The water for which we may have to look
Two Tramps in Mud Time
“POP Goes The C-A Poll”
Jim Conor read the headline aloud, paused to scowl at his lunch companion, then read it again. It wasn’t that he was angry about the headline, but . . . well, yes, he was angry. The city’s water supply for the next hundred years, the most important election in a generation - those were topics that deserved something a little more serious than wordplay from a nursery rhyme.
“POP Goes The C-A Poll? What the hell kind of a headline is that?” Conor tossed the paper on the table in exaggerated dismissal, irked that he wasn’t getting through to the man across the table. He wished there were a carpenter’s bench to chase him around.
“Do you want another naan?”
“Do you want to kiss my ass?”
“I’ll go ahead and eat it. The naan, that is.”
Mike Christian dipped the bread in a bowl of cucumber sauce and savored it while his friend stewed. “You’re obsessing, you know?”
“Is it obsessing to suggest that the local newspaper get things right once in a while in the middle of an important political campaign?”
“That was rhetorical, right?”
Conor didn’t say anything. Christian pushed nonexistent bangs out of his eyes. Conor wondered if the man would ever get used to the grizzled near-crew cut he’d adopted about a year ago, replacing a shaggy look he’d grown much too old for. Christian looked at his hand with a mixture of irritation and surprise, then went on. “Obviously, the candidates supported by People Opposed to the Pipeline had about 48 percent in the Commercial-Appeal poll. Or, more accurately, 64 percent said they opposed the pipeline, and 75 percent of those said they’d likely vote for a candidate who shared their views. That’s registered voters, by the way, not likely voters.”
“Yeah, I read the story. My problem is that weaselly headline.” Conor suppressed a smile as Christian groaned into his raita. “My problem is also that you barely mentioned the courthouse, which is what people are mad about, not the pipeline. You’ve never described the transference, which is what’s behind this municipal insanity, and you missed the perfect chance to do it with this poll.”
“Jim, one more time, if you go beyond a certain number of questions in a poll, you start to lose effectiveness. We decided early on to go with five questions, period. I think everyone already knows how folks felt about the courthouse.”
“Yeah, how they felt.” Conor found himself glancing across his friend’s shoulder toward the empty rectangle of grass beyond the restaurant window. “The problem is what they knew, which is half what they needed to. Nobody in the media ever bothered to point out to them that if we’d rebuilt the thing we wouldn’t be choosing between two water sources because we couldn’t afford to start either one.”
“You’re on city council. You could have told them. Are you going to eat that?”
Conor made a dismissive gesture toward the last naan. “Yeah, and it would have sounded like a self-serving politician telling his side of the story.”
“You should think about that.” Christian said, dipping the bread in his spinach saag.
“Mike, you know damn well I’ve got no stake in the pipeline or the dam. But you’re letting POP get away with libel. The unchallenged accusation they’re making is that we bulldozed the square to save money for the pipeline. Somebody needs to challenge that linkage.”
“The municipal insanity, you mean?”
“I suppose that was on the record?”
“Could I get you to say it at a campaign rally?”
“If you can get Charles to hold one.”
Christian smiled. Conor knew what he was thinking. They both quietly pictured Charles West, shoulders hunched, face locked in a congenital scowl, standing before a crowd of political well wishers. Conor tried to imagine the speech. “You damned people better put us back in there if you know what’s good for you.”
“One rally ought to just about do it,” Conor said after a pause.
“I’d send two reporters. One to cover the thing, and the other to see if he could make West lose that famous temper.”
“Isn’t that manipulating the news?” Conor leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, watched the other man consider his answer.
“Yes and no. Suppose I told a reporter to question Brad Sizemore in depth about the pipeline until his brain seized up. Wouldn’t revealing the fact that Sizemore doesn’t understand the issue be a legitimate journalistic pursuit?”
“Stipulated, for the sake of argument, but what does that have to do with Charles?”
“Isn’t the fact that he’s an arrogant, crusty bastard who thinks the mayorship is his by divine right a legitimate issue, along with the fact that he goes ballistic when you question him in the slightest?”
“He takes some getting used to.”
Conor watched his friend’s face. He knew what was coming, both because he’d known Mike Christian since college, and because he’d been thinking the same thing himself. Deep down, he thought, Mike knows he doesn’t have to say this.
“You can say that because you have gotten used to him, and to Sizemore. You accent their good points because you’ve known them so long and because you have to work with them. You ignore the fact that Sizemore is a dumb-ass and West can be just plain mean. You’ve forced yourself to like them because you can’t get anything done on council if you don’t eat lunch with them, and as a result you’re on the wrong side in this campaign. As in, not the side you’d be on if you hadn’t served with West and Sizemore, not the side you want to be on.”
I don’t disagree, Conor thought, but it’s not necessarily the wrong side.
“Just for instance,” Christian went on. “Would you eat lunch with one of them here, or would you meet them at Goose’s?”
Conor looked around the restaurant. He was the only man in the place wearing a suit, and would have been the only one with a tie if Christian hadn’t come there straight from the newsroom and forgotten to shed his. Students, professors, and people with time to wait came to the Shiva for saag and over-spiced vegetarian dishes. The businessmen and lawyers - except for him, apparently - went to Goose’s Diner for hamburgers and fries.
Conor glanced around the room. Bill Zaner sat near the window with two other men, probably fellow professors, dressed in what he’d have called studied casual. He looked as if he belonged here. Conor worried he didn’t fit here or Goose’s. Not that those were the only choices, cuisinally speaking, but they did draw the line nicely. He thought he could grow to like Zaner - he might have to - but had to admit he couldn’t say that about Brad Sizemore. Charles West, yes, because at least the old man was interesting and they had some history, but Sizemore didn’t even have that going for him.
