"You ever heard of this fella? This Noam Chomsky? Or this one, Bob Woodward? Or Harlan Ellison? No? Yes sir, the Helms Act shut them up real permanent, you betcha. Yeah. Real permanent."


Onward to...
  Front door
  Introduction
  Writing
    FICTION

"Boss" Boss
By Mark Bourne. Novelette originally published in Alternate Tyrants, Tor Books. All rights to this story have reverted back to the author (me). Distribution in any form without written permission is scowled upon. I like to know about these things, so please ask before assuming. Thanks.



         FOR OVER FOUR BILLION YEARS it hangs suspended at the edge of the solar system, like a fleck of ice balancing on the rim of a martini glass. A puff of snow and dust and gravel among countless others, all delicately poised between the sun's embrace and the cold freedom between the stars, slowly circling the distant point of light through the silent eons since the sun's formation. It belongs with the detritus, the sawdust left over after nature finished working on this untidy spot of the galaxy.
         But when the haphazard motions of the galaxy's components send a dwarfish red star passing near, it is one of many dirty icebergs jostled loose from their time-worn grooves. Some scatter outward to drift forever, far from any star. This one, though, falls toward the inner worlds, into the warm, close funnel near the bottom of the sun's gravity well.
         So it begins its long slide down. Toward the third planet, where feebly surviving hominids scoop up the hard, rocky result of stellar nucleosynthesis and gravitational attraction, and chip and scrape the first stone tools created in this arm of the galaxy.



Excerpted from
Boss: An Oral History of the
Rise and Rise of President Alphonse Capone
,
by Studs Terkel (Patterson Books, 1988)

Schuyler Lawhead, 89

         He sits in the same booth of the same diner he's sat in almost every day for years. "Buddy's Grand BBQ" on Grand Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. He seems as much a part of the place as the sauce pit and the burger grill. They say he can tell you something about everyone in town, including those he's outlived through the decades.
         He claims to have been born within a month of Capone in 1899. A WWI veteran and life-long astronomy buff, for years after the Great War he traveled through surrounding counties with a second-hand telescope in the back of a horse-drawn cart, offering glimpses of the moon and planets for spare change and conversation. He resided with his only living relative, his spinster sister Charmagne, from 1919 until her death in 1978. Since then, he has been looked after by the neighborhood locals who can't imagine Hot Springs without Schuyler Lawhead and his encyclopedic knowledge of the town and its most famous visitor.
         I hadn't planned on meeting Schuyler. "Buddy's" was one of a hundred places I could have stopped at for a quick bite before catching the plane back to Chicago. My waitress, Debby, just happened to be assertively conversational. When I told her why I had interviewed the mayor, the county historian, and several townspeople, she pointed toward an ancient gentleman in the corner booth. He was all but lost within his shabby oversized coat.
         "There's your fella," she said. Though I was seated facing him, I hadn't noticed the nondescript old man until she pointed him out.
         Without this series of random events, I would have never encountered Schuyler Lawhead.


         Yep, I was here then. Like ever'body else, he come for some clean fun gambling and playing the horses. And for the bathhouses, of course. This was a vacation spot for him and his bigwig friends, yes sir. Their getaway place. I was here. In fact, if it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't be here now writing another book about him. That's a fact. But I can tell you something all them other books ain't got. Not one of 'em tells you what really happened here, what made ol' Al Capone from Chicago the greatest President this country ever seen! (He pounds a fist on the table.) If it wasn't for me, why he'd a-been just another rich fella with no more to his name than, well, whatever he had before he come to Hot Springs that summer. It was Nineteen and Twenty-Six. The great Perseid meteor shower was about to rain stars down on us, like it does every August. They say shooting stars is just dirt from space. That's what my pal Weems said. Just shows you what a little dirt can do, don't it?
         I was working at the Superior, one of the swankiest bathhouses on Central Avenue. You shoulda seen her then. All real elegant and European-like, with white wicker chairs and fine porcelain tubs. Customers sat and soaked away their arthritis, their rheumatism, their gout, boils, tumors, and female complaints. Folks come to us from all over. For the mineral waters bubbling up over the rocks, made hot by the fire in the Earth's belly. Sometimes I shut my eyes and try to imagine the heart of fire that makes the water boil up and steam, wondering if one day it'll blow us all into archeology, just like that other fast-living resort town. You know the one.

