SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
It popped out from under a creaking floorboard in the old manse in Fairfield: a notebook with the fine script of a poet laureate. Was it an unpublished work of Robert Penn Warren? We’re not sure. Nevertheless, ‘No Comment’ is pleased to bring you a few pages ripped from the notebook, a New Year’s gift to our readers, especially the suffering ones down south. More to come over time.
Times were so much easier when the main worry was running that Ford dealership back in Ashley. There was the bickering over returns, selling the customers all those extras they didn’t really need, and selling the used cars without disclosing those little problems under the hood. Do they really need to know this car was in a wreck? Won’t they be happier with it knowing a lot less? But that’s the art of hucksterism. And if you can master it, hell, you’re on your way to a career in politics, ain’t yah?
But then there was the pleasure of taking that new champagne-colored Crown Victoria off the lot and letting her open up on the road down to Vulcan City. Roll down the windows and let God’s good air come rushing in, take the kids along. The wind of the car’s speed would lift up your hair right at the temples, and you’d see the sweet little beads of perspiration nestling there, and they’d sit low in the seat with their little spines crooked and their bent knees high toward the dashboard and not too close together. My, that smell of gasoline and burning brake bands and redeye is sweeter than myrrh. When the eight-cylinder jobs come roaring around the curves in those hills, and scatter the gravel like spray, and when they ever get down in the flat country and hit the new slab, God have mercy on the mariner. It was power. You could feel the power. Didn’t hurt nobody. But it felt so good. It was the prelude to politics, he thought. . . but “didn’t hurt nobody?” Well, maybe not.
Those were the easy days, languid summer evenings. Work on the ranch. Sell some cars. Talk some politics. Show the predator’s natural talent. Pray for rain. These were days to dream of moving up in the world, of life in Washington, and then in the statehouse.
Then a new life broke through. It started when Chuck Plove came through. Chuck was a genius. IQ of 142. A real genius. Chuck’s wife was from down around Mobile, and Chuck came through a lot. Round about a decade back, he met with the party bosses and told them what to do to get back on the map. “Start with the foundation,” he said, “the house will come later.” The foundation, it turns out, was the judgeships–but then again, it wasn’t really that. The judgeships were just a way of getting at the foundation, because the real foundation was money, cold hard cash. Imagine, who’d have thought that! But Chuck was right. His advice was golden, and gold invariably followed his advice. Chuck was the kingmaker, and his adjutant, Billy Osprey, was his prophet.
So when Chuck came to town and wanted to see the Kingfish, something was up. It has a defining moment.
It went well. “You like Ronald Reagan,” said Plove, “so do I. But more importantly, so do your voters. That’s the match to work on. You’ve got the build, the physique of a Reagan. So let’s play it up. The Communicator would approve. And let’s start with the basics.” Plove looked at the floor.
“Hushpuppies!” he shrieked. “Ask yourself, would Ronald Reagan wear hushpuppies?” “Never!” “The clothes make the man, my friend, and we start with what you’ve got on your feet. I never want to see you near another pair of hushpuppies. From now on, it’s going to be cowboy boots. But not just any boots. It’s going to be custom-made, alligator jobs—with your initials stitched into them. Three thousand dollars a pair. And they’re going to be your signature. Hell, they’ll be writing newspaper copy about it—maybe I’ll take a hand to that myself.”
“Won’t they make me out to be a fancy-pants?” worried the Kingfish.
“The masses are not asses,” said Plove. “They admire a man who shows character, self-confidence. They’ll love it. Just watch. You’ll look like Reagan, and soon enough, in their eyes, you’ll be the next best thing.”
“The boots are a start. Next: You’re going to ride a horse.”
“Don’t know how,” said Kingfish.
“Won’t matter. We’ll stage it. This makes for perfect ad copy, and no one’s going to question the idea of a rancher from Ashley riding a horse, just watch.” “Then let’s get to work on the hair—we’ll get a good cut and dye job, just like the Communicator’s, a good tan. Do you like to chop wood?” “Is this how you win elections?” “Why yes, hell. You make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em think you’re their old erring pal, even make ‘em think you’re Ronald Reagan. That’s how we win elections.”
