By: Matt McCarter
Mike Chamberlain usually arrived at the office of the Piankashaw Journal, the weekly newspaper, late and thoroughly hungover from a hard night of drinking. He looked into the bottom drawer of his desk and found a half empty pack of Pall Malls and three fourths of a quart of Cutty Sark. Mike routinely had women problems. You see, in the South, there were women who believed that the thing to do was find a good man who would protect them give them babies, and pay their way. While women in other parts of the world discovered the joys and satisfactions of combining their responsibilities of family and work, of being able to take care of themselves, women in Piankashaw still liked the idea of being saddled with a baby by the age of seventeen. I am sure that most of them got married out of small town boredom.
Because of this phenomenon, Mike had been through three wives and was still making monthly child support payments to two of them. It was incredible how the boys from Piankashaw could mistake tiny moments of lust or bliss for love. He often said that having unprotected sex with these Piankashaw girls was like maxing out a credit card at a whore house – you were going to make minimum monthly payments for damn near the rest of your life. He said that it was a real shame that he couldn’t have figured that out the first time but that those Piankashaw women with their feminine wiles convinced him otherwise a few more times before Sharon – his latest ex-wife and child support recipient, “broke him from sucking eggs.”
He complained that he had no money to do any of the things that he had dreamed of in his youth – things like hitchhiking across Europe, drinking what we Americans would call “expensive” French wine out of the bottle, and sleeping with young art students that offered to sketch him on the Left Bank. Backpacking across Europe seemed like a password for adventure to Mike, something straight out of a Kerouac novel with endless explorations and discoveries on the road. “So much for the American dream or the European dream or whatever you want to call it,” he thought.
Since he was too broke to hitchhike across Europe and get drunk every step of the way, he spent most of his nights down at Quantrill’s drinking whiskey, reliving those glory days, and shooting the shit with the rednecks around Piankashaw County. Because of a handful of journalism courses he took in college after he got out of the Army, he was the nearest thing to a newspaper professional that there was in Piankashaw County. After the untimely death of the former publisher of the paper, his widow became the new publisher and Mark became the de facto editor of the paper. Other than the weekly hog report, the high school sports and the “court news” (a column explaining who got busted doing what), he didn’t have anything to do with his time but hang out with his buddies at Quantrill’s – after all, that is the place you go to learn all the news anyway.
That is, he didn’t until today. Election years bring strange weather to places like Piankashaw County, Missouri and this year has got to be the strangest. The community has always been a forgotten spot on the map, even the people responsible for tourism thought so – adopting the slogan, “Piankashaw … Missouri’s Best Kept Secret.” Well, it appears that Piankashaw’s days of being forgotten have come to a screeching halt – at least during the election season. You see, the Missouri Senate race was much too close to call and the reason that Mike Chamberlain had to go to work so early and suddenly became busy was because in just a short time, Piankashaw will be blessed with the presence of the distinguished Governor of the Great State of Missouri, John Ashcroft.
The publisher of the newspaper, Cindy Stradt, usually didn’t give Mike too much grief about anything he did with the paper. Lately, Mike had wondered if she even remembered that they had a paper at all. She only had some marginal interest in the paper before her husband died but after his death, she suddenly became a young widow with a couple of young mouths to feed. Her kids needed her and of course, she had needs, too, so when she wasn’t busy taking care of her kids, she was usually out at one of the bars or private clubs searching for some fortysomething single man to come over to her house and knock the stuffing out of her egg McMuffin. Thus, Mike was often left in the newspaper office to do as he pleased without any interference from her. At least, he was until Ashcroft said that he was coming to town.
Last night at Quantrill’s, Mike told his friends “After the Governor’s office sent the press release, Cindy immediately got on the phone and called every do gooder in the county and told them about it, letting them know that our state officials in Jefferson City really did know that Piankashaw existed and that we all should get together and welcome the Governor to town.” The problem that Mrs. Stradt faced was that nearly every registered voter in Piankashaw County was a Democrat and that John Ashcroft, being a Republican, couldn’t get elected dog catcher much less United States Senator in Piankashaw County.
