That Wednesday came on like a junkyard dog—nasty, mean, and snappish. A cruel north wind was thrashing a cold rain our way. Too damn early for a polar vortex, I grumbled. It would have been a good day to stay in bed. I would have liked it if McGowans' committee meeting could have been called on account of rain, but nothing was going to forestall our get-together with Baseball Commissioner John Park.
I considered calling in sick. Sick of the whole sports thing. A best, I was an on-again, off-again baseball fan. A week ago I wouldn't have been able to tell you who the Commissioner was. Duty bound, I showered and shaved before pouring myself a small glass of orange juice, toasting a cinnamon-raisin bagel, and making coffee. I could think of maybe a dozen things I'd rather be doing.
In my defense, there had been times when I was somewhat mindful of the game. If the team representing my current whereabouts was in the hunt for a pennant, I would be at least vaguely aware of it. Probably I would learn to recognize the names of some key players. Just don't ask me their batting averages or how many RBI's they're responsible for.
I do recall with fondness my rare visits to Tiger Stadium. Still vivid in my memory are the greenness of the grass, the contrasting white baselines, the flagpole near dead center field. I can still hear the vendors crying out the availability of their over-priced hot dogs and beer. The sharp crack of a well-hit ball will stay in my mind forever as will the "boos" from the disgruntled crowd following a crucial, called, third strike.
At some point I got interested enough in baseball to read George Will's book, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. I admire his mind, its ability to explore the unending intricacies of the game. More recently I read Michael Lewis' Moneyball, which introduced a whole new set of intricacies. Envious as I am of these writers, there is no way will I ever wrap my mind around the apparent trivialities they detailed so thoroughly at the same time that I accept their assurances that the sum total of tiny advantages is the difference between winning or losing.
About the only sports book I ever really embraced (if you don't count Hogan's Modern Fundamentals of Golf) was Jim Boulton's Ball Four. Boulton outraged the sports world by telling some ugly truths about major league baseball. His book met with great critical acclaim. He knew which players were building muscles by taking steroids and called them out by name. Time magazine called it one of the 100 most important non-fiction books of all time, and it sold millions of copies. What is it about dirt that's so appealing? I've gotta admit I find Mickey Mantle's excessive drinking far more interesting than how many home runs he hit.
I have to wonder if I should be on McGowans' committee. Shouldn't my position be held by someone who truly loves sports? Shouldn't the National Sport be declared by someone who actually gives a rat's ass? It's true I have followed the Lions with considerable never-say-die devotion, but I haven't known squat about the other thirty-one teams. I never cared who would win the Super Bowl, since it certainly wasn't going to be the Lions. I have never hero-worshiped individual ballplayers. Truth is I find most are boring cliche masters. What can draw my interest is their shortcomings. There have been thousands of ballplayers, but Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens stand out for me. I realize all three accumulated enviable statistics, but it's Rose's link to gambling and Bonds' and Clemens' alleged steroid use that sticks in my mind.
I am more intrigued by the agony of disgrace than the satisfaction of superior performance. I followed the Oakland Raiders for a spell because they were known for dirty play. For the same reason, I have kept tabs on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. I focused some on Detroit and Cleveland when it looked like they might endure winless seasons. When I watch Olympic figure skaters, I secretly hope they'll fall on their asses. Watching John Daly make 12 on a hole is far more entertaining than watching Tiger make birdie. For me the New England Patriots' reign of terror over the NFL is enhanced in part by its rules violations.
I am far from alone. A lot of folks are attracted to people who are, at best, dubious. Genghis Khan, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, and Lucky Luciano have all been glamorized unendingly. I am tempted to throw President Champ into this stew, although his story is still unfolding. In popular entertainment, you just can't beat a good bad guy. In so many movies the villain is far-and-away the most interesting character. Heath Ledger in Batman, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Why do so many of us latch onto the James Gandolfinis/Tony Sopranos of this world?
Having grown up in Detroit as something of a miscreant, I guess It's understandable that I would be drawn to the city's social pariahs. For me Henry Ford is notable less for the Model T than for his embrace of Hitler and distaste for Jews. From the get-go I rather admired Jimmy Hoffa. I think my love for Detroit's outlaw athletes may have begun with stories I heard about Bobby Layne, the Lion's wild-man, hard-drinking, win-at-any-price quarterback of the early fifties. Among baseball players, there have been more than a few outcasts, but two stand out—arch-villain representatives of different eras— Ty Cobb and Denny McLain.
Ty Cobb? Mention him,and most people conjure up a murderous thug. This image may not be completely accurate—Charles Leerhsen wrote a book that almost completely exonerates Cobb—but in the popular mind, Ty Cob was an awful person, a racist and low-down cheat who sharpened his spikes to aide and abet ripping into opposition players with slashing slides. Many people have taken it as gospel that Cobb killed at least three people, although no charges were ever leveled. Never mind that Cobb was the first player voted into the Hall of Fame or that his lifetime batting average, .366, has never been duplicated. In Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson says Cobb wasn't invited because nobody likes him. Fair or not, we love remembering Cobb as a Prince of Darkness.
Then there's Denny McLain. I'll never forget the night I sat down next to him in a Detroit sports bar. It's a wonder I recognized him, but when I did I ultimately summoned up the courage to ask him how he was doing. Maybe not the greatest of questions to ask McLain. Few mortals have had higher ups or lower downs than Dennis Dale McLain. For a high, how about leading the Detroit Tigers to the 1968 World Championship, winning 31 regular-season games—a feat last accomplished by Dizzy Dean in the '30s dead-ball era and not once since?
For a low, how about joining forces with scumbag gamblers and Syrian mobsters (and, possibly, murderers) and eventually serving two prison terms for offenses that included racketeering, loan-sharking, cocaine trafficking, money laundering, mail-fraud, conspiracy, and the embezzlement of two-and-a-half million dollars from a company's retirement fund? Somehow, on top of all this, he found time to accept a $160,000 fee for flying a fugitive out of the country and to get involved, allegedly, with John Gotti Jr. in a fraudulent phone card scheme.
The night we met, we had a nice chat. He seemed to be completely open and above board. He admitted to numerous lapses in judgment, expressed plenty of remorse, and appeared to have acquired considerable respectability. He said he devoted several years tending to his sick wife, who is stricken with Parkinson's Disease. He had a daughter who was killed by a drunk driver. He noted that his rotator cuff is shot and he is unable to lift his right hand at all. Evidently he gets numerous guest-speaker engagements. He may harbor hopes of making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, but keep in mind what springs eternal. Good advice: Don't bet the ranch on it happening, not that I would mind if it did. For me, the old Denny McLain is a hell of a lot more interesting than the new one.
I snapped out of my musings about Denny McLain in time to get to our meeting ten minutes early. McGowans was already there, shuffling through a pile of five-by-seven cards. "Ready to play ball?" I said.
"Just trying to keep track of hits, runs, and errors," he said. "This committee could be in danger of sinking into a morass of statistical quicksand."
The other members of the committee began filing in, exchanging greetings, sitting down expectantly. Commissioner of Baseball John Park showed up ten minutes later. "Sorry," he said. "Got caught in traffic."
Peter Myers, the dapper Republican representative from Topeka, Kansas, snarked. "It's always been my impression that baseball people tend to ignore time. To them it just isn't important. You all act like you have endless amounts of it."
Commissioner Park seemed to be caught between a frown and a smile, finally settling on a small, tentative grin. "I guess you're referring to the theoretical possibility that a baseball game could go on forever. It's part of what we love about it. A rally can never run out of time. The clock can't beat you. Where there's life, there's hope."
"Not over til the Fat Lady sings," said Troy Smith, the basketball-loving Representative from Indianapolis.
"I attended a game that dragged on for seventeen innings," Myers said. "The Fat Lady was sitting in front of me, and I couldn't see much of the field. I would have left, but my date had a brother on one of the teams, and she insisted we stay. I know I was overjoyed when somebody finally won. Can't remember who. At the time I didn't give a good God damn. "
"Sometimes it seems like the participants don't either," Smith said. "Some famous baseball guy said, 'You win some, lose some, some are called on account of rain.' If this doesn't suggest a shoulder-shrugging, whatever-will-be-will-be, don't-really-give-a-real-shit attitude, I don't know what would."
Hoping for a comeback, Commissioner Park said, "That quote has often been attributed to Satchel Paige, one of the most colorful, rough-and-tumble fellows ever to play the game. They say he learned to pitch in reform school."
"It was his colorfulness that prevented him from pitching in the majors for most of his career," said Kamila Madera. "His color was black, and he was relegated to the Negro Leagues."
Dunn was still thinking about Myers' seventeen-inning game. "That game that went on for so long," he said, "it probably featured two crackerjack pitchers. True fans enjoy the beautiful tension of an intense pitcher's duel. In such a face-off, potential disaster awaits every pitch. We'd be okay if it went on forever, keeping us on the edge of our seats."
"And damn uncomfortable many of those seats are," said Troy Smith, who we all knew would rather be shooting hoops. "Bleachers are better. I've been in ballparks that could double as torture chambers. Seats there made me want to get up, stretch, head for the latrine, stand in pee to relieve myself, then go and pay way too much for room-temperature hot dogs and beer. All the while I'm wondering how I can beat the crowd out of the parking lot."
Endeavoring to bring forth good cheer, I said, "Humphrey Bogart once suggested that a hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz." I wondered how I ever came up with that. A waste of time; nobody seemed to care, never mind agree. Committee members were bent on being combative. It might have been the weather, or maybe this group just doesn't care for baseball.
Leaping into the mean scene, Winnie Watson, the African-American representative from Livonia, Michigan, said, "Baseball is the only sport I can think of that celebrates stupidity. Yogi Berra has been beloved for being just plain dumb. Like when he was talking about golf and he said, 'Ninety percent of putts that are short don't go in.' Was he a moron or what?"
"Hard to say," Myers said. "Berra also said, 'Ninety percent of this game is half mental.' He was either a moron or such a genius that we just can't plumb his great depth."
"It's the former," Winnie said. "It's gotta be the former."
"Baseball is just plain cruel," said Kamila Madera, the Democratic Socialist from Queens. "It picks on the little guys, never allowing them to forget their mistakes. It posts them on the scoreboard for everybody to see."
I could see McGowans was about to intervene, but Commissioner Park beat him to the punch. Looking shaken, but still determined to defend his sport, he said, "Baseball is special in so many ways. What other sport has a song to sing at every event? Baseball has its own anthem: 'Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks, I don't care if I never get back...' "
Peter Myers was prepared for this one. "The lyrics for that song were written by two Tin Pan Alley hacks who had never been to a game. Even after becoming famous, neither wanted to go to one."
"Those lyrics are lame," Troy Smith said. "I for one don't care if the vocalist ever gets back. Maybe all those peanuts and crackerjacks will induce vomiting or even fatal choking."
This was getting too bleak even for me. Again I could see that McGowans was getting ready to take charge. My turn, I thought to myself. "What about movies?" I said. "There's been some good ones."
"Not A League of Their Own," Troy Smith said. "Its most memorable contribution to our culture is the mean-spirited insistence that crying isn't allowed."
Kamila Madera said, "In its way, I guess it did try to suggest that sports can be for women. But that was back in the Second World War when men were off killing Germans and Japanese. Women baseball players were mere replacements, good only for keeping the game alive until the real players came home."
Commissioner Park said, "What about Field of Dreams? Kevin Costner was inspirational."
"Or silly," said Misella Gardner, the most attractive California representative. "What could be goofier than an Iowa farmer building a ballpark in his corn field in hopes that the ghost of a long-dead, discredited, and disgraced ballplayer would somehow show up?"
"But show up he does," Park said.
