the propagandist

by dm gillis

There’s a feeling a guy gets when the creases in his pants are straight, and the part in his hair is just right. His shoes are shined, and his tie is knotted into a perfect Windsor. He walks down the street and everyone smiles, and when they do, he knows that they’re smiling with him.

It was the autumn of 1947, and my first hit single had made it onto the radio. It was called Samantha Samantha, and was recorded by the Atticus Chips Orchestra, with vocals by Ignacio Esposito. Samantha Samantha was on every radio and in every jukebox in the free world, my agent said, and was being played by every band in every club and dance hall from here to Okinawa. The royalty cheques were rolling in, and the record company and the song-pluggers were screaming for more.

So, on that late September morning, I was standing on the curb looking like a guy smitten with the world. A month ago, I had decided to purchase what a guy like me needed most, a brand new 1948 Cadillac. Now I was trying to hail a cab to take me to the dealership, where I would finally take delivery.

I’d chosen the Series 62 from a brochure filled with elegantly portrayed models of the car, cruising down limitless summer sunny highways, with jubilant drivers and joyous passengers, all headed toward some undiscovered place, worthy of their wholesome American euphoria. Other brochure models were depicted sitting fat in front of luxurious, sky-high burgundy draping, beneath massive gold, red white and blue Cadillac crests. And still others were parked in front of rustic heirloom Connecticut churches, very old and of obvious Protestant significance, with drivers and passengers standing on roads, admiring their cherished vehicles, with their backs turned to God in His Yankee-built Temples.

The 1948 Cadillac represented the finest lines in ultra-modern design. It possessed a luxurious interior, and was propelled by the precision-built 90º V type 8 engine design. It was to be a joy to possess, for a guy who half a year earlier was eating one meal a day of dry toast, sitting at an out of tune piano in a cold water walk-up. I was ready for a little bit of joy, so I’d chosen the two door convertible in Madeira Maroon. It was sporty, and oozed swank. Just like me, my ego said, inflated and ready to pop.

Now, if I could get a cab, I’d be on my way to the Bean & Flintch Cadillac Land dealership to pick up my new baby. I finally caught the attention of a Blacktop stuck at a red light, and got in.

“Howdy, partner,” the driver said. “Call me Jimmy. Where to?”

“Bean & Flintch,” I said

“That’s that Caddy joint, ain’t it?”

“Yeah.”

He engaged the metre.

“You gettin’ yourself a Lac?” he asked.

“I’m taking delivery.”

“Hey, that’s swell,” Jimmy said. “You must be some kinda operator. Them cars ain’t cheap.”

I thought about that for a moment – some kinda operator – and heard in my mind the down beat and chorus of Samantha Samantha; remembering the months it took to get it right on paper; and then what it took to convince my agent, and the studio that it would be a hit. Then there was the executive who’d said he was unable to discern the line between melody and harmony, insisting I was too young for a hit.

“Mozart was young, too,” my agent had said, pleading, almost on his knees.

Then there were the bribes, payouts and payola.

“Nah,” I said, to some kinda operator, remembering it all. “I was just lucky.”

Bean & Flintch was in the heart of the city, and my previous trips by cab had been quick, but the traffic was heavy that day, and Jimmy seemed to be taking all the wrong turns.

“You sure this is the right way,” I said, after he turned north onto Granville Street.

“Just enjoy the ride, Mac.”

“But you’re driving like a tourist.”

“I’ll get you there for less than two bucks,” Jimmy said. “Or I’ll eat my hat.”

His hat was a faux military officer-looking number, with a brass Blacktop shield on the front. He wore it tilted on his crewcut head, with a taxi licence badge pinned on one side.

“That hat would be a mouthful,” I said. “And hard to swallow.”

“Then take my word for it, and relax.”

We stopped in a stationary line of traffic, and he turned up the a.m. radio. After an ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Samantha Samantha came on. I sat back and listened. It wasn’t my best work, but it was going to pay the bills for a long time to come.

Almost instantly, Jimmy tapped the dashboard above the radio and said, “That’s a red tune.”