         Las Vegas?

         Oh, hell no. Pompeii. 'Course, we also had the race track, Oaklawn Park. That's what they called it before it was the Capone Americana Amusement Center. Along with the spas, the track brought us both fame and fortune. Mayor McLaughlin(1) saw to it that hot water flowed into the bathtubs as long as cash flowed through the horsebooks, casinos, and the courts. In the spring, you could hear the crowds hollering and the hooves pounding the turf. School kids knew everyday what the daily double paid. They laid odds and gambled away their lunch money. Them was good times. Not that nowadays ain't a whole lot better! You be sure to get that down that I said so. These days is a helluva lot better. I'm grateful to have been here to see it all happen, yes sir.

         He signals for the waitress, Debby. He tells her to bring us a bottle of The Boss's best. She looks at me and I nod, reaching for my wallet. She smiles and brings us a bottle of "Boss" gin and two glasses.

         Can you believe that once you had to go to special stores to get good booze? Hell, I made my own for fifteen years, before them big chain marts moved in and took all my customers away. You weren't even allowed to drink it if you was a kid. Yes sir, these are good times.
         Oh, from the first, Hot Springs attracted interesting folks. Mississippi riverboat gamblers started it. The stagecoach route from Malvern was worked by Jesse and Frank James and the Younger brothers. There was a time when you could've gone to a one of them local amusement parks and seen Frank James tending a souvenir stand. Young folks today, they don't understand them days, before Al got this country moving in a right and true direction again. Before he was The Boss and showed the world what law and order really mean. Before he made us the greatest country on Earth. And what with them orbitals and the Moonbase and now them asteroid mines, the greatest country off Earth, too.
         Back then, Mr. Al Capone was already more than just another young business man from up north. The town rolled out the red carpet for him. Hell, he had more money in his wallet than we had in the county treasury. You seen that movie about him? I'm talking about the good one, with Rod Steiger and Paul Scofield. Not the old one with that Reagan fella. The one they made during Al's, oh, sixth term.

         You mean An American Dream?

         Yeah, that's it. Fine picture. They say Al himself had a hand in writing it, so it must all be true. Anyway, it showed how he started out as this poor shoe-shine boy from Brooklyn, then pulled himself up to be a successful, tough-as-nails business man, a man of the people who never done no one no harm. That's the picture where they made a Hollywood set of Hot Springs. Some of it, anyway. They made the Arlington Hotel and the Superior, the same bathhouse where I worked! There was that scene in the Superior where Steiger, playing Al, first meets up with Scofield, who's Robert Bishop. It shows how ol' Robert got his nickname, "Kingmaker." Boy, he was that, all right. Bishop coulda made a mule king of England if he thought there was advantage in it. They say that was the turning point in Al's life, you know. His meeting Bishop. But they got it dead wrong in the movie. Al never did meet him first in that bathhouse. I know, 'cuz I was there when they met. I was the reason they met. If they hadn't met each other, things woulda turned out real different. But if it hadn't been for me, they never woulda met at all.

         How do you mean?

         Now you just hold your balls, boy. I'll get there.



         The comet falls slowly, but it gathers speed as it heads down toward the center. The prickly breath of the solar wind begins to affect its fragile surface. While the ice falls, the third planet revolves around its star a little over two million times.



         I remember when Al and his friends would come to the Superior. Everyday I washed the towels in this big tub the owner, Miz Raines, had ready for me. Kept 'em warm on the radiators and had 'em stacked neat for the customers. It was the only job I could get after the war. My folks died when I was sixteen. That's when I went into the army. After that, it was just me and my sister. Miz Raines said the good Lord gotta keep his eyeballs peeled overtime for some folks, so she let me work at the Superior. She kept a radio by the ironing table. I liked The Ozark Jamboree and Ma Perkins and Russ Morgan's orchestra from way out in California. The news was about presidents that couldn't hold onto the reins more than two terms, and foreign places like I saw during the war. But mostly the radio told me that the world was where bad things happened. It told me that being in the bathhouse was better than being anywhere else, where folks were meaner and bullets took away more than just birds and deer at hunting season.

