In the beginning
Welcome to River Bottom Blues. It's a sad story about a sad little town, with sad little people and all the things that happen when corruption and greed eclipse altruism and good spirit, as surely as the moon eclipses the sun somewhere in the world at least twice a year. It's a town crying for cityhood, where people are born, but never want to die there. In fact, today its City Hall leadership just held a press conference and announced with some fanfare that they were going to hand out premiums of $1,000 annually to people if they promised to remain a homeowner in the city for an additional year. If that sounds cheap, well, the city had already emptied its coffers trying to keep the businesses from migrating to Bernadooah, which was undergoing a massive revitalization after it had elected a savior to office.
But this story is all about River Bottoms and how it hit bottom. Rock bottom, or so its denizens thought just as the elevator of fate had dropped them to that point, until the plunge continued.
Right now, it's one minute after midnight and the moon is beginning its journey up the sky to cascade its rays down on Lake Bleevins, a popular dunking booth for the town's badged heroes, in lieu of the tantrums they wished they could wreak when their nightly rendezvous with a bag of chips (sans fish) is interrupted by a inebriated bar patron heading home for the night.
The lake's wake had remained mercifully quiet for about four years give or take one, and then the baptisms resumed.
Meet Lou Castillo, who's short, balding and chubbier than he was two years ago, when he was carousing local businesses dropping less than subtle hints about how much money he made each year, what toys he bought with it and his sexual prowess, not necessarily in that order. An ex-marine, he was hired in a sheer act of desperation, by an agency that had run out of sons to recruit from its own employee roster. Castillo didn't care. He was happy enough to spend a good chunk of the week, driving around lecturing political activists, always from the safety of his car and wandering into his favorite pit stops, one hand on his crotch and the other waving at the embarrassed women who ran all his favorite pit stops.
"Do they do oral sex in [insert city, state, country, continent, planet]," Castillo would ask. The women would usually shrug, pretending they did not understand him. You never argued with a man who had a gun, certainly not about his sexual aptitude.
Now, Castillo spent his days doing an assignment for which few men were made, but he was born for, as his new supervisor always said, after watching him in action. For a man whose humor was always on the sexual side, he could continue in this vein while getting paid for it.
Castillo's just a minor bit player in this story, much to his chagrin, but it's fitting to start it off with him because he sets the tone for River Bottoms trip to purgatory and back.
Right now, let's head off to a private meeting between John Devil-Saint, leader in training and his staff, discussing future plans for making River Bottoms more attractive to aspiring home owners. Let's see if we can eavesdrop, without making Devil-Saint pat his waist where his concealed firearm rests. You could never be too careful in River Bottoms as long as "those people" were residing there on the other side of town between Eminent-Domain-is- King Place and Cop Land.
Devil-Saint was short in stature, with a permanently pinched face and an untamed cowlick just off his forehead. His main task was running interference for The Boss and turning City Hall from the brown building to the White Washed House without having to spring for any buckets of paint. Today, he had checked another name off his list, the uppity manager on the 9th floor and by mid-afternoon had cleared some space and a cubicle for the niece of the aunt of the assistant department head's golf partner. The cob webs in the interrogation chamber of the Human Resources office continued to stretch their tendrails from one corner to the next and the bulletin board where job openings used to be posted was now uncluttered just as it should be.
"Did you do as I ask," Devil-Saint said to his minion of choice.
"Yes. Have I ever let you down," minion of choice said, pulling at his collar. Devil-Saint looked away and patted his hip.
"Have I let you down today," the minion of choice said again, sweat coating his upper lip. He knew what sat on Devil-Saint's hip. Everyone who worked for him did and even a few of those who did not.
"The mayor is on board," Devil-Saint said, "As long as I throw some accolades for the Greater School of Thinking, he's happy."
The Greater School of Thinking was the unofficial capitol of River Bottoms although at many times, it appeared to be the other way around.
"What about the merry men," minion of choice dared to ask.
Devil-Saint leaned back in his chair, as it sighed as if in relief.
"We have four of them, always. No one knows which four because it's always changing. Even they don't know from one day to the next. The rest? We'll throw some trinkets their way and give it a fancy name."
The city council had seven men. Women were banned from serving by a voters' initiative passed several years ago. The years when women would rise to power in this town, over as surely as the last olive tree had been yanked out of the ground last year to make room for another housing project named in its memory. The ballot initiative to ban all annual, monthly and weekly festivals whether they honored the city's olive heritage or not had also passed. There would be no gaiety and festivity in River Bottoms.
