A Gentleman’s Debate (fiction by Bob Siegel)

by Robert Siegel on November 2, 2016

“I agree that we need more personal responsibility, Jim.  But if we use your plan, then what about the children?  Children don’t get to choose their parents.  It is not their fault when they are born to irresponsible parents. A vote for me is a vote to continue to fight for the children of this state.”  Bill Truett stepped back from his microphone, nodded to the moderator then to his opponent, Jim Crower, indicating that his answer was complete.

About half of the audience of one hundred people in the high school auditorium cheered, the other half applauded politely.

“That’s true,” Clower said.  “I don’t deny that in the short term there will be some pain, but look at all the unhappy, unloved children out there now.  We’re spending a fortune to help them and I don’t believe we’re doing them any good.  In fact, we’re probably making things worse. If we cut the welfare rolls like I propose people will be a lot more careful.  They won’t have children they can’t or won’t take care of.  Right now they know full well that they can dump their kids on the state instead of taking responsibility themselves. That has to stop,” Clower nodded to the moderator that he was finished with his answer.

This time, the other half of the audience cheered while the rest clapped automatically.  Clower stood ramrod straight behind his podium, his face at-ease in a warm smile.  His silver hair offered the only clue that the form Marine and wealthy business owner was 66 not 36 years old.

“Mr. Clower,” the moderator said, “You still have one full minute.  Would you like to use it?”

“I think I’ve droned on enough,” he said.  The audience rewarded him with genuine laughter.

“Mr. Truett, you get two minutes of rebuttal.”

Bill Truett held out both hands as if he was refusing a fourth helping of dinner.  “I’m ready to move on.  I want to get home in time for my wife’s pie.  She won’t let me have any right before bed.  She says it gives me…”

“Now Bill,” Clower said, cutting Truett off. “I promised Peg I would not let you embarrass yourself if she let you do this debate tonight, so I certainly am not going to let you embarrass her.” Clower pounded the podium as he finished his point, Truett laughed, tapped his well fed belly, and the audience laughed with him.

When the laughter died down Truett said, “And I thank you for stopping me, my friend,  Seems I owe you.  Why don’t you go first on this next question.”

“Very nice of you Bill, but I’ll let you ramble on first.  This way I’ll know if I have to work on a good answer or just be lazy and say something simple.”

Truett bubbled with laughter again and again the audience joined in.

The moderator interrupted them both.  “Gentleman,” he managed between chuckles,  “This has certainly been a fun evening but I have only two questions left so let’s move on so that Mr. Truett can go home and have his pie.

“My next subject; schools.  The schools in this state were ranked 37th in the nation on SAT scores.  Is that acceptable, and if not, what do you propose to do about it?  Mr. Truett.”

Truett paused for a moment, looked around the auditorium focusing on a variety of different faces then looked into the television camera. “We have failed our children and I think it’s disgraceful.  This state is home to more wealthy corporations than almost any other state in the country.  These corporations need educated, skilled people and I think its time they contribute more to developing those people.  I think we need a statewide tax to fund three things.  The first,” he held up his index finger and showed it around the auditorium, “Is a dramatic increase in teacher salaries.  That way we can hire the best people.  Second,” He formed a V, showed it to the left side of the auditorium, the middle, the right, and finished with the television cameras. “We need to add more teachers; a lot of them.  That’s the only way we’ll get class sizes down.  Finally, we need to fix up those old, worn down school buildings state wide.”  Truett extended his left arm to Clower to indicate it was his turn.

Clower shook his head in disagreement and smiled.  “Bill, we have got to get away from the tax and spend thinking.  I want to point out to all of you in this audience, and those watching on television, that while our public schools,” he drew out the word, Public, to show his disdain, “Are ranked badly, our private schools are among the best in the country.  So why should we sink more money into a bad system when we can take advantage of a good system?  Why force our children to attend mediocre or even sub-standard schools?  School vouchers will help us fix this problem.  They allow parents to choose their children’s schools so that all children have a chance at a good education.  Let’s use the capitalist system that made this country great to make our schools great.  With vouchers schools will try harder because that’s how they’ll get paid.”

Clower’s supporters cheered, and as the cheering died down, Truett smiled and said, “Jim, you would take government out of everything, but government can help people.”  Truett’s supporters leapt to their feet and shook the wooden rafters with their stomping and applause.

As the din subsided Clower responded, “People are the best ones to help themselves.  “Let them keep their money and let them make their own decisions.  I put my trust in the people.”  Now it was Clower’s supporters who jumped to their feet determined to out cheer their opponents.  Some tossed graffiti into the air and others threw streamers.  The two television cameras, by pre-arrangement from the debate organizing committee, focused only on the candidates and the moderator but the microphones couldn’t help but broadcast the rallying to the television audience.

