Editor’s note: This article appeared in the Jan. 3 print edition of the Mountain Xpress Humor Issue. It presents a lighter, satirical take on local topics and personalities. It is not news.
By Maxwell von Huntington
David Gantt was as dead as a doornail. Well, not really. He was actually enjoying his retirement from Buncombe County’s Board of Commissioners, for which he had been given a lovely gift basket that included several gift cards to Sam’s Club and Verizon, courtesy of former County Manager Wanda Greene.
In fact, Christmas Eve’s fading light found this same Wanda Greene pulling into the driveway of her modest home in Arden, where she planned to spend the evening rearranging the new wall hangings she had purchased with taxpayer money. As Greene exited her car, she thought of her former assistant and new County Manager Mandy Stone-Cratchit, who sat at the county building that very moment, sorting through the legal mess left in Greene’s wake.
But Greene’s thoughts soon turned to the things she would do with those performance incentives and bonuses she’d given herself: condos on the shore, investments in equestrian contests, financial support for family members. The possibilities were endless!
With a final, “Buhn-Combe-bug,” Greene closed her door on the night and the cold, visions of the Verizon store dancing in her head.
As evening drew an impenetrable darkness over the mountains, Greene lay tucked beneath an expensive Amity Home Tudor queen quilt she’d purchased with last year’s employee retention funds. Suddenly, a stiff breeze rent her curtains asunder, followed by the click-clatter of shoes on the hardwood floor.
“Who’s there?” she cried, only to see Gantt himself step from the shadows, clad in a Tommy Bahama shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts.
“No, it can’t be!” she said, rubbing her eyes. “You’re, you’re —”
“Retired?” finished Gantt. “Yes Wanda, I’m retired now — relegated to the early bird special and ‘Bonanza’ reruns. But I wish I had never retired. Not after seeing all the terrible things that have happened since I’ve gone.”
“But, you’re legend!” Greene exclaimed. “You were paid more than any county commissioner this side of Mecklenburg.”
“My work should have been for the PEOPLE, not the bonuses!” Gantt boomed. “I’ve come back to warn you, Wanda Greene! There’s still time to change your ways. Tonight, you will be visited by three ghosts! Expect the first one when the clock strikes midnight.”
With that, Gantt sauntered out into the dark hallway, his words echoing behind him in Greene’s bedroom. “Expect the first ghost when the clock strikes midnight …”
First of the three spirits
Sometime later, the clock struck midnight, with no ghosts to be found. Greene was beginning to think that Gantt might be a couple commissioners short of a quorum, when she heard a loud rapping upon her chamber door. Flinging it open, Greene was surprised to find a clean-cut, middle-aged apparition extending a hand toward her.
“I am the ghost of Corruption’s Past,” said the spirit, looking slightly hurt when Greene did not recognize him. “Others know me as Weldon Weir.”
“The city manager from the 1950s and ’60s?” Greene asked.
“The same,” smiled Weir.
“Well, why have you come here? What do you want?” asked Greene
“I come to tell you you’ve gone about it all wrong,” said Weir, plopping down in Greene’s Hadley leather armchair.
“Gone about what wrong?” asked Greene. “I was county manager for 20 years. I think I did all right.”
“No, no,” muttered Weir. “You focused on the money, but you forgot about the power. I mean, really, Wanda, alleged mail fraud? You could have done so much more, like infrastructure! Airports! Urban renewal!” he cried. “When I was in charge, the entire city moved at my beck and call! I made this city what it is!”
“You also never fixed the water system,” Greene said. “And you took all those poor people’s homes on the East End.”
“Pah! Homes,” said Weir with a sneer. “Who cares about homes? I brought you highways and hotels! There wouldn’t be a tourist industry without me!”
“I suppose that’s true,” Greene mused. “Still, Gary’s done a pretty good job.”
“I’m 10 times the autocrat Jackson is!” Weir snarled, “with his deference to City Council, and his consultants. I never needed a consultant!”
With that, the ghostly figure disapparated entirely, leaving Greene alone and flustered.
Second of the three spirits
No sooner had Weir vanished than in stepped a balding, elderly man in a prison jumpsuit. Strapped to his back was a machine that beeped and buzzed and spat gold coins as he schlepped across the floor.
The man extended a gnarled hand and smiled. “Bobby Medford, at your service,” he cooed.
“I know who you are, Bobby,” Greene chided him. “We worked together. And you’re not dead.”
Medford hoisted the video poker machine from his back and set it lovingly on the floor before him. “Don’t you worry, old Pokey,” Medford whispered to it. “Our luck’s gonna change soon enough, and then we’ll be back on top.”
“Why aren’t you in jail, Bobby?” Greene asked, thinking she might make a call to Van Duncan and send the former sheriff back behind bars.
Medford seemed to read her mind: “Now, Wand-er, you wouldn’t call the dogs out on a dear old friend, would ya?” He glanced around the lavishly decorated room. “No telling what a lawman might find tucked away in here,” he said.
Greene frowned at him. “If someone sent you here to try and wrangle a confession out of me, you can save your breath,” she said.
“Aw, hell,” said Medford. “I ain’t here to convict you, Wand-er — I save that for the truly innocent. I’m here to talk to ya about your little predicament. I’m the ghost of Corruption’s Present.”
“But you’re not a ghost,” said Greene.
“Well, I wasn’t a good sheriff either, but that never stopped me,” laughed Medford. “See Wand-er, you got it all wrong, squirreling away all that cash. You gotta launder it first!”
Medford’s poker machine whirred and spit several coins on the floor. Greene reached for one, only to have Medford snatch it from her hand.
