A Novel

Chapter 9: Take, Break


(Inside a novel, time is so strange a thing, and it is a thing, because nothing that is not a thing can be contemplated, and nothing that is not a thing can be bent, an inside a novel, time can be contemplated, and time can be bent. Inside a novel, time is so strange a thing, because it is simultaneously inside the novel and outside the novel; it is contained by the novel and it contains the novel. Inside a novel, time is so strange a thing: you can move forward in it, of course, but you can also move backwards through it and even sideways across it. It's like football. The novel is the only way into the past. Even Einstein saw that.)

» Ten miles north of Tiskilwa, in Elmville » Kathy Trimble sat in the Swinfords' living room with three men.

The host, Dick Swinford, had invited them all to "an urgent, but off-the-record meeting." On the telephone, Dick had said: "a problem has come to town, and seems like it isn't gonna leave before causing the most amount of trouble possible."

The most amount of trouble possible = causing ordinary life to happen.

Kathy: attending in her role as CEO of the town's largest employer, Harper-Wyman, a manufacturer of gas range components. She actually worked for a Chicago-based private equity firm, Dearborn Capital, which had recently acquired Harper-Wyman in a leveraged buyout. Dearborn sent Kathy in to reverse the manufacturer's declining fortunes. She planned to achieve this reversal through a major restructuring, involving massive layoffs and the relocation of the company's manufacturing operations to Mexico. As she surveyed the men in the room, she thought, smugly, that they could never even comprehend how her actions would create a local surplus in the labor market, and an attendant downward pressure on wages. When it happened, they would, all of them, feel nothing but confirmation of their original prejudice against her as a cold-blooded bitch, while happily taking advantage of the opportunity she had created to put the heat on their own workers for increased productivity and less compensation.

Sons of bitches.

Dick Swinford was a short man in his mid-fifties. Dick had conspicuously dyed hair, dyed mustache, and Just-For-Men dyed machismo. Dick managed the production line at LCN, Elmville's second largest employer.

Kathy had been told that Dick's wife, Connie Swinford, was somebody important, although Kathy did not understand what people meant by this. There couldn't be that many important people in this town of seven thousand, and she was fairly certain she had met them all, as well everyone with pretensions to importance. Whoever this important woman was, she had not deigned to serve as the dutiful hostess on this evening. Maybe it was a snub to Kathy, something Kathy had become accustomed to in this town where women seemed almost innately to resent her. It was more typical, however, for wives to host events like this, standing their ground, so to speak, as if to assert that, in daring to claim equality with men, Kathy had forfeited her right to equality with women.

Everyone was drinking cheap Chardonnay out of Mikasa stemware. Swirling his wine in its glass and taking prissy little sips, Dick said, "Miss Trimble, do you like my wife's crystal?"

Attempting to sound sincere and interested, she answered, "Very elegant. Mikasa?"

Visibly pleased with her response, Dick swaggered, "I figured that a woman like yourself would be able to appreciate fine crystal. Bought them for my wife on a business trip to Los Angeles. It's the latest thing, very modern—nobody buys the old brands anymore. Same with the wine: Chardonnay. Everybody in New York's drinking it, and it's all we serve here in our house."

And what kind of a house was this, Kathy wondered, where only Chardonnay should be served, and only in Mikasa wine glasses, and only in rooms so clean and new and cold, even a furniture showroom looked more warm and used? The house not only looked cold, but felt cold as well: the Swinfords must have been running their air-conditioning at maximum capacity, adding to the room's creepy, cryogenically preserved feel. Pale salmon painted walls, and beige, thick-pile carpeting combined to create an unfortunate, flesh-on-flesh color scheme, made worse by brass-and-smoked-glass end-tables, matching coffee-table, and a brown sectional sofa. Everything looked simultaneously new and old: new and clean and unused, but old and tacky and cheap. She imagined the thin, plywood subfloor beneath the wall-to-wall carpeting. The room smelled like a brand new pair of sneakers: painted leather and glued rubber shut away for months in a cardboard box. The cellophane on the lampshades hadn't even been removed.

