I truly have no idea why the footnote links below only work in reverse. Maybe I’ll leave that method behind as I code this going forward. It was a long struggle with no reward. – K
Chicago — FORTY-FIVE DAYS UNTIL END OF WORLD. I wasn’t to be exiled just yet. They hadn’t even gotten the phones in at the new office in LeBlanc, so I would have at least a few more days of work in civilization.
A statewide campaign is not something you do if you are any less than 255% invested. (I did just let the % slip in there. I did it willfully, and I’m not sorry about it.) What I mean is, campaigning in general is hard and thankless and any grizzled old vet will tell you that it’s different now than it used to be, which is to say it is worse than it used to be. You can work your hands to the bone, go without sleep and eat shitty road food or awful warmed-over slop at Rotary Clubs and fundraisers while you hear this person who you admire spout the same focus-tested talking points they’ve been hammering on for months, all in utter futility when some rich asshole who owns a casino or an oil rig decides to fund your opponent or your candidate gets it in his head to put out a stupid tweet about rape. In a state the size of Illinois, it feels as if most of your time is spent trying to morph into the shape of a car seat while you grip a steering wheel and stare out at cornfields that stretch to the edge of the spiral arm of the galaxy.
I had respect for those who did it even back when I was essentially their sworn enemy, which is to say I was a reporter. That is to say: I was a good reporter, and a good reporter is the sworn enemy of somebody who is running a campaign, because he will wreck that campaign if he is given even a passing chance. By this point, though, I had come away from those petty little concerns about democratic governance. It was us or them, and they wanted to put women in kitchens and gays in camps, if they were honest with themselves. It’s easy to be the one who sits back and criticizes and snarks, but try running things. Try being somebody who makes a thing that works.
I wasn’t to be one of those people after all. LeBlanc wasn’t exactly a punishment, but it wasn’t exactly not, either. It might have been Rick deciding he didn’t want Diana and me in the same office, which was okay with me. It might have been that he thought “shaking things up” would make him appear as if he was doing something after nearly an entire campaign in which he, as manager, had done essentially nothing beyond what Wendy had explicitly told him to. He perhaps expected her likability and the Party’s bottomless reserves to just do the job for him. That won’t make you Governor, though.
Because the campaign was not my only job – because I split my time between when I was helping my boss get her next job and when I was actually helping her do her current one – we all had to occasionally pull double duty. On the campaign, I was bumped down the chain of command to somebody who still had to take orders. In the office, though, I was Director of Communications, which is to say flak, which is to say spin master. This makes me sound somewhat more important than I ever truly have been.
Wendy lives in a stately apartment building way the hell up on Lake Shore Drive when she’s working out of Chicago, the true state capital. She’ll always be a downstate girl, but the job requires her to be everything to everybody, and that means braving the mean city. It also means occasionally having to get up and somehow be in Aurora by 8 a.m. on some days. It does not mean having to drive. Driving is a base chore, something that is a patent waste of time, and it is something the truly powerful have no business doing, any more than they have any business handling their own money or dropping off their own dry cleaning.
Wendy would drive if she could, though. She absolutely would. Wendy doesn’t even cut in line at important funerals. Such conduct sends the message that one is more important than other people, and that is something people should never think for even a moment. To win, one must be “down to earth,” and “relatable.” Never mind that you are holding somebody whose duties include scrambling the National Guard during a hurricane or pardoning those found to have been wrongfully convicted to the same standards as you might a small-town mayor.
But the driving, though. It’s just not practical. Not when you need to be running the state and running for office at the same time. There aren’t enough hours in the day to begin with, so Wendy rather apologetically just let us drive her.
There was a fire hydrant right across from her apartment. That place looks precisely the same – your typical, austere Chicago row house, skinnier than it seems it possibly could be, with steps leading up over the sunken garden to the stained-glass door that is hardened against every kind of merciless winter. In the grey hours while the sun still struggles up over the edge of the ocean separating the city from Michigan, the yellow light from the inside of the downstairs landing seems to outshine the dawn. I know it is still this way because … well.
