A blind woman and her boyfriend worked the concession stand next to our office, day in, day out, nine to five and sometimes longer, if there was a special session. She was legally blind and could make out some shadows and shapes, whereas he was totally blind. I didn’t know for sure that they were romantically involved, but I had a pretty good idea from observing their body language. As a state employee proofing important legislation, I had learned that language was everything in the eyes of the law.
The woman was always upbeat and smiling, with an open countenance that invited conversation, even when she was busy. Her hair was long, brown, and braided. Every morning, I’d hand her a bill for a small coffee and she’d count out the change, feeling the size and edges of each coin. I didn’t know how she knew if I gave her a one or a five or a ten, but one time at the end of the day, I walked in on them counting change. She made large marks on a notepad as they finished, proudly told him they hadn’t had a deficit in over three months. I was impressed. Her boyfriend, a slight, expressionless man, simply nodded.
The proofreader’s office was located next to the concession stand, in the basement of the capitol building. The space was long and narrow, desks lined up against the concrete wall on one side, the far end stretching deep into the bowels of the basement. It looked like an Army bunker, or a place where you’d store canned tomatoes. On our first day, they told us the Confederate Army used to stash ammunition down there. I don’t know if we’ll ever have another Civil War in this country, but everyday lots of little civil skirmishes go off all over the place, like a string of firecrackers dropped one by one into a fire. Sometimes we proofread them.
So, there we were. It was the middle of winter, and the city was recovering from a big ice storm that had hit the previous week. The following days had brought intermittent dustings of snow and consequently, the parking lot at work was never completely plowed. I stomped the powder off my shoes as I entered the building and walked quickly through the long rectangular tunnel that connected the newer wing of the capitol with the older.
A group of middle aged men and women in suits and overcoats stood outside the elevator and as I drew closer, I noticed a young man energetically working the crowd, shaking hands all around, and smiling as he did so. He had the air of someone trying to appear older and more mature than his black hair and rosy cheeks suggested. I sidled along the edge of the wall, reaching out to push the “down” button, which was unlit and made me think the crowd was a congregation of choice, drawn to this young man like birds around a feeder. Despite their intensity, they sensed the presence of an outsider and grew eerily silent as I rocked on my heels and waited for the elevator to arrive. The man stopped shaking hands and assessed the situation, immediately thrusting his hand in my direction, firmly and decisively.
“Hello, I’m Carl Robertson.”
Surprised, I shook his hand back, muttering something mundane like “that’s good.” His handshake was clammy and weak, incongruous with the robust introduction. The elevator arrived and I rode it down to the basement, below ground level, where I would spend the rest of the morning reviewing Mr. Robertson’s legislation with three other proofreaders hired to perform this task only.
In the meantime, far above the catacombs, Carl Robertson shot out of the elevator and headed for the senate chambers in the heart of the rotunda. He passed a marble statue, Davy Crockett or Sam Houston or someone like that whom he vaguely recognized because he’d never been much of a history buff—it was the here and now he was concerned about. Yesterday and tomorrow were words, and words fell short of action in his book, especially when you’re talking about multiple levels of need, you know, people need something today, something more than words, and on this particular day, he would give them a piece of what they needed, on this day, he would ignite the kind of change that would make a difference. Maybe this was the reason he got into politics, he thought, as he turned the thought over in his head like a soundbite. Then, he paused, in the throes of his internal monologue. Were his constituents and his colleagues ready? Maybe the former, certainly not the latter, and especially, the party elders he was about to throw under the bus. No one likes inter-party squabbles. He didn’t care, though, because he’d stolen the signs and was ready to take off for second base, even if it shook the tile off the ceiling and raised the roof a couple of inches. He was tired of being an honorable and dependable but obscure state senator.