“You’re right,” he acknowledged quietly.
“About what?” Christian answered irritably.
“What you were saying.”
“I’d need to know what you were thinking to rejoin this conversation.”
Conor shrugged. “Ninety percent of what council does is cut and dried. The other ten percent - I had to decide whether it was more important to have some experienced people on board or for me to agree politically with my colleagues. Since I didn’t really agree with either side, it was an easy choice.”
“To back Davenport and West, you mean?”
“We’ve been over this before.”
“Yeah, but I keep thinking it will make sense to me if you explain it again.”
Conor concentrated on keeping his eyes pointed at the ceiling fan just over the counter. His only movement was his eyes’ swaying with the turning of the blades. He hadn’t quite explained it to himself, he thought. Why not try Christian?
“Government at this level is almost all pragmatic,” he began. “You can bring to it the same principles you bring to the rest of your life as you go about the business of doing pragmatic things: pumping water and sewage, buying police cars, building schools. When you start trying to bring in too high a level of principle you wind up worrying about the color of the police cars or the brand of water pipe for reasons other than visibility or durability. Respectively.”
“That was well done,” Christian said. “But it’s not quite the way you explained it last time.”
“Explained what? I’ve almost forgotten what we were talking about.”
“Explained why you’re supporting West and Davenport. You tell that story differently every time you discuss it.”
“Maybe I just discuss a different aspect every time.”
“Maybe. Davenport is a developer. Or a builder as you like to put it. He’s made his money putting up apartment buildings and strip malls, bulldozing historic buildings and filling wetlands in the process. Now he wants to be on city council so he can help make the world safe for other developers.”
Conor noted that Christian made his observations with the voice and tone of someone describing the upholstery. Christian could call a person a criminal with the same air that he could describe that person’s hair color. He’d probably call that non-judgmental.
“I use the distinction between developer and builder, as you well know, to separate those who leave buildings in their wake, and those who produce deals and percentages that require rezoning and special permits and ultimately may or may not result in a single two-by-four being nailed to another. As to Jack Davenport bulldozing historic buildings, the fact that the Ashur Building was ante-bellum didn’t change the fact that it was a shack. It’d survived because it hadn’t fallen down yet. The wetland in question was the south end of a man-made lake that had been bureaucratically declared a wetland by people in Richmond who used the designation to shirk their dredging responsibilities.” Conor took a breath, rapidly constructing his next sentence in his head, noting peripherally that it was almost like arguing in court. “And with attitudes like yours dominating the public discourse more and more, Davenport feels he had a lot to make himself safe against. He sees himself protecting principles, such as the fact that people have to live and shop somewhere. Just ‘cause you don’t agree with those principles doesn’t make him evil.”
“Agreed. That’s not what makes him evil. Is it your turn to pay?”
“You’re close. It was last time.”
Conor leaned his head back and looked at the fan again. There was an analogy there, he knew. He just had to drift a minute until it came to him. Christian thought it was OK to brand Davenport a criminal because of the builder’s blind spots about nature and history. But Christian would have been offended to have his own attempts at not paying for every other lunch branded as anything other than absent-mindedness. One person’s human nature is another’s unnatural behavior, Conor thought, as the other man searched his wallet for cash.
“Are you smiling because you aren’t paying?” Christian asked, finally settling on a credit card.
“Partly,” Conor said.
“And the other part?”
“The way you see these people. They’re not real to you. They’re templates. You pick a category - greedhead, politician . . .
“No, I end up at a category. I tell the reporters they have to know at least twice as much as they write …”
“So they can leave out the important stuff?”
“Let me finish. I tell them to know twice what they write and preferably three times. It gives stories more authority. If I call Davenport a greedhead it’s because I’ve learned enough about him to think he’s earned the title. And if I call you a politician it’s an acknowledgement of how much you’ve learned and changed in the past two years, for good or ill.”
Odd, Conor thought, how Christian’s voice hadn’t risen and his diction hadn’t suffered but his intensity had changed enough to draw stares from around the room. By the end of the day the common gossip would have them in a fistfight at the Shiva, and the Kremlinologists at the bar association and the faculty senate would be parsing the rumors for clues as to what was going to happen at the next council meeting or show up on the front page of the C-A. Christian’s intensity – the way he leaned forward, sharpened his skeptical stare, visually enunciated every word so that his teeth flashed and his lips snapped - drew attention that throwing a punch wouldn’t have. The waitress hung back, waiting for him to finish. Conor held his stare, felt the room’s eyes, mulled the remark about good or ill. Which was it? he almost asked.
He broke the stare and turned to smile at the waitress hovering a table away. He wondered if there was a school where servers learned how to deal with bickering couples. That’s probably how the Shiva staff saw them, he thought as he nodded toward Christian. The waitress reached the bill toward him, and he gave her a card without looking at it.
Conor walked to the door to wait for Christian, aware of the subtle sideways glances. After almost two years on the city council of Smithy, he still wasn’t quite used to it. Christian got fewer stares, even though as managing editor of the Commercial-Appeal he had more affect on their lives, at least on what they knew. The editors ought to run their own pictures now and then, Conor thought.
Conor tried to think about the poll as they left the restaurant, neither speaking. The numbers were close to even for the two sides in the City Council race, but all the emotion was on the other side. People were angry, outraged and disappointed about something that wasn’t on the ballot, and they’d take it out on who was on the ballot. And somebody would wind up with a mandate for something nobody had voted on.
“I’d like to talk about your plans some time.” Christian said as they neared the corner of the square.
“I’ll bet you would.”
“On the record, I mean.”
