THE STORY HOUR


THE STORY HOUR is another story in the serialization of Neil Rolde’s Political Tales: Stories from a Veteran Politician

Mr. Rolde is a Maine renowned historian, former politician and, philanthropist. His many years of public service include being an assistant to Governor Kenneth M. Curtis for six years and 16 years as Representative in the Legislature. 

The book is published by Polar Bear & Company, Please visit your local bookstore, amazon.com or send $12.95 plus $2 postage to Polar Bear, PO Box 311, Solon, Maine 04979.

THE STORY HOUR

Mary Fletcher was a veteran lobbyist. Except unlike others of the breed, she exclusively served only a single client. For several decades, the Checkerboard Breakfast Cereal Company, a multimillion-dollar national chain, had kept her on retainer to be their eyes and ears in the state. During legislative sessions, this petite, motherly, plumpish woman now in her fifties, prowled up and down the corridors of the capitol complex, attentive to any action that might remotely affect her employer.

Today, however, on her travels through the capitol building, she was on a different immediate mission, seeking out and cornering Roderick Palatky, the assistant majority leader (or whip) of the House.

“Hey, Rod, like I asked you yesterday, did you keep tonight open?”

“For you, Mary darling, always instant obedience.”

“Okay, Maxine’s having me round up the gang. It’s on. Her home. Seven o’clock. Supper, etcetera.”

“Don’t I deserve a personal invitation from the great lady, herself?”

“The great lady is chairing her committee all morning. And stop being a horse’s ass.”

“And do I understand this to be a bipartisan get-together? We will have to break bread with members of the opposite party—even, ugh, that awful Hal Marburg,” Rod intoned.

“Worse, the Honorable Jeremy Botts has been invited, too. But he plays a mean guitar.”

“And at least he sings risqué songs.”

“See you tonight, Rod.”

“Did I ever tell you, Mary dear, you look absolutely lovely today.”

“Sexist pig.”

Not all of Mary’s encounters were of such a bantering nature. For example, on her foray into the Governor’s Office, she simply stuck her head into Ross Taylor’s cubicle and said, “Tonight’s definite. Maxine’s at seven o’clock. Tell the other guys,” to be answered by the young man, while still bent over his desk, giving a thumb-up signal and saying, “Yo.”

Or in the crowded hallway outside a set of hearing rooms, running into an older man, quite distinguished looking, his neatly trimmed dark beard stippled with grey. “John! Good Christ what brings you here, professor? Testifying?” Thus she greeted him, accompanied by a hug and a peck on those hairy cheeks.

“Research,” he said. “You know Maxine’s committee hired us to do a study on nursing homes.”

“Did she tell you about the party at her home tonight? Can you stay?”

“I haven’t seen her yet. No, I didn’t know about it. But I am here overnight.”

“Then, you’ve got to come.”

“Don’t worry. Miss one of Maxine’s wing-dings? Not on your life.”

“Super.”

The analogy of Mary Fletcher as a busy bee, selecting disparate flowers to alight on, while appealing as a metaphor, was technically incorrect. These weren’t her choices. In a sense, they really weren’t Senator Maxine Weston’s, either. A sort of random tradition had grown up of a “gang” that met at least three times during a session as guests of this state senator who represented the capital district. No rhyme or reason accounted for the spacing of such social events. Likewise, the composition of the participants defied logic, except it was ecumenical, drawing from all facets of the political world: elected officials (both parties), administrators (even bureaucrats), lobbyists, and in the case of John Timulty, the bearded researcher, a member of the academic community.

John had been around the Statehouse for years. Part of that time, he had been chief of all the committee staffs. Then a professor of political science. Now he headed up a think-tank type group attached to the main campus of the state university. He and his colleagues did studies not only for the Legislature, executive department, and State agencies, but also private companies, foundations, and on occasion U.S. and foreign governments. These days, since he traveled so much, John no longer was seen often in the state capital. His rare visits, therefore, were greatly appreciated, and he was always greeted like an old friend.

