“However so much, in certain respects, we Russians may be surpassed by foreigners, at least we surpass them in adroitness of manner.”
-Gogol, trans. D. J. Hogarth
The following day Tchitchikov was met with less resistance and more agreeable chatter. He was speaking to Representative Taber, in the next county over, who specialized in chattering agreeably.
“This is an interesting, interesting proposition,” said the representative.
Taber was a man whom enterprising women found most attractive, but not in the traditional, predictable sense of physical attraction; no, not that base, animalistic type of attraction. What he lacked in what one might term “general good looks”—though beauty be held in the eye of the beholder—he made up for in corpulence and, more importantly, political pull. His physical fortitude was the first thing most people noted of him: he was a large, powerful man. The second thing they might notice were his eyes, neither excitingly piercing, nor inquisitive and commanding—for beauty’s beholder might not want to view upon an intimidating feature—but rather ocean-like and watery. His eyelids did their best to cover their shape, bulbous and slightly reminiscent of a fish, though those same enamored of him might say a rather majestic cod and not a base one. His chin, too, was similarly bulbous as well as hairless, his upper lip had a gentle, not overly hairy mustache, and the rest of his body rolled off from his face like water over a duck. Like a vacant room, the representative was also prone to echoing other’s words.
“I find this interesting, indeed,” he elaborated. “But what are you considering a fair exchange for the support of your faithful congregation?”
Tchitchikov was mulling over the crux of his months of research and toil. Yet, put to the question directly, his mind was a blank as a frightened deer who spied a predator in the bushes. “Now that, that is the question.” He pounced about searching for an appropriate answer before the full impact would come. “And a fair question, my good sir.”
“Yes, a fair question indeed.” Taber came at Tchitchikov as coyly as a panting lion could. “But perhaps we are overestimating the value of such a herd.”
Tchitchikov was relieved to buy some time. “Perhaps so,” he said. “Perhaps your time is better off in more profitable pursuits to you.”
The lion—Taber—did not like the sensation of prey slipping through his claws. “Yes, profitable pursuits … now these dead souls—I mean, loyal voters, they would be greatly appreciated. You should know that.”
“I think I can sense that.”
“Yes, you may sense, even though I certainly do not need the assistance. I mean, I am ahead in polling by three percent.”
Which is well within the margin of error of said polls, Tchitchikov thought to himself. “True, good friend. Perhaps we should talk further upon this.”
“Yes,” and at this moment, Taber rubbed his lips with a sleeve, “yes. I would appreciate further talk. Further talk is important to determine an appropriate value.”
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said. “Let us keep in touch.”
As he stood up to offer a farewell handshake, Taber, I can say, had a plummeting sensation in his stomach as the prey was sifting from out of his now sweaty handshake. “Yes. Let us keep in touch. Please do get back to me,” he said.
“Absolutely,” Tchitchikov replied, glad to leave and stall the most vital part of their negotiation. “Certainly, we shall.”
“We shall, certainly.”
Tchitchikov was thankful for the sweat, an appreciation he would never again have in his life, for it allowed him to wheedle his hand from Taber’s and allow for a quicker departure. With Taber’s business card in hand, and also with a little moisture to the card, Tchitchikov sat in Selifan’s car, oblivious to his friend’s chitchat for a few moments. He drifted off.
Tchitchikov found himself walking through the marble halls of Congress. His footsteps clicked on the beautiful white stone. A man approached him, a Senator, who had a particular problem. It didn’t matter what. Tchitchikov listened and nodded, and suddenly, the problem was solved! Many lackeys worked behind the scenes, Selifan one of them, and Tchitchikov was generously rewarded. Soon, a woman approached—a representative—asking for a favor, which he obliged (the same lackeys working their work), and another, and another. Now Tchitchikov was speaking to the Speaker of the House, and the leader of the Senate majority, suggesting such-and-such things, rather innocuous legislations, but that he knew they were his concept and were to come into the world solely through his mind and his breath. It was power. His power.
He floated in the beautiful realm of possibility.
After those moments passed, Tchitchikov returned from his restful daydreams to reality, and addressed Selifan’s and his curiosities. “What should twenty-five hundred souls fetch these days?”
