Winter 2012, #18



     by Thomas Fleming

The phone was ringing again. Simon Burke swiveled in his seat and stared into the surrounding darkness as a tough calm voice said: “O’Connor speaking.”

When Simon’s eyes returned to the group around the vote counting table, he found mockery on every face. Conflicting emotions stormed through his belly: defiance, embarrassment, loneliness, shame. Four bare bulbs hung, two by two, above the table. A glaring light fell from them. There was a monotonous dazzle to it that subtly irritated Simon’s nerves. The rest of the small box-shaped garage had no electrical fixtures. The darkness around the square of light in which they sat was total.

Simon found himself wondering how Ben O’Connor, leader of the Sixth Ward, made his way to the phone so unerringly every time. It was a silly thought. But it recurred with a strange urgency. There were four people sitting with Simon at the rectangular table, piled with the ballots of the 13th District of the Sixth Ward. One was a hulking horse-faced cop whose name Simon did not know. Next to him sat Fatso Dolan, a moon faced vacuity who purportedly made his living as a court officer. It was common knowledge that Dolan had not seen the inside of a courtroom in decades. The same was true of Duke O’Reilly, the man who sat beside him in his standard Election Day regalia — gray silk tie with imitation pearl stickpin, pinstriped suit and grey homburg. Both had what was known in local parlance as “no show” jobs.

Beside them sat Michael O’Brien, long the best friend of the late Simon Burke, Sr. He was a ponderous, beefy, pink old man who had a way of moistening his lips when he spoke, as though he were savoring his remarks on some arcane level. How many hours Simon had spent upstairs in his bedroom, grinding his teeth, while O’Brien’s baritone rumbled in the living room below him. Simon had never been able to appreciate the pleasure his lean sarcastic father had found in the company of this morose man. He was as pious as Simon Burke, Sr. had been impious. O’Brien had wept when his friend died spurning the sacraments of Holy Mother Church. O’Brien and Dolan were serving as election clerks. O’Reilly was the challenger from the Democratic Party. Simon Burke was the challenger from the Republican Party. Simon knew when he accepted the job that he was revolting against fifty years of family tradition, swimming as it were against the very current of his own blood. But that was the way it had always been. He had rejected that bitter atheist who now lay beneath the cool green unconsecrated lawn of Bellwether Cemetery on the city’s outskirts. He had chosen faith, goodness, love and had rejected scorn, negation, cynicism. Throughout the years of his boyhood, his mother had fought a vociferous battle for his soul -- and won.

Simon had accepted her victory without illusions -- to use one of his favorite phrases. Since his freshman year at St. Francis Xavier College he had made it clear that he was an enemy of the city’s scandalous status quo. He spoke for truth, justice and beauty against a world that valued only profit and power. His rhetoric had made him the leader of a small but vocal band of intellectuals among the college’s stultifying majority of conformists. Now he was testing his stance in the crucible of action.

Six weeks ago, his Ph. D. mentor, pudgy, stammering Father Justin McLaughlin S.J., had called on all those with courage to volunteer as challengers for the Republican Party in the upcoming election. Father McLaughlin tended to see life as a conflict between the powers of light and the powers of darkness. Communist echoes lurked like an infinity of termites in every plank of the Democratic platform, while  Republicanism was bathed in the pure white glow of divinity.

Simon was inclined to doubt the dichotomy. He had heard his father tell too many stories of Republicans who had founded fortunes by digging an underground tunnel into the public treasury. But he was not doing very well in old Mac’s seminar on Duns Scotus. A little heroism might well spell the difference between a stipend next year and a degrading job such as teaching English to the junior barbarians at Francis Xavier Prep. Nevertheless, doubts aside, this was a deeply personal gesture for Simon. His mother had been excited and proud of her son. At last someone was striking a blow against the power which had ruled their city and their lives for so long. What had made the forces of darkness doubly detestable in his mother’s querulous canon was his father’s lack of profit for his evil ways. In spite of his four decades of devotion to The Organization, he had never risen beyond the level of district leader nor surmounted the civil service title of chief clerk in the tax department at City Hall. Secretly, Simon was glad; it had made the old man easier to despise. No, that was too harsh. He had not despised his father. He had frequently admired his gutsy denunciations of the parasites of Cafe Society, the fat cat liberal lawyers who got rich mouthing Democratic slogans in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Washington. What he—and his mother—had never been able to tolerate was his father’s extension of his scorn to the Catholic Church, his scathing insistence that the bishops, the cardinals, the pope, were all, in some spiritual sense of the word, on the take.

