Two weeks later, late one afternoon, I was standing outside Rivertown’s city hall, about to watch another clown—this one relentlessly alive—being hauled away by earnest young men in dark suits.
I’d been drawn across the lawn by the arrival of a Channel 8 News van. Nothing at Rivertown’s municipal offices had ever interested the press before. The corruption there is pathetic in its cheesiness, not nearly as dramatic as the big-scale shenanigans in Chicago, just to the east. So whatever it was that had finally drawn the newsies was enough to interest me. I scrambled down the long ladder, capped my paint, and hoofed it across the broad lawn that separates my turret from city hall.
I got there just as a young woman got out of the van. She was dark-haired, slim, and taut of skin and sweater. I watched her from twenty feet away, a crowd of one, as she smoothed the wrinkles from her black skirt and touched at the matching luster of her hair.
I no longer recognized most of Chicago’s field reporters. The local television stations were purging their stock, replacing crinkled, mostly male veterans with unmarked females. Some of the new ones looked and sounded young enough to be on work-study rotations from the local journalism schools.
Not so the one who’d gotten out of the van. She was young, but not college-young, and on television, she came across smart, way past school-smart. It didn’t hurt, either, that she was one of the best-looking women in Chicago news. Up from weekend weather, she was now doing small features, but I imagined her bosses had her pegged for a local anchor slot. She was a comer, someone to watch. She was Jennifer Gale.
Her cameraman, a burly fellow with a scruffy beard and a Taste of Chicago T-shirt, shouldered a video camera and motioned to her to step into the frame he was making of the front entrance of city hall. He squinted through the viewfinder, nodded, and she began speaking into a handheld microphone.
“I’m here in Rivertown, just west of Chicago, where today Elvis Derbil, building and zoning commissioner, is being arrested for unlawfully relabeling and selling thousands of bottles of out-of-code Italian salad dressing. Allegedly, the labels were falsified not only to redate the stale product but also to disguise its true fat and caloric content. Commissioner Derbil, a longtime Rivertown employee, is a nephew of the mayor.”
The cameraman nodded, and she stopped speaking. For two or three moments, nobody moved. Not Jennifer Gale, who stood fixed in the shot that had been set up. Not the cameraman, hefting what looked to be a heavy camera. Not me, the crowd.
Then the front door of city hall opened and two dark-suited young men marched Elvis Derbil outside.
They had him handcuffed, the current fashion for parading a white-collar perp past a television camera. Except Elvis’s collar wasn’t white. It was a purple plaid, which contrasted arrestingly with his green denim jeans and turquoise-studded brown cowboy boots. I could only hope that Elvis had not been tipped about his arrest. To think otherwise, that he’d deliberately chosen those colors for his day on television news, would have been unkind.
Microphone raised, Jennifer Gale charged the trio. “Mr. Derbil, did you alter labels to resell stale-dated salad oil?”
Elvis gave her a yellow-toothed grin, but he’d pointed it a foot below her chin. Elvis never shrank from looking like a fool.
When he didn’t answer, she aimed her microphone at the suit closest to her. “Are more arrests pending?”
The young man shook off the question and hurried ahead to open the door of the black Impala parked at the curb. I turned to watch the suit that stayed with Elvis. As I’d hoped, he was raising his hand to protect the top of Elvis’s head as he nudged him down onto the backseat.
This part would be especially wonderful.
It was. The young man’s hand made contact, and suddenly his face contorted as if he’d just palmed steaming roadkill.
Mercifully, I’d never had to touch Elvis’s head, but I’d long been familiar with its sheen and could imagine its stickiness. Back in high school, Elvis had greased the sprouts atop his narrow head with Vaseline, slick jelly that made his hair and the tops of his ears glisten like newly lubricated machinery. Speculation had it then that any insect landing on Elvis’s head would dissolve in the petrochemical ooze before Elvis could think to scratch.
Years later, when my own life had dissolved and I retreated back to Rivertown, I had to go to Elvis, now Rivertown’s building and zoning commissioner, for an occupancy permit to live in the turret, and I saw that the years had not been kind to the top of his head. His forehead had retreated substantially, forcing him to abandon petroleum jelly for a scented hair spray, which he used to starch his cowering hairline up into a kind of wall, halfway back on his scalp. Like his beloved Vaseline, the spray had gloss, so he was able to maintain a sheen. Gone, though, was the mixed mechanical smell of grease and whatever had perished in it. Elvis now smelled of coconut, freshly shredded. It was that sticky, coconut-smelling residue that the young suit had just palmed.
Furious at what was now on his skin, the young man slammed the door on Elvis and spun, holding up his hand as though wounded. His eyes were wild and darting, desperate for a place to wipe his palm and fingers. His eyes found the grass. He began to kneel. Then he stopped, for he’d suddenly realized that Jennifer Gale and her cameraman might still be running tape, not ten feet away. Straightening up, he mimed a ludicrous nonchalance as he walked around to get in the passenger’s side of the car.
The Impala sped away, but I expected it wouldn’t speed long. My money was on a screeching stop at the nearest gas station, for the sticky-palmed young man to make a fast, one-handed dip into the windshield wash.
Jennifer Gale finished her concluding remarks and handed her microphone back to the cameraman. As he headed for the van, she smiled at me and walked over.
I noticed fine lines around her eyes, and a couple more, the good kind, from laughing, around her mouth.
“I saw you get off the ladder. You work for the city?” She pointed at the turret behind me.
“I live there.”
She frowned. “That’s a city landmark. It’s on their letterhead. They let you live there?”
“My grandfather built it. I inherited it.”
Her eyes told me she didn’t believe me. “Interesting. Are you surprised about Elvis Derbil?”
“Nothing about Elvis surprises me.”
I was surprised, though. Altering salad oil labels required ingenuity, and that wasn’t Elvis. He was a subterranean operator, a minion directed to trade zoning and building permits for cash. Beyond that, he wouldn’t move without instruction.
She turned to look behind her, at city hall. “I suppose your grandfather built that, too?”
I was used to the question. City hall was built of the same stones as the turret.
“They appropriated my grandfather’s pile of limestone and most of his land at the end of World War II. They didn’t want the turret.”
After another glance at the turret, she made a show of studying my paint-splattered jeans and torn T-shirt. “Are you eccentric?”
“Only until I get enough money to act normal. Why?”
She pointed to the turret behind me. “Because I’m wondering if you use a chauffeur.” A smile played at the nice faint lines on her face.
I turned. A long black Lincoln limousine was parked behind my Jeep, and a liveried chauffeur, in full gray uniform with a black-visored hat to match, was knocking on my timbered door.
Never at a loss for snappy repartee, I said, “I use him for odd jobs, fetching pizzas, picking up my other pair of jeans from the laundry.” I wished her luck in unraveling the greasy strands of Rivertown and headed for the turret.
“Until tonight, at nine,” she called after me.
“I never miss the news,” I called back.
Copyright © 2012 by Jack Fredrickson