using this as another tool to get him to open up, to give up whispered rumor, idle talk to use against the White House. It could be a ploy. Unfortunately for Michael, this time it was true. He was having an affair and with a woman who could be anybody but what she appeared to be.

Michael stood and tossed his napkin on the plate. “I should be going. Thanks for the lunch and the advice, Chuck.” He straightened his tie and tugged his suit jacket down waiting on Chuck to reply.

“Yeah, Michael. We’ll be talking. Think it over, will you?” he said, nodding his head agreeably, but his hard eyes said a lot more.

As Michael left the building, he realized that, at any moment, an FBI agent could show up. Either side could be behind the investigation. And it was his fault. All his fault.

 

Alexander Francis

End of Truth (Excerpt #9)

Share

Conspiracy


 

Bob Doran was seated but stood when Michael was shown into his office. His heavily-styled greying hair swept over his head, recalling various notorious television preachers. “Thanks so much for coming, Michael,” he beamed, offering his hand. The Chief of Staff occupied a spacious office, appointed with antiques dating from well before Lincoln. Two large windows behind his desk poured in the late morning sunlight, spilling brightly from the polished mahogany surface of the ornate desk, stippling the room with reflected warm light. The room was at least ten times the size of Michael’s.

“Why does your friendliness give me heartburn, Bob? Has lightning or alien rays struck you in the past half hour?” Michael seated himself in an upholstered chair, avoiding the handshake.

“You have the wrong idea about me. I actually value your opinions. After all, we can’t all be yes-men, someone has to point out bad ideas. You have to admit, Michael, that you often take contrary positions just to do so. It would be nice to have your actual opinion, instead of what your party would want.”

“Yes, and I would like to do that, Bob, but you have to admit how many times your party and you have turned things on me. It’s like walking on snakes in this building, wondering when, not if, I will be bitten.”

“The very nature of politics. As you know, you have to move forward with tricks or lies just to stay in power so that the real work can be done. It’s not a perfect system, is it?”

“The world and our own country is near chaos, and we are playing with words. Let me tell you something that you may have already guessed. I am out of politics after I leave this position. Never again will I play those games. From now on, you are seeing the real Michael Greenburg, and you are hearing exactly what he thinks, and I don’t care who likes it.”

“I couldn’t be happier about it,” Bob said, smiling again. “Tell you what, Michael, I will promise that there will be no traps for you any longer. No derisive looks or coy remarks from now on. And no obligation from you is expected. I want you to say what you think…please.”

Michael studied Bob’s face for deception but couldn’t see past the mask of the consummate political actor across from him. He knew absolutely that Bob could not be trusted and most likely this talk was part of a scheme of some sort. Michael spoke the truth when he described what he was going to do and from that vantage point, he no longer cared if Bob was stewing a brew with him as the main ingredient.

Michael stood and they shook hands in a sincere manner, both smiling, seemingly relieved that the friction between them was diminished. “Now, what do you really want?” Michael asked.

Bob fell back into his chair and sighed. “Not a word about this conversation will leave this room?”

“Agreed.”

“The scenario described by Audrey Jones-Hayden this morning was her own idea; no one suggested it to her. The problem is, that very solution has been discussed in depth but in secret for some months. That’s why I separated the administration from it. Officially, we would not consider such a thing. Unofficially, we are.”

“And?”

“Sincerely, I would like to know what you think?” Bob asked, eyebrows raised.

“Crazy, Bob. Simply crazy. Getting it to work would require very close and integrated cooperation from the Russians who would have to supply one side of the conflict, just as they do now. I predict they would use a deal like that to turn our Arab allies against us. Expect our country to be portrayed as the enemy of the entire Arab race. For that reason, among others, I do not think such a strategy would work.”

“The among others part. Care to elaborate?”

“Sure. My party would crucify you if they got word of it. The plan, as I heard it, would be to create a never-ending war among the Arab nations and between their factions. Both American parties would have to know about it and agree through changing administrations. Never happen.”

“Thanks. Frankly, my thoughts are the same. Nevertheless, the plan is going forward. Both the Russians and your party leaders have been consulted and are on board, at least that’s what they say.”

“No kidding! I am too stunned for words, Bob. The only thing that comes to mind is the refrain, ‘Fools rush in’.”

“Speaking of that,” Bob said, then hesitated for a moment. “I couldn’t help but notice Audrey giving you the eye. If you can take advice from a fellow traveller who has been around, so to speak, then this one would tell you to be careful, very careful.”

“Would you care to tell me more?”

“You’ll just have to take my word, Michael.”
——————————————————————————-

 

Michael turned out of the parking garage, waving to the attendant, who glared back, still seething with inherited antithesis of Michael Greenburg and apathy for nearly everyone else who parked their car in his deck. Turning into the dense stop and go traffic, Michael turned up the volume on the music, trying to tune out any latent memory of the political machinations of the last six hours. His early afternoon was spent walking through the heat to Capital Hill for his one hour weekly meeting with the Minority Whip, Chuck Dehauder. Another useless waste of time spent making sure there was opposition to everything, every motion of the ruling party. As promised, he was silent about the laughable master plan being formed to create war in the Middle East, as if they needed any help along those lines. If Bob was telling the truth, the party leaders already knew about it.

He headed northwest as fast as traffic would allow, planning only one stop for flowers before seeing Sonia. The near encounter with Audrey had left him uncomfortable, his male hormones surging around with no target. His mind focused on a new objective who was now only ten miles away and waiting for him, as she always did. Michael summoned her image, seeing her hovering in traffic ahead, beckoning him with her delicate index finger as she backed up toward the bedroom. The first time he had seen her, something had impacted him differently than any woman he had previously encountered. It was a mysterious power she radiated because of her shape, her perfection of female form. She had just stood there, a little smile on her face, looking him over without comment, but the rest of her had spoken to an unknown part of his brain, awaking a deep sense of hunger, a mindless lust, primitive and uncontrollable. Female figures, especially gloriously perfect ones, are always provoking to men, but this time it was different. Sonia’s curves were just a little more pronounced, more intense, nearly startling in their impact. He thought of her presence as the primitive force that drives the world, turns the sun off and on and proves the existence of God.
Strangely, Michael knew that he didn’t love Sonia, not in the way he had loved his wife years ago. It was a sexual pull, a consuming magnet that had no shutoff switch. The desire to see her skin, her curves, feel the warmth of her body and experience her feminine odors and tastes was addictive, and he had become a voracious addict.

Holding his flowers behind him, he turned the key to the apartment door and pushed it open, savoring the aromas of Sonia mixed with the smell of food, soap and cleanliness. “Hi,” he said softly, closing the door behind him.

Sonia appeared in the doorway leading to the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron and looking back with a slightly cocked head and a puzzled look. “Hi yourself. This is a surprise, Michael. You didn’t say you would be back.”

He was uncertain that she was happy to see him, unsure that he didn’t interrupt something. “Sorry. Should have called, I know. Is it all right that I drop in?”

“Of course it’s all right. Want an early supper?”

 

Alexander Francis

End of Truth (Excerpt #8)

Share

Quicktime

 

Quid crastina volveret aetas scire nefas homini.
What the morrow’s years might bring ’twas sin for man to know.
Publius Papinius Statius A.D. 85


Michael stepped outside and took a deep breath. Their street was cobblestone, narrow with trolley tracks down the center, the shadows of the trees striking the pavement at irregular intervals. It promised to be another warm day in D.C., making its occupants wish for the relief of fall and dryer air. A glance at his watch told him that he had plenty of time before his morning meeting. Enough to visit with Sonia for breakfast and…well, whatever she was willing to do.
————————————————————————————

 

Coffee dripped from the dash and onto his slacks. With a half-hearted swipe of the back of his hand he attempted to push the still warm liquid toward the passenger side but only accomplished getting his sleeve wet, staining a nice circle of brown on his white French-cuffed shirt. During the panic stop, made because another car was happily running a red light, the coffee cup dumped its contents against the windshield, afterwards landing who knows where. It was bad enough, but he never had a chance to get a sip, not one.

A glance at his wrist showed that he was going to be late again this morning, and the Chief of Staff was an intolerant man, puffed up, impressed by his lofty position and quick to give voice to criticism toward those under him. Michael laughed. Who cares? He laughed again, chuckling with the knowledge that he was there for criticism, the brunt of antagonisms fell on him as designed by his appointment. No one liked him, and no one would ever to listen to his contrary ideas or give them consideration. He was window dressing and that was all. Simply an impotent rebel representing nothing but an image of inclusion for public consumption. He decided that he would attend the meeting as is, ignoring any disapproving looks or comment. A rebel rebelling, they should expect no different.

