A True Representative (Part 5)

For two weeks after that first debate prep, Henry met with Sasha and one of her patrons at her studio to run more prep, record voice-over lines for ads, and review the latest polls; of Roderick, however, he neither saw nor heard a peep, except when Sasha or the her colleagues referred to him quietly among themselves.

                In those two weeks, Henry also came to believe, more and more firmly, that these people he’d gotten involved with were somehow either microdosing him with hallucinogens, or their very presences caused a slide away from firm sanity. On one occasion, he returned home to find dozens of hands trying to reach down out of his condo ceilings, appendages of plaster blindly grasping at the air. Another time, he spotted a rainbow-striped cow standing in the driveway of Sasha’s building, a strangely cartoonish smile with enormous, dagger-teeth leering at him.

                He tried his level best never to react to these things, though that proved difficult. One night, as the first scheduled debate between himself and Lewiston loomed a couple of nights away, he awoke to find some kind of dog sized centipede skittering out from under his bed toward the bedroom door. With a shout, he snatched up the metal baseball bat he kept beside his bed and lunged at it, grunting, panting as he smashed the monstrosity repeatedly, until it chattered and writhed wetly no more.

                He crawled back into bed, covered in fluids, but awoke the next morning comfy and dry, no evidence of monstrous bugs to be seen anywhere. He began wondering if his campaign slogan might not be the ultimate irony: “The Sane Choice”.

                But the day before and day of the debate, leading to his arrival at the U of Iowa’s Amelia City Metro Campus, Henry suffered no more of these delusional moments, and felt suddenly more like his usual self. Sitting in an empty classroom by himself an hour before having to report to the Samantha Blake Theater Hall near the center of campus, he recognized something else he should have seen earlier; he had withdrawn, since first meeting with Sasha and her patrons, from almost every other person he had normal contact with. He hadn’t gone for a drink or a visit with anyone from his office, had not spoken at length with any of the police officials he routinely visited with, and had even turned almost all of his online social media activity toward campgigning.

                He had vanished into the pursuit for a Congressional seat, which hadn’t happened on either of his previous runs.

                A knock on the door of the classroom brought him roughly up out of his ruminations, and Henry pushed off of the desk at the front of the room that he had been leaning against while going over his notecards, which he quickly tucked into his blazer’s inner pocket. A narrow young man poked his head through the door, a light-skinned African American fellow with light stubble covering his cheeks and a certain nervousness in his eyes. “Mr. Townsend?”

                “Can I help you, son,” Henry replied.

                “The Congressman was hoping to have a couple of minutes before he finishes prep,” the young aide said. Henry nodded, and the aide vanished, soon replaced by the broad, jowly Craig Lewiston. The Congressman wore a quite fine suit of charcoal gray, his shirt a simple white, a flag-hued tie pin in the shape of the GOP elephant holding his solid red tie in place. Pale and already perspiring despite the frigid weather outside, he grinned lopsidedly at the county’s District Attorney.

                “Good to see you in this thing again, Henry,” Lewiston said as he approached, one hand extended to Henry. “And a damned shame what happened to Mary.” Henry shook hands with him, and once more leaned his backside against the desk, arms folded over his chest.

                “How is she now? I’ve been meaning to go visit her at the hospital, but my people have been keeping me busy, along with my work at the court.”

                “Well, I went and had a sit-down with her and a couple of her doctors a few days ago,” Lewiston said, shaking his head sadly. “Whatever happened to her, it knocked a few screws loose; she was babbling about some kind of tree demon attacking her, about monsters living all over the city.”

                Henry’s mind flashed back to Sasha’s latest gallery piece, the tree monster about to eat a screaming man’s face.

                “Happens to an awful lot of folks around these parts,” he commented dryly.

                “Sadly, yes, that seems to be the case,” said Lewiston. “Amelia City has a reputation for raising all sorts of kooks; take your principal backers in this race, for instance,” Lewiston said, starting to pace back and forth slowly.

                “You know Ms. Kowen and her people, then?”

