This is the totally true tale of how one family first set tires on the road to Hardyville. It begins in the direction of the rising sun, not far from where the powerful gather.
Charlotte Carolina, bleary from sleep, peered at herself in the mirror and groaned.
She squinted to edit out her puffiness and sun-damaged skin. Taking a brush, she attempted to bring order to her morning haystack of hair still as blonde as it was in her teens, thanks to the attentions of Lady Clairol.
After a few strokes, she laid down the brush, opened her eyes for an honest glimpse, and rasped at herself, "Face it. You're 39. You sag. You're past what Daddy called 'pleasingly plump.' You are," she continued mercilessly in her tobacco-thickened voice, "over the hill, underpaid, under-appreciated, bored, boring, used up, dried out, and ..."
"Mom! You didn't wash my purple blouse! I told you I needed my purple blouse today. How come you didn't wash my ..."
Charlotte closed the bathroom door, muting Jennifer's (no, remember, she wanted to be called "Paris" now) ...muting Jennifer's complaints.
She glared determinedly into the mirror again.
"I love my children. I really do." An affirmation. "I love my children. I love my children. I love my children." Noticing that her knuckles were white as she gripped the edge of the sink she stepped back and tried to relax. She gazed earnestly and offered her mirrored self some comfort. "The only problem is that you haven't had enough time with them these last couple of years. Everything would be all right if you just found a little more quality time to give them. It would."
She began applying makeup to her doughy face. That face. That body. They really weren't that bad, she assured herself. Certainly salvageable. A little more exercise. A month on another diet. Atkins maybe, this time. Yeah, that would do it. She'd start the diet next week. And exercise. Let's see, you could wedge that in between ...
"I'm leaving now, Mom." It was the voice of Tonio, her 17-year-old son, just outside the bathroom door.
"What time will you be home? I need you to ..."
But Tonio's footsteps were already receding. He probably had another "meeting" after school. What was it with his "meetings," anyhow? She would have a good sit-down with him. Find out what was preoccupying him. Soon.
In the meantime, she stroked foundation cream onto a face that, she thought, increasingly resembled a slightly deflated balloon.
* * *
Outside the sleek glass offices of CYACorp, a wiry young man waited and watched.
He waited as if his life's mission was to wait with infinite patience. He watched as if his life's mission was to watch with infinite observation. He stood so still as to be almost invisible among the hustling workers, rushing from their cars with tense intensity and hunched shoulders.
An overage Ford Taurus squeezed into a parking space, smoke leaking from its tailpipe and its slightly cracked driver's-side window. The plump, harried-looking driver stubbed out her cigarette, checked her lipstick in the rear-view mirror, and emerged from the cockpit with a furtive look, fanning at herself as if to banish the odor of smoke. CYA had a non-smoking policy, even for employees on their own time.
The woman tugged at her too-tight skirt and fumbled her car keys. As she bent to pick them up, her purse fell from her shoulder, contents spilling on the ground. Several other women hustled by, none offering to help. Gathering her possessions, rising, then gathering herself, the woman with the raddled complexion and the garish blonde hair propelled herself by main force past the security cameras, through the blank glass of the CYACorp's intimidating entrance, and out of the young man's sight.
Yes, Charlotte Carolina was the one, he thought. She needed him.
* * *
The Toad, bleary from drink, looked at himself in the mirror and saw that he was good.
"You are one handsome devil," he assured himself, though of course he needed no assurance.
True, he was a touch puffy around the jowls (around the middle, too, truth be told). But a little pudge was the price a man paid for a successful life of public service. Neither the jowls nor the unfortunate nickname "Toad" (the consequence of being Congressman Ted O'Day and having a one-time rival named Newt) kept him from doing his utmost for his country.
They didn't keep him from doing his utmost in the babe department, either. Or in the pocketbook. But those were just perks of the job. Every reasonable person understood that. Sure, once in a while you had to lay low while another hot-shot journalist went on a crusade about "corruption" or some political rival left his own mistress long enough to point fingers at you and yours. But it was all part of the game.
And, he reminded himself, picking up his razor and beginning to plow the facial furrows, the game is always played in a good cause. The ends justify the means.
And the ends were good. The Toad was absolutely confident of that. He knew, without a shred of doubt, that when he died which hopefully would be many years from now and God-willing not in the arms of his latest love-bunny the Washington Post and the New York Times would forgive his minor peccadillos and sing the praises of Ted O'Day, the Great Centrist.
