Trigg Moseley popped a Motrin in his mouth and began sucking on it. Once again, his leg was beginning to throb. Good. Pain, to Moseley, was a natural byproduct of exertion and hardship. As such, it was to be relished, savored, lingered upon. Whenever he felt lightning bolts shoot from his knee up his leg, after severe physical exertion, he enjoyed the sensation. As opposed to the vast majority of the world's slothful and dormant physical specimens, he had made his body work.
Even this morning he knew he would suffer, but like hell would he pull back. Before the Civil War battlefield tour, before the taxing climb up Shy's Hill, he had run four miles in damp morning air. He ran, in part, to keep in peak condition; anyone who looked at him knew that, he thought. The ritual had remained since his freshman year at Vanderbilt. But Trigg ran also to gather his thoughts. Setting forth down his driveway, he had briefly thought this morning about Darby Glen, but the subsequent rush of misery drove his mind elsewhere. Instead, he set his pace thinking about the gray Confederates, on this day in 1864, meeting a defeat that doomed them to the graveyard of lost causes. For the next four miles, he reviewed his speech and debated what he would say.
Rather than swallow the Motrin, as he sat in Smathers' cool, spare conference room, he savored its harsh chemical contact. He would suck on it until it disappeared, as a flabbier man might a popsicle. The seep of painkiller sent a tickling buzz through his gums, cheek and tongue, entirely legal yet suffused with faint pleasure. He wondered if anyone else in the world appreciated that raw industrial aftertaste, pain's bittersweet chaser. Indeed, how many men his age could or would run four miles in the cold, damp Nashville morning, in spiritual solidarity with that band of brothers who took Minie balls for their homesteads, their beliefs. Who else at his age hurt from such manly strain, who pushed, pushed, pushed because life was short and the afterlife idle glory?
Uh-oh, he thought, making several mouthwide sweeps with his tongue. Swallowed the Motrin.
He felt safe and warm in Smathers' conference room, but he wondered: What exactly am I paying a public relations advisor for? Why does a man need spin? A lot of Nashvillians, mostly quick-rise businessmen looking to leave their prints on the city, had their own personal PR people. Why, Trigg couldn't fathom. Nashville's public relations industry was huge, influentialinescapable, evenand yet it was frequently impossible to figure out exactly what these people did.
For a fee, one of the city's hundreds of PR advisorsa former newspaper reporter, a washed-up wardheeler's ex-press secretary, a functioning drunk with a firm grip on the city's machinationswould provide such ineffable services as corporate branding, crisis management, community grassroots organization and good old-fashioned lobbying. All of which involve doing the two things everyone in the world detests: talking to the press, and dealing with government.
The press was easy. Would that a prom date could be had for a few platters of shrimp and tenderloin and some stout drinks, dispensed at holiday parties so they looked like gifts and not payment. As for dealing with government, Nashville's PR industry had become an established arm of city and state bureaucracy, an entrenched force that could either will something into being or kill it in its crib. Councilmen and mayors and sheriffs and congressmen came and went like cycles of cicadas. But the flack caste never went away at all. It held its ground, amassing power and knowledge and clout until time came to pull a lever in some remote nether region of civil service. And then it yanked with a vengeance.
Moseley wasn't exactly sure how he had hired Smathers. It would be more accurate to say he had just fallen under her spell. How he loved her calm efficiency! He couldn't help but be unnerved by hernot necessarily in a bad way, of coursebut he felt something in his stomach slowly tighten when he was in her orbit. Two years ago, they had been through Forward Nashville together, a training institute for the city's emerging leaders. Along with 38 other rising community leaders, hand-picked by the city's old guard for their mix of earnestness and hunger, he and Smathers spent a day each month attending lectures on crime and race, urban planning and the arts, and every other civic issue imaginable. The mission was clear: Uplift the City. They were the Illuminati! Forty twinkling stars, all hard-wired into the city's gridwork, all supercharging the city's forward-marching dynamism.
In those sessions, Moseley had revered Smathers' cool intensity. She was comfortable in the milieu of business titans, religious leaders, public officeholders, and the media elite. As the 10-month program had progressed, Moseley and Smathers had collaborated on a study project regarding the city's public education system. Some in the group had wanted to focus on the new movement towards charter schools, but not Smathers and Moseley. They had set the group's sights higher, pushing their colleagues to tackle an ambitious study of the school system's need for reform. How large they had thought! Now both Smathers and Moseley had been asked to serve on next year's Forward Nashville steering committee. At times, in the Forward Nashville bubble, Moseley felt that they saw things so similarly that their minds had meshed in one great heady brew of civic-minded responsibility. It was a glorious feeling.
