16 Hancock St.
Ellsworth, ME 04605
18 July 2019
I figured there had to have been at least a dozen reasons why I shot Senator Buford Beauregard Jackson, and for some reason I felt compelled to write them down. After locking my door, I brought my journal out of my carved out dictionary and sat down for some serious, confessional composition.
JOURNAL ENTRY: 286
Senator Buford Beauregard Jackson, my mentor, wore penny loafers (complete with shiny pennies) with white socks; he favored toughening laws prohibiting many pharmaceuticals; he believed that creation happened 6,000 years ago, that Jesus rode around on dinosaurs, and that people who thought otherwise were headed to Hell. Deep down he believed that white men (preferably blue-eyed, blond, Anglo Saxon, northern European, Protestants) should rule the roost, that folks of darker-skinned mongrel races should know their place; he believed we should follow biblical injunctions and stone (not in the good way) adulterers, homosexuals, and, especially, transsexuals. How many reasons is that? Just five? I could go on, but you get the idea.
Can I really justify shooting the honky son of a bitch? He was, of course, just responding to the voice of his people, good Southern folk, one and all. Until he came to Washington, thirty-five years ago, I don't think he ever got more than a hundred miles from his home in Chattenburg, Virginia. The people from his district must have appreciated his down-home virtues; they have elected him overwhelmingly time and time again. Of course, the immense servings of pork he passed on to the local infantry post helped a lot.
Did I mention that he made a clumsy pass at Sarah, who I had come to regard, tentatively, as my girlfriend? Needless to say, his frequent pronouncements regarding the mortal sinfulness of extramarital intercourse were less than heartfelt (at least when it came to him). Poaching on what I wanted to be mine, however ineffectively, was hitting closer to home, but still, I suppose, no real justification for shooting him. Truth is I have often been told I have poor impulse control. Sooner or later, pretty much everybody I know reminds me of this. There's no denying it, I have a penchant for doing things that seem appropriate at the time with complete and utter disregard for consequences. My shooting of Senator Jackson, however, had nothing to do with out-of-control impulses. It was cold-blooded, premeditated murder.
Still, I guess I do have poor impulse control. Case in point: I am writing this down, but shouldn't be. I suppose someday it'll catch up to me. I just have an irresistible urge to record things. Could be the wannabe writer in me. Although I'll take steps to ensure that nobody but me ever reads this, committing my transgressions to paper is chancy at best. Believe me, none of it's intended to justify anything I've ever done. Some of it might be in the interests of learning to curb my poor impulse control. As I think about it, however, I can't see how giving into it can help me curb it.
But, back to the Senator, there was one more thing: I had good reason to believe he was a key figure in a plan to foster terrorism—gas attacks, bombings, mass shootings— at dozens of locations throughout the country. This plan, which I couldn't really prove existed, was to kick off with shots fired from a speeding car into a crowd at an upcoming D.C. Rolling Stones concert. Hopes were to create a false-flag chaos necessitating a declaration of martial law and a suspension of the next presidential election. And that's not all. I am all but certain the Senator sent a guy to gut me. These things are kind of important, and they probably should have topped my list of justifications. I guess the wannabe writer in me has decided it would be more dramatic if I started with smallish things and let the story build to a rousing crescendo.
You're probably thinking nobody could be as bad as I've portrayed Senator Jackson. Even Dr. Hannibal Lecter had his good points. He was nice to Clarice Starling. Think what you will; I stand by my portrayal. The man was a white supremacist. If he believed in nothing else, it was that fascism in America must be preserved. No price was too high to pay. I can't prove it, but I'll bet he relished the idea of ridding the world of hundreds of Rolling Stone devotees. To him, this would be frosting on the bigotry cake.
In a reasonable world, thwarting his plans might have earned me round after round of heartfelt accolades. Trouble is, our world is anything but reasonable, and, even if it were, I couldn’t prove my contention that Jackson was committing treason. What I had might most accurately be described as a very strong suspicion. As far as I knew, this very strong suspicion (I refuse to call it a hunch) was shared by nobody other than the perpetrators. It definitely wasn't something that could earn me a get-out-of-jail-free card. No way would it have convinced a Congress full of Republicans that all-and-all I am an outstanding citizen.
The situation is even more complicated than I have let on. Officially I am a dead man (and can't have committed this crime). Okay, I should say "presumed dead man." Two years ago, my name was Dwight DeLong, and I had been in the Afghan boonies with a group of American soldiers which later was made crispy in a fierce firefight. The opposition, the Taliban, had gotten hold of some napalm. Good, old Made-in-Midland-Michigan napalm. The Taliban quickly became proficient in its use. The story, front-page news in the New York Times, stated that the mop-up crew found no survivors. Since I had been with these guys, the authorities believed I had been killed or, at the very least, taken captive which, in their eyes, would have amounted to pretty much the same thing.
The way it happened, I was with 30 or 40 guys, and we had gotten separated from our main unit. Made a wrong turn somewhere. I don't remember exactly, but we might have been looking for a whore house. Anyway, our nominal leader was a mean son of a bitch, first lieutenant Rex Gunthrey. At the first village we came to, he set precedent by shooting an old man he insisted was the father of a batch of Taliban. He could tell this just by the way the old coot shuffled along. From there things deteriorated. We went from village to village shooting people we felt might be Taliban. Pretty soon we were shooting people at random, including people we felt might one day become Taliban, young children, both boys and girls. I don't recall anybody saying anything about hearts and minds.
In one small village, residents had barricaded themselves in their houses, and there wasn't much for us to do. I think Gunthrey was getting frustrated when a young girl stepped out from behind a house and flung a small rock at him, nearly connecting, making him duck. Hell of a throw for a young female. When he started towards her, she turned and fled. She was quick, and it turned into a footrace. I think the heat was bothering Gunthrey more than it was her, and for a time I thought she might escape. He was wearing heavy boots, carrying a hefty weapon, and lugging a sixty-pound backpack. They were maybe a hundred yards into the desert, and he had begun gaining on her when they disappeared behind a sand dune. When after ten minutes or so they hadn't come back, I went out to check on them. When I found them, Gunthrey was getting off her, leaving her naked, lying on her back in the sand, sobbing pitifully. He told her to shut up. W hen she didn't, he thrust his AK-47 into her vagina and held the trigger down until her mid-section was ripped apart. "Fucking cunt terrorist," he said by way of explanation when he realized I had seen everything.
We didn't all participate in this bloodletting. Some of the guys, me included, had held back. Gunthrey had noticed my reticence and was giving me the evil eye when I shot him. At the time I felt I was adding balance to the universe, although that conviction might have been fueled by the drugs coursing through my brain. Still, I hadn't lost total touch with reality. I only had a few months to go to complete a four-year tour of duty, and this had not been a good time to fuck up. But no matter. Things were getting too dicey, and I just couldn't take any more. It was time to go. I grabbed my all-important duffel bag and an extra canteen and told Larry Knox, my best buddy, I was going hunting. He smiled and nodded like he knew what I had in mind, which would have been miraculous since I had nothing in mind, or, if I did, I wasn't aware of it. Some hunter. I neglected to bring my gun.
For maybe three hours, I trudged along through the bleak, monochromatic landscape and the triple-digit temperatures. I had polished off one canteen, and was trying to postpone cracking open the second one when I remembered scuttlebutt about a gas station Halliburton had built somewhere in the middle of the country. It had cost $250-million, but was useless because the fuel it sold wouldn't work in Afghan cars. I was hoping I would come upon this oasis, praying it would have a soda machine. Then I remembered I didn't have any change. Plastic explosives might have been useful, but I didn't have any of those either. It was getting towards late afternoon, and I was beginning to wonder where I might spend the night. I promised myself I would stop at the first B&B I came to.
I was surprised when some guys in an old, mufflerless Toyota pickup truck came up from behind me. They stopped when I stuck out my thumb. Is that a universal sign for "can I hitch a ride?" There were four or five in the back and two up front. They all had dark complexions and beards. Without a word, an upfront guy shoved over to make room for me. It was crowded. I am a big guy and take up lots of space. I cradled my duffel bag on my lap and held on tight. They must have been Taliban. As a rule, regular people don't pack M16M4s. Maybe they were; maybe they weren't. In any event, I was pretty sure they weren't duck hunters, and it would have been impolite to inquire into what they were hunting. They probably weren't in the mood to be interrogated. Too hot for that. Nor was it the time or place for politics. They were friendly enough, and I wanted to keep them that way. We shared a couple of roaches and, unable to understand each other's languages, still managed a few laughs before we got to downtown Kabul where they dropped me off.
After I learned I was to be shipped off to Afghanistan, I read a few articles about our involvement there. The stuff I read claimed that back in the late seventies when Russia had gotten frisky and invaded the place, we assisted the Taliban. Osama Bin Laden was our big buddy. The Taliban were fundamentalist Muslims into wrecking giant Buddhist statues and prohibiting drugs. They actually succeeded in inhibiting the opium trade, an accomplishment that left them with few friends. Opium was, after all, the only cash crop impoverished farmers had. Our CIA came to their rescue, reviving opium cultivation. Drug trade profits enabled the CIA to finance many of their clandestine operations. Agents became big-time pushers, responsible for at least 80 percent of the heroin that made it to the U.S.
Sometimes I wonder if all this can possibly be true. I realize it's likely the left-wing publications I was reading were giving me biased information. I have cultivated a solid distrust for mainstream media and drift towards offbeat material. On the one hand, I salute our government when it respects freedom of expression. But, on the other hand, wouldn't life be simpler if there wasn't so much information available? Maybe we should appreciate Fox News for dumbing things down, making them easily manageable. Just kidding. I know things are better when the government isn't engaged in active suppression of news.
Anyway, according to my sources, at some point a new breed of Taliban came to the fore. They built state-of-the-art websites, published glossy magazines, performed community services, and convinced many young Americans it would be cool to join them. Less doctrinaire than their fathers, the new guys found opium cash extraordinarily useful. In defiance of their faith, some of the them got into drugs themselves. Especially alcohol and cannabis. Seems as though the guys who picked me up were representatives of this hip new Taliban.
When I accepted their hospitality, my duffel bag was full of bills. (Not the kind you're supposed to pay; the kind you can redeem for goods and services.) This was money that was supposed to have bought the opposition off, turned them into armed brothers or maybe corn farmers. I hadn't come by my bagful altogether legitimately, but considering the circumstances, it was more or less within the bounds of acceptable and inevitable behavior.
The opportunity popped up one fine day when a pair of medium-duty box trucks pulled up to our headquarters and dropped off 25 or 30 cartons of what proved to be U.S. currency. I learned later our leaders had been paying the Taliban to let those trucks, along with hundreds of others, proceed unmolested. Anyway, those two trucks dispatched a cargo of beautiful, crisp, new, unmarked bills of denominations one to a hundred. Some of the heavy thinkers at the Pentagon had decided that if we made it worth their while, we could persuade young Afghans to side with us instead of the Taliban. Yet another way of winning hearts and minds. The slowest buck private in our group could have told them this would never work. The distribution was bound to be upwards, towards the guys in charge. These are basic laws of plumbing and economics: Shit flows downward, cash upward. The only thing this program could possibly do is solidify our status as laughing stock throughout Afghan society.
Anyway, a few days later, in the wee small hours of a morning, me and three or four buddies were getting stoned with the fellow assigned to guard the stash. Don't ask me for a complete list of the pharmaceuticals we had ingested, but the combined cocktail was making everything seem like great fun. I remember Johnny Rand laughing as he grabbed a handful of bills and stuffed them in his pocket. This seemed hilarious. Then Joe Kirby and Roger Banks used both hands to grab even more cash, and things seemed uproariously funnier. Even stoned out of our skulls, we knew that the accounting on base was so sketchy nobody would ever notice that cash was missing.
This went on for awhile, I guess, and before I knew it I had filled my duffel bag with bills. Actually it was the next morning before I knew it. I discovered my take before I got my first cup of coffee. I later learned we had broken up the half-dozen or so empty boxes and tossed them into the trash pit before hot-wiring a front-end loader and burying them. We must have made quite a racket, but nobody complained. I would like to say a really, really good time was had by all. Pretty damn sure about that.
For the next week or ten days, I carried that duffel bag around with me wherever I went. We were inseparable. Yin and Yang. Heaven and earth. We must have looked like Siamese twins, (with one of them having failed to develop limbs or a head) . I thought the brass might question my attachment to it, but they never did. Well, one day a sergeant did ask me what was in the bag. I told him dirty laundry. He shrugged and walked away.
Anyway, after being dropped off in Kabul, I knew I had to get out of Afghanistan. This isn't easy. Afghanistan is landlocked. It has no access to the sea. You can't just hop aboard a freighter and steam away. Getting to the United States requires quite a bit of advance planning or, in my case, an ability to lurch from one thing to another while remaining upright. It gets even trickier if you have no passport, no ready identification, and just might be sought as a felonious fugitive and/or military deserter.
By hook and by crook (a generous amount of both), I did make it home. The way I did it is a long and convoluted tale of bribery, slight of hand, fornication, outright lying, animal cruelty (I tried to get more out of a camel than the camel had to give, may it RIP), and several near-death experiences. Someday maybe I'll write a book about it. For now let's just say it involved Afghan poppy farmers, shifty C.I.A. operatives, disgruntled generals, daredevil pilots, crooked exporters, prostitutes with hearts black as pitch, opportunistic importers, on-the-take banksters, and a motley crew of others in both high and low places. The entire affair took three months and made my duffel bag a hellava lot lighter. I guess deep down I know I'll never write that book. It's a story nobody would ever believe. Thank God for that.
I put the pen down, closed my log book, and turned off the light. I can't remember when I've been this tired. Over the past few months, I have run up a heavy-duty adrenaline debt. I may never pay it off. I have to remind myself where I am. New York City. One of its more run-down areas. I am probably safe here for right now. If I haven't been busted yet, I probably won't be for awhile. I could have fallen asleep in my chair, but somehow I found the will to stumble to the bed. I didn't bother to take off my clothes. That would have taken too long. I was asleep before I had time to fluff my pillow.
I know it's hard to believe I am a U.S. Congressman. My previous lives as a juvenile delinquent, a miscreant soldier, and a professional kickboxer hadn't done a thing to prepare me for national leadership. The very thought of me being a national leader gives me the chuckles, while most of my cohorts bring me to tears. They're mostly lawyers, slippery-tongued, sons-of-bitches who can argue any side of a case without giving a passing thought to what they believe. They have no sense of righteousness. They aren't at all like me when I am having one of my good days.
Before I began hobnobbing with these people, I had never realized that notions of right and wrong could be so utterly irrelevant. As a juvenile delinquent, between forays, I gave the matter quite a lot of thought. Since I wasn't about to let the law establish my boundaries, I had to draw my own. Some of the guys I knew settled on what they thought they could get away with. I don't know why, but this never seemed right to me. I also don't know where I got the idea that there was an abstract principle one could call right and, conversely, call wrong. I vaguely sensed that church might have something to do with this, but I had never been in one.
I had barely heard of philosophy, and certainly wasn't into it. Still, I am strangely proud to say, I never thought I should feel free to do whatever the fuck I wanted. Lines had to be drawn, but where? I knew I would never squeal on a buddy or steal from somebody as poor as I was. Sometimes I wished I had stuck with the Boy Scouts. They, at least, had a clear-cut code of conduct. But I had quit after one meeting when I learned that Scout Master McDougal liked to have boys take their pants down once he got them into his private office. He was an over-weight, pompous old fart who sweated profusely and loved blowing his whistle as often and shrilly as possible. I guess he was into other blowings as well.
As a juvenile delinquent, it could be said I brought new meaning to the term "habitual offender." Not just habitual, but also devoted. There was nothing half-hearted about it. About all I can say in my defense is that I was non-violent except when it came to bar fights (which I don't consider part of my criminal past). Many of my crimes had involved altering somebody else's private property. I had spray-painted acres of it. There were times when I thought of myself as an artist, a highly unappreciated one, an artist like Vincent Van Gogh who I'd heard had failed to sell a single painting in his lifetime.
When I wasn't using spray paint to express my First Amendment rights, I participated in the wonderful world of retail by liberating many smallish items from store shelves. Storekeepers from miles around learned to recognize me, and I was frequently apprehended at the moment of appropriation. It's funny, but I never thought of myself as a thief. Successful shoplifts gave me a sense of evening the score a bit. To me shoplifting was artistry. I was a magician, making objects vanish. Presto disappearo. Quick hand, slow eye. Hadn't I read that merchants expect a two percent loss from theft? I am fortunate that the many offenses so lovingly detailed on my rap sheet occurred before my 18th birthday. On that day my record was expurgated, and I was free to pursue a fresh beginning.
Early on that day I got two nice presents: a clean slate and a surprise visit from Amanda, the social worker assigned to me. Whenever she was around, I thought of a book title: In Praise of Older Women. I never read this book and I don't know who wrote it. I know nothing about it really, but for some reason the title has stuck with me. One thing I knew for sure, Amanda, four years older than me, was definitely praiseworthy. Size and shapewise she was perfect. I was always afraid my poor impulse control would come to the fore, and I would reach out and grab her. I guess sometimes circumstances do stymie me. Always before we had met at Social Services, a place not inducive to grabbing innocent people. There were always too many others around. Down deep I knew this might or might not dependably deter me. Anyway, for me these visits weren't especially enjoyable. Attending them was just something I had to do.
Having hit 18, the state was willing to wipe clean my slate, but it still felt I needed watching. Where others might have gotten a probation officer, I got Amanda. Lucky me. I had to get my own apartment after my mother's latest boyfriend whacked me for walking in on them and witnessing them doing the deed. I could have retaliated and probably should have. The son of a bitch was getting flabby, and I could have taken him easily. But this would have upset Emily (I can't remember when, if ever, I called her "Mom.") He was bringing in a few bucks, and the two of them liked drinking and drugging together and, I guess, other things as well. Leaving them to themselves only made sense.
Amanda coming to my place cast a whole different light on things. Granted, my place was a shit-hole, but she didn't seem to mind. I was surprised she had even able to find it. She brought a chocolate cupcake with a single, three-inch, white candle sticking up from the frosting. She had managed to lug it up three flights of stairs without smudging the frosting or tilting the candle. To me that candle seemed decidedly phallic, and, briefly, I imagined she was hinting at something. This cupcake was pretty much the first birthday present I had ever gotten, and the gratitude I felt was immense, way out of proportion to the gift's monetary value. Saying "Thank you" and meaning it was a weird but rather pleasant experience. Using a Bic, she lit the candle and told me to make a wish.
As I blew out the candle, I bowed my head and wished (prayed actually) that she would bring me something every day for the rest of my life. Then I quietly told God to forget it; Who was I to wish for a miracle when I didn't even believe in them? I went to a drawer and brought out a carving knife. I could be wrong, but I thought I saw a glint of fear in her eyes. I used the knife to divide the cake in two, giving Amanda the larger half. Always the gentleman, that's me. Amanda was new at her job, and sometimes it seemed like she thought she could save the world. Her superiors, of course, knew better and had been trying to let her down easy. I was surprised they allowed her to come to this part of the city alone. Maybe they didn't. It occurred to me that maybe she had come here on her own. Anyway, I had thought that in some ways she sort of liked me, and I had considered asking her out, but never did. I just never felt up to suffering through a rejection.