Michael turned his car into the line waiting entry into his assigned parking garage as the car behind him sped angrily by, its driver glaring hatred at him for some unknown reason. His appointment included several minor perks, but this was the one he considered an un-perk, so to speak. The oversold facility was always packed, always, and the line was often longer than today’s. Someone over there, two blocks away at the White House, was having a laugh at his expense. “No,” he was curtly told, “there are no more slots in the underground. Sorry.” Only they weren’t sorry. Delighted would be a better descriptor. Sticking it to Michael Greenburg was itself a perk. The two more years left, before elections would decide all of their fates, would be intolerable except….except for her. Michael touched his lips, wondering if traces of her were still visible. He glanced into the rear view mirror…no, they were clean, but he had to be sure. No way he needed that as another round of gossip fodder. Anyway, they all were doing the same thing, even the gals. A large sexual appetite at this level of government was the rule…expected, even though it couldn’t be mentioned or openly flaunted.

Sonia’s image floated somewhere outside his windshield, her long nipples casting small shadows around the lower curve of her ample breasts. Erotic and arousing, even in memory. A car horn sounded behind him, and he crept forward a car length, Sonia disappearing for the moment. He activated his pad, deftly clicking his schedule up, keeping one eye on the car ahead to avoid another panic behind him. Finished by four. Good. He could see her again for a couple of stolen hours before going home. Jennifer could wait, that is if her busy social schedule permitted her to come home before dinner. Michael sighed. Once they were close. Once they flew into each other’s arms, kissing passionately after being separated for even one hour. How could that kind of love just disappear, as it had? Roommates now and that only. Michael couldn’t even remember their last sexual encounter, or how long ago it was, and no longer cared, as he was sure Jennifer felt as well.

Late for a meeting is excusable occasionally but entirely missing a meeting is not. Michael decided that enough is enough, and he got out of the car, walking toward the busy attendant, past the waiting cars as horns behind started to blare out, reminding him of geese squabbling at each other over a morsel of food. He clipped his White House ID on his lapel and took a ten from his wallet. The attendant saw him coming, placing his hands on his hips in a defiant gesture. This trick he had seen before.

“Sir, you simply can’t leave your car in the street. We have no way of getting it in here…” The ten was tucked into the attendant’s shirt as Michael Greenburg shrugged and headed across the street, dodging cars like an overpaid quarterback. The message was clear. Tow it, park it, blow it up. He didn’t care a bit.

The walk was automatic by now, after sixteen continuous months. Down Pennsylvania…cross 17th to the plaza and then turn right at the guard house. The rear entrance to the White House loomed through the trees. A sanctuary, a nest, of those appointed by the people to rule, a target, an objective of those hoping and plotting to occupy it. Samuel Jones watched him come, smiling his big toothy smile, the deep chuckle audible from fifty feet. As Michael drew near, the visual appraisal, the ‘tisk..tisk’ and the head shake.

“You are late, Congressman, better get yourself in step!” Another one of Sam’s deep laughs bounced off as Michael went past with a half salute, returning the smile. He was a rumpled mess, stained, and had a lack of coffee dullness about him. It didn’t matter. He was nearly the only one there who couldn’t get fired. What could they do? He was only a token, a pawn, a dart board. Fire him for disagreeing? Never happen. He pushed against the handle, speeding up the automatic door and headed for the metal detector.

“Good morning, Congressman Greenburg,” the guard said politely, motioning for him to raise his hands for a wand-over before entering the detector. “And how does this fine morning find you, sir?” she said just before pushing the detector between his legs. Michael suppressed a grunt, denying her the satisfaction.

“Oh, I’m fine, Gloria. Can’t your meter register that?” he answered sarcastically.

“Yes, indeed, Congressman. A person is inside as they look outside,” she retorted quickly.

Michael ignored her comment and headed for the staircase of the West Wing, sprinting two at a time and emerging in the second floor hall somewhat breathless. Two turns, a long hall and the meeting room door greeted him. It was closed. He tapped lightly and waited.

The door opened a foot and Julia Page’s head looked him over and frowned. “Better come in Congressman. They’ve already started.” She stepped back and opened the door wider, exposing the long mahogany table hovering over a cream carpet accented with pale blue inserts. Michael always had the same thought when he saw this room and its historic furniture. The people currently in the room had no business here. This room, like many others in the White House, had seen some great people making profound observations while doing august business on behalf of the American People. Not in this administration. Not by a long shot.

“Sorry,” he said to the room, not its current occupants, as he stepped over shapely legs, making his way to his chair. The brass plate read “Mr. Michael Greenburg, Special Advisor.” Funny, he thought, that it never specified exactly whom he was advising. Nor could it, because he didn’t advise anyone.

“Welcome Mike,” Robert Doran said smoothy, his perpetual toothy smile beaming his insincerity down the long table. “To get you up to where we are, allow me to give you a summary.” He waited until Michael acknowledged with a tip of his head. “We are discussing Iraq and its current crisis this morning. Yes, I understand that this is a familiar and recurrent discussion, and yes, I understand that your position will not have changed.” Chief of Staff Doran waited until Michael nodded once more before continuing. “At this moment I am entertaining and inviting ideas from this committee for a rational solution. Admiral Phillips has just described the use of napalm as a method of crowd control, and we are in the processes of debate.”

“I did no such thing,” Admiral Phllips stammered, turning a blue-red, the goading successful in destroying his demeanor, as it was designed to do. Michael had to give Bob Doran credit. With a minimal number of well placed and expertly timed insults, he could rattle just about anyone he chose to attack, allowing his own views to advance by default. Bob had grown cautious about insulting Michael, because Michael would fight back and not lose his cool while doing it. Placing a dagger into someone was a skill Michael had learned by practice on the campaign trail and during debate with the vicious opposition party. This very party, in fact, the current party in power. One of the reasons he was in this room with them was to destroy any chance he would ever have to seek higher office…the senate, for one. Being in this room, rubbing elbows with this bunch, would taint him in his own party, the equivalent of the kiss of death. Marked, stained for life, his future was not to be in politics, that much was for certain. The only salvation was that he could speak to what he believed, even if it was just so much hot air, drifting out of the ducts to the outside without an echo or memory. They had made an offer he couldn’t refuse; a chance to bring his party’s opinion to the inner sanctum of power. His colleagues, and the party leaders, had insisted that it was a good idea, that he should accept this appointment. Now Michael felt…knew, that all of them thought he was a problematic troublemaker. Everyone wanted Michael to get the shaft, friends and enemies alike, and naively, he had accepted, and here he was, the target of not too polite humor.

“A question, Mr. Chairman,” Michael said loudly, feeling the turning heads appraise him and his coffee stained clothing. Not wanting to wait for official permission, he quickly continued. “About napalm,” he started. “During my four years in the Air Force, I was instructed about the uses of napalm and its history, so I am not ignorant regarding the subject. Exactly what was the discussion concerning napalm?”

Admiral Phillips suppressed a smile, but his eyes flashed satisfaction at the question.

“Please, Mike, this is a subject that we have passed, and we have to move forward not backward. Rhonda will make our minutes available for later reading if you insist,” Bob Doran said, his finger pointing up at the Lord as if he were the model for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He finished speaking, flashing his tight smile of victory, but his eyes still held the sharp knives of his inner self.

“Of course a U.S. Admiral, such as we have here, would know that napalm has been outlawed for use against civilians, don’t you think? Surely, he would mean against legitimate military targets, a crowd of soldiers perhaps. You will clear this up for me, won’t you?” Michael persisted. He wasn’t in the mood to be silenced this morning, at least not so dismissively. Admiral Phillips grinned openly at him, enjoying the budding confrontation.

“Mike, Mike, I assure you that I respect Admiral Phillips’ views. Now can we proceed with others viewpoints?” Doran said, not visibly angry, still in control. He looked away before Michael could answer and pointed to Audrey Jones-Hayden, who was shuffling papers in anticipation of a long, meticulously planned dissertation.
Audrey started right in, obviously waiting for her chance to impress the room with her preparedness, pushing her heavy glasses back up her nose by habit and glancing at Michael, also by habit. She knew from experience that Congressman Greenburg would take exception to her position, whatever it might be, and he would be persistent and cunning about it
.
“We must start back, way back, to the death of Muhammad…”

“Must we?” Michael interrupted. “Let me stipulate that all of us are very aware of the beginnings of Islam. Aren’t you about to describe the schism which has lead to the present conflict? Please…” For emphasis, he tossed his pen on the table. Audrey looked up at him, her black rimmed glasses sliding back down her nose automatically so that she could see over them.

