State senator Ron Weldum wanted this meeting over with. He stood in the living room looking out at the street. The sun was falling behind the tree line. It smelled like spring. In the coming weeks it would get nice outside but there would be a lot of hours inside a dark office. At least the kids would visit at some point and they’d grill long cuts of meat on the hibachi and eat outside. It would be a good time or at least a respite from the job.
Perhaps having Mr. Nunez over for dinner had been poor judgement, he thought. Nunez was a young, high-profile advocate for pot legalization and prison sentence reduction. He made good points but there was no way the base would go for it. Illinois was slow to liberal reform, Chicago excluded.
A green Subaru Outback pulled into his driveway and a lanky man with jet black hair got out. He was wearing a white business shirt that looked badly in need of a pressing and holding what looked like a cake carrier in his hand. Ron ran to the door before the kid could push the buzzer. He deliberately flung it open with one swift motion and had the perverse pleasure of seeing this man half his age jump out of his shoes.
“Oh, uh hello,” the young man stammered. He stuck his hand out.
“Pleasure to finally meet you Ron,” the young man said. “I’m Byron Nunez.”
“Pleasure’s all mine, Byron,” Ron said extending his hand. “Why don’t you come on in and have a seat in the living room. Are you a tequila guy?”
“Scotch actually if you have it?”
“We can do scotch.”
“I brought some desert. Figured you shouldn’t be the only one pulling your weight on dinner.”
Ron at the carrier. It was some kind of pound cake. Store bought. The cheap bastard.
“Great,” Ron said. “We can have it for dessert.”
Perhaps he’d misjudged this man on the phone. Of course, he was there because he wanted something — actually quite a lot of things — but he’d had the grace to bring something. He had respect, even though the gift looked like it was from the store.
Ron took the cake into the kitchen and set it down on the counter. He looked around at the mess he’d made preparing dinner and felt an odd sort of happiness about it. It was messy but it was his mess. He’d enjoyed making it and he’d enjoy cleaning it up later tonight or possibly tomorrow. His wife would never know there’d been a mess. It was odd, but the older he got, the more he enjoyed cooking and cleaning. It relaxed him.
“Alexa, how much time is left on dinner?” he asked.
The rock music that had been playing softly paused for a moment and a disembodied voice in the walls told him fifteen minutes remained. Ron nodded and poured Bryon a scotch double on the rocks. Byron was walking along the wall opposite the window where track lights shined on pictures of Ron at various events of importance in his life. Ron watched him do this.
Towards the beginning there was the young red headed kid proudly holding a trophy for a grammar school debate club. His parents were kneeling beside him. Moving to the right, there was the young city clerk, now with a beard, standing in the middle of a conference room making a speech to the Evanston city council. In the next picture was he and his wife on the day they were married. It was a particularly lovely photograph with both of them standing in front of the bluff of a rock garden. The wedding had been expensive. There were several ribbon cutting shots as well as some baby pictures. There were easily fifty photos on the wall and Ron could say a little bit about each one of them if asked. Years of practice made this easy. It was a good ice breaker with guests and a good way to make a person feel ill-accomplished in his presence. Byron was standing near one that Ron particularly enjoyed talking about.
“That’s the former Mayor of Cicero and I,” Ron said. He’d sidled up to Byron. That picture was taken in the 80’s during the crack cocaine pandemic. We were jointly announcing newly distributed Byrne funding that came as a direct result of a crime bill that I introduced.”
“Hmmm,” Bryon said. “I didn’t realize that crack cocaine was that big of an epidemic in Cicero. Now cocaine may be another story.”
“You’re talking about two very different beasts though,” Ron said. “Cocaine is generally more expensive and harder to get access to.”
“Yeah, but I mean, chemically speaking, they’re damn near the same thing.”
“I don’t think the experts would agree on that Mr. Nunez –”
“Please call me, Byron.”
Ron smiled. Byron was a shifty bastard, had to give him that.
“Listen, what’s say we don’t get to the serious talk until you’ve had some of my mashed potatoes. What do you say?”
“I won’t say no,” Byron said. He was smiling now too.
“This way,” Ron said gesturing to the dining room.
Byron ate almost the entire plate of mashed potatoes, broccoli and meatloaf. Ron laughed inside. It was fitting that a marijuana advocate should have such a large appetite. The hunger was usually what came on shortly before the user lapsed into some kind of awful depression bordering on suicide.
“Ron, I have to tell you,” Byron said after he’d cleared his plate “this may be one of the best meals I’ve eaten.”
“Glad to think I’ve had a positive influence on you. Maybe I can sway you on other issues.”
“Well, if only your opinions on pot and prison were as good as your food,” Byron smiled. “Now let’s have some of that cake. I’m curious to see what you think of it.”