Liking me didn't stop her from being all but certain I would end up in prison. She said, "There are two ways that you can go in life: straight or off to prison. The first way would be an achievement; the second would be a hell of a lot easier. I am betting you'll go for easy. They call the straight way narrow for a reason." Given that advice, I would have told most people to fuck off, but Amanda was different. She really seemed to care, although I wasn't sure what she was talking about.
So instead of telling her to fuck off, I asked her, "Straight to where?" I had little appreciation for what going straight might entail. I did realize with some relief that she wasn't referring to my sexual orientation, but that was about all. I had no sense of who or what I wanted to be. I only had a few friends, none of whom were at all straight. They were people you had to watch because they were liable to pull something requiring retaliation. Several of my supposed friendships had ended badly. People told me I had poor impulse control, but I really didn't give a shit. Sometimes when they told me this I punched them.
Sometimes I wondered if I had inherited my poor impulse control from my father. I never knew him. He took off when I was six months old. I often thought his leaving could have been the result of poor impulse control. I grew up hearing stories about him; He was something of a legendary badass. Some folks suggested he had masterminded a $500,000 heist from City Bank and had taken off for Mexico. If any of the stories about him were true, I had some mighty big footsteps to try to follow in. Once or twice I had tried asking my mother about him, but she just got angry. She had her own problems, with alcohol, downers, and bad boyfriends.
Amanda tended to have an answer to anything I said, and this was no exception. "Straight into the military," she said. "The army will set you straight and teach you some valuable skills." The army didn't end up doing either of these things, but I thought it was nice that Amanda had tried her best.
To my astonishment before the day was done, I got another birthday present: a call from Vincent Gilbert wishing me well. He was my friend, I guess, although he had been more than that. He had turned me onto golf, for which I was grateful. Back before I was born, he had grown up in Detroit as a lower-middle-class kid nobody thought would amount to much. Somehow he got into Wayne State University and became one of the first to take computer science. He may have been poor, but he was bright, and lo and behold one thing led to another, and he ended up writing software that enabled General Motors to program robots for multiple purposes. Later he sold his company, RoboTeach, for $3.7 billion.
He loved golf and thought it a pity that more city kids weren't exposed to it. He thought it would teach them honesty and sportsmanship. He was the sort of guy that, when he saw a need, he would go about fulfilling it, so he set up junior golf programs throughout southern Michigan. A half century ago, he had attended Huron Lake High School, which, by chance, was where I went (from time to time). Just inside the front door, Huron Lake High has a bulletin board labeled Graduates of Distinction. The big initials, GOD, gave these people an aura of holiness. I guess it was meant to inspire us, but we used to joke that it posted any graduates who had managed to stay out of jail. Of course, this wasn't altogether true, but it wasn't altogether untrue either. Sort of in between. There were damn few Huron Lake graduates of any real distinction. A notable exception was Mr. Gilbert, and his portrait occupied a prominent position atop the board. It was he who decided Huron Lake High needed a golf team, and he offered to coach one for free. He enticed guys to try out with offers of Izod shirts and promises of cast-off clubs and nearly-new balls. I was one who took the bait.
I guess I had some natural ability. For me lining up putts was not much different from lining up pool shots. You have to put your dominant eye to work. I stand a bit above six feet and seem to have good hand-and-eye coordination. Mr. Gilbert said I had "quick hands," which privately I suspected I may have developed shoplifting. Anyway, from the get-go I was able to hit a golf ball a long ways, although not necessarily in the right direction. He told me to swing hard, and promised we would straighten the shots out later. Then he fixed my grip, taught me square alignment, and showed me how to lead with the lower body and delay uncocking my wrists until the last split-second before impact. Timely release, he called it. He taught me not to hit at the ball, but to let the ball be in the way of an accelerating down-and-through-swinging clubhead. By my junior year, I was shooting in the middle and sometimes lower seventies.
Mr. Gilbert emphasized that golf is a gentleman's game. Again and again, he explained how, unlike any other sport, it is based on an honor system. Players are expected to report their own infractions. In the beginning, I wondered who he was trying to kid. Golfers, I thought, must be the world's biggest suckers. As time went by, however, I began to see the beauty of the tradition. I experienced something I can only call a sense of pride in being part of it. It might be coincidental, but at this time I stopped shoplifting and spray-painting vacant buildings. Somehow these things had lost their appeal. Along about this time during a match I accidentally nudged a ball I was addressing in deep rough. Nobody but me saw this, but I confessed to the violation and accepted the penalty. I can't contend that the game made an honest man out of me, but it did make a difference.
Mr. Gilbert had used his influence to get team members unlimited access to the Huron Dunes Golf Course. The Dunes is a difficult, semi-private, tree-lined, converted cow-pasture demanding a wide variety of shots. (Privately, we called the place "Skunk Hollow" in remembrance of an encounter we had there; that day it wasn't just our games that stunk.) Our sand wedges we called turd punchers. We practiced and held our home matches there, but, most importantly, we could go there whenever we wished. The place never officially shut down for the winter, and whenever there wasn't too much snow or temperatures edged up towards forty, we would play over the frozen turf. More-so than the others, I spent endless hours on its driving range, honing my swing into one I could trust pretty much always. I was the team's number two man (a highly-talented kid named Neal Knickerson kept beating me), but I was a strong number two, and as seniors we took the Class B state title. On occasion I caught myself contemplating what life would be like as a touring pro.
One day Mr. Gilbert asked me if I would caddy for him in an up-coming member/guest at Oakland Hills. I agreed to do so, and things went wonderfully well for me when I talked him into hitting a firm nine instead of an easy eight on 16. He caught it on the sweet spot, clearing the water fronting the green by several feet, and he holed a ten-footer for birdie. His team took top money, and I became his regular caddy.
Oakland Hills is a highly exclusive, private club. It's in Bloomfield Township, home to great heaps of old auto money. It's not quite Grosse Pointe Shores, but it's close. Six U.S. Opens have been played at Oakland Hills, including one won by Ben Hogan, who called it the hardest course he ever played. Thanks to Mr. Gilbert, I began hobnobbing with some decidedly upper-crust dudes. They knew how to be courteous without being obsequious. I didn't want to embarrass myself or Mr. Gilbert, so I closely observed how they comported themselves. I like to think I acquired some of their casual yet mannerly behavior. I may have been a bit crude. I know I was at first, but I think they took it for authenticity. At a later member/guest, I hadn't felt at all out of place.
Oakland Hills has a rule: carts only. By and large, walking isn't allowed. More and more courses had gone to this, and I am not sure why. I suppose it speeds up play, but maybe course managers shouldn't try to turn their facilities into assembly lines mass-producing rounds of golf. Golf is a habit best acquired when young, and the cost of carts discourages many youngsters from taking up the game. Carts have eliminated jobs for caddies. an avenue that once introduced many kids like Hogan and Nelson to the game. It was a measure of Mr. Gilbert's influence that he was allowed to walk with me as his caddy. He had had some problems with his heart and insisted that the exercise he got from walking was medically essential. The truth was he felt that carts disrupted the proper pace of play. He and he alone was granted the privilege of hoofing it.
Of course, players in carts were faster than we were, and we frequently had to let them play through. Ordinarily, this wasn't a problem since Mr. Gilbert liked setting a leisurely pace and didn't mind waiting for them. On one late September afternoon, playing a onesome, we waved a couple of young guys through. I could tell from the way they were weaving about that they were thoroughly snockered. Mr. Gilbert was standing halfway down a steep hill when they were headed right for him. Driving much too fast, at the last second the driver tried to execute a sharp right, and the cart overturned, striking Mr. Gilbert and pinning him to the ground. The two drunk guys were thrown clear.
I raced over to where Mr. Gilbert was struggling to breathe. The back end of the cart laden with two sets of heavy clubs rested squarely on his chest. Electric golf carts with batteries weigh in at nearly half a ton, and this one was crushing Mr. Gilbert. I guess I had an adrenalin surge, because I was able to heave the cart upright, getting it off Mr. Gilbert and back on its wheels. I had heard tales of small, adrenalin-drenched women lifting cars, so I guess my feat wasn't all that impressive. Still Mr. Gilbert would have been in real trouble had I not been there. It sounds sappy, but I held his hand and prayed he would be okay.
He stayed on the ground for awhile catching his breath, but then, with help from me, got back on his feet. I gave the drunk guys a tongue-lashing before they drove off. As my downtown friends would have put it, I reamed them new assholes. I probably should have reported them, but life on the streets had rendered me unable to squeal on anybody for anything ever. This just wasn't done. Besides that, I was more worried about Mr.Gilbert's condition than whether or not justice would be served. This late in the day, the club nurse wasn't on duty. Mr. Gilbert wanted to continue the round, but, ignoring his protests, I drove him to the Emcura Immediate Care Health Center which was just a little ways down West Maple Road. They took him in right away. His chest x-ray checked out okay, no crushed ribs, no internal bleeding. He thanked me again and again as I drove him back to his car.
A week later I reported for duty with the U.S. Army. I had enlisted in part to make Amanda proud of me, although I was reluctant to call attention to myself. Before shipping out, I didn't say goodbye to anybody. I realize now how rude this was, but at the time I felt like I was making a clean break with my previous life. Amanda had suggested I needed to join the Army to save my life (or maybe it was my soul or maybe both; I can't remember). I guess I wondered why I had to risk my life to save it, but decided Amanda was more solidly grounded in philosophical and spiritual matters than I could ever hope to be, so I took her at her word. Anyway, I guess I felt I had to turn my back on even the rare good parts of my past.
I no sooner got through basic training than they shipped me off to Afghanistan. I had been there only a month or so before I met Thomas Deegan, a raw recruit if ever there was one. He was from Maine, and had no more business being a soldier than I did. He just didn't give a good god damn about soldering. He was indifferent when it came to following orders and was always on the brink of being dressed down for insubordination. He had one saving grace: He knew computers better than anybody else around. The thing that kept Deegan out of the brig was his ability to fix them. In the officers' quarters, there were a couple of old IBMs that the brass used exclusively for porn. They kept going on the blink, and Deegan kept coaxing them back to life.
Back home, he had been a hacker. His specialty had been sneaking into corporate sites and leaving the message "Pudding Head Was Here. Your firewall sucks." He never did any real damage, but when the law caught up with him, a judge told him to enlist in the army or face a lengthly stretch in prison. Hence our paths were fated to cross in Afghanistan. Eventually Deegan got an early release from the Army although the record shows he served several full terms, won a chestful of medals, and had been promoted to brigadier general. His was an honorable discharge entitling him to any and all benefits the Army had to offer. I shudder to think what Pentagon chieftains would have done had they gotten wind of his digital diddling. Deegan told me a sergeant had caught on, but had shrugged and turned away. Evidently he appreciated Deegan's services.
We got zonked together often enough to become buddies. One night after more than a dozen beers and something he had concocted from a rare Afghan blossom, he assured me that one day I would need the benefit of his advanced computer skills, and on that day I should come to him in Maine. Then he gave me the coordinates for his camp in Mariaville.
The day came shortly after I made my way from New York City back to Detroit. I'll admit I was scared. I was a deserter, a killer, and the possessor of a duffel bag half full of illicitly acquired cash. It was just by luck that I had caught a short piece in the New York Times about my unit being cremated alive in a fire fight. The Army thought that I, Dwight DeLong, had been among those killed. I wanted it to keep right on thinking that. So I rented a car and punched Deegan's coordinates into the GPS. By the time I got to Mariaville, I could see why he had given me coordinates instead of an address.
His cabin was deep in the woods without a mailbox in sight. It was way off the grid, down a dirt road which branched off twice onto ever-more-narrow dirt roads. The last link was less a road than a field with a stretch of weeds and brush laid mostly flat. Thanks to GPS, I was able to make all the correct turns and kept going until the road dead-ended. Parked there was a rusting Subaru Outback from the mid-nineties that I just knew had to be Deegan's. From there I took a footpath through the woods a quarter mile down to his cabin. My brushing through the bushes overlapping the path set several bells ajingling, an alarm system impossible to disable, a low-tech system guaranteeing Deegan would never get surprise visitors. Nevertheless, I watched for a back-up. A good one might be tripwires attached to whatever Deegan felt would disable unwelcome intruders. I hoped I wouldn't get shot.
I was later to learn he got most of his electricity from car batteries which he kept charged by switching them into his aging Subaru. Those damn things are heavy, and I didn't envy his having to lug them back and forth on the path. I guess he used the wheelbarrow that was leaning against the cabin. Behind the cabin was a jerry-rigged satellite dish which brought him internet. I don't know what he did with his rich retirement income. Tom could have kept up with world news, but he seldom bothered. His politics, if he had any, remained a mystery. On the back bumper of his vehicle was a well-worn "Nuke the Gay Whales" sticker. Is there an "I Don't Give a Rat's Ass political party?" I later learned he had his retirement pay direct-deposited into the Maine Savings Bank under an assumed name. I suspect he had accumulated a small fortune, since he didn't ever seem to spend much of it.
When I left two weeks later I had a new birth certificate, social security card, Triple A card, and Michigan driver's' license. I also had an online history extending back to my early teens which Deegan assured me would hold up to moderate scrutiny. My name was Danny Dukes, a name I liked. I was partial to d's and enjoyed its rhythm.
Back in Detroit, I avoided my old associates. Detroit has plenty of bars, and I fell into a new routine. The new bars were different, but much the same. They had cheap beer on draft, quarter-devouring pool tables, and a clientele ready to drink beer, shoot pool, and, sometimes, exchange blows. I let my hair go wherever it wished, grew a beard, and took to wearing shades. I had also begun to gain weight and with the help of days-old donuts from a friendly bakery did what I could to encourage this. I was Danny Dukes, a mysterious, hefty guy you really shouldn't fuck with.
This didn't stop some guys from trying. Drinking beer and shooting pool no matter where has a way of leading to bar fights. At this I did pretty well. One night I took on three guys, and managed to deck them all. I punched and kicked relentlessly and overpowered them. The last guy down had been trying to club me with a beer bottle. Disabling bozos like them was as close as I ever got to a sense of achievement. I missed playing golf, but this was out of the question. There were only so many public courses, and somebody would be bound to recognize Dwight DeLong. One notable thing about bar brawls: Fouls put you ahead. That night I was in rare form, and it was with a special flourish that I kicked the beer-bottle guy in the ribs. Watching from a table was a guy who later took me aside, told me he was a fight promoter, and asked me how I would like to fight for money. Dumb as I was, I said, "Sure."
What he didn't tell me immediately was that he was trying to establish a kickboxing league in Detroit. He had no money, and assured me and the other recruits that if we would fight for peanuts initially, big bucks were sure to follow. He was a smooth talker, and we had little to lose by listening to him. He was known as Big Bill Burke, and while he eventually screwed me more ways than I can count, I will give him credit for one thing: He set me up with a fine trainer: Akito Sato.
No doubt about it, Master Sato knew his stuff. He was a little, elderly, Japanese guy, but his kicks were almost too fast for the eye to follow. He taught me the long, convoluted history of Oriental martial arts and instilled in me a deep respect for the legendary masters of such disciplines as Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai, Muay Boran, Kyokushi, and Adithada.
Burke and Sato wanted to stage matches in Muay Thai. This style of fighting appealed to me because it permits a vast selection of mayhem. It's a lot like bar fighting. Participants can strike their opponents with punches, kicks, (including kicks below the waist), and flying elbows and knees. One can work in close and grab the opponent, and one can toss him about and sweep him off his feet. As a brawler, my impulse always was to pull out all the stops as soon as possible. With Muay Thai I loved the vast range of legitimate ways I could disable an opponent.
Before Sato came along, I had never considered being a professional fighter. The idea had just never occurred to me. Now with kickboxing I felt like my real life had began. This was the second pursuit (golf was the first) I ever had that involved any real direction. The training was hard work, but I was sure it was leading up to something great. Never before had I given a thought to keeping in shape. Under Sato's watch, I quit smoking and cut way back on alcohol. I was billed as Danny "Demon Dog" Dukes. I thought the name was cool. Didn't people say "put up your dukes" when they wanted to fight? In the early going, I endeavored to be as ferocious as the name suggests, but Sato eventually worked me out of this. He taught me that finesse could be way more effective than brute force.
At first I sort of believed Big Bill when he assured us lucrative TV contracts were just around the corner. His contention was that even more than salty snacks people craved vicarious violence. The legs of kickboxers are longer than the arms of regular boxers, and the best kickboxers can defeat the finest boxers. Big Bill would go on and on about how immensely popular kickboxing was in other parts of the world. He had no doubt it would catch on here. He suggested we would soon be traveling to exotic lands for million-dollar matches. We were always just a deal or two away from the big time. He kept this up for nearly three years. Fighters came and fighters left, but I stayed on. Eventually I had pretty much quit believing Big Bill, but I had nowhere else to go.
Over the three years that I fought, I established a 34-7 record and was known by a small, but slowly growing, bunch of fight fans around Detroit. Both the Free Press and the News were giving us a few inches on their sports pages, so people knew we existed. I won nearly all of those fights on points. I seldom knocked anybody out. For a long time I had misgivings about this. Shouldn't demon dogs demolish the opposition? What sort of demon dog just racks up points? Nevertheless, the press, what little we got, liked the name and it stuck.
I had thought I might have a future as a fighter until the night I killed Billy Brama. The blame is only partially mine. The ref should have stopped the fight. Billy—he was just a kid— was beaten. He wasn't defending himself, but he wouldn't go down. He was letting me do whatever I wanted. I finally decided to end things with one big kick to his head. I delivered, and he went down hard. Trouble was he never got back up. His wife Laura and I were at his bedside when the line went flat. Her shock was followed immediately by rage; she threw a bedpan at me. I could have ducked, but I let it hit me, a blow that left a scar on the bridge of my nose, my first and only fight-related injury. No matter. My career was over.
As a professional fighter with a bit of a reputation I had moved up a few rungs in the social scale. I had a few bucks, and some pretty damn good-looking women were happy to be seen with me. Now I was back where I had begun, hanging out with some of Detroit's bottom-of-the-barrel lowlifes. I had no money left—I had blown the remainder of my duffel bag bills, and breaking my contract with Big Bill Burke had left me penniless. I got pretty depressed. I missed my old cohorts, but they believed that Dwight DeLong was long dead, and I needed for them to keep right on believing it. I shaved my beard, but usually left two or three days of stubble.
One night I was sitting at a table by myself in TDs, my favorite sports bar, nursing a draft Bud and watching the Pistons get pounded by the Celtics when a voice just off to my right said, "Hello, Dwight." I twisted my head around, and there was Mr. Gilbert, my golf guru, smiling, carrying a walking stick now, but nattily dressed as always.
"Name's Danny," I said. "Danny Dukes."
"I've been following your career," he said. "Quite impressive. I was sorry to see it end."
I nodded towards a vacant chair. "How could you tell it was me?"
He sat down gracefully. "By the way you moved, the way you shifted your weight before delivering a blow. In both golf and kickboxing, you get your power from the ground."
"You taught me how to use my lower body," I said. "The kicks were something new, but you taught me footwork basics. Weight-shift needs to flow."