“I told you that because of Jamie . . .”
“I know that, but … ”
“You know, your godson?” Conor said.
“I know who he is,” Christian answered.
“We agreed to draw that line.”
“You’re not listening.”
“Neither are you. I don’t want Karen and Jamie in the paper.”
“I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about who’ll be on council in three months.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Just don’t put me on the spot,” Christian said.
“And you’ll return the favor?”
Christian ignored the remark for a few seconds. “You’re crankier than you used to be, you know that?”
“You think this is easy?”
They were passing the square. Both glanced at it, almost unconsciously.
“Will Jamie be up this weekend?” Christian asked.
“It doesn’t look like it. He has some kind of thing at school.”
“An awards show. Karen’s getting a tape from another mom. We’ll watch it next time I go down there.”
“Give them my love.”
“I’d like to talk before the election.”
“It’s my turn to pay next time. Isn’t that enough for any one person to suffer at a time?”
Conor smiled, but Christian didn’t return it. “Don’t laugh it off, Jim. I’m in a tough spot, too.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Christian walked down German Street toward the newspaper building. Conor looked down Commerce Street toward his office, then turned and walked across the square instead. The two streets bisected the city of Smithy, Commerce from east to west, German north-south. Except at the center of town, where Courthouse Square interrupted the smooth four-lane flow of traffic. Some cars and bicycles followed ancient two-lane streets around the square, while logging trucks from West Virginia and poultry carriers from the surrounding farms followed a complicated series of detours to avoid the sharp, narrow turns.
Conor noticed there were still a few uneven places and holes in the mostly smooth grassy acres of the square. He’d have to have Public Works do something about that. After the election. Another bulldozer on the square wasn’t a picture he wanted to see on Christian’s front page in the meantime.
Then again, he thought as he stood in the grass looking toward the offices and restaurants around him, he didn’t particularly want to see a picture of himself either, standing on the square at mid-day, looking around with what he imagined was a look of irritation and dismay on his face. Mike Christian would claim it was news. Conor didn’t think so. Much as he missed them, he was happy to have his wife and son out of town.
He’d rather have had Charles West out of town, he thought as he entered his office to see the mayor hunched on the couch in the reception area. The old man lurched to his feet, tossed the magazine he was reading in the floor beside him. Suzie looked at Conor, and he made an expression that he knew would tell her she didn’t have to do anything, although he wasn’t sure what his face looked like when he did it.
“Come on in, Charles,” he said, with a small wave toward his office door.
“I don’t like to be kept waiting, Jim.”
“Then come on in.”
“You’ve always had a mouth on you,” he muttered. Conor moved past West toward his desk, taking in the old man as he did. West had the build of a taller, thinner man, with raw-boned wrists that stuck too far out of the sleeves of a sports jacket that looked like it had been washed too many times. It had once been some kind of tweed, but the various browns had faded and merged into one indistinguishable earth tone that almost matched his unpleated pants. His hair was white, but still thick, although his blue eyes were growing rheumy. Conor knew West had struggled his entire life to control a temper that didn’t suffer fools gladly.
Lately he struggled less.
“What are we going to do about this poll, Jimmy?”
Conor stifled most of the answers that came to mind. He stared at a painting on the office wall for a few seconds while he thought about his answer. West had gotten used to him doing that. It was one of the few times West showed any patience at all. Conor took that as a compliment.
He brought his gaze back to the mayor. “The way I read it, they’ve got 48 percent of the vote right now, we’ve got 37, and 15 are undecided.”
West waited. He already knew that. He could read.
“Their 48 is soft for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s for an issue, not for the people they’ve got running. Two is that it’s registered voters, not likely voters.”
“And our 37?”
“Is not really 37 either. It’s how many think it’s more important to have experienced people on council. Split the hair a little more, 58 percent say they’d vote the person instead of the issue in a local race, and 63 percent of those think experience is more important. That’s from Jack’s poll in February.”
“I still don’t get why he did it that way?” Conor noted that West was still arguing the facts of the case, questioning how the numbers were found. He’d done the same with Christian, but still … it was time to accept the numbers and move on. Clarence Darrow had said when the facts are on your side pound on the facts and when the law is on your side pound on the law. If neither, pound on the table.
“I do get it, so I’ll try again. If he’d run a poll asking if people would vote for him, six or seven hundred people in town would know he’d asked, and if he decided not to run it would look like he’d chickened out. Since he’s got his eye on the state Senate, he couldn’t afford that view, or that impression I guess, if he didn’t run.”
“I still think he should have just asked them.” West was still pounding on the table, Conor thought.
“What, if they’d vote for you and him? The idea in February was to find out what attitudes were out there and if he could use them better by running with you or by himself. Considering how much he’s planning to spend in the next three weeks, you ought to be glad he did it that way.”
“It’s just too damned much politics for me.” Conor got up, walked to the window, looked at a tree outside.
“What are you looking for out there?” West asked after a few moments.
“Bluebirds don’t live in town, Jimmy,” West said, with a mix of irritation and worry, as if Conor had just announced he was going to force spring by making snow fall up.
“I just think of him that way. He’s a little gray guy, shows up every spring.” He saw the worry deepen slightly, felt himself smile a little. “I know it’s not the same one every spring. But he always reminds me of Robert Frost talking about a bluebird coming gently to alight as a first hint of spring. ‘He fronts the wind to unruffle a plume.’”
“I never read much poetry, you know that, Jimmy.” Charles was OK now, realizing it was just a few seconds of that part of Conor he didn’t need to know.
“Yeah, I remember. And you don’t like all this politics either. But we’ve been over this, Charles,” he said, still looking at the tree. “The first time you ran, fewer than two thousand people voted. It’s gonna take that many votes to lose this time.”
