by William Baker
I’m going to tell you about something that happened some years back, 1986 to be exact. It was in a place in Indiana you don’t know, Jefferson. Never heard of it? That’s what I thought.
The snooties say, “What do they have in Indiana anyway? Corn fields and a race track?”, (sniff).
Nah! We got more than that. We got cows too.
Indianapolis is the biggest city in the state. Lived there one time, right outside of it really, in a stuck-up burb called Carmel.
I always hated the way she pronounced Carmel. She put an accent on the end of it, Car-mel! Anyway, forget it.
Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t big as far as cities go but it’s still too much for me. So, I’ll stay forty miles south in my little town. My money’s just as safe in the Jefferson Savings and Loan as any bank in Indy. I can own a big, empty house outside of town down here just like I did up there and the best thing is I don’t have to bump into Janice or her socialite butt-in-the-air friends down here. The suburban Carmelite society in Indy don’t come this far south. They wouldn’t be caught dead in a town like Jefferson unless it was to stop to gas their Lexus on the way to the Casino.
Janice. Janice. Janice. How I don’t miss her!
How I don’t miss having my English corrected in company. How I don’t miss “If you have to drink beer, drink imported!” and “When your friends come over, tell them to leave the John Deere caps in the trucks.” And my all time favorite, “If you didn’t make good money, I wouldn’t have any use for you!” She reserved that one for the final year, and she wasn’t saying it just for hurt. We were way past that by then.
I don’t do a whole lot. Technically I’m still President of the JC Brick and Block Company. I put in a few hours a week, mostly chatting with the employees and drinking coffee. My son Phillip runs the show and he don’t need me putting my foot in the middle, he certainly does better than I did at the whole thing. I have a vague idea how much we make. I do know that Phil puts money in my bank account every month and he tells me, when I can get a word with him, that we are in the black. Black is the good one, we didn’t see much black before Phil.
Phillip, there’s a story. I started this business out of my garage. Wore out a couple dozen trucks hauling tons of brick and block all over the state. Went up to my ears in debt buying a building, equipment, and hiring people when Janice pushed me to expand and of course make more money. Floated around for years running ahead of the bank, the IRS, and later on, Janice’s lawyers who were looking to get her the bigger half of everything. Then, in walks Philly, fresh out of graduate school at expensive Tennessee Tech, and in a few short years not only multiplies the business but retires me in the process. And he never picked up a brick!
The best part of it is, he did it all after the divorce settlement. So what could Janice do? She didn’t want to go after the business when Philly was involved. If I ever complained about what that college cost me, I take it back now.
I’m pulling up in front of the Jefferson Grill for my daily breakfast and two cups of coffee. I’ll sit there all morning. Until about nine I’ll BS with the other locals, then they all have to go off to work. Poor slobs. I’ll talk to Dale the owner or Lorraine the hillbilly waitress. Sometimes Thomas Selwyn Lane the cook and rumored half owner sticks his head out and spends time.
I clomp in through the doors and get hit by the smell of eggs frying in bacon grease and acidic coffee brewing in massive Bunn coffee makers. Brought Janice in here one time and she backed out like there was a horse crapping in front of her. “That nauseating smell!” she cried jumping back in the car. Like I didn’t know she planned she on doing that all the way down from Carmel.
I sit at the counter, greeted by Jimmy Grott an old time acquaintance and part-time friend.
“How’s it goin rich boy?” He asks in a gravelly voice while drinking coffee and not looking at me.
I’m used to the ribbing after all these years. “OK poor boy.” I counter.
Mad Kenny Lepscum leans over from two seats down with the same dumb smirk on his face that he’s had since high school. “Hey Bill, whatcha gonna do today? Buy a yacht, a fancy BMW, a Rolex?”
“Nah!” I shoot back “Thought I’d stay around downtown and later get a manicure and an Armani suit.”
Mad Kenny laughs like a hyena. “Your big Momma Janice used to dress you in those Japanese suits didn’t she?”
