Written by Mary Claire Jackson
Graphic by Mary Claire Jackson

“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance not be feared.”

Niccolo Machiavelli

Exorbitant Lunch

Before we had even arrived for lunch, Mom hosted an orientation for one in the car. As if she needed to remind me to wait to be spoken to or to break off pieces of the bread before taking a bite. The instructions grew monotonous. I drifted, wondering why she felt unfamiliar now. Not much had changed I suppose, but her hair was so groomed, almost rigid with product. She’d been covering up her gray hairs recently, always wearing pearls and sensible heels. I didn’t remember her caring so much about her image when I was little.

“Forming a relationship with this lobbying firm could be huge for your father’s re-election campaign. Don’t ruin it for him, okay?” 

When we entered, the stick woman and her huge husband were sitting at a table waiting for us. Pristine, the table cloth white, all the silverware laid out in an uniform army, a dazzling chandelier centered square above our place. Light poured in from grand windows, the brightness piercing. Her eye gleamed when she finally spotted Dad. The air seemed to shift, and rapidly a rehearsed smile spread across her face. Its warmth, however, was not mirrored in her eyes. She waved us down, still smiling, and elbowed the man’s gut.

“Hello! Senator, it’s lovely to make your acquaintance. I’m so glad you all were available to lunch with us; what a wonderful opportunity. How are you all doing? Oh what a lovely son—” 

“Oh yes, an absolutely dashing young gentleman. I bet he’s a heartbreaker huh?”

As the adults delved into their small talk, I drifted again, resolute in my own little world. I let a pleasant yet neutral look wash over me as I’ve done many times before. All I could think about was how cartoonish those people looked. Something about the man gave me the distinct impression of a crocodile. I know it sounds juvenile, but there was something I couldn’t shake. Maybe it was the waddle under his chin or the bellow of his voice, or just the grandeur of his appearance paired with a wide toothy smile. And the wife had seemed almost inhuman, like some creature wearing human skin that doesn’t quite fit, almost as if she was pretending to be one of us. Maybe it was just the way her fancy clothes hung rigid, shaped funny over a bony frame. Maybe it was the vacant eyes behind her perpetually smiling face. Her husband, the crocodile man, was also very well dressed, although it was evident that the buttons of his pressed button down were straining to keep his modesty. His arms sat at his side as a cartoon T-rex’s would, his pudgy pink hands always resting on the landing of his potbelly. 

They served us water in those fancy glasses that look like wine glasses but, apparently, are ‘not at all the same thing’. I had avoided the adults’ attention successfully for quite some time, that is, until I attempted to refill my water and Mom swifty swatted my hand away. Catching sight of the interaction, our penguin clad server hurried to my side to take over the pour. Crocodile man seized this opportunity to inquire about the status of our starter plates he had pre-ordered. The man met our servers’ reassurances with a condescending tone.

“Good lad. Do not forget yourself now; this man right here,” he declared, patting my father on the shoulder, “is one of our most influential Senators. It would be a shame to treat such a prestigious guest with anything but the utmost respect.”

The big man chuckled a bit when he spoke to the waiter, but it was clear he meant for these words to bite. His vaguely threatening comment ensured obedience to his authority. As if a dog whistle blew just for him, from that point on our server was overeager at every step. He was asking excessive questions, running back and forth to the kitchen, nodding his head along with his strained nervous laughter and, of course, assuring the man he was doing everything in his power to treat Dad well.

Of course when the oysters came, the odd couple tried to get me to eat them. Their pressure took on the form of toothy grins and humorous tone, but their joke seemed to exclude me. Why on earth would I find buttery snot filled husks enticing? My refusal was followed by some little huffs and then all the adults proceeded with their feast. God, their slurping sounds were unbearable. With all the intense gleam and stiff chatter, everything had begun to seem more than it was. Each sound, each glance, each slight gesture overwhelmed. They looked utterly feral, hunched over the shell scoops, throwing the fleshy oyster lumps back into their gullets. The man dribbled juices down his bloated stomach and I could have sworn that the second to last button of his tight shirt would pop right off at any moment and hit me square in between my eyes.

Though I managed to muddle through that tedious tense lunch, I knew I’d get scolded later for not ‘playing nice.’ After several courses and a never-ending stream of ‘shop talk,’ the odd couple paid our egregiously expensive bill. 

“Our treat,” the man had said with a self satisfied smile, handing our server a thick black credit card. Said he was glad it was a company expense with a hearty chuckle. He and Dad had scooted back from the table to give room for their overfull bloated stomachs. Conversation tittered off into comments on our wonderfully lengthy meal. A fabulous feast really, all of us were so blessed to have such fine dining, weren’t we?

In our goodbyes, they had said it was a shame I had never gotten to see Dad work, to really appreciate his contributions to our ‘great state.’ It was decided then! Mom would take me to the Capitol the very next day. She absolutely must educate me properly, show me all the powerful decisions being made on the floor during session. 

