Read The Activist Page 2

  On his desk he usually kept notebooks and school supplies, and under it there was usually a dog—Judge. No one would ever know Judge’s age or where he came from, except that he came from the dog pound and was once within twenty-four hours of being put to sleep, forever. Theo had rescued him in Animal Court two years earlier, gave him a new name, and took him home, where he slept peacefully through the night under Theo’s bed. During the day, Judge roamed quietly through the rooms and offices of Boone & Boone, occasionally napping on a small bed under Elsa’s desk near the front door, or under the large conference table if the lawyers weren’t using it, or hanging out in the small kitchen in hopes someone might drop some food. Judge weighed forty pounds, and though he ate human food, he never gained an ounce, according to the vet who saw him every four months. Judge preferred saltier foods—chips and crackers and sandwiches with meat—but he rejected almost nothing. When there was a birthday he expected cake. If someone, usually Theo, made a run to Guff’s Frozen Yogurt, Judge expected his own scoop, preferably vanilla. And Judge was perhaps the only member of the law firm able to choke down the dreadful oatmeal cookies brought in at least one dark day each month by Dorothy, Mr. Boone’s secretary.

  About the only food Judge did not like was dog food. He preferred to eat what Theo ate, which was Cheerios for breakfast with whole milk, not skim, then whatever the rest of the family had for dinner, with a few random office snacks thrown in during the day while Theo was at school.

  Because he was surrounded by lawyers, Judge knew that time was important. Appointments, conferences, court dates, meetings, schedules, and so on. Every member of the firm kept an eye on the clock, and the clock seemed to rule everything. Judge had his own clock, and he knew that on Wednesdays, as on most days, Theo arrived after school around 4:00 p.m. For this reason, Judge parked himself under Elsa’s desk promptly at 3:30 and went back to sleep. But it was dog sleep, the kind that’s not too deep, more of a light nap with the eyes half open and the ears listening and waiting for the sound of Theo bouncing up the front steps and securing his bike on the front porch.

  When Judge heard these sounds, he stood and began to stretch as if he hadn’t moved for hours, then waited with great anticipation.

  Theo came in the front door with his backpack and said, “Hello Elsa,” the same thing he said every day. Elsa jumped up and pinched his cheek and asked him how his day had been. Just okay. She straightened his button-down collar and said, “Your father said you were outstanding during the debate, is that so?”

  “I guess,” he said. “We won.” Judge by now was at Theo’s feet, tail wagging, waiting to be rubbed on the head and spoken to.

  “You look so cute in a real shirt,” she said. Theo was expecting this because he was usually greeted by some comment dealing with his wardrobe. Elsa was older than his parents, but she dressed like a twenty-year-old with strange tastes. She was also like a grandmother to Theo, a very important person in his life.

  Theo spoke to his dog and rubbed his head and asked, “Is Mom in?”

  “She is and she is expecting you,” Elsa gushed. The woman had incredible energy. “And she is very disappointed she missed the debate, Theo.”

  “No big deal. She does have a job, you know?”

  “Yes she does. There are some pecan brownies in the kitchen.”

  “Who made them?”

  “Vince’s girlfriend.”

  Theo nodded his head in approval and walked down the hall to his mother’s office. The door was open and she waved him in. He took a seat and Judge plopped down beside him. Mrs. Boone was on the phone, listening. Her high-heel shoes were parked off to the side, which meant she had had a long day in court. Marcella Boone was forty-seven, a little older than the mothers of most of Theo’s friends, and she believed women lawyers were still expected to dress at a higher level when they went to court. Office attire was more casual, at least for Mrs. Boone, but court dates meant a sharper outfit and high heels.

  Mr. Boone, upstairs, rarely went to court and rarely cared how he looked.

  “Congratulations,” she said, hanging up. “Your father says you were magnificent. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there, Theo.”

  They talked about the debate for a while, with Theo detailing the good points made by the team from Central and the counterpoints made by his side. After a few minutes, though, his mother detected something else. Theo was often amazed at how his mother could sense something was wrong. Often when he tried to play a joke on her, or fool her with some silly gag, he got nowhere. She could look at his face and know exactly what he was thinking.