         He reaches into his coat as if to pull something from a pocket. He pauses with his hand hidden in the folds. After a moment, he returns it to the table before him, empty.

         Al used to soak at the Superior whenever he come to town. That year he brought fellas you've read about and seen played in the movies. There was his brother Ralph. And Frank Rio. Danny Seritella. Later on, they was some of his most trusted cabinet members. In them days, you heard the word "Dago" an awful lot when the Capone boys were in town. But after he first got elected President, you didn't hear that word nowhere. That shows you the kind of good he did.
         The first time I seen him up close he talked to me. Really, he did! He's in the biggest tub with his friends and I'm passing by carrying a load of towels and he asks me to turn up the radio. It was playing jazz music. He loved good jazz. That's when Jack Woodford was part of his group. Woodford. Gregory Peck played him in that movie, you know. Boy, I'd hear Jack playing at the parlor piano for hours, doing jazz and classical music. Al used to call him "The Professor" 'cuz he was real college educated. Even then Jack was teaching Al how to talk good, with style. Remember, this was long before Al's first campaign, before the papers called him "The Great Communicator." They say that Jack was as much a part of Al's victory as Rob Bishop was. But that's selling Al short, I think. I remember that day like it was yesterday. That was just a week—no, six days—before Al had the most important night of his life, the one nobody's ever written about in all them books. The one you never seen in no movie! The one no one but me knows about!



         It passes the bloated outer planets without being trapped within their immense bowls of gravity. It speeds past a dry, red world where, long before, wide eyes would have noted its passing. It falls slipping onward until at last it rolls around the sun and relaxes into its own long orbit in this basement drain of the solar system. The solar wind touches what has been undisturbed since the object's birth. Ice and dust and gravel erupt from the nucleus and blow away on the particle breeze. The comet spills itself along its orbit, sprinkling a littered path that it renews at every curve of its endless fall around the sun.
         Its orbit is positioned just so, and the trail of debris is just wide enough, that the third planet, for a brief time during each of its own turns around the star, plunges into and through it, like a traveler trudging through a sandstorm. On that world, a bearded scientist is summoned before the world's most powerful religious leader. He is forced to recant his discoveries made through an instrument of metal tubes and ground glass, and is placed under house arrest for the final years of his life.



         Schuyler reaches into another pocket and pulls out a dollar coin. He stares at Capone's profile on it.

         During the Great Depression, I used to listen to Al on the radio. He'd be traveling around, him and Rob and Jack, and he'd be giving speeches about Communists and corruption and making this country great again. I remember his Labor Day speech of '34. His Spread the Wealth speech. I joined his team right then and there. I said, "Now, there's a man who's talking sense! He's talking to me and I like what I'm hearing!" Sure, he was rich, he had money when no one else did, but he was like you and me. He wasn't no goddamn politician neither. Yes sir. A man of the people.
         Them were the years when Bishop was introducing Al to Joe Kennedy and his brood, when Al and Joe became real good friends. Joe even named his youngest boy Al, but I guess ever'body knows that by now. (Laughs.) Yeah, he hobnobbed with the Kennedys and the Rockefellers and all them Hollywood folks. Bishop took him to parties with mayors and governors and newspaper tycoons like the Patterson clan. Got his picture in the papers and the magazines all the time. It's all in Bishop's book, the one they based that other movie on.(2) Didn't get right what happened there either, goddammit.



         For the eighth August since the end of the Great War, he is having a star party in the open field at the end of Bathhouse Row, so everybody can see the famous Perseid meteor shower. Not far away is the Arlington Hotel, where the rich tourists stay. That morning, Miz Raines let him hang a sign in front of the Superior: NIGHTTIME TONIGHT! SEE REAL FALLING STARS! SEE THE HEAVENS THRU A REAL TELESCOPE! A NICKEL A LOOK! Underneath, an arrow points the way. He always goes home with his pockets jingling when the Perseids come to town.
         The sky is fading into twilight as people enter the field, gathering around him and his telescope. He recognizes locals from earlier star parties, but there are plenty of folks from out of town wondering what all the excitement is about.
         He gets up on the wooden crate he totes the scope in and says, "Listen here, ever'body!" They all hush up. He thanks them for coming and says "It sure looks like the good Lord give us some fine seeing weather." Someone yells "Amen!" Probably someone from the First Baptist Church. He gives the night time to go dark by telling them about the glory of the heavens. "Which," he decrees, "you can see if you got the God-given sense to just look up." He feels like Moses himself.
         Soon the stars appear. First a few, then whole patches of them as the sky grows darker. The lights of the Arlington glow across one side of the sky, so he keeps everyone's attention on other parts where the stars are.



