Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Hold, please

I found this today. I wrote it years ago. It'll go up on my website (www.markvertreese.com) later, but this just hit me in the mouth. And I wanted to make sure I shared it. Now.

"Hold Please"

Khalindra Burton stared at herself in the mirror. Forty-two days ago, she didn’t recognize herself. The counselor told her she should be proud of herself; that so many people who come through the doors of a rehab clinic either leave because they can’t handle the pain of detox, or get kicked out for using. But she was different. She had made it through twenty-eight days of hell. She was clean and sober. And she was a success story.

Khalindra was a far cry from her former self. Once a promising news anchor at a major station in Charlotte, she’d been introduced to drugs at a friend’s party. It was Ecstasy, and although she had reservations about trying it, the peer pressure and pure curiosity got the better of her. She told herself that the habit was harmless, that the E just put a little more pep in her step. What she didn’t know then was that her problems had only just begun. From the occasional Ecstasy tablet, she very rapidly progressed to crack cocaine and then to heroin – the one that completely destroyed her life.

If you paid close enough attention to her on screen, you could tell that something was off. Even though you couldn’t put your finger on it, you knew a monster was hiding deep within her. Once bright and vivacious, her demeanor was slightly altered. Not one to be tardy, Khalindra began missing her early morning call times and wasn’t fully prepared for her production meetings. Heavy makeup was used to disguise her sallowing skin and the wardrobe department was taking in her outfits more and more. She shot up between her toes because that was the easiest place to hide the needle marks. It hurt like hell, but the reward was worth it. The talk of the set, and even amongst some of her peers, it was becoming clear that this wasn’t the same person they used to know. Just four months after that first, fateful hit of Ecstasy, she’d lost her job and was trying desperately to hold on to what was left of her marriage.

Never, ever did she do drugs in front of her kids, she’d told the doctor during a grueling orientation meeting and her first one-on-one. Khalindra trembled as she rocked back and forth, pawing slowly at her skin to stop whatever it was she imagined was crawling on her. If she’d only had one more hit, she said to herself while at the same time promising the doctor that she wanted to be clean. Her husband had discovered her secret after finding a baggie of something off-white and a needle she’d stashed amongst the seldom-used stuffed animals in her oldest girl’s room. They were fighting more and more about why she lost her job and how she was taking care of the kids and the house. He knew there was something she wasn’t telling him – and that it was destroying them. But drugs? And hidden in the playthings of his child? Hell no. Crumpled onto the floor and crying through her tears, she promised that she’d stop, that she would never do drugs again. He picked his wife up off the ground and dragged her around their room, forcing her to pack her own bags. He put her in the car and drove directly to a rehab. Get clean or we’re finished was the last thing he said to her. Not I love you. Not even good-bye.

Fourteen days clean, Khalindra stood in the mirror of her bedroom and silently battled the monster. It was 2 a.m. and her husband and children were fast asleep. They couldn’t hear the screams in her head and couldn’t feel the cold, drenching sweat that woke her up from a dead sleep. Before she knew it, she’d found herself sneaking out of the house, driving to the wrong part of town, and walking to the corner, waiting for someone she recognized. In a moment of clear thought, she turned around and walked back toward her car and pulled out her cell phone. She tightly gripped the card of the rehab clinic – the one she’d been given and told to call if she ever found herself wanting to use again. Khalindra saw her usual dealer walking toward her and she dialed quickly. The young woman who answered the night watch crisis line hadn’t heard the terrified begging in Khalindra’s voice. She hadn’t heard the words I think I’m in trouble and I need help. She hadn’t listened to a woman in crisis, sobbing from fear and pleading for someone to rescue her. Trying not to laugh into the phone at a joke she’d read online right before she picked up the line, she blurted out, “Hold, please,” and forever erased the hope of a young wife and mother and addict when a man half her age tenderly and knowingly smiled as he curled the monster back into Khalindra’s open hand.

Standing in the kitchen of their home that bright and sunny morning after she’d snuck out, he slowly shook his head and wept as he let what the police officer just said to him sink in. How was he going to explain this to their daughters? They didn’t even know what the word overdose meant. Jesus, they were only five and nine years old. They knew mommie had a problem, but he’d told them two weeks ago when they picked her up from the special hospital that she was fixed. He told them that she was going to be their mommie forever. And now she was gone. Without saying I love you. Not even good-bye.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Chapter 16

I was thinking about the upcoming Inauguration, and the event surrounding president-elect Trump. I couldn't help but think about Paul Brown, his own Inaugural address, and the similarities between the two men and their unlikely rise to the top. If you haven't yet read 'The Brotherhood', let this serve as a most fitting introduction. If you've already met Paul Brown, I hope you enjoy the first and (quite probably) the only Inauguration speech I'm likely to ever write. ;-)

Excerpted from, 'The Brotherhood'
by Mark Vertreese

Chapter Sixteen

PAUL Brown was sworn in as president on January 20th, a cold and rainy morning in Washington. It was without question the second most popular inauguration in history and a day that so many never thought they would see. More than a million people lined the Washington Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building, crammed together huddled under blankets and ponchos and plastics sheets. People climbed trees and poles and watched through binoculars from their balconies. They braved the elements just so they could say they were there for the making of history. School children and the elderly, farmers and CEOs, housewives and middle managers, movie stars and the homeless all mingled together for what they hoped would be the most exciting day of their lives. The entire world would be witness to Paul Brown being sworn in as the president of the United States.