“Congressman, or should I say ‘former Congressman’, for the sake of politeness, if nothing else. Do let her speak without interruption. Can you do that?” Bob Doran asked, his words rising in pitch and volume towards the end of the sentence.

“Regretfully, I simply can’t,” Michael responded. “I had history in college, as all of us have had. I suggest that she skip to the interesting parts, if there are any.” Audrey Jones-Hayden looked back and forth between them, wondering who was to have the last word. Her confidence already shaken, she shuffled her papers instead of contributing to any confrontation. She was a hack appointee, as all were in this room. Such an absolute waste of time, Michael thought as he rubbed his chin, studying the chess board, anticipating the next exchange. This morning he was going to extract revenge on the world because of his miserable personal life, his failed marriage, his lack of a future and the genuine lack of respect he had been shown for a year and a half. It was coming to a head, the torment forcing him to try to be noticed, to attempt to make a difference, any difference.

Bob Doran sighed to the silent room. “Audrey…perhaps you should cut to the chase or we will never be finished by noon.” He made a show of appraising his wrist watch, the excuse of backing down not his fault but the pressures of his office forcing him to be diplomatic.

With a last glance at Michael, the only man in the room she had a deep, unshakable physical attraction toward, she started again, this time half-way through her thick stack of notes. “Two main polarizing elements, the Shia, the Sunni, have always vied for control of Iraq, as they do at this moment and will into the distant future. I won’t mention, at this time, unless you are interested, the various tribal and regional influences which could be considered. To be blunt, none of them, even their oppressed women, are responsible or trustworthy allies to us. We are seen as an alien, Christian-Jewish culture trying to impose our values. They accept our money and our weapons but not our ideas of democracy. Let’s not pretend any longer that we can remake their society in our image. The only way that Iraq or any other Islamic based state in the Mideast will be stable is through autocratic rule by a heavy hand. Something we fear, because of the potential for a cascade of capitulation of the weak, unstable and untenable governments currently in place. A Hitler or Stalin style dictatorship or a Caliphate rich in oil, abundant in population, will emerge astride an area always critically important to the rest of the world…like it or not.” She paused to gather her thoughts and to catch her breath but more importantly, to judge how Michael was going to respond. Catching his eye, to her surprise, she read interest in his face, not hostility. She had given a summary which was factual, indisputable, but unexpected, least of all from her, the bookworm, think-tank scholar, appointed because of her gender, not because of her wisdom. Michael was silent, for the moment, waiting with interest for her to continue.

“Options for us are limited by competing economic and political interests, such as the European and Asian need for oil, or the Russians, playing for a market for their arms sales as well as preventing us from gaining influence.” Audrey Jones-Hayden looked over her glasses at Michael and turned a page. “So just what can we do?” She asked rhetorically, waiting for all the minds present to focus on her next sentence…the nuts and bolts of her presentation. She looked around the room, sensing interest but also impatience. After all, she was just window dressing…a female intellectual, harmless but necessary for appearance. This time they were in for a shock.

“Allow conflict to happen, feed both sides with arms but just enough to have continuous battle without resolution. Decades of war…as long as we can sustain it. The two sides will consume each other slowly as if by cancer. Think about the so called Hundred Years War in Europe. If one side starts to win, assist the other side…escalate but keep the killing confined to the area. A side benefit would not only be the diminished terrorist attacks on the West but an increase in energy sales. That’s right. Oil, gas, coal. We have it, Europe and Asia want it. Same for the Russians.” She pulled off her glasses and put down her notes, waiting for the response, especially from Michael.

“My God, Audrey!” Bob Doran exclaimed. “That is the most radical idea I have ever heard, bar none. Is that from an excess of flavored coffee or has the university crowd gone simply mad?” Audrey held her ground and ignored him. That was the response she feared but she expected it to come from Michael. He was looking intently at her, his face impossible to read, and she looked back trying to understand what was twirling in his mind. “Utterly ridiculous, Audrey.” Bob continued. “You haven’t thought this out, I can tell. The death toll would be enormous and responsibility would fall on our shoulders…the President’s as well. As Chair, I rule this proposal out, completely reject it, disown it and insist that it be thrown in the trash.” Bob looked around at the other faces for support, but Audrey continued to stand in place.

“Mr. Chairman, if you will, please let me continue,” Audrey asked quietly. Bob Doran ignored her, distancing himself from any connection to her proposal…but he didn’t ask her to be seated, which she took as an opening. “The present conflict is no different, just disorganized and will have the same result without any benefit. Sure it’s a disgusting idea, but I honestly feel that it is the only one. We can’t allow one side to win. The death toll would be even higher that way and then we would face a particularly nasty and unified enemy. I have been sitting here for months as opinion after opinion floated past, and I recall that none of them had any merit. My idea will work and it is the only one that will.” She sat down, looking at Michael.

Admiral Phillips cleared his throat. “I must say that the young lady has made a point. As Machiavellian as her plan sounds, I haven’t heard anything better. The entire Middle East is up for grabs and other than dropping nukes on them, I don’t see any strategy which would lead to peace. The problem is that they don’t like us over there, and whatever we do seems to make their political situation worse, not better. Every hope of resolution or representative government has failed over time. Looking back at history, Audrey is correct, there is no solution for this area.”

Bob Doran shook his head and pointed across the table. “Mr. Wallace. Your turn. First, how would your people view such a scheme? And would it work? The second question…can you suggest any other way?”

Franklin Wallace, acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, pushed his brass name plate back, leaning on the polished surface with his elbows, his chin in his hands. “Excuse me for bluntness, but her plan is just stupid dreaming and would not work. Those people over there are not dumb and would easily see through such a scheme. It might just be what’s needed to unite them against us. As far as the second question: we should do what we have been doing all along. We are continuing to develop like-minded allies among the factions, and we support our friends. The United States should promote the idea of peace, fairness, education and trade. We can’t control an outcome or visualize what might occur in the future, but we can do the right thing, the honest thing. Our government has always stood for honesty and the rights of man and so should we continue to do so.”

“But it’s not getting the problem solved, is it?” Admiral Phillips observed.

“It might not be possible to solve this problem, Admiral,” Acting Director Wallace retorted.

“Thank you, Director Wallace, for your insight,” Bob Doran said, shooting the Admiral a quick disapproving look. “Other suggestions?” he asked, looking around.

“You’ll think this as strange as the last plan but here goes,” Peter Morgan offered, raising his hand like he was still in grade school. “My group has been developing and maintaining information distribution sites for the Defense Department…”

“You mean web sites?” Michael interrupted.

“That’s only the visible part, Congressman. But allow me to finish. On a particularly active blog site, we solicit suggestions from the public and a recent comment intrigued me, and I want to pass it along.” He waited for approval from Bob Doran who just raised his eyebrows, not committing himself to prior approval in case the suggestion was as strange as suggested.

Peter Morgan drew a deep breath, “I’ll just read this unedited, and before you ask, the author is unknown and undiscoverable, part of the design of the blog site. The writer says: “I am involved in virus research and at my laboratory we are using genetic engineering tools to modify viral genetic information with the hope of finding cures for untreatable viral infections in humans. We have recently learned that it would be possible to modify the Ebola virus making it more virulent, shortening the incubation period, thus making a dangerous virus much more dangerous. We are sure that this same sort of research is being conducted in other labs around the world. An offensive attack with this particular virus would devastate any enemy, certainly those in the Middle East, given the current chaos in that area. Note that I’m not suggesting the use of this weapon, just observing how effective it would be.”

“Wow!” observed Bob Doran. “It just gets crazier all the time.”

“One proposal that this committee liked previously was to lure radicals into a confined area and take out as many as possible with missiles. Is this so different?” Admiral Phillips asked.

“Sure it is, Admiral. Bombing terrorists is not the same as unleashing a potent virus on a general population. Besides killing the innocent, it might spread into…well, the U.S. for instance. Other than breaking international law, it would lead to reprisals of similar nature. This is mass murder on a scale never previously attempted. I will not allow serious discussion of anything like this,” Bob pounded his fist on the table, glaring at Admiral Phillips with anger.

