A chance comment on Vermont's most popular talk show, Straddlin' the Fence, lands Darwin Hunter in a three-way race to be elected State Senator. Set against a political landscape as rocky and muddy as the garden during Mud Season, Darwin combats his wily, experienced opponents with his only long suit–the truth.
The King of Vermont is part two of "Stories and Tunes," Stephen Morris's "four-part" trilogy of life in the rural North.
King of Vermont
by Stephen Morris
from Chapter 5:
Captain Goo-Roo, or Darwin Does ARFO
"Every person in this room is a mover and shaker."
Townshend Clarke IV handed Darwin a drink.
"What's this?" asked Darwin.
"A highball? That's a grown-up drink. Can't I have a beer?"
"You can't drink beer at a function like this," lectured Townshend. "It's too declassé."
"If that means 'having no class whatsoever,' then beer's the drink for me."
"Look," said Walt Gunion with a nudge, "there's Dunwoody." He gestured with his eyes across the banquet room of Nino's Nook. Linwood "Woody" Dunwoody looked to be in his early fifties, a robust man with a logger's hands (but no ring on his weenie) and a ruddy face as creased as the terrain surrounding Center Granville. A group of five or six men circled the politician, their respective body postures acknowledging his dominance.
Townshend spoke to Darwin out of the side of his mouth. "I'll introduce you, but if it gets into anything political, don't be surprised if I distance myself. I can't afford to be on this guy's bad side."
"Townshend, you are such a fucking hypocrite. When they shaved your head they must have scraped your brain. We've been neighbors for nine years. You don't have to be ashamed of me," protested Darwin.
"Get real. I'm sure he's heard of your intention to enter the race. I'm sure he knows it's a joke, but maybe his sense of humor isn't too good. You hear what I'm saying?"
"Maybe," Walt let his chortles telegraph a punch line, "he's afraid you'll kick butt."
"I can't believe I let you morons talk me into this."
The second Sunday of every month marks the gathering at Nino's Nook of the Central Vermont Chapter of the Grand Order of ARFO. Important men collect to promote fellowship and community service amidst an environment of cigar smoke, highballs, and rubber chicken.
ARFO is an acronym for Affiliated Rural Fraternal Organizations. The organization was founded by Leominster (pronounced Lemon-stir) Terry in 1949. It was just after the Big One, and the nation's males were joining fraternal organizations in droves to maintain that sense of camaraderie that had developed during what Terry referred to as "the ultimate deer camp," World War II. At the time Granville had chapters for VFW, Odd Fellows, Kiwanis, Jaycees, Moose, Grange, Rotary, Shriners . . . everything but the Raccoon Club. The problem was, even with every male between the ages of seventeen and death belonging to three organizations, none of the groups could muster the critical mass to survive.
Leominster Terry proposed the creation of a fraternal organization geared toward the needs of the thinly populated, and ARFO was born. As with other organizations, this club was long on symbols and ritual and short on purpose. Terry, who then ran the only store in Granville to sell men's clothing, designed the uniforms himself, as well as creating the memorable slogan, "Our Friends are ARFOs." He wrote the club song, the club pledge, the club charter, and the club franchising agreement. He created the club rituals and established the ranking of officers that is used to this day. But though the ARFO concept worked well for Granville, no other communities embraced the charter.
Darwin knew he had made a mistake within moments of climbing into the leather folds of Townshend's Lincoln. He had never trusted Walt, and now that Townshend had his mind on the grandiose conversion of Upper Granville into a theme park, he trusted him less. Still, Darwin acquiesced, convinced by the two men -- as well as Sammi -- that if he seriously held political aspirations, he needed to better understand the private side of public life.
Darwin had not yet formalized his candidacy, but because of his relative prominence as a doctor, author, and now a television star, everyone knew of his interest. No one, however -- not his wife, not his neighbors, not Woody Dunwoody -- yet took him seriously.
"Hello, Darwin, glad you could join us." Dunwoody's pedigree was purest Chuck, yet he exuded the blind confidence of Flatlander facing his first mud season. "So you're the man who would be king. What's this I hear about you wanting to put me in the unemployment line?"
"That's it," said Darwin. "I wanna kick your butt."
There was a split second of silence, long enough for Townshend Clarke's life to flash before him. Woody Dunwoody returned, "Forget about 'king.' How about 'court jester'?" He then sucked in a deep breath to power a belly laugh that shook Nino's and signaled all within earshot that hysterics were appropriate. There was no rejoinder, only a tapering off of the laughter that left the focus clearly in Dunwoody's court.
"Well," he started wiping the corners of his eyes as if there really were tears of mirth present, "politics is a horse race. A real horse race." Darwin had to hand it to him, his timing was exquisite. Everyone was hanging on Dunwoody's every syllable, and by now he had managed to draw another fifteen people into the arena:
"But I can't see why anyone would enter with a dead horse."
Even Darwin chuckled, giving a master his due. Dunwoody put a friendly, but shackling, hand on Darwin's neck and offered to buy him a drink. Okay, said Darwin, but it's gotta be a beer. Dunwoody got a beer for himself as well. The next time Darwin looked, both Walt and Townshend were holding bottles of Budweiser.
"Seriously, Darwin, we've got to think this through." Dunwoody guided him away from the crowd, creating an island of intimacy in the sea of humanity.
"You can't possibly be threatened by the fact that I may run against you?"
"By you? Never. But let me tell you a fact of political life. The more horses in the field, the more chance someone will fall in some shit. For me, the real enemy is Weinstein. Now, she's a legitimate opponent who offers the electorate a clear choice -- they can have one of their own kind, or a bulldykeflatlanderhebe. What muddies the issue is when you little guys get in the race. First you come in and tie up the lunatic fringe vote. Now there's talk of Mimi Cox -- Earle Cox the banker's wife -- declaring. She'll tie up the do-gooder vote. Do you know her?"