Kathy wondered how anybody could live a life in this house. Why were rooms like this called "living rooms"? Whatever life the Swinfords lived in this house must happen elsewhere, probably the kitchen and the t.v. room. One would have to see those two rooms before one could know the Swinfords. Could the bedroom hold any secrets of its own?

After admiring the crystal and the wine, Kathy asked Dick, "And what does Mrs. Swinford do?"

"I'm glad you asked! She's a businesswoman like yourself. You and her will get on famously."

Attempting to sound enthusiastic at so unenticing a prospect, Kathy joked, a tad flirtatiously, "I see this is a very businesslike home here Dick. And what is her business?"

"Mary Kay Cosmetics. She's regional sales leader, two years running. I think you would like the product line too."

"How fascinating."

"Being a man, I can't understand it myself, spending all this money on make-up, but you women know what you like, and you always seem to get it. I've had several men in town tell me that my wife is practically bankrupting them, their wives can't stop buying Mary Kay. I always say, 'If you can't control your own wife, then that's no business of mine'."

Everybody laughed agreeably.

"By the way," one of the other men interjected, "I just heard today that the State has finally agreed to open Senachwine's grave during Pow-Day Days. A friend in Tiskilwa who's on the planning committee said they were all freaking out wondering which way the Board would decide. So the groundbreaking for the visitor's center will now happen the same time the grave is opened for the very first time. For the first time since Senachwine was buried."

"That right," said Dick. Dick seemed like the kind of person who resented any implication that somebody might know more than he. "And when that visitors center opens, we're going to have a big tourist draw just a few miles to the south of us—Elmville will be well-positioned to become the gateway town for the Senachwine's grave historical landmark."

The first man added, "But I also heard that a group of Indians—or some people who claim to be Indians, descendants or something—plan to protest the opening, along with a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals from the universities. They say it's disrespectful and they want the Governor to shut it down. They especially don't like the fact that the museum plans to have Senachwine's bones on display."

Dick: "How do they think you can have a museum about a grave without a body in it? If they behave themselves the way they've been behaving down at Dickson Mounds, then they're the ones who are disrespectful. Let them have their little temper-tantrum, get it out of their systems if they have to. The Senachwine's grave visitor's center is going to be a state-of-the-art museum that respectfully preserves our local Indian heritage, period."

After a a little more conversation, Dick cleared his throat, as if signaling that the time had come to address the business-at-hand, and said, "Now, gentlemen," then pausing and, nodding to Kathy, added, "and gentlewoman"—a display of mock-gallantry that elicited guffaws from the men, and a mirth-feigned-smile from Kathy. Dick continued, "As you probably know, Indian protesters aren't our only trouble-makers at the moment. About a month ago, a union organizer arrived in town. He's staying at the Ragon Motel. His name is Will Sneed. Nobody knows why he chose to come here, or how he even learned about our community, but one thing everyone knows is that he intends to stir up as much trouble as he can. I hear he won't leave until he's unionized at least one of our shops, planting the seeds of communism in our town, turning neighbor against neighbor. In short: ripping this town apart, destroying the business environment, which is the heart and soul of our community. Of course, it will also mean a massive increase in the price of labor, in overhead, in just about every department except profits. I think I can safely say that none of us want this. We must mobilize all possible opposition to this man and his rabble-rousing, and keep Elmville a decent place to live and raise families and run a business."

The other two men nodded their unqualified support for Dick.