         He hands me an envelope from his coat. From it I withdraw a tattered, yellowed newspaper clipping. Its print is now barely legible, but the photo is the famous shot of Capone and FDR in front of the White House.

         Lookie here. This was when Al's star really started to shine. Nineteen and forty-four. Franklin Roosevelt needed hisself a new vice president. Well, Al was flying high in the papers and on the radio, and was already right there at Roosevelt's side, thanks to that poor Senator What's-his-name who done shot himself. (3) So Roosevelt had the best man for the job right there ready to do his public duty.
         When Roosevelt passed on in '45, Al walked into that Oval Office like it was a new suit cut to fit. Had 'em bring in the biggest damn leather chair you ever did see, then he got by God to work! Made Bishop his Chief of Staff. By the time six months was done he'd stopped that United Nations bullshit, he helped the Germans to surrender, went to Potsdam and laid down the rules, then bombed the hell outta three Jap cities. Then came the Sicily Conference, the Capone Doctrine, and the American Forces for World Stability Act. Yes sir, it was an exciting time to be an American.

         He digs around in his coat and pulls out a large, folded sheet of paper. He takes another drink, then carefully unfolds the paper. It's the cover of a LIFE magazine. President Capone is posing with his second wife (Cissy Patterson, former editor of the Washington Herald) and three sons in front of the White House Christmas tree.

         December, 1951. Just before he started his third term. The same month he got on national television and made his Strong Arm speech. Remember that? I tell ya, Al knew how to get good men on his team. After Secretary of State Luciano come back from Europe and Asia, all that shit them countries was giving us stopped real quick, didn't it? Why, I remember the day when Secretary of Defense Eisenhower first went to Japan. He said, "We are here to help, and we are here to stay." Yep, makes you proud to see what we've done over there since. They got us at Pearl Harbor, then they was the first to get nuked for their own good, but now we're letting 'em all work for the best boss in the world, the good ol' US of A.



         By now the sky is proper night dark, except for the lights from the Arlington. In the south there's Sagittarius. "God's teapot," Schuyler calls it. "With the Milky Way pouring out like steam across the sky."
         He points straight up at Cygnus the Swan. "Also known as the Northern Cross!" The church folks seem to like that part.
         "There's the great square of Pegasus, the celestial horse of legend who bore Perseus on his winged back!"
         A crescent moon hangs over Bathhouse Row. "Graceful Luna, ladies and gentlemen! Showing us only some of her face tonight. My telescope here will reveal more of her complexion than she would like you to see!"
         He can feel Weems with him. He knows his friend is there, can hear him in his voice, speaking the way Weems did when he showed Schuyler the heavens. Before Weems' guts got spilled out onto the ground of a country far away. Maybe it's Weems speaking through him. Schuyler likes to wonder about that.
         "And what is that bright orb in the east? By Jove, it's Jupiter, the king planet and his entourage of moons, four tiny starlettes that changed the world when an Italian star-watcher named Galileo first saw 'em way back when. Now step up to this optical wonder and see the sight that made the Pope in Rome quiver in his robes. Just a nickel a look, ladies and gentlemen. Ever'body gets a look!"
         Just then a meteor streaks across the sky. Then another. It's the Perseids back again, right on schedule. Schuyler smiles, inside and out, at the shouts of delight as folks see the stars shooting down.
         Pennies and nickels clink and clatter into the large mason jar. The line of stargazers stretches all the way out of the field and onto the street. And more keep coming. Schuyler muses for the thousandth time: most folks spend their whole life looking at their feet, seeing only the dirt, when up above are more wonders than a soul could ever dream of. And he is showing it to them.



         He searches through his coat again. This time he shows me an old-fashioned door key. It's long, black and heavy, with an ornate handle.