  “What’s the matter, Theo?” she asked.

  “Well, you can forget about me and the cello,” he said, then told the story of the music class that no longer existed. “It doesn’t seem fair,” Theo said. “Mr. Sasstrunk was a great teacher. He was excited about the class, and I think he needed the extra money.”

  “That’s awful, Theo.”

  “We talked to Mrs. Gladwell, and she explained all the budget cuts that have been ordered from the home office. Coaches, janitors, cafeteria workers. It’s really bad and there’s nothing she can do about it. She said we could complain to the school board, but if the money’s not there, then the money’s not there.”

  Mrs. Boone swung her chair around to a small sleek cabinet and began searching for a file. Upstairs, when Mr. Boone searched for a file, he simply began rummaging through the stacks of disorganized papers piled in some unknown order on top of his desk. He also kept stacks of materials under his desk, beside his desk, and it was not unusual to see documents that had simply slid off the piles and onto another spot on the floor. Mrs. Boone’s office was intensely modern and neat, with nothing out of place. Mr. Boone’s was old, creaky, saggy, and a mess. However, as Theo had witnessed many times, Mr. Boone could find a file almost as quickly as his wife.

  She swung back around to her desk and looked at some paperwork. “This young woman came in last week for a divorce. Very sad. She’s twenty-four, with one small child and another on the way. She doesn’t work because she’s busy being a mom. Her husband is a rookie policeman here in the city, and there’s only one paycheck. They are barely surviving as a family, and there’s no way they can afford a split. I recommended they see a marriage counselor and get serious about working things out. She called yesterday to inform me that her husband just learned he is being laid off by the city. The mayor has ordered every department to cut their budgets by five percent across the board. We have sixty policemen, so that means three will lose their jobs. My client’s husband is one of them.”

  “What’s she going to do?” Theo asked.

  “Try and hang on. I don’t know. It’s very sad. She told me it seems like yesterday when she was in high school and dreaming of college and a career. Now she’s terrified and not sure what’s going to happen.”

  “Did she go to college?”

  “She tried, but her financial aid was cut.”

  “All these cuts. What’s going on, Mom?”

  “The economy goes up and down, Theo. When times are good, people earn more money and spend more money, and this leads directly to more taxes being paid to the city. More sales taxes, more property taxes, more—”

  “I’m not sure I understand property taxes.”

  “Okay, it’s very simple. Your father and I own this building. It is known as real property. Land and buildings are real property, whereas cars, boats, motorcycles, and trucks are known as personal property. They get taxed, too, but back to this building. Each year the city places a value on this building. It’s currently valued at four hundred thousand dollars, which is a lot more than we paid for it many years ago. After the city determines the value, it applies a tax rate to that value. Last year the tax rate was about one percent, which meant about four thousand dollars in taxes. The same thing happened to our home, but homes have a slightly lower tax rate. Anyway, we paid about two thousand dollars in real property taxes on our home. As for the personal prop
erty, we have two automobiles and the taxes were about a thousand dollars. So that’s seven thousand dollars we paid into the city last year.”

  “Where does the money go?”

  “Schools get the biggest chunk, but our tax dollars also pay for such things as fire and police protection, the hospital, parks and recreation, street maintenance, garbage collection. It’s a long list.”

  “Do you have any say in how the money is spent?”

  Mrs. Boone smiled and thought for a second. “Maybe a little. Not directly, but we elect the mayor and city councilmen and in theory they’re supposed to listen to us. In reality, though, we just pay the money because we have no choice, then hope for the best.”

  “Do you resent paying the taxes?”

  Another smile at another innocent question. “Theo, no one likes to pay taxes, but at the same time we want great schools, lots of well-trained policemen and firemen, beautiful parks, the best health care at our hospitals, and so on.”

  “I guess seven thousand dollars a year is not that bad.”

