Chapter 5: Dinner With Elbows

diary%20tiramisu.jpgLenora Garvey’s in for a surprise. And an unforgettable dessert.

Following is installment 5 of an end-of-the-year fictional serial. About a fictional mayoral campaign. In a fictional city. With fictional characters.

(Click here, here, here, and here for previous installments.)

Repeat: This is fiction.

  • * * *

“You know, I could have you killed if I wanted to.”

Mayor Al “Elbows” Pneumonie (“Alfred E.” for short) said it as though he were describing the weather or reading train arrival times. “I could have you killed…” Even voice. Maybe a hint of a smile, nothing more. Then he slipped his fork into his escarole and beans for another bite.

Lenora Garvey didn’t know what to make of this pronouncement. Was he trying to intimidate her? Nothing else he’d said or done since they sat down to this late supper indicated he had any interest in trying to intimidate her.

diary%20escarole.jpgShe’d wondered ever since he called her the day before why he wanted to meet and talk. “Hey, it’s Al Pneumonie,” he’d said when she answered her cell phone, as though he were an old chum checking in. Not until later did she wonder how he had her cell number. “Have you been to Consuela’s yet? It’s a quiet place on Delaney Street. Consuela does a nice job. You won’t know what it’s like to live here until you’ve had her ‘scrole…”

“Well, hello Mr. Mayor…”

“Consider it free campaign advice.”

How could she say no? She certainly was interested in a close-up view of this entrenched tax-and-spend liberal she was spending all her time outside of work (truth be told, some of her time at the bank, too) trying to depose.

That work was paying off. People were telling her, townies who’d lived in the city three, four, five decades or more, not three months like Lenora, that she was giving Mayor Elbows his first sweat in at least six years. She was pumping the first gasps of life back into that desiccated, worn vacuum cleaner bag known as the Republican Party.

First she got a bounce – and some volunteers – out of the TOPSI escapade. People she’d never met before were writing letters to the editor suggesting that voters give Lenora a look.

Then Colores produced a bilingual flyer and video about the boy and the bowling alley. She named him Angel and recruited one of her nephews to pose. The flyer was reproduced on some local blogs and was going viral, as was the video, on the ‘Net and on public-access TV.

Just this morning her campaign had made the Daily Tribune again – not just the paper, but the front page, in between the usual headlines about city shootings, Hollywood junkies and cute suburban kids.

diary%20foosball.jpgThe story grew out of some red-hot information Colores had fact-checked and reworked from Bugs Rapley’s conspiracy-theory newspaper. (Lenora had taken to reading all the local media.) The story was about real-estate flipping in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Turns out a lot of properties were being milked and abandoned by shadow limited-liability corporations from, of all places, Lenora’s former home base, Lincoln, Nebraska. And all those LLCs could be traced to a real estate and construction conglomerate called Foosball Construction Corp., run by one Adam Newhouse. Mayor Elbows hired Foosball to build all his new firehouses, on exorbitant no-bid contracts backed by borrowing that was destroying the city’s credit rating. And Adam Newhouse (as well as dozens of relatives and Foosball employees) had been pouring tens of thousands of dollars into Mayor Elbows’ reelection campaigns.

Bugs wrote that Newhouse/Foosball secretly continued to funnel cash to Elbows’ current campaign, via a Reverend Lumber, despite Elbows’ agreement to participate in a public-financing system that limited such donations. Wisely, with no evidence, Colores and Lenora left that last bit out of their release.

Admittedly, even without that wild last twist, this was one complicated yarn. Not one you can distill into a sound-bite or explain to your mom. And in truth the Daily Tribune‘s story was hard to follow, despite the reporter’s best efforts. But it was still a home run for the Garvey campaign: 40-point headline, and the unmistakable sense that Mayor Elbows was up to no good, whatever that no good happened to be.

People get outraged at that kind of behavior by their public officials. Don’t they?

So Lenora felt as though she were gliding on her way to Consuela’s. She was even a bit tickled to have an audience with Hizzoner hisself.

