A Novel of Politics
Random House. 419 pp. $25
Friday, March 7, 2008
The mayor was found shortly after eleven with his bronze, brooding face lying on the last two slices of a prosciutto and artichoke pizza, his head turned and his wide mouth gaping, as if gulping for a smashed brown bulb of garlic with life's last breath. Blood from his gums had already seeped into the tomatoes, prosciutto, and caramelized onions. His blue oxford-cloth shirt was unbuttoned. His red tie had been slipped out of its knot and trailed forlornly from his collar. His heavy gray slacks were laid across the back of the sofa where he was sitting for his last meal, illumed by the cold glare of the television set. The security guards who had rushed in heard the ice in the mayor's bourbon crackling while it melted (it was that fresh) over the cloaked gallop of their thick shoes against the great carpet. Three men's magazines were fanned across the sofa, each with the kind of cover that, in Indiana, would call for the woman's bosom to be enrobed with a brown paper strip. But the guards' attention was drawn to the bold red letters they saw marching across the mayor's boxer shorts: big daddy. One of them reached gently for the mayor's arms to feel for a pulse. Another slowly passed a hand over his eyes, and softly called his name-it was how they were trained-while the third muttered some kind of code, colors, numbers, alphas and tangos, into a minuscule microphone in his hand. Mrs. Bacon, the mayor's secretary, edged close to their burly gray shoulders to peer into the mayor's blank brown eyes and shakily point her hand at the slogan on his undershorts. "I'm sure they were a gift," she said quietly. It was the mayor's habit to have one extra-large pizza from Quattro's delivered to City Hall by ten each night, after he had returned from an evening's round of appearances. His standing order specified extra cheese and prosciutto. When the kitchen staff at Quattro's deduced the pizza was destined for City Hall, they spontaneously contributed extra glistening strips of onions and grilled peppers. His security guards joked that two officers were required to carry the pizza across the threshold of the mayor's office; it felt like carrying a manhole cover in your arms. So much extra cheese had been loaded onto the pizza that when anyone took a bite-an endeavor that involved opening one's mouth as if for a molar examination-they had to pull gooey strings away from their teeth to almost the length of their arms. Most politicians groused that over an evening of cocktail receptions, fund-raising dinners, and precinct meetings, they never got a chance to eat. They needed to keep both hands free for handshakes and clapping shoulders. They couldn't chance that a sprig of parsley from a canapé might blemish their smile and photograph like a vagrant's missing tooth. They didn't want to be seen swallowing steak tartare on a round of toast, only to be asked, "Do you know how that cow was slaughtered?" But the mayor's immense appetite was too well publicized for him to plead self-restraint. He risked political peril if he appeared to be indifferent to the specialties of any neighborhood. This guaranteed that on any given night, the mayor consumed cheese pierogi, chickpea samosas, pistachio-studded cannolis, and/or sugar-dusted Mexican crescent cookies in his nightly rounds. And consumed them in toto, for half portions were considered fraught with risk. "How can I tell the good citizens of Pilsen that I have to go easy on this magnificent tres leches cake," he remonstrated, "because I'm saving room for the ale cake in Canaryville? They might suspect that I truly like only two of the tres leches. I mean, when they've seen me make room for the packzi in Logan Square"-a cream-filled, pre-Lenten donut that was popular in the city's Polish bakeries-"how do I explain any diminution in my commitment to the pastry of Pilsen? A man has to consider the consequences before he keeps his mouth shut." So the Quattro's pizza would be waiting at the mayor's office as a reward for his duodenal daring. He would lift the top of the box with a great, yeasty smile. "Goodness gracious, our citizens mean well," the mayor would explain as steam from the pizza seemed to plump his whitening eyebrows. "I can't disappoint them. How can a man of my positively legendary cravings ever convince anyone that I can't have just one more bite? If I turn my nose up at a shrimp and ginger wonton, I risk offending the entire Fifteenth Ward. I just might have to put new traffic lights up and down Canal Street. Bibimbop, halvah, or chitterlings, a man in my position can't refuse hospitality. It does not promote domestic tranquility. These days that's practically a matter of national security. It is positively antediluvian not to recognize that." The mayor sprinkled antediluvian over his