  “Theo, it’s seven thousand dollars just to the city. We also pay taxes to the county, the state, and Uncle Sam in Washington. And since the economy is going through a slump, all levels of government are facing budget cuts. It’s not just happening here in Strattenburg.”

  “So things are bad all over?”

  “We’ve seen worse. Again, it’s up and down. But it seems more severe when it affects people we know, like Mr. Sasstrunk and this young client of mine. When people we know lose their jobs, then the problem is suddenly more serious.”

  “Does a bad economy affect good ole Boone and Boone?”

  “Oh yes, especially your father’s business. When people aren’t buying homes and building things, the real estate business suffers. But it’s not something to worry about, Theo. We’ve been through this many times.”

  “It just doesn’t seem fair.”

  “It’s not, Theo, but then no one ever said that life is fair.” Her phone buzzed with a message from Elsa. “I need to take this call, Theo. I think your father would like to see you.”

  “Okay, Mom. What’s for dinner?”

  What a joke. It was Wednesday, and Wednesday always meant Chinese carryout from the Golden Dragon. Mrs. Boone was too busy to spend time in the kitchen.

  “I’m thinking of sweet-and-sour shrimp tonight,” she said.

  “Sounds good to me,” Theo said as he and Judge got to their feet and left the office.

  Chapter 4

  At the last minute, Theo decided against sweet-and-sour shrimp, opting instead for crispy beef. It was one of Judge’s favorites. His father got the Chinese takeout, and at precisely 7:00 p.m. the Boones took their places behind their wooden TV trays in the den and prepared to eat. Mr. Boone blessed the food with his standard “thanks-be-to-God,” and the meal was on. Judge sat beside Theo’s chair, waiting patiently but also ready to eat.

  The remote control was in the possession of Mrs. Boone. Months earlier the family had hammered out a truce, then an agreement that rotated use of the remote each Wednesday. When one person had the remote, there could be no complaining from the other two. After a few bites and a few comments about the great debate, Mrs. Boone finally turned on the television and began surfing aimlessly, with no destination in mind. The volume was off. The only sound was Judge scarfing down the crispy beef. If Mr. Boone or Theo had the remote, they would go straight to their favorite show, Perry Mason reruns. But Mrs. Boone just surfed along, not really interested in anything. She watched little TV and had always tried to keep Theo away from it.

  She finally stopped at a show called Strattenburg Today, a badly run news recap of the hot stories in town, if in fact there were any hot stories. Usually there were not. She hit the volume, and suddenly they were looking at the plastic smiling face of their governor. The voice-over from an unseen reporter said: “Governor Waffler was in town today to announce a new plan to finally build the Red Creek Bypass, an eight-mile loop around the city that will cost two hundred million dollars and has been hotly debated for many years. Governor Waffler was joined by local business leaders and elected officials who have been pushing the bypass. He announced that he has directed his transportation secretary to make the bypass a priority and designate enough money to build it.” The camera pulled back for a wide shot of the governor talking into a microphone while a crowd of serious men in suits stood behind him.

  “I can’t believe this,” Mrs. Boone said.

  “What’s a bypass?” Theo asked.

  She said, “Well, in this case, it’s a road to nowhere that will cost at least two hundred million dollars and allow truckers to save about five minutes as they travel through Strattenburg.”

  Mr. Boone chimed in, “It’s also a badly needed four-lane highway that will reduce the traffic jams on Battle Street.”

  Mrs. Boone replied, “It’s also a boondoggle. Five years ago, a conservative taxpayers group, someone from your side of the street, Woods, labeled it the third-biggest waste of taxpayer money in the entire country.”

  Mr. Boone replied, “And a Chamber of Commerce study found that the Battle Street congestion is so bad it is choking off growth and development.”

  Mrs. Boone said, “Two hundred million dollars for five minutes. Unbelievable.”

  Mr. Boone said, “You can’t stand in the way of progress.”

  There was a heavy pause, and Theo managed to say, “Sorry I asked.”

  They listened to the governor for a moment and ate in silence. Then a local state senator took the podium and began bragging about all the wonderful ways the new bypass would make life better in the city and county. He was not very impressive—short, red-faced, chubby, sort of stuffed into a bad suit—and after he thundered on for a few minutes, Mrs. Boone said, “You voted for that clown.”

  Mr. Boone looked guilty and could not deny the accusation.

  “Did you, Dad?” Theo asked, almost in disbelief, as if he wanted to say, “How could anyone vote for a guy like this?”

  “I did,” his father finally admitted.

  At the age of thirteen, Theo Boone had only a passing interest in politics. Much of what he saw on television told him to stay away from it altogether. He knew his mother tended to be more liberal and his father more conservative, but he had heard them insist more than once they were simply “moderates,” or somewhere in the middle. After listening to some of their discussions, he had realized there was nothing simple about being a moderate. Thankfully, his parents had the good sense not to argue politics in front of Theo. They rarely argued about anything, at least not in his presence.

  Innocently, Theo asked, “Where does the two hundred million dollars come from?”

  His father replied, “Mainly from the state, but there is some city and county money involved, too.”

  Theo asked, “But if the city is cutting budgets right and left, and canceling classes and laying off policemen and janitors, how can the city spend money on this bypass?”

  His mother laughed and said, “Bingo.”

  “The vast majority is state money,” Mr. Boone said.

  “But I thought the state was cutting budgets, too.”

  “Bingo,” his mother said again, with another laugh.

  “Why do you keep saying ‘bingo,’ Mom?” Theo asked.

  “Because, Theo, you’re asking all the right questions, and there are no good answers. The bypass would be a waste of money in good times or bad, doesn’t matter, but to build it now when the city, county, and state are all out of money is ridiculous.”

  Being lawyers, neither parent was in the habit of backing down when discussing an issue. However, Theo got the impression his father’s support of the bypass was not quite as strong as his mother’s opposition. There was another lull in the conversation, then with perfect timing, a spokesman for the Sierra Club appeared on-screen. Mrs. Boone, firmly and proudly in control of the remote, turned up the volume. The man said, “This bypass was a rotten i
dea ten years ago, and it’s an even worse idea now. It crosses Red Creek in two places and will harm the quality of the city’s water. It will be built very close to Jackson Elementary School, so there will be twenty-five thousand vehicles a day, many of them big trucks, running right by a playground where four hundred kids are playing. Think of the noise and pollution.”

  Mrs. Boone increased the volume even more.

  The man from the Sierra Club went on, “The environmental impact has not been carefully studied. This project is being rammed through by the politicians who get paid off by the trucking companies.”

  Next was another politician, and Mrs. Boone quickly muted the television.

  “What’s the Sierra Club?” Theo asked.

  “A bunch of radical tree huggers,” his father said.

  “It’s one of the greatest environmental groups in the world,” his mother said.

  “Okay,” Theo said, and took a bite. Like most kids, Theo actually enjoyed these rare moments when his parents disagreed. He decided to keep the debate going. “I’m confused,” he said. “If the state and city are broke, then where does the two hundred million dollars come from?”

  “Ask your father,” Mrs. Boone said quickly, punting the ball across the den with incredible speed and accuracy.

  “They borrow it,” Mr. Boone said. “Being broke never stopped the government from spending more money. If they can’t find any money, they simply borrow what they want by floating bonds.”

  “Floating bonds?” Theo asked.

  “Now you’ve stepped into deep water,” Mrs. Boone said with another laugh.

  “Yes, it’s pretty complicated,” Mr. Boone said. “And let’s save it for another day. The important thing to understand, Theo, is that governments do not operate the way they should. Your mom and I work hard. We represent our clients. We earn fees. We spend money on salaries, office equipment, electric bills, things like that. But, we cannot spend more than we earn. It’s that simple. Most families and most businesses do this, or at least they try to. Not so with governments. They all spend too much and borrow too much and waste too much.”

  “Don’t they have to pay back the money they borrow?” Theo asked.

  “In theory, yes, but it seems like they just keep putting it off on the next generation. Our generation has basically bankrupted the country, and your generation gets to pay for it.”

  “Gee, thanks.”

  “Don’t mention it.” Mr. Boone stuffed half an egg roll into his mouth so he would be required to chew for a long time and not be able to talk.

  Thankfully, the governor was gone and the next story was about a professor at Stratten College who was upset at the low wages being paid to the janitors on campus. He had organized a protest in front of the administration building, but his crowd appeared to be nothing more than a bunch of janitors. The professor had long gray hair and earrings and spoke in a shrill voice.

  “Wild Willie Webber,” Mr. Boone said. “What a clown.”

  “Who’s he?” Theo asked.

  “One of our better local acts. He teaches Russian history at the college and thinks he’s a Communist. Always stirring up trouble, or trying to anyway.”

  Of course Mrs. Boone was not about to agree. She said, “He’s actually a very effective activist for a number of causes.”

  “What’s an activist?” Theo asked. He refused to allow a new word to fly by without a definition.

  Mrs. Boone thought for a second, then said, “An activist is a person who has strong feelings about an issue, or issues, and is willing to get involved to bring about change. Woods?”

  Woods nodded and said, “Yep, that’s close enough. I would add that an activist is usually active on several fronts. The same characters keep popping up over and over.”

  “I suppose,” she said.

  Judge had an eye on one of Mr. Boone’s egg rolls, one of the two remaining ones, but he knew his chances were slim. Instead, he went to the kitchen for a drink of water, then returned to the den, where he situated himself directly in front of Mr. Boone and stared at the egg rolls.

  “Get out of the way, Judge,” Mr. Boone said.

  “Dad, he loves egg rolls,” Theo said.

  “So do I, and I’m not in the mood to share.”

  “He shouldn’t be eating Chinese,” Mrs. Boone said. It was something she said at virtually every meal when Theo started dropping food down to Judge. Both Mr. and Mrs. Boone thought it was unwise to feed a dog off the table, and they said so often, but even while they were telling Theo not to feed Judge they knew exactly what he was doing. Mr. Boone himself was known to drop a scrap or two, and if Mrs. Boone saw it she would always say, “Woods, don’t feed the dog.” But Woods would feed the dog whenever he wanted to, and the next day he would say to Theo, “Theo, don’t feed the dog.”

  Strange behavior. Theo was often baffled by the things his parents said and did. For example, every night around 9:00 p.m. when his parents were reading or talking or puttering in the kitchen, Mrs. Boone would say, “Woods, it’s your turn to make the coffee.” Every night after dinner, Mr. Boone ground the coffee beans, poured the water, adjusted the dial on the automatic brewer, and got everything ready for the first pot that was automatically brewed at 6:00 each morning. The couple enjoyed waking up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee, though Mrs. Boone actually drank very little. Mr. Boone craved the caffeine, and for this reason he was quite happy to go about his little nightly ritual of “making the coffee.” It was his job, one that he wouldn’t share with anyone. The beans had to be properly measured. The water had to be at a certain level. The filter had to be a certain type. And so on. Nevertheless, every night Mrs. Boone felt the need to remind her husband, and his response was always, “Yes, dear, I’ll get to it in a minute.”

  Mrs. Boone refused to take out the garbage. That chore belonged to Mr. Boone, or, more often, Theo. It was no big deal and Theo didn’t mind it at all. But for some reason, and out of a habit that Theo was sure neither of his parents could ever explain, about twice a week he heard his father ask, “Honey, have you taken out the garbage?” To which Mrs. Boone responded every time, “No, I just painted my fingernails.”

  Theo had little interest in his mother’s fingernails and how often she painted them, but he was almost certain she got them worked on at a salon every Friday morning. They always looked nice, as far as Theo noticed.

  Why did his parents do these odd things? Theo rarely withheld questions, but he had a hunch that some questions were better off left unasked. Perhaps some questions could not be answered. He also suspected married people settled into routines and did things so often they didn’t even realize they were doing them.

  As he was pondering these things, his mother asked, “Theo, did you finish