Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Frank Ames’ Restore America Tour                                                                                                   

  

Snow had been falling, more or less steadily, for 48 hours over Republic. There seemed no end to it.  Frank Ames, Attorney At Law, had just entered the El Sombrero.  Frank’s new BMW was in the shop for ignition repairs, and he’d had to walk ten city blocks to get here.  He was shaking snow from his umbrella onto a rubber mat inside the vestibule door when Old Man Crowley, his boss, waltzed into the room, arm-in-arm with Myra Ailing, the 60-year old proprietress of the restaurant.

“There you are, Ames!” Crowley bellowed, dipping Myra beneath a huge red sombrero stapled to a wall.  “You missed Happy Hour, old boy!  But that’s all right.  Leach and Peters are still here.  And Helen, of course.”

Frank flushed at the mention of Helen’s name.  But he recovered in time to return Myra Ailing’s hello before Crowley, his huge horse-like head in a fine sweat, cantered Myra once more across the vestibule floor; then back the other way, whirling her twice beneath him, paper roses clenched between their teeth as they vanished laughing behind the white stucco wall that separated the restaurant and Cactus Room bar.

“Helen . . .” Frank whispered.

He stepped up to the entryway mirror, smoothed back his black, curling hair with a palm of his hand.  At 41, Frank Ames was a strikingly handsome man at the peak of his professional career.  He’d practiced estate and agricultural law his first seven years out of Duke for a small-time firm in his native Palouse County—a favor to his now-deceased father.  They’d been the most difficult years of his life: seven years listening to the endless prattle of tight-fisted old patriarchs; then, when the bastards had finally croaked, sitting and listening to the same from their even tighter-fisted widows.  But all this had changed when he’d signed on with Crowley, Beckett and Leach two years ago.  His income had nearly tripled overnight.  He was playing with the big-hitters now.  Simplot and Jacklin Seed.  Jolly Green Giant.  No more cracker jack Ma and Pa outfits.  Crowley had taken Frank under wing on the strength of his knowledge of agri-law and, more specifically, on account of Frank’s capacity to “talk sense” to those Palouse farmers unwilling to see the world for what it is, and not what it once was.

“I need a man,” Crowley had boasted, “who won’t flinch at the words: Get big or get out!”

Frank entered the bar.  Will Ailing, Myra’s eldest boy, was bartending, deep in conversation with some old-timers at one end of the counter , while, at the other end, three businessmen waited to order.  Helen and the others occupied a table along the far wall—where a window would face out on Riverside Avenue if the Cactus Room had any windows.  Helen had shed her cardigan sweater and sat on the edge of her seat, posture perfect, in a sky-blue, short-sleeve silk blouse.  She was reaching across the table to poke Crowley in the ribs, her long, beautifully freckled arms and elbows flying as though she were playing charades.  Frank loved every inch of those arms: in particular how they flushed with goose pimples when they were making love.

Myra appeared at Frank’s side, helping remove his gray flannel overcoat from his navy-three piece suit underneath.

“I see Will’s up to his old tricks!” Frank said, winking at Myra in recognition that Will was “willfully” ignoring the three businessmen impatiently shuffling at the other end of the bar.  “Is he still on semester break?”

“He’s on break all right, “Myra answered, throwing a towel at her six-foot son when he feigned to not hear the businessmen’s “can we get some service down here?”  She gave her son the evil eye until he sauntered towards the putout businessmen.  “A break from reality!  My eldest son, the poet, has dropped out of school again!”  Myra bowed her head.  “I guess this is what I get for having children late in life!”

Frank liked Will.  Once upon a time, Frank had had a literary bent himself: had majored in English as an undergraduate, and served as an associate editor on his alma mater’s literary magazine.   Frank Ames stood a solid six-one in his stockinged feet now—with the lithe poise and power of an English Pointer—but he’d been slight and sickly as a boy.  His parents, Palouse County wheat farmers, had done everything they could to insulate him, their only child, from the rigors and reality of farm life.  They’d sent Frank to the best prep schools they could afford, kept the roughhousing neighbor boys away.  Frank remembered putting in long days during harvest—the broken hand blisters and HEET for sore back and mother’s NOXEMA cold cream for sunburn— but what influenced him most were the long summer days spent wandering the undeveloped scab rock and pine forests of the farm’s northwest quarter section, searching for arrowheads and rock paintings, wagon wheels and buckboards, all manner of Indian and pioneer artifacts.  Frank’s only friends were the small Cooper hawks and the occasional redtail or owl that watched him from the tall cottonwoods along Hangman Creek;  his only company  Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or The True Life Adventures of Davy Crockett.  Sometimes Frank would hike five miles up the old Kentuck Trail, following the wagon wheel ruts grown over with wild rose, until he arrived at an area along Hangman Creek, where the cattails grew in great abundance.

