Showing posts with label Arliss Stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Arliss Stories. Show all posts

21 November, 2011

A Salvation Cool as Morning Porcelain [from The Muckraker's Chronicle]

Lord, help me make it through the morning.

Maybe it was the wine. Whenever I drink white wine, I end up with a Class A mind fuck hangover. And that's if I can manage to keep it down. White wine – even the more expensive ones – turn my stomach like sour milk. The only thing I can do to keep from puking up whine wine and stomach acid is to throw some beer on top of it.

I could tell by the way she was talking to me that she knew I felt like shit. There was a time, not so long ago, when she probably would have given me a hard time about it; she would've made some comment about the mandatory Alka Seltzer cocktail , or the fact that even my sweat smells like booze. Or, she would've just given me that look she used to give me – the expression of her deep disappointment in my lack of impulse control. And there was a time, even before that, when she would've tried to exploit my frail condition by trying to say things that would make me throw up. She never did understand why I considered losing my lunch to be a mark against my manhood; and for that matter, I never understood it either, other than the fact that every man's man I ever knew thought of it the same way.

Some might consider her relative acceptance of my condition as something resembling progress, and I know more than a few old drunks who might say I have it good and that I shouldn't bitch about it too much. And if I didn't know better, I'd think that maybe she had achieved some level of enlightenment about the general condition I would prefer to be in.

But then I'd have to forget what she told me. Maude told me last week that she had come to terms with the fact that I was going to end up killing myself.

And the part of it that really fucked with me – as if such a statement in and of itself wasn't enough – was that there was no hint of attempting to guilt me into changing. No manipulative tone. No sidelong glance. No heavy sigh. Not even a qualifying remark about how, if I cared about her at all, I'd try and go more than a day without a drink. There was none of that then. And none of it this morning, when I was clearly hung over and trying to put myself together so I could go cover the monthly county board meeting. I desperately wanted to avoid the meeting – being locked up in a small, inadequately ventilated back room of a dilapidated county courthouse that's built like a goblin's labyrinth with 15 county board members, two other reporters, the County Clerk, and whoever else decided to sit in the peanut gallery. Didn't want to go and listen to the posturing and the pandering. Arliss County is a decidedly conservative county; but like most staunchly conservative corners of the country, there's always that freak underbelly. It's the physics of political karma. For each ass tight narrow-minded stooge there is a direct and opposite version within a three mile radius. Maybe that's how the world keeps from imploding on itself, collapsing like a burned out star. And as it happens, I'm always more comfortable with the freak contingent. I don't know why; I think maybe it just helps me maintain some sense of balance.

There's also always that sense that the uptight crowd is just as fucked in the head as the freaks and lunatics are, except that freaks and lunatics are a bit more at home with themselves and with the world. Total apathy come with a certain freedom; I think of it as something similar to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. Attachment causes suffering. Complete detachment causes Enlightenment. Beautiful. Simple. Next to impossible.

“Where are you going today?” She was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, checking her hair. She must have to be somewhere, or have to talk to somebody. Did she mention it to me? Was it something I needed to remember?

“County board.”

My stomach turned just a little. Maybe from the wine. Maybe from talking out loud. Maybe from the thought of having to deal with the county board meeting. Sometimes I missed having a bullshit 8-5 straight job... some anonymous cubicle to hide in and nurse my hangover until lunch. It had been so easy. But I had long ago proven to myself that I had neither the prerequisite personality of a domestic abuse victim nor the overwhelming fear drive that kept most people in jobs they hated.

At that moment, I chose to blame the wine.

“What about after that?”

“I don't know. The usual. Probably come back here and work on the story.”


No indication that I was supposed to remember anything. Anniversary? Nope. Still had a few months. Birthday? Nope. That'll come in the summer. I tried to think of all the dates on the calendar that I was supposed to remember. Nothing stuck out as likely. It was Thursday. Was this Thursday any special day in particular?

Thinking was making my head swim and my stomach swim. “Fucking wine,” I muttered. “That's the last time.”

“What'd you say, Jay?”

“Huh? Nothing.”

“Do you want me to drop you off by the courthouse?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“I'm going to be ready to go in a second.”

“'Kay.” I looked down to make sure I had all the usual requirements. Shoes, check. Socks, check. Pants, check. T-shirt, button down, sweater, check. All I needed to do was grab my coat. I'd have to walk back, though, so grabbed an extra layer. Old habits die hard. You'd think for as much walking as I do, I'd be a skinny little son of a bitch. Maude says I would be if I drank less. Ah, sweet irony. That karmic balance that keeps all fools in line. My sluggish Germanic blood fighting my Irish liver. Every single time.

I sat down and waited for Maude to finish. She wasn't much of primper, not like other women I'd known. But she did have her morning ritual. I wondered sometimes if she was even aware of how consistent she was. I suppose I'm the same, and I suppose that most people are. My grandfather on my mother's side always took a cup of coffee and the newspaper to the bathroom and didn't leave for a half hour. He drank, he read, he shat, he smoked. And that was the start of his day. He was a carpenter and could work 12 or 15 hours straight with barely a break for lunch as long as he had that uninterrupted half hour in the john.