That morning, as I had many times before, I parked in front of that fire hydrant, reasoning, as I explained to Wendy the first time she had teasingly protested, that if there were occasion for somebody to use it, I would gladly vacate the spot. I waited for her, sliding the thermos of coffee open and taking a scalding sip from it, feeling the start of that little blister that develops where the roof of your mouth meets your teeth, and all the while stressing about the time. I had gotten up at 5:45 to get to her door in time, crawling out of my bed in Logan Square’s most raggedy apartment and trudging down to the Impala that I’d parked where I knew it wouldn’t get a ticket for the big graphic along the side that helpfully said STATE OF ILLINOIS – OFFICE OF GOVERNOR WENDY SHARPE.
My eyes drooped, and to try to keep them open I focused them on the crossed sabers on the side of the brushed-metal mug, embossed in a brass that was starting to develop a bit of a patina because I could never refrain from running the palm of my hand over it while I waited. A lot of my job was waiting. Waiting for reporters to answer their phones, waiting for their stories to drop, waiting for the right time to take Wendy by the sleeve and calmly inform her we had to be going. Waiting for the legislature to do something. Waiting for her to descend those stairs and come jogging out to the car, waiting for Harold give her his customary goodbye kiss,—
—waiting for the axe to fall. They had called a meeting for the entire newsroom to attend, and I decided that I had a story I needed to write, so I left the squat little brick building that sits at the corner of Main and Main in LeBlanc – yes, there are two Main Streets, which is the source of inexplicable pride among the town’s older residents – and I walked through the first day of spring along streets heaped on either side with snow that was finally on this day melting.
J.W. Nuding was about a mile away from the paper, which meant I could handle the walk in less than half an hour if I kept a brisk enough pace and didn’t look over my shoulder. More importantly, it meant I would make my appointment there on time while also avoiding whatever depressing platitudes The Publisher would come up with to explain to us why we were going to be firing our copy editors or reducing our vacation hours or whatever it would be this time. This was before we were bought out by Rupert. I say “we,” but I was long gone by then, sleeping on a cot on a floor on another continent.
Forgive me, it all becomes mixed up. Like a ball of string that’s knotted up on itself.
I showed up at J.W. Nuding when I meant to. J.W. Nuding sounds like somebody who would polish his monocle and stroke a cat while a bunch of Pinkertons gut-punched some P.I. and gave him stern warnings to quit asking so many questions, but it was actually just a machine shop that had shrunk time and again since decades before I had ever reported in LeBlanc. The better part of the place was a rusted, shuttered, darkened cavern, but you could still see sparks hissing up from components far in back, the shock-white of the arc welding casting giant shadows of the workers across the back wall that lingered in my persistence of vision.
I hadn’t even known where the place was, exactly. I had looked it up on my phone on the way, pointedly ignoring Holly’s text – where r u??? i dont know whats going to happen – and had almost passed it. Like most of El Medio Oeste, it looks like it’s been fucking closed since Reagan was president; Rusted out corrugated steel walls, abandoned equipment out front, “No Trespassing” signs, a wide parking lot upon which sits one run-down pickup truck that might or might not be functional. It wasn’t until I got within about five yards of the gaping opening that was the front gate, pushed aside to allow heavy equipment to be wheeled in and out, that I was quite certain the place was occupied.
Jerd met me up front. He was the local union man, AFL-CIO’s bulldog on the ground, and whenever a labor matter was in contention he was never very far away. He stood half a head shorter than I, with a grungy red beard that fringed his blocky face and that same beat-up old baseball cap on a head I knew to be bald. I couldn’t ever remember a time I’d seen him when he hadn’t had the grit from a shift of work all over him.
“You hear from us on this before?” he asked, thrusting a press release at me from a small stack he held in one hand.
“I got it, Jerd,” I said.
“I misspell anything?”
“No, it actually looks good.”
“Well, that makes my day.”