Hangman’s Canyon.  Here, in 1858, Colonel George F. Wright—famous for the slaughter of 800 corralled Indian ponies in a single night— hung the renegade Indian Qualchan and seven other warriors.  Qualchan, along with his father, Owhi, and the great Yakima chief, Kamiakin, had declared war on the whites.  Qualchan had terrorized settlers with sniping attacks on both sides of the Cascades.  Wright and his men had lured Qualchan to this encampment by capturing Owhi and threatening to execute him if the son did not capitulate.  Within minutes of stepping foot inside Wright’s camp, Qualchan was tried, sentenced and hung—old man Owhi looking on in chains.  The next day Owhi and six other renegade Indians were hung from the same tree.

“Qualchan!  Qualchan!”

Frank would whisper the words and imagine Qualchan and the six other warriors riding into Wright’s camp on Appaloosa horses.  He’d sit in the shade of the alleged Hangman’s Tree and contemplate the fate of this father and son who’d attempted to resist his white forefather’s encroachment.  It was in the shadow of this dying black cottonwood that Frank first read Shelley and Keats; here he wrote the first lines of his own verse.  He could admit now that his poetry was too much in imitation of his two masters.  But one of his poems—“The Ghost of Qualchan”—had been worthy enough to be published in a chapbook Frank’s freshman year at the State University in Pullman.

“Don’t worry, Myra,” Frank said, thanking her for helping with his coat.  “Will’s a good boy.   A bit headstrong, all right.  But time will take care of that!”

Frank sat across the table from Crowley.  He signaled Will for his regular: a double Tanqueray on ice, squeeze of lime, and the package of Pall Malls Will kept stashed behind the Tanqueray bottle just for him.

“Sorry I’m late, Senator,” Frank said, opening his briefcase in his lap.  “This damn snow.”

Crowley had run for U.S. Senator on the Republican ticket against now Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, in the mid-’70s.  Crowley had lost the race, but retained the Senator handle.

“No problemo, Ames,” Crowley said, straightening in his seat, leveling his red polka dot bow tie.  “No problem at all.”

Crowley doled out his best senatorial smile.

Frank removed a manila folder marked HAYSEEDS in Crowley’s handwriting.  He pushed it across the formica to Crowley.  Helen winked at Frank.  She and the others were passing around photos from a company party at Priest Lake in North Idaho last August.  Frank had missed the festivities because of a court appearance in Seattle to finalize his divorce with his ex-wife, Julia (now remarried to a dentist and living with their three children in West Seattle).  Helen was gorgeous in her red bikini suit: particularly in the photo taken on the forepeak of Crowley’s 40-foot fiberglass lake trawler, the Donna Mae—named after Crowley’s wife.  Helen stood between an Indian-brown Crowley in trunks and a client from the previous year, a large man in Hawaiian shirt and bikini bottoms.  Crowley and the other man stood with the backs of their wrists pressed to their foreheads, feigning sunstroke, while Helen assumed the pose of a woman bodybuilder.  Helen was mimicking this pose now, arms held aloft to display her Gold’s Gym biceps while, beneath the table, she pressed her nylon-stockinged foot against Frank’s left pant leg.

“All here?” said Crowley.  “The debt consolidation forms?  The Deere receipts?”

Crowley was referring to the HAYSEEDS brief.  A messy case all the way around.  Their clients, two brothers, were suing their father for mismanagement of the family farm.  The father—at behest of the wife—had deeded their Colfax farm to his two eldest sons after suffering a severe stroke.  No one had expected the father to live outside a few months.  But three years later, the father was still riding high in the seat of his John Deere—and riding all of them deeper into Deere debt. The father had refused to relinquish control to the eldest sons: running both of them off “his land” with a double barrel.  On top of this, the John Deere Corporation was suing the absentee brothers for debts procured by the father.

“All there,” Frank said, running his hand up the back of Helen’s calf.  “Receipts in an envelope towards the back.”

Crowley removed his spectacles and read no further.  The longer this case drew on, the more the brothers’ debt deepened, and the more the opportunity arose to sell them on a corporate sponsored bail-out.  He handed the HAYSEED file back to Frank.

“Excellent work, Ames.”

Realtor Felix Smiley joined their group, proffering contraband Havanas.   Frank declined the offer, whereupon Smiley did a Groucho Marx impression and pulled a mildly protesting Helen up out of her seat.  “Mind if I borrow the little lady,” he said to Frank, wiggling his thick eyebrows above the rim of his glasses, waltzing Helen along with him to the Sombrero’s piano.  This left Frank and Old Man Crowley alone at a corner of their table, out of earshot of the others.

