Writings and Reflections

A Mid-term Election in the Heartland

by Lloyd B. Abrams

Alvie Beckford sat slumped on his usual stool in Duffy’s Olde Towne Tavern, sipping from a glass of Milwaukee on tap. With nothing much else to do, he was watching the Brewers playing the Mariners on the old Zenith hanging above the bar.

From the closed captioning he realized the Brewers were already eleven and twenty-eight and going nowhere, and that the aging 37-year-old star pitcher whom the Brewers had signed for twenty-seven million for three years, with nine million guaranteed, had torn his rotator cuff during his last start. Nine million guaranteed, Alvie muttered to himself.

“You say something, buddy?” The bartender, listening with half an ear.

“No, Mack. Just talkin to myself. About that sweet deal that Lamar Swinson got. Nine million guaranteed.”

“Yeah. They say he’s out for the year with the rehab and all. But he might be back sometime next season.”

“Yeah. Might be back. But in the meantime, he’s bringing in a cool three mill a year. Could you imagine?”

“Hey, if you could pitch like Swinson, you’d be rolling in dough, too.”

Alvie sighed and downed the glass. “How about another for the road?” Not that he’d have to travel far. He lived above a row of stores in a dingy shotgun apartment on Aberdeen Street, a couple of blocks away. At least he had a window looking out on the street and one facing the driveway behind the building, where he could keep an eye on his 13-year-old Buick LeSabre. He wasn’t driving it much these days, since he was on unemployment and on a losing streak betting on the ponies at the OTB out on Highway 54.

Alvie thought to himself, then said, “You know ... if you can make a pile o’ dough not working, who’s gonna ask questions?”

“You mean like you?” Mack asked, as he slid the glass of draft in front of him.

“C’mon Mack. You know my situation. Driving an oil truck is seasonal and it’s a rough job. It’s cold out there all the time. It’s filthy work and the oil stinks. Even after scrubbing down, there are times I can’t get the smell off of me.

“Yeah. We all know ’bout that.” And Mack chuckled.

Alvie took another sip, stared at the television and started mulling over an idea that began forming in the back of his mind.

= = = = =

The biting wind off the prairie slapped Alvie in his face as he walked out of Duffy’s. He might’ve had a few too many, but the idea stayed in his head.

Alvie had never been one to think deeply about most things. But you couldn’t call him stupid, especially if you wanted to keep all of your teeth. He managed to graduate from high school and then attended community college for half a term before dropping out, unlike his older brother Ray, who put himself through State, went on to get a law degree and then pass the bar. Raymond Beckford also had a wife and a couple of rug rats, and an ornery Cairn Terrier who was always nipping at Alvie’s heels. The whole two-point-two thing.

Alvie didn’t have a girlfriend, and hadn’t had one for a long while. He never could score, except with Carla, who always expected “my special gift, Alvie – you know how it is” afterwards. Other available women would shy away even when he did have money – when he couldn’t get the oil stains off his fingers – and, of course, during the off-season when he wasn’t working and money was scarce. So Carla it was. For richer but certainly never for poorer.

Alvie knew that life hadn’t dealt him a great hand. There was his hot-tempered father, who took off the summer before he entered high school. Alvie often thought about that scene. His parents were plastered, both of them were yelling, and his father was screaming that he couldn’t take this shit anymore. And then he walked out. Just like that. Got into his Ford pickup and peeled down the driveway. Months later, there was a postcard in the mailbox, postmarked Alaska – Lemon Creek, White Creek, something like that. He showed it to his mother, who tore it up and then started crying. His mother always had a lot of blame to spread around. And with Raymond at school, he was the only one there to catch it.

Alvie stayed away from her as much as he could. He learned some vital skills out on the streets and got into usual teen-age mischief. But he also got into trouble vandalizing, fighting and drinking and became well-known to the police, but not for anything big-time. Maybe his mother was right. “You’re no goddam good,” his mother would yell. “You’re just like your father, that no-good son of a bitch.” And then it was Alvie who’d walk out, slamming the door so hard it shook on its hinges, and wouldn’t come straggling home until maybe the next day.

