A Force of One
Martha pays a morning visit to the Sheriff’s station. Physically fortified after breakfast with the Roberts. Junior made eggs in a cast iron fry pan. The domestic arrangement still a work in progress. Senior a bathroom hog who spends forever fixing his hair. Martha has banished him for all tasks except showers and excretions. Personal grooming must take place at the hall mirror. On her way out, she has to squeeze past him, his right hand fluffing an already-high coif.
Martha relies on her ability to focus solely on what’s in front of her. What’s in front of her now is Deputy Spitzer, seated at his desk. He is the only presence in the squad room.
Martha leans against the metal counter. Catches Spitzer’s eye. “You again.”
“Yes, ma’am.” With the ma’am again. She’s maybe three years his senior.
Three days post-arraignment. The test sample has gone to the DNA lab, the waiting begun. Yes, this whole situation feels like a slap in her face. She swallows that. She knows how, though it tastes increasingly like bile. “How goes the crime fighting?”
He looks at her with no expression. His hands hover at a keyboard.
“Are you a force of one?” She watches him read her, decide how much of a pain in his ass she’s going to be. That’s okay. She’s reading him, too. Where on the scale he falls: mere obstacle, or bull-headed redneck.
From an early age, Martha considered herself too good for her hometown. An attitude she never made much of an effort to hide. One that, if she’s honest with herself, she’s never lost.
He speaks as if directly to the part of her doing the characterizing. “Three cars out on patrol.” His tone indicates awareness that it wasn’t a question. “Captain’s in Lockport working a robbery.”
Robbery. Maybe that’s how she should have characterized her cases. Simple and straightforward. A crime everyone understands.
“Bank got hit last week,” he says. “People worry.”
“People should.” She watches him take this as a slight. She lacks the will to clarify. “But you’ll catch the bad guys.”
“We expect to.”
Growing up, she’d spent enough time with her father—monthly visits—to consider herself a city kid. The arrangement an incubator for an intense relationship, even if the two of them hadn’t been built that way.
The radio crackles and fades.
“It’s not easy, is it?” she says.
His eyes narrow. Taking her measure. “No, ma’am. I suppose it isn’t.”
She nods. On the wall behind the deputy, a purely functional clock—black hands and numbers on a white face—ticks away the seconds.
“I’d like to see my father.”
Deputy Spitzer’s turn to nod. “Judge told us about that.” A hint of grin. A face unlined by worry. He opens the center desk drawer and retrieves a ring of keys. “Follow me.”
They walk down a putty-colored hallway, past a holding cell where Martha catches a puff of red-dyed hair, to a split door with the upper half opened. A small shelf or counter atop the lower half. Spitzer unlocks it and turns the knob. They step into a plain room with a linoleum floor. He unlocks the door of a steel cage painted in chipped, cracking robin’s egg blue. The evidence locker, about the size of a large closet, has an aisle separating two rows of cheap metal shelves. On the shelves, along with televisions, car stereo innards and plain cardboard boxes, rests the cherry wood funerary urn. Spitzer removes the urn and sets it on a small metal table in the room outside the locker. She resents him handling the urn, the assertion of guardianship. The Deputy locks the cage and offers Martha the room’s only chair apart from a tall stool where an evidence guard would sit in better-staffed times.
“Thanks.” Martha sits at the table.
Spitzer nods. He stands by the door, arms folded.
Martha wills the red from her face. Forces herself toward banter. “You don’t trust me?”
“It’s not that.”
“I’m a crusader for justice, just like you.”
The tips of his ears redden.
“Seriously, I’d like some time with him.”
“You can frisk me on the way out.”
Redder. But it gets him to unfold his arms and soften his stance.
“Call me when you’re done,” he says, “I’ll handle the items.”
She clenches at his words. Feels him note that. He leaves her to it.
She sits at the table, the urn before her. Solid cherry, boiled and bent, fastened with wooden pegs and copper tacks in the finest Shaker tradition.
Now that she’s here, now what.
She regards the urn. Tries talking to it. “The strange places we find ourselves, huh Dad?” More than once she’d posted bond for him on civil disobedience charges over someone else’s labor strike. They’d leave silent, independently irritated, jointly amused. Bonded in some shared joke. She touches the wood. Strokes it. She’d watched his physical decline, watched him become worn down and finally out. Twice-monthly trips from DC, she’d cook for him though he rarely ate. Sit with him. At the end, a two-month leave to be by his side. Both of them remembering the active and often unreasonable man he’d been.