Selifan smiled. “Why, depends on where their destination lies.”
“At the ballot box.”
“Then I should say, no less than a hundred thousand, for it is quite a strenuous journey from where they lie.” Selifan laughed. “Though I should be happy with half! How much did he give us?”
Tchitchikov nearly winced at Selifan’s “us.” “Nothing,” he said.
“Nothing? Why, you give all these false promises and—”
“Dearest, he is putty in my palms right now.” Tchitchikov smiled. “A little more warmth from me, and I shall mold him to anything we desire. Perhaps something bigger than a hundred thousand. This one is hungry, very hungry.”
“Mmmm.” Selifan nodded. “Good work, dear friend.”
“Why, thank you, good friend.”
Selifan’s stomach grumbled. “And speaking of hungry…”
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said. “Let’s get a taco.”
Tacos are critical to a robust discussion of financial windfall.
Tacos speak much to the personality of a character, too, and if one should guess as to Tchitchikov’s taco of choice (and guess correctly at it), they would guess at a type of seafood, in this case, seared tuna. His sauce was some sort of mango drizzle, light on chunks, even though he’d hardly eaten three full pieces of fresh fruit in his entire adult life; but the mango was satisfying in context of the tuna, and felt exotic, therefore he asked specifically for it. Selifan, however, was more the earthy type, as aforementioned, and took his taco al gringo: beef, mild salsa, much sour cream. They both poured cups of cola from a bottle from the nearby grocer.
“This,” Tchitchikov wiped mango from the corner of his lips, “is one majestic fish.”
Selifan would have agreed had not the sight and smell of all seafood turned his stomach: the fish was seared brilliantly. “More importantly, what is our plan of action today?”
Tchitchikov brought the plastic cup of cola to his lips, retreated it, and added a pinch of gin to flavor before resuming. “One moment,” he said. Alive, the fish had traveled with its fellow tuna, breathed fresh ocean and imbibed limitless sun, gliding through a fearless existence filled with friends and food; until—snatch—a cleverer fisherman yanked it writhing up from the glistening sea. Now the fish waited, too.
In a few moments he, Tchitchikov, not the fish, replied to Selifan, “Allow me to check.” His cell phone displayed an email from Taber’s office. “Well, well. It seems as if our dear Representative is knocking at our door, asking for his fix.”
“Well, what is he offering?”
“We shall see,” Tchitchikov said. He read the email and, hiding a bit of frustration at the lowball offer, continued. “He is not a full addict yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“Give him time to withdraw. Power corrupts absolutely. The fear of withdrawal is the thing that kills them, the politicians, moreso than any outside source.”
“I do hope he survives long enough to pay us.”
Tchitchikov nodded. “He will, he—” He noticed an email from Fairwell’s office, addressed from O—. “Perhaps this is a joke,” he muttered.
Tchitchikov perused the brief email. It was a survey and an offer of further assistance. “What joke?” Selifan asked. “What’s the punchline?”
Tchitchikov frowned. “This. This is the punchline.” Tchitchikov typed through the survey, led by heat and passion, not of the romantic type. He left scathing reviews of the staff, the wait time, the coffee, the business card layout, and of Representative Fairwell, the “lanky lackey of a bygone good-for-nothing era.”
Tchitchikov continued. “Fairwell’s assistant emailed me a thank-you-for-stopping-by-and-getting-thrown-out email. I showed my appreciation. We can move on.”
“Yes, to Martinez.”
Eyes are the windows to the soul, and smiles are the lights in those windows, that we may peer in and see the domestic scene within: a family, they might be gathered at a table, enjoying each other’s time and pleasant conversation over repast and drinks, as Norman Rockwell would envision. Representative Martinez’ greatest skill was cultivating a smile that illuminated the whole of his eyes, those windows, so much so that glaring into them were much like glaring directly into a second sun. Visitors to his office would comment to friends and family on the brightness of his smile and personality and his careful, considerate words, and Martinez’ staff would often comment between themselves on the great pains the representative undertook to maintain such a golden disposition. Yet neither visitors nor staffers, nor family—for he had three children and a wife—could comment on the scene that played out behind his glorious shine, for perhaps the representative wanted to obscure the inner doings, even to the point that a shadow-play would reveal too much. But too much of our poetry goes into his eyes, and it had been said that in his childhood neighborhood some time ago there were reports of another pair of eyes that would peer into homes—quite literally—that is, until a well-respected relative of Martinez cleared up the confusion and police reports.