The numerous PR firms in town had their particular styles. Some were brash, hard-drinking and brawling. Others considered themselves more cerebral, high-minded, collegial. Over the years Smathers had morphed from the former to the latter, and now she was reaping the benefits. She had arrived in town 14 years ago, armed only with an undergrad degree in communications from Indiana University. At the city's failing daily afternoon newspaper, she had gotten a summer internship. She showed talent on the police beat, and she was hired full-time. By the time she left three years later, she had covered courts, City Hall and the state Legislature.
From the newspaper, it was on to the world of PR. Because she was a well-known commodity at this pointher byline ran often on A1she was offered a mid-level job at the largest firm in town, run by a legendary PR impresario. In quick order, she advanced from "assistant account executive" to "account executive" to "senior account executive" to, finally, "Vice President, Accounts." Right about that time, the mind of her bossthe legend, the master, the impresario who had founded the art and science of public relations in the cityfinally pickled. Years of spending every afternoon in a dive bar off Music Row will do that to a person.
Sniffing a golden chance, she called the firm's five biggest clients on a Friday. She announced she was leaving the firm, and said she'd call them again Monday morning. When she did, she coolly explained that she had opened "Smathers & Assoc.," would appreciate their business, and would charge 80 percent of the monthly retainer they were paying the legend. "He's a drunk," she told the clients. They already knew that, of course, but they simply thought that was what a tough, brash, swinging-dick PR impresario was supposed to be. By Monday afternoon, all five clients had moved. In six months, the impresario was in the dive bar off Music Row full-time.
Smathers threw herself into work. She oversaw a stable of young and poorly paid (but well-dressed and flat-out beautiful) young women with state-university degrees in marketing and communications. By day they rolled out press release after press release, announcing things like "New ATM Locations Announced by Fourth National Bank" and "Home Sales Break Monthly Record: Board of Realtors." The work her firm did in the trenches paid the bills, and then some. But it did not build the Public Relations Aura that Smathers covetedthat every firm covets. The aura of retaining the corridors of power on speed dial. The aura of governing in secret, by steak dinner and Sapphire martinis.
Delicately, patientlyand above all, discreetlyshe began lunching and conferring with the men who ran the city. She would bring the right people into her fold and onto her account listthe right bank presidents, the right election fixers, the entrepreneurs bound for IPOs, those few movers and shakers at the Chamber of Commerce who could actually move and shake. All the while she radiated an inner calm, a Buddha-like fixity far removed from her predecessor's hard-drinking, fight-to-the-death style. Her quiet assuredness led people to think that she knew something that they didn'tand whatever it was, they wanted a part of it.
It was during this ascent that she found her path to enlightenment. To her followers, who were paying her $10,000 a month for retainer, she began preaching a new gospel. She termed it "The Power of the Communicative Cascade," a belief system centered on four highly volatile dynamics that determined "Success Quotient of Public Standing." Those four dynamics, Smathers contended, turned her team of well-dressed young lovelies with the state degrees and broad smiles and respectable typing skills into a shock troop of spin missionaries. The four dynamics included: "Prevention/Response;" "Message/Articulation;" "Disaster/Recovery;" and "Style/Platform." Smathers elaborated on these in koan-like newsletters e-mailed to her paying clients every month. The last such newsletter listed seven cardinal rules to build "internal message" for "community articulation."
It was all so magical and cerebral and cool. It wasn't like PR at all. If you were a Smathers client, it wasn't dirty work when she had to browbeat some city-desk functionary to shit-can a negative story. No: it was "enhancing message" and "engaging the threat-opportunity dialectic." When she strong-armed the deputy mayor into commercially rezoning 70 acres of prime property near a quaint historic subdivision in East Nashville, it was not interfering with the democratic process. Au contraire! It was "proactively seizing prevention/response." And thus her clients did not feel sullied as she undertook the ugliness of the civic clash. Why, they felt as if they were doing something clean and rational. Civilized, even. Smathers' semantic jujitsu made them feel as if they'd flown to a higher plane.
As Jill Smathers entered the conference room, she was no longer wearing the blue jeans from that morning's hike. She had changed into a sharp black pantsuit, an outfit that looked incredibly similar to one his wife owned, only tighter. But the same severe ponytail pinched back her ears. Business. She punched an octagonal speakerphone without looking down.
"Doris, send Frank in here." A laser, by comparison, lacked focus. "We're gonna have to throw an avail in four hours max, maybe even live, all hands on deck. Clear?"
My God, Moseley marveled. Was it Smathers' Midwestern-ness that so turned him on? He really didn't know many Midwesterners. A plain-spoken use of one word rather than two; an absence of excess smiling, in situations where smiling is not called for; an ability not only to engage in unpleasantness but to recognize it as such....no, Smathers was different from his wife. None of that Suh-thun syrup his wife had mastered growing up in Memphis. None of that, "Hey, honey" stuff when she didn't mean it. He loved that.