It was Ted O'Day who helped push the Medicare spending bill through Congress over the objections of right-wing political dinosaurs.
It was Ted O'Day who made sure the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretap programs got well funded over the objections of whiny left-wing civil libertarians.
Ted was the man who stood foursquare in the middle, bridging political gulfs like a Colossus.
In the face of the worst disagreements, The Toad was the man who could magically work the bipartisan compromise, seeing that every side got something it wanted out of every bill. More money? An expansion of a favored agency? A new regulatory power? Ted was the moderate's moderate who could ensure the each side gained and no one ever really lost. Well, except a few wing-nuts and throwbacks, people who didn't matter because they had no political clout.
It was The Toad who had seen to it that the Pentagon got its slice of the "No Child Left Behind" law giving the liberals their latest round of school reform and conservatives their military recruiting, all in one tidy package. Not to mention a few billion more over time for his good friends on K Street.
The Toad had also been the man behind the Young Women's Health Protection Act* the spanking new law to make sure that every American school girl got a mandatory vaccination to protect her against sexually transmitted HPV. Sure, the usual dinosaurs had objected for the usual reasons. So he'd slung his influence and made sure the bill tossed a few hundred million more at abstinence education. Bingo! Both sides were winners once again. And Ted O'Day, of course, would be the biggest winner of all thanks to his campaign contributors in the pharmaceutical industry.
Yes, that was the way things got done in Washington. "And why not?" Ted often told talk-show hosts and fawning journalists. "That way, the whole country wins every time."
The Toad toweled off his face, looked himself in the mirror again, and smiled his big professional campaign smile. "You're a good man," he said, "if I do say so myself." And with the satisfaction of knowing his country became a better place with each moment he lived, he prepared for another day of serving the people.
* * *
Away from the offices of the U.S. House, in a discreet (though these days, non-smoky) restaurant in Georgetown, The Representative of The Agri-Tech Industrial Coalition waited. He waited like a man who is used to waiting for the powerful. He waited like a man who knew the game and agreed to act like a supplicant while really working for the puppet master who pulled all strings. He waited like a man who knows he's being forced to wait to show him his lowly place in the world, but who is all the while sitting there contentedly plotting world takeover.
And he waited for the man who walked in the door.
A few heads turned to notice Toad O'Day as he lumbered in from the stormy night, sloshed within and without. But this being that sort of place, all pretended not to watch him, while nevertheless noting exactly whom he'd be meeting. The word would be all over town by morning, but no one would speak outside the Club because all had their own chips in the same game.
The Representative from Agri-Tech stood respectfully. Even gave a small continental bow, designed to impress aristocracy-worshipping Americans, as he greeted his quarry.
Yes, the congressman would do. Indeed he would serve nicely.
* * *
Qwai Ching Paine, clear-eyed from meditation, looked into the mirror and saw beyond himself.
Yes, he was aware of the slight, wiry young man standing before the glass. But Paine, youthful student of monkey-fu, was trained to see much more than the obvious.
He turned his inner vision toward Charlotte Carolina. He envisioned her living out many possible lives her choices and her karma might create for her.
He considered the most intriguing of his insights and how that particular path might unfold with a subtle and well-directed application of monkey-fu. He smiled. Inscrutably.
Then he admonished himself not to be prideful. He had no ability to see the future, only to perceive potential paths and turnings through the heightened perceptions of monkey-fu.
Beyond the mirror, Qwai Ching perceived the Hilltop Hermitage, high above the town of Hardyville. He could smell the honeysuckle and hear the memory of June bees. But thinking of the hermitage made him homesick, and even a young monkey-fu student knows how to shift his focus from the comforts of home. He had a path to walk. That path was here in the real world.
But which turning should he choose next? Which branch in his own road would take him on the path most true to his dharma?
He gazed once more into the mirror, past his lean Amer-Asian face, and into the depths of his own eyes.
And in the darkness he saw Tonio Carolina. Charlotte's son. Yes, the path to the future many futures lay through Tonio. He would touch Tonio like a stone touches a pond, sending out many ripples before sinking into darkness.
Dedicated to Tom P., who answered a question and earned his alter-ego a journey to Hardyville. And, as always, with thanks to Oliver Del Signore for creative counsel.
* The Young Women's Health Protection Act is fictional, however, it mirrors real-world state and federal programs, which are gradually moving toward making vaccinations against HPV mandatory for girls as young as nine years. I take no position on whether the available vaccines are useful or healthful. I do take issue with them being imposed by, mandated by, or funded by government.
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