         Now this here is 1957. The same year Governor Faubus got called to Washington to head up the new Federal Police Force. Them was wild times. I'd hear on the radio about them bombings in Harlem and at them colleges. No one ever did find out who done it. And every so often you hear about it happening again and the Feds round up a lot of folks who look like they coulda done it and no one ever sees 'em again. So I guess that's good. They're trying to keep us safe, which is what I pay my taxes for. Yes sir. Them was good times for Hot Springs, but hard times for some of us. The year before, we elected a new mayor, but he got killt in a car accident, so the next mayor was this young fella who was part of that "Al Generation" the radio yap-jawed so much about back then. Well, he jumped on the bandwagon after the government made prostitution officially legal and all right. Pleasure businesses was cropping up all over the country. Now, it's a man's right to get his needs taken care of by the government. That's what them politicians are up there for, ain't it? But Miz Raines didn't see it that way, not with her bathhouse, no sir. One night, the mayor and a bunch of his police come in for a soak and a sauna. I was working that night. We treated 'em like kings, then they up and busted the place real good. Hit me upside my head real hard. All I was doing was standing there calling "Miz Raines! Miz Raines!" and the next thing I knew I was at home with my sister Charmagne putting something cold on my head.
         The next day, I went back to the Superior. But none of my friends I worked with was there no more. The sign said "Superior Men's Recreation Club." They wouldn't even let me on the front porch. I snuck round to the back door, where the work rooms was, but my key didn't work no more.
         It was for the best, I guess. It's been real popular. You should go there before you leave. Arkansas still has lower recreation taxes that any other state around. 'Cept for Mississippi. Yeah. They done real good. But I wonder who's keeping the tubs clean now. (Forces a laugh.) Never did see Miz Raines again. My sister had some money from her sewing and I got a job cleaning up at the race track, so we did okay mostly.
         Oh, that wasn't the first time I got my hide toughened a bit. Did I tell ya I once almost campaigned for someone other than Al? That was in '48, the first time Al had to run in a real election. Ol' Tom Dewey was doing pretty good in the polls and I decided he might make as good a President as Al. So I volunteered to help him out here in town. A bunch of us was setting up our campaign headquarters at the First Baptist Church down on Main Street. We had posters and balloons and signs all ready to put up all over the place. That day, the Arkansas Gazette said Dewey might just pull ahead of Al, even though Al was all over the radio and the newspapers and going everywhere with Robert and his brother Ralph and a bunch of his rich friends and supporters. Why'd I go with Dewey? I was younger then, but that's no excuse. I don't rightly know. But when the biggest fire this town ever did see burned down the church while we was inside it, well, that stopped our work right there for good, yes sir. I almost wasn't one of the ones who got out alive. Later on, someone told me there was fires like that all over the country till the election, but by then ever'body had heard the stories about Dewey and them school boys, so I guess it didn't matter none. Once folks found out the kind of man Dewey was, he couldn't get elected to clean toilets. I heard he died in prison, but by then nobody gave a damn.
         So like ever'body else, I voted for Al and did so till the last time he ran in '64. Woulda done so again in '68, but he was too tired and sick to do it no more. Damn shame.
         I still got a big ol' scar from the fire. I'll show it to you if you want.



         It isn't long before he sees Robert Bishop approaching from the Arlington. Schuyler recognizes him from the local paper. Bishop is in from New York City, taking a vacation from all his rich friends.
         In his clean evening jacket and slick-black hair, Bishop strolls over to where Schuyler is retelling the legend of Andromeda. The children, and plenty of the grown-ups, are an entranced audience at Schuyler's feet.
          Bishop removes the cigar from his teeth and smirks louder than he needs to at a woman lifting her daughter to the telescope's eyepiece. "What have we here?" he snorts. "A girlie peep show? Or did some hick's cow jump over the moon?" He laughs and looks around for anyone who appreciates his fine joke.
         Schuyler looks down at him from his crate and says, "Can't you read the sign? Or does your nanny do it for you?" Schuyler doesn't believe in treating anyone better than anyone else, no matter how smartly they're dressed up.
         Even in this dim light, Schuyler can see Bishop's face go red. Bishop begins shouting words that force parents to cup their children's ears for protection. The whiskey on his breath blends with the odor of cigar and wafts on the breeze into Schuyler's face.



         He reaches into his coat again. This time he hands me a small plastic bust of President Capone, no different from countless others. He points to the underside of the figure's base. It reads "Made in the American Republic of China." I shrug and hand it back to him. He grins, unveiling stained false teeth.