Nothing happens for me until I have the first sip of coffee. And that, was another part of the problem. My stomach was so turned around that I didn't think I could keep coffee down. And without coffee I'd melt into a puddle of a remanded bridge troll within a 10 minutes of getting to my meeting.

The solution was an easy one. All I had to do was puke. But I didn't dare do it in front of Maude.

For some reason even the shortest ride seems longer when you're trying desperately to hold your stomach in. You start to notice every pothole, crack or uneven space in the street. You begin to notice which side of the street slopes more than the other. You begin to take notice of the excessive number of stop signs and the unreasonable amount of traffic. Everything conspires against you. It's almost like having to take a shit in the worst way but you're nowhere near a bathroom. Pressure builds up in your body; muscles tighten; heart starts pounding; if it's warm enough, or you're in bad enough shape, you begin to sweat profusely. There's a point – right before your guts tell you you're going to be losing what ever passes for the contents of your stomach – that you consider stepping in front of an oncoming car. Avoidance through pain has a long and heralded history. Not familiar? It's the idea that if your head really hurts the solution is to smash your thumb. Then you're not thinking about your head anymore.

Hangovers are your body's way of telling you that sobriety is overrated. It's a built in caution sign of what the world will feel like if you never take another drink. This, in those abominable 12 step programs, is often referred to as a moment of clarity: that moment when you realize that the Buddhists and the Baptists had it right. That life really is about suffering.

Maude stopped at the corner. The jolt made me nearly lose it on the passenger side dash.

“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound genuine. “Have a good day.”

“You, too.”

“I'll try.”

I opened the door and got one foot out the door when she said “I have a board meeting tonight.”



“Do you remember me telling you about it?”

Fuuuck me. “Sure. Of course.”

“So you remember that there's a dinner thing before and that you promised you'd come with me, right?”

No. “Sure, baby sure. No problem.”

“You need to wear something nice.”

“Ok,” I said. “I will.”
I almost made it out of the car. I was reaching a crisis point and wasn't even sure that I'd make it much farther than the sidewalk.

“What are you going to wear?”

Christ!Why did she have to pick that exact moment to micro-manage my wardrobe. “I don't know. Something nice. I promise. I'll try and match and everything.”

“Ok...” She didn't sound convinced. “I'll have to change at the office and then come pick you up.”

Great.“Okay, babe. Gotta go.”

“6 o'clock,” she said.

“Ok. 6 o'clock.”

Both of my feet made it to the side walk. Surprisingly enough, something about being outside settled my stomach. I made it up the steps fine and walked carefully towards the County Court House. I'd be a little early... plenty of time to splash some cold water on my face, settle down. It would give me time to hurl in the downstairs bathroom just inside the door if I needed to. I was starting to feel a little better about my prospects and my day.

That was when I ran into Johnny Franz, the County Board Chairman. We had sized one another up several months before. He thought I was a liberal stooge and I knew he was a Class A Prick. He was one of the richest farmers in the county and he stayed on the county board to make sure it stayed that way. I'd been trying, bit by bit, to eat away at his Napoleonic control. It was probably all but pointless. But it was something to do. And he made it easy. Whenever he opened his mouth and said something stupid – which he did often – I put it in the paper. Last month during the Zoning Appeals Committee report he made a comment about how he dealt with undesirable neighbors. “If I don't like somebody who's living around me,” he said, “I just buy them out and knock down the house.”

We arrived at the door at the same time, briefly made eye contact. Could he tell I was hungover? He always looked slightly stoned anyway, so it was difficult to tell whether he was paying attention or not. He was dressed the way he always dressed – jeans, a button down work shirt, and dirty cowboy boots. I tried to imagine how those worked in a corn field; but then I reminded myself that men like Johnny Franz didn't work in the field; men like Franz underpaid hundreds of other people to do that for him while he fucked the secretary and played the commodities exchange in an attempt to manipulate the price of corn.

“Rafferty,” he said as cordially as I'd ever heard him speak to me.

He reached for the door, maybe to let me walk through first. And I was about to say something... didn't know exactly what... but instead of words, I puked all over his cowboy boots.

And you know, there's never quite an appropriate apology when you need one.

19 October, 2011

A Sketch of Division Street

The trailer court was up on the hill and off to the left at the end of Division Street. You have to drive past the cemetery on Bone Hill and the St. Alice Home for the Aged to find it. When it snows bad, sometimes the plows don't make that far up the hill until well after 10 in the morning, which means the kids who live there either have to trudge down the hill to an available bus stop, or – since the drivers on those routes aren't supposed to let kids on the bus who aren't on their regular route – trudge the extra couple of miles across town and out to the highway bypass, where the new high school is. The smaller kids don't have as far to walk, since the intermediate school is in the center of town.

But none of them walk down the hill to go to school when the snow plows haven't cleared the way for the bus. And the parents don't call to complain. And the school doesn't call to ask if something is wrong. And a truant officer never shows up to question why – except in the spring, of course. They do take special care to make sure the wild kids from Barrett’s Trailer Court aren't out enjoying the day when they could be in school being ignored by the teachers and judged by their fellow students.