She found her way to his table near the bar in the back of the homey, hushed, mirror-ceilinged dining room, ducking out of the path of middle-aged waitresses with dress jackets, frilly white blouses and big hair racing by with steaming white plates of linguine and clams. Elbows was chatting with two diners standing beside his chair. One was a short elderly white man he called “Frank.” The other was a rotund middle-aged black man he called — wouldn’t you know it? — “Reverend Lumber.” Lenora realized later that he was the only other African-American beside her in the restaurant.

Reverend Lumber bowed, then held out his hand. “Mizz Lenora Garvey! What a pleasure,” he said, grinning as though they were both in on a private joke. “Welcome to our fair city. How’s the campaign going?”

“Just fine,” Lenora responded, extending her hand and eyeing him with guarded curiosity. “And how are you doing, Reverend … Lumber?”

“Surviving in the city!” he proclaimed. It sounded like a boast.

Frank, meanwhile, said nothing to Lenora. He shot a cursory look up and down her 200-pound frame. Then he turned to Mayor Elbows. “All taken care of,” he said softly, without a smile. Then he and Lumber retired to a table across the room.

Elbows motioned to Lenora to sit. He acted the host, suggesting the antipasto, filling her glass with wine, introducing Lenora to Consuela, who personally attended to Elbows’ order.

Dressed in a sweater and slacks, the mayor was relaxed, gracious. Like a man comfortably in charge, yes, but not like the ruthless despot portrayed by the marginal grievance-carriers drawn to Lenora’s campaign, from whom she received her city Politics 101 lessons. Lenora felt as though she were sitting in Elbows’ home, in Elbows’ city.

She couldn’t figure out his endgame. If there was one.

He asked her if she was having “fun.” She had to answer honestly: Yes, she was. Running for mayor was a good way to learn her way around the city, she said.

He nodded. “That’s some coalition you’ve got,” he said. “I mean Colores, Mistress Boswell, Wheelock. You people have the last remaining smoke-filled backroom down at the barroom! Just wait until after you get elected: You’re going to have fun keeping them all happy! Believe me; I’ve been there.

“And forget about that Hummer. They made me give up my Monster truck.”

Even Elbows’ jokes didn’t feel like a jab, although Lenora would wonder later, in recounting their evening together, how he knew about the cigars at Wheelock’s. Elbows clearly didn’t feel threatened. He revealed no concern that Lenora could actually win. He wasn’t actually treating her as an equal. But he wasn’t talking down to her, either.

And now, five minutes into the main course, this matter-of-fact bit how Elbows could have her offed. What was Lenora to make of that? He wasn’t joking. He wasn’t threatening. He was just saying.

“Of course there’d be no point in having you killed,” Elbows continued, wiping his cheek with his white cloth napkin. “No point at all.

“I could kill all the city’s accounts at RegionTrust, I guess. No point in doing that, either. Right? That one we pulled last week – don’t worry. Just a small ‘welcome to town.’ There won’t be any more. As far as I know. Frank assured me.

“By the way, nice hit today in the Tribune. On the real-estate flipping. A little complicated. I think I got the whole thing – the LLCs, the abandoned houses, Foosball Construction, campaign contributions, debt service piling up. Took me a couple of reads. But it tied together. What a shame, huh?”

Hmmm. For the first time this evening, Lenora was on guard. She said nothing.

“That Adam Newhouse. His company actually does good work. But hey, fair game. Nothing’s simple when you want to get stuff done, get firehouses built. Of course I could make a big deal about Abby. But what would be the point?”

Abby. Abby!

An icy wind shot down Lenora’s spine. What an idiot she’d been! Abby’d been married briefly before coming out. She spoke of how her dad had disapproved. She never mentioned her dad’s last name. The letters Abby never opened that came from home, they were, come to think of it, postmarked Lincoln. Lenora had never stopped to assemble the pieces.

Another thought sent a second blast through her: How did Elbows even know about Abby? This was getting creepy.

