"Legislative Awareness Day"
Ned Corner (R-IN) liked to think of himself as a Fair Man. He pictured that sentence in a history book, or in his eulogy.
“Kelly!,” Corner yelled for his smartest page, “I need you to do some research for me.”
Kelly was prompt, reliable, female, and too serious to have dirty thoughts about. In short, she was the perfect staffer for the post-Foley era. This was a good thing, because whether or not Corner was a fair man, he was a lazy one, called Cutting Corner by his generous House colleagues.
“Fire up The Google.”
“Of course, sir, but it’s not as if I need a secret password. You could do it too. Show the folks at home you could keep up.”
“I’ll think about it.” Embarrassed, he looked for a distraction.”What else is going on today?”
“The auto-rescue package and some constituents concerned about entitlements.”
“Yes, you know…Social Security and whatnot.”
“I know what they are… what about them?”
“Some constituents are concerned about them, sir.”
He made a sour face and Kelly shook her head no, politely yet firmly. She would make some man a fine wife someday.
“Couldn’t you do it?”
She smiled that crooked smile that made his heart flip over, despite his best judgment, and told him, “That’s why your name is on the door, Chief.”
He stood tall then and tried to think important thoughts. He followed Kelly into the lobby where he was met by a motley assemblage of young people, some with crutches, some in wheelchairs, and one young man sitting on the couch running a tiny blue toy sports-car over the nap of the fabric, despite having the gangly legs of a boy in his mid-teens. Corner felt shy among all of those people who seemed to have lost life’s lottery, and it made him think of returning to his home district after being in Washington all winter, trying to connect to his own children through the noise of loud music and the disgrace of wet can rings on antique furniture, as the late Mrs. Corner was too sweet to be much of a disciplinarian. They didn’t have it in them; estrogen made them soft. He did what he did at home and butted into things he didn’t understand.
“Young man,” Corner scolded, “I’d prefer if you kept your feet off my furniture,”
“Oh, I don’t know, sir,” Kelly answered. “I don’t think he’s hurting anything.”
Corner got closer to the boy and said, “I have an image to maintain, Ms. Quarters…hey, son, are you in there?”
He snapped his fingers. “Feet on the floor.”
As the congressman’s stubby finger snapped in his face, the boy screamed long and hard. Only then did Corner remember why so many of his own family dinners had ended in tears. He had spoken so often of the importance of discipline and a father’s firming hand at the dinner table that his memories had become like beloved images in a photo album. He was then free to leave stupid things he said, and Abby and Cathy’s door-slamming tantrums, out of the shot, so to speak. Abby and Cathy did not have the strong lungs or staying power of this crippled boy, however, which made Ned Corner feel very frightened. He considered rushing back to his inner office and pretending to do classified stuff all day, but he was already at the last table at the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast. If he got a reputation for racing past crippled people, he’d probably end up on the patio and Rahm Emanuel would make him hide the President’s forbidden cigarette butts. He’d never stand for that. Not twice, anyway. The boy’s scream was as inexorable as a caveman’s car alarm until, finally, a pause for breath, a moment of silence. Corner rubbed his assaulted ears.
“He hates to be startled,” an acerbic female voice offered, as the teen crawled under the table in the reception area, barking all the way. Corner was surprised to face this critic, as the tiny redhead in the wheelchair and the green sweater looked too delicate to contain so much scorn. She faced him down, indifferent to Corner’s Time magazine cover, which had been mounted in a nice frame on the wall behind her head. He considered calling her attention to it, but he doubted it would matter much.
“He hasn’t even been coming to Disability Coalition meetings for three months and I know that… God.”
She didn’t want to admit that the only reason she noticed him was that he had the faraway good looks of a teenage idol. If she could somehow manage to be fourteen again, she would put a poster of him on her bedroom wall and smother it with kisses before she went to sleep. She couldn’t tell Corner that even if she wanted to, but he didn’t stay still for her to, withdrawing into some inner office and closing the door behind him. For a moment, she was angry and thought about following him to the doorway but a flash of white paper caught her eye.
“Young lady, please don’t use the Lord’s name in vain in front of me,” he told her, with the door open a crack, again the aggrieved father of a mouthy teen.
“I wasn’t; I was praying for you… you seem like you could use the help.”
He couldn’t tell if she was teasing and it made him uncomfortable. Stella was pushing thirty so hard it was pushing back; she was in no mood to be lectured, and his discomfort made her smile.
“What should I have done instead?” He generally didn’t like to ask for help, but it wasn’t as if he would have to face her like she was someone.
She shrugged. “How should I know? I know two things about that guy. His name is Stefan and he doesn’t like to be touched… I know three things if you count Stefan being a car freak…does that little TV get the Speed Channel?”
“Mostly we use it to watch news or C-Span. I don’t know…”
Corner waited a moment, as if she were going to soothe him by saying that of course he was too busy to pay attention to details, but if he waited to be soothed by this gruff little person, he’d be waiting a long time. She used the remote with a practiced hand and soon the sounds of auto racing filled Corner’s outer office.
