by Tom Ray
“Your employment history is interesting, Mr. Wilkes.” Patricia Hathaway had some wrinkles, but was attractive, with hair colored a subtle blonde, a trim figure, and dark brown eyes that were trying to see through me. She was wearing a dark blue pants suit with a white blouse. Her husband, freshman Congressman Delmore Hathaway, was looking away, as if embarrassed by her comment.
“I hope that’s a good thing,” I said, smiling, trying to appear confident during this job interview.
She laughed abruptly, throwing her head back as if my answer were funnier than it really was. “I mean, working on Congressional staff for fifteen years, then going to work for trade associations for over ten years, and now trying to get back on Capitol Hill.”
“If you’re asking why do I want back on the Hill, it’s just a matter of wanting to be back to where the action is. Lobbying for the Nutritional Fiber Institute has been fun, and certainly rewarding, but I miss being where the laws are actually made.” The truth was, being staff director of the NFI was a lousy job, and the pay I would get as the Congressman’s chief of staff would be a raise.
“I know what you mean, Colin,” the Congressman said to me, nodding like he was trying to be supportive. “Before I ran for the state legislature I was frustrated just complaining about the laws and regulations, without being able to do anything about them.” His long face had wide jowls, a prominent chin, and a broad mouth. He was in good shape for a middle-aged man, with broad shoulders and not a lot of gut. His black hair was just beginning to turn gray, and his blue eyes were striking in that big red face. He had on light green slacks, a pink and green plaid sport coat, and a green shirt and tie.
“I understand that, Del,” she said, then turned back to me. “But why did you leave Capitol Hill in the first place, Mr. Wilkes?”
“You’re probably aware of some of that history,” I said. “I made an error in judgment that caused embarrassment to me, my wife at the time, and my employer. I wasn’t asked to leave, but I felt like it was only fair to the Congressman I worked for to move on. I did what I thought was best for my boss, rather than trying to stick it out for my own selfish reasons.”
“I think that’s commendable, don’t you, Patty?”
“Well, I assume Congressman Siegal would have fired you anyway, if you hadn’t resigned,” she said.
“I would never let it get that far”.
The Congressman said, “Good man,” while his wife continued staring at me as she removed an earring and massaged her ear lobe.
It was weird, the Congressman’s wife sitting in on the interview. After more questions, the interview concluded with the Congressman’s wife leading us in a prayer.
I’d been trying for years to get back into a staff job on Capitol Hill. I had an affair with the wife of a Congressman (not my boss) when I worked there before. After that blew up it had seemed better to leave for a few years until things cooled off. As it turned out, Congressmen and their staffs have long memories, and things hadn’t cooled off enough for me to even get an interview until Delmore Hathaway was elected to Congress.
Hathaway had a national reputation as a buffoon because of ridiculous bills he’d introduced during his career as a state legislator. Nevertheless, when his Congressman died, Hathaway was elected to succeed him. He kept the previous Congressman’s staff in place. The incumbent chief of staff had intended to continue on in the office, but after working a month with Hathaway he found another job and handed in his resignation.
The word was out that Hathaway was still a buffoon, so there weren’t a lot of applicants for the position. Despite Patricia Hathaway’s seeming hostility toward me, I was hired.
My new office was right next to the Congressman’s, in his suite in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. He wasn’t a hard guy to work for, keeping busy meeting with constituents who came to visit Washington, and going back home almost weekly for public appearances. We found legislative opportunities for him to please the folks back home–naming Federal buildings in the district for local heroes, even getting a bill passed to turn an odd piece of Federal property over to one of the district counties. He co-sponsored bills that other Congressmen introduced, to get his name on legislation and score points with his colleagues.
Patricia didn’t come to the office much. She didn’t care for Washington from what I could tell, and spent a lot of time back in the home district. She loved interacting with local garden clubs, women’s groups, and churches. That would help in the next election.
One morning Jean, the administrative assistant who assigned the incoming correspondence to the staff, came into my office and said, “Here’s one I don’t know what to do with.” She handed me a thick, hand-written letter.
It came from Beatrice Kirkland from the town of Vermillion. Mrs. Kirkland apologized for bothering the Congressman, but the local authorities wouldn’t respond to her concerns. She was trying to alert government to people who communed with the Devil.
“This might be a good training exercise for young Monroe,” I said. “Send him in here.” Monroe Berry was a new person Hathaway had hired into the office as a favor to a supporter. He entered my office with his notepad. I never liked the way he looked, a little overweight, with his head shaved on the sides and back, and kind of a modified mohawk on top. He always wore plaid shirts, never white or oxford blue, never a tie, and always skinny pants.