Mike took a few aspirin when he sat down at his desk and decided to finish proofing up some of the stories that he wanted to put in this week’s edition of the Piankashaw Journal. The first order of business was to read the story about the shenanigans that went on out at the Country Club earlier in the week. Davis Moses, the youngest son of one of Piankashaw’s more affluent families, tried to win a bet by washing his own balls in the ball washer at the golf course. Proving the old adage that beer and testosterone do not mix well, Moses straddled the ball washer and dangled his scrotum in the machine. Then, one of Moses lifelong friends decided to spin the crank on the machine with Moses scrotum in place and wedged it in the machine. Moses almost immediately passed his threshold for pain and collapsed. Unfortunately, the height of the ball washer was more than a foot higher than his testicles and his scrotum was the weakest link in the so-called chain. Moses scrotum was ripped open during the fall and one of his testicles remained lodged in the ball washer. Moses was rushed to the hospital and his friends were barred from the country club.
Just as he finished proofing the story, Mike’s phone rang. The call grabbed Mike by an extremely sensitive part of his anatomy and yanked him to a place that he didn’t want to go. Mike was in the midst of a virtual ball wash brought to him by his employer Cindy Stradt. She explained to Mike that she would not be available to meet with Ashcroft and that he had to represent the paper on her behalf. She went on mumbling something about how the people of Piankashaw needed jobs and that he should mention to Ashcroft that we have plenty of room for one of those new prisons that the state is planning to build. Once Piankashaw had been a prosperous small American town. However, that all began to change in the 1970’s. The mines closed and shortly after that, so did the factories. Big business took the factories and the promise of the jobs that it would bring to places like China and Mexico. Therefore, the town was frozen in stasis, a place known for little more than being a place. A hometown for those who grew up there and known by no one save those who had grown up there.
Mike wanted to tell her every Republican in Piankashaw County already had a job and didn’t want a prison in their community, but just said, “OK” so he could get her off the phone and get on with his business. She told him to meet Ashcroft’s entourage at the courthouse by the gazebo and take a couple of pictures during his visit. Again, he wanted to tell her that every Republican in Piankashaw County already had a job and damn sure wouldn’t put that job in jeopardy so that they could stand around the gazebo at ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning and get their picture taken with Ashcroft, but again just said, “OK” hoping that he could get her off the phone, get his work done and get down to the Kozy Korner Kafe to get some breakfast before he had to meet the Governor at the gazebo.
Mike finished his work and then got into his car, a battered old Ford Ranchero with faded blue paint and cracks across the windshield. Mike started the car and his fan belt emitted a familiar annoying squeal, put the car into drive and then drove down to the town square to the Kozy Korner to get some breakfast. Suzie, the waitress, brought him the daily special, “The Two by Four.” You can tell that Piankashaw is a logging community by the names that they give their specials. A “two by four” is two pancakes, two eggs, two pieces of toast and two pieces of bacon or sausage; all for the low low price of two ninety-nine. Mike hadn’t cooked since his last wife left him and had religiously eaten breakfast at the KKK for more than two years.
Suzie has always brought him his breakfast with a smile and he often thought of asking her out. Suzie was a perfect example of how to succeed in life without a high school diploma. Her parents had instilled the value of hard work in her at a young age and hard work was all that was needed to succeed at the diner. Despite his admiration for her, Mike’s better judgement told him not to because he would just end up knocking her up and paying more child support to another woman that he would wind up despising. After wiping the thoughts of uninhibited lust from his psyche, he began to focus on his job: The Editor of The Piankashaw Journal.
