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Lake County Chronicles: Town meeting At the corner of U.S. 395 and Safeway, three teenagers were holding a sign and shouting something about a car wash. The closest that George’s Dakota ever got to car washing in Lakeview was when the attendant at Ed’s Fast Break cleaned the windshield. In San Jose, Juan often did the job while the truck was parked in front of the house. George wouldn’t have bothered with it but had learned to be appropriately grateful. Two blocks to the north, a bright-faced stocky boy with blond hair was enthusiastically bouncing a lime-green sign advertising a 4H bake sale in the True Value parking lot. George parked. The sign at the booth said something about Energizer Bunnies. The adult at the booth explained that her club raised rabbits and sold them at the fair. “When I was a kid, we lived in a town smaller than this, but all the cool kids lived out of town, on peach ranches that were on roads named after their families,” George rambled, “and most of them were in 4H. My sister joined, too, but they did sewing and cooking.” “Yes,” replied the sponsor. “We have that, as well as clubs for raising sheep and goats and the like. 4H is very big here.” George paid a dollar for a bag with two M&M peanut butter oatmeal cookies and went into True Value. “I’d like a bag of chicken manure and four of the steer manure blend,” he told the smooth-faced cuddly-bear at the counter, as he pushed his credit card into the machine. “I can load it myself.” As he card lifted the bags from piles at the back of the parking lot, George reflected on how easy it would be to take a few extras. Easy and stupid. In this town, integrity was everything. Five hours later, George drove into the Elks Lodge lot and parked next to a freshly washed new Sheriff’s Department SUV with “In God we trust” painted on the back. It looked as if half of the officers from three different police agencies were there. The sign at the door announced SEN. JEFF MERKLEY TOWN HALL 4:30 PM. George grabbed a flyer for the Elks’ Cow Pie Bingo contest from a table in the foyer. Ten dollars a ticket, only 625 tickets sold; if the cow defecates on your square first, you win $1,000. Nice odds, thought George: they’ll clear about $5K after expenses. Proceeds would be used to support Lakeview Elks programs. Seated at a small table with two clipboards and a roll of tickets, Mona Lynch greeted him enthusiastically. “George! I thought you were going to be out of town. Sign in here, please. Would you like to ask a question?” “Yes, please,” answered George. Mona handed him half of a pair of tickets, and put the other half into a basket. George thought about the question he planned to ask: Senator, with increasing talk of impeaching Donald Trump, you could find yourself deciding whether to put into the White House someone who is actually competent and would be more effective at advancing a Republican agenda you don’t necessarily agree with. Would you be able to rise above partisan considerations to do that? George already knew what the answer had to be—that the senator’s only agenda was to do what’s right for America. The question was designed to embarrass Trump supporters—an overwhelming majority in this part of Oregon—and to drive a wedge between them and the President. George had told his friends that he thought Trump was more useful to Democrats than to Republicans. Agreeing, most of them seemed to think that George was pretty smart to have thought of that. George sat at the table, across from Mona, to help get the attendees greeted and signed in. Most of them knew Mona and the other Democratic co-chair, who had taught some of them when they were in middle school. Dorothy Simms arrived with her two children, sixteen-year-old Carolyn and Gabriel, fifteen. Looking at the two greeters, Dorothy remarked that George’s solid purple tee shirt matched well with Mona’s purple floral blouse. George hadn’t noticed. Mona, in turn, complimented Carolyn’s blue and gold outfit and then asked Gabriel, “What colors do you like?” Gabriel responded with his slightly awkward adolescent voice, “Well, I go more for the more subdued tones, more subtle contrast. Like last week, the afternoon that the temperature dropped and then it rained. I looked up at dark grey clouds and saw a single goose flying under them, gliding, flapping its wings only enough to regain altitude. The goose looked black against the clouds. It took a couple of minutes for it to drift north and over the horizon, and then I noticed the cloud’s contrast with the hunter-green tree leaves, rustling in the wind, and the brownish green of the Warner mountains. It was really beautiful.” His face was glowing as he finished his dissertation. The people nearby listened in rapt silence. “Wow!” said Mona. ”Wow. Are you an artist?” “Not really,” was the reply. “I’m no good at drawing. But I love colors and I like to write.” George was mesmerized. This Gabriel was a kindred spirit, whether he knew it or not. And intelligent. And gorgeous, lithe with lovely full-bodied hair and nearly flawless skin. “If only I were 55 years younger,” he mused to himself wistfully, silently adding, “but knowing what I know now.” Of course, this Tadzio couldn’t have been at all interested in fifteen-year-old ugly-duckling George, either, any more than the old man now. George felt unclean. He wanted to be worthy of being in the boy’s presence. A man wearing cowboy boots, jeans and an open-collared shirt with its sleeves rolled halfway to the elbows came to the table. “Mona, thanks so much. I appreciate everything you do.” Mona looked up, surprised. “Senator Merkley! Good to see you again.” One of the county commissioners—probably a Republican, thought George; they all are—led the Pledge of Allegiance. Standing close to Mona, George hoped nobody else would hear him omit the “under God.” The public stand that he needed to take didn’t have to be too public. Thanking everyone for showing up, the commissioner warmly introduced Senator Merkley. Standing with the lectern behind him, Merkley thanked the commissioner, the Elks Club Exalted Ruler, several people in the audience, and all the rest of the audience. The Senator introduced Carolyn Simms and mentioned some things about her, referring to cue cards he had made previously. Carolyn’s question was about funding for education. Then people in the audience asked their questions as the commissioner drew their tickets from the basket. Realizing that all of the fifteen people with tickets would get their opportunity, George began to feel anxious. One of the questioners thanked Merkley for working with his Democratic and Republican colleagues to beautify the post office. He thanked her for her efforts and said that he had been careful not to step on the grass when he visited it, earlier in the day. Somebody else asked about the recent congressional baseball shooting: would it have helped if more citizens at the scene had been armed, and would Merkley be arming himself (no and no). Other questions addressed regional and national issues. Most of the questions—with the exception of one about the anti-corruption lawsuit that Merkley and 195 other Democratic lawmakers had recently filed against Trump—were not very political in nature. The Senator engaged in friendly dialog with each person who asked a question, while the others politely waited their turn. “Number 351,” announced the Commissioner. Nearly all the numbers had been called. Not needing to look at his ticket, George replied, “Actually, my question has already been answered, so thanks, I’ll pass.’ “Did you ask your question?” George’s brother asked later. “No. That’s not how things are done here.” George silently thanked the God he didn’t believe in, that his number had not been one of the first.