Chapter 2 – Neutrons Are Necessary
Flesh and blood reality stared Gray in the face. Bob Boren’s ruddy jowls quivered despite the fact he sat, unmoving, on the couch in his living room, and they offered evidence of what might have been a life force that vibrated deep within, but was more likely the man’s catastrophically high blood pressure. Either way Gray’s candidate was definitely alive, not reconstituted, and listened to his consultant’s report of the encounter with Reason the night before. Gray did not embellish, nor did he have to. The giant’s grotesque visage had invaded his dreams, and haunted his consciousness all day, taxing his comprehension and his faith in the tangible.
Patsy Flatley, Bob’s lead consultant, listened too, but the look on her face mixed disbelief with disapproval, an ironic combination coming from a puffy, middle-aged woman in cat’s-eye glasses, sitting on an enormous red ball used for stability training. She said it helped her bad back. She had been saying that for seven years.
“So what?” she said. “So Wilder’s a freak. How does that affect our campaign?” She rocked a little, unsteadily, and the friction of her rayon slacks against the polyvinyl sounded like she had broken wind, a sound Gray had become used to and which he registered as a symbol of his political career.
Bob changed his vapid look and followed her lead. “Yeah, give me something I can use,” he said. His steak-sized hand drilled knuckle deep into a bowl of mixed nuts his wife had left, ostensibly for all. He strip-mined the bulk of them, his fist trailing cashew debris as he brought it up to feed, and continued talking despite his full mouth. “I have to beat this guy in the primary, not prove he lacks a pulse.”
Bob’s jaw worked the nuts like cud. He was a crew-cut steer of a man, a thick torso of low-grade beef teetering atop piano bench legs, but since there were only two instead of four, he often had trouble with balance. More than once Gray had seen him lean over to retrieve something or tie a shoe, when the weight of his massive front porch became too much to support, and he wound up sprawled on the floor, a cow of his own tipping. He was a man of indulgences, the nuts just his latest. He’d run a campaign in each of the last five cycles, trying to parlay a one-term councilship into higher office. Once he lost his bid for reelection there, he let his ambition run wild and tried Congress, then state senate, assembly, county supervisor, and now this mayoral bid, the next open rank as he approached the bottom of the electoral totem pole. Patsy stayed with him in each race, her faith in his electability unshakeable. Gray came along for the ride and had never argued over tactics, until now.
“But don’t you think the voters would care?” Gray asked. “If we can prove it, he’ll be out of the race, and you wouldn’t have to go through a runoff.”
Patsy sat up a little straighter on the ball, perhaps to stretch her lumbar muscles, more likely to make her point. “Gray, haven’t you learned anything in the past seven years?”
He felt he had, but considering his apprentice status, and the fact he hadn’t had the guts to go out and start his own consulting practice, maybe not.
“Crime. Taxes. Repeat after me.”
He stared at her as though he’d never noticed the ball before. Her left leg came off the floor as she fought to maintain a position that looked vaguely authoritative.
“Crime. Taxes,” she chanted. “In a city election that’s all the people want to hear. That’s all they ever want to hear.”