“Then how many’s it gonna take to win?”
“I think you have a base of about fifteen hundred. Betty Wilson and Bill Zaner . . .”
“Those goddamned hippies!”
“Don’t do that, Charles.”
Conor knew he’d turned from the window, but didn’t realize he’d yelled until West flinched, until he saw Suzie’s arm, watched her hand close on the doorknob and quietly pull it shut. Why hadn’t she quit? he wondered. He glanced back at West, at his hunched shoulders. Conor took a deep breath.
“No name-calling. Do that one time in public and it loses just enough people. Say it at church if you have to, where everybody knows you, but not anywhere else.”
“I used to know everybody. Not just in church.”
“It’s changed, Charles.” And for a moment, he thought about explaining how it had changed. You wanted the city to grow and it grew too big. You wanted people to come here and now you don’t know everybody. “Do you want to win or don’t you?”
“How can you say it’s even if they’re ahead by ten points?”
“Eleven. Their lead is soft, for the reasons I told you. Our backing is harder, based on attitudes that aren’t likely to change. A lot of it’s going to depend on the turnout. Most of these people registered to vote for president or governor in one November or another, not for council in May. Smithy usually gets a 60 percent turnout in November, but closer to 25 percent in May.”
“And why’s that good for us?”
“The more responsible voters are the ones that come out every time. They’ll vote for experience over how pissed off they are.”
“What else is in that poll?”
“Don’t mention the pipeline unless you have to.”
“Are we supposed to pretend we don’t need water?”
“You’ve been on council 30 years, mayor for six. Harp on what you’ve done, not what’s next.”
“Whatever. Just don’t lose it in the next four weeks. Call somebody a sonofabitch once, that’s it.”
“Who’d I call a sonofabitch?”
“That was in closed session.”
“You know what I mean.”
West looked chastened again. Conor wished he hadn’t snapped. But he was too impatient lately. Not just with West. He’d been late to this meeting because he’d spent a long lunch with somebody who thought this old man was a crook or worse. Now he was trying to hide his pity. West would tell him Mike Christian was trying to twist the facts to influence the election outcome. But all Conor saw was a disconnected observer looking for a good story. He wondered why there was nobody he could talk to, to reconcile the difference. Sometimes he thought he was the only one in Smithy who thought everybody else was human.
“What are you smilin’ at, Jimmy? This isn’t funny.”
“No. Just kind of a funny situation.”
“Well, I don’t see anything funny about it. We can’t let those people run this town.”
“It’s not our choice, Charles.”
Conor looked at the old man, forearms on his knees, hands dangling. It wasn’t that West looked beaten, just … listless. He’d run elections one way half his life. Now he had to do it some other way.
“You’ve got fifteen hundred votes going in, Charles. If turnout’s not much more than last time you need seven hundred more to win.”
“I don’t know that many people.”
Conor took a deep breath, held it.
“That’s not how it works any more, Charles. Jack’s gonna spend money on two mailings and on ads the last two weeks. The other folks don’t have as much money to spend. You need to get enough positive impressions and do the opposite for the others. You might consider spending some of your money too.”
“I raised close to seven thousand …”
“Which pays for the yard signs and some of the mailing. You need to do a little more. Jack’s only going to spend so much.”
“I still don’t think we should try to buy the whole campaign.”
“That’s how it works now, Charles, that’s what I keep telling you. But forget what you should have done. You need to focus on the next four weeks. Don’t lose your temper. Stay on the message. ‘I’ve done a good job, I’ve helped Smithy grow.’ Mention the pipeline only if somebody asks. Don’t talk about Zaner and Wilson.”
“Ah, what do those people . . .”
“Don’t mention them!”
West pushed on the arm of the couch and slowly rose. Conor looked away. He remembered being in West’s office one summer during college, getting papers signed or something, when the whistle went off in the lumberyard. It could have meant an accident, but was just a miscue as it turned out. But what he remembered was how West spun his office chair and was halfway to the door before Conor stood up. Maybe if Christian could have seen him both times . . . but that wouldn’t change his attitude about Davenport. Or anybody else’s for that matter.
“We’ll meet at the club tomorrow night, OK? Me, you and Jack. We’ll look at the money, the ads. We’ve got time.”
“Charles . . .”
“Don’t mention the courthouse except to say you wish there’d been some other way.”
“I don’t like lying, Jimmy, you know that.”
“Don’t lie. Just don’t bring up things that are going to piss people off. We can still pull this off.”
West stared at him, then slowly turned, as quickly as he could, and left without saying anything else. Conor realized his mistake. West was tired, but until Conor said they could still win, West had never doubted they would. Conor hoped he hadn’t done too much damage. If the old man acted like he didn’t expect to win, if he showed anything but confidence . . . Conor didn’t want to think about it.
“Suzie, what do I have the next two days?”
Charles had left the door open, so he barely had to raise his voice for the secretary to hear him. With it closed, he could throw grenades. They don’t build them like this anymore, he thought, smiling at the cliché.
“The Williams closing is at two-thirty tomorrow. Nothing after that. Council meeting at seven-thirty tonight. Nothing from now till then.”
He wasn’t sure how she knew to pull the door closed. She just did. She’d run the office for thirteen years now. Nine lean ones before the Whittington settlement. The Whittingtons got enough to take care of a child damaged in a delivery accident. He got enough to send his kid to private school and his wife to grad school so she could get a good job in Richmond. Better not think about that today, Scarlett, he thought as he fought with his window. Rain on Sunday and the window wouldn’t open on Tuesday. That’s why they don’t make them like this any more.
