This is the first chapter of Falling Together by Randolph Anderson. We've posted the first three chapters as a free preview. If you like what you read, Falling Together is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.
They were packed tight in the evening traffic, the staging of their departure having gone well for once, yet there they were, an hour overdue. It would have been less but they forgot about the closed bridge. They stopped at a traffic light, and Denny allowed his eyes to wander over the reflections from the parking lots and pavement. The rain on the windows left lenses that seemed to gather the illumination around. He leaned closer and tried to focus through one pregnant drop. His surroundings appeared upside down. Amazing how the recesses of a tiny drop of water could blow up and distort images to the grotesque, like carnival mirrors at an old-time fair. Somewhere within order existed that amplified light and released the imagination. Transparent, exact, yet the medium bent and shaped it to the moment.
They were on their way to the traditional family party Denny’s mother-in-law, Jean, liked to host four days before Christmas. He didn’t look forward to an evening on in-law terms, but the girls lived for it – and what could he do? A week ago it was all set, but Jean’s brother, Ralph Mason, had someone call her. His minion said that Senator Mason was very sorry but wanted to know if she could she possibly reschedule her event? The Senator had a date to suggest. The intermediary said that Senator Mason understood that suggesting Christmas Eve might work a particular hardship, but he so wanted to attend, and he would be tied up by his campaign until then. He could do nothing about it with the first primaries so close. Of course, Jean went straight to the phone and email to change the date.
When he heard, Denny said that the delay would disappoint the girls, who looked forward to the special family Christmas that stretched on for days, an eternity for a child. It would cheat the children and compress the gifting and eating for the adults. His daughters were already wired for the holidays, and now they would be over before they could adjust. He knew he had a weak case, and the decision wasn’t his, but this time the fault was Ralph Mason’s.
Denny had argued the precise opposite the year before, but he felt arguing the opposite now would be a foolish consistency. He had reconsidered. Last year he maintained that a Christmas celebration four days long triggered more drinking, indigestion and profligate gifting than if it were all over and done with on Christmas Day. He didn’t mention it, but the only reason for him to favor Christmas Eve was that it would not prolong the tedium of the Christian holidays into which he had been folded.
Anyway, now Ralph was the troublemaker, the anomaly, not Denny. Years ago Denny balked at the invitation to call him “uncle.” He told his wife and her mother there was no such a thing as an uncle-in-law. He said “uncle” lacked grace. It rasped out like an Anglo Saxon word for an injury or a disease, or the name of an animal or the sound a piece of machinery makes. No. It’s not the time for “Uncle Ralph” to have his way. Not now, but especially not next year, a presidential year, for which the countdown could be measured in days. Ralph was his wife Jen’s uncle, her mother Jean’s brother, his children’s great uncle, a former governor and a sitting senator. Now he thinks he can unseat Obama, and he has a good shot at doing it.
But I still have to spend the evening with him, if he shows up at all. Denny found it impossible to fight off his angry nerves. He tried to see the man Ralph Mason, not Senator Mason, as he appeared up close. The up-tilted chin and aura of celebrity still settled on him like a mask. Ralph Mason can play the part, and Jen’s family will renew their misapprehension of what is deeply, deeply wrong with this country. Jean’s husband, Bill, my father-in-law for Chrissakes, will see to it. Wealthy “Big Bill” Tipton saw to a lot that made his brother-in-law a success.
They stopped again. Denny pushed his glasses higher and squinted. A raindrop inverted and diminished things in the distance. Up close, it seemed to amplify…. He really wished his glasses would settle in one place, but they could never learn to ride steady. Over time he had caused a little scar where he kept pushing the bridge up hard on his nose. The traffic began to move, setting the shapes in motion.
“You’re going to watch out for me tonight?”
Jen replied, “I said I would, didn’t I?”
They had reaffirmed the pact over the top of the car just before they got in.
