Zieki - Pulling Strings He was silent as he worked. The knife slid smoothly under the surface, peeling back the skin as it curled, and thinned, and fell. A face swam up at him – a dark complexion veined in red and auburn, a hooked nose with only sockets in place of eyes. The floor was scattered with wood shavings, the rich chocolate rosewood from his latest project matting the lighter oak and maple chips underneath. The wooden carpet was growing again, perhaps three inches by now; a sea of brown and beige, as shifting as the blue-greens of the ocean. He couldn’t remember when last he’d swept. A strong, sweet smell permeated the basement and swept the metallic tang from his tongue. He breathed deeply. As he exhaled dust swirled in the slanting rays of sunlight that crept through the windows. He laid the puppet down, arms crossed over its chest, and smiled as he turned to set down his whittling knife. Its place was on the rack, next to the other knife. Where the whittling knife was perhaps the length of his thumb, the other was larger, a foot perhaps. Each tool for its task. He climbed the stairs to the soft sound of dripping. The dripping echoed in his ears long after he had closed the door to the basement, long after, even, he had turned off the shower, picked out the perfect navy suit, splendid red tie, new brown leather shoes and closed the door to the house. It continued until it was chased from his head as he closed the car door and his cell phone rang. “Psycho killer, q’est que cai; fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better run run run run run away…” the Talking Heads serenaded him. He blinked and saw the rich chocolate face in front of him, veins running red, dripping. He blinked again and pulled out of the driveway. “Hello.” “Good morning Mr. Steele, it’s Todd. How are you today? “Fine. What’s the word?” “Well, sir, I just talked to them both, Mr. Norton and Granville, they won’t give in to the each other. I tried what you said, but it’s just not going to work.” “Yes, Todd, thank you. Set up a meeting with Jerry Tillman. 11:30 at the Café Main.” “What? Oh, yes, Mr. Steele. Right away. But, what about Mr. Norton and…” “Don’t worry about that. Just Mr. Tillman.” “Right, sir. I’m on it.” His office was locked and empty. Shadows crept across the room in bars, the shades not fully drawn. The lights flicked on as he entered. There was a wooden paperweight sitting on the wire frame of his incoming mail, also empty. It was a beautifully carved ash head, detailed right down to the slight break in the man’s nose. My first. Mr. Steele set his briefcase down on the chair and poked ten numbers into his phone. The head watched him as he made his way around the desk to hang his jacket in the corner, greet an incoming colleague and return as another man answered his call. “Hey Rick, how’s it going? Early morning, huh? Sending that little gofer of yours after me, trying to get me to drop out for Granville. You’ve gotta be kidding me. That hippie is going to bring us back to farming our own food by hand. Whole Foods is fine for me. He wants to turn Weston Pond into some sort of communist youth camp or something…” a honking sound came from the other end of the line. “… SCREW YOU. Damnit, Rick, people can’t drive these days. Where was I?” “Russ, Granville isn’t a hippie, nor is he a communist.” “Oh, ya, freaking Granville. What’s that kid’s name? The one you sent to me to get me to drop out? Terry? No, Tom, is it?” “Todd.” “Todd, right. Ol’ Toddo is coming up to me telling me that I need to drop out. ‘Granville’s going to get the vote anyways,’ he says. ‘If you vote with him, you’ll have some say in what gets done,’ he tells me. If this town votes for Granville, well, I might as well be on my way anyways. I’ll have my say, ‘cause I’m winning this damn election. Weston Pond is ripe for development, Rick, for business, trust me on that. Granville just can’t do the job.” “You’re right. He can’t.” That seemed to surprise him. After a short silence, Russ recovered, “Right, well… yeah, you’re right. So… well, so why did you send your kid over here this morning to get me to drop out?” “Appearances, Russ. I can’t make it seem like I favor one over the other.” “Oh, of course, of course. So you sent the boy to me too, so Granville wouldn’t suspect a thing.” Rick Steele didn’t answer. He had found in his many years that silence had a way of making people uncomfortable. Silence was his solace, but not so for the likes of Russ Norton, who was, for lack of other words, a hot-head and motor-mouth. Rick waited. “Right, okay. So, you’re behind me then?” “Russ, Granville isn’t the right man.” “Yes, okay. We both know that. So, let’s go ahead and beat him…” “But neither are you.” “… If you put your weight behind me… wait what? Rick, don’t joke with me. I’m not the right man? C’mon, if not me then who?” “If there was someone who wasn’t a, what’d you call it? A hippie, communist. Someone who would build, support business, support growth, but keep some protected land, some of the parks, could you back them?” Again, Russ went silent for a while. Rick moved his briefcase to the floor and sat down, sipping a small cup of water as he waited. “Well, yes. Yes, I suppose I could. But this ‘someone,’ Rick, believe me, this ‘someone’ better be experienced. He better know what he’s doing.” “He