Episode 1: “The Mayor”
I closed my notebook. That was quite enough for today. People say it gets better over time, that you should stay positive, and about a million other worthless platitudes. The only thing worse was watching his bright eyes fade into nothingness and hearing empty promises pass through his lips. I wasn’t even sure if the writing helped to silence them inside my head. There was a good possibility it made things worse. It was best not to think. The time had come for me to rejoin the living, if only just for that day. With two deep breaths, two rolls of my shoulders, and a final drag from my cigarette, I got up, out of my apartment, and then into my car without thinking. I always felt better when I drove.
By the time I reached the bronze statue of our sitting mayor and savior, I had forgotten about my writing. It wasn’t the best of times or worst of times. I lived in Wakefield, New Jersey, the infamous township rescued by Mayor Patrick Flannagan. With pretzel dust caking and sloshing across his teeth, he must’ve told me his story about a million times while sitting at my bar.
As it goes, long before Mayor Pat’s tenure, abandoned buildings used to serve as perfectly dilapidated homes for the homeless. The only art originated from spray cans aimed at concrete walls. Bodies used to float with the trash in the county river. Well, of course, none of this would do for this glorious politician. Not a chance! Upon taking office, the then youthful mayor vowed to raise Wakefield to heights never seen. He knew it would take time, and it would take plenty of capital, but goddammit! Mayor Pat promised everything possible!
This was Mayor Pat’s tale of his early years. He liked rehashing it, especially under the spell of Irish whiskey. It started when the small boutiques began sprouting up all over Main Street. High-rise apartments went up near the train station. A community theater opened! Parades, headed by a red-faced and stumbling mayor, now marched gallantly down Main Street. Wakefield was glorious again! They even commissioned a statue in our savior’s honor. It’s all thoroughly photographed in Mayor Pat’s Wakefield, a monthly circular dedicated to local events.
Here’s a fun fact: My Papa kept the copy from my birth month. It featured newly elected Mayor Pat and his gaudy wife, waving from the steps of a crumbling city hall. You’ve read that correctly. I checked the primary ballot last week, and there was his name again. Mayor Pat had been in office for the entire twenty-six years of my life. No one ever opposed the guy. No one ever outdrank him either.
The mayor was one of our regulars at BBQ Pete’s, where I bartended almost every night. I’ve seen him fall off stools, pass-out, throw-up, walk into walls. Every time the guy came into the bar, all of this flashed through my mind too. It merged with the sound of Pete, the owner, fawning over the mayor. “Oh, my God! The mayor’s here! Oh my God, Teresa, don’t you see? It’s the mayor!” All I saw was Mayor Pat, our township’s eternal mayor. He’d place an empty along the rail. I’d give him another, and he’d give me another wink. After a few too many, he’d start yammering on about Wakefield being the superlative achievement of any political regime, ever.
There was just one problem for Mayor Pat: Community Contributor Nico Carvalho. Since losing Jake, this stranger had become my only friend. I didn’t really know him. He wrote occasional articles for The Wakefield Ledger, particularly damning ones. See, as Nico loved to point out in his work, the township’s alleged rebirth had solely taken place in an area known as Wakefield Center. Yes, crime was down there. Yes, people had begun to move into sleek high rises there. Businesses opened there. Commerce thrived too, but all only in that area. Like the golden hole in a donut, Mayor Pat’s prized Wakefield Center gleamed, and it made him a hero.
Wakefield East had money along Johnson Kill, old money, the kind of money that politely ignored the used syringes and empty bottles that washed up to the shore. Some families in that area lived in mansions that overlooked the water. They lauded Mayor Pat as a champion of capitalism, the real defender of democracy, and used their fortunes to bury any unpleasantness.
Upper Wakefield was a trashy homage to Norman Rockwell, full of dull people who led monotonous lives. Most of them drove cars that belonged to the previous century, worked blue-collar jobs, never thought about sending their children to college, and still idolized the mayor. He was one of us, they’d say. They filled their yards with his signs during campaign season, even though Mayor Pat always ran unopposed. They loved him that much. Not one of those people could tell you why.
In an area known as Evergreen Village, one-hundred-year-old homes, most falling to pieces, were crammed tightly together. The people woke to the smell of fumes from a landfill. They went to their minimum wage jobs, then on to their second minimum wage job, and came home too tired to think about the mayor. As Nico once wrote in one of his articles, “Mayor Pat never saved Wakefield; he merely relocated the inconvenient parts.”
It was true. Across the Axebridge River, you would find the area of Wakefield known as Krome. This inconvenience was the Wakefield of used car lots, filled with vehicles with scratched off vin-numbers, and tattoo shops with bikers smoking cigarettes out front. It was the Wakefield of the poverty-stricken and destitute, the trap houses and abandoned buildings. It was where the dealers and prostitutes dwelled in rundown trailer parks or hourly motels. The Wakefield of overcrowded apartment buildings with cockroaches crawling up the walls, Mayor Pat never seemed to notice it. I was driving to Krome right then.
I went right past the over-sized, two-story brick building that was BBQ Pete’s and caught the light on Perishing Road. It was only June. Under the harsh summer sun, a busboy was already putting up the sign for Mayor Pat’s Chili Cookoff in September. This celebration was an annual monstrosity, benefitting Wakefield’s Civil War Society. If it had profited anything else, I might have given a damn. The light turned, and I continued toward the rickety, graffitied crossing over the Axebridge River.
