Wednesday, October 26, 2011
During the early evenings of Virginia’s winter months, steel-blue light would filter through the slotted wooden blinds of the semi-circular hall in the state capitol building. It was a reminder of the chill outside, in that overheated chamber where we teenaged pages sat on a hard wooden bench, ready to be summoned. In our gray slacks, crisp white shirts, and blue blazers, we gazed at the little electrical call board embedded in the partition in front of us, waiting for one of the state senators to alert us with the flick of a switch and the blinking light that would follow. Whoever sat in the hot seat at the bench’s far end would jump to his feet and scamper to be of help. The rest of us would slide down and await our inevitable turn.
We’d been picked as pages because our parents knew people in the government, or knew people who knew people. In return for mornings scrambling to collate the day’s bills and amendments for the senators, and for the long afternoons sitting drowsily on the benches, waiting to be useful to someone while the government ground on at a glacier’s pace, we were able to skip three and a half months of school and have a substantial tick mark for our college resumes. All of us were scrubbed and perky and—by late seventies standards—briskly groomed.
My mother was heavily involved in politics—she definitely knew people. Despite the fact I did nothing of any real note to obtain the position, all my teachers at school kept telling me what an honor it was that I got to work at the state capitol every day. Earl had seen me in my page jacket and declared me handsome, dressed. For the first time, I felt like I was doing something important, instead of biding time in a classroom. It was a fairly exciting prospect.
But it was boring. Oh good lord, were the long days ever boring. Grateful as I was from a release from the tenth grade and the Algebra II that accompanied it, having to sit in that echoing vast chamber, day after day, in that blazer and slacks, listening to old men ramble on and on about subjects in which I had no interest, made me want to rip off my clip-on tie and run away yelling. For all its tediousness, at least church only lasted an hour. In the senate, there was no telling when some of the more rancorous sessions might end, or whether Richmond's streetlights would have bloomed on against the night sky when the fat, ancient master of the pages finally decreed we could leave.
So sometimes, late in the afternoon or early in the evening, I would sit at the bench’s far end, praying for someone to flick their switch and interrupt the tedium. Or I would find myself alone on the hard wooden plank while all the other pages were off on our everyday errands.
And then the light from desk #14 would illuminate.
Senator #14 hailed from the western tip of Virginia, one of those municipalities that no one in the state’s population center really knew or ever intended to visit. He was a married man with no children. Mildly attractive. Masculine. The average age of the Virginia state senators was a hefty seventy, but #14, in his mid to late forties, was a comparative spring chicken. He was comparatively trouble-free, too. Other senators might buzz their lights at the slightest whim, instructing us to fetch their glasses, or tell their aides to call their wives, or to run down to the little sandwich shop and buy Pepto-Bismol. The only time #14 ever seemed to want anything, though, was when I was alone, or in the hot seat at the bench’s end.
“Sugar, would you get me a Mickey Mouse?” he’d ask most times, pressing a five-dollar bill into my hand. Sugar, of course, as well as honey, was one of those old Virginian forms of address used between all genders and ages. Neither was reserved exclusively for the young or the feminine.
The Mickey Mouse was an injection-created ice cream treat on a stick—chocolate ears and vanilla face with a strawberry pink nose at the center that looked vaguely like its namesake. Even my gleefully undiscriminating palate dismissed the Mickey Mouse as too juvenile to seriously consider eating, but if the senator wanted a Mickey Mouse, my job was to run downstairs, avoid tourists gawping at the marble-laden public areas, and duck into the tiny sandwich shop to grab a Mickey Mouse from the freezer.
I’d return to the upstairs chamber slightly out of breath, but trying to keep my faint huffs from disturbing the senate’s sanctity. He’d take the ice cream. When I’d proffer the three dollars plus change from his original bill, he’d inevitably reach out, close my fingers around the money, and cover my hand with his before giving it a firm squeeze. “Keep the change, sugar,” he’d say. “It’s yours.”
During the weeks after our occasional late-afternoon Mickey Mouse routine was firmly established, I’d sometimes find Senator #14 smiling at me from his seat on the semi-circle’s perimeter. Leaning back in his chair, playing with a pen, he’d give me conspiratorial glances during the long afternoons, seeming to say, This is as rough on me as it is on you, kid. Or, Jeez, can this guy go on and on, or what?
The Senator had the advantage of being seen only by the Lieutenant Governor, whoever was speaking, and a few factotums and pages at the front; I, however, had to keep a bland and disciplined expression for the benefit of all the senators, the spectators in the upper gallery, and the press at the tables directly in front. When he’d mug and secretly try to make me laugh or smile, I’d have to pretend not to see him.
Though of course I did.
I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t naively romantic about the workings of the state government, nor did I believe that the special attention I got from Senator #14 was because he saw some unique talent in me. The only aptitude of mine he’d witnessed was an ability to run fast and to distinguish between the Mickey Mouse bare and a Fudgesicle. I knew the probable reason a man of his age would pay that kind of attention to a boy of mine. Every time I’d see his attractive face looking my way, I’d feel a quickening in my pants.
But honestly, what didn’t give me erections, back then?
It was early in February, during a particularly protracted debate on a particularly dull topic, that I was alone on the bench. Light #14 blinked on. As usual, I trotted over to the man’s desk and knelt down so that I could hear his instructions. “Could you go to the printing office and request these?” He handed me a scribbled list of bills. “I was going to duck out for a few so I could review them. Maybe you could bring the packet up to my office?” The request was smooth, but it made my heart thud almost too loud to hear his next words. “Bring them directly to me. If you don't mind.”
I looked briefly into his eyes. They bored into mine.
At last, when some of the blood cleared from my head, I nodded and looked away. “Good boy,” he said, patting me on the shoulder.
It still felt as if my heart thudded in overdrive as I made my way out of the capitol building and across the street to the administrative high-rise where most of the representatives’ offices were. The printing office was in the basement; they were used to pages showing up with long lists of bills to be retrieved. While I waited, I sat in the chair there and thought about what I felt sure was going to happen, upstairs.
I could hope that his aides might be around. I could play dumb. I could duck out with a quick and convenient excuse, avoiding chit-chat with the senator.
I could say no. I’d always known that no was an option, that I had a say in the matter.
Bills in hand, I took the elevator to the senator’s floor. As I walked down the silent hallway I was even practicing my refusal, polite but firm, in case I had to arm myself with it.
“Well hey, sugar,” he said from behind his desk. In his unglamorous office, the lights were low, as if he didn’t want to dispel the gloom of the deep blue evening skies outside. He sat in his chair, slightly out of breath, as if he’d hurried to get there. His jacket was off; he’d removed his necktie. “Any problems getting those bills?” He added quickly—casually—“You can shut the door if you’d like.”
“No,” I said. Just because I knew I could say the word to him, didn’t mean I wanted to. “I mean, no, I didn’t have any problems getting the bills.”
It was the last no I said that evening.
I closed the door behind me, and listened to it latch. His trench coat, hung on a hook, still seemed to radiate cold from his trip across the street. “Well, good,” he said softly, rising to his feet after a long, long moment. He crossed the room. “I’m glad to hear it.”
The tips of his fingers were icy as he reached out with one hand to tilt my chin upward, very slightly. I didn't resist. Then, with the other, he tugged gently at my shirt collar, lifting up and off the abhorred clip-on tie. Both his hands fumbled with my top button, then the ones beneath. “That’s got to be a relief. Now, doesn't it?” he murmured, stepping back slightly to admire me once he'd opened my shirt.
I couldn’t deny that like most things that are inevitable, a relief is what it really was.