And although there has been some talk about “what to do” about the trailer park and the unwanted minions who reside there – the basic premise being that trailers are dirty no-good places, and that poor people have poor habits and that because of those two unrelated axioms … unrelated except for the fact that they are both applied to the people who live at the trailer park – there isn't enough consensus to get anything done. Whenever there's a break in or something is stolen, the first thing that Police Chief Dolarhyde does is roust the trailer park kids, since they're the most obvious suspects. That it rarely ever comes to anything doesn't matter; one of the ways the chief is able to keep his job is by sticking to the obvious. When nothing is found, the general assumption is that those white trash sons and daughters of whores simply sold it to someone from out of town for drug money or threw it away. 

The only time the trailer park kids get a break from Chief Dolarhyde's program of perpetual harassment is when the gypsies come through the area. And since the gypsies never stay in town, but find places to camp outside the town limits, they're considered a county problem, not a town one.

27 April, 2011

Excerpt From The Muckraker's Chronicle: It's Hard To Be Humble

Denise. That was her name. It stuck with me. It woke me up at night. Denise Gunnersaun, the woman who hanged herself in the Arliss County Jail rather than stand trial for defending herself. I had a girlfriend once named Denise. She was Denise the amazonian from the wrong side of town. None of the popular boys would admit they liked her, but they all stared at her boobs. We were in 7th grade. I was too timid to do anything but hold hands. Denise, who liked me because was I gentle and kind and because I wasn't mean to her the way the rest of the kids were. Denise who broke up with me using a note she had her best friend Becky give me in Ms. Algers math class. Denise Riddley. I didn't like her enough to be broken up about it. I was more annoyed that Becky got caught passing me the note; we both ended up getting detention for it. Becky spent the entire hour after school giving me dirty looks. To this day I'm still not sure what it was I did wrong.
That wasn't the only reason Denise Gunnersaun stuck in my mind; the whole story seemed absurd. Drunken asshole of a husband comes home, wants to take his bad mood out on his high school sweet heart and mother of his sons. She has enough, swings at his bloated head with a frying pan. Yet she's the one that gets arrested. She's the one that's left alone, deserted by her few friends and the community of women who have been turning a blind eye to the suffering of their own gender for years... decades, maybe even longer. I sit in on town council and county board committee meetings where they complain about drug traffic and the riff raff and how people are poor because they're not willing to work. Mothers will gossip about the alleged sins of other mother's sons but defend their own children's obvious improprieties with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Better to marry an abusive asshole if you get knocked up rather than take on the stigma of being an unwed mother in a town that prizes the appearance of things over their content. Of course, the church matrons will never forgive you anyway and still think you're a dirty whore... but as long as you seem willing to not ever forgive yourself either, it makes the whole thing go a bit easier.

The article was a short one; took me less than a half hour to write, including interviews. The coroner and the sheriff both made statements, I typed the story up, turned it in. It was one of the easiest articles I'd ever written. Ever.

And then the old men at the Moose Head started talking about it. Don Parton was the most vocal. He was vocal about his support of Daniel, the husband. The poor guy who now had to raise his two sons alone after that psycho bitch of a wife did herself in. It was maybe the best thing for everyone, though; after all, Parton said, the negative effect she was having on those boys might have ruined them. Of course, that Daniel married her at all amazed everyone; when the oldest boy, Jesse, was born, there was no way of knowing whether Daniel was even the father, Parton said. “The way SHE got around,” he said, shaking his head. Judgment. It's so much easier to judge the dead since they're not around to defend themselves. Not that anyone waited that long to judge Denise Gunnersaun.

And of course, no one other than Sheriff Cleary – who was actually pretty broken up about it – and the coroner – who was annoyed that her death interrupted his golf game – would talk to me on the record. I tried talking to her friends … the few that would claim to be, anyway … and while I heard several ear fulls of information, the only way any of them agreed to talk to me was if I left their name out of the paper. Great. “An unidentified friend of the deceased claims...” Right. Or maybe I could go all Woodward and Bernstein and give each of them code names. Flappy Jaws, Trailer Queen, and Stovepipe. The three of them still lived in Denise's Gunnersaun's old stomping ground: the trailer park at the end of Wakarusa Road. For many of the the upstanding citizens of Mount Arliss the trailer park was a symbol of the epidemic of laziness, communism, and liberalism that was spreading like a virus across the nation... leaching out from Chicago like some hideous kudzu like weed, taking over everything. Southern farmers hate kudzu because once it takes up residence in a field, it's almost impossible to kill. And it takes over everything. Entire hill sides in Eastern Kentucky are eaten up with the stuff... it kills everything else by using up every bit of nutrient in the soil and propagating. It grows the way cancer grows.