The congressman tried a different tack. He knelt and offered her his hand. “Hi, I’m Ned Corner.”
“I know who you are… I’ve seen you on the news.”
”And you are…”
“Me? I’m Stella Stevens. Retro and embarrassing, right?”
Corner smiled briefly and walked away satisfied he had done his best with the less-fortunate.
Stella smiled and her cheeks were pink. She watched intently as Stefan reached his hand up to touch the televised face of the racecar driver. His look of longing was so intense, Stella felt some dust in her eye, and lowered her head. When she looked down, she saw a scrap of paper, crammed with tiny, old fashioned looking handwriting.
“Is this yours? It looks like something.”
She rolled over and attempted to give it back, her open hand reminding her of feeding the goats at the petting zoo, but unlike the goats, Stefan seemed reluctant.
“That’s okay,” she told him. “Maybe I’ll just hold on to it. But we don’t want it to get lost…it looks like you worked really hard on…whatever this is.”
Maybe she was making a big deal about fantasy baseball, or D&D. Other people got to keep their nerdy stuff without somebody throwing it out. She couldn’t read it well; it made her think of math classes and the way that preparing for exams had made her bite her nails and feel queasy. She called her brother and told him what she brought home and he sounded intrigued. Of course, business had been down a lot so there wasn’t much to absorb his attention. He sounded psyched when he saw the calculations though.
“As far as I can tell,” he told her “It looks like a way to run cars on vegetable oil.”
“Damn right, wow.”
“I picked it up when we went to Corner’s office.”
“You had your hands on a gold mine…we should try to make this happen as soon as possible!”
Stella nodded, swept along by the fact that her brother hadn’t looked that excited about anything since they stopped making Star Wars men. He was psyched about this auto thing, and, for that reason, more than any overwhelming political or environmental concern, Stella resolved to track it down.
Stella was relieved to find that she and Stefan’s family were close neighbors; not that Stefan’s mother made it easy at first.
“Forgive the mess,” she told Stella. “It’s been a rough morning.”
As his mother guided Stella through the house, she began to see what the older woman was talking about. It looked like there had been a riot in a video store as books, CDs and videos were flung from their cases.
“Your message wasn’t very clear. What do you want with my son?”
“Well, Mrs. Kaminsky,” Stella told her. “Your son may have solved an engineering problem that’s haunted us for a hundred years.”
“Again? I wish I had a dollar for every time some therapist came down here making crazy claims about Stefan…I love my son, but my job is hard enough.”
“Mrs. K, trust me, if this works out the way I think it will, you’ll get your dollars.”
Stella looked intentionally downcast. “Although I am hurt you think I look like a therapist.”
Stella took out the grainy photocopy she made of Stefan’s scrap. “Your son will revolutionize the auto industry. This may hold the key to saving the environment, getting our country off foreign oil, and, um, lots of stuff.”
Science had never been Stella’s best subject and some of what her little brother had said had left her head entirely, but she knew it was important enough to keep hammering away. Mrs. K. put on reading glasses and studied it for a moment, but seemed nonplussed.
“What about this?” she said, pointing to a notebook that looked to be full of similar formulas.
“I don’t know,” Stella admitted. “They say it took Edison over a hundred tries to get a working lightbulb…maybe school kids will be looking at this notebook in a museum someplace.”
This kind of optimism made Stella feel like a doofus, but the potential of the new enterprise made her feel too naked for irony.
“When he was ten he took apart our Taurus and put it together again…it took him a week, but he did it. We thought we would wring his neck first, though.”
“Your son is a genius.”
“We’d settle for not having to watch that movie about Dale Earnhart again, darling.”
It’s getting close to winter when Corner finally remembers the matter that brought Stella, pink-cheeked and earnest, back to his district office after a half-hour ride on the bus. He hated to remember that he’d kept her waiting, after reading what an advantage it gives executives in business books. She took it like a trouper, though, and her passion for what she was saying animated Stella’s face so much that she was almost pretty. After that fifteen minutes, although she did give him a rather token handshake, it seemed that Corner finally understood what he stood under all that bunting for and why he ate all that chicken with the indefinable, gelatinous gravy on it. He decided then and there that he had found something worth working for, but it had been so long since he had thought that much, he had a headache above his eye for a week after he wrote the document that was now in his briefcase.
Some people did say that he did it to placate two tiresome (and broke) constituencies in one shot; it had started there, but he had become proud of the Community Reinvestment Initiatives Project (CRIP). He liked the thought of Americans working in those factories again, even if they were halt and lame while they did it.
The Speaker of The House barely looks at Ned as she asks if there is any new business, but Ned hasn’t been this enthusiastic since his ant farm lost the science fair in the fifth grade. Speaker Pelosi is initially puzzled, but she treats him like one of her many grandchildren and tries to anticipate the source of his question.
