My novel CHICAGO TIME will be available for purchase from Amazon.com and Smashwords on Monday April 2. Until then you can enjoy another excerpt: Chapter Eight. You can read more about the novel here. You can read previous chapters here: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven.
8 – The Clout Business
Robert picked up the cordless phone sitting on the table next to the recliner. There was a message on his voicemail. He dialed in and listened. It was from his mother. She had called and left the message at 11:07 that morning. She could have called him on his cell phone. She could have even called him at work. But no. Robert knew she had purposefully called him when he was most likely to not be at home. She did this whenever she wanted to tell or ask Robert something difficult like, “your brother was just promoted again at the County Forest Preserve,” or “your niece is making her first communion and I know you don’t go to church anymore but…,” or “your father earned a lot of overtime during the last election, so he wants to…”. His mother’s most recent message was to remind Robert that his father’s 60th birthday party was next weekend, Sunday, and it would mean a lot to him and her if Robert would come. She was making the reservation at The Exchange and needed a final count to tell the restaurant.
Robert did not want to go to his father’s birthday dinner. But since it was his father’s 60th, and he had missed the 58th and 59th gatherings, he thought he ought to go. One benefit to living in California all those years was not having to attend every single family-related event. But ever since he had returned to Chicago at the behest of his almost-wife Marcia Bartolozzi, this dilemma had been placed at a primary spot in his life. Getting out of family obligations had become a matter of following a set of rules he had created for himself. First, he had decided it was not good to penalize his nieces or nephews. So if the event was related to them, he attended. Second, if it was at his mother’s behest, then he attended more often than not because she often tried to mediate between Robert and his father and brothers. Third, if the event was related to his father or brothers, then it depended on how well he was getting along at that point in time with that particular family member. With his father, it was fairly easy, because he was almost never on good terms with him. So he often skipped father-related events.
Robert’s older brothers Michael and David had followed their father into what Robert liked to call the “Clout Business.” Robert had avoided it out of revulsion. He had seen from an early age how corruption seeped into every function of the city and county. How it was impossible to get a job in a city department without knowing someone who either already worked in the department or had clout with someone in that department. There was a comfort in it for those who had the connections; there was always someone to whom you could go to get what you needed or wanted. Having that vast network of people was a form of security. But it was not based necessarily on what most people thought of as “merit.” What the public thought of as “merit” was ignored. It was “merit” wrung through the loyalties and obedience demanded by clout and the skills necessary to wield clout. To his father, brothers, and their friends there was no such thing as corruption, because corruption didn’t exist. There was only clout. Those who had it used it. Those who didn’t were on their own.
It was after Robert’s sophomore year at U. of I. Champaign-Urbana when he decided he wanted nothing to do with that life. It started with his Computer Science degree. His father was baffled by it. Why not a business degree so he could get a good job for the city? Or why even bother with college altogether unless it was on to law school? Or what about an engineering degree of some sort? Something that makes something. As interesting as Robert found certain aspects of engineering and business principles, he did not find any enjoyment in solving differential equations or studying accounting principles or business law. Especially if he was going to be pressured to put it into the service of his father’s world. He came to view the life that his father and brothers supported and extolled as a drag on the city of Chicago, reducing city services to nothing more than a jobs program for the unqualified and undeserving. If bugs and errors corrupted software, breaking or hobbling it, then his father and brothers were not just bugs in the system, but portions of a large virus feeding off the city’s vitality, and slowly, ever so slowly, killing the city. Sure there were checks for those bugs. Reformers popped up from time to time who attempted to enact changes for the better that would act as an anti-virus. But clout acted as an anti-anti-virus; it was largely immune to anti-viral, anti-corruption measures.
Robert did not want to be a bug or a virus. Once he had loudly proclaimed his intentions, he had been alternately shunned and welcomed back by his family. His welcome lasted about as long as he kept his mouth shut. But with his father and brothers often bragging about their sweet jobs, their sweet deals, and on and on, Robert would end up saying something, even threatening to turn them in. To the Feds, of course. Not the city police, the county sheriff’s office, or the state police. No entity in the state was going to follow through and investigate any corruption in Chicago. It had to be the Feds. It was always the Feds. Someone from outside the Clout Business. But Robert had never followed through on his threats to turn them in. He had once tried to think through how he might actually go about doing it. He had never gotten farther than looking up the number for the Chicago office of the FBI. And if he called, what would he tell them? That he wanted to rat out his family?
Robert thought it might be easier to be at the dinner if he was dating someone who could, by her mere presence, provide a shield from the usual family discourse. Even his parents liked to make a good first impression. Since the broken engagement to his almost-wife Marcia, Robert hadn’t dated anyone for more than two months. There was Claire in Marketing, who was the most conventionally beautiful woman he had ever dated, with a smile that would make him feel warm all over. But when she talked it was all about work. Robert didn’t mind talking about work, but that was all they ever seemed to be able to talk about.
Then there was Nicole, a friend of Sherry’s and Derek’s, with whom they had set up Robert. It never went past the first double-date at Brasserie Jo. They had laughed together about some of the California health fads like colonics that Robert said he had never tried. But then she made a comment about “loser geeks with no lives who play online games.” Robert said he was one. He played the adventure game Ultima Online for awhile, but when he had started dating Marcia, he devoted less and less time to it. He hadn’t played any other online games since, knowing how obsessive he could be about games like that. She said, “oh,” and the conversation between them never progressed much beyond that.
So if Robert was going to go to his father’s birthday dinner, he was going to have to face his family alone. He could call his mother and tell her, yes, he would be there Sunday, if only to find out what behind-the-scenes information his father had on the City Council strike. His father almost always knew something, or many things, that did not make it into the stories reported on TV or in the papers.
On the weekend fishing trip, Derek had asked Robert what his father knew. Derek had his own sources, but he always wanted to get as much information from as many people as possible. Robert didn’t know what his father knew because he hadn’t spoken to him in months, after their last argument which had erupted over his brothers using their clout to get promotions over more senior and more qualified people.
Derek complained that with the strike so many projects were on hold. All that talk by the aldermen about being on strike for the people was keeping some people from being able to go about their business the way they were accustomed to doing so.