Mike laid out his plans for the Ashcroft mission as he poured a little maple syrup on his potato pancakes. When he saw Ashcroft’s entourage pull up, he would leave the KKK and walk out to his car and get his camera. He would go up to the gazebo, take a few pictures and then follow Ashcroft around as he walked through the courthouse and discovered that every public office in Piankashaw County was held by a Democrat. After that, he figured that Ashcroft would be anxious to move on down the road and go to some other community that at least had one or two Republicans on the county payroll, so he would tell him that we want them to build a prison here, shake his hand and then go to Quantrill’s to have a Pork Tenderloin and a couple of Bloody Mary’s before he went back to his office and typed up the story about Ashcroft coming to town, the fact that no one showed up to meet him and that he sent a message to Jeff City on behalf of all of the people of Piankashaw boldly proclaiming that we wanted a prison.
He was looking down Suzie’s blouse as she leaned over the table to fill up his coffee cup and smiled at her. As she turned away, he looked out the window and noticed that it was starting to rain. “Perfect,” he thought as he envisioned John Ashcroft and his entourage standing underneath the gazebo, just as dry as a rural county in the Bible Belt, while he got soaking wet taking pictures of Governor of the Great State of Missouri. Just then, he heard the awful sound of Jim Stark saying, “Good Morning” to Suzie. Jim was the man that starting sleeping in his bed just after his second wife kicked him out of it.
That was the thing that he really hated about small towns like Piankashaw, it seemed that no matter how hard you tried to get away from the mistakes of your past, they always seemed to be lurking in the shadows, waiting for that crucial moment when they could just jump out and bite you in the ass. Jim wasn’t sleeping with his second wife anymore, she had moved on to another poor sap, or maybe even other poor saps by now. That was another thing about living in a small town. It seemed that you never lost your wife or your girlfriend, you only lost your place in line. At the rate that his second ex was going, he could count on sleeping with her again in the next couple of years because she will have already worked her way through the line. That was one thing he was not looking forward to. She was a lousy lay anyway. What was he thinking?
Just when he thought that the day couldn’t get any worse, the sky opened and it started raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock. No sooner than the rain had started coming down, he noticed that there were a whole lot of brand new cars circling the courthouse and that meant that Ashcroft and his entourage were here. He quickly took another slurp of coffee and wiped his beard carefully. He definitely didn’t need any scrambled eggs to be stuck in his beard when he was taking pictures of Ashcroft. After wiping his mouth, he tidied myself up a little bit and then made a mad dash across the street, camera in hand.
He got a couple of pictures of Ashcroft on the courthouse steps. Thank God it was raining too hard for a photo op at the historic Gazebo. The Gazebo was a beautiful and treasured landmark here in Piankashaw and was flanked by two Civil War cannons on the eastern entrance to the courthouse. Everyone wanted their pictures taken there. The only problem with that was that the Kozy Korner Kafe was right across the street and if you didn’t shoot the picture at just the right angle, then you could just make out the KKK part of the sign painted on the window. Mike made that mistake his first year working for the paper during the Spring Festival here in the Piankashaw Valley. The KKK part of the sign was clearly visible and to make matters worse, they had a renegade country band playing at the gazebo called Southern Justice. Cindy threw a wall-eyed fit and almost fired him. He still believed that the only reason that he was able to keep his job at the paper was because she couldn’t run a newspaper and bang the men that hang out at the Elks Club at the same time. I suppose you must make difficult choices in life.
Mike was right about Ashcroft not wanting to hang around the courthouse very long. He quickly surveyed all the shingles hanging out on the doors of all of the county’s elected officials and when he realized he didn’t have a single fellow Republican in the bunch, he made a futile attempt to “reach across the aisle” to his misguided brethren. That went over like a turd in a punchbowl and that was also when Ashcroft totally surprised us and said, “Can you take us somewhere so that we can meet some of the folks that live around here” in the best down-home Opey goes to Mayberry kind of voice that he could muster. The current County Commissioner, Jim Pierce, even gave Ashcroft the cold shoulder. If he couldn’t find any political benefit to hanging out with Ashcroft, then no one could. He was a bloodsucker of county funds and Mike expected him to wind up being elected Senator or even Governor with his track record of fucking over the taxpayer.
