The Obelisk Chapter 2 – Dinner

Joe and Tomás followed Charles along a cobblestone path to a door on the house’s south side. First, Charles opened the screen door, then the heavier wooden one, letting the two friends inside. They stood in a large kitchen, where two other servants were chopping vegetables.

They descended into the cellar and deposited the boxes of fish. “Right this way.” Charles insisted when they came back up, gesturing towards the door leading to the servant quarters.

The long, utilitarian room had white walls and a grey cement floor. At the far end was a wood-fired stove next to a bathroom with three sinks, three toilet stalls, and two showers. Beds with crisp white sheets and blue wool blankets lined the walls. They looked quite comfortable.

Charles disappeared back into the house, reappearing with clothes, towels, toothbrushes, and bars of soap. He placed the stack of cloth and toiletries on one of the beds.

“Gentlemen, wash yourselves, change, and relax for a bit before dinner. Normally, you would help with food preparation and serving but tonight, you’re honored guests. The Senator wants to meet you. I will return in thirty minutes.” Charles said, before turning and walking back towards the main house.

“Wait, the Senator?” Joe asked.

Charles made a 180-degree turn. “Yes, Joe, that would be Senator Clarence McLeod of Massachusetts.” He stated with a slight grin, before turning around to leave once more. “See you in a half-hour!”

Joe paced back and forth across the room.

“Well, looks like we’re house dents.” Said Tomás, sitting on the bed. “Could be worse, could be a lot worse.” He cracked a wide grin and looked at Joe. “I think you can rest easy man, no more fish guts for us!” Joe didn’t reply. “You hear me?” Asked Tomás. “Your fast-talking finally got us somewhere! I’m confused, Joe, why aren’t you through the roof right now?”

Joe stopped pacing, but still didn’t answer. He stroked his short, bristly beard. “I don’t know Tomás, I’ve got a weird feeling about all this.”

“What do you mean?” Asked Tomás.

“I just can’t shake the feeling that we’re a couple small pieces in a big, dangerous game.” Joe said gravely.

“You always feel like that.” Said Tomás. “You need to relax, Joe.” He added with a knowing look.

Joe nodded, but said nothing. He bit his lip, clearly still wrapped up in thought.

“You perked up real quick when Charles said our prop is a Senator.” Tomás remarked. “Who is he?”

“McLeod…Massachusetts…” Joe mumbled, scratching his head as he recalled the information. “He’s the Senate majority leader.”

“Is he as spineless as the rest of the Publics?”

“He’s spineless-in-chief.” Said Joe. “Roosevelt may be their presidential nominee, but McLeod is the power broker. Nothing goes on in DC without his say-so.” He’s the one who decides whether legislation gets passed.”

“What’s his deal?” Asked Tomás.

“He’s been in the Senate a long time man, like eight, nine years. Before that he was the house for a few terms.”

“What about before that?” Asked Tomás. “Like, how’s he get his money?”

“Shipping.” Said Joe. “His father bought out.”

“And how’d he manage that?” Tomás asked. Buying out of your contract cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, many times the total annual income of even the best-paid indentured servants.

“I have no clue.” Said Joe. “I just read a profile on him in the Industrial Worker.”

“What’s his stance on the wars?” Tomás demanded. “Does he even talk about abolition?”

“No.” Said Joe. “He doesn’t even endorse a national right to vote.”

“Fuckin’ publics.” Tomás said with disdain. “They’re all rotten, Frank Roosevelt most of all!”

Four years ago, in 1936, the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh became president. His contentious campaign destroyed the old democratic and republican parties.

Lindbergh’s predecessor, John Garner, a democrat, tried to combat the great depression with policies which were unambitious, unimaginative, and small. A second wave of the great depression struck in late 1935. Winter was hard that year, and Lindbergh rode a wave of anger to electoral victory at the head of a new party: the American Patriot Party.

The Patriots promised tax cuts, financial deregulation, an isolationist foreign policy, protective tariffs, closed borders, infrastructure investment, and the strengthening of segregation. Lindbergh’s trick for the indentured who could vote was “buyout reform”, giving tax breaks to proprietors who sold contracts to their servants, and capping buyout prices at the total value of the contract, forbidding holders from charging interest and back expenses, as was customary. Lindbergh sold this trinket with his high-powered charisma, and it worked on many an indentured servant who hoped, themselves, to buy out.

