Mel Meyer saw some boys on the shoulder of the interstate checking the tie-downs on a flatbed truck carrying a piece of farm machinery. He pulled into the left lane to give them a safe berth, and as he shot past them he realized that the boys were about sixty and forty years old respectively. They only looked like boys because, on this cold February day, they were wearing denim jackets that barely came down to their waists. Culture shock again, You’d think he would have gotten used to it by now.
Mel understood intellectually that these people had to wear short jackets because it gave them greater freedom of movement while they worked, and he also understood that their mall-dwelling females wore pastel workout clothes and running shoes at all times because they were more comfortable than anything else. But to Mel they all looked like children. This was not because Mel was some kind of a snob. It was because he was from Chicago and these people were from the entirely separate cultural, political, and economic entity called downstate.
To make anything work between two such disjointed places there had to be the equivalent of diplomats – people who, in another context, had once been defined as “men sent abroad to lie for their country – in both senses of the word.” The intra-Illinois diplomats were the old family law firms in the major and minor towns of the state. These professionals lacked the partisanship to have a killer impulse for their clients. Instead they saw life in terms of each side winning, if at all possible.
In Chicago there were perhaps a hundred families such as the Meyers, ranging through the Polish, Slovak, Irish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and even WASP sections of town, who kept the lines between the two Illinoises open and flowing, working in enter-prises legal and illegal. It was perhaps the purest and most professional group in Illinois, and the Meyers were masters of the guild. Shmuel Meirerowitz’s son David, even though he was a Conservative Jew, had the skill and honesty to gain the trust of even the most bigoted downstate ambulance chaser. Generations of lawyers from. Cairo, Quincy, Macomb, Decatur, and Pekin (home of the Fighting Chinks) knew that the Meyer family’s word was good. It was not particularly surprising, then, that the Cozzanos had encountered the Meyers, and that they had formed, an alliance.
Since then, a lot of Meyers had put a lot of miles on various cars, driving back and forth. Shmuel normally rode the Illinois Central, but David cruised up and down U.S. 45 in the stupendous Cadillacs and Lincolns of the 1950s and 1960s, and Mel scorched the pavement of Interstate 57 in a succession of Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes.
Mel had defined his very own Checkpoint Charlie, the official dividing line between Chicago and downstate. He drove by it every time he took I-57 south from the heart of the city. It was out in one of the suburbs, Mel had never bothered to find out which, where traffic finally started to open up a little bit. The landmark in question was a water tower, a modern lollipop-shaped one. It was painted bright yellow, and it had a smiley face on it. When Mel saw the damn smiley face he knew he had passed into hostile territory. The flatness of downstate was, in its way, just as stark and awe-inspiring as Grand Canyon or Half Dome. He had been down here a thousand times and it always startled him. The settlers had come here and found an unmarked geometric plane; anything that rose above that plane was the work of human beings. When Mel had first come this way it was mostly grain elevators, water towers, and ranks of bleachers rising up alongside high-school football fields. These artifacts were still there, but nowadays the most prominent structures were microwave relay towers: narrow vertical supports made of steel latticework, sprouting from concrete pads in cornfields, held straight by guy wires, drum-shaped antennas mounted to their tops. Each antenna was pointed several miles across the prairie in the direction of the next microwave relay tower. This was how phone calls got bounced around the country. These things were all over the place, crossing the country with a dense invisible web of high-speed communications, but other places you didn’t see them. In cities they were hidden on the tops of buildings, and in places with hills, they were built into the high places where you couldn’t see them unless you knew where to look. But out here, the buildings and hills had fallen out from under the phone company and their invisible network had been laid bare. It was not merely visible, but the single most obvious thing about the downstate landscape. It caused Mel to wonder, as he skimmed across the prairie on I-57, its four lanes straight as banjo strings, paralleling the equally straight Illinois Central railway line, whether downstate had some magical feature that might expose another network, a network that had, so far, so perfectly hidden its workings in the complexity of the modern world that Mel wasn’t even sure it existed.
Cozzano beckoned Mel into the house and rolled forward into the living room.
“Hey, Willy, how are you?” Mel said, coming in the front door.
He spun a stack of newspapers into Cozzano’s lap: the Financial Times was on top, and Cozzano could see the red corner of the Economist sticking out underneath. Mel pounded Cozzano on the shoulder, peeled off his heavy cashmere overcoat, and, oblivious to the fact that it cost more than a small car, tossed it full-length on to the sofa where it would pick up dog hairs. “What is this shit on the TV?” he said. He went up to the set and punched buttons on the cable box until he got CNBC. Then he turned the volume down so it wouldn’t interfere with the conversation.