“There was something further you wished to discuss, Senator?” said

Frank, sliding his briefcase beneath his chair.

“Yes, Frank,” said Crowley, the smile creeping back into his face.  “Thank you for reminding me.  A personal matter.”

Crowley glanced past Frank, whistling through two fingers as Helen and Felix began to sing the old Fats Waller jazz tune “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”  Crowley glanced back at Frank and motioned him towards the others with his large rheumy blue eyes.  “I believe she’s waving towards you, Frank.”

Helen had pinned her hair in a bun and crossed her legs in the manner of a cabaret singer.  She was smoking one of Smiley’s cigars.  She winked at Frank, then arched her back on the piano bench and purred Smiley’s ear.  Felix smiled and feigned to tremble.  Then, playing with the crowd, Felix purred Helen’s ears: to the crowds catcalling delight.

“Splendid,” Frank said, turning back around to face Crowley.  “Who would have thought she’d run off with the piano player in the end!"

Frank’s affair with Helen had begun that summer, the summer after the NAFTA Bill had passed into law.  Frank and Helen had been flown down to Oaxaca, Mexico, to help broker a deal between Jolly Green Giant and a farm cooperative.  In such an exotic locale—the Aztec Ruins and brightly colored peasants and the black simmering Mexican night—it wasn’t long before Frank and Helen were playing roles from their favorite Hollywood movies.  Frank’s wife, Julia, had already moved in with her West Seattle dentist.  There was really no reason not to carry on this affair.  Helen was so bright and playful.  Yet the fact was, before Frank, Helen had been Old Man’s Crowley’s mistress.  And this made Frank more than a little wary.

“It’s Helen,” Frank said, dusting a piece of lint from his blazer’s sleeve.  “That’s the personal matter you’re here to talk with me about.  Isn’t it, Senator?”

When Old Man Crowley just continued to smile knowingly, Frank lost his composure.

“If you think you can tell Helen and me—”

“Cool it, Frank!” Crowley said, lowering his voice, all trace of a smile gone from his face.  He leaned across the table so close that Frank could see the veins in his squid-like eyes.  “You’re showing your Hayseed roots, Ames!”

“Goddamn it, Crowley—” Frank began, but stopped when Will Ailing appeared at tableside with Frank’s cigarettes and a tray of drinks.

“Tanqueray on ice, Mr. Ames?” Will said.

“Yes,” Frank said.  “Thank you, Will.  And put this round on my tab.”

Frank eased back in his chair, feeling his hands unclench beneath the table.

While Will Ailing distributed drinks among their group, Frank made eye contact with Helen, hoping to get some indication from her as to what in the hell was going on.  But she averted his eyes as if they had stung her, moved closer to Smiley on the piano bench now that their song was nearing its finale.

It was Crowley who brought the subject back up after Will had left.

“You know this firm’s policy on relations among co-workers,” said Crowley.  “Helen’s relation with Crowley, Beckett and Leach is as legal secretary.  Relations above and beyond this are strictly forbidden.”

Frank began to interrupt, then checked himself, realizing that stating the obvious about Crowley’s own relations with Helen would only make him, Frank Ames, look all the smaller, and more pathetic as well.

“Look, Frank,” Crowley said, in an even lower, conspiratorial tone.  “I know as well as anyone what a bunch of garbage these bylaws are!  No one follows them by the letter!  But, Jesus, Frank!  Word’s getting around!  I just want you two to cool your jets for a few weeks.  We’ve got this big shindig with Bill Bennett, Falwell, and the rest of that moral majority crowd coming to town next week, and this firm needs to appear spotless.  You get me, Frank?”

Frank ran a forefinger around the rim of his rocks glass, then nodded without looking at Crowley.

“I get you, Senator.”

He was thankful a moment later when Helen and the others returned to their table, blowing leftover New Year’s Eve party favors Felix Smiley had dislodged from the pockets of his Armani sports jacket.

 

 

Midnight.

Frank Ames stands in his indigo blue bathrobe before the sliding glass window leading to the raised cedar deck of his large South Hill home.  The house is nearly empty—just a couch and futon and various household appliances—because Frank must move out by month’s end.  The property has been sold—proceeds of the sale going to his ex-wife and the kids.  Not a light on in the house: except for the telephone answering machine’s little red light.

Still not blinking.

He must have left at least half-dozen messages on Helen’s answering machine before passing out on the couch drinking gin straight from the bottle.

Call me.

Please.

Frank notices that the snow on his unshovelled deck is two feet high.  It is so quiet he can hear water gurgle down his throat to his stomach as he takes another swallow from his glass—trying to stave off the bad effects of the gin.  A deposition to deliver in court, 8:05 this morning.  The night sky is blue behind the scattering layers of cloud.  The pines that lead down to Qualchan Golf and Country Club a half-mile below the precipice Frank’s house rests upon are snow-capped and swaying in the breeze.