The incumbent President Garner lost in a landslide, which took Washington completely by surprise. Lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, defected their old parties in droves to join the Patriots.

Gutted by these defections, the old parties collapsed. The official opposition to Lindbergh stitched itself together into the American Public Party. But though the Publics took back the Senate in 1938, no one was really sure what they stood for, beyond a general opposition to the President. Mostly, the Publics decried Lindbergh’s tariffs, and his sympathies for Nazi Germany and Italy at the expense of Britain. Some had the courage to speak out about the President’s racism and call for the abolition of indentured servitude. For this, they were sidelined within the party and silenced in the official press.

“The Publics are almost useless.” Said Joe.

“Almost?” Said Tomás, clearly skeptical. “What exactly do you think they can do for us?” He crossed his arms. “No, what’re they gonna do for us?”

“If Roosevelt gets elected, and we don’t sell oil and metal and grain to Germany and Italy, I’ll be happy.” Said Joe.

“Are you gonna vote for him?”

“Maybe.”

“Dammit Joe.” Tomás said, shaking his head.

“What?” Said Joe. “You want me to just not vote? To just give up the one little piece of a voice I have in this damn system?”

“It’s not a piece of a voice, its a poison pill.” Said Tomás. “These are sham elections. It’s just another tool to keep us out of the streets. I’m not gonna be part of it, and I’m sure as hell not gonna give my stamp of approval to a war criminal like Frank Roosevelt.”

“Lindbergh is openly supported by the Nazis!” Joe said, gesturing fervently. “The fascists reached over from Europe and interfered in our election!”

“They didn’t need to reach over anywhere.” Tomás shot back. “They’ve been here from the start. Since day one, since those self-righteous slaveholders founded this damn country.”

Joe paused, collecting his thoughts. He and Tomás had discussed the upcoming election many times. “You’re right.” He conceded. “But I’m still voting for Roosevelt.”

“It ain’t gonna change a thing.” Said Tomás.

“Maybe not here.” Said Joe. “But if we keep selling oil and grain to Germany and Italy, they’re gonna be beat the Soviets, and that will be a setback for the entire world.”

“I think the Soviets can hold their own.” Said Tomás. “Trotsky knows what he’s doing. Especially since they built the Lenin line! Have you seen the newsreels?”

“Yeah, I have.” Said Joe, recalling images of the colossal fortifications on the USSR’s western border. “But I don’t think they can win if the fascists have the weight of our resources behind them.”

Tomás thought for a moment. “You’re right, that would be a tough fight.”

“So that’s why I’m voting.” Said Joe.

“Joe, I don’t mean to rag on you, I just don’t think voting is gonna change anything.”

“Got any other ideas?” Asked Joe.

Tomás crossed his arms and smiled. “None that don’t end with a heroic death.”

Joe smiled too. “Well see, there it is. Now, I’d like to die a heroic death of old age.”

Tomás laughed. “We’d better get ready before Charles gets back.”

At that, the two friends took their showers and put on their new clothes, black dress pants, dress socks, crisp white shirts, black ties, and shiny, black leather dress shoes. They looked like a pair of cocktail waiters. Evidently, that’s what their proprietor wanted.

Showered and dressed, the duo sat twiddling their thumbs and itching their new collars, waiting for Charles to come retrieve them for dinner. He soon returned and ushered Tomás and Joe into the dining room.

The walls were painted a powder blue so light, it was almost white. The floor was dark-stained hardwood, matching an ornately carved dining table and chairs. From the soaring roof hung a chandelier with a hundred tiny, shimmering bulbs. The table was set neatly with formal white china, fine silverware, and three tall crystal vases filled with tulips of a deep, dark purple. There were ten chairs around the table, with four on each side, and one on each end. The table faced east-west, and the west wall was graced with four tall windows, looking out into the house’s spacious, leafy courtyard. The dark, stormy night and windows battered by sheets of falling rain contrasted starkly with the clean, rigid quiet and stillness of the house.

“Welcome, my friends.” Said the Senator, rising from his chair.

Clarence McLeod was about 5’7” and stocky, he used to play football, and he never hesitated to inform people of this. As Clarence aged, his muscle had transformed into a paunchy belt around the midsection. He wore a dark grey pinstripe suit with a matching vest, and a blue silk tie crisscrossed with white lines.

The Senator sat at the head of the table, as the storm raged outside behind him.

There were two open seats to Clarence’s right, between him and his youngest daughter Catherine.