“Red?” I said. Samantha Samantha had been called a lot of things, but….

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s red, commie. Just listen to the lyrics.”

“I have. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s been on the radio for weeks. Just sounds like a jukebox ditty to me.”

“That’s what they want you to think,” Jimmy said. “But it’s actually mass subliminal conditioning.”

“Mass subliminal conditioning?”

There was a lot of this going round. Cheap intrigue was in the air. Screw-loose politicians, pulpy postwar science fiction, and the dawn of the A-bomb. No more Great Depression, no more WW2. The dead had left the room. People now had time on their hands. There was a fear vacuum, and space to shoehorn in a conspiracy or two.

“I don’t get it,” I lied.

“You heard of a guy named Joe McCarthy?” Jimmy said. “He’s the new Senator of Wisconsin.”

“I read the papers.”

“Well, McCarthy claims there’s Communists and Soviet sympathizers inside the US,” said Jimmy. “In the government and everywhere. And I figure the worst of ‘em’s gotta be the intellectuals and show people, like the crumb who wrote this song, and the homo who’s singin’ it.”

Ignacio Esposito, a homo? What would his ever-orgy-ready bobby-soxer harem say?

“Interesting.” I hoped it would end there.

“I mean it, brother,” Jimmy continued. “Have you ever really listened to the lyrics?”

“I guess.”

“Well I know ‘em by heart. I made a point of listening to the song, ‘til I learned ‘em.”

Jimmy turned down the radio.

“Listen,” he said, then he began to sing —

Share with me your selfish love
Don’t leave it on a shelf above
In a jar where it can never be seen
Don’t keep it private property 

Samantha Samantha
This is my manifesto
I want to be love’s virtuoso
Samantha Samantha
Let’s not show caution
And share all we have in common 

“What do you think, huh?” Jimmy said.

“You have a lovely voice.” Actually, he didn’t.

“You gotta agree, if that’s not some kinda commie malarkey, I don’t know what is. All that sharing! — and a manifesto! — jeez!”

“It’s shocking.”

“And that’s just the first verse and the chorus. You wanna hear the rest?”

“No,” I said.

“Too bad, but I guess I got you convinced.”

“It’s free, by the way,” I said.

“What?” said Jimmy.

“First verse, third line should be: In a jar where it can never be free. You sang it, seen.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You a Soviet sympathiser?” Jimmy looked at me in the rear view mirror, suspicion in his eyes.

“No,” I said.

“‘Cause I don’t want no Soviet sympathisers in my cab. I didn’t fight in the war to drive Soviet sympathisers around.”

“Would a Soviet sympathiser be on his way to pick up a Cadillac?” I said.

“He might.” Now he looked unsure, the suspicion momentarily gone.

“What colour is it?” he said. “Your Cadillac, I mean.”

“Madeira Maroon,” I sighed.

“Maroon? That’s like red, ain’t it?”

“As close as it gets, this model year.”

His look of suspicion returned.

“Red,” he muttered, and shook his head. “Mass subliminal conditioning.”

Then he dropped the bomb. Others had before him. Now it was his turn —

“You fight in the war?” he said.

“No, I wrote Allied propaganda in Toronto, for pamphlets and movie trailers.”

“So you sat it out,” he said. “And now you’re making the big bucks.”

He was right. I did sit out the war. My talent for antipathy and jingoism had lead me to a job writing debauched conflict dogma. The work was crucial, they said. But I ate in restaurants and slept in warm clean beds, often warmed by lonesome war brides, while other men did the fighting. Mine were the soft disgraceful hands of a propagandist. I’d always believed apologising for it would be insincere, but things change.

“Since the end of the war,” I said, as though it mattered. “I’ve tried to make a living as a song writer, living in slum hotels, eating almost nothing, murdering cockroaches and using a communal toilet down the hall. Maybe that’s my meā culpā.”

“You don’t look like you live in a slum,” Jimmy said.

“I’m sorry. Things change”

“Say, what’s your name?”