But I should not entertain such frivolous, though voluminous, rumors. Representative Martinez sat cross-legged, hands folded neatly on his thigh, as prepared as a school child for a photo portrait. Tchitchikov received a slight chill up his neck, hairs standing up, which I will attribute to a static shock from his chair.
“You look uncomfortable. You needn’t be uncomfortable.”
Tchitchikov gripped the armrests of his chair. “I am fine, actually. But thank you for your concern.”
Martinez stared at our hero; in fact, he was simply struck with deep interest. He took a sip from his cup of coffee—a happy family enjoying a Norman Rockwell turkey—and did not break eye contact. “You are noticing the mug. I am interested in the human condition. I appreciate works of art where the subject lacks self-consciousness. But you look rather self-conscious right now.”
Tchitchikov did not want to spend precious time on idle chit-chit; he went right in. “Representative Martinez, I would like to assist you in your campaign.”
“This sounds more than a matter of simple volunteering. It could perhaps be some staffing issue you would like me to address. Or some other complaint.” Martinez nodded once. “I am willing to listen. Go on.”
Tchitchikov was reminded of a recent videotaping scandal, but he kept on his path. “I am here to offer a different sort of assistance, more of a position of brief consultation. You see, my congregation is nearly fourteen thousand large, and a substantial portion of it, almost two thousand, reside in Alachua County, in your congressional district.”
Tchitchikov paused. “You see, these two thousand, nearly two thousand to clarify, they are frequent voters despite their living situations.”
“Living situations?” Martinez tilted his head in interest. “Perhaps they are not settled in homes?”
“No, no.” Tchitchikov shook his head. “They are rather firmly settled. Their living situations are not the matter. What is the matter is whether their representative would properly represent them.”
“Hmmm.” It was Martinez’ turn to pause.
“That representative being you.”
Martinez straightened his neck. “Yes. Of course. Tell me the issues they want me to address.”
Tchitchikov overly cleared his throat, as there was a sudden tickle in it. “You see,” he coughed again, “they want me to report back to them, for I am their leader and,” another uncontrollable cough, watered eyes, and Tchitchikov was annoyed with the timing. “I would very much like to tell them…”
Martinez placed a water bottle next to Tchitchikov on the desk, again, maintaining eye contact. “You should drink the water.”
“Thank you.” Tchitchikov met his stare with a smile.
“It is safe to drink.”
Tchitchikov did not doubt that, as the bottle was still sealed. He took a generous sip to sooth his throat. “Very well. Thank you.”
“You are welcome.” Martinez unfolded his hands and placed them gently on the chair’s armrests. “I believe you are asking for a bribe.”
“Not a bribe, no, but an investment.”
“An investment. Yes. There is something else going on here.”
“What do you mean?”
“You feel these voters would turn out for me after I invest with you.”
“Yes, I do not doubt that,” Martinez said. “I am inquiring how you know that for certain.”
“They are dead.”
Martinez’ smile opened up. “I felt there was something amiss here. I am very good at sensing these things. Our state seems a fine place to find voters aged to Death. This is lucky for both of us.”
“Yes, well, perhaps in that sense.”
“I am joking,” Martinez returned. “But yes, I would like that. I should know how many exactly.”
Tchitchikov was taken aback by his forwardness, but had thankfully was prepared for a fair exchange. “Eighteen hundred.”
“Then a precise eighteen hundred.”
“No, a precise eighteen hundred and sixty-three.”
“Then I shall give you thirty-seven thousand, two hundred and sixty.” He nodded once. “That is twenty per soul.”
“Why, yes, that seems to be twenty.”
“Please show me how you intend to guarantee their votes. But at a later date.” Martinez stood up. “I have another appointment.”