The moderator asked for quiet and that sent both groups into frenzied cheers of, “Clower! Clower! Clower!” and “Truett! Truett! Truett!”  Each group tried to out shout the other and the cheering lasted for two or three minutes before both candidates reluctantly asked for quiet.

With order restored the moderator pushed on.  “My final question, gentlemen, comes from the audience.  Here it is.  You have known each other for more than forty years. With so much emphasis on the ethics of our leaders these days, how would you rate each other?”

Both candidates smiled appreciatively at the question.  The moderator turned to Clower.  “It is your turn to begin, Mr. Clower.”

Clower smiled to the cameras and looked to Truett.  “I have known Bill Truett since high school football.  I was a quarterback and he was the running back.  That, as you said was more than forty years ago and we’ve been friends ever since.  I don’t know anyone with higher ethics than Bill, and if this election were about character than you could elect no finer a man to the state senate than Bill Truett.  It is that simple.  But this election, in this district, is not about character.  This election is about the direction this state will take over the next four years and you the voters, the taxpayers, need to decide whether that direction is one where people are more or less dependent on government.  Do we want more independence or dependence.”  Clower nodded to the moderator and his supporters burst into raucous applause that lasted until Clower asked for quiet.

The moderator turned to Truett.  “I guess that will be tough to top, Mr. Truett.”

“Yes, it will be,” Truett said. “Jim, I thank you for those wonderful sentiments and I want to return them.  Jim Clower is fine American. Served his country in Korea, voluntarily I should add.  He’s been active in his church his whole life, taught business courses at the university, and most important to me, he stood up for me when Peg and I were married.  You’ll find no better, smarter man to fill that Senate seat. But you have to ask yourself, do you want this state to pull back the programs that have helped the poor, the children, and the elderly, or do you want your government to do more for those disenfranchised members of our society?”

Truett’s people were exuberant, and Clower’s supporters would not be outdone.  The tiny auditorium echoed with cheers that outdid the best of anything the high school students that normally filled the room could do.

With the cheering in the background the moderator faced the television camera and said, “There you have it, the second in our series of state senate debates.  Watch your public broadcasting station Thursday for candidates from the 32nd district.  That’s all for tonight.  Thank you for joining us.”

———-

 

“Some debate last night,” Stephen Chambers said.

Christie Woods rolled her eyes and jabbed an index finger in her throat as if she were forcing herself to throw up.  Then she held up the morning edition.  “I get page three because of that issues only love-fest and a story on the 32nd district race gets page one again, and nothing newsworthy even happened in that race.”

“Their campaign managers traded jabs.  That’s something,” Chambers said, trying his best to sound reassuring, a difficult task because he was not convinced himself.  “I want another assignment,” Woods demanded. “Covering two best friends that took their back porch debate public because they’re sick of dirty politics is a waste.  I want a shot at the war in the 32nd.  That’s a state senate race. A family values candidate with two DUIs who is probably cheating on his third wife, against a man with so many mob connections there isn’t enough space in this newspaper to write about them all.”

“Keep digging.  One of your love-fest candidates has to have something to hide. Two men don’t live more than sixty years without pissing somebody off.”

 

———-

“Looks like you went up a few points in the polls after last night,” Truett told Clower.”

“Yeah, this morning’s paper said I almost sounded like a decent human being instead of a wealthy miser.”

Both men laughed.

“I thought you sounded fine last night,” Peggy Truett said.  She patted Clower’s hand. All three were seated at the Truett’s kitchen table having coffee.  “I think you always sound like human being.  You mean well, I know.  I just worry about people. Not everyone is as fortunate as we are.” She measured half a teaspoon of sugar into her cup, tasted it, and smiled contentedly.

“You’re too soft hearted, Peg.  People are better off when they control their own destiny.  Sometimes they just need a good, swift kick in that direction.”

“A good swift kick,” Bill Truett chuckled.  “Some of these people wouldn’t respond if you hit them with a two by four across the forehead, and it’s their children that get hurt.  That’s why we need school lunches, and medical care, and foster care.  Hell, we’ll spend more money locking them up later if we don’t help them now.”

“You’ve been saying that same thing now for I don’t know how many years.  It seems I remember listening to that worry since before colored television.”

The phone rang and Truett rose to get it. “Hello.”

There was a pause and he said, “Yes, I’ll be here.  That’s fine.”

He sat down at the table he said, “It was that reporter from The Standard that’s covering us. Woods I think her name is.  She’s coming over in about fifteen minutes.  Wants to ask me a few questions.”

“Well, then I’ll leave you to her,” Clower said, and stood to leave.