During the previous week, Simon had carefully rehearsed replies to Michael O’Brien, if the old blatherskite hurled insults at him.

Let us confine ourselves to the issues, Mr. O’Brien. Personalities have nothing to do with public office.

Mr. O’Brien, you must know that my father’s politics have always been repugnant to me. But I still loved him. There was even a vignette between himself and Ben O’Connor. All I can say is, I’m glad your old man is dead. Mr. O’Connor, I’ll thank you to leave my father’s name out of this sordid business.

So far, he had not uttered these noble sentiments. In fact, nothing had happened during the day the way Simon had imagined it. In spite of having a politician father, Simon knew nothing about the actual mechanics of Election Day. He had had to bone up on the procedure from his college political science textbook.

At 7 a.m. he had reported to the polling place in a highly nervous state. The garage had a cold dead smell which an oil stove seemed to combat in vain. Behind the rectangular table were two canvas booths. The only person in the place was the horse-faced cop. Simon presented his  credentials to him. He gave them a bored glance and grunted. “I’d like to inspect those voting booths,” Simon said.


“I’d just like to inspect them.”

“Gohead Jack. Inspec’ the whole crummy dump if ya wanna.”

The voting booths were disappointingly unsuspicious—just canvas frames with a chair and a table inside them. Simon came out and adjusted his face to an official expression. It was the one he wore when the dean appointed him prefect in the student cafeteria.

“Everything seems to be in order,” he said. “I might as well vote.” He tried to make this remark a trifle humorous. But the cop was not amused.

“Nobody votes till Benny O’Connuh gets heeuh,” he said.

“That’s outrageous,” Simon said. With a hundred extra pounds of fat on his big frame, he easily outweighed this moron. But the law hefted his club menacingly. “Who the hell does Benny O’Connor think he is, anyway?” Simon stormed. The bluecoat stared incredulously.

“Ony the ward leader,” he said. “And incidentally presidin’ county conmissionuh.”

A moment later O’Connor strode through the door followed by O’Brien, Dolan, O’Reilly and several other men. Except for O’Reilly, they were all dressed in dark suits and wide-brimmed hats. O’Connor’s tailoring was slightly more expensive and his blue serge suit was perfectly pressed. But his clothes were only a minor part of the impact the ward leader made on Simon. He had never done more than exchange a handshake with Ben O’Connor at ward picnics and rallies to which his father had dragged him in his teens. During those same years, O’Connor’s older son, Paul, had been one of Simon’s closest friends. But when Simon visited the O’Connor household, the ward leader was never there. From complaints murmured by Mrs. O’Connor, he gathered that he spent 16 hours a day politicking. Now, confronting him as a foe, Simon was struck by the importance the man emanated. He was only about five feet eight and his burly body had grown bulky with middle age. But he moved gracefully, almost like a dancer on a stage. Stepping ahead of his followers, he came at Simon with his hand outthrust, a cheerful smile on his wide reddish face.

“Hello Simon,” he said and gave him one of the most excruciatingly powerful handshakes Simon had ever received in his life. “I guess you know all these characters,” O’Connor said. Simon did not know why he was suddenly incoherent. Perhaps it was his throbbing hand. Perhaps it was a wish to avoid old O’Brien’s baleful blue eyes.

“What’s going on here?” Simon blustered at O’Connor. “This cop won’t let me vote.”

“Don’t get excited,” O’Connor said. “I always vote first for luck.”

“Who says you have a right to do that?”

“Nobody,” O’Connor said with another smile. “But I’ve been doin’ it for twenty-six years.” He signed the registration  book, took his ballot and went into the polling booth. There were fifteen dot-dot-dots as he voted the straight ticket. He came out, still smiling, dropped his ballot into the box and said goodbye. Simon saw nothing more of him for the rest of the day. Only when darkness fell and the last of the voters were filing out of the garage did O’Connor return, explaining that he always spent election night in his home district. Thirteen was his wife’s lucky number. Through the long night he had sat around the table chatting with the others while they counted the ballots. Whenever the phone rang, he answered it. Now he came out of the darkness again, the suit still perfectly pressed, his manner as composed, as offhand, as it had been at 7 a.m.. Perhaps it was the phone calls, perhaps it was the darkness, but his aura of importance seemed to have increased.