Taken in, taken in again
Wrapped around the finger of some fair-weather friend
Caught up in the promises, left out in the end
No pride, taken for a ride
You say I'm the only one when I look in your eyes
I want to believe you but you know how to lie...
Mike and the Mechanics, "Taken in."
Sammy Franelli drove through the empty streets of River Bottoms in his latest sports car purchased straight off the assembly line just for nights like this one. The rain that had plagued the town earlier had melted away, into moonlight and a starless night. Franelli liked to call himself the front man of the city's council, or its whip. But from day to day, he was never sure if he was the player, or simply getting played.
He passed the Mercury, a hot bar and grill where he and his brothers on the council held their weekly meetings before the televised meetings. This is where things got done, decisions were made, partnerships were sealed over steak, medium rare in his case, and bottles of imported brewsky.
By the time they hit the council chambers, everyone was in a good mood. Oh, if their faces were a bit flushed, that could be attributed to excitement over the passage of yet another housing project. Especially on the face of Franelli's colleague Bert Diablo, who was known as the land baron of where Eminent-Domain-Is-King. His face lit up whenever another row of small businesses owned primarily by "those people" were swept up at one blow, to be converted into condos and lofts, which sat empty after it was discovered that people with money did not want to blow it to live on top of restaurants. Diablo's kingdom was currently very quiet at the moment, as the merry men scratched their heads trying to figure out what to do next. Diablo wasn't worried as he had a secret weapon, his own personal "shadow" council.
Franelli drove by Bleevins Lake where baptisms had resumed after the town had played nice with the latest carpetbagger who had come to town to fix what did not need to be fixed, what was it now, three carpet baggers? Why couldn't outsiders just leave River Bottoms alone and let it blossom into the city that would fill the pages of Standard of Living magazine? Hitting the top 100 list of most livable cities would be ground-breaking for this town. It would be the first time in history it didn't actually have to dip into any coffers to buy a municipal award.
Franelli passed a parked car, by the north end of Bleevins Lake where his fellow merry man Adam Edkins was meeting with his latest business associate, to ponder what to do with the latest round of redevelopment on some recently annexed property that bordered Bleevins Lake. Some said it was worthless swamp land that the city was getting in exchange for some prime real estate bordering the boarded up airport, which was on the auction block to be bid upon by all the big players in the air freight game. Edkins wouldn't hear of it. But at least he could still hear. Most of the people living in Olive Grove had lost their hearing months ago.
"How much do you want that land," the man in the shadows asked.
"How much do you got," Edkins said.
"Remember what I said about posting the date," shadow man warned.
"Do I look like I'm stupid?"
Franelli was oblivious to the swamp land transaction taking place on the banks of the swamp's mother. He had his hands full with the strikes taking place at the White House, the one that wasn't on its way to being the White House. Suddenly, his bloodshot eyes were blurred, as a White Rabbit suddenly jumped in the middle of the road, the one that led from Lake Bleevins to the other thing the swamp-land turned park was known for. Immediately, Franelli's face became crimson with shame and his cheeks flushed with heat. How could he ever doubt the integrity of what had for years, been his bread and butter? The stories he had heard, well they were just stories, weren't they?
Back to thinking not of White Rabbits and of silly stories he had heard by the water cooler at the White House that wasn't on strike, Franelli admonished himself. Back to thinking about how much he envied his newest BBF Diablo, even as he admired him. How could Franelli labor so hard to do what Diablo did so effortlessly? Diablo had Where-Eminent-Domain-is-King and part of Greater School of Thinking, all Franelli had was a rather large spit of land between Olive Grove and Dry Creek. It's not like Diablo had to work as hard as he did. He had put down 40 hours straight, back to back trying to procure enough ear plugs for every man, women and child in Olive Grove. The construction out there was driving even the farm animals crazy.
Franelli's eyes were averted back to the road and the White Rabbit, who stood by the side of the road chatting up the dormouse and wait, was that the...Franelli hit a hard turn to avoid hitting the flock of animals by the side of the road and narrowly missed hitting the kiosk that sat in the middle of the entrance way into the park.
If Franelli had been at home, instead of out in the streets test-driving his latest roadster, he might have been sitting in front of the television with a cold beer, some clams and watching the news, watching the latest story from Brad Bronson, anchor man of KRIS on the town that wanted badly to be a city.