Frank can’t sleep.

This is the second time he’s woken from the same dream.  The one with Qualchan in it.  Frank is a U.S. Cavalry soldier in Colonel George Wright’s outfit.  Only, in the dream Old Man Crowley plays the part of Colonel.  Frank is cooking beans and bacon for the men.  The sun has not yet risen on the eastern horizon. Wood snaps in the fire, and Frank looks up the other way to see Qualchan and his men along the western ridge of Hangman’s Canyon, a hundred yards away.  Even from this distance Qualchan is physically impressive: long-legged for an Indian and well muscled.  Will Ailing is riding with Qualchan and the other warriors.  Frank had not noticed this before because of the war paint on Will’s face.  Qualchan is signaling Frank to come with them.  Frank scans the camp and sees the rest of his outfit still asleep.  Qualchan waves towards Frank more urgently—his Appaloosa whinnying under him, refusing to go further down the ride.  Rocks roll out beneath the animal’s hooves, echoing off the canyon walls.  Frank hears a hissing sound from the fire.  He turns and sees the pot of beans boiling over.  Frank runs to his gray mare, tied-up to a nearby cottonwood.  He’s just climbing into the saddle when there’s a crack of rifle fire: seven shots.  Frank turns and sees Crowley dressed in full U.S. Cavalry gear outside the white flaps of his tent.  The rifle in Crowley’s hand is smoking.  On the ridge, seven bodies lie on the ground, the horses fleeing through the pine thicket they’d appeared out of.  Frank begins to protest the killings when Crowley’s eyes narrow on him.  Crowley raises a rifle to his shoulder—

And Frank wakes.

He finishes his glass of cold tap water in a single swallow.  Then, for the second time in as many minutes, he turns to look at the red light on his answering machine.

Still not blinking.

 

 

Frank felt edgy all week.  Preparations for Bennett & Co.’s RESTORE AMERICA fund-raising tour were taking all his time: petitioning the state for non-profit event status, circulating memos to several dozen affiliated firms and businesses around Republic.  “Y’AL BE SURE TO COME NOW, YA HEAR?”  Crowley had dictated that every memo end with this gag line.  Frank was feeling more and more like he was working for a public relations bureau.  What was Crowley’s angle here?  What did Bennett—a U.S. Drug Czar—have to do with agribusiness?  But later, glancing at a memo on Crowley’s desk, Frank realized it had something to do with buying up peasant farmers’ lands after they’d been wiped out by D.E.A. crop dusters.

Nothing like creating one’s own opportunities.

Bennett and Co.’s RESTORE AMERICA tour was a three-day extravaganza: beginning with a downtown parade and winter fireworks at Waterfall Park Friday night and ending with a church service at First Presbyterian of Republic Sunday afternoon.  The honorable Jerry Falwell delivering the closing prayer.  A dozen major events were scheduled around town: Straight, Inc.—a drug treatment center for problem teens—was setting up a recruitment office in the lobby of the Republic Opera House; Partnerships for a Drug Free America was hosting a fund-raising luncheon at the Masonic Temple; and the Fort Wright Art Gallery was staging a “Happy Days Are Here Again” photo exhibit of Republic in the 1950’s.  Frank hadn’t witnessed such a deluge of red, white, and blue since Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural in 1980.  Every two-bit millionaire within a 200-mile radius of Republic was showing up for the event: jamming Republic’s downtown streets—already terrible because of the heavy January snowfall—with their mile-long Cads, Lincolns, and Oldsmobiles.  It seemed every street corner had an evangelist on it.  On Thursday afternoon, he’d garnered six Gideon Bibles and four JUST SAY NO!  bumper stickers simply walking to and from his office and the El Sombrero for lunch.

But the main event was Bennett’s $1000-a-plate keynote dinner address—entitled “I Have a Dream, Too”—Saturday night in the main ballroom of Republic’s fabled Davenport Hotel.  The local media was whooping up Bennett’s appearance to match the Second Coming.  Frank was one of the “Lucky 500!”—as the Republic Review put it—to attend the function.  At company expense, of course.  Bennett’s address was to coincide with the grand reopening of the 400-room, turn-of-the-century, neo-classical hotel.  The speech was to be delivered from a podium next to the same baby grand piano an insomniac President Harry S. Truman had played on the eve of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.  And it was inside this ballroom on Saturday morning—after attending a Zero Tolerance brunch in the hotel’s west-wing—that Frank Ames stumbled upon Helen.

“Hello, Helen.”