“You still think I’m wasting my life?” Martha says out loud. Nothing. Just an exposed, stupid feeling. Martha remembers asking him, one of their last conversations. She’d wanted his blessing, again. He’d reddened. “I was wrong to ever say that. I’m proud of you. For what you do. For who you are.” Breath rattled in his chest. “If you’re asking me do I think you made the right call, to believe you can change things from within, then no. I guess we’ll never agree on that.”
She wonders now about never. She can see his ironic smile. Wishes she could feel the power of his presence. A force to measure herself against. But it’s just her and a container of ashes on a metal table, whatever remains of her father a prisoner of a system he battled his whole life.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I will get you out of here.”
No response from the urn. No matter. She’s coming back. Daily. On principle.
Bribers and Whoremongers
Governor La Follette found out fast that delivering reform legislation was more daunting than rallying public support for it. Especially when one’s manner was considered overbearing. La Follette’s first term became a war of wills with a hostile legislature.
His top priority was a land tax proposal that called for railroads to be taxed on their property as well as their income. “Railroads are the principal subverters of economic justice in our state,” the Governor charged. “Exempt from following the rules, and paying almost no taxes.” In a state where railroad companies exerted powerful political influence—and provided thousands of jobs—his proposal met with a cool reception in both legislative houses. What the new governor viewed as a move toward equality, stalwarts in the legislature saw as anti-business.
A more traditional politician might have tried to negotiate, cajole, or flatter his opponents. Governor La Follette preferred to shame and bully them. He insisted on delivering his proposals to the legislature in person, which earned him a reputation as a browbeater. He was a frequent, unwelcome fixture on the Assembly floor, where he professed a distrust in the state’s elected officials. “It is very well known,” he told a newspaper interviewer mere months into his first term, “that I am the only man in the Capitol who can crowd the legislature to do its duty.”
March, 1901. Wisconsin State Assembly chamber. Governor La Follette there to advocate his reforms before a reluctant audience. The room full, every oak desk in each semi-circular row occupied. Before the Governor took the podium, his friend and supporter Stephen Isaacs pulled him aside, reiterated a plea for him to moderate his pugnacious stance for the greater good. “You cannot use this body as a whipping post. Must not merely harangue your colleagues. You will lose support, even among friends.”
La Follette puffed his chest. “We are right and we will win out.” He tucked his thumbs in his lapels. “I will live to see the dirt fall on my enemies’ coffins.”
He took the podium to polite applause and almost immediately wore out his tenuous welcome. He boasted that, in addition to the railroad land tax, he would now call for the prohibition of trusts and other business combinations that “destroy competition and consolidate power.”
Assemblymen muttered to one another. The sound seemed to rise row by row to the back of the chamber. A smattering of boos echoed.
“Whoever seeks to defeat this agenda declares himself an enemy of the people of Wisconsin.” The mutterings grew louder. La Follette gripped the dais tight with both hands. His tone stern. “The fight is on. There will be no halt and no compromise.” What were mutterings became a clamor, offended voices running out of patience. The governor spoke over it. “For I cannot see honest measures beaten by the intrusion of monied interests without doing my utmost to prevent it.”
Philemon Salter, assembly speaker, timber baron, governor’s nemesis, called for quiet. “Governor,” he said, “you are out of order.”
La Follette raised his voice louder still. “Sir, I will not allow the people’s agenda to be thwarted by insidious bribers and whoremongers.”
In November 1901, only a year into his term, more than half the members of the governor’s own party signed a manifesto criticizing him for sanctimoniousness, and organized to fight his reform agenda. Both his land tax and railroad commission proposals were defeated.
La Follette, who had worked day and night throughout the marathon session, took defeat hard. In the summer of 1901 he fell ill from what his doctor described as “an unbalanced nervous apparatus” stemming from overwork and resulting in “a neurosis of the stomach.” His opponents would say this illness was caused by the bitterness and humiliation of losing. His recuperation took him away from active governing for nearly 15 months. Even within his own party, few at the state house missed him.
