The Race
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Destiny"
Originally featured on 02-06-2007
As part of our series "Phases of a Holiday Meal"

 

There is a time and a place for everything, but sometimes they collide in a such a way to make you think, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the most memorable morning of Gerard Phillips’ campaign for senate, I was sure everyone in the audience was hoping that was the case.

Things had been going right for a long time for my boss and political trainee Gerard Phillips. He had come into politics at precisely the right time: when everyone was sick of the other guy. The incumbent, Guy Mennicks, was a Republican and the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. He had recently been involved in a scandal involving falsified audit reports for Shell, and this wasn’t a good time to be on the side of big oil. Gas prices were still high and the political season had been fraught with corruption, scandal and overspending.

Gerard had showed up to the first campaign event in his Prius, his wife and three daughters accompanying him as he shook hands with the smiling hoards of progressive-minded liberals. I had arrived with Marty Shields, an ex-corporate consultant turned local campaign manager. Marty was a perfectionist—he hated wrinkles in his suit, spots of coffee on a table from setting down his spoon, and more than anything, he hated when Gerard stumbled on his words, or stuttered, or laughed ineffectually. He had insisted early on that Gerard hire a speechwriter, as he thought his own words ‘could put an insomniac to sleep’.

I had known Gerard for almost five years when he came to seek my help.

“You’ve spent years helping me with my words, Katherine,” he said to me the day he had formally announced his intention to run. We were celebrating in the office kitchenette, having opened a bottle of Makers Mark and a box of fudge fancies. I could tell he was nervous by the way he kept taking his hands in and out of his pockets. By this point I was in my second year at Portland State, where I was studying economics, and I was swamped with work. I had switched from heels, skirts and coffee to converses, jeans and diet coke. I had stopped wearing makeup, and no longer flirted with any of the younger associates. It wasn’t that I had given up, it was more a conscious decision to put my life on hold while I got my degree and established my place in life.

I had been hired I’ve years ago at Gerard’s law firm, Donahue, Phillips and Keevner, to be his assistant—they don’t call women secretaries anymore—and we worked exceedingly well together. He was one of those people who needed help completing sentences and thoughts and would walk circles in his office, saying things like:

“Why is it that, if Mr. Dempsey understood that by not…not, er…” and would circle his hand in front of him, as if trying to lasso the word with his fingers. At this point I would come in, my arms full of accordion file folders, glasses falling off my face and say,

“Complying?” and he would clap his hands. I was often concerned about his health, as I was sure he stopped breathing during these moments. He was a big man, though not fat, but he certainly was a commanding presence. He was a good trial lawyer, once he prepared himself, and it was in fact that courtroom experience which inspired him to run for office. He liked being in command of a room, of patiently waiting for the opinions of his audience to turn. He rarely raised his voice, and avoided conflict through logical argument.

“I need someone to help me write speeches for this race, someone who knows me, who knows what I’m really trying to say,” and he looked at me, almost guiltily, as if he thought he was being inappropriate.

“Are you pro-choice Gerard?” I asked him, and looked to the floor. He was forty-eight and his three daughters were all in their teens yet he always turned red when it came to matters of femininity.

“It’s a complicated issue, Katherine. I can see the merits of a woman feeling a sort of…”

“Freedom?”

“Yes, a sort of freedom to make such decisions about herself, but I think there preventative steps to be taken…”

“Like what?”

“Like more sexual education in schools, er…more access to birth control,” he said, and I laughed, which caught him off guard. It was the whiskey. I was twenty-six, but I didn’t do much drinking. Didn’t go out to the clubs and get wasted like my girlfriends, who regaled me with their tales of conquest, of not having to pay for a drink all night, singing “Living on a Prayer” at karaoke, getting a blasé hand-job in the cab on the way home. I tried to be interested in that kind of life, but my own fantasies involved the state budget, social security reform and clean energy use incentives.

“Did you know karaoke means ‘empty orchestra’?” I had asked my friend Cheryl, when we had met for lunch, the day I told her I was going to be writing speeches for Gerard. She had smile emptily and said,

“No, but that’s really interesting.”

She couldn’t understand why I took the job, when it wasn’t going to pay very much and I already had so much on my plate. I would never have time to find someone, she told me. I had told her that this was a person I believed in, a man I could respect, and one I wanted to see in office. I realized halfway through my speech that I was campaigning and my audience wasn’t interested.

“Maybe it’s my destiny,” I had said, to the same empty smile.

 

Gerard had been invited to speak to a local teachers union a few months into his campaign, and due to the fact that he served on both the PTA and the Portland Public School Board, he would be speaking to a very appreciative audience. His platform included challenging the No Child Left Behind Act and pushing more support of public schools by the federal government.

“The federal and state governments need to work together to educate our children!” he said, to loud applause, “not battle over requirements and standardization tests that only raise costs and punish the teachers and students we need to be supporting!”