Not partial to lousy press, Mayor Pat had recently decided to resurrect some abandoned building in the township’s Krome section. I think Nico had hit a nerve when he wrote, “The mayor is too afraid to grace Krome with his Midas touch, or maybe it slipped his failing mind.” It was a silly fancy of mine, but I wanted to see this building’s grand opening. A year earlier, I had found Jake living there with a needle in his arm, and now it was said to have been a great historical landmark. It had already been one for me.
The cracker-box cabin, located in a field behind abandoned copper plants and crude oil refineries, barely stood. I felt a sense of deja-vu pulling up, then saw in my mind’s eye the flashes of broken glass, rusty spoons, and my muddy boots creaking on the wooden floor. I blinked my eyes. That had been enough, so I parked my car and reminded myself not to think. Stepping outside, I noticed nothing about the cabin had changed besides some fresh stain, new shingles, and a couple of shrubs. There was the podium, of course, and a group of people congregating around a sign. I had never seen so many cops. Mayor Pat must have enlisted the secret service.
I took a seat in the back. The crew setting up to broadcast the event on local TV had already set up their equipment. Some reporters were standing in the corners; others had taken seats near me. I wondered if any of those muckrakers were Nico. The silly fancy of mine also included finally seeing my imaginary friend. I just wanted to know he existed, that someone with eyes still exists. Of course, I would have no way of knowing who the guy was. Nico could’ve been anywhere; he could be anyone.
As I scanned the crowd, I saw the mayor walking across the dusty grounds with an ice cream cone and lost all respect for him. He had terrible posture with slouched weak shoulders and a pot belly full of jelly hiding under a yellow cardigan. At the time, the TV crew’s lights had captivated his beady blue eyes, and with the ice cream cone, he gave the impression of a perverted old man who had recently undergone a lobotomy. Mayor Pat always had that sort of look, though. The Irish whiskey sometimes turned him into a ladies’ man, but when he thought no one was looking, Mayor Pat devolved into a dopey looking idiot.
After inhaling the last scoop of Rocky Road into his obnoxiously red face, he shook hands with all his Civil War buddies, who were taking their seats in the front row. He pointed at some, laughed at I-don’t-know-what with others, then finally tapped his finger on the mic.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, a drip of Rocky Road or mucus sliding down from his white mustache. “On behalf of Wakefield’s Civil War Society, it is my great honor to open this historic cottage on Fairfield Avenue, where George Washington once spent the night during the Civil War.”
Mayor Pat paused to wipe his boogers. I heard a snicker and a cough from the front of the audience, then total silence. My eyes zeroed in on a man sitting haphazardly in the second row. He slumped in his seat with his arms folded then, and I imagined the grin that must’ve risen his snarky cheek.
“This monument to American history, where President Washington rested his weary head during the great Civil War, might have once been forgotten,” Mayor Pat continued with considerable gusto. “But we shall never let this building come to ruin again!”
The crowd rejoiced and applauded.
“For let it be known,” continued the mayor. “Wakefield is dedicated to the preservation of American history!”
As cheers ignited once again, the haphazard man in the second row hunched over. I could hear him laughing over the applause from the mayor’s fan club. As the crowd died down, the man rose from his seat with his hand raised. He had short, dark hair with an assortment of tattoos down his tan arms, a cheap black t-shirt in the summer heat, and cargo shorts hanging loose from his waist. He reminded me of Jake. For the life of me, I still could not see his face. I wanted him to turn around; I wanted to see it. He snapped his fingers twice, but the mayor looked fixed on continuing.
“Excuse me,” the man interrupted. “Mr. Mayor! With respect, is this a haunted house?”
Mayor Pat’s red face beamed brighter than the sun as his white brows furrowed together. He patted his sweaty forehead and then his sugary mustache. With everyone seated, even from the back, I could see the plaque on the cracker-box home. It read, “George Washington stayed here for one night during the Civil War.” The mayor turned his head towards this bronze commemoration, then squinted his eyes. He shrugged his shoulders. The small sign in front of the home also read in golden letters, “George Washington stayed here for one night during the Civil War.” The mayor faced the crowd, his hands gripping the sides of the podium.
“Now, son,” he stuttered. “What’s the problem?”
“Mr. Mayor, I am asking you a very simple question,” said the man with laughter in his rasped voice. “I want to know if this is a haunted house. Because, for the entire thirty-eight years of my life, this dump has been a drug den, so, conceivably, its apparent haunted history led to its decline.”
“That’s enough, Nick.”
“My name is Nico, and I want to clarify who spent the night here during the Civil War.”
“Are you absolutely certain about that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you either screwed up your wars or your presidents, Pat,” he said, placing his arms akimbo. “That’s assuming this building was ever really anything at all.”
Well, Nico existed alright; someone with eyes still exists. It felt good not to feel alone for that minute. I spotted the Hemingway line, “Stronger at the broken places,” tattooed on Nico’s forearm and wondered if he had lost someone too. Mayor Pat started grasping for words, tossing about his cards, and I slipped away. It was time for my shift at BBQ Pete’s.
The township rescheduled the grand opening to coincide with the Mayor’s Chili Cookoff in September. According to an article in The Wakefield Ledger, they needed to change the signs. Apparently, Mayor Pat had decided Ulysses S. Grant had been the one who spent the night.