As a result he would usually try to stay overnight if he could. This was less a business decision than an act of homage to nostalgia. Here lay his roots in what he and others called the “funny-farm” domain. Here, his knowledge of the multifarious processes of government had been forged. A return to this source sharpened his intellectual appetite. His mind felt keen again, youthful, and his attendance at the festivities of Maxine Weston would be more than merely a chance to mingle and carouse with pals from the past; it could offer a platform for presenting deeply held ideas, as well.

It has to be certain that Senator Maxine Weston did not think of herself as some grande dame, French style, holding salons where the great minds of her generation could express themselves. She was, by origin, as she might say, “just an old country girl.” She loved to cook, and she loved people. She had married well, inhabited a beautiful, spacious mini-mansion, and proved to be a gracious, clever hostess. The popular “story hour” at each of her gatherings had started at her instigation. This was a period toward the end of the evening when the invitees who stayed (and more and more did) swapped stories. These could be jokes, anecdotes, insights, philosophy—comic stuff, serious stuff—anything, so long as they didn’t talk shop, that is, discuss current bills or specific issues. The late Honorable Matthew X. Drew, a veteran lawmaker, had been the pacemaker for their freewheeling discussions. Since his death, during a previous session, they would always begin with a moment of silence for Matt; then someone would tell a tale of what a scamp he was, and they would be off on the story hour, which invariably lasted two or three hours.

Representative Harold Marburg kicked off the proceedings this evening. His own personal joke, that “I feel like a skunk at a lawn party,” as always started his spiel. The allusion was to his conservatism but always drew protests, fingers pointing at Jeremy Botts, the guitarist, and others of the political right. “Okay, so we are ecumenical, was his usual rejoinder, tonight too, before he began his tale of the Honorable Matthew Drew, whom he described as “a perfect, one-party, ultra-partisan chameleon.”

The story he went on to relate, amazingly, had never been told before. Hal himself wondered aloud why he hadn’t introduced it on previous evenings at Maxine’s. It was vintage Matt Drew.

“As you know, I sat near Matt,” Hal’s narration commenced. “I had to pass by him to get in and out of my seat. That wasn’t easy.” Chuckles. They all knew that Matt weighed in the vicinity of three hundred pounds. “One day, I’d been out of the chamber during a session. Returning, I stayed in the back of the hall because I saw Matt get up to speak. Joe Kelly was standing there, too, and we both listened. The guy could really orate. And he was really being eloquent about some bill. Lovingly, he praised every detail in it. But as if to show how open-minded he was, he admitted one little flaw. Then, after a moment of thought, he detected another small problem. Then, another. His tone changed. Joe Kelly whispered to me, ‘The sonofagun is going to talk himself right out of it.’ Which is exactly what happened. While we stood open-mouthed, Matt Drew, who had risen saying it was one of the best bills he’d ever encountered, sat down saying it was a real turkey and they should all vote to kill the sucker. Joe and I agreed we’d never seen anything like it.”

That wasn’t the end. “Wait,” Hal said. “Several weeks passed. One night Joe Kelly and I were having a drink in the Arrowhead Lounge. In walks Matt, alone, and he joins us. Joe, who’s had a snootful, says to him, ‘You old rogue. You must be senile these days. To talk yourself right out of a bill. Did you know you did it?’ And Matt, cool as a cucumber, replies, ‘Kelly, you know I have relatives named Kelly, and they aren’t half as dumb as you are. Senile? Who’s senile? John Tabor thinks I am because of the way I handled his cruddy bill. Good. Let him pity me. Maybe he’ll bring me flowers.’” Hal’s job of imitating Matt Drew’s inflections was remarkable. Finally, in his own voice, he concluded, “There you have Matt. A master of our slippery trade. Exhibit A: how to be all things to all people and still be yourself.”

No comment from the audience. Until, someone cried out, “Hey, how about a song to honor Joe Kelly! Like ‘Irish Eyes Are Smiling.’”

Someone else said, “Joe and Sheila send me a card every year from Florida. God, I miss ’em. Remember those incredible St. Patrick’s Day parties they put on?”

Lots of nods and someone else said, “I hear Joe’s been on the wagon for at least two years, so they’re probably not partying much anymore.”

