GOING TO GET YOU HOME
by Jason Sullivan © 2006
The attorney general of the United States of America sits at his Justice Department desk unsteadily satisfied that the supreme need to clean the office—sanitize it, more aptly; scrub its air if he could—is temporarily controlled. But he worries the longer he roosts—listening to the leather chair's nonstop flatulent settlement, gripping the armrests as though he's readying himself for blastoff, for solarization, and staring at the distant office door as though he knows he shouldn't be the one occupying this office—the urge to aerosol will rear its filthy face.
Charles Graham, the General (in a town where antonomasia rules—Mr. President, Madam Secretary, Senator "Blunderbuss," Director "Skullduggery"—General "No, I'm not in the Army," he now thinks, is the most ridiculous), used to blame a former Senate colleague for this particular affliction.
During the General's confirmation hearing, his right honorable friend had said there was "no bigger cesspool in town than Justice" and "Senator Graham was just the man to clean it up." The words entered his ears casually enough, but then they started scratching and yelling, like lost spelunkers. He agreed with the statement, in part. The foulness of the previous administration was so acute, so pungent, the actual hardware and hardwood needed an extra layer of sousing. But someone please tell him, how can you adequately clean a cesspool?
The former president is a fellow Southerner, and while the General finds himself feeling pretty darn good when visiting with "the other local boy made good" what he can't stomach is that the man had once polled the American public as to where they wanted to see him vacation, and then actually had his press clackers answer reporters' questions on why he chose this specific vacation spot with "because this is where the American people want to see the President." Every politician polled. The General, while in the Senate, had polled. But this was astounding. He waited for the next news cycle, the not-all-that-funny late-night quips, and the firestorm. Not a blip.
He was a partisan in the Senate at the time, so he raised the issue. Democrats dismissed him as churlish; but even his Republican friends weren't overly irked and looked at him in return just a little too long. He became the late-night joke. What was wrong with everyone? Democracy and transparency are mutually implied, but this, he cried, was too transparent. This was a phenomenon for scholars, he knew.
This was a cancer that needed scoped, cut out, dissected and puzzled over. He obsessed about it and couldn't understand it and blamed the president for the beginning of an internal breakdown that would come: his breakdown… And, of course, the president had soiled (literally, as the General's friends liked to say, thinking it the zenith of wit) the highest office in the land with his Oval Office sex caper, where even teenagers had approached the General and said, "that's messed up."
Long ago, Charles Graham positioned himself on the "Right" side of the Culture War, though he can't quite remember—or won't let himself remember—how it happened. Pundits cited him and the ex-president as a case study in "divided America," pious brother against nasty brother, his own state used as the demarcation for extremism. It gained him national publicity as a person with whom you agree or disagree, love or hate, pray with or throw condoms at.
A nation divided made for good theater, a Zeitgeist sitcom whose dialogue he helped write when he was swept up in the fervor of brimstone rhetoric, spouting things like "when I think of my history, I think of eternity." Although he hasn't said anything as such in years, he can't distance himself from these words, not in Washington, D.C., not when you're attorney general of the United States. And he would so like to take back much of it, because painfully, and on so many fronts, life experience has told him that those dubbed as moral relativists don't embrace moral relativism. It's the sanctimony of the moral absolutists they can't stand.
So in terms of the president's sex scandal? Sure, okay, let's not have extramarital sex. And don't lie to the nation. That's easy. But the fury was disproportionate to the outrages that really mattered, like polling for vacation destinations and then telling the public you did so as you sit atop a trail horse in Montana. This was far more troubling and no one else saw it and he was alone with it. This was the blot he wanted scrubbed away, not the sex. The sex didn't roil his guts, not in repulsion anyway.
It was during his last year in the Senate that he started noticing the sleepy nervousness, the tightening of the chest, and the facial weight of an oncoming sob when making corrections to a speech he had no idea how he would possibly get through. He saw it as permafrost melt, and just as people lamented the loss of the real thing, he missed his old, reliable permafrost… But he has won a battle here today, a victory in the war on obsession and compulsion (though unseen ennui rebels are still pillaging the distant environs of his mind), a triumph of which no one will ever know: resisting the desire to clean one's office, every bit the success story as an alcoholic keeping his car out of the liquor store parking lot.
He doesn't know whether to credit his willpower or the pills. The psychiatrist (just thinking the word makes him close his eyes), who is known for her covert treatments of high-profile patients (another wince), tells him the distinction is irrelevant; let medical science flesh that one out (of course she, too, wasn't noticeably vexed with the vacation/polling anecdote). Just let it go, she says. So he tries to look away from the pathology. Visualize the monster, and then look away. Accept that it exists, and then deny it. He has to keep producing a productive focus, and it's exhausting.