“No, stay here,” Truett said.  “She’ll probably want the opposing view.  Save her the work of chasing after you.”

“No. No.  This reporter wants to talk to you.  I am sure it is the result of a brilliantly run publicity campaign that has the press fighting for your time.” He kissed Peggy on the cheek and thanked her for lunch.  “You going with us to the VFA tonight?”

“No,” she said.  “I think I’ll let the two candidates battle it out without me.”

“Good,” Clower replied. “He hasn’t got a chance without you and I don’t have a chance when you’re with him.  The women all think you’re Jackie Kennedy, and the men, well…”

“Stop,” Peggy laughed, though she heard the comparison often now that she was a candidate’s wife.  There was a bit of resemblance in the face and the way she carried herself in public.  “If that’s true it’s because he looks like Jack.” She kissed Bill on the cheek as she said it, and he grinned.

Clower waved his hands to dismiss the comparison. “The only Jack he ever looked like was Dempsey.  And that’s after the fight.”

Bill and Peggy groaned.  Clower waved goodbye and headed out.  “I’ll pick you up at seven,” he told Bill.  “Two boxes of posters, no more.  I need to get my two boxes in the trunk as well.”

 

———-

Bill and Peggy Truett invited Christie Woods into their living room where they entertained the other reporters that had recently visited.  There had been two, Woods was the third, the first from a major metropolitan daily and Bill Truett thought that was pretty good for a state senate seat that was not hotly contested.  Both of the other reporters had also interviewed Jim Clower here in the Truett’s living room.

They offered Woods iced tea which she accepted, unsweetened, then went about answering questions about their lives, Bill’s work at the pharmacy and his volunteer work at the clinic, Peg’s teaching, the years they had lived in town, their grown children, both of which had married and followed their careers to new places, and of course the grandchildren.  This was the same feature story material the others had asked.  Woods was the first reporter from a major daily newspaper to interview Truett, not a local person Truett had watched grow up.  That may have been why Christie Woods’ first tough question caught Truett so off guard that he didn’t realize he had been hit until the paper came out the next day.

“I understand Mr. Truett, that your opponent, your friend, in fact one of your closest friends Jim Clower, publicly calls you ‘an old fart,’ and says that your politics are close to socialism.”

Truett chuckled as he told Woods the story, recalling that very conversation at a bar after a club golf outing.  Neither Truett nor Clower drove themselves home that night.  Both men were fond of a drink or two in the evening, which isn’t really a lot of alcohol, so the three or four drinks at the party that night were a bit much.

“I suppose,” Truett said, thinking he was sharing fun memories with this reporter and without any understanding of the trap he stepped in to, “That old Clower says that kind of thing when he’s been drinking, but our friends know not to pay too much attention to him after lunch.”

Truett’s words sent electrical charges through Woods that ignited her desire to write front page stories about a mudslinging political campaign, and the notoriety that would come from being the reporter that broke this one open.  The Gentleman’s Debate, as this election was being called, was going to get ugly, and it would be her chance to get off this small town beat.

“So Mr. Truett, you’re saying that Jim Clower drinks, then talks irresponsibly?”

“When he drinks that much I imagine the words get away from him,” Truett said.  He stretched out on the couch a little bit. He was enjoying joking around with this reporter;  she was so stiff. He thought he could get her to loosen up and enjoy the campaign a little bit.  This was not Washington after all, just local politics in a friendly town.

———-

When Truett picked his newspaper off the front porch the next morning he found out that Christine Woods was not going to loosen up and enjoy this small town election.  The headline, “Clower Drinking Excessive, Truett Charges,” hung over a story claiming Truett called Clower a drunk that could not be trusted after lunch.  Truett read the story as he slowly walked toward the kitchen.  He accidentally slammed his knee into the doorpost at the kitchen entrance, causing a loud thud.

Peg turned at the sound of the knee on the door only to find her husband so totally absorbed in his newspaper he didn’t seem to notice what he had done to his knee.

Finally he slammed the paper on the floor and stood staring through the windows into the vegetable garden wishing he could turn the clock back and not enter the campaign.

“What in the name of…” Peggy started, then stopped as she stared at the headline.  At first she thought it was a joke, the kind Bill and Jim constantly pulled on each other.  The ringing phone made her realize this was the real headline from the real newspaper. No one called their house at 7 a.m.

Truett looked at Peggy then they both watched the phone ring again. Truett picked it up on the third ring.  “Hello,” he said.

“Bill, is this some kind of joke you’re playing?”  It was Ernie Evans, a friend that helped with Clower’s campaign.  “Cause if this is, this has gone too far.  This isn’t like you, Bill.  When you try to be funny you’re funny.  Oh, you are funny, but this isn’t funny.  Jim is going to be furious, he’s your best friend.”

