Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Last Great American

By the time the hearse reached the cemetery, the funeral procession had grown to a length of several miles and winded through the streets of the city. Gayle Turner felt the cool autumn air on her face as the limousine door opened. The somber faced funeral director held the door open and peered in at her with a quiet smile. He offered his hand to aid her, but she smiled and exited the car without his assistance. Gayle wore a simple black dress, with a shawl wrapped around her to combat the cool fall breeze.

The sun beaming down on the unusually clear day warmed her skin. She walked the five or so yards to the tent set up amongst the rows of stone markers. Under the tent, she was directed to the front row of quaint wooden chairs. Seated, she looked out across the seemingly endless rows of graves and thought of all that had happened to get her to this point. Behind her the droves of mourners made their way to the site to watch the great man be put in his final resting place. Gayle closed her eyes for a moment trying to see his face, but all she could see was darkness. She opened her eyes and smiled as her youngest daughter sat in the chair beside her. That year Gayle Turner turned seventy-five years old, and she had been keeping a dark secret for fifty-three of those years. She let her thoughts trail backwards to memories she had long buried.

The year was 1979, and an up-tempo pop song played quietly on the radio as a dusty sedan bumped down a long dirt road. The steering wheel jerked back and forth in Richard Turner's left hand as he held a map in his right. In the passenger seat, Gayle shook her head in frustration and took the map. She quickly spun it around and followed the thin blue line that represented the county road with her fingertip. She exhaled annoyed and said, "We are going the wrong way!"

Once they turned around, it was another hour and a half before they turned off the highway and onto Main Street. The small southwest town stretched out in the traditional small town manner. Main Street was lined with a small grocery store, a bank, a diner and a pharmacy amongst other typical town buildings. Richard pulled the car into a space just outside the bank and exited the car stretching from the long ride.

Gayle reached for the door handle, but stopped as Richard popped his head back into the car, "I'll just be filling out paperwork, it'll be boring. Why don't you stay here?" She released the handle and sat back in the seat not looking over at him. Richard fixed his tie in the windshield reflection and started toward the bank.

Richard was an average nondescript man in his twenties who was easily lost in a crowd. He wore a new brown suit and a fresh haircut. The bell above the bank door rang as he pushed the heavy glass door open. In addition to being the only bank in town, it also doubled as the county's only real estate office. The bank was small and contained a tiny lobby area with a desk and a few teller windows. The desk was unoccupied and a young woman behind the teller counter was the only person Richard saw. He made his way to the counter with a smile. As he reached, the counter she looked up from a newspaper and said hello. Richard spoke confidently, "Hello there. I was hoping to speak with Mr. Alcott."

The woman looked him over and said, "Mr. Alcott is out to a long lunch. I don't expect him back any time soon. Can I help you with anything?"

Richard leaned on the counter moving closer to the woman and asked what her name was. She said it was Molly Stewart and sat back in her chair. Molly was pretty and in her twenties with long straight blonde hair and hazel eyes.

"Well Molly, I'm Richard Turner and I'm here to sign some papers. I just bought myself a large track of oil country a couple of miles west of here," Richard said with a wide smile.

Molly got up from her chair, "Mr. Alcott mentioned you might be in today. I can get the paperwork for you to sign."

"Sounds fine to me."

Molly walked back to a large office adjacent to the safe and picked up a folder from the desk within. She moved through the space, out into the lobby and motioned toward the unoccupied desk. Eagerly Richard sat down at the desk and watched Molly use her free hand to flatten her skirt as she sat across from him.

Molly smiled as she opened the folder, "So, you are in the oil business?"

Richard licked his lips and said, "Not yet, but soon."

Molly pulled out a typed document and flipped through it until she reached a page with a few lines on it. She slid it over to Richard, "Why so confident? You haven't even found oil yet, have you?"

He grabbed a pen from the desk and quickly scribbled his signature over the line, "Honey, I was born confident. That, and I will let you in on a little secret. This land was bought by my uncle's best friend right before he got shipped off to war. When he got back he found oil on it, but the war had messed him up and he didn't know what he had. The two of them were in an accident six months ago. The friend died on the spot and my uncle died shortly there after, but not before he told me about this land."

Molly took the paperwork and put it back in the folder, "Then I guess it is only a matter of time."

Richard stood up and said, "That's right. Maybe after I'm filthy rich I'll throw a big party. You'll have to come."