A host of senators and Congresspeople filled the specially-constructed stands outside the Capitol Building. They were sitting in their assigned seats, chatting about what was about to happen and trying their best to stay warm. Few could believe what was going on. They exchanged carefully concealed looks; none of them thought this day would actually come. A black man in the Oval Office? “Never,” they once mused. “Twice?” It had to be a fluke.

It seemed that throughout the campaign, Brown was at such an advantage right from the start that there was no way any of the other candidates could have touched him. Justin, in fact, had engineered the campaigning and the election to make it seem as though Brown was the only man, black or white, running for the job. Justin didn’t want Paul to win in a landslide. He just wanted the man put into office as smoothly and as carefully as possible.

The Brotherhood was as powerful as ever. This campaign was a return to the political prowess and subversive tactics they enjoyed in the early years. The Brotherhood was a mighty force to be reckoned with. Although the older, more discreet members were dying off, there was a new guard now and they were just as hell-bent on preserving their own places in history, invisible though they may have been. It seemed like nothing could stop them. They were as strong now as ever, and as always, when they wanted a man in the Oval Office, no chances were taken. Polls were fixed, contacts in the television and newspaper and magazine industries were ‘called upon’, news coverage and debates with the other candidates were subtly slanted in Paul’s favor. The Brotherhood had no problem dismantling the clear political advantage of Paul’s opponents. After a significant amount of bad press, the other candidates simply dropped from public favor, and ultimately, out of the race entirely. Governor Scott, in fact, had been quietly offered a ‘significant role in the future’ for his playing the bad guy opposite Paul Brown’s dashing, white-hatted hero figure.

Hard-line conservatives scoffed at the idea of Paul Brown as president. Liberals could hardly control their excitement. Most of them could care less about who the president was; even though the majority of them were under the thumb of the Brotherhood, they still thought that they controlled the country. The president’s only roles were to balance the budget, sign legislation they ratified and smile for pictures with other heads of state. As far as they were concerned, he, like the Queen of England, was simply a figurehead.

President Sears and Vice President Martin were led through the dignitaries to their seats. Vice President-elect McCall and his wife appeared under the awning to mediocre applause. No one really knew anything about him. With the exception of George H.W. Bush, McCall was just as boring and behind-the-scenes as any other vice president who preceded him. They stood motionless for a moment at the top of the landing, long enough for the crowd to see them, and were led to their seats.

The air seemed to hold an electric charge, like lightning waiting to strike. The new president was ready. The crowd in the stands rose and people on the Mall snapped to attention, craning their necks and standing on shoulders for a better view.

Paul took a quick breath to settle himself as he looked down the corridor, outside to what lay before him. As was the conventional wisdom set forth for presidents before him, Julia was to walk down the steps first, Paul to follow by himself, an assertion of authority and poise not quickly lost on those who would bear witness.

Julia, both excited and extremely nervous, was at his side clutching his hand. Paul took time to look at the crowd and then at Julia. She was radiant, even in this dismal weather. He hoped he was doing the right thing. If he wasn’t, time had certainly run out, and there was no turning back. He leaned over and said, “Remember that whatever happens, I love you as much now, if not more, than I ever have.” She smiled and said she felt the same. With that, she kissed him on the cheek and said, “You’re going to make a great president.” The crowd erupted in delight as she walked down the steps to her seat.

“Now or never, sir,” admonished a smiling Secret Service agent, motioning Paul forward. Again, the crowd signaled their delight with an overwhelmingly passionate ovation. Paul stopped for a moment to waive and, through countless handshakes and smiles, finally made it down to his seat.

The crowd had never heard such an eloquent, passionate and symbolic inaugural speech. After all the singing groups and the poets laureate and the children’s choirs had performed, and the new vice-president and Paul were sworn in, he stood and walked to the podium. Paul Brown stared out into the crowd, sweeping left to right. He was amazed and deeply moved that so many people wanted to share this moment with him. He turned to look at his wife and their two children and smiled. Isabelle was sobbing uncontrollably. Against Justin’s fervent protests, Paul had not prepared a speech.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is cold and wet and nasty. Even so, I see nothing but sunshine on the horizon and I feel nothing but warmth in my heart. Thank you for your patience on this, the most incredible day I and my family have ever experienced. Will you please excuse me for a moment?” He turned to four men standing off to the side and waved them forward. They quickly disassembled the top of the bulletproof rain shelter and returned to their positions offstage. Julia nearly fainted. The guests on the platform looked around at each other in silent horror; they all knew he was crazy and their suspicions were now confirmed. The people on the Mall were watching huge monitors and as they slowly realized what he was doing, they burst into applause.