National Security Advisor John Cements stood to speak for the first time. He was a commanding presence with his height and mass as well as his heavily lined and jowled face. “Gentlemen, Ladies, good morning to all of you. I have listened with interest this morning to some rather far-fetched solutions for a nonexistent problem. Remember that we are over here across a massive ocean with allies on both sides, protected by the world’s best navy. No matter what they do in the Levant, we are safe, oil independent and resource rich, and besides, we have the intellectual brain power to create an impenetrable defense of antimissiles. As a last resort, we can vaporize all the people in the area in minutes just by pushing a button or two. We know that and so do they. My suggestion is in line with our CIA. Do the diplomatic dance but stay at arm’s length. Attack as a last resort and only when our own soil is threatened. But…if we are forced to use weapons in defense of our lives, we should respond with total annihilation, without remorse, without pity.” After speaking, he paused for a moment but seated himself to a silent room.

“Congressman Greenburg?” Bob Dolan asked, leaning over to look at him. “You have been uncharacteristically silent. Please…your comments.” Putting Michael on the spot for comment about wild schemes was a new twist. It was a loosing position to be in. Either support a crazy scheme and be branded a warmonger or risk being called soft on the security of the country. Worst of all, and either way the question was answered, he would be associated with the opposition…the stink of the skunk. Michael avoided touching his face, a tell of weakness, and just sat there looking back at Bob, gathering his thoughts. It wasn’t so much that anything was to be decided this morning. That would be done in secret in the Oval Office. This was about positioning, and that was all.

Michael cleared his throat but remained seated. He caught Audrey’s eyes, which were waiting on his thoughts. She had more than a professional interest in him, he realized. There had been other times that he noticed her look, but during those moments, there was always so much going on. Audrey was attractive, slender, and this time he looked back to her with something other than politics on his mind. “With respect to our presenters,” he began, “the proposal to foment war would require Russian cooperation and trust. Good luck with that. The Ebola weapon, if one is possible, is threatening to all of us. I strongly suggest that a vaccine be developed as soon as possible, just in case our adversaries are ahead of us. On the other hand, I agree that we have lost control of the entire Arab world, and I believe that responsibility lies with the present administration and its weak policies. At this moment, after so many mistakes, our options are limited. I do support discussions such as we have had this morning, because even if rejected, these ideas are necessary to explore, and I congratulate Audrey on her courage in speaking about one particularly terrible solution.”

“What, no suggestions, no criticisms?” Bob Dolan sneered, projecting his smile around the room as if he had scored a victory.

“I’ll let you know when I do, Bob.”

Bob Dolan looked at his watch, frowning. He wanted to let everyone know that he had commitments, time constraints and was busy and in demand. “That does it for today, and my, what a day it has been. Food for thought, as they say. My secretary will contact you when the next meeting is scheduled.” He stood, ready to shake hands with anyone and everyone, the consummate politician. Avoiding Michael’s hand, Bob touched his shoulder on the way past his chair. A mock show of affection. Michael remained seated, still intrigued by Audrey Jones-Hayden’s talk and her obvious interest in him.

He felt a soft hand on his shoulder and turned toward her. “I hoped you would stay behind. Can we talk?” Audrey asked with a hopeful smile.

“I would love to discuss this topic with you, Audrey. It was a well thought out but aggressive plan, and it sent my head whirling. You have some time right now?”

“Of course. You will be the first to give it serious attention. Here?” she asked, looking nervously around, obviously not wanting their first private discussion to be monitored by White House recording devices.

“I have a private but very, very small office at the other end of this long hall. Is that suitable?”

Michael pulled the wooden chair away from the desk and extended his hand, motioning her to be seated. Instead of being on the other side of his desk, he chose to sit on it and pushed his meager paper work to one side. “Sorry about the height difference, Audrey. I’m not one to look down on you, really I’m not!” he laughed, looking down at her. She tucked her hands under her legs, little girl like, in a defensive posture, looking up at him with anticipation but also glancing at the open door and the frequent passers-by. Michael took her message, getting up to close the door. The room was only slightly bigger than a closet and in the close quarters her perfume was more noticeable. He had a sensation that he had experienced that perfume previously and some part of his brain started processing it.

“Do you have an office, Audrey?”

“Not in this building. I share a smaller one than this over at the Rayborne. I am only an infrequent visitor here. Given the way you are treated, I’m surprised you have one.”

“My former colleagues in the House would howl if I didn’t. Appearances here are everything. Say, this is the first time we have actually talked, isn’t it?

“Yes. I am always anxious to hear your opinion on things. You have a firm grasp and aren’t full of fluff. At least I always know where you stand on issues.”

“Well, actually, I am expected to have a contrary opinion. You can’t be from the opposition and hold the same view, can you?” he laughed again, causing her to smile broadly at him. Yes, he thought, she wants more than a conversation regarding her paper. Truly, he didn’t know the first thing about Audrey, where she was from, her age, her marital status or her party affiliation. He had always assumed that she was rabidly in agreement with the Chief of Staff’s views, otherwise why would she have been appointed? After all, they only wanted support for an already held opinion, not diversity or clutter. The ship runs smoothy in one direction if all the propellers point the same way, even if the ship is on the wrong course. A small, insignificant propeller named Michael would make no detectable difference.

“Frankly, Audrey, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the CIA or the military had suggested your plan, but coming from you, it was a massive shock. I haven’t had enough time to really think it out, but one thing is apparent, it would be the most unlikely proposal to ever arise from the staid U. S. of A.”

“There is no other way, Michael. I have assembled a ton of data regarding the Middle East which includes secret analysis from people in the field. If you wish, I’ll see to it that you get copies.” After speaking, she took off her glasses, tucking them into a unseen compartment in her jacket pocket. The effect was to unmask her face, a thin one, handsomely appointed with full lips and large eyes. A soft face, a face which could show tenderness, motherly affection, at the same time suggesting a possibility of submission.

“A ton, huh? Better wait and see if anyone takes it seriously first. My expertise has always been economic not military strategy. Besides, my opinion is not worth very much around here, and frankly we both know that what I think won’t matter in the least.”

“Not to me,” she said, looking at him with a hint of passion just under the surface. For a brief moment, Michael considered what a quick tryst in his small office would be like. Not that there wasn’t precedent for it, perhaps even in this very room. The thought was arousing, and he was experienced enough with women to read the obvious signals from the woman in close proximity. He looked again, appraising her figure through her clothes, trying to imagine how her skin would feel under his hands. Audrey glanced at the door, then back to his eyes. They were alone, she said in her mind, beaming the thought into his. She smiled and glanced below his waist, which was about head height, then back to his face. Her little trick worked and he started to become aroused whether he agreed or not. Nature was claiming its dominance over his better judgement and the process had started.

The phone rang, jarring his mind back to where he and Audrey were…the seat of power of the most powerful country on the planet.
“Hello,” he said, still watching Audrey’s face projecting that willing smile at him.

Bob Doran’s smooth voice came across the earpiece, “Michael! Glad you are still here. Can you manage to come to my office? Right away would be appreciated.”

 

Alexander Francis

End of Truth (Excerpt #7)

Share

Awakening


 

“How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they never come to a man together, and yet he who pursues either of them is generally compelled to take the other.”

Marcus Valerius Martialis 80 A.D.

 

Bird sounds came before anything else. He began to listen, trying to separate the various calls and their distance from him. Some were close, but pleasant, not threatening at all. A soft breeze played in his hair and brushed his face with a lover’s caress. He let his mind wander, not focusing on anything in particular, the memory of various faces and familiar voices drifting in and out of his vision without purpose, glimpses of people that were. They were speaking to him, their happy faces glowing, moving, just out of clear focus. What were they saying? He tried to speak back, but no words came. The fragrance of his surroundings touched his consciousness, making him aware of flowers, pine trees, moist grass and…yes, the smell of salt water. Sunlight warmed his face and body and saturated his eyelids with a red glow. It is pleasant here, he thought, not wanting to move, to lose any of his awareness, a mellow satiated feeling coursing through him.