“I feel jittery, that’s all.” He felt contempt that he had spread such a weak word over his black mood.
There had not been many awful moments, but friction, yes, and every so often a challenge to Bill Tipton’s power. Denny knew he stood apart, a pariah over on the left, an outlier-in-law to be tolerated but not trusted. The theft of a fair southern maiden by a New York Jew rankled, but he knew possession was nine-tenths and possess he did. Wedlock. A useful expression, he thought.
They believed he seduced her away from the family Republicanism, but that wasn’t how it happened at all. As Jen’s father and uncle went over to “the dark side,” as she put it, she had become a Democrat, a particularly ardent one, four years earlier. Not exactly a Democrat, not in the party sense. Back then she decided to support the run of an improbable, multi-racial Senator from Chicago, Barack Hussein Obama. Denny was astonished that he became a supporter, too, in solidarity with Jen. It seemed in the circumstances the least he could do. But looking back, he was ashamed to be sucked into that giddy year of miracles. He was surprised that he had become engaged in the election at all – his politics were further left than any candidate’s. He had wanted Senator Clinton to be nominated, a tough woman whose time had come, and suddenly he switched allegiance to see if Jen’s even more exotic candidate could get the nomination.
He turned right on a yellow light by the Seven-Eleven, the milepost on the Lee Parkway that meant that they would soon be there. He amped up by drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. He adjusted his glasses.
He would like to take credit, just to poke a stick in Bill’s eye, but Jen had drifted in his direction rather than be pulled. She had not been political when they met, which had been a good thing. He was political enough for both of them but loved her and hid his opinions until they were married. His father-in-law disliked him from the start for clear reasons other than political ones. Who cared if another New York Jew had had it with America’s imperialism and global arms sales, its overreaction to radical Islamic sects, the scandalous treatment of the sick and poor, the abiding racism, the steady growth of a politics of fear and scientific denial – Bill Tipton didn’t give a fig what Denny Scharf’s grievances were, and he ignored him.
Jen’s drift from her parents’ party had happened as her children were born. The years of boomer ascendancy turned her off politics, but she said that with Obama running, she could imagine the future the girls deserved. Now, after four years, Jen still defended him, but Denny had turned on Obama, and they argued about him every day.
“Your father will be intolerable tonight.”
“He’s deeper into this than he was four years ago. He knows this is it. Cut him a break. Cut them both a break.”
“Great, Jen. Just great.”
“I pledge allegiance to my husband.” She smiled into his stony peripheral vision.
Denny felt more agitated. Tonight, in the familiar society of her family, Jen might switch off her light when her father and uncle switched theirs on. He loved her so much, but right now he maliciously loved her special status inside the perimeter of family Republicanism.
“Just don’t leave me alone tonight.” He flushed hot under his jacket.
He hardly knew the extended Tiptons after all the years. They were not names he wanted to know. When he attended family gatherings, only a few individuals would stand out, a few who would light up with past histories or conversations he had had with them. The rest were meaningless filler, the links between them obscure.
The headlights clung shakily to the sunken country road as it twisted down to the rock bridge across Tiber Creek, now only a brown, growth-choked trickle. But its water’s ancient work accounted for the vast lawn that sloped down to an obscuring wall of undergrowth below the Tipton mansion. Bill held forth one evening how “when I was a boy, the stream was larger and a hell of a lot cleaner,” and a swimming hole circled under the big beech just before the bridge. He remembered three squatting, snow-white, redneck boys who tried to cover their budding endowments when they were surprised by the mighty Tiptons as they swept by.
No, the event would not be Rockwell-perfect. Denny thought family events never could be a complete pleasure for anyone. He needed desperately to think of something other than Senator Ralph Mason and Big Bill Tipton. He pushed himself to see where his contrarian idea about family tensions might take him, this son of intellectual urban Jews, a warrior born on the left between the Boomers and Generation X, once again about to pass behind enemy lines. Fond embraces and love rituals vie with the deeper reality, he thought. Several tiers down, he was sure all members of families experienced this despite the show of happy affection. All right, perhaps not every last person. But his close friends and contemporaries – he was positive they felt this way.