For some reason I babbled, "Build it and he will come."
Myers said, "Any sport that requires spooks to perk up P.R. is in real trouble."
Mike Dunn, the wanna be football star, looked like he wasn't listening. He had seated himself across the table from Misella Gardner, and his gaze kept going back and forth between her face and her considerable cleavage. I was a bit surprised when he chipped in the notion that "Joe should have stayed home or dead or wherever he was." Dunn looked to Misella for approval, but got back a blank stare.
"Hold on," Park said. "This story about Shoeless Joe Jackson has become part of Americana. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards."
"Maybe so," Peter Myers said, "but Jackson was banned from baseball for taking money from gamblers to throw 1919 World Series games. He confessed to it."
"Say it ain't so, Joe," I said.
"He did just that," Commissioner Park pointed out. "He recanted his confession! He may have been innocent! He hit .375 during that series, the highest on either team! Hardly what one would expect of a player trying to throw games."
"Still the league never rescinded his banishment," Myers said. "No other professional sport in this country has had a comparable scandal."
"Unless you count Tanya Harding's associates smashing Nancy Kerrigan's knee with a steel pipe," I said. "That was plenty scandalous."
Misella Gardner said. "Tanya wasn't in on the assault, but was barred from competitive skating for hindering the investigation. From the get-go, she had been treated unfairly. When skating competitively, she had points deducted because her home-sewn outfits were less spectacular than those worn by the well-endowed competition. From the beginning, she had two strikes against her, being long regarded as poor white trash."
"Figure skating's hardly a sport," Mike Dunn snapped. "Banished from skating, Tanya took up boxing, which is what she should have done in the first place." Glaring at Misella Gardner, he added, "Boxing at least is a real sport."
Ignoring this interplay and refusing to be shaken, Commissioner Park said, "Your expression 'two strikes against her' shows how deeply baseball is embedded in our language. It's everywhere around us and can appeal to people on so many levels. Eight-year-olds can love it, as can lifelong students of its subtleties. It's no wonder it's long been called 'America's Pastime.' "
"I have to wonder if it still deserves this term, or ever did," said Jake Morgan. "TV ratings for World Series games are pitiful compared to what the NFL draws during playoffs, not to mention the Super Bowl. Most people don't care who wins the World Series. The series does well to draw over 10-million viewers while the Super Bowl attracts way more than 100-million."
Commissioner Park was failing miserably in his efforts to direct a positive discussion about baseball. But nobody could say he gave up easily. "In our minds, baseball is the perfect sport," he asserted. "It has no flaws. Everything flows together perfectly. First off, it is built around God's favorite shape, a diamond."
"We would have to check that out with God," Myers said. "My hunch is He prefers circles, a shape suggesting infinity. Or maybe the ellipses of planetary orbits."
"I think it's the star shape," said Troy Smith, the basketball guy from Indiana. "He made so damn many of them. Could be why we call God's most favored people 'stars.' "
"I'm betting on the spiral," said Misella Gardner. "Nature favors us with so many beautiful spirals. They're in the DNA double helix, sunflowers, galaxies, the horns of various animals, the nautilus shell, whirlpools, and countless other places. It's a magical shape."
"It's the shape of dirty water down the drain," said Mike Dunn, who seemed to still be pissed at Misella's lack of appreciation for him. I had to believe that rejection was stimulating Dunn's limited intellectual resources.
Seemingly oblivious to the battle going on before her, Kamila Madera said, "Pyramids have mysterious powers, as do pentagons."
"Okay, I guess you all got me there," said Commissioner Park. "Maybe God doesn't prefer diamonds, although diamonds, like God, are said to be forever."
"So's bullshit," said Jake Morgan, the football guy.
"And some baseball games," Peter Myers added. "Or so it seems."
Undeterred, Commissioner Park continued, "Baseball has other perfections. Take the ninety-foot baseline: it couldn't be better. Its length is inspired. A ball hit sharply to a shortstop, fielded cleanly and thrown accurately to first base will beat the fastest runner by half a step. Any hint of a bobble or misguided throw and the runner is safe. We even say 'run it out' in reference to any apparently doomed effort."
I had to give the guy some credit; he was persisting in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Maybe as a true professional, he was running it out. And he wasn't done. "What other sport offers the possibility of a perfect game?" he said.
Jake Morgan, unsympathetic to the core, wasn't about to give him a break. "Even a perfect game is a testimony of failure," he said. "The opposing team has to fail to get any hits, walks, or runs. It has to have been perfectly awful."
Park sticks to his guns. "You have to admit, it's impressive when a pitcher throws a no-hitter."
"I am more impressed by a forward pass thrown to the exact spot the speedy receiver will be at when the ball gets there," Morgan said. "Most often when he does this several burly men are bearing down on him. When it's right on, the communication between passer and receiver is uncanny. It's surreal poetry in rapid motion."
Park seemed to have gotten a second wind. "Baseball has its own poetry," he said. "It takes a ninety-per-hour fastball four tenths of a second to reach home plate. It takes a quarter of a second for any batter to even see the ball. He has to gage what sort of pitch it is, leaving him little or no time to decide whether to swing, not swing, or get out of the way. To get a hit, a message needs to go from his brain to his muscles, which also takes time. All things considered, getting a hit seems impossible."
The last line from a childhood poem sprang to my mind. I couldn't resist reciting: "There is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out."
For the first time that day, Commissioner Park was smiling. "Even the game's miseries can be sweet," he said.
"Sweet miseries," I said. "Sounds like you have the makings of a poem right there."
"Or the makings of a Stephen King story," Kamila Madera said. "Sounds like getting a hit is ripe ground for the intervention of supernatural entities. Maybe baseballs are possessed by bad demons or good fairies."
"Maybe they are," Commissioner Park concurred. "Might I remind you that Stephen King is a big Red Sox fan? He appreciates how top-level baseball can seem to require almost superhuman abilities. Ted Williams, the last major leaguer to hit .400, used to say he could see the stitches on a fastball coming his way. What sort of mortal man could do this? Doesn't this suggest Godlike capabilities?"
Peter Myers said, "This shows how baseball is a game of failure. Even Ted Williams failed considerably more often than he succeeded. The game's great superstars do well getting hits a third of the time."
"The best pro quarterbacks complete sixty-five or seventy percent of their passes," Jake Morgan pointed out.
"Apples and oranges," Park said. "At the same time, I would never deny that other sports require high degrees of skill. I love football and I play golf. But for a fulfilling experience as a spectator, you can't beat baseball. What could be better than sitting in your legendary ballpark, watching your favorite team on a warm summer day with a hot dog in one hand and an ice cold beer in the other?"
"The only problem being that most games are played at night," said Peter Myers. "The lazy, hazy afternoon at the ballpark is no more. Money-grubbing baseball people turned their backs on the fans, the people who had supported them for generations, and went for the big bucks of TV."
Park reached deep down for a last-ditch retort. "Baseball gives its fans a good long season," he said. "A hundred and sixty-two games. This is nearly twice as many as basketball. Football has a mere sixteen. Eight weeks into the football season your favorite team can be hopelessly out of contention for the playoffs."
"A boring sport doesn't become less-so by extending its season," Myers said.
Park was eyeing the door, looking like a man getting set to flee. He sighed, then said, "You've gotta admit, baseball is very fan-friendly. For some NFL games, you need to apply for tickets years in advance. With baseball, you can always make a last-minute decision to take in a game."
"Goes to prove there's always empty seats," Smith asserted. "Indicates a lack of interest."
Walked right into that one, I said to myself.
There was a pause before McGowans broke what was becoming an uncomfortable silence. "I think that's it for today," he said. "We've tortured Mr. Park enough. He has been exceedingly gracious. I do think there is more to be said, and I hope that upon his recovery, he'll come back again."
Park remained expressionless. No way will he be back.
Journal Entry 288
Once again McGowans asked me to stick around after our meeting. He was afraid we had given Commissioner Park too much of a hard time. I told him not to worry. A man in Park's position is bound to face criticism and can't be too thin-skinned. Granted, we were rather unrelenting, but I had no doubt he had been able to take it all in stride. But I also doubted he would ever be back.
Sitting next to McGowans at our meetings is a small table holding an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder. Every word we say is recorded and later transcribed into lengthy press releases. McGowans isn't at all pleased with this. Ordinarily a champion of transparency, McGowans felt that in this instance the public would be better served if we held our discussions behind closed doors. It was his contention that guests would be more comfortable expressing themselves openly if we could assure confidentiality.
I suggested to McGowans that he refuse to comply with Champ's dictate that meetings be recorded, but he reminded me that we are serving at the pleasure of the President. We could be terminated anytime. Champ's thumbs down would be final; no appeal is possible. He proceeded to give me a civics lesson. Ours is an experimental committee, both joint (with both Senators and Representatives) and select (formed for a specific, limited purpose). In the interests of bipartisanship and coziness, the President gets to name four members. McGowans doesn't know why our committee is important to Champ, but is determined to find out.
McGowans believes this could be key to gaining insight into what the man is up to. McGowans seems intrigued by the unique makeup of his committee. The chairman could have been from either party, but the remaining membership must be divided equally between Republicans and Democrats. Champ was able to name the four Republicans: Mike Dunn, Peter Myers, Troy Smith, and Jake Morgan, and Champ could have appointed a Republican chairman, but for some reason wanted McGowans to head it. Champ did tell me he regarded McGowans as a primary opposition figure and wanted to keep an eye on him.
They make a perfect match: each wants to be close to the other. McGowans is obsessed with Champ. In high school, we read Moby Dick, and sometimes to me it seems like Champ is McGowans' Great White Whale. (Champ has the girth to play the part.) I have to wonder if there is more to this obscession than McGowans has let on. He told me that in the 1980s, Champ tried repeatedly to acquire an NFL franchise, but Commissioner Pete Rozelle, calling him a scumbag con man, vowed never to allow him in that most exclusive club. Later commissioners have upheld Rozelle's precedent.
McGowans points out that Champ never forgives a snub, and he wonders if our committee might somehow be designed to get revenge. This is an interesting enough supposition, but I haven't seen any indication that things are stacked against pro football. There couldn't be a more avid supporter of the NFL than Jake Morgan, and Champ put him on the committee. I don't know if we will decide that football should be the National Sport, but it doesn't seem to be out of the question.
According to McGowans, an NFL franchise is worth some two-and-a-half billion dollars. Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is on record as saying he wouldn't consider an offer of less than ten billion for what was once known as America's Team.
Champ plays golf to excess (and has a reputation as a big-time cheater), but otherwise doesn't seem to give a shit about sports. His interest in who wins championships extends only to the extent that winners are more valuable than losers. To him, teams are assets no different than office buildings or apartment houses. No room for sentimentality. They are worth what they fetch. No more, no less. To him, fans who stick by unsuccessful teams are contemptible suckers, the true losers. Champ has no patience for people who follow their hearts instead of their heads. Who was it who said, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game"? Sure as hell wasn't Champ. Noble sentiments aren't Champ's thing. They're for losers. A few years ago, Champ tried to purchase an NFL franchise, but league officials wouldn't allow him in.
McGowans said he got another mysterious White House message. Same M.O.—White House stationery, short, cryptic message—in this case WATCH SWARTZ—written in red felt-tip. McGowans and I assume it refers to Brian Swartz, Champ's Secretary of Energy. A long-time lobbyist for Peking Petroleum, Swartz was another of Champ's bizarre appointments. He had never run a large organization and regards government as an enemy of the people. As a lobbyist he had spent a lifetime attempting to foil federal regulations.