Mr. Gilbert caught the eye of a server, pointed at my half-full glass, and held up two fingers. "After I realized who Danny Dukes was, I had often considered contacting you, but guessed you didn't want me to. You seemed to be doing okay. I found other kids to lug my sticks, but it has never been the same."
"You still using that old Bull's Eye putter? I kept trying to straighten the shaft, but never got it perfect."
"Occasionally it works wonders," he said. "I can't bring myself to part with it."
I sighed. "I haven't hit a shot in over a year. I've probably forgotten how."
Gilbert shook his head. "No way," he said. "It's like riding a bike."
"Or making love?" I wondered.
"Possibly," he laughed, "although you can't prove that by me." Mr. Gilbert's good friend David Wilkes had died from aides in the early eighties, and he had never taken up with anybody else.
"My clubs are still in the trunk of my car," I admitted. "I guess I've been too lazy to use them."
"You've been busy. It takes time to master Muay Thai."
I nodded and took a sip of beer.
"Tough break, your last fight."
I stared at the bubbles in my beer. "Yeah," I said. "Tough."
"After that fight, you dropped from sight."
I nodded. "How'd you find me?"
"Your manager told me he had no idea where you'd gone, and I figured you would be depressed. I couldn't stop wondering and worrying about you, so I hired an investigator. I knew you favored sports bars, and even in a city the size of Detroit, there are only so many of them. Pete, my investigator, took your photo around, showing it to bartenders."
"Recent photo?" I asked. I could only hope Gilbert hadn't used an old shot of Dwight DeLong. With my beard and bloat, Danny Dukes looked a whole lot different from Dwight DeLong.
"Taken like yesterday," Gilbert said. "Your manager has a vast assortment of your publicity shots. Several of the bartenders recognized Danny Dukes, but the one here said you come in two or three times a week. I've spent most of this week waiting for you to show up. I feel I owe you. I haven't forgotten how you hauled that golf cart off me. But more than that, I've watched you develop. I'd like to see you fulfill your potential."
For the first time, I looked him in the eye. "I am sorry," I said. "I should have stayed in touch. But I felt I had no choice but to lie low. I ran afoul of some pretty bad dudes. They think I am dead, encased in cement in the Detroit River beside Hoffa. If they find out differently, I will, as they say, be swimming with the fishes."
I hated lying to Gilbert and never had before.
"Your secret is safe with me," he said. "I won't try to unravel the rest of the story."
I think I loved this man.
Our friendship picked up pretty much where it had left off, and I was reminded how much I liked hobnobbing with the swells at Oakland Hills. If any of them wondered why Mr. Gilbert was calling me Danny after having introduced me earlier as Dwight, they kept it to themselves. By and by, I was playing golf with Mr. Gilbert as often as I was caddying for him. It never occurred to me he was grooming me for bigger things. Our Congressman, Jimmy Johnson, had dropped dead six months before the completion of his seventh term, and somebody had to fill in. The appointment is made by the governor, and Mr. Gilbert had his ear, so I got the gig. Mr. Gilbert said he thought Congress needed fresh, young blood, and none was fresher or younger than mine. I was twenty-five years old, the minimum age for a representative. Mr. Gilbert kept insisting he thought I was the best man for the job, but I suspected he was showing appreciation for my assistance freeing him from that overturned golf cart.
D.C. was a gas. I had never been in a place with so many young, good-looking women. I guess there is a huge demand for secretarial aides. I suspect it's young women who are really running the country. Any number of them quite blatantly let me know they were available, but I felt intimidated. The lowliest intern knew more about what was going on than I did. I kept telling myself to keep a low profile, and I turned down God knows how many open invitations. Sure, I brought a few of them back to my apartment, but truth was I didn't find them interesting. The fact of the matter was they were mostly after bigger fish than me. On top of that, the public exposure was making me uneasy. I kept telling myself I was just one of 435 representatives, a temporary one at that, and so long as I avoided making waves I would be okay. By and large, I was content to ogle the women, vote along party lines, collect my pay, and avoid drawing attention to myself.
There was one thing I had promised myself I would do once I got a steady income. I guess you could call it tithing. As I understood it, that's when somebody gives ten percent of their income to their church. I had no church, but I had what amounted to a profound belief: Laura Brama, the wife of the guy I killed kickboxing, had been screwed, and it was my fault.
Word had gotten to me that following Billy's death, she had suffered a psychological breakdown. I don't know what kind, exactly, but it must have been traumatic. She had been hospitalized for several weeks and lost custody of her three children. Eventually, upon her release, she got them back, but she remained fragile and has been unable to hold a job. Billy had had no insurance, and she was destitute.
Through my office in Detroit, I arranged to have a bundle of cash equal to ten percent of my income mailed to her every week. I insisted it remain anonymous. I wasn't tithing for myself, and I didn't want Laura to feel bad, even for a moment, for whacking me in the head with that bed pan. I had already made her feel bad enough. I insisted the payment be made in cash so she wouldn't have to worry about taxes. It didn't come to all that much, a little over $400 a week, and I considered doubling it, but then decided that with food stamps and other government handouts, she would get by okay. The ten percent hit in my income might have cramped my style a bit (had I been trying to maintain a style), but it certainly didn't conflict with my determination to be nearly invisible.
All went well until one day when we were debating a Champ-backed bill that would have all but eliminated federal controls over contaminants allowable in municipal water supplies. Many members of my own party agreed with the opposition that this might best be left to individual states. It looked like Champ's bill would sail through until I found myself on my feet addressing the assembly. Clear-cut case of poor impulse control. I told the assembly about Flint, Michigan, in a district not far from mine, where local and state administrators dithered for two years while poor, mostly black residents were drinking water heavily contaminated with lead and other toxins. I argued that timely federal oversight could have prevented an historic atrocity. Following my impassioned plea, at 2:20 p.m., the legislature went into recess. Two days later, it reconvened with the House leadership advocating strengthening federal oversight. A month later, a strong bill passed that could have prevented the tragedy in Flint and might prevent it from happening elsewhere.
Both the News and the Free Press played the story up big. I was portrayed as a hero, a fearless fighter overcoming an entrenched establishment determined to give poor people the shaft. This was all well and good, but I figured it would soon blow over. An election was coming up, and I assumed they would get an experienced candidate to run for Johnson's seat. I thought Mr. Gilbert was out of his mind when he urged me to run. I didn't know much, but I did know one thing: Running for a Congressional seat costs at least a cool million-and-a-half, and I had no money. I could not imagine myself going out begging for bucks from rich donors. There had been times when I was seriously down and out, but I had never resorted to panhandling. To me politics seemed like pretty much the same thing. Oh sure, it's on a higher level, but in spirit the two are in lockstep. The difference is that sooner or later political recipients are expected to repay donors—paybacks all too often determined by the donors.
Mr. Gilbert kept telling me not to worry about money. He had tons of his own and had favors he could call in. There would be a mailing, maybe more than one, but nothing would go out that hadn't been approved by me. Our slogan would be: Danny Dukes: a Tough- Energetic- Smart- Tenacious- Environmentally Dedicated candidate. Privately I wondered if Debauched should take the place of Dedicated. The acronym came out as TESTED. What could be more appropriate for a candidate with essentially no experience? The idea was that people would be reminded that (supposedly) I had fought long and hard to assure that people got clean water. Never mind that we're talking about a fight in which my part lasted fewer than ten ill-advised minutes.
In the meanwhile, a couple of Senators asked me to co-sponsor environmental bills. Several times before Congress I spoke up in their behalf. The media began referring to me as Mr. Clean. No big deal. I really was in favor of drinkable water, breathable air, and something I later learned was called biodiversity. Mr. Gilbert began telling me his private polling company was saying I should win easily.
Nevertheless, I hesitated for a week or two before committing myself to running. I feared the opposition would take a long hard look at my past, and I shuddered at what it might find. I gave in when Mr. Gilbert kept assuring me that Democrats running Michigan's 14th District faced no real opposition. He seemed confident that once I got the nomination — something he could arrange — victory in the general election was a gimme. I found out later he had greatly exaggerated my chances of winning.
My friend Deegan, my computer genius friend, had given me a past that went back nearly a decade. Commencing in my teens, my educational background had left nary a trace. In the fantasy he had composed, I had had my own business creating and hosting websites. I had been reasonably successful, paid my bills, kept out of trouble. I hadn't set the world on fire, but I hadn't burned anything down either. Of course, my career as a fighter was public record, but (other than kill a kid) I hadn't done anything to be ashamed of. But now I had made a name for myself. Me and Ralph Nader. I got a letter from the Sierra Club asking why I wasn't a member. A better question was why the hell hadn't I kept my mouth shut?
When I agreed to run (a decision that might be attributed to poor impulse control), I insisted on one condition: I didn't want to know who contributed to the campaign. There was a lot I didn't know, but one thing I did know was that far too many politicians had sold their souls to the one percent. I knew too much, or thought I did, about banksters, Wall Street, big pharm, and the military/industrial complex Eisenhower famously cautioned us against. One thing I learned in the army (besides never volunteer) was I didn't like being at anybody's beck and call.
Somebody once said: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and those who can't do or teach go into politics." When I decided to try politics, having no experience worked wonders. Being a Caucasian successful in a sport dominated by Asians also helped a lot. At first I thought it might cause resentment, but it seemed to garner respect. I can think of no other field in which people are sometimes chosen for their lack of experience. Who in his right mind would want to bring aboard the least experienced heart surgeon, plumber, or airplane pilot available? The electorate was so pissed at politics and politicians, it rewarded the uncorrupted novice.
It hadn't happened often, but in this case luck was with me. The 14th may be the most gerrymandered district in the country. Heavily weighted in favor of Democrats, it begins in Detroit, goes east, turns west out to Farmington Hills, then north to Pontiac. Democrats here often draw 80 percent of the vote. I couldn't see how an essentially unknown white guy like me could waltz right in. As it turned out, a lot of low-income people liked the idea of a guy nicknamed Demon Dog. Or maybe it was the sheer novelty of electing a kickboxer. A fair share of high-income people and academics appreciated attitudes I had that I later learned could be called progressive.
I wasn't a complete babe in the woods. Years earlier, I had experienced a few notable political associations. In between forays into delinquency, I was seeing a girl named Janice Hooper, who brought me to a variety of protests. Her group, mostly college students, disliked (among other things and in no particular order) GMOs, police brutality, LGBT discrimination, insurance companies, banks, capital punishment, guns, restrictions on abortion and most non-prescription drugs, military engagements, genetic engineering, inadequate minimum wages, tuition, and student loan payments.
Secretly I was disinterested in much of this folderol, but I found the scene exhilarating. Many of my hormones had just kicked in, and I loved the music, the drugs, the sex, and the heady aura of revolution. (As a known bar brawler, I was Janice's tough-guy protector. I wasn't to allow anybody to hassle her. There were some motorcycle dude who I had thought might try, but, perhaps luckily for me, none did.) Because I wanted to be able to talk to her without sounding like an asshole idiot, I read some of the stuff she kept on hand . For awhile, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were my main men. Often I stayed up late reading the Nation and Progressive magazines, and before long I could talk a pretty good game. Janice called herself a neo-Marxist, although she didn't seem to have much of an idea what that was. I didn't care. I liked being part of the counterculture (although, unlike some of the others, I was pretty sure we weren't up to challenging the U.S. Military). I know Janice worked hard to instill in me social consciousness. She had long blond hair and good-sized breasts so I didn't mind. Accommodating as I was, her efforts weren't particularly successful, although she did teach me how to interrupt TV's talking heads with a proper mix of cynicism and rage.
The fact of the matter was I had begun wandering off the reservation before I ever met Janice Hooper. Back in high school I got several offbeat ideas from Norman Issac, the only teacher I ever really liked. He taught me that the United States was covered with warts. It was, he said, founded on genocide and maintained by racism. For some reason, his version of the past stuck in my mind better than the candy-coated history I had been taught earlier. His was a lot more fun. Mr. Issac wore tweed jackets with brown leather elbow patches, spectacles with round lenses, and he sported a goatee. He only lasted a year, but, fortunately (or not), I caught his American history course. He pointed out that Sam Adams was motivated more by greed than patriotism; that Ben Franklin was a dirty old man; that Paul Revere nearly got court-martialed; and that Thomas Jefferson, the hypocrite who penned the nonsense about all men being created equal, knocked up one of his slaves several times.
My political speeches were often in this vein, and Mr. Gilbert never asked me to tone them down. Fortunately for me, he was one of those older people who don't grow more conservative with age. As for myself, I found I relished dissing the Establishment. I insisted I was an outsider who would never become an insider, valiantly running against deeply entrenched old farts who were subverting the country. Like magic this often pleased a generous cross-section of several communities in my district. I cruised in with 53 percent of the vote, fetching nods from various cultures, both genders, and old as well as young folks.
When I wasn't telling myself this was a horrible mistake, I celebrated by partying and reminding myself how much I like cocaine. Then I got a haircut and invested in a dark blue suit and yellow power tie. At first, being a Congressman struck me as an easy (if, for me, dangerous) way to make a buck. Way better than knocking guys senseless. But then I began to wonder. Polls showed that Congress was held in ridiculously low regard. It was a good day when any poll showed ten percent of the populace viewed Congress favorably. A lot of people liked their individual Congressmen, but few liked Congress as a whole. As Congressmen, we weren't just disrespected; we were loathed. I began to suspect that being in Congress might be more dangerous than bar fighting. I knew about D.C.'s strict firearm regulations, but I ignored them and began packing heat wherever I went.
My first assignment in D.C. was to serve on a sub-committee to explore more effective ways to deal with drug abuse. The committee was experimental in that it was both select (formed for limited duration to deal with a specific problem) and joint (composed of both Republicans and Democrats). I wasn't sure if I was the best or the worst person for this particular committee. I had been smoking pot since I was 14, and back in my apartment I had a generous stash of Pink Hawaiian Starburst. Everybody I knew in Detroit smoked pot. I liked it and certainly never considered it a problem. I couldn't have been more in favor of it. Non-addicting, lots of fun. I liked most of the thoughts pot put into my head. Granted, they seemed less profound the next day, but at the time of their occurrence they were great. Sometimes even Cosmic. I had no doubt that sending non-violent possessors of pot to prison was insane.
I had been curious about the hallucinogenics. I had been told that LSD was dangerous for people who didn't have their shit together. Since I never felt like I had my shit together, I never tried it. I had friends who swore by various mushrooms, but I myself hadn't indulged. I believed Graham Hancock when he said that Ayahuasca has been successful in getting people off an assortment of painful addictions, but I hadn't had easy access to any. In the military, I had ingested numerous unknown concoctions with varying degrees of pleasure, but I didn't know how to categorize these.
I thought my point of view was at least somewhat sophisticated. I knew the war on drugs had been a resounding failure, and I entered into the fray thinking that this would be a wonderful opportunity to bring some rationality to it. I was aware that researchers were saying that psychedelics were effective in treating depression. We could single out the dangerous drugs, educate people on how to avoid them or use them responsibly, distinguish them from enjoyable recreational drugs.
Turns out I was naive, a wishful thinker whose notions were DOA. The blame lay largely with Senator Buford Beauregard Jackson who was able to control the discourse with an iron hand. Thanks to his seniority, he was the powerful chairman of this committee, which consisted for three Senators and three Representatives. Among us were two other Republicans and, besides me, two other Democrats. Supposedly this mixture would promote the deliverance of measures acceptable to all. It was, I soon realized, the perfect mixture to assure that nothing worthwhile would ever be accomplished.
I'll never forget the first thing Senator Jackson said to me. "Welcome aboard, young man. You've made it to the big game." He made me feel somewhat good for about a second, before he went on to say, "The first thing for you to do is forget everything you learned in Civics 101. It was all bull crap. The second thing, if you want your term to be pleasant and rewarding, is to follow my lead. When I say 'jump,' you don't think twice before asking, 'how high'? If I say all the way to the moon, you do your damnedest to comply."
The first part was easy enough; I don't think I learned anything in Civics 101. The second part, I realized, could become troublesome. It brought back poignant memories from my military days. Senator Jackson sounded a lot like an officer I hadn't been able to forget, the one I shot in Afghanistan.
We were to meet at 3 p.m. the second and fourth Friday of every month. Committees usually meet a lot more often than ours, which I suppose was a measure of our unimportance. Our small room in the Cannon House Office Building was dominated by a large, oak table at which Senator Jackson assumed the head position. I was on time for every meeting as was the Senator. The other members were hit and miss, and, as time went by, a lot more miss than hit.
I may have been a bit slow, but before long I realized our committee had nothing to do with formulating sensible drug policies. It mostly had to do with keeping blacks, hippies, malcontents, and Hell's Angels in their place, which Jackson felt should be a federal penitentiary. I had often wondered why the government had invested so much time and energy into incarcerating low-level peddlers and users. It was much later that I learned it was a diversionary tactic designed to draw attention away from the activities of the CIA. This lovable group of guys had been heavily into trafficking as a means of acquiring tons of untraceable currency. Of course, this was all in the interests of waging clandestine battles against terrorists (and democratic Southern Hemisphere governments that might have been too far to the left).
My education had come in dribs and drabs, and I shudder when I think about how naive I was. Early on I had asked, "Why does possession of crack cocaine carry a much higher sentence than possession of cocaine in powder?" To me this just seemed unreasonable.
When I asked this, Jackson sighed, an overblown effort to look patient. "Possession of crack cocaine is a serious felony because the people who possess crack cocaine are likely to be serious felons," he explained. "Very often our law enforcement friends can prove possession, even if they have to plant it themselves. It can, at times, be hard to establish guilt for other crimes." A black dude I had often drunk beer with in a bar on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit swore this had happened to him. He had drawn attention to himself by leading protests against racist police brutality. I had never known the guy to lie and had no doubt he was telling the truth when he said this bogus bust had led to him spending four years behind bars.
The conservative members of my group weren't about to lose sleep over guys like him, but I had thought I might make a telling appeal to economics. "You do realize," I said, "that it costs well over seventy-five thousand dollars to keep nonviolent possessors of marijuana incarcerated for a year. Kids have gotten twenty-year sentences for having a weed that often grows wild. It would be cheaper by far to send them to Harvard."
Jackson looked at me like I was speaking Swahili. The others found something of compelling interest in their tea.
Silly me. I saw the committee as an opportunity to fund badly needed research. I had sometimes wondered why so many people would go to such great lengths to get stoned. They were willing to deal with disreputable, often dangerous people, to get possession of stuff that could send them to prison for years and years. Not just that, but they were willing to spend a great deal of money and risk ingesting stuff that can be fatal. How can their ordinary consciousness be so horrible that all this becomes irrelevant? These questions occurred most often when I was stoned.
Being young and stupid, I was oh so idealistic. I thought that as members of our committee we were positioned to make an important contribution to society. We could recommend increased funding for new and better ways to treat addiction. We could encourage doctors to prescribe non-addictive painkillers (if any existed} or encourage federal research and funding into developing them. We could recommend that the government crack down on companies and physicians that allow easy access to potent and often deadly opioids like fentanyl. We could even explore the possibilities of giving addicts free, carefully controlled quantities of drugs like heroin along with clean needles, something I had heard they did in Denmark.