There was a soft footfall close by and a moment when Michael could feel that someone was looking at him, then a small grunt as the person sat down with effort close by. “We should talk, Michael,” the person said affectionately. A suggestion, not an order or a command. Michael chose to not move, not wanting to lose a precious second of this experience. A perfect existence, one not troubled by life, not worried about death, just absorbing nature in its finest moment.
“Time, Michael. It’s time we talked,” the male voice said, and a warm hand fell on Michael’s shoulder. His first view was of the sky. Blue, intensely blue, the sun blindingly bright. Michael put his hand over his face, trying to return to reality. He could feel the grass against his ear, the earth’s odor of life drifting around his head and into verisimilitude. Michael turned his head toward the voice and saw the older man’s smile, somehow familiar and inviting. A person whom he had always known, causing a warmth to come into him, a feeling that he was welcome, respected and loved by this man.

Michael sat up, at first looking into the distance and seeing the sparkling water stretch out past the horizon, cradling islands and rocks which jutted into irregular peaks, each with an unremembered name. It was home, he knew, but he had no memory of being here before. It was a place he would have wanted to come from. A place with no evil, no memory of failure, no demands and no rewards.

“You are troubled?” the man asked, looking at him sideways, the heavy wrinkles and sun-brown skin reflective of his age and his wisdom. Michael couldn’t recall his name, but his face was as familiar as his own, his soothing voice was one he had heard before. The man wore a white robe, the folds exposing his weathered arms and gnarled hands. A small leather tie held his long graying hair back, disappearing behind his broad shoulders. His exuberant eyebrows were of an older man, long in years and experiences.

“Yes, I am troubled,” Michael spoke, listening to his own words as if they had arisen from a stranger.

“A man with so much, but you are unhappy. You are young, intelligent and capable of so much, yet you feel incomplete.”

“I have lost my way, my purpose for living. Nothing gives me pleasure.”

“They simple live only for the moment, and they are happy. You strive for more but for what do you quest? Has it a name?”

“I want to make a difference, to be important, to get recognition that I have tried. That’s all.”

“It is a lot to want. Perhaps you know in your heart that the only meaningful appreciation wells up from yourself. If you know that you gave your full effort, that your purpose was pure and hate banished from your soul, then and only then can you feel that your life had meaning. Material things and physical pleasures are distracting and add nothing to your life, especially as it comes to an end. You must return to fundamentals to be happy.”

“My world is complex. Fundamentals are lost in piles of issues, a pure life no longer valued. To get ahead requires cheating, pushing others aside, doing what is possible, not what is right. A bad man will triumph a good man because he can.”

“What you say is true…but,” the older man said, pausing to study the horizon for a long moment. “We were talking about you, though. What will it take to make Michael happy? You have done all the things you abhor, but did it bring happiness or satisfaction?”

“It is what I had to do at the time, though I am not content with my actions.”

“Shame. You feel it. There is much about yourself that you dislike. You must change. Remember that one’s time is not written. The end always comes too quickly, leaving much undone. Prepare yourself.”

———————————————————————————

A soft knock and the door popped a little as it slowly opened. “Michael,” a soft voice called. “Don’t you have to get up?” she asked, reluctant to come into the room.

“Yes, I do. Thank you,” Michael answered belatedly, pulling the covers from his face so that he could squint at Jennifer. She was smiling, as usual, her perpetual sunny outlook always starting early. The door closed quietly, leaving Michael to study the ceiling, scratching various parts of himself awake. His sleepy eyes followed the crown molding around the limits of the ceiling while he started thinking. Wasn’t there a dream last night? He had dim memories of one but at this moment couldn’t recall any details. Not too surprising because he rarely recalled dreams, and wasn’t absolutely certain that he actually dreamed at all. Often, friends would discuss their vivid dreams with him, not realizing how utterly boring other peoples dreams are. On the other hand, he envied them a bit as it seemed that their nocturnal adventures extended their lives in some way, or at least provided things that they really wished they could do or say in real life.

Michael sat up scratching his head with both hands, still avoiding thinking of the day’s events and his obligations. He stood by the bed, generating a series of straining sounds from the wide board flooring as his weight shifted. It was their fifth year in this old townhouse, and he had never grown fond of the creaking doors and floors like Jennifer had. The miasma that Jennifer amusingly had named “ancient fragrances” assailed his nose from closets, pantries and, on occasion, seemed to arise from the cracks in the floor. The rooms were small and paint chipped easily from the old door frames. It was the price they paid for living in a historic area of Georgetown, that and the startling purchase amount when they bought it. Proximity and location is everything in real estate, and in this case the townhouse was close to Georgetown University where Jennifer worked and not too far from the White House where Michael pretended to work. At times, Michael could imagine Georgetown in an earlier era. Not so far back as the Civil War but more just before the Second World War, the time of the great American Expansion during the Roosevelt Era. Prior to that, Georgetown had a rougher edge, unrefined, industrial and largely populated by the poor. It was an inside deal, getting this house at an affordable but still extravagant price. One that required contacts in high places, like at a congressional level when Michael was first elected to Congress. Perks of office, thanks to his party being in control that term. It had been a big step and a long way from Iowa, culturally and physically. Michael had changed in the process, mostly not for the better.

As he tied his tie around the collar of his still untucked shirt, he studied his image in the antique mirror. Not bad for a man approaching forty five, he thought. Still ruggedly handsome in some ways but well past the firm vigor and energy of his days in the Air Force. He smiled at the memory of his attraction to women when he was in fighter pilot training. Yes, those were the days. Wish they could have lasted forever he thought as he brushed his full but speckled hair in place. He tossed the brush onto the dresser and paused for a moment, the impact of life’s progress striking him, the realization that things change in a blink of time and some experiences only come once and then merely become memories which fade.

At one time, the future looked positive, the sun parted clouds for him and he was happy. He remembered looking forward to wrapping Jennifer in his arms when he came home, she of the always positive disposition. The quick step of youth, the glamor of success and power, the newness of everything, the wonder of it all. Where had it gone? In some ways it was still there but in an ill defined way, things were not the same, were duller, less interesting and less fascinating. He no longer held Jennifer as if she were the only thing that mattered, his treasure of treasures. By mutual agreement they had slowly drawn apart both in the important physical way but also in the circles of their lives. She had hers, and he was left with his. Eventually, the sexual urges that men are condemned to have couldn’t be contained, ignored or shelved. The result was another woman. The one who was waiting for him across town at this moment.

“Will you eat before leaving?” Jennifer asked, knowing that he would not. “Not even a cup of coffee?” she persisted.

This routine placed his actions in the open for both to see. Her way of letting him know that she was aware, even contemptuous, but uttered in a way that would also acquiesce to his plans. Jennifer smiled graciously, but inside not angry, merely hollow. She had lost him some time ago. There wasn’t a moment, an incident, which commenced the change. Just a slow inexorable, inevitable, slide down a slope of no return. She stayed married to Michael because she had no other lovers, nor intended to, and their home was where she wanted to live, its glamor and address adding to her sense of self. Jennifer no longer longed for a physical relationship with her husband, but she did want stability, comfort and at least the semblance of married life. Even that was slowly slipping away as he stayed away longer and was missing at inopportune times. Eventually there would be the inevitable scandal. Washington thrived on prurient interest, and there were competing factions always anxious to make the other side look bad even if there was only smoke. Here, there was fire.

Michael glanced at his wife as he was putting on his coat. They went through this same routine nearly every morning like clockwork. He knew that she didn’t really care what he did as long as it didn’t threaten her. She looked soft this morning, well scrubbed, fresh, and there was no trace of confrontation in her voice or face. Suddenly, the memory of intimacy between them returned, making him contemplate her as he had not done for so long. At one time, she was, even tempering his view, ravishingly, stunningly beautiful. Jennifer was what a man would want. Intelligence combined with innocence worn lightly by a delicate and feminine girl whose presence bellowed purity. She hadn’t really changed much over the eight years of marriage, not really. Her demeanor was now more penetrating, vibrant with experience, but yet approachable. Desirable? Yes, she still was. Her persistence with physical training and moderation in diet and alcohol kept her youthful, easily appearing years younger than her real age. She knew that he was involved with another woman, had to know, not that he had openly admitted it or flagrantly flaunted the fact, but because she knew him so well— a woman’s unfailing intuition about such things.

“Actually, I will have a cup, if you meant it, that is.”