“Hey, Patty,” Mel said. “You need to do any medical stuff with Governor Cozzano in the near future?”
Patricia had no idea how to deal with people who were not from Tuscola. She just stood in the dining room, glowing fuzzily in her peach-and-lavender sweatsuit, drying her hands, looking at Mel, completely baffled and uncertain. “Medical stuff?”
“I am asking you,” Mel said, “if the Governor will be needing any specific medical attention from you in the next few hours -medications, therapy, anything like that. Or are your duties going to be strictly domestic in nature – making food and taking him to the bathroom and stuff like that?”
Patricia’s eyes looked down and to the left. Her mouth was slightly ajar. She was still completely nonplussed.
“Thank you,” Mel said, reaching his arms far apart to grab the handles of the big sliding doors that separated the living room from the dining room. He drew them shut with a thunderclap, closing off their view of Patricia. Then he went to another door that had been propped open and kicked out the doorstop.
“In or out, Lover. Command decision!” he snapped.
Lover IV, the golden retriever, scurried into the room and got out of the way as the door swung shut.
“You gotta take a leak or anything?”
“No,” Cozzano said.
“You look good, for a guy who’s exhausted.”
“You’ve been working so hard thinking about the campaign that you have collapsed from exhaustion,” Mel said. “You’re taking a week or two off to recover. In the meantime, your able staff is filling in for you.”
Mel popped down on the couch next to Cozzano. He began to rub his chin with his hand. Mel had a thick and fast-growing beard and shaved a couple of times a day. For him, chin rubbing was something he did when he was taking stock of his overall situation in the world.
“You were going to blow your brains out, weren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Cozzano said.
Mel thought it over. He didn’t seem especially shocked. The idea did not have a big emotional impact on him. He seemed to be weighing it, the way he weighed everything. Finally he shrugged, unable to deliver a clear verdict.
“Well, I’ve never been one to argue with you, just offer advice,” Mel said.
“My advice right now is that it is entirely your decision. But there may be factors of which you are not aware.” “Oh?”
“Yeah. I’m sure you’re probably thinking what it would be like to spend twenty, thirty years this way.”
“You win the Camaro!” Cozzano said.
“Well, it’s possible that you may not have to. I’m getting, uh, shall we say, feelers, from people who may have a therapy to cure this kind of thing.” “Cure it?”
“Yeah. According to these people you could get back a lot of what you lost. Maybe get back all of it.” “How? The melon is dead.”
“Right,” Mel said, not missing a beat, “the brain tissue is toast, Kaput. Croaked. Not coming back. They can rewire some of the connections, though. Replace the missing parts with artificial stuff. Or so they say.”
“Some research institute out in California. It’s one of Coover’s little projects.”
“Coover.” Cozzano chuckled a little bit and shook his head. DeWayne Coover was a contemporary of Cozzano’s father. Like John Cozzano, he had gotten lucky with some investments during the war. He was a billionaire, one of those billionaires that no one ever hears about. He lived on some patch of warm sandy real estate down in California and he didn’t get out much except to play golf with ex-presidents and washed-up movie stars. His granddaughter Althea had gone to Stanford with Mary Catherine and they had been on the fringes of each other’s social circles.
John Cozzano and DeWayne Coover had had a number of dealings during and after the war and had never really hit it off. Some people liked to believe that there was some kind of rivalry Between the two men, but this was a completely off-the-wall idea. Coover’s success dwarfed that of the Cozzano family. He was in an entirely different league.
“I got a call from one of Coover’s lawyers,” Mel said. “It was on an unrelated thing. A leukemia thing.”
After Christina died of leukemia, Cozzano had founded a charitable organization to research the disease and assist victims. DeWayne Coover, who had a penchant for big medical research projects, had been a major contributor. So it was not unusual for Cozzano’s people to talk to Coover’s people.
“So I’m talking to the guy, and it’s about some kind of trivial question relating to taxes. It comes into my head to wonder why this guy, who is a senior partner in a big-time L.A. firm, is talking to me about this issue, when it’s so tiny that our secretaries could almost handle it. And then he says to me, ‘So, how’s the Governor doing these days?’ Just like that.”
Cozzano laughed and shook his head. It was incredible how word got around.
“Well, to make a long story short, he’s been dumping bucks into researching problems like yours. And he’s definitely putting out feelers.”
“Get more phone books,” Cozzano said.
“More information about it? I knew you’d say that.”
Cozzano raised his right hand to his head, shaped like a pistol, and brought his thumb down like a hammer.
“Right,” Mel said, “a bullet to the head is the most experimental therapy of all.”