Molly began to walk back to the teller windows and sarcastically responded, "I wouldn't miss it."

Richard stopped and looked back at her, "Don't I get the deed or something?"

"We keep the deed here, in the safe," she said as she went back behind the counter. Richard nodded with a grin and exited the bank.

The afternoon sun beat down through the car's open window on Gayle's face. She had her eyes closed and was trying to figure out why she had allowed Richard to convince her this was a good idea, but could not remember the specific conversation. A hot breeze made by the moving car tugged at her orange floral dress and black hair. She felt the car dip and she opened her eyes to check their progress. Gayle was twenty-two and had been married to Richard for two years. Oddly, they had little in common except that they were both lonely souls. Richard's parents had died while he was a child and his aunt and uncle took him in. During the war, it was just him and his aunt, but she fell ill in the winter of '74 and died.

Gayle was an orphan and lived at the group home Richard was sent to after his Aunt's death, while he waited for his uncle to return home from war. She took to Richard right away and they remained in contact and saw each other whenever they could. After they married, they lived with Richard's uncle until he died and then sold the house and anything else they could find to purchase the land over a thousand miles away.

The sedan pulled off the county road, and onto a short dirt road that ended at a run down one story house next to an even feebler garage. Surrounding the house on either side was the land Richard had purchased with the proceeds of all their worldly possessions. The land was nearly perfectly flat and seemed to stretch to the horizon in either direction. Richard got out of the car and looked at the barren space in awe. In his mind, he saw it dotted with oil rigs pumping twenty-four hours a day making him a wealthy man. Gayle got out of the car, looked down at the dry and broken earth, and sighed. She looked up at the vast empty area and all she could see was hopelessness.

The house that sat at the center of the land was barely that. It consisted of three rooms: a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. There were several holes in the roof, which easily let the sunlight in to illuminate the decrepit wooden floors. The paint on the walls had long faded from its original color and the wallpaper in the bathroom was all but peeled off. Over the course of the next week, Gayle had tried to make the best of the situation. She cleaned until her fingers were raw and while Richard patched the roof, she painted the walls.

Richard had contacted a geological surveyor from Utah and he arrived early the following week. He and a small team took a few dozen soil samples and informed Richard they would mail him the results in a weeks time. The next week dragged on, and the little money they had left, after the land purchase and the surveyors was almost gone. Gayle said they would need to get jobs if they wanted to eat. However, Richard would not hear of this, he was still riding the promise of prosperity and spent most of the time in the garage working on an old broken tractor.

The oversized envelope from the surveyor arrived promptly Tuesday morning. Richard excitedly made his way into the house, having slept in the garage the night before. He found Gayle seated at the rickety kitchen table staring out the back door watching the dust dance on the horizon. Richard sat at the table like an eager child and carefully ripped open the envelope.

He read over the contents and all of a sudden leapt up from the chair, holding the papers outstretched above his head in victory. Richard rushed to Gayle's side and kissed her. She barely responded and said, "Congratulations, you were right."

The next day the Santa Rosa News sent out a reporter and a photographer to interview the Turners. On the second page of the Thursday edition was a photo of Richard and Gayle standing in front of the crumbling house with a headline that read, "Couple Strikes Black Gold". Richard immediately began to make phone calls to oil companies and other investors. Huge offers started to come in from everywhere as the country was at the height of an oil crisis and oil was in unusually high demand.

Thinking he was going to have a lot of visitors, Richard thought he should flatten out the dirt road to the house and create a loop back to the county road. Unfortunately, they had little money left, but Richard felt he could do the task with the tractor. He only needed a new gasket to repair the tractor. He ordered the part from a local repair shop in town and they said they would get it out to him in the next couple of days.

On Monday afternoon when the part arrived at the shop, the owner gave Billy Stewart the delivery. Like most of the inhabitants of the town, Billy was born and raised there. He was a hot head, had gotten into plenty of trouble as a child, and dropped out of school as soon as he could. Over the past few years, he began to save all his wages to buy an engagement ring. Once he saved up enough, he proposed to his girlfriend Molly.

Molly had stayed in high school, graduated and got a job at the town bank. They were married in the fall of 1978, and they quickly found it was hard to make ends meet. Neither of their parents were better off and Molly had just found out she was pregnant.

