“Councilman, I think you may have misunderstood something I told you about the investigation into Jack Davenport’s murder.”
Conor looked across the table at Bob Gardner, tried to ignore the chill on the back of his neck. Gary Linden had called to set up the meeting, and they were seated in the mayor’s office, across a table from one another. Conor tried to remember how that had been arranged. They had just sort of walked in and sat there, Linden had walked in that direction, then the city manager had left them together. And Gardner had made a very formal opening.
“Should I have a lawyer here, Chief.”
“That would be your choice, but you’re still not a suspect.”
“That’s what I wanted to explain. That’s why I asked the city manager to set up this meeting.” Because he didn’t want to come to Conor, and he didn’t want to summon Conor. He wanted to meet as equals to talk about … “I told you before that a story we heard about Jack Davenport turned out not to be true. That it was based on a misunderstanding.”
“I was rejecting the story. Not necessarily the suspect.”
Conor tilted his chair back, stared at the ceiling. There was some kind of brown water stain on one of the ceiling tiles. It gave the room a slightly seedy look. He couldn’t explain it. There wasn’t that much new in downtown Smithy. The new stuff was all out around the mall. Everything downtown – Goose’s, the club, the Shiva, now city hall – had that older look. But for some reason it was seedy here and at the club, but lived in at the Shiva. It was the tiles, he decided. Those suspended ceilings everybody had put in over the last thirty years to make things look newer, and it worked until the first spot of water hit. Then the ceiling looked like … like something that should go with plywood paneling. The Shiva had a tin ceiling. That was probably the difference.
Conor set his chair back down. Gardner was still looking at him. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I thought you ought to know.”
“Does Gary know what we’re talking about?”
“No. I just asked him to set up the meeting.”
Conor tried to sort out things he should have noticed. The chief had offered to have somebody keep an eye on him. He’d declined, so that freed up somebody for …
“Is she under surveillance?”
Gardner paused, considered his answer. “Not all the time.”
Like a game of twenty questions, Conor thought. Except that the chief could cheat. Because even with an answer like, “Not all the time,” you could tell with most players what the real answer was by watching their eyes. The chief didn’t give that away. He just sat. He’d been a cop too long.
So somebody had watched as she left his office carrying her shoes. Or seen them leaving the gallery together at midnight.
“Why is she a suspect?”
“Under the circumstances, councilman, I’d rather not tell you that.”
And under the circumstances, Conor was thinking, I’d rather not tell you that she made an off-the-wall comment about sushi the other day. “What can you tell me, chief?”
It was an interview closer. When the client was in trouble, and wasn’t telling you something, Conor remembered, you could always throw out that all-inclusive question at the end. Sometimes it pushed the client into giving up whatever it was, and sometimes it just covered you later: I did my best to find out. Not that the latter would do Conor much good in this situation.
“I can tell you that we’re moving along on this investigation, and that we expect results soon.”
“Thanks a heap, Bob.”
Well, at least he’d gotten a reaction, Conor thought. That was sometimes the last gasp after the all-inclusive failed. Piss them off.
“Councilman, I am breaking the rules big-time here, because of your unique position. You’re about to become the senior member by default of a very young council that’s losing its most experienced members. And in the middle of that you’re getting involved with a woman who … well, with someone you shouldn’t.”
“And just why exactly do you get to decide that, Bob?”
“Damnit, Jim, do you have any idea how unstable that woman is? She’s taking enough medication …”
“Go to hell, Bob. Are you telling me you’ve been raiding somebody’s medicine cabinet to decide who to make a murder suspect? Do you have some small idea how far out of line that is?”
“The medications are a side issue we happened to hear about and that you ought to hear about …”
Conor thought of the thick doors and walls in the Bank Building, and wondered who in the City Hall could hear their raised voices. Gary Linden had complained about morale. Conor wondered about the effect the argument would have on morale, and about how clear the specifics were to anybody outside. But City Hall had once been a school, and the walls were thick.
“Did it occur to you that we’re talking about somebody who’s had both sons leave for a college and a husband die in the past two years, not to mention being in the middle of a fairly divisive public debate. You’d up your medication too.”
Conor almost laughed. It was a throw-away comment, but Gardner blinked. Conor wondered what kind of medication the chief was on. Blood pressure, diabetes? Whatever, it was enough to make the chief stop and take a breath. Conor did the same. Battles like this could be decided by who lost his temper and got it back first, he knew. Or by who could do the best job of letting his temper get away just a little bit and still control it.
“Councilman, you’re missing what’s going on here. I’m not telling you this to get your permission. How I run my department is my job until the city manager takes it away from me. I’m telling you this so you won’t embarrass yourself. You’re in a funny position. You’re the only one who can do a job you don’t want to do. And all I’m trying to tell you is not to make it any harder on yourself or on the city than you have to. And beside that …”
“You were going to say something. Make your point.”
“The same things you listed, that make your friend need medication. Those are the same things that might make her unstable enough to kill somebody.”
Conor took a couple of seconds to swallow things he wanted to say. “Thanks for the warning, Bob, but you’re way the hell off-base on this one.”
“That may turn out to be the case. But I won’t ignore a lead because you say so.”
“Your point’s well taken. There is one other thing I’ve been wondering about on this case.”
“What’s that?” Gardner asked warily.
“Why haven’t you released anything to the media yet? Why doesn’t the community know there was a murder?”
“It’s not required. Especially when we don’t want the suspects to know we know.”
Again, the wary pause. “Your friend’s not the only one we’re interested in. … What’s so damned funny?”
You’re not the only one interested in her either, Conor was thinking. “Sorry. Nothing you said. Why would you not want the suspects to know you’re looking?”