Helen was standing halfway up a 5-step ladder, attaching a wreath of laurel leaves to the front of Bennett's raised podium, and she nearly fell when Frank spoke.

“Frank!  What are you doing here?”

“Saying hello to an old friend,” Frank said.  “I think.”

He waited until he was sure Helen wasn’t going to fall, then stepped over a red velvet rope barrier and sat down on the piano bench.  He ran through a few bars of “Red Sails in the Sunset” before Helen asked him to stop.

“Don’t be so melodramatic, Frank!”

They were alone in the ballroom.  He’d finally encountered her in a space where she couldn’t hang up on him or defer her attention to Crowley and the others.  A Mexican bellhop—watering a row of ficus trees the other side of the oval room—had looked up the moment Frank touched the ivory keys.  He turned back to his watering when Helen indicated she knew the piano player.

“I see the Senator has you working overtime too,” Frank said, watching her climb down the ladder in a hip-hugging gray dress.

“The wreath was my idea,” Helen answered.  Then, added: “Frank?  Are you drunk?”

Frank lifted the plastic cup he’d brought with him from the brunch, sniffed its contents, and took a sip.

“No one told me the punch bowl on the left was spiked.”

Helen rolled her eyes, then turned away and busied herself with boxes strewn at the foot of the stage.  Frank had to admit that the laurel wreath was a nice touch.  Helen was always surprising him.  He knew practically zip about her past.  She’d grown up in Hope River, Idaho, a small town deep in the white pine forests of the Salmon River Wilderness, a town, she’d once referred to in one of her less eloquent moments as “Bumfuck, Idaho.”  Her Daddy was a logger.  Her Mama she wouldn’t talk about.  Ever.  Both dead by the time she turned 14.  No known relatives.  Sent away to some boarding school she also wouldn’t talk about.  She was thirty-two now, though you’d guess younger unless you’d seen—as Frank had seen—the stretch marks on her hips.  Or how quiet she got around small children.  Two other subjects she’d never talk about.  Her strikingly beautiful gray eyes as cold and fathomless as the sea: revealing nada.

Frank stood suddenly, raised his plastic cup in sweeping salute to the fifty U.S. flags that surrounded them.

“Good work, Frau Helen!  To Herr Crowley and Herr Bennett!  To the ruination of my nation ’tis of thee!  To power and absolute corruption—”

Frank’s outburst came to a stumbling halt as he tripped and fell backwards over the piano bench.  A pint of Tanqueray slipped from an inside pocket of his blazer and miraculously landed flat in the palm of his right hand.  He must have blacked out for a moment.  When he reopened his eyes, he was staring at cherubs carved in the oval ceiling overhead.  With a start, Frank observed that the cherubs had little horns and forked tails.  Helen and the Mexican bellhop were at his side.  Helen was wiping off the front of his blazer while the bellhop sponged the contents of his drink from the carpet.  Frank began to apologize when the double doors of the Davenport’s west-wing swung open.  A herd of Zero Tolerance brunch-goers spilled forth onto the main ballroom floor.  Frank could feel the clunk of their patent leather shoes reverberating beneath him like a herd of wildebeest converging on an African watering hole.

Bill Bennett was at the head of this herd.  Crowley and a string of reporters followed at his heels—photographer’s bulbs popping.  Bennett moved incredibly fast for a man of his bulk.  With another start, Frank realized Bennett was marching directly towards them.  Probably for a photo-op beside Truman’s baby grand!  Frank slipped the Tanqueray back inside his blazer and was standing before Bennett or the others knew any different.

“Over here!  Get the lights on the piano player!  From the stage, dummy!”

The photographers and brunch-goers encircled Frank as he stood beside the piano.  Helen and the bellhop had disappeared into the mob.  The scene reminded him of grade school fights he’s been in.  The hot photographer’s lights and the pungent stink of a hundred old men sucking Altoids at the same time made him want to vomit.  God, he was queasy.  Before he fully realized what was happening, a rosy-cheeked Bill Bennett was beside him in a gray pinstripe suit, twin American flags pinned above his breast pocket, pumping Frank’s hand with a bone-crushing handshake.

“So you’re the piano player!” said Bennett.

The brunch-goers laughed heartily back.  Frank began to announce that he wasn’t the piano player when Crowley’s huge head and bulging eyes rolled into view.  He was instructing the photographers to get a picture of Bennett and himself with “Frank the piano player!”  Frank began to protest, but Crowley silenced him with a knowing wink.  He threw a squid-like arm around Frank’s neck and, with Bennett’s help, ushered him to the bench.

When the evening edition of the Review hit the streets, Frank Ames’ picture was page one, centermost between Old Man Crowley and a gum-chewing Bill Bennett.

Frank was the only one not smiling.