I was standing to the right of the podium, mouthing the words I had written and relishing in the responses of the audience. I could see in their eyes that they wanted to understand his plan and to believe in it. They wanted to see hope for the future. At this point they would have applauded just about anything. The past few weeks of speeches and meetings with various sects of the community had been more that reassuring, and it was becoming clear that we had a real chance at winning. I could see it in Marty’s eyes when he gave his daily inspirational speech at campaign headquarters, the room full of idealistic college students, work at home moms and retired men and women all eager to lend their support.

Now, politicians are trained creatures, but I saw Gerard’s jaw drop when he pointed at a man in the back of the room who had his and raised to ask a question and heard,

“What do you have to say, Mr. Phillips, about allegations that you hired a prostitute on May 11th of last year?”

The room fell silent and I could almost hear the deflation, the excitement and hope for the future draining out of the room. All eyes were on Gerard and I could feel Marty’s breath on my neck as he watched his mouth open to answer.

Gerard had looked to me, where I had been standing to the far right of the podium tapping my foot compulsively, and he must have seen the shock on my face because he immediately began to grow red.

“That’s…er, a private matter,” he said, pushing his hands into his pockets. He cleared his throat, and walked away from the podium, past Marty and I without saying a word, leaving the crown speechless, including the man who had asked the question. I walked to the podium.

“Thank you,” I said, “and we hope you will all make it to the polls this November,” and there was brief applause. Marty grabbed my arm.

“What the fuck was that?” he asked me, his eyes fuming, darting around the room. I shrugged helplessly, peeling his fingers from my arm.

 

I wouldn’t have been so surprised that morning at the teachers union speech if I didn’t know how completely enamored Gerard was of Felicia. They had been married almost twenty-five years, and they still looked at each other like love struck teenagers. He loved her, and not because they had children and a life together, but because he admired her.

I had met Gerard’s wife Felicia about three weeks after I started working at the firm. The file clerk and I had been working late helping Gerard get ready for a trial and she had brought us in dinner. She had introduced herself to me as Mrs. Phillips, but had quickly insisted that I call her Felicia.

“I brought fried chicken and potatoes,” she said, setting the bag down on the one table not overflowing with papers, “from Rosie’s. You’re not a vegetarian are you?” she asked, a look of genuine concern coming to her face. I shook my head, and she smiled.

“It’s the least I can do, really for you two helping Gerard so much.”

She told me she worked for the D.A.’s office, and she looked the part with tired eyes and a knitted brow. We had an immediate connection, and whenever she knew I was working late would come in to keep me company for a little while, often just listening while I vented about my parents, friends, landlord, or even my cat.

Felicia had called me the night of the accusation while I was working on a paper for Applied Energy Economics, and I had answered the phone with a tone implying that I was doing so out of obligation.

“Katie,” she said, too cheerfully, “have you seen Gerard?”

“Not since this morning. I assume he’s talking to Marty.”

“You would tell me if you had, right?” Her voice was somewhere in between anger and sadness. The accusation against her husband would be the headline of tomorrow’s Oregonian, and I could only imagine the humiliation this would cause her at work, the pity glances it would inspire. I was hoping to stay in denial about the whole situation until the next day, but I knew Felicia had no one else to call.

“I’ve been writing this damn paper all day, Felicia. I haven’t had contact with anyone.”

“Hmm. Shouldn’t you guys be working on a strategy together? I don’t know what they know, and what if they can prove it? What if…?”

“There’s no way, it’s utterly impossible. I mean, he gets embarrassed when other attorneys talk about strip clubs, how could he have…” I closed my textbook and slipped on the clogs by the front door. I knew where he would be.

“But we’ve been having problems lately, Katie, and I…”

“I’ll find him, Felicia. I’ll clear this up. You have nothing to worry about! It’s just a smear, that’s all it is. We’ve accused Senator Mennicks of selling his soul to the oil companies, and all they can think of is dirty sex. It’s so unoriginal!” I was putting on my coat, wondering why I had ever agreed to get involved in this campaign. I believed in him, that was true, and I wanted to be part of his accomplishments. I wanted to be in politics, to change the flawed aspects of the government, but everyone wants that. Everyone wants that until they realize that it’s impossible, that the government is too rooted in human nature, too vulnerable to corruption.

I thought about this as I drove over the Morrison Bridge to the bar where I knew Gerard would be, the one he frequented when he was a lowly associate, the one where Felicia had worked to put herself through law school, where they held their engagement party. He likely hadn’t been there in years, but it would be the one place where no one would look at him twice.

Gerard sat in a corner booth, a cigarette hanging from his lips. His laptop was opened, it’s dim light accentuating the pained look on his face.

“I thought you quit smoking,” I said, and slid into the booth.