City election. Every time he thought about his work, the phrase “small potatoes” came to mind. He served a small potato candidate in a small potato city, and as lackey to Patsy, his potatoes were even smaller. Who noticed this race outside of Grand River, or outside the tiny circle of political operatives in the city? Even L’aura refused to acknowledge his job, shifting the subject whenever he tried to bring it up. Of course he’d dreamed once, like any other man. Dreamed of crafting strategies that swept his clients into office with the kind of mandates politicians salivate over. Dreamed of a string of successes that made headlines, that grabbed the lapels of the national campaigners and forced them to recognize his genius, to pick up the phone and call and ask—no, beg him to work with them on senate races, governorships, the presidency. He’d be in constant demand. His record would sparkle, with nary a loss. Elected officials everywhere would owe him. Congress would owe him. The leader of the free world would owe him. He’d have his pick of ambassadorships, consultancies, board positions, women at Beltway parties. He’d hire a ghostwriter to tell the story…
But they were only dreams, founded on nothing more than vague hope. His reality was this dead end, this broken record playing the song of failure over and over and over. Talent, drive, luck: take any one of them away and the odds of stardom become astronomical. Take two away and it’s a career in the minor leagues. Take all three away and this was where that mediocrity had led. Gray stared at Patsy clinging to the handle on the ball; he watched as Bob finished off the nuts, bringing the bowl to his lips as though guzzling soup. What if this electoral backwater was where he belonged? What if the challenge and frenzy of a big-time campaign were beyond him? He had to admit he’d grown comfortable in his role as Patsy’s wing boy. No risk, no reward, and no responsibility. This was his doing, as much as theirs. After all this time, nothing but a career’s worth of small potatoes. He found at least some humor in it: if Bob saw it that way he might gobble them up too.
“Come on,” Patsy said. “Crime. Taxes. You can do it.”
“All right,” he said. “I get your point.”
“No, really Gray. I want you to say it.”
“You have to believe it.”
“I don’t believe you believe it.”
Bob chimed in. “Say it, Gray. Taxes. Crime.”
“Crime, taxes, Bob,” Patsy said.
“Can we move on?” Gray said. “There has to be something more important to talk about than the level of my dedication.”
“You’ve got to get on board, Gray. Forget about those other issues, forget about the other candidates.”
He could make a farce of it—go to his knees and speak in tongues, writhe on the floor and let the spirit of her mantra infiltrate his sensibilities, replacing the knowledge he’d collected in grad school and as a councilwoman’s aide, replacing common sense and the communal good. He could play the role of political zombie, like the people who worshipped Reason.
Patsy shouted now, “What’s our message, Gray?”
A shockwave of frustrations radiated out from his depths, a tsunami of angst, regret over every ridiculous statement he’d had to make in the last seven years, every slogan he’d blathered, every hyperbolic press release he’d written. It was on its way to his lips, where it would renounce Patsy’s ancient, clichéd campaign strategy and speak, for once, the truth, damn her twenty years of consulting and her slavish devotion to techniques that had originated during the Coolidge presidency. Right now their opponent weighed more heavily on him than Bob’s platform, even with Bob on it, and they needed to take him seriously. He would refuse to parrot the standard line any longer. He would stand up to her, and the political world, and tell them proudly, “This campaign is about Reason!”
But instead it came out, “Crime and taxes!”
Patsy clapped. “Glad to see you’ve come to your senses,” she said.
“So what are we going to say about crime?” Bob said.
“Careful, Bob,” Patsy said. “You know the drill. You don’t say anything about the issue. Just rephrase the question. People want to know you’re aware of the problem, and that you care, like they do. They don’t expect you to solve it.”
“Gray said something to me about it the other day,” Bob said. “Something about schools and crime…”
“Oh, you mean like armed security at schools,” Patsy said. “I like it. K through twelve.”
“Open carry for kids too,” Bob said. “Teach ’em early, I say.”
They looked surprised that Gray had spoken up. Gray did, too.
“All I said was crime and education are related.”
They looked puzzled. “How so?” Bob said.
“Ninety percent of the criminals in our city are high school dropouts. What if we had greater educational opportunity? Get kids to stay through high school. Make it tougher to drop out by making it more rewarding to stay in. Study groups, achievement awards, recognize academics as well as sports. Make kids proud to get an education.”
“Stop right there!” Patsy said. “What are you, a Socialist? Strike that, Bob. Forget he ever said it.”
Bob shook his head. His jowls followed. Gray imagined a cowbell ringing.
“She’s right, Gray. We can’t be alienating anyone in this race. It’s non-partisan.” Bob tilted his head as if he were still thinking. “What have you got on taxes?” he asked.
