“Demonstrate before the palaces of the rich to demand work.
If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.”
On a wooden bench in the Niagara County Sheriff’s Station in the dead hours of an October night, Martha La Follette waits for the deputy’s return. Fluorescent lights buzz dim overhead. Martha would like to be home, asleep, but for many reasons that is not an option.
“I dreamed last night I fell asleep in a field, under some kind of fruit tree.”
Beside Martha on the bench is an old woman. The woman holds a cloth drawstring bag, wears a homemade knit hat. Martha is not in a conversational mood. She feels the woman’s eyes on her.
“I dreamed last night—” the woman says.
“I heard you.”
The woman’s hat is green. Emerald, or maybe Kelly. Either way, a shade Martha dislikes. A dishonest color. Martha’s fingers are still cold from the chill night. Martha’s eyes search for the deputy. There has been no sign of him, nor of the man, the perpetrator. Martha wonders if the deputy has gone home. At this hour, no one stirs but the desperate and desolate.
Old people smell leaks in puffs from the woman’s mouth.
Martha folds her arms. “My father is in an evidence locker,” she says.
The woman nods. She stares up at the cross-hatched plastic that covers the fluorescent tubes. Behind her, two vending machines—one snacks, one sodas—cast a spectral glow.
Martha squirms on the bench and watches the empty squad room, wanting only to confront the deputy and reclaim her father. To spare him further indignity.
The woman removes her knit hat to reveal thin, red-dyed hair. Her skin is powdered. Delicate in the way old people get. The woman tucks the hat into her drawstring bag. Tosses her head the way a girl might. She does all this awkwardly, with her left hand. The woman’s right hand is cuffed to the arm of the bench.
The lights buzz overhead.
“I dreamed last night I fell asleep in a field,” the woman says again. “Under some kind of fruit tree.”
Martha is spared by the emergence of the deputy, who makes his way across the squad room like a man wading through water. The tips of his small ears are red.
“Ms. La Follette?” he asks, as if he isn’t sure who she is, as if they hadn’t spent an hour together earlier that night, as if he hadn’t called to drag her out of bed with the news that her father’s grave had been dug up and that a man had been arrested in possession of a shaker wood funerary urn containing her father’s ashes.
She indulges herself and doesn’t acknowledge him the first time.
“Ms. La Follette?”
Now she meets his eyes. A ring of cropped blond hair surrounds the deputy’s otherwise waxed scalp. He wears a name badge that reads Deputy Spitzer Ruell.
“I’m here to claim my father.”
A cell phone rings in his pocket. He ignores it. “It’s not that simple, ma’am.”
In Martha’s world, ma’am is antagonistic. A fight-picking word. But this is not Martha’s world. Not her home; it is merely her hometown.
“What’s not that simple?”
“Ma’am.” The red has spread to the deputy’s cheeks. The top of his head. “The urn is evidence. At least until the arraignment.”
“But I’m not pressing charges.”
The compressor in the soda machine kicks on, making an industrial hum. Deputy Spitzer’s baldness is premature. His head shines in the glare of fluorescent light. Martha hates fluorescent light.
“I understand, ma’am. The county is pressing charges.”
Martha tilts her head as if to better process this information. Breathes away a flare of anger.
“He’s done this kind of thing before,” the deputy says. “Someone needs to hold him accountable.”
Her father would have found this ironic, a defeat no more wounding than any other. But Martha does not appreciate the irony. For Martha—until very recently Assistant US Attorney Martha La Follette—the word accountable triggers fires in her brain. No one’s accountable. She of all people knows this.
Whenever they meet, Robert Senior ends up looking into the ruin of his son’s mouth.
“You should have taken better care of your teeth,” he says.
They sit side by side at the edge of a grave, legs dangling into the freshly excavated hole where, until hours ago, Martha La Follette’s father’s ashes were buried. Their breath visible on the air.
Robert Senior rests his back against the cold granite. “You could have fought it, son. You were in the right.” He eats a zwieback. Sips from a mug of milk. Since his collapse from nervous exhaustion in 1924, his doctors allowed him to eat only granose biscuits, English walnuts, butter, and milk.
Robert Junior stares into the sullied grave, shoulders slouched. There is scant moonlight, for which he is grateful. A sulfur burn and scar near his left temple remain from the night he took his life. Whenever they meet, his father stares at it without realizing.
Though the stone supports him, Robert Senior has his left hand in the dirt. A satchel, worn blond leather, rests at his side against the stone. “You just let them win,” he says. The smell of fertilizer.