Kathy, less rapt by his oration, had been looking again at his living room, his lifeless, taxidermied living room. It intrigued her. The more consulting work she did in manufacturing, the more she had come to see her whole built environment as not just built, but designed, manufactured, patented, and branded. Created. This carpeting, for example: she did not know its brand or the name of its product line, but she knew that it had a brand and a product line name. Everything in this house would have one: a name, a brand, an identity. To be a carpet, she wondered, with a name and a brand and an advertising campaign, a whole life behind it about which nobody cared once it had been laid on the floor, to be walked all over—what must that be like? It reminded her of the workers she had seen at Harper-Wyman, workers with faces she had come to recognize. They too had names, had lives, like this carpeting. It frustrated her, not knowing the names of things, but knowing that just about everything possessed one, and that the name implied a life behind it, or at least a story or a plan, a strategy, a portfolio. The paint on the wall, the tool-and-die maker at the plant—who had a right to say that one was more important than the other? She knew the City of Chicago spent millions on painted canvasses for its art museum, while letting its own citizens starve. Somebody had decided that those painted canvasses had more value than a starving person. If that paint can be worth more than a person, then why not the wall paint, which doubtlessly represented far more labor, both mind and muscle, by a factor of a thousand or more? Designed, manufactured, marketed, and sent into the world, the wall paint had at least as much thought and labor behind it as a French Impressionist painting. Why should the wall paint not have an equal claim on one's sympathy? But the wall paint, like the carpeting, had one distinct disadvantage: once put onto walls and floors, each became nameless. If she could only know the names.

It would be difficult to overstate the value of such knowledge. How many times, for example, had she begged Delaney for a name, just one name, the name of a company, unknown to her, that Dearborn was about to target: with just a name, she could arbitrage its stock, park it while the buyout cooked, and then cash out when the premium was offered. All by knowing nothing more than a name, such was the value of a name. And on several occasions Delaney had obliged her with this coveted knowledge and she profited handsomely.

Though paying no attention to Dick, Kathy thought she had been nodding along. Apparently, however, not nodding enough to disguise her uninterest in what he was saying. Uninterested not only because he bored her, but because she did not really care what this union organizer did, or intended to do. Her company dealt with labor unions at a level far higher than her own: if they successfully organized, it was because they were permitted to organize, as a concession. If they did not organize, it was because a union boss had been greased. Though she was not privy to the details, and had no wish to be, she was also no fool. She was not fool enough to think there was a god-damned thing she could do to influence the outcome of this man's work, this man Will Sneed. Somebody else saw to all that. Delaney called it compartmentalization, said that no business could operate successfully without it, just as no business could operate efficiently without high levels of abstraction and indirection. Compartmentalization, abstraction, and indirection: it was practically Delaney's mantra.

Dick seemed annoyed—probably offended that a woman should make his work more difficult rather than less. He interrupted himself and blandishingly said, "The lovely Miss Trimble hesitates? What can we do to set your pretty little mind at ease? I'm certain you couldn't possibly be in favor of turning Harper-Wyman into a union shop?"

Kathy attempted graciously to smile, and then, with all the feminine sweetness she could muster, said "I'm less certain than you that Harper-Wyman is opposed to unionization, or at least opposed enough to enter into a public campaign against it. Being new to Elmville, however, I defer to the guidance of our community leaders," and with a sweep of her hand she included all three men in this, she-assumed-much-coveted, category.

"But speaking, as I must, on behalf of Harper-Wyman, and on behalf of Dearborn Capital, which as you all know, plans to restructure and, we hope, revitalize Harper-Wyman, I do question whether publicly and vigorously opposing this man's campaign will serve our best interests in the long run, or even recuperate the investment we will have to make in such a campaign, the financial investment, the investment of manpower, and the investment of political capital—all of which will be considerable. Furthermore, going up against his campaign, we are likely to make powerful enemies. Dearborn's research department back in Chicago has already conducted a survey and found that unionization is popular with people here."

If somebody she respected had solicited her opinion, she would have to admit that she truthfully did not care whether the workers at Harper-Wyman decided to unionize. In fact, unionization would provide her with even better cover for liquidating the plant and moving it to Mexico. She thought contemptuously of the workers she had met: give them enough rope; let them hang themselves: at least it won't be on her conscience then.

She said, "Before committing, we would need to see some solid evidence that an open shop keeps labor and overhead costs low enough to offset the resources we would have to expend trying to maintain one. We know from studying similar campaigns in other communities that the costs often outweigh the gains. Illinois law is highly favorable to unions, and this is a difficult state in which to oppose them." By which she meant: the amount of bribery money required to keep a union at bay in this state would make your heads spin.

Her response met with irritable silence. She didn't care.