The guitarist twanged a few chords. “Okay, in memory of the good old times gone by,” he said.

Someone else yelled, “Hey, Matt Drew was just as Irish as Joe, so we should sing two choruses!” And they actually crooned four.

The crowd was now warmed up and ready for more speakers. But notwithstanding that at least the legislators among them had to be ready to speechify at the drop of a hat, nobody came forward to follow Hal Marburg. So Maxine Weston, acting as mistress of ceremonies, stepped forth. “I believe our lobbyist Mary Fletcher has a story she wants to tell us,” Maxine said. “She told me she’d use it if a certain person showed up tonight, and he is here. Mary, the floor is yours.”

Never shy, but blushing a bit, Mary was as glib as any of the lawmakers present. “Actually, I want to embarrass a guy who has given me and the company I represent a generally consistent hard time. You’d think our cereal is intended to poison or disable all of the children of America. On last Election Day, however—no, the day after that election—George proved to me why he gets elected by the margin he does in Tryon Falls and why he got away with gathering huge votes for such a frivolous measure as that Bottle Bill of his. I learned he really is the sweetheart everyone says he is.”

Hal Marburg interrupted by wisecracking, “What do you mean everyone?

After some laughs, a voice cried, “On with the story, Mary. Ignore the redneck heckler.”

George Hartman quipped, “No, maybe you should let him be his obstructionist self, Mary.”

“Sorry, I’m going to tell on you, Hartman,” Mary said adamantly. “How you helped us with the Environmental Board. Something you didn’t have to do. With practically no sleep the morning after your reelection, you drove up here more than a hundred miles. You had to wait around, what, four hours, five hours, in order to testify for us. We hadn’t even backed you in your race—just the opposite. But there you were, arguing that we should be allowed to put a warehouse in your district where we needed it, that this wasn’t an environmental problem. Some of your own constituents were really mad at you. And you said—I’Il always remember it—how environmental laws are to protect threatened environments, not block anything new being built, as long as it’s done right.”

Since Mary paused, someone asked, “And that’s all? The whole story?”

To which, someone else added, “God, what a noble guy!” This was said teasingly, rather than derisively, but still drew snickering chuckles.

“Play another song, Jeremy,” Hal Marburg said to the guitarist. “Something maudlin. I’ve been moved to tears.”

“Why’d you do it, George,” someone else yelled, “for the money?”

George Hartman muttered comically, “Cynics, cynics. With you guys, no good deal will ever go unpunished.”

“Now we know. He’s running for governor!” someone else cried.

“I hope so,” said one of the women.

Mary finally resumed her narrative. The way the story went, George finished his plea to the board, and after much debate they voted. By a six-to-five margin, her company’s application was rejected. “I was devastated,” she said. “I looked at George. And he did something. Gave a signal maybe. But the next moment, I heard Bud Hocking—you all remember him when he was in the Legislature; he’s on that board now— and suddenly he moved reconsideration and asked for a recess.”

Once more Mary paused, simply to take a breath, but this time no one interrupted her.

“Since Bud had been on the prevailing side, he could make the motion,” she explained unnecessarily to an audience all of whom knew the rule. Sensing their impatience, she got right to the point. “Bud saved us. During the recess, I noticed he had a little discussion with our friend George. Anyway, Bud changed his vote and we won it, six-to-five.”

“Unbelievable,” Hal Marburg commented wryly. “Bud the Green, casting a pro-business vote.”

“George promised him something,” someone else said.

Jeremy Botts plunked a chord on his guitar for dramatic effect, and said, “Commissioner of Environmental Affairs in the Hartman Administration.”

“Keep guessing,” said George Hartman with a Cheshire smile. “You guys’ll never know.”

“At least it’s a story with a happy ending,” Hal Marburg remarked.

Rod Palatky, the assistant House majority leader, then arose and said, “Okay, how about a real joke? I just heard this one today, and it’s clean, sort of.”

