Skip decided that maybe he’d wait on dinner. The chili cheese dogs were holding him just fine, and he needed to get the dark business done.
He parked his Cadillac in the gently snaking driveway of the appointed house and took a slow stroll up to the faux-plantation style house.
It was about what he expected, along with the “I’m with Her” and “Nasty Women Vote” bumper stickers on the parked Volvo and Subaru Outback.
“Expected,” Skip thought, “And sad.”
That race had been run two years ago but leave it to a Democrat to be stuck in the bubblehead past, instead of looking toward the future.
It was also unprofessional, as far as he was concerned. Only amateurs wore their colors on their sleeve and while nobody would ever mistake Skip McAllister for a member of “the liberal elite,” he didn’t advertise it.
Skip loathed being here. He loathed having to talk to this client and take this job. He wouldn’t be here in person, if he hadn’t planned on taking this job, but he had a family to provide for. They were depending on him.
The client, a Mr. Benjamin Gardner, came from coal money. His family had owned and managed mining interests for about 30 years, during the gravy train days, before selling off their holdings in the late 1980s and becoming paper millionaires.
That money had been soundly invested and so now a generation and a half later, the family was still fantastically wealthy. They were just very quiet about it.
The family had given generously to several charities, donated to the building of a couple of schools, but hadn’t put their name on anything. They’d supported Barack Obama in 2008 and then again in 2012.
During that time, Benjamin had served in the Peace Corps and as a Vista volunteer, after completing his political science degree at Columbia University.
In 2015, he inherited the bulk of the family fortune, began backing the usual airhead liberal causes like gun control and the legalization of recreational marijuana. He put money into the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign (obviously) and started a PAC to send out anti-Trump mailers during the election.
After the results came in that early November Wednesday in 2016, when Donald R. Trump soundly defeated that New York harpy, Benjamin’s cheese slipped off his tiny cracker. He went from being a mousy, little limousine liberal to a baby firebrand.
Benjamin threw money at local candidates and bankrolled investigations in the hopes that if he turned over enough rocks, he’d find something that would be embarrassing, that would help shift the current trends in his state and nationwide.
It was ambitious, but foolish. He didn’t have that kind of money and the Republican party had spent quite a bit of time and energy carefully cultivating candidates in West Virginia.
They had spent generations winning hearts and minds.
It could be argued that Democrats were more passionate. They certainly liked to get their panties in a twist and were determined that every social change needed to happen NOW, but Republicans took the long view. Conservatism wasn’t about throwing bricks through storefront windows or bringing down the establishment. It was about making careful, measured choices, but also making corrections when necessary.
Conservatives saw the country as a great ship that needed to be steered carefully, not a jet ski that skipped across the water every which way before flooding out and sinking like a stone in the middle of the ocean.
Less government was better. Fewer regulations and barriers grew wealth and opportunity. People were inherently decent and could make up their own minds about how to raise their children and best run their lives. The country needed to be protected from enemies foreign and domestic and the concept of the United States being a melting pot was a ridiculous cartoon.
It was white, protestant Christian and run by men.
It was also, most assuredly, heterosexual.
Given other circumstances, Skip might have sat down with Benjamin. Over cigars and coffee, the two of them could have worked through the defects in Benjamin’s liberal indoctrination and Skip could have shown him how wrong-headed his thinking was.
But things were as they were and Skipped needed a job.
He rang the bell at the door and waited just a second before the housekeeper let him in. She was a small, dark-skinned woman with a nose ring.
She led Skip into the house and to an office in back. Benjamin stood up from his desk. Behind him was a window and view of the city of Charleston.
It wasn’t a bad view and drew the eye away from the many framed concert posters and handbills spread out over the pale walls.
The owner of the house appeared to be a great admirer of Jack Johnson, Jimmy Buffet and the Dave Matthews Band. There were pictures, too, of the man before Skip standing and smiling next to sweaty-looking men with guitars, who were probably the aforementioned musicians.
Benjamin walked over to greet him.
They were an obvious and predictable study in contrast. Skip wore a suit. The shirt was tailored linen and his tie cost as much as a month’s groceries for a family of four –a gift from Vice-President Dick Cheney.
His hand-tooled leather belt cost $1200. The clasp was pure American silver.
Only his shoes seemed out of place. This morning, Skip had put on a pair of Dr. Martens 1461 Orleans, which was not an attractive shoe. It was the kind of thing a dot.com executive might wear to show that they hadn’t “sold out,” that in their off-time, they went to Phish concerts or other such nonsense.
