...I drove south towards Compound Interest. It was three hundred miles southeast of Prague Springs, well within the range of a SCUD SS-23 missile, although the accuracy on those things is a joke.
I made good time along I-93, an artery hemmed in on both sides by mountain ranges. On a highway this empty, you’re up to a hundred and fifty before you know it. The news on the radio was about WorldCom filing for bankruptcy.
Joshua trees posed in the desert, beneath an Old Testament sky. I already had the air-conditioning on the highest setting, but the Snickers bars on my dashboard were starting to melt.
Beyond an electrical transmission tower, sandstone formations emerged from cobalt shadow. A hawk wobbled on an updraft, surveying the canyon country as ravenously as a realtor. Billboards said WE CAN COLLECT YOUR CHILD SUPPORT, and COME SEE OUR CHAMPION RATTLESNAKES.
Following what was left of the historic, now-touristy Route 66, I made a pit stop at a diner near Plaza Diablo for a plate of chile verde, and rifled through a paper for anything relating to the Phelps-Lyte primary contest. There was a drought, and arson wildfires were burning all over Arizona, dominating the local news.
Election coverage was buried near the back of the paper.
TAD MUNOZ BOUNCED CHECK IN HIGH SCHOOL, SOURCES ALLEGE
Tabytha Lyte Defends Her “Bush Should ‘Disappear’ The Liberals” Gaffe – “My Words Were Blown Out of Proportion”
Tad Muñoz was the district’s Democrat incumbent, and the ranking minority member on the Congressional Committee for Security Oversight. He was part Navajo, and at this stage of the summer had yet to decide between sacrificing our troops in a futile conflict situation with no exit strategy, versus risking the Republicans calling him a pussy. I’ve never favored sending in the troops, not after what I saw in Thailand. I mean, we’d never have had to fight the Civil War if we’d all just smuggled guns to the slaves, like John Brown tried to do.
Tabytha naturally planned on going down in history for helping “liberate the Middle East from the Arabs.”
One of Igloo’s undercover projects in India involved the facial scarring of populists. Politicians who ran on a program of solidarity with the masses were lured into bars by hookers, and woke up the next morning with disfiguring scars on their cheeks – just enough damage to make them non-telegenic and cost them votes. Igloo sometimes expressed the desire to apply this treatment to all politicians. Of course, nothing like this was an option in Tabytha’s case.
For one thing, plastic surgery was very affordable in Arizona.
She didn’t want to move here originally – or to leave Texas. But following my discharge, an IBM guy I’d worked with in Thailand helped me land a sales position with a company that upgraded the computer avionics in warplanes. Tabytha was helping out as a volunteer with George Wallace’s Presidential campaign. When Wallace got shot, that brought Tabytha down, and we both needed a change of scene, so we made a down payment on a house in Phoenix, and I took a job with the Galahad Group, advising clients like Raytheon and Motorola.
Phoenix is where I met Z.T. We did consulting together for companies like General Dynamics and Martin Marietta. Terry Galahad always believed in hiring experienced businessmen as consultants, not just Ivy League MBAs. I’d no high school diploma, but I learned on the job how companies worked in different cultures. Once I sweet-talked a Japanese middle manager into giving me a copy of an internal report my clients wanted a look at. Then I realized I’d eaten my way through a two hundred dollar meal without even tasting it. I guess I was living the good life.
Terry Galahad was always into theories, cybernetics, systems analyis, game theory, chaos theory. But it had to be something new, just as Tabytha only believed in a prescription drug that had just been released. On the job, I mostly ignored Terry’s theories. What Terry knew how to do was to go with the flow. He’d no real idea how, but the advice he gave was good. It was with Terry’s encouragement that I developed my own sixth sense for business strategy.
After buying some number 45 sunblock, I drove on, cutting south along a graded jeep trail to Plaza Diablo. Now I knew she lived here, scoping out Maria Tejera’s address had been easy, but I wanted to make sure she was here with my own eyes. Her house had a terracotta roof, and a clothesline crossed from it to the house next door.