The reason was that family reunions and holidays could never satisfy. They might begin well, he thought, but as they wear on, they twist families into tight helixes of guilt and competition. The parts of the nucleus adhere, but remember, his father Adam told him, terrible forces bring the parts together and hold them there. It’s the same whether one is a Christian or a Jew, although there are degrees. Tonight across the world Christians are gathering with close kin with whom they have little in common, and still they come. Same with Jews, only on other days, and we do guilt and envy better. Home for the holidays is not universally good news, Denny thought. How much truth could there really be in the idea that blood is thicker than water?
But at the core the blood loyalty of mother, father and children is a force beyond all others – isn’t it so? I feel it, Jen feels it. Blood loyalty supplies the prime identity, the in-the-beginning of the story of a life. I can at least start with that, can’t I?
The self-appointed anthropologist Denis Scharf, father, professor of American history, shuddered in his down cocoon. Parents and siblings – when they aren’t killing each other – are dying and killing for each other just as ardently. The instinct linking me to my mother began a ghostly expansion after her death, and the same instinct is drawing me closer to my failing father. I wonder where that comes from: the primal genetic program ? The suckling years? Early habits become morality? But look at Jen and her parents. A blood link between them makes no sense at all. Go the next step, and costume in color codes these aunts, uncles and cousins according to their whole, half and quarter relationships, and farce will play tonight. The extended family? It’s an oxymoron.
The binding forces of tribes may be stronger, he allowed. The tribe fitted out with a history summons mysterious forces that turn its members into warriors. The Jets are in town – watch out. Totems, rituals, group survival, shared hatreds. Collaborative evolution enabled better individuals to survive, their God genes confecting gods for their tribe and uniting it around them. Animal and tribal unions are structured and even beautiful inside, but deadly on the outside. To build up hate and go to war, tribal bonds are the anesthetic: they deaden empathy and remorse, gratifyingly if the blood spills from another race. Particularly if the enemy is of a different color. Particularly if he is an African American or an Arab. Fiercely, if you believe he’s both. Now factions in politics have become as vicious as tribes. Faction anesthetizes the bloodlust of anti-abortionists, gay-bashers, Republicans, Tea Partiers, deficit Know-Nothings….
He didn’t believe all the things he was thinking, but he believed some of them and so he went ahead, looking for what might work if he manipulated the connections, an Edison tinkering in the shop of his mind.
These people coming tonight, the extended family, must contain the weakest bonds in nature, he thought, veering back into the left lane before it closed off. The wet lanes where the paint had worn were hard to make out under the gaudy illumination from the huge mall that Syre had built off to the right. We will gather despite ourselves, despite biology, because fume and fidget, in the end we show up because most of us think we have to. The Tiptons will succumb to family tonight, but to family the institutional imperative, not family biology. We go to Jean’s house because we believe it is the right thing to do. Because it’s part of our story. No biological or social imperative trumps the right thing to do, and the right thing, the moral thing, to do is show up. While we struggle to understand, we keep showing up.
But it’s got to be more than that, Denny went on, shepherding his reverie back to its beginning. He was determined to keep preoccupied. Whatever it is that compels me to drive my wife and our three daughters to this execration must be stronger than that.