McGowans thinks he knows who in the White House has been sending him those anonymous messages. Mary Ann Nobler, the young lady who greets presidential visitors. McGowans says he has been to the White House often enough so that Mary Lou knows he wants his coffee black. He even gets it served in his favorite mug. On top of that, he says she gives him three chocolate chip cookies instead of the traditional two. He claims he has conversed with her enough to realize she isn't wholeheartedly on board with Champ's agenda. McGowans said she became the leading person of interest when he noticed a red Sharpie on her desk, sitting next to a stack of in-house stationery.
My initial reaction was that this was damn slim evidence. Almost 500 people work at the White House, quite a few of whom might be able to filch some stationery. I had no idea how many of these people might have useful insights into Champ's plans, but it must be more than a few. Champ demands loyalty, but it has been an open question as to how much he actually inspires. There has been constant rumors that some cabinet members dream of invoking the 25th Amendment allowing them to declare him mentally incapacitated and have him replaced by the vice-president.
McGowans said he had been prepared for the latest letter. First, he had it dusted for prints, but there were none on the letter itself, and the only prints on the envelope were the postman's. Then he sent it to a private lab where technicians were able to obtain DNA from the envelope flap. It was Mary Lou's."
I didn't have to ask McGowans where he had gotten DNA known to be hers for purposes of comparison. Somehow, I don't know how, McGowans had been able to get a sample of Mary Lou's DNA from Champ's new DNA bank. The facility hasn't been officially announced, but word of it has leaked out. It wasn't exactly top secret, but Champ was trying to keep it quiet to avoid flack from Fourth Amendment fanatics. It was still in Stage One: DNA samples from the entire Executive Branch including all White House staff people. In Stage Two, scheduled to kick in sometime next year, the program would be expanded to included DNA from everybody in both houses of Congress and their staffs. Stage Three, six of eight months later, would be a collecting of DNA samples from all newborns in hospitals enjoying federal funding or whose parents were getting Medicare. As one might expect, I am among the people in Congress who object to this idea.
I suggested to McGowans that he arrange to meet Mary Lou after hours and tell her what he knows. He rejected this idea, pointing out that she had gone to great lengths to remain anonymous. Letting her know that he was on to her might scare her away. Instead, he was proposing a sort of end run. He wanted me to take her out to dinner. He had told her I was new in town, didn't know anybody, and would enjoy some casual companionship. She, also, hadn't been in town long, and didn't know many people socially.
Of course, McGowans knew that Sarah and I had a steady thing going, and I wouldn't want to jeopardize that. So he came up with a clever solution: He told her I was gay. He said my name was Charles Grayson, a name he borrowed from a freshman Representative who really is gay. McGowans showed me Charlie's photo, and we do look a bit alike. If Mary Lou should see his photo, she might believe it was me—on a particularly bad day or maybe an exceptionally good day. McGowans said I shouldn't press her for information, but should try to make her comfortable (and trusting). Simply put, it was my mission to get to know her well, but in a completely platonic sort of way. Nothing more. I could see all sorts of potential pitfalls to his plan, but, what the hell, I owed him a lot.
I asked him if I should wear white pants and pink socks.
I was wearing my aging, political-speech-making suit when I picked her up on Saturday evening. (I had bought a better-fitting, more official looking, charcoal gray, pinstripe suit after my electoral victory, but I have never managed to feel comfortable in it.) McGowans was right: Mary Lou was a very attractive young lady. She stood about five-six, weighed maybe 125 pounds, and had long auburn colored hair parted in the middle. Her lovely smile displayed regularly spaced, pearl-white teeth, and her curves all seemed to bend in the right directions. She was wearing a dark colored skirt and sleeveless white blouse. As we were leaving, she slipped into an open-front, gray cardigan sweater. "The forecast says it'll cool off this evening," she said.
I asked her if she would like to go to the Cafe du Park on Pennsylvania Avenue. I knew this place was pricey, but I thought that with a name like DuBois she would favor French food. Besides I liked outdoor dining, which one could do here. Recent evenings had been warm, but the patio was spacious, and I thought we could try for a table there.
"I don't know," she said. "You look like a steak and taters man to me. Have you ever been to Medium Rare in Cleveland Park? It's only a few blocks away. They tell me the price is right, and the culotte steak and hand-cut fries are to die for. Medium Rare would be my first choice."
"Medium Rare in Cleveland Park it is," I said, feeling somewhat relieved. French pronunciation is not my strong suit. I found myself hoping she wouldn't mind being escorted about in my old, gas-powered Honda. When we got there, I was pleased to see that this place also offered outdoor dining, and there were several available tables. Something about eating in the open air puts me at ease. It's more au naturel or something. I had never been to this restaurant, or even heard of it, but immediately I liked it. The young crowd seemed to be having fun in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere. We ordered culotte steaks medium rare, and draft beers. While we were waiting for them, I tried my hand at small talk.
"Andrew tells me you're new in town."
She nodded. "Pretty much. I came here last June."
"Chicago. It was a horizontal hop from one big city to another."
"Big city girl," I said.
"Down deep, a small-town girl. I grew up in a central Illinois farming community. Everybody knew everybody else's business, and the price of hog bellies was headline news. For excitement, we went to frog-jumping contests. How about yourself?"
"City slicker, I guess. My tormented childhood found me alone on the mean streets of downtown Detroit. I have a sister in Bloomfield Hills, a somewhat more civilized setting not far from downtown. "
"You represent Detroiters in the legislature?"
"So what are the chances of turning Detroit back into an industrial powerhouse?"
"Slim and none. No, that's overly optimistic. Let's go with none period. No matter what Champ says, it isn't going to happen. Not in our lifetimes. Everything's too rusty. In its heyday, Detroit was a fabulous place, but those days are long gone and non-returnable."
"Your candor is refreshing."
"As is your willingness to listen to me. I feel a closeness to you, probably because we were practically neighbors. Just the width of Michigan and Lake Michigan keeping us apart. We're just a pair of Midwest refugees often referred to as fly-over folks. So tell me about yourself. What did you do before joining Champ's team?"
"Believe it or not, I was a motivational speaker."
"Really? That's pretty cool. How did you get into that?"
"Good question," she said, "and 'drift' would probably be a better word than 'get.' I gravitated to it without giving the matter much thought. As a little girl, I had a talent for saying things that made people feel good about themselves. I discovered that saying these things made me feel good about myself. Little Miss Do-Gooder; that was me. I was raised in a devout Catholic family, and by the time I was 14 or 15 everybody assumed that I would become a nun. So at age 18, I joined the order Our Lady of Infinite Wisdom and began studying to become one."
"Sounds like your Catholic Cadillac was on cruise control."
"Sounds like you truly are from Motown. In any event, my family was pleased with the course my life was taking. They are good people, and I wanted them to be happy. The problem was, I wasn't happy. There were things about the Church that bothered me. Before long, I was secretly reading books I had to smuggle in because they weren't part of the prescribed curriculum. A lot of Church history shocked me. Some popes were positively evil. The Church was behind the Inquisition which took thousands of innocent lives, and it selfishly backed countless other barbaric wars. In modern times, the Church has protected thousands of pedophiliac priests. Even things like the lifting of the prohibition against meat on Fridays or the abandonment of Latin Mass bothered me. Why the hell couldn't God make up His mind? Pretty soon my faith was in full-bore crisis."
"Did you quit?"
"I did not. While I harbored numerous forbidden thoughts, I soon learned there were others in my order with similar misgivings. We found each other, became a sub-group. I was able to help many of them. Father McGaffrey, our superior, found out about us, but instead of making us disband, gave us semi-official status. He had me address the whole nunnery, and the response was overwhelming. Many of the women credited me with helping to restore their faiths. This left me with mixed emotions. They were thrilled, but I felt like a total fraud. I was encouraging them to adopt a faith I couldn't accept. I wasn't able to hear the term 'Our Lady of Infinite Wisdom' without thinking 'crazy old bitch of endless bullshit.' That's how bad I was."
"So you quit?"
"Again no. Many of the women in my order had come to depend on me. I loved them and wanted to help them if I could. We had taken vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and except for the obedience part, I did a pretty good job of sticking by these. I did the things I was supposed to do, mostly staying out of trouble. When I counseled someone, it was on the q.t."
"But eventually you did leave."
"Eventually I was told to leave. To make myself feel less like a fraud, I had begun suggesting that we question certain Church doctrines. As my friends came out of their depressions, they were joyfully discussing issues such as abortion, contraception, chastity, female priests, and so on. I found that in many cases intellectual awakening can dissipate depression. Then one day, Father McGaffrey took me aside and said I had attracted the attention of people higher up—closer to heaven, I guess. McGaffrey let me know they viewed me as the ringleader of a gang of renegade nuns."
Mary Lou laughed. "I suppose I was. I had never thought we were engaged in full-fledged insurrection, but the Church saw us as a clear and present danger. A certain bishop with ties to Rome wanted me gone. My family got wind of this, and sort of let it be known I wasn't particularly welcome there anymore. So tearfully, I said good-bye to friends and family and headed out into the big, bad world."
"There are wolves out there."
"Indeed, there are. And they might have gotten me had Father McGaffrey not come to my rescue. Turns out he was closely connected to a big, loosely-organized group of wayward Catholics in one phase or another of impending faithlessness. These people, both men and women, young and old, met clandestinely a few times a year. Evidently, there is not just safety, but also salvation, in numbers. A meeting was coming up, and Father McGaffrey asked me to address this crew of restless souls. He was a Jesuit, and it was his firm belief that frank and honest discussion could cure all spiritual ailments."
"I am guessing you were a big hit."
"I was, and just like that a motivational speaker was born. At first my go-to speech was specifically designed for falling Catholics, but I was able to adopt it for general audiences. I emphasized the importance of high self-regard and how to achieve it. I had found that life drags too many people down into self-loathing. I got good word-of-mouth advertising, and people began inviting me to gatherings. I was still small-time, just scraping by, but I began to think I might have the bare beginnings of a future."
"How did you end up working for President Champ?"
"He came to me. I had addressed a small group of New York real estate developers, and he had stopped by. At that time, he had hit rock bottom and was desperately seeking salvation. He may have been suicidal. A recession was rocking real estate, and what had been a rather impressive business inherited from his father was in shambles. He owed millions he had no prayer of repaying. His father's money had enabled him to be something of a mover and shaker, but the diverse assortment of businesses he had started were all failing. Even his big whore house in Nevada faced foreclosure. He couldn't keep the girls in line. He would harass them for freebies while threatening to fire them for no reason. The best of them had left. When he said he wanted private consultations with me, he insisted it didn't matter that I knew nothing about business. He said my job would be to boost his spirits. I suspected he was on the make, but was willing to try to help him."
"He must have presented quite a challenge."
"He did, and pretty soon I was working for him almost full time. I wouldn't sleep with him, but short of that, I did everything I could to buoy his spirits. Every day I found new ways to tell him how great he was. And it worked. He got better and better. Before long he began negotiating with bankers and, I believe, gangsters. Relentlessly, he became a man commanding his own destiny. There was a rocky period during which he all but demanded sex, but I was steadfast in my refusal, and eventually he backed off. Once we got by that, he still wanted me around and I stuck by him. I found the man repulsive, but the pay was outstanding. Does that make me a whore?"
"No, it makes you an entrepreneur, and evidently a very good one."
"Too good, I am afraid. He became dangerously self-confident. Seems I didn't know when to quit. I was so engrossed in restoring the man's ego, it never occurred to me that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. He took my words to heart and became monstrously, obsessively self-assured. Evidently I had tapped into a deep well of narcissism. I knew I had gone way too far when he announced he was running for president. No political experience? No matter. He had become convinced he could mold reality through force of will. To him it didn't matter if what he said was true, because even when it wasn't, it soon would be if he wanted it to be badly enough."
