The Boom-Boom Era:
• the craft-paper period
• the papier-mache period
• the epoch of unmortared brick
• the cinder block period (including both non-rebar and rebar construction)
Just before the installation of rebar:
Martin Powell barges into the mayor’s office, Mavis close behind. The mayor, on the couch and flanked by cheerleaders, allows his head to loll forward and acknowledge Powell’s entrance and Mavis’ distress, greeting both with a dopey yet charismatic smile. The mayor’s face is scratched and abraded, but retains a significant portion of the handsomeness it possessed when he entered office.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mayor, but he just wouldn’t wait–” Mavis says, and the Mayor makes conciliatory gestures with his hands, gestures which would be much more effective if they weren’t obscured by the cheerleaders.
“I’m sure you did your best, Mavis, don’t worry about it at all. Could you bring me a coffee ASAP? Thanks, dear.” The mayor slurs his words, but is not yet incoherent. Somehow, no one is sure how, he never reaches an incoherent state, but stays balanced in its borderlands on an indefinite visa. Mavis sneers at Powell and leaves, slamming the door behind her.
The mayor says “Well, it’s not exactly business hours yet –”
“It’s 2:30 pm,” says Powell.
“– but I’m sure I can help you with whatever you need, Councilman Powell, since it appears to be very urgent.” The mayor pats both cheerleaders on their backs and they move to the arms of the sofa, sitting symmetrically, crossing their legs in unison. The mayor watches them and says, “Y’know they don’t practice that. It just comes naturally to them. Amazing.”
“Your lip’s bleeding,” says Powell.
The mayor touches his mouth and then scrutinizes the finger for longer than should be necessary. “So it is. Pesky thing just will not clot. It’s been days now. Thank you for alerting me, Mr. Powell, I’ll attend to this right away. Would you care to stay for coffee? I’ve just sent Mavis to get us some.”
“I know. I was here.”
“Of course, of course. So there’s some other matter I should be concerned with?”
“Yes. I’ve just learned you’re building another wall.”
Mavis enters with the coffee. She holds a mug in Powell’s direction until he takes it from her, then sets the Mayor’s cup and saucer on the low table in front of his sofa. The mayor leans forward as she puts down the mug, and he mouths “Thank you, Mavis.” She smiles and winks and leaves, glaring at Powell as she goes. The mayor moves a spoon through his coffee in lazy circles. “Yes, I have commissioned another mayoral wall.”
“This one’s two feet thick and reinforced with steel.”
“It certainly is.” The mayor continues stirring.
Powell’s face reddens. After several seconds he says, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Stirring my coffee,” the mayor says, but Powell begins to scream even before he’s finished, so immediately the mayor leans back and and holds up his hands. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Couldn’t help it. I was just –”
“I know you were ‘just joking.’ It’s not funny. It’s not goddamn funny.”
“I’m doing what I told you I was going to do, Marty, what you wanted me to do. I’m making a difference. I’m overcoming obstacles.” The mayor’s left eye has started to cross. “I’m changing things… for the better.”
“I’ve seen your goddamn TV ads, and I don’t know why you’re running them, you were just elected six months ago. Just like I don’t know why you keep building these walls.”
The mayor shakes his head, but he’s still smiling. He has limitless patience for those who can’t comprehend his vision. “Remember, Marty: symbols. Excitement. Sometimes you have to make an omelet before you start breaking the eggs.”
Powell’s face crumples into a wrinkled mass of confusion and anger. “What the hell does that even mean? You need to have your head examined, and that’s not a figure of speech.” Powell says the next sentence slowly, with great attention to each syllable. “I think you have damaged your brain.” The mayor dismisses Powell’s diagnosis with a wave.
“Are you going to do the same thing with this wall that you’ve done with all the others?” Powell asks. The mayor shakes his head and chuckles.
“Mr. Mayor,” Powell says. “Please. Are you going to try to run through it?”
The mayor looks at each of his cheerleaders before he says “Marty. I’m not going to try anything. I’m going to tear through that son of a bitch, just like all the others.” The cheerleaders jump up and begin to chant “Boom-Boom! Boom-Boom!” while shaking their pom pons and doing high kicks. Powell glares at the mayor’s self-satisfied expression until it slackens and, as far as Powell can tell, the mayor passes out.