Denny glanced into the rear view mirror. The girls seemed to be at peace in anticipation of the party. For the moment they have that in common, he thought, but it won’t last long. Each had a distinct personality from the beginning, despite a common origin. When Adele started waving her tiny fists up and down and set up a manic buzzing and erupted in glee, Denny thought he saw a bit of Spike Jones and the Colbert Report and knew somehow that he would see it throughout her life. When Gail the introvert and Cat the dreamer were born, he could see no resemblance to any family member, although the obligatory comparisons were made. He was sure older genes had trumped their recent ones and shaped them to distant faces, but Jen, Jean and Bill would have none of it. Imagination fills in where the evidence fails, hypothesis fills in the gaps and – just look at her! – Catherine resembles her grandmother more every day. In fairness, a veneer of traits reminded him of his family or Jen’s, and sometimes the girls repeated the same phrases and gestured in the same manner. But beneath that, where the unique quick was, no one of them quarreled or exulted anything like Jen or himself, or Jean and Bill or his own parents. The common traits were wished on the girls against all the evidence. The spitting image? It’s a curious expression.
It started even earlier, before they came into the world. Their separate drumming on the wall of Jen’s womb was overture to what was to come, and each came a stranger. They never offered blank slates; they came with writing already on them. Even the blood has its separateness, he thought; the same genetic chemistry, the same early upbringing, all that sameness could not bend the self, which no sister came near sharing. Adele, Gail and Cat came from the same womb and our eggs and sperm and have been raised by us together in the same house. They should share very nearly the same temperaments. And Ralph, Baby Ralph, and Baby Jean. They were raised by an impoverished single mother in a tight unit and yet they don’t seem at all to be brother and sister. He is smooth and ambitious and she is laid back and a bit selfish and may have been unfaithful to her preoccupied husband. Once, maybe twice. Big Bill Tipton, indeed. She has her projects, but no project like her brother Ralph’s to bookmark the history of America. Then again, what do I know? Some families do act and look alike and a penny for the boring difference.
“I’m off on a trip I need to suppress, Jen.” She did not answer. “I really don’t need this now.”
They drove up the lane under the glistening sycamores and turned through the gate of Bill Tipton’s “little place just outside of town.” Denny leaned forward on the steering wheel, then caught himself and relaxed into the depths of his jacket. He found a better place. If he could just stay there a few seconds longer. He looked out the window and tried to feel the ether that appeared only on holidays. The holidays are dominated by next year’s election. He quickly brought himself up to the wheel. That’s a preposterous overgeneralization. But the ether on special days, that seems real.
“Settle down, keep it even, Denny. Control your nerves. Don’t get worked up over seeing Ralph – or my father.”
Jen had seen him squirm.
“I was thinking about the election, how few people are interested yet.”
She said nothing. He did not continue.
But the Republican primaries hang over the holidays like a comet in the sky, Denny thought. He glanced up into a close fog of diffused light. Last time, 2008, the political year could not wait to get rolling. The primaries occurred practically on the way home from the New Year’s parties like they will next year. Never before in his life had the end of a year been so… so doubled down and threaded through with politics. Until 2008, years ended many different ways but whatever ways they ended they had never included such a surfeit on presidential politics. Hope, challenge, rebirth, termination, family, eating, travel, guilt, dread – these things, but not politics. Will 2012 be the same? I don’t see it. Four years ago, we glimpsed a new politics. No longer. Eventually Tweedle-dum will be re-elected after defeating Tweedle-dee. I wish we could vote, French-style, None of the Above – and thousands could see our sentiments reported. My None of the Above would be as real a vote as for Tweedle-dum or Tweedle-dee.
A black Lincoln Town Car idled near the curve of the driveway. Farther down the other side beyond the entry another black, official-looking Chevrolet SUV sat with its parking lights glowing, animals’ eyes in the night. The driver of the Lincoln stared ahead as if he were driving but still seemed to track their progress. The driver should turn off the engine, Denny thought. It’s not that cold. He felt virtuous, which was a good beginning, but the softer feeling sucked back in the animosity and irritation.