During the preceding months, the Tennessee legislature had been busy introducing a series of strange and untenable bills, grasping the attention and sometimes, ridicule, of media across the country. One was to post the Ten Commandments in all public buildings. Another was to outlaw same-sex marriages performed in other states (for those couples moving to Tennessee). Still another promised to roll back the hands of time to the days of the Scopes Trial, and literally make it illegal for teachers to teach evolution. And, as every bill was introduced, the feedback from his colleagues told Carl he would once again be the lone dissenter, the sole ‘nay’ to these preposterous propositions. He knew most folks back home in Knoxville had good common sense and simply didn’t care about these political footballs. Basically, people lived and let others live and their primary energies were focused on keeping their families well-fed and safe. Now, as the bills began to pile up, Carl noticed a few respected colleagues joining him in his fight, but he still had the feeling all three pieces of legislation were destined to pass, virtually unopposed. There were rumors of a fourth bill floating around, something even more pointed in its scope than this trio combined. Carl had some inklings of the subject matter and he was ready to throw up a roadblock, should it hit the floor.
“Can you believe this crap?” my co-worker exclaimed, as we sat in our tiny space in the basement, reading the latest bill.
Of course I believed it. Nothing is too absurd for reality. The bill in question was the one about the Ten Commandments.
“You know, they’ve been trying to push this football team through,” he continued, “and they’re going to pop $300 million for the stadium for people to work and play on Sunday, which violates the Ten Commandments, if you believe the New Testament version.”
I nodded my head in agreement. But I doubted if nuance mattered in these interesting times in which we live. The roll call came blaring through the tiny brown speaker, delicately hung from the ceiling by two thin chains. Session was about to begin.
The Speaker straightened his tie and tugged on his lapels, grand gestures reminiscent of a 19th century orator, the imposing bard from the old South. His beard was gray and his crown balding, and he labored ferociously over his words, spitting them out with great enthusiasm, rising, falling, and occasionally, slowing down to land hard emphasis on a certain key phrase. He didn’t condemn anyone, per se, in his speech, but did make it known that he considered America to be the land of the free, after all, and exercising those freedoms, within the law, was what made this country great. But, no one should forget, he added, that America was God’s country, as it were, and that this country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, which is why it was so great. After all, he pointed out, very deliberately, every American can place their hand in their pocket and find the words “In God We Trust” on every coin—E Pluribus Unum, it says, as the Speaker boldly tossed a quarter into the air. Throughout the speech, Carl Robertson doodled on a yellow notepad, occasionally jotting down a key line.
Meanwhile, the blind woman and her partner listened to the broadcast of the session as they restocked muffins and juice. The brother mechanically felt for the bottles and opened the refrigerator door, sliding them in one by one as he silently cursed his two-bit job, thinking of Saturday’s show at the center, only two days away. He lacked his girlfriend’s geniality, and he dressed to mirror his feelings, black shirt, studded cufflinks, and dark glasses. Either that or he was working to become the hippest beat juice salesman the state house had ever known. The bottles knocked together as he placed them in the cold refrigerator and since they were all filled to exactly the same level, they made a string of consistently high-pitched clanks.
His girlfriend listened intently to the Speaker’s voice, deep tones that resonated throughout the chamber and retained their clarity even as the words snaked through the frayed wires of an antiquated P.A. system before eventually dropping to the depths of the statehouse. The roundness of his voice was remarkable; slow and deliberate, with phrasing full of emphasis and an impeccable sense of timing. He could hold an audience spellbound, with just a dash of the gentlemen’s drawl, and he was doing just that, when she was startled by the interruption of a man who flew over his words, stumbling as he tried to contain a faint vibrato, shaky timbre, and haywire pitch.
At this, a bottle slipped from her partner’s hand and fell to the floor, shattering and spilling juice on both sides of the counter. She strained to listen as the vibrato of the second voice steadied a bit. Soon she warmed to what this seemingly younger man was saying, the ideas were good, rejecting the Speaker in a way that was both radical and mainstream, embracing the doable in his dissent. Sometimes you have to say a thing out loud before you can set out to do it, she thought. The voices of the two men were a stark contrast, rural and urban, old and new, experience and innocence. She sighed. Her partner picked up the pieces of jagged glass, one by one, careful not to cut his fingers.
Carl Robertson certainly provided an audio counterpoint for the Speaker, but as he wavered and then, set course, it was clear his meaning was intentional, opposing the bill, the very fabric of which if passed, would undermine the state constitution and more importantly, the notion of who we are, as Tennesseans. When he finished in a gasp of exhaustion, his allies rose to their feet and applauded, like extras in a Frank Capra movie. It sounded like there weren’t a lot of allies, she thought, but they were applauding.