“Here’s an interesting case for you.” I handed him the letter. “A constituent believes her hometown is plagued with witches. What should we do?”
“I don’t know. Dump the letter?”
“We never dump letters. Read it, do whatever research you can think of, then draft a response for the Congressman’s signature. Make her feel that the Congressman has listened to her.”
“Got it.” He took the letter and left my office.
Two days afterward he emailed me a proposed response. It admitted to Mrs. Kirkland that the Congressman’s options were limited, since it was a local issue, but assured her that the Congressman had concerns similar to hers, and would continue to monitor the issue. The email forwarding the draft to me provided details of Monroe’s contacts with state and local authorities, all of whom said that Mrs. Kirkland was not a threat to herself or to others. There was no basis for having her institutionalized.
I was astounded, and called Monroe in to my office.
“Good job, man. I appreciate the quick turn-around, and the detailed notes about who you contacted and so forth. I had no idea you were an expert on the occult.”
“Thanks. I just googled witchcraft. Not a big deal to research. Beatrice’s letter gave me all the info I needed on the local agencies to contact. Everybody remembered her, and was glad to tell me about her, especially now that she’s on the Congressman’s to-do list.”
“Good. OK, I just wanted to say, great job.”
Monroe took two hours for lunch that day, which was typical. He lived in a townhouse on Capitol Hill that his rich parents had rented for him. On this day, as on other days, he came back after lunch with bloodshot eyes, snacking on Cheetos and Doritos all afternoon. On the other hand, when I looked back into the staff area before I left at seven he was still in his cubicle pounding away on his keyboard.
When I arrived at work the next morning Monroe was waiting outside of my office. “Hey, boss. Can I talk to you for a minute?” He had never gotten to work before me, and he never called me “boss.”
As soon as he sat down in my office he said, “I did something kind of stupid yesterday.”
“You know that letter from Beatrice Kirkland?”
“Well, yesterday afternoon I started thinking about it, and the whole thing was so funny that I started fooling around, and I wrote up a proposal for anti-witch legislation. Just as a goof.” He gave a nervous chuckle, eying me as if trying to gauge my reaction.
“That’s not very fair to the folks who pay your salary, is it?” I tried to sound severe, to maintain the illusion that I could fire him.
“I know. There’s no excuse. But here’s the thing, I was kind of out of it, and I emailed it to the Congressman.”
“You know there’s a strict policy that all staff email to the boss comes through me. His time is too valuable to have to read extraneous bullshit.” The “strict policy” was itself bullshit. The Congressman looked at his inbox maybe once a month, and got bored with it after reading three or four messages. I had complete access to his email account, and he relied on me to print out any emails he needed to read. I dealt with the rest as I saw fit.
“I understand. I’ll never do anything like that again. Can we make this right with the Congressman?” He was looking worried now.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Thanks. Thank you, sir.” He must have been impressed by my little performance. “Sir” was another word he’d never called me before.
It was a busy morning and I hadn’t gotten around to deleting Monroe’s email from the Congressman’s inbox when Jean stuck her head in my office.
“The Congressman wants to see you and Monroe right away.”
It worried me that his calling for Monroe coincided with Monroe’s satirical email. Still, it seemed a stretch that this would be the one day of the month he decided to check his inbox.
“Come in, boys, sit down.” Hathaway’s tone was cordial, and he was smiling from behind his desk. We took our seats facing him. “I don’t know if Monroe told you about the email he sent me.”
“We discussed it briefly.”
“Good. I know you want me to keep a low profile this early in my freshman term, Colin, but Monroe has come up with something here that I like. When a target of opportunity like this pops up, we have to take advantage of it.”
“Of course,” I said, as though I agreed with him completely. “But we have to play it just right, to get the maximum benefit.”
“Exactly. This requires a lot of thought. Now, the proposal mentions a constituent who was concerned about black magic. Who was that?”
We told him about Beatrice Kirkland’s letter.
“I’d like to see it, and my response,” he said. He never saw routine letters from constituents. The staff would draft a response, Jean supervised a clerk who printed out the reply, and a machine signed the letter. “And I want you guys to get back to me tomorrow with a plan to turn this proposal into legislation.”