That caught their attention. “Okay,” he continued, “an old man comes into a confessional booth in St. Margaret’s Church and says to the priest, ‘My name is Abe Goldberg, and on my next birthday I’m gonna be ninety-two years. Listen, Fahder, I vant you to know that I just met a beautiful young girl, tventy-vun years old, and I’m having sex with her, not vunce, not tvice, but practically every hour of the day.’

“And the priest replied, ‘Well, yes, that certainly is sinful. But tell me, Mr. Goldberg. You’re Jewish, aren’t you?’

“‘Uv course.’

“‘Well, then, why are you telling me, a Catholic priest?’

“‘Are you kidding, Fahder? I’m telling everyvun!’”

An explosion of guffaws followed the punch line. Even after they quieted, someone would burst out again, repeating that last statement aloud but without the Semitic intonation. A dark-haired, dark-eyed young man did the same while mimicking the accent Palatky had used. “You know, Rod,” he said, “for a Hunkie or Pollack, whatever you are, you do a Yiddish voice pretty vell.”

“Thank you, Representative Shapiro,” Palatky said. “No offense, I hope.”

“None taken. That’s a helluva funny story.”

“Joke, not story!” someone cried. “Fiction. Never happened.”

“Which can be said about most of what’s been told here tonight,” someone else chimed in. “I beg to differ,” George Hartman said with exaggerated dignity.

“Yes, my story was the absolute truth,” Mary Fletcher objected.

“Mine too,” said Hal Marburg, “or to paraphrase Mark Twain, containing one or two stretchers.”

“Time for a rousing musical interlude,” Jeremy Botts announced. He strummed a few chords, then launched into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

When the last “Glory, glory Hallelujah” of the lusty singing group died away, someone shouted, “Now play ‘Dixie’!”

The reason the guitarist hesitated and why you heard a gasp or two was the presence of the Honorable Crosby Starrett. He was the only existing Black member of the Legislature. Over the years there had been others but never more than one at a time. As a Northern rural state, they were about ninety-nine percent White.

Crosby, with a beneficent smile, acknowledged the glances he was receiving. It seemed clear the others were embarrassed, and he wasn’t. To those in the know, an odd thing now happened. The person who rose to protest, a slender, middle-aged blonde woman, was also an anomaly: a Southerner, a minority here, too, but elected as regularly as Crosby had been.

Representative Evelyn Stuckey, in her inimitable accent, told them, “Yawl should sing somethang else.”

“Not on my account,” said Crosby, “although I thank the gentle lady.” His deep voice had a courtly tone, and he continued, “Remember, when they were celebrating Appomattox in Washington, Abraham Lincoln told an Army band, ‘Now strike up that grand old song, “Dixie.”’”

So they all sang “Dixie,” but with much less fervor.

Joining them for the last stanza was a newcomer, a superbly dressed, tall, bald, aristocratic-looking man who appeared to be in his forties. He carried a drink and a small plate of food, and once the music stopped, he resumed eating.

“Good God, look who’s here!” Hal Marburg exclaimed. “The grey eminence.”

“It’s Peter,” someone else said.

“You’re late, Pete.”

Peter Warner finished chewing before answering. “I thought my timing was perfect,” he said in an airy manner. “Skipping the storytelling and getting here just for the songfest.”

“Oh, no, you’ve got to give us a story,” he was commanded.

“And not the one about Mike Fishman and the Electoral College. We’ve listened to that twice already.”

“Okay, how about Heart of Darkness?” Peter Warner said.

“What’s that?” someone asked.

“It’s a novel, you ninny,” was a reply. “By Conrad—Joseph Conrad.”

Peter Warner said, “A short story, actually. But long, though, very long, call it a novelette. A masterpiece, which we were discussing earlier tonight at the seminar I’m taking, put on by the Arts and Culture Commission. We analyze classic pieces of world literature. It so happens that Heart of Darkness begins with a bunch of guys sitting around telling stories—they’re on a boat in the Thames River near London. Seeing you’re all bugging me for a tale, I can be like Marlowe, who’s the narrator, and tell that wonderful, gruesome, gory story to the bunch of you.”

