The Country/The Country

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16, A Vote for Consensus

He was a man who walked. Though he hasn’t walked so much at night in the past. People didn’t do that around here. Frankly, people didn’t do much outside their homes in his part of the city, as far as he could tell. Did they think it was unwise to set foot outdoors after dark? Keel did not believe it was dangerous. If he did encounter someone, wouldn’t it be more than likely to be a graffiti-marker -- that is, someone on ‘his’ side -- rather than those who gathered inside the Dormands’ fine manse to do whatever they did. Plan? Plot? Divide the spoils? Appoint themselves to important offices, the way plotters did in the old-fashioned days when gangs of angry people took down governments and made themselves rulers. What dictators, tyrants, ‘strong men’ did. Took names, made lists of enemies. Keel chuckled darkly. If dark suspicions were correct, he was undoubtedly on the Dormands’ list...

Of course he was, he thought, walking down Broad Street to the square, then back through it as he did on his afternoon walks, past the church where the message board had broadcast the dangerously subversive imperative, and then going two blocks out of his way to avoid passing the Dormands’ house yet again, the street where ‘Kevin’ had waited in the car and intercepted him. He doubted Kevin would go back there again now. But then how could he tell when the cars parked close to that house -- clumsily, Keel now thought, with his new conspiratorial perspective -- started leaving? Would he try to identify ‘them’? Did he have some kind of camera? Did he already have their license plate numbers recorded on some handy little screen?

In the morning, over coffee and a slow-burning stomach, he fought the urge to call the city’s nooz-sheets. Hadn’t they followed up on the church graffiti story?

He hadn’t seen a follow-up; it would be strange if they just let it go without hounding the police a little for some kind of update. Or at least a theory. Nooz-sheets were always printing the dismissive theories of police officials to explain why they couldn’t solve a crime, make progress on a case, prevent a similar crime from happening again.

The screens were full as usual with news about Pig. He was the favorite to win the next Voting Day, since he had won most all the previous ones. The polls -- restricted by law because of their proven tendency to discourage voting (why bother? we’ll still lose) to no more than voter replies -- turned up four definites for Pig. That was more than enough to win by plurality. None of the other candidates received more than one vote. Three voters confided that they were frankly undecided.

TV news carried the daily rallies. The now customary shot from the back of the hall while supporters stood and chanted while the candidate, raving from some distant podium, surrounded by ‘aides,’ egged them on. His raging red face, partially obscured, seen only in profile.

Voting Day would be knocking at the door of Keel’s own Platow District soon now, a mere matter of days. That was how ‘the Voting’ went. Spiraling and twisting through the map of the country.

Candidates qualified for the vote months before with lists of signatures gathered by the parties that backed them. Each qualified candidate submitted a wish-list schedule of district voting days. A machine pawed through them, conflating them by lottery, to get the first few months of Voting Days scheduled. Then, the genius of the system, the candidates who did best in the first votes had their schedules preferred for the next month; and winners from that month scheduled the next. So it rolled, until the Sacred Commission stepped in for the Final Phases....

The system, its devisers pointed out, was intentionally front-loading, allowing the strongest performers a golden opportunity to sustain their momentum. It was like horse racing, or the Chase Europa. The better you did in one phase, the better your starting position for the next one. This structure created a calming impression of inevitability, planners argued, of growing consensus, unless of course the leader stumbled... Well, if it happened it was your downfall, not the system’s. If you stumbled, the other competitors scrambled around you, ran all the harder, the magnitude of their triumph increased by their newly won preference in choosing the next Voting districts; and left you in the dust. Such a result would also be accepted by the populace as earned. Any candidates who ran far behind the leader (or leaders) were expected to drop out, it was the patriotic thing to do, and allow their supporters to back a candidate more likely to prosper.

This overall effect of the country’s voting system was to build consensus, its planners reasoned. The last Voting Days of the ‘journey,’ as the system was often described, were meant to be a triumphant progress through the country whose reins of governance the leading contender would soon legitimately, and inevitably, grab hold of. The Leading Candidate was now almost certainly too far ahead to be caught. Crowds gathered to strew flowers at his (or her, theoretically) feet. The final Voting Days turned into victory parades, unifying the populace, building a general acceptance of the result, or at worst resignation.