"The power of positive thinking."
"More like an aptitude for reality distortion, and he was good at it. It was, in fact, running amuck. His persona, however absurd, got constant media attention, and soon, thanks in part to a botched Democratic campaign, he was president. Good for him, but horrible for the country."
"You created a monster."
"I know it sounds absurd to suggest that I created Champ. But what else can I believe? When we met, he barely had sufficient self-esteem to answer the phone. I worked with him for several months, and he came to believe God meant for him to be President of the United States. What's worse, he was able to convince others that he was the best man for the job."
"I hope you're not blaming yourself for his disastrous presidency."
"I try not to. I didn't create it, exactly, but I provided a means for it to come out. Maybe it was there all the time. In any event, he made me realize I had to change my approach to motivational work. Advocating absolute self-confidence, and that alone, could be dangerous. For sure, self-confidence is good, as is high self-regard, but they have to be balanced by empathy for others. A dose of love not just for one's self, but for others is mandatory."
"So he asked you to come with him to Washington?"
"He did. He pleaded with me to come. My initial impulse was to get as far away from him as I could, but
I had to accept the likelihood that I was partially to blame for his being there. Eventually I agreed to stay with him. Somebody had to lead him back to a semblance of rationality, and it seemed like I was the chosen one. I felt like fate had dealt me an important, if utterly unwanted, responsibility. As I saw it, my challenge was no longer to inflate his ego, but to find a way to deflate it. Not completely, of course, but cautiously. With God's help I would oversee a carefully controlled release of hot air."
Looking perplexed, she set her fork down. "I don't know what's come over me. I have blabbed way more than I ever intended to. Why in the world would I open up completely to someone who is misrepresenting himself?"
I gave her my blankist look.
"Why are you pretending to be gay?"
"You're not gay, and you aren't all that good at pretending you are."
"You must be mistaken."
"No, I am not mistaken. You're not gay. You're7888 not Charlie Grayson either. I Googled Charlie, and while you sort of resemble him, you're not him. I have to ask myself, 'Why would my date pretend to be gay and someone he isn't?' There has to be a good reason. Whatever could it be?"
I extended my hand, which she took to shake. "Allow me to introduce myself," I said. "Name's Danny Dukes, as in put up your dukes."
She folded her fingers into fists, put them at chin level, faked a left jab in my direction. "So, Danny Dukes—You are, I realize, Congressman Daniel Dukes— what's with all the subterfuge?"
"Maybe I like keeping a low profile? Maybe I don't like to sweat? Or maybe I abhor foreplay. I thought I did the gay thing with Oscar-worthy flair. What gave me away?"
"A few things. First of all I couldn't believe you were ever tormented and alone on the cruel streets of Detroit. You just don't seem the type. But mostly it was the way you accessed our waitress."
"I didn't move my head. I kept it rock steady."
"Your eyes betrayed you. They're lovely, but quite lustful. No doubt it was involuntary, but they gave her a furtive, full-body scan, not once, but twice, the second one being when she came back to ask us if everything was all right. She is a cute little thing. Maybe an eight?"
"Oh, a nine at least. With her slim waist, maybe a nine point something or other."
"I have a theory about your pretense. I think Andy learned it was me who has been contacting him, and he sent you to pump my brain."
"Senator Andrew McGowans. He told me to call him Andy."
I thought about this for a moment while I drank the last of my beer. Then I said, "Amazing. You got things almost exactly right, except my current mission is to just cozy up to you, as cozy as a gay guy can get . I am not supposed to pump your brain. Not right away, anyway. Maybe later."
Mary Lou gave me the most marvelous smile. Then she said, "Maybe we should try to enjoy ourselves at least until the brain-pumping begins."
When we got back to her apartment building, she asked me if I wanted to come up. I shook my head. "My girlfriend Sarah just might object," I said. "Besides I have to report back to Andrew. Once he learns how badly I fucked up my mission, he will probably establish a national squirrel census and exile me to backwoods Mississippi."
Our eyes met as she drew nearer. "I enjoyed our evening together," she said. "Try to remember, McGowans is a Senator, not a King, but, if you like, your failure can be our little secret."
I smiled back at her. "I enjoyed myself as well," I said. "And thank you for offering to keep my incompetency quiet. It's a kindness I don't deserve. I would like it if we could have dinner together again soon. But I believe I better tell Andrew how things went tonight. He'll want to plot fresh strategy."
"We can do this again soon," she said, "but next time I'll pay."
"I promise there will be no brain-pumping."
Mary Lou reached down to unbuckle her seat belt. "It's funny," she said. "Somehow I sense you know what it means to be an outsider who has stumbled into the inside. Like me in the convent or, for that matter, me in the White House. But your situation, while in some ways similar to mine, is vastly different. I think your outsiderness is of a different order, more serious, more vital than my sophomoric questioning of Church doctrine or even my tending to the presidential psyche. Something about you fascinates me. Fair warning: Watch it, or I may be pumping your brain."
"Don't sell yourself short. What squirts out from me would probably be downright depressing. But your brain, I suspect, could unleash an Old Faithful-like geyser of profound insights. Heretic or not, you are a thousand times closer to God than I could ever be." God? I said to myself. Why in hell did I bring up God?
Mary Lou was smiling as she faked another jab to my jaw. "OK, now, if we're finished massaging each other's egos, I should point out that I don't know as much about Champ's activities as Andrew probably hopes I do. I am not an insider. Champ's closed door meetings are closed to me. The people Champ trusts implicitly aren't exactly chatterboxes, either. However, from time to time I do hear things, and I'll make you guys privy to anything that seems especially juicy."
"What are your official White House duties?"
"I tend to the anteroom one must pass through to get to the Oval Office. I try to make visitors comfortable while they await the President. I provide them coffee or tea or sometimes a biscuit or cookies."
"You're sort of the last line of defense protecting the President?"
"Not really. There are a couple of armed-to-the-teeth Marines guarding the door."
"So you're a mere hostess?"
"Well, maybe a little more than that. I may be part bodyguard. Champ gave be a loaded Glock 43. Told me I should use it if any unauthorized or uninvited guest tries to muscle his way through. Terrorists or Democrats, they're pretty much the same in Champ's mind."
"D.C. has some pretty strict firearms regulations."
"President Champ said I shouldn't concern myself with them; They don't apply to us."
"You know how to use the Glock?"
"You better believe I do, and I also know aikido."
"I'll remember that," I said. "No doubt Champ sleeps better at night knowing you're there. But in the meanwhile, be careful. More than anything, else he demands loyalty. I doubt if he looks kindly upon spies."
She nodded. "I suppose I could get shit-canned, but at this point that could be a good thing. I have about given up on my plan to nudge him into getting a grip on his ego. It seems to exist well-separated from anything you or I would regard as reality."
"I don't know. The whole setup makes me uneasy. Champ might do more than just shit-can you."
She shrugged. "In my hands, he's just a big ol' pussy cat. Talk about irony. He was caught on tape saying he liked to grab pussy, and it turns out he is one. But don't worry. Growing up with those farm boys in Illinois, I learned how to take care of myself."
"Those Illinois boys teach you aikido?"
"No, but they taught me quite a few other things."
I told her I would keep that in mind.
. . .
At half past noon the following Monday, I had headed over to the Mitsitam Cafe for lunch. It looked like it might start raining any minute so I drove instead of walked and was pleased when I found a parking space almost in front of the cafe's front door. Housed in the National Museum of the American Indian, the cafe is known to have the best food on the National Mall. I had been told that 'Mitsitam' means 'let's eat'' in the native language of the Delaware and Piscataway Indians, and I had come to believe these people knew and demanded good vittles. If you're into cultural exploration, you can try foods such as fry bread and corn totopos. I like the more familiar-seeming buffalo burger and fried potatoes.
I am a quarter of the way through my burger and am staring intently at the remainder when I heard a tray plop down on my table. I look up, and there is Big Sam Hawkins inviting himself for lunch. Boldly attempting camaraderie, he said, "Hi ya, Champ. How're you hitting 'em?"
"Short, crooked, and often," I replied.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Sam said. "Next you'll be wanting three strokes a side."
"At least," I said. "It's not me who has gotten private instruction from Nicklaus himself."
My remark elicited a grunt that could have been interpreted any number of ways. He seemed more interested in his lunch, which happened to be the same as mine—buffalo burger, fried potatoes, and coffee, although ketchup was oozing from one side of his burger and his potatoes were covered with it. I didn't know they had ketchup here and wondered if he had brought his own. He took a big bite out of his burger and let the juice overflow his mouth. Chewing with his mouth open, he showed off a row of bad teeth. Finally he said, "Come here often?"
"Now and again," I said. "I enjoy the irony."
"Which irony is that?"
"The cultural divide. We destroyed Indian culture by slaughtering their buffalo. In an extended blaze of gunfire, we exterminated some 50-million of them inoffensive, grass-chewing critters. Buffalo Bill alone killed thousands, and we proclaimed him a national hero. And now, more than a century later, Indians serve us left-over buffalo in a bun. Ever wonder if they might be tempted to spike our burgers with something equalizingly nasty?"
Hawkins looked down at his burger, but didn't reply. I am sure he had never thought along this or similar lines. Irony was not his bag. He probably thought it was a condiment in restaurants frequented by undocumented immigrants. Finding nothing threatening about his burger, he said, "I've been thinking about you. Been wondering what a liberal weenie like you would think about Champ's microchipping proposal."
President Champ had been offering legislators the opportunity of having a microchip implanted at the base of their skulls. The chip, the latest in high-tech wizardly, was supposed to make our work much easier. It would buzz us ten minutes before a vote was coming up, but that was just the beginning. Supposedly we could close our eyes, hang on tight, think the name of a bill, and the most pertinent information about it would be fed directly into our brains. No longer will our staffs have to trudge through endless sleep-inducing legalese. Some bills go on for hundreds of pages, and most are never read in their entirety. This permits much mischief to find inclusion. Most of us simply vote along party lines. Supposedly, with the skull chip, a non-partisan group would deliver to us the essential high points of impending legislation. I had my doubts, all but certain the discourse would be spun in Champ's behalf.
"You gonna sign up for it?" Hawkins said.
"I think as much as possible I'll try to keep Champ and company out of my skull," I said. "The chips require a degree of faith I just can't muster up for Champ and friends."
"I can," he said. "Chipping is already making my life easier."
"At a price, I suspect. Everything comes at a price."
"Seems affordable enough to me. I regard my chip as a right friendly gesture from President Champ."
"What was it Truman said? If you want a friend in Washington, buy two dogs. You'll need two, because one of them is bound to turn on you."
Hawkins and I sat for a few moments in uncomfortable silence before he said, "The committee you're on with McGowans is the talk of the Hill. I hear you all but crucified Commissioner Park."
"I am afraid the group was a bit hard on him. Kinda too bad. He seems like a nice enough guy."
"With you and Andrew and Winnie Watson on it, I'll bet golf will be our national sport. God knows I love golf and have my moments of brilliance at it, but I would rather see football take top honors."
"It very well might. Andrew only gets to vote to break ties, and Winnie seems well-versed in a variety of sports. No doubt, golf should be Scotland's national sport, but I am not at all sure it should be ours."
I could hear the drumbeat of rain on the cafe's roof and was glad my car was near the door. I had finished my burger and was considering taking a pass on dessert to get away from Hawkins, but he wasn't through talking. He let it rest for six or seven seconds before he said, "There haven't been any arrests in Senator Jackson's killing."
I would have taken another sip of coffee, but my cup was empty. I settled for opening my eyes a bit wider and looking down at my cup.
Suddenly Hawkins asked, "What's your blood type?"