Four months before the craft paper period:
Powell and the other members of the city council stand as the young man strides across the room. “Phil McCaffery,” Powell says, beaming, “you are the spitting image of your father.” Phil McCaffery’s smile is powerful, gracious, infectious. Powell and McCaffery clasp hands, and each man’s hand tries to envelop the other’s. There is no clear victor.
“Actually, I’m taller and I have better teeth.” Light chuckles all around. McCaffery moves on to the next council member, and the next, and the next, each transition seamless, every utterance assured. The members look to each other after their individual exchanges with the mayoral candidate, nodding, smiling smiles of lower wattage, smiles that are certain of the future. Once the introductions are complete, Powell offers McCaffery a chair and everyone sits, the arc of the city council behind their table curved to focus on their guest.
“We’re very glad you could meet with us, Phil,” Powell says. “The city council has been considering numerous candidates–” but Phil McCaffery has brought up his hand, as if he is about to wave tentatively at Powell, though there is nothing tentative in the gesture. Powell stops speaking, in spite of himself.
“This is a growing town,” Phil says. “Explosive growth. You’ve fallen into success, no thanks to a series of lackluster executives who hampered your ability to govern. But now the cracks are beginning to show. You’re having sustainability issues. Viability issues. You’re going off-message. Hell, you may not even be sure what your message is. You’re smart enough to know things are different, but not enough to know what to do differently. You need new blood, fresh blood, hot new fresh blood, new ideas, new paradigms and then you need them shifted, and you need someone who can shift with them. But you need the familiar too, the comfort of a known thing to cling to while you transition to a strange new state of mind, of being, of action.”
“My father, may he rest in peace, served this town for twenty-four years. I am my father’s son, and then some. He worked himself to the bone to send me to school back East, and I’m a shining testament to his sacrifices, but even with my head full of fancy book learnin’, I never forgot the things he told me. Some of you worked with my father, helped him make this town what it is today. Now we need to go beyond that. We need to transcend that. We need to take that strong foundation and build a strong city on top of it, before another of these milquetoast mayors squanders all your hard work. You want new blood? Cut me open, I’ve got gallons of it. You want a tradition of success? My father’s portrait should be up on that wall, and as god’s my witness, it will be, right next to mine. I’m your man, ladies and gentlemen. I will build up what needs to be built, tear down what needs to be torn down, and lead the people to a bright new day. I’m your mayor, city councilors, and I am the change you need. And the first thing we’re changing is that table.”
The mayoral candidate leaps up and barrels toward the city council, who extract themselves from their chairs right before McCaffery heaves his body onto the table like a renegade high jumper. The table collapses beneath him. The clatter does not fail to impress. McCaffery smiles amid the wreckage. “I think I broke my thumb,” he says.
The city council stares down at Phil McCaffery for a full minute, silent, shocked. Then, with a gradual accumulation of speed that suggests the felling of an old-growth tree, Councilman Breggin breaks into enthusiastic applause. The rest of the city council follows Breggin’s lead, even Powell, though he waits a little longer than the others.
Twenty minutes into the craft paper period:
In the midst of fervent post-press conference applause, the mayor surveys the line of cheerleaders and whispers into Powell’s ear.
“Not a bad entrance, eh?”
“It certainly was exciting,” says Powell. “You know, the high school football team had their players run through a paper-covered hoop, much like you just did. They ended up going to state. Aim high, that’s what I say.”
“Marty, I know you’re being sarcastic, but I appreciate you and the rest of the city council humoring me. We have to get people excited about town politics again. This is the best way. Believe me, I know.”
Everyone is still clapping. Powell moves his neck in a way that suggests it has a stiffness he cannot relieve. “I just never thought of applying it to city government.”
The mayor bumps Powell’s shoulder with one of his fists and smiles and says “That’s why you’re not the mayor.” Everyone is still clapping. The mayor nods at the line of lithe, short-skirted jumping girls. “They’re from the high school?” he asked.
“Yes,” says Powell.
“Does the junior college have any cheerleaders? Y’know, over eighteen?” Powell stops clapping, but no one else has. “Whoa, Marty, calm down. Stop with the dagger eyes.” Powell renews his applause, though the act seems less celebratory and more an act of violent distraction, Powell slamming his hands together for the sting.
Never taking his gaze from the girls, the mayor says “But seriously.”
