His wife once called him “a fifth-rate husband, a shoddy human being, and a washed-up Judas.” Now he’s running again. And he needs her support.
Readers! A free excerpt of The Race: A Novella by Jacke Wilson is below.
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(By the way, I’m also looking for advance readers for the next manuscript. If you’re interested in insane lawyers hiring insane candidates at insane law firms, this might be the one for you. Let me know!)
And now… the main event! Enjoy!
The Race: A Novella
Throughout the campaign, reporters asked me why the Governor was running. Not if I thought he’d win or what he’d do once elected, but why. Why’s he running? Why? Why? Why’s he doing this to us? Why’s he doing this to himself?
I never knew how to answer. He was a career politician, one of those creatures who need validation by an electorate the way athletes need competition or businessmen need to make money. An egomaniac, a narcissist, a damaged personality looking to fill some kind of hole – all of that was obvious, and true. Only it was not enough for them. Not this time.
I’d usually mumble something or other I’d heard the Governor say – that he wanted to help others, that he believed he was the best person to represent the good people of Wisconsin. But it was no good: they knew I was not a true believer. I’d been on the scene for weeks, not years. I was not a chief of staff or a whispering guru or a speechwriter or a handler or a political advisor of any kind. I wasn’t even a member of his party. Not a relative, not a friend. I was just there.
“Is this another one of your strays?” my wife asked when I told her I was taking a few months off to help write the autobiography of a man nobody loved. “Governor Olson? The ‘gone snowmobiling’ guy?”
“That’s the one.”
She sighed. “Another stray.”
“It’s a paying job,” I said.
She knew, even then, that I would become more deeply involved than the project required. She knew it would happen even though she had no idea that the Governor was planning to run again. None of us did.
I suppose what follows is my attempt to answer the question:
Why did he run?
And another of my own:
Why do we care?
Even before I received the materials I had been tracking the Governor’s career. I was in D.C. and he was in Wisconsin, but it was impossible for me to ignore his ascent. My parents were excited about it, for one thing. My dad had taught him in high school. There was not much else in our town to be excited about. Anyone who broke out of the parochial limits of our area gained the notice, the respect, and the appreciation of everyone in the community. A golfer from a nearby town turned pro and stayed on the Masters leaderboard until late Sunday afternoon: Yes! We’re still here! We exist! Our town produced a tug-of-war team that competed in the World Championships in Ireland: Yes! We can no longer be ignored – we just finished third in the entire world! We count!
And now… a governor with national aspirations. From a town not far from ours.
Still, I was astonished to receive the box. Why me? I had an MFA, which made me a writer, purportedly, and a law degree, which meant I could call myself a lawyer – but I was not a politician or a journalist, let alone a biographer. Had someone given him my name? Maybe he thought he needed someone unconventional?
The package contained two manuscript boxes, six or seven hundred pages of material. There was no cover letter. I thought it might be a prank or a mistake.
He called later that day.
“It’s my autobiography,” he said. “I need some help with the organization. I’m a busy man. When can you start?”
“I’m busy too,” I said.
“I’ll pay you,” he said, brushing off my reluctance. “You’ll enjoy it. I’ve had a fascinating life.”
He assumed I would agree – but then again, he could. He had earned that much at least. His rise had been conventional, but his flameout had been extraordinary. He could have appeared on any talk show he wanted. Any reporter in the country would have taken his call. Even minor scandals have a way of giving you that power.
And his had been spectacular. A sitting governor, an incipient national campaign. Getting traction in the primaries. Not likely to win, but a press favorite. A good chance at being on the Presidential ticket. And then: a disappearance. His staff is cagey. He’s in bed with a cold. Then they say he’s “up north snowmobiling.” The catch phrase takes off: Saturday Night Live bases a skit on it. Rumors abound: rehab, depression, marital problems. Someone says they saw him at an airport. Finally the staff admits they aren’t sure where he is. The governor! Of the state! Is gone!
That was the story for a few wondrous days. The truth when it emerged was just as surprising. He’d gone off, leaving everyone behind: his wife, his four kids, his campaign, the state he was in charge of – all to go and visit his mistress in Italy.
That, of course, was the first big why.
True love? That’s what he claimed in public.
It’s never that simple.
I read enough in the pages he’d sent me to see that there was a more complicated answer.
I took the job to find out what it was.
He wanted me to meet him at the Big Boy on Highway 14, near I-90. It was a restaurant I did not know still existed. Not just their Janesville location, but the entire Big Boy franchise. Who still ate there? How did they keep going? But there it was, still chugging away. I sat down on a bench in the lobby and watched Wisconsinites come and go.
After a few minutes a boy came in – he was maybe four or five – ahead of whoever had brought him.
“There he is!” he shouted, and came running toward me.
I stood up, my mind making all kinds of leaps. This boy must be a grandson, the son of one of the Governor’s older boys – the Governor must have brought his whole family. A woman followed the boy through the door – presumably the Governor’s daughter-in-law. And they must all be excited to meet me. The grownups must have told the little boy that they were on their way to meet someone important, a writer who was going to be helping Grampa with an important project.
My mind put all this together in a second, and it changed everything. I stood up, flattered, determined to live up to their expectations. I was a writer, in their eyes if no one else’s, significant enough to make this little guy thrilled to meet me.