"A-positive," I lied. My blood type was none of Hawkins' fucking business.
"Glad to hear that," Hawkins said. "Saves you from moving up."
"Moving up where?"
"Moving up on my list. I have been compiling a list of people who might have taken an intense dislike of Senator Jackson. I believe I put you in sixty-seventh place."
"Should I be honored? And what does my blood type have to do with it?"
"My friend with the FBI told me they found specks of AB-negative blood on the bodies on both Senator Jackson and Eric Brown. It wasn't theirs. It's a rare type, fewer than one percent of people have it."
But I do. No doubt about it, the blood they found was mine.
"Frank Brown says that blood is the most important lead they have."
"Who is Frank Brown?"
"Eric Brown's brother, who just happens to be with the FBI. Classic case of good brother, bad brother, I guess. He's keeping the investigation of his brother's murder alive, claiming that evidence suggests state lines were crossed, so the FBI can stay involved."
"Bloody determined of him," I said.
Hawkins gave me a weird look; He was probably wondering if I was making light of the investigation. I suppose I was. I may have been trying to counterbalance the heavy weight forming in the pit of my stomach.
"He says he's convinced that the blood they found will prove to be the key to solving the case. There just aren't that many people with AB-negative blood."
"Now all they've got to do is find that individual," I said, "although a case based on blood type alone would be highly circumstantial."
"Convictions have been based on less. Still, finding the right guy can be difficult," Hawkins admitted. "That's why Frank is a major booster of Champ's national blood type registry."
"Blood type registry?"
"Not surprised you haven't heard of it. Champ has kept it quiet, but he wants law enforcement officials to be able to link blood types with specific individuals. Granted with A- or O-positive blood, types so common, the registry would provide millions of names. But there are other types much more rare. A few are rare indeed. One person in 250,000 has ABO negative blood."
"You've done your homework."
"Senator Jackson's murder fascinates me, and I've kept in touch with my friend Frank Brown. He's made me realize how often blood shows up at crime scenes. At present it's very difficult to trace blood to particular persons. This is too bad, since just about everybody's blood type has been recorded. Hospitals routinely do this and keep their records for seven or eight years. The military keeps records even longer. Champ's team has approached several hospitals about gaining access to these records and have been met with resistance. Patient privacy and all that. Champ figures if he can find a hospital that will release its records, it'll give him a precedent he can take into court."
"It wouldn't be definitive, like fingerprints or DNA. Probably wouldn't be admissible."
"Not by itself, but it could give investigators leads to follow. Champ also favors legislation requiring hospitals to run DNA tests. That way they could see when DNA lines up with found blood. That's what Frank Brown calls it—found blood."
"It's getting harder and harder to be a successful bad guy."
"Champ is promoting the idea that the blood and DNA registries would be used largely to establish innocence," Hawkins said. I rolled my eyes. Champ had never shown a smidgen of concern for the rights of innocent people. Hawkins continued, "A blood match couldn't prove guilt, but a mismatch could prove innocence."
"Including his own?" I replied. I don't know why I said that. Champ was being investigated on several fronts—investigators included the Justice Department, the FBI, the IRS, a Special Council, and the State of new York— but I was pretty sure none of these inquiries involved DNA or blood types. Impulsively, I said, "Do witches have peculiar blood types?" Obviously confused, Hawkins stared back at me, his lips slightly parted. No way would he pick up on my oblique reference to the witch hunts Champ insisted were pestering him. I hoped he would be equally oblivious to the sweat I felt around my collar.
I needn't have worried since Hawkins wasn't looking at my collar. He was looking at somebody across the room, waving him over. "Frank, how are you?" he said, standing up to shake the man's hand. "I haven't seen you in a coon's age. Whatcha been doing with yourself?"
"The usual," the man said, "bowing to the wishes of my constituency." When he looked at me, Hawkins said, "Frank, I want you to meet Danny Dukes. a rep from Michigan. He's a bit brash, but we'll bring him around to our way of thinking. Danny, meet my friend Frank Shelton. You're familiar with his name, I am sure. He's a long-time senatorial giant."
Small, fucking world, I thought as I shook the man's dainty hand. Senator Frank Shelton, the son of a bitch Sarah had interned for, the man guilty of hardcore, career-wrecking, sexual assault.
"This is indeed an honor," I managed to say, damning myself for the insincerity.
"It's raining cats and dogs out there," Shelton said. "On my way in, I stepped on a poodle."
Keep your day job, I said to myself.
"Sit down, sit down," Hawkins insisted, and Shelton complied. "This calls for a round," Hawkins continued as he waved a waitress over. "Scotch whiskeys," he said, "On this special occasion make it Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt."
I extended my palm toward the server. "Make mine coffee," I said. "I have a busy afternoon." The truth was I have an aversion to hard liquor.
Hawkins began talking about how years ago he and Shelton had authored concurrent crime bills, Senate and House versions eventually reconciling into a beastly statue mandating multi-year sentencing for possession of small quantities of crack cocaine. this legislation led to the prolonged incarceration of thousands of more-or-less inoffensive black people. It seemed to mark a high-point in Hawkins' legislative career. "Them coons never knew what hit 'em," he laughed.
Shelton had finished his drink and was signaling for a second while Hawkins still had half of his first one. I was waiting for my coffee to cool enough to drink. Shelton had begun talking about Kamila Madera and the threat she and others like her posed to the union. "Democratic Socialism, my ass," Shelton said, "given their way, the United States will become a banana republic, a shithole swamp reeking with loathsome liberals." Shelton may have had a drink or two before joining us. His powers of articulation were slipping, and he made a mess of "reeking with loathsome liberals."
His sloppy words brought Norway to my mind, but, fortunately, not to my mouth. Nobody here wanted to hear about a socialist country leading the U.S. in corruption-free government, per capita income, educational attainment, life expectancy, and over-all happiness. Before I knew it, Shelton was into his third drink while Hawkins had stopped at two. Suddenly it was two-twenty and Hawkins was saying he needed to get back to his office. With Hawkins gone, Shelton soon grew reflective, grappling with one of those disturbing insights that sometimes occur to drunks. "I've gotta watch my ass," he was saying. "Already had two DUIs. One more and I am in deep shit."
When he said his car was four blocks away, an idea began to form in my head. An impulsive idea, one whose rashness was matched only by its unpleasantness. "Let me drive you to your place," I said. "You can send somebody back for your car." Shelton's keys were on the table, and I picked them up and slid them into my pocket as I got up and made a move towards the door. I could see that Shelton was going to follow along.
Again I congratulated myself for having the foresight to drive here. The rain had subsided a bit, and we were able to get into the Honda while remaining mostly dry. Shelton wasn't tall, five-six at best, but he was rather wide, and I wasn't sure he would find my ride sufficiently accommodating. I don't know if he could have gotten his seat belt buckled, but no matter. We would be spared the annoyance of an incessant chime since I had it disabled some time ago. It's my conviction that I should be telling the car what do do, not visa versa.
When we got to the Tidal Basin Welcome Area near the Jefferson Memorial, I pulled in and stopped the car. Shelton had had his eyes closed, but opened them and asked what we were doing there.
"I've got something in my trunk that I think might interest you," I said as I punched the button opening the trunk. It was a fifth of Glenfarclas Single Malt Scotch, given to me by a donor the night the election returns were going my way. If he had been expecting a taste, he was disappointed. I later learned he had spent over $400 on this particularly fine stuff, but I simply don't drink hard liquor. When I was a kid, eight, maybe nine years old, I had stolen a swig from a bottle one of my mother's boyfriends had left behind. Gawd, it was awful, I can still remember gagging again and again, and I have never felt the urge for more. Beer, plenty of that, wine, sure thing, but no hard liquor. Instead of opening the bottle, I stuck it in a bag and later got it into the trunk of my car. There it had stayed mostly forgotten awaiting a special occasion.
When I got back in the car, I handed the bottle to Shelton and wasn't surprised when he caressed it worshipfully in his small, soft hands. "This is mighty fine stuff," he said. "Forty years old it is."
"I thought you might like it," I said. "Before we tap into it, I do have one question. I've heard you have a way with women, so tell me, what does a man have to do to get laid around here?"
"What'd ya mean?" Shelton said, failing to coordinate his lips, mouth, teeth, and tongue. "Pussy everywhere."
"I see it everywhere, but when I approach it, it tends to wave me off." I pried the bottle from his hands, twisted the cap off, and handed it back. "Age before beauty," I said.
He took a healthy swig. "You have to come on like you're important," he said. "D.C. if full of people who think they're big shots. You're a newcomer, drive a junk Honda. What yah expect?" He handed the bottle back to me.
"When I first got elected, I thought I was pretty hot shit," I said. "I was delusional, I guess. Thought I could bang whoever I wanted."
"Patience, my good fella. All good things come to those who wait. Also who're pushy, take what they want, don't take 'no' for an answer." For the first time that night, the man laughed.
"They tell me that back in the day things hereabouts were really wild," I said. "The Kennedy boys, dating starlets, sharing broads with mobsters and Russian operatives, driving off bridges."
"Their day, the media not anxious to blab stuff."
"It seems like the Democrats have gotten all the goodies. What's GOP stand for? Gimpy Old Men?"
Shelton chuckled, took another swig, almost choked on it. "Fuck no. Our profiles, kept low. Remember I got hooked up with stripper, called herself Itsy Bitsy, well, about her boobs, they weren't."
Ah, the good old days, I said to myself. I know a bit about them. "The Tidal Basin, right here, this is where Wilbur Mills and Fanne Foxe were romping and stomping."
"The Argentin Firequacker. Met her once. Sumpem else."
"Mills eventually got taken down, didn't he?"
"He 'n' Foxy got reel public. Don't know, love, lust, drunk, he cudn't stay away. Way back, he's wun powerful mothafuck. Ways an' Means, revnu control, everythin importnt. Unimposing bugger, reel meek, but Fanne says he knock her up."
"I don't know," I said. "Seems to me things are more buttoned down now. We've all become politically correct. Touch a women in the wrong spot, and all hell breaks loose. Careers are being wrecked for incidents that happened decades ago. Seems like it's open season on virile men."
Shelton took another hit from my bottle. He either hadn't noticed that I wasn't partaking or didn't care. "I wouldn't say that necessarily," he said. "These days ya wanna be discreet, but you'd be surprised what goes on 'n private."
"Clinton got blow jobs in the Oval Office. Could that happen now?"
"He got screwed. Who'd thought that skank would onto hang that dress? Can't trust 'em. We impeach the bum, had noway kickin' em ou."
"Still, who would have believed he was carrying on in the Oval Office?"
"Cum to my office sumday. Button on the desk, locks the door tighter'n nun's cunt. Visits leave when I tell 'em dey kin. Na befor." He took another swig from the bottle without having handed it back to me. He was getting possessive.
"You've never gotten any complaints?"
Shelton thought about this for awhile. Then he said, "I did git won. Bitch got me before an ethic bord. My lawyears made damn shor work o' her."
"I think I heard something about that. Girl by the name of Sharon?"
"Sharon, Cheri, Charlotte, Cindy, Saucy, sumpting like that. I had a grl Saucee wnce. She sharpen mi pencils."
"Take off your clothes."
"Take off your clothes, please."
"Wha? Hell, no. I donn swing tha way."
"Neither do I. Take them off, all of them, now."
"Wha the fuck yu doin?
"Forcing you to disrobe."
"I don't get it. If you na quer, wha the fuk ar yu?"
"Think of me as an avenging angel."
"Wha...Wha da hell yu wan?"
"Humiliation. I want you to experience some."
For a moment, Shelton became almost sober. "Well, I won do it."
I drew the Glock 19 from my jacket pocket and pressed the muzzle against the side of his head. "You sure about that?"