“Mr. Corner,” she reminds him, gently, but with a keen look over her reading glasses, “we agreed, owing to the large amount of business on the calendar this week, we’d work through lunch.”
“No, Madam Speaker, I have something.”
“Really?” She was moderately successful at keeping the surprise out of her tone and off her face.
“Yes, I have a Bill.”
He looked as though he expected her to stick a gold star upon it, but even a broken clock was right twice a day. Corner usually wrote Keep America Beautifulstyle resolutions so his style was rusty, but it really was an ingenious thought combining the disability jobs funding with a green auto initiative. Ms. Pelosi hoped she wasn’t being too obvious in looking at the bill and looking at the man who cost the Republicans the House Pictionary tournament, although she did hear her granddaughter’s voice in her thoughts saying something…what was it? Oh, right, “No way…” the Speaker of the House breathed.
It wasn’t his, probably, but that woman who wrote Twilight didn’t invent vampires either, just left her sparkling and moody stamp on them. And look how many copies she’d sold. Of course, that didn’t mean the books were actually good, but they were page-turners, and a page-turning administration needed a pageturning domestic initiative. It had come from a very unlikely place. Corner waited impatiently, wishing it weren’t so cold and grey out. The unaccustomed mental activity created a craving to be on the move, but the sky looked almost pregnant with cold so he paced the hallway. Instead of the House leaders, or fellow Republican congressmen, he saw Kelly.
“Lunch is on me today,” she told him, showing him some Chinese take-out containers. “We have to talk.”
She leaned in so close he could smell her cherry-vanilla body lotion. Corner’s heart beat so fast he thought he would pass out.
“Are we celebrating my bill…or something else?” He tried not to sound too goofily hopeful.
“I’m really proud of you for that… that’s what makes this so hard.”
He thought, “You’re telling me,” but tried to keep a neutral look on his face.
Kelly nibbled a won ton and then took a deep breath.
“Look, I’ve been trying to be graceful about saying this, but I’ve met someone… we’re in love and we’re moving away.”
Corner tried to joke. “Anyone I know?” He raised his eyebrow in a way that would get him in trouble with the Baptists back home.
If she noticed, the thought of it didn’t seem to make her happy so he chose to think of himself as very subtle.
“No, I don’t think you know her…she taught me yoga in Indianapolis when I threw my back out, and…”
And she went on to tell some story about meeting this same woman in a salad restaurant in Union Station and what a small world it was, and how funny, and how she looked at this Gloria and “just knew,” and Ned felt like he was watching himself listen while fiddling with his peapods.
Kelly did notice his face fall, if only for a moment, and said “My God, Ned, I thought you knew…it’s not like I’ve made it a big secret. Although it’s true I didn’t mention it at work…but I think you know why, right?”
“What am I going to do without you?”
He hated that this question made her laugh, but if she were really in love, everything made her happy.
“I don’t know…learn how to Google? I could have Simon train you on the data bases and voter file.”
“Forget the damned voter file. This has nothing to do with the voter file.”
This was the most unscripted moment he’d had in at least ten years, and he had never really been good at them. He liked the certainty of knowing the response he set off by filming a flag unfurling on a windy spring day; emotional, yet dependable. Not messy like this. Kelly’s green eyes were wide.
“This is way more intense than I thought it would be, Ned. But you might as well get it off your chest. Anything else?”
Corner was not a hip man, either, but he had seen enough recent movies to not say, “Well, you don’t look like a gym teacher,” although he did think it to himself.
“No, that’s okay. I really do want you to be happy.”
“You’re a great guy. You’ll find somebody. If I liked great guys…”
“You don’t have to finish that.”
“It’s true enough.”
Without her ideas spurring him forward, Corner lost interest in presenting his bill, or anything else. He stayed home for about a week moaning about bad cream sauce until his bill was torpedoed by some of his nuttier constituents. He took up watching judge shows and went back to reading comic books.
Stella and Stefan never really knew how close they came to having the door of opportunity swing back on its electronic hinges, but they are born to survive, and that’s what they do, taking some pride in the installation of two automatic doors and the public library’s new lowered water fountain. The Community reporter must have found Stefan beautiful in the same way that Stella does, because the photo of him wincing as the cold fountain water hit his face has made the front page of the Local section.
He is on his fourth notebook of the year. Stella still collects the bits and pieces that fall out of them.
Erika Jahneke is a writer and blogger who has written about subjects as diverse as the city of Baltimore in pop culture and women’s reproductive health. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Smile Hon, The November 3rd Club Journal, and Kaleidoscope, among other publications. She believes that her writing can almost make up for the physical power she lost when she developed a brain injury at birth and became a life-long wheelchair user. She lives in Phoenix, where she sometimes considers herself the Drama of the media and publishing world, although she has no immediate plans to change her calves. Feedback, flames, and tempting assignments can be left at email@example.com.