“Thank you for your time, Representative.” Tchitchikov extended his hand.
“Thank you for your assistance,” Martinez’ shake was cold, due to poor circulation. “Have a good day.”
Tchitchikov’s heart was cooled much like a cut of fish on ice. “You look like a ghost ran you over,” Selifan said.
Tchitchikov forced his head to shake. “No. No, it did not. I swear not. But we made our first sale.”
Selifan clapped. “Fantastic! What is the windfall?”
Tchitchikov checked his phone. “I cannot quite remember. But it was twenty per soul exactly.”
“That seems a fair price! We should celebrate!”
Just as the ice around Tchitchikov’s heart started thawing, Tchitchikov was taken aback by a voicemail from Fairwell’s office. “What might this be?”
“What might what be?”
“A message. One second.”
Tchitchikov pressed the handy radiation-box to his ear and listened. The voice was a woman’s—it belonged to O—, the aide for Fairwell—inquiring about Tchitchikov’s dissatisfaction at his meeting yesterday. The words seemed mocking to him, “…brief check-in to see why you felt the Representative was ‘a dinosaur whose ignorance hearkened back to pre-democratic days,’ now that’s a mouthful to…” but her tone did not seem mocking or even admonishing. He thought she hid it well and pulled out O—’s card to frown at it.
“Again, from whom?”
Tchitchikov sighed. “From some dingbat ignorant of inciting the anger of a master flame god. One second.” He dialed back.
“Yes, but is that Whittaker? You should be more generous to him.”
Tchitchikov held up a finger to pause Selifan. “Dammit, went to voicemail.” He hung up. “I should dial again, I need to prepare what I should say. Something along the lines of ‘a dingbat such as yourself should not prod the god who controls fire.’ Would that be Prometheus? What a noble fellow, that one, granting of power to the mortal man. I think I should leave him out of our quarrel, though.” He redialed again, at the ready.
“Prometheus?” Selifan scratched his head. “Why, yes, of course, I do believe that sounds about right.”
“It is ringing,” Tchitchikov said. “Wait, hold on—why yes, hello O—! How unexpected of you to pick up!”
Tchitchikov continued. “Yes, yes, I am well. I appreciate your similarly unexpected concern. Though perhaps your concern were really to be—Well, yes, I learned that rather quickly of the representative’s disposition. But nonetheless—Okay, fair, but you see, I … Okay … Uh-huh.”
Selifan scooched himself closer to overhear the other half of the conversation. “What is it? Who is it?”
Tchitchikov shushed him. “No, that seems fair … Do realize that we do not offer contributions to nearly anyone … Oh, is that so? When would that be? … That actually sounds rather delicious, allow me to check with my ride.”
“Your ride?” Selifan asked.
“Tonight is a fundraiser,” Tchitchikov said to Selifan. “Seven to eight thirty, no ties nor contributions needed. We will just show.” He mouthed, “free food.”
“Yes, we shall be there.” Tchitchikov relaxed his grip on the phone. “Thank you for the invite. We shall see you then.”
Selifan was boggle-eyed. “I have never seen you go from thunder and fire to snuggling like a lamb. What happened? Who was that?”
Tchitchikov knit his brow. “I do not know what or whom or why, but all I recall is the when.” He shook his head. “The how escapes me most of all. But at least there’s free food.”
While Tchitchikov did not entirely expect to find Fairwell’s fundraiser full of well-to-do and more elderly concerned voters, he did not anticipate the event to be teeming with young people, ranging from students in school to those very barely out of school. As such, the food was a cut from their menu, pizza and macaroni and cupcakes, and the libations were virgin and fizzy. Their musical selection was likewise youthful and jarring to a refined palate.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” O— said. “Thank you for showing.”
“Thank you for the invitation.” Tchitchikov smiled. “I’m surprised the representative would want me here. It seemed our meeting didn’t go that well.”
“Like I said, he’s a little,” O— rolled her eyes, “grumpy.”
“I think I insulted him more than that.”
“Nah, he’s just grumpy, I’m pretty sure.”