It was an easy one to jump on but I let it go. Janice wouldn’t have, and I for sure don’t want to do anything SHE ever did. “Yeah, she wanted them, uh Japanese suits, in the divorce. I had to give them up.”
Nine o’clock gets closer and the working regulars drift out. There ain’t much happening and I am just getting ready to leave when in comes Mayor Clarence Stickle and his toadies. Can’t stand the guy. You might say, I’m sick of Stickle. A great campaign ditty for an opponent if you ask me. He thinks we’re great friends.
He’s been mayor for six terms. Six terms of smug Good-Old-Boyism. They sit at the table behind me. Stickle makes a big show of greeting what few people are left in the place while one of the toadies whispers everyone’s name to him ahead of time. The toadie doesn’t have to whisper my name.
“Bill, how are you these days?” Stickle squawks.
I wave and don’t turn around on my stool. “Good Clare. How’s the campaign?” He hates being called Clare. And he will tell someone without money that fact in a minute. He don’t say nothing to me. I decide I’ll stay awhile just so Stickle can see my back.
“Another landslide of course” One of the toadies chimes in. Stickle laughs a little nervous like.
“Not what I read.” Dale, the owner, pipes in while striding out to deliver silverware. “That Police Chief scandal two months ago took a huge chunk out of your behind when you backed the chief and he got hauled off to jail by the county Sheriff. The Daily Journal says that now Denise Padgett has a chance. Maybe some well placed campaign contributions here and there and poof! She beats you in the primary, wins in the general. Just like that, we have our first black elected official. And a woman!”
Dale loves to stir it up. Maybe that’s why we get along. I give him a look when he comes around the counter and he smiles.
Stickle blusters. “I don’t want to hear no more about that Police Chief! I was a victim there too! I didn’t know all the facts! Anyway, it’s over and done with!” He squeals like a stepped on sow.
A toadie screeches, “Contributions! That’s a big maybe. We know how much they have to work with and they are a long way from anything that will make a difference.”
“Yeah” Another toadie chimes in. “She is gonna have to do more than appeal to the colored churches if she wants any real numbers voting for her.”
“Now watch what you say.” Stickle chuckles. I can see his fat, red face in the mirror above the counter. Then I’m distracted by the swinging kitchen door, and a shadow steps into the dishes nook. The idiots at the table can’t see that kitchen door but Dale and I can. We give each other a look. We know what’s up and we play it cool.
The toadies talk loud and Stickle makes a jackass of himself like usual. “How many dark…uh I mean blacks, do we have in this town anyway? A thousand, two?” Stickle asks and a toadie agrees. He stupidly continues. “Even if they all voted, we still win.”
I feel like cussing.
“So much for “We shall overcome!” A toadie laughs and they all think that’s the funniest thing on the blessed earth.
Of course Stickle can’t keep his mouth shut. “You see women and coloreds, sorry blacks, are political creatures of habit.” He lectures us like some kind of college professor instead of the fool he is. “They always vote Democrat and always will. A Dem can count on the women and color…uh black vote.” The toadies nod wide eyed in agreement. “And I ask you, who is the Democrat you think of when you think Democrat in this town? Mayor Stickle, that’s who.” He’s all puffed up now and the idiot can’t shut his trap.
“I ask you” He continues “Ten years back, who gave those people…the black, a new park right in their part of town? Four years back, who made sure the city chipped in money on the renovation of the county welfare offices? Who can they call on when the state gives them grief over their benefits? Who makes sure we have plenty of city jobs working the parking meters, keeping the city and county buildings clean and the grass cut in the parks? And the women! Who made sure the old Murphy Mart building sold out to Planned Parenthood for the sum of one entire dollar? Who stands in there and fights for these people? None other than Clarence Stickle, that’s who.” The dummies are all open mouthed and awestruck, nodding their heads. And that boy still don’t have the sense to close his mouth.