The plan was consciously designed to avoid the last minute, overnight shock of a single nationwide voting day when half the country awoke outraged over what the other half had done the day before.

The country’s ‘Designers’ (as these hallowed personages were termed) wanted elections to appear to be a reasoned consensus, following a thoughtful process. They wanted new leaders to take office with the aura of a demonstrated consent of the governed.

In the nation’s earlier days, so-called ‘election days’ had frequently turned into highly charged and divisive public quarrels. Cries of ‘election fraud,’ rigged voting, and voter suppression added to a divisive, deadlocked ‘nightmare scenario,’ as it was termed by the nooz media.

Ironically, Keel thought, in view of what his own nightmares were telling him now.

The Monro Animal Shelter reminded him of a chicken coop on a farm he had visited a lifetime ago, attracted by a sign for “firewood for sale.” He had wanted a little firewood, half a trunkload maybe, for the fireplace in the cabin where he had taken himself for ‘a change.’ Remember that, he said to himself, he used to go places. The memory focused, then slipped away, as he looked for someplace to park. These days he was happy that his little car, made by a small company that probably didn’t exist any more, still started.

The animal shelter was located on the edge of town, where the zoning was looser. Any neighbors who lived nearby probably wished they didn’t.

The property was noisy, and the noise wasn’t caused by his arrival. Which nobody on two legs appeared to notice. The building had a ramshackle look, and the rows of what he assumed were cages for the dogs gave the place that chicken coop aspect: long rows of wood-and-wire boxes with metal roofs, wooden exterior walls, and chicken-wire gates. The dogs barked -- some, though not all of them -- but without particular urgency. They barked, he thought, because they were bored. They barked because they wanted someone to pay attention to them. But they barked without much urgency, because experience has already suggested to them that nobody much did. They had probably already been fed once that day, and no one had yet come back to clean out their cages. Keen kept his distance from this canine penitentiary, more from the intimation of a smell than its actuality, since a wintry breeze was blowing at his back.

The door to the structure, with a paper “Monro Animal Control” sign taped to its window, was closed, but not locked, so he walked in when no one answered his knock.

The room he entered was old, unappealing, built for something other than its current use, with a couple of desks and a few mismatched chairs. A woman sat on a chair with wheels behind a desk in a corner talking on a telephone. An actual old-fashioned wall-hanging telephone made of some unattractive beige plastic.

It was the assistant, he assumed, the one who did not bother to try to find out where the animal control officer was. The boss, he figured, would be secreted in some inner, cozier office, if she was there at all.

He stood and waited while the woman on the telephone pretended he wasn’t there.

She would nod at him any moment, he thought, and tell him to sit down.

She didn’t.

Keen planted himself like a tree between the door and the woman’s desk and remained calm. The way to win the contest of wills, he thought, was to do nothing, show nothing, until the fact of one’s unemotional persistence worked its way through the defenses of his opponent, who had turned her body slightly so as not to look at him and lowered her voice.

Personal call. What a surprise.

He could sense the sigh working its way through the woman’s body. She muttered some farewell, put down the receiver, and stood up as if the gesture changed the scene somehow, magically transported them both to another room, perhaps.

The nonexistent anteroom, where the visitors waited.

“Can I help you?” she said, her tone suggesting the unlikelihood of that possibility, and not quite looking at him.

He was unprepossessing, Keel knew, but he did not require admiration to speak his piece.

“I called a couple of times,” he said, without emotion. “I’d like to speak to the animal control officer.”

“What about?” She gave him a quick inspection. Was he looking for a dog? She had plenty of those to offer.

“About the dogs belonging to a household on the corner of Pike and Kent. Their name is Dormand.” That should do it, he thought.

“I see.”

He waited.

“Well. I’m the animal control officer.”

She looked at him then, but did not ask him to sit down, though the mismatched chairs were available. He wondered if he should mention the unreturned phone calls again; but no, there was already enough between them without adding another irritation.

“I believe,” he said, without revealing his surprise (not the assistant?), “that you are related to the Dormand family. They have two dogs,” he added, as if she could somehow be in want of this information.

She tilted her head. “Yes they do.”

The words were a statement, but her expression a question.

“I am here to request, as a citizen of Monro, and a resident of the neighborhood, that you do something about them. To prevent them from interfering with people’s right to walk on the sidewalk.”