Mike was at a loss. He wasn’t supposed to be directing a tour of the beautiful Piankashaw Valley. He was supposed to take a few pictures, smile a couple of times, then shake his hand and tell him that we wanted a prison. Sweat beads popped out on his forehead and he struggled to find something to say as Ashcroft and his advisors looked at him like he was retarded or something. “Should I take him down to Snaggletooth’s Gas Station/ Pawn Shop/ Sporting Goods Store and show him the only place in the State of Missouri where you can hock your stereo and buy a fifth of whiskey and a handgun all in the same building?” Mike thought. After fumbling for a moment, reason took over and he decided to keep Piankashaw’s “One Stop Shopping Experience” under wraps. He looked at Ashcroft and quietly said, “Sure, let’s go to the grocery store here in town and visit some of the folks shopping there.”
As he followed Ashcroft’s entourage down Main Street, Mike thought to myself, “Good call! The grocery store is a great place to take the Governor and chances are no one will even know who he is.” He had visions of all the rubes hanging out in the grocery store, posing for pictures with Ashcroft, having a good time. He even had a vision of Cindy saying, “Well Done” and giving him a much-deserved pat on the back. He was thinking about all of these things, running stop signs to catch up with the Governor’s cronies and just as he started believing that today might even be good, a terrible thought hit him: “What if something goes wrong?” He thought of lynch mobs attacking Ashcroft, but then thought that would be impossible because most of the people here in Piankashaw didn’t even know that we had a Governor, much less that his name was John Ashcroft. A thousand things crossed his mind and all of them seemed highly unlikely. As he pulled into the parking lot and turned off the car, he believed that the worst thing that could happen would be if one of the customers in the store offered to sell Ashcroft their food stamps.
He grabbed his camera and stumbled across the parking lot after Ashcroft and his entourage. Mike got a couple of nice pictures with his profile and the “Country Mart” sign next to one another. He made a mental note to myself to give a copy to our advertising representative so that they could forward it to the owner. The store was the biggest advertiser and he was sure the owner would appreciate a picture of Ashcroft visiting his store. Mike was equally sure that he was a Republican (since he owned several grocery stores) and knew who Ashcroft was. He felt vindicated that at least one person in this town could fully appreciate all the scurrying around that he had done this morning.
Mike met Ashcroft at the door and he quickly got into politician mode and decided to strike a pose with one of the cashiers. Mike smiled and took a couple of pictures and thought to myself, “Hell, this isn’t really that bad. What a good idea.” After he finished slapping himself on the back, he quickly disassembled his camera and replaced the spent roll of film with a fresh one. If Ashcroft wanted some photo ops with the locals, he was going to give it to him. “Yes, sir, Mr. Governor, we folks here in Piankashaw aim to please. We care about our community, so would you consider giving us a prison?” He finished replacing the roll of film in his camera and held it up and refocused. What he saw through the lens of the camera was terrible. It was unimaginable. It was worse than any of the terrible things he had conjured up in his imagination on the way over here. It was Donny Trimble, the town nut, hobbling through the door on a pair of crutches.
Donny Trimble was the last person Mike would want the Governor of the Great State of Missouri to run into. Not only was he a few celery sticks shy of a Bloody Mary, he was also a total and complete embarrassment to the townspeople of Piankashaw. Donny supplemented the crazy check he received from the government with a lawn mowing business and also used it as his primary means of transportation. It was not unusual to see Donny cruising town in his old Craftsman lawn tractor on a bright sunshiny day. Given the fact that it had been raining hard enough to incite a flood of Biblical proportions, Mike figured that Donny would just stay where he was and not venture out into town today. It didn’t occur to him that Donny could smell out a controversy like a cat could smell out a rat and that he smelled an Ashcroft at Country Mart.