= = = = =

Alvie tried to drop in on his brother Raymond several days later but was asked to wait, for he was in conference with a client. “Tell him it’s urgent,” he told Sandy, the divorcee who typed letters, motions, wills and invoices, did the filing, made coffee, and, Alvie thought, probably took care of some of Ray’s other needs – With that mousey-lookin’ wife of his, who knows where’s he’s getting his?

“I’ll notify him, sir, as soon as he’s free.”

Alvie needed coffee but he didn’t want to kill time sitting around his brother’s overly warm waiting room.“Sandy ... I’m going over to Rupert’s. Tell Ray-Ray to meet me over there.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Beckford.”

He crossed the street to Rupert’s Dine & Go, sat down at the counter, asked for a cup o’ Jo, and sat gazing out the window. Despite the unseasonably warm and clear spring morning, there was little foot traffic outside.

Looks like a ghost town, Alvie thought. Ever since the new mall opened over at the interstate, the town was dying. Many townspeople and local business owners had tried to block its construction. They had formed committees and coalitions, signed petitions, attending meetings, went door-to-door asking for funds and support, made phone calls and visited the politicians, especially Moses Harrell, the County Executive who, despite being a black man from the other side of this town, was loved by an electorate who’d elected him by a landslide every two years for the past eighteen. Big Mo Harrell, the captain of the baseball team, the star quarterback, the homespun guy who got a full scholarship to the State University until his knee blew out in his senior year. Big Mo Harrell, the much-desired but confirmed bachelor at all the best parties, events and openings, who always showed up with his entourage of ex-athletes and friends.

The anti-mall contingent tried reasoning, then pleaded with Big Mo and he flashed his wide white grin, took their hands in his firm fleshy grasp, and reassured them that he’d do everything he could. He also told them, in his deep resonant voice, that the mall would, however, bring in jobs, help the local economy, and “add prestige to our wonderful town. That those things, too, have to be kept in mind when a decision is made.” With the probable urging of Moses Harrell, the zoning board acquiesced and the mall was built. Big Mo was present at both the ground-breaking and at ribbon-cutting.

Help the local economy. Alvie wondered how Rupert’s stayed in business. How the appliance repair shop and the hardware store and the Rexall pharmacy managed to stay afloat in this poor economy. He wondered, too, about how many greenbacks had been passed under the table in unmarked envelopes to the members of the zoning board and, mostly likely, to Big Mo himself.

“More coffee?”

“Sure, thing sweetheart. Delores, isn’t it?” The waitress, scowling to herself, half-smiled at Alvie and poured his refill.

“Yep. Like it says right on this here badge. Can I get you somethin else?”

“Nah. Not right now. I’m waitin on somebody.”

Delores tore the Thank-You-For-Dropping-In ticket off her pad, slipped it onto the counter and sidled away, wiping the counter again just to keep herself busy.

Alvie was finishing his second cup when the bell above the door jingled. Raymond nodded to Delores and climbed onto the stool next to him. Ray, who was wearing a ragged gray blazer and a striped shirt and tie, always looked like he needed a shave. “You’re lookin good, Ray-Ray.”

“Screw you too. Didn’t get to bed till late. You know how it is.”

“Yeah, I know pretty well.” And Alvie smirked.

Ray chose to ignore him. “Okay Alvie. What’s so important this time.”

“Can’t talk here. Let’s take a walk.”

Alvie tossed a couple of singles on the counter, finger-waved at Delores to make sure she noticed the bills, and walked out onto Broad Street with his brother. They made a left at Church Street, and continued on to St. Paul’s Episcopal. They circled the church, entered the cemetery behind the rectory, and sat down on a bench.

“Remember when we used to hang around back here?” Alvie asked.

“Sure, Alvie. I know. But I don’t have all day. What’s all that urgent?”

“I got an idea that I think you’re gonna wanna hear.”

“Damn. Not another one of your hare-brained ideas.”

“Would ya shut up and listen.”

“All right, all right. Spill it out.”

“Okay. How ’bout if you ran against Mo Harrell for County Executive?”

“Waddya, crazy? He’d cream me. And it’d cost a helluva lot of money. Money you and I don’t have. Unless one of us won the Powerball.”