Robert Junior leans back, eyes on the night sky. “We couldn’t all be you.”
“The ignorant will always bully their way past the sensitive.”
A groan escapes the son’s chest. His gaze goes to the empty grave.
“You were a better man than them,” the father says. “Smart. Passionate.”
“Please,” Robert Junior says. “Can we not do this?”
The father regards his child. The hunched shoulders. The bald spot. The one-time embodiment of all his hopes. “Ready?”
The son stands. Brushes dirt from his wool slacks. Helps his father to his feet.
Robert Senior collects himself. “What is your mission?” he asks.
“To disturb privilege and encourage the powerless.”
“What is your curse?”
“To spend eternity with a father whose shadow I cannot escape.”
They walk side by side through the graveyard.
The case that became the turning point in Martha’s life, the case that ended her tenure as a US Attorney, was itself born out of a devastating loss.
August 2009, leaving the courtroom after another failed prosecution of a securities trader. Leaving with Gaines—her boss, her mentor—the two of them silent but for the echo of their expensive shoes in the marble hallway. Heads down. Cool in the heat of Manhattan’s dead season. They turned a corner to find lead defense counsel gloating before a cluster of news cameras and microphones. Adjusting the collar of her blouse, the kind of blouse Martha hated, an imperious wall of pleats. Martha defeated in her lucky black suit.
Gaines stopped a discrete distance down the hall and watched. Martha wanted to get as far from this debacle as she could, but stopped beside him. Gave him side-eye.
“It’s been a long and difficult ordeal,” said the silk blouse, voice bouncing in the hallowed halls of 500 Pearl Street. “My client served almost a year in jail for something that has now been determined was not a crime.”
Martha’s hands trembled. Gaines’ face impassive. She boiled until she recognized his mask as strategy.
The blouse still talking. Reporters lapping it up. Take it all in, Martha told herself. Swallow it. This loss made her office 0-for-15 in prosecutions in the months after the failure of the country’s two biggest mortgage banks. Stock options backdating, fraud, insider trading allegations. They had failed to make any of it stick.
So she stood in the background in that vast hall and made herself listen. The blouse repeated her talking points. The TV people fell back and the metro writers stepped forward. A New York Times reporter they knew approached her and Gaines.
“So,” the reporter said. His mouth half smirk, half solidarity. “Reactions from the losing side? Anger? Frustration?”
Martha made her hands into fists, dug nails into her palms. She looked to Gaines; didn’t trust herself right then to speak on the record.
Gaines didn’t hesitate. “Am I frustrated? Hell, yes.” He spat the words. Pointed toward the courtroom. “No one denies the defendant added more than a hundred million dollars to his fortune through insider trading and other corporate misconduct. But this court has determined that’s not a crime.” He stopped himself.
“So, what now, o warrior of the people?”
Martha clenched her fists.
Gaines took a breath. Looked to the distant ceiling. “Obviously, we’re going to have to rethink our approach.”
Fifteen criminal acquittals. A dozen SEC deals to settle civil cases against financial firms for pocket change, with no acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Gaines had stared it all down, and Martha soaked in every word as fuel for the work to follow. Now there were only two responses: walk away beaten, or regroup.
Three days later, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York State had a come-to-Jesus meeting.
Martha arrives home—a temporary apartment in Lockport—after 4 am, eager to purge a fruitless night with a hot shower. To buy some perspective with a few hours sleep. She can see her father’s thin-lipped smile. Hear his voice: Finally, you’re on my side. And she thinks, I always was.
She tosses her keys into the ceramic bowl by the door. Drops her bag and falters toward the bathroom, shedding her pullover and sport bra as she goes. Her afternoon workout feels like weeks ago. Down the hall. Dark woodwork. Wallpaper in a delicate floral pattern. One ancient light fixture with a 40-watt bulb. Martha thinks of the décor as early Depression. Her eyes burn. Her head aches. She steps out of jeans and swipes aside the shower curtain. Two men in archaic clothing huddle in the tub. They shield their eyes, doing their best not to look at her.
Martha folds one arm across her chest. She closes the curtain. Rubs her tired face. Pulls it open again.
The older of the two men flinches, scrambles to keep his balance on the porcelain surface without losing his grip on a blond leather satchel. He wears a black suit, has thick salt-and-pepper hair brushed back in a high pompadour. The younger man sits pressed against the back of the tub. Despite the circumstances, they are figures too ridiculous to fear. With dirt patches on their wool trousers, they look like escapees from a community theater production of Oliver Twist.