“When you and junior are back up in Washington, take the time to drop in. We’ll pursue this further.”
The relationship was born. It was magic.
That was seven years back, but it was a day ago, a glimmer. Time rushed past. Plove’s plans worked like a charm, the money poured into the election effort from friends who didn’t know they were friends. Junior handled the funding, and the friends in Washington made everything fall into place. And Plove agreed, the campaign had the perfect issue: gambling! It was time for Kingfish to give vent to his inner Baptist. He could rail against gambling with the best of them. And the magic worked. No one noticed that the campaign was being fueled by gambling interests. No one got wind of junior’s investments in Las Vegas, and the casino in Canada. Kingfish was loved.
But there were dark deeds in the past. Kingfish kept thinking back to them. Not so dark. Didn’t kill nobody. But there was that awful man. Hell, what politician doesn’t rise to power leaving a trail of corpses in his wake? Besides, that awful man was corrupt. Everybody knew it. Weren’t no harm in making up a bit of it. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.
Remember the lion in the jungle, he thought. The lion is king. And sometimes you’ve just got to kill him. Then the jungle quakes and the animals cry, and then they make you their king. That’s how it works. From the beginning of time.
So for good measure, with Plove’s help, they reached out and destroyed him. And it was easy. Who would have thought how easy it was. The press played their role, just like Plove said they would. And Kingfish? He just led the people in prayer for rain. Funny how that drought set in just as the awful man was placed on the altar for slaughter. Is He playing a trick on us? Does He really exist? Where is that rain?
The sentencing came, the cameras, it was all over. Everything had been pulled off, a glorious success. But then the unraveling began. Too many people asking too many questions. That damned woman up on Sand Mountain. The national media!? How do you deal with them. Plove! Where was he! Gone?! A hearing in Congress! And then Plove suddenly doesn’t want to be seen with us. He doesn’t even want us to come down to the beach house anymore, down to Rosemary Beach.
There would be no more races for the statehouse for Kingfish. Term limitations. But who would be the new kingfish? It might be junior? Truth is, junior was always the brains behind the political operations for Kingfish. Junior was a sharp young thing. He even went to school in Cambridge. He had a knack for politics and for making money. He played a hand of cards and knew how to cheat without getting caught. Junior definitely saw himself in the governor’s mansion. Why not, after all? Maybe he should be Attorney General first, though. Bringing prosecutions was the path to power. Everybody saw that now.
And then there was Michael Cupboard, the party boss. Cupboard was the hit man, playing the one-two with his friend Billy Osprey, and Osprey’s wife, the prosecutor. Osprey and Plove had figured out how to take down the opposition, and Cupboard had peddled it to the media. The opposition, of course, was all corrupt. The Ospreys would provide the material and Mike would sell it. The game was so simple, it was a natural. And nobody seemed to pay any never mind to Cupboard and his state contracts, of course. . . that was the corruption story waiting to be told.
But there was bad blood between Cupboard and junior. Kingfish could feel it. He was concerned. It spelled trouble. Just what we need in a difficult time. “Well, you’re the goat,” he said to Cupboard, “You are the sacrificial goat. You are the ram in the bushes. You are a sap. You are so full of yourself and hot air and how you are Jesus Christ, that all you want is a chance to stand on your hind legs and make a speech.”
“Mike, what I mean is simple: there are bigger fish to fry before anyone gets started worrying about running for Governor. We’ve got real troubles. We’ve got to get through them.” Cupboard wasn’t taking this well. So Kingfish decided to invite him and some friends down to a little bit of holiday season Mexican food last Thursday over at La Jolla in East Chase. He had a hankering for some fajitas. But that wasn’t the only thing on his mind. Then Kingfish opened up:
“We’ve got a difficult time ahead of us. They’re sniffing around where the bodies are buried. They’ve got good instincts, and somebody seems to be giving them clues. They could turn something up. Hell, they’ve already turned up a lot. Our friends at the papers are telling us that the heat is on. They can’t keep fronting for us the way they have for the last several years. And if the story breaks, we’ll have other things to worry about. We need to keep focused to see ourselves through it. Above all, that means keeping the lid on. And avoiding squabbles. And that means you, Cupboard and junior.”