“It’s just a theory, but … this wasn’t a crime of passion. It was something somebody thought out, for whatever reasons. And … and the question is, if she knows we’re looking for somebody, does that make her … or him … more or less likely to do something else. This was an amateur. Somebody who’ll cut their losses, we hope.”
“And if they know you’re looking?”
“What’s to keep them from trying again? From taking a shot at somebody else? The knowledge that if they got away with it the first time, if we were too dumb to catch it, we might notice if it happens again.”
“You’ve thought about … you know what it will look like, the police keeping an eye on a political activist?”
“We’re going to do our job, councilman. I don’t care where it takes us. We’ve got to … I feel like I’ve got something to protect my department against political pressure or accusations.”
“I think the people over my head have the guts to stand up to anything like that. I hope they do anyway.”
Conor thought there was something unspoken there – maybe that the people over his head needed the sense to use their heads. Or something. Gardner looked at him for a few more seconds, then got up and left. No handshake, no goodbye. At least Chandler had given him a proper goodbye...
… wondering if she should give him a proper hello when he showed up. But there were a lot of people there, and he was still married – married, but separated, although not legally. So when did it become official? If somebody got married, or had a child, or died, there was a notice in the newspaper. How were people supposed to know about marital splits? There were enough of them that society needed a mechanism to deal with the issue. “Karen Harper of Richmond and James F. Conor of Smithy announce their separation. Mr. Conor will be seeing Catherine Fragiovanni Chandler, widow of Dr. David Chandler …”
But then he might not even show up. Bill Zaner was going to invite him, almost two months ago, and might have forgotten. Somehow this man could remember an hour-and-a-half lecture in geomo-algebraic El Greco esoterica, word for word, and would forget to sign campaign documents. Still, it looked like they’d have a crowd, even without Jim Conor. People were beginning to gather at Ashur Park. They were there to celebrate, although it wasn’t completely clear what they were celebrating. They’d punished the old council for tearing down the courthouse, according to Conor, and they’d elected two people who’d be more likely to listen to them. Or, again according to Conor, they’d elected two people who’d have to make permanent and monumental decisions about the future water supply, and who’d have to do it with little experience and less time.
But people were celebrating anyway. POP had touched a nerve, and a lot of people had come out to exult. Clumps of people were gathering around Betty Wilson, resplendent in what might have been a leisure suit if it hadn’t been denim, and navy blue, and around Zaner, in what looked like a new safari shirt. Betty’s makeup would look better in a few hours, once the sun went down, and Zaner’s beard could probably go a few more days … well, maybe one, without a trim. Democracy in the raw, Conor had called it. He’d been sitting in the floor, leaned against the jewelry display. He’d somehow slid out of the chair, left her curled up and dreaming under the curtain, while he gathered their clothes and … well, and finished the bottle of chardonnay by himself. She remembered him saying he’d quit drinking, all those years ago when they were fresh in each other’s lives and every detail was discovery, but she didn’t think he’d ever said why. Now she knew. He wasn’t mean, he just had an edge of sarcasm, unchallengeable somehow, because he wasn’t saying anything half the time, just asking. Or he was just characterizing things, like calling the election democracy in the raw, or municipal insanity. She’d never had any idea how angry he was a lot of the time, or how sad, until she listened to him that night, propped against the wall, his jacket and tie and socks balled up in the floor beside him. The second suit that had wound up in the floor in two weeks, she thought. They’d have to make some other arrangements or his dry-cleaning bills would be enormous.
They’d filled two pavilions, with the band set up under one of them and the food under the other. The food was passable, and there was a lot of it, and it wasn’t a bad band, Chandler thought, if you gave them credit for being in tune and all finishing at the same time. She was as bad as Conor, she thought, but at least she wasn’t saying it out loud. Although she would if … maybe that was what they really had in common. She needed medication – mild medication – to keep things in: distress, anxiety, unhappiness, disappointment. And he could only keep in the anger, the fear, the sadness if he didn’t medicate himself. That was what they’d found all those years ago – fifteen, maybe sixteen years now. She couldn’t remember the date all that well, or a lot of the details, but she could remember that they’d brought out a happiness in each other, and could again if she could remember to take those damned pills, and if he could stick to coffee and lemonade.
“What are you smiling at, Lady Chandler?” She hadn’t heard Betty Wilson come up. But she turned and smiled wider. She managed to get in a hug, without Wilson pouring the glass of wine down her back. “You better get a glass of wine and help us celebrate, girl.”
“I will, Betty, I just wanted to make sure everything was set up.”
“What’s to set up? Just make sure there’s a spare jug stashed somewhere.” It was the kind of laugh that caused people dozens of yards away to look over for a moment. “We’re really going to be on city council in the morning, aren’t we?”
“Well, some of us are.”
“What do you mean, Cathy? You know you’ll have at least part of my vote. Oh, speaking of which: I’m going to go ahead and nominate Bill.”
“Oh. I hadn’t really thought about it. What does he say?”
“I haven’t told him. That way he can’t tell me he won’t take it.”
Chandler wondered what would happen. They’d need a second. Maybe Bill would second himself. Or Waters. God knew what that sleazo would do. “Well, we can worry about that in the morning. Have you had anything to eat yet?”
“Well, I’m not really hungry.”
“I’m not really surprised. You should eat something. We might be here for a few hours.”
“I guess so. How long is the permit good for?”
“Uh-oh. You know, I picked that up in an orientation class. I probably should have known from all that paperwork we had to go through on the picketing. The park’s supposed to close at sundown and we’re supposed to be out of here unless we have a permit.”
“Well, maybe you can vote yourselves one. You’ve got two council members here.”
