Keep Waterloo Weird

In this exclusive excerpt from WATERLOO, Karen Olsson’s forthcoming novel about life, love, and politics in a capital city that very much resembles our own, a candidate for governor arrives, an ex-congressman departs, and a reporter tries to make sense of it all.

HIS ABILITY TO PUT TASKS in sequence was the first thing to go. William Stanley Sabert, the former congressman, ambled into the kitchen, carrying in his good hand, the left one, a glass tumbler. With the weaker hand, the only partially recovered right, he pressed a sheaf of papers to his ribs, but not carefully enough: His attention slipped, and then the papers slipped; they fluttered to the floor. Pick them up, he told himself. He could not. Certain capillaries in his brain had gone dry; they dangled like shrunken empty gloves. He couldn’t pick up the legal pad pages he’d covered with notes or the hearing transcripts or—where did that come from?—the Christmas card that had slid out from the sprawl. The notion of retrieving all of it loomed and then faded, as showers of tiny particles, boluses, bits and pieces of the midbrain clot that had just exploded inside his head infiltrated the network of his vessels. He couldn’t pick up the pages on the floor because first he would have had to put the drinking glass down. He would have had to lean over. He would have had to reach for the papers and clasp them with his good hand. The sequence of steps had escaped him.

It was his third stroke, though, and he did have an idea of the enemy. He fought back. He’d come into the kitchen to fix something to eat. He intended to do that. No matter that making a sandwich was a more complex task than fetching the papers that had fallen. He opened the refrigerator and set his drinking glass on the top shelf, next to the orange juice. He closed the refrigerator. He took a bag of English muffins from the bread box, pulled open the oven door, and placed the bag inside the oven. Next, tuna fish—but as he straightened himself, Sabert saw only color, throbbing reds and greens. When the room returned, pale and blurry, his eyes were flooded. He touched his sleeve to his face.

Dishes sat in the sink; errant cashews and flakes of cereal lurked under the cabinets; mice lived in the bread box. And that was just the kitchen. There were also the hairs clouding the bathroom floor, the towels heaped in a corner, the bottle of chardonnay forgotten in the toilet tank. A shelf in the bedroom closet had collapsed, and a hail of campaign buttons and umbrellas and old photographs and the silver serving forks from his first marriage (Delia had taken the spoons) had landed among shoes and old pine inserts. For all his storied acuity, his talent for clarification, for cutting through legislative knots in a few incisive strokes, Will Sabert had always been a force of entropy.

And now these papers spilled across the linoleum. He’d collected them to show the reporter, to help explain the work that had engaged him over the past year. What a relief, a pleasure, to have stumbled upon such a project, one that gave shape to his solitary days. High time he revealed it to someone. A legal method: He had discovered it, having devoted to that end many weeks of research, quite a lot of sorting through precedent and records of international tribunals. A method to end all wars, this was, entailing minimal adjustments to current statutes and treaty agreements. He had condensed the argument in favor of it, that is to say the argument for ending war, to a simple, watertight petition that could be understood by any high school student. It was clear, after all, that the wars of the twentieth century had been unjust, unnecessary, and, without question, inefficient from the point of view of costs. He’d hoped to live long enough to expand his premise into a book, but lately he’d begun to fear otherwise. Hence his plan to go over it all with the reporter. There was some doubt in his mind, though, as to whether the reporter had already come and gone?

The first stroke had been almost twenty years earlier: a tingling on the way to the cafeteria, and by the time he’d sat down to eat, his hand and arm had gone numb. He pretended to have lost his appetite. By later that afternoon, he was back to normal. He went on working just as before.

The next one had followed his retirement. A headache, unlike any headache he’d ever had. Icicles splitting his skull into pieces. A trip to the hospital, a poor prognosis. That time his whole right side crumpled, and proper names hid themselves. He could say the words “son” and “daughter,” but the names of his own children wouldn’t give themselves up.

Now his mind was beset by a cascade, a closet shelf falling, an avalanche of old possessions. His children, his mother, his first bicycle, his dog. The fountain he and his brother had ridden their bicycles to on the terraced grounds of the state capitol, a fountain long since bulldozed to make way for office buildings and parking garages. Its water had spouted from pink gargoyles’ mouths. There, one terrible, hot day when he was ten or eleven, an older boy trying to hawk a few bruised peaches had taken a swing at Will after Will had called him a capitalist. He dodged the punch. His little brother Robbie had gotten it instead. Smacked in the face. Bloody nose. Scared to fight, Will had grabbed Robbie’s arm and run away. This was his last memory.

No one was there to see the former congressman back up against the countertop and slide down the cabinet face. His shirt caught against a drawer pull and tore; his hip fractured; his great old moppy head fell to one side and was still.

THE BALLROOM WAS PACKED AND ANXIOUS. As usual there were no windows. Swags of royal-blue bunting hung above a long dais, and tacked to the bunting was a banner, red with white lettering. “Hardaway,” it read. More words below—something something “Values!”—but Nick Lasseter couldn’t see

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