Another Sunday, another momentum shift. If last week was The Empire Strikes Back, with the bad guys ascendant, this week is Return of the Jedi, where Luke kicks ass. Federal judges are slapping the shit out of Barr in the Flynn imbroglio. Two Trump loyalists, Brian Benczkowski and Noel Francisco, have abruptly and unexpectedly left the DOJ. Nadler and the House Judiciary looks like it may finally take action against Bill Barr. Confederate flags and statues are coming down all across the country, and have been banned by freakin’ NASCAR. Protests continue from coast to coast. Trump is so desperate for a high that he’s having his stupid hate rally—but he’s making his covid-denying cultists sign a covid waiver to get through the door. And after yesterday’s embarrassing address at West Point, the press is finally realizing that #TrumpIsNotWell.
Anything can happen, and things can always get worse, but it feels like the string quartet on the Titanic that is the Trump presidency has suddenly stopped playing. Let’s hope this lasts.
This week’s “Sunday Pages” is recommended to me by my friend Lori Hettler, who runs The Next Best Book Blog. City of Hate, the debut novel by Timothy S. Miller, concerns a vast conspiracy in the city of Dallas—visited in 1963 by JFK, and this week by Trump. This line from the description is tasty: “The FBI, the CIA, and the John Birch Society all want what Lemon has discovered in her mouldering attic. What he found is bigger than them all, and there will be a price to pay for it exposure.” One reviewer said the novel “reads like a Gothic love letter to the city of Dallas.” That fine city, like the rest of the nation, could use a little love.
City of Hate
Debra Wilson doesn't have our best interest in mind. But she's received some God-awfully-long instructions telling us how to prepare for a virulent outbreak of streptococcus bacteria. It's one of the many ways that she can flex her managerial muscle. Forcing us to show up an hour early—when we would rather be at home sleeping soundly in our warm beds—she'll take us through a series of drills, preparing us for the highly unlikely scenario that a pandemic will hit and every customer will become an inherent threat to our safety and well-being.
We've endured these threats before.
Sessions on reacting to the advent of the possible—but highly unlikely—robbery of Lone Star Bank. She'll read from her cue card as though she's teaching her Kindergarten Sunday School class the story of the Great Flood. The underlying meaning of her whole presentation is that if anything bad happens, we deserve it. We should consider ourselves lucky that we have a job in the first place.
Never mind Debra Wilson securing a job as branch manager based wholly on her father being the president of the southwest region. With the kind of facial tics Debra Wilson exhibits on a daily basis, she wouldn't have made it through the first interview.
In her mid-to-early forties, Debra exudes a sense of managerial authority without skill, competence, or intelligence. Her ability to string words together to form complete sentences is on the verge of miraculous.
Nevertheless, Debra Wilson's our boss. She's our authority figure. And she'll exhibit her sense of dominance in as many different ways as possible.
Her first of many suggestions—should we get word of the arrival of the mother of all pandemics—is to smile. Smiling makes the fear go away. "Smiling is God's gift to us," she says. "We can repay him by giving it back." She grins from ear to ear as an example—her eyebrows rising and falling into a tic—and instructs us to follow her example. She rates our smiles on a scale of one to ten.
I'm not sure whether to include the tic in my smile or not. I get a six.
Maggie makes gun motions with her finger. She sticks them in her mouth and pulls the imaginary trigger. Her head falls forward. Her arms fall to her sides. She slumps down in her chair.
Debra ignores Maggie's sudden death, or she's distracted by her own sense of purpose, as she pulls a surgical mask over her face—snaps the elastic around her head—and gives us a demonstration on how to breathe normally, despite wearing surgical masks. It may seem strange at first, but she assures us that we'll quickly adjust.
"Any questions?" Debra says.
I look away from her. I avoid eye contact. I don't have any questions.
"Help yourself to more coffee and donuts if you wish," she says.
Maggie's still dead.
She's not moving.
The dead don't help themselves to more coffee and donuts.
It's been so long since she's eaten, she has no idea what she's missing. It's been eons since she's felt full. Entire worlds have come into existence and blinked out into extinction since she's had her needs met. The idea of plenty is foreign to her. Satisfaction is so far removed, that even the idea of hunger escapes her. She doesn't know that she's hungry. The concept of need is altogether lost on her.
One day soon—unless she finds something to fill her up—she'll disappear.
Only I will miss her.
Her son will be too young to understand. Maggie's mom will become his surrogate parent, and he'll forget his mother altogether, except for occasional glimpses of her hollow shell in his dreams. Any concept of what Maggie Smith used to be—her relation to him in any finite way— will be lost to his memory.
Her husband, Victor, will be too busy to notice his wife's disappearance. He's an actor. Which means he's unemployed. Which means he works contract for a promotions agency. Which means he hands out cans of Copenhagen to fans at NASCAR races, Mistic and Zima at concerts at Reunion Arena, free T-shirts at Mavericks games, if you take the time to fill out a credit card application. Which means he travels a lot. Which means Victor's so wrapped up in himself, he won't miss her. He'll be content—having more time to think about himself—no longer having to tolerate her musings on love.
She'll appear to him as a mirage on occasion. Driving down a lost and lonely highway in the blackness of lost evenings—rain beating down from the sky—he'll glimpse the silhouette of a hitchhiker stuck out in the rain. He'll pass her by. He'll think to himself that he should have stopped and picked her up, this lost and lonely fugitive. She looked vaguely familiar.
"I'm leaving Victor," she says.
"Just like that?" I say.
I look for any kind of emotion, look at her deep in the face to see if it matches what she's saying.
"I've been thinking about this for a while."
Nothing registers. Her face is blank. Empty. It doesn't have anything to say.
"I didn't think that was an option."
She looks at me as if she's under attack. She studies my words, rolls them around in her head, moves her eyes away from me. She studies the empty lobby. She looks at her hands. She runs her hands through her hair.
"What am I supposed to do?"
"Have you said anything to Victor?"
"I told him I was thinking about it."
"What did he say?"
"He said that?"
"That's Victor for you."
"Are you ok?"
"No," she says. She says this nonchalantly, without a moment's thought. "But I will be. I don't relish the thought of being a single mother, but I can do it."
"If there's anything I can do," I say.
"You're sweet," she says. "You're a great friend."
Debra tells me that I have a phone call. She tells me that I can take it in the break room.
"Read the front page."
"Slow down," I say.
"The front page. Of the newspaper. Read the front page."
"I'm at work."
"I know you're at work. You still need to read the front page."
"I don't have a paper."
"Private detective killed in cold blood in front of ten-year-old daughter."
"Quit jacking with me."
"I'm not. Listen to this. Forty-five-year-old private investigator, Billy Joe Harris, was found dead in his private residence after his daughter made a frantic phone call to 911. Investigators believe foul play was involved."
"That's enough," I say.
"First Bob, then Billy Joe Harris."
"Stop," I say.
"You're next," Lemon says. "You'd better get out of there."
I'm sick to my stomach. I hang up the phone and walk back out to my station, go through the motions with my next customer, and I can't get Lemon's voice out of my head. You're next, Hal. You're next.
"Are you ok?" says Maggie. She looks right through me. There's no keeping this from her. I'm not ok; I'm in danger. She knows.
Timothy S. Miller lives in Dallas with his wife and daughter. He’s been a ranch hand, waiter, contract driver, professional clown, and spent over ten years working in office services for two prestigious Wall Street-based firms. He graduated with his B.A. in Literature and Writing from the University of Montana, Western.