“So, let this Padgett run against me. Sure, she might get the black votes and the guilty white libs will go her way. But the smart people will go for the guy who gives them the things they want and need.”
Lorraine, the hillbilly waitress is clearing off the next table. She stares at the back of the fat creeps head like she’s gonna whack him with a tub of dirty dishes. Instead she grabs all the junk from the table, real noisy. I hear her say, kind of under her breath but meant for everyone to hear. “Effing Idiot.” Then off she stomps. The effing idiot didn’t hear a thing.
Is this guy for real? This is the 20th century and this pip-squeak just said “women and coloreds”. Even that wasn’t good enough for him. He had to say it like this: “Wimmin an cullurds”.
And get this, he still can’t shut up.
“Then we got the good old boys like Bill over here. So I would say I got nothin to worry about. Not this year. Not four years from now.” The toadies all agree and Stickle laughs then follows it up. “Right Bill?” He sounds a little concerned.
I don’t even turn around, but stick my hand up and wave. “You got it all figured out Clare.” Maybe he will finally shut up.
And they do all shut up like a switch is thrown when the very dark Thomas Selwyn Lane steps out from behind that little dishes nook by the kitchen door.
But Selwyn plays it cool too. He’s about 5’5” and 135 lbs. Built like a real life stickman. He decides to act all jittery and loose hanging. Teeth blazin, full mouth, cartoon smiles. Then he starts jivin and I almost die.
“Why look-a heyah!” He prances out with a fresh coffee pot to fill up the jackasses cups. “Misto Mayor and the genmun!”
I can’t look at Dale or we will both bust out. So I force myself to look at my empty cup and I listen to Selwyn have his fun.
Selwyn is in rare form, flashing those teeth and getting all high pitched in his voice. He goes on and on about our fat, creepy mayor and what a good customer he is. Selwyn doesn’t leave the toadies out either and heaps praise on their eager, round, pink faces in his funny pretend talk. “Heh, heh, heh. Did I tell you all genmun bout that mouse that was fraid to come in the back door thother day? Heh, heh.”
The idiots all laugh and hoot while Selwyn launches into one of his ridiculous stories. He’s putting it on thick for the fools and has them wagging their dumb fat tails and falling out of their seats. Dale pours me a cup and I refuse to look up.
I decide to stay awhile and go outside to get the basically worthless Daily Journal from the paper box. Selwyn entertains himself for a time then dances back into the kitchen. I get caught up reading about a road construction project north of town. The laughing hyenas calm down and eat their breakfast then finally hustle out in a big hurry when one of the toadies cries “The park project meeting!”
After a while I leave the paper on the counter for Dale and toss down a ten. I never wait for a ring up at this place.
I go to the front walk and sit at the bench. People are walking here and there on their way to or from the courthouse or the city-county offices. Shops are open, but business seems slow on a weekday morning. I look at how some things never seem to change.
I watch Pat Inabinit at the dry cleaners. He’s trying to show his nineteen year old nephew how to clean the front glass but the kid has locked eyes with this pretty young thing walking out of the DPW offices with a handful of busting file folders and a busting blouse. I can hear Pat yell at the kid all the way over here.
Someone sits down softly beside me. The bench barely moves so I figure it’s a little old lady resting her feet. I turn around to see Thomas Selwyn Lane twisting a clean dish towel around one hand and looking off toward the city-county headquarters where the recently breakfasted mayor and his minions have scampered.
“Looks like it’s all sewed up. Uh huh.” Selwyn has dropped the jive. He never uses it around some people.
“That’s what the man says.” I observe.
“Well that is what he says. He has the wimmen and cullurds in his back pocket and the good old boys like you. Creatures of habit is what the man says.”
“That’s what the man says.” I repeat.
“Newspaper reporter says a little well placed funds and there might be a surprise.” He continues.
“That’s what the man says.” I repeat.
Selwyn continues. “The reporter says sometimes you need what he calls ‘a new vehicle for change.’”
I keep on looking at the traffic. “He says that huh? The newspaper reporter?”
