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The Devil You Know


Harry Buschman

From The Westlake Village Collection.

The Mets were in the middle of a late afternoon ball game -- one run ahead, and still three games out of first place. The next inning or two would be critical -- the pennant race was in the balance. With my hand wrapped in a dish towel, I was about to pull a TV dinner out of the microwave, and I was not in the mood for distractions.

Out in the street there was the sound of canned marching music and an arrogant knocking at my front door -- Damn!

People never use their front doors in Westlake Village, we are back door people. Our back doors lead directly to our pantries and our kitchens .... that's where the action is. Front doors are knocked on by wandering evangelists with patronizing smiles, Girl Scouts with order pads -- people you really don't want to see. The knocker at my door was a man in a blue serge suit. He wore a blazingly white shirt with a bright red tie on which were embroidered small white elephants. He was obviously a point man for Frank Vendetta. He didn't look at me, he looked over my shoulder and he was very disappointed to see no one behind me.

"Come out and meet Frank Vendetta, your candidate for Town Supervisor!" With a month to go before election day, Frank's tenacious grip on the Supervisor's office was loosening and he was running scared. In the fading light of this early autumn day, Frank was on foot, out there in the middle of the street, walking the boulevard like a hooker.

"I'm busy at the moment," I replied. "It's a pity he had to show up at supper time." Ignoring my lack of enthusiasm, the man in the blue serge suit handed me a sheaf of slippery brochures celebrating the accomplishments of Frank Vendetta, and Frank, himself, waved at me from the middle of the road. He was trailed by a black sedan with "Official" license plates driven by a uniformed chauffeur.

I am not excessively observant, but I could see Frank was not used to walking. His upper torso seemed to be working its way down into his pelvis, and his hips pendulated like those of a hippopotamus. In spite of the warm late afternoon light, his complexion was liverish -- the face of a boozer. His hair, it seemed, had been painted on his head with black enamel, and he smiled at me from ear to ear through a mouthful of Chiclet-like teeth. As he walked, his feet, in patent leather shoes, plodded paddle-like, pointing northwest and northeast.

What was the provocation that forced this politician to humble himself in this manner? Was the job of Town Supervisor so important to him that he would humiliate himself in the humble streets of Westlake Village?

The Morgan's dog next door barked at him tentatively, but kept a safe distance. Barney has seen many strange people walking our street in his twelve years, but this misshapen politician was new to him. I had the impression that if Frank's door knockers disappeared, and if the black sedan behind him was to turn around and drive off, he would have no idea where he was.

It was the beginning of the off-year campaign for the office of Town Supervisor. We have learned to simplify things here in Westlake Village. Mixing Presidential elections with those of Town Supervisors can have confusing results, and it's often difficult to predict who will ride in on the other's coattails. One thing I was sure of; it would be a time for decision down at the newsroom of the Village "Guardian." Lucas Crosby, our 'publisher' is a devious man, and he tends to go with the flow. Our 'paper' is 85 percent advertising, and 'hits,' (although 'finds its way' is more
accurate) the street every two weeks. It is the people's only source of inside information, and it is supported entirely by the status quo. It is a mortal blow to us if a local retailer pulls an ad. I am the solitary newsman.

Stacey does the make-out page and answers the phone. For those of you not  familiar with such high-tech newspaper terms as "make-out page," a peek over  Stacey's shoulder would reveal such truncated prose as, "SWCM with great build seeks hugs and kisses from similar type SWCF."

Doesn't sound like much of a newspaper, does it? To stimulate interest therefore, we have added a "Golden Years" page for the elderly (who seem to hang on like sucker fish), high school sports results -- a dining out page called "High On the Hog," and "Police Blotter," which reveals the most interesting break-ins of the past two weeks. What news we have is limited to the issues that concern the NIMBY-minded Westlake Villager. We are not interested in what happens elsewhere, so long as it doesn't happen to us.

Lucas was endorsing checks again, and as he would sign one he would cross off a name in his ledger. This quaint procedure, Crachitt-like in its numbing simplicity, gives Lucas more joy than anything I can think of.

"Guess who knocked at my door yesterday, Lucas."

He looked at me as though from a great distance. "Who knocked on your what?"

"My door, my door! Who knocked at my door?"

"How do I know? Who cares anyway?" He was mumbling to himself, "Shangri-la  Restaurant, two-fifty. Habib's Dry Cleaning, one-seventy-five."

"Frank Vendetta, that's who!"