         Knock knock.

         Who's there?

         Mao.

         Mao who?

         Mao about getting me outta this here cement? Get it? Yeah. There's other ways it goes, too, like "Mao about getting me outta this Great Wall" or "Get me out from under this 50-yard-line." Guess we'll never know the real punch line, will we? Heh.



         Three men step away from the line, where they have been waiting while Robert Bishop is having his conniption. Two big men in dark suits. Another man in a suit and fancy hat. The man with the hat is in the middle. He says something real soft to the other two, and they step up and take Bishop by the arms. Then he steps forward. Schuyler sees that it's Mr. Capone the business man, who asked him to turn up the radio playing jazz music six days ago. Capone is pulling his arm back, ready to punch Bishop in the face for being a pain in the ass. Schuyler breathes a short prayer of gratitude. Then someone yells "Look!" and the biggest meteor Schuyler has ever seen flashes all the way across the sky. All eyes follow it from one side of the sky to the other. Schuyler's. Capone's. Bishop's. The two guys holding Bishop in place. It looks close enough to touch, a streak of fire like a Fourth of July rocket, or a star that really is falling. Or Weems dropping in for one last wave goodbye. That's what Schuyler is thinking about.



         What do you think President Capone will be most famous for?

         Boy, that's a toughie. Let's see. Well, I say it'll be for the space program. What with the Apollo missions that got us the first Moon landing in '67. Even after he passed on, they kept Apollo going strong, then followed that up with the Artemis program and that Moonbase. Them Ares ships really are gonna give us a piece of the action on Mars, just like they say. Kennedy Industries is heading to the asteroids. Them Galileo probes are at Jupiter. And we got American rocket bases all over the Earth, so we can launch 'em and land 'em as fast as they can build 'em. I always wanted to be a 'stronomer, maybe work in a big ol' observatory or in one of them fancy planetariums. I ain't never had no kids—well, none that I know of (Laughs)—but if I did, my grandsons would be up there on the Moon or on their way to Mars or working for Kennedy. Just so their old granddad could see it! Yeah. I'd like that.
         Then there's the economy. After the Second World War, he kept this country on the move, manufacturing and inventing and building. He knew how to deal with those unions. The whole world is one big American factory now. Everywhere you go, you got a Kennedy Multinational complex next to a Defense factory next to a MacDonald's. Done them countries a bunch of good. Got 'em on the right track. I read that book about it.(4) If it wasn't for that big radiation zone 'cross what used to be the Middle East— (He shakes his head, looks down into his reflection in the tabletop). But that was their own damn fault. He made them ragheads a perfectly good offer, and they just pissed in his face. Well, not no more.(5)
         There ain't no problem with drugs now that the government's got 'em under control. Hell, when they put the coke back into new Coke, I shoulda got myself in charge of one of them big chain marts. I'd be sitting pretty now, you betcha.
         He ran his country like a business. You know what he used to say: "The business of America is business." Well, he was damn straight on that, and he showed the rest of the world that they could either be our business partner or he'd get tough like a leader should.
         Sure, there's a lot that went on behind the scenes, things we don't need to know about. That's the way the they always work up there in Washington. But you know what Jack Woodford said about The Boss: he was the most efficient man ever to sit in the big chair, and his chair was by God the biggest.
         Remember when he had that Cuban Spic trouble-maker, Fee-del Castro, fly up there for a meeting in the Oval Office? Well, after that ol' "Castrate" suddenly decides he don't wanna be a revolutionary leader no more, and within a year Al's oldest boy gets elected governor of America's 51st state. Now that's the big stick you hear tell about.
         And I don't care what they say, he had nothing to do with that floozy actress — what's her name?

         Marilyn Monroe?

          That's her. He was a good Catholic, a family man. He didn't tolerate fooling around. That's in all the books. Who knows why she hung herself? It was Hollywood. They're crazy out there.

         He pours more gin into his glass. He takes a gulp and some dribbles down his chin. He doesn't seem to notice.