Jerd joked when he was feeling blue. I kind of admired it. A lot of the rougher alpha types will storm about and bang on things, send that anger all over the place. Jerd was more resilient, or at least more measured in how he handled it. He ushered me back through the shop to the little podium they had set up inside. I had a real camera with me, and began to tinker with the settings to try to allow for the inadequate light. Above us, the fluorescent bulbs thrummed a bruised purple that seemed to cast no shadow on the dusty floor. The two dozen or so men in the little islands of light at either end of the place operated in total silence.
Beside the podium in the center of the place stood a table piled high with metal thermoses, stamped with the seal of the crossed sabers. The release Jerd had already emailed to me explained that the symbol was old J.W. Nuding’s very own family crest, commemorating his time in the U.S. Marine Corps during the War of 1812. Two centuries later, his machine shop was about to close. His last employees, who had never met the man and who would have had precisely nothing in common with him had they ever had occasion to go back in time and do so, stood in a sombre line behind their foreman, a fellow named … I don’t remember what he was named.
“Let us pray,” he said.
“Oh, go fuck yourself,” I didn’t say. “Fuck everything south of I-80.” There were a lot of things I didn’t say.
Heads bowed, and so began a rambling valediction. I closed up my notepad and looked around, and as I was the sole member of the press in attendance, the contents of this horación shall not survive. I noticed that one of the workers, a young guy like I was at the time, also hadn’t bowed his head. We saw each other, but we did not acknowledge this connection.
“We’ve put our sweat in here,” the foreman said when he’d quite finished. “We asked for a prevailing wage and some benefits. We didn’t ask much. Didn’t ask for anything our dads and granddads didn’t ask for.”
Nods among his cohort. I had left my voice recorder back at the office in my haste to leave, and now I was scribbling notes down in my unreadable handwriting. I had to pivot so my shadow wouldn’t blot out the paper. Every little imperfection in the surface of the notepad flecked its darkness across the face of it, the spiral casting its Stonehenge shadow for the wobbling of my handwriting.
“I don’t know what this is going to mean for each of us, or what it’s going to mean for the folks who rely on our work. I guess they’ll get the same from China, maybe. I guess it’ll all head that way. They can do it cheaper, so who can blame anybody?”
I didn’t feel like writing that down, or like looking him in the eye as he said it. Jerd was standing next to me, like he will do for anybody there on behalf of the Fourth Estate, pretending not to try to read what I was writing down, taking careful note of when I paused in my notetaking.
“They’re saying, ‘Hey, thanks for your work, but we don’t need it anymore.’ They’re saying, ‘We’d rather pay five Chinamen what we pay you so they can slave under worse conditions—”
I hold my grandfather harmless for saying “Chinaman,” but only because he was at the time referring to himself.
“—while Sam Walton buys another yacht. Well, good for all of ’em. I’m glad this economy is working for somebody.”
The foreman’s face had grown redder under the light. His fellow workers, except for the same guy who had not bowed his head during the prayer, were all averting their eyes, making detailed study of separate spots on the floor or walls.
“We could be proud. We stuck it out ’til the end. And we never did a day’s or an hour’s work less than we were asked, did we?”
“No! No, sir!” came some weak replies.
“We set the standard. We can always be proud of that. I know I’ll at least have some more time for boating.”
Everybody chuckled, and for a wonder, I did, too. He’d turned a corner.
“I was hoping we’d have more folks out here. But this is for those of you who showed up! This is one of our last runs. Just like everything, it’s our best work.”
The thermos felt really solid in your hand when you hefted it. You aren’t supposed to take things when you go to assignments, but I think that’s bunk. I’m not going to right a nicer story because somebody gave me a thermos, though this was one serious motherfucking thermos. I took three.
“You write something nice,” Jerd called after me as I headed away from J.W. Nuding’s, which the morning light may illuminate still or may not, for I know nothing more of it, even though I was at that moment holding on to one of the last things ever fabricated there, the same thing I held that morning in front of the fire hydrant across from Wendy’s apartment with forty-five days left until the world ended.
