WHITE TRASH IN THE SNOW
For the better part of the next hour, Kevin and Wrangler talked about Azzolla, the Saplins, and something called “The Family.” The stories his father told could have come out of a Stephen King novel. The common thread running through all the stories was that bad things happened to people who stood up to “The Family” – a mafia-like group rumored to have powerful influence in all areas of the community – the town board, churches, schools, community groups, business organizations, the hospital board, and the police.
Many people in town were sure “The Family” was behind Rachael’s public service career from the very start, all the way back to the Azzolla town council. Indebted to and protected by them, her influence and actions benefited those who held interests in land, oil, and commerce (she was pro-business and anti-big government) and in return, “The Family” protected her, Tad and the extended Saplin/Heat families. Crime families in New York City might assume The Family would be amateurish, but they were, in fact, highly effective in the valley and beyond.
It was a Saplin family story. Ed and Rachael’s sister Sally were getting a divorce, and within a month of the filing, Ed became the subject of an internal workplace investigation. Twelve citizen complaints had been lodged. That would sound like a terrible record, and a basis to believe this was a rogue cop, unless one was told that all twelve reports came from Sally’s family members, including several each from Rachael and Tad and from Buck and Betty Heat. Rumor was that Ed Spivey was going to be fired after a kangaroo court of state-paid officials were done taking statements from Saplin family members and Saplin administration supporters.
Wrangler remembered things Cristol’s grandparents and parents had said; jabs and jokes about Uncle Ed and other things he hadn’t understood. He began to see how The Family might be a real force in the valley. Maybe his dad was going to make money on this bet. He found it kind of creepy and kind of fascinating. Until that day, Wrangler had been oblivious to the political side of life in his small hometown. He summed up his thoughts with an adjective and a noun. “Scary stuff.”
Kevin nodded. “I know. I know. It scares me and I’m a lot older than you. When I was your age – well, no, not your age, but younger - a kid – well, anyways, I loved watching old Superman reruns. “Truth, Justice, and the American Way!”
Wrangler gave him a look that said “WTF?”
“Sorry, that's from an old kid's tv show. Superman's just a fantasy and as for truth, that turned out to be fantasy, too. Justice is for those who can afford a good lawyer. And The American Way? Yeah, right. The American Way is to chase the almighty dollar, climb over other people to get what you want. Lie, cheat and steal, ‘cause everybody else does.”
Wrangler didn't know what to say. Why was his dad so bummed?
Kevin wasn’t the kind of guy to put down his ex-wife. He was glad the kids respected Jerrie and loved her. When he could, he reinforced it. “That’s one thing I’ll say for your mom. She doesn’t complain about pain. Nope. No matter what,” and glancing quickly at Wrangler again, he said, “Gotta respect that.”
Staring out the passenger window, Wrangler talked back to his father in his head. Respect? Who are you to talk about respect? You disrespected Mom. Said you needed that other woman in your life. And, hey, what about me and Porsche? We needed you, too. Mom’s right - it’s always about you.
Taking another slow curve, Kevin rolled down his window and spit out his chaw. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and rolled the window back up.
“I’m telling ya all this for one reason. If you stay in Azzolla, you gotta learn to protect yourself.”
Wrangler almost snorted, “No offense, Dad, but I’m a better shot than you.”
“ I’m not talking about guns or fists, son. I’m talking about keeping your mouth shut. I’m talking about lookin’ the other way. When it comes to the likes of the Saplins and the elite bastard's club, well, you keep your head down. Ya hear me?” He didn’t have to make eye contact, his voice captured Wrangler’s full attention. “Makes you hate yourself sometimes, but it’s better than other choices.”
Wrangler rolled his window down and spit. Wiped his mouth and rolled it up again window. "Choices? What choices?”
“See, this is what I’m tryin’ to tell you. This is what you got to learn to get by as an adult in the valley. You wanna have work? You play along. You want your kids to get some breaks? You play along.”
“What breaks did I ever get?”
“You got to play on the hockey team didn’t you?”
“I earned that! I’m the best they’ve got.”
“Doesn’t matter. You can be Wayne-fucking-Gretsky and you’ll sit the bench if you’re on the shit list. Lucky for you, your mom and I stay under the radar.”
Wrangler wasn’t fully believing what he was hearing, but then his father connected.
“I made a small mistake a while back, and you paid for it. That fine you got for a fish out of season? That was ‘cause I had just ticked somebody off. The wrong somebody. You even said you wondered why you didn’t just get a warning, like, that friend of yours last year – Carver, was it?”
“Yeah, ok, Dan. Well anyway, that’s how it is. That was a message to me to stay in line, or my own son might find himself looking over his shoulder all the time.”
Kevin turned on the radio and found a country station. For a few miles, the only words heard in the cabin were those sung with a twang and told about a lost love named Ruby. When the final chords faded, Kevin started again. “You might want to think about joinin’ the military, join the army. See the world. That’s one way to escape this place.”
“Not the army, Dad.”
“You could do worse, Wrangler. They have guns you’ve never seen before. And, after that, maybe college on the GI Bill.”
“No college for me. Nope, not happenin’. Like we’ve always said, I’m either going to play hockey or I'm going to become an electrician, like you.”
Kevin Strauss was conflicted; he wanted his son working with him some day. They had talked about it since he was little. But if he got some college under his belt, he could advance quicker and not be a grunt all his life, like his dad.
“Just sayin’ – some military, some college, those things could come before working with me.”
“Cristol’s dad works up there, and he don’t have no college degree. If it were so bad, he’d have gone somewhere else, right? Wouldn’t that mafia family fix him up? He’s been there for years, so it must be good up there. Right, Dad?”
Kevin Saplin sighed. “Tad Saplin is a mole. Everyone knows that.”