I did realize that addiction can be horrific. I have had acquaintances who succumbed to heroin and other opioids. Our annual opioid kill-count, pushing 75,000, was higher than that of car wrecks. Every year more Americans die from opioids than died during twenty years of war in Vietnam. At an early meeting, I suggested addiction should be treated as a medical problem, not a crime. My suggestion was met with silence I can only describe as an all-consuming void. I was aware enough to realize that whatever little idealism I might once have had was slowly being squeezed out of me.
Our air conditioning often broke down, and the windows couldn't be opened. Six months of the year, May thru October, the large fan the maintenance staff provided couldn't begin to overcome the relentless heat. The tray holding the pitcher of ice tea the staff put out (along with six glasses in the mistaken but shakeless belief that our full membership would show up) was welcome, but no where near sufficient. (The glasses sat on the tray upside down although I had learned while working as a restaurant dishwasher that it would have been more antiseptic to leave them upright.) It hardly mattered. Since the members of our group were missing more and more meetings, most of the glasses went unused. Most Fridays committee members were far more likely to be found in Kennebunkport or Hilton Head than Washington, D.C. I sometimes wondered if all the glasses ever got washed between meetings.
My electoral victory took place two years after Champ had taken office. Three years earlier, when Champ announced his candidacy, I hadn't been paying much attention. Truth is I hadn't given a good Goddamn who the president was. It didn't matter since he was bound to be a shithead. Oblivious as I was, Champ's announcement was so lurid it caught even my attention. He painted a picture of an America being devastated by foreign intruders. I had heard he was a populist, which I had thought was a good thing. I didn't realize that it often carried dark racial undertones.
I was living in Detroit, and while much of the place might rightfully have been described as devastated, I couldn't see that foreign intruders were doing the damage. It was true that Dearborn, a neighboring suburb, had attracted the nation's largest enclave of Muslims, but the ones I knew were busy trying to become middle-class neighbors. I was reminded of Pogo's famous observation: "We have seen the enemy and he is us." Detroit had never really recovered from the riots of 1968. The decline of the auto industry played a big part. I suppose the Japanese manufacturers of Toyotas and Honda might be described as foreign intruders, but they were succeeding by offering superior products. In any event, Detroit was full of people convinced they were being cheated of a prosperity that was rightfully theirs.
Champ promised to turn things around. Somehow, don't ask me how, he managed to convince much of the working poor that he was one of them. While it was well-known that nearly all of his businesses had ended as spectacular failures, he somehow conveyed the impression that this was all part of a master plan superseded only by God's. Many of his Evangelical followers accepted the proposition that he had been sent by God.
A self-proclaimed billionaire, he assured us he would follow the example set by FDR, the president many say saved capitalism by being a traitor to his aristocratic origins. Unlike past Presidents, Champ refused to make his taxes public. His base didn't care that domestic banks wouldn't lend him money. His supporters were willing to regard his multiple-bankruptcies as brilliant business strategies.
He lost the popular vote, but by narrowly carrying rust belt states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania got enough electoral votes to win. Oblivious as I was to the whole matter, I also wasn't a bit surprised. I knew enough of Michigan's so-called common folks to realize how desperate they were. In the thirties, FDR buoyed them up; maybe Champ could do so now, at least for awhile.
In many ways, luck was with him. The opposition had put up a Neo-liberal female candidate a great many people simply loathed. The previous administration had brought the economy through a deep recession. Recovery, well under way, continued to improve after Champ came in. Of course, Champ took full credit for what was becoming a booming economy. At the same time, Champ enjoyed a compliant Congress, and he was able to engineer a big corporate tax cut. This did wonders for the Dow, and a little of it dripped down to average Joes. It also spiked the deficit to formerly unimaginable depths, but few people seemed to notice or care. He was able to convince millions that the U.S. was under siege from a multitude of dark-skinned, murderous immigrants propped up by craven liberals interested only in welcoming aboard future left wing-voters. Ecumenicals supported him overwhelmingly in large part because at least he wasn't a shrill and bossy bitch.
Progressives called him narcissistic, fascistic, and oligarchical, but these fancy words didn't bother his base at all. He got away with filling his cabinet with folks from Goldman Sachs and the Pentagon. He snatched health insurance away from millions with promises of better things to come. He ripped apart the First Amendment by, among other things, making disrespect for the flag felonious. He realized that gays and transsexuals made his followers uncomfortable and took steps to shove them back into their closets. In short, President Ronald Champ was Senator Buford Beauregard Jackson's kind of guy.
On this late August afternoon only one other committee member, Joyce Miler, a Republican, had shown up. Jackson gave a ten-minute spiel on the evils of Mexicans hauling bails of marijuana across the border into Arizona before dismissing her. On her way out, she said something about heading for an air conditioned shopping mall. Outside temperatures were approaching triple digits, and it wasn't much cooler where we were.
Once we were alone, I said, "It's gotta be hot work lugging those bails across the desert. What do they weigh—forty pounds each? I read where it's been hitting 120 in Arizona."
"Spics aren't bothered by the heat," Jackson said. "They don't feel it."
I was beginning to get aggravated and hot or not, I was ready to be argumentative. "I don't know," I said. "Seems like maybe global warming is going to reach out and grab all of us."
"No such thing," Jackson said. "Summers have always been hot, and now and then the sun just heats up for a spell. Nothing we can do about that. By and by, it'll level off back to normal. Besides we have a more important heat to worry about."
"The dead heat polls are saying Champ's in with Stevenson." Craig Stevenson was the popular Democratic governor who seemed primed to challenge Champ in the next election. "If the election were held today, it could go either way," Jackson continued. "Now I've learned that the Post is sitting on a story about Champ knocking up an intern and insisting she get an abortion. Somebody close to the President leaked the story. Whoever the treasonous S.O.B. is should be drawn and quartered."
Jackson must have known I considered this good news indeed. I assumed I could count on the Post to publish the story at an opportune time. The election was less than two years away, and I supposed it would wait at least a year, releasing the story when more people were thinking about who to vote for. "What if he loses Evangelical support?" Jackson wailed, oblivious to my apparent opposition. "It could be fatal." Nobody knew how strong his grip was on this support. So far it had held steady despite his four marriages, numerous rather public extra-marital affairs, entrepreneurial frauds, countless verifiable lies, and other unChristianlike actions. An unknown measure of this support could be attributed to his stated opposition to abortion under any circumstances. Testing it intrigued me. It also brought forth my talent for devil's advocacy.
"How do you suppose his supporters will react to the news that he coerced a subordinate into committing infanticide?" I said. Jackson, who avoided the word "abortion," would never realize I was heckling him.
Jackson shook his head. "His base has given him plenty of leeway," he said, "but there's probably a limit. He could be in deep shit unless something miraculous happens."
Somehow this sounded ominous. "Something miraculous?" I said. "Like what?"
"Oh, I don't know," Jackson said. "Maybe something like a series of terrorist attacks. Bad ones. Really bad ones spread over many months. Attacks so horrendous the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Attacks so dastardly the President is forced to declare martial law. Attacks so terrifying the president has to postpone the election indefinitely."
"What're the chances?" I said.
The Senator shrugged. "Who knows?" he said. "Stranger things have happened."
"I guess they have," I said, returning his shrug. "When?" I wondered to myself.
"I do have a word of advice," Jackson said. "Steer clear of the concert on the Mall tomorrow. Lowlife rowdies at these things often cause trouble. Why so many prime, young twats get all twitchy over a paunchy, old fart like Mickey What's-His-Name? is beyond me. They get the young bucks way too drunk on testosterone." I had never seen the Stones and had thought I might drop by.
It was then that Jackson's cell phone chimed in with the opening bars of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The Senator excused himself as he stepped into the adjoining bathroom, closing and locking the door behind him before turning on the water.
Something was up. Something he didn't want me to know about. I have an automatic response to a situation like that. I do what I can to find out what's up.
On the tray with that day's ice tea were four clean glasses. There had been six, but Ms.Stevenson and I had both used one. Jackson had been sipping from a flask (Kentucky bourbon, he said), something I had never known him to do. I took one of the clean glasses, pressed the rim against the door, and brought my ear to the bottom. At first I was afraid the glass was too thick. Thin glass, I had heard, works best. But by holding my breath and concentrating I could hear the occasional word: Mall… Museum… Crowd… Castle… Cross… Signal… Gardens… Station… Basin… Worry…Frisco... I thought I might have heard the words Cross and Fire, but wasn't sure. His accent made the word Fire sound a lot like Far.
Jackson was saying his good-byes, and I hurried to the table and got the glass down as he was emerging from the bathroom. Too late I realized I had set it down right-side up on the tray.
"Sorry about the interruption," he said. "Boss woman wants me to pick some things up on my way home." I noticed he was looking at the glass.
"Not a problem," I said. "I believe we're done here anyway."
Jackson nodded and again looked at the glass sitting right-side up. He'd forgotten he told me his wife was in Virginia tending to her sick mother. He had told me she could take her time coming back. Said his sex life had never been better. He had said this with a whisper and a wink, a one-guy-to-another, buddy-to-buddy, elbow-nudge-to-the-ribs sort of confidence. I wondered how he could possibly think I cared or even believed him .
I picked up the yellow legal pad on which I had been making doodles and stuffed it in my briefcase. There it would languish with the papers I had scribbled upon at all the other meetings. The case was getting thick with paper and a bit heavy to carry. Someday I had to take time to clean it out.
The day was still sweltering, but I liked the heat. I meandered along, happily taking my time. No hurry, none at all. This was a marvelous late August afternoon, and people were getting out of work early, anticipating a fun-filled summer weekend. D.C. is awash with fine young women, and today they had emerged wearing shorts and halters or lightweight dresses, and I enjoyed taking in the sights. Life was good.
I had rented a modest apartment in Anacostia, a part of D.C. trying to transition from decaying to gentrified. Rumor has it that Starbucks has been eyeing a nearby location. A few weeks ago, a grocery store with some organic fruits and vegetables opened its doors. They tell me it hasn't been doing much business yet (its produce is costly), but who can tell what time might bring? Yeah, yeah, I know, the neighborhood at best is iffy (prostitutes work two or three of its corners), but it's only ten minutes from the Hill.
It was early for supper, but I decided to stop by the club to see Sarah. Friday is a big night at Blue Indigo, and she would be working until closing. But maybe by coming this early I could spend a few moments with her. We seem to have reached a tacit agreement not to see others, but I have been seeing less and less of her since she was promoted to night manager. When I walked in, she greeted me from across the large room with the big special smile I wanted to believe was all mine.
I took a seat at an empty table and waited for Sarah to make her way over. She had come about half way before being joined by another woman, who she introduced as Lila Springer, the club's new vocalist. Lila is blond and bosomy, long-legged and lively. As we shook hands, she drew dangerously close, a move the ever-observant Sarah hadn't missed. "Okay, you guys," she said, "let's not get too chummy until at least the second date." Lila wasn't scheduled to come on until eight, but I had no doubt she was a fine hire.
I kept an eye on Sarah until she disappeared into the kitchen. When she reappeared ten minutes later, she was balancing on one slim hand a small, round tray containing a two-inch-thick filet mignon (I knew would be broiled to medium-rare, pink perfection), a mid-sized Green Mountain baked potato, a sprig of parsley, a generous side of sour cream, a serving of baby carrots, and two, cold 12-ounce Michelob Ultras. (Whoever it was who first said the surest way to a man's heart is through his stomach knew what he/she was talking about.)
I guess opposites can attract. Years ago in California, Sarah studied Feng Shui basics, learning principles of soulful decoration. My idea of a good arrangement had been to have a cold six-pack within easy reach. We reminded people of an old TV show, The Odd Couple. Like Felix Unger, Sarah can tend towards the nasty neat while I can be an Oscar-like slob. She contends that her input saved me from turning into a crusty, sterile, old has-been (or, more likely, a never-was). Sarah has undeniably good taste and likes going first-class. Her family has money, and she had become accustomed to life's niceties. She couldn't imagine living without an InSinkErator Evolution Excel garbage disposal unit or a Rondium By Hafia infrared sauna.
All that aside, she had had a rough time of it. Shortly after earning a Master's Degree in poly sci from Georgetown University, she got a job as an aide to Frank Shelton, a deeply entrenched, multi-term senator. The three of us were from south-eastern Michigan, but I am quite sure they had never ventured into my part of town. In some ways, Sarah was a model of sophistication, but we were both babes in the woods when it came to understanding how things were done in D.C. Six months into the job, Sarah was astonished to learn there was a button on Shelton's desk that would lock the office door. Utilizing this button one fine day, he made Sarah a captive audience of one as he proceeded to lower his pants and whack off into a potted plant before handing her a Kleenex and ordering her to wipe off his dong. Understandably, Sarah was appalled. She filed a complaint and found herself with the Senator and his legal team before a watchdog committee concerned with Congressional morality. Sarah testified she remembered vividly the smirk on the Senator's face. She admitted to experiencing some surprise that he could still get it to work. Perhaps a bit vindictively, she described his penis as "smallish."
In turn, Senator Shelton's team submitted that she was delusional, hysterical, vindictive, treasonous, and given to wishful thinking besides being on-again, off-again psychotic and a tease. The committee conferred for ten minutes before ordering a restraining order against Sarah and placing her on indefinite leave. Her father, an official clawing his way into the upper ranks of the State Department, alienated her by suggesting she had probably done something to lead the senator on. As she put it later, she and Uncle Sam were no longer on speaking terms. She took a job waitressing at Blue Indigo, a nice-enough cocktail lounge just over the Maryland state line. To her the best thing about the place was that it wasn't in D.C.
I learned of Sarah's tale of woe during a visit to my home district. Geographically, Sarah and I had grown up in rather close proximity. Socially, we were from different planets. She was from Grosse Pointe Shores, a haven near Detroit for auto money traceable back to the Model T. Senator Shelton, whose wife Mildred was said to be distantly related to Walter Chrysler, was a friend of her father's and a near neighbor. When she was 14, Sarah had babysat for the children of Frank and Mildred Shelton. She remembered he made her feel a bit creepy.
I decided to offer her a job. She could have her choice: Detroit or D.C. There were openings in both of my offices, and I realized how woefully unprepared I was to handle my new responsibilities. I figured with her fancy education she could teach me much about how government really works. So I approached her, hat in hand, and 30 seconds later realized she wasn't at all interested. She wanted nothing to do with the U.S. Government. She had had it with big shots and the many wannabes prowling about D.C. She thought that everybody she had met on the Hill was obsessed with acquiring power for the sake of, well, power itself. She suspected that everybody there was trying to inch his or her way towards the Presidency itself.
The day I called on her, there was a mid-afternoon lull at the club, and we chatted for awhile. I was surprised when out of the blue she said she was comfortable being with me and apologized for her unwillingness to join my team. I also was comfortable with her, and in the following weeks made it a point to drop by the club fairly often. Things between us remained platonic for quite awhile before developing into something more. I guess she cared for me because I was quite a little shot, knew it, and wasn't particularly interested in getting bigger. She found my reluctance to draw attention to myself refreshing.
We did have boundaries. She had no interest in working for me and never would. The subject wasn't open to discussion. She was content with her present circumstances. After she had been at Blue Indigo for less than a year, the owners realized she had managerial talent and promoted her to night manager. Apparently cream does eventually rise, at least a bit.
Sarah could have been bitter, but she wasn't. She seemed perfectly pleased with her life. She genuinely liked assisting people, making their nights out as pleasurable as possible. Best of all, she enjoyed feeding me. I hadn't planned on eating, but who could resist filet mignon? Apparently my stomach was ground zero. "Gotta put some meat on those bones of yours," she chuckled as she sought to pinch an inch. "Hard times are a'coming." Her pinch was somehow erotic, and I wished I could make it last forever. I liked being there and took my time, making the second beer last as long as possible.
Blue Indigo attracts an interesting clientèle, including many bright young men on their way up. Sarah had a gift for welcoming them without being flirtatious. The club didn't seem to interest the real movers and shakers from the Beltway. I never saw anybody I recognized. I am sure that suited Sarah just fine. I believe it may have brought in some Important lobbyists though. One night I overheard two middle-aged men in expensive suits discuss the likely rapid rise of a certain tech stock. One of them was telling the other about an app the company was about to introduce, and I thought the conversation had great potential for insider trading.
The club's patrons didn't much interest me. More than anything else, I enjoyed watching Sarah dart about, talking to the hostess, giving waitresses instructions, getting the lighting just right, making sure the bar is fully stocked. She is light on her feet, constantly in motion, making it seem effortless. I didn't know how a rich girl would have acquired this skill, but acquired it she had. By the time I left, the place was filling up with students and young professionals savoring the Early Bird Steak Special. I hoped I hadn't over-stayed my welcome.
I had to pick up some groceries, and it was after seven by the time I got back to my place. Viewed from outside, my apartment building inspires no notions notions of homeyness. It could scarcely be more utilitarian. Sadly, the world is awash with similar places. The plain, red brick facade bears not a single decorative touch. The windows are dirty and have no shutters. Maybe there was a time when large expanses of unadorned brick seemed dramatic; now they just seem blah. At first, I endeavored to think of it as a no-bullshit building. When that didn't noticeably buoy my spirits, I cultivated obliviousness. The building wasn't far removed from the degradation of public housing.
Speaking of degradation, I sometimes sent my mother money, although I knew it would buy drugs and booze for her and her latest boyfriend. I did this anonymously. She thought I had died in Afghanistan, and I wanted to keep it that way. She might have been collecting benefits from my demise, and I wouldn't want to piss on her parade. Although my income was higher than I had ever supposed possible, I was mostly living check to check. Mr. Gilbert had helped me establish an office in Detroit, but even though I had insisted it be in a low-rent district, I had also insisted that the staff be generously rewarded. To accomplish this, I had volunteered to take less than the unbelievable $174,000 the government seemed happy to pay me.
When I first heard this figure, I thought I was rich beyond measure, although when I came to Washington I hadn't realized how expensive housing would be. Legislators are notorious for granting themselves raises, but they hadn't done so for quite some time. This was part of the reason I was able to get in with so little competition. Anybody with a decent education could find more lucrative employment in the private sector.
I was lucky to find my place for a mere $1,500 a month. For such a pittance, I got a strictly no-frills second floor of a three-story row house. It combined a living room, dining area and kitchen into an efficient, utilitarian, but hardly awe-inspiring package. The bedroom (with an actual walk-in closet) and bathroom (which did have a shower along with the tub) are separate as is a small writing room into which I have allowed nothing more than a table, a chair, a computer (which has no internet connection), and my dictionary. The idea was to rule out distractions. So far it's done a pretty good job of ruling out me.
The single thing that might have been distracting was my big hollowed-out, journal-concealing dictionary. When I was a junior in high school, I went through a period when I aspired to be a writer. A tool of that trade, I decided, was a proper dictionary. So one fine Spring day I walked out of the Detroit Public Library's Woodward Avenue branch with Webster's Third New International Dictionary. This was no simple task. The tome is big and bulky, hardly something one could stick under one's shirt. At the time I had a theory that one could get away with anything if one looked like he belonged and knew what he was doing. It doesn't hurt if he's carrying a clipboard and a legal pad. So, putting on my most confident air, I simply walked out a side door carrying the book as casually as I could. It worked. Nobody paid the slightest attention to what I was doing.