“Please, have a seat.” Said the Senator.

Joe and Tomás looked at each other, debating with their eyes who should sit where. Tomás turned and glanced at Catherine. She looked similar to her older sister, with a small nose and dimpled chin, but Catherine’s hair was bright red and curly, with wayward wisps shooting from an unruly bun atop her head. Her eyes were pale blue, like her father’s. She turned those pale blue eyes at Tomás, and, to his great shock, she winked.

Tomás sat down, leaving the seat beside the Senator open. Joe planted himself there, shaking the Senator’s outstretched hand as he sat.

“How do you do?” Said the Senator. “I am Senator Clarence McLeod.”

“I’m Joseph Bramovich.” Said Joe.

“A pleasure to meet you.” Said the Senator, before leaning forward to repeat the routine with Tomás. “How do you do?” He asked again. They shook hands, and the Senator turned back to Joe.

“You two are friends?” Clarence asked.

“Yeah.” Answered Joe.

“How long have you known each other?”

“More than ten years.” Said Tomás.

The Senator nodded in approval. “It’s always wonderful to see men of all races share the bonds of friendship.”

“Yeah…” Said Joe. He paused, looking across the table of empty crystal cups and pristine porcelain plates. “So…uh…what’s going on with dinner?”

The Senator met the question with a stony face. “What’s ‘going on’ with dinner?” He repeated slowly. “In this house you will say what you mean, and say it in proper English. ‘How long until dinner arrives’ or  ‘when will dinner begin’ would have been acceptable ways to construct that sentence.”

“Father…” Claire interjected.

“What!” He roared in reply.

“…I think I heard a car.”

The Senator paused for a moment, wide-eyed, reeling in his temper. “Very well. I’ll go bring Matthew.” He rose from his seat and walked briskly from the room.

Joe breathed a sigh of relief as he left. Tomás cast him a tense look.

“Take it easy fellas, he can be a real dick sometimes, don’t take it personal.” Said the man sitting across the table from Tomás. “I’m Derrick McLeod. You might also know me by my nickname, ‘Deuce’.”

“Wait a second, Derrick, what do you do?” Asked Joe.

The man cracked a smile. “Well buddy, you’re lookin’ at the starting left fielder for the Boston Red Sox.”

“Wow, you’re that Deuce McLeod!” Joe exclaimed.

“Haha! Yeah buddy, that’s me!” Derrick replied with a good-natured grin.

“And I’m Catherine.” Said the red-haired woman next to Tomás.

“You’re about to meet by brother Matt. He’s a real stiff.” Said Derrick.

“Derrick!” Said Claire.

“Sorry, sorry!” Derrick said, holding out his open palms like shields. “My older brother, the Captain, is a fine and upstanding member of this family and the community…”

“Oh, can it Derrick!” Said Claire, slapping him on the leg with her napkin, as Catherine burst out laughing. “Don’t start a fight with Dad tonight, not the night before the party.” She snapped.

“The party?” Asked Joe, thinking that this must be ‘the thing’ happening tomorrow, ‘the thing’ for which Joe and Tomás were bought.

“I’ll tell you later.” Said Claire.

They heard a pair of sharp footsteps coming down the hallway. The siblings straightened in their chairs and shut their mouths. Joe and Tomás did the same.

“Charles, bring the chowder!” The Senator said on his way in. The father and son were already deep in conversation about the intricacies of America’s policy towards Cuba. Or rather, America’s policy in Cuba. The butler came in, distributing bowls and filling them with steaming clam chowder.

Matthew stopped in his tracks upon seeing Joe and Tom.

“Who are they?” He asked, speaking slowly, with barely-concealed anger.

Matthew was a tall man, with dark hair, pale, ivory skin, and the same blue-grey eyes as his father and younger sister. He cut a striking figure in his army dress blues, adorned with golden rank bars and little ribbons of many colors.

“New help.” Answered Clarence. “It’s their first night, so we’re treating them.”

“Hmph.” Grunted Matt. “Fellas.” He said brusquely, with a curt nod towards Joe and Tomás, before sitting down between Claire and the Senator.

“Joseph, Thomas, this is my eldest son Matthew. He’s a Captain in the US Army, and he’s just returned from a tour in the Dominican Republic.” Clarence declared with satisfaction.

Silence hung uncomfortably in the room as the Senator stared at Joe and Tomás, awaiting a response.