“Can you believe what this guy’s saying?” my co-worker asked me.
This time, I did. Carl Robertson’s approach was so direct, the words struck me as the real deal, shocking in their clarity and commitment. A compromise would compromise all, he had said. Perhaps it takes an honest man to shock, I thought. Perhaps the speech would be remembered for the ages, a moment when he cast aside the shackle of party and partisanship and soar like a phoenix to national prominence. Perhaps it would bury him, with criticism, or worse yet, neglect, the beginning of .a doomed kamikaze mission. I wondered if the camera crews would come flocking to the Capitol, or if Mr. Robertson would be ignored and shamed in tomorrow’s news.
Carl Robertson headed downstairs to where the proofreaders and transcription staff worked, because he needed a copy of this speech, pronto. Things were going to happen. Quickly. He asked the woman at the desk to provide this service and of course she could do that, she said, it was a wonderful speech and she draw the word “wonderful” out lazily, like a sleeping cat oblivious to the chaotic world around it. Carl noticed while giving the speech that somehow, his weakness had become his strength, namely that his wavering voice and relative inexperience on the floor had provided a sort of vulnerability and authenticity to what he was saying. People seemed to respond to his persona as much as his ideas. Indeed, he had barely finished the speech when a stream of positive text messages began blowing up his phone.
So now he was a man of the people, with great anticipation of his future, dashed with a touch of apprehension, regarding next steps. Would he succeed in getting part two of his plan past his colleagues? Hmmm. On the other hand, this could be the ticket out and up, which of course, he rationalized, would allow him to help even more people in need. The thought of it all made him hungry, so he turned out of the hallway and ducked into a little snack shop. There was a girl with strange eyes at the counter, looking at him as if she wasn’t really looking at him, and he soon realized she was blind. He went to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of juice; some muffins were sitting alongside the cash register, so he picked blueberry, his favorite flavor. He was feeling good and thought he’d help the girl out by calling out his order.
“Muffin and orange juice.”
“I liked your speech,” she commented, recognizing his voice instantly. She pushed some keys on the cash register, her long polished nails clicking away effortlessly. “That’ll be a dollar seventy-five.”
He smiled. It wouldn’t be hard to get used to this kind of attention, a world where people liked what he had to say, moved by the man and the message. He fished a five out of his wallet and handed it to the girl.
She took the money and began counting change. “It’s nice to know there are some honest politicians left in the world. I didn’t agree with everything you said, but I could tell you meant it,” she gushed, blushing ever so slightly.
Carl didn’t notice. But, her partner was struck immediately by the quiver in her voice, planting a seed of cognitive dissonance. She handed the senator a quarter, two fives and a ten, laying them on the palm of the Senator’s hand. He looked over the bills, counted them silently and tucked them quickly into his wallet. Then, he extended his free hand to the girl. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, firmly shaking her hand, “thank you very much. You be sure to tell all your friends about what I talked about upstairs.” She told him she would.
Carl left the canteen, smiling more broadly than before, pressing down harder on the soles of his feet as he walked briskly back to the elevator. This was a good move, he thought to himself, still thinking of the speech. Change is on the horizon, it’s coming, for Carl and the people. It might be wise to refer to himself in the third person from now on, he mused. He wondered about running as an independent. The sound of his footsteps echoed and then disappeared into the throes of a building that had stood since the Civil War.
After that, things quieted down in the snack shop, and in the catacombs. But, not for long. Later that afternoon, the blind woman and her partner tallied their first deficit in over three months. Perplexed as to the reason, they retraced their steps to try and find the precision lost in the day’s concessions. I thought I heard words between them, slightly raised, but we were busy proofing again. The next item was a resolution honoring the daughter of one of the senators, which began, “whereas it is fitting that the members of this General Assembly should pay tribute to those citizens who are celebrating special occasions in their estimable lives.”
Doug Hoekstra is a Chicago-bred, Nashville-based creative whose poems, performances, songs, and stories, have criss-crossed the globe in publications and playlists, his eight CDs and three books earning Independent Publisher Award, Pushcart Prize, Nashville Music Award, and Independent Music Award nominations, as well as a legion of friends and fans. www.doughoekstra.net
(Photo by Devon Eloise)
"Concessions" is featured in Canopic Jar 35: an anthology