by J. David Liss
Washington, DC spread its legs as the train from New York pulled into Union Station. It was the earliest train from Penn Station and the tracks were still clean and free of litter, and the air still smelled sweet, not like the burning rubber smell of hot brake pads or garbage left in the trashcans. Those smells would come later in the day after many trains had pulled in and left.
Five minutes before arriving, Mickey had packed his lap top, put on his suit jacket, moved his phone and wallet from his pants pockets to his jacket pockets, and made sure business cards were in the jacket’s card pocket. The movements were so familiar he didn’t think about them, like getting dressed after sex with a woman he didn’t want to spend time with.
One of those women was his ex-wife, who used to hate his extended trips to the nation’s capital. She would whine, “Mickey, we’ve only been married for a few months and you’re gone a week at a time. How are we going to connect?” He would joke, “Honey, I need to go to Washington so that I can earn enough money to pay you alimony.” She didn’t appreciate his sense of humor.
Mickey could no more stay away from Washington then he could from breathing. He made his living talking to people there. It was easy for him to picture living without his wife. It was impossible to imagine not going to work. His father had always said to him, Being a good family man means being a good provider. That’s all your wife will care about. At some point during his marriage he realized that was all he cared about too.
His day was starting on the Senate side where he had to get two things done, one small and one big. The small job involved a pharmacy in Connecticut where they actually compounded their own drugs — something that required enormous skill. Apparently, that skillset was beyond one particular druggist, who had mixed up a treatment for fungal meningitis. Two patients were dead and the FDA was shutting down compounding pharmacies across the country.
Of course, the problem wasn’t with the pharmacies; it was with incompetent pharmacists. Mickey needed to get the law changed so that 100 percent of liability lay with the incompetents, not with their employers. That way, the next time such a terrible accident happened, the boob who did it would be carted out and the pharmacy could replace him and keep working. Mickey had a strategy figured out to get the law changed.
The big job involved repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The Senate had a bill they were hell-bent-for-leather to pass. It took away everyone’s support to purchase care, took away guaranteed Medicaid, and gave a pot of money to each state—albeit less than they get now— to pay for all of the things being taken away—and anything else the state wanted to pay for, including tax cuts. Should be a slam-dunk in a Republican-controlled Senate, especially as the Senator who introduced it is a doctor, Hippocratic Oath and all. But it looked like they were going to lose a key vote—a committee chairman no less. Apparently, he was worried about how the new law would affect sick people. His state wasn’t even really impacted by the proposed law. Who’d a thunk! A Republican Senator with a conscience. Mickey’s job was to make sure the GOP had the votes to get rid of healthcare and make sure this one Senator voted the right way in order to get there.
It was a lovely, early fall day and Mickey decided to walk the half-mile from the station to the Senate office buildings. As he walked, he thought about the New York/Washington dichotomy. Decisions were made in New York and implemented in Washington. Why bifurcate? Most of the people in his profession would say that the money was in NYC, so that’s where the power had to be. Mickey didn’t think that. There was enough ego in Washington to cause folks there to act without a meaningful motive like getting paid off. He thought that maybe the people who hired him and the people who he visited wanted a certain level of deniability, even if they weren’t aware of it themselves.
Why would anybody want deniability? Whatever is, is right, said Alexander Pope and Mickey agreed. When he took on a job, he thought to himself that he would make it real and so make it right. He was only wrong when he couldn’t get it done.
In the case of the compounding pharmacy, Mickey’s path was pretty straightforward. Blue state Senators would be willing to make an exception in the law for a blue state-based industry to keep operating. The Republicans were so biased in favor of business and against regulation that they would reflexively support him. His only opposition would be the pharmacists’ association. Mickey made a note to call the lobbyist for the hospitals to gin-up their support — and he would include exemption from liability for them too.
Patient advocates would be a problem. Mickey pondered how to manage them. If the pharmacies were relieved of liability, it was likely that a lot more errors would occur because the companies would be pushing to get more done faster. They could focus on profit if mistakes became someone else’s problem.
Mickey figured the best way to handle the advocates was to get the change into legislative language, get it buried in a large, “must-pass” bill (he had one in mind), and get the whole thing done fast and quiet.
He didn’t worry much that if he were successful, the pharmacist who made the compounding error would be libel to be tried for first degree manslaughter.
So much for the easy part of his day.