“Of course I meant it,” she said sweetly and turned toward the kitchen. “Sit. Back in a minute.” She wore her long brown hair tied with a yellow ribbon, allowing the waves of curly hair to bounce along her shoulders. The silk kimono that she wore was purchased while they were in Tokyo on a congressional junket during his first term. She filled it nicely, and the tightly tied waist allowed her hips to move under the thin silk in a most seductive but natural way. Michael remembered the difficulty of the transaction, because the merchant didn’t want to be paid in dollars and spoke no English to explain. Michael remembered the event like it was yesterday and smiled as he sat on the couch.

“Smiling? Something that good about to happen?” Jennifer asked as she appeared with two cups.

“On a typical day at the White House, there is rarely something to smile about. No, I was remembering buying the kimono that you are wearing. Remember how funny that was?”

“Oh yes! I do remember. If it wasn’t for our cab driver, I wouldn’t be wearing it now.”

“What are your plans for today?” Michael asked.

“Same as always. First to the health club then to school. Two classes today. Then…will you be home for dinner?” she asked, obviously planning for either possibility.

“Uncertain. I’ll call first if I’m coming.”

“Then in that case I’ll get dinner out, then there is a play I want to see afterward.”

“Will you have company for the play?”

“Most likely.” She stopped short of telling him who she would go with, intentionally retaliating for his plans, which didn’t include her.

“I see,” he said, nodding into his coffee. Pursuing this topic would be problematic. A trap or at least a dead end. He let it drop.

“And you. What are you doing today?” It was polite conversation only. She not only didn’t expect the truth, she didn’t want to hear it.

“Go to the White House, get humiliated. Go to Congress, get impossible instructions. Same stuff.”

The conversation had run its course. Michael carefully placed his cup on the polished wood and stood up. He had a strong desire, or perhaps it was an impulse, to kiss her. It was what the occasion called for, demanded, in fact. But he didn’t; he simply donned his suit jacket, nodded to her and left. It was too late, too far down that slope to change direction.

 

Alexander Francis

End of Truth (Excerpt #5)

Share

Encounter


The dreaded rush home. It was the same every weekday. Cars filled the roads and were filled with pushy people, all urgently trying to get home after a long day. Any semblance of courtesy was not to be found as cars packed closely together, forming a caterpillar of colored metal, as if that would somehow speed their progress. One smoking exhaust pipe after another for as far as could be seen, the owners grasping their steering wheel with both hands, the angry faces, the snarl of lips. Michael hated it.

Ahead was one of Washington’s famous circles, the cars entering one at at time, others dashing around the circle, cutting across lanes, exiting in haste to avoid being swept around again. Michael allowed himself a chuckle. The only time the circles actually worked was when the traffic was light enough not to need them. He suddenly felt the urge to communicate with a fellow traveler and rolled down his drivers window, looking across at the adjacent car, stopped only a foot away. When he caught the driver’s attention he asked, by making suggestive arm motions, that she roll down her passenger window. She ignored him and responded by crowding the car in front of her. Michael sighed and rolled his window back up. At least the noise was somewhat reduced this way. On an impulse, he turned sharply right into a nearly empty side street. As he rolled along, he noticed the litter, the beaten parked cars, the broken or missing glass. This was a poor neighborhood and one which might be hostile to an establishment figure in a suit, like himself. It was not typical of Michael to venture off the beaten path, but Washington is rather simple in its layout. Most streets are either north- south or east-west. Excepting, of course, the large diagonals, radiating like the arms of a star, all from a nidus, the historic and political centers. He turned left at the next corner but instantly realized that it was a bad choice, being even worse than the first. Not only detritus littered the street, but also groups of people standing around, watching as he passed. Even in his peripheral vision, he could see and feel the eyes, the unfriendly faces. In his head he heard ugly epithets they silently willed that he know. A mistake to come this way, an urge to beat the system which wasn’t working.

Michael’s peripheral vision saw a motion before he heard the first ‘whack.’ Then another. A small crack appeared in his windshield, the lower right corner. At first it appeared small, a nearly imperceptible divot, a chip, from which sprang rays of light advancing from the center, the vision of Ra brought to life by the impact of stone against glass. As he drove, the area rapidly expanded, quickly covering the right half of the windshield, then coalescing into smaller divisions, subdividing farther and farther until the largest fragment was measured in millimeters. Michael knew what was to happen next and understood that in a few short moments, the entire glass would be sagging and might collapse into his lap, the car rendered useless by a small stone. Looking around, he preferred not to stop until he reached some area less likely to produce a small gang of angry youths as soon as he emerged from his car. He turned corners again and urged the car along by the pressure of his foot, but the resulting onrushing air pushed the glass inward enough to contact the top of his steering wheel. He had to stop.

Michael pulled over to the curb, leaving the motor running and reaching for his cellphone, trying to decide whom to call first. He noticed the red glow, an indication that his battery was about to expire. Dialing Jennifer first, he allowed it to ring a dozen times, realizing that either she was unavailable or had decided to not pick up his call. Either was possible. His second choice never happened because the phone shut down before he could dial. That was the moment the glass started to fall inward, a fragment at a time, then whole honeycombed sheets, until the only remnants were little jagged teeth at the periphery. Michael got out, brushed the glass from his clothing and stood beside the car, deciding on his next step, when he noticed the adjacent house on the other side of the sidewalk. There was a man watching him from the small porch. At first, Michael felt a sensation of alarm but then realized that the man was older and in a wheelchair. He gave a little wave of acknowledgment which wasn’t returned. Looking back and forth at the street, he tried to determine the best way out on foot. This was an area infrequently visited by cabs and then only when they were called.

“I heard breaking glass,” the man on the porch observed. Michael looked again and realized that the man might not be able to see him, the dark glasses he wore not a fashion statement, perhaps not functional, other than to hide sightless eyes.

“Yes, my windshield just fell out,” Michael summarized, thinking but not adding the helpless feeling he had without phone communication.

“What are you going to do about it?” Yes, that was the pressing question, Michael acknowledged.

“I’ll have to get a ride, but my phone just went dead. What is the best direction for me to walk?”

“I would go north from here. You might not want to do that.” The man’s advice was undoubtedly sound, but where did that leave Michael’s choices? He looked up and down the street again unsure of what to do.

“Or you could come up and sit with me while we call for your ride.”

“I would very much appreciate that,” Michael said and started toward the porch. As if she had been listening, an older woman opened the door enough to look at Michael. She was heavy, with close-cropped hair, sprinkled heavily with grey. Michael could feel the eyes that raked him over much like a scanner at an airport terminal.

“Want a wrecker?” she asked, still not smiling at him.

“Yes, that’s probably best,” Michael answered, not really wanting to give the number for the White House switchboard.

“That’s a start,” the older man agreed. “Pull up a chair, and we’ll talk until it shows up.” He waved his arm vaguely to a nearby small rocker, obviously there for his wife to use. After Michael hesitantly sat down and looked around, he found the man smiling at him but not in a friendly way, more of an amused, knowing smile that older people do when a younger one makes a bigger problem from a small one.

“My name is Michael. Thanks for the assistance.”

“Not done anything yet…does Michael come with a last name or are you more like Prince and don’t need one?” The amused smile continued, making Michael feel somewhat defensive.

“Greenburg. My last name is Greenburg. And may I ask yours?”

“Most certainly. You should call me Josiah.”

“Is that your first or last name?” Michael asked.

“It’s my name, though May often calls me Joe, as you might hear. I allow that with her.”

There was a long moment of silence while Michael decided if he wanted to attempt any more conversation. He hoped that the wrecker would arrive shortly. “Have you lived in Washington long?” Michael asked, trying to break the silence.

“Yes. Very long. You?”

“Going on 6 years now.”

“With the Government?”

“Yes. A lot of people in this city are.”

Michael studied Josiah’s face trying without success to determine his age. The sunglasses made it harder. He had greying, but not grey, hair on his head, but his carefully trimmed lower lip beard was grey and wispy. His tattered sweater looked like a old comfortable hand knit and covered his arms in folds, leaving his gnarled hands exposed, gripping the arms of the wheelchair.

“You were in Congress,” Josiah declared without looking at Michael. It was not a question but a statement.

“Used to be. No longer. I stepped down last year. How did you know?”

“I can see a little out of one eye. It was they way you stood; the way people stand when they are used to having other people do things for them. I guessed also.” He fell silent again.

The door opened and May leaned out. “Joe. Want anything?”