“That’s what the man says. You know I’ve heard and read that habits can be broken. I’ve read that people can do a whole lot of things they never thought they would do when they finally see the need for it.” Selwyn goes on.
“You’ve read that huh?” I ask. Selwyn is still looking off toward the courthouse.
“Read it.” He twists the towel tighter around his hand. “Seen it.” Twist again. “Lived it.” He unwinds the towel wrapped so tightly around his hand I’m afraid it will cut off the blood. “You?” He flicks me lightly with the towel. Finally looks at me and smiles and it isn’t the cartoon smile he gave the mayor.
“Hmmm, Mr. Lane.” I respond and watch him disappear into the diner.
After a while I see Rick Vanlanot’s eighty year old mother come out of the Rexall, trudging my way with purpose. She gets distracted when a clerk comes after her with a small bag she forgot. I see my chance and scoot quickly around the corner. She would have made a morning of it on that bench. Talking, talking, talking. About how she grew up in a preacher’s home and how phony it all was but that people thought her father was the greatest. And how everyone in the family practically had a party at the old man’s funeral. I’ve heard it.
I take my time getting over to JC Brick and Block. Only a few streets away but why hurry? It’s not like I do much once I’m there.
I stop and hold the door at the fabric shop for a lady in a wheelchair and her friend. We make a little talk. They are from the city and go on about what a quaint little diverse town we have.
“Hey Angie.” I say when I finally bang into the office. Angie is doing something on her computer and hanging up the phone. “Philly in?”
She gives a thoughtful face. “He is but not for long. I think he’s on the phone.”
“What a surprise.” I say going past her and down the hall to my son’s office.
Phillip is on his feet and leaning over the desk trying to take the phone from his ear and listen at the same time. He’s fighting to get someone off the line. “OK, you can handle that part of it. Really Jimmy, this one is no different from the last three we sent over. Just do the same thing.” Phil sees me and rolls his eyes. “You got it. Right.” He looks at his watch. “Tell you what Jimmy; call my Pop if you have anything else on this. And you shouldn’t.” He rolls his eyes again and looks at his watch again. “Right Jimmy. Gotta go.” Phil sees his chance and hangs up.
“Holding Jimmy’s hand again? Don’t pass him off on me!” I chuckle. Phillip throws his hands in the air and paws at a necktie.
“Sorry Pop, I’m on the run. Meeting with New Century in Carmel and I should be on the road.”
“Ooh, Car-mel.” I correct him. And it isn’t lost on Phillip; he knows exactly what I mean.
“Right Pop.” He pats me on the shoulder and brushes past to get his suit coat. “And you can’t go. Meeting Mom for lunch after.”
“Better not wear that tie then. It’s one of my old ones. She’ll recognize it. You know those kind of things never get past her.”
“Oh stop. I have to go.”
“Is Diamond gonna be there?” I ask.
“Yes Pop, he is.” Phil says tiredly.
“Better take an oxygen tank and a nurse.” I add.
Ron Diamond is her new hubby. Much more money than me and a good 17 years older than Janice. Which makes him OLD as far as I am concerned. He owns a string of check cashing stores and another chain of the cash for gold stores that seem to be everywhere. Before all that he was the largest independent retailer in the Midwest for video stores and DVD rentals. He’s rolling in cash, whereas I am only sitting in cash with one butt cheek.
“Pop, he never did anything to you. He has nothing to do with your troubles with Mom. Why do you hate him?” Phil asks.
“Hate him?” I counter. “I love him! Him and his money got your mother off my back! You didn’t hurt things either.”
“So that’s why you love me!” Phil says mockingly.
“It didn’t harm your cause none.” I say fussing with his tie.
“Let it go, Pop.” He says.
“I do. Gladly.”
I fix the tie for him because for all of his education and smarts he never learned how to do one of those things. “Hold on. Hold on. Give me a minute. I actually have to ask you something.” I slow him down on the way out the door. “Won’t take a minute.”