The Life You Build
Robert Junior at the porch railing, watching the neighborhood in late afternoon light.
Martha moves beside him. Sweater-clad, though she’s not a sweater person. “Innocence is so appealing, isn’t it?”
He smiles. Touches her hand with his. Cold. Dry.
Across the street at the daycare, children careen through the yard in what might be a game of tag.
“Sometimes I think I want that,” Martha says.
“A little one running to me at the end of the day. The bond so strong you sometimes feel suffocated, other times you know it’s the best part of you, the thing that shapes you.” She presses her thighs against the wood. “At least, that’s what it looks like. What I want to see.”
“It’s not too late.” Robert Junior wears a dingy cream-colored suit.
They stand side by side at the railing. A car moves down the street.
“When I’m honest with myself, I recognize it’s not the life I’ve built.” She shivers. “But how do you know if the life you’ve built is the one you wanted, or just a reflex, the only one you knew how?”
A mother and son cross the street to a car, hand in hand.
“You had a child,” she says.
His fingers move to the scar on his temple, across the powder burn that darkens the skin. “I think about him every day.” He has a way of speaking to his right shoe. “I wonder does he think about me? Does he remember the good things? Does he have children of his own?”
Down below, a boy rides a Big Wheel up and down the driveway.
“He was seventeen. I let him down. Rachel, too.”
Wind rattles bare tree branches. Martha tries to think of something to say, thinks better of it. Words of consolation would be hollow.
“Visiting your father?” he asks.
She folds her arms across her chest. Nods yes. Feels a wire go taut across her shoulder blades. “Day six.” She kicks at the balusters with her toe. “No news.”
He watches her face. His forearms rest on the railing. “They did say ten days.”
She shoots him the death glare.
“Patience is not your gift.” A cautious smile. “You haven’t learned that public life is marked by waiting? Recalibration, I used to call it.”
Martha’s hands dig for nonexistent pockets. “I’ve never accepted it.”
Young Martha, late on a cold December night, propped in bed reading. A biography, no less: Fighting Bob La Follette. In two days, Martha’s high school volleyball team would play for the league championship. Martha too wound up to sleep. She had already called every girl on the team, to encourage and energize. Martha was all-state. Martha was a generous rallying point for her team. But Martha liked to win. The other girls feared her death glare when one of them messed up. Even more, the rare moments when impulse control evaded Martha and she scolded. It wasn’t the words—usually just “come on” or the girl’s name—but the tone of a trust betrayed that cut them.
Winning was her connection to Fighting Bob La Follette. Why she sat up at three a.m. reading a biography instead of resting her weary muscles. She couldn’t stop reading about this man—a namesake! (She would research genealogy and fail to find a link, but a part of her would always believe it was there.)
His bold words and fierce manner struck a chord. Candidate La Follette traveled to 61 counties, gave 216 speeches, and spoke to more than 200,000 people.
The fire she loved in her dad fused with a determination to come out on top. Not to fight invisible battles and wear losing as a badge of honor. What she saw in Fighting Bob: the unrelenting application of energy to a cause. He knew better than to let up before the other guy gives.
But there was another quality that kept her reading about this curious figure.
A stubborn and passionate reformer determined to curb growing dominance of corporations over the government, La Follette drew much of his passion from the lifelong desire, even compulsion, to please an idealized father he never knew.
It almost appealed to Martha, who knew her own father all too well. He was all too human. All too predictable: how an announcement over Saturday breakfast of a labor march on the Brooklyn Bridge meant Martha would end her day picking him up at the police station, waiting for his release in her sweat suit, reading her history book and grateful none of her friends could see her.
Not Your Crowd
Sheriff’s office, a third day of chill rain. It’s getting to seem there are only two months a year in which Martha is warm. She’s had to dig out her pea coat.
“So,” she says, “what do you hear from the lab?”
At his desk, Spitzer looks as tired as Martha feels. “Nothing yet. Why?”
“Seven-to-ten days. This is day eleven.”
Spitzer shrugs. “It won’t be long.”
“Long is subjective.” Elbows on the counter.
“Would you feel better if I checked on it?”
“Feeling better is subjective, too.”
“I’ll check on it.”
The adrenaline of the gym has worn off. She wants a nap, a coffee. “Let me ask you something,” Martha says, chin in hands. “Why this case? Why so insistent?”