“Always you, my dear, you know that,” Josiah said before the door closed again without a reply. Josiah chuckled softly. “That always gets her, but she isn’t in the mood today with you here.” He started rubbing one knee which was giving him some pain. “So…an ex-congressman. You should have returned home, wherever that is. You didn’t…meaning you found some work in Washington or your wife didn’t want to leave.”

“Correct both times,” Michael said. “I’m acting as a liaison for my party…and my wife likes it here.”

“And you don’t, do you?”

“I’m feeling disconnected, if you can understand that. I’m not sure I do.”

“Yes. I understand. You are feeling that you don’t belong in Washington any longer, that same feeling also bringing problems into your marriage. If I’m getting too personal, just tell me.”

“No, not at all. You are very perceptive.”

“In my situation, I’ve not much else left but my observations, so I spend my time thinking and analyzing.” The door opened again and May emerged carrying a tray with two beverage glasses.

“Thought you both could use a drink of tea. Your wrecker will be along…but when, I don’t know.”

“That’s very nice of you. Thanks so much.” Michael said. May gave a small smile and disappeared back inside.

“We grew up in the South. In the South, you always drink iced tea on an afternoon,” Josiah explained. “Liaison, you said.” He paused, taking a long drink. “That would mean contact with the other party, wouldn’t it? Does that mean the White House?”

“Yes.”

“And the ‘other party’ occupies the White House at the moment,” Josiah said aloud. It was not a question but an astute observation.

“Exactly,” Michael admitted.

“I’m thinking that since your wife has settled in…and you are in a thankless job… that she may not be the shoulder to cry on that she was. She wouldn’t want to hear it.”

Michael was silent. The probing was accurate, inceptive and painful. He took a drink of bitter tea. “Again, you are especially good at putting things together. I’m impressed.”

“I’m not judging you, Michael, you have to believe that. But, my mind occasionally goes places. You might call it a flight of fancy or just speculation. They tell me that Washington has more women than men, and most of the women are single. Is that what you’ve heard also?”

“By observation, it seems true enough,” Michael admitted. You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to see all the young women who were working but also available. The town was full of them. Michael had an uncomfortable feeling that the next query was going to get very personal. He decided to ask the next question and direct the conversation away from him. “What did you do before you retired?” Michael asked.

“That’s simple. I’m not retired. Not at all. I’m doing the same thing I always did, except I’m getting better at it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You see, Michael, I observe, I think, I reason and learn just sitting here as the world goes by. People like you are too busy living to see the things I do. I have time, and I use it.”

 

Alexander Francis

End of Truth (Excerpt #4)

Share

The Capital Steps


It didn’t take long, about as far as the front edge of the Reflecting Pool, before his upper lip started to drip, causing him to dab at it with his already damp handkerchief. He intended to walk down the Washington Mall from the Capital, but he could see trucks parked along the pedestrian walkway, then half-remembered hearing or seeing something about ongoing repairs. Instead, he cut north and headed toward Constitution, intending to walk the entire way to his car, which was, hopefully, still in the deck on 17th and Pennsylvania. After a few more steps, he felt the trickle start down his sides, under his underwear and along his spine. A bright, though hazy, sun hung in the sky, baking everything it saw and making him realize that he would be drenched in his own fluids in half the time it would take to reach his car.

Anger, frustration, as well as the humiliation he was expected to take in stride had built up, as it did on most days, until his only option was to walk it off, sweating and cooking under the sun, his excess energy spent reaching his car, the fight dissipated… at least until the following day. He should be used to it by now. His prior service in the Air Force and two terms as a U.S. Representative had taught him, if nothing else, to agree when you don’t agree and to shut up when you want to talk or fight back.

Michael took a deep breath and squinted against the light. Ahead and slightly south was the spire of the Washington Monument, jabbing into the blue cloudless sky, at what, he had been never sure. Some expert in the cluster of museums and exhibits along the Mall would know the meaning of the original Egyptian obelisks, but did the designer and builder of the Washington Monument feel that same way or did he just use a familiar shape, an expected design, to add a monumental element to the Washington sky, one copied by example from the ancient Romans, the French, the English who all had stolen obelisks from Egypt at one time or another. The grandeur of Washington, its stately buildings constructed of white stone, rising larger than humans as individuals can hope to achieve, simply was another idea stolen from the Romans and before them, the Greeks. The colonial fathers are given credit, but ancient ideas were there to copy long before their birth.

Michael walked with determination, covering the two miles easily as he usually did but giving him time to think and analyze his day and speculate about the days ahead. Glancing behind him as the Capital receded and ahead as the grounds of the White House loomed, he felt the essence of the city, its buildings, its history, its illusions and its pretense. All necessary for the heart, the core, of a great collection of people who have had a long history of self-determination and survival.

As he thought about it, the newer buildings, the ones from the twentieth century, were not as grand or stately as the Roman copies scattered about. The Romans got it right, and capital buildings of most of the western world have copied their essence throughout history. Until now… when the accountants, the lawyers, the supervisors and the people’s representatives have their say, and their say is to build conventionally, cheaply, rectangularly and without distinction. The resulting trade-off is obvious.

The very idea of representative government was copied as well and from the same ancient sources. Even many of the same words had been kept…council, senate, podium, rostrum and so on. Michael was part of the system and had actually felt part of it, for awhile. It was sinking in that his voice didn’t matter, never did. Other issues, other causes, other parties were important. Not ideas, nor ideals. It was all an illusion for the voting public who only saw and heard what they were told. The cattle who lined up on election day to vote into power those whose name they recognized or whom their party put forward.

A man with a chisel may chip away at a mountain his whole life without removing a significant part of it, but he will leave a mark, his life and work will be noticed. Chip away at politics though, and you will never leave a scratch. It will go on the way it has always gone, toward a hidden destiny, one not obvious before it arrives, then without stopping will change direction and move again. A wild train crossing and recrossing time, with no stops, no hesitation, no waiting for instructions, no sense of wrong or right. And one, in Michael’s opinion, that was headed in the wrong direction.

 

Alexander Francis

End of Truth (Excerpt #3)

Share

Jennifer Whispered


Jennifer whispered in his ear, her lips caressing his face as she spoke. It was like being kissed by a shy little girl, one too young to know what effect she had. Michael turned, looked into her face and pulled her to his lips. It was one of those encounters so engaging that their teeth touched, their tongues intertwined by wishes of their own, a moment when he realized that kissing like this should also be considered sexual contact.
“I can’t wait for the wedding, Michael,” she beamed. “But you never told me about our honeymoon. I have to prepare clothes, you know. And there is the thing about a current passport.” She was trying once again to pull it out of him, and he felt himself weakening. After all, she had a right to know, and she was correct about the clothes. He had decided that Japan would be an exotic, romantic location for a honeymoon, partially because he had been stationed there in the Air Force for over a year and knew all the places she would like.

“You should allow me to surprise you, Jennifer. I won’t have anything left if you keep digging into my brain like that. Anyway, it isn’t fair to French kiss me and then pull away. It’s pure torture, and you know it.”

Jennifer laughed and stood up, turning to face him, her face all smiles but her eyes darting those looks of passion at him. She put her arms over her head and stretched, twisting at the waist as she did so, giving him a long look at her female curves, the ones he, as yet, had only imagined. Her head turned toward him as she relaxed, a teasing look coming over her while she puckered and mock kissed him.

“You little devil,” Michael hissed. “You set me on fire on purpose so many times that I can’t even remember how many. I’m already so hard from your kiss that I can’t stand without embarrassment, and now you show me the rest of you, and you know exactly what I want. Have you no pity?”

Jennifer giggled and pulled a strand of her shiny hair over her lips imitating a mustache. Her eyes danced with fire, then she dove into him, pushing between his legs with her body and sliding provocatively into his arms. “Tortured? Had enough?” she asked. Before he could say anything, she continued, “Now tell me what I asked about. Where?”

He gently put his hand on her buttock, ready to pull it away if she had any sign of refusal. She didn’t, but it was just another tease, because they both knew that going farther was off limits. Especially on the sofa of her parent’s screen porch, and most certainly not with them within shouting distance. “I give. The Orient…but that is as far as I go. You can torture me all you want, and that’s all I’ll say.”

“Wait, my precious intended, that’s not sufficient. Part of the Orient is tropical, part is cold. I have to know which.” She put her lips to his, but didn’t kiss him, just looked into his eyes, waiting on what she knew he would disclose.

Michael slapped her on the butt and pushed her away, something he really didn’t want to do, but the tumescence he was experiencing had to be eased, because any moment her mother might wander onto the porch wondering what they were up to. “Not a chance. You’d better prepare for both, just in case.”