At which point Hal Marburg quickly interjected, “Some of us have also read Conrad, Peter. ‘Mistah Kurtz, he dead.’ ‘The horror!’ etcetera. I agree it’s a wonderful yarn. But . . .” After a sidelong glance at Crosby Starrett, he said, “With due deference, I would submit that Africa in the Age of Imperialism is more than a trifle remote from our lives here.”

“Then, I take it, you’ve never heard of Eliphalet Morton?” Peter Warner replied.

“Correct,” said Marburg, revealing more than a bit of puzzlement.

“Nor Dudley Peter Warner, Esquire?”

“One of your relatives, no doubt.”

“Correct,” said Warner, imitating Marburg’s detached style. “Both were family. Dudley Peter Warner married the daughter of Eliphalet Morton, so the man with funny first name was my blood ancestor. I’m Peter Dudley Warner, not Dudley Peter Warner. But my point is—both those men were among the imperialists of their day, right in this state, then an eighteenth-century province of England, when we were an uncivilized sort of heart of darkness, ourselves.”

Peter Warner was a skilled storyteller. It could easily be seen why he was a successful lawyer, lobbyist, party leader. Thin and gaunt and refined Yankee-like, words came glibly to him: “Imagine the inner world of our forebears—mine, in particular—everywhere surrounded by forests, their impenetrable jungles, the terrifying wilderness that they characterized as ‘howling.’ In England, in Europe, they had cut most of it down, although they still saw goblins behind every oak left standing. Amid the New World pines, spruces, and birch, the goblins were real and deadly, too: wolves, timber rattlesnakes, Indians. It took a brave man to make a career of going into the woods. It took an Eliphalet Morton, not just a hunter, not just a trapper, but above all an Indian-killer. Hero or murderer? Satan abided in such dark places, those heirs of the Puritans thought. The Indians consorted with the Devil, they were sure. But did Captain Eliphalet Morton also?”

An attentive silence had descended upon the gathering. This obviously wasn’t your usual anecdote of doings in the capital or present-day state politics. Peter Warner was known as an embellisher, a slickster, even a con artist. Yet they listened avidly, uncritically, like kids.

The historical narrative he related was political solely in the sense that these two protagonists he’d mentioned were engaged in the public life of their times. Morton was an officer in the local militia, Warner a renowned lawyer and, yes, part-time legislator. The whole thing began on a bright sunny day in June 1726. But let’s hear Peter tell it.

“One of the English settlers’ periodic wars with the Indians, who had help and encouragement from the French in Canada, had ended a few years before. A shaky peace existed. To a fighting man like Eliphalet Morton, such a truce was a challenge if not a reproach. The principal charge against him at his trial—that he deliberately ordered and participated in the murder of harmless Indian civilians—gave as his motivation the intent to precipitate hostilities once more against what the colonists were pleased to call ‘the savages.’”

Dramatically, Peter Warner continued: “Murder most foul, and in the quiet of a magnificent sylvan wilderness. The horror! Bodies of women, children, elders, strewn on the pine-needle-covered ground of a clearing, shot, bayoneted, scalped—those bloody hunks of hair were worth money. When questioned as to how he could slaughter children, my distant grandsire blithely replied, ‘Every nit grows to be a louse.’”

“Sounds like a Republican,” someone wisecracked.

“Or an old-style Southern Democrat,” Evelyn Stuckey drawled.

“I object!” exclaimed Hal Marburg.

“Okay, cynics,” Peter Warner resumed, “there’s worse to come. The provincial authorities, alarmed lest the Indians rise up, had Captain Eliphalet arrested. Unheard of! Yet there was genuine indignation toward our hero. This time, he had gone too far. And that’s where my other illustrious relative, the Honorable Dudley Peter Warner, stepped in.”

Using the expression to look for the woman, cherchez la femme, Pete Warner explained his lawyer ancestor’s motivation in undertaking Eliphalet Morton’s defense. In this case, look to the pretty brown eyes and ample figure of the Indian fighter’s daughter Elizabeth, who like her mother Anne was a real beauty. Tonight’s audience, however, was more interested in political stuff, not romance: how the Honorable Dudley Peter Warner won an acquittal for his father-in-law-to-be—and especially the freed captain’s outrageous conduct afterward in suing the provincial government for the bounty on scalps of the innocent natives he’d slaughtered. There it was on the law books: so much for an Indian brave, even an elderly one, so much for a squaw, and so much for a child over a certain age. Dudley Peter Warner, the founder of Warnerstown, happily collected and shared in such Devil’s income with his client.