“We’re on it, boss.” Monroe and I marched out of the room and into my office. I called Barbara Merchant, the Congressman’s press secretary, to come in. Monroe’s email and its attachment were coming out of my printer as Barbara walked in, steno pad and pen in her left hand, mug of coffee in her right. A heavy-set woman with a mousey blonde pageboy hairdo, she wore a gray skirt, a short-sleeved, blue blouse, and half-lens glasses.
I handed her Monroe’s proposal as she put her coffee on my desk and sat down. I said, “New legislative initiative.”
“I thought he’d agreed not to go for any major legislation on his own this first year.” She skimmed the paper and glanced at Monroe. “Where’d the Congressman get this idea?”
“Monroe put this together as a joke. The Congressman happened to see it, and took it as a serious proposal.”
“Jesus, this is worse than the crap he did when he was in the state legislature.”
“This is a heads up, just in case word gets out. You need to start thinking about how you’d spin this.”
“When’s the first time you’ll have to tell anybody outside of the office about this?”
“If it gets to the point that the boss actually wants to see a bill, we’ll have to talk to the Office of Legislative Counsel. I’ll try to put that off for a few months. Maybe he’ll lose interest by then.”
“Once this gets to Leg Counsel, somebody’s going to leak it. It’s too funny not to tell at a cocktail party,” she said, standing up and walking out with a grim expression on her face.
“OK, Monroe, I want a research paper, minimum of two hundred pages, double-spaced, with footnotes. I need that two weeks from today. Tomorrow afternoon we’ll meet with the Congressman to go over a plan, which I’ll draft. Don’t go out to lunch today or tomorrow. Understand?”
He also left looking grim.
The next evening in his office, Hathaway said, “All right, boys, what have we got?” He’d just had a photo op with folks from back home, and was pumped.
I laid a two-page plan on his desk. He ran his pen down the outline without touching the surface of the paper, then marked one item.
“I have just one little adjustment. Let’s step up that research paper, Monroe, to one week from today, vice two weeks. Can you do that?” he said, looking at the kid.
“Yes, sir. I’ll make that happen.”
“All right, then, the plan is approved with my emendation.” He initialed the first page of the plan and handed it back to me.
Back in my office Monroe was less enthusiastic. “Jeez, only a week. I’ll probably have to cut back to more like fifty pages to do a decent job on it.”
“Decency has nothing to do with it. We need two hundred pages. He’s going to weigh it, not read it. Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it.” He stomped out.
One week later I sent a stack of papers in a one-inch binder into the Congressman.
“Wow!” he said, when we met with him later. “A lot of work went into this, obviously. Couple of questions, though. Why didn’t you mention Benjamin Franklin? He was from Boston, with their witch trials and all. Shouldn’t we show that Franklin is on our side?”
“Well, sir,” Monroe started out slowly, obviously struggling to answer, “the witch trials were actually in Salem and several other little towns, not Boston. The last one occurred in 1693. Franklin was born in the early seventeen hundreds, I believe.”
“Double check that. I think you’ll find that Franklin and the other founding fathers were strongly opposed to witchcraft. Another question I have is, why no mention of the Witch of Endor, from the Bible?”
“I wonder if it’s a good idea to use a Biblical reference to support our legislation,” I said.
“Don’t let these secularists scare you, Colin. We’ll prevail if we rely on the Divine Authority.”
“Got it. Anything else?”
“That’s it. How soon can we have a formal bill drafted?”
“I’d like for Monroe to nail down these two questions before we start looking at specific legislation. Can we give him a couple of more weeks, and then maybe a month to actually draft a bill?”
“Oh, come on, Colin. How about you provide me a draft bill one week from today?”
“Well, sir, that’s quite a bit ahead of the schedule.”
“I approved the schedule, so I can change the schedule. Get back to me in one week.”
Back in my office Monroe slouched down in a chair. “How can he be so messed up on Benjamin Franklin?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m surprised he remembered Franklin was originally from Boston, or read enough of your paper to know it didn’t mention Franklin. Anyway, come up with some notes for him on Franklin and the Witch of Endor. Go to the House Office of Legislative Counsel website for some pointers on drafting, but do NOT talk to anybody in that office. We have to keep this in-house as long as we can.”
The next time we met with Hathaway we convinced him that Franklin didn’t participate in the Salem witch trials. On the Witch of Endor, Monroe said, “She was not actually called a witch. She is a ‘woman with a familiar spirit,’ or a ‘medium.’ She didn’t cast spells and that kind of stuff. I don’t think she was what most people think of as a witch.”