“Wyatt Ziegler,” I said.

“So you wrote that song, then!”

“Yes I did.”

“You ain’t got no shame, fella.”

When we pulled up to the main entrance of Bean & Flintch, the metre read $2.83, not two bucks.

“Are you going to eat your hat?” I said, pulling bills from my pocket.

“You’d like that wouldn’t you.”

“It’d be something to see,” I said. “Worth the extra eighty-three cents.”

“Get outta my cab,” he said. “Go get your Cadillac, and run it into a wall.”

I handed him four dollars.

“You know,” I said. “Maybe what I wrote for the war made a difference. Maybe I helped end it early, saved a few lives.”

“Maybe,” he said, staring at me deadpan in the rear view mirror, telling me without words to vacate.

I did.

On the lot, a man named Daryl was washing my new car. Tobias Flintch had escorted me from the office. Daryl was rinsing away the soap suds with a hose, using it to make unhurried hosey figure eights. He was humming Samantha Samantha.

“It’s a pip,” Flintch said, grinning and holding out both hands as if to say, ta-da!

“Yes it is,” I said, quietly. “A real pip.” I weakly touched a whitewall with the tip of my Florsheim.

“Where are you going to drive her first, Mr Ziegler?” Flintch said. “I hear Oregon is nice in the autumn.”

He was a gaunt but dapper old man, coughing hard as he lit a cigarette. He wore a Masonic ring, and had a Rotarian pin on his lapel. But if removed from his dark suit and tie, and put blue bearded into unwashed plaid and dungarees, he’d look like any other bum I had to step over to get into my old hotel room. It was his thin cloudy smile and poorly disguised cruelty that set him apart from the rest of humanity. That, and all he’d left unsaid over the course of his sixty plus years. He didn’t give a shit where I drove my new car, now that he had my money. Tobias Flintch just wanted me and it off the lot, the same way Jimmy wanted me out of his cab.

“I don’t know where I’ll drive it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just park it at the curb, and shoot at it from my apartment window with a .22.”

“Ah,” said Flintch. “Well, remember to bring it in for servicing.”

“I will.”

Flintch was now thoughtfully inhaling the thick smoke slowly issuing from his mouth through his nose, like a carny in a tattoo parlour.

“Why don’t you take these?” he said, handing me a set of keys on a Bean & Flinch Cadillac Land key ring. His finger nails were sharp, and too long.

“This car doesn’t seem so important to me anymore,” I said.

“That’s fine,” he said. “Finish it up, Daryl. And you have a pleasant day, Mr Ziegler.”

“Yeah,” I said, watching him walk away.

Daryl waited a moment, then said, “Flintch sleeps in a coffin.”

“That seems possible,” I said.

“And never sneak up on his left.”

“Okay.”

“And never try to hand him anything made of pure silver.”

“Is my car ready?” I said.

“You know, a guy form the eastside bought one of these a week ago,” Daryl said, changing the subject and peeling the wrapper off of a stick of Juicy Fruit. “Right off the lot. No options. No custom work. Paid cash. He said his wife had been foolin’ around behind his back, and that she’d fit real pretty into the trunk. Then he laughed like he was gonna choke, just so the salesman knew he was jokin’. But he wasn’t jokin’.”

“What? How do you know?”

Daryl stared at me a second, like I was daft, like I wasn’t keeping up.

Fear vacuum, I thought. The authentically dead had left the room.

“I guess,” he said, “that a Cadillac is never the same thing from one buyer to the next. The tank’s full of Hi-test, Mr Ziegler, and I’ve checked your oil. You’re ready to roll.”

“Thanks.” I tipped him a couple of bucks.

That evening I drove up into the north shore mountains, and watched the sun fall into the Pacific. Before the daylight vanished completely, though, I checked the trunk to make sure it was empty. It was. No Tobias Flintch rising from the dead. No bodies of cheating wives. Only an upholstered crypt, too huge for my meager life, where a jack and a spare were buried like artifacts, and from which the tackle of an idle age would be carelessly trafficked.

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