Ron went into the kitchen and retrieved the cake from the carrier. He cut himself and his guest generous slices.
“Do you want any coffee with your dessert?” Ron called from the kitchen.
“That would be great,” Byron replied.
He bought the cakes and coffee in and sat down. He took a bite of the pound cake. It was quite possibly one of the most delicious cakes he’d tasted in recent memory.
“This has to be home made. It’s too good.”
Byron smiled and bowed his head a little.
“I have to admit when I saw it, it looked store bought.”
“Really?” Byron cocked his head slightly to the side.
“Don’t worry about it, kid. It’s not about how it looks, it’s about the taste.”
Ron took several more large bites and a long swig from his coffee. They both ate in silence for a few moments.
“Byron, may I ask you something and hopefully you won’t take it the wrong way?”
Byron smiled, a big toothy one this time and put his tongue to his lip.
“How does it feel to be — well — young right now?”
“Well — I don’t know. Kind of like it’s always felt I guess. Why do you ask?”
“Ah I just — what are you about 30?”
“I’m thirty-four,” Byron said.
“You know, I remember when I was about that age, maybe a little younger, my first term as an Illinois senator. Hell, it seems ages ago now. There was this bill coming up. A senator was proposing a gas tax hike. This was the eighties so the gas shortage and the OPEC snafu was still pretty fresh in people’s minds. We were behind on funding for the fiscal year. There was another senator, older guy named Frank Adenoy. He was a good guy, Jew from Skokie. He had his own chain of bowling alleys. Good businessman.
“Well, he came onto the floor of the senate one afternoon and he started making a speech to the effect that, a lot of constituents in his area depended on cars to get to and from where they needed to go. He said this gas tax would be a reason for a lot of them to elect different people this time around, it was an election year. This bill had been in the papers for a couple of months and people were starting to say fairly vocally that if this gas tax hike went through they’d be casting a vote for the other ticket. He starts talking about how he’d be open to an alternative — then he says he may have the potential legislation to do it.”
Ron paused and took a sip of his coffee.
“So, this old Jewish guy. He tells us there’s this young goy man and he’s got a controversial bill that we should take a look into. The senate chair recognizes this young man and he comes forward. I can’t for the life of me remember his name now. Anyway, he comes forward with this bill that proposes to legalize and tax marijuana for recreational purposes at a rate of eighteen per cent. It’s a goddamn no brainer. You tax something at eighteen per cent it’s going to close the gap on all of our funding problems within the next ten years. It’s a good plan
“Do you know what the Senators on the floor did? They laughed him out of the goddamn room. Guy just stood there for a couple minutes while they laughed at him. Really sad. The senate president didn’t shut everyone up because he was laughing right along with them — you know what happened Byron? We went with the gas hike — and old Frank Adenoy. Well, he was a good guy, but I think he even knew that was a mistake.”
Byron shrugged. His face was blank.
“And that kid who brought it forward, whose name I can’t remember — that tells you about all you need to know.”
“Sounds like a genius before his time,” Byron said.
“Ahh you guys,” Ron said leaning back in his chair. “You’re so damn young. Hell, you want a cigar? Maybe we can talk outside for a while, perhaps the cool air will help you reason.”
Byron offered a wry grin.
“My powers of reasoning are fine Ron and I don’t smoke. If you’d like to go outside I’ll accompany.”
“Well I want one, so come with me.”
They out through the sliding glass door and sat on the patio. It was dark now and the crickets sang.
“Byron, I don’t mean to talk down to you. You seem like a smart guy. I just can’t bring a vote to the floor for this now. Not in an election year.”
“An election year is the perfect time I think,” Byron said. “People in Illinois are tired of the same stance on these issues Ron. There’s a lot of support for prison sentence reform now. There’s probably more now than there’s ever been. Marijuana legislation too. Times have changed a lot.”
“Not for this,” Ron said. “This is something really different. People aren’t ready.”
“Didn’t Martin Luther King say something in Letter from a Birmingham Jail about waiting.”
“Ah, you can’t tie up what he did with the pot issue. Not even remotely.”
“They’re absolutely connected because of how our justice system unfairly targets people of color. Most people try pot at some point, statistically speaking Ron. When a justice department goes after people of color who are behaving in damn near the same way as white people, what does that say about that system?”
“Young man, I’m sorry but you might have your history mixed up there a bit. I’m a baby boomer.”
Ron jabbed himself in the chest with his thumb.
“I grew up in the sixties, marched with civil rights activists in Markham,” he continued. “That movement was about people’s basic freedoms, our basic freedoms. I stood in the path of policemen, walked up the street with a sign in my hand. It was a much higher movement and it was for an actual purpose. That’s the thing which is so difficult to communicate to young people nowadays.”