Darwin shook his head.
"What a wasted piece of human flesh. She's got a neck longer'n my arm. That's the only way it can reach her asshole. Anyway, Darwin, my point is, you little guys are like pimples on the face of democracy. Ignore you and pretty soon you'll go away, but while you're there you can make things kinda ugly. So why don't we skip the spotted mirror stage? You tell me what you're looking for in this shootin' match, and I'll try to give it to you. We can both live very happily in this district."
Darwin tightened his lips slightly. The man was clearly corrupt and a bigot, but at least he was direct. Darwin was impressed. His reply ("I'll have to think on it") was thoughtful, more than lame.
"You do that," Dunwoody boomed, emphasizing with his fist. "You're okay, Darwin. I'll give you a little taste of political life tonight, but keep in mind there's lots more where that comes from. Nothing personal." He pumped Darwin's hand again before turning back to his legion of admirers.
Dunwoody was both a Grand Bowser (an ARFian rank of distinction), as well as the evening's recipient of Man of the Year. Darwin could not quite catch the drift of the pre-dinner ceremony. There were a few songs with barking noises followed by a pledge of allegiance that mentioned Leominster Terry four times and deer hunting twice. And, finally, some mumbo-jumbo including slapping oneself on each side of the cheek and holding one's breath for almost a minute. There was a recounting of the organization's glorious history by Leominster's son, Leominster, culminating with salute to the ARFO mascot, the mongrel.
The slogan of "Our Friends are ARFOs" impressed Townshend and Walt. With their grand plans for 1839, they were encountering the first glimmerings of institutional clout. They interpreted the slogan as meaning that any obstinacy within the community would be overcome by encounters on ARFian fields.
"After you've gotten shitfaced with someone," said Walt, "it's tougher to say no."
Townshend even mentioned to Darwin that he would not be surprised, several years hence, if he and Walt followed in Dunwoody's footsteps as Men of the Year.
Coffee was served, along with a vanilla pudding that Darwin knew even his kids would not eat. The reigning Bowser Poobah of ARFO introduced Dunwoody, who took the stage to warm applause. The first thing Dunwoody did was to ask Darwin to stand. Even though Darwin was still unofficial, Dunwoody said with a between-you-and -me wink, this was a man likely to share the ballot with him and Natalie Weinstein. He welcomed this "nipple sucker" (the ARFian term for an uninitiated recruit) with warmth, eloquence, and flourish.
Dunwoody then explained, while Darwin stood and fidgeted uncomfortably, how this challenge was no more than the latest assault on his single-handed defense of all that was decent about America. In the course of coffee and vanilla pudding, Dunwoody managed to single out each group that threatened this way of life.
Darwin was not sure which of the groups lambasted by the senator included him. Probably not women, Dallas Cowboy fans, Jews, Iranian terrorists, or Negroes, but undoubtedly communists, faggots, Flatlanders, and fools. With the exception of Flatlanders and fools, none of the other minorities were tolerated as members of ARFO.
Dunwoody left to a standing ovation. Darwin was simply left standing. Later, he scraped self-consciously at the bottom of his pudding dish, thankful that the group had not stoned him. Finally, it ended. Darwin breathed a sigh of relief and asked Townshend if he was ready to go.
"Leave? Are you crazy? This is the best part. This is where we bond. This is what it's all about, Darwin. You'd be amazed at the deals that go down here. Hey, how 'bout that Dunwoody being so gracious with you?"
Townshend was so fixated on cutting the amazing deal that he absentmindedly surrendered to Darwin the keys to the Lincoln. As he walked into the parking lot of Nino's, another burst of male hilarity could be heard behind him. Mr. Linwood "Woody" Dunwoody had struck yet another responsive chord.
The parking lot was a still life of early December. The ground was covered until April. The air was crisp; the ski areas would all be making snow tonight. Jupiter hung in the western horizon, the brightest point in an electric sky. Darwin paused to reflect.
"Our Friends are ARFOs," he said to Jupiter. "Give me a fucking break."
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What is a "Four-Part Trilogy?"
Next up from The Public Press: the first three books, revised and improved, in Stephen Morris's Vermont epic, the four part trilogy.
Life has a way of interfering with art. Beyond Yonder, The King of Vermont, and Darwin and the Tunnel of Love were always intended by the author to be a single work, telling the epic story of the daily lives and times of the inhabitants of the tiny hamlet of Upper Granville, Vermont.
But life intervenes. It happens! Day jobs take priority. Parents grow old. Little publishers sell to big publishers. Editors move on to different jobs. Opportunities knock. Kids leave home. It happens! It happens! And it happens!
As a result, the epic novel came out in fits and spurts. First, Beyond Yonder. That's when the publisher got sold. Then, King of Vermont, that's when the editor quit. Meanwhile, a real life equivalent to Upper Granville began appearing on the pages of the Vermont Sunday Magazine. Now, the region had a name, Beyonder, to describe that part of Vermont that is next to nothing, but not far away from anywhere. Tales and More Tails is a collection of Beyonder's "Stories and Tunes."
The Public Press is pleased to present Beyonder in its original glory – ficticious and non-ficticious. This is the Director's cut, digitally remastered, and in full Dolby sound. This is Beyonder at the peak of foliage, at the depth of Mud Season despair, in the procreational frenzy of the vernal kaboom, and in the enveloping eternity of an August night watching the meteors shower in a part of the world where you can actually still see them.