A Grackle, A Heap, and Machiavelli

I didn’t remember the Capitol grounds being so sterile. The grass was all the same bright green, each blade the same length, seeming untouched, not of nature. Under the shade of the oak trees, the grounds appeared less alien; life hid in the shadows. As we hiked up the walk through the vast lawn I spotted a grackle up ahead. It began to hop and hobble towards our path, as though to beg us for crumbs. The closer we got, the more I came to understand why the little dark creature tottered so. It’s feathers were sparse, patches of skin visible on its wing and neck. One of its legs was tucked up under its belly the entire time. It had some kind of growth that bubbled up all over its body like the lumps on gourds but made of flesh. The mass was worst around its right eye on its face; I doubt it could even see, though a sliver of its black eye was visible. Mom grimaced at the sight. When it hopped towards her she yelped, grabbing my arm and dragging me along the path away from ‘that wretched thing.’ 

Once we drew near the steps, Mom caught sight of a friend also headed into the building and began chit chatting, so there we stood for an eternity. Here the world appeared intense, blindingly bright, as we had run out of tree cover. With the sun glaring down, oppressive heat threatened to melt the makeup right off Mom’s face. I felt as though I myself might melt into a little puddle and evaporate into nothing. 

Seeking distraction, I looked back into the shadows under the oaks, curious of the diseased bird. The struggling grackle had made its way towards a bench with a heap strewn atop it. The bird let out a little squawk and the heap moved, in fact not a pile, but a woman. She was curled up on the metal bench under piles of tattered clothes. They clearly knew each other, because as she awoke, she immediately turned and dug in a corner of her pile and produced the last of a sleeve of crackers. She sat up and leaned over the little bird, sprinkling crumbs on the ground between her threadbarren shoes. A feast, it flittered excitedly all around. When the grackle was done gleaning through its little patch of grass, it peered up at her, head tilted so its left eye could see her properly. 

Behind them, above the trees, towered an enormous sign I had not noticed before. It was as though it had been perfectly positioned to be viewed from the Capitol steps. A sore thumb above the dark shadows of the trees. Dignified, it stood with two hand’s shaking as the centerpiece. Around the logo read Machiavelli, Governmental Relations LLC. Machiavelli… That name felt familiar. What a funny name. Was that the name of the company that the odd couple from yesterday owned?

Monopoly Strategy

There weren’t many other visitors in the seats with us. Mom and I had a whole section to ourselves when we settled down. I really didn’t understand what was so important about going there, it didn’t make sense. Dad and all his co-workers seemed so bored, they weren’t doing anything. That couple told me this was supposed to be exciting, that I would witness great people changing the world. 

“When are we going home? Can we get food? I am starvinggg.”

“Shhh. Hush sweetie, this is just getting interesting.”

Then, they were called to vote. The Senators did so without hesitation, their moves already definite. Decisions pre-decided. Mom stared off at the electronic board as it lit up green and red, entranced. We had already been there so long:the holding still, paying attention, and being quiet, was excruciating. My knee wouldn’t stop bouncing. Leaning over the railing, I peered down to the floor below and examined it for anything interesting. Men in stiff suits and some women dressed like Mom stared silently at their computers or phones or whatever device they had on hand. The man at the podium spoke loud, passionate about some indiscernible problem that held the weight of the world. His voice sounded miles away, numbed. I hadn’t understood why he was at the podium facing everyone. Who was he even meant to be talking to? Dad shifted toward the Senator next to him, whispering with a grin. He was no help, as boring as all the other lifeless adults on the floor. 

Finally, I found someone to entertain me. I scooted forward a little more to get a clear shot of the guy beneath us. He was playing on his tablet. Never has online Monopoly been more enthralling, and he was terrible at it. I squinted to get a better look. I figured out he was attempting to buy up all the super profitable dark blue and green spots. Tides turned and the last green was swiped out from under him. He missed just one in the set to some other player. It must have tanked his whole strategy because he started huffing and pressing his tablet down into his gut. My go to is always starting with the cheaper sections close to the go and building like crazy in those areas, but, hey, what do I know. Next he landed on the go to jail square, ouch. I braced myself for his loss but the set back doesn’t seem to phase his mood. I guess he knew he’d recover. He had the money to buy his way out of any real trouble.

Just as I was beginning to get invested, the voice of the man at the podium cut through the air.

“This bill, if enacted, would make it illegal for anyone to camp in public places anywhere across Texas. The act targets….” 

In my head, alarm bells rang.

“Mom, do you hear that guy? Did he say it’s illegal to camp? What about our camping trip next weekend?? You promised it would happen this time; we would swim in the lake and build a campfire. We finally convinced Matt’s mom to let him come.”

“Shh, shh. No sweetie, it’s okay. We’ll go camping; he’s not talking about us. It’s about people like the one we saw loitering on the bench outside. They’re cleaning up the streets, making the cities a nice place for kids like you. This is what we want.”

I still can’t get her response out of my head. What did she mean ‘we?’

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