The Amtrak railed through Desoto County with its bells a’ clanging and sirens ‘a blaring, the locomotive leaving a swirl of refuse in its wake, secret pages falling on the sidewalks like the autumn leaves of New England that I missed and that I loved. I knew that those leaves — crimson, nut brown, russet and lemon — up north fall upon the final resting places of my family only to rot beneath the earth all the slimy gray long crappy winter. I knew I’d miss New England but my job at the paper grounded me and provided me with a chickenfeed salary. It didn’t go far. Every first and third Friday Moose greeted me at the door of the condominium with his hand open and saying, “Push.” I began looking for affordable housing in the region; until then I forked my half of my paycheck for my room at the dreary rabbit hutch I shared with my father in a gated community off the Kings Highway.
Joey stayed late at the office to issue directives as he prepared me to cover the Arcadia City Hall meeting for the first time since I began working for the Arcadian. Meanwhile I was putting the finishing touches on a nasty tale about a middle-school student who dry humped his teacher in a broom closet.
“Give it up, Royal,” Joey said. “The publisher won’t print it. This is a family newspaper.”
I grew rigid with strife. All that work down the drain.
“So I’ve been told. Then how come the paper advertises brassieres in the Sunday edition?”
“Take it up with the Ombudsman.” He saw how dejected I was, my lips trembling, sweat drizzling down my forehead, staining my collar. Son of a bitch. That article could have gotten me a job on a real newspaper in Sarasota Miami or West Palm Beach.
“Tough luck, kid. You aren’t no Jimmy Breslin. So much for your major journalism award.”
“Joey. I have repeatedly asked you to stop calling me ‘kid’.”
“Quit your bitching and go do your job.”
His Puerto Rican bravado rose off his coconut-shaped head like a teakettle boiling over. His optic white shirt, as blinding as a sunspot, had creases on its creases and his red power tie hung down to the zipper of his black Dockers. Still he refused to don a sport coat even when I offered him one of mine.
“Whatever, Royal. Now grow a pair and bring me back a story!”
The rest of the staff had gone home for the night. Joey followed me out the door even as I told him I could go to City Hall tomorrow and get the details of the meeting from the City Clerk.
“The hell you will, Royal. I want to see holes in the leather soles of your shoes when I inspect them in morning. Remember a reporter’s only as good as his last story.”
“Says I. Now vamos!”
I left the newsroom and walked several blocks downtown toward City Hall, which stood across from the movie theater and the penny arcade, to listen to the laugh track of the snarky bureaucrats sitting like gods on their mahogany thrones in the Hall of Injustice. I arrived just in time, despite the squabbling and battle of wills between the editor. I made it just in time for the Pledge of Allegiance. The time-honored sound of the Bailiff’s cry brought everybody to their feet.
I realized that I was outnumbered, the only reporter at the meeting. The pols left me out of the loop; spoke in a language I didn’t understand — governmentalese. The hacks had adopted the budget prior to the quorum. In the chamber they discussed items on the agenda in secret with the microphones turned off, the blinds on the windows drawn tight. All I could do is observe, study their habits carefully, avail myself to the process of covering the miserable screwed up world of local government. Russell Beatty didn’t teach me this at the Equinox at USNH. Joey mentioned that the Arcadian might be compelled to slap a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) against the school of small-fish politicians.
“What good’s that gonna do, Joey?” I asked before he shoved me out the door.
“Not a thing. Those bumpkins probably have no idea what that means, especially that rum hound City Attorney.”
It wasn’t hard to figure them out, how they worked together for the fulfillment of their diabolical schemes plans and designs. Joey spoke of malfeasance and skullduggery. “And oh how they love to break their hands by patting each other on the back even as they hang targets on them,” Joey warned. “Try not to step in the bullshit, Harding”
“I’ll be careful.”
As a college dropout I failed to identify. But I knew megalomaniacs when I encountered them. These hacks were the distinguished ones who played by the rules — their rules — the ones who played nice in the sandbox, got gold stars for not coloring outside the lines, a rouge’s gallery consisting of a beauty, the beasts, and of mice and the men children. Had they forgotten “Robert’s Rules,” the universal standard on how to conduct a fair and orderly organization? I did learn something from my Political Science curriculum...
Now the beauty, a young lawress and newly elected, clung to her Phi Beta Kappa standard, for she graduated from Ol’ Miss Law School at the top of her class. She was attractive but no match for my Rapist. Like Cerise, her skin was too fair for South Florida though she was quite busty, the kind of woman I salivated over. She crossed her legs, one of her stilettos dangling off her toe. She painted her toenails cornflower blue — a major turn on. Despite my attachment to the Rapist it was difficult to not stare at the young woman. She was aware of it, batted her cow’s eyes at me and she had the teats to match those cow’s eyes. What brand of snake oil did she peddle?
Her partner in crime, the City Attorney, Atticus Montgomery, the one Joey warned me about, was as well heeled as he was well-oiled, wore dusky horn rims on his Henry Kissinger casaba melon-sized head to conceal his stoned, blood-shot eyes from the five Manhattans he downed at dinner prior to the meeting. Montgomery and I had not formally met yet the sot insisted on purposely mispronouncing my surname — Mr. Hardong, he said, placing the emphasis on the ‘dong. Perhaps it was the drawl. Did the whisky impede his speech or did his speech impediment drive him to the whisky? I wanted to rebuke him for the slight but feared the bailiff would evict me from the meeting and that Montgomery, who left his slug trail on the tiles throughout the building, would indict me on some arcane codicil buried in one of the tomes in his law library.