“I remember the Bible. I don’t want to go with some modern translation, I want to go with the King James Version, the language Jesus actually spoke. Use the Witch of Endor in the material supporting the legislation.”
“Got it, Congressman,” I said. “Anything else?”
“Yeah. I expected to see a draft bill today.”
“Sorry. I almost forgot.” I hadn’t forgotten, but was hoping the Congressman had. I handed him what Monroe had written. “This is still rough. We haven’t gotten with Legislative Counsel yet to finalize it.”
He flipped through the four pages of the bill, and then said, “Leave this with me. I want to study it.”
Back in my office after the meeting Monroe said, “Jesus, does he seriously think that Jesus spoke in Elizabethan English?”
“I just think the older translation sounds more authentic to him.”
“I don’t know if I can go on with this, Colin. We’re going to look like dumbasses if this gets introduced.”
“Don’t worry. Most bills don’t get out of committee. He may never even drop it in the hopper. Let’s not worry about it yet.”
I didn’t hear anymore about the bill until I got a call from Brendan Travers, a staffer for the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
“I’m glad to see you back on the Hill, Colin. How is it, working for Hathaway?”
“Great. He’s a good guy.”
“Good. I think he got a lot of unfair press when he was in the state legislature.”
“Yeah, good. Something has come up, though, I need to talk to you about.”
“Yeah. Your boss talked to my boss about a bill he’s planning on introducing.”
“He has something in the works,” I said. “We haven’t cleaned it up yet. It’ll be a while. He just wanted to grease the skids in advance.” I didn’t want to let on that I had no idea that my boss had talked to the top guy in the House.
“Well, he said he’s dropping it in the hopper next week, and he wanted the Speaker to make sure it was referred to the Committee on Science and Technology.”
“Yeah, he and Pete Streicher are buddies,” I said, referring to the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, which Hathaway was a member of. Like Hathaway, Congressman Streicher was skeptical about science.
“It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to refer that kind of bill to Science and Technology, or any other committee for all that goes. Normally a Member can introduce whatever he wants to, but this goes beyond the normal. The Party doesn’t need the embarrassment. How do we make Hathaway forget about this?”
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been trying to slow roll it. I didn’t know he was going to talk to the Speaker about the bill. What’d the Speaker tell him?”
“They just talked for a couple of minutes in the hallway. The Speaker said he’d consider it. Hathaway said he’d already talked to Streicher, by the way, and Streicher is all for it. The Speaker didn’t want to tell Hathaway no, but he won’t let Streicher hold hearings on it.”
“I didn’t know he’d talked to Streicher, either,” I said. “If he’s this far along, I don’t think I can keep him from introducing the bill.”
A few days later Monroe and I met with Congressman Hathaway.
“How we coming on our research?”
“All done, boss. I think Monroe has resolved all the issues, and we have a bill ready for you to drop into the hopper.” I couldn’t slow roll him any longer.
“Really? That’s great. From the way things went at our last meeting I thought you wouldn’t be ready to finalize the bill.”
“We knew you didn’t want any grass to grow under our feet. If you have changes you want to make, we can make them.
“Great! Matter of fact, there is something I don’t understand. The draft doesn’t just come out and say ‘witches.’ Why all the talk about ‘unnatural entities’?”
“Good question, Congressman. We did that on purpose. In Washington you don’t always say what you mean. There are people who would sensationalize the bill if we say ‘witches.’ That would undermine your serious intent. You’ll be able to make clear what we’re getting at during the hearings and floor debate.”
He was silent for a minute. I don’t think he agreed with me, but finally said “OK,” and signed the bill. He carried it with him the next time he went to the House floor, where he dropped it into the hopper. From there the Clerk of the House assigned a number to it and passed it on to the Speaker’s office to assign it to a committee. Barbara had to put out a press release about “An Act to counter manipulation of unnatural entities.” She got press inquiries asking what the bill was about exactly, and was able to fend those off with confusing answers. Our tactic of not saying “witches” had worked.
The Congressman went back to the home district one weekend, as usual. Nine o’clock the following Monday morning Barbara came into my office. “The witch is out of the bag,” she said. “Hathaway was ambushed by Madge Warmath at a town hall meeting in Dewville.” Madge was a freelancer who contributed regularly to the Lookout, a local newspaper. “After the meeting she grabbed him for an impromptu interview, and he spilled his guts. She just called me with some follow-up questions. She’ll let me see her copy before it’s printed, but she won’t let us censor it, of course.”