“Of course this isn’t a joke, and there is nothing funny about this,” he snapped. He held his hand on his head like he was expecting a headache.  “I was joking with that new reporter that’s been covering us.  You know, the young one, real business like, never smiles.”

“Yeah, I know her.  She called me ten minutes ago looking for a comment.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“You know Jim’s on the lake this morning,” Evans said.  “He probably hasn’t even seen this yet and if she called him she probably missed him.” Tuesday mornings Jim took his grandson fishing before sunrise.

Truett looked at the newspaper again, then tossed it across the kitchen.  Seven o’clock in the morning and this reporter had already called people to get their angry comments on her ridicules story.

For a moment both men were silent.  Evans thought he heard Truett throw the newspaper but the act was so unlike Truett that he did not know what he had heard.  Finally Truett said, as if there had been no break in their conversation, “He’s fishing with his grandson.  That means I have some time to get a hold of this reporter and shut her down before she makes this an even bigger mess.  What did you tell her when she called.”

“Nothing,” Ernie replied.  “I just said this was a bunch of shit and hung up the phone.”

Good.  If anybody asks you tell them you’ve already talked to me and I said it was all phony and that woman was making things up.”  He hung up and looked at Peggy, who held on to the kitchen table as if it were a life preserver.

 

———-

Woods waited on the pier as Clower’s small boat puttered in.  Clower recognized her right away from the speeches she had already covered, and smiled toward her. He guided the boat to the dock where his trailer sat, jumped out and helped his grandson out.  “Teddy,” he said to the boy, “This is Ms. Woods.  She writes for the newspaper.”

He pulled off his life jacket and unsnapped Teddy’s as he continued.  “Ms. Woods, this is my grandson, Teddy.  He’s in kindergarten so he’s learning a little bit of civics by watching his grandpa.”

Woods smiled brightly, “That’s wonderful.  He looks like a real charmer.  Can I get a picture of the two of you?  I am sure it would make a great piece for a story at some point.”

“No,” Clower said, smiling.  “We don’t want to put grandchildren into the campaign.  It’s too hokey and I don’t want his privacy invaded.  It’s important.”

“That’s fine,” she replied.  “I am just as sick of politicians playing games as you are.  Everyone seems to want to look like the All-American family.  It’s too phony.”

She continued, “I wanted to ask you about some comments your opponent made about you recently.”

“Old, Truett?  What’s he gone and said now?  That fella is a real card, you know.  I’ve known him all my life.  What a great guy.”

“You may not think so when I ask my questions.”

Clower showed no concern. “Oh?”

“Mr. Truett seems to think you have a bit of a drinking problem.  He told me that you say a lot irresponsible things because of alcohol.”  She watched Clower’s eyes when she said it.  She hoped he would fly off but was disappointed.

Clower waved off the comment; “Truett and I tease each other constantly.  He was joking and you misunderstood, that’s all.”

Clower was convinced of what he said, she saw.  He did not take her question seriously. She thought about the other election stories around the state; the congressional races, mayoral races, statehouse and senate races, most were hotly contested campaigns.  Most included a lot of dirt, mudslinging, even a few good scandals but her beat included three uncontested districts and this “Love fest,” between Truett Clower.  “Heck,” she mumbled, “neither Truett nor Clower will even declare a party affiliation.”  It was sick.  If she didn’t get something interesting to report on she would die on this nowhere beat.

Her thoughts rattled around in her head making her angry.  She had to push these two or this race would never get interesting.  “Mr. Clower, Mr. Truett made it very clear to me that he feels you are incapable of handling the office because of your drinking.  He has some of his supporters spreading stories about you and your heavy drinking.”

“Why, that’s absurd,” Clower said.  He started to move off with his grandson so Woods shoved the morning paper in Clower’s face.

“He gave me this story,” she told him.  “He’s on the warpath.  Some of the folks at the paper tell me they have seen people like him before.”  She was creating fiction now.  “First time candidates start to smell the success and power.  It goes to their heads.  That, and they realize that if they lose the election they are going to be embarrassed in front of friends and family.  Any rivalry between you and Mr. Truett?”

Clower tried to ignore her.  He and Bill had no rivalries, at least nothing current.  Their one rivalry had been over Peg, though nothing had ever come of it.  That was more than forty years ago.  In the whole scheme of their lives it had been a pretty minor thing in Clower’s mind and he thought it was probably the same for Truett, though they had never really talked about it.  Both men had dated Peg in high school.  Truett pursued her with gifts and the fanciest restaurants he could afford, while Clower was laid back; he was interested in several other women. The competition, brief and insignificant as it was, bothered Truett.  But Peg picked Truett and was happy. Very happy Clower thought. Was Truett still bitter, jealous, or worse, fearful that Peg still had eyes for him after all these years?  That was crazy.  What Peg had felt for him was puppy love, and that was more than forty years ago.  The Truetts were happily married.  Very happily married, and as Truett’s best friend he thought he would know.