Billy pulled his beat up Chevy truck up to the closed garage doors and hopped out into the summer sun. He squinted looking out at the dirt and grabbed the gasket from the bed. He knocked on the wooden garage doors, but got no response. He left the doors and started toward the house, but stopped when he heard something from inside the garage. He tried the main garage door, but they would not open, so he made his way to the side and found another door.

Billy entered the dark garage, which was barely illuminated by the dust-cluttered shafts of light coming through the small filthy windows. He looked around but did not see anyone, just the outline of a large tractor pushed up against the main doors. A cluttered workbench sat just inside the side door, so he placed the gasket box on it and turned to go, but stopped as he heard a quiet voice. He glanced back into the garage and took a few steps forward and said, "Is anyone in here?"

From the direction of the tractor came a faint voice, "Help me."

Confused Billy made his way to the tractor and allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He stopped just short of the tractor as he saw an arm protruding from the shadows. Shocked Billy bent down and looked under the tractor. He saw Richard pinned under the tractors' main section. It appeared the wheel on the right side of the tractor had fallen off and now that Billy was closer he noticed it lying on the ground. Without the wheel, the tractor fell, crushing Richard who was underneath preparing to change the oil.

Richard was covered in blood and dirt and Billy was sure his arm, upper body, and ribs were broken many times over. Richard again asked for help, but his voice was growing fainter. Billy looked at Richard's blood covered face and recognized him from the picture in the paper. He never cared much to read the news, but Molly loved the newspaper and insisted on sharing some of the stories with him.

An hour passed and alone and trapped in the garage, Richard Turner died penniless. Billy returned to a small house just outside town and parked his truck. He went over and over his plan in his mind as he walked up the path to the front door. Molly stood over the counter making lunch for herself, as Billy nervously entered the kitchen. He took a few steps forward and the tile floor creaked. "What are you doing home?" Molly said startled as she spun around.

Billy took a few steps so he was standing right in front of her and smiled wide, "Baby, I've got a plan."

The summer sun sat low on the horizon as Billy's truck pulled up in front of the Turner's property. Molly and Billy got out of the truck and Billy directed her to the garage. Richard's body lied motionless under the tractor and his blood had mixed with the dirt to create a deep burgundy paste. Molly did not make a sound as she peered into Richard's glossed pupils she just said, 'Oh my, is that Mr. Turner?'

Billy stood in the door way with a grin, 'Not no more.'

The gag that Billy had placed in her mouth had caused her throat to dry and an overwhelming thirst filled Gayle's thoughts more than anything else. She had given up on pulling at the rope tethering her to the icebox long ago and she sat quietly on the dry rotted kitchen floor. The screen door squeaked behind her and she looked upwards in anticipation. Billy was the first in the room and he looked down at his captive with malice. Molly trailed behind him a little unsure of how to act.

Billy looked back at Molly as if Gayle was a prize he had won for her. After a moment, Molly left the house and waited in the dirt yard for Billy to follow. Before he got to her, he started talking quickly, "I figure we get her nice and scared. Then when she gets all that oil money, we tell her we'll kill her just like her husband if she doesn't give us some."

All the emotion was gone from Molly's face, as she said, "No. That won't work."

Billy shook his head, offended she did not approve of his plan, "Of course it'll work!"

Molly looked back toward the shack, "Do you still keep that shotgun in the truck?"

Nearly two thousand miles away and fifteen years later, a woman in her late thirties sat on an expensive chesterfield sofa, in an elaborate study, reading the morning paper. The two-story ceiling above her was comprised of exposed cedar beams and the stained glass window on the far wall caught the morning sun brilliantly. Her blonde hair was simply done up in a bun and a pair of reading glasses sat at the edge of her nose. Her concentration was broken, as a rap came at the large ornate door. She made a mental note of her location on the page, took her glasses off with one hand and said, "Enter."

The door opened slowly to reveal a rotund middle age woman wearing an apron and a simple black dress. The large woman smiled and spoke with an accent, "Good morning Miss Turner." Gayle nodded, but did not say anything. The woman continued, "I am heading to the store, is there anything you need?"

"No, just the items on the list," Gayle simply stated.

"Very well," the woman turned to go, but was startled when she turned and there was a boy standing just behind her. The boy apologized and the woman went on her way. The boy was barely fifteen, small for his age and had a face full of acne. Straight blonde bangs fell in his face as he entered the room holding a school folder. He smiled and sat in an armchair opposite the sofa.