During the papier-mache period:
The mayor’s cheerleaders –there were only four of them at this point – follow the mayor as he tours downtown with Mavis, members of the city council and various other municipal officials. The cheerleaders are dressed in red and white pleated skirts, red tennis shoes and white sweaters emblazoned with two large red collegiate B’s and are incessantly perky.
“It’s all about three things, my fellow public servants,” says the mayor. “Symbols, excitement, and results. Symbols are great, because they can get people to know what you want them to know without thinking about it. Breggin – look at Tina and her compatriots back there.” Breggin and the other city councilors look back at the cheerleaders, who smile and shake their pom pons. “What do they make you think of?” the mayor asks. Breggin opens his mouth. “That’s right, Breggin. They make you think of everything that’s right about this town, its vibrancy, its joie de vivre, the way it wears a pair of athletic socks. And you got all that without even knowing it. You thought you were just looking at an athletic young woman. Ha! Breggin, you kill me.”
Breggin chuckles but he is not sure why. Powell’s forehead is one continuous furrow.
“Even better, the cheerleaders are exciting symbols. You can’t do much better than a symbol that generates excitement. People like excitement. They find it exciting. It helps them get behind changes and scary new things, rather than resisting or being scared of them. And we are going to change things, we are going to shake things up! They’re gonna love it, thanks to our exciting symbols!” The cheerleaders begin to dance and chant “Boom-Boom! Boom-Boom!” The mayor basks in the cheers for a few moments, then holds up a hand. The cheerleaders cease their inspirational activities.
The mayor points at a three story brick building. “Zone that one mixed use. The one next to it? Tear it down, build a park for kids, one of those hamster-trap-looking things with chewed up rubber on the ground instead of mulch. Green, baby, green. Mavis, take a personal note: boulders. Hawks. Infants. Cheerleaders, but not male cheerleaders. For now, male cheerleaders are off-message. Also, did they finish my wall for the library opening tomorrow?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Good. Did they go heavier on the plaster like I asked?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Mavis, you’re my shining star.” The mayor looks up into the sky for a moment, shielding his eyes with one hand. “Symbols that excite. The walls do that too. It’s exciting to see someone break through a wall, and it’s symbolic too. Remember Kool-Aid? God damn, that was tasty stuff. And you made it yourself. Brilliant. Kool-Aid. Oh yeah! I could go for some right now. C’mon, let’s hit the convenience store.”
Amidst the epoch of unmortared brick:
Mavis opens the door for Powell, who enters the mayor’s office and then stops. The mayor pores over blueprints spread across his desk, flanked by two cheerleaders. Actually, they are all poring over the blueprints, and the mayor murmurs to one cheerleader or the other from time to time while indicating some area of the schematic. His forehead is wrapped in gauze. When Powell stops his approach, the cheerleaders look up, but the mayor does not. The cheerleaders are not perky. If he had to, Powell would call their expressions cold, even disdainful, which is unsettling, given their usual state.
“I’m sorry, Mavis told me you were free,” Powell says.
“Absolutely, Marty, absolutely free. What was on your mind?” Now the mayor looks up, smiling, receptive.
“I was hoping to talk to you in private.”
“Anything you want to say to me, you can say in front of Tina and Cindy.”
Powell feels himself frowning. “Alright. The city council has a few questions about your proposed city budget.”
The mayor sighs. “I thought you might.”
“You seem to be allocating a lot of money to construction projects.”
“The building of walls, specifically.”
“There’s also the rapid increase in salaried cheerleaders –”
“I think you mean ‘enthusiasm consultants.'”
“– and the line item for pom pons.”
“Tool of the trade. Business expense. Easy write off.”
Powell feels his frowning intensify. “Mr. Mayor, the other councilors and I are beginning to wonder if you might be losing sight of the day-to-day responsibilities of the office and could you please get them to stop staring at me?”
The mayor looks at Tina and Cindy, who are now staring at Powell with open disdain. The mayor murmurs to them and they return their gazes to the schematic.
“You might be right, Marty. I might be spending too much time on the idealistic end of things. A change might be in order. I’ll take it under advisement.” The mayor returns to his blueprint. Powell waits several seconds before he realizes the conversation is over. The cheerleaders watch him leave.
