November 3, 1905
The National Hotel
I’m in a hotel room, on the bed, my eyes closed. Odd sounds from outside in the hallway — busy city street noises outside — where am I?
Oh yes. Washington.
I think I slept the night before, but I can’t tell, because I am still exhausted. My head is pounding — Paul said I drank too much last night, but I didn’t drink more than I usually do. I’m a bit chilly — as I sit up, I realize I’ve been asleep on top of the bed, fully dressed, my shoes still on my feet.
The room is dim, but bright light is filtering in around the window shade. I dare not open it; it will likely hurt my head even more.
Anxiously, I pull my pocket watch out of my vest — 7:10 am. I exhale in relief, as I remembered my train doesn’t leave for another two hours. I wouldn’t have to pay for another hotel room — it was $5 a night, not including meals. I splurged in all the giddy excitement of my new job in Sterling, but I am also extremely economical and logical when it comes to money: I really can’t afford a $5 hotel room.
I get up slowly; the room wasn’t spinning so badly but I am feeling nauseous. I walk over to the basin and splash water on my face — then I go to my suitcase and took out my silver flask. There is only about an ounce of Scotch left — no matter. It would help. I down it quickly, wincing.
Events of last night are coming back to me. Even though the Scotch takes the edge off my hangover, I still feel bad about what happened between Paul and myself. I didn’t expect to get into a serious argument with my best friend. We rarely disagree, which is what makes this so unusual.
That story from yesterday? Where I went to the Capitol and sat at the Speaker’s chair? Yeah, that happened. But there was more to the story. It wasn’t as happy as I put on.
You see, Paul and I parted badly. We’re still friends, of course. We’ll always be friends. But this is different now.
I resent the way Paul put me on the defense about working with Nick. What does Paul know about all of this, anyway? He left Stetson his last year of law school — he didn’t finish with me, or Nick, and the rest of our class. I think Paul’s jealous. I told him so. Paul just said he thinks I’m making a mistake. Like I did with Pearl.
I told him to go to hell.
I rub my tired eyes. He’s my best friend. He’s never steered me wrong, never given me bad advice. I trust him. But here, I think he’s wrong.
The events of the last two days flash through my mind. I think back to Nick seeing me off at the train depot in Sterling. “Simply keep me apprised of your travel plans, and we’ll have everything in readiness for you when you arrive at the end of the year,” he’d said. “You are not to worry about anything.”
On the train to Washington, I felt relieved, excited, and anxious at the same time. So far the trip had been a dream come true for me. I was literally being handed my own law practice — of course — it would have the veneer of Van Sant, and it was understood that it was his practice in name, but it was mine to run, and Nick would be hands off the majority of the time.
When I changed trains in Chicago, I sent a wire ahead to Paul in Washington, and to The National Hotel in Washington. I told Paul when my train was scheduled to arrive, and that I’d go right to the hotel as soon as I got to Washington. I felt very cosmopolitan and sophisticated doing these things.
When my train arrived in Washington, I remember walking out of the train station at Sixth and B Streets, a chilly but clear day and turning to the right, to see the U.S. Capitol building. I admit that it that was breathtaking — that fine white marble building against the bright blue sky.
I hired a taxi, and again felt very sophisticated as I told the driver to take me to the Capitol. “House or Senate side?” The driver asked. “House,” I said.
Paul told me when I arrived in Washington, to call him at Congressman Lamar’s office from the lobby of the Capitol, and he would show me around. About 10 minutes after I’d told the guard at the lobby desk who I was here to see, I saw Paul walking quickly towards me; he greeted me enthusiastically. “It’s good to see you, Wilson,” he said, shaking my hand and patting me on the arm energetically.
I asked about him being away from his office, Paul said that Congressman Lamar wasn’t in Washington right now while Congress was out; Lamar usually back in the district.
We walked around the Capitol and Paul showed me the different offices, the rotunda, Statuary Hall. We went across the street to the Library of Congress — an amazing and beautiful building — and the books! I told Paul I would happily spend all of my time in the reading room, which made him laugh.
I remember banging a gavel at the Speaker’s dais on the House floor.
I remember meeting some of Paul’s colleagues at the Capitol.
Next, we visited was a large construction site across the street from the House side of the U.S. Capitol. It was an excavation of a very large lot— including horses and wagons with rail cars — that were removing massive amounts of dirt. Paul said that the pit would be quite deep; enough that there would be a small underground train eventually running from the Capitol building to this building, which I said was incredible.
“This will be the office building for members of the House of Representatives,” Paul said. “It is expected be finished about three or four years — and who knows — one of us could actually work in that building one day,” he said with a grin.
I only shook my head and chuckled. “Well, you will, for certain, especially if you stay with Lamar long enough. You’re his private secretary — everyone knows that’s a great lead-in to a powerful political career. Think of the contacts you’ve made, the people you’ve met, and what that will do for your career — why, you’ve even met the President. How many people can say that in their lifetime?”