 

 

 The piano player.

Frank was late for Bennett’s keynote address.  He’d had to harangue the hotel doorman, decked out as Uncle Sam, a full five minutes before he was allowed through the Davenport’s revolving glass doors, and this only after showing the doorman the newspaper photo of himself with Bennett and Crowley.

“Oh, the piano man!” the doorman apologized, bowing and tipping his red, white and blue top hat.  “Right this way!”

The main ballroom was theatrically dark, the crowd well fed and solemn.  Waiters were amassing around the perimeter to sweep up plates of prime rib and lobster as soon as Bennett’s speech was over.  A pimply-faced bellhop—practically quaking in awe of that evening’s spectacle—met Frank inside the door. In a hushed voice, he asked if Frank wished to be ushered to his table.  He was visibly relieved when Frank said no.  Frank told the boy he would wait out the speech along the north wall with the half dozen others there assembled.  In the same servile manner, the bellhop asked if he could check Frank’s coat, which Frank also refused, finally ridding himself of the boy’s cloying attention with a five-dollar bill.

Frank was exhausted.  The HAYSEED case had taken a tragic turn.  Late last night, the third son in the feuding Colfax farm family, Axel Jr.—the 20-year- old college student and baby of the family—had hanged himself in the barn.  Axel Jr. had left a note: GODDAMN ALL YOU LAWYERS AND JUDGES AND BIG MONEY MEN FOR THE SUFFERING YOU HAVE BROUGHT UPON THIS FAMILY.  I WILL SEE YOU ALL IN HELL.  Frank had come home and found the answering machine blinking and hit PLAY thinking it was Helen.  Instead, it was the old mother of the deceased boy—normally a staid and quiet person—relating events of the night before and reading the suicide note in a quavering voice.  But what got to him most was how she’d ended the call.

“Please, Mr. Ames.  I didn’t bring this up before because I didn’t think it right.  But your mother and I attended the same country schoolhouse.  Your father played bush league baseball with my brother.  We were all childhood friends.  Please, Mr. Ames, for the love of your own mother and father, let my family be.”

Crowley and the others sat toward the front of the room.  Most members of the firm were here with their wives.  There were two vacant seats: Frank’s own, of course, but also Helen’s.  Crowley and his wife, Donna Mae, listened with heads cocked; smiling lightly, as if enraptured by the speaker’s every syllable.  Their regal silver-haired heads stood out, catching the light from the nearby stage.  Frank wondered if Crowley knew about Axel, Jr., and, if so, whether he’d give a goddamn.

Frank leaned into the wall.  Twice he’d come close to dozing off.  Even Bennett seemed bored with the speech, his Winnie-the-Pooh-like chin sinking deeper and deeper in the fat folds of his neck, his words sounding more and more slurred and mumbled.  At first, Frank thought it was the Davenport’s ancient P.A. system.  Then Frank noticed a slender white object sticking out the side of Bennett’s mouth.  A cigarette! Frank thought.  Bennett was notorious for his nicotine-addiction.  But creeping closer, Frank realized it was a lollipop.  Jesus H. Christ!  Frank thought. The big gasbag is standing here in front of 500 people—telling us to behead drug-dealers and that “Rocky, lite beer and Disneyland” is what makes America great—with a big honking lollipop sticking out the side of his trap!

Bennett’s speech ended with the words “God Bless America!”  The “real” piano player struck up a Guy Lombardo tune.  The diners rose to their feet, cheering wildly, waving miniature U.S. flags.  Crowley was first up from his chair, clapping frantically, rallying as red, white, and blue balloons and streamers rained down from the open balcony.  Frank was startled by what he’d thought was a gunshot: then saw it was just Bennett, knocking the microphone off the podium in all the excitement.

Frank kept close to the wall, inching his way along as diners spilled out into the halls like schoolchildren onto a recess yard.  Frank noticed that Wiley Brown, Republic’s street corner shoeshine man, had been brought in for the occasion.  Wiley yelled out “Hello, Mr. Frank!” as Frank passed his stall.  “Hello, Wiley!” Frank yelled back.  He wondered if Wiley had been brought in to serve RESTORE AMERICA’S 1950s motif.

Frank was heading for the Davenport lounge.  Crowley had reserved a table for the firm, and Frank was asking himself why he hadn’t the sense to go there in the first place.  He was also wondering just where Helen might be in this teeming mob when, quite literally, he bumped into her at the hotel front desk.

“Helen?"

Helen was arrayed in black evening dress, string of pearls, hair up off her gazelle-like neck in a tight bun.  Beside her, holding Helen’s hand before she shook it loose, was one of Bennett’s aides.  A thin-haired, portly man with a disarming grin and gregarious manner.  Earlier that week, Frank had actually sat naked next to this man in the sauna at the Republic Country Club. They’d had a pleasant conversation, though for the life of him Frank couldn’t remember what it was they’d talked about.