After the transition to cinder block construction (no rebar):
The mayor makes a loud unhappy noise, puts down his pen and shakes his hand. “I’m getting carpal tunnel from all this signing. Guys, please, there’s got to be a better way.”
Breggin says, “Mr. Mayor, all legislation requires an executive signature.”
“Yeah, yeah, Breggin, this is not my first term as mayor. Well, it is, but you know what I mean. Figure of speech. Forget it. There are a lot of bills passing over this desk and they all need my name on them. Seriously, guys, my arm is going to fall off.” The mayor sits down, puts his hands together as if to pray. “Why don’t we kill two birds with one stone? How about, every time I run through one of my ceremonial walls, that act authorizes a law? I mean, I’m running through the darn things anyway, why not add some practical weight to their substantial symbolic gravitas?” The mayor bares his teeth in an exceptionally toothy smile.
The city council is confused, even dumbfounded. “Umm,” says Breggin, “wouldn’t running through that many walls put more strain on your body than the signing?”
“Especially now that you’re making them out of brick,” Powell grunts.
The mayor’s smile disappears, and he squints at the assembled councilors for a long time. Right before this meeting, he had finished a press conference, so no one is sure whether he’s confused or trying to work the remnants of his entry and exit walls out of his eyes.
“We could get a notary to watch me run through the walls,” the mayor suggests.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Powell says, and leaves the room.
A few minutes before the end of the Boom-Boom era:
On a grassy field at the center of town, Powell says, “Please don’t do this.”
The mayor tugs on the knot of his tie. He has worn the same suit every time he breaks through a wall, calling the burst seams and tears the ‘rubber stamp of the electorate,’ and today is no different. He reaches down toward his feet for some rudimentary stretches.
Mavis stands nearby with a clipboard and anything else the mayor might need. She and Powell flank the mayor, Mavis on his right side, Powell on his left. Behind them stand Tina and Cindy, the breeze rustling through their pom pons. “Mavis, what’s the wind speed?” the mayor asks.
“Five miles per hour, out of the northwest.”
“And my approval rating?”
“I guess we know who that three percent is,” the mayor says, shooting a quick glance in Powell’s direction. Mavis titters. The cheerleaders laugh quietly into their pom pons. The mayor runs in place, exhaling sharply once every second. He frames the wall between his hands, twenty feet by ten feet by two feet, cinder block and concrete, shot through with steel rebar. He nods.
Powell sighs. “Phil, I’m asking you not to do this.”
“The press is on the other side of that wall, Marty. If I back out now, they’ll tear me apart. Sign of weakness. Lack of character, lack of resolve. If there’s two things I have and one thing I don’t, they’re character, resolve and weakness. In that order.” The mayor thinks for a moment, and then nods. “Yep, that order.”
“You also have a severe concussion and at least three fractured ribs.”
“What are you, a doctor?”
“No, but your doctor is a doctor. And I was there when he said you have a severe concussion and at least three fractured ribs. A half hour ago.”
“I’ve had worse.”
“No!” says Powell. “No, you haven’t. That’s my point.”
The mayor’s press secretary walks over from the other side of the wall. “The press is ready, Mr. Mayor,” he says.
“And the cement?”
“Fully cured since yesterday. That wall is solid.”
The mayor stops running and puts a hand on his press secretary’s shoulder. “I couldn’t have done it without you, my fine-feathered friend.”
“Ca-caw ca-caw!” says the mayor. His press secretary jumps back. The mayor smiles. The press secretary shakes his head and walks back toward the audience on the other side of the wall.
The mayor takes his mark, as a runner would. “Let’s start the show, Mavis.” Mavis speaks into a headset and from the other side of the wall they can hear the press secretary introducing the mayor. As the secretary starts to say his name, the mayor leaps up, legs churning. His timing is perfect; he will burst through the wall right after the press secretary finishes saying his name. Already he can feel the wall giving way. Time is slowing down. He charges forward, leading with his head. As he makes contact with the wall, he feels it dissolve into whiteness. He hears a crash, the sound of shattering concrete, and the crash slows, deepens in pitch, rattles and runs down. He is through.
At the dawning of the age of papier-mache:
Casual and self-assured, the mayor leans an elbow on the podium. His hair bears rakish streaks of plaster dust. He is appealingly tousled. He smiles an engaging but natural smile and says to the microphones, the cameras, but especially the reporters who operate them, “Please: call me Boom-Boom.”