         I remember the day he got sent to Hoover Memorial Hospital, in '76, during the biggest goddamn birthday party America's ever seen. It was as much a party for him as anything. He made this country what it is today. It's a crying shame his health went bad on him. 'Course, being The Boss'd put a strain on anybody. But all the best doctors and all them fancy machines couldn't keep God from bringing him home. You always hear people say, "Where were you when you heard The Boss died?" Well, I was right here, right here at Buddy's. At that table over yonder. Debby'd just brung me my eggs and biscuits. She said she heard it on the radio. We just sat there and cried together. Debby's a good girl. She loved The Boss like ever'body else done. Yes sir, I remember that day.
         And I know about them crazy conspiracy ideas, them folks that say he was killt by Russky agents or the CIA or the Federal Police or whatever. Hell, some say the Mafia got him though every pissant moron knows there ain't been no Mafia since his third term. Shoot, Russia ain't had a hat to shit in since '59, after the Kremlin Coup and the whole Soviet Union shriveled up like a spider on a hotplate. That's all just bullshit. He worked hard all his life, then he went to his reward. Anyone who says otherwise gets a free pass to the Federal Rehab Camps, and good riddance to 'em!
         The world's full of crazies. Every good man's got his enemies. Didja know that some assholes even tried to write books agin Al and the way he was making this country great? Didja? Said they dug up hidden stuff about Al's early days. You probably never heard of them sumbitches who tried to tarnish Al's good name.

         From his coat he removes three softbound books. They are battered and worn, their titles printed on featureless gray covers. They are crudely printed and bound. Schuyler glances around, then quickly pushes them toward me.

         You ever heard of this fella? This Noam Chomsky? Or this one, Bob Woodward? Or Harlan Ellison? No? Yes sir, the Helms Act shut them up real permanent, you betcha. (He chuckles.) Yeah. Real permanent.

         I push them away and ask, "Don't you have a copy of the Banned list?" The waitress has returned and asks if we'd like anything else. Schuyler scoops the illicit material into his coat. The waitress asks if everything is all right. He coughs and nods. She gives Schuyler a long look, then returns to the kitchen.

         (He whispers.) Kept these hidden for a long time. Even when the Federal Police broke in for one of their checks. I never read 'em, no sir. Just like to keep 'em, that's all. Don't like them Federal Police and their boss Bush anyhow. Don't care what Chief Justice Nixon said back in—, back in—, whatever the hell year it was. Fuck 'em.



         In two seconds the meteor is gone. But by then, Bishop is sobered up enough to say that he is sorry to Mr. Capone. Bishop says, "Let me buy you a drink." Capone looks at him for a moment, then tells his boys to let him loose. Capone says to Bishop, "Meet me inside," and Bishop walks back to the Arlington without saying a word to Schuyler. Bastard, Schuyler thinks.



         He tops off my gin, then empties the bottle into his glass. He stares out the window, up into the thin midday clouds.

         Some say he never did die, that he's still alive up there in one of them military space stations, all secret-like, running things like God hisself on high! Boy howdy, I'd like that to be true. I voted Capone for twenty years and I'd do it again if I could. Yes sir, if he is up there somewhere, I'd like to remind him that he owes ol' Schuyler Lawhead big! He owes me! If it wasn't for me, things woulda been real different for him, let me tell ya.

         I ask him what he means by that. For a long moment he doesn't speak. Then he asks me for a dollar. He gets up and shuffles toward the juke box near the men's room. Punches up "Our Pal Al" by Frank Sinatra. When he returns, he taps his fingers without rhythm on the tabletop between us.

         During the Great War, I had a buddy. Name of Tim. Tim Williams. We all called him Weems. From Kansas City. He was, oh, about twenty, a few years older'n me. A real nice fella. Smart, too. He knew all sorts of things about the stars. We'd be in the trenches and he'd point up into the night sky and say "That's Polaris, the North Star, around which all the heavens turn!" Or "There's Mars, bloody god of war." Or "There's the mighty hunter Orion, chasing the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades through the night." He talked like that. His head was full of stories about the stars and how the constellations got their names. He knew all the planets in order, all the way out to King Neptune. We spent whole nights on guard duty with him telling me about the universe. I thought my head was going to bust with all the knowing, but I still wanted to know more. He let me borrow his books about the stars so I could read more about 'em.

         He reaches a hand inside his coat and slowly pulls out a small, leather-bound book. He holds it up as if it were something religious. It's "A Boy's Guide to the Sky," by Dr. Todd.