Martha takes a deep breath. “Which of you is going to explain this?”
The older man with the pompadour takes a towel from the rack and hands it to Martha, who covers herself. The man has a preacher’s direct gaze in a Midwestern farmer’s face. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he says. He wears a tab collar shirt and a faded tie. He looks vaguely familiar. “Robert M. La Follette. Three-term governor of the great state of Wisconsin. A progressive. And my son, Robert Junior.”
Martha nods, forgotten knowledge coming back to her. “I know who you were,” she says. “What are you doing in my tub?”
Robert Junior has a long triangular face, a weak chin. Kind, tired eyes above a bow tie and a bloused white shirt. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We’re here to help.”
Help would not be unwelcome, but Martha is having trouble processing its form or efficacy.
She smells soil on these men, and cold air, damp wool and other musty things she strains to identify. Martha is more weary than angry. More confused than scared. “La Follette.”
She smells sulfur and strong cheese. She wonders if this is some late-night fever dream. “Are you my punishment?”
Robert Senior: “Far from it.”
The two men watch her, expectant. Martha shivers. “I read about you in school.” She meets Senior’s forthright gaze. “You were a hero to me.”
He bows as much as the tight quarters permit. “I only ever did my best.”
Martha tightens the towel around her. “Get out of my tub.”
“Of course.” Senior shifts his weight, raises one leg, but has nowhere to put it down, constrained by the toilet in one direction, Martha in another, his slower-moving son in a third. He waits for Junior to extricate himself, then steps out. The three of them stand in an awkward cluster on the tile floor. Cocktail-party close. The satchel like a fourth body between them. To avoid eye contact, Robert Senior stares at the homemade “jiggle the handle” placard that sits atop the toilet bowl. “I believe I’ve repaired your flusher.”
“I’m going to shower,” she says. “I don’t suppose you’ll be gone when I come out?”
The two men shuffle their feet. Robert Junior lowers his eyes to the floor.
Martha nods slowly. “Wait in the living room.”
Robert Junior slips out the door. His father, trying to follow, catches his satchel strap on the knob in an exaggerated effort to avoid physical contact. He blushes as his attempts to untangle it become extended.
Martha shakes her head, not unsympathetic. “What’s in the bag?” she asks.
Robert Senior holds his left hand against the worn blond leather. “The bones of my father.”
Martha recoils. Recovers herself. Points an arm toward the hallway, the towel sliding down her torso. “Out.”
“How does the defendant plead?”
Niagara County Courthouse. Judge Darien Haney presiding. Martha sits in the third of four rows of benches that look and feel like church pews. Deputy Spitzer sits in the row in front of her across the aisle. Outside, rain. A steady drip from the eaves above the window to her left.
“Guilty with mitigating circumstances, your honor.”
Martha suppresses a smirk. The curly-haired public defender can’t be more than 25. He’s someone’s slow-witted cousin, a dogged sickly kid who’d wiped his runny nose on the back of his hand, now got through law school and set up with steady, thankless work. Martha is not at her most generous when in her hometown.
“And what are these mitigating circumstances, counselor?”
“Mr. Prager will provide documentation that he has Native blood, and that the remains in question are those of a Seneca ancestor, illegally burned and buried.”
Judge Haney looks at the kid over a pair of half-frame glasses. He has the slumped look of a man watching a case go from simple to serpentine. Martha’s stomach sours. Her abdominal muscles clench. Seneca, my ass. I chose that urn. Wept over those ashes. The kid hands a document to the bailiff, who in turn hands it to the judge. He supplies a copy to the prosecutor, a crisp, no-bullshit woman who—if there’s any justice at all—will be the next county DA.
“Funerary urns,” the kid goes on, “and the ashes they contain, are considered cultural items. Federal law would require the return of these items to the native people, your honor.” He rushes the citation. “Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act 1990.”
No way. Martha’s face freezes in its mask of professional calm. She doesn’t like this kid—the pouty set of his mouth, baby fat below his chin. He has never lost someone close to him. She waits for the prosecutor to object, the judge to dismiss this as farce. This Prager character is clearly the local nut case. Even Spitzer acknowledged him as a serial grave robber seeking attention. Told her that each time they bring him in, he’s got a different story. She watches the rain and tries to unclench her stomach. No objection from the future DA: recant that job offer.
“As a result, your honor, ” the kid continues, with a pinch of smug, “we request that the ashes be held in county custody until a sample can be harvested and tested at a post-mortem DNA lab.”