Simon reminded himself that O’Connor was only a local politician, a man like his father, with an 8th grade education. But the attempt to bolster his sense of superiority fell flat. O’Connor was something his father, with his tendency to insult people in arguments, had never been: a leader. He represented something larger than himself and he knew it. He was a colonel in command of a regiment in the political army known as The Organization.

For almost forty years they had ruled the politics of New Jersey. They had elected governors and senators. Presidential candidates, even the late lamented Franklin Roosevelt, two years in his grave, had humbly sought their support and tacitly conceded their right to make millions by protecting gamblers, rigging bids on public works and demanding payoffs from everyone who did business with the city and county. It was this kind of power that created Ben O’Connor’s aura. It was this kind of power that Simon Burke was challenging.

He had done his best during the long exhausting day. He had studied faces and figures with furious concentration, noting shapes of noses, sizes of ears, colors of hair and coats. But no one had even tried to vote twice. He had hovered over the registration book to make sure no one was forging a signature. But scrawl after scrawl was monotonously genuine. The standard tricks which his political science textbook had told Simon machine politicians used to win elections were strangely absent. Now Ben O’Connor sat down on Simon’s right and cheerfully asked: “Have you gotten any votes lately, young fellow?”

“Oh, three or four,” Simon said with an awkward laugh.

“That’s better than last year,” O’Connor said.

“There’s more than three or four,” Michael O’Brien broke in with his ponderous groan. “A lot more than three or four, Benny. Times have changed. You can’t trust a goddamn soul anymore.”

“I’ll bet that Polack Wyzanksi is one of them,” Fatso Dolan said. “He’s a slippery bastard.”

“We’ll take care of him,” O’Reilly said, drawing his finger across his throat.

“I’m not talkin’ about the Polacks,” O’Brien said. “I’m thinkin’ about our own kind, like this one here.”

Simon found himself totally unprepared for the accusation. The dignified replies he had rehearsed for days went glimmering. He could only feel his face turning red, his heart pounding.

“Simon?” O’Connor said. For a moment he looked mournful. “Ah, don’t get sore at him, Mike. He’s like all the bright boys his age. I’ve got one in my family. They think they’ve got all the answers.”

He was talking about his older son, Paul. Tall, dark-haired, strikingly handsome, he had been the most brilliant student in Simon’s class at St. Francis Xavier Prep. Simon had been stunned and not a little shaken by Paul’s decision to become a priest. It had forced him to ask why he had not made the same choice. His devotion to the Church, to bringing Christian principles into politics and business, was just as intense. But something -- was it his father’s sarcastic anti-clerical voice?-- said no .

“How many y’figure they hooked downstate?” Fatso Dolan asked.

“The usual-- about a hundred and fifty thousand,” O’Connor said. “If it’s more, we’ve got a night ahead of us.”

They were talking about the Republicans, who ruled the rural towns and counties south of the Raritan River. Simon could hear his father cursing the narrow crooked black-legged Protestant bastards.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve got twenty or thirty that have given us the business,” O’Brien said, pursuing his vendetta against Sixth Ward Irish who'd taken to voting Republican.

“We’ll take care of them, Mike, don’t worry,” O’Connor said. The phone rang again and O’Connor moved into the darkness to answer it. Simon eyed the shrinking pile of uncounted ballots. It was all so different. He had seen himself dealing with these men the way he had fought his father, flinging the erudition of his college classrooms at the old man’s eighth-grade mind. Instead, they had ignored him. They had made him feel superfluous.

“You know,” O’Connor said, returning to the table again, “the organization’s thirty-nine years old today.”

“To think there’s some who’d try to stick a knife into it.” O’Brien said. “You remember what the old Monsignor used to say: ‘Jesus Christ himself couldn’t keep these people happy.”

Laughter shook O’Brien’s heavy body. “Did he say that? I’d forgotten.”

“He said it to me the day I became leader.”

“There was a man.”

They were talking about Monsignor Michael Meehan, pastor of All Saints Parish, where they had all gone to grammar school. Simon had concluded from listening to his father’s stories that the monsignor was a roaring neanderthal who thought Catholicism was synonymous with baseball and Mother Macree.

“If it wasn’t for him,” Fatso Dolan said. “A lot of us wouldna made it through them early days.”

“Then we got some war heroes like Benny and started  goin’ places,” O’Reilly said.

“Heroes my ass,” O’Connor said. “We’d still be working in the can factory if it wasn’t for guys like Mike here and Simon’s old man. They laid the groundwork, before the war.”