“Yes. Look at that sonofabitch.”
“Betty!?” Chandler looked at her friend in surprise, resisted the urge to look around for Conor.
“Oh, that’s right, you’re the one who doesn’t like him. But look at him.” Chandler accepted the excuse to do so. “You’d think he won the election. He’s getting more credit for putting off the pipeline vote than we got for running against it.”
“All the pipeline votes have been misconstrued, according to him.”
“When did he say that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. In the C-A probably. How do you think he looks, Betty?”
“Oh, hell, good enough to eat, there’s no doubt about that. I guess everybody but Karen thinks so. And you.”
“Karen’s his wife?” Chandler listened to her own voice, wondering what, if anything, her expression and tone gave away. Probably nothing to Wilson right now. Maybe two glasses of wine earlier or later, Wilson’s perceptions would sharpen, or appear to.
“Haven’t you heard? She hasn’t been to town since Jack Davenport’s funeral. And he had to take his son off to the beach for a week to get to see him.”
“That’s too bad. I guess. Where do you get this gossip, Betty?”
“Serena Smith’s daughter is a waitress at the Shiva. He apparently eats there with Mike Christian at least once a week. The daughter – Shelly, I think it is – always picks up something or other.”
Strange to see him not in a suit, Chandler thought. Well, not exactly, she’d seen him out of it, but not in public. Now he was wearing jeans, not exactly tight, but not designed for a man in his forties either, although she should talk, and that linen jacket would be an affectation, smugly effete even, inappropriate for a park on a summer night, if he hadn’t looked so good in it. She watched him, shaking hands, having brief conversations, remembering small personal details if her guess was right, and she thought about what he was probably thinking, how he’d described his reaction to these things. Detached, almost existential, having trouble convincing himself it meant as much as it seemed to these people. “It means a lot to me,” she’d said, and he’d said, “That’s different,” and told her she felt a lot, it was part of her charm, and she hadn’t really had a chance to ask him what he meant.
“It really is a shame you don’t like him, Cathy. He really is a decent guy.”
“It’s been a pretty divisive year. Maybe I should take the first step toward fixing that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think I’ll ask him to dance, Betty.”
Wilson looked at her, like maybe she was missing something. “You behave yourself, Cathy.” It sounded like a question.
“I’m just going to dance, Betty.”
Unless she lost her nerve with all these people watching. And not just watching either. They were all waiting for something to happen. The election had been the first step in taking power away from Old Smithy. Tomorrow the rebels would be in the capital. Everybody wanted to know what happened next. And for some reason, they were still looking at Jim Conor to find out.
“Cathy. That’s a very summery looking blouse.”
“Summer had nothing to do with it, and I think you know that. But I should warn you that Betty is watching every move we make, and she might be lip-reading.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Is this visit personal or a part of the festivities then?”
“A little of both, councilman. Councilwoman Wilson feels it would facilitate healing in the community if you and I danced together.”
“Does she now?” He looked slightly disconcerted. Maybe it was the blouse.
“Actually, no, it was my idea. But I’m going to blame it on her if it comes up in conversation.”
But the blouse was his own damned fault. He’d had to know it would look good with her coloring. But he bought it anyway. Of course that was a long time ago. She wondered how they’d do a break-up today. A telephone message. Maybe an e-mail. Back then she’d asked her friend, Terry something, to relay the message, and she’d asked what he’d said, and she’d handed over the box, and it was just a damned white peasant blouse, and opening it she knew it hadn’t done any good to send Terry, because the reason to send somebody else was so she wouldn’t …
“Cathy, you look like you’re about to cry.”
“I’m sorry. I was thinking about … nothing. We should walk over there where people are dancing. Otherwise, Betty is going to get suspicious.”
“You mean she’s not?”
“She thinks we don’t like each other.”
“So you haven’t told …?”
“I haven’t told anybody anything. Do you think I should?”
“I don’t know.”
It was awkward, she thought, like a coming out, like an announcement, depending on how they danced, how they behaved. She thought their awkwardness was probably obvious to anybody watching, as Wilson certainly was. Nobody watching would have any way to guess that they were awkward and uncomfortable because they really wanted to be … well, she wanted to anyway, and she’d never known him not to. She tried to walk carefully, not to show off for him, not to act like she felt the way she did.
“So it’s real tomorrow?”
“What’s that, Cathy?”
“The new council and all that.”
“Yeah. And all that.”
“Is there any … I don’t really know what I’m asking here.”
“Go ahead.” They had stopped at the edge of the pavilion. The band was tuning, between songs. He looked at her politely, curious.
“Is there anything anybody can do to help you guys out? It’s like everybody’s looking at the five of you like you’re not a real council. Like they don’t know what to expect or what you’re going to do.”
He had an uncomfortable look for a second. Somewhere around the words, what to expect. She might ask him later. Right now he had the roguish, almost furtive look that said he was thinking about something most other people wouldn’t think was funny.
“There is one thing you could do, Cathy. Something that … well, you might be uniquely qualified for.”
She raised her eyebrows. There were people all around who could hear the conversation if they tried. Where could this be going? She waited.
“Before we take office,” he took a step closer, dropped his voice so it wouldn’t carry. “Could you give Betty some help with her makeup?”
She felt her shoulders shaking before any sound came out. Maybe it was that first glass of wine, or maybe it was the relief of having something to smile about.
“Cathy what’s so funny? … Cathy, get a grip.” Now he’d taken a step back. “For god’s sake, Cathy, what are you laughing at?
He looked around at the various people who’d stopped to look at them. She saw them too. Some looked worried, some were just sharing the joy, some reacted to the discomfort on Conor’s face from being watched. He had a bottled water in his hand. She wondered where he’d found it so quickly.