When I got back to the paper, Holly was out front, smoking away her tears and fixing me with the same venomous gaze your cat will when you pick it up from a boarding service.
“That bad, huh?” I said—
— as Wendy hopped into the passenger side, her hair still wet. The governor does not fuck with a hair dryer when she’s twenty minutes late.
“I’m so sorry! Let’s roll!”
If our governor lifted her own weight over her head and stood on a scale, she wouldn’t budge the needle past 200 lbs. She is the only boss I have ever had whom I dwarf. At 55, she has only the suggestion of grey in her waist-length hair, which goes everywhere. Her advisors and consultants tell her to wash it every day, but she does not. At our first Christmas party, she gave me a handmade birdfeeder that she and her kids – she has five – had put together especially for me, one shaped like a press conference lectern. Her clothes are purchased exclusively from bespoke shops here in the United States, because she refuses to patronize sweatshops.
“Rolling,” I said, and I peeled us out and gunned us down the alleyway that leads out to Lawrence, the GPS barking at us.
Partway to Aurora, she finished up dictating her correspondence into her voice recorder and turned rather pointedly to me. Her face is round, her eyes large. She is not a pretty woman, or even a handsome one, and this is seized upon by her detractors to be used as the root of unspeakable meanness. Her voice is clipped, chirpy, birdlike, much like her movements.
“I heard you’ll be pulling time on the Other Side down in LeBlanc,” she said. “You excited to go back?”
“After a fashion,” I said.
“Uh oh!” she said in a lower register, and I did smile for real, even if I kept my eyes on the road.
“I appreciate everything,” she said. “You know I do. And now, let’s not talk anymore while we’re doing things for the Fun Side!”
The government side of things – the Office of the Governor – is the “Fun Side,” and the campaign is the “Other Side.” She called it worse things, things that would have made her mother blush, when I was in her presence. You are not supposed to discuss campaign matters when the taxpayers of the State of Illinois are paying your hourly wage, nor use a single state resource – cell phone, computer, email account – to campaign. Wendy never used any resources, but it’s impossible to be on a ninety-minute drive and not field a call from the campaign.
“We’ve got to hit her on this,” Wendy was saying. “I think it’s legitimate, don’t you? Only if you think it is.”
Rick’s blathering on the end translated to some tinny noises my ear couldn’t pick up over the sounds of the road. Elgin swept by us and receded into the distance behind.
“No, that’s a bit much, Rick. That’s too much.”
Wendy does not like to strike. It was why she was going to lose this race.
I’m sorry for giving it away up front like that, but this really isn’t that kind of story.
We were looking for some kind of apple-themed restaurant, which it turned out was off of any major road in Aurora I’ve ever heard of. We were fifteen minutes late, which was itself a miracle considering Wendy had been twenty minutes late in coming downstairs and getting this dog and pony show started. I found us parking at the very back end of the lot, where an abandoned grocery cart had somehow found its way a good mile away from anywhere it had any right to be, a beer bottle lodged in one corner where it had long ago rolled to a rest. I-90 and every concrete slab that fed into it thundered all about us, and we might have been in St. Charles or Des Plaines or Grayslake or anywhere. It was a year after my father had thrown a fit and I’d walked with him down to the river and, smoking his horrific Chilean Marlboro Red, he had said that this was the first place in his life he’d lived where he felt as if he was living somewhere as opposed to fucking nowhere.
Aurora is not nowhere, but it isn’t somewhere, either, not by how I reckon it. It as at its best Nowhere In Particular, and so, having rushed Wendy to Nowhere In Particular, I hustled her into the door of this restaurant to find a long banquet table of maybe twenty-four of the wizened, old, civically virtuous and unfailingly white people who feel entitled to some of the personal time of our politicians.
I could slow down the proceedings now with a flashback to any number of these sorts of things from my days as a Good Guy, but you’ll find it boring and I’ll find it painful, so let’s not.