Ten yards downwind, I parked and waited. A pair of blue jeans twitched on the clothesline, like the legs of a hanged man left twisting. Blue light flickered from TVs behind slatted blinds. A boy packing a water pistol was chasing a girl around a garden.
Tabytha was hard to be around after Dale was born. Postpartum depression, the doctors called it. They prescribed electroshock therapy, but it didn’t help any.
The tragedy came soon after Dale learned to walk. It was Maria’s day off.
I probably saw Dale a few dozen times in all, returning to Phoenix at weekends with plastic helicopters, a Lego crocodile, or walkie-talkies made in South Korea.
When Tabytha called, I was in the lobby of another Tokyo restaurant. I’d just eaten some chocolate ice cream onto which a kimono-clad waitress had sprinkled flakes of gold leaf, insisted on by a Scotch-drinking Japanese executive at the expense of his own semiconductor company. While I stared at carp crammed into a tank, fish that seemed to be suffocating, Tabytha told me that she’d gone into the house for a minute to take a call, leaving the cover off the swimming pool. It was a wrong number, but by the time she got back, it was too late.
A friend called 911 while Tabytha attempted CPR, in vain.
At that moment, I felt that I had nothing in the world, that I was nothing. Tabytha went onto tricyclic anti-depressants. They made her so fat and drowsy she’d stop taking them and start getting depressed again. She was working through a lot of resentment about the legal career she’d abandoned to become a mother, as well as her sense of responsibility for Dale’s death.
She got into primal scream therapy.
One day she destroyed all our photos of Dale. We never talked about having another child. I buckled down and lost myself in my work.
When Maria came out to take in the laundry, I recognized her immediately, although she was wearing heavy eye-liner, and could have stood to lose about twenty pounds. Tabytha fired Maria because she was concerned that Lyllyan was becoming too attached to her – after that, we never found a replacement nanny who lasted more than a year on the job.
I made eye contact, briefly, and I almost thought Maria might recognize me.
But she hadn’t seen me too many times, and there’d been a lot of water under the bridge since. Seeing her made me realize just how much.
She whistled exhaustedly to herself, put the laundry in a basket, and went back inside.
From Plaza Diablo, it was only a few miles to the tract of adobe-style condominiums where Tabytha lived. Chain-gang prisoners harvested litter along the roadside, in the blank Arizona light. Compound Interest was an incarceration boom town, with a population of thirty thousand predominantly black prisoners, and five thousand white retirees and prison industry people. The local joke was that everyone around here lived in some kind of gated community – every few years a new federal penitentiary or state prison opened, and the city expanded its limits to incorporate it. The prisoners were included in the official population of the town, and that entitled Compound Interest to more state and federal funding, which was how the town could afford its own deluxe senior center, light-rail system, private airport, and symphony orchestra.
Compound Interest’s municipal bonds were rated triple-A. Twice a week, Tabytha drove to a little town across the Mexican border where she could buy new anti-depressants whose FDA approval was withheld due to shortcomings in clinical trials.
I passed the sentry kiosk of the Compound Interest Homeowners’ Association and, no other shade being available, parked in the shadow of Tabytha’s SUV, which was pearl-colored with a tinted sunroof, gleaming chrome-plated hubcaps, and CHO SEN1 Arizona vanity plates. There used to be a Confederate battle flag attached to the radio antenna, but her consultants must have removed it.
As I walked up to Tabytha’s front portico, a bodyguard asked to see my ID. “I never carry any,” I told him. “What you’re asking is unconstitutional.”
The bodyguard spoke into an intercom. “Guy here who says ID’s unconstitutional?” He turned to me. “She says you must be Cal. Straight through the metal detector.”
As I handed him my .38, CCTV cameras swivelled all around me like birds of prey. Inside, the temperature drop was what hit me. Automatic misters were everywhere, simulating the climate of the Outer Hebrides in the Great Western Desert, a lifestyle financed by alimony and irrigated by multi-billion dollar federal dams. Wherever I looked, I could see my hard-earned money being squandered.