“But Kingfish, it’s just the out-of-state crowd, no body down here pays this no mind.”
“That ain’t so. We’ve got one man to worry about: Lancelot Davies. That man smells something foul in the air. He’s like a bloodhound on the scent. And he’s pushing it. Ain’t but one thing for us to do. And that’s sit tight and hope this all blows over. . . Well, maybe there are a few little things we can do. . .”
The world is all of one piece, the Kingfish thought, fading out for a moment. He had learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping. The lesson was so simple. Either you’re the spider, or you’re the fly caught in the web. Ain’t no other roles.
And then Kingfish, thinking of the fly imprisoned in his web, snapped back to. “For one, we need to ridicule anyone who asks a question about this—make out like they’re some sort of tin-hatted loon. Our press friends can manage that; hell, they’re pretty good at it. Remember, we’re not responsible for this corpse. It was done all legal-like: prosecutor, jury and judge.” “Aren’t you glad we don’t have any upright judges? Just the kind ready to rise above their principles?” The table erupted in laughter. “That’s right, our prosecutor, our judge and our jury. Just be damned sure the judge got those contracts he was expecting.” “Don’t worry, the pay-off came through right on schedule. Nobody knows about that,” said Kingfish, “just us. . . nobody’s going to know. That’s essential.”
“And now he’s cleaning latrines in a Louisiana pen. Kind’a makes you think there is a God, doesn’t it? Don’t you love it!?”
“And the other thing: we need to let young Mister Lancelot Davies know that if he pushes this, there’ll be blood—his blood. Keep the guys at the Vulcan City Journal working on him, call up Brad Bleakridge. Isn’t it time for another one of those corruption-on-the-staff stories? And junior, time to call the Citizens Council—let’s have them throw a little sputum in the path of Mister Lancelot Davies, and then ask our friends down in Mobile to print it. They’re not used to printing screed from the Citizens Council, but for us, they’ll do it. Jim Crow hasn’t shown his head around these parts for a while, but I reckon he’s got a bit of life in him yet. We’re not taking lip from no uppity Black lawyer, yuh hear? Hell, we’ll paint him as a racist–isn’t that how the boys at the Vulcan City Journal do it?”
“I’ll be right on it, daddy,” responded junior. But one thing was still bothering Kingfish. Could he count on his own team? Was one of them selling him out? He harbored a suspicion ever since his buddy, Steven Windbag, reported on a recent visit to Don Tate, a donor who had suddenly gotten tight with his money. Can’t run this show without Windbag. Moreover, when they start catching on, he’ll the the first man to throw under the bus. Kingfish knew the value of having a fat ram to sacrifice. Why it could save your own skin.
Still, there was something else. Something was really bothering Kingfish. Was it those tapes that Don Tate had and kept threatening to go to the feds with? Or was it something else? There was a leak. Plain as day. Someone close to Kingfish and to Windbag was out there talking. Confidences had been betrayed. Yes, that was it. The leaks. Kingfish pulled junior to the side and whispered. “Keep your eye on that Periwinkle Childress. I don’t trust her. Ain’t nuthin’ worse than a Christ-bit politician.” “You bet, daddy.”
Thus ended the holiday council of war. And now the wait’s on. How much toothpaste will be squeezed out of the tube? But we’re getting ahead of the story.
We’re still in the midst of this melodrama, and there are many chapters to follow. But of course, history is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that. It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond. The lives ruined are real lives, and the democracy sullied is not from some fairy-tale place. It is our own. This tragedy is not imagined. It is real.
Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.
Chances that a Republican man believes that “poor people have hard lives”:
A school in South Korea was planning to deploy a robot to protect students from unwanted seductions.
Nuremberg’s Neues Museum filed a criminal complaint against a 91-year-old woman who completed a crossword puzzle that was in fact a $116,000 piece of avant-garde Danish art.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”