“Wish I had. Then I wouldn’t need you.”

“Yeah. I love you too. So spit it out. What if I ran?”

“Suppose you ran on a platform supporting fracking?’

“Fracking? What the hell is fracking?”

“Jeez ... you don’t know much, do you? Being a lawyer and all.”

Alvie got no response other than a dirty look, so he took a couple of index cards out of his pocket and continued. “Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing. It creates fractures in rocks, which increase the output of an oil or gas well. High-volume slick-water fracturing is done from a well that’s drilled horizontally into reservoir rock formations.”

“Sounds like you went and did some research.”

“Yeah, I looked it up on the internet over at the library. But lemme go on. The fractures are forced open by fluid pressure.” He flipped over a card. “And the fracture is kept open by a proppant that’s injected into the fluid. Proppant is like grains of sand, ceramic, or other particulates that prevent the fractures from closing when the fluid pumping is stopped.”

“All right. I got it so far. They drill down and pump in some stuff horizontally and then the rock splits and gas or oil comes out. So?”

“Well, the thing is, I first heard about fracking a few months back at the oil depot. I didn’t know what it was all about back then. Some bigwigs from corporate were going on about it in the worker’s lounge. Some lounge. It’s more like a toilet. Anyway, they’re thinking about buying up thousands of acres on the other side of the interstate and getting the land re-zoned so they could start drilling some test wells.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Bingo.” Alvie continued from another index card. “There are environmental and health concerns such as the contamination of ground water, risks to air quality, the migration of gases and chemicals to the surface, and the potential mishandling of waste. No one knows how much it’d cost for environmental clean-ups, loss of land value and human and animal health. And get this. Industry groups know that fracking has a significant environmental impact, that the fluid used below the earth's surface might pollute freshwater aquifers, might contaminate surface or near-surface water supplies and might even impact the rock shelf causing seismic events. That means earthquakes, Ray-Ray.”

“Jesus Christ, Alvie. After all that, why the hell would I want to support fracking?”

“That’s exactly the point. You know that Mo Harrell would certainly be against it, especially once his beloved electorate hears all about the possible health problems and environmental damage. But if you came out for fracking, and if we could raise money from the oil or gas companies to help you run, then you could mount a campaign. You could promise the people jobs, pledge that you’d cut taxes, claim that you’d increase everyone’s standard of living. That you’d get the companies to build schools, firehouses and community centers. Promise them anything. All they have to do is elect you!”

“But wait a minute. I don’t want to win. I don’t even want to be the County Executive.”

“Now you’re getting it.”

“What the hell do you mean?”

“The beauty of my idea is that you wouldn’t win. We’ll make sure of that. But you’ll sure as hell look like you’re trying. You’ll be getting laundry baskets full of cash and checks from those oil and gas companies and special interest groups to beat Mo Harrell. Ever since that Citizen’s United ruling in the Supreme Court, there doesn’t have to be any disclosure. You could bring in millions.”

“You’re getting me crazy here, Alvie. What the hell is really going on?”

“Okay. Okay. I was watching a movie the other night with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. You know, The Producers. Real funny movie. It got me to thinking. Suppose we raised a whole lot of money but we didn’t spend it all. Suppose we got, say, five million and spent only three. That’d leave a cool two million for us to split up.”

“That’s a crime, Alvie. I’d lose my license. I’d be ruined. We’d both end up in jail.”

“Not if no one checks. I’m figuring everyone cares about the winner. Scrutinizes their accounts. Wants their payback once the winner’s in office. But no one pays any attention to the loser. No one looks too closely at where the money went. The loser can go pick up his lawn signs, tear down his posters, and walk off with the rest.”

“Hmm. You really think this could work?”

“I don’t know for sure, Ray-Ray. But with all the money that’d be coming in, I don’t see how it could miss. Unless, of course, you win.”

“Well, let me think about this. I’ve gotta consider ...”

“Then consider the little jobs I’ve done for you. Those couple of B-and-E’s to get evidence for you in your divorce cases. Hiding behind the bushes in the rain outside that Hillary somebody’s house to take pictures of her and that creep. And tailing some cheating husband more times that I can count. You owe me, Ray.”