“Six jobs I lost. With kids home too,” O’Brien said. “It was tough to explain to the old woman.”

“My father never was able to explain it to my mother,” Simon said. He meant the remark to be sarcastic but no one caught it.

“Those were tough days,” O’Connor said. They were back in the years of their youth, before World War I, before the Irish-Americans had taken over the city. Catholics had been treated like Negroes—the first to be fired, the last to be hired. They were lined up to vote the straight Republican ticket on election day and those who refused lost their jobs on the spot. Simon had heard his father rant about it a hundred times. As Simon had pontifically pointed out, two wrongs did not make a right. Because the Catholics were victimized did not justify breaking the law wholesale to stay in power. A good end never justified a bad means.

“ Tell your Jesuit double-talkers to shove their means up their lousy ends,” his father would snarl. O’Connor’s nostalgia made Simon sweat almost as much as he used to perspire when he argued with his father. His face burned, moisture drooled down his neck. He despised the corrupt solidarity they had derived from their struggles in the bad old days. But it was like a wall of brass around them that he could not penetrate. Listening, Simon could only hear a voice whispering outside. It was hard to believe how totally outside he was.

“How many do you have working today?” O’Brien asked.

“About two hundred,” O’Connor said. “We had thirty cars. We got them out all right. We even got old lady Carmody out.”

“I bet she voted Republican,” O’Brien said.

“Nah,” O’Connor said.

“We tried to give the Turk a ride,” Dolan said. “He wouldn’t take it. He said he’d voted Democratic every year of his life and he’d never asked no favor for it and he wasn’t gonna start now. So he walked. With that bum ticker. I followed him in the car in case he didn’t make it.”

“I remember the day they fired him down at the can factory for punchin’ the foreman in the mouth,” O’Brien said. He smiled reminiscently at Simon. “Your father made a speech, the only one he ever made. The whole shift quit.”

“My father was one of the guys who went out,” O’Connor said.

“It was a helluva thing.”

“Everybody ate on credit for weeks,” O’Brien said.

The phone rang again. O’Connor vanished into the darkness. The ballots slithered across the table into the counted pile. Simon had not seen a Republican vote in a half hour. He was incredibly tired. His watch read 3 a.m. O’Connor came back and sat down in the harsh light.

“What’s the word?” Dolan asked.

“Two hundred and twenty five thousand.”

O’Brien gave a long low whistle. “It’s those goddamn suburbs,” he said. “They move to the suburbs and forget where they came from.”

Gradually, Simon became aware that Ben O’Connor was looking at him. They were all looking at him.

Michael O’Brien put his hand in the ballot box and grunted: “Well, that’s the last of them.”

“What’s the final count?” Simon asked briskly.

“It’ll take a while to figure that out,” Ben O’Connor said.

Silence engulfed the table. Outside them in the darkness the city slept. Were similar dramas being enacted in a hundred other polling places? Probably not. The Republican Party in the city was a whipped obedient servant of the organization. There were only a few dozen authentic challengers.

“You must be bushed, young fellow,” O’Connor said. “Don’t you have school tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Simon said. A mistake. Simon had said yes to that fatal word, school, which automatically excluded him from the real world which these men inhabited. Too late, he tried to make the yes a kind of plea for understanding but O’Connor’s face was a stony mask. The yes fell to the table and expired in the harsh light. Was that why his son Paul had become a priest? Because he had failed to penetrate that stony mask?

They all sat there. The light seemed to drain strength from Simon as if it were a deadly ray. The others seemed to draw strength from it. They had nothing to hide from its brutal glare. Their solidarity was intact beneath it, triumphant against the surrounding darkness. They were together and Simon was alone. Twenty two years old and on his way to a Ph. D. in philosophy, a figure of note on the campus of St. Francis Xavier University, but still basically alone. Neither mother nor the Jesuits at the university offered him anything that could approach the solidarity in this room. It was not in the name of God or even of goodness. It was in the name of power -- corrupt, profitable power. Here and in the other polling places they would fabricate enough votes to make their candidate the governor of this wealthy populous state. They would preside over thousands of jobs, hundreds of contracts for highways, school buildings, bridges.