         He give me this the night he died. (He pauses.) At Meuse-Argonne. Shrapnel, all through his gut. The next morning, I helped pull him in from the field. We brung him back and I stood by him until they put him in the box and sent him home.
         That night, I saw a sign. A falling star, real big and real bright. What the 'stronomers call a bolide or fireball. It went zip! across the sky, then bam! it was gone. I figured it was Weems' soul out there among the stars he loved so. Well, that sign changed my life.
         After they sent me home, I got myself a telescope from the pawn shop and traveled from place to place, telling folks about the stars and sharing Weems' wonderment toward creation. I must've seen that falling star a half-dozen times back then. Ever' time, I knew it was Weems letting me know I was doing a good job. And that's all a man needs to know in this world, I think.



         The man with the hat comes up to Schuyler and says, "I'd like a look, please." And Schuyler says to Mr. Al Capone from Chicago, "That'll be a nickel." Capone places a nickel into Schuyler's outstretched hand, then looks at Jupiter through the telescope for a long time.
         Schuyler gazes up into the summer night. He searches for Weems among the stars of Cygnus and the Summer Triangle. But he sees only the brief, bright streaks of shooting stars burning to ash high overhead.
         Then Capone looks up at Schuyler, real thoughtful-like, says thank you and heads back toward the Arlington with his men.
         The next time Schuyler sees Capone, the business man is chatting with Robert Bishop in the tubs at the Superior. Schuyler keeps the towels warm and the radio up loud.
         Sixty years later, while sitting with an interviewer in a diner that won't be built until 1964, Schuyler will wish he had kept that nickel.



         Schuyler stops his story. The gin has taken hold, and he sits there lost in memories he never reveals. I don't press. I use the moment to check my watch, then look around for the waitress, who is on the phone. She waves the bill at me, nodding. After a while, she hangs up the phone and brings me the bill. She gives Schuyler a worried look.

         (Schuyler leans forward.) It was all because of me. If my ma and pa hadn't died when I was a young'n, I might not've gone into the army when I did. I woulda never met Weems. If Weems and me hadn't been together in the war, and gone to that trench in France, and if that German soldier hadn't been there to cut Weems in two, I woulda never looked up and seen his soul flashing out there among those stars. I woulda never learned astronomy. I woulda never done the star party. Hell, what if there'd been no meteors that night?
         Just dirt from space, that's all. That's all we are. But without that one bit of dirt from space, Mr. Al Capone woulda never got to know Robert Bishop, which means he never woulda become The Boss, the whole world's North Star, and America and the world sure would be different today, you can bet. Maybe Mr. Al Capone woulda been just another nobody, all forgotten today. Maybe he woulda gone other places, been a famous business man or something. Maybe he'd a-been hit by a bus or shot on some streetcorner. Hell, maybe I saved his life!
         Maybe that's why Weems had to die. So I could do something important, one little something that led to a whole lot of big somethings. If it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't be here now writing this book. I made a difference, yes sir. Weems and me did. Just dirt from space.
         And I just wanted somebody to know that.

 

POSTSCRIPT

         The night after this interview, Schuyler Lawhead was arrested and sent to a Rehab Camp. The Federal Police had received a tip about Schuyler possessing books on the Banned list. One week later, he died shortly after a lengthy interrogation.

 

# # #



(1) Mayor Tom McLaughlin. Later, a U.S. Senator (Strong Arm Party) 1952-66. Back.

(2) Kingmaker, by Robert Cyril Bishop, Patterson Press Worldwide, 1960. Back.

(3) Senator Harry Truman (D-Mo.), who gained prominence as head of a committee investigating corruption in the defense industry, was found dead in his home in April 1944. Capone gained favor by voluntarily leading an investigation into, in his words, "the tragic end of a fellow American." His report concluded that the death was indeed a suicide. Back.

(4) See Part VI, Where the Money Is: President Capone's Race into Space. Back.

(5) By the Rockets' Red Glare: Building America's Muscle Overseas, by President Al Capone, Patterson Publishing, 1955. Rev., 1962. New edition, revised and expanded by President Alphonse Kennedy, 1968, 1976, (with R. B. Cheney) 1988. Back.

 


 

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