He was walking to the Hill to meet Chairman Stephenson for lunch. They were meeting in the Senate Dining Room, not one of the high-end restaurants near the Hill. Mickey liked John Stephenson. Over the last five years of his Senate term, Mickey had raise close to $100,000 for the Senator, who friends referred to as Maple because he was from the deep south and put maple syrup on his ham steak, a childhood taste he never grew out of. Every time Maple lunched in the Senate Dining Room, the chef knew to prepare ham steak with syrup. The same waitress, Helene, brought it to him every time because she was from his state and she always said to him as she placed it down, “Here’s a sweet porker for a sweet porker,” though he wasn’t fat, and they’d wink at each other as she walked away. Everyone knew the ritual.
Maple was up for reelection next year. This was a good year to have something on him. The lobbyist felt a warmth in his crotch. It had cost him, but he always did “opposition research” on his friends as well as his opponents. When he was young, he was always the little guy and hated it. But he was the kind of kid who had a camera with a telephoto lens and a darkroom in his basement. He was the kind of boy who would walk around the neighborhood trying not to be seen, taking pictures of things he thought could be useful. No picture was more useful than the one of big Angelo touching his little peepee while looking in his aunt’s basement bedroom. From Mickey’s angle in the backyard behind Angelo’s house, he got a great picture of Angelo, his peepee, and his aunt. Mickey made a few copies of that, showed one to Angelo and let him know there were a lot more after big Angelo ripped up the one he had. After that, Angelo left Mickey alone and made sure everybody else did too.
Information made you big. He liked being big and paid well for the commodity that made him bigger, bigger than a Senate Chairman.
Senator John Stephenson, chairman of one of the most powerful committees in the Congress, was learning how to say the Hebrew words for good luck: Mazel Tov. He said it the same way he’d heard it pronounced in the movies, with the emphasis on the first syllable — MA-zl tov. But his soon to be daughter-in-law was correcting him. “We say, ma-ZELL TOV! Stress the zell and the tov. It sounds more like a celebration!”
She should know; she was going to be a rabbi. His son was marrying a rabbi and was going to convert to Judaism. No doubt, Stephenson would be saying ma-ZELL TOV at his grandchildren’s bar mitzvahs.
He thought about his first run for office— town counsel in a backwater hamlet that had never seen a Jew, not since the day it was built by a mining company that left when the ore was depleted. Well, he had gone through many changes in his life. He’d had to learn from some pretty difficult mistakes over the years. Compared to those, this one was easy. Even happy. He liked Ruthie and she made Nicholas happier than Stephenson had ever seen him. Change was good. His son would probably wind up doing more than converting to Judaism. They were moving to Los Angeles and he would almost certainly become a Democrat. Stephenson didn’t have to think about that.
“Ruthie, darl’in, on the day of the wedding I will be prepared to say the blessing on the wine, the bread, and the cocktails if you need that done. I’m going to have to meet someone for lunch now. Why don’t you wait here in my office for Nick’lus and I’ll tell Frank to help you gather up these catalogs and put them in a box.”
The lobbyist was seated at his regular table when Stephenson walked in. “MickeyFried, MickeyFried,” the Senator almost chanted when he saw Mickey, saying his first and last name as if they were a single three syllable word. How was the ride from Sin City?”
“Smooth as a good lie or an old bourbon, Senator. How are you doing?”
“Could. Not. Be. Bettah.” Each word separated by a pause for emphasis.
“Wonderful. Mr. Chairman, I am grateful that you made time for me.”
“Enough o’ that, Mickey. We got one more part of this kabuki play to work out, then let’s talk business.” Stephenson signaled to Helene, who came over to take their order.
She smiled. “Mickey, Ah know you are start’n with a martini, darlin, but what would you like for lunch?”
“Anything you can throw together that’s Italian, Helene.”
“And Mr. Chairman, will you be havin yaw regula or can we tempt you with somethin, um, different, suh?”
“Helene, you know that I want Jeff there in the kitchen to make the dish that you and I both grew up with.”
“Well who would’a guessed?” she mocked. “Comin up Mista Chairman.” Helene’s accent grew more southern the longer she spoke with Maple, and visa versa. “And that’ll be a Jack on the rocks to accompany Mr. Fried’s martini.” It was a statement, not a question. Helene gently swayed away to the kitchen.
“Maple, I am so impressed with your bipartisan work on healthcare. I didn’t think anyone could bring both sides together on this issue, but you seem to have everyone on the committee rowing in the same direction for a small repair to the ACA that will keep people covered another couple of years. That is a major accomplishment.”
“Ah couldn’t a done it without the ranking membah,” Maple responded, his accent now full-bore southern.
