The city was falling apart. The people, the buildings, the ideals, everything. Ever since The War ended and the soldiers came home, everyone had been arguing. Those who were against The War were angry at the soldiers for fighting, and those who were for it were mad that they lost. It had seemed, around Chrismastime last year, that the tide was turning in our favor, but we got beat down again and never got back up. That was the same with many of the soldiers themselves; many had died and the others were changed. My uncle had been drafted. Before The War, he was happy-go-lucky, content, a family man. When he had home with the other soldiers six months ago, he had lines on his face that weren’t there when he had left and a sharp sadness to his voice. I hadn’t seen him genuinely smile yet.
Our city was being torn apart from the inside. Many costs had gone to The War, meaning that the people left back home had no choice but to enter into a type of factory job or sweatshop. Pa had always wanted to be a woodworker, and was well on his way to becoming one when the war broke out, and the only way he could prevent being drafted was to become a teacher. Teachers didn’t get drafted. He had to give up his dream, and our family suffered much from it. He made barely enough to support the five of us, and though he tried to hide it, we could all tell that it was starting to wear on him. The war had ruined both the soldiers and the common people.
When I met Ansel at the corner of my street at nightfall, he was wearing his usual brown jacket, covered in dirt and stains of God only knows what. He crammed his hand into one of the large inside pockets on it and took out a box of matches. He struck one and a small flame appeared, lighting up the space around his hands in the darkening night. The city sounds didn’t die down when it got darker. Horns honked, people talked and argued, and a chill wind blew through the air. It was almost winter.
Then Ansel took an oydeynil out of one of his other pockets, lit it with the match, and put it in his mouth. This was what made Ma think Ansel was so despicable, set on a path to criminal wrongdoing: he smoked. What she didn’t understand was that if you were 14 like Ansel and I were, and you could get your hands on oydeynil, you did it. Not only because it made you look cool, but to some people, it made them feel nice, and in a time like this, that was hard to come by. And that was why Ansel did it. He stomped out the match.
I waved at him, and he waved back, leaning against the brick wall of a building. He walked toward me when I got closer. “The hall’s closed.” We had been planning to go to a new jazz dance hall nearby.
“Sorry, I really thought we were gonna be able to go,” he apologized. I smelled the smoke as it curled around his face and the collar of his jacket. His jacket, I knew, smelled even more strongly, but I didn’t hate the smell of oydeynil, since I associated it with him. It smelled like smoke mixed with dirt and mint. “But I have an idea where we could go instead.”
“Where?” I almost didn’t want to know; Ansel’s backup plans were almost always made up on the spot and could be risky. Once, when plans to go to the park fell out, he found a nice big patch of ice on the street and we ran and slid across it. He had broken his wrist that day.
He spun around slowly, obviously looking for a sign. “City Council Meeting: 5:45 P.M.”
“City Council?” I asked incredulously. No way.
“Yeah, come on, it’s about to start.”
I glared at him. This wasn’t my idea of a good time, listening to “concerned citizens” go on and on and the council members do nothing, and it wasn’t his usual idea, either.
“Let’s go, Alex. I’ll still get you ice cream after.”
I followed him down the street, grumbling.
Ma didn’t only dislike Ansel because he smoked: she thought he was reckless (he was) and that he was going to hurt me (he wasn’t). I thought that Ma believed that I shouldn’t hang around with someone like Ansel, a bad influence. “Alexandra,” she always said in that certain tone, “I keep telling you, Ansel is going to get you on the wrong path. You’ll regret it someday.” I thought about that as we walked, towards Town Hall a couple blocks away. Ansel had no idea Ma didn’t like him.
He was walking with a slight bounce in his step, as always. I thought Ansel would be happy forever as long as he could be doing something. He never liked to sit still, and that might have been a side effect of the oydeynil, though I wasn’t sure. He hummed a little as he walked, always a step ahead of me.
When Town Hall was in sight, Ansel started to jog towards it, his hands in his pockets. He had broken his other wrist doing that, and when he fell, he couldn’t catch himself, so he busted his nose that day too. Ansel just had bad luck.
“Come on!” he called back to me, looking over his shoulder. There was a chill in the air, and I could see his breath. His cheeks were pink and his eyes were excited. About what? I wondered. City Council meetings were extremely boring.
Town Hall was tall, a dark red brick building with a big clock on the front of it. It had heavy wooden double doors that Ansel hauled open. It was warm inside, and as I walked in after Ansel, the door slammed shut.
The entry room of Town Hall was empty. There was a roped-off staircase to the right of the doors we had entered in, and bathrooms behind that. To the left was an office, and in front of us were a set of doors. We peeked through the small windows on the doors and saw people getting seated.
I pulled the door open and entered the room, Ansel following. In the front were around 10 large podiums with big black chairs behind them. They were office chairs, the kind that spin. In front of the podiums were about 70 wooden chairs with fancy green cushions on them, most of them filled. I picked a seat in the middle row, where I sat down at the very end of it, him next to me on my left.