He sat up straight. "Oh! Why didn't you say so .... that's more like it." His eyes narrowed. "What do you and Frank Vendetta have goin' anyway?"

"I don't have to tell you that he's running against Tom Sweeny for Town Supervisor, do I?"

"That friggin' liberal! We sure don't want none of them in the supervisor's office."

"I'm thinking of voting for him."

He pushed his eyeshade up, shook his head slowly from side to side, and looked at me as a doctor might look at a terminally ill patient. "You can't be serious," he said.

"Lucas, the sooner you know how the people in this town feel about Frank  Vendetta, the better off you'll be. Remember when the streets didn't get plowed after the last snowstorm? Remember that traffic light at the school he promised us? How about the fact that we're 119 million dollars in debt, huh? How about that, Lucas?" I rarely get that voluble with Lucas, but local elections bring out the wind bag in me.

Lucas closed his ledger book with a sigh. "You're really worked up over this ain't you? You're too old to get involved in politics. Just remember this".... He turned to Stacey, who was filing her nails and holding the phone in the crook of her shoulder. " .... and you too, Stacey -- this here paper is solid behind whoever's got the ball. Possession is ten-tenths -- y'know what I mean?"

"So if Tom Sweeny was sitting in Vendetta's seat, you'd be for him, right?"

"Bet yer ass," he growled.

In my hey-day, the press was the people's advocate. We were a not-so-gentle  reminder to those in power that they must answer to the folks who elected them. We tripped them up in lies and broken promises, looked in their closets, and even pawed through their garbage cans if we had to. We were the politician's bete noire; we did our best to keep them honest, even though the methods we used were often more squalid than theirs.

Lucas ended the discussion with the the terse, "Get this straight, both of you. We ain't printin' nothin' derogatorious about Frank Vendetta. We take his advertising and nobody else's. That's as far as we go -- period, see? Sweeny can suck wind." It didn't sound like a ringing endorsement to me, rather he appeared to have one foot in each of the bandwagons, with the bulk of his weight tending to favor the pushcart of Frank Vendetta.

I had accumulated a lot of dirt on Frank Vendetta and I nursed it in the corner of my mind, like an ape with a apple in the side of his jaw. I recalled trying to reach him for an interview during that last snowstorm. The side streets were untouched and if it hadn't been for Windy Mullins and his ancient snow plow, grades K-8 would have been canceled for a week. Frank, his wife, and their seven children were in Aruba -- his deputy was snowed in and could not get to the office.

Then there was the garbage contract. Only Harris Carting bid for the town's garbage collection contract. Harris, in turn, would not bid for contracts in any other town. How about that? Why should Harris Carting be so concerned with the litter we leave at our curbs -- and care nothing for the litter of others? The subject was on the agenda of a town meeting last spring, but after Frank and his family got back from Aruba, other, more important issues, took precedence.

The word going around the Village was that Tom Sweeny was closing fast. He had an honest, open face -- an Irish face -- a beer drinker's face. He smiled a careful smile, optimistic and hopeful, but not euphoric. His face was a healthier pink than Frank Vendetta's liverish Nixon look, Tom looked as though he never used a razor in his life. But, as if to strike a note of dissonance, his wife displayed a wild, almost maniacal grin. She stared out of the group portrait that had been stapled to every telephone pole along Westwood Avenue like a hunted woman. Her face appeared frozen in rictus, as though she had held the grin too long. The placards proclaimed "Tom Sweeny -- Honesty in Government." Tom was a lawyer with a workplace injury practice on Atlantic Avenue, an advocate and a champion of worker's rights.

On the whole it looked good. Every chance I got, I spread the Gospel According to Tom Sweeny. Lucas was disgusted with me, but so long as I kept my opinions out of the Guardian, there wasn't much he could do. True, there was more hemming and hawing from Tom at rallies and town meetings than I liked, and Mrs. Sweeny's smile remained cast in stone. He did hint at a new traffic light at the school, however, and perhaps a sizable downgrading of our indebtedness to the township. The gist of his campaign, as articulated by his manager was, "You want good gummint? Put'cha trust in Tom!"

On election day I cast my vote at 6:01 a.m., that's about as early as its possible to be, the equipment was barely up and running. Then I kept my ear to the ground the rest of the day. Around nine I asked Stacey if she had voted.

"No!" She said harshly, and looked at me as if she didn't want me to continue. It's not like her to be short with me, we're usually a team of two in opposition to Lucas.

"Sorry, I thought with so much at stake you'd be .... " She cut me off again.