“A mole?” Wrangler didn’t know the term.
“Yeah, he feeds internal confidential information to his wife and other people so they know what’s coming down. That’s what I’ve heard and I believe it. Knowledge is power.”
“So Mr. S. has knowledge type of power, huh?”
Wrangler thought of Mr. S. as a gearhead, a Mr. Mom. Racing snow mobiles was the one thing he did that was cool, but it wasn’t equal to cloak and dagger stuff.
“You want that guy for a father-in-law? Here’s what I know for sure – at work, Tad Saplin is a real asshole. Tries to intimidate everyone. I had a foreman that had a disagreement with him outside of work. Something about a fishing license, and three days later the guy’s out of a job. You tell me that ain’t underhanded.” Kevin looked angry, as if it had happened to him. “The guy had a family to feed. Didn’t matter. “ He spit out the window again, then said, “Remember kid, your girlfriend’s mother is the governor. If you or I do anything to piss her off, neither of us will ever find work in this state again.” Kevin Strauss knew he’d dumped a lot on Wrangler in one fell swoop, but he felt he had no choice. Wrangler was dating Cristol Saplin. Wrangler had a driver’s license. There were so many pitfalls…
“Wrangler, maybe it sounds like I’m crazy, but you need to know that even something as insignificant as saying you might vote against a local road project can put you on the shit-list. Believe me, life isn’t any fun when you’re getting pulled over by the police for no cause. It’s not just once, mind you, but every day for six months. Think about that. You get angry, but, what can you do? It makes you late for work. What are you going to tell your boss? You look in the rear view mirror all the time. The tension wears on all your relationships, people begin to think you are paranoid or exaggerating. You’re slowly going crazy and there’s no place to turn.”
As his father built this scenario, Wrangler watched his face harden and his eyes narrow. Abruptly, Kevin Strauss slammed a fist against the steering wheel. “Damn it.” With only a look and a raised eyebrow, Wrangler asked his dad to explain.
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. You’ve heard that? ”
“It means people like the Saplins. They can be dangerous with all that power and all that corruption. So you be smart. Hear me? I don’t want you gettin’ hurt.”
“Mrs. S isn’t going to hurt me, dad. Neither is Mr. S. They like me.“
The sound Kevin made was a cross between a snort and a laugh. “Parent’s never like the guy that’s dating their daughter. That would go against nature.” His smile waned, and he said, “And the guy is always blamed if the girl gets knocked up.”
“Hey, I’m serious.” He pointed an index finger toward Wrangler. “You be careful. No little Levi Kevin Straus’s running around nine months from now.”
“Dad!” Wrangler had had enough. This was getting annoying and his father was worrying over nothing. “You know, Dad, it’s not like when you and Mom…” He stopped. No one ever wants to picture their parents screwing in the backseat. “Just sayin’,” he felt his face getting warm. “Everybody is …is… “ He and his father had never talked about this stuff, so he didn’t know how. “Don’t worry, okay?”
“Look, Wrangler, if you are happy being with Cristol, and maybe in a couple more years, if you kids are in love, I’ll be happy to come to your wedding. But think about what I said. Take a good look at their family. Is Cristol’s mother the kind of person you would want to be married to? “
“Well, girls become their mothers.” He saw Wrangler start to protest and cut him off with a raised palm. “Hold on. Think about it. Isn’t Porsche a lot like your mother?”
It was true. Porsche could be very maternal - bossing, correcting, reminding, defending. Dan and Carver teased him saying, “Wrangler has two mommies,” But, still, did that prove Cristol would become like Mrs. S? That would suck. He had a vision of Cristol closing a bedroom door, and he, himself trying to sleep in the living room.
“Cristol is nothing like her mom. Really. She wants to have babies and stay home with them. Her mother has never stayed home. And Cristol hates her for that. And her parents never talk to each other, except to fight. Sometimes her dad is gone for weeks and weeks, and her mom doesn’t care. She’s gone, too. But, Cristol, heck, she wants to be with me all the time.”
“All the time? You like that?”
“Yeah,” he replied quickly, then added, “I mean, I guess so, um, yeah, most of the time.” He stuttered. “It…it’s okay.” Then, he admitted, “But, yeah, it can be too much sometimes.”
“So, I gather that Cristol’s controlling, demanding. Isn’t that like her mother?”
He had to agree. “Well, yeah, her mother runs the family. Even Mr. S does whatever she says. So, controlling, yeah…” And everyone else hates her for it, he thought.
Yet, he was sure Cristol wouldn’t turn out like that because she wouldn’t have a title like “Governor” or even “Mayor.” He had to make his dad understand. “Mrs. S, well, you know, she runs the state all day. When she gets home she can’t turn it off.”
“Maybe - maybe not. The question is - How are you with being bossed around? I know I wouldn’t like it.” Kevin was trying to make Wrangler think for himself. What he wanted to say was– Run, son! Run as fast as you can!
“I’m not bossed around,” Wrangler said, defensively, “I only go along with the stuff I want to.”
Kevin was sorry the trip had to start this way, but he was glad they’d had this talk. “Well, just think about what I’ve said. That whole family dynamics thing is a bitch. You’re a smart kid. Keep your Johnson wrapped and don’t do anything to get the Governor and the asshole her married her mad at you.”
“I won’t. I’m telling you, they like me.”
They rode miles without talking. Kevin was thinking about a bet he’d placed on a game being played that day. He switched from the country station and began searching for a sports report.
Wrangler pulled his phone out to check the time and it was then that he remembered he had a new text. It was from Cristol: “ BIG FITE!! MOM & DAD TALK N DIVORCE!!!!! MOM LEFT!!! FLU HOME!!!"
He returned the phone to his pocket. When he got back he’d have to lie. He'd tell her there was no cell reception out in the mountains.