conversation like fresh cracked pepper; he believed it made everything tastier. He excoriated all political rivals as antediluvian, the state and federal governments-which had a depressing tendency to be run by elected Republicans-and any other daily source of irritation, including the city's newspapers, banks, and any restaurants that did not deliver beyond a twelve-block radius. It was the mayor's custom to remove his pants and unbutton his shirt while he sat at the coffee table in front of the television in his office and punch out the numbers of local stations to follow himself on the ten o'clock news. Mrs. Bacon would overhear him cheering or swearing loudly and ingeniously as he ascended the dial: Two: "Dumb-ass hayseed! A year ago, you were reading pork belly prices on a station in Iowa that didn't carry farther than a light-bulb! Now you're some kind of expert on publick finance. The nerve! The stupefying effrontery! As if she knows any more about pork bellies than she does about finance!" Five: "I am not going to listen to any grown man who wears makeup for a living and isn't dressed in velvet tights! And I know it's not cause you're gay, 'cause you wouldn't be so ugg-lee if you were!" Seven: "Un-comp-reeehending, ass-licking in-grates!" Nine! Eleven! "Antediluvian enemies of the people!" Thirty-two! "Super-sillius ass-hole! You couldn't show a slug how to curl up and sleep!" Forty-four! "Oh, my, but I shine! I might have my annual bourbon!" On Thursday night, Mrs. Bacon had entered when she realized that she had not heard the usual fusillade. With rising alarm, she rapped her hand on the thick polished door; on hearing no response, she turned the heavy brass handle and found the mayor slumped onto his last meal. The three guards who rushed in at her cry reacted with professionalism. But their voices quavered as they called out to him gently, and their hands fumbled slightly as they undid the buttons over his wrist. Their attachment to the mayor was personal. They didn't really know-didn't really care-if he was a competent and incorruptible civic leader. They knew he was good company, a man who worked hard, laughed at himself, and batted down the darts and knives of political combat with contagious zest. The applause and smiles that crowds cascaded on the mayor fell on his guards, too. They shared his chores, his travels, his foes and friends, his frustrations, his feats, his humor, his phrasing. When traffic snarled, when an elevator was slow, when planes were delayed, the guards shook their heads and exclaimed, "Positively antediluvian!" All of the guards had prepared for the chance that one day they might have to repel an obstreperous protester from the mayor's path, wrestle away a weapon, or even throw themselves in front of an assassin's shot. The mayor was a compelling personality. Some reactions he aroused were ferocious and threatening. But that they should finally be summoned to his side to protect him from a prosciutto and artichoke pizza ... "I should have come in earlier," Mrs. Bacon said in a small, quiet voice as the boots of a paramedic team squished ruthlessly over the thick olive-colored carpet of the mayor's office. The head of that shift's security team, a large blond man whose shoulders strained against the sockets of his dull gray suit, had taken Mrs. Bacon gingerly into his long arms and softly patted her back. "It would have made no difference," he assured her. "It happened so quickly." "I could have cleared out ... all this," she said, making a small, stabbing motion at the melting bourbon, the curling pizza, and the mayor's abandoned slacks on the sofa next to the sheaf of Indiana-offending magazines. "It doesn't matter," the security chief reassured her. "It's just so ... pathetic," said Mrs. Bacon. A paramedic crew had been assigned to an anteroom near the mayor's office a few years before. It was more a sign of the times than of the mayor's conspicuous magnitude in the city, or even the robust demands he made on his health. In five years of duty, the crew had transported just one case to the hospital (an old alderman, Stefano Tripoli of the 11th, snipped himself while zipping up in the men's room; thereafter he was known as Lefty), and one case to the morgue (a homeless man who had frozen to death while trying to sleep through a snowstorm against the Randolph Street wall of City Hall). A woman paramedic held up the mayor's gray slacks by a belt loop. They looked like the skin of a small elephant. "No wallet. No keys," she announced. "He wasn't robbed," said Mrs. Bacon. "We carried everything," the security chief explained. The mayor's empty pockets were renowned. He believed it was a mark of distinction to walk through each day unencumbered by the tedious need to fish out bills or coins. "You jangle with each step," he once told his guards. "How can a man