He caught a whiff of damp earth as he finally forced the window. The tree was just starting to bud. Some kind of oak. He kept meaning to check. Every year somebody would tell him he needed to cut it or trim it, get a better view of Commerce Street, see half of downtown. But he liked it the way it was. He could hear cars, and people sometimes. Sometimes on busy days, mostly court sessions, he could listen to people passing on the sidewalk and pretend downtown was still busy, imagine everybody wasn’t out at the mall. Sometimes he hoped they were still there when he couldn’t hear them. It was easy. He couldn’t see out.
Nobody could see in either. He could see clients in private, change clothes, take a nap. Not that he was headed for the couch. But he had to admit he didn’t work as hard as he used to. Council made up for that. Especially tonight. He couldn’t remember specifically what was on the agenda, but he was pretty sure it was a long one. He’d take a look before the meeting. Maybe he should relax a while before the meeting, in case it ran late.
He checked the refrigerator in the coat closet next to the small washroom. There were two beers left. He took one back to his desk, sipped it while he flipped through the Rolodex. It seemed like there was somebody he ought to call, something he ought to do about the poll. But then his glasses were still in his jacket pocket. He’d hung it on the coat rack by the door. He couldn’t remember when. Must have been when he went to open the window. He flipped the Rolodex, sipped the beer. He couldn’t really read the numbers without the glasses. So if he didn’t want a headache he’d have to call somebody whose number he remembered.
Davenport maybe. Tell him to spend more money. He’d see him Thursday night. No rush. Maybe Marlin Waters. See how happy he was about the poll. Zaner and Wilson? See if they were celebrating?
He punched in a number. Listened to the hum on the speaker phone. Waited. Sipped his beer.
“Hodge and Hodge.”
“Karen Conor, please.”
“Could I say who’s calling?”
“Jim . . .?” The receptionist waited. He sipped his beer. She put him through with an exasperated electronic click.
“Karen Harper Conor.”
Conor picked up the receiver. “Hi.”
“The secretary said you wouldn’t identify yourself.”
“Sorry. I must be in a mood.”
Conor paused, wondered if she’d understand the news, and if he was ready to tell it to her.
“Mike ran a poll.”
“People prefer a dam to a pipeline, they think the pipeline idea was rushed, the council wasn’t open enough about the process, and they’re more likely to vote against a candidate who supported the pipeline.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Is Charles going to lose?”
“Maybe. And Jack’s tied his campaign enough to Charles he might lose too.”
“If they both lose?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does that do to our plans?”
“I hadn’t really thought about that yet.”
“You need to.” He wasn’t sure if she’d said it or if he was just thinking it so loud he thought she did.
“I’ll be down the weekend after next. We’ll talk about it then.”
“We were hoping to have you down here by the time the school year starts.”
“I know. I told Charles I’d keep this thing alive.”
“It’s more than the pipeline, Jimmy.”
“Yeah. I need to … Mike wants me to do a story.”
What else, he almost asked. But maybe she didn’t realize what a spot he’d put Christian in.
“What did you tell him?”
“He wants to talk before the election.”
“Then you need to decide something.”
“I wish I had a better idea what’s going to happen.”
“I should get back to work.”
“You said you’d just get Jack in there.”
“We never talked about what happened if they both lost.”
“I didn’t think it could happen,” he said, ignoring the unspoken thought that being certain hadn’t kept him from being wrong.
“Does Charles know you’re planning to leave.”
“I haven’t talked to him yet.”
“Oh, Jimmy . . .”
“I’ve never done this before, honey.”
“I need to get back to work.”
“Jamie misses you.”
“Hug him for me.”
It would be a bad time to head for the couch, he thought. But there was nothing on the calendar until the meeting. He might as well finish that other beer, he’d have to get more anyway. And it wasn’t like he was really going to the couch, he just needed to sit down for a minute. He hadn’t promised anybody anything, at least not today, so he could just sit down for a minute. Then he’d get his glasses and go back to work. At something. Maybe reading his agenda again for the meeting. Goddamnit, Charles couldn’t lose. He’d been on council forever. Conor did the math. There were people who’d voted in six council elections but who still hadn’t been alive when Charles West wasn’t on the Smithy City Council. The pipeline was going to be his swan song. And Conor had promised he’d do what it took to get it done. Next time, he’d put conditions on the promise. But there weren’t this time. And there weren’t when he promised Karen and Jamie he’d leave Smithy after Davenport and West won the election. Of course there’d been no way they’d lose. Not to an absent-minded academic and a Baptist populist. Now Conor realized there was only one way they could lose, the one possibility he hadn’t considered. They’d lose if more people voted for the other guys. That was the one thing he’d forgotten about.
Stop laughing, he told himself. This is serious. Get off the couch and do some work. You can’t live off that settlement forever. And you have to get these people elected so you can join your family. Get off the damned couch.
Cathy Chandler laid the two markers on the table. She couldn’t decide on the light blue or the dark for the lettering. Dark was grim, but light was hard to read. She could outline or highlight it with red, but that might be too startling. She glanced at the clock. She’d need this in a few hours. It was time to decide.
The doorbell delayed her decision. Her dining room table was just big enough for two sheets of poster board and a stack of markers. She moved a crystal ashtray on top of one sheet, a fruit bowl on the other. That should protect them from the April breeze while she answered the door.
Oh god, she thought, no poster can compete with that. Betty Wilson trudged into the room, her mane of orange hair clashing with an electric blue polyester pantsuit. She dropped a white leather handbag the size of a suitcase on a chair. The bottom third of a pair of three-foot tomato stakes were stuffed in the bag, and they clacked against the back of the chair as she dropped the bag. Scratch cover later, Chandler thought.