Standing again, Jennifer pointed to his trouser front and said, “Omygod, you weren’t kidding!” She started to howl with laugher at his predicament.

“Something wrong, Jennifer?” came from the house. Her mother was listening, as usual. They could hear her footsteps coming closer. Michael looked around for some cover, some excuse, some method of disguise, even a pillow would do. Just as the screen door opened, Jennifer flung herself on his lap and put her arms around his neck, kissing him quickly on the forehead.

“My, my, children. I’m glad I came in when I did and not later. You know that it’s only three weeks until your wedding and then…well, just don’t let me see it,” Thelma said and placed a large plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table. Michael was used to the very strict principles of this house, and even though he felt otherwise, he strictly observed the rules, spoken and implied. The girl in his lap was worth any wait, any torment or turmoil. Jennifer was as pure as rainwater, a wholesome young woman whose deep passions were obviously present even though she mostly managed to control them, unlike himself. Michael kissed her on her forehead while her mother watched, then gave her a wink that her mother couldn’t see. Jennifer winked back.

With a frown, Thelma looked over her glasses at Jennifer, a bad sign. “Your father and I were wondering…” she paused, summoning up some unpleasant thought. Jennifer turned toward her, listening intently and letting go Michael’s neck. “Your degree. What are your plans? I mean, it’s such a waste. We had high…” She let the words she meant to say form in their brains, the intent clear.

“Nothing to worry about, Mother,” Jennifer said and stood up, her hand on Michael’s shoulder, as if to enlist his support, his voice, knowing that he felt the same. “I am finishing school, getting my degree, just as we planned. Michael and I decided on this long ago.”

“But, child, you are moving away. You can’t go to college like that.”

“Sure, Mother, sure I can. I’ll just change schools, that’s all.”
Thelma nodded unconvincingly, dropping the subject which concerned her most. Her daughter would be the first in the family with a law degree. The idea was so appealing that she had bragged to her friends and extended family. Jennifer’s marriage wasn’t as important in her eyes as a career. She could always get another man and with her looks, a more important man.

“I have to tell you something, Mother,” Michael said. “Hope you don’t mind me calling you mother…I think of you in that way, you should know. My point is to tell you that when we get back to my…our…hometown, the first thing I am going to do is to run for public office. I intend to run for Congress eventually, and we’ll live in Georgetown. That’s closer, don’t you see. And a woman with a law degree in Washington can always find work. We won’t let you down.”

Thelma paused to reflect before agreeing that such news was most persuasive. Yes, that is what she wanted to hear. Her daughter would be protected in that way, no matter what happened to their marriage. She gave them a big smile and, without another word, left the room, closing the door behind her as if an invitation to their privacy.

 

Alexander Francis

End of Truth (Excerpt #2)

Share

 


Politico


 

Across the room, Michael spotted him. It was easy enough because Tony in profile presented a unique silhouette, his pregnant abdomen preventing any close contact with someone standing in front trying to have a private word, as Michael was about to do. Anthony Ricardiscio was a heavyweight, the local imprimatur stamp, at least in politics. The Party was his, through years of hard work and arm twisting. His brother’s Union status didn’t hurt either. Getting ahead politically in this city was only possible with Tony’s blessing…and that was hard to obtain. Michael had no contacts, no important family, not to mention, no money. But he had plans, ideas and determination, plus a military background as a glamorous fighter pilot, and on top of that, his dark good looks. The Party had been fading recently, the leaders aging. It was time for new blood.

Tony shot Michael a quick glance as he approached but otherwise ignored him, tossing the last of his cocktail, then twisting the empty glass by its neck, continuing to concentrate on the man standing in front of him. He was big in his own eyes, important, the center of things. His physical appearance was exactly right for the image he wanted to present: massive, overbearing, irresistible in an unmistakable manner of personality, but most of all, dominant. As he nodded in seeming agreement, his jowls shook slightly, the flesh between his eyes contracted, furrowing further his furrowed brow, an act of intense focus, because he wasn’t even listening but instead thinking about the young, attractive Michael just now pausing at his left elbow and waiting like a docile pet for his master to notice.

“Want another?” Michael suggested, breaking in, using a transparent excuse, still playing the required submissive role but nevertheless pushy enough to intrude. Without looking at him, Tony extended the hand with the glass, but without seeming to break his concentration, continuing to dispense valuable insight to the obviously more important fellow in front of him. In a short moment, Michael reappeared, armed with a full, long stem glass of potent alcohol and wearing an obligatory smile.

This time, Tony turned as he accepted the cocktail, his former conversation ended for now. “Thanks. You’re name is Michael as I remember. We met some years ago, I do believe.”

“Yes, I remember that also. It was in our home. You came to talk to Dad.” Michael smiled, waiting for an invitation to speak more. The reason for his intrusion.

“That’s a winning smile, Michael. Learn that in the Air Force?”

“You learn not to smile there. Makes you seem insincere, lightweight.”

“Yes. That’s an interesting viewpoint. …I hear that you are working…and married. Congratulations on that. You’re happy then?”

“No.”

Tony smiled, his eyes narrowed, and he nodded slightly. “I can see that you have youth, vigor and poise already. What, then, can an old fat man do for you?”

“I want to be a congressman. They say you are the one who can help.”

“Such a compliment. Who exactly are the ‘they’?”

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

“A congressman! Why don’t you just run for President? Why go half way?” Tony laughed, nearly spilling his drink.

“Because I will be happy with just that. I don’t need more.”

Tony handed his drink to the man still loitering nearby, ready to resume their former discussions. “Come with me, Michael,” he said. With Tony’s impossibly large arm draped over his shoulder, they parted the crowd and went by nodding and murmuring political hacks of all kinds, each ready to greet Tony or do anything he asked. Michael could feel the eyes on him, on his back, his face, all wondering.

Tony closed the door to the small conference room and waved to a chair with his thick hand. He picked one across the table from Michael and turned it around before sitting with his arms across the back. The smile was gone but the ever-present beads of sweat were still there, as were the narrowed dark eyes which seemed to see through a person, measuring their merits or at least their willingness to cooperate.

“Now then, Michael,” he said. “Just how serious are you about this?”

Michael cleared his throat and unbuttoned his suit jacket, then leaned back, one arm across the back of his chair, a thin smile on his face. “You know that I don’t have any experience in politics, not even a college course in it. I’m green. A fresh face. But there is no hidden past, no transgressions, no demerits. I am what I appear to be. Determined.”

“And you think that’s enough?” Tony asked.

“Backing. That and money. I have the rest.”

Tony sighed. “Fine. You have desire. We all have desires, don’t you know. It’s not enough to have desires. There is one thing you haven’t mentioned. A cause. What’s yours?”

“A cause,” Michael repeated aloud while churning the concept over. He wasn’t expecting this one. A cause. The term sounded so simple, so…pertinent. Yes, he needed a cause. There was a long moment of silence before he responded. “The VA system. I have friends who were treated badly.”

“The VA?” Tony sneered. “There isn’t one in this area and besides, veterans account for a very small part of the voting public. And, don’t mention the homeless, the unemployed, the hungry, the racially or sexually disadvantaged. The other Party already has ownership of those issues. We generally go for topics about taxes or spending. Local stuff. Boring stuff. You sure you want to be in this Party?”

“What about corruption? Isn’t that an issue? I want to get rid of corruption,” Michael stated, like he had discovered the tomb of Jesus.

“Hell, boy. According to some, I’m corruption. And that is why you are sitting there, isn’t that right? You expect me to make you the next coming thing, but you are devoid of ideas and have no history. You are not political material, Michael. Not yet.” His last words were telling. Not yet did not mean never. There was, at least, a shred of hope.

“I understand, Mr. Ricardiscio. You are right. I’m not ready.”

“Hold on, boy, and don’t ever call me mister. My name is Tony to you. How about being alderman? Is that something you can see yourself doing?”

Michael brightened up and sat up straight, looking at Tony for signs of insincerity. “You mean it, Tony?”

“Sure I do. It’s going to mean a lot of footwork on your part, the house to house stuff, the pressing of flesh, the kissing of babies, the press interviews. If you want it, though, I’ll back you. What do you say?”

“I’ll do it.”

“Great. Now go home and start coming up with a cause or two. Call me back when you are ready.”

 

Alexander Francis