© 2021 Henke Sjorgen All rights reserved
Benjamin Hamner stood behind his desk as his visitor was ushered into the office, and indicated the chair before him, smiling. "Senator Dinwiddie. It's a real pleasure, sir. Please sit down."
The other man flopped into the padded armchair and immediately barked out a cynical laugh. "Oh, I doubt that very much." He looked up at Hamner, his expression wry. "That it's a pleasure, I mean. Your liberal views are well known in academic circles, I'm afraid. As are my not-so-liberal opinions of them."
The way he said it sounded insulting, but Ben just smiled and reseated himself. His office manager, Marjorie, briefly rolled her eyes behind the senator's back, and mouthed good luck before pulling the door closed on her way out.
Ben nodded then. "Very well. So what can this stinking Yankee liberal do for the narrow-minded, conservative senator from the heart of Dixie?"
The other man, still fairly striking looking in his early forties, with thick, dark hair, and tight laugh lines around his eyes, looked annoyed. "You needn't be insulting."
"And neither should you." Ben let his smile slip a little. "This is my school, my office, and my time. So what's on your mind?"
The other man glared a moment, but then forced it into a practiced smile. "Oh, relax. I didn't mean to get us started off on the wrong foot. I believe in tolerance, sir."
Ben nodded. "I can see that. Your recent vocal support for the bill to prohibit the use of a transgender student's preferred pronouns by school faculty members was very tolerant."
The senator gave an indifferent shrug. "Professional rhetoric. I try to give my constituents what they want, Hamner. And they don't want boys in dresses in their daughter's school bathrooms, you understand?"
Ben steepled his fingers and gazed over them at the man before him. The visit was a hell of a surprise. Having one of the enemy come to call with his hat seemingly in his hand was simply not the norm these days. "We could simply agree to disagree, but I find that stance a hypocrisy. You and I are diametrically opposed in our thinking, Senator. I can't but help to predict that your presence here today will be a lost cause for you. You represent everything I have come to loathe about this country. So I cannot imagine that we will agree on anything of substance."
The senator frowned at that, and leaned back in his seat. A silence developed, as they sat and watched each other. The senator broke it first. "I need your help, actually."
Ben was astonished at that. Nothing the man seated before him could have said would have been a bigger surprise. Even he could hear the sarcastic disbelief in his reply. "My help?"
"Yes." The senator looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable, the professional scorn he wore for all things not within the bounds of his approval these days noticeably missing. He looked around the room, at the paintings on the walls, the books on the shelves. "This is a very liberal university. Very liberal."
Ben gave a short nod, uncertain where the senator was going. "It is. And we don't intend for that to change." He waved a hand at the windows, and the tree-lined campus beyond. "Our founding fathers preceded the split that tore this nation asunder and resulted in civil war. They were lucky to establish this school in a state that wound up far from the dictates of southern irrationality. So we are still quite free here today to openly support causes and persons that you in your part of the country have put your foot on."
Senator Dinwiddie snorted. "I've heard all the arguments, so that tack is a waste of time."
"I'm just being candid. Something I feel I can be within the confines of my own living room, as it were."
The senator nodded. "All you people like to sit high on that horse and judge the rest of us, don't you? For someone that claims to be so liberal, you have a singular intolerance for those that have chosen a different life than your own."
Ben waved a hand dismissively. "I've heard that stupid argument before. That the liberal refusal to accept conservative views damns us as intolerant hypocrites. That you should be allowed to put your foot on the necks of individuals and groups in your part of the country that are unable or unwilling to conform to the strict and intolerant ideas you have about them." He leaned forward on the desktop. "That's bullshit. You people and your authoritarianism are trying to push this country into a dictatorship, and the rest of us are not having it."
"This country needs a firm hand!" the senator said, his voice raised. He brought a hand down on the desktop in a slap that scattered papers over the blotter. "We built this country, not all these damn foreigners! Not these damn minorities. Why should they get the fruits of our labors?"
Ben laughed. "That's as stupid a statement as I have ever heard. Do you even really believe that crap? Or have you repeated that trash so many times now in an effort to keep your supporters happy that it's taking hold in your own mind?"
Senator Dinwiddie looked angry, and like he was about to leap up and leave the room. Ben fully expected him to do just that, would have been delighted if he had done it...but he didn't.
