Eleanor was in the middle of cleaning out her office. This wasn’t much of a job since she had barely moved into it and the empty boxes were still stacked conveniently in the corner. Bent over with both hands in a file drawer, she didn’t notice Caleb Roosevelt Marshall coming into her office until he got her attention by tossing a keychain on to her vacant desktop.
“I’m taking you on a ride, lady,” he said.
She straightened up, startled to see him standing right in front of her, dressed in a blue work shirt and chinos, leaning on a cane. “I have my best conversations when I’m driving flat out into the mountains,” he said, nodding at the keychain. Eleanor picked it up; it was a set of keys to a rented Cadillac. “But now I’m getting too old to drive. Can’t even see the goddamn hood ornament.”
“Allow me, then,” Eleanor said.
It was a nice Cadillac, a convertible, parked in the Senator’s private space in back of the Alamo. The Senator had apparently dismissed his security detail, so Eleanor offered her arm and helped him out of the building and into the passenger seat. Then she got in and cranked it up. The car had a nice sound system with a tape player, and although the Senator complained that he wanted to get going, Eleanor decided to rummage around in the hollow center armrest for one of his tapes.
“What are you going to play? Rap music?” he said as she popped a tape out of its case and shoved it into the dashboard.
“Resurrection Symphony,” Eleanor said, as the opening bars came from speakers hidden all over the car.
“Good,” Marshall said. “I been listening to it a lot. Figure I’d better become expert in the subject. Now let’s get going, damn it.”
The Senator had a particular, highly detailed route he wanted to follow through Denver and up into the mountains. He eschewed the newfangled foolishness of freeways in favor of a devious route that took them down alleys, through parks, along curvy residential streets. For a while, as she followed his barked and seemingly improvised instructions, she was afraid that he had gone completely off his rocker and was getting them hopelessly lost. But they never got stuck at a slow stoplight, never had to make an impossible left turn, and in time the city began to spread out and undulate as the landscape awoke from the thousand-mile slumber of the prairie.
“Thanks for saving my ass,” Senator Marshall said, when he wasn’t giving directions.
She smiled. “I was wondering whether you’d see it that way.”
“Course I do. I’m not senile,” he said. “Sooner or later a senator has to rely on someone like you.”
“How do you figure?”
“A senator has a big staff. He has to, in order to carry out the basic functions of his office, and to get reelected. Normal people don’t take those kinds of jobs. If I could take people off the street, I would. That’s how I got you. But normally I gotta hire the kinds of people who angle and maneuver for such work, which means weasels like Shad Harper. And almost the moment they get into the job, they start spinning their own goddamn agenda. Some of them know what they’re doing and some are just complete assholes. And when the assholes get themselves into trouble, like Shad did, then a senator has to have some way to get rid of them without bringing down his whole career. And you served that purpose admirably in the affair of Shad Harper.”
“Did you get my letter?”
“What letter? The resignation?”
“Yeah, I got that damn letter. I don’t accept your resignation. I want you working for me. Hell, woman, you’re like a pit bull trained to attack white men. I want you on my side.”
Eleanor laughed. “I don’t attack anyone.”
“Well you sure do leave a lot of corpses in your wake.”
The smile fell away from Eleanor’s face and she drove in silence for a while.
She and Harmon hadn’t spent a lot of time driving into the mountains. She was not really a mountain person. They looked dangerous to her. For years she’d felt trapped, in a way, between the mountain wall on one side and the endless plains on the other. The devil and the deep blue sea. Now that they were getting closer to the first real range of mountains, a ridge of red stone that swept smoothly up out of the grassland and broke off jaggedly hundreds of feet above their heads, she was beginning to remember that the mountains had their attractions, that they were a lot more interesting when you got up close instead of viewing them through miles of brown Denver smog.
“Sorry,” Caleb said, “that was a real stupid thing for me to say.” Clearly, the Senator was not a man who apologized very often, and he found it difficult.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I know what you meant.”
“If I intended to run for another term, I’d have to sack you,” he said, after they had drawn closer to the base of the first ridge and turned parallel to it along a rolling and winding road. They were now completely out in the country.
“You don’t say.”
“When one of my staffers steps up in front of the single largest collection of journalists ever assembled in Denver and announces that everyone in the state of Colorado is a welfare queen, it makes things a little awkward for me.”