“Might as well get it out of the way,” Patsy said.
“All right. We’ve got to drop the city’s income tax. People can’t spend money they haven’t got. They think half of what’s collected goes into city staff pockets, and the other half goes to contractors, which, frankly, it does.” He folded his arms across his chest, Mussolini style, proud of his stance despite knowing he was going down.
“Oh, God. Now he’s going Libertarian!”
“Yeah,” Bob said. “I can’t use any of that.”
“Then what are we going to say?”
Patsy threw her head back, as dignified as one can be straddling rubber. “Nothing that can be misquoted, misinterpreted, or misspelled. Simple as that. What we do every time.”
Every time. Gray looked at Bob, Bob at Gray. Five campaigns of the same thing, the same nothing, and here they were, sitting in his living room, yet to be anointed. Bob’s face had a touch of bovine sadness. Or perhaps he was just hungry again.
Patsy brought them out of their shared digression. “Let’s talk about our plan.”
Bob started to speak, but she cut him off. “Here’s what I want to do in this election. We come out with a media blitz. Newspapers, radio, cable TV. Saturate the city with advertising. Billboards, bus benches. Then a mailing campaign. We buy lists of names and send a piece a week to every voter, then every day in the last week. Overwhelm the competition. Flood the system.” She rocked hard now, back and forth. The ball started to bounce a little.
“Right,” Bob said. “That’s a great plan.”
There was a problem with that plan, though, apart from it not being a plan. Bob had no money to pay for this offensive. With the flop of last night’s fundraiser, he could only afford to post his candidacy on Craigslist. Gray was not sure if this was the time, however, to debate finances, although he’d wanted to, if only to bring up the fact that his promised consultant’s downpayment had not yet materialized. Better for now to segue into questions they could answer.
Gray looked at Patsy, still vibrating on her ride. He stared at the entrance to Bob’s gun room, where a mounted pair of pearl-handled Colt .45s aimed at each other. He suspected that although they’d been secured against the door they were still loaded.
“I’m going to head outside for a minute and light up,” he said.
“Light up what?” Patsy said.
“I’m going to have a cigarette.”
“Right. Of course,” Bob said.
That he didn’t smoke and never had, had somehow escaped their notice. A simple, “When did you take up smoking?” might have smoothed him over, made him eager to take another dose of Patsy’s medicine. But they acted as though his nicotine habit was so profound he blew through two packs a day. So much for seven years and five campaigns together.
Outside, in the Grand River humidity, the air seemed as laden with chemicals as any unfiltered Camel. Gray breathed as deeply as he could, until his body’s defenses shut down his intake to stem permanent damage. He coughed to eject airborne particulate. The city’s environment, unchecked for decades, had become almost poisonous. This was an issue. So was the corruption at City Hall. Friends still on staff there had confided skimming and outright stealing in several departments that rivaled a South American dictatorship. They’d hoped he could raise awareness through Bob’s campaign. And now this Reason and his mysterious origins—these were the issues that the public needed to know about. But what were they going to address in the campaign? Crime. Taxes. And in the most generic terms. He’d said it himself. The laws of political physics never altered. After seven years he’d worked it into a formula: E=mc2, where E stood for the electorate, m for mass stupidity, and c for the craziness of politics.
He loitered in Bob’s driveway now, halfway to his Civic, and turned back to face the would-be mayoral palace. A cracked walkway led past crabgrass and untrimmed hedge. Stucco walls lurked beneath vines and tree branches, sneering as their ridges poised to snatch threads from the shoulder of his aging suit if he passed too close. Above, the frayed shingles of a mansard roof angled down until they nearly touched the top of the front door. A pair of upstairs windows poked out like eyes peeping through bangs—the architectural equivalent of a bad hair day. Gray reached into his pocket for his keys. But where would he go? Home to his wife to be ignored in favor of her art projects, or maybe to a bar where he could get sloshed and at least get the campaign off his mind—maybe someplace in the gay part of town now touted as the city’s hottest spot. The idea stopped him. The thought of an unknown neighborhood—even a fun one—he found too frightening. He let his keys slide back into his pocket, and sat down on the curb to think.
