A work of fiction, inspired by the unfortunate events of January 6, 2021, highlighting the lack of accountability for those that fomented the violent Insurrection…
by: James Hanna
When Billy Babbitt received a subpoena from the House Select Committee, his first thought was that the committee had made a terrible blunder. The committee was investigating the January 6th Insurrection at the United States Capitol Building, and Billy had no interest in coups having never been out of Indiana. Yes, he was friends with Joshua McIntyre, the self-appointed general of a local militia group called the Brawny Lads. Even knowing this, he assumed that Joshua and his lads had only been playing soldier when they “stormed” the Capitol. Didn’t video clips, aired on Fox news, show them milling around in the Rotunda like sheep? Hadn’t Joshua told him that he and his “soldiers” became bored after an hour and left? And hadn’t the entire incident happened over ten months prior? The FBI had busted Joshua a month earlier for obstruction and indecent exposure, but he had been released on his own recognizance and his trial was yet to be scheduled. Joshua was confident he could plead to a charge of trespassing and get off with misdemeanor probation.
Billy and Joshua, both in their forties, were leading town-trapped lives. They were lifelong residents of Putnamville, a small Indiana farm town, and they met most evenings at Flakey Jake’s Bar to share their discontent. Billy, once an aspiring novelist, had not found a publisher for any of his work, and had settled for being a reporter for The Putnamville Gazette. Joshua had taught high school English after serving a stint in the Army, but had been fired after a video showed him vandalizing the Capitol. Although his arrest had shaken him up, Joshua still reveled in being a “general.” “Why teach about Jay Gatsby and Ahab,” he joked, “when I can be an antihero myself?” Both men had honed their love for the arts at Butler University, a nearby college from which they had graduated twenty years ago. During their college days, they had performed in the drama club — Joshua because of his abiding love of Samuel Beckett’s and Henrik Ibsen’s plays, Billy because his serve was too weak for him to make the tennis team. Billy had starred and performed passably in a couple of Shakespearean dramas, and it was with the Bard’s flair for the underdog that he showed his subpoena to Joshua.
“They can’t be serious,” said Billy, thrusting the summons under Joshua’s nose as they once again lamented the state of the country in Flakey Jake’s. “They say I’ve been seen keeping company with a notorious saboteur.”
“Really?” muttered Joshua as he pushed Billy’s hand aside. “In case you don’t remember, I’m a peace-loving kinda guy.”
“So why did you drive to Washington and piss on the Capitol floor?”
“I must have been bored,” shrugged Joshua, taking a long swig from his ice-cold Heineken. “Or maybe I saw too many buddies die when I served my tour in Iraq.”
Billy shook his head. “That was over ten years ago.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” said Joshua, staring into his beer.
“Well, since you’re the one with the goddamn grudge, what do they want from me?”
Joshua looked at Billy as though he were indulging a child. “What do ya think? They’ll want you to say that I confided in you. They’ll want you to say I told you I was obeying an order from Trump.”
Billy groaned then folded the subpoena and stuffed it into his pocket. “I don’t want to embarrass you by bringing up something like that. Not when Trump ran off and hid after ordering the mob into battle.”
“Yeah,” said Joshua, lowering his voice as though he were confessing a sin. “After telling us to take back the country, he tucked his tail and ran.”
Joshua’s voice bore the timbre of a man whose dog had been run over. He had lost all belief in the former president after Trump let his followers down, and he sincerely hoped the more level-headed members of Congress and the Justice Department would put the coward in jail. However, as was prone to happen in Washington politics, a House Select Committee had been formed, creating an assemblage that seemed less like a posse and more like a high-school debate team. It was clear that justice, however deserved, was not going to catch up with Trump.
“Those jokers should throw him in jail,” Billy groused, “instead of bugging me with this subpoena.”
“Billy,” said Joshua, “you expect too much from these dog-and-pony shows.”
“He incited an Insurrection on national television. How much more evidence do they need?”
“This is not about evidence,” said Joshua. “It’s more like a half-assed production of Waiting for Godot.”
“Trust Congress to do things half-assed,” Billy muttered.
“They usually do nothing at all, that’s why their building got trashed. Hell, doing half-assed things is kind of a step-up for them.”
Billy shrugged. “I’ve got half a mind to tell them where to shove their subpoena.”
“They’ll call that contempt and put you in jail.”
“Sometimes, contempt is warranted.”
Joshua sighed like a broken pump, then took a measured breath. Despite his pique, he had no wish to put his friend at risk. “Billy, you’ve been summoned to testify. Now I’ve had your back all my life, so I’m suggesting that you go to Washington and get it over with.”