"This is Brad Bronson, and today in River Bottom, the town nestled among what used to be fields and fields of olive trees, was a protest right down at the very last tree. Miranda Butterfield, local activist and her group of women have chained themselves to Olive 'Oyl, the very last olive tree in the historic district of the Black Belt. This morning, these women came with plenty of chains, locks and hysteria, determined to keep this tree," Bronson pointed theatrically at a puny, stunted sapling, "from being cut down by the wave of progress."
Bronson had started out a cub reporter with the local newspaper, back in the day when it was still family-owned, the last of its kind in the country. Then, with one flick of a pen, it became part of the Stuart Larryington empire. Bronson had covered every beat, and sat in every office, except the basement which was off-limits to everyone without top security clearance or a hefty bank account, and worked his way from the first floor all the way to the rotunda on the top floor. Then the blood letting began, beginning on the top floor down and Bronson shook himself out of his ennui and started looking for another gig.
He left the world of print media behind him and took up with a television station, and soon filled the seat as anchor of the nightly news.
Larry Royce, from the Greater School of Thinking grumbled as he watched the television screen. The news was supposed to be all about the upcoming ribbon cutting ceremony to open up the new street that would connect the Greater School of Thinking with Where-Eminent-Domain-is-King. GoWestYoungMan would become but a distant memory, what he called a nightmare, though it always served as convenient fodder for discussions inside the classroom at the Greater School of Thinking.
Bronson continued on, oblivious to Royce's reaction.
"The group which is trying to desperately stem the progression of well, progress in the Black Belt refuses to unlock itself from the tree until its demands are met."
"Damn tree huggers," Royce said, until he remembered that he used to be one himself in another life. Cats have only nine lives. Politicians have many more.
Since Franelli wasn't at home with a cold brew and clams, he missed Bronson's coverage of the fight to save the last Olive tree in River Bottoms. Neither was the Boss who was sitting at a local bar surrounded by faux smoke to make up for the fact that smoking was banned in public places. Every bar needed ambiance, how else were deals to be made?
The Boss usually didn't venture out in public and he didn't want his underlings to do so either except for John Devil-Saint. But sometimes he made exceptions, whenever the local newspaper began hinting that he was a figment of someone's imagination. Today was going to be one of those days. But first he needed a drink. He noticed two men in blue. The taller one was Tex Grunion, but even he was shorter than The Boss. The shorter one, who was wearing a buzz cut and a tattoo of a cowboy dressed in blue sat next to him.
"And the judge, the little fat one, just said how could a man be charged with intoxication in a bar, that if a man couldn't get fat assed drunk in a bar, where could be get drunk," Grunion said, with a sigh.
The shorter one, Gary Vinton just sat, waiting for the punch line until he realized that Grunion had just frowned in intense concentration. Grunion rolled his eyes.
"Don't tell me it's talking to you again," he said.
Vinton had not been feeling very well in recent weeks. His eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, the reason being that his tattoo of the blue cowboy which was on his bicep had begun talking to him. First it whispered as soft as an exhalation. But in more recent days, it had become louder, more insistent. And the dreams, well they were not only in vivid hues of red, white and blue, but the voices were even louder. And his tattoo had begun to glow, and to itch.
I know what you did last summer, said the cowboy.
Vinton shook his head. He had long grown tired of the teasing he received from Grunion and his buddies. And he really had to stop drinking the clear stuff and stick to brandy.
"Ah, yes, it's the One of Whom We Do Not Speak," Grunion nodded, knowingly.
Vinton did not tell Grunion and his buddies that it was the cowboy who was doing the speaking. He told everyone it was his uncle who had traveled to the other side two years ago. But no one believed him. They all thought Vinton had spent too much time in the war next to loud artillery before becoming a cop and that he hit the sauce quite hard each beginning each payday.
"I still know what you did last summer," the cowboy hissed.
Vinson stood up, spilling his drink.
Both Grunion and some unnamed people sitting at a nearby table turned around to stare at him. Vinton blinked his eyes, his face flushed as he looked at his audience and he sat back down on his stool.
"What's with you anyway," Grunion said.
"Nothing, I think I just need another drink," Vinton said, sweat beading across his brow.
Grunion looked at the line of glasses in front of his buddy and raised his eyebrow, before taking a sip from his lone mug of Heineken.