Behind him, the radio crackles. A woman’s voice, codes and coordinates. He doesn’t seem to need to respond.
“I hate apples,” he says. “I grew up on a farm. Fruits and vegetables. Huge orchard. To this day, I can’t eat an apple. Can’t stand to look at them or smell them. Applesauce, fine. Apple pie. Just don’t hand me what came straight off the tree.”
“People here are struggling,” Spitzer says. “They can’t find work. Main Street Lockport is a shell of what it was even ten years ago. You can see that. Wal-Mart screws us over and we’re glad for the jobs. People need to see their dignity respected. Their basic institutions.”
Martha sits with that a minute. “I appreciate what you’re saying. But the man’s not a threat to anyone. There’s no victim here. No crime.”
“Aggravated cemetery desecration. New York State penal law, section 145.27. D-felony.”
Martha considers pursuing that one, but doubts her bigger-fish-to-fry convictions will play well in this part of the state, with this Spitzer.
“Where you from, if you don’t mind me asking?”
A chatty Spitzer. Why not. He’s dropped the ma’am, at least.
Martha considers. “I’m from here.”
“Bet that’s not what you tell people down in the city.” Poker-faced. She can’t tell if he’s playing with her or poking her.
“That’s fair.” She reconsiders him in light of this.
“Manhattan or Brooklyn?” Behind him, a water stain where wall meets ceiling.
“Brooklyn.” She walks the bridge daily. A part of who she is. Was?
When Martha lived here, growing up, she would spend summer days walking through the back yard, through the orchards beyond. Her grandfather’s land, apples and cherries. She would walk to her favorite tree, a gnarled, thick apple tree near Poison Rock, sit in its shade and drift. So different from her city time. The part of being here that she liked.
“You don’t think much of us.” Fingers on his computer keyboard, but he’s not typing.
She raises a hand to protest.
“It’s all over your face.”
“Must be tough outside the spotlight, a celebrity crime fighter like you.” He raises a hand in the air. “Sorry. Crusader for justice.”
Okay. She can do this. Besides, she kind of likes him for calling her out. She laughs. “Ex,” she says. “I’m not sure what I am now.”
Like almost everyone else here, he’s beefy. A man who likes his meat and potatoes. “What happened?”
“My pride got hurt,” Martha says. She raises her eyebrows for effect. “My sense of justice.”
The radio crackles. They linger in the silence after. That round over.
“What sort of crime do you see mostly?” Martha asks.
“How do you mean?” Spitzer tacks a flyer to a bulletin board.
“What kind of trouble do people get up to?”
“Same as most places, I guess. Lot of it’s drinking- and drugs-related. Burglary. Larceny. DUI. A run of meth labs a couple years ago. People effing up because they’ve got no structure to their days. Frustrated, nowhere to take it.”
Martha receives this information quietly.
“What year’d you graduate?” he asks.
“From the high school. What year?”
“You would’ve known my brother Harris.”
She shakes her head, but then the name conjures a vague memory, one of the faceless who would chain themselves to this county for life.
“Wait, ” she smiles. ” Yeah, I guess I knew him a little.”
“I guess so. Not your crowd, though.”
Flick. A jab, playful. Doesn’t hurt a bit. She’ll register it. Swallow. “I’d like to see my father now.”
What Kind of Man?
“Tell me about your father.” Senior sits across from her, blond satchel in his lap. He smells of wood smoke and cabbage. “What kind of man was he?”
Martha shrugs, leans back in her chair. “Stubborn,” she says. “Like you.”
She has never known how to answer such questions. How to characterize someone as a sentence, a series of adjectives. Steam rises from her tea. The words it occurs to her to say—he had a birthmark on his forehead, a broken ring finger that healed crooked—don’t form a meaningful portrait.
“We’d go on bike rides,” she says. “Long ones. Father-daughter. He was fit. Driven.” The mug warms her hands. “From early on—twelve, thirteen—I could keep up with him. He loved that.” She laughs. “We shared a certain intensity. Anyway twenty-five, thirty mile rides. To me, they were races. A way to prove myself. And yeah, to beat him. I’d complain sometimes about the distance. You like it, he’d say. You just don’t realize.” She pulls the sachet from the mug, squeezes it between her fingers and sets it on the table. “I’d never have admitted it, but he was right.”