I had picked this particular dictionary for a reason: It was revolutionary. Its editors had held that our language is shaped by usage, not decrees passed down by ivory-tower scholars. Dumb shits like me can contribute to the English language simply by using a word often enough. Any word has a chance, even a nasty one. It was the first dictionary to include the word "fuck." It was a dictionary after my own heart.
For several months, it stayed under my bed mostly unopened. Then one glum day I decided I would never have what it would take to be a writer. What I was cut out to be was a criminal, and I needed a place for my stash. So I took a box cutter and laboriously carved out a good-sized space within its pages. (For good measure, I began carving on the page with my favorite f-word.} The final enclosure had proven to be a fine place to conceal my self-incriminating journal and a few other items I wasn't about to share, and I have kept it with me ever since.
This book, my computer, and my printer/scanner were all I brought to this furnished apartment. I have called the place a dump, but all and all, things have worked out okay. Furniture arranging goes against my nature, but it turns out that with proper placement a small space can become a large-enough space. The trick is to get everything fitted nicely together and to discard anything you haven't used in the last six months. Sarah has never been here. She probably doesn't realize that approachable people actually occupy such spaces. From time to time, we have talked about getting a place together, but so far haven't taken time to coordinate searching for or figuring out how to pay for a mutually acceptable apartment. For sure, it wouldn't be this one.
There is an alley out back with adjoining space for parking. I pulled into it and cut my engine. The sun was going down; before too long it would be dark. Already it seemed unusually dim, and it took me a moment to realize the spotlight on the back of the building hadn't come on. There were two other tenants in the house, and one of us would have to call the rental agency to replace the bulb. I hesitated before getting out of my Honda. Something wasn't right and was putting me on edge. When I did get out, I looked around cautiously. No signs of life.
I had taken only a few steps towards door when a large, dark figure loomed from the shadows. A young black man, he moved with the decisiveness of an all-star point guard. He was dressed in dark jeans and gray hoodie. Only his white, Air Jordan, high-top sneakers reflected light. It was beginning to cool down, but the hoodie constituted over-dressing. The extra-large lenses of his dark-blue shades obscured much of his face. I wondered how he could see anything at all.
I didn't have a whole lot of time to critique his style sense. The blade he held at hip level was directed toward my gut. He came on quickly, expecting me to back off. I didn't. I stepped forward and delivered two rapid, hard jabs to his face. His glasses went spinning off, but he held his ground, slashing upwards with his blade, catching my left arm near my shoulder. I felt a flash of pain. I must have flinched, but I was still able to kick him in the crotch. My jabs were polished movements outgrowths from innumerable saloon fights; the kick came straight from my stint as a professional fighter.
Both took their toll. He howled with pain and rage as he staggered back a step or two. I don't think he expected resistance from a congressman. He had dropped the shiv and was fighting for balance as he groped into the pocket of his hoodie. Hard to do when you're in pain, off-balance, and holding onto your nuts. He had wanted to use the blade because it would have been quieter, but his gun would also do the job. But not if mine was quicker. I had my Glock out before he had gotten a decent grip on his. Assuming he wasn't wearing Kevlar, I put three quick shots into his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground.
I ripped my shirt off and wrapped it around my arm. I wasn't badly hurt; the bleeding didn't warrant medical attention. Using my mouth and right hand, I tied the sleeves of my shirt into a makeshift tourniquet. It wasn't as tight as I would have liked, but it would soak up blood. There was a dirty rain jacket in the trunk of my car, and I put it on. I didn't look altogether respectable, but I wouldn't freak anybody out either.
My gun wasn't legal; I didn't know about his. I suspected that D.C. authorities, backed by the nation's strictest gun controls, would have given me a very hard time about my weapon. Maybe, just maybe, they would look the other way—I was, after all, a Congressman—but I couldn't count on that. Impulsively I had decided that personal protection took precedence over strict observance of the law. Maybe I had seen too many Hitchcock films in which run-of-the-mill guys get dangerously involved with spies and counter-spies. No denying it, D.C. makes me nervous. Maybe in a cocky moment I had thought that being a lawmaker should give me special privileges. Deep down, though, I was far from confident that it would.
Ignoring my throbbing arm, I rolled my assailant over, and, reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, dragged out his wallet. Opening a car door to get light from the dome, I slid loose a driver's license that identified him as Eric Brown, a D.C. resident who lived several blocks deeper into the mire of this neighborhood. He had no credit or debit cards, but did have Club Goodwill and EBT cards. Last, but certainly not least, he had a half-inch thick stack of fifty dollar bills, which I stuck in my front pocket. He had no use for them. This had been no mugging by a man desperate to feed his family. In the words of John Striker, a guy who bullied me in grade school, my assailant was... "nigger rich."
Now what? I can't call the cops and I can't leave Mr. Brown dead on the ground. The cops might, just might, overlook my illegal weapon, but routinely they would check me out for priors. What happens when much of my background comes up blank? Aren't these people paid to be curious? Many might hesitate to check a Congressman out too closely, but who can say there aren't a few malcontents who would enjoy taking down a pesky lawmaker?
I felt I had to wrap the body in something, and I remembered I had an old Indian blanket in my back seat. It was a struggle, but I managed to roll him onto it, working the sides and ends into a somewhat neat package before heaving him into the trunk. The Japs may be small in stature, but they know how to make accommodating trunks.
I knew for sure this was no routine mugging. He hadn't been at all interested in taking my money. He had one thing in mind: Carving up my insides. I couldn't prove it, but I knew damn well Jackson had dispatched the bastard; I could only conclude that the Senator figured out I had used that glass to eavesdrop on his bathroom conversation.
Nobody seemed to be rushing around to see what the gunfire was all about. Since moving here, I had heard shots at least once a month and realized that in this neighborhood they were business as usual. I had hoped that most of the shots were just target practice. One thing to be thankful for, I guess: Back here there was no surveillance camera.
My Honda still had Michigan plates that were due to expire next month. A few weeks back I had registered my car in D.C. and gotten Congressional plates, but hadn't taken time to install them. I needed a flathead screwdriver which I hadn't remembered to get. The Michigan plates had double zeros and a one. I took a roll of electrical tape from my glove compartment, and with a few deft cuts with my pocket knife converted the zeros into rough eights and the one into a seven. The new numbers were crude, but from a few yards away would probably pass.
I didn't think I needed to worry about the car being identified. Most people can't tell an older Accord from a Toyota or a Datsun or a Nissan, or any other Asian car. They're all shaped like big bubbles. Mine was dark blue, but might be taken for black. I felt safe, but one can't be too cautious. It had rained earlier in the day, and there was a puddle in the alley. I scooped a little mud from it and smeared it on the plate light, not to black it out, but to dim its glow. My plan was to do a pop-in at Senator Buford Beauregard Jackson's place.
Driving to Maryland, I obeyed every traffic regulation. Not too fast, not too slow, but Just Right. Goldilocks driving. Dim my lights for every oncoming vehicle, signal for every lane change. About halfway there, I stopped at a Giant Walmart. I could feel my arm was oozing blood and I needed to wrap it in gauze. While I was at it, I picked up a dark gray hoodie and some latex gloves. I was surprised to see that a few Halloween masks had been put out already, or maybe they're left out year round. Whatever, I found one modeled after Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. It perfectly matched the way I felt.
Jackson had told me all about his big house off River Road in Potomac. I knew I had to look for Deer Run Lane, and then his long, private driveway identifiable by an over-sized, red, white, and blue mailbox. Houses along here were spaced widely apart, and it was already quite dark. I wasn't too concerned about the fairly heavy traffic; I figured people were intent on getting home from a hard day's work and wouldn't pay much attention to me.
Before entering the driveway, I pulled to the side of the road where I struggled out of my jacket. I removed the knotted shirt, pulling it down my arm, using it to wipe off as much blood as possible. When I was done, I wadded the shirt up and shoved it into the Walmart bag. Then I taped the gauze to my arm, and took off my glasses, enabling me to slide into the hoodie and pull the mask over my face. I assumed Jackson's place would be under the watchful eyes of surveillance cameras, but was confident I couldn't be recognized.
Jackson's house is at the end of a long, winding drive edged on both sides by lush foliage. No bit of it can be seen before the last bend in the drive. When, at last, it does appear, it is formidable. The last word in ostentation, the house itself is a Fuck-You-I'm Rich-and-You're Not colonial. Its three stories were fronted by a spacious porch whose roof was supported by six thick Roman-style columns. The house, perfectly symmetrical, was painted stark white while its large windows all had dark shutters. The black and white composition was broken by an imposingly large, front door I just knew had to be mahogany. The pendant light hanging from the ceiling was on, and I wondered if the Senator was expecting guests. Kind of late for dinner. Probably he just wanted to spotlight the plac. Many times he had told me hat it was a replica of the house he grew up in, the centerpiece of the grandest plantation in Chattenburg, Virginia.
A late-model Suburban, the only car there, was parked to the side. My hope was that his domestic help would be gone for the weekend, and it looked like I had lucked out. He had told me his wife was in Virginia tending to her sick mom, so I didn't need to worry about her. I was quite sure the women he talked about banging were illusionary. Without hesitation, I parked squarely in front and lugged the body out of the trunk. I looked around for cameras, but didn't see any. If there were some, they were well-concealed. I must have been having an adrenaline rush because I had no problem carrying the corpse up onto the porch and dumping it in front of that big, solid, keep-the-Indians-out front door. I pushed the button that had to be a door bell and heard chimes respond with the opening chords of "Dixie." I stepped aside to where I figured I couldn't be seen through the door's peephole or the beveled, lead-glass sidelights.
Fifteen or twenty seconds later, the door opened inward. A second later Jackson stepped out, his gaze glued on the dark heap I had deposited. I heard him mumble, "What the fuck..." He was wearing a silk robe over pajamas decorated with Disney characters and floppy, Donald Duck slippers over white socks. It was his last "What the fuck..." I shot him in the side of his head just above his right ear. He crumbled soundlessly on top of the thug he had sent my way. (Maybe, in all honesty, I should say I hoped to Hell he had sent my way.) I put two more slugs in him just to make sure. Learned that watching The Sopranos.
Doing this was getting me high. More adrenalin I guess. I thought about Rex Gunthrey, the guy I shot in Afghanistan, the look of joy on his face as he annihilated villagers. Was there any way I could regard myself as occupying a higher order? I didn't want anybody to know about it, but I had shown how dangerous I can be, and it was giving me pleasure. I didn't want to leave. I knew I should get the hell out of Dodge. What if the Senator's guests were of the late evening variety? But I felt a compulsion to see how a man of Jackson's exulted status lived. I decided to drop in for a look-see. One more instance of poor impulse control.
I wasn't considering consequences. Maybe that's why so many criminals are so easy to catch. Mostly I was thinking about how I no longer would have to listen to Jackson brag about being a direct descendant of General Stonewall Jackson. Way too often the Senator had boasted about possessing the Beaumont-Adams revolver that the lost-cause general carried throughout what the Senator insisted on calling the War of Northern Aggression. Evidently, the weapon had been handed down father to son generation after generation and was hanging on his living room wall. Jackson told me he had declined a seventy-five-thousand-dollar offer for it.
No problem finding it. The problem was figuring out why I felt compelled to take it. I think it's possible I wanted to hurt him all the more (as though that were possible) by depriving him of something he held near and dear. That gun had been his prize possession, and I wanted to make it mine. It was mounted in a class-fronted case above a massive stone fireplace right beside an over-sized Confederate flag. The case wasn't locked, the glass front swung out easily on brass hinges. I had put on the gloves so I wasn't worried about leaving prints. I removed the revolver. Then I ripped the flag from the wall and tossed it into the fireplace. Hopefully, investigators would conclude that Jackson was murdered by a liberal-minded, Union-supporting gun nut. I thought about messing the place up a bit, make it seem like a robbery, but was beginning to feel anxious about getting the hell out of there. I don't know what they'll make of the shot-by-the-same gun-but-not-here dude at the bottom of the heap. With luck they'll stay permanently confused.
I went into his kitchen, found his catch-all drawer, and was pleased to see a big, flathead screwdriver. The congressional plates were in my back seat, and I would find a secluded place on the way home to mount them.
Four days later, I was asked to say a few words at Jackson's closed-casket funeral. I declined, stating that while I deeply admired his selfless service to the country, being a newcomer I didn't feel l knew him well enough. They never did find a Democrat willing to eulogize the man. Eventually Senator Jackson was cremated, his ashes, in violation of local ordinance, spread about the city of Chattenburg by the timely explosion of a Fourth of July Fourth celebratory rocket.
As far as I could tell, the investigation into Senator Jackson's untimely demise wasn't gaining much traction. The papers did carry a story alleging that neighbors a mile-and-a-half down Deer Run Lane had told police that an old, Galaxy 500 convertible filled with Negroes and a boom box full-blasting obscene rap had gone by earlier in the evening. The story lasted only a single day, so I am assuming nothing came of it. I sincerely hope that the police don't find anything matching this description, since Jackson's murder was an audacious above-the-fold felony, and they would love to have pinned the atrocity on somebody.
Without Senator Jackson's inspired leadership, the drug war committee just sort of fizzled away. No report would be forthcoming. Nothing to recommend the continued long-term incarceration of pot possessors. Users of crack cocaine would continue to bear the brunt of a brutally unjust law. There would be no hint that help for the addicted could be merciful. It would be business as usual for law enforcement and Big Pharm. People would continue to become addicted to prescribed opioids, and many would die. Any thoughts I might have had about to being a real reformer had been battered into oblivion by the rude ram of reality.
The Rolling Stones concert had gone off without a hitch. They say Keith Richards had never sounded better or looked more alive. Kind of a low bar, I realize. The teeny boppers screamed appropriately when Mick Jagger did his patented forward thrust of the pelvis. Sorry I missed the spectacle.
The Post ran its story about Sally Mae Hathaway, Ronald Champ's pregnant intern, two weeks before the election. She had refused to get an abortion, and was due to give birth any second. Nobody paid much attention to her. She was just another of a couple of dozen women Champ had honored with his presence before moving on.
That week there was much more sensational news. Champ announced the apprehension of dozens of cocaine smuggling, bomb-toting, South American, dark- skinned, Muslim terrorists. The news of his successful struggle to keep America safe was told in above-the-fold, front page news and broadcast-beginning newscasts. Buried deep in Section Two or ignored altogether were denials by border patrol officials that anything of the sort had happened.
The only people who thought much about Sally Mae were Champ supporters who applauded their hero's manliness. To them he was the ultimate Alpha male who, more than anybody else, had the gonads to keep America grand. The women screeching about being abandoned were just the inevitable collateral damage.
Champ went on to win re- election in a landslide, taking every state except Maine and Massachusetts. He drew ninety-seven percent of the Evangelical vote after it was alleged the woman he was running against was a transsexual. The allegation went viral, and all over the land, YouTube pages were lit up. Some people claimed that in certain locales lights actually dimmed. Ratings for Fox News skyrocketed. Very few people knew about the half million dollars President Champ had given Sally Mae to shut the fuck up.
Almost a year later, it was a beautiful, early-August, Saturday afternoon, and I wasn't at all concerned about Sally Mae. Instead, as Senator Andrew McGowans' guest at the Congressional Golf Club in Bethesda, Maryland, I was anticipating a delightful outing at this beautiful, highly exclusive venue. My defenses were down; I was unprepared for anything at all disagreeable. I can honestly say that for once in my life, I wasn't looking for trouble.
I had met Senator McGowans a month earlier at a casual dinner party. We had happened to be seated next to each other, and I realized he was a golfer by the contrast between his white left hand and well-tanned forearm. I mentioned the upcoming P.G.A. Tournament, a reference that quickly led to an animated discussion about Mickelson's chances of winning another big one. I had pretty much forgotten about this and was taken by surprise when McGowans invited me on this Saturday outing.
He had stopped me near the entrance of the Capitol building and asked if I might be available for a round of golf at Congressional the following Saturday. For a moment I wondered if he had me confused with somebody else. Congressional caters to the ultra-elite, which isn't me. I nearly turned him down. We hadn't been formally introduced, and, despite a shared interest in golf, I had been prepared to dislike the man. He was Eastern Elite head to toe, several rungs above me in any respectable social register..
Following out initial encounter, something had compelled me to check him out. I had learned that before moving to Brooklin, Maine, to pursue his interest in boat-building, he had maintained a big place in Hyannis Port not far from the Kennedy compound. I had heard that his wife, now deceased, had been a distant Kennedy cousin. I knew that before he declared himself an Independent, he had been a Democrat, and had assumed he was a Bobby Kennedy wannabe, but without the sincere passion. In the past six months, I had met all the Neo-liberals I ever wanted to know. I half expected him to address me as "ol' chap," and I had to wonder if perhaps he preferred polo to golf.
The invitation, however, was too good to turn down. This would probably be my one and only chance to see the Congressional Country Club. I had been reading about it from the day Mr. Gilbert gifted me a lifetime subscription to Golf Digest. Congressional's Blue Course (there are two, Blue and Gold) has hosted five major championships, including three U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship. Winners here have included Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
Come Saturday, I got to the course half an hour early. I wanted time to look the place over. I ended up walking all the way around the clubhouse, a more impressive feat than one might imagine. According to Golf Digest, this is the country's most expansive clubhouse, and it seems to extend forever. Half seriously I had begun to wonder if I was going to tire myself out before we even got started. Fortunately, I did have a few minutes to sit down, and by the time we were up, I had begun to feel quite comfortable.
McGowans had explained to me that we would be playing a best-ball match, he and I against representatives Sam Hawkins and Ben Sturgis.
My initial warning of impending problems came when Hawkins swaggered onto the tee box. I didn't know why, but the hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle. I disliked the man immediately. He was, I had to admit, an astounding human specimen. Taller than me by a couple of inches (and I am six-two), he weighed in at maybe 260. For him, the tee box served as center stage. There was no room for anybody else. He took three or four vicious practice swings, then stretched by reaching as high into the heavens as humanly possible—so high his Peter Millar golf shirt became untucked, and his big bare belly was there for all to see. A hopeful phrase,"The bigger they are, the harder they fall," flooded my brain. I half expected him to toss a few plucked hairs from his chest aloft to see which way the wind was blowing. This man obviously regarded himself as a bomber, a tightly-wrapped package of immense power, difficult to contain, anxious to be unleashed. Sam and his thick-gripped driver, which looked immense. For all I knew, it may have had a 48-inch, Double X shaft. Whatever it had, he and it seemed to devour the entire tee box.
The world seemed to fall silent as he addressed his Titleist Pro V1x which sat high atop a four-inch tee. Was it my imagination or had the birds in the trees paused in mid-tweet? Was everyone for miles around engaged in a collective holding of the breath? Had the previously hefty wind retreated on tippy toes? Entering my mind was the line from the Bhagavad-Gita delivered by Oppenheimer at the detonation of the first nuclear bomb: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I had to suppress a snigger.
To his credit, Sam didn't altogether embarrass himself. He let loose with a towering, rain-maker of a tee shot down the left-hand side, seemingly as high as it was long. His Titleist carried about 250 before plunging to earth, plugging into the freshly-watered fairway. Obviously pleased with himself, Sam thrust his driver back into his bag with a "take-that-you-sons-of-bitches" flourish. "Tee it high, and let if fly," he said. "Jack always said to hit 'em high since there aren't any sand traps in the sky."