Which is how people who didn't live in the trailer park saw the trailer park. In one trailer alone, they would say, the (unmarried, of course) woman had seven kids. And she wasn't even 30. Seven kids, seven different fathers. Hers and the bastard children of the other trailer park whores running around town like a plague, destroying things, taking up room the schools that should have been saved for upstanding children from good families. Not that many of the good families were staying, since there were no jobs to had in Arliss County that didn't include underpaid menial labor or seasonal farm work – and the seasonal farm work inevitably went to the migrant workers pouring over the Mexican border like a punishment from Heaven. Naturally people made biblical parallels. How could they not? It was so easy. The entire world was going to shit. Gays wanting to get married, Mexicans taking American jobs, and the whores in the Wakarusa Trailer Court. And Denise Gunnersaun, for the sin of trying to get out the only way she knew how – which was admittedly not the best or smartest of ways – was symbolic of Heaven's judgment against the whole country.

Or so Don Parton thought and said. And when Parton talked people tended to listen... mostly because he never let anyone else talk that didn't agree with him.

Her friends... the ones that wouldn't talk to me on the record... gave their point of view on Daniel Gunnersaun. He'd been the favored son of a well known and respected property owner... which in Mount Arliss meant a farmer. A favored son, a farmer's son, and the star Varsity quarterback... which put him somewhere on the same level as God for most of the adults in town. He always had the prettiest girl on his arm – never the same one for very long and almost always a cheerleader. Always won the crucial football game. Always managed to get by in his classes. A 4-H award winner. President of the Mount Arliss Future Farmers of America, and the youngest member of the county's chapter of the NRA. He was actively recruited by Illinois State University and Michigan State; he was a hometown boy with a bright future.

And then he met Denise Favre.

Her mother had lived in the trailer park for years and before that she had lived above the laundromat on the corner. The only thing certain about Denise Favre's parentage was that Rachel Favre was her mother; who her father was had only been the the topic of idle gossip and conversation. The upright uptight church matrons called her the Whore of Babylon and every man in town, married or single, had at some point walked through her door and laid down in her bed. Who her parents had been, no one knew; she wasn't from Mount Arliss; Rachel had simply appeared in town one day and proceeded, to hear the God-fearing women tell it, to dig her claws into their husbands and sons. The less than God-fearing women didn't especially like her either. And each and all of them passed on their dislike to her only daughter.

How's that song go? Same old story, same old song and dance. Being from the wrong family in a small town is like being the middle child; no matter what you do, you always lose. And when you're from the right family, no matter what you do, your shit doesn't stink.

“Why are you letting this bother you?” Maude asked me when one of my insomnia nights woke her up. “Why do you let any of this bother you?”

I told her I didn't know. “It just doesn't seem fair. Or something.”

“You get too involved,” she said. “And it ends up keeping you up at night; or it gives you another excuse to get drunk and pissy.”

“I don't recall ever needing an excuse,” I said. “And I'm never pissy.”

“If it bothers you,” she said, sitting down in her chair and lighting up a cigarette, “why didn't you write a longer article on it?”

She's right, of course. But there's no point in saying that out loud. I didn't write the longer article... the one I should have written … because I waited until the last minute to write it. Squeezed it in right over deadline.

“I was working on other stuff,” I said. “That was a busy week. I wish I COULD just focus on one story at a time. I'd have been awarded a Pulitzer by now.”

“And yet,” she said, “you're still so humble.”

She loves me. I know she loves me because she picks on me. Most of the time it makes me laugh. It did this time, too. “I know, I know,” I said. “It's a burden being this brilliant still be an everyday normal guy.”

“You've never been normal.”


“What about this is bothering you, though? I mean it's not like you knew her.” She looked over at me with that inquisitive look she used to give me a lot more when we first got together and I still had more women friends than she thought was normal. It's probably not fair to say she was jealous; but whenever she saw me with one of them, she would still give me these looks from time to time that said “Are you sure you're not fucking this chick?”

I ignored the look on her face. “It's the situation, maybe,” I said. “Everybody in town is glad she's dead for the sake of the asshole who abused her.”


“Isn't that enough?”

“Enough to complain about? Yes. Enough to be indignant about? Yes. But why is it bothering you?”

“Did I tell you that Don Parton tried to get Sam to fire me?”


“Because I've been asking around about Daniel Gunnersaun's background, his history around here.”

“And what's the point in that?”

“I don't know. Not really.”

“And what did Sam say?”

“Sam told him to take a flying leap.”


“Not in so many words. Sam has more tact.”

“Is this story worth losing your job over?”

“I'm not going to lose my job; it's barely a job as it is. I probably would've written a bigger article if I hadn't needed to write five other ones that week just to make a decent check.”

“You could do something else.”

“Like what?”

“You could teach,” she said. “You said you almost became a teacher.”
“I almost became a fire watcher, too,” I said, “except that they don't use fire watchers anymore. Guess I missed out.”

“What's that have to do with teaching?”

“They don't need real teachers anymore, either.”

She sighed. Maude's exhaustion was getting the better of her. My absence from bed woke her up, but she needed more sleep than I did. “Let's go to bed,” she yawned.

“You go ahead. I'll be there in a bit. Save me some room.”

She sighed again, but she was too tired to argue; she stood up and shuffled back to bed. After I heard her settle in and fall back asleep, I thought again about Denise Gunnersaun and her three friends who wouldn't come to the defense of her memory. And it still didn't sit right. 