There were apples all over this goddamn place. The menus were apple-shaped, which had to have proven challenging when it came time to laminate and bind them. Instead of butter, you got served apple compote in a little dish with your stuff. I cast my eye about and made use of my singular press expertise. Reporters are not a hard bunch to spot. You can start by looking for the most scruffily dressed male or the youngest female.
Today’s much put-upon member of the press fell into the latter category, for which I was most pleased. She was in her mid-twenties with a big, pouty face and round eyes made all the more prominent by how blind she must have been, for the distortion from her glasses was truly astonishing. She was angling for a seat near the governor, but Wendy had already been mobbed by wellwishers and I knew just how to hang up somebody who is already carrying a notepad and pen and voice recorder.
“Jack Perrin,” I said, and thrust my hand out. She gave me a weak little grip about the second knuckles and a single shake, transferring her pen to her left hand as she did, so that the left hand was now holding the pen and the notepad and the voice recorder. “Let me get you a release here,” and this is when I removed one of my color-printed press releases with logo of my own personal design from the herringbone folder with the embossed state seal plastered across the front and thrust that into her right hand.
“I’m Penny Enright,” she said.
“I knew a Penny once,” I said. “You with the Beacon?”
“Yes,” she said. “I was hoping I could talk with Gov. Sharpe about the race.”
“You can ask her whatever you like, but I’m with the government-side office today,” I said. “So I couldn’t speak to any stuff about the campaign. How about we have a seat? You been with the Beacon long? I don’t think I recall your byline.”
It would have been incredible if I had remembered her byline, considering I had, during that exchange, already forgotten her last name, and I have as of this writing forgotten the hue of her hair. The eyes were blue, though. I’ll never forget that, because from behind those glasses they had this impossible icy glare to them. I’d glared at a flak like that before, I was sure. Or perhaps I had just silently judged, as she was.
Everybody at a Rotary Club will shake your hand and pretend as if they are going to remember every last little detail about you, but they won’t. I remember the icy blue eyes of Penny Enright, whose name I recall now only because I found her business card in my suit pocket before sitting down to write this, and I remember the apple-shaped menus, and even the grungy Greek gentleman who owned the place and who bustled about asking if anybody needed refills personally. I remember that I had a stubborn pain in my maxillary sinus, that the roots of my upper teeth and my left cheek and the side of my head throbbed with it, and that taken together with the blistered roof of my mouth, I was in degree of physical discomfort that was distracting.
But I don’t remember the guy who sat across from me, or his wife, if there was a guy and his wife. They had been assembled somewhere in a factory, sent off to Northwestern University or maybe Wheaton College or U of I, and they had inherited some money when Mom and Dad had died, just some, and they just felt everybody should try equally hard.
It is cold comfort for me that Wendy probably couldn’t stand them, either, but her genius, and the reason she just might have won that hopeless bout, was that if she couldn’t stand them they never would have suspected as much. Penny was staring at her ethical, empty plate and trying to be as prickly as possible to avoid having to hold conversation with the septuagenarian next to her, who was pretty obviously trying to flirt with her. Just as I felt worried that Penny and I had fallen into some endless time loop where we would be forced, forever, to socialize with people whose personalities were based entirely on daytime television consumption, Wendy rose and dinged the little bell. Wendy is also a rotarian, so she can do things like that if she asks nicely.
She was so glad to be there! How were all of you? She was glad to be taking a break from the campaign so she could spend some time actually governing, just like it said on her business card.
Chuckles, sprinklings of light applause as she started talking about education funding, about how we needed to take responsibility as a state and get serious about moving away from a property tax-funded model, away from making a ZIP code determine a child’s destiny. She had liked that talking point. Her mother would’ve hated it, but she was more practical about sloganeering, and so she worked it into every one of her speeches—
—that I had seen, whether it was the one she’d given to the Brotherhood of Electric Workers in Montclaire or the Chamber of Commerce in Anica.
“People want policy, not platitude!” she’d belted out, refusing a microphone. The crowd was enraptured. “They want solutions, not snark!”