Finally, Dick said, with what-she-assumed-was-intended-to-be a show of masculine, self-satisfied sarcasm, "Well, I'm sure we don't know our friends and neighbors and families as well as your 'Research Department' in Chicago does, and I guess we might not be able to give you your 'concrete evidence', but I think each of our companies have a track record successful enough to justify the confidence our executives place in our judgment. The fact that Harper-Wyman even needs restructuring, and that our own companies do not, seems to me concrete enough evidence that you ought to trust us."

Kathy said, "I appreciate your candor, Dick, and of course I respect your position. I hope you recognize that I am not authorized to act freely in a matter such as this, which is why I have refrained from sharing my own opinion on the matter, for fear it might generate unwarranted expectations, because I personally could not be more supportive of your plan. Now, we are all business-people here, and we understand the rough-and-tumble world of business well enough to recognize the difference between business and, if I may," elevating her glass of Chardonnay, "pleasure, so I assume none of this rational discussion will cloud our personal relationships. Let me therefore be the first to praise you, regardless of my employer's eventual stance or course-of-action, on the work you are undertaking in so noble a cause. Rest assured I will convey to the partners your warnings and arguments, and I will reinforce them with my own, but as I said, I can promise nothing and, absent any evidence, I'm not overly optimistic that the partners will be willing to participate in as full a capacity as you might hope."

She almost laughed out loud, because as far as she knew, there were no partners at Dearborn Capital. Just one man: Delaney. Or else compartmentalization, because that one man claimed there were partners. Or else abstraction and indirection, because she found it easier to speak of "the partners", an abstract, unknown, and unknowable group of men who ordered the actions their agents only executed. Invoking the partners, and what they might or might-not decree, made her feel like a vessel, channeling multiple wills, which became one through her. She was an instrument, wielded by a hidden hand, an instrument hard enough to shatter diamonds. When she received a directive from the partners, she enjoyed feeling the force of their wills being transferred through her onto the object of the directive, like a hammer transferring a man's kinetic energy onto the head of the nail it strikes.

A hidden hand. Ha! "A hidden hand and a black hand." That's right; that's what Delaney had said, while briefing her for this job: "There are two hands, a hidden hand and a black hand, united to one body." Delaney sometimes spoke cryptically like that. He had said, "Kathy, one thing you need to understand before you head out there is that, outside of Chicago, there are three powers running this state: the chambers of commerce, the labor unions, and the farm bureaus." She had laughed when he said "farm bureaus", it sounded so ridiculous. "Believe me," he said, "Don't laugh. It's true. The Farm Bureau wields enormous power in this state, especially where you're going. That's farm bureau territory, but don't expect to see it—not in all its power, anyway. It will look silly and homespun and about twenty years behind the times. But it isn't. There are three powers, and each power has two hands, a hidden hand and a black hand, united to one body. Now which do you think is the more dangerous?" She had shrugged her shoulders, because she didn't know whether he was referring to the hands or the so-called powers. He said, "You will find out." Delaney often spoke that way, more so now than when she first met him.

Dick, somewhat irritably, called the informal meeting to a close.

As she departed, Kathy said, "I'm so sorry I didn't get to meet your wife."

Dick looked tired when he said, "Yes, she wasn't feeling well this evening." He then resumed his boosterish friendliness as he said goodbye. She recalled that they would all have to greet each other again at Rotary, even if nowhere else, and wondered how much longer she would be obligated to continue attending Rotary meetings.

She drove back to her hotel—really, a motel with pretensions-to-she-wasn't-sure-what: the Wagon Wheel Inn and Resort on Route 6, just outside the Elmville city limits. By the trick of surrounding itself with a grove of maple trees, the hotel managed to achieve a resort-like atmosphere. But the tree grove itself just barely qualified as such, especially on the north side, at the back of the resort, where the grove comprised a single-row of trees separating the hotel from a vast expanse of cornfields. Because in actuality it was cornfields, not trees, that surrounded the hotel. From her room at the back, she could easily see those cornfields through the trees. She thought it strangely desperate that somebody, a businessman, would try to recreate, in the middle of cornfields, the woodsy atmosphere that one could easily find only a few miles to the south, in the Illinois River valley. As if the town enjoyed the wealth that agriculture bestowed upon it, but disdained the stark ugliness of the wealth's source. The cornfields reminded her of all the ugly oil derricks surrounding the beautiful mansion in her favorite movie, Written on the Wind.

