The first time I saw her, her hair was in pigtails and she was wearing faded overalls and a string of love beads. I don’t remember this, but I have seen pictures of the two of us at a picnic table in the backyard. She was his student. I’m told she had a crush on him, an innocent and unrequited one, which merely showed her good taste in older men.
Today we are sitting across from each other at Starbucks on a hot Huntsville afternoon. I’m back home, having just driven up I-45 from Houston, where I attended a combination bat mitzvah-quinceañera for two friends, Sephardic Jews named Olga and Tatiana Salazar, whose birthdays fall on the same day.
“It was, let me just tell you, a very big, very strange party. The mariachis wore yarmulke.”
“Jesus Christ, Bob,” says my old friend Maggie. “How over the top.”
“Fuck you. It’s one hundred percent true.”
I have just finished reading a letter to the editor by Katie Newman, last year’s failed candidate for Huntsville City Council and no doubt my favorite Huntsvillian, about the city property tax increase The Powers That Be managed to railroad through. Katie’s letter compares the diligence of county commissioners in cutting their budget line by line to the lassitude of city councilmen who voted to raise taxes to the max allowed before the citizens can call bullshit and roll the motherfucker back.
It’s a great letter, a perfect letter. Mazel Tov, Katie Newman! ¡Felicidades!
“Yes, it is,” Maggie says. “So if we have Katie, Delora King, Rich Heiland, Bill Elmer, Bill Knotts, and Charles Wagamon, why do we need you? They all tell the truth without hiding behind a mask. And with a hundred times the circulation. Have you seen your site stats, Bob? No one is reading you.”
“Hold on a minute, Mags. Remember when the Item didn’t print letters they didn’t like? Remember when freedom of speech in Huntsville was an underground activity? We Bobs swooped in when The Powers That Be still had a firm lock on public discourse. You could even argue that we Bobs helped loosen their grip.”
“Sure, you could, Main Bob. Before you screwed the pooch,” Maggie says. “Before you guys bit it, bought it, laid it down in the ditch, went tits up. Before you used and abused Team F-Bob and ruined me with my friends. Including Katie Newman. She thinks I’m you, Bob. Eeew.”
“She does not. She knows I’m me. She has to.”
“Really? And what about the other girls you emailed? They probably think I’m the head case,” Maggie says. “And you know what? I am.”
“Cool your jets, meshuga’at. No one really thinks you’re me. You couldn’t be.”
For the longest, Maggie would have agreed. This woman, who once wiped my butt and put me to bed whilst my parents frolicked along the university party circuit, had bristled over the division of labor when we started Project Fractal Bob. The men wrote, and the women proofed, they ran our social media sites, they answered our email, except those —from babes, of course— that we answered personally.
“I feel like I’m a member of the Weather Underground Ladies Auxiliary,” Maggie said once Fractal Bob got cranking. “We girls sit around the kitchen table making bombs while you boys are writing tracts and making speeches. When this thing blows, whose heads will be rolling down the street? Ours!”
And if you ask Maggie, that is indeed what happened. When it got too hot for us, the Bobs dropped out, and Maggie was left holding the bag.
What pisses her off most is that we never expected anyone to mistake her for a real Bob. It’s the most telling clue to the Bobs’ Sixties-style sexism.
“Admit it, Maggie. You never thought anyone would suspect you, either. Or you wouldn’t have let us use your Internet. You wouldn’t have uploaded our stuff. You wouldn’t have shared secrets only a handful of others knew.”
“I thought my friends would believe me,” she says. “Instead they triangulated the IP addresses from your emails. And since I sheltered half of the Bobs’ Ladies Auxiliary —”
“You should be flattered, shouldn’t you?”
“Oh, I am,” says Maggie rather viciously. “That you boys think a girl could be one of the smartest guys in the room.”
“If they only knew,” I begin, but Maggie is over the conspiratorial smiles that bloom from beneath the brim of my fedora.
“I’ve tried. I’ve thrown you asshole Bobs under the bus several times. Nobody buys it,” she says. “Your moms are safe, his dad is safe, and the only reason I’m safe is because almost nobody fucking reads you.”
“And no one is commenting like last time, either. Not even the Big Mashugana, George Russell. Won’t Percival seed the clouds for us?”
But it wasn’t really George I cared about. It was the anonymous one, my lady Echo, the one who flirted with me in fractured French. Because after all, Fractal Bob was as much masquerade ball as mouthpiece to vain motherfuckers like me.
“Lady Echo? That was George, too, stupid,” says Maggie as she gets up. “Let’s go, Übermensch. Let’s take that guided tour.”
Maggie drives me around town to count the campaign signs. It’s 10 Don Johnsons to 1 Joe Rodriquez, but Maggie assures me it’s the opposite at Elkins Lake, where Rodriquez more than holds his own. I count 30 Kendall Scudders to 1 Keith Olson, and that little sign sits unobtrusively on the lawn of the councilman’s own business.
Staking a tiny campaign presence is a curious thing for Councilman Olson to do — he’s using the same strategy Lanny Ray did two years ago. Nobody, least of all an attorney, thinks he’s gonna lose to a moron. And Olson is sure he ain’t gonna lose to no college kid.
“Johnson didn’t even bother to buy new signs this year,” Maggie says. “You should mention that in your next blog.”
“I’m not seeing slates, not even a Johnson and Olson in the same yard.”
“But all the rhetoric is limited to them, Johnson and Olson, the ‘tax and spend twins,’ ” she says.
And yet these two were hardly the architects of the 10.5 percent tax increase the citizens will see this year or the 30 percent increase in water fees. If what I’ve read in the paper is right, Clyde Loll, Tish Humphrey and Lydia Montgomery were all front and center in tight sweaters shaking their pompoms, too. Someone should remember that next campaign season and also that Joe “the Plumber” Emmett never said shit before voting “yea.”
“Sheep have short memories, Bob. If you want people to remember, you boys will have to keep writing,” Maggie says.
“Or you will.”
With only a quick look, Maggie suggests I go fuck myself. I must have been ten or eleven the first time I got that look from her. It still makes me giggle.
“OK, so tell me, poor besotted boy,” Maggie says, “what happened with you and Sarah?”
I look wistfully over the clapboard houses of the Avenues, past one after another of Kendall Scudder’s orange and blue signs.
“Her French was too good.”