Acting on a signal from Fred Milton, Alexandra Raines had joined the table. Milton did not introduce her to Joe Mudge, or to Mudge's wife, for that matter. Instead, Milton pulled his chair closer to the table and moved his plate out of the way to signal that he had no intention of eating. The battle had been joined.
"Now Joe," Milton said, releasing a deep sucking gust of air, "looks to me like we've got Moseley family body parts scattered across the better part of Middle Tennessee. Stress Free's stock landed just north of 8. I've never seen a move like that in my life. Devastating, I have to confess."
"Don't ya love that Death Spiral Preferred, Fred?" Mudge said. The wolf smile glistened. "My goodness. Only thing that stopped it was the darn clock."
"Yes, and time doesn't stand still, does it, Joe."
"Nope, it sure don't. If it did, I'd be 15 and still filling gas tanks."
Milton paused a second. "You still think about those times, Joe?"
"Ain't a day goes by I don't, Fred. You can take the boy out of the garage, but you can't take the garage out of the boy." Mudge's wolf smile vanished. He fumbled with the clasp on his gold watch. He could think of nothing to do but speak.
"You scratch me, Milton, and I bleed engine oil. You know that. I'm a guy who gave up biting my fingernails cuz they was so black and I got sick at how they tasted. I never wore anything but a set of coveralls every day, 365 days a year, the whole time I was growing up. I'll be honest, I can still fix a car better than most fellas. You're looking at who I am. I don't run from it."
Mudge turned and handled his watch, leaving the silence at the table to be filled by Dave Dubinsky and his banjo onstage. His "jewgrass" had only picked up speed and savagery with each slug of alcohol, his damp fake rabbinical curls lashing his cheek. He was just ending a version of "Rocky Top" that employed whole verses of "If I Were a Rich Man" when he took another swig from his bottle. Dubinsky leaned over to the microphone.
"GUY HAS A CAR ACCIDENT. JEWISH GUY. SHORTLY LITTLE BYSTANDER TAKES HIS JACKET OFF AND PUTS IT UNDER THE HEBE'S HEAD. 'ARE YOU COMFORTABLE?' THE BYSTANDER ASKS. THE JEW SAYS, 'YEAH, I MAKE A GOOD LIVING.'"
Nobody laughed except Mrs. Joe Mudge, who briefly diverted her attention from her platter of beef. Kind of like old Hee Haw routines, she marveled, only Jewish. Now she could see the woman who had been at the table earlierSmathers, wasn't that her name?waving at the banjo player to leave the stage. Apparently his time to quit playing had come, but he was refusing to step down. Some people just don't know when to leave, she thought. She resumed masticating her meat.
"You know, Joe," Fred Milton said, "we've all paid our prices somehow, some way, haven't we?" The wolf smile was long gone.
"Who's 'we,' Fred?" Mudge said. "You wanta talk about paying the price? Here you been to Vanderbilt, something I ain't never done. Here you get all the words right, and I know I never will. Here you belong to all the right clubs and groups and organizations, and ain't nobody asking me to join 'em unless they need a handout. You wanta talk about paying the price? Why don't you ask your little black attorney about paying the price, or ask me about paying the price. But don't suppose for a second that you done paid the price."
Taking a cool sip of his iced tea, Mudge paused to see if he'd managed to get to Alexandra Raines a bit, to sway her over to his side. All was fair in negotiationrules of engagement, and all that. But Alexandra sat unfazed, and so did Milton. He knew Mudge had to let off some steam, and the truth was, Milton couldn't blame him. The old Nashville, the one ruled in secret by a principled elite, the one that changed only when it was impossible not to change, the one held together by manners and breeding and civility, was fading. The old social order had eroded badly in the last decade. Graying heads in the room stood out like the last flecks of unmelted snow. One day Fred Milton would look around, and all he'd see was a roomful of Joe Mudges and their bovine wives. One day, all too soon, he wouldn't be there to look around.
"What do you want out of this, Joe Mudge?" Milton asked.
"You know where I come from, Fred. I want the big house. I want Darby Glen. I been looking at it since I was a kid growing up in a tarpaper shack with dirt floors. Does any of this come as a surprise?"
Milton then turned to Alexandra. "You represent the Moseley family interests here. As far as you're concerned, what are you prepared to do to stop Joe Mudge?"
"I will, no later than 9 a.m. tomorrow, ask for a temporary injunction to stop Joe Mudge from all activities surrounding Stress Free," Alexandra said, giving Mudge the same telescopic-sight gaze he'd leveled at her mentor. "I will plead tortuous interference. My plea will detail his malicious involvement in internal company affairs that led the company to its ruin. What this will grant us, most certainly, is time. Given the complicated nature of things, and how they've proceeded, litigation could go on for at least a couple of years before its resolution. And that's without appeals."