“What do we have?” Wilson asked, leaning across the table. “’Sewage Source: You already drank it once.’ I don’t get it.”
“The pipeline intake will be downstream from the treatment plant.”
“Can we do that? Aren’t there going to be kids there?” Broadly painted black brows knitted in concern.
“I don’t think we need to worry. If they’re old enough to understand it, they won’t be learning anything new.”
Wilson was unconvinced. “But won’t it make us look silly. I don’t want this to look like some kind of … I don’t know … a fart joke or something.”
Chandler hoped it was OK to laugh. She watched confusion cloud the other woman’s face for a couple of seconds before she joined in. “I’ll let you carry that one, Betty. If it looks like a problem, just throw it in the bushes and grab somebody else’s. We can get it out and throw it away later. Remember, we just need ten seconds of airtime on Channel 4. That’s what matters.”
“What does the other one say? ‘Dam It: It’s Right as rain.’ Oh, I like that. Did you draw these letters? They look good.”
“I’ve done this before. Listen, I need to finish coloring these. Are we still meeting in the parking lot at 6:30?”
“Uh-huh. Is that what you’re wearing? You look great. I wish I was young enough to get away with that.”
“I’m 42, Betty.”
“Oh, I hate you. So what about that poll? Why didn’t they just ask who people were going to vote for?”
“’Cause then nobody would have had to buy the paper after the election. How’s it feel to know you’re gonna be on council?”
“Knock on wood.” Specifically, the tomato stakes, still leaning on the back of the chair. Cathy Chandler tried not to visibly cringe. “We’re not on there yet. A lot can happen in a month.”
“Yeah. Two debates, tonight’s meeting, a rally at Ashur Park. Then we’ve won. We can’t let up, don’t get me wrong, but we can start thinking like winners. We were just bluffing before.” She tried to be casual about taking the stakes off the chair and laying them on the floor. “Four weeks and we can stop this thing.”
“Do you really think so?” She breathed in as she said it, and raised her eyebrows so high Chandler worried she’d smudge her hairline.
“Count ‘em up. Marlin Waters voted against them on the courthouse. Add in your vote and Bill Zaner’s and that’s three out of five. It’s history.”
“But Jack Davenport has so much money. He’s gonna practically buy the paper, I’ll bet. God knows what he’s gonna tell people about us.”
Chandler shrugged. They’d discussed the topic before. Wilson was divorced, which used to matter, and the only thing they could say about Zaner was that he was awfully boring. Getting elected would be the biggest thing, maybe the only thing, that had happened to him since he’d gotten his doctorate. Mathematics, of all things. What if he started talking about differential equations or something during the debates. Surely a man with a doctorate was smarter than that. But then he must think that kind of thing was interesting.
Now that they could smell victory, Chandler wondered again if she should have run. At least I could have given them something to write about, she thought.
“Don’t worry about it, Betty. The people are with us. The best he can do is make them mad at him. Besides, he might get caught at something between now and the election.”
Wilson threw a hand over her mouth. Her nails were the same bright red as her patent leather shoes. Maybe I can dress her next time, Chandler thought. “What do you mean, Cathy? Is he … I mean is there anybody you know about?”
“Probably not. I hear he’s even quit drinking for the duration. But wouldn’t that be a hoot?”
“Oh, don’t even talk about that. We want to win it on the issues, don’t we?”
“Just so we win. Hey, you’re not gonna have any problems like that, are you?”
“Just kidding. Don’t get mad. Maybe after the election.” Never joke with Baptists, Chandler thought.
“Not even then. But . . . “ Chandler waited while the other woman giggled. “What about you?”
“Have you ever . . . I mean . . .”
“I’m a widow, Betty. I can get away with more.”
The other woman giggled some more. “I mean . . . what about before your husband died?”
Uh-oh. Did she know something? Couldn’t be. What if she had run, and that had come out? “Stop it, Betty. We need to get serious. I’ll finish these signs and meet you at 6:30. Are you going to speak tonight?”
“I don’t know. Do you think I should?”
Not dressed like that, Chandler thought. “Probably won’t do any good. The paper’s gonna be writing about the budget and the rest of the meeting and we don’t want to give TV anything to compete with the march. I might get up just to remind them we’re still out here.”
“Oh, you should. I love the way you speak. But I better run. I can’t wait to see the signs when you’re finished.”
Cathy Chandler went back to her work. At least she knew what color to make the letters now. She stopped after a couple of minutes and walked to the front hall. She probably did look great to Betty Wilson, she thought. The jeans were snug, but not tight, and she did look good in them. The peasant blouse was older than she wanted to remember, but she didn’t wear it much. Just special occasions like tonight. She should probably have changed later, but she wanted to get used to it again. She turned her head far to the side and rolled her eyes to study her face in the mirror. A golden triangle, someone had told her. Some kind of Greek mathematical thing. He told her it meant perfection of a kind. She thought it meant her chin was too sharp, but she did have to admit the cheekbones still looked great. Maybe the hair was too long. She’d cut it when she was 45. Or when she had to start dyeing it to keep it black.
She turned away, laughing at herself. Going to a council meeting shouldn’t make her feel like a teenager. There’d be a hundred people there. Not just two. She picked up a marker and began outlining a letter.
He’d counted two rings since he heard the phone, and didn’t have any idea how many there’d been before that. If just a couple, they might give up in a minute. If several, he’d probably have to answer it. Conor swung his feet to the floor, oriented himself for a moment, then stood up. He waited for a couple of seconds, then remembered he’d only had the two beers. He’d be OK. He walked to the desk with no more unsteadiness than anyone who’d just woke up. It was dusk outside. The room was shadowy, but not dark. He sat at the desk for a moment and took a breath before answering. There was no rush now that he’d guessed who it was.