12 February, 2011

EXCERPT from The Muckraker's Chronicle: In The Back Room

The Arliss County Animal Control and Mental Health Committee met every second Wednesday at nine in the morning in a back room at the dilapidated white wooden paneled building where the Mental Health Board had their offices. The building had, once upon a time, been where the Highway Department had their offices; but they built themselves a new brick building with better windows, more insulation, and with floors that didn't buckle in places, along with with a bigger, more modern garage for the equipment and trucks. The building sat empty for another couple of years until the county, whose hand was forced by the state, created the Mental Health Board. Then, the (at the time) new board chairman Johnny Franz pushed through a measure to consolidate the committees – which led to Animal Control and Mental Health being made into a single committee, since nearly everyone agreed that the only thing more useless than worrying about crazy people was worrying about stray dogs.

The first few minutes was generally conciliatory and boring. Going over the bills. This never took long, because there were never a lot of bills to pay. Stan Sheraton, the committee chair, wasn't one to dawdle over such things as signing off on checks. He wanted to get business done and get back to North Eustacia, where he was the part-time Assistant Fire Chief. There weren't many fires in North Eustacia – but once upon a time his brother was the mayor and his older cousin was the Fire Chief – an unpaid position at that time that primarily allowed him to drive the fire truck in parades. Sheraton was given the title of Assistant Fire Chief primarily because his cousin had a tendency to lock himself in the back room of the barn where the fire trucks were kept and drink homemade rye until he was blind drunk. Later, when the people of North Eustacia had decided they'd had enough, they pushed to make the position a paying one so that the Chief would at least stop siphoning off the fire truck gas to sell. Even this didn't last, however; an honest to god fire happened that resulted in the death of a 10 month old girl named Ada-Lee. Not only was the chief too drunk to respond, but he'd managed to drain the gas tank. The ripple effect of this was that the mayor lost his reelection bid by a land slide and the new mayor hired someone else to be the new part-time Fire Chief, completely jumping over Sheraton, who was kept on because no one really had any issues with him other than his family being littered with fools.

As a result, Stan Sheraton was very conscious of public opinion – which was in part why he was elected to the county board and given the less than glamorous task of chairing the most irrelevant committee in the county.

After the bills were taken care of, Jon Simms the county Dog Catcher – who insisted that he be called the Animal Control Officer in spite of the fact that he never did anything but pick up stray dogs, since he despised cats and refused to handle any wild animal calls – gave his report. In short, there was nothing to report. There was only one dog call, he said, and it turned out to be a rabid raccoon.

“And you didn't try to capture the animal?” asked Babette Rooney. She was handpicked by Chairman Franz to finish the term of Doug Tourney, who died of extreme heart failure at the age of 57. Rooney, who had married into one of the biggest farm families in the county, had once been Don Franz's high school sweetheart, and it was thought by some that he either chose her out of some kindness at the memory of her after their senior prom or because the relationship had continued off and on through the years, or because hers was the only farm in the county that rivaled his for size and affluence in the county. She didn't like her committee assignment any more than Sheraton... but unlike Sheraton, who was a Democrat, Babette was a dye in the wool Republican and so was also given a Tourney's old seat on the Finance Committee. She didn't like Jon Simms, who had been given the duty of Dog Catcher to keep him from falling drunk in the gutter, and she didn't like that the county had to worry about stray dogs at all. That, she figured, was what a bullet was for.

“Well,” Simms shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “It was a RACCOON, and I didn't have the right tool in the truck.”

“So what happened?”

“The complainant shot the animal.”

“And what did YOU do?”

“I... uh... collected the remains and took it to the vet to perform an autopsy.”

“And what's the point of THAT?”

“To... uh... make sure it wasn't rabid.”

“But it was already DEAD. Right?” Old Charlie Bale asked that question. He, like Sheraton, had been relegated to that committee due his ignominious party affiliation.

“Uh... yes.”

“So what's the point in an autopsy?”

“State law requires that any animal suspected of being rabid be tested.” Simms recited it like he'd read and practiced it in front of the mirror that very morning.

Babette rolled her eyes and shook her head. “State law.” She spit the words out. “And who has to pay for this... dissection?”

“Uh... we do.”

“Sheesh!” She said. That was as close as she got to cussing... most of the time.

“So... uh, anyway... other than that...” Simms looked like he was ready to run for the door. “There's not much else to report, really.”

“What's this, on your expense report about $50 for a new pair of boots?” asked Willis Cranston, another committee member. He was also on the Zoning Committee – an appointment he'd wanted in order to push through a zoning change around his house to make his property easier to cut up and sell. He'd been on the committee for a year and had his eye on the chairmanship of that committee come the next election.

“Well,” Jon shifted in his seat and looked at the floor. Whenever he shifted in the old wooden chair, it creaked and wobbled like it was going to come apart any minute. It was also significantly shorter, like it was made for someone even shorter than he already was. “Boots wear out and you gotta replace them.”

“Do you ONLY wear the boots while you're working?” Babette asked.