“So did he—?” Tchitchikov wondered about their meeting yesterday. “He didn’t mention our, erm, interaction?”
“What do you mean?”
“It seemed he would state…”
O— shook her head. “He doesn’t share much about constituents to me. He likes to keep that private. Why do you ask?”
“Never mind.” Tchitchikov determined she was truthful, and unaware of his proposition to Fairwell. “Thank you again for the invitation,” he said without much conviction.
“It’s important you see who he really is,” she said. “I had the sense that you didn’t, not yet.”
“I believe I had.” He relented out of politeness, “But I could perhaps be mistaken.”
“You probably weren’t. At least not entirely,” she said. “But it’s good to see you here.”
He turned to the tables of food and his stomach did the same. “The food looks good.”
“Okay, I wasn’t sure it’d be to your taste,” O— said. “Go grab some, there’s plenty of it. Enjoy.”
Tchitchikov thanked her and found Selifan at the pizza board. He had two layers on his plate.
“Since he insulted us,” Selifan explained, “I shall deplete his treasury.”
“He had to pay for it, did he not?” Selifan smiled. “Out of house and home, as they say.”
Tchitchikov left his friend and wandered about.
The room was bright and packed. The younger crowd bustled about, getting to know each other. He spoke to a few of them marked with various colors of hair and tattoos and piercings. They all spoke with excitement about Fairwell, and Tchitchikov felt that the representative had another side to him, some aspect about him that sparked intrigue within him.
“He’s just so honest! Kingston is so full of, well, money. And shit, of course.”
Jenna’s various colors took the form of short, light pink hair, several piercings along her ear lobe, and a rose tattoo on her right shoulder with a woman’s name beneath the flower. James Kingston, Fairwell’s challenger, was a common target of derision among this crowd.
“Perhaps,” Tchitchikov said. “But I suppose the Representative is rather blunt.”
“That’s a good thing, though. Right?” Jenna took a sip of her beverage, and her upper lip left, colored orange from soda. “Look at the situation we’re in right now: banks are bigger than they’ve ever been, corporations are crushing us under their…” Jenna continued a rant of economics and class echoed by others in the room, “…is why we’re going to protest on Sunday.”
“Protest? Protest what?”
“Everything! The banks, the corporations, the politicians, the government. Weren’t you listening? Everything!”
“That’s a lot to protest.”
“Maybe it is,” she said, “but those bastards at the State House have it coming. They put us in this shit-uation, and they won’t let us out from under it. If we can just come together, that’s the only way—” Jenna’s attention was taken from her by a man approaching from behind Tchitchikov. “I’m sorry, I’m chewing your ear off. Here’s my boyfriend. Andy, come say hi to Paul Ivan.”
Tchitchikov turned to the denim-jacketed youth, and to clarify, the jacket was of white denim, not blue, and tattooed with dark patches depicting various political slogans of the lower classes. An image of a stylized fist was on his right breast, safety pins around the edges. It was also sewn on by a crude hand. Andy shook hands with Tchitchikov. “Hello, Paul Ivan.”
“His full name is Paul Ivan Tchitchikov.” Jenna clapped. “Isn’t that delightful?”
“Please, Paul is fine,” Tchitchikov returned.
But the couple were already in a quick embrace. They kissed. Andy turned to Tchitchikov. “That’s a pretty cool name, man. Did your parents give that to you?”
“Of course they did!” Jenna laughed.
Andy blushed. “Okay, dumb question. But seriously, tell us about you.”
Tchitchikov was unprepared for this question. It was a direct question, as direct as he’d received in his youth, and it took him back to his childhood in Russia, before he immigrated to the United States. The question reminded him of his mother bouncing him on her knee, and other questions, “How was school?,” “Did you make that yourself?,” “Do you want cookies?” For a moment Tchitchikov was stunned by the question.
“Like, what do you do?” Andy said.
“Oh.” The spell was broken, somewhat. “I am a political advisor.”
“Oh cool,” Jenna smiled. “For who?”
“Well, for now,” Tchitchikov thought. “Myself, truthfully.”
“You’re running for office?” Jenna asked.
“Not really, no.”