"Yu wone shuut me. I'm Sentor Unite Stats."
I tapped the muzzle against his head just below the hairline. "You really want to bet your life on that?"
"Do you know who you screwin' wid? You're a fuckin' kid, but now you finished. I'll have you run out of town. Yual nev sho face agin."
"You might be surprised," I said as I brought my iPhone out of my other pocket. "I've taped your confession. You want the world to know how badly you treated Sarah? How fucking proud it makes you? You've got thirty seconds to get out of that suit." I was bluffing. I hadn't turned the iPhone's recorder on.
Shelton blinked at the iPhone. I was quite sure I saw a hint of comprehension cross his countenance.
Advantage mine! Evidently I persuaded him. Tossing in his hand, he began fumbling with his suit coat buttons. There was barely enough room in the Honda, but he got it off. It was well over thirty seconds by the time he worked his way out of his pants, but he was doing the best he could so I cut him some slack.
"Shoes, socks, and underwear too," I said.
"Plese..." he started to say, but a closer look at my glock brought him around to my way of thinking. It took another 30 seconds, but he got everything off. The rainfall was a Godsend. There was no pedestrian traffic, nobody to wonder what the hell we were up to.
He had been handing his clothes to me. No place else to put them. I had been gathering them into a ball, and he was beginning to show some concern. "That's a Brks Broers, ya nowe? Twelv undred buks. Take it easy fore Chrst's sak. And the shoes. Berlutis. Sho sume respect."
I didn't reply. Instead, ignoring the rain, I walked down to the Tidal Basin and threw them in. I watched for a minute as they bobbed in the choppy waters. It struck me as a grand gesture, and I almost wished I had an audience. When I got back to the car Shelton was bawling like a baby. "I'll get you for this," he sobbed. "Sume how, sume wae I'll get yu."
"Out!" I said.
"No wae," he stammered. "No fuckin wae. You cand mak me..."
Turns out I could. His valiant last stand crumbled like a Ritz cracker after I whacked the side of his head hard enough for it to hurt. "Out!" I said, louder than before.
Between whimpers he may have stammered "please" a couple of times and the word "cocksucker" may have been among his incoherent blubberings, but he did slide out of the car, stumbling as he sought to retain a balance. Immediately he tried to cover his nuts with his elbows and, for some reason, his nipples with his hands, but he did a bad job of it. Flabby and tear-stained, he looked pathetic. Sarah had been right on about the size of his dong. I put the cap on Old Grand Dad before I gave Shelton a last disdainful look and drove away.
JOURNAL ENTRY 290
The following day, Senator Frank Shelton was all over the front page of the Post. As far as I can tell, the police picked him up five or ten minutes after I dropped him off. The lead story said he was naked, drunk, and incoherent when they brought him into the station. Hours later, according to the Post, he insisted he couldn't remember how he got that way. By day's end he was taken to the Psychiatric Institute of Washington for further examination. So far, so good. It doesn't look like Shelton is eager to blow the whistle on me. Let's hope they don't resort to sodium pentothal.
Yeah, yeah, I know, I shouldn't have done what I did. I don't know what gets into me. Poor impulse control is no excuse. I haven't wanted to draw attention to myself, never mind put myself at grave and unnecessary risk. I did it for Sarah, I guess, although it's hard to see how it's going to do her much good. Shelton is certain to try to get back at me. He isn't the type to shrug things off. Certainly not something like what I did to him. I doubt if he has a forgiving bone in his body. Senator Jackson sent somebody after me (I think); why wouldn't Shelton do likewise? I hope Sarah will appreciate my efforts in her behalf.Does she love me? Do I love her?
I am accumulating too many things to worry about. There's a good chance I have CTE. My brain could be deteriorating rapidly and I would be too stupid to notice. Maybe the people around me are too polite to say anything. Then there's the ever-obnoxious Hawkins. Does he know more than he's letting on? Is he trying to spook me? Am I a suspect or a so-called person of interest? Did our paths just happen to cross at the Mitsitam Cafe? Is he keeping tabs on me?
Okay, let's be rational. There could be a highly circumstantial connection between me, Brown, and Jackson. Brown didn't live that far away from me, and I was on Jackson's committee. But that really isn't any sort of connection at all. But what if the FBI decided it was enough of a connection to warrant digging deeply into my past? Deegan said the dozen years of history he provided me would withstand moderate investigation, but surely the FBI has resources to dig very deeply. But if it had done so, I would already be under arrest, wouldn't I?
Maybe I should pack up and run. I wonder what Deegan would say if I showed up wanting another new ID. Good as Deegan is, would he be able to shield me from a really thorough investigation? Hawkins could have gotten my DNA from our lunch together.
So far, I have been mostly healthy and have managed to avoid hospitalization. As far as I knew, St. John Health Providence in Southfield, a city near Detroit, was the only hospital that would have a record of my blood type. It is rated as among the area's worst hospitals, and I had very little faith in its ability to keep my records private. My hospitalization was six or seven years ago. Hospitals can't be expected to keep those records forever. I hoped its inefficiency extended to record-keeping.
The army has my DNA on file. Not mine, but Dwight DeLong's, and he's dead. I wonder what the army does with the DNA of dead soldiers. They could, of course, store it all forever. Wouldn't take up much computer room. Keeping it would be easier than weeding it out. Maybe I could get Deegan to go in, take a look, delete it if it's there. But this shouldn't be necessary. It would be hard to trace me, Danny Dukes, to the military.
Of course Jackson sent Brown to get me. I shouldn't allow myself to wonder about that. But questions do arise. Jackson evidently arranged this with just a few hours notice. Hard to believe Jackson had ready access to a hired killer conveniently located close to me. And Brown had that wad of cash. Things must have been set in motion well before I overheard Jackson's telephone conversation. It couldn't have been the first time. Jackson must have used him before. Or maybe there's a third person, a go-between. If Jackson wanted me dead, there must be others with wish lists that include me. Hawkins' FBI pals should be able to figure out that Brown was a thug for hire.Can it be that hard to figure out who hired him?
Should I run? Where the hell to? Turn myself in? Throw myself on the mercy of the court? Plead insanity? Resign myself to the likelihood of spending the rest of my days behind bars? Hope to end up in a nice, peaceful asylum? Why can't I come up with a scenario I like even a little bit?
Once again I got to my committee meeting ten minutes early, and McGowans was already there. "Commissioner Backus won't be with us today," he said. "He is sending a lawyer, Larry Stevens."
"Why a lawyer?" I said.
"Backus said an urgent family matter came up unexpectedly. I don't believe this for a moment. It's his way of telling us we choose football as our national sport or we face legal action."
"Would he have a case?"
McGowans shrugged. "Hard to say what slicks lawyer could come up with. Discrimination? Fraud? Corruption? Conspiracy? Treason? The list of possibilities is endless."
"You're a slick lawyer. Couldn't you beat them back?"
"I haven't practiced for several years, and they could come at us with a team of lawyers. Make no mistake, they're fully capable of making life miserable for us."
My initial impulse was to tell Champ and Stevens to go fuck themselves. "Do we really care?" I said.
"Besides making us wish we were elsewhere doing almost anything else, it could play into Champ's hands. A big court case could keep things disrupted long after we've finished our work."
I wasn't sure I gave a good God damn if we ever finished our work, which to me was seeming more and more irrelevant.
A female voice interjected. "Are we here to talk about sports or litigation?" Neither McGowans or I had realized that Winnie Watson had come into the room. 0.Before McGowans can reply, the door swung open, and Jake Morgan, the representative from Green Bay, came in. "Hi, guys," he says. "Are ya ready for some football?"
McGowans smiled as he replied, "All my rowdy friends are here on Monday night!" The exchange engendered vivid memories of Howard Cosell and company keeping me up way too late. There was a time up until the early eighties when it seemed like folks throughout the nation quit doing whatever they were doing to tune into ABC. As an American Institution, Monday Night Football was somewhat short-lived. Since the mid-eighties, the show has had to make do with less compelling personalities (O.,J. Simpson was on for three years), games have been played on Thursday and Sunday nights, and ratings have dwindled.
One after another, the other members of our committee filed into the room. They were followed by a distinguished-looking fellow in a pin stripe suit who I took to be Larry Stevens. McGowans shook his hand and offered him the chair next to his. Once everybody was seated around the table, McGowans introduced Stevens to the others, and then had the others identify themselves followed quick bios. Stevens listened politely and nodded at each recital.
"We are here today to discuss football," McGowans said, "and to try to determine whether or not it should be our National Sport." Turning to Stevens, McGowans added, "Do you have anything to say to kick things off?"
Stevens stood tall as one-by-one he made eye contact with each member of the committee. When he was sure he had everybody's attention, he said, "Kick things off. What a wonderful way to begin a discussion about football. Well, I think we can cut this discussion short if I submit a metaphor of my own: Nowhere other than football does it pay to kick when things aren't going well. And I can guarantee that things won't go well for any of you if you recommend any spot other than football for the honor of being the National Sport. Any idiot can see that should some other sport be chosen there would be grievous public outrage. I can't imagine this happening in any fair and honest election."
Misella Gardner spoke up quickly. "Are you suggesting this committee might in some corrupt way torpedo the selection of football?"
"No, no, not all," Stevens replied just as quickly. "Of course not. I have no reason to suspect any such thing."
Smooth move, I thought. Stevens has planted a seed of doubt. I know damn well he'll find a way to make it bloom.
"We believe this matter is cut and dried," Stevens said. Pulling a legal pad from his briefcase, he glanced at it several times as he began reciting statistics. "Professional football is far-and-away the nation's most popular sport. About a third of the nation tunes in to every Super Bowl. The 17 most-watched programs in TV history have all been Super Bowl games. Each year, a Harris Interactive survey asks Americans to name their favorite sport. The NFL has won each of the last 43 surveys, generally rather handily. Some 225 million Americans watched an NFL game on TV this season — nearly 100 million more than the record number of Americans who voted in the 2008 presidential election. College football also has a huge following. At many universities and small colleges, revenue from the football program more than pays for the rest of the athletic program."
Myers spoke up. "I guess this is true, even with the high cost of stadiums and top coaches earning more than university presidents. You got stats on that?"
Addressing Myers, Stevens said, "I have info on you. It seems, you love being the devil's advocate. As I understand it, you're the leader of a gang of naysayers. Two weeks ago, you spent an hour or two putting Commissioner Park through the wringer. You can hardly blame Lloyd Wrangler for preferring not to undergo a similar borking."
Winnie Watson said, "It was our understanding that a pressing family matter prevented Commissioner Wrangler from joining us today."
Stevens flashed an engaging smile he probably had used to charm countless. "It's possible he prefers the company of his family to that of a hostile committee."
"How very unforthright of him," Troy Smith said.
"Let 's cut to the chase," Stevens said. "I'll do my version of an onside kick. It is our steadfast conviction that professional football should take top honors as national sport. No other sport comes close to matching its impact. If necessary, we're prepared to take the matter directly to the people. Gathering enough signatures on petitions could take a few years, and most of you will be up for reelection before the matter can be settled. You would be better off running against the flag or mom's apple pie than the NFL."
"The NFL is far from invincible," said Kamila Madera, the representative from Queens. "The player it tried to discipline for staging public protests made out pretty well."
"That man will never take another snap for an NFL team," Stevens said.
We all sat looking at the man in stunned silence. He had all but admitted to collusion. I felt an impulse to do the man bodily harm, an impulse that under different circumstances might have been impossible to contain.
"Any questions?" he said. "If not, I'll take my leave."
Myers started to say something, but thought better of it. After a short pause, Stevens said, "Good day," and was out the door.
