Volume 20, Number 3

Ready to Retire

Thomas Sullivan

The first time I encountered Rick Smith I was sitting on a stage under a glare of hot, white lighting. In the front row of the auditorium I saw Rick’s wife, dressed just like Jackie Kennedy and watching over four well-behaved boys wearing blue blazers and sharply creased khaki trousers. Behind the idyllic family a throng of supporters, reporters, and friends talked excitedly, flashing huge grins while shaking hands and slapping backs. It was, to put it bluntly, an orgy of self-congratulation and self-importance that made me feel uneasy and out of place. I was one of the most influential and senior members present, but no one paid me much attention, caught up as they were with the festivities and private thoughts of future personal gain.

After a brief introduction a judge called Rick up onto the stage. I looked over to see a salt-and-pepper-haired man, probably early fifties, bound up the stairs in a sharp business suit. He whisked past me and jarred to a halt two feet in front of the judge, staring at the man with controlled anticipation and beaming with pride. The judge then reached down, picked me up and held me outward at chest level, parallel to the stage. Rick placed a warm, sweaty hand on top of me, raised his other hand, and began to repeat the judge’s phrasing.

“I, Rick Smith…”

The wedding ring pressed into my neck.

“Do faithfully swear to uphold the laws and defend the Constitution…”

The hand-heat was getting unbearable.

“Of the great state of Georgia.”

The crowd unleashed a roar as Rick lifted his hand. Cool, soothing air washed over me. The judge placed me back on the podium, bathed in sweat and antibiotic skin gel. I gasped through the stench and looked out at the teeming, happy mob. They had no way of knowing what was coming next.

* * *

I didn’t physically meet up with Rick again during the following year, but I did watch his progress from my perch in a bookcase in his office. He proved to be a man of steely resolve and decisive action. He attacked the job with vigor, slashing programs like a sugar-cane worker slicing row after row without pause. He often preached fiscal discipline in a booming, confident voice, referring repeatedly to a former president, a man of questionable ability elevated by his followers twenty years later to a hero-status usually reserved in these parts for successful college football coaches.

During this time I also noticed something unusual and discomforting—Rick would disappear (unannounced and unscheduled) for two hours each Wednesday at precisely 3:00. This was quite an aberration for a busy man with a bevy of official duties and a security detail constantly at his side. Rick would glance around the office quickly and then zip down a hallway leading to the back of the governor’s mansion (he shunned the Capitol building as much as possible and worked from “home” in a populist ruse of staying separate from the “swarm of lobbyists and corrosive special-interest types”). He’d slip out the back, fast-walk across the green lawn, jump into a cab, and head off to parts unknown. Like others in the office, I had no inkling of his whereabouts or actions during these excursions, but assumed that they were harmless. That is, until I was contacted by a coworker inside a Victorian mansion on Madison Street. Don’t ask how we communicate—it’s a closely guarded secret that we’ve held onto for two thousand years, surely a record in this loose-lipped world of ours.

* * *

The second time Rick took me into his forceful hands was a far less jovial event than the first, to put it mildly. This occurred just after Rick revealed the affair to his wife, but before the media found out and a political firestorm erupted over the “Humpday Scandal.” 

The setting for our reunion was a sweltering basement room inside the Guiding Light Baptist Church on Greeley Street. Rick sat uncomfortably in a chair next to his wife and squeezed the hell out of me. His outward demeanor was one of restraint and cordial un-enthusiasm, similar to the manner in which a father greets his teenage daughter’s first boyfriend for the first time. But he was clearly uncomfortable (to me, at least) with the whole concept of Intensive Bible Studies For Couples. During a deathly serious two-hour marathon not unfamiliar to me couples answered questions about “God’s plan for marriage” (note: too busy, never had one) in dour, reverential tones. The participants sheepishly misquoted me, often combining disparate and unrelated passages like a cut-rate cover-band doing a medley of hits while playing slightly out of tune.

Rick, on the other hand, maintained complete silence while squeezing in and out repeatedly on my dampening sides. He’d cross one leg over the other, take a sip of weak coffee from a small Styrofoam cup, and a few moments later switch his legs again. Occasionally he’d utter a small, almost inaudible exhale.

Just before concluding the meeting, Father Jones looked directly at his quiet pupil and paused. Rick cleared his throat as if preparing to answer an uncomfortable question from an uncooperative journalist. Father Jones put a hand on his chin, searched for the right words, and said, “Rick, what do you think is the most relevant message from the Bible?”

Rick put me down on a table, unleashed a thin smile, and said “Love thy neighbor?” Then he laughed. As the room went silent he got to his feet and walked out, shaking his head and staring straight ahead.

Rick’s wife, once a subservient ally and staunch defender, became his biggest and meanest opponent at precisely that moment.

* * *

Well, things went downhill pretty quickly after that. In an unusual and unexpected development Rick’s wife ignored her church, the talk-radio mongers, and their respective packs of rabid, get-in-line groupies, who were determined to save her marriage. She stood behind a podium like a defiant high-school teacher defending evolution at a Bible-belt PTA meeting and declared before photographers and journalists that she was going to “ride into divorce court like the first horsewoman of the Apocalypse, and wage the bloodiest crusade anyone has ever seen.”

Rick fought tooth and nail for six months to save his job, often quoting scripture and making bizarre comparisons between his situation and those of vicious Babylonian kings. He was eventually recalled after a prolonged and nasty battle. Government business ground to a halt during the saga, with the chances for a budget being passed approaching zero and staff members fleeing to the private sector (many to jobs as consultants to the government). Once again they dragged me out of the governor’s mansion, carted me across town to the capital, and plopped me down on a podium in front of a now-weary audience. As the Lieutenant Governor stepped onto the stage I glanced down at his wife and four children with utter disinterest. I felt like a bored human destined to watch a re-run of M*A*S*H for the fifth time because nothing else is on. When the warm hand pressed against my back I thought once again about how tiring and embarrassing it is to be a front for confused men who can’t seem to keep it in their pants.

I’m definitely ready to retire.