Three Flags

The room was regal for the Midwest.

There were plaques and awards on the walls, and shelves full of unread books. A typewriter sat on the desk, the newest, best, and lightest model, given to him by the local paper on the day of his mayoral victory. Tobacco smoke lingered, thanks to all the cigars stuffed into the ashtray. The moonlight was bled away by the incandescent bulbs that were installed only a few years ago, after the boys came back from France.

“It’s Roosevelt, I’m telling you.” The mayor took a long, nervous drink at the seat of his desk. “He gets elected, and he gives these fucking Communists ideas,” he said as he set the glass down. He poured himself another with the decanter on the desk. Sweat was pouring through his collar, which was loose. “Why can’t they just go to work like everybody else?”

The chief of police sat across from him, uncomfortable but buttoned up. His back was ramrod straight. “Mister mayor, it’s dynamite out there. You got to bring them both to the table.”

The mayor looked up at the ceiling, like he were trying to find God. “I told you, we don’t need anybody at any tables.” He stabbed his finger at the chief on the beat of his words. “Your boys need to disperse the crowd.”

“Look, Terry…”

The mayor glowered. “Mister Mayor will do fine.”

“Mister mayor, I told you before” said the chief as he swallowed. “We’re not strikebreakers.”

“Oh, is that so?” He leaned back in his chair; it squeaked. “Too proud to do honest work? Jesus, there’s a socialist in Washington, now I got a goddamn socialist for a police chief.” Spit fled his mouth. “I’m the mayor, dammit, and you remember, you answer to me.” He took in a drink, and let out another breath. “Now get out of here. I got other ways of getting what I want. I expect you back here in the morning.”

The chief stood up like hell was snapping at his seat. He nearly spat the words “Yes, sir” through his teeth as he left. His boots clacked on the wood floor. The mayor called out after him. “Lilian! Show the chief out! And get Stan in here!”

He stared at his room, the center of his little empire, all his accolades and trophies. He would get out of this one. He knew it. He had his ace, after all.

Stan walked in. The open door let the sound of Lilian’s typewriter spill into the room. As soon as the door closed, his footsteps filled the silence. He was tall, and his jaw square. He ran his fingers through his hair, which was matted. His suit was nearly dripping with sweat. He’d been the go-between for the strikers and the paper mill and the mayor’s office all day. He was harried, exhausted, but keeping his feet quite well.

“Hello, Mister Mayor,” he said as he put his hand on the guest chair’s cracked leather.

“Have a seat, kid,” said the mayor. He poured Stan a tall glass of scotch, no ice, in a highball glass.

Stan sat and gulped the drink, taking it all down in one go.

“Geeze,” said the mayor as he refilled the glass. “You pollocks really can knock them back.”

Stan took the drink again, cowed. He didn’t drink nearly so fast this time.

The mayor stood up from his chair and looked out the window. The bonfires from the striker’s camps lit the landscape and a haze of smoke hung over the town. “Look at them, Stan. Animals. They just need a strong hand, a good hand. Mister Boscowe, he’s that hand. Been running that paper mill for a generation now.” He turned to Stan. “You know well as I do a union’s not going to help them. A union’s not going to help anyone.”

Stan shifted uneasily in his chair. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Course I’m right!” He threw his hands wide like a preacher. “I got elected didn’t I?” He thought for a moment. “Mill work, you know, that’s good work for a Catholic. Present company excluded, of course.”

Another man came through the door in a dark suit, unannounced. He carried a briefcase. Stan could tell it was heavy by the way he carried it, and the sound it made when set it on the desk. The man whispered in the mayor’s ear as they both stood. The mayor nodded along gravely, hanging on every word.

The man in the dark suit passed Stan on his way out, and he knew: it was Boscowe’s man. He recognized him from the plant, now shuttered thanks to the lockout.

“Stan,” said the mayor as he sat back down. “These are important times. You know that. I know that. We can’t have agitators running around this town causing trouble.” He put his hands his face, leaning forward with his elbows on his desk. “Shit, that’s all this is. One big agitation, you get me? One big headache.”

“Agreed, Mister Mayor.”

“You know, I knew it. I knew you were one of the good ones.”

Stan took another drink. The scotch burned.

The Mayor put his hand on the briefcase. “There’ll be a man at the station, coming in on the 9 o’clock train tonight. Once the platform empties, a guy in a suit will ask you for a cigarette. Give him one, and ask about the weather. He’ll say ‘Looks like thunder and lightening and rain.'” He waved his hand like he was conducting a symphony. “‘Thunder and lightening and rain.’ And you give him the case. Simple.”

Stan repeated the words back to him. The Mayor nodded, satisfied.

“Just give it to him, and walk away. Thunder and lightening and rain. Ok?”

Stan eyes darted back and forth, like he was searching for a way out. “Sure, Mister Mayor. Sure.”

“Good, good.” The mayor rose from his chair, walked out from behind the desk. He put a hot hand on Stan’s shoulder. “I knew I could count on you.” He reached over, taking the briefcase off the table, and put it directly into Stan’s hand. It felt thick and heavy, like it was filled with newsprint, newsprint like his father had made, newsprint that made the city stink like death.