Paul cinched up his overcoat and returned to the newly exposed podium. “That’s much better. I figured since you all were enduring this nasty weather, I should bear some of the load myself.” The crowd screamed their approval. This was the real man, a real person they had voted for, not some shiny, slick politician. The invited guests in the stands groaned in disbelief.

For the next twenty minutes, Paul Brown held the masses in his hands, delivering a speech that no one would soon forget.

“Once again, let me say hello. My name is Paul Brown, and my new title is president of the United States!” He threw his arms in the air to the overjoyed applause and screams of the crowd. “Throughout my campaign you heard a lot about me. You know where I was born, you know the names of my wife and children, and you know what I used to do before I got this job. From this point on, as long as I am the president, you can ask me whatever you want. That doesn’t guarantee an answer, but feel free to ask just the same. If there’s something you don’t know but want to, call the White House or email me.” Justin smiled smugly at the suggestion that Joe Schmoe would call the White House, fully expecting to speak with Paul to ask him a stupid question about the environment or his health insurance company. He realized there was still a lot of work to be done with Paul.

“From here on out,” Paul continued, “I am about the business of rebuilding this country. I am about the business of bringing family back into the home and turning it from a dirty word into something that we can all cherish and respect. I am about the business of making the economic foundations of this country stronger than you or I or our ancestors ever dreamed. I am about the business of making the rest of the world sit up and take notice. They will know by the end of my term that no one is equal in scope, depth, form or function, as we will be in the United States of America. I am about the business of change and it starts today, right here, right now. Are you with me?”

The rousing voices from the crowd and even from some of the people on the stands were deafening. The cheers went on for what seemed like an eternity before Paul raised his hands to quiet them down.

“I am not a revolutionary man. But, this is a revolutionary presidency. Change is upon us, ladies and gentlemen. If you remember my campaign slogan, I want you to shout it out loud!”

The crowd yelled back to him saying, “Take It Back!”

“Absolutely. This is your country. Each and every one of you owns this land. When the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock they brought with them the spirit of forging toward the end of the tunnel, searching for promise and opportunity. If you live and breathe in this country, I’m telling you that you harbor the same dreams and the same aspirations.

“In the 1700s and 1800s, slave ship after slave ship landed on the East Coast of this country, ferrying Africans to the American South to be sold like animals. When those Africans, those people, those mothers and fathers, were forced into servitude to make their masters wealthy and this country prosper, I can bet you that not one of them had the vision or foresight to predict that I would be standing here this morning, this greatest of days the American people have seen. But, with each African mother, father and child that was committed into the system of slavery came a hope and a passion for self-improvement that, like the Pilgrims, lent an air of success and a hope for great things to come. What the Pilgrims sailed across the sea to discover, and what the slaves of Africa were forcibly indoctrinated into, was the essence of the American Dream: Freedom. The Pilgrims had it and the Africans, now and in the past, fought for it. I challenge all of you here this morning to keep fighting. Keep the dream of your ancestors alive, for freedom is our one common ground.

“You know,” Paul said casually, as though he was talking to his best friend, Henry. “At one time we held freedom firmly in our hands like a child. We fed it and cradled it and loved it like no other. It was something that we never took for granted. Over the years, and due to a great deal of government action and inactivity, regulation and deregulation, that child, those children, that freedom, has been slowly torn from our grasp and is dying before our very eyes. That dream of freedom and the search for opportunity has been dimmed and removed from your vision. Take it back!”

The crowd screamed their delight and their approval. The invited guests in the stands looked at each other uncomfortably. This was not what they had expected. For years, the people of the country had voiced their opinions about this and that. They were unhappy with the rate of taxation. They wanted better and more effective representation from their respective senators and Congresspeople. They wanted the opportunity to express themselves in whatever manner they saw fit. They were shut out of the loop of important issues that concerned them, entrusting their elected officials to do what was right in their best interest, to do what they had promised when they were elected.

For years the powerful politicians in Washington had heard the cries of the people, but had never attempted to truly fix their problems. Politics had turned into a business of self-gain. To be elected meant that you were setting yourself on the fast track to wealth and privilege. Scandal while in office was the grist mill that guaranteed the $8 million dollar advance you received for your mid-life memoirs. The spirit of democracy, taking the visions and voices of the people, and turning them into something useful and beneficial to the country was no longer in the hearts and minds of those who had been entrusted with the future of the country. Public service equaled profit.