“That there’s part of my pension from the good taxpayers of Buncombe County,” he admonished. “You already stole yours. As soon as I get outta jail, I’m’a head on down to Cherokee and have myself a helluva time.”
“But you’re out of jail right now, Bobby,” Greene said.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t ya?” Medford said, leaning in conspiratorily and gesturing toward the poker machine. “Can’t go nowhere without lugging that damn thing around. Just like old Sisyphus and the rock. ”
“Is this what you came to tell me about, Bobby?” said Greene, now thoroughly confused. “Some silly old Greek myth you’re having fun with?”
“I’m here to tell ya that you gotta cover your tracks, Wand-er,” said Medford, suddenly austere. “Prison ain’t no place for a bureaucrat like you, Wand-er. And all that business giving your son and sister jobs — you gotta leave family out of it. That’s what got that pesky hippie newspaper on my ass to begin with.”
Medford drew a cigarette from his pocket and inhaled deeply. “Whatever happened to that little bastard, Cecil Bothwell, anyway?” Medford asked.
“He became a city councilman,” Greene replied. “But they just voted him out.”
“Ha!” cried Medford triumphantly, as if he’d just wrangled himself another false confession. “Ha hah aha! I knew he’d get his! Who’d they put in his place? Carl Mumpower? Chris Peterson?”
“No,” said Greene. “An Asian-American man and an African-American woman.”
Medford’s smile receded back into its default sourpuss. “Oh.” He glanced up hopefully. “Ain’t no chance they might take a bribe, is there?”
“I don’t think so,” said Greene.
“Aw, shucks. Ain’t nobody around here knows how to run a good ol’-fashioned racket anymore,” he said, disappearing into the gloom, the sound of loose change echoing in the stillness.
Last of the three spirits
Just as Greene was wondering what else could possibly be in store for her, a resounding boom shook the room, followed by mysterious billows of smoke. Out of the haze sauntered a tall, cloaked figure.
Greene stared at the looming figure with horror. “Wha — what are you?” She asked.
The figure held up a piece of paper that read, “Asheville named top 10 destination for gentrification.” Beneath it, scrawled in spindly letters, it said, “Brought to you by the Ghost of Corruption’s Future.”
The figure motioned her to the window overlooking the city. Below, neon signs and gaudy billboards advertised “authentic buskers” and “historic (formerly) black neighborhoods,” as well as new hotel locations and subdivisions on steep slopes.
Over the French Broad River, a maze of half-finished overpasses and cloverleaf interstate exits twisted and tangled like a knotted fishing line, while an enormous “FOR SALE” sign cast its shadow across the entirety of West Asheville. In the foreground, a sign announced the future site of the Anheuser-Busch Craft Beer-atorium, paid for “by the county of Buncombe.”
“‘Paid for by the county of Buncombe,’” Green murmured. “But, the county can’t afford that. I did the math. And pocketed the funds.”
The cloaked figure then pointed to something that made her gasp aloud: A large statue stood before the Buncombe County courthouse, signs and advertisements nearly obscuring the inscription at its base, which read: “Dedicated to Wanda Greene, former county manager, who showed us all we should take the money and run.”
“No!” Greene cried. “It can’t be! I only wanted what was coming to me for my years of service! I never wanted to bankrupt the county. You have to stop it!”
But the figure only let out a bone-chilling laugh, which grew louder and louder until Greene thought she’d go mad. Pulling back its hood, the figure revealed not a human face, but a report from Standard & Poor’s, with the headline, “Buncombe County insolvent; loses AAA rating. Raleigh to take over local government.”
“NO!” Greene shouted, as the walls of her bedroom shuddered and shook, knocking her tasteful wall decorations to the floor. “I can fix it! Let me fix it!”
But the hooded figure only laughed harder, and Greene collapsed in a sea of pastel prints and darkness.
The end of it
Greene awoke the next day to the sun shining through the window. Rising, she stumbled over to gaze upon the horror of a bankrupt Buncombe County. But instead of overpriced hotels and interstates, she beheld the majestic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains embracing Asheville, just as they always had.
Donning her Neiman Marcus cashmere robe, Greene ran to her front door, flung it open and almost ran into a WLOS reporter staking out her front lawn.
“Wanda! Can you offer comment on the FBI investigation into your —”
“What day is it?!” Greene asked the man frantically.
“Why, it’s Christmas, Wanda,” the confused reporter replied.
“Christmas? Christmas!” Greene cried, tossing her hands in the air and swinging the alarmed reporter around on the lawn. “It’s all back to normal! It’s Christmas!”
Greene ran back to her house, grabbed her stash of gift cards and her pocketbook and hopped into her car, headed for Asheville. Greene arrived in her old office to find Stone-Cratchit filling out a mountain of FBI paperwork beneath the dim fluorescent lights.
“Why are you working?!” Greene cried, a bundle of gift cards flying from her hand onto Stone-Cratchit’s desk. “It’s Christmas, don’t ya know?”
“But I’m supposed to fill these out in —” Stone-Cratchit began, but Greene cut her off by plopping a check made out to Buncombe County in front of her former subordinate.
“Here is all the money I took from the taxpayers,” she beamed. “I want the county to put it toward affordable housing and toward equestrian lessons for all county staff!”
Stone-Cratchitt wept tears of joy as other staffers gathered around her office, bringing Christmas victuals and other delights. On the streets below, word quickly spread that Greene had finally cracked, and residents gathered beneath Stone-Cratchit’s window and called for a toast.
“To Buncombe County, high credit ratings and transparency!” cried the newly reformed Greene to the crowd, the spirit of the holiday filling her heart.
Rising to join her, Stone-Cratchit held out her craft beer, and shouted to all who could hear:
“God bless the taxpayers (until the next audit)! Every one!”