This time Eleanor didn’t laugh. She smiled, but it was a sheepish kind of grin. This was a Monday morning. She had spent yesterday morning reading scathing editorials and rebuttals in the editorial sections of the newspapers. To say that she had hit a nerve didn’t do justice to the level of indignation.
“How many death threats have you gotten?” Senator Marshall asked.
“I stopped listening to my messages after the third one,” Eleanor said.
“They actually put them on tape? They must have been really pissed.”
“I can have the Secret Service check them out.”
“It just sounds to me like a bunch of ranchers blowing off steam,” she said.
“It ain’t just Colorado. You’re the most hated woman in the West,” Senator Marshall said. “A lightning rod.”
“I know it.”
“People wouldn’t be so vehement unless your words were largely true,” Senator Marshall said.
She gave him a searching look. “What’s your opinion?”
The Senator winced, as if he wished she hadn’t asked this question. He looked out the window for a while, appalled.
“Well, of course you’re right,” he finally said. “The economy of this whole region is built on subsidies and federal programs. But people refuse to admit that because they want to believe in the cowboy myth. That their ancestors came out and made the desert bloom solely through their own hard work and pluck.
“Now, they were plucky, and they did work hard. But there are a lot of plucky, hard-working people in other places who have gone down the toilet anyway just because they were pursuing a fool’s errand, economically speaking. The people who came here sort of lucked into a situation of cowboy socialism. Without federal programs they’d go broke – no matter how hard they worked.”
“Federal programs that are kept alive by senators.”
“Yeah. Colorado’s small state population-wise. Our delegation in the House can’t do diddly. But in the Senate, every state is equal. When one senator, like me, gets some seniority, works his way up into a few key committee chairmanships, then some states are more equal than others. My job – my raison d’?tre – is to keep certain federal programs alive that prevent this region from turning back into the buffalo farm God intended it to be.
“It’s a feedback loop. This is high-tech lingo that I picked up in the sixties when some goddamn ecologist was raving to me. I keep the programs alive. The economy thrives. People move to Colorado and vote for me. The cycle begins again.
“As long as those programs continue to exist, no one notices. They are part of the landscape. They are forces of nature, like the wind and the rain. The people who live off them, people like Sam Wyatt, have come to think of them as natural and divinely ordained. To them, living off of federal largesse is no different in principle than, say, fishing salmon from the Gulf of Alaska or tapping maple syrup from trees in Maine. So, when someone like you steps in front of the TV cameras and points out the obvious -that these people are no different in principle from people who live off of welfare checks – it just drives them crazy. It strikes at the heart of who they are.”
Eleanor listened to this numbly. She couldn’t believe that Senator Marshall was saying these things. “So, why aren’t you going to accept my resignation?” she said.
“My whole career I’ve been doing things because I had to. Now that I’m in my last term, I get to do all the things I always wished I could do but was afraid to.”
“Well, the press should have a field day with that.”
“The press can fuck themselves. Now I can say that. Take a right here.”
Eleanor turned right on to a road that cut due west, straight into the mountains. Finally she understood what Caleb had been doing: steering them toward a cut through the mountain wall, the only place within miles you could get through it. The sight of it made her want to go fast and she punched the gas and surged toward it. It was a narrow gap with almost vertical sides that revealed a cross section of the ridge, normally hidden under grass and sage, its pink and peach and salmon and maroon strata fluorescing in the late afternoon sun.
“You must be getting a lot of pressure to sack me.”
“To hell with that. They’ll forget all about it in a week, believe me. What I’ll do is give you an internal transfer.”
“Oh. So I’m getting a new job?”
“Yeah. You’re getting a new job. I’m getting you out of Colorado before someone lynches your ass. Or mine.”
“Oh, my god.”
“That’s right. You are going to Washington, D.C., lady. Back to your hometown. And if you thought Denver was a nest of vipers, you just wait.”
They both shut up for a moment driving through the gap. Caleb groped out with his left hand and turned the Resurrection Symphony up to the point where it was loud even to his leathery ears, and they cut through and suddenly found themselves in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Once it passed through the gap, the road split off in three or four directions, and none of the signs meant anything to Eleanor. “Which way do I go now?” she said.
“I got you here,” Caleb said. “Now you’re on your own.”