“Didn’t you once date a man who went to strip clubs all the time? The ones where they serve steak and lobster?”

“That was two years ago. I dumped him because he was an alcoholic, and because he was terrible in bed.” Gerard sighed, picked an ash from his mostly empty glass of bourbon. His hair was a mess, his usually covered bald spot exposed.

“What the hell happened Gerard?” I asked, and ordered a ginger ale.

“It’s complicated Katherine.”

“Jesus Christ! Have you seen your wife lately? How could you possibly…”

“I told you, it’s complicated,” he said, throwing the rest of the drink down his throat. When he looked at me I could see the bags under his eyes. His tie was undone and hung sloppily around his neck.

“We’ve been having trouble. I’ve been having trouble, you know…er, well…”

“Performing?”

“God that sounds awful,” he says, taking a long deliberate drag from his cigarette. He stubbed it out and immediately lit another. “I’ve been trying to avoid the subject all together, because, honestly, I thought it had to do with stress, but now I don’t know…I don’t know how to tell Felicia.”

“You don’t think she’s noticed?”

“I mean, I don’t know how to tell Felicia about the,” he leaned close to me and whispered, “prostitute.” I put my head in my hands. I wondered how this man, who had put himself through state school and graduated summa cum laude, had worked nights through law school and later made his way to partner at a prestigious law firm could be so unbelievably stupid.

“Why did you do it?” I asked, “didn’t you know you’d get found out? That you could’ve gotten an STD?”

“I just wanted to see if I’d be able to…you know….”

“Perform?”

“Yes.”

“Could you?”

“No.”

I sighed. The jukebox was blaring Guns and Roses. Two women were on the small dance floor, doing their best impressions of Axl Rose, using their bottlenecks as mics. I sipped my ginger ale, relishing the tickle of carbonation in my throat, giving me a chance to formulate my next question.

“Why with a prostitute?” I asked, stealing a cigarette from his open pack.

“I just thought, maybe, because she would have some first hand experience with this sort of thing, some advice on how to fix it…I don’t know. I was desperate.”

“Why didn’t you just talk to Felicia about it? She’s a rational woman, she could deal with it.”

“I just couldn’t, I don’t know why.” He looked up at me. “What am I going to do now?”

“Go home and talk to Felicia- she’s worried. Marty’s at headquarters working on a game plan-what to tell the press, but if you want to know what I think,” and he nodded, “I think you should tell them the truth.”

“About not being able to perform?”

“Yes. Tell them that—people can relate, you know? Tell them that, that you did the whole prostitute thing to try and save your marriage…”

“She was a nice woman,” Gerard said, straightening himself up against the booth, “she told me it happens to lots of men.”

“Don’t tell them that part,” I said, shaking my head, “you don’t want them to be able to picture anything,”

“You think I should tell the truth?” He didn’t look convinced, and I didn’t blame him.

“That’s what people want, you know? It may be embarrassing or unattractive, but people are sick of lies, Gerard. I accepted this job because I think you’re someone people can trust. Because I think you believe in your ideas. You can talk policy all you want, but if you’re not being honest about your personal life, then it all seems like bullshit. Maybe your personal life shouldn’t be involved in politics but it is, so you have to deal with it.”

“I just hope Felicia understands,” he said, pulled on his coat.

I drove back to my apartment with my radio blaring, trying to clear my head of the recent conversation. I needed to focus on tariffs, pay structures, and reformulate the thesis I had been putting together in my head. Rational thought was escaping me, and all I could do was picture Gerard with the prostitute, sitting uncomfortably on the edge of a bed in a ruffled suit discussing his erection dysfunction. For a moment I felt sorry for him. Sorry that he had to feel so ashamed, and guilty that he had to reach out to a stranger. I thought then, how much of a different person he would seem to an outsider. It’s difficult to feel like you know a politician, as even if you follow their careers and policies, you really only know their persona. You can claim that they’re a good person, or a bad one, but such judgments are based upon the information available to you through the media. More than anything, I realized, I wanted Gerard to be different.

There was no speech prepared when Gerard called a press conference to discuss the allegations, and in fact, the proof offered by the Mennicks campaign that he had met with a prostitute. He admitted it, and while his face turned red he went into detail about his motivations, about his inability to confront his problem. He admitted his actions were reckless and unnecessary, but promised this would be ‘the beginning of a long and truthful relationship’ between him and the voters. I liked that part when I heard about it later at Finnegans, the bar across the street from the firm, where I’d met up with Gerard and Marty. Gerard told us Felicia had forgiven him on the condition that he would go to counseling, and he had agreed. I had finished my paper that afternoon and was celebrating with a pint of Guinness.

“Whatever happens now,” Gerard was saying, with a smile on his face, raising his rocks glass, “is fate.”

Read More By Liz Varley

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