Again, the judge looks over his glasses. Martha has never seen a judge with a buzz cut. “I do not care for either games or circus acts,” he says, slowly. Good. And?
The kid: “Your honor, I have found places that could perform these services.”
The prosecutor just sits there. Martha’s hands tremble. She wants to jump up, take over.
The judge: “And how much of the county’s inadequate time and money do you expect to spend?”
More documents change hands. Martha forces herself to watch. A draft seeps in from somewhere. Martha wraps herself in her fleece.
“Approximate turnaround time, seven to ten business days, your honor.”
Judge Haney turns his attention to the prosecutor. “Is this necessary?”
“The man is a repeat offender in a crime we view to be not only against the county, but against the community,” she says, pinched.
And he always has a different story. Call bullshit!
“We seek the fullest penalty. Whatever that requires.”
Are you kidding me? Martha swallows resentment. She is tired of swallowing.
The defendant Prager sits to the right of his kid lawyer—an afterthought, hunched and harrowed. A crow.
The judge reads, tight-lipped. He turns the document over in his hands like a man looking for a way out. “I don’t like it,” he says. “Given the sensitivities in this case, the deeply personal nature of the items in question.”
Martha feels a glimmer of hope rise, despite a recognition of the rhetorical structure and where it’s headed. She’ll need at least an hour on the elliptical later to set this one aside.
“I don’t like it,” the judge says, “but I’m going to allow it.”
In the early 1890s, after serving three terms in the House of Representatives and five years running a small law practice, Robert La Follette began to believe that his Republican Party had become a tool for corporate interests. He formed a coalition of Wisconsin reformers and launched a series of insurgent campaigns for governor. By 1900, he had gathered enough support to be a factor. La Follette had a bold and comprehensive agenda, but he staked his candidacy on two promises: he would limit the power of railroad companies by exposing them to a land tax; and he would create a commission to regulate railroad charges. His combative manner struck a chord with voters, as did his message decrying the sway of big business. His speeches, often delivered from the back of a buckboard wagon, drew ever more enthusiastic crowds.
McFarland, Wisconsin. June 1900: The candidate addressing a crowd from a wagon bed on a warm Saturday afternoon. “To let railroads and other corporations control the country’s commerce,” he said, “is, in effect, to let them control the country.” Suit coat folded at his feet, vest unbuttoned, hair combed high in its customary pompadour, Fighting Bob held his audience in sway for more than an hour. He made eye contact, his arms gesturing to encompass his listeners or single them out as the moment called for. He had traveled already to 61 counties, at least three stops each day. “Economic power has a way of overcoming political power, no matter how carefully the rules are drawn.” The candidate unprotected from the summer sun, as was most of his audience. Small clusters of men in mostly dark suits watched from the shade of a few red maples. “If our democracy is to survive, we must develop balances powerful enough to overcome the selfish power of wealth.” He finished to vigorous applause, leaned over the side of the wagon to shake hands and solicit votes.
As the crowd thinned, two men in dark suits approached the wagon. One had a large build. The other, thinner man La Follette recognized as the timber magnate and state Senator Philemon Salter. The larger man spoke, bemused grin on his face, cigar in meaty hand.
“Candidate La Follette, would you deign to step down and speak to mere mortals?”
Sour-faced, La Follette considered his options and hopped to the ground.
The larger man offered his hand. “Bradford Cook, Wisconsin Northern Railroad.” Cook watched La Follette regard the hand with evident distaste before shaking it weakly. “And my associate—“
“I know who he is,” La Follette cut in. “And I know who you are. What do you want with me?”
“We are Wisconsin voters come out to hear the stump speech,” said Salter.
“To take the measure of the enemy, if you will,” said Cook. He puffed his cigar. “And a fine performance it was, Candidate La Follette, though perhaps more suited to the circus than the State House.” The grin widened. “Where are the elephants, the camels, the vendors selling peanuts?”
Fit to burst from the arrogance of the famed financier, La Follette clenched to contain himself. His stomach, fed only on coffee and gravy-laden biscuits, roiled, but his day was coming closer with every crowd he won over. He puffed his chest. “This is sport to you. But your corruption ends here. The will of the people shall prevail.”
Salter looked down his thin nose at the candidate. Cook blew smoke into the summer air. Laughed. “The will of certain people,” he said and turned away.
La Follette won election to his first term by more than 100,000 votes.