When Barbara previewed the article later that morning she wanted to change some of the quotes attributed to the Congressman, but Madge played her the tape of the interview. He’d talked about the founding fathers opposing witchcraft, particularly Franklin, and he cited the Witch of Endor as a rationale for the bill. Barbara talked to Hathaway about the article, and he was satisfied with it. When Barbara warned him about blowback, he responded with the old line about, “just spell my name right.”
AP picked up the story. “Hathaway” and “witchcraft” started trending on the Internet. The “Hathaway bill” was mentioned in comedy monologues on TV. Ike Hermann’s producer called to ask the Congressman to appear on Ike’s late night TV talk show. Hathaway was delighted. Three weeks after the bill was introduced he was in New York for the afternoon taping. Barbara accompanied him to New York, and called me from Grand Central Station after it was over.
“How’d it go?”
“The folks back home will be proud, and the rest of the country will think he’s nuts,” she said. “There is a problem. Right at the end Ike asked, ‘What happens next?’ The Congressman told the viewers to write, email, or call Pete Streicher and the Speaker of the House, and ask them to hold hearings on the bill as soon as possible. He gave out their contact information, and told everybody to contact his or her own Congressman to ask the same thing. He gave out the House website, and explained how to find each Congressman’s contact information.”
“Is there any way we can get them to cut that part out?”
“No. I’d be willing to give it a shot, but Hathaway won’t hear of it. As far as he’s concerned, that’s the most important part of the show.”
“I’d better give Streicher and the Speaker a heads up.”
We hung up, and I called Murray Cash, a contact I had on the Science and Technology Committee staff.
“Hey, Colin. I heard you were back on the Hill. Better to hear from you as a fellow-staffer than as a lobbyist wanting to bend my ear on fruits and nuts.”
“Thanks, Murray. You’re going to wish I was calling about fruits and nuts.”
“You know that infamous anti-witch bill of my boss’s–“
He cut me off, “The Chairman has already told your boss, no hearings. There’s too much to do in this Congress. Streicher likes the bill, God help us, but there’s no time. Plus, neither the Speaker nor any of the House leadership ever want to hear about that bill again.”
“You’re preaching to the choir. Problem is, my boss is going to be on the Ike Hermann show tonight, and he’s going to ask the viewers to write or call your Chairman, the Speaker, and each viewer’s individual Congressman, asking them to hold hearings on the bill.”
“I can’t. The show was taped this afternoon, and the Congressman won’t let me ask the network to cut that part out.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Right now I’ve got to call Brendan Travers to give him a heads up.”
“I’ll call Brendan for you,” he said. “We’ll see if the network’s Congressional relations people want to piss off the Speaker.”
“Tell Brendan I didn’t want this to happen. I couldn’t stop the Congressman.” He hung up without answering me.
Barbara was back in my office at nine that night. She’d had a few drinks on the Metroliner club car.
“We need to get out a ‘Dear Colleague’ email to all the Members,” I said, “to alert them that they’re going to be getting some crazy letters and emails about witches.”
“Already thought of that. I told the Congressman that on the train, and he said fuck ’em. He hopes they’re overwhelmed. Do you know how many people believe in witches?” She was giving me that drunk stare, and having trouble holding her head up.
“Between twenty and twenty-five percent of Americans.”
“They won’t all be watching Ike tonight.”
“It doesn’t take all of them. The news coverage on tonight’s show will spread the word. The Democrats will call just to harass the Speaker.”
“Go home,” I said. She walked out, and I sat there staring at the wall for a few minutes before I left.
Early the next morning it started–news outlets calling Barbara to ask more questions, Congressional offices calling me to complain. At eleven o’clock Congressman Hathaway was called to a meeting in the Speaker’s office. I went with him.
Brendan Travers was in the reception area of the Speaker’s suite in the Capitol. As he opened the door to the Speaker’s private office he said, “Members only, Colin.”
Hathaway laughed. “Gee, I didn’t know this was a private club. I want to bring a guest.” Clearly, he wanted me to follow him in, but I hung back.
Brendan said, “Sorry, Congressman.”
After the door closed behind Hathaway I said, “How’s it going, Brendan?”
“I was on the phone with the network from like six o’clock yesterday evening almost until airtime. They wouldn’t budge. Your boss has really screwed the pooch this time. This doesn’t help the Party at all.”
The Congressman came out of the Speaker’s office in half an hour. As the door opened to let him out I saw Pete Streicher still sitting in there with the Speaker.