Winnie Watson spoke up first. "What a pompous asshole. He's gotta be bluffing."
"No way on God's green earth will I give that shit my vote," said Mike Dunn.
Jake Morgan, who I had thought would defend football to the bitter end, looked like he was trying to bore a hole through the table he was glaring at.
McGowans spoke next. "Mr. Stevens has left us all a little shaken," he said. "We'll have to think this thing through. Time is on our side, so we mustn't run off half-cocked."
Peter Myers slapped the table with an open palm. "How about de-cocked? I'd like castrating the bastard. Rashly or not, I want to throw that son of a bitch for a twenty yard loss. He's a dirty player."
"There are penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct, aren't there?" said Misella Gardner.
I decided to speak up. "This is pretty much the first time we've been united. None of us like Larry Stevens. I guess we're all outraged by his arrogance. But this isn't a popularity contest. Our job here isn't to pass judgment on Larry Stevens, but to recommend a National Sport. Stevens or no Stevens, it's possible football should be that sport."
"Not in my mind," said Lucia Lopez. "The NFL is strictly for guys. We should name a sport that's open to both genders."
Jake Morgan did finally speak up. "What about those Dallas cheerleaders? They seem plenty sporty to me."
Lucia shot him a dirty look. "If you wanna go whack off, go whack off. But do it on your time, not ours."
Lucia's outburst left the others momentarily speechless. Finally Troy Smith said, "Baseball may once have been America's pastime. But it lost that status the moment TV came along. TV and football were made for each other. Little bursts of violent activity followed by intervals of non-activity. What with Instant Replay, there is plenty of opportunities to slip in ads."
Winnie Watkins said, "An avalanche of creative advertising can draw many spectators to the super Bowl. But fewer people are watching regular-season games. The president's suggestion that certain players be run out of town for knelling in protest during the National Anthem hasn't helped. Ratings have fallen, especially among younger people."
"They're still miles ahead of every other sport," Huff said.
"I have teenage children," Misella Gardner said. "A boy and a girl. Neither of them would think of sitting down for three hours and passively watch any sort of game. I think maybe this isn't altogether a bad thing."
Myers asked, "How much do you know about ADD?"
"Quite a lot, actually," Misella insisted. "As a mother, I keep on top of things. At times, their ability to maintain attention is incredible. My kids can carry on text exchanges for hours on end."
Myers wasn't done. "Any problems with impulsiveness? Do they make spur-of-the-moment decisions without thinking about the chance of harm or long-term effects?"
"I wouldn't say so," said Misella. "No more-so than their friends."
"Teenage brains aren't fully developed," Myers said. "Accounts for much of their foolish behavior."
This was hitting too close to home for me. I am sensitive to observations about dysfunctional brains. Could smoking, drinking, recreational drugs, bar fights, and kickboxing stunt the maturity of young brains? Do full-blown adults come down with ADD? Have I always had ADD? Am I punch drunk?
Peter Myers jerked me back to the moment. "Fantasy sports are popular," he said. "Maybe fantasy should be our national sport—or maybe our national obsession."
Troy Smith said, "Most of our love-making is an exercise in fantasy, isn't it? Or is it just me? You should see some of the beauties I've imagined screwing."
"Is this a committee-meeting or a confessional?" Winnie Watson wanted to kow.
"The things we say here stay here, right?" Smith said, who was suddenly looking worried.
"You're on tape," Myers said. "This isn't Vegas. You'll soon be part of an indelible public record."
"Oh, God," said Smith. "My marriage..."
Misella said, "Your wife is a woman, right? A normal white woman? I am sure she will understand. She probably fantasizes over dudes bigger and badder than you."
Smith looked unconvinced.
McGowans said, "We're not accomplishing a hell of a lot here today. All these asides should be set aside."
"I don't know what we have done, but what we haven't done is consider the brutality of football," Winnie Watson said. "Some tests have indicated that nearly all players suffer brain damage. It's like millions of people who lap it up are just plain blood-thirsty. We're not far removed from the Romans and their feed-em-to-the-lions spectacles."
Morgan said, "There are rules to our games. Steps have been taken to help prevent serious injuries. For example, players aren't allowed to use their helmets as battering rams."
"Were Roman gladiators made to abide by any rules?" Troy Smith asked.
"Actually, they were," said Misella, who continued to show impressive spurts of expertise. "An examination of gladiator remains disclosed that very few died from blows to the back of the head. Evidently, sneak attacks were prohibited. Their fights weren't necessarily to the death, either. Records show that around ninety percent of them lived to fight another day. Losers were spared if they put up spirited defenses. In many cases, the system wasn't an altogether bad one for gladiators. Most were criminals or prisoners of war, and they stood a chance of winning their freedoms if they could survive a few years as gladiators."
"The NFL offers players a pretty good deal as well," Morgan said. "Professional players make shitloads of money."
"Their average career is four years," said Winnie Watson said. "Many ordinary people with modest annual salaries are competitive over the long haul."
"Too many players invest in gold jewelry instead of blue chip stocks," said Peter Myers. "They also seem to have an excessive fondness for black Lamborghinis."
"A lot of players grew up dirt poor," Misella said. "It isn't an easy adjustment to suddenly having millions."
"So where do we place the blame?" Myers said.
"I wonder what the NFL will look like in twenty years," Misella said. "Do we want a National Sport that's on the way to extinction? Most of the young mothers I know won't let their sons engage in football. Not ever, no way,"
Silence engulfed the room. Nobody had anything to say.
It was probably presumptuous of me, but I stayed seated as the others left the room. McGowans looked
decidedly downcast. "You look like your puppy has been run over by a semi," I said.
McGowans shook his head. "Stevens played us like a fiddle," he said. "We responded precisely the way he wanted us to."
"How so?" I said.
"Watson, Dunn, Myers, and Misella are all on record of intensely disliking the guy. Dunn even said there was no way he'd ever vote for football because of him. A strong case can be made that a group vote against football is a vote against Stevens—an obviously unfair vote. Don't for get that our anti-Stevens tirades are all on public record. He's got us by the short hairs, right where he wants us."
"You think he's shrewd enough to have planned this?"
"I do. I definitely do. We're up against some very sharp intellects."
"Guys like him earn at least twenty-five hundred an hour. I guess they better be sharp."
"We should be sharp enough not to look like total idiots."
"One would hope so. Incidentally, Mary Lou saw through my gay act. Didn't fool her for a moment."
"Is she shunning you?"
"Not at all. She has agreed to see me again soon."
"She sent me another letter. Longer than the others. She said there is reason to believe that the privatization bidding process is rigged. Champ's cohorts seem to be getting all the best contracts."
"There must be a review process."
"Not really," McGowans said. "Yeah, there is an oversight committee, but it's manned by Champ minions. Very quietly, Champ has been issuing hundreds of executive orders. He often signs them on late Friday afternoons or coincident with other major announcements. Turning an entire agency over to private enterprise in one fell swoop would draw attention, but he seems to be doing it a bit at a time. At this point, almost the entire Food and Drug Administration is in the hands of big pharmaceutical companies. The Department of the Interior is being run by big oil companies. Right now they're drilling for oil in a forgotten corner of Yellowstone National Park. Google has been put in charge of our drone fleet."
"Talk about letting the foxes guard the hen houses."
"Champ's mini-steps haven't attracted much attention. Taken one by one, none seems to amount to much. A few paragraphs on the back pages of the Washington Post and New York Times. It's all in the pages of the Congressional Record, of course, but almost nobody reads that."
"Somebody must be objecting."
McGowans shook his head. "Champ has intimidated just about everybody. The federal libel legislation he rammed through, his so-called Victim of Lies Protection Act, has silenced much of the opposition. A conviction here can mean 20 years behind bars. Anybody printing or broadcasting anything that can't be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt can expect quick and overwhelming retribution. Writers are increasingly hesitant abut expressing controversial opinions. Anything that might be a matter of opinion damn well better be labeled as such. Numerous left-leaning publications and broadcasters fear bankruptcy. The publisher of a major U.S. newspaper is facing charges that could conceivably lead to twenty in Leavenworth for propagating 'false news.' "
"Champ presents himself as an advocate of openness and free enterprise."
"Many of Champ's followers hate public services. They see them as a slippery slope to Communism. Such things as schools, parks, highways, sewer systems, buses, and libraries annoy him no end. They regard them as expensive wastes that put burdensome taxes and annoying regulatory constraints on worthy people. Champ has catered to them with small, incremental steps to deconstruct, eliminate, or privatize all things public. His policy initiatives have have gone largely unreported—and thus widely unchallenged. He has opened America's coastlines to drilling and public lands to fracking. He has drastically increased entrance fees to our national parks while reducing federal support for their maintenance."
"In high school we read Brave New World," I said. "I believe Huxley said something like 'Facts do not cease to exist because we ignore them.' "
McGowans grinned. "I guess occasionally you paid a little attention," he said.
"Mostly when I sensed The Man was being challenged," I said. "But there is a thing I don't get. Our most highly regarded presidents all increased the power of the Executive Branch. Lincoln suspended Habeas corpus. FDR did all sorts of previously unimaginable things. Can't Champ be said to be following in their footsteps?"
"Champ is undermining the pillars of our democracy," McGowans said. "People from both parties are fond of saying that in America no man is above the law, but then they turn around and say a sitting President can't be indicted. Champ regards himself as high above the law. H is openly challenging the legitimacy of the Judiciary. He is facing multiple-investigations, but by ignoring subpoenas, he is mocking Congress, the media, the Justice Department and other regulatory agencies."
"In an effort to make himself all-powerful?"
"One would think so, but that isn't what's happening. The federal government, and himself as its leader, is becoming less powerful, not more. A strong leader would be flexing his muscles, but Champ is backing off. How can we do battle against a foe who refuses to fight? As you pointed out, our top-rated presidents have always been those who amass more and more power in the executive branch. It is arguable that this is unfortunate. Nevertheless, we expect a man like Champ to endeavor to become more and more powerful. Were he to do this, we would bitterly oppose him, but his refusal to do this is both confusing and infuriating."
"His latest tax cuts will double the deficit."
"It can devastate the country, but too many people don't care. They're all in favor of anything that'll bring them short-term cash. Champ controls the Federal Reserve, which insists on keeping interest rates at near zero. He wants money to be cheap, which pleases the corporate elite, but ultimately can bring on run-away inflation. More and more foreign countries are doing transactions in alternative currencies, setting the stage for the U.S. dollar to be dropped as the worldwide reserve currency. Should that happen, a deep depression would be the likely outcome."
"Is he simply short-sighted?"
"It can't be that simple. Sometimes he directs his followers like a masterful conductor of a vast symphony orchestra. At other times, he's absolutely blind. We're seeing the effects of climate change all around us, but Champ refuses to admit anything is happening."
"What are we going to do about all this?"
McGowans shrugged. "Beats the hell out of me. I feel like the country is going down the tubes, and there isn't a fucking thing we can do about it. We're in a regressive loop. People have little or no confidence in the government. When the government gets weaker, people are happy to see it go so they applaud. When it gets weaker still, people applaud more. Those of us who oppose Champ, who feel the government could be a powerful force for good, are left confused. What the hell is he getting out of weakening his position? Is he being paid by China? By Russia? What is he getting out of destroying America?"
I wondered how hard it would be to kill Champ.
. . .
I had nothing else happening for the rest of the day so I went back to my apartment. I read a bit, thought about doing some laundry, considered preparing some lunch. What I really wanted was a drink. Not far from my apartment is a tavern, a godsend. Nothing fancy. Nobody pretending to be important. There's smoking, drinking, pool and darts, and an occasional late-night brawl. The place wouldn't rate half a star in any sensible visitors' guide. It's a beer drinkers' bar. Perfect. Couldn't be better.