“No rivalry between us,” he told Woods and tried again to pull away.

Woods heard him but didn’t believe him.  Something in his tone was unconvincing.  Time to get tough. “So you don’t want to respond?” She challenged.  “You want to me to write that, ‘Clower had no comment on Truett’s charges?  Sounds like a man with something to hide to me.”

“He didn’t make any charges against me.  He made a joke that you took out of context.  The man’s a jokester, a regular court jester.”  Clower started to say more, than turned and walked off.

 

———-

Clower called Truett from his car.  The answering machine picked up, so he hung up without leaving a message and tried Truett’s cell phone, but got nothing there either.  Tuesday was Truett’s day off and he usually took Peg to the farmer’s market. He would not have missed that even with this nutty reporter causing trouble. The market was an hour away if traffic was light, and they would spend two hours there.  They wouldn’t get back until it was time for Clower’s Bible study class.  He didn’t want to miss his class but he had to talk to Truett.  He thought about it, then called Truett’s house again to leave a message. “We need to talk,” he told the machine.  “Some reporter named Woods has you and me fighting like a bunch of idiots.  She’s asked me if there was anything between you and I and I told her no, but we both know if she digs around into ancient history somebody’ll tell her about Peg and I.  We need to talk about how to handle this woman.  When we agreed to do this election we agreed no crap between us.  I am getting worried.”

 

———-

Woods stopped at Truett’s house on her way back to the office to see if she could get Truett’s response to being called a “jester” by Clower.  She knocked but there was no answer, so she rang the bell, got no answer, and tried the door.  It was unlocked.

“Fool,” she thought as she stepped inside.  “Anybody home?” she called out.  “Hello,” she called out.

The house was small and very tidy.  The furniture looked well crafted and beautiful in its simplicity.  There were only a few pieces; The Truett’s had chosen quality and substance over style.  “Figures,” she snorted out loud.

She saw the answering machine right away.  The blinking light looked like a neon sign calling to her.  There must be twenty messages there, she thought.  She pressed the play button.  The first voice was a man’s.  “Hi Dad.  Hear the campaign is going well.  Saw something about you on TV last night, they said you guys are conducting a real gentleman’s debate.  Thought you’d enjoy that.”

Woods shook her head in disgust and listened as the other messages ran through.  Nothing interesting came up until she heard Truett’s voice. “We need to talk.  Some woman named Woods has you and me…”  When the machine reached the part about Clower and Peg she leapt into the air from the excitement.  She ran the message through again, then went back and collected all of the names she could make out from the other callers on the answering machine.  In total she had three full names, four first names, and a lot people who assumed their voice would be recognized.  She had all afternoon before her deadline.

———-

“We just need to tell the woman the truth,” Truett told Clower.  They were relaxing on Truett’s front porch.  Peg had gone to bed and the neighborhood was quiet.  “She seemed like a very nice girl when she was here the other day.  I must have said something that she didn’t understand and she got a little over anxious.  That’s all. I think we should call her up tomorrow, together, and tell her that there is nothing to her story, and that you don’t drink much, it’s always been a joke between us.”

“There’s no way that will work,” Clower said.  “You didn’t see her today.  She is looking for dirt anywhere she can find it.  When she gets on to the story about Peg and me she’ll run with it like crazy.”

“How’s she going to get any information on that.  It happened a long time ago.  We remember because we were involved.  No one else remembers.  I don’t think anyone in town would remember.”

 

———-

Truett was right about the town’s memory. Woods wasn’t able to find anyone that knew anything about Truett and Peg; most folks she talked to assumed she was joking.  It was frustrating to be so close to a story but unable to get the details or even attribution.  What made it worse was that she had promised her editor a scandal if he left her alone instead of sending her off to interview one of the dullards in the uncontested races.  She watched the clock all afternoon and as her time ran out she gave up calling people and wrote her story the way she imagined it, even creating enough material for a follow-up piece.

“You have a source on this?” Tom Winkler, her editor asked.  “Yes,” she said without hesitation.

Winkler looked up from his terminal suspiciously.  He had expected her to answer by way of some details, even names of a source.

“I got the story from a friend of Peggy Truett.  She won’t stand by it though.  Those two, Truett and Clower pretty much run the town and she’s scared.”