Tabytha still had all that ugly Victorian furniture she’d bought in Dallas in the 1970s. Irremovable security bars were bolted to all the windows.
“Hey Cal, where’ve you been hiding?”
She came down the staircase in a flame-red dress with shoulder pads out to here. Her hair had been artificially waved in some focus-group-approved style. Her smile said she wanted people to think she was in on something.
“Extra-strong mint?” she said.
“Gesundheit,” I said. “You’ll get pneumonia if you don’t turn those misters down. How’s politics?”
“I’ve had it up to here with politics,” said Tabytha.
She gestured to a hefty guy that I first assumed was another bodyguard. He wore a white cotton suit and a braided-leather bolo tie, and stood about six foot six in his steel-toed cowboy boots. He was shivering from the cold.
“You’re turning my campaign into a little bureaucracy,” Tabytha told him. “God knows how you’ll be once I win.”
“Heck, well, we’re only trying to help y’all,” the man replied.
One of Tabytha’s walls was taken up by a computerized rendition of Arizona’s remapped Ninth Congressional District. It was the shape of a pixillated octopus with mutated extra tentacles, and overlooked the campaign war room like some kind of idol.
Traditionally state legislators drew the district lines. Suppose Congressman Bubba (R-Ariz.) had a few too many Democrats in his district to feel confident of re-election, while Congressman Flubba (D-Ariz.) next door could stand to lose a Republican or two. The legislators yammered about “ensuring representational fairness,” and when the dust died down, some more Republicans would find themselves on Bubba’s side of the line, some more Democrats on Flubba’s side, and neither Congressman would have to give up his Capitol Hill stationery or taxpayer-subsidized junkets to D.C. strip clubs. For previous elections, just about every Democrat in Arizona had been corralled into the district represented by Tad Muñoz, keeping Arizona’s other districts safe for Republicans. The boundary snaked its way through the state, taking bite-sized pieces of a county here and an Indian reservation there, slicing through a city or following a railroad or dry creek bed, to lasso a black neighborhood or Hispanic enclave.
There was an ongoing wave of national redistricting going that favored Republicans. Congress had all the subtlety of toddlers cheating at Candyland. But in Arizona, a recent ballot initiative had led to the creation of a new committee to redraw the district lines, and the Ninth District was now considered competitive.
Tabytha told me, “The district’s ethnic makeup is forty percent white, thirty percent Hispanic, twenty-five percent black, five percent Native American. Fortunately those minority groups have low voter turnout. For what I’m paying, I can have half the population of New Delhi calling Arizonan voters, asking if they know Tad Muñoz is soft on the imminent threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. I haven’t given you a tour of my little nest.”
She led me up a half-flight of stairs. We passed a TV on which Sylvester Oblon was telling reporters he would use his new position as MoralFiber CEO to spearhead change in the company.
We reached a sort of mezzanine with an enormous medicine cabinet, beside a wall-mounted model of a short-barreled pocket pistol. “This is where we hold strategic meetings,” Tabytha explained. “And as we plan the rebuilding of America, I like to look at this replica of the derringer that killed Abraham Lincoln, to remind me that not even a President can violate the Constitution with impunity.”
The iron had already started to rust in the artificial humidity. Tabytha’s eye movements seemed irregular to me. A side-effect of anti-depressant abuse? A politician’s reflexive seeking out of a camera she could stare down?
“A full war chest’s key for me, because my district covers five media markets. That quintuples the advertising budget. But it’s also an advantage, because it means I can be marketed differently to different ethnic groups.”
While Tabytha closed her eyes for her next sneeze, I checked that the hired gun was out of sight, then leaned over, pretending to study the words Sic semper tyrannus on the plaque beneath the derringer.
Instead, taking out Sanjiv’s dispenser, I sprayed the miniaturized wireless sensors at the pistol. They sank into place, leaving only small white rust-camouflaged spots. Tabytha hadn’t seen a thing.