People were talking lightly to one another, and I heard someone’s deep guffaw. While Ansel dug around in his pockets for something, I watched the council members. Some spoke to each other, some flipped through papers, and I saw one spin around once on his office chair, and then he got slightly taller when he must have pulled the lever on the underside of it. All of the council members looked like children, completely dwarfed by the size of their desks so that I could only see their heads and the very top part of their shoulders. There were names and duties engraved on gold plaques on each podium. The very middle one said, “Job Herst, Mayor.”
Job Herst leaned back in his chair, swaying slightly back and forth. He sat up abruptly, rested one elbow on the end of the podium, and stroked his long, gray mustache. His hair was gray too, not that he had much left. I was angry.
The mark of a mediocre mayor is that you don’t know who they are; outside of that, mayors are either horrendous or excellent. Job Herst was the former. He hadn’t even tried to lead Cereum effectively through The War. I know that a war isn’t something a mayor can prevent, but leaders are supposed to lead, and Herst had done the opposite: he had sat back in his office chair, watching the middle class become poor and the poor become poorer, watched our men get sent away, watched suicide rates go up, sat back and watched. Watched as a Casualties section had to be added to the newspaper. Watched as the news came, every day anxious parents, siblings, spouses, friends, rushing to the newsstand, grabbing a paper, and scanning the Casualties, breathing a sigh of relief or collapsing into sobs. Watched. Sat back, grew his mustache, shined his boots, and watched. Most people didn’t mind him, but me and my family, with not enough money to begin with and now even less, hated him.
This was my reason for not being so excited about coming to a council meeting tonight. And I wasn’t even sure if Ansel was aware of my hatred for the man.
When Herst banged his gavel, loudly and repeatedly, for silence, Ansel jolted his head up and clasped his hands together in his lap. He tapped his foot on the green-purple striped carpeted floor, twisted his hair, picked at his nails, and anything else I supposed that he thought of. I stared straight ahead.
“Order!” Herst commanded, and then, “Please take roll call.”
A man towards the left side of the line of members began to read names off of a paper. Once that was done, recent accomplishments (as if there were any of note) were highlighted, and then citizens could come up and speak. By that time, 10 minutes had elapsed, and I was already starting to want to leave, but I couldn’t walk out of the room in the middle of this.
It started with a woman coming up to a small wooden lectern in front of the judges, so her back was facing us. Herst asked her name and address, and told her she had five minutes to speak. She said a company was building next to her house, and was it really legal, and oh how loud it’s going to be. The council pretended to consider her complaints and called the next up.
It was an older man. Once he had given his name and address, which Herst pronounced as “uh-dress,” he complained, similar to the woman before him, that a new building was being constructed. He told them he lived on the quiet outskirts of big-city Cereum, but still inside city limits, and said that it was licensed to be used for “entertainment” and that he would like to know just exactly what that entailed. Ansel snickered when he realized, just as I did, that the man was worried a strip club might be built right outside his suburban home. Again, the council thanked him and he was satisfied when he sat back down.
Every time Herst asked if anyone else would like to speak, another person stood up. It seemed never-ending, and Ansel’s fidgeting got more pronounced as the minutes went by. We had been there almost an hour when Herst leaned over and said something to one of his fellow council members, which wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except the person he was speaking to, apparently Larry Kay, had the microphone at the front of his podium on, and every single word was projected over the room, interrupting an old woman complaining about rutabagas.
There was a murmur of objections, and it started getting louder and louder, and I saw Herst’s face turning more red by the second. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “What did he say?” Ansel asked incredulously. People were starting to stand up, to almost yell. Herst banged his flimsy wooden gavel until it couldn’t be heard anymore, and then slammed it against the wood podium harder and harder until it broke, the top part falling to the ground. Council members tried to order the crowd into silence, but their calls weren’t acknowledged.
I don’t know why I did this. I ran up to the citizens’ lectern and screamed into the microphone. “May I speak!” The voices died down slightly. “Please!” They stopped. “I have a complaint.” I paused. “Herst has kept himself holed up safely in his expensive home, where The War can’t touch him if he can’t hear it. If we want to fix Cereum, we can’t listen to people like Job Herst,” here I looked at him, and he tried to interrupt me, but I spoke over him, “who don’t care if we all die out there. He made me realize that the greed of the rich is more powerful than the needs of the poor. I can honestly say, Herst, thank you for that. It was an invaluable revelation.”
Like I had called them into battle, people rioted, ran up to Herst’s podium and dragged it down. It hit the floor with a resounding BANG like a gunshot, and Herst locked himself up and hid in his office, ran away in his shiny cowboy boots that he thought made him look like an old-time sheriff. He was anything but, the greasy old coward.
People would say later that it was the start of Cereum’s rebuilding. The people were taking back control, and Cereum would only be made better for it.
Oh, and what Herst said? The words that crawled out of his vile mouth are for another day.