But their corruption had not weakened them. That was the incredible truth that was being flung in his face tonight. He had expected physical strength, perhaps even intimidation. But he had not expected to find this spiritual strength, this worship of the Organization, which seemed to purify them. They stood before its shrine as devotees with their own ritual and their own martyrology. Oh Simon you are out of it, out of it. He looked around him. If he could find guilt in a single eye, if he could find a waver of doubt on a single face, he would try to do something. But the cop was doodling on the back of a blank ballot. The eyes of the others were like eyes in newspaper photographs, without light or depth. “I’ll walk you down to the corner, Simon,” O’Connor said. “I could use a little exercise.” There was a hint of mockery in his voice but it was not unfriendly. For some reason it reminded Simon of his father in those rare moments toward the end of one of their arguments when he began to lament his son’s closed mind.

Outside in the cold November air, Ben O’Connor strode beside him. “Don’t feel bad about it, Simon. You didn’t expect to carry the district, did you? No Republican ever carried this district in the history of the city.”

The history of the city. The phrase ignited an incomprehensible emotion in Simon’s brain. Was that the root of his failure -- his contemptuous indifference to the history of his city? His preference for grandiose Hegelian size movements and trends? While history, real history, was accomplished by thousands of men like Ben O’Connor?

“Let me give you a little advice. You probably won’t take it but I’ll give it to you anyway. Don’t waste your time and brains trying to buck the Organization. I’ve seen too many guys try it. They end up drunks or nut cases. The Republicans won’t help you when you’re down and out. They don’t play the game that way.”

Paternal. The man was being paternal to him. Fatherly. When he had refused the ministrations, the advice of a father all his life. Thanks but no thanks.

“Your father would give you the same advice if he was around, Simon. Maybe that’s why I’m doing it. He was always talking about you. The good marks you got in school. Worrying about your weight. He always thought with a brain like yours you could go places as a lawyer.”

“No kidding?” Simon said. His voice was sepulchral. He could not believe that bitter snarling man revealed his love to other men and never to his son. Did it have something to do with being Irish?

“No kidding,” Ben O’Connor said. “Good night, Simon.”

Ben O’Connor was extending his hand. Simon groped for it and missed. O’Connor, with his uncanny ability to find things in the dark, caught Simon’s hand and once more crumpled it in his grip. His hand ached all the way home.

It continued to ache as he felt his way down the narrow hall of their two story house to the kitchen. His mother called sleepily from upstairs: “Is that you, Simon?”


"Did anything, happen?”


“Nothing happened?”

“Nothing!” He almost shouted it.

“I can’t understand it. The radio said they were losing downstate and that’s when they always --“

“Go to sleep, Mother, will you?”

Yes, go to sleep before I hate you for sending me out to desecrate the dead. No, that was wrong. Somehow he had to purify his mind of such thoughts. Down the hall into the kitchen Simon lumbered. White and serene, the refrigerator sat on its haunches in the corner, humming its little lullaby into the silence. Simon ripped open its door and peered into its cold precise interior. Mother always arranged everything so neatly. Knocking aside covered dishes of  chilled leftovers from yesterday, Simon’s thick arm plunged to the back and dragged the chocolate cake through the wreckage.

By the refrigerator’s dim light he sat down at the table and broke off great dark chunks and stuffed them into his mouth. One, two, three, four five huge gulps and the entire cake was gone. A click and the old refrigerator rumbled noisily behind him. Simon looked uneasily over his shoulder at the dripping dishes and dumped food accusing him in the harsh light. A mindless anger shook him. He lumbered to his feet, ready to storm upstairs into his mother’s bedroom and tell her the terrible truth.

He was stopped by her footsteps on the stairs. In a moment she was in the kitchen doorway. He stared at her moon face, with the mottled red cheeks and small squinting eyes, the petulant mouth almost lost in folds of fat. The face caught the kitchen light like a face in a Rembrandt painting while the rest of her almost spherical body remained in the hall’s darkness. “I got hungry for some of that chocolate cake,” she said.

“I just ate it.”

“All of it? You devil you. Well, a glass of milk and a cookie will be better for me.” She peered into the refrigerator. “Oh. You’ve really made a mess.”

“I’ll clean it up.”

“No, no. You need your rest. Get to bed. Don’t you have that awful seminar tomorrow?”

“Yes.” Simon left her on her knees before the refrigerator. In bed, he wondered drowsily what to tell Father McLaughlin tomorrow. They didn’t steal any of those two hundred and twenty five thousand votes from me, Father. They knew a pro when they saw one. That’s what we need to purify this city, Father. Men with experience. You can’t send a boy out on a man’s errand, Father. In his chocolate never-never land between sleep and waking, Simon almost believed it.