Senior leans across his satchel, relocates the tea bag to a plate.
“So to punish him I’d push him.” She smiles at the memory, her father bent over his handlebars to get that extra edge. The way he’d coast across the finish line standing like a jockey on a victory lap. “To him, I think it was just the joy of going hard together.” She remembers the friendly battles over distance and direction. The haggling that was banter that was a bond of love. “Not being alone in that.” Even after the divide, they still did the rides, well into his sixties. But the spirit changed. It became something they did out of duty, nostalgia for the pleasure it once brought. She shrugs away the reverie. “Anyway. That’s what he was like.”
Senior listens with his whole head, his body. “You said he was like me.”
Martha nods. Suppresses a grin. “He was an activist. Part of that generation fighting for change, the great push of the sixties, only to see everything get watered down. Nothing came of it.” She pours out the phrases, no longer worrying about coherence. “He reached a point where he no longer believed working through the system had any practical value.”
“What did he do, then?”
She runs her thumb along the lip of her mug. “Embraced the lunatic fringe. Worked for socialist candidates toward moral victories. Two percent of the vote was a win. Proof of purity, raising awareness. He’d meet with congressional aides, carp about the evils of international trade agreements.” She flashes on a memory, junior or senior year in high school, dressed for a party, had to stop at a Queens cop shop to bail him out. A wad of twenties in her jacket pocket from the cash box he kept stocked for such occasions. So angry at him she was fighting back tears. You’re a kid, he groused. You care about makeup. Parties. I care about other things. She’d rolled her eyes. Don’t even. Took a breath. I appreciate the cause, Dad. I just don’t see the point of how you pursue it. She raises the mug toward her lips. “But he was also the most principled man I’ve ever known. A good father.”
Senior lowers his head. Arms around his bag. Sadness in his eyes touches her.
“Tell me about your father,” she says.
Elbows on the table, Martha holds the phone tight against her ear.
“I need you,” Gaines says. “It’s not the same.”
Something inside Martha groans. Her former mentor’s voice, despite everything, calls her back toward a world she hates to think she misses.
“Come back,” his voice pleads.
She both regrets answering his call and doesn’t. She has accepted her failure to stay away from news about the ever-dwindling power of proposed bank regulations. The struggle in the Senate suggests to some that the new legislation may be narrower in scope than even the President’s proposals. Instead she wages her battle to stay calm about her future, the state of her newly vanished career. She did well until this morning. A missed call from Gaines drove her back to email. Three messages from him, asking what she is doing out in the boonies. Reassuring her that she’s welcome back. The messages didn’t make her angry. They made her sleepy. Also, a message from the Attorney General, thanking her for her service and acknowledging the “difficult blow” that led to her resignation. Her eyes filled with water. She fought it back. Stared at the missed call on her phone. When Gaines called again, she picked up. Now he’s telling her a run for Senate is shaping up.
“I keep saying no,” he says, “and they keep pushing.” The unwavering self-assurance. “There’s a compelling case that the time is now.”
Martha doesn’t fill the silence.
“Look, I know I disappointed you. But sometimes you have to let one go—surrender a battle strategically—to win the war.”
Robert Senior shambles in, carrying an empty milk glass, a faint odor of peat, and a small plate he sets in the sink.
Gaines says, “We have other fights. Bigger ones. We’ll have powerful people behind us.”
“Bribers and whoremongers,” Martha mutters.
Senior looks at her, an eyebrow cocked.
Gaines’ voice says, “What?”
Robert Senior watching her, attuned.
“Go forth and conquer,” she tells Gaines.
Senior steps behind her, reaches something from a shelf.
“Don’t be that way,” Gaines says. “I can’t do this without my crusader.”
Robert Senior takes a brush to her hair. She pushes his hand away.
The voice on the phone says, “This is an opportunity for you, too.”
Robert Senior touches her hand with his fingers. Stays her resistance.
Martha notes with some satisfaction that Gaines doesn’t exert the same pull on her that he once did. How there’s something different in his tone. Papered-over. She half-listens while he lists the reasons she should do this.
“You’ll be great,” she says. “You have my blessing.”
“I’m not taking a no right now. Think about it.”