I bent over, ready to give him a high five. The boy ran past me and flung his arms around a statue.
“Oh, Big Boy!” he cried, “I knew you’d still be here!”
And Big Boy, the chubby, wavy-haired, smiling lad with the red suspenders and tablecloth overalls and big cherub cheeks and blank eyes, stood in place, absorbing the hug. He was, indeed, still there.
I straightened up and smiled at the mother, who frowned at me with a certain amount of suspicion, perhaps justifiable. Then I wandered into the restaurant.
The Governor was already there, eating a piece of pie.
He had ordered one for me too, but when I didn’t turn up in time he went ahead and ate both. “Sorry about that,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s too good. Too, too good!”
If he was embarrassed – some would say that a failure to control his impulses was not anything he should be laughing about – he did not let it show.
It was strange to see him in reduced circumstances, not quite unrecognized by the people here, but overlooked. He did not look like anyone there. He was wearing a sportcoat and tie, and he still had the shine of a politician: hair blow dried and tamed by product, big white teeth, a bronzy glow to his skin. I could see why the press had viewed him as nationally viable: he was conventionally, if blandly, handsome. If he’d become President he’d have been one of the thinner ones, and one of the more distinguished-looking: a fresh, youthful look, with smooth grooves of worry lines. It was a versatile face: wise and caring, rugged in times of war, sleek and inoffensive in times of peace. For some reason he made me think of a ten-dollar bill: reliable but easily forgotten.
I felt no aura, but then I never do. As is often the case when I encounter people like him, I felt like I was supposed to feel some kind of excitement, but I did not. This was a man who’d held power, whose career and life had been blown apart by a sensational scandal, and who even now had a tabloid-cover international celebrity that was only months old. You might think there would be some buzz around him, but I felt none. Maybe I only felt it when others reacted to people in this way. In any case, it wasn’t happening.
And yet, he carried himself as if he had it. He was brimming with self-confidence, and self-esteem. It was like a doctor who acts like a doctor even outside the hospital – on the golf course, say, even though his status at the hospital doesn’t matter there.
The waitress came by and I saw his political side emerge. “That pie was absolutely delicious,” he said, beaming. “So good I wish I could eat another.”
She was bored and tired, but she treated him with affection, smiling just for him, as if he alone among all her customers could make her day.
“Looks like you already had two,” she said, loading the plates onto her tray.
“These must be Wisconsin cherries!”
“You know it, doll,” she said, bustling away.
It was a fascinating exchange. In fact the pie had been filled with a gelatinous cherry-like substance that had probably come from some factory in New Jersey.
“Let’s talk about the book!” he said to me. “You’ve read it?”
“It’s got everything in it. It’s all there,” he said. “It could use some organization. Maybe some rearranging – you can help with that. Some chapters are too long. We could break ‘em in two, you know. People are busy, they like short chapters.”
I nodded again. The book had a lot more trouble than he seemed to realize – it was, in fact, a complete mess.
“A couple times I felt like I said the same thing twice. And there might be a spot or two where it runs out of steam. You can help me fill those in.”
He nodded more to himself than to me. “It’s got no ending, I know, but guess what?” He put both hands on the edge of the table, leaned forward, and lowered his voice. “My story is not over.”
I didn’t know what he meant. Of course he had many years still ahead of him, and he had a chance to live them with some measure of dignity. I imagined him working as a lawyer, or a lobbyist, in a low-profile, behind-the-scenes way. He had plenty of businessmen friends. He could put his marriage back together, eventually, and serve on boards and blue-ribbon committees assessing budgets or job creation programs. He could move to D.C. or stay in Wisconsin, and work hard. In twenty years he’d be a “whatever happened to…” guy and people would be impressed that he was still around and had not continued to embarrass himself.
But this was not what he had in mind, obviously. His eyes were wide open and dancing. They were blue, as infinite and as thin as the sky, wide but not deep.
“I’m running for Congress,” he said, as a slow grin took over his face. He leaned back in the booth and pounded the table with his palms. “We’ll give this book a heck of a last chapter!”
I mumbled some kind of agreement. I think I also mentioned – incredibly, it seems to me now – that the book probably didn’t need a new ending if he decided to change his mind. Why did I say that? Why do you tell someone to stop downing shots of tequila? Concern for humiliation, poor judgment, maybe physical well-being. It was a human instinct.
But he was determined. “Let’s go see Tina!” he said, dropping money on the table and loping toward the door.
That was all I needed. If you care about my motivation – me, a nobody – then that was it. That was my why. This narrative was rushing forward and I couldn’t turn away.
Tina? The wife who had called him “a fifth-rate husband, a shoddy human being, and a washed-up Judas”? And not only would I get to witness their encounter, I would be driving the car that took him there? I did think we’d get a new ending for his book, but maybe not the one he expected.
On the way out he made sure to swing by the cash register and tell the manager how great the service had been. The waitress appeared, and the governor immediately fished another bill out of his wallet. It was a ten.
“An extra tip,” he said, bestowing it on her. “Never had a better time.”
The woman beamed.
It was in him to be a politician. He had all the skills, and the energy, and the spirit.
And now, headed to see his wife? He would need it.
Copyright 2013 by Jacke Wilson. All rights reserved.