Mike remembered how he ruined the Fall Festival parade last year by decorating his riding lawnmower with crepe paper and pulling in between the floats in the middle of the parade route. Channel 12 news from St. Louis was here covering the event because it was the oldest running annual high school event in the State of Missouri. Mike flipped the TV on at ten o’clock to watch the press coverage and here was Donny, all decked out in bright orange deer hunting regalia, wearing a ball cap with what appeared to be a woman’s breasts on the visor, waving a Confederate Flag as the crepe paper flapped in the wind. There was a nice trail of gray smoke that trailed off in the distance behind his lawnmower and to cap off the whole thing, the piece of junk backfired really loud just as it got close to the press microphone. Mike was determined not to let him ruin this like he had done the Fall Festival.
Just as Donny could sniff out a controversy, it appeared that Ashcroft had a pretty good nose of his own. Even though Mike had tried to lead him down the path of righteousness (actually, it was down the path to the deli aisle), Ashcroft, not wanting to miss a photo op with a man who appeared to have had a broken leg, instead was led astray down the road to ruin.
Ashcroft walked right up to Donny Trimble, held out his hand and said “Hi, I’m John Ashcroft, your Governor. I am running for the U.S. Senate and would sure appreciate your vote.”
Donny just looked at him all bewildered. After all, he had never been outside the confines of Piankashaw County and everyone in town went out of their way to avoid him. Mike’s second ex-wife would cross over to the wrong side of the street just to keep from passing him in front of the dime store. Finally, Donny wetted his lips and said, “Hi, my name’s Donny Trimble.”
Mike stood frozen for a moment, anticipating that some awful cataclysmic event would occur. When it didn’t and the shock wore off, Mike started walking toward Ashcroft so that he could pull him away and once again, try and shepherd him down the path to the deli. Before he could reach him, Ashcroft said, “Can I have my picture taken with you?”
Donny replied, “Sure,” and Mike was positive that when Ashcroft reached out and touched Donny, he would realize that Donny hadn’t bathed since Reagan was President and walk away before the flash of his camera even had time to settle into the pupils of his eyes.
“How’d you break that leg,” Ashcroft asked with the most concern that a politician could hope to muster.
“Well, I was banging me this big ole fat bitch and she rolled over on my leg. Damn near killed me,” Donny replied.
Ashcroft looked shocked as Donny explained how his misfortune had taken place and then turned away and looked over at Mike with a kind of “save me” look on his face.
Mike walked over and gently placed his hand on the Governor’s shoulder and said, “Let me show you the new deli that the grocery store put in earlier this year.”
Ashcroft and Mike walked away leaving Donny in mid-sentence. Mike hustled the Governor past the pallet of Charmin tissue and over to the deli where several of the older people in the community would sit and eat lunch. “Who was that guy,” Ashcroft asked.
“Just an old coot from the other side of the tracks,” Mike said as he ushered him over to a booth and offered to get him a cup of coffee.
Mike walked over to the deli, got a couple cups of coffee and prayed that he would get through this experience without some other crazy mishap. Once again paranoia struck and he quickly went down the list of all of the things that could possibly go wrong. Mike had delusions of some white trash woman with broken teeth walking up to Ashcroft and saying, “I’m here for the Always Save tampons. They’re buy one get one free. What brings you here, handsome?” Before Mike could work his way through my complete list of fears, he saw one of them standing at Ashcroft’s table pointing his finger. It was Rick Hough.