Rick was writing her stuff then, and Rick, you may notice from that sample above, can’t write worth a damn. He was standing near the edge of the stage and making sure he was the first to clap at each pause, like those light-up signs in TV studios.
“She could be somebody if she had some better material,” The Old Man said as he watched the speech on local TV while I waited around for my appointed hour to go home. “There isn’t a red-blooded son of Baron County who wouldn’t go vote for her on account of her mom and then tell five of his friends to do the same—
—especially when she’s campaigning too! I’ll bet she’s already been to two places this morning, hasn’t she?” the old dowager two seats down whispered to me as Wendy cut the rug.
“Ha! Well, no ma’am. But she has got a long day ahead of her, to be sure.”
Even Penny was listening closely. Penny hadn’t been to one of these little speeches before. I had learned that Penny had been at the Beacon for just under three months. There were two reporters you ever ran into anymore; Grey ghosts and greenhorns, and not in anything approaching equal measure.
They proceeded to the questions, the part which every press secretary plays through in his head like a game of chess.
“How are you going to get the General Assembly to work with you?”
“When are we going to see a real road budget?”
Penny saw her chance. Because she had spent her entire time getting stonewalled by myself and the erstwhile old lecher who had preyed upon her politeness, the club president hadn’t figured out she was a reporter, and so he called on her without hesitation. This was fine with me, since I could tell that while she was smart, she was, like pretty much everybody, not up on her state politics beyond the fact Wendy was running for office again. Had you asked Penny what in the world might be an issue after Wendy got back into office, she’d have adopted a truly embarrassed expression.
But here comes her question now. Listen closely, because we’re going to break it down.
“What I’m asking all Illinoisans is, ¿are we not capable of preparing our next generation while we balance other tasks?” Wendy said. She looks people straight in the eyes when she talks to them. It’s something Rick never taught her. “I’m challenging us to be better. I’m not offering easy fixes, and I’m not promising everything will be tidy—”
Wendy had her right at that point, and there’s no reason to bore you any further with what she said to do it. Penny belonged to Wendy right then, even though Penny had been primed, right from the moment she walked in the door of this hell of apples, to dismiss out of hand anything that might come out of Wendy’s mouth.
Penny approached the governor after everybody got up and made motions about paying the tab and starting on the commute to work, and I hovered just out of her view, paying close attention but not intervening. There was never any reason to intervene with Wendy. Not anymore, not now that she’d tapped into the Glow that Michaela Sharpe had once had, once upon a different age, upon a time before running for office meant dislocating your jaw and letting the Party pour money down your gullet. Penny laughed at Wendy’s jokes and Wendy touched her arm, and I knew that tomorrow morning I would wake up and surf over to the Beacon and there would be a pat, harmless little story about how the first female governor of Illinois had knocked ’em all dead. If Nikolas was lucky, his goddamn apple diner would be mentioned by name.
The education plan was going to drain a bunch of money out of suburbs like Aurora and hurl it down into the hinterlands, to places like LeBlanc that don’t pronounce their names according to any stress scheme any other English speaker in the world recognizes, to places where Wendy’s polls weren’t so hot, but so what? Kids down there needed new books and ADA-compliant buildings, and the little spawn of these blue-bloods would just have to go without new uniforms for their lacrosse teams, or an outdated edition of their Mandarin textbooks for the next two or three years. And Penny had her whole career ahead of her to learn how to be a discerning reporter.
Back on the road, Wendy patted my hand in the most maternal of ways.
“You can say no to LeBlanc, Jack. Somebody else can do it.”
“Somebody else’ll do it wrong, Governor.”
We both stared at the bumper of the minivan ahead of us. Traffic had slowed to a crawl ahead of us. I rolled down the window and let in some air while we waited for the miles-long line to start moving.
“You’re right,” she said. “It won’t be long.”
“No ma’am, it won’t.”
Her phone rang, and it was Harold. Her cutesy conversation carried her until we were moving again, and the morning was forgotten.
© 2015 by Kenneth Lowe. Reprint with credit. Contact the author at nixonhacker at gmail dot com.