Gayle spoke to him once he was settled, "Good morning Matthew."

"Good morning, mother," the boy politely answered.

"Did you have your breakfast?"

"Yes, I'm all finished."

"Excellent," she paused for a moment, "Did you need something?"

Matthew sat up and said, "Yes." He opened the folder and took out what appeared to be a photocopy of an old newspaper. Then he began to explain his presence in the study, "We are doing family trees at school." Gayle's hand moved to her lap and the newspaper went limp over her thigh. Matthew went on, "I was trying to find some information of you and dad from before he died and I found our name in a World Wide Web newspaper database." He held out the paper and she could easily read the headline, "Couple Strikes Black Gold". Below the caption was the faded and washed out photo of Richard and Gayle in front of their shack.

Gayle exhaled cautiously, "Alright, what's the problem?"

Matthew seemed unsure of what exactly to say, but he tried his best to articulate his confusion, "Your hair, it's the wrong color."

"It is a black and white photo," Gayle answered.

Matthew turned the photo around to look and said, "I know, but in this photo you definitely have black hair."

Gayle sat back in the sofa and smiled, "It was dyed."

Matthew looked down at the folder sitting in his lap, "I found other pictures from the time."

Gayle folded the newspaper and laid it and her glasses beside her on the sofa. She shifted forward leaning out towards her son and explained, "Something happened all those years ago, and your father and I made a choice. A choice for a better life and better opportunities." She paused and let her gaze trail to the professionally polished hardwood floors. "It is better you not know all the details. Just know that I … we did this for you and your sisters." Gayle reached, pulled the paper from Matthew's hands and folded it gently. "Now, I need you to promise me something. Can you do that?" she intently looked at his confused face.

Matthew squirmed in the chair and simply said, "Yes, I can."

"Excellent. Now promise me, you will never, ever bring this up again."

The room filled with silence and Matthew stared across the space into his mother's eyes. He looked away for a moment, but returned his gaze to her and smiled, "I promise." Gayle sat back in the sofa, slid her glasses back onto her face and returned to the newspaper. With no other words spoken, Matthew gathered up his school folder and quietly left.

Over the next several years, Matthew excelled at school and took a great interest in mathematics. He attended Princeton and graduated in the top three percent of his class with a PhD in mathematics and economics. During the economic crisis of the late 00's, working for an independent consulting firm, he played a key role in shaping the policies presented to congress and eventually implemented to bring the country back from economic devastation. As he grew older, he tried his hand at politics and ran for a New York state House seat, and won with ease.

Representative Turner did not limit his interests to economics, he also pushed for social and government reform. His ability to talk to anyone about anything won him much praise and respect. In the decade that followed, he was elected to the United States Senate and at the age of fifty was on par for a run at the Presidency. During the 2032 election year, he easily won the nomination and was posed to fight a tense and presumably close election.

At a mid-morning rally in New Mexico, barely two hundred miles from the barren land where his mother and father took steps to change their lives, an assassin's bullet found its way through the cheering crowd and struck Matthew in the neck. He fell backwards flat onto the temporary stage as blood sprayed from the wound. Secret Service men quickly took up positions around him with their long shadows cutting across his flailing body. The cheering turned to screams and chaos rushed through the crowd.

An aid frantically attempted to apply pressure to Matthew's neck as paramedics made their way through the hysterically dispersing crowd. Military and Secret Service searched the surrounding buildings, but found nothing more than a single shell lying on the second floor of a bank across the street. How someone had slipped past the many sweeps of the building on the day of and prior to the rally would remain a mystery.

The ambulance hurried to the nearest county hospital, but the blaring sirens and military escorts were more for show, as Matthew had died from loss of blood long before his body had reached the ambulance.

As Gayle sat at her only son's funeral she wondered if all that had transpired had been worth it. Was it possible the good her son had done and inspired in others to do outweighed her brutal act? She felt a tap on her arm, turned up into the sun, and squinted to see her eldest daughter standing above her. Her daughter's face was distraught and she clutched a crying child in her arms. Gayle stood calmly, took the infant from her mother's arms, and cradled the small thing in her own. Her daughter smiled a bit through her pain, thanked her, and then walked back to her seat in the second row of wooden chairs. Gayle sat down and spoke softly to her newest granddaughter and the young child began to calm.