does.” “Yeah, yeah. And just so both of us understand, I’d be better. We both know I would. No one better for this community.” “No, no one better Russ.” “Alright, Rick. I trust you, don’t make me regret it. I’ll see you tonight.” One. Todd walked in a half hour later. A short man, already balding at twenty-four, he walked with a bobbing gait that made him look like a turkey, ready-stuffed for Thanksgiving dinner. “Mr. Steele, sir. Good morning.” His head also bobbed as he spoke. Rick waited for the main to squawk at any second. “Mr. Tillman says 11:30 is perfect.” Rick nodded. Silence, the quietest of dismissals, shooed Todd out the door. He slipped on his jacket as he locked his office. The November air was crisp, clean. It smelled pure. The sidewalk had been swept, but its untainted surface had already been marred by the leaves that fell slowly around him. A few still hung, writhing, on the branches above. The red ones seemed to hit the ground with a soft dripping sound. He shook his head and glanced quickly at his watch. Blossom was a ten minute walk from the town center, surrounded by half naked trees and hydrangeas that had lost their paint. The door handles were shaped like branches twined with tomatoes vines and ivy, but they were cold to the touch. Autumn might have a beautiful, colorful beginning, but its end was inevitably grey and dead. “Good morning, sir, welcome to Blossom. What can I do for you?” “I’m meeting someone here,” he waved the hostess away. The inside of the restaurant was dimly light, but light streamed in through the big bay windows that overlooked a small field of home grown fruits and vegetables. Dan Granville sat at his usual table next to the windows, looking out on the field and smiling. He looked up at Rick and his smile widened. “Rick, my friend. Sit with me. Will you take some tea?” He took a sip, “ahh the tea here is so lovely. Home grown you know.” Rick nodded. Everything at Blossom was organic, homegrown, and vegan. He could hear Norton’s diatribe now, “Liberal communist hippie…” and on and on. The tea was bland, like watered down grass. He swallowed and bit back a frown. “I talked to that young man of yours this morning. Todd. You know how to pick them, Rick, you really do. He’s a good one, diligent and hard working.” The man nodded, his round-rimmed glasses swaying forward to the end of his nose. He pushed them back up and looked at Rick. “Not very persuasive though. But who could be when we speak of this election? Rick, you know I won’t drop out for Norton.” Rick nodded again. The sat in silence for a time, Dan equally comfortable with peace and quiet as Rick. “Is that why you’ve come to see me? Todd failed, but Rick will prevail?” Rick smiled, “I know that is a dead end.” “Indeed. Norton wants to bulldoze the trees from existence – he wants Weston Pond to be a business park. Oh, no, the thought makes me sick. Norton will ruin us.” “He will.” Dan raised his eyebrows and leaned back from his precious tea. “Really? Then why send Todd to me this morning. No, don’t tell me, you needed to show Norton you weren’t favoring one of us over the other. I understand. Tonight, at the vote, I’ll act as surprised as anyone.” He leaned forward again and raised his small teacup to cheers. Rick shook his head. “Dan, what if there was another candidate. Someone who wasn’t looking to expand at all costs, someone with an appreciation for the environment, but knows when and where to build to keep the town thriving. Could you support such a person?” Dan intertwined his fingers, thumbs rolling over each other as he thought. He reached to push his glasses up. “You know that I never wanted this position, Rick. I’m not entitled to it.” Rick took another sip of tea, letting the hot grass-water sit in his mouth before swallowing. He looked out of the window as another leaf fell, a red one. Drip. “Yes, Rick, I suppose I could support someone with a bit more brains than Norton. I’m glad you know, I never wanted to take this burden on my back, but it was necessary, you understand?” “Of course, Dan. I’ll see you tonight.” “Sure will. Thank you.” Two. He strolled from Blossom feeling happier than he had in some time. He even had a bounce in his step and what might pass as a grin, though no one could call it a small. His watch showed 10:00 a.m. Rick let his feet take them where they would, wandering past the small bike shop on Oak Street, hailing the pastor as he stood looking out from the Presbyterian Church, window shopping at LaPerla’s Jewelry and then the local candy shop before turning down Pond Circle. He realized where his feet were taking him before his destination appeared. Weston Pond, long and rippling in the autumn breeze, lay beside a sharp bend in the street, just visible through a small gap in the thick brush. He stood to the side of the road, watching the reflections of the trees sway in the water. The leaves themselves took on an almost liquid quality as they fell. Drip. His thoughts flickered to across the pond, gently sloping hill, the rock markers, the soft earthy smell of freshly dug soil. Drip. He closed his eyes and was there for a moment. Soon. Drip. Café Main’s patio seating was bustling and crowded in the November chill. Space heaters glowed red under their metal hoods. Rick sat quietly, leaning back in his chair, watching as a spider wove