When I got there, the jukebox is belting out a country-western, lonely-hearts lament of lowdown betrayal. As always there were no unattended females under the age of fifty. I was nursing a third beer when a man sat down at my table. Beardless and twenty pounds heavier, I didn't recognize him until he slapped his broad-brimmed, leather, outback hat down on the table.
Rex Gunthrey, the guy I shot in Afghanistan.
"Holy shit," I said.
He needed a haircut and shave, his eyes were bloodshot, and he had black bags under them. His jeans were threadbare, and it looked like he had used his sweatshirt as a strainer for his lunch, but no matter: he was definitely Rex Gunthrey. "Long time, no see," he said.
"How ya been?" I said.
"Better now. I was laid up for a spell after you shot me."
"I gotta hand it to you; You're one tough son of a bitch."
"Gotta be. Ya never knew who's gonna pop ya."
"I thought you needed popping."
Gunthrey seemed to give the matter serious consideration. Finally he said, "Yeah, could be. There is a lot I don't remember from back then. I've heard old farts say if you remember the sixties, you weren't part of them. Same for Afghanistan, I guess. Too many pharmaceuticals, too much gore. But I do remember you. You are crystal-clear in my mind. Nothing foggy there. It's like getting shot focuses the mind. I was king shit and you were squat, and now it's the other way around. Karma, I guess."
"So what're you doing with yourself?"
"Mending, collecting disability, going to rehab, getting smashed, going back to rehab, settling old scores. Back then I racked up quite a few. Can't recall 'em all. I was part of it, that's for sure. Those were the days..."
"We thought they'd never end."
"But they did, my friend. They ended for us, and gawd how I miss 'em. Sometimes I wish you'd killed me. Now those days seem fuzzy, just out of touch. I reach out for 'em, but can't quite contact 'em. I am left grabbing thin air. Could be the meds, I guess. Now those days occupy a wild, strange, terrifying, and unreachable time way back when. I hated every second of 'em, and god how I want them back."
"We did some bad shit," I said.
Gunthrey looked puzzled. "We did, I guess. Hard to recall. Probably a good thing our government squelched any and all war crime investigations. You and I might be in deep doo doo."
"I guess that's one way of looking at it. How'd you make it out?"
"The guys carried me to a nearby house. Turned out to belong to the parents of the girl terrorist I took out. There was a photograph of her on the dresser, smiling and holding a book. Small world, huh? They spoke a little English and were wondering where she'd gone. They were afraid the Taliban had gotten her. She had gotten some schooling and was learning to read. Nice people. They gave me their bed and cleaned me up. The guys found a radio and called for a medevac. I told 'em I'll come back to see 'em, but I know I never will. Next thing I know I'm stateside. I guess you know I'm gonna kill ya."
"I assume you'll try."
"Tough guy, huh? Hear you killed a guy in the ring. I'm impressed. But you had a different name. I knew you as Dwight DeLong."
"You did. Clean start, new name. Buy you a beer?"
Gunthrey nodded. "Whatever you call yourself, you'll never see it coming."
"No high-noon shoot-out in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue?"
He shook his battered head. "I ain't no John Wayne. He attracts way too much attention. I'm more of a Ninja. Sneaky, but deadly. You won't suffer. Not much, anyway."
"Time will tell." I caught the attention of the woman behind the bar, pointed at my bottle and flashed two fingers. She brought them over and I handed her a twenty. "You might want to apply that to my account," I said.
We sat in silence, drinking our beers, our thoughts years and many miles away. After maybe five minutes, I broke the silence. "How'd you find me?"
"Dumb luck. Out in Montana, saw your picture in an old Ring magazine. I don't read much, but I was looking at pictures and there you were. The page was torn, the caption was gone, but I knew it was you. You'd let your hair grow out, grew a beard, put on weight, but I recognized you right away. It was your eyes. They were what I was looking at when you shot me. They're blue and seemed to get bigger and bluer when you pulled the trigger. The picture was part of an article about Motown kickboxing, so right away I headed for Detroit looking for ya. It took awhile, I had to hit a ton of bars, but finally I found somebody who'd known Dwight DeLong. He said you were dead, killed along with a bunch of guys in Afghanistan. I didn't need to be told they'd never found your body."
Gunthrey drained half of his beer in a single, extended gulp and looked reflective. "I didn't give up. I showed the picture around and found somebody who knew Danny Dukes. He said you'd just sort of disappeared, so then I began asking about Danny Dukes, claimed you were an old Army buddy. This was easier. Danny Dukes was pretty well-known, respected even, but at first nobody seemed to know where he was or that he'd been in the service of his country. Didn't matter, I was like a bloodhound, hot on his trail. I couldn't believe it when somebody told me you were a congressman. DeLong, the punk kid, and Dukes, a congressman, seemed like totally different dudes, but I knew they had to be one and the same. Your eyes. Can't forget 'em. Never will. Funny how things work out."
"So here I am, clear across the country, meeting you at last. And here you are, a hot-shot congressman, alive and kickin', on your way to becoming one of the grizzled, old farts sending sweet young boys off to be shot up in shithole countries around the world. Who'd ah thunk it?"
"Not me, that's for sure. You packing?"
"No. Not now. You?"
"We'll have to settle this another time."
Gunthrey pushed his chair back, grabbed his outback hat, shoved it on his head as he stood up. "Til later," he said as he turned and headed towards the door.
I needed nurturing. Where was my mom when I needed her? I wanted to be held safely in the arms of a good woman. Too much was pressing in on me. First Hawkins, then the FBI, now Gunthrey. I had never before felt so vulnerable. Guthrey had told people back in Detroit that Dukes and DeLong are one and the same. Maybe some believed him. Maybe DeLong isn't so dead any more. Maybe people in suits and shiny shoes were looking for him. It wasn't yet three o'clock; Sarah wouldn't be busy at the club.
When I got there, there wasn't a paying customer in the place. I went straight back to the office, knocked at the door, identified myself, and was told to hold on. Seconds later, the lock clicked and the door opened. I hadn't realized the door had a lock. Sarah was sitting behind her desk. Standing beside here were Lila Springer and Brock Henderson. Lila's smile was bright and sunny, and I had to assume Brock was treating her okay. He was keeping what appeared to be a tight grip on a small satchel.
"What's in the bag?" I said.
"Diamonds," Brock said.
I wondered if he was kidding.
"Brock invests much of his income in diamonds," Lila said. "He doesn't trust banks or the stock market and doesn't like antiques, exotic sports cars, or art."
"Over time, diamonds will always appreciate in value," Brock said. "Not too many things you can say that about. They really are forever."
Evidently he wasn't kidding.
"I have children scattered about here and there," Brock said. "I know who they are. I've kept track of them. I can't be a real dad, but when I die they'll be compensated for having made it without me."
"This place came with a state-of-the-art wall safe I never use," Sarah said. "I am letting Brock store his stuff here. We have set the biometric lock to recognize the iris of his left eye. Nothing else will open it."
I didn't know why this arrangement was making me uneasy, but it was. I noticed that Sarah was looking closely at me. "You look like a whipped dog," she said. "What have you been up to?"
"Just the usual legislative thrills and spills." I said. "Never a dull moment on the Hill."
"What's gonna be our national sport?" Brock said.
"Hard to say," I replied. "If bickering were a sport, right now it would be a hands-down favorite."
"Have you considered pole dancing?" Lila said. She did a quick bump and grind as she toyed with the top button of her shirt. "It's been awhile, but I used to be pretty good."
I entertained the notion of asking her for a extended demonstration.
Sarah smiled. "Sometimes I think Lila's great ambition is to turn our respectable little club into a strip joint."
"Not a joint," Lila said as she started on the second button. "An emporium of exotica. A celebration of the bountiful body beautiful. A salutation to the all-but- forbidden dimension of sensual celebration. A hot-spot conjoining physical and spiritual arousal."
Brock said, "I love her for her gibberish, but she needs to say more about tits and asses."
"I memorized those lines from a romance novel," she admitted as she abandoned the button and turned her attention to the wall safe.
There was a knock at the door. Sarah glanced at Brock, who stepped over the safe and brought his face up to it. He grabbed the handle, gave it a quarter-turn clockwise, and opened the door easily. He put the satchel inside, closed the door, reset the handle, gave it a reassuring tug, and stepped away. Sarah went to the office door, slipped the lock, and opened it.
Mary Lou seemed uncertain as she looked around the small room, taking everything in. "I am sorry," she said. "I didn't know you were busy. I'll come back."
I leaped to my feet. "No, no," I said, stepping towards her. "We were just finishing up. I was hoping to see you later today." I glanced at Sarah, who was looking a bit perplexed. Introductions were in order, and I was in a bit of a quandary. Presenting Mary Lou as Champ's receptionist would raise too many questions. "Finally, pointing to each person appropriately, I said, "Sarah, the owner of this place, Lila, lead vocalist, and Brock, significant other, meet Mary Lou, my alternative girlfriend." There was an awkward moment before everybody chuckled appreciatively. Sarah went along with the bemusement, although I believed I detected the beginnings of a glare. I caught her eye and offered a hopeful, unreciprocated smile. Then I ushered Mary Lou to a small table in a far corner of the club.
"I didn't mean to place you in an awkward situation," she said, "but I felt I really needed to speak with you."
"For me, life itself is an awkward situation. Don't worry about it. How'd you know I'd be here?"
"I didn't. You weren't at home, and on several occasions, you have mentioned this club, so I thought I would check it out."
"So what's going on?"
"President Champ has offered me a promotion," she said. "He wants me to be his press secretary. I don't see how I can do it. Every other day or so I would have to go before the media and try to support his lies, justify his repugnant policies. I don't see how I could live with myself."
"Then decline his offer," I said.
"Somebody has to do it. I still feel a little bit responsible for Champ being where he is. I still think I might be able to ease him back into something approaching normalcy."
"What happened to Melody Birdsong?"
"She lost her mind, spat out several honest answers, left the press corps speechless. Among other things, she admitted our drones wiped out a wedding party In Libya, apparently just for the hell of it. Hours later, she was gone. Immediately, Champ pleaded for me to take over."
"Who cares? You can always go back to motivational speaking. You would probably help a lot of people out."
She looked down at the table, fiddled with her silverware, unfolded here napkin, wadded it up, put it back on the table. Finally, her eyes met mine, and she said, "I was counting on you to talk me into accepting his offer, doing it for the sake of the country—for truth, justice, and the American way."
"Leave that to Superman. I don't want you to wind up hating yourself."
"But you and Andy are depending on me?"
"McGowans and I both have appreciated having an inside person. It gave us an edge or, sooner or later, might have. But, if necessary, we'll find a way to carry on without you."
"I am stuck in the same old quandary. I can't complete absolve myself for the mess we're in, and I might be able to soften things up, but nobody would say I'm obligated. If I report back to you, I am duplicitous, if I don't, I am letting two good friends down. "
"All possibly true, but if it risks ruining your life, maybe you should just step aside."
She sighed. "I was wrong to expect you to make up my mind for me."
"Sorry I couldn't have been more help. I may be the world's worst person to come to for career advice."
"But it's more than that, isn't it?"
"More than a career decision."
"I guess it could be. McGowans believes the country is in grave jeopardy, and I have come to more-or-less agree with him. So far the center has maintained a shaky grip, but we believe it's slipping. We aren't sure what Champ is up to, but believe it's something major and it can't be good. Instinctively, he's an authoritarian and potentially very dangerous."
Looking sad, Mary Lou sighed and stood. "There is a press conference scheduled at six o'clock. You might want to tune in to see how I do."
(Continued at chapters21-30.html)