"In other words," Mudge said, raising the curtain on the wolf smile, "you ain't got nothing to hang your hat on but time. Is that right?"
"Time is money, Mr. Mudge," Alexandra said. Her voice was as cool as gunmetal. "You know that."
"So sue me. Tomorrow morning when you're down at the courthouse filing this and that, I'll tell you what I'll be doing. I'll be placing more short orders. Heck, all I gotta do is move the stock down is another 25 cents. Then, you know the drill: I own a majority of the company. I then vote my majority shares to fire the board, appoint my own board, and bingo, it's home free for this old boy. From there I spin off the concrete division and get Darby Glen for free. Fact is, I own these people. I got 'em by the short hairs."
What he said was true. This was little more than a surrender negotiation. The only question was the terms. "Is your plan to develop Darby Glen?" Milton asked.
"I ain't gonna develop nothing," Mudge said. "I done developed enough over in Deerlick. I want something to look at when I come home and a place to put the horses. I wanta do a little farming, like we did when we was little. Honey wants to fix up the house, too. That's all we want."
"You're not gonna get rich doing that, Mudge."
"The point ain't to grow rich. The point is to grow corn and not need it."
At the head table, nine plates of filet mignon sat growing cold, the mushroom sauce hardening into a goopy brown. Scattered applause was breaking out across the room. Jill Smathers, with one arm draped around her husband Dave Dubinsky, was walking him offstage into a murky and dimly lit area. Mrs. Joe Mudge was on her feet clapping. Some guests, having finished dinner, were congregating at a bar area in the corner of the room and others were sneaking into the hotel bar for an after-dinner cocktail.
Milton now settled back into his chair. There was really nothing more to say. The markets never lied. And secretly, he loved that Mudge had no plans to develop the land. He had hunted lots of dove at Darby Glen. The world was developed enough as it was.
"So take the house," Alexandra said. Milton looked at his understudy warily, but her white eyes shone like headlights and her black skin shrouded any nervousness she might have felt. Mudge raised an eyebrow.
"Take the house and back off from the company, now. And I do mean now," Raines continued, no longer looking to Milton for reassurance. "Rescind the short orders. Release a statement expressing confidence in the company. Tear up the loan document as well and release the family from any and all other debts or obligations. The house will be yours, but only subject to certain conditions that you will honor in writing and in a contract that I myself will write."
"Awwright," Mudge said. "What are the conditions?"
"Lifetime rights to the house by Mrs. Moseley. At her death, you can assume occupancy of the premises, but no earlier. You will bear all expenses for Darby Glen's upkeep and maintenance, as if you yourself were the occupant. Family use of the property will continue as is, until Mrs. Moseley's death. And finally, in lieu of fees for my negotiations in the settlement, my own mother, Dorthula Raines, the housekeeper of Darby Glen, will be paid the normal wages she would have received otherwise out of your expense and maintenance budget."
Joe Mudge said nothing. Nor did Fred Milton. Alexandra tried to lock eyes with them, but the two men were staring at the flower arrangement in the center of the table. Neither man wanted to be the first to open his mouth. An approaching commotion spared them both. From the back of the room, a figure in a blue suit walked shakily towards the head table. Beside him, a young man gripped him by the arm to steady him. Behind them, two other young people followed.
When Trigg Moseley had awakened and the psychiatrist had pronounced him fit to go, he had insisted on racing across town to the Que Pasa event. Trigg was still having to focus on putting one leg in front of the other, and he was not precisely sure what had transpired by the time the markets had closed. But what he could remember was not good. His hair was parted the wrong way, and his tie was loosened from his neck. He hoped it was not evident to the rest of the room that he had lost a century of tradition in the blink of a few ones and zeros.
Approaching the head table, Trigg thought that he could make out Joe Mudge sitting at the head table. Mudge? That presumptuous redneck! How had he ended up at the table? The bastard sat there with his cud-chewing wife, flashing that jackal smile, the smile of a carnivore that has eaten something precious.
Somewhat shakily, Trigg walked over to shake Fred Milton's hand. He greeted Alexandra, bowing somewhat stiffly at the waist. This was what a gentleman did in his hour of reckoning. Trigg Moseley would not run from his shame. He had standards by which he lived, and never would anyone say that he had been anything other than an honorable man when the day came to hand over his sword.
From several tables away, Dorthula Raines watched Trigg's unsteady advance through the banquet hall. She could not count on both hands the times she had picked up Trigg Moseley when he had fallen as a boy. She could not count the Band-Aids she had put on his skinned knees. She remembered all the young tears she had wiped from Trigg's face, telling him he would feel better soon. Seeing Trigg Moseley's discomfort as he walked through the hall was her great pain to bear too. There was nothing she could do to stop
herself from walking over to help him.