“Good point. She’s kept a tighter hold on her caucus than my grandfather kept on a silver dollar.” Mickey figured it couldn’t hurt to tell a southerner an anti-Semitic joke at his own expense. Make him feel a little superior. “But I suspect in the end, this will be an exercise in uselessness. If you can get something out of committee, and if you can get it through the Senate, it’s going to die in the House anyway. Doesn’t it make sense to skip this exercise, noble as it is, and quickly get to where we are going anyway? Give S. 9191 a try,” he referred to the repeal bill by its number.” That’s the only bill the leadership will move if it gets to the House. Maple, if it’s not working in a year, we’ll change it. I feel so strongly about this, that I will commit now to working to amend the bill as you see fit if the outcomes are bad. I promise you.”
“Mickey you know as well as I that once you jump off a cliff you can’t change your mind on the way down. Ahm a no vote on 9191; you not gonna change my mind.”
Helene arrived with their food, put Mickey’s veal parmigiana in front of him, Maple’s ham steak in front of him, gave the Senator a warm smile and said, “Here’s a sweet porker for a sweet porker.” They winked at each other and she left.
On some level, Mickey hoped that Maple would say no. Now he could get tough. You don’t pull your gun unless you’re going to use it. Mickey’s problem was, he liked using his gun. With most of these discussions, it never came time to be tough. Either the guy could be convinced or bought. Force was always the path of greatest resistance. But the thought of forcing a powerful Senator—a chairman—to do what he wanted was almost intoxicating for Mickey. He had information he could use to blackmail Maple and he had been craving the chance to use it since he spent close to $100,000 to learn it. Thinking of the fund raising he had done for Stephenson, he was even pleased by the symmetry of raising $100k to help the Senator, and $100k to hurt him.
Mickey’s eyes narrowed. The left side of his face lifted slightly. He had learned that look from one of the street punks where he grew up.
“I need your vote, Maple.” That was going to be the last warning.
“Yaw not gonna have it, Mickey.”
“You don’t really like ham steak and maple syrup, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I know how you got the name Maple. It was the same way you got the name Sugar Lips and it has nothing to do with maple syrup. I had a wonderful talk with an old friend of yours named Sandy Daniels. Does that ring a bell, Sugar Lips?” Mickey could feel himself growing taller and wider, surrounding the table like a bear crushing a doe.
Maple pushed back from the table just a little. He was paler. He didn’t look frightened, though.
“You piece a shit.” He said it quietly, almost thoughtfully. “All these years Ah been waitin for someone to learn about that time in my life and try to ruin me. And Ahm not suprised it’s you; you are a slime bag. Forgive me if I am struck by the irony that you did not discovah this tidbit until the moment I was ready to announce my retirement. Ah don’t give a shit who you tell. Ahm gonna announce next week that Ah will not seek a fifth term in the Senate. Ahm in my seventies, boy, and ready to retire.”
It was Mickey’s turn to blanch. He wasn’t prepared for this.
“Ahm so glad we are havin this lunch, boy. First off, I don’t have to justify the name Maple anymore. I hate this shitty ham dish and before this meal is over I’m a gonna call Helene over to this table, send it back, get a hamburger — a nice, rare hamburger — and never eat a fuckin ham steak with maple syrup again.
“But boy, Ahm gonna be chairman for another year. I will know every client you have. You will get NUTHIN through my committee boy, nuthin! Won’t be anyone in this town who don’t know that if they hire Mickey Fried, theya ask is dead, dead, DEAD. And I have my friends in the Senate, boy, good friends, good Republican friends. They gonna do shit for you, too. You not gonna work here anymore, boy. You gonna stay in New York and do shit.
Mickey was trembling. He couldn’t stop.
“But Ah tell you what, boy. You do what Ah say right now and I may change my mind. I’m feeling mighty generous because I don’t have to eat fuckin ham steak and maple syrup no more. Are you paying attention, boy?”
“What did you call me!”
“Yes Mr. Chairman.”
“Now that’s betta. Mickey, you take that white linen napkin off yaw lap and put it on the table. That’s right. Now take that there veal parmigiana in front of you and dump it on your nice expensive suit. Make sure you get some on yaw shirt, yaw jacket, and yaw pants. I even want some to go on yaw shoes. Do it, and Ah may fawgive you.”
Mickey hesitated for just a couple of seconds. Then he picked up the plate of veal and spaghetti and tomato sauce and poured it all over the front of his suit, onto his lap and shoes. People at other tables began to stare.
“Don’t you look like a mess. But Ah don’t fawgive you, you piece a shit. And by the way, my son is marrying a nice Jewish woman, in fact, she’s studi’n to be a rabbi, and Ah do not appreciate yaw anti-Semitic jokes. Now get the hell outta heah.”