Paul shrugged. He put his hands in his pockets; his hat pushed back on his head as he gazed at the workmen in the lot. “It’s not so much if you want to know the truth, Em.”
I looked at him strangely. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, as we turned to walk back towards the Capitol grounds, “I’ve come to understand that Washington, the whole environment, the politicians — it’s just not that important to me anymore.”
I frowned. “What’s the matter? I thought this was your dream job.”
“It was. At least, I did think that. And the job is all right.” Paul looked around a bit anxiously as we talked quietly together — there was no one around to hear us. “I just think I’d be happier if I went back home to practice in Marianna.”
I gaped at him. “You must be kidding. There’s nothing in Marianna.”
Paul didn’t say anything for a few minutes while we walked. “Do you remember the stories your Grandfather Maxwell used to tell us tell us about his time as a congressman here?”
“Yes,” I said. “He had a distinguished career; he was well known and respected, and it paved the way, ultimately, for his selection to the Florida Supreme Court. He did a lot while he was here for Florida.”
“But do you remember the stories, Emmett? There was more to it than being distinguished and prominent. Don’t you remember things he used to tell us about the dealmaking and the backstabbing among colleagues, the derision towards constituents even though people would be on their best behavior back in the district, or when visitors came to Washington? Don’t you remember how he used to tell us how duplicitous it all was?”
Actually, I did remember the stories Grandfather used to tell us of the goings-on behind the scenes, the wheeling and dealing; howe he said he used to feel sick to his stomach and soul about the workings of the government in Washington. How young fellows would come to Washington thinking they were going to make a difference, and make a name for themselves, only be caught up in the machinery.
“But you know — and he knew— that’s what politics is about, Paul. There’s always dealmaking. That’s the way things are done. Grandfather Maxwell was probably one of the best dealmakers around, if you want to know the truth.”
“Yeah. It’s fine for people who don’t mind selling their souls, so to speak for a prize or two. I daresay I think it eventually got to your grandfather. He couldn’t do it forever. In the end, your grandfather said he said he hated Washington, if you recall. And I can see why,” Paul said.
We were headed down Pennsylvania Avenue, towards my hotel now; we walked a block or so in silence. I was digesting this information from my best friend — it was a bit shocking and surprising. Paul rarely showed dismay or discomfort at anything, and it was clear to me that he was bothered.
“What are you going to do next?” I asked after several minutes.
He gave me a tight lipped grin. “Nothing right away. I’ve decided that if I’m going to bide my time here in Washington, I might as well put it to good use. I’ve started law classes over at Georgetown University.”
I asked Paul about his classes at Georgetown. He said they were much more challenging than at Stetson, but he liked the challenge, and he was learning a lot more than he’d expected.
“Likely I’ll stay on to finish at Georgetown instead of Stetson. But when I’m done at Georgetown, I’m coming home to pick up my practice. So, if either of us ever has a future in Washington, it will have to be you, Emmett,” he said, with a slight chuckle.
I shook my head. “I really doubt that, Paul. And if anything, I doubt I’ll ever represent Florida.”
I told Paul all about the visit to Sterling, and what Van Sant proposed. The more I talked about it, the more excited I got, and I know I waxed prolific about the beautiful and richly furnished offices I’d work in; no expense spared, much finer than Ceph’s office, or anything I’d ever seen. I told Paul that I met several of the local leading lawyers; we were invited to luncheons and meetings with the local bar members. I ran on about how Nick Van Sant has a lot of clout in Illinois, and everywhere we went, it was nothing but courtesy, respect.
“You’ll be completely in charge, then. Van Sant, essentially, will have nothing to do with the law firm except in name only. You won’t see him often, as he’ll be running a bank.”
“Correct,” I said. “It’s a great opportunity. I couldn’t say no. And he’s already had an article published in the local papers about our potential partnership the day I arrived,” I said. “Nick’s told me he would make sure to send me a copy of the paper when the finalized partnership would be announced in a few days.”
“What?” Paul said surprised.
“I’ve been thinking about nothing else but this proposal from Van Sant since June, when he first mentioned it to me.”
“Is this deal final?” Paul asked.
“I should say so.”
We entered The National Hotel, and walked to the dining room. As we sat down and ordered dinner, Paul gazed around the room, not saying anything for several minutes. The waiter returned with drinks for both of us; Paul gave me a surprised look at the expert way I seemed to down the short glass of whiskey. I was a bit smug; I was proud of myself for having made the decision to work for Nick on my own, away from the watchful eyes of the folks back home, just away from them, period. I felt like I was finally off of a leash.
A second waiter brought our meal at that moment; as soon as the plates were on the table, and I made sure to request a refill of my drink, I dug in. The waiter asked Paul if he would like another whiskey; Paul shook his head no. I felt empowered and grown up, no longer Cephas’ little brother, or the junior law partner at Wilson and Wilson.
I started to ask Paul if there was anyone he knew in the dining room, when I noticed he hadn’t said anything for awhile, and was rather picking at his meal.