Finally, she choked one last time, caught her breath, had a sip of the water. She very deliberately took the three steps it took to reach him. Frozen with discomfort, he let her come. She laid a hand on the side of his neck, rose to tiptoes, leaned in to whisper: “She offered to help me.”
Some looked worried, some shared his joy. She waited, handed him back the bottled water when he was ready.
“What are you two laughing at?”
They both turned to Betty Wilson and began laughing again. She’d walked between them, and they both laid a hand on one of her shoulders at once. Wilson joined in, because it was that kind of laughter, and all she knew was that here were two people who seemed very happy about something.
They danced. And he danced with Betty Wilson, and she wasn’t jealous, not the way she would have been watching him dance with anybody else. And she danced with him again, and he spun her around, and she could feel her hair standing out, catching his eyes, and she wished she had on a long skirt, one that would swirl when she did. But the jeans would have to do, they’d make him look at her, and he’d be thinking of her legs as they danced, regardless, unless he was thinking about later, if there was some way there could be one.
She noticed he didn’t drink, except for the bottled water. And he didn’t dance every dance with her, or for that matter with anybody, because he was shaking hands again, and talking to people, and every once in a while it was her turn again, and Betty’s, for a smokescreen apparently. And she waited until he finally slipped off down the path that led to the restrooms, a path that probably should have been better lighted, but she couldn’t help that.
He probably wouldn’t hear her behind him, her sneakers scrunching on the mulch, and even if he did, there were a few hundred people out here who could be following him. They really needed more lighting out here. Maybe she’d complain to city council, she thought. There was one dull yellow bulb on either side of the redwood building that held the restrooms, and it cast just enough light to find the door. The parking lot was here too, packed, as was the other one further from the park entrance. But she didn’t see anybody, not in the parking lot, not at the restrooms.
She stepped in front of him just as he stepped out of the dim yellow glow, raised her hand to his neck again, where she could feel his pulse change as she rose to her tiptoes again and kissed him. He pulled back faster than she would have thought he could.
“Cathy, half the town of Smithy is out there.”
“And none of them is over here. Besides, they saw us dancing. You think it’s going to surprise them to see us taking the next step.”
“What a delicate way of putting it. Cathy.”
“Jim, nobody can see us here.” Her arm circled his waist, under his linen jacket, and she laid the other hand on his chest. He stepped back as a bright light shined on them momentarily, then went out just as quickly. The cruiser was behind a couple of parked cars. The officer was walking toward them, as slowly as he could, allowing as much time as possible for whatever he’d seen in his spotlight to end.
“Dennis, what brings you out here?” Conor seemed to know everybody in city government.
“Uh, we got, uh, that is, uh, the dispatcher got some… Mr. Conor, Mrs. Chandler.”
“The chief sent me to shut down this party, Councilman.”
Conor spread his arms, palms out, as if to say, look around us here. And he laughed. And even the officer smiled, but then what else was he going to do. Because another council member had just walked into the pale light from off the path, and she was standing there expectantly too, wondering what was going on.
“I guess I’d better call him back.”
“He’s got my cell number if he needs it. … Uh, did he know who it was celebrating here.”
“Off the top of my head, sir, I truly doubt it.”
The officer walked back toward his car while Betty Wilson came toward them. “What’s going on?”
“Noise complaints, from Four O’clock Heights, I’d guess. If you ladies will excuse me. I’m going to call the chief and make sure Charles West isn’t the one shutting down the party.”
They watched him heading down the path, his head leaned into his cell phone. Chandler tried not to notice the way the other woman was looking at her.
“What church did you grow up in, Cathy?”
“I was raised Catholic. Why?”
“I was pretty sure it wasn’t Baptist. My preacher warned us growing up that dancing could lead to sex.”
“Don’t try that innocent act on me, Cathy Chandler, I invented it.”
“It’s not innocent. He’s good-looking. I enjoyed dancing with him. Don’t start gossiping about us, OK?”
Wilson stared at her for a few seconds, settling if not sobering, smiling slightly.
“I’m sorry, Cathy. I wouldn’t have teased if I’d known there was anything to it. I thought … well, I mean, it always seemed like you didn’t like him.”
“Betty, don’t make more of it … I mean it’s not like I’m going to … Look, Betty, whether I like him or not is not the important thing.”
“He can dance.”
He’d wanted to tell her, to let her know that the officer recognized her, and why and that people were keeping an eye on her, and that he wasn’t supposed to tell her because then she might do it again, assuming she’d done it the first time, which he just knew she hadn’t. He sat on his end of the council table and looked out over the room. It was full. Unusual for this meeting, unusual for a Saturday morning. The rules said they had to meet at 10 a.m. on July 1 to pick a mayor and vice mayor. He could barely remember the meeting two years ago. Everybody knew Charles would be mayor, and Sizemore was vice mayor because nobody else particularly wanted it. Today was different. Christian had speculated in print that it was between Conor and one of the newcomers, but duly noted that nobody wanted to talk about it. What Christian left out was that nobody knew what to say, because Conor had refused to discuss the issue with anybody, anybody at all, and that had made a lot of people nervous. He’d ignored Waters’ calls, and Waters had responded with a couple more statements leaning toward the pipeline without flat out endorsing it. Wilson had wanted to bring it up the previous night, but he’d just shook his head and walked away. He’d walked away from the party too, without drinking anything. He’d rewarded himself for his restraint when he got home. He sat in the back yard, leaning on a tree, drinking the last beer from the refrigerator. He could occasionally hear a few notes from the band in Ashur Park, and he’d picture her dancing. There were messages on the machine, but he erased them. He didn’t know if one of them was her. Jamie had his cell number. That was all that mattered.