His father. He’d been so proud of him, son of a mill worker, gone to work at city hall. So proud.

With the briefcase in his hand, he let all his questions die. There was nothing to ask. He was given a task. That was all, just a simple task.

He walked to the train station, with the briefcase in his hand.

Thunder and lightening and rain, he thought to himself as he walked the quiet streets. Thunder and lightening and rain.

***

“Have a seat, kid,” said the mayor. He poured Stan a tall glass of scotch, no ice, in a highball glass.

Stan let the drink sit on the desk in front of him. He didn’t touch it.

“What? The Pole doesn’t drink now?”

“I lost my taste for it,” said Stan.

“Ok, kid, ok. That’s fine. You’ve been working a long day. Those Communists probably put you through the ringer.”

Stan said nothing, his face looking like stone.

The mayor stood up from his chair and looked out the window. The bonfires from the striker’s camps lit the landscape and a haze of smoke hung over the town. “Look at them, Stan. Animals. They just need a strong hand, a good hand. Mister Boscowe, he’s that hand. Been running that paper mill for a generation now.” He turned to Stan. “You know well as I do a union’s not going to help them. A union’s not going to help anyone.”

Stan’s face betrayed a flicker of heat. Quickly, he tossed some dirt on it, letting it smolder out of sight.

Another man came through the door, unannounced. Stan shot a look his way; he recognized him instantly. It was a company man, Boscowe’s man, someone in the mill’s pockets. He carried a large briefcase with him. He wondered, absently, what was in it, before he could bring himself to admit he knew exactly.  

The man whispered in the mayor’s ear, leaving a large briefcase with him. The mayor let the man leave as he looked over Stan’s shoulder. It was only when the door went ‘click’ that the mayor spoke. “Stan,” he said as he poured himself another drink. “Boscowe Paper is the lifeblood of this community. We need to protect that lifeblood at all costs, from these, these Communists. This is a good town, and good towns don’t need unions.”

Stan seethed. The mayor didn’t notice; he was too busy pontificating. He put his hand on the briefcase Boscowe’s man had left him. “That’s why I need you to do a small job for me. Just a small task.”

“Yeah?” said Stan.

The mayor put his hand on the briefcase. “There’ll be a man at the station, coming in on the 9 o’clock train. Once the platform empties, a guy in a suit will ask you for a cigarette. Give him one, and ask about the weather-”

Stan cut him off. “Terry, Jesus! You’re bringing Pinkertons to town?!”

“I never said that!”

“You might as well have!”

“And that’s Mister Mayor to you!”

“Mister Mayor my ass!” Stan’s finger jabbed the air. “You want me to deliver dirty money to scabs and strikebreakers?!”

The mayor tore to his feet. “You know what? I knew this was a mistake. I should’ve known better than to trust a Pole, a fucking Catholic with men’s business. I should’ve known you’d be too dense to understand.”

Stan stood to leave. “Have someone else stir your shit for you, Terry.”

“You walk out of this office, you’re out of a job, do you understand?” The mayor was turning a brilliant shade of red. He gave a huff, and sat back in his chair. “I saw great things in you, Stan. I thought you had a future in you here at city hall.”

City hall. That’s who he was, to his family, to his father. His father had been so proud of him, his boy, too smart for the factory floor. He was destined for better things, greater things, not wasting away in a paper mill that made the city stink like death.

Stan put his hand on the doorknob, and remembered what his father used to call him.

“Stanislaw,” he said. “My name is Stanislaw.”  

The mayor was giving him another stern volley when he closed the door shut, hard. He nodded to Lilian, white as the sheet in her typewriter; she had heard the commotion through the door.

He walked out of city hall that night. In the back of his mind, a sliver of dread ate at him. 

He was afraid of the bullets, the clubs and fists.

The Pinkertons were coming. And there was nothing he could do but prepare for war, and find some sleep to fix the feeling in his stomach.

***

“Have a seat, kid,” said the mayor. He poured Stan a tall glass of scotch, no ice, in a highball glass.

“Thank you, sir.” Stan seemed to take a sip, but none of the liquor made its way down his throat. “That’s very kind of you.”

“That’s good scotch, kid. Remember how well I treat you.”

Stan nodded, glass in hand. He sat back in his chair. “I’ve been hearing some interesting rumors, among the Barlowe boys.”

“Oh?” The mayor’s interested piqued. “What did they tell you?”

“Nothing terribly interesting,” said Stan. “Just that we might have some more trouble coming into town.”

The mayor looked afraid. “That’s, that’s just a rumor. We don’t need violence.”

“That is what we told the papers, isn’t it?” Stan lit a cigarette with a lighter from his own coat pocket. He offered the mayor one before returning the carton to his coat-pocket.  