“Frank Ames!” the pleasant portly man said.  “How are you?”

Frank said he was fine.

“Bob!” he said.  “Bob Schultes!  We talked tractors!”

Frank saw the hotel room key.  It was attached to a large block of plastic, and Helen had been unable to cup it fully from view.  They’d looked at each other, then away, equally embarrassed.

“Bob—” Helen interrupted, taking hold of one of Bob’s thick hairy-fingered hands.  “Please go now.”

“Go where, beautiful!” said Bob.

“Please!” Helen repeated—loud enough to draw attention from others milling about.  “Just go!”

Frank watched Helen press the room key into the palm of Bob Schultes’ hand and close his fingers around it.  Realizing now that Frank and Helen were more than just associates, Bob Schultes began to apologize, but was cut short again by Helen.

“Thank you, Bob.  I’ll meet you in the lounge.  Business to discuss.”

Bob Schultes left.  Frank lowered his head and shut his eyes.  It took everything in him not to lash out stupidly.  When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to see Helen still there.  She was holding her string of pearls in one hand, wiping away tears with the other.

“Your mascara,” Frank said.  “It’s running.”

Frank removed a handkerchief from a breast pocket of his suit and passed it to her.

It was all coming together for Frank now.  The unanswered phone calls.  Crowley’s taking him aside that day at the El Sombrero.  Even the cold-shouldered treatment from other members in the firm.

“Spotless . . .” Frank said.

“What?” said Helen.

“Spotless,” Frank repeated.  “Something the Senator said to me last week.”

“Oh.”

Frank lowered his head a second time as another wave of rage passed through him.

“Helen?” Frank said.  “Did he put you up to this?”

When Helen did not immediately reply, Frank repeated the question.

Helen only lowered her head, her shoulders shaking as a fresh burst of tears flowed down her face.

Frank walked away: first to the table where Crowley & Co. had sat during Bennett’s speech.  Not a soul remained, but Frank did happen upon a glove of Crowley’s, left in the spot where Crowley had been sitting.  Frank clenched the leather glove in his fist.  He smelled it, then pocketed it, and marched towards the lounge in long, bold strides.

A bouncer at the door—also dressed in that evening’s colors—placed a hand on Frank’s chest as he attempted to walk by.

“Party?” the bouncer said—not removing his hand until Frank stepped back.

“What?” said Frank, straightening his tie where it had become bunched by the bouncer’s hand.

“What party, sir?”

“Crowley, Beckett and Leach,” Frank said.  He removed his V.I.P. pass from an inside pocket and handed it over.

Crowley and Co. occupied a booth next to the Davenport’s 100-gallon fish tank stocked with Brazilian piranhas.  Bill Bennett & Co. was situated at an adjacent booth.  An impromptu press conference was taking place:  Bennett signing copies of his Book of Virtues and answering reporters’ questions.  Bob Schultes’ high tenor laugh was audible over the wash of other voices.  He was seated next to Crowley and Donna Mae, presenting them a copy of Bennett’s bestseller.  Schultes met Frank’s eye, then looked shamefully away.

“Are you Frank Ames?” said the bouncer.

“Yes,” said Frank.

The bouncer handed back the V.I.P. pass, then folded his ham hock-sized arms across his chest.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Ames.  I’m afraid I can’t allow you to enter this lounge.”

Frank considered an end run.  If he could get one good punch at Crowley it might be worth it.  But getting in a wrestling match with Captain America here would only make a fool of himself instead of Crowley.

Frank stepped back as a young couple exited the lounge.  Damn it!  If only he could catch Crowley’s eye: let Crowley know that he, Frank Ames, was above this lowdown hypocrisy.  He was no whore.  But when it became obvious Crowley wouldn’t give him even this much, Frank shrank away, honoring the bouncer’s second request to “move along, bub!”

He wandered back to the main ballroom.  He passed Wiley Brown’s shoeshine and did not return Wiley’s hello.  Frank drifted like a boat cut free of its anchor through the litter of balloons and confetti: Axel Jr.’s old mother’s words echoing in his head.  Please, Mr. Ames, for the love of your own mother and father, let my family be.

Frank excused himself past waiters and bus persons until he’d returned to the hotel front desk.  He half-hoped, and half-dreaded, Helen might still be there.  She was not.  But Frank did notice his handkerchief, dropped in a nearby potted rubber tree.  Frank retrieved it, folded it carefully, and returned it to his breast pocket.