Clarence leaned forward. “Isn’t it an honor to meet him?” he whispered through clenched teeth.

“Uhh…absolutely!” Said Tomás. “Of course!”

“An honor, and a pleasure!” Added Joe with a toothy plastic smile.

The Senator leaned back into his seat, smiling slightly. “I think the roast is coming out now.” he stated, as Charles brought out a massive chunk of carved roast beef on a bed of potatoes and carrots. He placed it on the table, went back into the kitchen, and returned with a basket of rolls. Joe, Tomás, and the Mcleods all poured water for themselves from crystal carafes and began to eat.

“Say, Matt, what are you guys guarding us from down there anyways?” Catherine asked. “Are the Haitians going to invade?” She added sarcastically.

Matthew stared at his younger sister with cold rage. “The illegitimate, terrorist government of Haiti is guilty of constant aggression against the Dominican Republic, and its other neighbors across the region!” Replied Matt.

“It’s a shame to see a country in such a state, under an oppressive radical regime.” Said the Senator. “If only those people could be free.”

“They are free.” Tomás stated firmly. Silence followed in the wake of his words. Joe’s mouth hung open slightly.

As Tomás spoke, he knew contradicting his new owner was not a great idea. But Tomás was the kind of person for whom lying was next to impossible, and to whom silence came only with great difficulty, when he had something to say. The truth tended to itch in his throat, until it just leapt right out of his mouth.

Matthew looked angry. Clarence just looked surprised.

“Tell us more!” Said Catherine. “Is your family from there?”

“No.” Said Tomás. “My grandfather is from Martinique, if you know where that is. They’re still fighting the French there.”

“Astonishing.” Said Clarence, his face lighting up. “A real-life war refugee! What an amazing story! And what about the rest of your parentage?” The Senator asked, momentarily forgetting his repeated votes to assist the French in their war to retain the island colony.

Tomás shifted uncomfortably in his seat under the Senator’s awaiting gaze. Never mind that this ‘war refugee’ was born in Houston. “Uhm…well…so…there’s my grandfather from Martinique, Toussaint, and his wife Marie from Tennessee, their daughter Anne-Marie is my mother.” He paused. “You want me to keep going?”

“Yes!” Clarence bellowed. “Come on, out with it!”

“Alright… well, my Dad never knew his parents but his name is Juan Marcos, if that tells you what you want to know about my parentage.” Tomás said, hoping the Senator was too self-centered to catch the bile in his tone.

Clarence nodded slightly. “An astonishing mix.” He murmured. “And you!” The Senator said, turning towards Joe. “How about you, you look like a nice proper Jew-boy, with the beard and all!” He said, clamping his hand down on Joe’s shoulder and leaning in slightly. “You even look a little like him.”

“Like who?” Joe asked.

“Come on.” Clarence replied with a knowing look.

“I don’t know.”

“Like him!

“Jesus.” Tomás murmured under his breath, rubbing his forehead with his fingertips. He knew what was coming.

“What?” Joe asked tersely.

“The Great Jew! You’re the spitting image…” Clarence began. “Doesn’t anybody else see it?” He asked, looking around the table. “Trotsky!” Blurted the Senator, before bursting into laughter.

Joe was not pleased, and it showed on his face.

“Oh come on, no one’s ever said you look like Trotsky before? No one’s ever told you that?” Clarence asked, once his laughter subsided. “Let’s get him a mirror, and a picture to see!”

“I’ve seen pictures!” Snapped Joe. “And yes, people have told me that before.”

Clarence chuckled. “Oh, that’s rich!” No one else at the table laughed. “What’s the matter, can’t take a joke?”

“Leon Trotsky is nobody to joke about.” Said Mathew. “He’s threat to the entire civilized world!”

“I agree.” Said Derrick. “And he’s a terrible baseball player too!” He added with a cheeky grin. Claire successfully held in her laughter. Catherine did not.

Matthew waited for silence. “If we do not fight them there, we must fight them here and everywhere.” He said, his voice dripping with venom as he recited the jingoistic children’s rhyme.

“I think we might already be fighting them everywhere.” Said Catherine. “You should know, Matthew, you’ve been around. Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico, the northern reaches. I love to travel, maybe I should join the army! But they don’t take women…”

“And you would join if they did?” Asked Claire.

There was silence as Charles cleared away the empty bowls of chowder.