“I definitely have their attention,” Hathaway said to me with a weak smile as we walked down the corridor. “I’m a little disappointed in Pete. He was onboard before, but now the Speaker has him on a short leash. We may not get hearings.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, we better get back to the office to get you ready for today. There are other bills than ours.”
“Right. Better get to work.” It took a lot to take the starch out of Delmore Hathaway, but the Speaker had definitely done it.
We didn’t do anymore on the witchcraft bill for a while, except answer phone calls, letters, and emails. The Congressman would occasionally call Beatrice Kirkland, who he now called “Bea.” Several anti-witch websites and interest groups were born, like the Cotton Mather League, of Salem, Massachusetts. Those kinds of groups generated news articles and video clips that went viral. Snopes.com couldn’t keep up with the anecdotes on social media. Mainstream churches issued statements condemning the bill, as did pro-witch groups. Del Hathaway jokes continued on TV.
One morning after a month of this the Congressman let out a whoop from his office and I ran in to check on him. He was sitting with his hands on the back of his head, his elbows sticking out.
When I came into the room he jumped up and yelled, “We’ve won! We’re getting our hearing! I just got off the phone with Streicher. The grass roots finally made them cave.”
I tried to sound excited, but probably came across as restrained. “That’s good news,” I said.
“Don’t look so down in the mouth, Colin, this is a win. I’m going to call Bea Kirkland right now. We need to fly Monroe down there, to prep her for her interview with the Committee staff.”
“I haven’t had a chance to tell you boss,” I said. “Monroe is leaving us for the Banking and Currency Committee staff.”
His smile faded as he sat back down behind his desk. “Why’d he do that for?”
“His dad wanted him to get some exposure in that area.” I didn’t tell him that Monroe’s dad called me to complain about the anti-witch fight.
“Damn. Well, Colin, I guess it’s up to you to prep Bea. Go ahead and schedule that.”
I tried to talk him into letting me turn the anti-witch initiative over to somebody else on the staff, but he said, “Maybe later, but the hearing is too important to break in a new person now.”
A week later I was knocking on the door of a small, clapboard house on a neatly trimmed lot in a working class suburb with no sidewalks or curbing. It was a hot, humid day. I heard a faint rustle behind the door, then silence. Finally a soft female voice said, “Mr. Wilkes?”
“Yes. Mrs. Kirkland?”
“Just a minute.” Door chains clanked.
Beatrice Kirkland was a little over five feet tall, wearing a pale green, cotton dress, a white cardigan sweater, and striped canvas shoes. She was thin, except for disproportionately large hips. Her hair was dark with flecks of gray. Her pale face was round, with a sharp nose. Her eyes were large and dark behind her glasses, with raised eyebrows making her look afraid.
“Please come in.”
I’d hoped being inside the house would give some relief from the heat, but there was no air conditioning. The shades were drawn, keeping the sun out, but the air was warm and stifling, smelling slightly of mothballs.
“Would you like some coffee? I just made some.”
“No, thank you. A glass of water would be nice, though.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” She seated me on the living room sofa and went into the adjoining kitchen. After bringing me a glass of ice water she sat down on an easy chair facing me, the coffee table separating us.
“I’m so glad you came. People don’t take an old woman seriously.”
“Well, ma’am, the Congressman takes you very seriously. If you hadn’t written him, there wouldn’t be a hearing.”
“That’s wonderful.” Her voice was plaintive, and her wide-eyed gaze was no longer frightened, but terribly sad.
I set my glass on the coaster on the coffee table and pulled a legal pad and recorder out of my briefcase. “Let’s run over a few things to get you ready to talk to the Committee staff before you testify.”
Her face lit up. “All right.”
“You are concerned with satanic cults, I believe.”
“When you say it that way it sounds like you’re talking about those scandals a few years ago. Those cases were disproven, weren’t they?”
This was discouraging. Before I left Washington I’d talked to the Committee staff, and we’d agreed that this might be turned into less of a circus if we dusted off the old story about satanic cults.
“All right, then. What do you see as the concern?” I said.
“People who commune with the Devil. Not pretending to commune with him, putting on phony rituals to excuse orgies or child abuse, but actually conversing with Satan, using his dark powers for evil purposes here on earth.”
“Can you give me an example of someone, a witch, using dark powers that way?”
“The first time I became aware of it was with my next door neighbor, Bill Bagwell. He and his wife Alice were so nice. I couldn’t afford cable TV, and then they changed it so I couldn’t get regular TV anymore. Bill and Alice were always doing things to help me after my husband Mack passed away. Well, I was out in the yard talking to Bill one day, and I mentioned about the TV, and he said there was a box I could get and hook it up to the TV, and I could still get my programs.”