It was then Frank saw the mural-sized oil painting of Colonel George F. Wright hanging over the hotel front desk.  He wondered why he hadn’t noticed it earlier.  He waited while workers filed by with armloads of folded chairs, and then moved closer.  Frank realized that Thomas Hart Benton had influenced this painter: the same strong use of color and rhythmic line.  In the immediate foreground, Wright was comforting an Indian mother and child on a basalt bluff overlooking the Republic Falls.  Downriver, a band of Indians were practicing what appeared to be some form of animal sacrifice or mutilation; upriver, on the plateau Republic had been built upon, white settlers were raising a church and schoolhouse, the settlers depicted as bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, the Indians wild-eyed and sallow.  For a long troubling moment, Frank stood gape-mouthed and perspiring, lost in the roar of the roiling green waters beneath the Falls.  And he would have remained so longer if his reverie weren’t broken by another gang of workers filing noisily past with another armload of chairs.

Frank felt for the keys to his BMW, then left the Davenport Hotel.

 

 

The Law Offices of Crowley, Beckett and Leach were on the ground floor of the Farmers Insurance building,  a 20-story, box-like structure at the heart of downtown Republic, on Howard Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues.  Crowley’s desk, behind a wall of inch-thick tinted glass, was about fifty feet in: exactly midway between a LOADING-UNLOADING ONLY zone and a fire hydrant.

Enough space to drive a Mack truck through.

Frank shoved snow off the windows of his BMW with his briefcase, then returned to its chilly interior.  He finished the half-pint of gin he’d found in the glove box, wondering if he’d truly lost his mind.

When the doorman dressed as Uncle Sam stepped inside the hotel to warm himself, Frank pulled away from the curb.  The cleats on his BMW’s new snowtires gripped nicely on the inch of fresh fallen snow. Frank cruised the downtown Republic streets—allowing him ample time to come to his senses.  He leaned over the wheel as he drove by some of Republic’s landmark buildings.  The Fox Theatre.  The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist where Julia and he had wed.  The Paulsen Building.  City Hall.  He tried to recall the old thrill he’d felt upon viewing these same structures as a boy and later as a young man.  Republic had seemed Oz-like: the largest metropolis between Seattle and Minneapolis, the glittering mica-flecked sidewalks teeming with handsomely dressed women and men, people who’d been places and were going places.  He wondered now what had got into him then.

He turned right on Howard Street, tossed the finished bottle of gin out the driver-side window.  He eased up to the red light at the cross street of Riverside, conscious of the BMW’s finely tuned pistons purring under him like a big cat.  The texture of the fine leather interior under his free hand brought to mind that September night he’d cruised the rolling Palouse backroads with Helen’s head in his lap, Helen working her magic while the light of a harvest moon outlined the symmetrical halves of her perfect heart-shaped Stairmaster ass.

He’d figured he was riding at the top of the world then.

Frank’s heart was kicking like a fish on a hook when the light changed to green.  He checked his seat belt and made a mental note to sue the Bavarian Motor Works Corporation if his air bag didn’t kick in.  He geared the BMW into first, started up the 5% Howard Street grade.  He fishtailed crossing the intersection and eased on the gas.  No hurry now.  If he timed things right he’d have a whole string of greens from here to 5th Avenue, six blocks away.  After that, nothing mattered anymore.

Frank kept to the outside lane as he gathered speed on his side of the four-lane street.  He wanted the widest possible angle when he hurtled the two-feet of snow between 5th and 6th Avenues.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was the only way he’d get a bead on Crowley’s desk.  And on the bright side, flying over the median at 50 miles per hour might give the BMW that extra little bounce to carry him home those last fifty feet to Crowley’s desk.

Nothing ventured . . .

Frank was in fourth gear by the time he crossed 3rd Avenue.  Less than three blocks to go.  Crazily, words from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” came to mind and he yelled them like a war cry as he neared the Law Offices of Crowley, Beckett and Leach:

Be thou, Spirit fierce...

Drive my dead thought over the universe

Like withered leaves . . .

5th Avenue!  Like a salmon rushing headlong at a series of rocks, Frank angled the BMW in toward the Law Offices at the last possible second.

And—nothing!  Frank found himself high-centered upon that two-foot Howard Street snow median: the BMW’s  wheels spinning beneath him, gears grinding, black acrid smoke rising from under his vehicle.  Helpless as a fish on ice!  Minutes later—when the police pried his hands from the wheel and dragged him from the car to the City drunk tank—Frank’s eyes streamed with tears of rage and his heart was sunk in defeat.

 

 

 

Dave Barrett lives and writes out of Missoula, Montana.  His stories have appeared in over a dozen literary journals: most recently in Prole 13 (U.K.), the Potomac Review, and Mission at Tenth.  He teaches writing at Missoula College and is currently at work on a novel.