“What’s the matter? Isn’t it any good?”
“It’s fine. Frankly, I’m concerned about you.”
“Concerned about what?”
Paul looked me in the eye: “This job with Van Sant — it’s all set up for you, you don’t have to do anything but show up, and start to work for him, from what you said.”
“I’m sure he gave you the best possible impression of Sterling while you were there.”
I nodded. “Of course he did.”
“How many people did you meet, really, of the Sterling bar? Who did you meet that you probably would be working with every day?”
“Van Sant introduced me to the mayor, the city commissioners, a few lawyers and businessmen with the bank, some of his former partners with the timber and shipping company. Lots of people.”
“You didn’t meet the head of the local bar association? Or the local Democratic association?”
“Did you go to the county seat, meet anyone there in the courthouse? Any judges?”
“What is this, interrogatory practice for one of your law classes?” I scoffed, getting irritated.
“I know you said everyone was accepting of you, but you were with Van Sant the entire time. Of course they are going to hold back whatever reluctance or prejudice they will feel about you as an outsider, a Southerner, a Democrat. I’m sure you thought about all of that before the visit.”
“I had no need to think about it while I was there; everyone was most gracious.”
“Of course they were,” Paul said, not looking at me, but into his glass. The waiter came back to our table, and poured a refill for Paul. I indicated that I wanted another drink.
Paul frowned. “Haven’t you had enough?” he asked, nodding at my empty glass.
“I can handle it, Paul,” I said, slurring a bit, “just like I can handle the job with Nick in Sterling. All I need is a chance to prove my worth, dammit.”
“Perhaps,” Paul said, eyeing my now-refilled glass warily. “But my point is that it may be tougher than you think to get things done, to win cases. As Congressman Lamar says all the time, image makes all the difference. The reality is the image you portray is one of an outsider. You have to admit that, Emmett. Surely you’d thought about this before you made the trip North.”
I didn’t say anything for several minutes. I simply drank my Scotch.
“I’m going to do just fine, and be successful in all kinds important cases, and dear old Father will see my name mentioned in both of the Sterling newspapers all the time, just like Cephas’ name is in the West Florida papers all the time.”
Paul nodded, expressionless, swirling the scotch in his glass.
“Say Emmett. You remember Mr. Wiselogel, in Chipley?”
“Yeah. Lula’s father. So?”
“My father used to talk about him all the time — how he was often alone, lonely when he first moved to Chipley from Illinois, in the late 1880s. It wasn’t that the people of Chipley disliked him — quite the opposite. Everyone liked him very much. But he was an outsider for years, and he felt it. It wasn’t that the people of Chipley made him feel this way on purpose; it just takes time for everyone to get to know each other. Some people work hard to be a part of the community, which is what Mr. Wiselogel did. Father used to tell me that Mr. Wiselogel worked himself day and night for months, even years, before he was fully accepted in the community. Father used to joke to him that if he’d been a Democrat instead of a Republican, the transition might have been a little quicker.…”
“I know all this crap. Your point, please?”
“I have no doubt you’ll be successful, Emmett. You certainly have the ability and the energy. I’m just saying that you may be in for a long transition; that your success in a very new place like Sterling, where you will be looked upon as an outsider for awhile, may take longer than you think.”
“OK,” I said. “I thank you for your advice.”
I pushed back from the table, feeling angry, uneasy, and lightheaded with the Scotch. “I don’t want to talk about this move to Sterling anymore, Paul. I’ve made the decision, and it’s going to happen at the end of this year, and I’m satisfied. Can’t you just be happy for me too?”
Paul nodded. “I am,” he said, without smiling. “And I wish you the best of success.”
We both stood up; the floor shifted, and I stumbled. Paul stood up quickly, and steadied my arm.
“I think you’d better turn in for the night, Emmett.”
And that’s what I’ve been able to piece together happened between Paul and myself. Because I don’t remember how I go to my room. Paul must have taken me upstairs, helped me into the room, and….
….oh God. Now I remember.
I told Paul in an obnoxious way that he sounded like Cephas, I’d told him; everyone wants to hold me back. Even him, damn it. My own best friend. So much for friendship is what I said, or something like that.
He seemed to tell me that wasn’t true, that I need to see what is really going in here; not be so blinded by ambition that I lose the opportunity altogether.
And then, I told Paul he was simply jealous. Speaking from a position of unhappiness with the private secretary’s job — which was a golden opportunity and something I’d have given my right arm to have a chance at — I said angrily. Oh God. I told Paul that he didn’t appreciate what he have.
And that was it. Paul turned and left me at the door of my room. He walked down the hall to the stairwell, and kept going. He didn’t look back, didn’t say good bye….
We’d had arguments — fights — before. We’ve been friends too many years, and we’d remained good friends just the same.
But this feels different.
I don’t think this is the end of our friendship, but something has changed, and it isn’t going to be the same.
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