“Uh...well. Not NECESSARILY.”

“How much did the boots cost again?” That was Mike Seaver. He could barely walk and had two hearing aids, one on each ear. He often excused himself from meetings to go to the bathroom, and when it was too icy outside, someone had to meet him outside and help him in so he didn't fall and hurt himself.

“FIFTY DOLLARS,” Sheraton spoke loudly.

“They must be fancy boots,” Seaver commented.

“So...” Babette leaned in and took aim. “You don't just wear these boots while you're doing your duty...” she paused as if the word choked her “.., as Dog Catcher?”

“Not only while I'm Animal Control Officer, no.”

“Ugh. Fine,” Babette said with disgust. “ANIMAL CONTROL OFFICER. But if you didn't wear them out on the job, why should the county have to buy you boots?”

“Well, I did...”

“You're telling me that you don't make enough money to buy a separate pair of shoes?”

“Well, I don't think we should ask the tax payers of Arliss County to buy you a new pair of boots just because you can't manage the money you're paid.” Babette's dark eyes were gleaming. She knew she had won the argument and was now just enjoying watching Jon squirm.

Sheraton cut the victory short, though. “Did you use county money, Jon?”

“Uh... no. I was hoping that I might get reimbursed...”

“Ha!”Babette snorted.

“We can't reimburse you for boots you use for other than official county business,” Sheraton said.

“Can't I get partially reimbursed?”

“What percentage of time would you say you wear the boots for official county business?” Babette asked.

“Huh?” Jon looked like his eyes were about to explode out of his head.

“If you can give use some … PRECISE ACCOUNTING … on just how much time is spent doing your job when you wear the boots, maybe we can come up with an acceptable percentage.”

Simms looked at the floor. It looked like he was thinking – hard – about what to say next. It was difficult to tell if he smart enough to see through Babette's statement. If he gave a generous percentage, they'd make him explain what he did. If he gave a more honest one, they'd ask him why his job was needed in the first place, or why they should bother keeping him as Dog Catcher.  Sorry. Animal Control Officer.

He spoke very carefully. “I... uh... don't have those numbers.”

“Well,” Babette sat back in her chair like she had just finished a large meal. “Then I don't see how we can grant you a reimbursement.”

“Sorry, Jon,” Sheraton added. But it was pretty clear that he wasn't really sorry.

“Can we move on to Mental Health?” Willis asked as Jon skulked out of the room. “I need to get back.”

“Is there anything on the agenda for Mental Health?”

Babette looked through her pile of papers. “No.”

“Then I motion to adjourn the meeting,” Sheraton said.

“Second,” said Babette.

“Is the meeting over?” asked Seaver.

“It is now,” Cranston answered.

“Oh, good,” Seaver said. “I need to use the facilities.”

“Meeting adjourned,” Sheraton said.

07 February, 2011

[Except] The Muckraker's Chronicle: The Gauntlet

 I drove one town over to talk to Sam at the newspaper office. The office for The Arliss Star Advocate was actually a large garage that had been converted into a print shop, and later a newspaper. It was a squat, dirty looking building nestled in behind his house the way a shy child nestles against it's mother in the presence of strangers. Sam inherited the business from his father, along with all the petty territory wars and grudges that have always been a part of small town journalism. He was, I think, nearing the end of his tether. While he wasn't an old man by any stretch of the imagination – he had 20 years on me, but that's far from old in this day and age – it was a hard 20 years, the last 10 of which he'd spent as publisher, pot stirrer, and lightening rod for the voice of progress in a part of the country that fears change as much as it fears a dry growing season.

His version of progress wasn't the same as mine; although he never came out and said, so, I suspected that he was a closet Libertarian and a strict constructionist in his interpretation of the Constitution. This meant that we agreed on some basic tenants: the drug war, like most foreign wars, was completely unnecessary. Taxation should be minimal and fair. Mostly we shared a staunch independent streak. The only difference is that Sam still believed in Democracy and I believed I had been born to watch my civilization fall into decline.

I walked in and rang the bell on the counter, announcing myself. The only other person in the office at the time was Virgil, Sam's son. Virgil had no interest in journalism; he was hiding from out from the economy, working for his dad and living at home. He'd been living in a Chicago suburb when the bottom fell out.

“Hi Jay.” He was the only person who ever called me Jay. I'd always gotten the sense that Virgil didn't like me, though I was unsure why. Before I started writing for the paper, I sat through an interview with him during which he seemed incredibly uncomfortable. I know I make people uncomfortable sometimes; I thought maybe I wasn't urbane enough, or that he expected someone different when he read me on paper. Interacting with Virgil wasn't the first time that it occurred to me that I wasn't civilized enough to do the kind of work I was doing. Not refined enough. People assume that once you've reached a certain level of education that refinement is inevitable. That being literate and having an above average vocabulary means that nothing gets to you. Mostly I've found that what most people mistake for intelligence or gentility is rampant dishonesty. Be polite, but not kind. That sort of bullshit spreads like a disease. And in spite of the fact that I interviewed well and that my credentials were solid, Virgil didn't call me back and I had to hound Sam to get a chance at writing for the paper.