its web beneath the radiating warmth and comfort of the heaters. It spun its web systematically – each strand had its purpose – but it was not without grace. “Mr. Steele. How are you this afternoon?” “Jerry, I’m doing well. Please, sit.” “Excited for the election tonight? People are saying that if this war between Norton and Granville doesn’t get worked out, someone’s going to put your name forth.” The young man leaned forward expectantly, unblinking. Rick smiled and sighed. “No, Jerry, this sort of leadership role isn’t for me. Leaders are so bound, don’t you think? Puppets tangled in the strings of what other people want.” “Well, they all think you’d be great, Mr. Steele. Just letting you know.” The waiter stepped up dutifully and took drink orders. Seltzer water for Rick, a Yuengling for Jerry. “Who else then?” “How has Spencer been lately? I haven’t spoken to him in a few weeks.” “Oh, you know him, he’s got tunnel-vision. You put a thought in his head and he’ll steamroll forward ‘til it’s done. His latest project, have you heard? His latest project is clearing out that old Boy Scout camp from the State Forrest and moving it out to Meridan or somewhere. I say he’s still infatuated with that idea that the Scouts can’t go on with that old water pump they have out there – when’d you tell him that? What, like three years ago? Tunnel-vision, I’m telling you. Almost done though, the Scouts finally agreed.” “Yes, I feared my idea might take seed in his head.” “Always has, Mr. Steele.” “Yes, yes. Well, as you know Jerry, this whole Zoning Board mess has to end, and preferably somewhat amiably. You know how I hate conflict.” “Just tell me you’re running, Mr. Steele, and I’ll throw your name out tonight.” Rick shook his head. “No, Jerry, you flatter me. But, no. For this, we need someone of a more singular mindset – focused, confident, unwavering in their duty. I am already spread too thin. No, Jerry, this job is not for me.” “Mr. Steele. Some coincidence, but we were just talking about the very man for the job. I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner. Certainly Spencer is the man you’ve described.” “Well, Jerry, you know I think you just might be right.” The waiter showed up with their drinks. Jerry held his bottle up, “To Spencer Flemming.” They clanked glasses and drank to the future of the Zoning Board. The seltzer water bubbled down the back of his throat. Three. The town hall was the former middle school. The students had migrated to their new, high-tech facility a few years back and the town council decided to use the school as office space. Old gym floors now scraped under the legs of a hundred chairs as the crowd settled. Rick shook a few hands, made his rounds, and retired to a corner to watch. Todd sidled up next to him, bobbing. “Should we say something Mr. Steele? I mean, should you say something? To… to get your plan started?” Rick didn’t spare a look for Todd. “No.” “Well, then, Mr. Steele, well… What do we do now?” The corners of his lips twitched upward slightly. “Now, Todd, we watch them dance.” Order was finally called and the crowd calmed long enough to hear what they were voting for and how the vote would be conducted, but that’s as far as it lasted. As soon as the two candidates were announce a shout went up and the two sides were at each other’s throats, verbally punching and counterpunching, back and forth. A few stood off to the side, unsure one way or the other. A man stood from the pack of undecided onlookers and made his way to the microphone. “Hey,” no one listened. “Hey! C’mon, settle down.” The process of quieting was like a virus, spreading from those closest to the speakers outward in a ripple. “We’ve heard from two contenders, but not the third.” Jerry didn’t keep them waiting long. Young men were always impatient. “Spencer Flemming, step on up.” Spencer himself looked shocked. A hushed rustling went through the crowd as he stood and turned in a circle. “Well… Well, I’d never thought about this myself. Umm… I’m not really sure what to say.” “I’ll say it for you boy,” ever brusque, Norton got to the point, “If you can beat him,” his finger stabbed at Granville, “you’ve got my vote.” Granville smiled, “You all know I never wanted this, but I couldn’t let Norton ruin this town. But, Spencer’s got a good head on his shoulders, look at what he did for the Boy Scouts. I will concede to him.” It was over in a few minutes. A near unanimous vote for Spencer Flemming to lead the local Zoning Board. It was a victory that came out of left-field for most, but one that none found disconcerting. Spencer was, after all, a good young man. “Sir. Mr. Steele, why did we set up Mr. Flemming to win? I mean, shouldn’t we have tried to win. What good does it do not to be in power?” “Ah, Todd. It is not those who are in power who should concern you.” He held up his hands and began to move them here and there as if they were attached to strings, “But those who control those in power.” He thought of the dark rosewood puppet in his basement. It was a perfect replica. The small knife had done its work shaving and shaping the wood, as the long knife had separated flesh from muscle and bone. Each tool for its task. He would visit Weston Pond tonight, with its rocky outcrops and soft soil. The puppet would be buried next to its inspiration. Drip. Drip. Drip.