Conduct Unbecoming, Part Two:

Central City Books Police Car-by-jason-dent-QDTFZCo1Z3g-unsplash

Harrington entered the VFW first and paused in the doorway for a moment as he registered that there were only eight men at the bar. Shaw pushed his way in next to Harrington, shrugged, and said, “Could be worse.”

Harrington spoke low, but Bayonne could still hear him. “No, it couldn’t.”

Harrington walked to the bar and ordered a drink. He introduced himself to the bartender and the two men next to him and explained why he was there. The bartender pointed toward the seating area, where the folding chairs sat in rows before a podium. The bartender, a big and broad man with a square head named Reinhold Melchert, said, “We’re ready when you are.”

“Let me buy everybody a drink while we wait for a few more people to arrive.”

“I’m not sure anybody else is coming.”

“You’ve got a phone. Tell everybody who cares that I’m buying.”

The man next to Harrington, a young man named Alex Tannenbaum who’d graduated from high school, enlisted in the army, served a tour in Vietnam working a motor pool in Saigon, returned home and taken a job in the massive slaughterhouse south of the railyard, and who’d come to the bar directly from work as was his custom, ignoring the odor of hog flesh that emanated from his person, said, “Who did you say you were again?”

“My name is Eddie Harrington. I’m running for congress in this district.”

Tannenbaum nodded. “Which district is this?”

“The seventh. Let me buy you a drink, young man. In fact, why don’t you call a few of your friends. I’d like to buy them all a drink. I’m sure you know a few young men who care about the future of their country.”

“I know a few guys who care about free booze.”

Bayonne and Bungartz stood near the door and watched the bar flies flock to Harrington. He told stories, bought drinks, and flirted with the bar’s only waitress, a single mother named Connie who’d won several local beauty pageants in her twenties and learned, earlier than most but too late in her opinion, that looks didn’t account for as much as they appeared. A few of the bar’s patrons used the pay phone on the wall. Even the bartender lifted the bar’s phone off the hook and called a few of his regulars and friends. After twenty minutes, people, slightly salted with snow, began to trickle through the door, and every time someone stepped into the bar, Harrington waved them over and bought them a drink.

Like an ancient miracle, Harrington turned the audience of eight into a small crowd of thirty-two.

At the podium in the back of the bar, Shaw checked that everything was in order. He flicked on the lights at that end of the room, and the bar gained a new degree of illumination, which didn’t help its complexion. The crowd turned and squinted, and Shaw nodded to Harrington.

Harrington made the obvious joke. “What do you say we get the formalities out of the way so we can get back to the party?”

Tannenbaum said, “Why do we need to stop drinking? If I vote, I’ll probably vote for you. You’re the only politician I know.”

A few people chuckled, but Lindsey Wallace, a fourth-grade teacher who’d arrived with her husband, a surgeon who’d served on an aircraft carrier in the pacific, said, “I want to hear what he has to say.”

Harrington smiled and led the way to the seating area. While people took their seats, three more constituents entered the bar. Harrington waited patiently while the bartender set them up and directed them toward seats in the back. 

Harrington closed his eyes for a moment, raised his face toward the ceiling, spread his arms as though embracing the crowd, and when he spoke, he spoke with his entire being. He spoke like a revivalist washed in the blood of P.T. Barnum, anointed with the oil of a million snakes, and charged by the Wizard of Menlo Park. Never, in the history of Capitalism or speakeasies, had a shyster swindled so succinctly or spoken so easily.

Harrington talked about his goals, how he would bring money to the state in general and the city in particular. He talked about ending the war in Vietnam, but not without securing a victory for all the soldiers who’d lost their lives for democracy. He talked about improving education by demanding more of the teachers. He talked about lowering taxes without cutting public services, and, finally, he talked about how he would change Washington, a city that needed change if ever there was one, and Harrington was the man for the job because he came from outside the establishment. He was an average joe, a man of the streets, a man who knew Central City, a man who’d served his country, a man like everyone in that room, everyone who was a man, anyway.

The crowd erupted in applause.

“Bullshit,” Bungartz said.

Bayonne raised an eyebrow. “Who wouldn’t vote for this guy?”

“The guy gives a good speech. I’ll give him that, but he’s full of shit.”

“You don’t think he could do some good?”

“Superman does good. The rest of us do well, if we’re lucky. Politicians compromise. It’s the one, essential political act.” Bungartz lit a nail and exhaled. “Doing some good costs something. I don’t care who you are. It’s not about forcing your opinion onto people or making them do what you want them to do. Making a contribution is about the sacrifice you’re willing to make. You don’t sacrifice, you don’t change anything. Not ever.”

Bayonne knew better than to argue. “Did you learn that in the war?”

“Hell no. I learned that from my mother.”

“She must’ve been a saint.”

Bungartz snorted. “I don’t know about that. She was a hard and unforgiving woman, not somebody you could have a conversation with. To her, the word love didn’t resemble compassion, but she was honest and she worked damn hard to build a home. I don’t know how to find fault with that.”

Harrington had begun to answer questions from the crowd.

“Officer Bungartz, you’re a smarter man than I assumed.”

Bayonne and Bungartz jumped when they heard Shaw’s voice. They hadn’t realized he was standing next to them. Bungartz said, “Who asked you to assume anything?”

“You’re right about Harrington. He told you he served in Korea? He served his tour working a desk at an air field in Kansas. He never flew a plane and never saw combat. He talks a good game, though. He holds himself well, looks good, and knows, instinctively, how to say the right thing.”

Bayonne said, “He never served in-country?”

Shaw shook his head. “The Bible belt is the closest he ever came to a Seoul.”

Bungartz asked, “If I’m right about Harrington, why are you helping him get a seat in Congress?”

“Have you ever been to Washington?”

“Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”

“Can you name the White House Chief of Staff?”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“Yet he’s one of the most powerful people in the country. Men like Harrington face the cameras. Men like me make decisions.”

“You’re in this for yourself?”

“I’d like to have a positive impact. I know I won’t be able to live up to Harrington’s promises, but I’ll be able to support the infrastructure in this state, and I think Harrington and I could keep some young men out of Vietnam. Maybe we’ll even be able to improve the schools, though I’m not optimistic.”

Harrington called to the bartender to set up a round for everyone. He stepped out from behind the podium, shook hands, put his arm around the waitress, and led the people across the room to the bar.

Bayonne asked, “I don’t understand. Are you trying to help people or game the system?”

“The system is the game.” Shaw nodded to the two officers and walked toward the bar.

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