“I thought I’d call and remind you of the council meeting. Your agenda packet’s on my desk and you didn’t get any calls about the meeting this afternoon.”
“Thanks, Suzie. This could be a long one, so I may be a little late in the morning.”
“Yes, sir. Channel 4 said there might be pickets there.”
“Just what I need. What time is it?”
“Six-fifteen. The meeting’s at seven-thirty.”
“Thanks again. See you tomorrow.”
He didn’t pay her enough. But then he had given her a large bonus from the Whittington settlement. Her husband did something in finance, so they’d probably invested wisely. She’d spoken of a son at Washington and Lee, which wasn’t cheap. Conor hoped he’d remember this level of gratitude in the morning, when she hadn’t just saved him from sleeping through a council meeting. Not that he particularly wanted to go. He stared for a few seconds at the washroom mirror. The hair he could slick down with some water, but the five o’clock shadow accurately read six-fifteen and his body was processing two beers. He left the office wondering if needing a shower before a council meeting would get him out of a speeding ticket.
An hour later he headed for the back door of City Hall. A policeman stood by the door at what looked like parade rest, and looked even more like bored.
“Dennis, I sped most of the way here. If I’d known you were busy guarding this door I could have driven even faster.”
The officer shook his hand and returned to position while they chatted. “I’d rather be out chasing you, sir, but Chief Gardner wanted to make sure nothing got out of hand here.”
“Uh, the protesters out front. The chief was afraid they might get rowdy.”
“Oh. I’d forgotten about them. Out front?”
“Yes, sir. I don’t know how many. I’ve been back here.”
“Well, I’d better go take a look.”
“Yes, sir, but the chief would want me to tell you to come in this way.”
“Tell him I almost did. Any of the others come in this way.”
“Mr. Pershing, Mr. Sizemore, the mayor. I haven’t seen Mr. Waters.”
“He’ll turn up. Hold down the fort.”
Conor could hear a vaguely defined chant as he walked through the parking lot beside the building, an impractical fortress of native gray stone. A mulch path took him through flower beds beside the building and into the middle of 50 pickets marching in a loose square on the building’s columned portico. He forged his face into a mask of concern and interest and looked for people he could recognize. Bill Zaner nodded to him, and he held out his hand in greeting. Zaner looked confused about how to return the greeting. He paused, first holding up the people behind him, then stepping out of line as a gap widened in the march. Jim saw a C-A photographer near the front door take notice. He focused on keeping his face neutral.
“Mr. Conor, how are you?”
“Can me make it Jim, Bill? After all, we might be working together in a few weeks.”
“It does look that way. Uh …Jim, you, uh, know we want the council to hold off on any new moves on the pipeline until after the election.”
“I know that, Bill. The state might handle that for us. They’re sitting on a few bond requests until they see what the Fed’s gonna do.”
“Well, it’s more than the interest rate we’re concerned about . . .”
“Yeah, I understand, but you’ve got a march and I’ve got a meeting.”
Zaner turned to look at his fellow protesters, a look of near-surprise on his bearded face. He nodded again, slipped back into the line. Conor glanced at his watch, saw he still had 10 minutes for meet and greet, and looked up to see POP’s other candidate marching toward him. Conor tried to name the color of Betty Wilson’s outfit. Violent Violet, he decided, with the letters on her picket sign colored to match. As he reached to shake her hand she tried to balance a massive purse and her picket sign. He dropped the oversized envelope holding his agenda, caught the picket with his left hand and helped her right it before shaking hands.
“At least you’ve got guts enough to come in the front door, Jimmy, even if you do need an armed guard.”
“Guard?” He looked around. An officer he didn’t recognize stood against the front of the building a few feet behind him, his hand resting on some protuberance from his belt. “Officer, you can move away, I don’t need a guard.”
“Uh, sir, the chief . . .”
“I’ll speak to him. Watch somebody else. I’m not in any danger.” The officer reluctantly moved five feet further along the wall, whispering into the mike on his collar. “I’m not, am I?” he asked as he turned back, stooping to pick up the papers.
“In any danger?”
“Not from me. Maybe from the voters.”
“I’m not on the ballot, Betty. But since you are I’ve got some free advice for you.”
“You mean advice that’ll help your friend Davenport win?”
“You know better. You might win. Act like it. Act like you might be representing a city of forty thousand people. Don’t do anything goofy that’s gonna haunt you once you’re on council.”
“What do you mean by goofy, Jim Conor?”
This from a woman whose picket sign matched her pantsuit. “Just keep it in mind, Betty. I need to get inside”
The noise of the chants deadened as the doors shut behind him. He estimated five more minutes of gauntlet before the meeting began. A gauntlet that began with the police chief striding toward him. An impressive sight, Conor had to admit. Bob Gardner carried his crisp uniform and steel-gray hair with a military bearing bordering on parody.
“Let my men do their jobs, Jim,” the chief began, standing just close enough to make the conversation private, far enough not to draw attention.
“Under the circumstances, let’s make it councilman, shall we?” Conor said evenly. “I don’t need a cop three feet behind me when I’m talking to people, Chief Gardner. I’m sure you have rules of procedure for civil disturbances, but you’ll have to temper that with the fact that I don’t need protection from a bunch of people walking in a circle.”
“Nice speech, Jim. But don’t give my men orders in the field.”
“We weren’t in the field, Bob, we were on the goddamned porch. And Betty Wilson’s not a danger to anything but good sense. We’ve got a hell of a month ahead and we all need to keep a sense of proportion.”