She did not reply. He took her silence as a request for more information.

“The way the dogs bark at passersby and lunge at the fence can be quite disturbing.” He paused. “To children... and the unwary.”

“They’re disturbing the peace,” he added.

His own peace in particular. This did not sound to his own ears like a sufficient indictment. He tried to think of something more to add to the bill.

“I already have,” she said, before he could paint a darker picture.

Animal Control Officer Dormand was a tall woman on the slender side, dressed in slacks and a loose pullover that hid her figure. She continued to stand, keeping them both standing -- in the hope, he thought, to rid herself of his presence as quickly as possible -- although, he noticed, she seemed unable to stand without leaning slightly to one side or another. A slight scoliosis, he thought. And her features, he thought, looked drawn.

His presence, clearly, was not improving her day. He was a complainer. Another complainer.

Perhaps an animal control officer’s lot was not a happy one?

“Do you mean to say,” he queried, compelled to by her lack of elaboration, “the animals won’t be unrestrained any more when they’re out in the yard and free to bark and lunge at the fence when someone walks by?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“Look,” she said, shaking her head, and then collapsing into her chair, with an air of surrender. “I know why you’re really here. It’s the cars, isn’t it?”

Keel was stunned. Yes, he thought, he was more than a little interested in the cars as well. But how did she possibly know?

“Well...” He decided on candor, or its appearance. “In part. But the dogs do bother me.”

“And all those cars. Parked up and down the street every night. Do they bother you too?”

Her tone was sharper. She’d gone over to the offensive, now that cards were on the table.

“Well” -- improvising, things were moving faster than he expected -- “this is your family we are talking about, isn’t it? Who else should I go to?”

He offered what he thought was his naive expression. Just some little old man, with his petty annoyance. Some silly gripe about a neighbor taking his favorite parking space.

“I have talked to them. I can tell you that much.”

“I see.” He feigned contentment. “Then you’ve heard from others? There have been some other complaints?”

“Look, Mister --” She frowned. She hadn’t asked his name.

He tried to exploit the opening. “What do they do there every night? Is it gambling?”

“No. But if it was, what am I supposed to do about it? Look, Mister...”

She paused this time, waiting for him to provide the name.


No point in withholding. He had already provided his name, and number, to her assistant. In fact, he was spreading it all over town.

Besides, he detected a change in her manner, in the direction of candor. What could a dog officer do about parking? He didn’t have to fence with her. If she wanted something from him in return for listening to his complaint, sympathy maybe, that was easy enough to provide.

He gestured with his head to one of the mismatched chairs. “May we sit?”

“Of course.” A brisk nod. She sat behind her desk.

“People are talking...” He left the subject vague. “And the dogs do worry me. It seems almost as if they were guarding something -- some secret. People who have an unfriendly dogs sometimes are doing things they don’t want other people to know about it... I mean this is our neighborhood.”

He would like to know who else has expressed concern; would she tell him?

“And then so many cars. Parking up and down the street. On both sides.”

“I know,” she said. “These gatherings clog up the street. The neighbors complain if they can’t find a nearby place to park.”

Gatherings? What sort?

“And they stay there a long time.” He was guessing.

“Yes. But what am I supposed to do?” she said again. “I’m not the parking officer.”

He nodded. Be sympathetic, he reminded himself. “It’s just that everybody knows you’re related.”

“I’ve spoken to Cal.”

A son? Her brother? Would she tell him.

“He said he’d talk to them...”

He looked his question.

“They told him there were lots of things to prepare... To get ready...”

“For what?”

Wouldn’t ‘Kevin,’ he said to himself, like to know the answer to that.

But her expression sharpened, and she looked away. Looking like someone sorry for having spoken.

Keel sensed he was not going to get anything more out of the encounter. She had told him something to shut him up; not to encourage his curiosity. Her brown hair fell over her face when she turned her head. Her nails, he noticed, were short.

“Well, thanks,” he said, “for listening.”

The encounter had not begun well, he told himself, but then she had accepted his presence, acknowledged his right to ask questions. His public ‘right to know’ about matters that affected the quality of life in their city.

She nodded in reply to his expression of gratitude, still avoiding his glance.

“And for dealing with those dogs.”

It was only he left that he realized she hadn’t told him what she had said when she talked to the Dormands about their nasty dogs.

He would have to find out.

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