"I'd rather not, okay? I don't really give a damn who's gonna be Town Supervisor." She bit her lip and looked up at me. I was shocked to see tears in her eyes.

I went back to my desk and started on next week's Golden Years. Every once in a while I'd look over at her. It wasn't just the election, it was something else. Maybe she and Murray, the china buyer, broke up again -- their stormy relationship was, by my count, now in its third year. No, that couldn't be it -- whenever something goes wrong with Murray she's on the phone with her girl friends all day.

Lunchtime came, and to my great surprise and delight, Stacey came over and said she wanted to have lunch with me. That hadn't happened since Christmas a year ago. I offered to treat, but she wanted to go Dutch -- "You're too old to be buyin' me lunch."

"In that case, let's go to Max's -- we can sit in the back and hold hands."

All through lunch she had this distracted look in her eye -- as though there was something on her mind and she couldn't quite put it in words. She let me buy her a Chardonnay, or whatever passes for Chardonnay at Max's. She got through half of it and pushed her glass over to me.

"Here, you finish it -- wine gives me gas."

"What the hell's wrong with you, Stacey. Look, I'm nobody. You can tell me anything. I'm not family, I'm not Murray, I'm not even Lucas. I'm just an old friend. I've seen a lot in my eighty years, little girl. You can't tell me anything I haven't heard before."

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "It's about votin' -- well not really, it's about Mr. Sweeny. There, I got that out. Mr. Sweeny -- Sweeny -- Sweeny. It's been eight years, since I said that name."

I took a deep breath myself. "Why should it be so hard to say Sweeny?"

"Promise me you'll never tell, okay? I mean, I wanna hear you promise me."

"I promise you Stacey -- whatever it is, it'll never leave this room."

"He has a son, Todd, you know?"

"Yes, I know. Blond kid about twelve I guess. I always thought it was a kick in the ass to name a kid Todd -- I mean if his last name is Sweeny."

"My girl friend Barbara, you know Barbara?"

"No, I don't. Don't hold back Stacey -- get on with it."

"I'll get it out -- just give me time, okay? Well, Barbara, she used to baby sit for them when he was little .... Todd, I mean. She couldn't do it this one time, and she asked me if I would -- you know, baby sit I mean. It was an easy gig. I mean, you could sit Todd in front of the TV and he'd go into a sort'a trance like and stay there 'til it was time to stuff him in bed .... y'know?"

I could sense she was trying to hold back so I primed her. ".... and then they came home, the Sweeny's I mean."

"Yeah, that's right. They came home, and Mrs. Sweeny says for Mr. Sweeny to drive me home and pay me the eight dollars." She pulled her half empty wine glass back over to her side of the table and took a healthy sip of it. "Gee! This is tough -- but I come this far already."

"How old were you, fifteen?"

" About fourteen and a half -- but, promise me again, Mr. "B," I never told Murray even."

"I promised you before, Stacey. It stays here in Max's lunchroom."

"We get to my house. It's, I dunno -- 1:30 or so. He shuts off the engine and turns out the lights. I'm waiting for my money see .... he takes out his wallet and he .... he unzips himself." She looked away, swallowed hard and shuddered. "He says -- 'how'd y'like to make an extra twenty five bucks, Stacey?" She stood up and put her napkin on the table. "There," she said. "That's all -- that's why I didn't vote today."

We paid up, and I insisted on doing the tip. It was early November, still warm, and we took our time walking back to the Guardian. Stacey is a knock-out blond and a pretty savvy piece of work, and I couldn't see how an event like this, however sordid, could still effect her so intensely. I'm not very bright I guess.

"I was fourteen, Mr. "B." I couldn't tell anybody. He told me not to tell anybody -- that nobody would believe me -- and if I did, he'd .... "

"My God, he didn't threaten you, did he?"

"He said he'd see to it that I'd get a bad name in the Village, and my parents would be ashamed of me." She picked up the pace a bit. "Let's leave it there, okay? Enough's enough. It took me a long time to get over it, and you brought it all back again with this Town Supervisor crap .... and don't forget .... forget it!"

Lucas was all smiles when we got back. He looked at us triumphantly -- "Where the hell have you two been, we got a paper to run y'know. By the way, Mr. know-it-all, my man Frank's sixty-five votes in the lead with eighty-five percent counted -- and I ain't even voted yet!"

I smiled back at him, then Stacey and I smiled at each other. "Like I always say, Lucas; the devil you know."

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