Out Cold

City Hall occupied a five-story red brick building a few blocks off of the lakefront. A former bicycle factory turned discount furniture warehouse, it had been purchased by the city after the company went bankrupt and was retrofitted to accommodate city offices and the city council chambers. Its monolithic cold brick facade reminded me of the anonymous prisons of fascist governments, where innocent civilians entered and none ever returned. I imagined people on the streets outside hurrying by, covering their ears to muffle the screams of the tortured inside, hoping against hope that if they kept their heads down and their mouths shut they could slide under the radar of the gendarmerie but knowing deep down inside that soon it would be they whose screams would float through the halls and out into the street as thuggish secret police beat false confessions out of them.

 

I parked the cab and entered city hall reluctantly, like an apprehensive puppy dog being dragged to the vet. The building embodied government, the arch-enemy of all true artists. It represented those who passed unconscionable laws, levied unjustified taxes and sent young men off to fight in unjust wars to protect corporate profit. I thought of my dead buddies left behind in ‘Nam and got a sick feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. City hall was a brick-and-mortar symbol of all I detested and feared.

I opened the swinging glass doors and went inside.

The dimly lit halls exuded a chilly pathos as icy as the building’s exterior. It was after normal business hours but City Council was meeting tonight so the building was open to interested spectators. These hours-long governmental gab fests drew the usual political wonky few who hovered in the wings, waiting to get their three-minute chance at the microphone during citizen’s comments, as if their truncated screed would do anything to change the minds of the pocket Mussolinis who lorded it over their police, parks, public pools and garbage collections.

Halfway down the long hall a woman ensconced behind a glass window slid it open as I approached.

“Can I help you?” she asked. I inquired after the address of alderman Lou Pine. She carefully studied my face as if trying to ascertain my motives. I studied hers in return, noticing that with a dab of makeup she had skillfully covered a pimple threatening to erupt on her cheek. She noticed me noticing it and reflexively brought a hand up to her face, touching the offending blemish as if she could make it magically disappear.

“What do you need that for?” she demanded.

“For myself. It’s public information, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is,” she replied. “But we need to ask.”

“For the protection of our elected officials,” she added. There was a deep hostility in her voice, and I wondered whether it was because I had asked for information she was reluctant to give or that I had noticed the pustule on her face.

“Can I have it, please?” I asked again.

“I need to know your name.” It was a demand, not a request. I gave it to her. She scribbled it down. “And your address and phone number?”

Something told me that this was not standard procedure, but she was a bureaucrat, and worse yet a low-level bureaucrat with an inflated sense of her own importance. A woman like this could make infinitely more trouble for a mope like myself than could the President of the United States. I gave her my address.

“No phone?” she asked.

“I don’t need one,” I replied. We were sparring now; me, Johnny Jump, arteest, vs. Signorina-Fascista-in-Training. I wondered if she’d ever been laid, but restrained myself from asking the question.

“Well I need one. I can’t give you the information if I don’t have a phone number for reference. It’s the rules.”

Ah, the much vaunted rules! Can’t have the information if you don’t toe the line, play by the book, can you? I gave her Sparky’s number at the cab company. She reluctantly wrote down an address for me and slid it halfway across her narrow counter. She gave me the once-over once again.

“I don’t know . . .” she mumbled, but I snatched the paper from her hand and exited the building pronto. I was beginning to suffocate from the oppressive atmosphere. As I opened the door to leave I turned and noticed her jabbering away into a phone, one hand self-consciously massaging her pimple. She threw a furtive glance in my direction, and I knew it was me she was talking about to whomever the storm trooper was on the other end of the line.

I began to regret my decision to press her for the info. Something told me it was going to be more trouble than it was worth.

***

Lou Pine lived on the farthest reaches of the city, at the tip of a dog leg that stretched out beyond, and past, the interstate that connected Milwaukee to Chicago. I learned later that the section had been gerrymandered into the city twenty years before to accommodate Mr. Pine’s purchase of a massive trailer park and his relocation to the three-story mansion on the grassy hill lording it over the two hundred plus trailer homes below. It allowed him to live like the old world padrone he felt he was and still keep his seat at city hall, and his power base.

I had radioed in and told dispatcher Chuck that I was going on the hunt for fares. It was standard operating procedure on slow call nights and sometimes you could hook onto a live one, which meant a big fare and even bigger tips. It was a steamy Mid-August night and the city’s streets were bereft of people, most of whom who had taken refuge anywhere they could find air-conditioned comfort. I decided it was as good a time as any to at least see where the mysterious Mr. Pine lived. I turned off the cab’s radio and took the twenty-minute ride west to Lou Pine’s spread.

There was a full moon, and a cloudless sky. The main entrance to the trailer park exited off a lonely county road and wound up a grassy hill and ended at the front gate of what I assumed was the alderman’s palatial digs; a sort of mini-taj mahal constructed in the late Victorian style with peaks and turrets and a wide porch that wrapped around the home. The windows were dark, but a solitary porch light winked in the night; an attempt, I assumed, to ward off burglars or anyone else foolish enough to try to rip off the pocket godfather’s humble abode. I turned into the park, noticing the side roads that led to trailers deep inside the neatly laid out development. There was a flash of an occasional light from a trailer, but for the most part all were tucked in for the evening. Tomorrow was another workday when they would again bust their humps to pay the mortgage on their trailers, get braces for the kids and save up enough money for a week’s vacation at some musty Northwoods resort.

Halfway into the park the main road split in two, bifurcated by a large pond with tall rushes that quivered in the night breeze. The moon reflected off its placid surface as if in a mirror. I cut the lights in my cab. No sense in raising any alarms from the lord and master’s castle or from his proles below. I parked the cab alongside the pond so it was half-hidden by a bank of rushes and leaned back and studied the home above. This was the guy who, according to Cicero, could shed light on who had filleted Tank Dupree, and why. I watched the small porch light cast jack-o-lantern-like shadows on the home and pondered what type of man would live like this, lording it over his tenants like a medieval baron. I wondered if he also exercised the right of prima nocta with his serfs. I had never met Lou Pine, had never even heard his name until the night before but just from the layout of his home I knew he was one of those who possessed every goddamned thing worth anything in this world and used it as a weapon to beat down those who owned little, or nothing at all. And if the peons got uppity they were publicly drawn and quartered; legally, because the laws were drawn up to protect the nobles, not their vassals. Pablo had nailed this in “Guernica,” and I was hoping I had likewise nailed it in my last canvas. For a fleeting moment I thought of Cat Dupree’s comment that my masterwork needed a “smile.” I would have to work on that, once I figured out exactly what she meant.

It was just then I noticed movement in the rushes. I had been spotted. I started the cab and attempted to back out of the drive but when I turned my head to get my bearings a police car suddenly pulled in behind me, blocking my way, its bright lights temporarily blinding me.

Through my blurred vision I saw a figure emerge from the rushes. It was wearing a police uniform, and was carrying a flashlight which it aimed into my suffering eyeballs as it walked directly toward the cab. This wasn’t going to play out well, I thought.

I got that tight feeling in my gut again.

This is a sample chapter from my novel in progress, “Tricky Dick Nixon & the 5 Naked Nuns.”

 

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