“OK. What’s up?”
“How am I fixed for cash?”
I ask seriously but he laughs. “Pop the way you spend it will last you a hundred years. Why do you ask?”
“Something I’m thinking about.” I say trying to be mysterious, but it’s lost on Philly.
“You want a new truck, or boat? Go ahead.” He waves and starts out again.
“Yeah, something like that. I don’t want you surprised.”
“Crap, buy a new house if you want. Buy two. Go talk to Morris at the bank. You don’t need my permission.” He says.
I respond. “OK, OK just telling you.”
Now he gets smart on me. “Hey, you know they have a lot of new Chevrolet trucks out on Welchers lot. You ought to take a look.”
“I raised a funny boy didn’t I?” He knows I hate Chevy trucks.
“Spend whatever you want Pop. Love ya.” He calls over his shoulder.
He hustles off down the hall. In a few seconds hustles back. “Hey Pop. Lynn says call her. She wants you over for dinner some night this week. The baby is crawling. The way she rocks back and forth on her knees! It’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.” He kisses me on the cheek and doesn’t wait for a response before he rushes off again. I’m left standing there smiling.
The morning’s almost over and I don’t have a whole lot going on today. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I walk back downtown, stopping along the way to talk to Mrs. Susong in the yard with her grandkids. She laments about how they all have runny noses. My old truck is still parked next to the diner so I drive over to the Walmart Supercenter on the highway. No reason for going really.
I’m bumming around looking at this and that when I decide to have a soda at that fast food place in the Walmart. I figure to sit there a while and look through a paperback novel I picked up. It doesn’t take me long to realize that I will probably put this one back on the shelf.
Just about to put down the book when I hear people talking close to me. See, I’m right next to the produce section. A lady in her thirties and her husband evidently met up with an old friend over the cucumbers. I’m thinking that they are more interesting than the paperback so I listen in.
“Woman I don’t know how you do all of this. Don’t you get worn out?” The thirties lady with the husband asks.
The other lady turns a little and I know where I’ve seen her. On posters around town. She responds. “It keeps me running that’s for sure.”
The man chimes in. “Kind of surprised to see you here. I thought you might be out campaigning with first week of May coming up. Hotly contested Primary, is what the Journal says.”
“We’re having a luncheon for the ladies at the retirement center and I promised to bring the salad.”
“How in the world are you going to keep up with all of that after you’re in office?” the thirties wife asks.
The other lady chuckles. “I‘ll worry about that IF it ever happens. How’s your mother, Alex?” She asks the man.
“She’s up and around. Thanks for asking. She still talks about how you visited when she was down. She says that this town would be fools to not put a saint like you in office.”
The woman chuckles again and the group talks on while I sip my soda. When I’m finished, I return the paperback and check out. Guess it’s time to go back to the big, old house on the edge of town.
I’ve been working on a furniture project in my three-car garage. That kind of work is always useful when you want to think. Before I know it, hours have passed and I’m hungry, I could make my own lunch but I’m tired of being on my own. The diner isn’t busy in the afternoon, so I figure it’s time for another road trip.
It’s turned cold and windy downtown like it’s apt to do in late April. I look around. Some things never change, at least not very quickly. Maybe sometimes it takes a new vehicle to move things along a little. After all, what good is it to be a “good old boy” if you don’t stir it up when you can?
I’m done thinking. “Crap or git off the pot!” my old man used to say. Janice always hated that saying.
I walk past the diner because the hunger is gone. Past the courthouse and a block farther to one of the many off-the-square houses converted to an office. Will a new vehicle make a difference? I don’t know. Anyway, it will be fun to see some people squirm. Besides, I think it is the right thing.
“Well…, it’s only money.” I say out loud and feel for my checkbook. I walk into the warm offices of Denise Padgett for Mayor.
New vehicle for change?
That’s what the man says.
© William Baker All rights reserved.
“What The Man Says” appeared in Southern Cross Review, April 2013.