Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg’s Twitch, and Petites Suites; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.
It was hardly surprising that, once he got himself elected mayor, Frank Volante would use his position to make money. I can already imagine what our cliché-ridden local rag will say with formulaic and disingenuous shock, “he betrayed the voters to enrich himself, his family, and his cronies.” I’ll be counted among the cronies. Though it may be futile to dispute the label—it’s a sticky one—I’d like to point out that a crony is a pal of somebody powerful who gets special favors. What I am is an acquaintance who got shaken down. The public won’t much trouble with the distinction, lucky for me, the district attorney has.
My business card reads:
Heavy Equipment Broker
I remember my trip to the printers when I filled in the order form for two hundred of these cards, on heavy cream stock. I had just taken over the business from my dear, generous, gruff, late Uncle Albert. A very young woman put out her little hand for the form. It must have been her first job; she looked like she ought to be pondering a prom. Smooth red hair and freckles. Her cold formality suited her about as well as a dowager’s frock would. Not a smile, all business. “Next Tuesday.”
About the business on my card I had mixed feelings; in fact, it would be fair to say that all my feelings are mixed. I didn’t care for my profession yet I liked the sound and heft of those words on the card. Heavy is ponderous but also serious, like the cream stock of my business card. Equipment is comprehensive, open-ended—anything large, physical, and not alive would qualify, from a jackhammer to a tractor-trailer, new, used, rented, or bartered. Broker boasts strong consonants that convey confidence and has associations with substantial people like insurance executives and ship-brokers. Never mind the whiff of bankruptcy, the ghost of a broke broker, or a broken one.
Few people think about the complicated and ferociously competitive market I serve. Tooling down the highway they’ll see the yellow behemoths and whine about the delays rather than cheering the overdo maintenance or hailing the new road. At least here in the Midwest, what they all notice is the manufacturer’s name on the scrapers, diggers, and front-loaders. Are they American, Japanese, Korean—or, God help us, Chinese? The idea that their highways are being smoothed by something made by Komatsu in Ishikawa rather than by dear old Caterpillar in good old Peoria upsets lots of people and infuriates plenty. I hear about it. “Why don’t you buy American?” Pushed to the wall, I silence the angriest with applied pedantry. “Caterpillar,” I say, “has fifty-one plants in the U.S. but fifty-nine overseas. As for Komatsu, they operate facilities in Pennsylvania, Georgia, California, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Arizona. And, for your information, they even make mining equipment in [here I pause] Peoria. And all of these plants issue paychecks to American citizens.” My lecturette doesn’t alter anybody’s feelings but it does give me something to say and a minim of satisfaction. At least, I figure, they’ll have to grant I[m a guy who knows his business.
I was a year behind our future mayor in high school. Frank Volante may have been an egoist who felt entitled to everything, but there was no denying his charisma. He could even be sweet, the way those who are never insecure can be with those who always are. Frank was one of those golden boys—popular, an operator, class president, starting left guard on the football squad. As for me, I ran cross-country (not very quickly) and went in for long novels, classical music, and especially painting. Frank’s father owned the city’s premier funeral parlor and was apparently the Rotary Club’s President-for-Life. Volante’s Funeral Home saw off the city’s elite. The family lived in a big Victorian house with a wide porch and about five acres of land around it. My parents ran a sweet shop and we lived on top of it. At one time or another, I hated Frank or envied him or admired or despised him. As I said, all my feelings are mixed.
Paul Parrish was my best friend in high school. Paul liked books and art too. I talked him into signing up for cross-country, though he was even less athletic than I was; I told him it would give us plenty of time to chat as we jogged. We could talk Dostoyevsky and Monet. Paul was long-limbed but slightly built; he was smart and gay. The bullying began in kindergarten.
The school ran an athletes’ bus that left at five-thirty, after all the various teams wound up practice. Paul always stuck close to me while we waited for the bus, always sat beside me. He explained it was safer than being alone. Our friendship earned me some trouble of my own, but nothing more than some guilt-by-association name-calling. Perhaps this was because I went on enough dates or maybe I just didn’t look as vulnerable as poor, mantis-limbed Paul.
One dusky November afternoon, a clutch of football players decided it would be amusing to go after my friend, to beat him up. I’d love to be able to report I stood back-to-back with Paul, defended him, even took a whooping alongside him. But the facts are that I edged away from him and there wasn’t any beating—the first because I was a coward, the second because Frank Volante deftly stopped his teammates. “Cut it out, you oafs.” Oafs, a word out of old fairy tales, that’s what he called them; and the brutes grinned as if it were a particular endearment. It’s not the sort of occasion you can forget and all by itself is enough to account for my mixed feelings about Frank Volante—and myself.
Frank went to college in the South then did some time in the family business wearing a black suit and a serious face; but everyone knew it wasn’t for him. He was too full of life, too gregarious and fun-loving and ambitious for the undertaking life. So, it wasn’t a surprise when he decided to run for City Council then, only two years later, take on our long-time mayor.