“Can I help you?” He's always so guarded and oh so polite. I wasn't sure what he did before he moved back home, but I was sure it was customer service related.

“I'm here to see Sam.”

“Oh.” Was that disappointment? Or masked annoyance? “He's in the back.”

Of course he was. “Thanks, Virgil.”

Sam's office was a large windowless closet in the back corner of the building, just big enough for a desk, a file cabinet, a small computer table (one of the cheap roll away kind) and a couch that had probably been salvaged from somebody's garbage once upon a time. The few times I'd actually visited Sam in his office, it was always in a state of total disorganization; the desk was littered with piles of papers that didn't appear to be organized, and he was almost always on the phone, trying to get a new advertiser or wrangling money owed from one he already had. This time was no exception. He was on the phone when walked back and stood in the doorway; when he saw me, he waved and motioned me towards the couch.

I sat down and waited for him to finish. The couch sunk down and it felt like I was almost sitting on the floor. When he was finished he hung up and turned to me.

“Thanks for coming down,” he said.

“Not a problem. I was wanting to get out of the house anyway.”

“Do you have anything going this week?”

“A few stories I'm trying to tie the loose ends on. It's been a pretty quiet week.”

“Have you talked to Don Parton lately?”

Ah I thought. Here's the reason. “Don Parton?” I paused and pretended to think about it. “Nope. Don't think so. Why?”

“He called me last week.”


“He called to talk about you.”

“Nice to know he cares.”

“He cares enough that he's threatening to sue you.”

“He threatens everybody.”

“He threatened to sue the paper, too.”


“You remember that article you wrote about people trying to get a concealed weapon law on the books?”

“Yup.” I'd about a group of citizens that had been meeting with the intention of petitioning the state to make “fundamental changes inherent and necessary to the free American Spirit outlined in the Declaration of Independence.” The group, calling itself the Arliss County Auxiliary, was a mixture of social conservatives, gun nuts, and anti-government paramilitary paranoids – among them, Don Parton. I attended a meeting, interviews Parton and several others, and wrote it up as it happened. The ACA's first objective was to get a concealed carry law passed in Illinois like the one that passed in Arizona – all that John Wayne / armed against the criminals rhetoric that the NRA used to bandy so effectively until Charlton Heston started loosing his marbles.

“Apparently he thought your coverage was less than objective.”


“And...” Sam stopped and shook his head. “Look, he called and screamed at me for about 45 minutes.”

“What'd you tell him?”

“I told him he should write a Letter to the Editor.”

“Sounds good.”

“He said he had no intention of being the butt of a public joke.”

“He's already an ass most of the time. How would it be any different?” That made Sam smile a little. Parton's pro-gun stance was not all that interesting, nor was it surprising. But when he launched into his litany of things he saw that “required a 2nd Amendment Remedy” – including everything from the current administration to the county health department to gay marriage to the “problems that fester in Niggertown” – some people's name for Chicago – apparently he felt I was too specific in my depiction of him as a raving dumb ass. Go figure. “So what's he wanting?”

“A recant.”

“Based on what?”

“And he wants me to fire you.”

“Did you tell him I'm freelance?”


“He said he didn't care what your job title is.”

“So ARE you going to fire me?”

“Were you disingenuous in your article?”

“You mean, did I make up any of the shit they said?”


“No. They don't need me to make them look stupid. They do just fine on their own.”

“I know.” He sighed. “Look. I think I can appease him with an editorial response.”


“I know you do good work,” he said. “But we can't afford a lawsuit. And a guy like Parton would keep it going just to make a point.”

“I know. You're not firing me; right?”

He shook his head. “No. I just wanted to make sure you were aware.”

“Okay. No problem.” I knew where this was going. Sam knew I was right, but I was going to get thrown under the bus. He'd write an amicable editorial response proclaiming the paper's support of all our Constitutional rights, and throw in some of Parton's propaganda bullshit to make it all feel balanced. The fact is that Don Parton, other than being one of the biggest land owners in the county, was also known as one litigious son of a bitch by everyone who knew him. I'd heard that was how he acquired the last 25 acres of his property; he sued somebody over an easement issue and kept it going so long that eventually the other person went broke, gave up, and sold him the property at a massive loss. The American Dream in action.

“Alright, then.” His mood lightened somewhat and we talked some more about nothing particularly important. Maude would be relieved that I didn't lose my job; but she'd probably freak out over the possibility of being sued. I was debating about whether I should mention it to her when I left, drove back to Mount Arliss, and headed straight for the Moose Head.

21 January, 2011

[All Indications Contrary]: Excerpt from THE MUCKRAKER'S CHRONICLE

 I had a message from Sam. He wanted to talk to me. Mostly we exchange emails about the articles I send him and about when he's going to pay me. Sometimes we talk on the phone; but I hate talking on the phone.

“What does he want to talk to you about?” Maude asked. She was trying not to sound too worried. I would like to say that her worries were unfounded; but since I have a history of telling supervisors, foremen, editors, and publishers to go to hell, I can't really blame her for being a little concerned. To her credit, she does a better job of keeping it in context, or at the very least masking the depth of her worry.