"Trigg, quit looking like you just got hit with a bat. Tell me what you've done to Joe Mudge."
Oh yes, she had asked him that a few seconds earlier. Fact was, he found himself increasingly aware of her bosomy slopiness, set off by the forward thrust of her mind. He remembered the first time the sensation struck him. During a discussion in Forward Nashville on juvenile justice, she had made a brief speech in caucus session comparing recidivism rates of juveniles and adults. In the middle of it, he had gotten hard. My God, he had wondered, does this happen often in Forward Nashville? While Smathers had continued with her statistics, Moseley had silently congratulated himself for still sporting wood at 47.
"I have done nothing to Joe Mudge," Moseley said, clearing his head. "He's a business associate actually. Not that I care for him, particularly, but...."
"Wait a second: He's your what?"
"He's helping to get Darby Glen going. He's my banker, sort of."
"Shit," she said, suddenly rising to fill her glass with more ice water. Trigg couldn't help but stare. My, she looks nice from behind, he thought. He wondered what it would be like to mount her over the blond wooden cabinets. A line from his favorite singer, James Brown, popped into his head: "This is a man's world, this is a man's world/But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl." Then....
Focus, moron! He tried to steer his mind back to Mudge and Darby Glen, but he found it hard to do so. He was distracted by the pronounced angularity of the room. Even the conference table was a parallelogram. He hadn't known where to sit without the table catching him in the back like a spear.
"Here it is in toto, Trigg," she said, pulling her chair within a foot of his. "Joe Mudge is trying to sink Darby Glen. I heard a whisper about it from somebody down at the daily newspaper. I did some calling, and it's coming together. Floyd T. Winnings over at Gethsemane gave a sermon opposing it today and he's got everyone riled up."
"Floyd T. Winnings?" Moseley asked. The name was familiar.
"Remember Diversity Day at Forward Nashville? He led the panel with the liberal rabbi, and they argued over gay marriage?"
"Oh yes, I loved him," Moseley said. "The civil rights guy. What a past. Have you read David Halberstam's The Children? It could've used an editor, but...."
"Trigg! Focus! I would tell you to shut the fuck up. But who we really need to shut the fuck up is Floyd Winnings."
"But what does Floyd Winnings have against me?" Somebody didn't like him? Trigg felt a flicker of panic.
"He doesn't have a thing against you. At least that's what I hear. But for some reason, he means to tank your project. Winnings is playing the race card like it's the World Series of Poker. He says you're going to tear down the slave shacks behind your big house. This is killer stuff. You've got one ofhell, maybe the most powerful black preacher in town branding your little white aristocratic ass as racist."
Trigg suddenly felt as if he'd been run over. The room spun. "I am not a racist," he blurted. "You know that. Everyone knows that!" The indignation swelled within him. "My God, what does Floyd Winnings know about me anyway? We've never even socialized!"
"Floyd Winnings doesn't know you from Adam. Look, I think this is all about Mudge. This morning I called down to City Hall, to find out what in the hell Winnings is up to by opposing Darby Glen. They didn't know a thing. But they did say Winnings' church is having its candidate barbecue in two weeks, and it's being underwritten by the Bank of Deerlick."
Trigg was silent.
"Think about it," Smathers said. "Since when does a lily-white suburban bank decide to fork out cash for a candidate barbecue at an inner-city black church? Hell would sooner freeze over."
Moseley just sat there, terrified by the complexity of it all. What was this world of backroom deals in black churches, and City Hall and reporters trying to chase it down, and his PR executivehis PR executive?trying to put it all back in the bottle? Was this the city in which his family had prospered for three generations? The Moseleys were not without muscle: they had money, they had attorneys. But he did not live in this arena of bloodsport. This was not the Nashville he recognized. As he sat there, somewhat dumbfounded, he noticed that Smathers looked unmoved, unsurprised. Was thatin this shark tankwas that a smile? Once again, she stabbed the speakerphone.
"Doris, don't make me drag Frank's sorry ass in here."
"I'm sorry, Ms. Smathers, he must have gone to the break room."
Within 30 seconds, a young account executive flew into the room, a blur of starched clothing attached to a legal pad and a Blackberry.
"Frank, this is Trigg Moseley. I would lay the background out for you, but I'm not sure I have time. Joe Mudge, at the Bank of Deerlick, is trying to kill Darby Glen. He has gotten a black preacher to sink it for him. Said preacher says he's trying to stop the project because it's racist. Mr. Moseley here will be doing a press availability at 4 p.m.or live, one hour laterfor any and all reporters. I need a press release written, edited, and distributed within 45 minutes. Within one hour I need a makeup artist for Mr. Moseley and within one hour 15 I need a video camera in this conference room for Mr. Moseley's TV training. By 5 p.m. I need an op-ed writtenand signedby Mr. Moseley and delivered to all print publications discussing the contributions this project will make to the tax base and the amount of money it will put in the hands of Middle Tennessee minority construction workers. By tomorrow noon, I want a "Support Darby Glen" initiative underway and 100 Nashvillians supporting it. Round up the usual suspects."