Instead, the senator closed his eyes a second and clearly battled with himself, and soon just as clearly regained his control. He opened his eyes. "I didn't come here today to talk politics. I didn't come here to argue."
Ben nodded. "So what did you come here for, Senator?"
The other man gave a soft sigh. "I'm here about a recent application for admission to your school. One that was denied."
Ben cocked his head to one side. "If it was denied, it was for good reason. There is very little I can do in such a situation."
The senator leaned forward. "You're the Admissions Director here. Among other things. You have the power."
"I have to abide by the rules, too," Ben countered. "Although I know such an idea is beyond someone like you."
Dinwiddie squeezed his eyes shut a moment, and reopened them filled with anguish. "Will you just hear me out?"
Ben's eyes widened at this look through an open window into the soul of the man. The senator's current demeanor was so far from the one that Ben knew that he was taken aback. What could possibly drive a man like Dinwiddie, the burning flame of the south, to act like this?
Something was amiss here. Something important. Something worth knowing. "Okay. I'm listening."
Dinwiddie nodded. "His name is Jackson Devereaux. He applied for the next term here, and was turned down due to his academic standing."
Ben frowned, the name unusual enough that he remembered it. "I believe I recall that application. His grade point average doesn't meet our minimum requirements."
The senator sighed. "He's had a lot of problems in school. But he's very bright, Hamner. He has his mother's talents for art and music. He speaks three languages fluently. He deserves a shot at more than what he has now."
Ben turned to the laptop on his desk and signed into the university network. He brought up the records for the boy in question, and nodded. "I thought I recalled the name." He turned back to Dinwiddie. "It's as I said. He doesn't meet the academic requirements for admission."
Dinwiddie nodded, and his mouth set in a grim line. "He's my son, Hamner."
Ben simply stared in amazement, and then sat back in his chair. "But the name --?"
"My first wife," Dinwiddie explained. "When Jackson came of age, he changed his surname to hers." His eyes dropped. "He wants no part of me."
Ben digested that, all bets off now. "What sort of trouble has he had? You said his academic standing had been affected by some sort of problems?"
The senator nodded, and closed his eyes. "He's gay."
Ben breathed a startled breath. "So am I, but it hasn't affected my education."
"No. But you were raised here, in the north. You had the benefits of being in a place where you were...accepted."
"And Jackson does not?"
Pain filled the senator's eyes. "No. Jackson is a smart boy. But his mannerisms are somewhat feminine, and they have marked him. His life has been an unhappy one up to now."
Ben considered that, the idea of growing up obviously gay in a society in which that was totally unacceptable. He nodded. "I see."
The senator leaned forward. "He wants to come here, Hamner. Your school's reputation for the arts and sciences is right up there with some of the best. And your school's reputation for acceptance...well, it's is a well-known fact that a lot of the students here are...are..."
"LGBTQ," Ben supplied, more patiently now. "We accept everyone, of course. Because we believe that everyone has a right to happiness in life, and that an education is a big part of that."
"But you didn't accept Jackson." The senator shook his head. "Jackson could make the required marks to be admitted here, if given the chance. He's a gifted boy, Hamner. He deserves to have that happiness you're talking about." He sighed. "He won't get it at home, I know."
Ben felt like shouting. But his voice was low and urgent instead. "You understand that you, and people like you, are totally responsible for why people like your son cannot be happy?"
Dinwiddie winced. "It's much more complicated than that, Hamner. People in my part of the country think differently."
"They're selfish," Ben stated. "That's what the political divide in this country today boils down to, Senator: selfishness. Those that believe that everyone deserves a shot in life, standing against those that believe that only people they approve of deserve a shot. That only people that think like they do, look like they do, go to their church, and support the causes that they support, deserve to be treated fairly." Ben laughed, but it was a harsh laugh, an indictment, even. "I can't think of a more just bit of irony than for you to be in the situation you are in now."
Senator Dinwiddie sat back in his seat, looking defeated. "So you won't help?"
Ben's mind roiled in turmoil, all the angry things he would like to shout now coming to the fore. But the clouds in his thoughts parted then, and a ray of sane sunshine came down and illuminated it all, put it all into focus. Made it all clear.
"I didn't say that."
The senator licked his lips. "I will pay for his boarding here at the school. For him to get away from his current environment is what is important, Hamner. He'll..." he looked around at the room again "...he'll bloom in a place like this. I know it."