Now there was a crowd waiting. At least he could give them some news. He’d wait until Wilson and Zaner made their nomination, and their speeches if they wanted to, and then make the nomination. He hoped Sizemore had the grace to realize he was supposed to second the nomination. Ten days later they’d gather again and the same three people would vote for the pipeline. And they’d be a split government, no matter how hard he’d danced with Wilson last night, and no matter for what reason. He was almost ready to laugh, but he knew it wouldn’t be a happy sound. He’d traded away the gavel for the pipeline, but really he’d wanted to be rid of it because not having it made it easier to leave, and now he probably wasn’t going anywhere, because he didn’t have anywhere to go. But at least, without the gavel, he had less reason to stay. No, it wouldn’t be a happy sound.
He looked at Gary Linden. Every two years Linden got to hold the gavel for a few minutes while they picked a mayor. He sat in the center chair now, rapping the meeting to order, and Conor looked at him because there were so many other people in the room he didn’t want to look at. Waters, least of all. He knew Cathy Chandler was in the back row, he was aware of her, but he didn’t want to look at her right now. And Zaner sat across from him at the horseshoe-shaped table, in Simon Pershing’s old chair, and for some reason, Conor felt like he would be betraying the little man most of all. They hadn’t spoken much since the election, and then only on logistics. But he liked Zaner for some reason. He wasn’t cut out for council, but he’d decided to do it anyway, and he was going to do it.
Linden was speaking, saying something about the process, and Conor looked around, and the other council members were looking at Linden as he spoke, except Zaner, who was staring at the tabletop. Zaner didn’t look up until Linden was finished and opened the floor for nominations, and he looked right at Conor and then Conor knew what was going to happen.
“I nominate James F. Conor for mayor,” Zaner said.
He was sure there was some sort of sound in the room, he just couldn’t hear it. But it wasn’t an audible process anyway, because everything was mostly going on in the heads of the people sitting around the table. In the time it took Sizemore to figure out what had happened, Waters figured out what was going to. Wilson would probably vote with Zaner. That was two. If Sizemore or Conor voted with them, Conor was mayor. Waters and Conor had counted on Zaner and Wilson choosing one of their own number. And if that happened, Sizemore would have followed Conor’s lead. But now he was more likely going to make Conor his leader. Or Conor might decide he wanted the job. Conor knew he’d committed, but he also knew Waters had trouble trusting anyone.
Conor wanted to look at Waters’s face for a moment, but thought that would be too blatant. Instead he stared at Sizemore, willing him not to second the nomination. It didn’t work. But because Sizemore forgot to lean into the microphone, and because Waters’ booming salesman’s voice was right beside him, it seemed to be Waters’s voice coming out of Sizemore’s mouth when they said, simultaneously, “Second.” Wilson leaned forward like she was going to say something, then apparently thought better of it and leaned back.
And it was over and they just had to vote, because they’d already decided. And then he was standing up, and Gary Linden was handing him the hammer, and there was applause of some sort going on, and some kind of musical chairs while somebody took his seat and everybody else moved around, and he was the goddamned mayor of Smithy, how do you like that, and he’d still promised he’d get the pipeline built, and he didn’t have a wife, and his girl friend, who really wasn’t his girl friend, might have poisoned the man who was supposed to be standing here. No, he really didn’t want to laugh. It wouldn’t be a happy sound.
The blows that a life of self-control
Two Tramps in Mud Time
It was an alley really, and a creek, and a storm drain. But it was also a history lesson. It was once an alley connecting a parking lot to a side street. Now it was a wide sidewalk between two restaurants, Jack Davenport’s route to an office building they wouldn’t let him put up. Along one side was a decorative rail, where he and Jamie could lean over and watch the trickle from a drain pipe emptying into Big Creek.
“They had it a lot easier back then,” Conor was explaining. “They put the settlement where the water already was.”
“Now you have to get it here, huh?”
“That’s pretty much it. By hook or by crook.”
“By pipe or by pond.”
Conor chuckled. “That’s pretty good.” He reached out and laid his hand across Jamie’s head, part blessing, part just feeling the shape of his head. Partly just knowing this might be the last summer he could get away with that. Tall, thin, clear-eyed – he and Karen had done a good job. Jamie had Karen’s rusty hair and blue eyes, her stubborn chin. But he still looked like Conor for some reason. Some nuance of his stance and bearing, some shape of his smile.
“Did you have to learn about this in school?”
“Guess not. This is really why the town is where it is. That trickle from the pipe is what’s left of a spring that poured out of the ground for centuries. The engineers rerouted it somehow when they built the Bank Building. Now most of it seeps back into the ground.”
“You couldn’t use that instead of a pipeline?” Jamie watched the trickle with a seriousness belying his age. Conor tried to remember if he’d been that way.
“I wish we could. But even if we could dig it out, it wouldn’t be enough.”
“And Big Creek?”
“Not big enough.” That got a smile from Jamie. “Plus it’s filthy. For hundreds of years people would foul the water, then they’d clean it up, acting the whole time like it was somebody else’s fault it got fouled to begin with. At least they hadn’t fouled the spring. They’d just buried it. But this creek’s been dead for fifty years. It’s just barely starting to come back.”
It echoed off the inside of the pipe, a bubbling noise, too loud for the amount of water. The bubbles it pushed into the stream showed the creek was moving. So did the way the smell of the stream moved without the wind. You had to get closer to really smell it, but if you walked its banks you knew it was there.
“Can you and Mom?” Jamie asked.