“I am here for you. I work for you. I am the employee and you are the collective boss. Not only do I work for you, but each and every senator and Congressman and woman that represents you is under your control. Men and women from this country, our United States, have fought wars all over the world to afford you with the right to call up your elected official and tell him you’re unhappy. Men and women have fought wars here at home, as well, to give you the opportunity to tell those same elected officials that they aren’t living up to their end of the bargain.” Paul unhooked one of the microphones from the podium and walked down the stage steps to the railing of the Capitol Building. The Secret Service agents were nervous enough without the complete bulletproof shield protecting him, and their hearts raced as Paul Brown walked back and forth along the cement railing as he spoke to the crowd. Julia couldn’t watch and discreetly averted her attention, pretending to waive and smile at imaginary people.

Paul held up his hand and counted as he spoke. “Freedom of the press, the freedom of speech and the right to gather in peaceful protest and demonstration, the right to bear arms, the right of the individual to protect his home, the woman’s right to a safe abortion. All of these freedoms and more are being taken from you. What are you going to do about it?”

“Take it back,” the crowd screamed. “Take it back.” For whatever reason, Paul instantly thought about that jerk, Jackson Curruthers, his earliest and most ardent antagonist. He thought about how Jackson turned his own campaign slogan around, flippantly telling Paul that he should take it back. Look at me now, Paul thought, grinning from ear to ear, silently wishing Jackson Curruthers to hell. Over and over again, to the pumping of Paul Brown’s fist and to the dismay of many, the crowd chanted “Take it Back.”

“I’m no politician. You should all know that by now. I’m just a businessman from the great state of North Carolina. I am the son of a farmer and an educator. I am the beneficiary of the Civil Rights struggle, not only of the sixties and for blacks, but also for women and other minorities. Right now, as always, I am obligated to the history of this country. I now hold the ultimate responsibility for the well being and benefit of each and every person who sacrificed family and home and pride to make this land what it is today and what it can be tomorrow. I was elected on the strength of my convictions, the content of my character and my willingness to sacrifice whatever it takes to see that we, as a people and as a family and as a nation, succeed beyond our wildest dreams.”

Justin chuckled at that. Paul Brown was not elected by any stretch of the imagination. He did not earn the trust of the American people. He had not demonstrated any skill at all necessary for running the world’s most powerful nation. This was not a construction and real estate conglomerate. This was not some silly board game with plastic houses and purple money. This was serious business. Paul Brown stood before America and the world but for the grace of the Brotherhood. So soon the rope tightened, Justin thought. It would be a shame for his project, his toy, to hang himself so soon out of the gate.

Slowly pacing the railing, Paul stared out across the sea of people. He was in awe of the power at his fingertips. He held the attention of billions of people around the world. “I’m not partial to wheeling and dealing for what the American people want. I’m not part of the ‘I’ll do this for you if you do that for me’ crowd. I do not bargain. Tell me what you want and I’ll try my best to make it happen. Tell your senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen what you want and they will do the same. Get involved in local and state government. If you didn’t vote for anyone in this election, I’m not talking to you. No vote, no right to complain. You’re just here to see the show.

“But if you did vote, then I am most certainly talking to you. If you think you can make a difference, stick your neck out and go for it. That’s what I did. Take a chance and run for that city council position. Get on the school board. Form a grass roots organization to get your voices heard. Hell, run for president.” The crowd laughed out loud and Paul laughed right along with them. Impossible as it seemed to him, he was preaching the gospel. “This is your country, this is our country, and it’s the responsibility of each and every one of us to see that generations to come have it better than we do now. Ronald Reagan, in his presidential inauguration speech, said that ‘In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.’ It’s your responsibility to turn your dreams, your American dreams, from just that into concrete reality.

“Take it upon yourselves to lead your family and your neighbor, your confidants and your enemies, alike. This is your country. This is your chance. This is your government. Take it back!” Paul pumped the microphone into the air to the cheers of his campaign anthem. The crowd screamed their delight and reservedly, the crowd on the stage stood and clapped. Paul Brown stood like a stone statue, hands raised defiantly in the air, staring out into the great sea of people. His breath was cold and the steam escaping from his mouth enveloped his face as it rose through the air.

Justin stood with the crowd during the everlasting ovation and stared at Paul, his hands raised in victory. This was going to be much more interesting than even he could have anticipated. Justin looked around at all the people chanting the phrase he found so ridiculous. They were captivated by this man’s words. Before Paul spoke, most of them could have cared less what he said. They really were just there to see the show. They had nothing to do with his election. They were merely pawns who thought they were performing their duties as Americans by voting. Those were the people who thought government had abandoned them. Those were the people who never thought a black man could be elected president – let alone twice - and have momentous influence over the American people.

Paul Brown had brought them all to their feet.