“That was some good speechwriting you did. No doubt.” The mayor pointed his glass at Stan. “But, you know, these are important times. We can’t have Communists taking over. I mean, look what’s happening in Milwaukee. They’ve got a socialist in there. Soon the whole country’ll be red.”

“Surely we can all be reasonable.”  

A man walked in, unannounced. He wore a dark suit that Stan recognized instantly. He set a briefcase on the table with a heavy ‘thud.’ He whispered in the mayor’s ear, whose owner hung on every word.

After he was finished, the mayor let the man leave, waiting to talk until after the heavy door had clicked shut.

“Stan, Stan my boy. I’ve known you for a long time, long time.” He took another gulp from his glass.

“Of course, Mister Mayor. Of course.”

“And I believe I can trust you with a delicate task.”

“Sure you can.”

Stan took a cigarette out of his pocket, along with a silver lighter, the one his father had given him on the day he began working for the mayor. He lit it, and inhaled. Smoke began to curl around his head into a halo.  

“We simply cannot have the Bolsheviks running this country.”

Stan leaned forward through the smoke he’d been billowing. “What would you have me do, Mister Mayor?”

The mayor drained his glass. He coughed as it burned his throat. “What is need from you, Stan, is to take this briefcase to the train station. “There’ll be a man at the station, coming in on the 9 o’clock train. Once the platform empties, a guy in a suit will ask you for a cigarette. Give him one, and ask about the weather. He’ll say ‘Looks like thunder and lightening and rain.'” He waved his hand like he was conducting a symphony. “‘Thunder and lightening and rain.’ And you give him the case. Simple.”

Stan repeated. “Thunder and lightening and rain. I understand completely.” He repeated the words to the mayor again, moving his hands just as the mayor did.

“I knew I could trust you, Stan.”

“Naturally, you can trust me, Mister Mayor. Of course. Just rest easy. I’ll take care of everything. Just like always” He took up the briefcase in his hand. He was surprised how heavy all those bill stacks felt.

The mayor felt the weight fall from his neck. He sat back in his chair, sinking into the leather. Soon, he fell into a drunken sleep. Lillian came in and put a woolen blanket around his shoulders.

He awoke with a start, to the sound of a ringing telephone, and a room filled with dull morning light. Barely conscious, he answered. He recognized the voice immediately.

“Oh, hello sir! What a pleasure to hear from you this morning.”

The news streaming from the other end of the line turned his face sheet white.

“No, that can’t, can’t be. I gave it to one of my top men. Top men. He delivered it last night, just like he was supposed… well, I haven’t seen him in yet. He’s coming. In. This morning. I’m sure, I’m sure this is a big misunderstanding, ok? Let me talk to him. No, no let me talk to him. Thank you. Thank you…”

The voice hung up before the word ‘sir’ fell from his lips. As soon as it did, the mayor screamed to Lillian: “Get that fucking pollock in here!”

Stan walked in, clean and shaven. His small office was close enough to hear the mayor’s angry scream. “Good morning, Mister Mayor. Is everything all right?” It took all his will to keep a smile from reaching his face.

“They never got the case.” The mayor’s words fell from his mouth. “Stan, they never got the case!”

“Sure they did. The union was very thankful to receive your generosity. Their strike fund is very well replenished.”

“I, I didn’t… you bastard!”

“They also got the instructions Boscowe was sending the Pinkertons.”

The mayor’s tongue turned to dry gravel. “What?”

“The chief of police found them very interesting, in light of all that you’ve said in the last few weeks.”

The mayor slumped back into his chair. “The papers, the papers’ll never let you get away with this.”

“The papers Boscowe owns?” Stan took another drag of his cigarette. It was nearly burned down to the butt. He put it out in the ashtray on the mayor’s desk, still full of dead cigars and ash. “They won’t crucify me. No, they’ll go after the bigger fish, and have a fry.”

The mayor’s face sagged. “What do you want?”

“Right now,” said Stan. “There’s little I want. The police are on hand, should any stray… trouble manage to make its way to the camp, and disrupt the peaceful town we’ve got. The strikers, they’ve got enough money to last months, maybe even a year. And Boscowe, well, Boscowe’s burning through money. He’ll have to come to the table soon enough. So really, it’s out of my hands now.”

“You Pollock bastard. You set all this up.”

“You say words like that, but you really don’t know what those words mean. Hell, you don’t even know my real name.”

The mayor swallowed. “Stan, please. Don’t do this.”

“It’s already done, Terry.” He stood from his chair. “The election will be coming up soon. I suggest you prepare a good campaign.”

The mayor sat in silence as Stan made his way to the door.

“You know, my dad worked in that paper mill. He was proud that I didn’t have to, that his kid would make something more of himself. The college kid, that was my whole life. And now, thanks to your gift, I’ll be able to do that. When I campaign, I mean.” He opened the door to leave. “I suppose I should thank you, Terry. You taught me well. Believe it or not, I’m grateful.”

He walked over the carpet, past the books that no one read, making his way out the door. As he did, he heard the phone ring.

It rang over and over. He clicked the door shut behind him.

Through the door, he could hear it ringing, still.

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