After contemplating the situation, Billy took his friend’s advice. He bought a Greyhound bus ticket to the nation’s capital and then he purchased a blue blazer and a red tie to wear when he testified. As he stepped aboard the bus, his pulse began to flutter and he suspected that facing the Select Committee would be the most exciting moment of his life. Of course, this was only a measure of the mundaneness of his life, and his inherent inability to rise to an occasion. While in college, he had not made the tennis team because he could not beef up his serve. “Take a deep breath,” his overzealous coach continually insisted, “then pretend that your arm is a whip.” But Billy could not relax his arm and his serves barely cleared the net, and when he failed to make the cut, he smashed his racket upon the court. “You’re way too inhibited, Billy,” said Joshua who was rooming with him at the time. “If you want to be a varsity athlete, you gotta let it all hang out.” Since Billy had lost his tennis career because of a volatile temperament, Joshua suggested that the drama club might prove to be more his speed
It took several pep talks from Joshua to pull Billy out of his funk, but eventually, Billy relented and joined the drama club. A diva by nature, Billy was given a shot at playing Hamlet and Henry the Fifth, and his performances, on occasion, drew polite applause. Still, a critique in the college newspaper accused him of overdramatizing these roles, and Billy lacked all capacity to take criticism in stride. After he read the review, Billy snarled like a cornered dog. “Dammit,” he wailed to Joshua. “No one deserves reviews like this.”
Billy vowed that he would never again step upon a stage. This was not because being a thespian was more than he could handle, but because he did not want his talent dependent upon somebody else’s script. After graduating from Butler with a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative and World Literature, Billy wrote a three-hundred-page novel while supporting himself with odd jobs. His novel was deeply influenced by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which had captured Billy’s imagination despite its garbled prose. He entitled his novel, The Sweat of the Sun, and he sent it to dozens of agents, but the agents returned the manuscript with form rejection slips. One of them scrawled at the bottom, Dear Mr. Babbitt, Why are you emulating a writer in his period of decline? Only academics read Finnegans Wake, and even they cannot agree on what the book is supposed to mean. You show ability in your ambition, but your book has no storyline. I strongly suggest you find your muse in less esoteric work.
Tiring of being a penniless author, Billy put his book aside and took a job as a reporter for The Putnamville Gazette. His job was to cover high school sporting events and other local news, tasks that he hoped would prove banal enough to tame his stormy soul. But a life of quiet desperation did not suit his temperament either, and he looked forward to damning his critics whenever he found himself drunk in Flakey Jake’s. In his conversations with Joshua, he described his detractors as common sinks. Coaches, directors, and literary agents had all become sinks to him. “These are prosperity’s seawalls,” he cried. “Lackies and charlatans — all of them. They are no more able to fathom my depths than a sink might contain an ocean.”
Having found his identity in martyrdom, Billy could now pretend that never again would he suffer the barbs of insubstantial men. And so, his subpoena amounted to an ill-timed irony, a charade he could only endure if he put his inquisitors in their place. Would he rise to the occasion? Would he set aside his doubts?
We know you’re a snitch.
We’re coming to get you.
We’re going to feed you to the dogs.
Billy reread the text threats on his iPhone as the bus rolled towards the nation’s capital. Since these threats had been signed with pseudonyms, they had obviously been written by cowards. Still, Billy was annoyed that the Select Committee had not kept his name from the press, and that its notion of justice did not extend to protecting witnesses from kooks.
Snitches get stitches.
There’s no place you can hide.
These threats continued throughout the day. Was there any chance that one of them might prove to be sincere? And, if so, should he spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder?
Billy recalled an incident that had happened a week earlier in Flakey Jake’s, an event that suggested that he was at least a match for those who might feed him to the dogs. Billy could not shake his love for Shakespeare, and was in the habit of boozily quoting the Bard to patrons in the bar. On this particular occasion, he was delivering his favorite speech: the Saint Crispin’s Day soliloquy from Henry the Fifth. No sooner had he reached “band of brothers” when a lazy drawl interrupted him. “Who’s brother mightcha be, dingle dork?” the slurry voice called out. The outburst had come from a beefy fellow wearing a red MAGA hat. He was a beer-bellied meathead who appeared eager for a fight. “Why don’t you ask your mother?” Billy snapped. “We might be related, you know.” Had Billy’s insult been less transparent, the brawl might not have happened. The clod might not have leaped from his chair and slammed Billy against the wall, and Billy might not have broken his beer mug over the Neanderthal’s head. Nor might Billy have plunged his fist into the fellow’s crotch, nor driven his heel into the man’s belly after he dropped to the floor. It was not until Joshua wrapped Billy in a bear hug and pulled him away from the man, that Billy realized that he had come out on top for the first time in his life.
When the police arrived and slapped Billy in handcuffs, the brute chose not to press charges. Clearly, the man did not wish to admit that he’d been thrashed by a skinny dork with a bad haircut. So after the cops uncuffed him and said he was free to go, Billy was able to relish the joy of having finally vanquished a boor. The fury with which he had captured the moment seemed to harbor a life of its own — the strength of a guardian angel that had commandeered his soul. It was a stranger he wished to know better, a presence he wanted to court — a lionhearted paladin that would save him from assassins and louts. Perhaps, if he gave the hero a name, they might form a more intimate union. Had Charlemagne not bonded with his sword by giving it a valiant name, and was Billy’s new counterpart any less worthy of being christened as well? Borrowing from Shakespeare once again, Billy named his avenger Macduff.