“I don’t like it.  Not without attribution,” Winkler said.

Woods had expected this and had her response prepared.  “The people in this town are frightened of these two guys.  No one will talk.  This is the first crack in the dam I have been able to find.  If I don’t run this story the crack will go away.  Tom, we have an obligation to go after bad people, root them out of government.  If we stay quiet on this than we are helping them grab more power.”

Winkler looked contemplative for a moment.  He had become a journalist to change the world by rooting out evil.  “Okay,” he said.

 

———

“Clower had affair with my wife!” Truett said in exasperation.  “Where did she get that bunch of crap?”  He looked over to Peg whose shocked look told him everything he needed to know.  He sat up in bed and switched the phone to his other ear.  “Does it say who she got the story from?”

Ernie Evans replied, “No one is named.  It says according to “Community members both men are trying to keep the affair secret during the election.””

“That’s the biggest bunch of…”

“Bill, I got to tell you, it’s only 6 a.m. and I’ve had four phone calls already.  Heck Bill, the paper isn’t even out to most people yet.  My name is going to be ruined too because of all of this.  You two are my best friends and I would stand up for you with anything, but that story yesterday really got folks talking, and this…” He let his voice trail off.  “We’re gonna be the laughing stock of the whole town.”

“Yeah, I understand.  We tried to reach her last night but she didn’t call back, I’ll call her again today and get it all straightened out.”

He hung up the phone and turned to find Peggy crying.  “I am not going to be able to show my face in town after this.”

“Yes you will hon. Nobody is going to believe this bunch of garbage.  Everyone knows this isn’t true, that you would never cheat on me.”

“Do they?  Do they really?  What if the story was about Ernie’s wife, would you know for certain that it wasn’t true or would you wonder if there wasn’t some chance, just the slightest possibility?”

Truett shook his head but she continued.  “Do you even know for certain that it isn’t true about me?  Isn’t there some doubt, just a faint voice somewhere way in the back of your mind that you’re refusing to acknowledge, that’s telling you that story might be true?”

“Peg, no.  I would never think such a thing of you.  You two had a couple of dates when we were kids.  That was years ago.”

“Come on Bill.  You know what I mean.  That reporter has created just a touch of doubt in your head.  Your ninety-nine point nine nine percent certain I would never do that, but there is still just a part of you…”

Truett stood and started toward the bathroom.  “ I won’t hear that kind of nonsense, Peg, and that’s what it is, nonsense.  Now I am going to get dressed and go downstairs and call that reporter and get her straightened out.”

———-

“Do you have a follow-up on the Truett-Clower affair?” Winkler asked.  “You need to follow with a big piece today.”

Woods looked up from her notes.  “I have vehement denials from both candidates.  Both men swearing up and down the story was false.”  Woods had already created her follow up story but she didn’t tell Winkler.  She wrote it so that Truett and Clower’s denials looked desperate instead of genuine.  It wouldn’t be hard, a few choice words and phrases, such as, ‘they denied allegations’ of an affair, instead of simply saying they’d called the story untrue.  “Deny,” was what guilty people did.  It sounded more desperate.  And she would make Clower look like a lonely bachelor, desperate and maybe a little depraved.  She would file the story right at deadline, hope that it would run without much editing because it was late.  It would be subtle but it would keep this thing going.

“What about the wife?” Winkler asked.  “Do you have any comment from her?”

“No.  I thought I would save that.  I have enough for today from the candidates.”

“No way,” Winkler replied.  “I want her response.  We’ve dragged her out into the open, now we need to give her a chance to say her piece.”

“But…” Woods tried to object.  She wanted to cover Peggy Truett as well, but what she really wanted was to drag this out for as long as she could play it.  The longer she waited to get Mrs. Truett’s comments, the angrier Mrs. Truett would be and therefore she would be likely to create a few juicy quotes.

Winkler refused to listen to Wood’s objection.  “Without a comment from the wife you’ll have an incomplete story.  Too much else happening to waste the space.”

 

———-

Woods parked down the street from the Truett house and waited.  The candidates had separate appearances this afternoon, an unusual, but she thought, fortunate occurrence;  more opportunity to play the men off against each other.  She waited an hour, then two, and was beginning to wonder if she shouldn’t just go up to the house and knock.  Then Peggy Truett emerged, dressed in a windbreaker and velour sweatpants and carrying a sack that looked like dry cleaning.  She was probably headed to the strip mall half a mile down the street.  Residents in this town walked frequently.

Woods got out of the car and followed at a pace that put her even with Peggy halfway between the Truett house and the strip mall, too far to duck back into her house or into a store.

“Mrs. Truett,” she said in her best sympathetic voice as she came up beside Peggy.