“Look, Jim …”
Conor broke in, aware that something in their expressions was beginning to draw attention, despite their attempts to appear neutral. “Let’s sit down and talk about it. These people are gonna be at the debates, they’ll be at the next council meeting, they’ll probably show up at the damned Sewer Authority. Let’s figure out how to deal with them so that it doesn’t look like a military operation against our neighbors and it doesn’t look like I need protection from the political opposition. Let me come by tomorrow.”
The chief glared a moment, begrudgingly nodded. “Fair enough. I better look outside.”
Great, Conor thought. Now I’ve irked him enough he’ll go bust somebody for disturbing the peace and Charles will lose another 50 votes. Conor walked toward the door of the council’s meeting room, shaking hands along the way, hiding his annoyance at the absurd formality behind what he hoped was an impassive expression. It wasn’t just the hand-shaking that annoyed him, that nagged at him, it was … it was something else. If he saw these people at the grocery store or on the street he’d wave, say hello, nod. But he had to shake hands here, in church, in court. If he was wearing a necktie, he had to shake hands. He let his gaze drop from the eyes of the lawyer describing a rezoning, drop to the man’s bland red tie with a tiny beige diamond pattern. He spoke to an accountant working with the bond issue . . . rep tie, red and blue stripes. He walked back to the front door, looked through the glass at the protesters. Betty Wilson might have been semi-formal, in a cooler color, but most of the people marching wore jeans and casual shirts. Zaner at least had a collar, on what looked like a safari shirt, and the woman behind him did look good in . . . was that Cathy Chandler? He’d read her name in some story about POP. Recording secretary or some such. Someone tapped him on the shoulder.
“Jim, we need to get inside.”
The bulk of Marlin Waters greeted him as he turned. A subdued pattern, Conor had to concede, and a very fine suit, probably expensive too. People parted with subtle respect at the two men entered.
“What did you think about that poll, Jim?”
“I’m trying not to.” He couldn’t get the damned neckties out of his mind. First at lunch, now here. He was probably making more of a symbol of it than he should. Old Smithy and new Smithy. Farmers and professors. But then, there were professors who wore a coat and tie to every class and there were farmers who only wore them to church - and council meetings. And besides, there weren’t any farmers here. Mostly lawyers.
At least it gave him something to think about during the meeting. After two years on the council, he rarely listened closely to the discussions any more. Nine out of ten issues on the agenda were 5-0 votes, formalities or sometimes the conclusions of months of planning finally ratified by a council vote. They had presentations anyway, for the benefit of the people in the audience and watching on the local cable channel, but there was little suspense. The hardest work was sometimes keeping his face locked in an expression of deep interest. Tonight he did it by focusing on neckties. City Manager Gary Linden’s had a wolf’s head on it. Father’s Day gift? West wore a solid brown tie with the faith of a man who knew the width would eventually be in fashion again. The school superintendent, describing a new truancy program, had Disney characters on his.
Bob Gardner wore a thin black one that went with his crisp white uniform shirt and matched the microphone on his collar. Twice during the meeting, Gardner spoke into the mike, then stepped into the hall. Conor caught his eye, cocked an eyebrow. Gardner’s look said something was up – something besides the protesters. Conor found himself even more than usual wanting the meeting to be over, and resenting every delay. He tried to be understated in his glare at Marlin Waters when the big man went on at length in his agreement that truancy was a bad thing. Conor had once privately suggested to West that they turn off the cameras when Waters spoke, thus removing the incentive. West cackled, but declined.
West called a short recess after the first hour and a half. Conor found Gardner in front of the building with the radio off his belt and up to his ear.
“Bob . . .?”
“Hang on, Jim.” He listened for a few seconds, muttered something into the mike, placed it back in the pouch on his belt.
“What’s going on, Bob?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“How much are you sure about?”
“Well, we got a problem.”
“Such as . . .”
“Ride with me. I’m going out there now.”
Conor found Gary Linden in the hallway, chatting with an attorney.
“Gary, make my apologies. I’ve been called away. Have somebody put my papers in a safe place.”
“Jim, you can’t just walk out on a council meeting.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t want to tell you yet. I’d rather have you be able to plead ignorance.”
He left quickly enough to avoid argument. A slight boy he didn’t know stopped him at the door. “Mr. Conor, I’m Jeb David, from the Commercial-Appeal. I wanted to ask you about the incident with Betty Wilson.”
“You’re new, aren’t you?”
“I just started this week. But . . .”
“Welcome to Smithy. I’ve got somebody waiting, if you want to call me tomorrow . . .”
Conor stepped around the other man’s upraised notebook, headed for the front door.
“But the incident with Mrs. Wilson?”
Conor heard the voice, almost pleading. Whatever the reporter was asking about, he couldn’t seem to believe how little it meant to Conor. Conor stopped, looked back for a second.
“We were just discussing the election, son. Call me tomorrow.”
He replayed the discussion with Gardner as best he could. There was nothing there to justify the way he was reacting, but there was something he’d seen in the chief’s face. Something like what he’d see back when he was doing defense work – back when he was doing any kind of work, for that matter – when he’d show up at the police station and know by the look on the officer’s face whether he should defend his client or look for a deal.
Gardner’s unmarked Crown Victoria was idling in front of the building. He took off almost before Conor closed the door. Two blocks from City Hall he turned onto the four lanes of Commerce Street and sped up, turning on the blue lights in his grille and punching the siren as he passed a car.
“OK, now you can tell me?”
“We’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He wasn’t at the meeting.”
Gardner digested that for a second, moved the butt of his hand on the steering wheel to pass another car.
“His pickup went off the bank just past the fire station on Mill Pond Road.”
“Is he hurt?”