“A digital converter.”
“Yes, that was it. And he went to Wal-Mart and bought me one, and hooked it up, and I had TV again. I still have it.” She stopped talking, and just looked at me.
“And does Bill still do things for you?”
“I almost forgot, that was the whole point of the story. No, he’s no longer with us. There’s another neighbor, Marie Weems, she lived at the end of the block. I always tried to be friendly toward her, but she was very standoffish. I invited her to my church years ago, when she first moved here, and she was very rude, and let me know in no uncertain terms that she didn’t go to church.
“Well, I saw her at the store after Bill hooked up my TV, and I stopped to chat with her, just trying to be friendly. I happened to mention about the box that Bill had hooked up, and she laughed at me for not knowing about the box, and how the government had sent out notices about it. Then she started making fun of Bill, and saying why did I want him meddling in my business. I told her Bill was a wonderful neighbor, and she said he and Alice were rednecks. I told her what I thought of her, talking down to people and not going to church.
“Not a month after that I went over to Bill and Alice’s to take them some banana bread. I made them little treats like that, since they did so much for me. Bill was at work. I knocked on their backdoor, and Alice answered. Her eyes were red and she was sniffling. She asked me in for coffee, and I asked her what was wrong. She said Bill had gone to the doctor the day before, to get the results back from some tests. He’d been coughing real bad, and had spit up blood, and had gone to the doctor the week before.
“The tests showed he had tumors on his lungs. He’d never smoked or used tobacco at all, and all of a sudden he had lung cancer. He went for treatments, but the doctor said it was too late, it was inoperable. He died within six months, only forty-four years old. How could that happen? Perfectly healthy one day, then inoperable cancer the next. Things like that just don’t happen.”
“That is odd,” I said.
“I saw Marie at the store after his funeral, and I went up to her and told her about Bill. She didn’t say anything, just something like, ‘Too bad,’ then walked away.”
“Do you still see her at the store?”
“No, she passed away a couple of years ago. Or whatever it is witches do.”
“Do you still see Alice Bagwell?”
“No, poor thing. She moved back to Kentucky. She wasn’t safe as long as Marie was her neighbor.”
“Since Marie is dead, is there any more to be done?”
“Certainly. After she died her house was put up for sale, and another witch moved in. They must have some kind network for dealing each other’s real estate.”
“What has this new witch done?”
“The same kinds of things. She tried to pretend that she wasn’t a witch. After she moved in she came around visiting everybody in the neighborhood, to get to know everyone she said. She’s younger than Marie was. She’s deathly pale, tall and skinny as a rail, with long, curly red hair. She was wearing a tank top, and no bra. You could see the tattoos on her arms and back.
“I had a little dog, a little Yorkshire terrier named Lucky. Mack had got him for my birthday. He was so cute, and he kept me company. After this new witch, this Claudia Wendell, moved in Lucky came down sick….”
She attributed Lucky’s death to Claudia. She went on with more stories about people dying, trees and shrubbery withering, and violent storms afflicting the region, because of Claudia, and other witches. Monroe had documented a lot of this in his first email to me about Beatrice.
“How does she sound?” Congressman Hathaway sat in his office, where I’d come to brief him.
“As you know from talking with her on the phone, Bea sounds very intelligent.”
He broke into a broad grin. “Yeah, that was my impression of her exactly. Smart old gal.”
“I have a couple of concerns. First off, there’s really no way to show that the events she describes were caused by witchcraft. A guy in his forties dies of cancer. Monroe’s notes from the police say that Bea complained to them so much that they actually investigated it. The man’s family had a history of cancer, and his wife confirmed that he’d had symptoms for months before he consulted a doctor. A seventeen-year-old dog died, and the vet told the police there was no evidence of poison or other foul play. Things like that. There’s no indication of any kind of satanic intervention.”
He’d been sitting back in his chair in a relaxed posture, but before I could go on he sat up. “Listen, Colin, I’ve got a lot invested in this initiative. Work with Pete’s staff and do whatever you have to do, but I want her testimony to sell my bill. You got it?”
“I got it, Congressman.”
Back at my desk I called Murray Cash of the Science and Technology Committee staff.
“Beatrice doesn’t align with our strategy of making this about the satanic cult hysteria from back in the day,” I said.
“What exactly does she align with?” His voice had a little edge to it.
