Trailing Phooey Waves and Kissing Babies - a Night in the American Legion
by Todd Dills
"Look at his face. Just look at it," said Mr. Jones, the Father, one of many in the room tonight. "Waxy. Hey, he looks almost dead." He shut up and hiked his blue slacks, looked to the Mother, who nodded. "Looks like somebody made a wax cast out of him, put him in that museum in Charleston." Mr. Jones laid his crooked pointer-finger into the Mother's elbow. She nodded again. He pointed across the Legion Hall to the Senator. "Waxy," he said.
And now Mrs. Jones followed the line of her husband's pointing finger and looked to the waxy old man, sitting up ahead in a modest navy sportcoat at the end of this line of Mothers and Fathers and Sons and Daughters which curved like a sidewinder through the Legion hall, out the front door and halfway down the block outside.
A little golden-haired girl sat on old Senator Storm's knee like he was Santa Claus.
Mrs. Jones placed a hand on top of the six-year-old Bobby's head. "Only two more and it's our turn," she said. Bobby's eyes locked on the floor.
She was wondering why, why indeed, now that Thorpe Storm was back out on the campaign trail, God knows for what reason, had to know he'd be re-elected--no less was even thinkable, was even debatable, replaced New Yorker on the ticket against him, twenty some-odd years in the Senate already and another twenty to go at least. The mother she wondered why all the old ladies insisted on coming out tonight, on bring-your-kids-for-a-picture-with-Thorpe night. They stood in their own huddle just lateral of the seated Senator. They fawned over the man, these ladies, whose children were grown up or out, surely, or kicked out. They fanned their flushed faces so violently they ended up fanning the Senator and the front half of this line too, though their little group was a good fifteen feet off the head.
Hot as hell in here; a purtrid stink like a cowpen. Mrs. Jones wiped sweat from her brow with the back of her free hand, her other still tied up with patting her son's head. "Only two more," she said, slung her own head around--thick curls of her jetblack hair bobbing against her shoulders--to Mr. Jones, the Father, who nodded. "Damn waxy," he said. Then, hitching his blue slacks yet again, he pointed down to the son, looked to the mother, "Oh Bobby's allright, aintcha Bobby." Bobby's eyes fixed to the floor. "See he don't care at all. Probably'll just cry when old Thorpe plants a big, waxy-sloppy kiss right across that little nose of his."
And just then up ahead of the young family flashbulbs burst, shone in freeze-frame the crepuscular face of the U.S. Senator Thorpe Storm (SC-R), liver-spotted lips, cheeks and all pressed tightly to those of that little golden-haired girl, who was screaming all hell-fire and wide-eyed fear.
A collective sigh issued from the crowded hall, plaster Legion walls seeming to bulge with the blast of hot air--then great roaring laughter, a ballooning round of applause for the old Dixiecrat. Thorpe rose, taking the squirming girl up with him. He hoisted her up to his face, pooched his lips all goofy-babied and said, "Why thank you little Missy. Now run on back to Mama," setting the golden-haired girl down, placing his spotted old hands on her tiny shoulders and very carefully pointing her in the appropriate direction; her mother stood there hunched over, arms outstretched, big howdy-doody smile across her face. Thorpe pointed the girl in that direction, and oh…gave her a little pat on the butt for encouragement.
Mr. Johnny Jones, the father, had positively insisted that they bring Bobby out to meet the Senator tonight. Betty couldn't figure it. But she didn't know her husband quite as well as, say, the group of old women, who--when the golden-haired girl finally hightails it away from the gruesome Senator and into her proud mama's arms--rush Thorpe Storm, crowding round him and jumping up and down like a passel of limber-backed rollerderby girls, or mudwrestlers. Catch these women Sundays out at the Methodist church up on the bypass and you'll see them with their canes up at the top of the front steps at the ceremony's end, old wrinkled toes poking from their orthopedic heels and just over the edge of the top step as if in fear of walking down. You'll see them propositioning the younger men in the exiting crowd, talking about how very brittle were their old bones. Betty Jones now pulls a handkerchief from her pocketbook, her other hand still comforting her son's head; she mops athe sweat which pours now from her brow; she watches the old women swing around in a rotational flanking maneuver, setting a barrier between old Thorpe Storm and the head of this line. "Waxy," Mr. Jones says, just behind her, and shakes his head back and forth some more. The women shield the old Senator from the line, jumping up and down again now like little schoolgirls. Thorpe shoos them off like flies, cause, as he says, "Ladies, ladies, there'll be other days, I'm in this one for the kids. Now run along," a chi-chi little wave of his liver-spotted hand, palm down.
And just then a hush descended. The women parted, forming an aisle of sorts, and another little girl up front of Betty, Johnny and Bobby--this one with right red curls and in a white dress decorated in purple petunias-let fly a blood-curdling scream, laying eyes on Thorpe's liver-spotted face smiling her up and down, his arms outstretched from his now-crouched position. Why would Johnny insist? Mrs. Betty Jones wondered. Here was this relic, this old man who'd run as a Democrat, a Dixiecrat, again a Democrat when the South was completely out of fashion round about 1950, and now a Republican--U.S. Senator Thorpe Storm (SC-R), who apparently was a man of all affilations, who, Betty figured, would never be taken for the shifty old fraud that he was. "Waxy," Johnny muttered, a good deal less emphatically than before, now that this hush had fallen over the room. He looked toward Betty for corroboration. "Looks Goddamn dead," he said, eyebrows rising high.