The brush strokes are gentle. Soothing. Martha gives herself over to them, not even cognizant of the moment she pushes the button that ends the call.
“Wait,” Martha says. “Say that again? I must have heard you wrong.”
Spitzer’s eyes look down at his desk. He sighs.
“No, really.” Fluorescent lights flicker, giving Martha an instant headache.
His face is the long-suffering face of a county deputy. “The lab screwed up the DNA test. They need to run it again.”
Martha paces the linoleum floor. So angry she forgets to breathe.
Behind her, Spitzer’s voice. “They’ve promised to expedite.”
The prosecutor in her boils. She slices him in half with a stare. The rube. She takes a breath. Lets it out. Takes two steps toward him. Stops. “Quaint small-town shtick is one thing,” she says. “Incompetence is another.”
The deputy’s ears redden. “I understand you’re angry.” His delivering-bad-news voice.
“Don’t patronize me.”
“I’m not patronizing. I’m giving you the information I have.” The radio crackles. “I also put in a call to Judge Haney.”
“What’s that frat boy supposed to do?”
Spitzer raises a hand toward her. “Look, I know it’s a sensitive issue.” He stifles whatever would have come next. Then, “Mistakes happen.”
“Around here they do.” Martha just manages to sotto voce that last bit. She has no idea if Spitzer heard her. She needs to cool down. Her brain is screaming and she is too good at cutting remarks. Martha turns, follows the hall to the waiting room. The vending machines. She wants chips. On the bench is the old-smelling old woman, again cuffed to one arm, eating from a bag of Cheese-Its.
“You got a quarter?” the woman asks her.
“No,” Martha snaps. “You already have a snack.”
The woman lifts her un-manacled hand to show Martha inside the empty bag.
Martha counts her coins. “I’ve only got enough for one.”
The woman shrugs. “I don’t mind sharing.”
Martha walks to the machine, puts coins in.
“I’m Emma,” the woman says. “Emma Goldman.”
Of course you are, Martha thinks. She casts an appraising look.
“Not that one,” the woman says.
Okay. Martha selects Sun Chips. Opens the bag and sits down. Nods toward the handcuffs. “What happened?”
Thin hair like a puff of rusty smoke on a gravestone. “They tell me I’m a public nuisance.”
Spitzer might say the same about me.
Martha looks at Emma Goldman. Watches her reach for the bag. Pulls it away. Nothing personal lady, but I don’t like your smell. The flush of shame starts to calm her. She hands the old woman the bag. She won’t be eating any of these chips herself. Emma Goldman probably doesn’t like her smell, either. No one likes the smell of failing.
Martha sits slumped at the kitchen table. She picks at the frayed sleeve of a thrift store sweater. A half moon peeks through the window. “You ever feel as though you’ve wasted your life?”
Robert Junior at the stove sautéing onion and garlic. Pork tenderloin in a pan.
Martha flicks at the curtain with her fingers, briefly exposing the dusk. The scent of garlic fills the room. She watches Junior at the stove. “Smells good.”
He stirs vegetables. Sniffs the air. Grinds black pepper.
Martha gestures toward Junior’s head. “I googled you. The reports of your death. The reasons.” She watches her reflection in the window point toward his singed temple. “How much of it is true?” This is not the sort of question Martha would normally ask out loud. “I’m sorry.”
Junior tends the vegetables with a wood spatula Martha didn’t know she had.
“It’s okay.” He doesn’t quite meet her eyes.
“Was it really McCarthy? Not wanting to shame the family name?”
She sees a hint of a smile in his profile. He shrugs as he stirs. “That’s a little simple.” He works the spatula steadily, attentive to the pan. He speaks with his back mostly to her. “I suppose anytime something like that happens there are lots of factors. That the person can’t sort them out.” Martha watches herself in the window and listens to his voice. “I felt the pressure. The impending shame. My weakness. I could see it all unfold. How he’d proceed. How I’d respond.” A softness. A small catch, even. Martha loves him for this. He turns off the heat under the onion and garlic. Covers the pan. “I couldn’t stop trying to be the man my father wanted me to be. And I couldn’t stop wanting to be someone else. I wanted to watch my kids grow up, but lacked the courage to stay the course. As much as I’d like to blame my father for that, I can’t.”