“I need some time, little brother. There are a lotta things ...”

“We don’t have much time, big brother. If you’re gonna run, then we’ve gotta start getting signatures on petitions, then submit them and get them certified on time. The deadline’s less than two weeks away.”

“I don’t know ...”

“Listen, Ray-Ray. You’ll be able to double down in spades on your wonderful life and your wife and who knows who else and your kids and everything you have. And I’ll finally be able to climb out of the stinkin rut that I’m in. As I see it, it’s a no-lose win-win for both of us.”

They sat staring at the gravestones for a while. Then, “Okay, Alvie. I’m in. Let’s get the ball rolling.”

“Spoken like a true politician.”

Alvie and Raymond shook hands, then hugged and backslapped each other. Ray returned to his office to begin rearranging his schedule while Alvie went to gas up his car so he could pick up nominating petitions over at the county seat.

= = = = =

On his return trip, Alvie visited the Ronald Reagan Conservative Club at the community college and recruited a dozen college students to go door-to-door asking for signatures. He made sure to pick a multiethnic group of males and females, blacks and whites. He even chose a Hispanic girl named Angelina to visit some of their homes across the tracks. When he added that he’d also be paying them in cash for each signature, they became even more enthusiastic. It was not too difficult to gather the required number of signatures by the filing deadline.

Meanwhile, Ray called up an old client, a producer at KTOV-TV, the network affiliate. Ray had represented the producer during a particularly nasty divorce proceeding. When Ray asked to be put on that evening’s news show to announce that he was running for County Executive, the producer naturally agreed. Ray was also hoping that the network would pick up the story for wider distribution.

During his segment, Raymond announced that he had decided to run for County Executive to unseat the “much-too-popular” Moses Harrell. In his two-minute, twenty-second pitch, and when answering the softball questions tossed to him by the smiling, accommodating anchor, he condemned his opponent’s underhanded dealings and his cronyism and his “lack of foresight about our county’s – and our country’s – future.” He promised to open the door for new businesses to counter the high unemployment rate. He declared that during his administration, there would be a new and positive attitude towards initiative and innovation and he vowed, “most emphatically and most importantly” that he’d welcome the search for new sources of energy “because, folks, that’s where our country’s future lies.” And, of course, that he’d be the one – the only one – who would lower their property taxes. “Look what’s happening around us. Look at our decaying downtowns. Look at our failing schools. We all want a new beginning for us, for our children, and for our children’s children. I’ll stand side-by-side with you. I’m one of you, folks. And I’m the man for the job.”

And with that, the Raymond Beckford campaign was off and running.

= = = = =

Unbeknownst to both Alvie and Ray, the oil company executives who were at the depot earlier in the year were back in town. They were gathered in a suite at the Regency Motor Lodge, watching the evening KTOV news with half-empty glasses of Jack Daniel’s. As Ramond Beckford was speaking, they looked at each other with surprise and then with wonderment. This guy was the answer to their prayers. They wouldn’t have to deal with that uppity black wheeler-dealer – that Moses Harrell with the phony toothy smile. Raymond Beckford was just the one they needed in office to help them get the land they wanted and the permits to do whatever they wanted.

Money began being quietly fed into the “Raymond Beckford For County Exec / I’m One of You” campaign. First came a smattering of personal checks, and soon a steady number of larger corporate checks. More than a few times, an oversized man in a leather coat wearing dark sunglasses and his thick bodyguard stepped down from a black Escalade in front of Raymond’s law office to drop off an attache case full of cash. “Just make sure it’s spent the right way” was all that they growled when handing it over.

The college students who had collected the petition signatures, along with their friends, were campaigning door-to-door, inspired perhaps by the Beckford message, but spurred on by Alvie’s cash-per-visit policy. Lawn signs were put up all over the county. Posters were stapled onto telephone poles. And when banners were plastic-tied to chainlink fences around closed businesses and nailed to bare plywood boards covering the windows of foreclosed houses, that shrewd message was proving to have a visceral effect on eligible voters.

