"Arrest him, not me!" Jeff Cave screamed as the policeman cuffed him. He tossed his head in the direction of Mr. Leonetti, the band teacher. "He's the fuckin' traitor!"
The gap-toothed upright piano squatted in its nest of tangled wire. The slashed heads of the bass drums sagged floorwards. Tubas and French horns, twisted into abstract shapes, shared the floor with trumpets and saxophones flattened into scrap. Sheet-music confetti clustered over ripped posters and smashed picture frames.
Investigators found fingerprints on the piano that identified Jeff, whose prints were already in the system.
The policeman smacked Jeff in the head for his language, but Mr. Leonetti wanted to know. "Why am I a traitor?" he asked, staring straight into Jeff's eyes. Mr. Leonetti wasn't normally the calmest of men, but he was curious why this kid, whom he barely knew, hated him so much. Jeff wasn't in the band, but he would come in the band room after practice to meet his girlfriend, who played the piccolo.
"You fuckin' KNOW why, traitor! I seen that picture of Saddam Hussein on your fuckin' wall! They oughta send you to Gitmo, with the rest of the fuckin' traitors!"
"Saddam Hussein?" Mr. Leonetti was puzzled for just a second, then a brick-red color—usually reserved for brass players who missed their cues—flooded his face.
"You idiot," he said. "That wasn't Saddam! That was Puccini!"
It was Jeff's turn to be puzzled. "Poochie who?"
"Puccini! Giacomo Puccini! An Italian composer!"
Jeff was dumbfounded for several seconds, then regained his look of triumphant hatred.
"Another damn foreigner—just like you!" he yelled at Mr. Leonetti, who was born in Pittsburgh. "They still oughta send you to Gitmo—and Jackoff Poochie with you!"
"Now, now, Mr. Leonetti," the policeman said, prying Mr. Leonetti's hands from Jeff's throat. "I don't want to end up haulin' two people off to jail!"
There was no money in the school budget to replace the sheet music or instruments. The school board quietly dropped music from the curriculum, and the marching band—which had won several state championships under Mr. Leonetti—was no more. Mr. Leonetti moved back to Pittsburgh, where despite his outstanding reputation he was never able to find another job as a band director. Fewer and fewer schools had money for music programs. He eked out a living giving private lessons, doing odd jobs, and playing the occasional gig at jazz clubs. A few kids from the marching band stayed in touch with him.
Jeff was expelled and sentenced to community service. Assigned to work on vehicles in the city government motor pool, he found he liked fixing things almost as much as smashing them. He continued to work for the city after his community service was over, and in ten years—his record staying clean in the meantime—he was promoted to supervisor.
It was about that time a bond issue was placed on the ballot, to raise money to re-establish the marching band and music education at the high school. The town was sharply divided on the question, and no one was more strongly against it than Jeff Cave.
"For ten years we've done fine without them faggots prancin' down the field at half time," Jeff told his buddies at Billy's Tavern. "And now them assholes who think they know better than us, they want us to pay to have that again? And them band types ain't just faggots, they're traitors too. You know they had a picture of Saddam Hussein in the band room? Fuckin' Saddam Hussein?"
Jeff noticed a funny thing, something he'd never really noticed before: the more he talked, the more the guys at Billy's shut up and listened to him. Of course he just kept on talking. One night a guy who'd been hanging on the edges of the crowd came up and spoke to Jeff.
"My boss would like to speak to you," the guy said.
The limo was waiting in back of the tavern. Jeff recognized the guy in the back seat as Honest Bill Barnum, owner of the dealership from where Jeff bought his last pickup.
"We could use a guy like you," Honest Bill said. "My friends and I, we don't like bond issues, paying more taxes, stuff like that. But nobody listens to us when we say it. A guy like you will get listened to. I can see the commercials now, featuring Jeff the Mechanic. Of course you need to clean up your language, but you can do that for us."
Jeff bristled slightly. "I'm not a mechanic, sir," he said. "I'm a vehicle technician!"
"So you are," Honest Bill said. "But that's too hifalutin for what we have in mind. You just do the commercials as Jeff the Mechanic, and we'll make sure it's worth your while."
Jeff did the commercials as Jeff the Mechanic, with more grease on his face and coveralls than he was comfortable with. He spoke his piece about the bond issue and Saddam Hussein, not saying "faggots" or "assholes" or "traitors," but leaving the distinct impression that those who supported the bond issue were all those things. Some people remembered Jeff's past, but not enough to make a difference in the vote. The bond issue was defeated by a comfortable margin.
Within a month of the election, Jeff was service manager for Barnum Motors, overseeing the service departments for all six of Honest Bill's dealerships—the only dealerships in town. Jeff the Mechanic became the friendly face of Honest Bill's operations, his face on billboards all over town and the biggest feature on Honest Bill's website. Jeff still would have preferred to be Jeff the Vehicle Technician, but the increase in his bank account made up for that.
About a year later, Honest Bill called Jeff into his office.
"Jeff," he said, "how'd you like to run for the statehouse?"
Except for squeezing himself into a suit and tie, Jeff liked running for the statehouse just fine. Honest Bill and his minions coached Jeff on cleaning up his grammar--just enough, not too much. Jeff the Mechanic made a big hit in the district as he discussed his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, labor unions, arts education, government-mandated health care, and taxes on business, and his plan to defund county libraries to raise money for a new jail.
"What's in a library anyway?" he said. "A lot of books no one reads—except for bums who come in and read those books--absolutely without paying for them, funded for them by the government--and get the sort of ideas that decent people like you and me don't want them to have. On the other hand, a new jail would keep those bums off the streets and away from us. Which would you rather have? If this ain't a no-brainer, nothing is!"
This time the opposition against Jeff was more organized. Some of his former classmates approached a reporter on the local paper, telling her exactly what happened in the band room a dozen years before. One of them helped her track down Mr. Leonetti, who was still in Pittsburgh and working in a discount score.
The story came out in the Sunday paper. On Monday, Jeff and Honest Bill came to the newspaper office, accompanied by the sheriff and a couple of conspicuously pistol-packing deputies, just to talk things over.
On Tuesday, the paper ran a full retraction and apology. The next week, the reporter left town. So did Jeff's old classmates.
As for Mr. Leonetti, police entered the discount store one day, to arrest him for criminal libel. As they said later, they mistook his price-tag gun for a Glock.
"Who's the idiot now, asshole?" Jeff said to himself. "Hope you all like Hell—you and Saddam and Jackoff Poochie!"
Jeff won the election by two-to-one. He's now in his third term, and running for Congress now that the incumbent, an old buddy of Honest Bill's, is retiring after his current term. Jeff's more or less used to a suit and tie by now, and he's happy to give his now-patented stump speeches, adding whatever bits Honest Bill tells him to. The piccolo-playing girlfriend is ancient history; she dumped him when he was arrested, and later she was one of those who had to leave town. A secretary at Honest Bill's GMC dealership recently became Mrs. Jeff the Mechanic. However, that hasn't stopped Jeff from discreetly getting friendly with the constituents of his choice. Honest Bill, an old hand at discreetly getting friendly with the customers of his choice, is very understanding.
Every once in a while, after a press conference, Jeff asks the assembled crowd:
"Wanna hear about how I got rid of that commie teacher who loved Saddam Hussein?"
The details change from telling to telling—once Mr. Leonetti came after Jeff with a machete, another time with an AK-47—but everybody loves to hear Jeff's story, again and again. Even the cop who arrested him.