Switch on the feeble light of Ronald Reagan and make Mason the party’s polestar. That’s what Ralph has always said he wanted to do, and now he might do it. Reagan in Hollywood and Ralph in the computer business acquired the polish for politics. They were not strong on the content of character and the strength of ideas, but they staged well. Neither was a Roosevelt nor a Kennedy, not by a long shot – but they did learn how to speak without the hesitancy second thoughts cause. They had conviction, the prerequisite for the sense of vision, the vision thing that if they don’t claim it the voters can’t be fogged. Ralph looked the politician and was an actor, and Reagan looked the actor and was a politician, but they were both politicians and actors all the same.
Denny resented how the television lights transformed Ralph Mason. His grey eyes shone clear under a slightly overhanging brow, atop which a thick shock of dark brown hair swept back in rebellious ridges. This bouffant augmented his already large head, a head as large as Ted Koppel’s or John Kerry’s. Their heads perched atop thin bodies were perfect for television. Mason had the good fortune to have his smile swaddled with anciently imprinted wrinkles that broadcast empathy and just a hint of shared pain. A dolphin’s smile, Denny thought. The physiognomy of a face or the timbre of a voice may mask character and open doors. On the screen, Mason lost his WASPish, luncheon-meat complexion. Denny could not see how he cleaned up so well for the cameras. He morphed into a made-up man; he absorbed the noise and light, which moved him into a higher orbit. The media amplified the voice that sounded so helium-thin, so vacuous, in the low-lighted privacy of the Tipton house.
There, Denny thought, I have him without an aura and in the skein of a man, and I really need to keep him that way.
Denny leaned forward and gripped the wheel, his head extending farther out of his jacket. No, he was not ready for this, and yet he was about to surrender the car keys to a youth who wore a red raincoat and red tie, a Republican fraternity member, he was sure of it, who was part of a battalion of brothers who were parking the cars.
He is at the top of the polls, and he could bring it off in November. Denny relented to the path his thoughts insisted on taking. He should be trailing Romney – no, better yet, if the Republicans had a brain he would be trailing Huntsman, another zillionaire.
Uncle Ralph had disciplined his liberal tendencies and got good mileage out of keeping “liberal” a dirty word, just as he had done in his unsuccessful run for the presidency four years earlier. It got him through Super Tuesday, and Denny thought he must think he can do it again the same way, only better this time until he has the delegate count he needs. Mason had raised phenomenal sums of money and had managed to position himself as a fiscal conservative, an implacable opponent of a second Obama term, a scalding small-government critic of ObamaCare despite his support of a similar program when he was governor, a qualified champion of Medicare, a supporter of a debt ceiling and of slashing federal budgets without raising taxes. He said he was for tamping down cultural conflict but he subtly stoked it up for the base, who longed for a victory by a Tea Partier, one of the colorful social conservatives who competed to concoct more extreme versions of the conservative agenda. Denny was sure all this was tactics, like the President Bush’s near-forgotten campaign tactics, and like Obama’s failure to deliver on promises he made before he was elected.
Denny could see nothing new about Ralph Mason. He thought he was a cut-and-paste copy of the Mason who ran four years ago. Back then Ralph Mason had distanced himself from the Bush administration and attacked McCain and Giuliani as liberal, all the Democrats as devil liberals, and the evangelical preacher-governor, Mike Huckabee, and the movie and television actor-senator, Fred Thompson, as too conservative to win the general election. Mason questioned deeper involvement in Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But he did it in an envelope of moderation as “a concerned critic working within the Party.” He sidestepped the role Denny had cast him in, Red King Ralph crying “liberal!” and waiting for heads to roll. But it had worked, Denny admitted, even if he and his favorite columnists believed, and still believed, that what Senator Mason had to say came down to tax-cutting, business-boosting, government-bashing and foreign disentanglement.
If Mason had any weaknesses going into the primaries, Denny thought, they could be traced back to two virtues: a progressive voting record as a result of accommodating the growing urban areas in his southern state, and his Quaker faith. His charisma? Many could not see it, but it apparently was enough.
He whispered to Jen, “I don’t think I can do this.” The girls had rushed ahead to the open door.