Peggy shot Woods a look that said she was ready to kill, then she remembered she was a candidate’s wife, a role she had no preparation for, and tried to look calm.  “What can I do for you, Ms. Woods?” she forced out.  She continued walking, eyes focused on her destination.

“I am sure you’ve seen or at least heard about the story in this morning’s paper.”

Peggy nodded without looking at Woods, and kept walking.

“I have to tell you that I am sorry about the story.  I didn’t want to do it, but my editor…” She let her words drift off.  “Well, you’ve probably heard about editors.  The only thing they think about is selling papers.  So I wrote the story and he edited it, and changed several things to make it more dramatic.  If I had seen it before it went to press I would have fought with him over his changes.  If he refused I would have told him to take my name off of it.  But I can’t undo any of that now.”

“No you can’t,” Peggy said harshly.

“No, I can’t.  But I can give you a chance to tell your story.”

“I have no story.  This whole thing was a fabrication of your newspaper.”

“Well that’s something, at least.  But Mrs. Truett, you know and I know that’s not true.  I overheard Jim Clower leave a message telling your husband that he was worried I might uncover the affair.  So I know it is real.”

Peggy looked at Woods like a loving grandmother that had a very good reason to be devastatingly disappointed in her granddaughter.  Woods had hoped for shock, tears, and anger.  This wasn’t right.  She pushed harder.

“Let me give you some advice Mrs. Truett, woman to woman, from someone who has covered political campaigns for years.”  This was Woods’ first campaign but she knew Peggy would not know that. “When the reporters start to smell blood they go crazy like sharks.  Your story will get turned around and around so you won’t recognize it anymore.  This is your chance to speak out before it gets crazy.  Maybe even your opportunity to stop things from getting crazy.”

“I have nothing to say to you.  It happened a long-time ago.  We were just kids and it wasn’t an affair.”  She stormed off.  Woods followed for a short distance then gave up.  She had what she needed.

 

———-

“Well it couldn’t have done much good, what either of you two said because that woman chased after me this afternoon.”

Peg, Truett, and Clower sat at the Truett’s kitchen table.  It had been a difficult day.  Truett and Clower had gone their separate ways, each speaking to a different club, then met up for a dinner followed by speeches at one of the VFW lodges, usually a great spot for both men, having served in the military themselves.  But the questions that day were all on Clower’s drinking and his affair with Truett’s wife.  How could they be friends through all of that, people wanted to know.  Clower felt like everyone thought he was a traitor and a cad, and Truett felt weak, impotent, like half a man knowing that everyone thought his wife had to go elsewhere for love and sex.  And yes, this morning Peg had been right, there was a slight nagging doubt.  He knew she had not had an affair with Clower, but how did he really know?  There had certainly been enough opportunity.  He traveled frequently and he worked during the day.  There were lots of opportunities.

As the evening at the VFW wore on he realized that some things about Clower bugged him, things that he had never really thought about before.  He guessed they had always bugged him, but Clower was his best friend so he ignored those things.  But now…

He found himself hoping Clower would not come back to the house with him tonight, and wondering what motivated him to come back.

“The nerve of that woman to try and goad me into giving her an interview by telling me it was her editor’s fault.  What kind of…”

“Liberal journalists will try anything,” Clower said.

“Liberal,” Truett fought to keep himself from shouting.  “Why do you insist on tossing that word around like it was some sort of crime.  If it weren’t for liberals…”   The phone rang and Truett reached for it.

“Dad, what’s going on?  I just heard on the news you and Jim are now having some kind of feud?  And they said that Mom, well, that…”

“Garbage, that’s what’s going on.  Media garbage.  It’s those money grubbing newspapers trying to sell papers no matter what they have to do.”  He glared at Clower as he said it.  “There’s no pride in one’s work anymore.  No one does the right thing simply because that’s right.  They only think about the bottom line, so they’re making up stories the same way they make up stories when they sell cancer sticks to kids overseas, or crush some environmental law.  It’s crap.”

Truett talked with his son for a few more minutes, all the while slamming big business. When he hung up, Clower said, “You’re still on the same thing.  The evil big business, but this is the work of the left leaning media.  That newspaper is nothing but a bunch of do gooders who are trying to ruin me because I’m the one with the money and the big business. I tell you that’s plain un-American.”

“Ruin you,” Truett shouted louder than he realized.  The last two days and the anger from their VFW meeting was wearing on him.  “It’s me their out to ruin.  Now the whole world thinks I can’t take care of my own wife.  Makes me look like less than a man, while you’re mister stud.  Come in and just take the woman, make her happy and move on.  Just like back in high school.”

“Bill,” Peggy said.  “That was unfair.”