concentrate?" One day, Linas Slavinskas of the 12th discovered an old city ordinance that said anyone found within the city limits with less than a dollar in his pockets could be arrested for vagrancy. Linas stood up from his seat near the end of the first row of the council floor, to wave the regulation and point to the mayor. "Arrest that man!" he commanded the sergeant-at-arms. "City ordinance 91-5!" The mayor stood up from his high-backed burgundy leather seat, laughing as he turned out his pockets and pulled them out from his trousers, like a zookeeper demonstrating the wingspread of a bat. "That man is asking you to approve a budget that's larger than Mongolia," roared Linas. "And he doesn't have a dime in his pants! He knows as much about budgets as I know about mapping the genome of a fruit fly! Arrest him for his own protection! And ours!" John Wu of the 15th Ward, who owned the Big Bad Buddha gift store on Cermak, Tommy Mitrovic of the 21st, who sold insurance, and Jesus Flores Suarez of the 22nd, who owned a travel agency ("Jesus Saves-On All Fares!") pulled out plump money clips from their seats in the center of the second row and began to ball up dollar bills and throw them to the mayor. Miles Sparrow of the 7th, who owned Pedro's Blues Room on Cottage Grove, Dorothy Fisher of the 3rd, who ran a luggage delivery service at Midway Airport, and Arty Agras of the 1st scuttled under the balled-up bills as they unfurled in flight, and lunged to intercept them. "Turn awaaay from temptation, aldermen!" the mayor exhorted, his arms splayed to suggest a figure on a cross. "Reee-ject these antediluvian moneylenders!" "Credit cards? Driver's license?" the paramedic continued. "I doubt he had a driver's license," the security chief said. The guards smiled at the thought of the mayor fulminating behind the wheel of a car at the antediluvian buses and trucks slowing his progress along the Kennedy Expressway. "Credit cards?" another guard said, as if the paramedic had asked if the mayor kept a bowling ball in his pocket. The mayor had well-publicized financial difficulties-a record of uncollected debts and questionable tax returns-that not even two terms' incumbency could altogether improve. "We carried whatever he needed," said the guard with growing irritation. "Are you paramedics or Woodward and Bernstein?" "We just have to account for these things," another paramedic rushed to explain. "We don't want the family to think anyone took his personal effects." "There is no family," Mrs. Bacon said quietly. "Every now and then, we'd hear from a cousin somewhere. Georgia, Jamaica. We'd send them an autographed picture. There are no personal effects," she said, her last words catching, and she finally put her hands over her eyes and turned into a corner of the room, her elbows holding her up against the wall while she shuddered. Four uniformed officers who had been summoned to the fifth floor walked alongside the ambulance trundle bearing the mayor, down a windowless hallway that buzzed with a weak light. The wheels on the cart squeaked beneath the mayor's weight, at a piercing pitch above the slow, grave footsteps. The paramedics sensed the police were observing a ritual; wordlessly, they consented to walk behind the blue uniforms. The chief of security took hold of the trundle railing just above the mayor's head, and steered the cart. When the police and paramedics had all tramped into a service elevator, he spoke in low tones to the officers, who had all turned around to stand at attention over the mayor's body. "Nothing gets out yet. Please." The officers muttered yes, sir as the fourth and third floors blinked by. At the stroke of the second floor, they could feel the elevator begin to brake. "No sirens," said the chief, turning to take the paramedics into his sight, too. "Okay? A nice, quiet, last ride." He paused until the three men and one woman officer had all nodded. "Hell of a guy. We had some times together." The chief blinked his eyes dry as the silver doors in front of the trundle began to roll open. One of the paramedics reached a rubber-gloved hand quickly down to the mayor's chin. "I'm sorry," she said with detectable alarm, "but there's some kind of green discharge here." e The chief pulled back on the cart before it could be rolled through the open doors. The officers surrounding the trundle stiffened, and mechanically dropped their hands to steady the cart. Then the chief let out a breath and seemed to smile. Then, he really did smile-a laugh even snuck into his voice as the paramedic held the bewildering green secretion on the end of her thumb, finally returning his smile. "Artichoke," the chief announced. "You take him from here."
Excerpted from Windy City by Scott Simon Copyright © 2008 by Scott Simon. Excerpted by permission.
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