Skip would have preferred his Italian loafers, but he’d bought the shoes to perhaps appeal to the senses of his wood-be-client.
Benjamin, on the other hand, dressed like he delivered sandwiches for a living. He had on a “Mountain Stage” t-shirt (some local radio program he’d read about), khakis cargo shorts and sandals, which was entirely out of place for the season.
He was very tan, however.
A multi-colored tattoo peeked out from under a short-sleeve. It appeared to the be the tail of a lizard or perhaps a snake, and a modest diamond stud punctured the man’s ear lobe.
When Skip got out of bed this morning, like every other morning, he’d made careful choices about his wardrobe. Some days, he dressed less formal. He had polo shirts and even a few t-shirts he wore when on vacation someplace warm, like Belize or the Cayman Islands.
This man before him was a mess, a 14-year-old trapped in the body of a man rapidly approaching 30.
“Thank-you for coming,” Benjamin said.
Skip shook the man’s hand and noted his palm was damp. He also noticed the room smelled of burned sandalwood and marijuana.
What had he gotten himself into?
The housekeeper left them, closing the door behind her.
“How was your trip?” Benjamin asked.
“Uneventful, but long,” he told him.
Benjamin offered him and seat and returned to is station behind what appeared to be a vintage, polished steel Engineer’s desk; probably something, Skip thought, left over from his father or grandfather’s days as a coal operator.
It seemed wildly out of place and was covered with stoner, frat boy debris –half a purple geode, the size of a split open volley ball, a collection of robot cars like the kind Skip had given his boys when they were only boys and a variety of marijuana paraphernalia.
“You could have flown,” Benjamin said. “We have two very fine airports here.”
Skip nodded. He’d checked them out. They were serviceable. Neither appeared to have a Cinna-Bon, however, which spoke volumes as far as he was concerned.
“It’s better to travel by car for this kind of work,” he said. “It was long, but a nice drive. The weather was in my favor most of the way. I listened to audio books and podcasts most of the time.”
This was a lie. He listened to big band, classical music and talk radio through his XM radio, but he was dealing with a young liberal. They were impressed with podcasts and audio books, though the idle rich didn’t actually listen to either.
They could read a book, if they wanted. Podcasts didn’t represent them.
“Charleston is a lovely city,” Skip said, not meaning that at either. He thought it looked like a suburb of Pittsburgh, with better hills. “I’m surprised I’ve never been out this way before. It must be glorious later in the fall.”
He doubted that, too, but small talk for this kind of work was inevitable. He wanted Benjamin to think well of him, to like him. It made the other parts of the work easier.
Of course, Skip wasn’t entirely certain about what kind of work he was doing for Benjamin, not exactly. Details were vague, which was natural, given the situation. Skip had been approached by a trusted intermediary who told him that Benjamin Gardner would like to schedule an appointment with him.
The appointment with Skip alone cost $25,000 plus travel expenses. The intermediary paid in cash and then gave him a couple of dates and times to choose from.
“We should get down to it,” Benjamin said, wearily, and then removed a sheet of paper from a drawer. “We’re facing a tough election year, here in this state. Now, I’m not too worried about the national guys. Joe can hold his own.” He rolled his eyes. Clearly, he wasn’t a fan of the senator. “But I’m interested in some of the state races, the undercard, so to speak. Do you follow?”
Skip shrugged. The job involved the state legislature and maybe the judicial elections, which were particularly messy after an indictment, a resignation and a lot of drama at the capital.
Skip had done his homework.
“The damned Republicans are going to hold the house, the supreme court and the governor’s mansion,” Benjamin railed. “There’s nothing to be done about that.”
West Virginia politics were strange. Just a year or so ago, the Democrat governor switched parties. It was a big enough event that it attracted the appearance of the president.
The local press howled about it. The Democratic party howled about it, but it surprised no one in Republican circles.
Most West Virginia democrats were almost indistinguishable from moderate to moderately conservative Republicans. They were barely even pro-labor anymore.
It was really only a matter of time until the state dismantled what remained of the unions in West Virginia, Skip thought.
“What we can do is plan for the future,” he said. “This election will go however it must go, but the next election and the one after that…”
As Skip sat in front of the fine, utilitarian desk and listened to a madman detail his plans. It was astounding. He’d have never thought the stoner capable of something like this. As he listened, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the Rolaids.
Already, his stomach was trying to turn on him.