“I’ve heard you guys ain’t all heroes.” Said Derrick with a disdainful glance at Matthew. “Cat, I would steer clear if I was you.”

“I protect this country…” The Captain replied angrily. “….and I protect insolent, ungrateful little shit-stains like you too, so shut your moron mouth before I beat your head in!”

“Enough!” Clarence boomed, slamming his fist into the table with a crash, rising in fury from his seat. “Matthew!” He began, and was met with a face of equal anger from his eldest son. “Don’t use that kind of language at the table.” The father turned his rage on Derrick. “Derrick, we will discuss your attitude and your lifestyle later, but if you don’t sit politely, and eat your damn dinner, I will pull every string, I swear to God, I’ll buy the Boston Red Sox if that’s what it takes to get you off the field! I’ll have you lobotomized!” The Senator’s face was bright red, quivering with rage. “And then I’ll have you cast into an asylum with the rest of the sodomites!” His chest heaved with heavy breaths. “You will not derail my political career with your scandalous immoral behavior, just as you will not derail this meal with your juvenile jokes! Is that understood?”

“Yes.” Derrick murmured.

“What?” Clarence roared.

“Yes, father.”

“Good.” Said Clarence. “Now Claire?”

“Yes?” Claire asked nervously.

“Save your snark to impress the other leftist rabel-rousers tomorrow night, because I don’t want to hear that radical filth unless I have to, and right now, I don’t have to. Do you understand?” Claire glared silently back at her father, pausing to weigh the costs and benefits of concession and confrontation. She chose the latter.

“How can you say that to me when Matt’s so far on the right, he’s practically in the president’s lap!” Matthew fumed, but Clarence placed a hand on his shoulder, and spoke in his stead.

“I oppose President Lindbergh, I oppose his methods, and I oppose his rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean everything he says is wrong. Your brother has seen the terrorist threat up close, fought it with his own hands. That’s something you can never understand. So don’t try.” Claire said nothing. “I think dessert is ready.” Said Clarence at last, banishing the uncomfortable silence like an unwelcome guest.

Claire glared at her father. She didn’t particularly want to keep the argument going, but she couldn’t help herself.

“I respect service to the country, of course…” Claire began, “…but the fascists are clearly the greater threat in the world today. Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and now France! When will you realize that Hitler is the true danger?”

“The Polish attacked them! And the Germans are simply reclaiming what is theirs. The Treaty of Versailles was thoroughly unfair, it makes sense that the Germans would want to rectify the situation.” Said Clarence.

“That doesn’t excuse pillage and murder! And do you really think the Polish attacked that border post? It was a false flag!” Yelled Claire.

“Balderdash!” Clarence shouted. “Where did you hear such a wild conspiracy theory? Illegal radio?” He asked with a knowing look. Claire’s face gave her away. “Detestable!” Clarence yelled. “I don’t want either of you listening to that drivel.” He said, looking between Claire and Catherine.

“Can I listen to it?” Asked Derrick.

“Yes.” Said Clarence idly. “Wait, NO!” I don’t want that filthy radical noise in this household!” Clarence shouted over the laughter of his children. “We have your people to thank for that.” He added, shooting a cold stare at Joe.  The Senator thought for a moment. “I know our society isn’t perfect, but we’re making progress.” His voice rose in volume as he spoke. “The Communists, the Haitians, Revolutionary Brazil, the Congolese, Zapato, Trotsky and the Jewish hatemongers, all these terrorists would destroy everything we’ve built! That’s the true threat.” Clarence boomed.

All fell silent, only the sounds of the wind and the rain remained.

“Right…well…let’s have dessert.” Clarence said with feigned ease. “Coffee, anyone?”

Charles brought out slices of fluffy carrot cake covered in rich, white buttercream frosting, with little orange and green carrots piped on each slice. They ate their cakes and sipped coffee in silence.

Once again, the Senator’s loud voice broke the silence. “I hope you all got out your little jokes and sated your restless spirits, because if you embarrass me in the tomorrow in the slightest, I will not spare the rod.” Clarence stated sternly, before rising from his seat. “Joseph, Thomas, welcome to our home. I hope you now understand some of our rules. Goodnight.” He said, and walked out of the room.

“Don’t let these scum fool you.” Matthew said with a dismissive gesture towards his siblings. “In this house we obey our superiors.” He glowered down at Joe and Tomás. “Our owners.” He added with a sneer, before storming off down the hall.