                “A little bit,” Lewiston said evenly. “They tried getting involved with my campaign a couple of years ago, but I already had plenty of support from the RNC, so I didn’t really need their help. But I got curious about some of her people, had some of my folks do some digging around. I gotta tell you, Henry,” he said, pausing and giving the DA a concerned look. “I didn’t like what they told me.”

                “Which was what, exactly?”

                “Almost nothing,” Lewiston answered with a shrug. “These folks, they’re practically ghosts, except for Kowen herself. Or himself, depending on who you listen to.” Henry raised an eyebrow at Lewiston. “Not everybody in my party is exactly accommodating, Henry, you full well know that.”

                “And you?”

                “I don’t really care one way or the other. All I know is that she barely registers on any kind of civilian database, and even what’s available is sketchy at best. She apparently used to work in some tattoo parlor in the area, then disappeared for a couple of years before having some exhibit at a local gallery that made quite the impression in the art community. But it’s the people she brings around with her, they’re total enigmas.”

                “You mean like Roderick and Marrick,” Henry said. Lewiston nodded, tucking his hands into the back pockets of his trousers. “Is this going to be something you plan to bring up during the debate?”

                “Not a bit,” Lewiston said with a shake of his head. “All your campgign’s war chest funds have been pretty transparently reported, most of it coming from a PAC Ms. Kowen set up for you and your own private citizen donors. That’s all on the up-and-up, and I would expect nothing less from you, Henry. I may have beat you before, and I don’t agree with your approach to important issues, but I like you, Henry. I think you mean well. I just happen to think that my way works better.”

                There was a moment of easy silence then between the two of them, a moment wherein Henry felt a compulsion to get something off of his chest. He took a step toward Lewiston and cleared his throat.

                “Craig? I know there’s something ‘off’ about her people too,” he said quietly, suddenly worried that if he spoke any of the names of Sasha’s people aloud that they would somehow know. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the sooner I can be done with these folks, the better, win or lose.” Lewiston met his gaze and nodded slowly, seeming to understand all too well what Henry meant.

                “Best of luck tonight, councilor,” Lewiston said, once more offering his hand. Henry took it firmly in his own and pumped just the once.

                “And to you, Congressman.”

**

                The debate between Representative Craig Lewiston and District Attorney Henry Townsend would turn out to be remembered for a long time among the denizens of Amelia County, though not in its entirety. For close to fifty of the sixty total minutes that it stretched on, the whole affair struck Henry as little more than the traditional political debate between two opposing candidates, which is to say, it seemed to him more like a joint press conference with each candidate sharing the stage with their opponent, taking turns going over their own talking points.

                But people would end up sharing video and audio clips of the end for a while, and it would come up in some classroom discussions in political science courses. It would be pointed to by those professors as an example of how, when one least expected it, someone could put together a string of statements that broke the normal mold of how these things went in ways that defied the norms.

                The moment began when the debate’s moderator took a moment to look back to the audience in the hall, then turned her head to look back up at Lewiston and Henry. “We will now have the candidates offer up their closing messages. Congressman Lewiston, we’ll begin with yours.”

                “Thank you, Linda,” Lewiston said, leaning in a little toward his mic. “Like many such races across this country, this one is being viewed by many pundits and prevaricators as a kind of test balloon, a measure of what the American people think so far of the Biden-Harris Administration. There are a lot of folks who have, since my first campaign for this office, attempted to smear me by tying many of my ideas to those of former President Donald Trump. But what these talking heads seem to forget, is that the good people of Amelia County by and large supported President Trump, both in 2016 and in 2020! And they also seem to forget that I am a man with his own ideas, his own issues, and that I am loyal first and foremost to the people of this district, and not to the party to which I am a registered member!” He paused for effect as a smattering of applause came from the audience. “It is the will of the people of Amelia County, Iowa, that I am returning to Washington to represent, and it is my firm belief that I am the right person, still, to do just that. I hereby yield the remainder of my time to the fine gentleman, District Attorney Townsend.”

                “Very good,” said the moderator. “Mr. Townsend, you’ve been gifted some extra time, so please, go ahead.” Henry tried to keep down a throat-clearing, but couldn’t, looking over the notecards on his lecturn. He had prepared thoroughly for this with Sasha and her people, and now that the moment was upon him, he found himself feeling less resentful of the little barbs and jabs that Lewiston had thrown at him in his own campaign ads, and even up here on the stage through their back-and-forths. He didn’t need the daggers that had been offered to him by Ms. Kowen and her people; he shuffled the notecards together, tucked them in his pocket, and looked out with a calm smile over the crowd in the darkened hall.