By then, Pete had them hooked. They were all spellbound. But at the end, Hal Marburg did challenge him, emphasizing the tale’s implausibility.

“Oh, yeah?” rejoined the storyteller. “If you think this is outlandish, wait till you hear what happened next. And it’s the absolute truth. Consult any history book of the period.”

On his sixty-fifth birthday, it seems, Captain Eliphalet Morton shocked and horrified the entire province by murdering his wife Anne in broad daylight and before witnesses. Chasing her from their home onto the nearby village green, he split her lovely head open with a hatchet. Arrested in the incredible actual act of scalping her, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.

“It was an open-and-shut case and no blame attached to Dudley Peter Warner for having lost it,” his descendant went on. “My ancestor had become a major bigwig in the province. In fact, in addition to his money, his lands, his merchant ships, he had been the agent, or lobbyist”—nod to Mary Fletcher—“to represent the provincial government in England, a real political plum. He lost no prestige by defending his obviously crazed father-in-law. Most people attributed it to the entreaties of his wife. Moreover, he was generally given the benefit of the doubt several months later when Captain Eliphalet, on the eve of his execution, escaped from jail and seemingly vanished off the face of the earth. To a few wagging tongues, it was not just a coincidence that around the same time, Squire Warner sailed for England on one of his ships. But most people pooh-poohed the idea that the old Indian fighter had fled abroad. No, he was in the howling wilderness, cavorting with his master, Satan. Never was Eliphalet Morton seen again. The beauteous Elizabeth Warner was also alleged to be an accomplice of the Devil. Yet—no one dared to accuse her openly, fearful of the power of her husband. After her death, some strange markings in the form of cracks appeared on the granite face of her gravestone. An outline of diabolic horns, townspeople declared. You can see for yourselves today—just an undying ember of recollection of our macabre past, when we were the heart of darkness.”

Questions, and more of Hal Marburg’s cynicism followed. Peter Warner obviously enjoyed the limelight but finally, as if aware that too much monopolizing wasn’t politic, he said, “Okay, that’s enough from me. Someone else should take a turn.”

The choice fell on John Timulty, the ex-legislative staffer and former professor. Their hostess gently upbraided him for having been so quiet. They’d love a story of his or, if nothing else, at least some comments.

The upshot was a lecture. The lanky, bearded academic, who resembled Peter Warner in height and build, paced before them. He also had Peter’s self-assurance yet somehow exuded an air of much more sincerity. No one would ever challenge John’s veracity.

He began by saying how much he liked Peter Warner’s presentation. “I’m not trying flatter Pete,” he then added. “I believe he deserves credit for revealing the dark side of his illustrious family’s heritage. It was also a brave note to strike in our otherwise generally happy, generally prosperous, busily striving society. Is it an accident that this state has known more than two centuries of peace after close to one hundred years of frontier warfare? Your stories until Peter came along have mostly been cute and harmless. The human foibles of governing by passing laws. I’ve been to more than a few of these soirées of Maxine’s, and they’re pretty much like campfire cookouts.”

This was John’s preamble. The rest developed a notion that the U.S. form of governance had solved problems of stability in human affairs better than any other system. “Who in his right mind would have set up a plan to have fifty competing elected mini-governments within an overall government? When I talk to Europeans, they can’t even conceive of fifty separate license plates. Back in the days Pete was speaking about the idea of a republic, rule without a monarch, seemed radical enough. Political scientists of the day scoffed that a democracy, once established, could survive in any country bigger than Switzerland or Holland. Our American genius lay in being able to incorporate new states. To be sure, we almost blew it a couple of times—with the Articles of Confederation, Calhoun’s Nullification nonsense, the Civil War. But from 1865 on, secession was no longer an option. You couldn’t just take your marbles and go home.”