"I don't believe it," Ben said quietly. "You are as much as admitting the failure of the system you are attempting to propagate. Do you really believe that an exception should be made for Jackson because he's your son?"
"No." The senator looked unhappy now. "Quite to the contrary. I was hoping that an exception could be made...in spite of that fact."
Well, that put a different spin on things. The admission was a bit of a shock, especially as Ben's every instinct suggested that it was honestly made. Dinwiddie was a proficient liar, that was certain. His abilities at deflecting criticism from his policy decisions was almost legendary. But that he was here now as a father and not a politician seemed abundantly clear.
Ben rubbed at his jaw, thinking, and then nodded carefully. "Just for the sake of argument...I could do it. I'd need to enlist my office manager in a bit of paperwork chicanery...but I could do it." He leaned forward then. "But what reason do I have to stick my neck out for you? Especially as I know you would joyfully take a chop at it if given the chance?"
For a moment, the senator actually looked humble. It looked almost silly on him, and Ben felt it might even be the first time that Dinwiddie had ever worn the look.
"I won't speak a word, Hamner," the man said. He looked around the room, as if searching out any possible eavesdroppers. "You have to understand...he's my son, Ben." He leaned closer. "I love him." The last words were a whisper, so heartfelt that it made Ben cringe a little. That the enemy could feel this way was sobering.
Ben sat quietly now, watching Dinwiddie wrestle with himself, and trying to absorb the idea that a man like him could love anyone but himself. Amazing. It needed commenting upon, and Ben knew just what he needed to say. "Maybe this will be a good lesson for you, Senator. Have you considered the idea that there may be other parents out there - many other parents - that love their children as much as you do yours, and want the best for them? And that the policymakers like you give them nothing in return but heartache?"
The senator's lips compressed. "I have. I have thought about it a lot more, of late."
Ben nodded. "Enough to affect a change in your stance on some things?"
"Possibly. I can't make any promises. But...maybe. Politics is a nasty game, you know."
Ben laughed at that. At the excuse. But Dinwiddie did seem to be being honest just now. "How well I do know that fact," he agreed. He stood, and extended his hand. "Very well, I'll take a chance on Dinwiddie, the father, when I would never have taken a chance on Dinwiddie, the politician."
The senator rose quickly to his feet, a look of pure disbelief on his face. "You'll do it?"
"Yes. A letter will go out to Jackson today, stating that there was a mix up in the records, and that he has been accepted for the fall term. There is still plenty of time to make all the arrangements. Including billing you." Ben leaned torward the other man then. "But Let's be clear on this. I'm doing this for Jackson, not for you."
Dinwiddie emitted a soft laugh,and took Ben's hand and shook it. "That's fine. I'll be damned. I never thought I'd owe any stinking Yankee liberal anything." But there was no malice in his voice, none at all.
Ben smiled. "And if we work hard enough on him, I'm sure we can erase any taint of southern bigotry and ignorance from your son."
"Fair enough." The senator sighed, and nodded. "As a father...thank you, Ben."
Ben nodded. "I hope you know what you're getting. I think you will find that being here in this school will not cause your son to like you any better."
The senator looked sad a moment, but then he smiled. "That's okay. As long as he's happy...as long as he has a chance. That's all that matters to me."
"Very well. Then I think we're done." Ben smiled broadly. "You're stinking up my office, Dinwiddie. Please leave."
The senator's eyes twinkled. "Gladly. I have to go home, anyway, and take a shower to get the liberal stench off my neck."
Ben shrugged. "If you drown, it would be no great loss to the world."
The senator laughed at that, decided it was okay for once to let the opposition have the last word, nodded, and headed for the door.
Ben watched him leave, and then shook his head. I'll be damned.
Marjorie came into the office then, looking back over her shoulder in surprise. "What on earth did you do to him?"
Ben sat back in his chair. "Not a thing. He did that all by himself." He pointed at the chair. "Come sit."
Marjorie came and took the seat that the senator had vacated, and looked at him expectantly.
Ben cocked his head to one side. "How would you like to help me do something dishonest and sneaky?"
She looked at him quizzically a moment, and then smiled. "Is it for a good cause?"
Ben looked out the door, at the way Dinwiddie had gone, and nodded slowly. "Yes. I think it is."
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