“There was a time,” Elbows proceeded through Lenora’s stunned silence, “when we threw around that kind of mud. Had to. One year, some suburban kids drove off a broken bridge we forgot to block off. I also had a minor legal problem involving the civil service board, bad enough that I had to pay Fightin’ Buford Cleese his huge retainer, from my own paltry salary, just in case. A Republican was running against me that year, too. He tried to bring it all up. He had some slum properties that we never made him clean up. We got the photos in the Tribune, and that was that.

“It’s not like he was going to win. But at least back then, we still had the trappings of campaigns. The Republicans could find at least 10 people to run for alderman – not 30, mind you, but at least 10. So we took no chances. We had to pull more than 10,000 people out to vote in those days. Doesn’t sound like much. But you at least felt like you won something after the polls closed Tuesday night.”

Lenora decided to regain her footing by changing the subject, turning the conversation to him.

“You sound almost wistful,” she said, pushing her bowl, with just a puddle of clam sauce remaining, to the side. “Why do you keep doing it? Is it all about the history books? Serving the 16 years, like the Mayor Eternal?”

“No, not that. Well,” Elbows said, leaning back, pushing his own empty plate to the side and buttering a slice of crusty bread, “well maybe a little. I would like to make it one day past 16 years. I’ll admit it. You grow up in a town, your dad’s a firefighter, you make everybody proud, get to be the big guy. Longest serving in history? Not bad.

“But it’s more than that. Seriously, Lenora. I feel I can make a difference. When I drive by a sidewalk that I’ve fixed, or a street that used to be flooded whenever it rains, or a park with new baskets or a sprinkler for the kids… I know I did that. I know that every morning I wake up for work, I can do something. I can make a difference for people. I know you Libertarians don’t think much of government. I do. I always have. You see government as ‘them.’ I see government as ‘us,’ as people working together for the common good. I know you have to make government run well. I know sometimes we need to turn to the private sector to run a skating rink better, or make school lunches…”

“Not to mention to pull some new campaign contributors into your corner in the process,” Lenora interjected. She instantly regretted the remark, felt like a smart-ass kid. Elbows ignored the jibe.

“… But I think the Republicans have brainwashed the country. Their big corporate contributors don’t run things any better. Halliburton, the HMOs… They’re not doing better than we do. All that spending you call ‘pork’ actually makes people’s lives better. It gives them jobs, too.”

“It elevates mediocrity, squashes the competitive spirit, encourages laziness and featherbedding,” Lenora shot back. “And it conveniently cements the power of the people who hand out the pork. So as far as you’re concerned, I take it, Milton Friedman was just a crank.”

“Yeah I read him. I have an accounting degree you know,” Elbows responded with just a pinch of defensiveness. “I prefer Thomas Friedman. Hey, The Lexus and the Olive Tree – we can agree on that right?’

“Until we get to the union bosses and messing with trade treaties…”

“Right. We part ways there.” Elbows smiled, ripped a chunk of the Italian bread. “And to be honest, I got more inspiration from reading Mike Royko and Edwin O’Connor. You read between the line, and you notice that under all the noise about patronage or bossism, buildings got built. People got jobs. Families got help.”

“OK. OK. I get it,” Lenora said. She was seeing a side to Elbows that her campaign people would never believe existed. “Sidewalks matter. Flooded streets matter. I’ll even give you rec programs for kids, for the sake of argument, although I would argue that a private company could run them better. We can save pork for another discussion; call it an honest difference of opinion, diverging world views. But what about the firehouses?”

“What about them?”

“You know we don’t need those. You know that’s about politics. About the unions supporting you.”

“It is,” Elbows snapped, “what it is.” And with that the bull session was over. Back to business.

Consuela swept by with two plates of dessert. Lenora had to admit: They didn’t make tiramisu this light, this subtle, this… intoxicating in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Click here for Installment 6, Precinct 24 Turns Out.
Feel free to comment or offer alternative plot twists below.
Previous Installments:
GOP Finds Mayoral Candidate
Garvey Finds An Issue
Rendezvous For Destiny
A 3-Alarm Protest

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posted by: Shirley Ugest on December 28, 2007  3:49pm

Oh…. the joke that the good reverend had in mind was that he’s not a real reverend.