On the medicine cabinet was a copy of Punk Planet – not a media market Tabytha cared about. “Lyllyan been here recently?” I asked.
Tabytha looked confused. I’d been married to her long enough to know when there was something she didn’t want me to know. “Remember when we went to Fort Sumter, when she was just a toddler?” she asked me, rearranging plastic lilies and wax chilies on her conference table. “We were a class act back then, weren’t we?”
It was time to get down to business.
I named the figure I was prepared to settle for. If she wouldn’t accept it, I said, I’d notify every pro-Democrat paper in Arizona she’d employed an illegal immigrant in the 1970s. Tabytha’s head jolted forwards when I mentioned the name Maria Tejera, reminding me of a time I’d watched her undergo electroconvulsive therapy.
“Maria wasn’t authorized to work by the INS until 1989. She worked illegally for you for seven years. You never told the IRS about the payments you made to her. I know where she lives.”
Tabytha swallowed a fistful of pills. “Cal, have you seen what’s happening to this area, since Tad Muñoz got elected? Do you know what a mess he’s made?”
“You’ve given up any pretense of allegiance to limited government,” I said. “Bush is the least Libertarian President ever. He’s already saddled us with in an invasive surveillance state at home, and now he’s trying to commit us to a Trotskyite world-revolutionary foreign policy.”
“We had to respond somehow to the events of 9/11,” Tabytha said.
“You Republicans are big-spending, privacy-busting, incompetent, crony-laden phonies. When you’re in power, you spend more than the Democrats. If you gain seats in Congress this year, Bush will wind up transforming the U.S. into a third-world country.”
“All I want to do is take care of things.”
“You couldn’t even take care of a one-year-old boy.”
That just came out. I’m not exactly proud I said that.
Moments later, the hired gun had me in a half-Nelson and was dragging me down the stairs.
“Mr. Lyte, I have good friends in Washington,” he said. “Real good friends.”
He gave me a slap on the back that sent me staggering out into the dry, hanging, sinus-clearing heat. “Jimmy Jude knows all about those missiles with illegal guidance systems you sold,” Tabytha screamed after me.
Surely she wouldn’t use that against me. Would she?
The flunky at the door gave me back my .38. “When we meet again, watch out,” I told the hired gun.
“That a fact?” he inquired, peering around in case there were reporters lurking in the bougainvillea.
He walked after me to make sure I got in my car. Perhaps he thought I’d try snooping through the back windows? Instead I got in the BMW and reversed backwards at him. He jumped out of the way, and I hightailed it out of there, hitting the air conditioning and window buttons.
“Jimmy Jude Swale’s the name,” he yelled after me, “and I’m looking forward to it.” I braked to get my Ruger SP-101 .38 revolver out of my glove compartment, then put my foot back on the gas.
However hard I gunned down, I could never get out of that place fast enough. The road was lined with spiny yucca and saguaro cacti that towered like crucifixes in the desert. I slipped some Bob Marley into the CD player.
I’d made my preemptive strike, Tabytha was poised to retaliate, and a war had begun from which only one of us would walk away. While I drove west, surrounding hillsides bore prickly pear, agave, and manzanita, purple gentian and blue morning glory, ocotillo and bear grass and devil’s claw, their colors becoming slowly blotted out as particles of windblown ash darkened my windshield. A C-130A turboprop, loaded with flame retardant, headed towards a plume of smoke from an out-of-control wildfire about a hundred miles away.
Why had Lyllyan been staying with Tabytha, without telling me about it? What were they hiding from me? I felt thirsty, but my bottle of root beer had rolled onto the floor of the passenger seat, out of my reach, and I didn’t feel like stopping the car to get it. Today would have been Dale’s thirtieth birthday. My stomach tightened. How had my life come to this?
Singing along with “One Love,” I headed back to Prague Springs, the sun setting behind the Sierra Nevada range, and the sky streaked with fuchsia and vermilion like some exotic predator.