Rick was a lot like Donny, a couple beers short of a six pack. Although Rick and Donny were a lot alike, there were a few fundamental differences: Rick didn’t smell like a Bedouin goat farmer and Rick got his government check for being a Vietnam War Veteran. Rick was also one of the few members of the Republican Party in Piankashaw County. Like Ashcroft, Rick was also interested in politics. He even ran for Sheriff a couple of years ago. Rick swore that he lost the election because he was a Republican, but even if he were a Democrat, he still would have lost. Rick was a little too active in the Viet Now movement and got a little too excited during the speeches he gave on behalf of the “boys who didn’t make it home” during community events. No one in Piankashaw wanted a Sheriff shouting “Semper Fi, Do or Die,” exhibiting all of the traits of a man suffering from the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder writing them speeding tickets. God only knows what the guy would do at a drug bust.
Mike’s fear subsided a bit when he thought about Rick being a Republican who was also interested in politics. Mike thought that maybe Ashcroft had finally found one of the “Good Ole Boys of the GOP” that he had been looking for. However, his optimism faded faster than a cheap pair of Dollar General jeans as he drew closer and actually heard what they were talking about.
“… and you better tell the Congress not to cut any VA spending. Vets need all the money they can get and deserve every dime of it. I think the Congress needs to press the Vietnamese government to send our boys home,” he said waving his finger at the Governor as he spoke.
It was then that Mike looked into Rick Hough’s face and saw that it was tomatey red with anger. The only thing that eclipsed the redness in his face was the huge booger that was hanging out of his nose. Ashcroft looked like he was eyeballing it, too. Mike immediately prayed that Rick would stop breathing so hard, fearing that the enormous booger would break itself loose from his nose and give the poor Governor a concussion. There comes a time in the life of each man that he must face overwhelming adversity and rise to the challenge set before him, so Mike took a deep breath and prepared to act heroically.
“Governor, don’t you think it’s time that we visit some of the other stores in Piankashaw,” Mike asked as he set the coffee down at the table.
“Yes, I do think we need to visit some other places before I go back to Jeff City,” he replied as he stood up and prepared to leave. Rick didn’t take the hint and kept talking as Mike and the Governor walked back up the aisle toward the door. Meanwhile, Donny saw Ashcroft and was reminded that there was at least one person in Piankashaw that wouldn’t ignore him and began hobbling toward them. Mike saw any chance for a “good job” from Cindy go up in flames as they stood near the automatic doors just inside the grocery store. Rick Hough was preaching to Ashcroft about welfare reform just as loud as he possibly could so that every food stamp recipient in the store could hear him. Meanwhile, Donny had managed to hobble up behind him and was goosing the Governor in the ass with one of his crutches saying “Hey, you, Ashcroft, running for Governor.”
Ashcroft got fed up with Donny goosing him, turned around and said, “Will you just leave me alone!” Then he turned around, looked at one of his aides and said, “I don’t need a vote that bad.”
Donny, not wanting to be outdone by the Governor, looked at him and said, “Ha! I don’t ever vote anyway. They all ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of damn crooks!”
Ashcroft didn’t even acknowledge his comment, turned around and walked right out of the store leaving Rick Hough in the middle of a speech about gays in the military. By this time, Mike was feeling lower than a rat turd in a root cellar and just knew that Cindy was going to fire him. He wore an expression that said maybe working at McDonald’s was not that bad. He thought that he might somehow be able to pull the fat out the fire and followed Ashcroft’s entourage out into the parking lot. As they neared their cars, he rattled his brain trying to think of something that he could say to possibly salvage this whole fiasco.
Before he had the chance to say anything, Ashcroft spoke up and said, “We’re running a little behind schedule. I think we’re going to cut this visit short. Maybe we’ll stop back by before the election.”
Mike felt terrible – terrible for himself and terrible for his fellow citizens here in the Piankashaw Valley. He stared down at the ground for a moment with a feeling of shame that he hadn’t felt since he was in grade school. It was then that he noticed that in the rush to get from the Kozy Korner Kafe to the courthouse, he hadn’t tidied himself up as well as he had thought and had been walking around all morning with one sleeve rolled up and the other one buttoned. At that point, he looked at the Governor and said all that he could say, “Piankashaw want a prison.”