Arriving back at the hotel, she locked her car and began walking toward the lobby entrance. A few steps from her car, a Hispanic man approached her from behind, seized her left arm with one hand, and immobilized her right with his other. He then covered her mouth before she could call for help. Holding her tightly against him, he pulled her to the ground, moved himself on top of her, and forcibly kissed her. She resisted and he forced his tongue into her mouth. Laughing, he loosened his grip and she slapped him, whispering with as much exasperation as a whisper can convey, "Fernando! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Just back from Juarez. Plane landed about three. Customs, dinner, and a—what?—two, three hour drive? To the middle of nowhere? 'What am I doing?' I think maybe you are supposed to tell me the answer to that."

She slapped him again, "Get off me; get up before somebody sees us."

They both returned to their feet, dusting themselves off, and she inquired where he was staying.

"Some place Delaney found. Easy to find on a map, almost impossible to find in a car. Called the Ranch House. Down closer to the river in the town of Bureau Junction, I think. Delaney doesn't want me staying in Elmville. Says people won't like a spic, won't tolerate one, around here. Says where I'm staying people won't like it either, but that they'll like this even less," and he pulled aside his jacket to reveal a holster and gun, "and that nobody down there talks anyway, no matter what they like or don't like, if they're afraid it could cost them something, something like their life. He says these people have a stubborn will to survive." He kissed her again, and said "let's go inside."

She said, "Sorry, but if Delaney has you staying down there then he definitely won't like you being seen entering my hotel room, and there's no way in but through the lobby."

"Well, if you ask me, Delaney is starting to lose his grip. He sounds edgier and edgier all the time, and the last time we spoke, he referred to himself as 'Jackson'."

"What do you mean 'he referred to himself as Jackson'?"

"I mean that I called him and he picked up his phone and said 'Jackson here.' I thought I had dialed the wrong number, so I hung up and called back again, and once again when he answered he said 'Jackson'. I said, 'Delaney?' And he said, 'Yes, Delaney here, sorry about that. Fernando, is that you? Sorry about that. I've been working on something near Jackson Park. I got Andrew Jackson on the mind, I guess.'"

Kathy said, "Well, that's probably true."

"Maybe. Or maybe that's one of the dozen or so names he goes by. You think a guy as secretive and paranoid as Delaney uses only one name?"

"I think you're being silly."

"Fine, then you come with me back to my motel. I'm sure nobody down there will care, and I want to be with you."

"No Fernando. First of all, I'm tired. Second, people down there might not talk, but they will threaten to talk if they realize that not doing so might cost us a lot of money, and that's more money than we're willing to pay, and more trouble than I'm willing to risk. Delaney is particularly nervous right now about the 'mood on the ground' as he put it."

"What do you mean?"

"He's worried that any disturbance or controversy or scandal could upset the local mood, make people particularly sensitive to what we're doing at Harper-Wyman. I now have to fax him summaries from the local newspapers, in addition to all the other work I already have on my plate. He wants to know about anything that could put people on edge: front page, sports page, gossip column, crime reports. Fortunately, there's very little to report, but the last thing you and I need is to be the cause of such a scandal."

"Well, you're the one who's only interested in sex. If I didn't like you so much, I'd swear you were a racist who just doesn't want to be seen with me."

"You know that isn't true. We have a lot of work to do. Aren't I a little old for you anyway?"

"You say so. I should be able to decide that for myself."

She prepared to enter the lobby by fixing her hair and dusting off her clothing again. She said, "Call me tomorrow morning at the office. Have me paged if I'm not at my desk—I'll probably be in the plant. I want to hear your report on the progress in Juarez. Delaney wants to accelerate the restructuring and sell as soon as possible."

Reader, even prose can have meter. Be careful.