“Can we what, Jamie?”
“You mean get back together?”
He didn’t have to answer. Conor could see the hope in his eyes. He wished he could feel it himself.
“I don’t think so, Jamie.”
The boy didn’t say anything, looked back at the creek. Conor could feel his struggle not to react, to be casual about it. “How come?”
“Your mom feels like I let her down. Like I chose City Council, and the pipeline, over her.”
“I don’t know. Charles and Karen both had a claim on me. Charles’ claim on me was older, your mom’s was stronger.”
“And you couldn’t decide between them?” Conor knew he would have bristled at that question from Karen. But Jamie was asking.
“I didn’t want to have to. Maybe I didn’t think I’d have to.” Wise eyes, ancient enough to know without blaming, looked back at him from a little boy’s face. He never knew who he was talking to.
“What do you still have to decide, Dad?”
“When you’ll be here, mainly. The rest is just numbers and money.”
“Do you have to stay here now?”
“I don’t know. It’s not as appealing without you and Karen, but I still have some responsibilities. I have to see what I can arrange, figure out what comes next.”
“How are you going to decide, Dad? Just wait and see what happens?”
That’s when he heard Karen’s voice: “Are you going to let events decide for you?” Except he heard it without her anger, with a note of pleading instead.
“It’s not simple. The last thing I tried to resolve … the whole issue blew up in my face. I wound up as mayor.”
“Yeah, but that’s the coolest part of it, Dad.”
“Yeah. All my friends think it’s really tight having a mayor for my dad.”
Then that’s the coolest part, Conor thought. “I’m glad. Don’t let it go to your head, though, it’s only a two-year term.”
“Will you run for it again?”
“I doubt it, but … there’s such a thing as a duty to the community, a responsibility to do the things that maybe somebody else can’t. On the other hand, you’re my biggest responsibility right now. I don’t want to go as long as I have without seeing you, without spending time with you.”
“We’ll have a lot of days together this summer though.”
“It’s not the days with you, Jamie, it’s the hours.” Conor tried not to think about how much he’d missed that smile. “But I still may not see enough of you. You already have – what is it, three sleepovers?”
“Yeah. It’s great. I didn’t know I’d still be this ….”
“Yeah. It’s pretty cool.”
“You’re a good kid, Jamie. You’ll just have to deal with people liking you.”
It was Wednesday morning, almost lunchtime. They had walked most of downtown, with every other person they met stopping to shake Conor’s hand and congratulate him. Some thanked him for taking the job, or worried about the pipeline vote. He was beginning to think he was the only one in Smithy who ever doubted he’d have the job. And he enjoyed basking in the glory with Jamie watching. It might be his first real abuse of power, he thought. Last night they’d attended the traditional reading of the Declaration of Independence on Courthouse Square – the first one with no steps for the speaker, Donnie Whirt this year, to use for a makeshift stage. He’d stood on the back of a city pickup covered with bunting instead, but it hadn’t been the same. There’d been an edge of disappointment to the whole thing. Jamie had noticed, but wasn’t sure what it was. Of course, he’d also noticed the attention to Conor.
“You’re enjoying being mayor, aren’t you, Dad?”
“So far, Jamie. But this may be the easy part.”
“You mean before you have to decide on the pipeline.”
“Partly. But we have a lot of other decisions to make. It’s a lot of little things, but it sort of adds up to what kind of town we want to be. We’re where you are. We’re a kid that’s turning into a grownup too fast.”
“Yeah, but I want to grow up. … What’s so funny?”
“I’m not laughing at you, Jamie. It’s just that there aren’t half a dozen adults in town who could have come up with that answer.”
It was a good start to their time together, Conor was thinking. They were making real contact, and Jamie's pride in him was helping him get over the fact that he really didn’t want to be mayor. Maybe he’d get used to it. Plus he’d still have the time he needed to do his council job. A complicated series of sleepovers traded off with other parents would keep him from being home alone very much. And he could walk to the pool during the day. Or come to the office.
“Can we drop in, Dad?”
“The C-A building?”
“Later in the week. Mike’s probably busy right now.”
“Oh. But we’ll have lunch with him.”
“You’ll see a lot of him, Jamie. I promise.”
Jamie tried to turn his head quickly enough, but Conor had seen the cloud, the veil that passed over his face. He found himself wondering what Karen had said in front of Jamie.
Conor laid his arm across Jamie’s shoulders, felt his son lean into him. “I’ve never broken a promise to you, Jamie, and I never will. Count on that.”
“Some of the things I told your mom didn’t work out. Some of the things I said wound up contradicting one another. When that happens, it usually means you promised something you shouldn’t have. Or you promised something, but didn’t say when. Or you just didn’t think about the details of what you said you’d do. What I told Karen … it was hard to realize that it meant leaving here, that I couldn’t be here to do the things I’d offered. I’ve always been here, Jamie. When I promised Charles and Jack I’d help them, it didn’t seem like as open-ended a proposition as it’s turned out. … I guess my commitment to Charles West, my commitment to this city … those were the oldest ones I made. They came first.”
Conor could tell there was something else Jamie wanted to ask. He didn’t know if Jamie was afraid to ask it or didn’t know how to phrase it. He waited.
“Do you really want to leave, Dad?”
“Yes and no.”
Conor smiled. Jamie had his expressions on Karen’s face. The look that said he appreciated the irony, but the answer wasn’t much help. “There’s not as much reason to be here, except that I always have been. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah. I see what you mean.”
“But with what’s happened with me and your mom … that makes a difference, too.”
“You mean … you don’t have as much reason to move to Richmond?”
Conor shrugged. “I’d need a place to live.”