“So, Ron, do you not see equal protection under the law as a basic freedom? You know half the time these, hell most times, black defendants aren’t even given enough time to prepare an adequate defense against drug charges? There’s not enough public defenders to go around. One in ten blacks are in prison. Most of those people are in there for offenses that white people commit without incident most of the time.”
“Kid, we’ve got a budget that needs to add up at the end of the year. We can’t help the fiscal realities that we’re up against. If someone can come along and figure out a way to deal with those, then we’ll really be on our way, but we can’t just write in money for these sorts of things. Hell, Illinois is broke as it is.”
“Well with less prisoners Ron, we’d have less people for us to ask our taxpayers to support. That saves money.”
“Maybe, but people aren’t going to go for it. We need to do things that make sense.”
“If we pass this bill we can substantially pay off the debt we have. We could wind up with a surplus. It could be huge for people the mailings we put with the chickenary stance on corners edge vote stance with the prison –”
“What the hell did he just say?” Ron thought.
“–if win stand represent the past countermeasures budgetary rapture can influence the current meaning of debt incurred –”
“The shit is he talking about?”
“Wait Byron, you’ll have to slow down and explain,” he wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come out right. It was an odd feeling, something he hadn’t felt in a while. Not since he’d had a joi—
“Son of a bitch –”
“What’d you do to me you son of a bitch?”
It was all he could manage to say and the words were miles away.
“What’d you do to me you son of a bitch?”
“Ron, Ron you need to sit. This is very strong.”
He moved with great effort towards a lawn chair.
“I wouldn’t there sitting advise cold outside Ron when the stuff Ron really comes on Ron.”
“Ron — I’m still Ron.”
It was terrifying. He understood what had happened now, but he couldn’t vocalize it.
“Be intense but you’ll survive it. Have some whiskey — level you off.”
He started to hand him a drink and Ron swatted at the air. The whiskey spilled onto Byron’s shirt.
“This isn’t right.”
“It’s a blunt solu — but your mind needs to be opened up a bit.”
“Fuck have you done to me?”
“Okay yourself you suit. An evening I leave going to the car keys. Try to pay attention to what you feel Ron. Take it all in — all in — all in –”
Nothing for hours. Just the sky and the trees. He went inside finally to get warm but in his mind he was still outside, looking up at trees. Somehow he’d never really gone inside. In fact, he wasn’t in his body at all.
He was somewhere above it, hovering. He was hovering over his mess in the kitchen, over the dinner table. The damn cake must have been the thing that did it.
In the morning he woke to sun blaring in his eyes. He was in bed with just his boxer shorts on and couldn’t remember going up there. There had been some wild dreams, something about running through a desert, or maybe sledding? He sat up in his bed. He was asleep still, dreaming in a way. He sat on the bed for an hour. He looked at the clock. Only ten minutes had passed. Sense of time gone; rhythm lost. Everything was fuzzy, stuck behind a layer he couldn’t quite penetrate. The feeling was subtle…at least more subtle now than last night but it was definitely there, this feeling of a filter over his mind, his eyes, all forward motion arrested by a great weight. He’d smoked a few times in his life and knew the feeling well.
He made his way downstairs. The cake was gone. Byron had been smart, removing everything. He wanted something to be done, but oddly he also didn’t. Who would ever believe it anyway? It was too crazy.
It might also hurt him more than it helped. He could see these young activist types reading the story and smirking. Also — now that the initial high was gone there was a certain — pleasantness to all of this. There wasn’t any great hurry to clean the house. It was Saturday. His wife wouldn’t be back until tomorrow evening. When was the last time he’d been outside anyway?
Ron slipped on his sandals and stepped out into the sun. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. It was fairly overcast, but not the rainy kind, just enough to keep the heat of the sun off you. Ron starting to walk down the street — or was he floating? Flying? Gliding through air? It felt amazing. The crazy thoughts had subsided into a far gentler, calmer sensation. Could he really say at this point there were no benefits to the argument?
“Wait, no! I was forcibly drugged,” he thought. “I was given this by force — well by deceit anyway –”
But still — this feeling — wonderful. He went back and forth like this with himself for blocks. He couldn’t be angry or frustrated. He was simply out to sea. Calm.
He was at an intersection close to his house when his cell phone rang, Fur Elise.
“This is Ron.”
“Hi Ron, it’s Byron Nunez. Christ, I’m so sorry I missed your dinner last night. I tried to get word to your secretary to tell you I wasn’t going to be able to make it. Had a little snafu at our headquarters. When would there be a good time for us to reschedule so we can discuss that marijuana bill I’m bringing to the floor?”
Josh Hale is an emerging writer from the Chicagoland area of the U.S.