"Lord sakes, child," she said, applying a napkin to the shoulders of Trigg's jacket as if he were an armoire to be polished. "You look like the cat drug you in. Let's sit you down right over heah." Dorthula was speaking like a mother to a child, something not lost on Alexandra. Some knot of fear in Trigg's belly loosened at the sound of her voice.
Dorthula held one of Trigg's arms as he tried to seat himself. Joe Mudge reached for the other, but withdrew when Trigg stiffened his back. "I may be defeated," he said sharply, but I have not asked for your help." Mudge shrugged and reached for his Sprite. Raising an eyebrow, Dorthula sat down next to her daughter. She had done everything she could
not to sit at the Moseleys' head table, but now she had no choice.
"We been talkin' 'bout you," Mudge said to Trigg, as warmly as if he weren't holding the bayonet in his gut. "Been missin' you all night, wonderin' where you were."
"Well, I'm here," Trigg said, with all the aggrieved civility he could muster. "I would never miss such a fine event." In truth, he felt painfully out of place. He glanced around at the suspended piñatas, the flowers, the tiny blinking lights in the ceiling. Where was the world he knew? Why couldn't his wife just throw a normal party, instead of having to dress everything up to look so damned foreign and exotic? Would it be so awful just to throw a Nashville party?
"Trigg," Milton said, "do you know where things wound up today?" Mudge, Milton and Raines cast looks amongst themselves as if convening a tribunal.
"I don't have the foggiest. Fact is, I am foggy."
"Well, Trigg, you've lost Darby Glen. The house, the land, all of it. Your mother, however, can stay there for the rest of her life. On the other hand, you get the company back. That's basically it."
The words struck him in the stomach. Three generations of a family business, and when it had been placed on his shoulders for safekeeping, he had blown it. Trigg picked up the little Mexican ornament that had been left on his plate. Since when did these get to be so big, he wondered.
"Does Mother know?" Trigg asked.
"No," Alexandra said. "She left a little while ago to go to the
"Don't tell her," Trigg said. The table paused.
"You have to tell her," Alexandra said. "As we negotiate the settlement, we're almost certainly going to have to get her signature on numerous papers. It's important I tell her the disposition of her assets."
"Nah it's not." It was Dorthula speaking. "You don't have to let her know nuthin'. I don't know about no fancy-sounding disposition of this or that, but I can tell you it ain't no lie not to let her know sumthin'. The thing is she only knows what she wants to know anyhow. You could tell the woman it's rainin' and if she thought it was sunny in her mind that is what she would see. So we ain't telling Mrs. Moseley the house ain't hers. That's just how it is."
Turning to Alexandra, Fred Milton placed his hand over hers. "Your mother is right," he murmured. "Technically, you are too. But there's law and then there's people. Don't forget that."
"What do we do about Sims?" Trigg asked. "I passed him at the bar when I walked in. He looks pretty shit-faced."
"You just let that child sober up in the mawnin' and I'll tell it to him," Dorthula said. "It ain't nothin' he ain't seen comin' for a long, long time anyhow. Don't you worry, Trigg Moseley. It's gonna be just fine."
The funny thing was, hearing Dorthula say the words actually made things sound fine. Except that he'd never had any desire to go run a concrete company. It was there, and it was the family's, and it fell to him. Trigg would have to improve things there or go bankrupt in the process. He would have to return to the hard work of making concrete, as his grandfather had done. And even if he succeeded, he'd be helping to pour platforms for the Joe Mudges who were paving over the countryside. The land had been blood, and men died for it. Now it held subdivisions, three featureless houses to an acre. Forever after, the city would be divided into two camps: those who called this progress, because they had never had land to lose, and those who would join Nashville's battlefields and graveyards under the slabs of concrete.
"The deal is, you win, Joe Mudge," Trigg said, pulling up his tie an inch or two. "You saw an opening and you took it. I had figured you a different man, but still: you won fair and square. Of course I don't like it. But I recognize it, and I will honor it." Then he leaned closer to Mudge, and for a second Trigg thought he saw something behind the wolf smile, something temporarily uneasy, like a twinge of fear.
"Just a word, though, as one Stress Free investor to another," Trigg said, staring Mudge in the eye. "If you're going to own our home, just bear in mind that they aren't making any more Darby Glens. It's worth fighting for, and it's worth dying for."
The woman in the frizzy black hair was now speaking into the microphone. Trigg Moseley looked at her warily. My God, he thought, what an unattractive lady.
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! WE HAVE SOMETHING VERY SPECIAL! TO ANNOUNCE FOR YOU! A PROMINENT LOCAL BUSINESSMAN! JOE MUDGE! HAS AGREED TO ENDOW A SPECIAL AWARD! TO BE GIVEN TO THE MOST PROMINENT VOLUNTEER OF QUE PASA! MR. MUDGE! WILL YOU NOW COME FORWARD!"