"But there are some back on the ground," McGowans, said. I could tell he was a bit annoyed at Hawkins's suggestion that he was on a first-name basis with the great Jack Nicklaus.
"I think his wife Barbara kept reminding him of that," I said, momentarily forgetting my status as a humble, first-time guest.
Hawkins, a Republican from Columbus, Ohio, grunted as he jammed himself into his cart. Ben Sturgis, his partner, a normal-sized guy, had to scooch over as far as possible to avoid unseemly contact. No debate about it, Hawkins was a big, beefy guy whose muscles hadn't yet turned entirely to fat. Most annoyingly, he relished dropping names. By the end of the second hole, he had worked into the conversation a boast that he had played football for Woody Hates at Ohio State. Later on I did some mean-spirited research, and it turns out Hayes had put Sam, an offensive guard, into the waning moments of a 42 to 13 Rose Bowl thrashing of Washington State, but this was a rare occasion. For the most part, Sam had warmed the bench. He and Hayes weren't pals.
I was up next. I suppose I was expected to hit a modest two-hundred-yarder to the middle of the fairway. Respectable, decent enough, but hardly flamboyant. On this beautiful, late-summer day, however, I felt especially energetic, and I also felt like dissing Hawkins. Don't ask me why; I just wanted to do this. We were heading into a breeze, so I teed it a trifle lower than usual and played the ball back a bit. I made a huge turn and hit a screaming bullet down the middle. It never got more than fifteen or twenty feet off the ground, but it ended up twenty yards past Hawkins. McGowans let go with a low whistle. Hawkins had to have noticed the discrepancy between his ball and mine, but said nothing.
We were playing from the tips on this 422-yard hole, and for his second shot, Hawkins made a huge, John Daly-type swing with his five iron. (This is a swing in which on the backswing the clubhead traces on arc of about 300 degrees; it requires great flexibility, and many players would hurt themselves if they tried to do this.) He caught the ball a bit thin, but a generous bounce allowed it to roll onto the fringe a few yards short of the green. He seemed happy enough when he said, "You know, my wife Melony, God bless her soul, discouraged me from going into law enforcement. She wanted me to concentrate on golf. She kept saying that Jack and I were cut from the same mold. Later, after I was elected to Congress, Jack told me that Washington's gain was the PGA's loss."
I smiled. I had never had the pleasure of meeting Nicklaus, but I had read he could be quite the kidder. Without replying, I played a smooth six iron fifteen feet right of the pin and, later, when I holed the putt, it seemed to put a positive tone on our match.
McGowans was a well-conditioned big guy (not as big as Hawkins, but still big), and I could tell by everything he did that his game had benefited from expert instruction. He was Hogan's Five Fundamentals personified. He must have been pushing the half-century mark, but he had kept in shape. When we got to the 9th hole, I was pleased when we decided to forgo pride and play from the golds.
Nine is Congressional's number one handicap hole, a monstrous, unreachable 636-yard par five. From the golds, it's still a formidable 545 yards. McGowans, taking advantage of a healthy tailwind and hard ground, unleashed an incredibly long drive, three-hundred-plus yards. When we got to his ball, I had played my second shot, and was in the short grass sixty yards shy of the green. I saw that McGowans, intending to lay up, was reaching for one of his hybrids. I hesitated at first, but then found my courage and spoke up. "Hit a three wood anywhere near as good as you hit this drive, you'll be putting."
He wasn't convinced. "My fairway woods have been giving me fits," he pointed out. "I can't seem to hit through them. You saw what happened on one." His second shot on one had been a scorching duck hook, the sort of shot Hogan used to call the terror of the field mice. Golf is such that even the most skilled players can and do run into problems. To help McGowans, I needed to change his mindset.
"Don't forget, we're a team," I said. "I like the way I am hitting wedges and know I can make five and maybe four. "I think on one you spotted the ball a tad too far back in your stance. Get it up an inch or two off your left heel. Open your clubface just a bit, then sweep it off the ground."
I knew I was right, but still felt like I had gone way out on a slender limb. By spotting the ball back towards the middle of his stance, McGowans had effectively delofted his three wood, making a decent trajectory impossible. His was a problem that can feed upon itself. Fearful of not getting the shot off the ground, the impulse can be to move the ball further back towards the middle of the stance, compounding the problem.
Reluctantly, at first, McGowans drew his three wood from his bag and made a couple of lazy practice swings. "Worth a try, I guess," he said. He proceeded to make one of the prettiest swings I've ever seen. Flowing, full, seemingly effortless. Sam Snead would have been envious. The ball took off with a "crack," and flew high with a slight draw, coming down twenty feet short of the green, bouncing twice before rolling up onto it, fifteen feet from the hole. I clapped my hands. "With shots like that, you could play this game for a living," I said.
McGowans laughed appreciatively. "I think I'll stick to legislating," he said, "but thanks for the tip." McGowans's eagle putt curled off to the right, but his was a tap-in birdie. As we were leaving the green, he shook my hand. I felt I had made a friend for life.
We had won six of the first nine holes. I had played as well as I ever had and was just one over. At ten, Hawkins drove his cart to the other side of the tee box and stayed in it. I think he may have been sulking. As we were waiting for the group ahead to get out of range, I felt comfortable enough to ask McGowans about his irons. "I like your clubs, vintage MacGregor MT Tourneys," I said. "They look like the sticks I was lusting after when I was a kid."
McGowans laughed. "I guess you're wondering when I gave up on hickory shafts." "Not my business," I said. "But are your balls stuffed with goose feathers?" McGowans laughed again. "No, but don't knock featheries. Did you know that in 1836 Samuel Messieux hit one 361 yards?"
"He had a powerful tailwind and the ground was frozen," I said, "but it's true that good players could hit them a long ways. And with clubs that were little better than tree branches. But back to your clubs, I am guessing they have their original True Temper steel shafts."
"That they do," McGowans said, "and I haven't found any reason to change. It's not just me. Starting in 1964, Tom Weiskoph used the same set of MacGregor irons for 17 years. I suppose club design has improved. Every year manufacturers introduce what they claim are revolutionary new wrinkles, but I am comfortable with my Tourneys. It's not that I am a sentimental old fool, or at least I don't think I am. I just don't care for graphite. I find it unpredictable. With it I might hit a seven iron 140 yards or I might hit it 165."
I preferred light-weight graphite, but I wasn't about to argue about it. "Hogan did pretty well with his Tourneys," I conceded.
"Indeed he did." McGowans agreed. "But he refused to play MacGregor's ball. MacGregor was paying Hogan to endorse its products, and he loved their clubs, but he told them he would play their ball once they started making a good one. At one point MacGregor offered Hogan a lifetime contract if he would play their ball, but he wouldn't do it. Back in the day, Hogan was the one player who could have things entirely his own way."
"A perfectionist to the nth degree," I concurred. "Hogan was known to reject balls because there was a little too much paint in one of the dimples. He preferred Titleists."
"You've gotta give Titleist credit," McGowans said. "They've held the top spot for a very long time now."
"Can't argue with success," I conceded, "but it should be noted that Nicklaus won 18 Majors using MacGregor balls."
McGowans laughed. "How many do you suppose he would have won with a decent ball?"
We began the back nine with me feeling good about McGowans. He knew his golf and seemed to care deeply. On top of that, we worked well together. I birdied ten, McGowans birdied eleven, and we both parred twelve, taking all three holes.
When we reached the 13th hole, a short par three, our match was all but won, and I relaxed as we waited for the group ahead to chip onto the green and hole their putts.
McGowans had stepped off into the woods to pee when Sam Hawkins sauntered up to me. I could tell he had something on his mind, and he wasted no time getting to it. "They tell me you worked with Senator Jackson," he said. "Must have been quite an experience."
"The Senator was an interesting man," I said. Having shot him, I would have preferred that he remain undiscussed, but I tried to remain cordial.
"More than just interesting," Hawkins asserted. "He was a man of principle. His views struck some as a bit antebellum, of course, but he loved our country and took the Constitution literally. I believe this annoyed many of his colleagues."
"Quite likely it did," I agreed.
"It surprises me that his case remains open," Sam continued. "It's been three months. Most homicides are solved quickly. Especially the routine, humdrum ones, but I don't see why this should be any different. The culprit nearly always turns out to be a loved one, a member of the family, or a close associate."
"I believe his wife was in Tennessee at the time of his death," I said. "They didn't have children, and I had a sense the senator was something of a loner." I was tempted to point out that Jackson had spoken of having several outside women. I knew damn well they were imaginary, but maybe I could plant the suggestion that the culprit was a jealous husband. Maybe, just maybe, I could send Hawkins off on a wild goose chase. Even if that didn't work, the topic was grim, and some levity might induce a much-needed hint of cheer. But I knew better. My speaking up wouldn't have mattered because he wasn't listening to me. He wanted to continue talking, and he did.
"Unsolved cases, the colder the better, are particularly interesting to me," he said. "I started out in law enforcement, you know. Fresh out of college, I was the assistant prosecuting attorney in Ohio's Franklin County. I had an instinct for determining who the bad guys were. I thought seriously about becoming a private investigator."
"What stopped you?"
"Fate, I guess. I had been active in GOP politics, had, in fact, been instrumental in getting several Republicans elected. Seems I was good at digging up dirt on the opposition. I guess it was inevitable that when a vacancy opened up, I was a natural to fill it. The rest is history."
"What goes around comes around," I said, not really knowing what the hell I meant by that.
I was wishing McGowans would emerge from the woods, but there was no sign of him. Not that it mattered. The foursome ahead of us still hadn't putted out. Hawkins couldn't have cared less. He was focused on being God's gift to criminal investigation. "Jackson's case is an interesting one" he continued. "I am friends with the lead investigator, and he has told me some things privately. You know, it took them six weeks to identify the black guy they found him with. Some sort of mix-up with the fingerprints. Guy's name was Eric Brown, a real nobody. Big rap sheet, mostly petty stuff, except for two interesting exceptions: Years ago, he was a person of interest in the assassination of two West Virginia state senators."
"First I ever heard of this," I said.
"No small wonder," Hawkins said. "The killings—the first a decade ago, the second two years later— received remarkably little press coverage. It turns out that the victims, both Democrats, were both involved in an on-going anti-corruption investigation. The authorities were pretty sure the same guy was responsible for both murders since both guys were stabbed late at night at their homes as they were getting out of their cars."
"Same M.O.," I said, knowing I sounded stupid, but hoping this would encourage Hawkins to continue.
Hawkins was eager to comply. "According to my friend, the cops were convinced that Brown did the deed and that it was a hire, since he had no interest in politics. My friend also said that forty-five minutes after Brown was brought in, a big time lawyer showed up to defend him, and Brown clammed up tighter than a duck's ass. Couldn't pry anything out of him. He was in custody for three days, then released. Nobody was ever brought to trial for the killings."
"What do you suppose he was doing at Jackson's place?" I said.
"Being dead," Hawkins replied. "He had been shot somewhere else and dumped on Jackson's porch. Evidently, whoever shot him also shot the Senator, then entered the house and messed about a bit. Nothing much was taken, except for a rare, antique pistol."
"Any other leads?" I said.
Hawkins shook his head. "A lot of people didn't like the Senator, but, as far as investigators can tell, nobody hated him enough to kill him."
I was quite sure there had been no witnesses. A row of trees separated the Senator from his nearest neighbors, a football field away. (I had envisioned a well-struck wedge shot clearing the trees and landing in their pool.) Referring to them, Hawkins said that they had reported a big, top-down convertible full of Negroes rolling through that night, their radio turned up full blast. "No doubt they were stoned on crack cocaine," Hawkins asserted. "Could have made them murderous."
"Not much to go on," I noted.
"Well, there is one more thing," Hawkins said. "I am not supposed to talk about this, but they found blood on Brown that wasn't his or Jackson's. AB-Positive, a rare type."
My heart, pumping AB-Positive fluid, skipped a beat. Anxious to excuse myself, I looked down at the now-vacant thirteenth green and said, "I believe I am up." Welding an eight iron. I fought to steady myself over the ball. For sure I wasn't going to let an ass like Hawkins unnerve me. Relax the grip. Not too much. Control the club. Breathe deeply. Ease the tightness across the chest. Lock your head in place. Not too tight. Chin up, lock-up, imprisonment. Go back slow and low. No going back. Execution. No not that kind of execution. Execute the shot. A shot execution. Hang your shoulder beneath your chin. Strange fruit. Hang on...
I swung before I was ready, catching the ball on the hosel, the junction where the shaft meets the clubface, a cold, cruel shank. Nobody's fault but mine. I had been off-balance and jerky. As it had to, the ball took off low and sharp right, ending up no nearer the green than from where it had started. McGowans gasped, breaking the silence. Nobody said anything.
I looked over at Hawkins. A deep frown lined his face.
"I don't suppose I get a do-over," I said.
My embarrassingly bad shot didn't hurt the team. McGowans chipped up close for par and picked up another point for us. Didn't much matter. We had won the front nine, taking six of the first seven holes, and had taken the first three on the back. Our lead was commanding, and anything short of total collapse would have us winning all three legs of the Nassau. Hawkins and Simmons knew they were beaten, and weren't pressing. They were beginning some good-humored grumbling about McGowans having brought in a ringer.
To me my shank, however ugly, was a thing of the past, water under the bridge, ancient, best-forgotten history. Good players don't dwell on mistakes; they learn what they can from them, then let them go. Everybody hits the occasional asshole shot. I once saw Hogan, right out in the middle of the fairway, skull one badly. Bad shots are just one of the things that go with the often aggravating territory called golf.
After putting out on 18 and shaking hands, Hawkins handed me three hundred dollar bills. "Next time I'll bring my A game," he promised.
"I'll bet that's something to see, I said, trying not to look surprised by the three hundred bucks he handed me. I was used to five dollar Nassaus. Nobody had told me the stakes of this game were considerably higher. Truth was I didn't have three hundred dollars with me. Damn good thing we won. Later over lunch McGowans apologized for not letting me know about the stakes and said he had me covered in the highly unlikely event we had lost.
McGowans was beaming over our victory as he invited me into the House Grill for a late lunch. "I like the ham and cheese sandwiches here," he said. "They use Black Forest ham, 365 Organics Sharp Cheddar, and fresh-baked multi-grain bread with Dijon mustard."
While we waited for our sandwiches, McGowans kept going over the scorecard. "You know you demoralized them, don't you? Sam is used to being the long ball knocker of any group. He likes it when people call him Slammin' Sammy, like he and Snead are kindred spirits. All day long, you kept out-driving him, and his swing kept getting quicker and shorter and jerkier. He'll be awhile getting over today."
The sandwiches were as good as McGowans had promised. "You know, this is just one of half a dozen places we could have eaten here at the club," he said. "There are at least five other places—everything from four-star dining to hotdogs from the beverage cart.."
"I guess we weren't in danger of starving."
McGowans glanced about as though he thought somebody might be eavesdropping. "Seriously," he said, "what do you think of this place?"
"Its history is impressive," I said. "It's a beautiful course and the accommodations are as good as can be. I appreciate your inviting me to come along; every so often I do enjoy hobnobbing with the well-scrubbed rich and famous."
I hesitated, not sure if I should continue, but then decided what the hell. "But I don't know if I could ever get really comfortable here," I admitted. "Deep down I miss Huron Dunes, the converted cow pasture back in Michigan where me and some buddies learned the game. We used cast-off, mismatched clubs, played for dimes, heckling each other all the way. Most of the balls we found in the woods had big smiles and were Club Specials or U.S. Tigers, although every once in a while we would come across a new Maxfli or even a Titleist, and I still remember those great days. We played in hundred degree heat, we played drenched in rain, we played in thirty-degree, freezing snow when visibility was near zero and mis-hits stung our hands something awful. When you get addicted to the game under these circumstances, you never recover."
McGowans grinned. "I was hoping you would say something like that. You've confirmed my belief that you're just the sort of guy I want on a committee I am going to chair."
He had my attention. "What's it got to do with?" I said.
"Sports. It hasn't been announced yet, but next year is going to be designated as the Year of American Sports. The mission of my committee will be to determine the country's National Game."
"Tiddley winks with manhole covers."
"Oh....nothing. Never mind. When I was a kid and somebody asked you what you were doing, you were likely to reply 'playing tiddley winks with manhole covers'. As I recall, we found this to be quite funny."
"Don't let the rarefied atmosphere of this place cast you back into your childhood."
"I think it's the reminiscing over early days of golf. The good ol' days. Back when the world was a simpler and better place."
McGowans held my gaze. "I hesitated over approaching you," he admitted. "You're a freshman, still finding your way about, and I wasn't sure I wanted former professional athletes on my committee."
"You know about my kickboxing?"
"I know a lot about you, warts and all," he said, causing the hairs on the back of my neck to begin tingling. "I like to know who I am dealing with, so I do thorough background checks. Still, cautious as I am, I've gotta admit I haven't been able to learn much about your early years."
I gave silent thanks to Tom Deegan, my friend in Maine. McGowans' vetting, thorough or not, evidently hadn't gone deeply enough to reveal my really cancerous warts. McGowans might be an easy-going, laid back liberal, but he wasn't about to shrug off murder.
"I had a sheltered and uneventful childhood," I said. "Then the court house burned down, and there went all my documentation."
McGowans was quiet for several seconds. He's nobody's fool. Then he said, "Yeah, well, whatever. There's probably more to this than you're letting on, but the point is I was hesitant to put a former pro athlete on the committee. I was afraid one would be inclined to promote his own sport too much."
"You needn't worry about me," I said. " I wouldn't want kickboxing or any other kind of boxing to be America's Sport."
"That and other reasons. Too many scumbag associates. I would advise young people to steer clear of all-male gyms with rings in the middle and people called Rocky."
McGowans stifled a smile before his expression turned serious. "Your reputation precedes you, and some of it is worrisome," he said. "I had been warned that you are something of a thug."
"I am from Detroit," I said. "To many I may as well be from the unexplored jungles of deepest, darkest Africa. I could be a headhunter or maybe a cannibal."
This time McGowans' smile stuck. "Yet you play golf like a fine gentleman. Let's play word association. When I say American Sport, what is the first thing you think of?"
"Teats," I shot back. "Every year I look forward to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue."
This one required a little more thought. "Football, I guess," I finally said. " I know baseball has always been called 'America's Pastime,' but I am more into pro football. I haven't missed watching a Super Bowl on TV since I was a kid."
McGowans nodded. "Nothing attracts more TV viewers than the Super Bowl."
"So why don't we just declare football the winner and move on to more pressing problems?"
McGowans shook his head. "Right now, for me, there is no more pressing problem," he said. "If you stick with me, you'll soon see why. As for sports, we might very well end up up endorsing football, but in fairness we should give others a close look-see."
To me, the whole thing seemed ridiculous. "Does the country really need an officially sanctioned National Sport?" I said.
"No it doesn't. Not at all."
"Then why establish one?"
"President Champ wants one, so there's going to be one."
I was finding the whole thing quite confusing. "I didn't realize Champ was such a big sports fan," I said.
McGowans sighed. "He's not. He's a big Champ fan. Frankly, I believe his Year of the Sport is a diversionary tactic. He's up to something. I don't know what, exactly, but I believe he wants to divert people's attention from something else."