The following morning Billy, wearing his brand-new blazer and tie, strolled into the Capitol Rotunda to keep his appointment with fate. Having spent a sleepless night in a Holiday Inn near the National Mall, he was feeling especially picked upon and was in no mood to testify. The majesty of the Rotunda did nothing to improve his mood — the towering paintings lacked nuance, the statues seemed blandly heroic, and the Romanesque painting on the ceiling produced only a pain in his neck. He remembered Joshua’s favorite quote he was fond of repeating during their discussions at Jake’s. It was from Waiting for Godot: “There is no lack of void.” As he studied the paintings and sculptures that so effectively distanced the past, Billy better understood what Samuel Beckett meant.
Fifteen minutes later, Billy entered a House hearing room, a surprisingly small chamber with mustard-colored walls. Pushing his way past the clerks and reporters, Billy sat at the witness table. He was relieved to discover that he would not face the Select Committee alone, that half a dozen other witnesses were sitting at the table. They were a passive-looking bunch with dazed, incurious eyes, but he could easily imagine them wearing MAGA hats and cheering on Donald Trump.
When the members of Congress filed into the room and seated themselves on the dais, Billy was surprised to see that their number had increased. He then remembered an article he had read in The Washington Post that morning. For some obscure reason, the Republicans had ended their boycott of the committee, so the committee now included an even mix of both parties. In all, there were fourteen House members perched upon the dais, and Billy could not dismiss the thought that they were ganging up on him.
The chairman of the committee, a spinsterish woman from one of the blue states, opened the hearing with a twenty-minute monolog. Her speech, which included the usual forebodings, struck Billy as insincere. If the pillars of the republic were crumbling, if the coup had almost succeeded, if democracy was still under siege, why wasn’t Donald Trump in jail? As the chairwoman finished her diatribe, Billy felt a profound sense of loss, and his last conversation with Joshua took on additional weight. Yes, he had been expecting too much from this dog-and-pony show.
As the vice-chairman, one of the Republicans, made his opening statement, Billy fidgeted impatiently. The man’s rich, booming voice filled the entire room, yet his speech was so robotic that he seemed to be reciting a script. In an effort to reassign blame, the man degraded the Capitol Police, insisting the committee needed to know just why these cops were so ill-prepared. The man’s prepackaged outrage bordered on comedy, and if Billy had a sense of humor, he might have laughed out loud.
After the vice-chairman finished his speech, the chairwoman introduced the witnesses, inviting each to make a statement before the questioning began. All, except for Billy, declined the invitation, and Billy would have also stayed silent had he been able to control Macduff. But Billy felt so beaten-down that Macduff again hijacked his soul and he then spoke with all the abandon one might expect from a Highland chief. The fearless Scot was too battle-hardened, too principled and bold, to cede the moral high ground to undeserving souls.
And so began a back-and-forth between the committee and Macduff. Macduff labeled the Republicans purveyors of lies and eaters of broken meats. He called the Democrats geldings, and cried out, “You’re all jack and no jizz!” The term traitor he applied equally to the brokers of either party, unconcerned that a term so overused could have no lasting sting. But at least Macduff could not be singularly accused of overdramatizing his role, every glare he received from the dais, every inauthentic shout, every wallop from the chairwoman’s gavel was theater at its worst.
“The witness will answer the questions!” the chairwoman repeatedly shouted.
“This committee will answer to history!” Macduff bellowed again and again. The Scot’s eyes did not waver or soften as they traveled from member to member. Whether one was a traitor to truth or courage made little difference to him.
After Macduff finished his tirade, Billy felt utterly alone — a reminder that swashbuckling fantasies could only go so far. As he returned the stares of the other bad actors with whom he had shared the stage, an impenetrable silence descended upon the room. It was a silence so overpowering that it mocked them one and all. It was a silence that said that so fruitless a play did not merit a curtain call.
Hoping to find some peace of mind after getting thrown out of the hearing, Billy returned home to Jake’s and sat at the bar with his lifelong friend. He had ridden the bus back to Putnamville in a deep, abiding trance, and it was only by force of habit that he had found his way to the bar where Joshua remained after watching the hearing on television.
“Chum, don’t look so glum,” he joked. “You brought that committee together.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Joshua chuckled. “Every one of its members voted to hold you in contempt.”
“Why do you find that amusing? Aren’t you facing prison as well?”
“Naw, my lawyer finalized my plea bargain while you were making a fool of yourself. I’ll cop to a charge of vandalism, and I’m gonna get three years probation.”
“Probation,” sighed Billy. “I could settle for that.”
Joshua topped off Billy’s beer. “Don’t get your hopes too high,” he said. “All I did was piss in their building. You had to go tell ’em the truth.”
A month later, a team of FBI agents took Billy into custody. He was brought to the District Court where he opted for a bench trial, and the judge found him guilty of contempt and gave him a year in prison. Billy was placed in the Federal Correctional Institution near Otisville, New York, a pastoral facility with several tennis courts. He was assigned to shelving books in the library, which was only a part-time job. This allowed him several hours a day to work on improving his serve.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. His work has appeared in over thirty journals, including Crack the Spine, Sixfold, and The Literary Review. James’ books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon, in print and Kindle.