Joe Mudge rose from his chair, pulled on his jacket, and sauntered towards the stage. Time to assume his rightful place on the civic stage. Joe Mudge would wave all around, and smile his wolf smile, and bask in the glow of warm good intentions, and look concerned about all those Mexicans. We always need roofers, he thought to himself, and smiled so all the crowd could see.
"AND WOULD THE WINNER! OF THE PRIZE! HERSELF! PLEASE APPROACH THE STAGE! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! IT IS WITH GREAT HONOR! THAT THE FIRST WINNER! OF THE JOE MUDGE! QUE PASA! VOLUNTEER OF THE YEAR! AWARD! WILL BE...JOANIE MOSELEY!"
The honoree stared in shock from the corner of the room. One minute earlier, this man had gutted her family, stolen their business, sat there smiling the whole timeat their table!and now he was handing her a trophy, seizing her moment? Joanie turned in tears to leave, but a firm but gentle hand touched her shoulder. It was Maria. From her pocketbook she withdrew a hairbrush and some tissue. She wiped away Joanie's tears, then touched up her hair. No one would know for a second that Joanie Moseley had been anything less than the perfect hostess.
"Go," Maria said. "This is for you."
As Joanie Moseley approached the podium, she basked in the roar of the city's approval. She could feel the hot lights hit her face and the crowd vanished into blackness. A broad smile was breaking out across her face. So Trigg wasn't here. This would be her moment, and later she would tell him how table after table rose to its feet as she walked by. The applause continued as Nashville roared for Joanie, for the Hispanics, and for the grand thing that is true civic progress.
From the bar, Sims Moseley could hear the commotion coming from the hall. But he preferred to bask in the pleasing numbness of a double brandy as it soothed his mind's anxious recesses. As he saw his mother walk back to the head table, he thought what an utter mess his family always was and forever would be. Soon he would return to New York; he could count the minutes. He thought of Dorthula's voice and took one last lingering sip.
Having just checked her teeth for lipstick in the bathroom mirror, Mrs. Moseley approached the head table and saw that Trigg had arrived. How nice of him to finally have come, she thought, and kissed him on the cheek. Then she pulled up next to Fred Milton, who was standing and applauding. How handsome Fred Milton looked as he held himself ramrod straight, clapping for her daughter-in-law. What a gentleman that Fred Milton was. She did not see him gently pull a petal from the calla-lily centerpiece, press it to his lips, and place it within his suit jacket, over his heart.
In the hotel parking lot, Andy Hobbs and Jill Smathers were folding Dave Dubinsky into the back of her four-door BMW. Smathers was growing more apoplectic by the moment. Inside, her client's fortunes were being adjudicated without benefit of her insight, her control, her communication. Instead, she was dealing with a drunk Music Row wannabe. "Andy, look, you gotta drive Dave home, okay?" she pleaded. "I gotta head back inside. Can you do that for me?"
Hobbs cocked a look at his understudy. "Honey, your crisis ain't inside. Your crisis is in the backseat." And with that, Hobbs strode slowly back towards the banquet hall. Looking around at the sea of cars, hearing her husband snore drunkenly upon her leather seats, Smathers suddenly felt very alone. God, she thought, how she hated to lose.
Back inside, waiters had begun distributing chocolate puffs on little silver plates as the ladies and gentlemen continued their applause, furthering along this great urban concoction of hundreds of people, gathered in one place, committed to a greater city. As with so much else in Nashville, it was difficult to discern the precise personal motivations of those who were clapping, but the civic face was so cheery, so optimistic and congenial, that it almost didn't matter.
The applause continued as Joanie ascended the podium, where Joe Mudge stood in triumph. He held the award, an artist's abstract crystal rendering of a sombrero, and she plunged its sharp edges into his chest, cleaving his cold heart. Well, almost. She gratefully accepted the object, held it high for everyone to see, and mentally phrased some remarks about the spirit of community.
As she stood there, Trigg summoned up all the energy he had to clap for his wife. Say he had gambled, and lost badly; say he had been turned from the land in defeat; but never, ever, say that Trigg Moseley had not abided by the highest standards of civilized behavior. When people found out the news about Darby Glen, they would say: Here is a man who understands the importance of values, in an age bereft of them. Here is a man who would rather lose the war than fight ugly. Here, we can only hope, is the city's future.
On stage, before the highest hopes of the city, Joe Mudge and Joanie Moseley beamed in their moment of triumph. The wolf and the lamb stood together, shielded by the cloak of civility. In the applause that showered them, the city cheered its noble intentions, whether it would ever honor them or not. Great change was afoot in a city where things never change. It was Christmastime in Nashville, and the ceilings were strung with piñatas.
COPYRIGHT 2004 BY BRUCE DOBIE.