Mickey slowly stood up, in a state of shock. Everyone sitting in the Senate Dining Room was staring at him as he dripped tomato sauce on his shoes and the carpet. Waiters rushed over to clean him off, but Stephenson waved them off. “He’ll be fine. He’s just leaving.” Every Senator and lobbyist in the room saw the Chairman tell the staff not to help Mickey.
Mickey backed away from the table. Stephenson called him. “Mickey!” The lobbyist looked at him. “Aren’t you a gonna congratulate me on my son’s wedding? Were you raised in a barn?”
Mickey turned around and quickly walked out out. He couldn’t visit the next Senate office on the pharmacy issue. He was a mess. And it didn’t matter. It was a healthcare issue; it wasn’t going to get through the committee.
He stopped in the men’s room grabbed a bunch of paper towels, wet them and started wiping off the mess that covered him. Men would stare at him when they came in, so he moved to one of the stalls. He got the sauce off, but his clothes were stained and soaking wet.
Outside, he tried to hail a cab, but none would pick him up because they didn’t want to get their back seats wet and dirty. He walked to Union Station, people staring at him. He had to get home. After he got his new ticket, he would cancel the rest of today’s appointments.
The train ride home would give him a chance to think and regroup. He’d been doing this work for more than 20 years. He’d given a lot of money. He knew a lot of secrets. He could hurt a lot of people. He needed to spend a couple of weeks out of DC, let things calm down. Even if Stephenson wasn’t running again, he wouldn’t want Mickey’s secret out on the street; Mickey was sure of that.
He would have to speak with his clients. This was throwing off the timing on a lot of projects. He would probably not get anything into the big budget bill that had to pass, and that was the next bite at the apple. It would be a couple of months before there was something next on the schedule that had to pass—probably the banking bill. It would be a stretch, he thought, to get his clients’ needs met in the banking bill. Never mind, he would come up with a strategy.
He passed two lobbyists he knew who looked away and didn’t talk to him. Union Station smelled of burnt rubber brakes and rotting trash. It smelled like adrenaline gone sour.
There was an Acela heading out and it had a first-class seat that cost about $120.00 more than business class. He bought it and soon was on an early train back from DC. First-class had a few single seats and he wanted one badly, rushed on to the train brushing past people and got one. Seated, he left his phone in his jacket pocket and pulled out his laptop. He was going to have to write some extensive e-mails to his clients really quickly to limit the damage and he did not want to be overheard. He’d already thought of the story he’d tell, about Stephenson’s nervous breakdown and that no bills were going to be moved out of his committee this year. He would be the first to tell his clients that Stephenson was being forced to retire by Senate leadership. He would let his clients know that this was going to be a year of waiting; nothing would be getting done by anyone and they would just have to sit tight and wait it out until Stephenson left. He would add a personal note, about how close he felt to Stephenson and how painful it was to see a good friend suffer this way with mental illness. He would describe his own dedication to tackling mental health policy as a result. He would wish Stephenson a fast recovery and a gentle retirement.
Mickey brought his beating heart under control. He had a plan. Whatever is, is right. He would make the story real, and it would be right.
He booted his laptop, got on the Acela network, and opened his e-mail application. His inbox had a stack of e-mails in the boldface of urgent. They were from his clients—the four who kept him on retainer at $500,000 per year, and the dozen who paid him $3,500 an hour as needed. All of them ended his employment. All of them gave him 30 days’ notice. All of them copied Stephenson’s Chief-of-Staff.
There were two e-mails from his oldest client, the one whose daughter’s wedding he had attended just last year. The first was a dry note firing him. The second simply read: Mickey, I don’t know what the hell you did to Maple, and I don’t ever want you to write back or call me to fill me in, but it must have been nuclear. I’m sorry.
The train pulled out of Union Station and Washington closed her legs. But not forever, not for long. There’d be another train coming along.
About the Author:
In 1984 J. David Liss received an MFA from Brooklyn College. Trained in writing and inclined to politics, Liss became a speechwriter and then a lobbyist. He’s worked in corporate, academic, and healthcare centers and all his work has been touched by literature (he likes to think). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in “The Naugatuck River Review,” “Poetry Quarterly,” “Fifth Wednesday Journal,” “Blood and Thunder,” “Euphony,” and many others. He has prose published in “The MacGuffin,” “Lake Effect,” “Inwood Indiana Press,” and has several stories in an anthology from Between the Lines Press.