"The plot thickens," I said.
McGowans gave me a long hard look. "I've reviewed your voting record," he said. "I know you aren't in bed with any big corporate donors. You do have a mentor, a fine gentleman named Vincent Gilbert, but he doesn't seem to have any hidden agendas. Far as I can tell, you're your own man, a man I believe I can trust. So I am going to tell you something I haven't told anybody else. You will keep this to yourself, right?"
"Six week ago, I received an anonymous letter on official White House stationery. Barely legible, it looked like it was knocked out quickly with, I believe, a red Sharpie. I couldn't tell if it was a man's or a woman's printing, but it warned me that Champ has plans to retain power after his second term expires. It didn't elaborate beyond that."
"Too bad. But how could he possibly hope to do this?"
"I wish I knew. I do know I wouldn't put anything past the man."
"He's a Republican and you're an Independent who usually caucuses with the Democrats. I am guessing this goes beyond partisan politics..."
"By chairing his committee, could you be aiding and abetting whatever he's up to?"
"Possibly, but if not me somebody else."
The nearness I was feeling towards McGowans might well have been completely unwarranted, but still I jabbed, "That's what Hitler's cohorts said."
"Ouch, but you're right, but that doesn't make me a kindred spirit. Anyway, Champ told me he wants to work closely with the committee, and I want to stay as close to him as I can. If he learns I am digging whatever dirt on him I can, I'll be gone so quick your head will spin."
"It seems to me that here in D.C. everybody is digging up dirt on everybody else. The parties I've been to seem extremely purposeful. Everybody pretends to be having a good time, but there is a look of terror in many of the eyes I see."
McGowans nodded. "I am into my third term as a senator," he said. "Trust me, I know my way around Washington. Over the years I've obtained rather finely honed instincts, and right now they're telling me something huge is afoot. President Champ is up to something nefarious."
McGowans sighed. "Like who knows? I am baffled. He shows no signs of trying to consolidate power. To the contrary, he seems to be following through on his promises to diminish government. He has moved to privatize health insurance, the nation's parks, a lot of defense, postal services, and our intelligence agencies. He wants us to believe he's a Progressive Libertarian, and I haven't been able to prove otherwise. He has signed dozens of executive orders, knocking down regulations for God knows how many companies. Rumor has it he would like to eliminate corporate income taxes. The stock market loves all this. It's never been higher. He seems to be forfeiting his power, casting it off onto others."
"So how can he be planning on retaining it?" I said.
"That's the sixty-four billion dollar question," McGowans said. "I don't want to be overly dramatic, but I have a queasy feeling the future of our democracy just might depend on us finding the answer."
Back in my apartment, I removed my journal from my carved-out, nasty-word-anointing dictionary. Besides my journal, I had been using it to conceal Senator Jackson's pistol, my sandwich bag three-quarters full of Pink Hawaiian Starburst, and my mini clay weed pipe. The pipe is an item I hold dear. Janice Hooper, that hippie, Neo-marxist, unwashed, constantly protesting, large breasted girl I was protecting some time ago, gave it to me as a Kwanzaa present. She said it was fashioned from Hopi adobe, which was sacred stuff. I had happened to know that a principle ingredient of adobe was dung, but I didn't say anything that might dampen her enthusiasm for it. I don't have much faith in its godly attributes, but I have kept it as a souvenir of our once-intense (to me) relationship.
I hadn't been stoned in quite some time and found myself in the mood for an altered perspective. Whatever happened to my old lava lamp? I remembered there was a half-full bag of trail mix in my golf bag, and I went and got it. I slid an old Vanilla Fudge tape into my boom box before I put two pinches of leafy green (it wouldn't take much) into the pipe. For a moment I wondered if I was getting too old for this. Then I lit up. I do love the smell of smoldering pot. The best pen I could find was an old Bic. I would have preferred a finer point, but this would do, and I began writing.
JOURNAL ENTRY 287
McGowans fears our democracy hangs in the balance. I didn't question him. He knows a hell of a lot more than I do. But I have to wonder if that horse hasn't already left the barn. Or maybe it was never in the barn. Or maybe there never was a barn. Or a horse. Have we ever had an actual democracy?
What the hell do we mean by democracy? Government by the people? Majority rule? Time was a majority of people in the South believed that lynching black people was okay. They printed celebratory post cards showing blacks hanging from trees. Strange fruit, indeed. Democracy in action. Norman Issac, that left-of-center history teacher who had an abruptly terminated tenure at my high school, once pointed out that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the U.S. Constitution contains the word "democracy."
I ran as a Democrat, but don't really know what they mean by democracy. I feel like an impostor. I am contending I am something I don't begin to understand.
I'll admit that my education has been hit and miss, but except for Mr. Issac I can't recall a teacher ever saying anything detrimental about a Founding Father. The history they taught was viewed through rose-colored glasses. One might suspect they were endeavoring to brain-wash me. I feel like Mr. Issac and I were kindred spirits. Among other audacious assertions, he noted that America was founded on genocide and sustained by racism. He pointed out that we began by exterminating Native Americans (trading to some small pox infected blankets) and then began importing Africans to do our dirty work. We sustained slavery long after most developed countries had abolished it and not without a very bloody Civil War.
Mr. Issac taught me that the guys who invented America, even Washington and Jefferson, weren't at all enamored with democracy. One man one vote wasn't their thing. They went to great lengths to avoid what they called Mobocracy. In their original vision, Senators were elected by state legislatures, and the only citizen voters were white, property-owning men. This did make sense. What else can you do when most people are illiterate? Nobody wanted government by riffraff—the gateway to anarchy.
The Constitution they wrote defined the black man as three-fifths of a guy. When I think of this, I visualize the top portion of a man cleaved in two just above his genitals. (I don't know if black women were afforded three-fifths status.) But no way in hell were blacks granted three-fifths of a vote. It was a long while before they acquired even a theoretical chance of voting. And it was long after that when we let women vote. (I am not sure Senator Jackson ever got over that.)
I did learn a couple of things in Civics Class. One of those things was that none of us gets to vote for our president. We vote for electors. The number of electors allocated to a state gets is determined by how many people it puts in Congress. States with big populations get many electors. Electors generally pay attention to their state's voters, but they don't have to. Some electors are better than others. Being fewer, electors from small-population states pack more punch. None of this has anything to do with democracy. Truth is the system was designed to thwart democracy. It's bizarre, but a person can win the presidency while losing the popular vote. Nowadays this seems to favor Republicans who twice in recent elections have put popular-vote-losing candidates in office.
In a fair election, I wouldn't have won. My district, Michigan's 14th, is gerrymandered all to hell. Republicans don't have a prayer, and they don't bother putting up serious candidates. I wasn't a serious candidate either, but didn't need to be.
Anti-democracy or not, the Supreme Court has upheld gerrymandering. The Democratic Party has also protected itself from democracy by installing Super Delegates at nominating conventions. If the primaries don't work out to the national committee's satisfaction, these establishment-loving anointed individuals can often save the day. Hard to believe we've had the audacity to run all over the world extolling the wonders of democracy, insisting we know best when it comes to determining how other countries should conduct their affairs.
Can our politics ever be anything more than a contest between the elite, who are interested mostly in enriching themselves, and the masses, who are often naive and easily led?
It wasn't that long ago that many voters were asked to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests. Is it possible we might all be better off if people who can't read or earn a living are prohibited from determining who assumes power? For sure, we shouldn't exclude blacks just because they're black, but what about the ones whose street smarts don't extend beyond their neighborhoods? I knew plenty of people in Detroit, black and white, who probably shouldn't have been voting.
Maybe voters should have to pass I.Q. tests. Maybe an I.Q. of 120 should be the cutoff point. I think mine is 119. Maybe I should introduce a bill disenfranchising myself and others like me. Trouble is I known damn well administrators would find a way to corrupt the process. They would conduct the tests and could rig them as easily as they hack into voting machines. A bloated percentage of Republicans would be found to have elevated I.Q.s.
I put a fresh pinch of pot into my pipe's ashes and lit up. As I munched on a handful of trail mix, I could feel my brain buzz as I resumed writing.
In the eyes of Champ's cohorts, my beloved Pink Hawaiian Starburst is classified the same as heroin or Fentanyl. Big time illegal. Any minute now, Champ's stormtroopers could come crashing through my door. They would arrest me and confiscate my journal as evidence. The world would soon know what a horrible person I am. Quite likely Champ's goons embrace liquor, but will never appreciate pot. I am among the many who think that God gave us cannabis as a special treat. When will we elect a pothead President? A lesbian, atheist, Muslim, pothead President? Get rid of several taboos at once. What would my fellow Democrats say if she turned out to be ghastly?
I got up and checked to see that my door was locked. Fat lot of good that would do me if Champ's storm troopers were determined to come in. What would they use, a big battering ram? There wasn't much room in the hall for a big battering ram. My door doesn't really amount to much. A little battering ram would suffice. Four or five big guys and a mini-battering ram. Maybe they would just knock until I opened the door. I could try to ignore it, but eventually I would open the door. They would know I had dumped my weed down the toilet and would try to wring a confession from me. It wouldn't take much wringing. I would quickly confess. I would give in to torture before it even began. Would being a Congressman protect me or make me an ever more inviting target? Champ could say I was guilty of treason. Do we still have firing squads? It occurred to me I was being paranoid, and I went back to my room and continued writing.
The world is a dangerous place. Who was it who said "In the long run, we're all dead"? Whoever said that was right on. Our government is responsible for hoards of dead people. Our hands are bloodier than all get out. Champ can't admit it, but if he finds a way to be dictator for life, he will exterminate black and brown people. What must it be like to be black? Or brown? A single drop of African blood excludes one from Caucasian comfort.There aren't that many totally black people. What shade of brown would qualify for extermination? Will people quit playing golf and going to the beach because they're afraid a suntan will make them dangerously brown? Extermination: Champ's Final Solution. Hitler didn't get away with being Hitler. Or did he? Maybe he slipped off to Paraguay and lived happily ever after.
Quite a while ago, the Vanilla Fudge had quit wailing about being kept hanging on, and I slipped in a Door's tape. I wanted to hear Jim Morrison go on about killing his father and doing who knows what to his mother. I put another pinch of cannibus into my pipe and lit up. I wondered if I enjoyed being stoned. The smoke seemed harsh, but I kept it in my lungs for at least half a minute. Then I commenced writing.
Maybe Hitler was joined in Paraguay by Elvis and Jim Morrison. What would they have sounded like as a trio? Would Adolf have insisted on being lead singer? Champ once had a Twitter tantrum when somebody suggested the Beatles were more loved and famous than he was. Maybe they would stick it to the Beatles by taking on Pete Best as drummer. Would they ever make the Ed Sullivan show? I guess it would have to be in a different dimension since most of the principles are dead.
Our democracy is something like that. The biggest block of potential voters is the no-shows. There are what, six million of them? Are they lazier and stupider than the rest of us? Or smarter? They know the game is fixed. Maybe on election day they have better things to do. We can't get millions of people to vote at the same time that we disenfranchise just as many who want to vote. It's mostly blacks and Hispanics who get kicked off the rolls. If your name is Willie Johnson, you're in deep shit. Republican Party officials are likely to locate other Willie Johnsons and assume you're attempting to vote multiple times. Who cares if you all have different middle names?
There are other ways to disenfranchise would-be voters. You can require picture I.D.s, which many poor people don't have. Many states still use voting machines that leave no paper trail and are easily hacked. I have heard tales of big-city paper ballots being dumped by both parties.
Champ won the election, but he still insisted it was rigged. He was certain he would have won the popular vote had not so many illegals managed to cast ballots. Maybe in some ways he was right. I have no doubt both parties did what they could to rig the election. But I honestly believe Republicans are doing more than Democrats to throttle whatever is decent about the country. President Champ tells more obvious lies than anybody else I can think of. I read once that anybody can kill the president, but it's a suicide mission. Why hasn't somebody done it? Should that somebody be me?
But what would be the point?
Killing the President might let me feel like I am saving the country. But maybe I am nuts. I have to wonder if this or any country is worth saving? Hell, is mankind worth saving? Once self-replicating robots are magnitudes smarter and more creative and more benevolent than us, is there a point to us? We've been wrecking the planet for a very long time, and the amount of suffering we've imparted on other species is incalculable. Of course, most of us believe we're the only species that matters, but isn't this just hubris? I can't think of a single good reason to defend our continued existence.
As we lay waste to the planet, many contend we should be making plans to move on to other locales. Are we determined to contaminate the cosmos? Given enough time, will we turn the universe into a garbage dump? Are there beings out there who could stop us?
McGowans looked glum when he opened the meeting. "We're here because our President feels the country needs a National Sport," he said. "It's our job to decide what we should be looking for in one and to recommend a sport to be so-honored." I thought I had never heard a less enthusiastic introduction to anything short of E coli. After a suitable pause, McGowans continued, "We'll need to establish the criteria by which we'll recommend a National Game."
"Popularity," blurted Rep. Jake Morgan, the beefy guy seated next to me. "Our National Sport should be the most popular one."
"Of course it should be," ageed Winnie Watson, a black congresswoman from Michigan. "And that would be golf. More than 25 million Americans play golf." Back in Michigan, I had known who Winnie Watson was. She attended Stevenson High School in Livonia, not far from my own Huron Lake High School. The schools were in the same athletic conference, and Winnie had played on Stevenson's otherwise all-male golf team. She was good, and, as a senior, nearly beat Neal Knickerson, our number one man. I thought she might remember me, but if she did, she didn't say so. She went on to Michigan State where she excelled in basketball and track as well as golf. Winnie is long and lanky and like many black women oozed vitality. I would have loved to have watched her run hurdles or swing a club.
"Last I heard, golf was losing players," said Morgan, a Republican representative from Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was known for his fixation on Vince Lombardi, who he insisted was the finest coach any sport had ever had or could ever hope to have. "Golf is too expensive, too time-consuming, and too difficult to master," he continued.
"And very addictive," I said. "Get a kid hooked on it, it's likely he'll play for the rest of his life."
We weren't five minutes into the meeting, and already it was obvious the sports committee would provoke lively debate. This was fine with me. I like spirited discussions and preferred talking to people with opinions different from mine. This has never been a problem since just about everybody's opinions are different from mine.
In some ways, the committee composition suggested balance; in other ways, not so much. Besides me, there were three Democrats—Senator Misella Gardner and Representatives Kamila Madera and Winnie Watson. I suppose I didn't mind being cast in with the girls. The four men were Republicans: Senator Mike Dunn and Representatives Jake Morgan, Peter Myers, and Troy Smith. Chairman McGowans was an Independent who most always caucused with the Democrats. The Republicans had been hand-picked by Champ; McGowans chose the Democrats. He was to vote only in the event of ties.
My hopes were that politics wouldn't matter here. Not much, anyway. Sports shouldn't be a partisan issue although I did realize that in some ways they were. For example, the vast majority of professional golfers are conservative. The nature of the endeavor lends itself to conservatism. The tour is a model meritocracy. In most tournaments, half of the field is cut after two days. Those cut are paid nothing for their efforts. Unlike European tours, players in PGA events aren't paid for showing up. I also knew some progressives who were boycotting the NFL. They felt that the billionaire owners of the clubs were keeping players on leashes much too short. Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback good enough to have taken the 49ers to the Super Bowl, had been blackballed for kneeling during the National Anthem. He said he was protesting police brutality towards blacks. His critics insisted he was disrespecting the flag. (I am quite sure the First Amendment should have protected his right to either of these things.) Many progressives insisted the NFL represented fascism. It seemed as though pro basketball players were given far more leeway to express controversial opinions than football players. I couldn't see how it was up to club owners to dole out leeway in any measure. This is still a free country. Right?
I had often said that sports were invented to give men (and now women) something reasonably interesting to talk about. Something unlikely to provoke bloodshed. The weather was too boring (or at least it was before global warming became a hot-button issue), and politics and religion were too volatile. Deep down most people realized that more times than not their allegiance to a particular sports team was based on nothing more than proximity. Somebody once suggested that fans were cheering for uniforms since players frequently were traded from team to team. It didn't pay for fans to get too attached to them. A century after Boston traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees, true Red Sox fans still haven't gotten over it.
When I think of sports fans, I tend to think of guys. No doubt this is sexist since intellectually I realize many women are as avid as any men. Women fans may be fewer in number, but not in intensity. Due to this bias, my tendency would have been to dismiss Misella Gardner offhand. A Democratic senator from Burbank, California, she was everything I would expect from a California girl. A pretty blond, she brought to mind the stereotypical Valley Girl. I was a little surprised when she was among the first on the committee to speak up. "I love playing tennis," she said, "but I like question whether it or any other sport should be the official National Sport." There was a slight rise in pitch in the way she said National Sport. "Our culture is complex," she continued. "Do we even have a single culture?" Another rise in pitch. Good question, I thought. Maybe she wasn't as ditsy as I would expect a Valley Girl to be.
I did figure that Mike Dunn would speak up next, and he did just that. "By age three," he said, "I was hitting balls off a mat. My father had taught me the Vardon overlapping grip and given me junior clubs." He sounded like a guy who knew a little bit about golf, but wasn't really into it. Earlier I had heard him hum the Beach Boys' adoration of California Girls without mouthing the words "I wish they all could be California Girls." He was from Somerville, a city northwest of Boston, and he hadn't removed his Red Sox cap, which he wore backwards. He looked to be my age, so I suppose this was okay although I sort of think it is unbecoming a Congressman. He seemed determined to show everybody he was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but he nearly lost his cool when he pretty much had to push Winnie Watson aside in his determination to sit next to Misella. Misella's body English, a slight lean away from Dunn, suggested that his adoration was unrequited.
"Shouldn't our National Sport be one invented in America? The popularity of pro basketball is growing by leaps and bounds," said Rep. Troy Smith, who was from Indianapolis and claimed to be friends with Larry Bird and Bobby Knight.
CongressmanPeter Myers, who I had immediately spotted as a smart-ass troublemaker, pointed out that Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was a Canadian. He was working at a YMCA in Massachusetts when he came up with the idea of shooting good-sized, round balls into bushel baskets. Myers was short and thin, wore thick glasses and a bow tie; He looked like a guy who in high school would have been unwelcome on teams other than debate or chess. He suggested we focus on Olympic sports. If points could be scored for being annoying, Myers would be a high-point man.
"If we're intent on saluting American, we should consider Nascar," Dunn said. "That's a sport with deep Southern roots. The grand daddies of some of today's best drivers got their start running moonshine whiskey."
"Nascar is the product of a bygone era," Myers said. "Off-road racing is rapidly supplanting it. Hell, I can see the Indy 500 making a comeback now that Nascar's lost Danica Patrick."
The mention of IndyCars got my mind drifting. I was envisioning Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River between Detroit and Ontario. For a long time, it had been home to a run-down amusement park until the city made it into a state park. Then Roger Penske staged Grand Prix racing there. Last I heard, the race was hanging on although there was quite a lot of opposition to it. Opponents contended it dominated the island for much of the year. Promoters, on the other hand, claimed the race gives the city an economic boost exceeding fifty million dollars. Opponents insisted the figure is B.S. The race wasn't in my district, and I had stayed out of the debate.