Frank scribbled even as he walked towards the door. Smathers, meanwhile, turned her gaze on Moseley.
"Trigg," she said, "There's something you need to know about Joe Mudge. The man eats his dead."
"Well," Moseley stammered, "it's not like we're friends or anything."
"That's not what I'm talking about. You've seen your company's stock price today?"
"What are you talking about, Jill?"
"It's off 10 percent."
"Our stock price hasn't changed for 20 years."
"So I hear. So obviously something weird is happening. I can fight your PR battles, Trigg, but I can't run your business for you. PR deals with things as they appear, not as they are." With that, Smathers rose from her chair and left the room. As she walked down the hallway, he could hear her yell for someone to bring a copy of the TV training video to the conference room.
Trigg's heart began beating quickly. No, he hadn't checked every single element of the contract he signed with Mudge. But he thought he understood the salient issues. He had read many a contract, signed many a deal. He was certain the arrangement with Mudge was up-and-up. Why would Mudge have loaned him money if he wanted to fight him? Wouldn't Mudge want to help a client such as Trigg Moseley rather than hurt him?
Filled with questions, he sat at Smathers' war-room parallelogram and pondered the day ahead. He had not eaten since this morning on the tour bus. Fishing a greasy sausage biscuit from the pocket of his blazer, he wolfed it down. Crumbs scattered across his lap, and he brushed them onto the severe black-and-grey rug. His thoughts inevitably returned to the Moseleys' financial sinkhole. Stress Free Concrete, the family corporation, had recently posted its most miserable financial quarter ever. As much as he hated to admit it, the livelihoods of the entire family were at stake. Developing the property was the only way to go. It was the land in which the family's salvation lay. Only with land could things be made right.
Stalking into her office, Smathers wasted no time picking up her phone. Hitting a speed-dial button, she removed an earring and brought the receiver close to her ear. Across town, in a breeko-block office painted a dull beige, the phone rang on the desk of Andy Hobbs in the County Clerk's office. He recognized the caller ID.
"The way I figure it is, I've made you at least $50,000 in retainer fees from that dumbass Vaaaanderbilt hot-shot you're potty-training over there. Is that right?" Hobbs expected no response. Instead, he began laughing, a deep, infectious rumble that echoed off the walls of his dimly lit government-issue office.
Smathers couldn't help but laugh a bit as well. It was the first time all day. Whenever she spoke to Hobbs, he had that effect on her. After all, he had been the impresario of public relations in Nashville. He was the man who taught her the business, and the man from whom she'd stolen it. Sure, they had their conflicts. But after she'd helped him hit bottom, by taking away his life preserver, he had seen the need to dry out. And after he had dried out, he still had enough juice to land a $45,000-a-year job, benefits included, in the County Clerk's office, where he supposedly oversaw the collection of driver's-license application fees.
Okay, so it wasn't a job. It was a returned favor with office space and salary provided. But from his spoils-system bunker, Hobbs had resumed playing the game once more, building his up his credentials from scratch. After years of stirring the pot, he was, once again, the man to see. The lever now rested in his hand. These days he was yanking with a vengeance.
"You're only part right about Trigg Moseley," she replied to Hobbs. "We've got a problem but some time to turn it around. By the way, thanks for the heads-up call this morning out on Shy's Hill. Quite helpful. I still can't figure out why you're playing both sides of it, though. What in the hell were you doing introducing Mudge to Winnings?"
"It's just my recreation, Jill. Almost makes me feel drunk sometimes. Listen, you've kept me out of it, right?"
"So far so good," Smathers said. "I told Moseley I'm getting my information from some reporter down at The Daily Advertiser. Everybody but him knows they couldn't find an asshole in a proctologist's office. But listen, I got a favor to ask: I need to know where you are on this. Normally, I wouldn't give a rat's ass, but I can't afford to have you against me this time. Honestly, Andy, these Moseley people could lose it all."
"Jill, didn't I teach you any better? You never develop feelings for a client. You sleeping with this Mr. Moseley?"
"Go to hell, you shithead," she fired back. She knew he was joking, and even if she were sleeping with Moseley he still wouldn't care. "Seriously, I'm willing to pay. How's another $5,000?"
"Daddy needs a new pair of shoes," he sang. "For that, I'll give the old Mudgester a shout. Something tells me he's meeting with the Black Jesus even as we speak."
COPYRIGHT 2004 BY BRUCE DOBIE.