Jamie smiled, paused, started to say something, started over. “Dad?” Conor raised an eyebrow. “Can I come back here?”
They were walking near courthouse square. Conor looked out across the empty rectangle of grass, wondered why he didn’t have an answer for Jamie. It wasn’t that he hadn’t thought about it – more like he didn’t know what to think about it. The answer was somehow tied to who had betrayed whom. Had he, by not leaving? Had she, by not waiting? It had been almost a year, and they had agreed on … on nothing. He knew from a thousand contracts that you had to draw a line. And he knew just as surely that only a particular kind of fool, only a person suffering a very basic, stupidly human form of denial ever thought he didn’t have to draw that line in his own life. He hadn’t told Karen how soon he’d leave. He hadn’t told Charles West how long he’d serve.
And he wasn’t going to make Jamie a promise he couldn’t keep.
“I can’t give you an answer right now, Jamie.”
“When can you?”
I don’t know, he wanted to say. But being true didn’t make it a good answer.
“By Christmas, Jamie. We’ll make a decision for next school year.”
Conor felt his son’s unabashed pleasure without looking. He’d need to talk to Karen. But Christmas was an eternity away. He’d promised Charles West he’d do something about the pipeline. He only had six days for that.
“Got a second.” Conor leaned back, stared at his office ceiling, pondered the question.
“Actually, Mike, I’ve got a week.”
“A week till …”
“The bond vote.”
“Yeah. How’s Jamie?”
“At the pool with a friend. Chlorine, sunscreen, and a massive pretense at not noticing the twelve-year-old girls. He wants to have lunch one day.”
“With the girls?”
“With his godfather. … That sounds like a smile.”
“It is. I’ve missed him. I … well. Never mind.”
“Never mind what?”
“I just … I can’t imagine how good you must feel.”
“You can take that to the bank. Not that I’ll see that much of him. Overnights, birthday parties. He’s a busy little man.”
“And not all that little. I haven’t seen him since Christmas.”
“Yeah. One day this week? Before the vote?”
“The vote. Want to tell me about that?”
Conor sighed. “The water supply for the city of Smithy for the next hundred years will be determined by one half-assed, lard-assed, unsurpassed jackass of a man. What’s there to tell?”
“None other. You had something about him in this morning’s paper?”
“Didn’t you read it?”
“I glanced at the headline. It had Jeb David’s byline on it.”
It was Christian’s turn to sigh. “You should give him a break. Everybody makes a few mistakes.”
“My profession has appeals and final verdicts, Mike. Yours never stops. I like it when decisions are made, when things aren’t just talked about.”
“Why did you go into law anyway? I've always had the feeling you really wanted to write.”
“There's not much left to write.”
“What do you mean? We seem to fill 40 columns every day.”
“Through the fog of the storm, most art withered into journalism.”
“That's a quote from somebody, right.” Christian said it like a straight man, albeit a reluctant one.
“Yeah, it is.” Conor saw no particular reason to make it any easier.
“OK, I give up. Victor Hugo?”
“Nah. Pete Hamill on the liner notes to a Dylan album. But you get my drift. You can always write down what happened, but Faulkner said writing is a privilege, that you can help man endure by lifting his heart. We're too comfortable for that kind of writing. You can't write from the heart about a water line.”
“Maybe you could write whatever it is you're not telling me about the night Jack Davenport died.”
Conor gave the remark no more attention than he would one about the weather. “Back to the topic. What’s Waters up to?”
“He faxed us a letter he’d sent to the Builders Council saying City Council has a responsibility to examine all options.”
“How do you read that?”
“He’s backing off the pipeline?”
“Or he’s soliciting the Builders Council for a bribe.”
“We’d need a little more to go on than your best guess. Unless you want to publicly accuse him?”
“It’s tempting. ‘Mayor terms councilman sleazy, obese.’”
“How about, ‘Jim: Juggernaut’s a Jerk.’”
“Defensible, I’d guess. But be sure to note that he dresses well.”
“Was he surprised by the vote for mayor?”
“You’re writing a column.”
“I do every week.” Conor studied his ceiling. Flat white plaster. Probably hard to clean. Retro-fitted fluorescent fixtures with some kind of wood-tone trim. The hum was inaudible in the air, but he could hear it in the phone. It reminded him of … what was it? Bumblebees, maybe. He’d read somewhere that they could see colors the human eye could only dream of. Or maybe it was the canary in the electromagnetic field. When the hum in the phone was loud enough to drown out the voices, their gadgets were zapping them too much. “Are you still there, Jim?”
“I’m still here. The vote for mayor was unanimous. I’m not sure you can read much into that.”
“At least you’re dodging and not lying. You’d warn me off?”
“You’d have made him mayor?”
“I think you better get somebody to say that, Mike.”
“For what it’s worth, not many people would notice. This isn’t the most sophisticated town in the state.”
“Yeah. But it’s got a good-looking mayor.”
“You irritate me when you’re like this, you know that.” But it didn’t apply to me, Conor was thinking. Making deals with somebody like Waters was something other people couldn’t do. People who might not know where to stop.
“I don’t feel all that good about everything that’s happened, Mike. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do a mea culpa in print.”
“Jim, what the hell are you thinking?”
“I just didn’t draw the line in time. Zaner drew it for me.”
“Yeah, it looks like somebody has to. Call me about lunch.”