I had gotten a bit excited when I learned that Kamila Madera was on the committee. A young freshman legislator from Queens, Kamila had surprised everybody by beating Ted Kincaid, a nine-term representative in last summer's primary election. The native New Yorker calls herself a Democratic Socialist and seems determined to shake things up. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Kamila grew up in a working class neighborhood, and she hasn't forgotten her roots. She holds with the outrageous notion that the government exists to serve ordinary people.
Even before she was sworn in, Kamila had expressed her vision of a radically changed country, one in which deserts would be covered with solar collectors and drilling platforms with wind turbines. Fossil fuels and mountaintops would be left mostly untouched. This Green Revolution, she insisted, would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and ultimately provide the inspiration needed to save the world from becoming a scorched wasteland. Early on, conservatives were branding her as too young, too inexperienced, too flighty, and too stupid, but she kept going on Twitter and showing them up.To me she was a breath of fresh air, and I wasn't at all surprised that McGowans had sought her out.
For days I had been wondering what she would have to say. I half expected her to speak in favor of baseball—or maybe stickball. I don't know why, but I thought of baseball as being more down-to-earth, a working man's passion. Isn't stickball, a variation of baseball, the game kids of Queens play in the streets? Football was for the college-educated—crisp Autumn days, comely cheerleaders waving pom poms, bowl games— (although I doubted that Jake Morgan boasted many academic achievements), and basketball was for the intellectual. I didn't believe any of this with much conviction and wouldn't mind being proven wrong.
"I think our National Sport should be a sport with a fair share of both female and minority participants," Kamila ventured. "We have had a long and shameful history of mistreating gymnasts. Maybe we could begin to set things right by making gymnastics our National Sport." I noticed that everybody except McGowans and me were looking at Winnie Watson, whose college, Michigan State, had been in the forefront of mistreating female gymnasts. Winnie, unperturbed, kept looking straight ahead, pretending not to notice the unsolicited attention.
" We are here to pick the most quintessential American sport, not the one with the most abused participants," Myers said. "Let's not get diverted into trying to pay back social inequities."
"Good idea," Mike Dunn said. "I wouldn't want to get too touchy-feely. Woe to anyone who lays a hand on a gymnast. And ballroom dancing. God I hope that doesn't become our National Sport. Or ballet. Or, God forbid, figure skating. Who would want faggots to be our official representatives?"
"Amen," said Morgan. "Quarterbacks and Linebackers are much better."
"Okay, you guys," McGowans intervened. "Let's play nice and show consideration for others. What about other sports?"
"Time was just about everybody went hunting," Troy Smith said is a rather clumsy attempt to change the topic. "Is hunting a sport?"
"Not if you're shooting supper," Misella said. "Only if you're intent on slaughtering local wildlife. It takes a sportsman to kill things for fun."
I could see this deteriorating into a squabble over Second Amendment rights, which, as a liberal, should place me on Misella's side, but hypocritically since I intended to hang onto my Glock 19.
"American swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time," said Peter Myers. "Twenty-eight medals, twenty-three of 'em gold. Maybe in honor of him our National Sport should be swimming."
Myers struck me as a guy who felt the world has been unfairly mean to him and is out for retribution. It was a mystery to me how he ever got elected. I looked around the table, and nobody seemed at all interested in taking swimming under consideration. "A lot of broads do look good in bikinis," Morgan finally said.
"It's gotta be the sport with the richest American tradition," said Mike Dunn, evidently abandoning hopes of bonding with Misella. "It's gotta be baseball. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Joe Dimaggio. Every kid has heard 'Casey at the Bat.' We all know the words to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Mention Robert Redford and people think of The Natural. We've all seen Field of Dreams."
"Mention baseball, and I think Black Sox," said Winnie Watson. "How about the sport with the highest ethical standards? Golf has a long tradition of participants calling penalties on themselves. In most sports, successful cheaters are idolized. Baseball players are celebrated for stealing signs and bases and throwing spitballs. In football, players openly work on techniques to keep cheating undetected. Basketball players foul intentionally and elbow the opposition when they think they can get away with it."
"Sometimes when a fielder make a miraculous catch, people say the batter was robbed of a hit," Mike Dunn added. "I would say dugouts are dens of iniquity."
"We'll have to choose between two schools of thought," McGrowans said. "The first is perhaps best personified by Vince Lombardi who famously said, 'Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.' "
"Damn right," Jake Morgan said.
"The second possibility," McGowans continued, "was memorialized in the words of renowned sports writer Grantland Rice, "It's not whether you win or lose. It's how you play the game.' "
McGowans words got me thinking about Bobby Jones who once lost a U.S. Open in part because he accidentally nudged his ball as he addressed it in deep rough. Nobody noticed the infraction, but he called a penalty on himself. When he was commended for this, he famously said you might as will prise a man for not robbing a bank.
Committee members fell silent. Maybe they were deep in thought or maybe they just wanted to get out of there. Whatever, nobody had anything more to say, and the meeting was over. As they were leaving, McGowans asked me to sta a moment. Once we were alone, he said, "You didn't have much to say today."
"It's my nature," I said. "In a new situation I tend to hang back until I am confident I know what's up."
"I am sure that's wise," McGowans said. "In Congress we have many would-be leaders, but few thoughtful followers."
"There's gotta be room for the occasional impartial observer," I said. "The proverbial fly on the wall. Once we get going, you'll probably wish I would shut the fuck up."
McGowans smiled at that. "So what do you think of the group?" he said.
"It's quite a crew. I have to wonder how you came up with them."
"As you know, President Champ picked the Republicans. Needless to say, he went with conservative men. I wanted you and some women, so you can see what I came up with."
"Champ's picks notwithstanding, I've gotta say the proceedings today weren't as solemn as I had thought they would be."
"Do you think we'll ever reach a consensus?"
Don't know. It certainly won't be easy. Morgan is a die hard, single-minded football devotee. It'll take a lot to get him to budge from that. Dunn is interested mostly in getting laid although from what I could see he's doomed for frustration with Misella. Ms. Madera is bent on representing both her gender and diverse ethnicities, and Myers is a gadfly, a loose-cannon wiseass. Maybe Misella, Winnie, and Myers could get together, since golf is in the Olympics, but I very much doubt it. Kamila might ultimately side with Dunn, probably not in getting laid, but in supporting baseball since there are so many Latino stars. Troy Smith might remain friendless since his real love is the Massachusetts connection to basketball's origin. On the plus side, Misella Gardner is bright, informed, and flexible, but I sense she has a mind of her own."
"Easy on the eye, too," McGowans said.
"I noticed that," I said. She, Winnie, and Kamila can compete for best-looking committee person. I think we can rule out us guys."
"I like your wrap-up," McGowans said. "There's probably no way on God's green earth that members of this committee can come together."
"I wouldn't give up. I've seen stranger alliances take form."
"You're right, of course," McGowans said. "I would submit that sports help establish tribal identities. In New England, a man might be a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, a theist or an atheist, but chances are he supports the Patriots, Celtics, and Red Sox. Maybe even the Bruins. Win or lose, sports create a we're-all-in-this-together mentality. Of course, this doesn't mean we can let our guards down."
"What do you mean?"
McGowans glanced about as though he thought somebody might be listening. He was almost whispering when he said, "I got an anonymous letter the other day. It said we damn well better choose football as our National Sport. Any other choice could prove unhealthy for me and my family."
"Good God," I said. "Why in the world would anybody take this so seriously?"
"Follow the money," McGowans said. "Most people don't realize how insanely lucrative the NFL is. Annual revenues exceed ten billion dollars, thanks in large part to TV. The Super Bowl is always the most-watched spectacle of the year. Thirty seconds of Super Bowl time costs over half-a-million dollars."
"No small sums," I said. "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money."
McGowans grinned. "You do know some history," he said, "but did you know that Everett Dirksen never said the last part of that?"
"Actually, no," I said. "Truth is I didn't know who said any of it."
McGowans chuckled. "Everett Dirksen insisted a newspaper reporter mistakingly attributed the quote to him, and he thought it sounded so good, he never corrected it. In your study of history, if you missed out on Dirksen, you missed out on a pretty interesting guy. A Republican, he was Senate Minority Leader during the sixties. Although he was a steadfast supporter of the Vietnam debacle, he also helped LBJ push through several Civil Rights Acts, including the landmark ones of sixty-four and sixty-eight. Something he actually did say has stuck in my mind: 'I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.' "
"Wise words," I said. "I know I have a lot to learn."
"Don't worry about it," McGowans said. "We all do. But getting back to sports, choosing football as our National Sport could be a big mistake. The prevalence of brain damage to so many players has made many people question football's future. These days a lot of moms aren't letting their boys join Pop Warner. Some state legislatures are considering barring the sport altogether. Insurance companies are becoming increasingly reluctant to insure programs. If football were the National Sport, it might enjoy federal protection, which could help explain why its proponents are getting frantic in their support of it. "
"I guess there are plenty of motives for foul play," I said. "I suppose we're on potentially dangerous ground. Shouldn't you let the others know about your threat?"
"I don't think it's necessary to alarm them. I've been threatened before. I got some when we were working on legislation to tighten restrictions on private sales at gun shows, and I got others when we were overriding state restrictions on abortion clinics. I ignored the threats, and nothing came of them. Some blow-hards just have to let off steam. They'll never get off their butts long enough to actually do something other than rant."
I thought about this for a minute. Then I said, "Some people got off their butts long enough to kill the Kennedys."
McGowans didn't reply, but the thoughtful look on his face made me wonder if I was hitting too close to home.
I drove back to my apartment for lunch and was halfway through a medium-sized, microwaved, Stouffers Lasagna with Meat Sauce, when I got an urgent-sounding text from Sarah telling me to get my ass over to Blue Indigo as soon as possible. Unless the place was burning down, I said to myself, what could be so damn important? I gulped down most of the last half of my lasagna, swished down a chunk of unbuttered, multigrain mini-boule with some lukewarm coffee, and dutifully hit the road.
Fifteen minutes later, I walked through the front door of the club. There wasn't much going on. I was too late for lunch, way too early for dinner. A busboy motioned me to the back office. Tapping twice on the door, I heard Sarah bark out, "It's open." When I stepped in the first thing I saw was Lila Springer sitting on Sarah's black leather couch holding a towel drenched from melting ice to her face. When she let it down, I saw she had a nasty-looking bruise all around her right eye. It didn't seem likely she would be singing for the next several nights.
"What happened?" I said.
"Brock slugged her," Sarah said. "She asked for ten dollars, and the son of a bitch belted her."
"You've called the cops?"
"No!" Lila cried out. "We can't!"
"Why the hell not? He committed an assault..."
"He would be suspended, maybe cut from the Redskins. He can't lose his livelihood now, not when he stands to make five million dollars over the next two years."
"That doesn't entitle him to use you as a punching bag."
"Of course, it doesn't, but you've gotta understand, he's not a horrible person. Really. He's always so sorry after he does something like this."
"Always?" I said. "How often has he done this?"
Lila took the towel from her face and brought fresh cubes from the tray. Then she said, "Not that often. Only a few times. Really. He can be a really sweet guy."
"Why am I here?" I said.
"We want you to talk to him," Sarah said. "Tell him in no uncertain terms he can't do this sort of thing."
"Evidently he can," I said. "With Lila as an enabler, what's to stop him? Some men get off bashing women. If this is his thing, he probably isn't about to listen to me."
"He knows about your stint as a fighter," Sarah said. "He knows you killed a man in the ring. He has enormous respect for you."
I like being respected, but not for that. "I don't think that any asshole bully ever stopped being one because somebody told him it wasn't nice. Even someone he respects. It just doesn't work that way."
"He also knows you're with the government," Sarah said. "You might be able to put the fear of God in him. Or the fear of Uncle Sam."
Lila had brought the towel back to the bruise under her eye. "He thinks that since you're with the government, you must know IRS agents," she said. "If he's afraid of anything, it's the IRS."
I sighed. Trying to scare Brock was itself a bit scary. A highly regarded linebacker, Brock had four inches and seventy-five pounds on me. Known for his hair-triggered temper, he'd been ejected from several games for over-the-top violence. If we got into an altercation, I could be in big trouble. Not only might I get beat up, as a former professional fighter the law has registered my fists and my feet as deadly weapons. This was one sleeping dog I would have preferred to let lie.
"Where is he?" I said.
Sarah handed Lila a pad of paper, and she wrote down their address. It was in Silver Spring, Maryland, a commuting suburb about half an hour away. Reluctantly, I promised the women I would speak with him.
The house was in an up-scale suburb with immaculately mowed lawns and late-model SUVs in the driveways. Brock was home. Lights were on, and a shiny, black Lincoln Navigator sat in his driveway. The house, a white, two-story Colonial, was less grand than Senator Jackson's, but still worth at least a million bucks. I pushed a button by the door and was rewarded with the ringing of loud chimes from somewhere inside.
It took a minute or two, but the door finally opened. Brock, obviously not expecting visitors, was wearing boxer briefs, a dirty undershirt, and flip-flops. He was clutching a half-full Budweiser as he stared at me impassively.
"I am Danny Dukes, Sarah's friend from Blue Indigo, and I am sorry to bother you unannounced," I said. I extended my hand to shake his, but he didn't move. He took up most of the doorway.
"I know who you are," he growled.
"Sarah and Lila asked me to drop by to speak with you."
Brock still didn't move.
"May I come in?"
Brock hesitated before retreating a half-step back. Taking this as a yes, I stepped into the doorway. Brock looked annoyed as I squeezed by him, but he let me in before leading the way to the kitchen. "Beer?" he said as he opened the refrigerator. I didn't respond, but he brought out two Buds and tossed one of the bottles to me. I was grateful for the hint of hospitality.
"I guess you know why I'm here," I said.
"Yeah, of course I do. I whacked Lila. I lost my temper and punched her in the face. She had it coming, but I guess that's no excuse."
"Trust me, I know what such urges are like, but giving into them can get you into a shitload of trouble. But you already know that."
"Lila doesn't want to involve cops."
"Of course, she doesn't. This could lead to her meal ticket being canceled. Lila doesn't know much, but she knows which side of her bread is buttered."
I set my unopened beer down on the table. From the looks of Brock, I had to believe he already had had several.
"Lila won't call them, but I will. I won't sit around watching her get beat up."
I couldn't tell if Brock had the beginnings of a friendly smile or a sneer on his face. "Sir Galahad, are ya?" he said. I wondered if he was measuring the distance between his fist and my jaw. A guy like him has a gun somewhere; I have to wonder where. But then he nods his head. "There are times when \I just don't know what gets into me. You might not believe this, but I have always regarded myself as a gentleman. For the past year or so, I sometimes have scared myself. I get headaches and can't seem to concentrate. Sometimes I just want to demolish something. I'll try to do better. I will. I really will."
Our encounter ended with a handshake. "Thanks for coming by," he said.
Driving back to my apartment, I reflected on Brock's admission as I drank his beer. He seemed sincere, but what would account for his sudden switch from growing aggressiveness to contrite remorse? I was reminded of my own poor impulse control. I have anger issues, but would I ever slug Sarah? I didn't think so, but how could I be sure?
When I got home, a big, C-Class, Mercedes sedan was parked in front. As I got out of my Honda, Senator McGowans emerged from it. "You left this at our meeting place," he said. "I thought I'd drop it off." He was holding my MacBook Air, a recent acquisition I hadn't gotten used to lugging around.
"Thanks," I said. "My mother used to say I'd lose my head if it wasn't attached."
"Every mom says that at one time or another," he laughed. "Anyway, you brought the Mac in with you, but then you took copious notes on a legal pad."
"Old habits die hard," I said. "Someday I'll take my place in the twenty-first century." I hesitated for several long seconds before adding, "Speaking of old habits and losing one's head, I have a few questions for you. They're both personal and related to our committee work. Can you come into my humble abode for a few minutes?" He nodded, and when we got there, I apologized for my lack of preparedness. "I would offer you a drink," I said, "but don't have much on hand. I do have tea and coffee."
"Black coffee would be great."
As I was dumping Chock Full o'Nuts into a filter, I asked, "How much do you know about CTE?"
"Quite a bit, actually," McGowans said. "I know it stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It's a degenerative brain disease that occurs in people who get hit in the head a lot. People like football players. Researchers at Boston University found it in over a hundred former NFL players, some of whom committed suicide."
"Would its prevalence be a good reason for rejecting football as our national sport?"
"I think it could be a very good reason. It would certainly be something to closely consider."
"I was thinking of Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end who was convicted of murdering his friend for no particular reason. Hernandez later hanged himself. As I understand it, a posthumous examination of his brain showed he had a severe form of CTE."
"Yeah, it did. There is a strong likelihood that CTE contributed to his erratic, violent behavior. Hernandez was twenty-seven, and an examiner said it was the most advanced case of CTE she had ever seen in a man so young. The matter will be litigated for years to come. What brings it up?"
"I was wondering about myself. When I was fighting, I got whacked in the head plenty of times. Now there are times when my behavior surprises even me. I am wondering if I should remove myself from your committee."
"Everybody does things they later wonder about," McGowans said. "If I were you, I wouldn't worry too much about it. I haven't noticed anything untoward in your behavior. You showed plenty of composure when you hit that awful shank on thirteen."
"I was on my best behavior," I laughed. "There have been times when I would have thrown that club so far into the woods we would never have found it."
At this McGowans laughed out loud. "We've all had those times," he said. "God knows I've had my share. The state of your brain might be something that bears watching, but for now I want you on the committee."
I still felt uneasy. "Can CTE be positively diagnosed?" I asked.
"Not unless you're dead," McGowans said. "To confirm CTE, they have to slice the brain apart. I read where they're making progress towards a live diagnosis, but they're not there yet."
"That's not at all comforting. Can CTE be treated in some way?"
McGowans shook his head. "Unfortunately, no. How do you repair a damaged brain? A question more to the point: Have you considered suicide?"
"No. Not lately. Why do you ask?"
"Several former NFL players besides Hernandez killed themselves. Two that come most immediately to mind are Junior Seau and Ray Easterling. They shot themselves. Autopsies disclosed that both had advanced CTE."
"There must be symptoms."
McGowans had switched on his cell phone and Googled CTE. "It says here possible signs and symptoms may include impulsive behavior, short-term memory loss, poor impulse control, difficulty carrying out tasks, and emotional instability. But these can be signs of problems other than CTE."
I couldn't help but be concerned about myself. "What about boxers? They must get it."
McGowans nodded. "People used to call wobbly, old fighters 'punch drunk,' and Muhammad Ali's Parkinson's was likely brought on by CTE. Fortunately, you don't seem to be suffering from either of these afflictions."
I thought about the time two weeks ago when I tripped on a curb and nearly fell down. Deciding this didn't count, I said, "Not yet, but it would be good to know for sure."
Reading from the cell, McGowans went on to point out that symptoms can show up weeks, months, or even years after a player retires. "This is good news, in a way. Even if you have it, it might be a long time before it does you in. So keep the faith, my friend." He stood, slipped his phone back into his pocket and started towards the door. "I'll see ya a week from Wednesday," he said.
McGowans was out the door, closing it behind him when I noticed the coffee was done peculating and was sitting on the counter untouched.
(Continued at chapters11-20.html)