The Uses and Purposes of Power (0.2)

The motorcade rumbled to a stop near the peak of one of the arcing spans of the bay bridge. Eight lanes wide and spanning two miles, it along with the rail bridge that ran a parallel course was the lifeline that connected Calvary Crossing to the mainland and allowed the island that had been a haven for pirates, a naval base, and then a playground for the idle rich to grow into a functioning industrial port city.

In the second of three identical SUV limos sat the President-Elect of the United States of America: a stout, broad-shouldered white man in a tailored suit with slicked back white hair just thick and curly enough to look a little tousled without registering as unkempt.

His gaze was fixed out the window, across the water to where the lights of cars on some highway winked in and out of sight between trees.

In the car with him, among the armed guards and aides and other furniture of power, was his daughter in law, in a sharp lavender skirt suit with accents of sterling silver and pearl. Her makeup was worn in what was called the natural look, the sort of presentation that made men who didn’t know better proclaim that women looked so much better without makeup, while women laughed at the thought that anyone could look at the contouring on her cheeks and not see the labor and skill that went into creating it.

Lydia Lydia, née Vandergarde, was now without question the most powerful woman in the country: the closest advisor to the next president, the engineer of his successful campaign, and his daughter-in-law. She couldn’t possibly work for him once he took office in any official capacity; that would be too unseemly to contemplate.

But official capacities required things like confirmation hearings and background checks. They were subject to rules and oversight. They created paper trails.

No one would care if private citizen Lydia Vandergarde Lydia used her own personal email from her own private server.

After January 20th, there would be very little riding around in presidential limos for her. She’d show up only to play the role of the dutiful daughter-in-law for family gatherings and photo ops.

She was looking forward to that, honestly. Ever since John Lydia had won the election, everything had become such a goddamn production. Everything was a logistical nightmare. Even getting across the bay bridge just after rush hour—when most traffic was flowing in the other direction—was turning into an ordeal.

“They say there’s a bottleneck up ahead,” one of the men said, after consulting with the driver. “An accident at the foot of the bridge. They’re clearing it up as fast as they can.”

“Oh yeah? Ask them if they know who they’re keeping waiting,” Miles said. Miles was a weasel. Lydia couldn’t think anything else when she looked at him, or heard him, or thought of him. He took way too much credit for the electoral victory, and way too much license with everything else. “See how fast they shift their asses then!”

“No hurry,” John Lydia said, his voice a deep bass rumble. He did not turn his gaze from the water. “We did not come here to make things difficult.”

“We could have choppered in and out, then,” Lydia said.

John Lydia was getting his affairs in order. In a little over two months, he would be assuming the mantle of the President of the United States. His extensive business dealings would need to be liquidated and the assets placed into a blind trust.

His overseas holdings and those far-flung across the United States, he was content to simply see sold off. But the shipping business he had built himself, which was still largely centered in Star Harbor, Baltimore, and Calvary Crossing… that was personal, and he’d insisted on giving it the personal touch.

The transition team’s lawyers were negotiating with the Office of Governmental Ethics for an arrangement that would allow John to sell the business outright in three parts to his hand-picked successors rather than seeing it dismantled completely and sold off for parts.

He’d made no secret of the fact that his concern was sentimental and personal, nor the fact that doing this would nonetheless save jobs locally. The American people seemed sympathetic. It was simply a matter of convincing the OGE that he would not continue to see the businesses as his after he took office, that he would not have any motivation to favor them unduly.

“This is ridiculous,” Miles said as time slipped away and traffic remained stalled. “Sir, I can make a single phone call and get this traffic moving in five minutes.”

“Oh?” John asked. He was still looking out the window. “Who would you call?”

“I… someone at the city,” Miles said. “In my experience, it doesn’t matter who you call, because if it’s the wrong person, they’ll know the right person.”

“So, you would scream at them until you got what you wanted, which is what is going to happen sooner or later anyway, and you think this makes you look strong,” John said, his voice dripping with what Lydia had come to think of as the Tone of Terrible Disappointment. She and Miles had watched numerous aides, advisors, and proxies come and go over the course of the long and terrible campaign. She knew the warning signs. Somehow, Miles didn’t seem to. “You do not understand the uses and purposes of power.”

“Hey, am I mistaken, or did we win the goddamn presidency?” Miles said. “The uses of power are whatever you want them to be. The sky’s the fucking limit from here on out! This shell game with your companies, for example? It’s totally unnecessary. You know that no one has the power to make you divest?”

“Why on earth would I not do so?”

“Because you’re getting hosed, that’s why!” Miles said. “Listen, I’ve been watching the numbers come in and you are getting fucked in the ass. It’s a fire sale, and the sharks in the water smell blood! Am I painting you a picture, chief?”

“It’s a very busy picture,” John said, finally turning to fix Miles with his piercing stare. “Are the sharks the ones fucking me, Mr. Winslow? Is the water in which they swim from the hoses? The hoses are easy enough to understand, of course. They put out the fire that precipitated the sale. Have I grasped the shape of it?”

“I… uh… it’s just, you’re taking holdings worth sixty billion dollars and you’re going to be lucky to clear twenty out of this.”

“And after eight years in the hands of capable manager, those same assets will be worth sixty billion again,” John said. “It’s money, Mr. Winslow. It is the one liquid substance in all this world that flows uphill. It accretes. It accumulates. Like calls to like, and all things find their level. They can do nothing else. Do you know what the difference between twenty billion and sixty billion is?”

“No?”

“Neither do I,” John said. “Nor does anybody else. I’m about to be overseeing an economy of over seventeen trillion dollars. Try to keep some perspective.”

“Yeah, I guess when you put it that way, you could probably find a way to skim more off the top than you’re giving up,” Miles said.

“You have absolutely no imagination,” John said, turning back to the water.

“Traffic jams are unbelievably common on this godforsaken island,” Lydia said. “The population’s grown faster than anyone ever imagined.”

“They should have imagined it. It was inevitable,” John said. “When the bridge was opened, the shipping industry came. This brought jobs, which brought more businesses, which brought more people. When the town was first made over, the planners paid attention only to the needs of the day, not those of the day after.

“It’s a victim of its own success,” Lydia said.

“It is a victim of the short-sighted definition of success that reigns,” John said. “We cut school budgets, ended funding for the arts, preschool, afterschool programs, and we’re hailed as successful reformers. Corporate boards cut wages, services, and any other expenses they can find so they can show profit growth this quarter, to investors who will expect them to somehow show the same growth next quarter when nothing is left to cut. City managers defer costly upgrades to the infrastructure of water and power, and they’re hailed for successfully saving millions. When it all comes crashing down, we say the breakdown was inevitable and we reward those who brought us to that point for holding it off as long as they could. That is the tragedy of this benighted world: no one knows how to plan for the long-term. Most view the future as a foreign country, inhabited by strangers to whom we owe nothing.”

“You’re, uh, sounding kind of liberal there, J.L.,” Miles said.

“To the contrary,” John said. “I am merely keeping a clear view of the reality that has allowed me to play a very long game.”

“Okay,” Miles said, “but you still have…”

“Quiet,” John said.