This is an excerpt for a new series that will be associated with the Small Press Release. We’re interested in publishing 1,000 – 1,500 word excerpts of prose and 1 – 3 pieces of poetry from independent presses. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto
7.13 Books, March 2018
300 pages/ Amazon
This scene takes place after Gray Davenport has met mayoral candidate Reason Wilder, who appears to be some kind of Frankenstein’s monster, created from the body parts of dead politicians. Here he meets with his candidate and the campaign’s lead consultant.
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 his wife 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.