                “Craig Lewiston is a decent man,” he began evenly, slowly. “He is a good, God-fearing father, husband, and member of the United States House of Representatives. He has approached matters on the Hill with the kind of old-fashioned financial conservatism that I have myself often felt drawn toward over the course of my years of interest in the political arena. He’s an honest guy, so far as I can tell, and despite what may seem like a foolish idea, I’ll even go so far as to tell you plainly, that if I wasn’t running in this race, I’d probably be voting for him too,” Henry said with a broad smile and holding his arms wide to his sides, palms up as if to say, ‘You know?’ He stole a peek over at Lewiston, and saw the pale, slightly older man staring at him almost slack-jawwed in disbelief. “But I am, in fact, looking to take his job from him. Hey, Craig, my man, it’s nothing personal,” he said with a theatrical shake of his head, directly looking over to him. “I think that you have indeed tried your best to represent Amelia County. But I think you’ve gone about it the wrong way. Not out of enmity, or spite, or even refusal to listen, like it is for a lot of folks in Washington; I just think I happen to have some better ideas, ideas that truly stem from a place closer to the heart of Amelia than yours do,” he said, looking back to the audience.

                A quarter of them were on their feet with their phones out, aimed up at him on the stage. They sensed something here, as he was beginning to, some ineffable moment that would echo through time, building to its climax.

                “Do I think I’m the best possible representation of what Amelia City is all about? No, I actually don’t. For God’s sakes, I’m a black man in a city that doesn’t even have close to the national average in terms of numbers of minority residence, okay?” This got a chuckle from the crowd, and even from Lewiston. “I mean, Amelia County is 3 percent African-American, folks. 3 percent! And that includes the folks who live on this campus and attend school here. You want to talk about ‘Oscars So White’? Try moving to this city and doing a comparison, I think you’re gonna realize that Hollywood’s done pretty good.

                “But none of that matters, not really. What really matters here, is that I don’t know a single person in this city who’s in favor of a bigger military, or more foreign interventionalism. I don’t know a single person in this city who thinks the suburbs of Amelia are any safer or more successful than the metro itself. I’m in favor of slipping some of those DoD dollars out of the Pentagon and into people’s schools, like most folks here agree would be a better use of their tax dollars. And I’m of a mind with the folks in this district who think all of Amelia County’s pretty fucked up, and it don’t matter if you’re walking downtown or along a dirt lane in North Perry, all right?”

                Laughter met this bit of vulgarity, and even the moderator seemed to be guffawing a bit. When Henry peeked over at Lewiston again, the Congressman was practically beaming at him and leaning with one elbow on his own lecturn, thoroughly enjoying Henry’s performance.

                “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not going to launch into some assault on Congressman Lewiston’s character, or his policy positions, or his personal statements, because at the end of the day, I don’t dislike the man. There’s even some areas where he and I enjoy a relative agreement and understanding. But what I am going to tell you is that while I think he does a pretty good job representing the people of Amelia County’s interests at the federal level, I think I can do a better job. This isn’t about him or his decisions being bad; it’s about my own being a better fit. And of that, I hope to convince you a little more in the coming days, folks. Thank you.”

                Henry took a half-bow, stepped back from his lecturn, and soaked in the combined applause of the audience, the moderator, and even that of Congressman Craig Lewiston. He looked over off-stage, and saw Sasha standing just out of view of the crowd. Assembled around her in a horseshoe half-ring were the old wizard, Marek, the Vietnam veteran Trask, the too-slick Jago, and a wiry-looking fellow with a laptop in hand whom Henry didn’t recognize. He assumed this was Eddy, Sasha’s oft-mentioned ‘tech guy’.

                But of the cowboy, Roderick, there was no sign. For some reason, this slid a slender thread of trepidation in among the greater sensation of triumph he felt as the moderator thanked their audience for their time, and directed them out of the hall.