Conor leaned back, glanced toward the refrigerator. But he was picking Jamie up in two hours. And he had an appointment in … fifteen minutes. He tried to think of somebody else to call. Not just to keep Waters waiting, but … well, yes, to keep Waters waiting. But only if he could be on the phone. Faking it, making somebody wait just for the hell of it would be … it would be over some line that ought to be drawn. Conor walked to the window, pushed it all the way up. July heat would fill the room in an hour or so, but for now he turned off the thermostat, listened to the muffled sound of traffic from beyond the big tree. It shaded the window, so the office wouldn’t get uncomfortable quite so quickly. The heat wouldn’t hurt anything. The computer was off. He hadn’t had it on for … since he’d become mayor, actually. He should probably check for email.
He had a cup of coffee instead. Independence Day on the square was two days back now, far enough to think about. After quickly making Bill Zaner vice mayor on Saturday, he’d left for Richmond to bring Jamie back. Tuesday afternoon on the square had been his first real event as mayor. It wasn’t nearly as much fun as walking around downtown the next day, shaking hands, having Jamie with him. Not having a courthouse was part of it. Introducing Jamie to Cathy Chandler had been the rest. Chandler was there with Betty Wilson, who had to comment on how tall Jamie was and how much he looked like Karen. All four of them had been uncomfortable, but not all of them were sure why.
Conor glanced at his jacket hanging on the back on the back of a chair, decided to leave it there. He sipped the coffee and waited. Waited until Suzie opened the door, watched while the bulk of Marlin Waters filled it. Nodded Marlin to the chair, didn’t offer him coffee.
“I thought I was going to be mayor,” he began, without any preamble about the hot weather they’d been having.
“Looks like we both guessed wrong. You know you can still vote for the pipeline.”
“Why should I now?”
“You mean what’s in it for you?”
“That’s not what I said, Jim.”
“Oh. In that case, vote for it because it’s the right thing to do.”
The two men looked at one another. Some instinct told Waters one of his strands of camouflaging hair had flopped down from its path across his balding scalp. A flip of the hand and it was back in place, in just the right spot to fill a gap between two others. “The bluebird fronts the wind to unruffle a plume,” Conor noted. Waters just glared. “Not a Frost fan,” Conor asked.
“Whatever you’re talking about, I’m betting I wouldn’t think it was very damned funny.”
“Robert Frost poem about lumberjacks. Never mind. Look, Marlin, you need to get off the fence. You know that. About another story in the C-A and you’re no longer the swing vote, you’re the guy who can’t make up his mind. And it’s going to make you look like you’re playing this solely for political advantage, especially since you are. What you might do is take a legal pad and make two columns, one of reasons for the dam, one of reasons for the pipeline.”
“Why a legal pad?”
“Goddamnit, Marlin, that’s just an expression. It can be a tablecloth or a piece of toilet paper. Focus on the message, not the goddamn medium.”
“There’s not any need to shout.”
“If I can’t make you listen to me, I can at least make you hear me.”
Conor felt the sweat bead under his shirt, knew the big man must have it rougher. It occurred to him he could have turned off the air conditioning and still left the window closed. That would have made the conversation even shorter.
“You know, there’s stuff for and against both sides.”
“Then make four columns. The point is you need to decide, and you’ve got to find some way to do it. And either way, you’re going to piss somebody off. There’s no way around that. Get used to it. Now you probably know the technical arguments. Either that or you’ve been asleep at meetings for the last six months. Now, here are the numbers. You got 84 percent of the vote in the last election, with nobody running against us. That probably translates to 42 percent in a contested race. You need 51 percent to be a state senator, so you have to pick up nine percent somewhere. You glad-handed your way onto council in an election with no issues, and you stayed alive with that chickenshit vote on the courthouse, so you’ll live or die on the pipeline vote. The dam could get you 48 percent, but that’s soft. The pipeline will get you campaign money, and that’s firm, especially if you ask for it before the vote.” The big man leaned forward to protest, but Conor wasn’t interested. “Either way you’re going to be seen as pandering, but the pipeline people aren’t sentimental, so you won’t lose anything with them except their trust, which you don’t have anyway. But depending on how much you raise and how soon and from whom, you could be accused of selling out.” Especially when Conor told Christian where to look, but he swallowed that as he continued. “All the vote gets you is a starting point, though. It doesn’t decide anything. You’ll probably be judged more on how you do it. Call a press conference next Monday with Cathy Chandler waving a sign and you’ll gain some and lose some. Tell them down at the club and you’ll be their boy. Let a reporter ask you and he’ll do a puff job because he’ll be grateful for the scoop. But regardless, you need to do it, Marlin. Get off the goddamned pot before people get tired of your mealy-mouthed shilly-shallying.”
A movement drew Jim’s eye to the window. The bluebird landed on a branch. Jim wondered again if it was the same one. The bird was looking for something on one of the leaves, but Jim couldn’t tell what. He’d take a step, sniff a leaf, move on. The bird was determined to find whatever it was, but maybe wasn’t smart enough. A sound startled the bird, and it flew off.
The sound was Waters clearing his throat. Conor had almost forgotten the big man was there.
“Are we done?” Conor asked quietly, noticing his voice still held an edge of anger.
Conor flinched as Waters stood up, wondering if the arms of the chair would take the weight. Waters had to move well forward to launch himself, and an errant strand of hair fell again. Red-faced, sweating, he missed it this time. “I don’t think so, Jim. It ain’t over that easy.”
Conor shrugged. “I just wanted to make sure we were talking about the same thing. You need to decide what you’re going to do. But I don’t have anything else to offer you for your vote.”
“You shouldn’t have made that offer if you couldn’t deliver it, Jim.”
“I said I’d nominate you, Marlin. But I was elected mayor before I had a chance. It doesn’t look like there’d have been a second for your nomination anyway.”
Waters stood fuming for a few seconds. “This ain’t over, Jim.”
“I understand that you feel that way, Marlin.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK