A MAN LIKE JIM TANNER
Jimmy shuffled his feet on the floor of the headmaster’s office and rearranged his hands. Not happy with that configuration either, he shifted it again. His hands couldn’t find a happy way to sit on his lap. Absently, he kept at it.
“Excuse me,” Jimmy said. The secretary looked up at him from her desk and smiled. “What am I in here for, again? I wasn’t told.”
“Don’t be nervous dear, it’s nothing to be afraid of. They’ll be with you shortly.” The secretary had hair like one of those fashion models from the sixties. It was a pleasant, swooped dome of hair with so much spray in it that it would probably crackle like french bread crust if touched.
“Ahh. Thank you ma’am.” Jimmy didn’t feel better at all. Why would he be here if he wasn’t in trouble? It wasn’t fair. He never got in trouble. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t keep his lights on after ten and he didn’t tell anyone of the thoughts he’d had about Becky Tomlinson. All he’d done in the past semester was listen to some rap music that Tad Duntly had squirreled away on an iPod. Oh gosh, do they know about the rap music? Jimmy fidgeted with his hands again.
The door opened and the headmaster beamed out. He didn’t look mad at all. “Jimmy? Why don’tcha step on inside and sit a spell?”
Jimmy got up and walked. Not stooped or fearful, like he felt, but tall and straight. He looked the headmaster in the eyes, grinned and shook his hand as he entered the room. Just like he’d been taught. The headmaster nodded with approval.
Inside the office, a man in a suit was seated in one of the two chairs before the headmaster’s desk. The man looked all wrong. His suit had thin white stripes, and he looked sharp, but too many stripes said the wrong thing about a man. He was leaning against the right arm of his chair. His pants leg was pulled up too high and he wasn’t fixing it. He was chewing on the butt end of his pen, and that was one of the big no-nos. The man was staring hard at Jimmy, looking him up and down.
The headmaster gestured to the man. “Jimmy, I’d like you to meet Mr. Unfred. He’s here to speak with us today about your future.” Unafraid, Jimmy approached the man with his practiced grin and handshake. The man stood and reciprocated.
Mr. Unfred’s eyes sparkled as they crawled over Jimmy’s. “Say, that’s a nice handshake you’ve got there, Jim. Have a seat, won’t you?”
Jimmy sat, feeling proud that someone had noticed his handshake. He always took care to squeeze just hard enough to make a strong impression. Three quick pumps, hold for a beat, then release.
Mr. Unfred opened a manilla folder and read. “James Tanner, born May 1998, came to St. Mary’s in 1999 after death of parents.” Unfred looked up at Jimmy, and Jimmy did as he’d been taught and didn’t flinch at the mention of his parents. He met the scouring eyes again with an open and friendly face. Unfred nodded with a grunt and went back to reading. “GPA of 3.6, no permanent strikes on his record, protestant, charismatic, black hair, blue eyes, strong features, bold speaking voice...” Unfred pointed at Jimmy with a grin. “...Strong handshake.”
Jimmy returned the grin and the point, and they chuckled together.
Unfred dropped the folder back on the desk with a plap. “Jim, I’m going to cut to the chase. I represent a firm that scouts for young men like yourself.”
Jimmy cocked his head but didn’t let his confusion show. Never appear confused. “Sir?”
Unfred made the same circular gesture three times with his hand while he thought. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘every politician should be born an orphan and remain a bachelor,’ Jim? It’s about how politics is increasingly about a man’s background, and scrutiny is at an all-time high. It’s to the point where average men can’t become politicians, because your average man has made a certain number of mistakes by the time they’re your age. Girls, drinking, your regular bad behavior.”
Jimmy nodded. He didn’t really understand where this was going, but he was following so far.
“My clients represent certain interests. We use St. Mary’s and other prominent orphanages around the nation as... well, as a sort of farm team for new talent. And we think you may have what it takes. We want to turn you into a politician.”
Jimmy couldn’t help but let his eyebrows jump. “What, like... president?”
“Possibly,” Unfred shrugged. “Anything’s possible. We keep a lot of prospects. We choose good-looking young men that listen to their betters and we groom them for office. You know what ‘groom’ means, right?”
“Yes, uh... it means... molded?”
“Molded, sure. Every young man in this institution has been groomed all his life. Posture classes, speeches, debate functions... but only a select few candidates wind up fitting the profile we’re looking for.”
“And I fit that profile?”
The headmaster frowned. “Mind that open mouth, Mr. Tanner. You look like a fish.”
Unfred waved a hand. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Everyone’s a little shocked when they hear this at first. It’s par for the course.”
Jimmy adjusted his shirt cuffs and cleared his throat. “Mr. Unfred... if I were to accept, would I remain a bachelor as the expression suggested?”
“No no no, you’d marry a pretty girl you meet at 22 in your graduate studies. We’ll probably start working on her soon. Don’t worry about that. The phrase is a good jumping off point, but voters... voters these days like a family man.”
Jimmy spoke the slogan over the orphanage’s doors: “God, Duty, Family.”
“That’s right. I see the look on your face, kid, and I know what you’re thinking. You’re disillusioned with things. I get that! You feel like this is an arranged marriage and a disgrace to the voting system, wherein americans are allowed to choose their own leader, right? Americans did this to themselves. Think about it... you’ve been studying political science for three years. Look at me. Could I be elected president in this outfit?” Mr. Unfred spread his arms.
“No,” Jimmy mumbled. “No, you really couldn’t.”
“Damn right I couldn’t. And besides, do you think the Democrats aren’t doing the same thing right now? They’ve got some hispanic twelve year-old that’s going to be a real problem for us when his silver hair starts coming in. Kid’s an ace.”
Unfred sat down again and stared Jimmy square in the eyes. “America needs a Jim Tanner in office. Are you with us?”
“America needs me?”
“A man like you.”
Jimmy thought for a moment but took care that his eyes didn’t dart around the room as they did. That looked suspicious. “The girl I marry.” He paused for a moment more, gathering his courage. “Could it be Becky Tomlinson?”
Unfred smiled. “I think we can make that happen. What do you say. Are you on the team?”
They shook hands with firm grips. Three quick pumps, hold for a beat, then release.