“Unfair?  Why are you taking his side? Didn’t you hear what he just said about me, accused me of slamming big business and telling me I’m un-American.”

“You two have talked to each other like that for forty years.”

“Well maybe it’s time I put a stop to it.  And maybe I ought to ask him if he did ever have an affair with my wife?”

Peggy stood and said, “Bill Truett don’t you ever talk like that.  I can’t believe I am hearing this.  You’re offending your best friend, and me.  You were the one who said that reporter was just doing her job and that we should talk to her.”

Truett hung his head.  He had wanted to pull his words back as they were leaving his mouth but he couldn’t. Now he knew he had to say something to fix things, but his head pounded from a headache and from anger and he was more tired than he could ever remember being and all he could think to say was, “I am sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.”

He slouched into his chair while Peggy walked Clower to the door.  They stood outside together on the porch for a moment and Peg said, “I am worried.  This thing has blown up, it’s ruining your friendship, our friendship, and it’s going to be impossible for me to show my face in this town.  That is not what I signed up for.”

Clower took her hand and said, “Peg, I’m sorry.  I know he is too,” he nodded in to the house where Truett sat.

“An affair!  Me of all people.  My God, Jim, you and I had a few dates more than forty years ago.  And now look at him in there.  I knew there would be trouble if you got into this.  Politics is so dirty.  And I knew Bill would worry a little bit about that story as soon as I saw it in the paper.  This could mess everything up.”  She brushed away a tear with her hand then tried to look strong.

“Now Peg, that’s silly.  He may be an old fart but he’s no dummy.  He’s a lucky man to have you and he knows it.  He wouldn’t mess that up with some silly jealousy over something that happened, and ended, a very long time ago.”  He leaned, forward kissed her on the cheek, and headed for home.

———-

The picture of “The Kiss” made the top front page of The Standard the next morning.  The photograph showed Clower kissing Peg in silhouette, with the porch light in the background making the identities of the couple obvious, while hiding the fact that the kiss had been an innocent peck on the cheek.  A little creative work on the computer insured the confusion.

 

———-

“I think it’s terrible what he’s done to the man he calls his best friend. It’s awful.”

“What about her?  Can you believe she did that to him?  Married for all those years and taking up with him on the side?”

“I don’t believe it.  I bet it’s not true.  Jim told me it was all made up by the newspapers.”

“It probably was made up, but who will ever know for sure?  I don’t believe it but I just don’t know.  There she is.”

Everyone in the restaurant looked up as Peg entered. She heard the hush fall over the entire dining room and felt the stares and watched her neighbors and friends avert their eyes as she looked around the room.  In that first moment when she walked in to the restaurant she was not sure whether she hated those who thought she had the affair the most or the ones who pitied her ruined reputation.  What she was sure of was that life in this town would never be the same again.  She turned around and hurried out the door, hoping to get to home before tears overtook her.

“Maybe she really did do something.  I can’t believe she just ran out of here.”

“I just don’t know.  I thought she would have stayed for lunch.  Which one of them do you think she was supposed to meet?”

“It can’t be true.  She was too embarrassed.  At least I don’t think it can be true.”

———-

 

“I agree that we need more personal responsibility, Jim.  But if we use your plan, then what about the children?  Children have no choice in their parents.  They can’t decide to not be born to irresponsible parents.”

“That’s true,” Clower said.  “I don’t deny that in the short term there will be some pain, but look at all the unhappy, unloved children out there now.  We’re spending a fortune to help them and I don’t believe we’re doing them any good.  In fact, we’re probably making things worse.”

“Listen to the two of you,” Peg said. “You never stop.”  They were all seated on the Truett’s front porch enjoying the first warm day of spring.

Truett said, “I told you that you should have stayed in the race. You could have done some good down there.”

“Oh, sure.  Those reporters would have barbecued me after you dropped out.  I was the one who stole his best friend’s wife, remember? But if you had stuck it out and let me be the one to quit then you would have won.  Instead of you, we now have another self interested crook with his fingers in the public till. You should have stayed in the race.”

“No thank you,” Truett replied.  “Campaigning is not for me, and those stories would have followed me.  It would have looked like you quit because you were guilty. People will believe anything.”

“And those damn reporters are so full of …,” Clower growled without finishing the word.

“Jim, I will not have that language at my house,” Peg said.  She glared at him for a moment then smiled and took his hand when she saw she had shaken him more than she had intended.

Clower grinned and held her hand for a moment, then turned back to Truett.  “It wouldn’t have been any fun campaigning without you and your silly ideas.  Why I think you’d give this state away if…”

“Oh, please, Jim.  All I want to do is give people a fair chance against these big corporations that control our lives…

The End

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