“Yes, you can, Denny. This isn’t the place, and it isn’t the time. You can get your licks in where it counts, not here. Bite your lip and tell me later.”
She smiled and hugged his arm. He hugged her back but was not consoled. He took her arm as they walked up to the white Roman Gone-with-the-Wind columns and red tile porch, but his mind strayed to the mid-continent, trying to figure out why Ralph was doing so well there.
Denny had already puzzled over Iowa, and then New Hampshire, hoping to understand what Mason was up to. Denny was bewildered by a remarkable ad campaign and wondered what Ralph had to do with it. Denny had seen the ads on the internet. Sometimes he felt like he was stalking Mason’s campaign, but he immersed himself in the mighty stream of information out of the early primary states that the internet provided to anyone anywhere who wanted it. His head seethed with a tinnitus of questions. Shadowy soft-money groups, legal yet silent about their funding, seemed to have adopted a strategy that Denny found risky and a little bizarre, one that he was sure would sputter out after Iowa. Super PACs didn’t quite describe them. No one could provide enough money to go on and do this big-time, not only in Iowa and New Hampshire, but also in Nevada, South Carolina, Florida – on into the February states.
Whoever the ad manipulators were, they sought to turn all of Republican Iowa. They had gone for the minds of everyone who might vote in the caucuses; they had targeted all of Iowa with issue ads that plunked Ralph Mason down in the middle of the conservative spectrum and cast his opponents out on the extremes. The ads must have been stupendously expensive, because they ran often all over Iowa and New Hampshire. Media opinion said the ads attracted the independents who would swing the primaries and the fall election.
The ads were subtle, mind-altering. He had never seen anything like it. They adopted the tone of high national calling and tried to define what the election was about. Iowa wanted a conversation about the economy and the national purpose, about strong values and recovering the heart and strength of America. Well, Ralph Mason did, too, and was made to appear to have the answers.
The largest oil company had done the same thing years earlier to shape energy policy. Wind and solar power? Sure, by all means. We’re on it. But in the meantime, the nation needs to exploit all the oil and gas it can. The company’s business remained the wise energy answer.
The ads profiled an ideal president who compelled comparison to Ralph Mason, while making Debevoise, Romney, Perry and his other opponents appear ill-fitted to the presidency. Mason’s campaign and the soft money ads were antiphonal choruses who sang to each other across the audience of public opinion.
When Mason spoke on the ailing economy and the free enterprise system, as he did every day of his campaign, the ads examined proposals for debt reduction without new taxes, the twin pillars of Mason’s economic policy. When Ralph wove in a defense of health insurers and the right to choose one’s own doctor, the soft money trumpeted the disaster that was sure to follow if ObamaCare were not repealed, with a riff on the atrocity of socialized medicine, to which the messaging and imagery managed to make his Republican opponents’ ideas bear thematic kinship.
The ads did not shy from the volatile cultural issues. On Monday morning Mason’s ads struck chords to resolve internal disharmony on immigration, and by Wednesday the soft money ads had picked up the themes and played them back in the same key. Last fall, as the ducks flew south and the guns came out, Ralph Mason cradled a shotgun on camera and explained how he had hunted as a youth after learning the responsible way to handle a gun at an NRA-sponsored rifle range at scout camp in the summer. Bring Back America mobilized ads to the same effect. But they were not Mason ads. His name came up, but not often. The caucuses were mentioned, it’s true – but as a civic duty of the type Ralph Mason endorsed. The party was hardly ever mentioned, of course. Presidential politics is personality politics.
How could this happen? Denny was sure there were rules that had been broken. The press had picked up on the accusations of collusion: why else would the messages so neatly mesh with the Mason campaign? But the media said there were no restrictions any more on soft money ads so long as they did not explicitly endorse a candidate. They praised the public-spirited tone they adopted. And he was now at the door of a house where the person waited who he was sure was behind it all.
[Falling Together on Amazon]