“She’s talking about real witches, casting spells, making people die and all that stuff.”
“That’s what we’re getting from the other crazies wanting to testify. My boss the Chairman may go for that, but the Speaker doesn’t. Other members of the Committee don’t. If there’s a hearing like you and I discussed we can get some social scientists to testify to give it some semblance of seriousness, but if it’s going to be about old women riding brooms, a lot of people are going to be pissed at you, me, Hathaway, and my boss.”
“How soon do you have to do something?”
“We have to finalize the witness list, then there’s scheduling the room and so on. We can delay this two months tops.”
“OK. Let me think about it.”
The challenge was to stall until the end of that Congress, over a year away. I kicked ideas around with Barbara, but we couldn’t think of enough roadblocks to put it off that long.
Then one morning Barbara came into my office, coffee mug and a stack of papers in hand, and sat down without being invited.
“I just got off the phone with our favorite reporter, Madge Warmath. She asked for comments on this story the Lookout plans to run tomorrow.” She handed me the draft article.
Madge had solid evidence that Patricia Hathaway regularly visited “Madame Francine,” a “spiritual advisor” back in the home district. In that jurisdiction establishments like Francine’s couldn’t claim to tell the future or communicate with spirits. The public record revealed that Francine had been driven out of several other jurisdictions for doing just that. Madge had visited Francine, pretending to be a client, and had recorded incriminating statements. Madge had also talked to members of the Hathaways’ church. Patricia’s visits with the fortuneteller were well known and accepted. “That’s just Patricia being Patricia,” they said.
Madge wanted a comment from the Congressman by two o’clock that afternoon. We met with Hathaway, and I asked him if Patricia was in fact consulting a fortuneteller.
He was unperturbed, sitting back in his swivel chair. “Sure, Pat’s seen Francine for years, to communicate with her late mother. No harm done. She’s just a medium. Tying that in with witchcraft is bogus. Totally irrelevant.”
“Yes sir, I would agree with you, but I’m afraid the public might see it differently. The Biblical references we cite are directed at mediums as well as witches. Like the Witch of Endor. The King James Version doesn’t actually call the woman Saul consulted a witch. It calls her a woman with a familiar spirit. That’s what Madame Francine is.”
He frowned. “That’s misconstruing things. Madame Francine advertises herself as a spiritual advisor.”
“Madge has her on tape claiming to communicate with the dead, through a familiar spirit. This could be very embarrassing.”
He sat with his fingertips touching in front of his face. “I need to think about this.”
“Of course, sir. We have to call Madge back,” I said, consulting my watch. “Can we check back with you in an hour?”
He gave me an angry “All right.” As we left he was picking up his phone, presumably to call Patricia.
At one-fifteen I knocked on his door, and Barbara and I went in.
“What do you think, boss?”
“You tell me. What should I do?”
I took a piece of paper from Barbara and handed it to him. It was a vague statement, confirming or denying nothing, but somehow disagreeing with Madge’s article. He read it over a couple of times, making a couple of tentative moves with his pen like he was going to mark up the text, but finally handing the pristine copy back to me.
“All right. Good job, Barbara. That bitch Madge has been calling members of Pat’s astrology club. Does she mention that in the article?”
Barbara said, “No, sir. She may intend that for a follow up.”
“Unbelievable. Patricia doesn’t want any bad publicity, and she’s afraid now they’ll start making fun of her on TV. Talk to Pete’s people about stopping the hearing. I feel so bad for Bea. She raised a legitimate issue, and we’re letting ourselves be intimidated by the media. No wonder people hate Washington.”
Madge’s article caused a stir, but after that the witch story went away. There was no announcement that the hearing was cancelled, it just didn’t take place. The grass roots letter-writing campaign didn’t revive, maybe because the grass roots had forgotten about the witch threat, as the House leadership had hoped. Congress and the TV comedians moved on to other topics.
Barbara soon quit Congressman Hathaway to work in another office. Three months after she left I gave Hathaway my notice. I’m enjoying my new job at a lobbying organization I’d rather not identify.
Delmore Hathaway went back to focusing on constituent service, leaving high-profile legislation to others for the time being. He faced a challenge in the next Republican primary for his seat, but won by a wide margin. He ran unopposed in the general election.
Tom Ray is a retired civil servant, currently living in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. He worked in government in the Washington, DC, area for 40 years, following his service in Vietnam in the U.S. Army. His most recent story for us was “Service.”
His website is http://www.tomrayshortfiction.com/