Martha arrives home to find Robert Senior at the kitchen table with a glass of milk, two zwieback biscuits, a newspaper, and a pad of paper on which he is making notes. He wears a black suit of a style Martha associates with backwoods preachers. There’s a clatter from the pantry that Martha ignores. She shakes rain out of her hair. It’s only October and she’s cold all the time.
Senior looks up at her. “No ashes?”
“Don’t even ask.” Unable to keep disgust from her voice, but glad for someone to vent to. Glad for someone to come home to. How weird is that. “County won’t release him.” She fills the kettle with angry water. Zips her fleece. In the city, she’s not layered. “The pissant public defender is questioning his identity.”
Pans clatter in the pantry. Robert Junior pokes a sympathetic face around the corner. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Senior drains his glass, holds it up toward her. “You’re out of milk,” he says.
“Please,” she says. “Make yourselves at home.” The sarcasm lost on them both. Junior returns to clattering.
Martha wants hot tea. A quiet space to sulk. “But no, we’re going to honor the wild claim of a kid lawyer grasping at mitigating circumstances for his mentally ill client who every few months feels the need to desecrate a grave.”
Senior, pensive: “I can’t disagree with them.”
Martha turns the burner on high. Warms her hands. “No one asked you.”
Outside, day fades. The last reluctant leaves fall from maples and elms.
“In order to have society,” Senior says, pencil poised in midair, “the individual must sometimes forego his own interests to subject himself to the greater good.” A high pompadour and erect bearing make the former governor seem always to be posing for a portrait.
“Society is nothing but a balancing act between privilege and power.”
A groan from the pantry.
She takes a breath. “I don’t consider an undisturbed grave a privilege.”
Senior puts down his pencil. He smells of celery and boiled eggs. “I am glad to hear the anger. The spark. The determination to honor your father.”
More clatter from the pantry. Martha looks in. Junior holds a conical pan by one handle, runs the fingers of his other hand along the textured metal. He has removed every pot from the shelves.
“That’s a wok,” she says. “What are you doing?”
“Tidying. You can’t use what you can’t find.”
“I don’t cook,” Martha says.
“I do.” Shirt sleeves rolled up. Brightness in his eyes. He seems almost happy.
Martha pours hot water into a mug and drops into a chair across the table from Senior.
“On the other hand,” he says. “If you’re right, fight them. Give them no quarter until they surrender.”
Martha holds up her hands. “Do you have an off switch?”
“When you’re down, that’s when you most need to summon the will to fight.” He shakes a fist in the air. “As governor, when my railroad land tax was voted down, did we surrender? No.” The forward thrust of a shoulder for emphasis. He is a cartoon. She can’t make herself dislike him. Can’t make herself fully believe him. “We traveled the state, stirred voters to anger…”
Steam rises from Martha’s mug. “What lamp do I rub to send you back where you came from?”
Junior’s voice from the pantry: “If only it were that simple.”
The birthmark on her father’s forehead went white, like it always did when he was upset. Martha had just accepted a job with the US Attorney’s Office in New York. Any other father would have been proud. Beaming. But hers wasn’t any other father.
“This is not what I raised you for.” Nearly shouting. Red-faced, save for the dime-sized birthmark. “Do you really want to be just another tool of a corrupt system?”
She rolled her eyes, a teen habit that persisted only with him. Fought to keep her own volume from rising. “Three years of law school, what did you think I’d do?”
He stared her down. “Victim’s rights. Legal advocacy. Something worthwhile.”
“Do you hear yourself?”
“Besides,” he said. “You’re unequipped.”
“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Volume rising, despite herself.
“Willing yourself to a valedictory ranking or a volleyball title is one thing,” he said. “Winning fights in big boy land is something else.”
She stood nose to nose with him. “What fight have you ever won?”
His breath rasped, heavy. “You have no idea who these people really are,” he said. “Your boss was in a Harvard club with this one, high school debate pals with that one. The fight is rigged. They couldn’t play it straight if they wanted to.”
“Are you done?”
“No.” He ran a hand through silver hair brushed back on a widow’s peak. “I hate to see you fool yourself. You can’t change the system from inside. Strings will get pulled behind your back. You’ll be left broken and wondering what happened.”
There it was. Genuine concern under the pile of paranoia. “That’s almost sweet of you, Dad. If it wasn’t so condescending. I’m a grownup. And, you’re wrong. This way, I have a chance to win.”
“But you don’t.” A hint of color coming back into his birthmark. “You get one life. Don’t waste it.”
“Only you would think a Justice Department career was a wasted life.”
He shrugged. Defiant. Unaware of the chasm he had created between him and his only daughter.