Suddenly, Timulty stopped pacing and stared straight at his audience, which waited expectantly for him to proceed.

“Our Federalism works,” he emphasized to them, “but it’s always a game of pull-and-tug. You guys know that. You also know there’s a whole lot of pull-and-tug between you and the levels of control below you: municipalities, counties, special districts, and the courts. You guys earn your pay, little as it is. There’s no press here, so I can declare without hesitation: you don’t deserve the hard time the Fourth Estate gives you. The point is, though, that ninety-nine percent of what you do is not newsworthy. You make the wheels go round. You balance interests. You deal with minutiae and try to solve dilemmas that would make Solomon puke. Plus, you’re simply a bunch of ordinary folk who are a bit more masochistic—and egotistic—than the average. And you keep on rising out of the ranks of the citizenry decade after decade, century after century, God bless you all.” Strong applause at the finish.

“But what about the executive branch? Are we included?” It was the governor’s young aide, Ross Taylor, who questioned Professor Timulty.

His answer was a further lecture:

“Everyone is part of the mix. Lobbyists like Mary, as well as top administrators like yourself. People who really amaze me, though, are the volunteers. Those who never hold office nor get jobs. Who knows John Harrison?” A few hands went up. “There are party workers like Johnny-boy everywhere. Why do they motivate themselves in election after election? Or the folks who serve on boards and commissions pro bono. And the story of Mike Fishman has been mentioned here more than once.” (Laughter.) “In addition, we have the voters, allegedly a diminishing number. But go back into our history and check the percentages who got to the polls. Much lower than now. That’s when voting was a privilege, not a right. Correct, ladies? Today’s problem is that governing, even at the level of a small American state, has become so increasingly complicated and frighteningly expensive. However, don’t worry. Study about complexity theory. How what appears to be chaos mysteriously resolves itself into a magic form of order. Anyway, that’s my lesson for tonight.”

In the silence afterward, the group exhibited a sense of fatigue setting in; some no doubt were also mulling over what John Timulty had said. A few downed the contents of their glasses or took last gulps from bottles of beer, as if getting ready to go. George Hartman, glancing around, asked, “Anyone else have a contribution?”

A sole response was from the transplanted Southerner, Evelyn Stuckey. Hers was a broad statement adding to the thoughts of Professor Timulty. It was about globalization and diversity and how small the world had become because people were becoming more tolerant. Except she would stop now before she launched a full-scale political speech, but she wished that Crosby Starrett would tell a story of what happened on the floor of the House, when Charlie Watson had let loose a remark she wouldn’t repeat here.

Several of the older legislators nodded knowingly; they had even witnessed the incident.

Crosby grinned. “It’s late,” he said. “In a nutshell. Big crisis! Charlie used the expression, ‘nigger in the woodpile,’ all unconsciously. I was sitting two seats away. We had a fun time.”

Since he showed no signs of continuing, Hal Marburg said, “It certainly is too late for Charlie Watson stories.”

Another pause, and Maxine Weston added, “Beddybies, children. Story hour’s over.”

“Next time,” Ross Taylor said to Crosby Starrett, clapping him on the shoulder, as they both got up from the couch. “I’d love to hear about you and Charlie Watson.”

“Oh, old Charlie’s got his good points,” Crosby said in his soft, benevolent manner.

Jeremy Botts strummed a few choruses of “Good Night Ladies,” while they were making their way to the front door. Once exiting, some of them lingered on the stoop outside. Maxine’s house was on a hillside. Below, in the distance, was the capitol building, its dome illuminated. The dimness of the far-off light and the metallic sheathing of its cupola gave that symbol of statutory authority a faintly greenish hue.

Someone said, “You know that old Statehouse still projects a certain power, doesn’t it?”

Someone else replied, “It was modeled after the national Capitol in DC.”

“Fifty-one of those classy edifices in the U.S.A. It makes you think.”

“Makes you proud.”

A few more such sentimental, somewhat alcohol-tinged comments continued, until the group dispersed, heading toward their cars.