The television producer took a leave to become their media consultant. Money was plowed into television and radio spots, into billboards and direct mailing and polling. As the money poured in, Alvie discovered that he had a talent for keeping multiple sets of financial records. Of double- and triple-billing. Of skimming. Of hiding contributions. Of inflating costs. Of inventing imaginary costs. Of making it appear as if all of the money that came in – every red cent – was being spent on the campaign to elect Raymond Beckford.

It was a monetary and media blitz. Moses Harrell didn’t know what had hit him. By the time Big Mo got rolling, he was ahead by only nine points, with his lead narrowing, in the polls commissioned and publicized by the Beckford campaign.

The effect Alvie and his brother had on the electorate was far from pretty. If a visitor or newcomer were looking on, he wouldn’t have been privy to the darker, polarizing undercurrents. It wasn’t only the matter of the big money funneled into Raymond Beckford’s campaign versus the many smaller contributions that had funded Moses Harrell in the past. It wasn’t only the environmental issue of fracking versus clean water and public health. It wasn’t just the brash upstart versus the proven, popular politician. There was more.

There was the black and white issue. The pretentious-sounding black man, the ex-football star, Moses Harrell, versus the plain-speaking white underdog who was campaigning with the mantra “I am one of you.” Everyone knew what that meant. Also, there were the innuendos and gossip about Big Mo’s never-acknowledged and never-proven homosexuality – a big concern still in this conservative section of the country and especially among the county’s black church-going constituents. While Moses Harrell was out campaigning with his longtime political associates and hangers-on – all male – Raymond Beckford was parading his newly-made-over wife, who was acquiring a taste for the attention that she was receiving talking to and smiling in front of her adoring, fawning citizens.

People were feeling it. People were responding. And the Raymond Beckford campaign was steamrollering anything in its path.

= = = = =

On a Sunday evening a month before the election, after a hectic weekend of food-tasting, hand-shaking and baby-kissing, Alvie and Ray were sitting alone in Ray’s law office – command central, they called it – tuned in to the ten o’clock KTOV news. Each was sipping from a bottle of imported beer. It was the first time in days that they were away from their consultants and their associates, all of whom were costing them plenty – often twice or three times over, according to Alvie’s creative accounting practices – and their many enthusiastic, loving and well-paid “volunteers.”

“And now for local news. According to the latest State University poll, incumbent County Executive Moses Harrell and challenger Raymond Beckford are in a statistical dead heat – plus or minus several percentage points for error, of course. The undeniable upward trend for the challenger in the upcoming election might prove to be the upset of the century.” Ray reached for the remote, clicked off the television, and turned to his brother.

“What the fuck, Alvie? I’m not supposed to win this. What are you doing out there?”

“They love you, Ray. You’re saying the right things. You’re talking to, you’re talking for your people. You’re one of them.”

“Don’t treat me like an idiot. You know as well as I do what that means.”

“So what do you wanna do? Quit the race? I’ve already squirreled away over one point two mill. And half of it is yours.”

“How the hell’ve you done that?” Ray raised his hands. “No, wait, Alvie. I don’t want to know.”

“‘I don’t want to know,’ you say. We’re in this together, big brother. So don’t be a chicken shit.”

Ray took a long swig. Swallowed. Sighed. “Listen carefully so you’ll understand. I do not want to win this. I cannot win this. We cannot win this. If I win, we’ll both be going to jail even before I take office.”

Alvie laughed, then abruptly stopped. “We’ve been doing so great. It’s like once the ball was rolling, if you catch my drift. And the money, well it’s like taking candy from a baby.”

“Damn it! Would you stop it! It’s my life. And yours, too. Don’t you get it?”

“Jesus. Ray-Ray. I’m sorry. I got so carried away.”

And another thing. Cut out the Ray-Ray bullshit. I’ve had enough of that, too. From now on, it’s Raymond. Or Ray. Got it?”

“Okay, Ray. I got it.”

Raymond took a deep breath, let it out. “So I’m even in the polls and I’m on a goddam upward trend. Alvie, how are we gonna turn the tide? What the hell are we going to do?”

Up to the beginning of the story
Rev 12 / January 10, 2011
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Issue 18, February 2011

Up to the beginning of the story

January, 2011…Copyright © 2011, Lloyd B. Abrams
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