As a consultant and a professional he should believe in his candidate’s ability to run a viable campaign and should Bob be elected, in the man’s capacity to serve the best interests of the public. Assuming he couldn’t, he should at least display enough integrity to leave the job. If only. A guy’s got to make a living, and really he’s there to serve the interests of his client, not those of the people, even if the half-truths he churns out feed the public’s impression of politicos as dim-witted, privileged power mongers, whose scandals and lies tear at the fabric of society, much like the ridges of the stucco wall that somehow, despite his efforts to avoid it, nicked the warp of his jacket as he wandered past. And if he did quit, how would he meet his personal responsibilities? He had a home, a wife, a car payment. He had to do his share. How easy it is to imagine independence, to visualize oneself speaking the clear and loud truth about the world. But most times, the world just doesn’t care. People let you go on about how you want to change things, perhaps they even listen for a while, but once they understand the work involved, and the risk, they turn away, back to the cloister of their own lives, their own problems. Their own niche in the wall. And where are you then?
Maybe Reason wasn’t the monster he’d imagined. Maybe he was just the weird guy Patsy had suggested. Maybe she was right that attacking him wouldn’t help.
He got up and turned back toward the house.
Bob had opened the door and Patsy bellowed from within. “Hurry up, Gray. Stamp out that smoke and get back in here. We’ve got a platform to finish building.”
Gray trudged back to the meeting, head down, the soles of his worn shoes scraping the uneven concrete. He felt small, powerless—utterly infinitesimal, as he often did. A mere particle floating in a plasma filled with objects of greater mass and energy than he. He was pathetic, unattached, not part of anything that counted. Not bonded to any set of ideas except those of the campaign he represented at the moment, and not in any real sense, because as soon as the election was complete he abandoned those notions. He was a political consultant, but not really political. Not Republican, not Democrat, but not independent enough even to be an Independent. He was not interested, not disinterested, just…there, waiting to become a part of something, and finding excuses to refuse every movement or organization that came his way. In so many settings—at fundraisers surrounded by big money, at assemblies where the elected and appointed strutted their pompous stuff through the crowds—the power of the world whizzed past, brushing by him and his little dreams of success without acknowledging his presence. In a world that pulsed with electricity, he was neither positively nor negatively charged. A neutron, if you will, a fraction of an atom, taking up an area of space so insignificant that it was no surprise to be regularly ignored. He lived in a universe of despair, where the physics of random chance had conspired to render him moot, to keep him down, and where nothing he could do would change that destiny. But sometimes, his intellect fought back. There had to be some logic to it, some hope in which he could invest. Perhaps neutrons were necessary. Perhaps there was a higher calling for them, even if they appeared to be little more than ballast for the universe, stabilizing the floor so the baryons, hadrons, quarks and the rest of the subatomics could get it on. He just had to deduce what that purpose was. But in the meantime he would keep quiet. He’d sing the praises of crime and taxes, and acquiesce to Bob and Patsy’s insanity, and try to help raise a few bucks so he could at least get paid. In short, he’d get along.
As he always did.
He walked back to Bob’s front door under the scrutiny of the mansard gaze and his own conscience. Would it be any different if he worked for Reason? The giant’s physical anomalies faced off against the arrested intellects of Bob and Patsy: claymation skin and yellow eyes. A big red ball and loaded guns. Size twenty-three footwear. Crime and taxes.
He coughed again, this time to add credence to his cigarette ruse.
Mr. Neutron is a hybrid of satire, literary, politics, with a touch of the speculative, and a heavy dose of humor. It debuted March 7, 2018 from 7.13 Books in Brooklyn, NYC.