“Hmmm,” Jenna stroked her chin with equal parts of inquisitiveness and comedy. “Iiiiinteresting,” she said.
The three of them discussed local politics and other Congressional races nearby. Andy caricatured Martinez, and Tchitchikov warmed with a touch of joy: he understood him to a tee. Andy had met the man at a local party meeting and recalled,
“…his eyes. Those eyes.”
“He’s a fuckin’ perv, you know.” I cannot confirm Jenna’s assertion, as gossip is not admissible in the court of law, and one must needs have proof. “Fuckin’ creep times ten. Times a hundred.”
“I feel bad for his wife!” Andy said.
“She knows,” Jenna retorted.
The lights dimmed and the music lulled for the first speaker. A young woman took the stage and related a story about her mother, an immigrant who never would have made it into the country had they made the attempt under current law. She smiled and finished her story, adding,
“I shouldn’t say this, but…”
Jenna and Andy cheered.
“Okay, you’ve convinced me. They may crush our bones, but we’ll stab their feet in return! Long live our political revolution!”
Jenna and Andy and the rest of the young crowd boiled. The young woman introduced Fairwell, who stodgily approached the podium.
“Debbie, you know you shouldn’t.”
Off to the side of the stage the girl laughed.
“That’s my granddaughter, in case you haven’t met her. She has some, let’s say, fire in her belly. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to stabbing feet.” He turned to her, and his mic didn’t pick up any of what he said other than, “Gruesome.” Fairwell gave what was a rare laugh.
Jenna kissed Andy on the cheek.
“Now,” Fairwell’s demeanor dampened and he neated the papers on the podium. He was getting to his speech. “So,” he cleared his throat.
What followed was a speech by most accounts, but really, it made Tchitchikov drowsy as though he were an elephant sedated on the savannah, and not in a pleasant way (as some of the students might prefer their powerful sedatives). An orator Fairwell was not, and Tchitchikov made out a few of his positions that were commonly shared by the more “progressive,” so to speak, and rarer members of his party. But after each proposal, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause, not the jeers and scoffs that Tchitchikov politely held back. Fairwell finished his speech. “Thank you,” he said, and quickly shuffled himself off the stage to embrace his family.
“What did you think?” Jenna turned to Tchitchikov.
To which he replied, “He is not the most eloquent.”
“That’s not the point,” Jenna said. “Did you hear what he said?”
“I believe so.” Tchitchikov lied; he had nearly gone to sleep on his feet like a horse.
“He’s got good policies,” Andy said. “I believe in him.”
“We need him,” Jenna said. “He’s going to be there on Sunday. You should come.”
“Maybe I shall,” Tchitchikov said with no conviction.
They exchanged final pleasantries and Tchitchikov smiled and offered his good night. As he was leaving, he ran into O— again.
“You’re still here?”
Tchitchikov found the question rather impertinent. “Yes. I suppose I am.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean it like that. But I’m glad you stayed.”
Tchitchikov took a risk, but one he felt that would not offend her in their, to him, blunt conversation. “Are you?”
“Of course. You’re of a different world, Mr. Tchitchikov, but we all are. It’s important we find our similarities, come together and use our differences to fight for our world. You’re a good person. I can sense that.”
“Yes. But don’t be so harsh on yourself! We all have secret parts of ourselves. Things that we’re not proud of,” she said. “It’s a matter of acceptance and forgiveness, and moreover, change. Not that I’m suggesting you need to.”
Tchitchikov thought. “No. Of course.”
“But I should let you go. I think I’m making you uncomfortable.”
“You are not.” He surveyed the room and its packs of peoples thinning. “This is very open discussion, and I appreciate a little respite.”
“Thank you. Go enjoy the rest of the night.”
Tchitchikov walked to the car, musing on the gathering that transpired. His question overshadowing the night, how he had been made to come, was answered then: O— was a gifted orator. Or, not gifted, nor fully common and usual, but she, and others, stirred something within Tchitchikov that he could not quite say, but we shall: generosity. A certain generosity that reminded him of home, far, far away.
Tchitchikov found Selifan snoring in the car.