The City Clerk entered the chamber and passed out copies of the agenda and minutes from the previous meeting. The minutes were two months old and the council failed to ratify the agenda. The Clerk, Miss Jenny Rae Corker, was once attractive in a seventies prime-time television star sort of way, a burned out version of one of Charlie’s Angels, Farah Fawcett or Kate Jackson, the wet dreams of every boy in my generation who pinned a poster of their thrilling cleavage on the wall and kept a towel beneath the pillow. Jenny Rae Corker wore reading glasses from Walgreen that hung off the flailing nostrils that revealed her contempt for her work at City Hall. She interrupted the Mayor and asked for his signature but the crazy ol’ coot shooed her away like a fly. The Mayor wore a ten-gallon hat and snakeskin boots with silver spurs. Colorful. He drove his Cadillac to the diner on the corner each morning, strands of blood vessels mapping the contours of his globular cranium.
The Clerk’s ex-husband, Councilman Cash Corker, was a horse breeder and a has-been, nay, a never-was musician who played a Casio synthesizer at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and the rodeo in March and September. Councilor Corker sported a waxed mustachio and a ponytail that concealed his his plumbers crack. I imagined the Clerk and the Horse Breeder when they were married. One calls to mind the drug-addled lost weekend when Cher and Greg Allman got hitched at the old manse among the Wild blue Woodland Phlox with ponies prancing in the paddocks. During the recess I followed Cash Corker outside on the steps of the municipal building where rolled up Bull Durham tobacco. He lit up with his triple torch butane lighter.
“Can I bum one off you, Councilor?”
“Ain’t you a bit young to be smokin’ son?” He looked me up and down, sizing me up to determine whether I could take on one of the ranchers working on his land that his family had owned since Ante Bellum years.
“Jump down turn around pick a bail of cotton, isn’t that so, Councilor?”
“Excuse me sir, but didn’t I see you at a Grateful Dead show in Birmingham in 1992?”
“Hell you did. Hurry up, damn it. The meetin’ done about to start up again.”
“Time to go back to the rattlesnake nest. Don’t want to be late. Something important might happen.”
“Don’t set your watch by it.”
In the chamber overhead lights blazed like magic carpets and the corkboard ceiling waxed psychedelic, the images floating across my field of vision sending me into a transom. Since there was nothing else to talk about, the Mayor, to my profound Fear and Loathing, invited me to ask some questions.
I doubted his sincerity. “Well, I don’t know. I’m kinda new around these parts.”
“Go on boy, speak up. We ain’t got all night.”
Every member of the council stared at me as if I was a guilty culprit who hasn’t been told the crimes he’s committed.
“What? What have I done?” My soul lay bare before the Council Unjustices.
“I’ll find something on you,” said the City Attorney menacingly. “You bet your ass I will. Ignorance of the law ain’t any excuse, Mr. Hardong.” When they were through hazing me I turned on my heels and hurried from the City Council Chamber.
What the A-List Team failed to notice was that I recorded the entire meeting with my tape recorder — the same one I used to get Bill Clinton on the record when he campaigned in Keene back in ’92. I brought the transcript back to the office to show Joey but he was gone. In the dank newsroom I listened to the recording ...
Mayor: Go back home to your mama, ya done hear me now, boy?
City Attorney: Hey, Mr. Hardong, I don’t like the way you part your hair. Yawl look like one of them thar murals painted on the wall in the alley by the former speakeasy. Tarnation!
JRH Jr.: I’m not going to dignify that remark with a reply.
Lawress: You look lonely, Mr. Harding. Are you single?
Clerk: That boy is a p-i-g pig, a Carpetbagger and a misogynist if ever I saw one.
Cash Corker: I seconded that. Man, I’d like to get some of my ranch hands and beat the shit outta you.
Mayor: Meeting adjourned. C’mon, Atticus. Manhattans on me.
The Mayor rapped the gavel. The meeting lasted about thirty-five minutes, with several motions left on the floor, none resolved but at least I had a story to present to Joey D. in the morning.
Outside I buttonholed the Clerk, who didn’t want to talk to me, tried to brush me off like the horseflies at her ex-husband’s ranch. Shit on his boots. Hell, that cowpuncher had shit in his mustache.
“Get away,” said the Clerk. “Cain’t ya see I’m busy? Whatta yawl hasslin’ me for? You reporters are all the same: bunch’ a blood-sucking leeches. You ain’t no Mark Twain. You’re worse than that spic editor and there ain’t nobody as bad as him ‘cept you in this here Podunk town.
“You got that right. Look lady, despite what you think, you’re time is not more important than mine.”
“Ya thank so, huh? Yr outta yr cotton-pickin’ mind.”
“I had a poster of you in my bedroom about the time I hit puberty.”
“Oh, you masher! You want me to call the police?”
I trailed her a few blocks to the coffee shop, which operated in that pink pig rattrap building across from the Arcadian, the former speakeasy and brothel that Joey told me about when I started at the paper.
“Now lookie heer, junior. Git outta my face or I’ll call the sheriff. Are you deef or somethin’? Can’t yawl see I gotta get home and rustle up some vittles for my chilluns? Lawd a mercy.”