“He didn't say. He said he wanted to talk about some things, is all.”

“He never told you what it was about?”


“Do you KNOW what it's about?”

“What's THAT supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said.” It was her turn to cook. She was making chicken and dumplings using her great-grandmother's receipe. She hadn't made it in a long time, but I knew it was going to be good. When we first got married, we ate a lot of dumplings, usually sans chicken because it cost too much. Chicken bullion broth and dumplings. Flour was an easy commodity to afford, and for that I always felt lucky. That we could now afford to use chicken and even incorporate some vegtables I saw as an indication that things were still better than they once were.

“I'm not worried about it.”

“But you NEVER worry about anything!”

“That's not true. I worry about things all the time.”

“Like what?”

I thought for a second. “World peace?”

She wasn't amused. “You nearly quit the last time he wanted to have one of these talks.”

That was months ago, and I was over it. I had gotten pretty pissed off – justifiably – after Sam gutted an article I wrote about the Arliss Church of God and it's relationship with the Arliss Town Council. Apprently several members, some of whom own businesses that frequently advertise in the Star Advocate – said I was picking on “a fundamentally American Institution.” At least, that's what one of them wrote in a letter that she didn't want printed in the paper. Sam showed me the letter. The author, one Fay Parris, was also upset that I spelled her last name wrong. That her husband is also a respected church elder and majority owner in the one of the biggest graineries in the county also had something to do with it. Sam wasn't so much concerned about the fact that I was highlighting what we both see as a problem, even though Establishment Clause issues tend to have little place in small town discussions. He was more concerned about losing the advertisers – which is his concern, not mine, and that's what I told him.

“Relax, will you? I'm not going to quit.”

“He might fire you.”

“He can't fire me. I'm freelance.”

“Well, he could stop taking your articles, then.”

“He won't.”

She snorted. “Why?”

“I'm the best writer he's got.”

“That's why I love you; you're so humble.”

“And here I thought it was because I don't leave the toilet seat up.”

“Not anymore.”

“See? Proof that I can change.”

She finished stirring the pot on the stove and turned the heat down to let it simmer a little longer. The house was starting to smell like chicken and dumplings, and it was making me hungry. She came back into the living room, sat down, and lit a cigarette. “You're not taking me seriously.”

“I am. I just don't think there's anything to worry about.”

“What did you write about this week?”

“The usual. Small town intrigue. County politics. Committee meetings. Boring shit, really.”

“So why does he want to talk to you?”

“Maybe he wants to give me a full-time job.”

She shook her head. “You wouldn't take it.”

“Probably not. But it's always nice to be asked.”

I could tell by the way she was smoking that she was getting pissed off; when she smokes when she's mad, she guns them, like she's trying to get every bit of smoke before it burns down to the filter. I didn't see any reason to worry about Sam's intentions. Sometimes he just liked to check in with his writers; Sam had the personal touch. His operation employed three full time employees not including himself, his wife Sandy, and his son David, who was the business manager. He was a politic and considerate guy, with an ocassional tendency to fly off the handle in ideological discussions. I didn't always agree with his truths, but I liked that he had them. Sam didn't always like my truths, either. But no one's perfect.

“I know you think it's a big fucking joke,” she said, “but some of do actually worry about whether or not we're going to have a roof over our heads.”

“I didn't know that was a concern at this point.”

“It's ALWAYS a “concern”,” she said, stamping out the butt of her cigarette in the small plastic ashtray sitting between on the end table between our chairs. “It's just not always YOUR concern.”

“That's unfair,” I said. “I'm working, right? It's not my fault there's shit here to do that doesn't include shoveling cow shit and farming corn. We knew it was going to be this way.”

“So it's my fault?”

“No. Who said anything about fault? It's not about fault. We moved here for your job; we discussed it, decided, and did it. I was okay with it. I'm still okay with it.”

“You were going to lose your job in Phoenix anyway.”

“Yes. I know.”

“And the problems started out the exact same way. And then one day, you get called in for “a talk”, and ...”

“I told you I wasn't going to screw this up, okay? Trust me. He just wants to talk. It'll be fine.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I haven't done anything to piss anybody off lately.”

“Huh. How would you know?”

She had a point. “I'd know. That's all. People here are obvious.”

“No. They just don't tell you to your face.”

“So they're cowards. How is that my problem?”

“Because instead of telling YOU they tell ME.”

Sigh. And that,I thought, is the point.

“What have you heard?”

Not me. Peter.”

“Again? Doesn't that spineless bastard have anything better to gossip about?”

“He's the President of the playhouse board,” she said. “People tell him things.”

“Are they trying to threaten your job again?”


Yes. Just not directly.

“I just don't understand why you have to be so difficult.”

“I'm only as difficult as the situation demands,” I said. “If people would just behave, I wouldn't have any problems with anyone.”

She smiled. A little smile. “Maybe you're the one who needs to behave.”

“Maybe you need to teach me.”



She stood up and walked into the kitchen. “Dinner's ready,” she said.