The Volante campaign followed the tried-and-true strategy of attacking the incumbent’s record, character, and length of time in office. New Ideas, New Blood was the aggressive slogan. He made a lot of promises and nearly daily public appearances. Many featured his wife Elizabeth, who had gone to Smith and looked pretty, superior, and ascetic. On weekends, Frank Junior came along. At eight years old he’d already mastered the art of being well-behaved and looking mischievous at the same time, a real chip off the old block. The only one of Frank’s promises he tried to keep was fixing up the city’s streets and bridges. That’s where Charlie Zlodic came in.
Zlodic was to be the contractor—alleged lowest bidder—but his outfit was small-time, not to mention dodgy. He didn’t have anything like enough heavy equipment, and that’s where I came in.
As for me, after high school I went to a university with a good fine arts program. I wanted to be an artist. You can imagine what my parents thought of that goal and their predictions weren’t wrong. With my degree and my limited talent, I moved to New York City, found a place in Lower Manhattan large enough to be called a studio apartment but too small for an artist’s studio, too cold in winter, too hot in summer. I hung out with young artists like myself, drank beer when I could afford it and learned to love bagels. I met some interesting women; there was a serious relationship but one of us was too neurotic. It lasted three months then failed. Then I failed and came home despondent and defeated. That’s when my good Uncle Albert took me in. A more honest business card would read:
Heavy Duty Broker
Is there anything more slippery than the self?
Uncle Albert taught me the heavy equipment business and that included a lesson about graft. “Avoid it whenever you can, but don’t act surprised if it comes up. It’s how a lot of business gets done, especially with politicians. Sorry, but it’s just the truth. The smaller the town, the more of it there is. The big guys usually don’t risk it or need to. For them, the graft’s already in the bottom lines. Just be very, very careful.”
The first meeting I had with Frank and Zlodic went smoothly, no problems. It was in the mayor’s office. Frank was all bonhomie. He said he remembered me from high school, though I’m sure he didn’t. He probably had somebody look me up; nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling warm when he said it. Zlodic I didn’t take to a bit. He looked thuggish; his mouth reminded me of a straight razor. A secretary brought us coffee. Starbucks, no less. Could I arrange for the necessary stuff on this list? No problem, I said. Could I give a price estimate? Sure. Smiles all around. Handshakes..
The second meeting was a week later. I was summoned to a suburban diner. Frank handled things as smoothly as you can while laying out something crooked as a bentwood rocker.
“Charlie here’s giving me a private contribution, in consideration of the size of the contract, and, well, we both think you could do the same. Your contract isn’t exactly tiny either.”
They explained how it would work: I’d up my bill to Zlodic by ten percent and he’d up his to the city by fifteen and most of the extra cash, ninety percent, would go to the mayor—for civic improvements, of course, albeit off the books. We’d get to keep what was left over, five percent each.
“It’s a win-win-win,” said Zlodic trying to sound jovial. When we got up from the booth, he slapped my back. He slapped it hard.
What to do? The subtext of that slap on the back wasn’t obscure. I could go to the authorities, to the D.A.’s office, and who knew what they were up to or in on? It really was a huge contract, a colossal fees for me; but somehow this only made things worse. I had bad dreams. In one nightmare I was back in New York, hurling brush after brush of purple and black paint at a canvas when Uncle Albert stepped through the door. He was wearing an undertaker’s suit. He glanced over my shoulder, shook his head and said, “It’s crap.” I was a mess.
It was the D.A.’s office that came to me. One of the assistants, Adlai (yes, after Governor Stevenson) Johnson phoned, set up a meeting in the lounge of a Ramada Inn, and told me they’d been watching Charles Zlodic for a long time. Johnson was a youngish man, very clean-cut and with a clear message.
“He’s done some serious things, Mr. Halloran. I Mean violent stuff.”
They’d also had their eye on the mayor ever since he and the D.A. got into an argument over some campaign funds.
“I’m telling you up front, Mr. Halloran. We’re going to indict. We know about the kickbacks. We know it wasn’t your idea, Bert. It’s the other two we want. What is it the French say? Sauve qui peut? If you’ll testify it’ll make our job easier. If you don’t—well. . .” His look was precisely as hard as Zlodic’s slap on the back.
I felt sick and had to go to the men’s room. When I got back, Johnson capped his case for my cooperation.
“You should know this, Bert. Zlodic got wind of our investigation. Yesterday, he came in and laid out the whole scheme. A three-way. He said it was your idea, Bert.”
What if I’d made it in New York? For that matter, what if I’d taken over the sweet shop, married somebody like that red-headed girl with the freckles? What if Frank hadn’t rescued Paul that day? What if.
I can spill the beans, get immunized and disgraced at once. I can take my chances in court. Maybe the expensive lawyer Frank’s no doubt going to hire can get us all off. I can also take the fall, which, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover, might be that lawyer’s strategy.
I’ll probably do the right thing—though I can’t claim to know for sure what that is. I’m already fantasizing about giving up on heavy equipment, selling the bungalow, moving away, starting fresh, maybe trying the other coast this time, taking a shot at fixing this botched and broken canvas.