Betty's curls bobbed--her head swiveled back to Johnny, forth up the aisle of old dowagers to Strom, to her son. "We're moving up honey," she near-whispered in the hush, patting Bobby's head softly to set his poor heart at ease. He's got to be damn near terrified. That girl in the petunia-dress screamed again, squirming in her mother's arms. To the boy's mind a sound like that could only mean one thing: they were going to make her take a bath. And poor Bobby was next. And you know what it is to be a young six and positively terrified of the steam rolling like a hurricane up and out of the tub, Mama hoisting your body shamefully up and over the edge, lowering your kicking legs into the hot water like it ain't nothing but mud, sand or something real nice like that. Bobby eyed old Thorpe's gruesome grin around the hips of the petunia-dress's mother and took it for a hideous scowl; the girl screamed again, and Bobby took off running with a howl of his own. Heads turned. Well, maybe 'turn' ain't the right word for it. Heads pivoted; eyes shot Bobby's way just as Betty caught him at the hips, grunting against his weight, and hoisted him to her shoulder, bringing his head to up against her own, rubbing his back and murmuring, "It's allright, it's allright baby," into his ear as he bawled.
Johnny Jones wasn't never a man for a scene if he hadn't been the one to cause it, so he returned the gazes of everyone in the entire room, returned them in his way, which was to say, "Now what the hell ya'll looking at? The boy's all right, he's all right, Bobby's all right. Aintcha Bobby." The old women knew Johnny, true. Among their numbers were Mrs. Craig, Johnny's fifth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Littlejohn, Mrs. Taylor who'd positively hated the boy in high school, by which time he'd taken to denim jackets and hanging out on the hoods of big muscle cars. Johnny then caught her gaze directly, pointed her out even, said, "You, Miss Taylor, I won't have it. Look away for Chrissakes!" he said, appearing to resume some modicum of his old persona, hitching his pants and thrusting out his chest, cocking his chin in the air, jowls quivering with menace.
"Johnny!" Mrs. Taylor retorted, wagging her index finger and getting a gasp from the entire room, even old Thorpe, who remained crouched, arms outstretched, not knowing what else to do. "I will not be talked to like that by the likes of you," Mrs. Taylor went on.
Johnny's eyes and cheeks went wide at that--deer-in-the-headlights, then deflated into a sheepish, pinched grin. He recoiled in full, scampering off through the crowd to a far corner of the room.
"That's right sonny! We know you!" Mrs. Craig piped up, the lot of the old women rushing off in pursuit of the boy through the horde. The whole place blew up at that point, just because Johnny dared to look at them the wrong way.
But then Thorpe Storm rises, decides he's gonna set it all right. He places the index fingers of each hand into his mouth and whistles like nothing you ever heard, and most people stop their bickering and fighting, but it takes another two whistles to calm down the Missuses Taylor and Craig, who stand hunched and finger-pointing over a cowering Johnny in a far corner of the hall. But finally they shut up too, turn their heads real slow like St. Bernards to Thorpe and squint their eyes just over the top rims of their glasses. Thorpe saunters out into the middle of the hall, raises one hand high above his head. He turns to Betty Jones and little Bobby, Bobby whose face is buried in his mother's neck. He shakes his head wildly there, rubbing his nose in her jugular. Sweat rolls in streams from Betty's forehead now as she attempts to calm him, pats the back of his head and looks up at Thorpe and says, genuinely dismayed, "I don't think this is going to work, Senator. I'm sorry." But suddenly Bobby raises his head, says "Fuck you" loud and clear and picks a juicy one right from his own nose, flicks it at the old Senator. The thing splats flat on the right lapel of Thorpe's navy sportcoat. Thorpe doesn't do a thing, just smiles and says, "Why, thank you."
And Mrs. Betty Jones wondered where did her boy learn that word, her mind turning back as if in reply to itself to her cowering husband somewhere off through the crowd…and why why why now, now that she had quite possibly the most godawful ugly Senator in the history of the State standing not two feet from her with his arm raised high, a booger straight from her son's nose stuck to the right lapel of his sportcoat…what was she to do? And Thorpe was saying, "May I?" and reaching out for her son, for Bobby, who let out a werewolf howl. The entire room cringed. "Don't do it!" Johnny suddenly having changed his mind about the whole affair. He rose from his cowering position and belted over the crowd, "Don't you let him, Betty!"
"Now you just hush up, Johnny," Thorpe said, echoed by a few of the old women in back, who pointed and wagged their fingers, scowled at the father. "Now-now," Thorpe said to Bobby, clearly, then to the mother: "You hold him." He signaled to the cameramen. "Got the cameras ready, boys? This one's gonna be a doozy."
About the author:
Todd Dills lives in Chicago.