What launched him into this particular malaise was the phone conversation he concluded ten minutes ago with a Ms. Vanessa Allen, a senior at his alma mater, a young woman with whom he has agreed to meet for dinner this evening and answer questions for her Yale Daily News article. Her uncle, a classmate of his from Yale, a man he hardly associates with anymore, a one- time libertine who now has that eyelid problem—what do you call it, that Ralph Nader eye-droop condition?—arranged the meeting.
She had called only to confirm the dinner that's to take place in less than an hour. And he's pleased she did so. What discomforted him was her tone. It wasn't disrespectful, nor did she speak in teen-speak: free associating around the word "like." It was what they used to call brassy. Now, when he was in law school and met Attorney General John Mitchell, he had been a nervous wreck. Nowadays it was rare to meet a young person who was "appropriately" nervous around him, not of him per se, but of the office. The same applied when he was in the Senate.
The intern who greeted him with a seated and slouching "Hey." The staffer who coined new superlatives, like "bizarrest." The intern who showed him the Chinese symbols tattooed on the small of her back, saying she didn't know what they meant but she was sure they were metaphysical, because they were Chinese. When asked (by him, the senator for Pete's sake) why he didn't complete—didn't even start for that matter—the constituent mailing, one intern, in all earnestness, said, "I'm dyslexic. Remember? It's on my resume." He filed this lax attitude next to the vacation polling sociopolitical brainteaser; and both were in the drawer marked "examples of how people don't think governance is serious business."
To gird himself, he convinces himself that when Ms. Allen repeated words during conversation, such as "fantastic, that's fantastic," this expressed a modicum of nervousness, of respect. He'd also heard the restaurant's tussle in the background, so she was already there, waiting for him. Plus, her grandfather had been the governor of New Hampshire, so she'd grown up around people in power, was probably just used to it, tired of it—could see through it.
The restaurant isn't far from Justice. He buzzes his secretary to notify that he will walk to his appointment. Outside his door he is met by three humorless (the way you want them) agents. They look properly nervous. Their presence, the result of an America breached, is what impresses the young people. The "I'm important enough to be killed by terrorists (some of them domestic), so I need protection" swagger. He enjoys their company because they don't talk to him and keep those who will well outside the zone of danger.
"Apologies, no time to chat. Security issues, you understand."
Of course a public official has to be out in the public some, so if someone really wants him hit, it could happen, as when walking to restaurants. He's less concerned about a gun blast to the head as he is a custard pie cream to the face.
On the way out the agents skittishly fisheye the Justice employees, the legions of toiling lawyers who look up, step out of the way, say hello. The General reciprocates with his game show host grin and barely appreciable "good evening." Into the Great Hall and the bare-bosomed "Spirit of Justice," a classical statue an acquaintance—a minister back home, the General's hometown—wanted removed, or, at the very least, her one exposed breast covered. The General contemplated inquiring, "Would you like to spray paint over the Sistine Chapel's nudes while we're at it?" but he already knew the answer.
Into the vespertine air, the future hint of an autumn wind, a warming of the heart, a conflagration of purpose. The sky is intestinal, tender, as if it would curl in on itself if you touched it. He almost knows who he is when the temperature dips below seventy degrees Fahrenheit, unlike in the swampy heat that was here just a few days ago, where you felt like a bottom dweller, as though you didn't deserve to bipedal down the sidewalk. A cool zephyr skims through his thinning white hair. He looks down to hear the grit-grind of his uncomfortable dress shoes slipping ever so slightly on the sidewalk and tries to think if he's really thought of this sound before… Why can't he think of it? Her uncle's deadeye condition. That Columbo eye deal you can't help but stare at and feel sorry for. He's having what his daughter, who took flying lessons for a month, used to call a mental…when you throttle your plane up until it sputters… He almost smiles, remembering. A chandelle. She used to say, "Another mental chandelle, eh Dad?"
Quickstepping from their buildings as fast as they can, bureaucrats dial and answer cell phones and yak to people who are walking a different sidewalk. A few late-season tourists kind of recognize him. One man on a cell phone says, "I didn't know the Holy Grail was at the National Gallery. Hey, I think I just saw somebody." Sliding his hands into his pockets, the General is positive Hell would be listening to the phone ring for eternity, and here people are carrying the infernal devices next to their hearts.
A man, one of many ubiquitous D.C. street lectors, preaches to entities no one else can see and, for some reason, executes an arabesque. A buzzing bug grazes the General's lips; he covers his mouth and flaps his tongue like a dog lapping up water. Pennsylvania Ave. automobile traffic, the sound of chaos, makes him bristle and raise a shoulder to an ear. This is happening more and more lately. He blames that faceless tinker who invented the internal-combustion engine: the sound of insanity. The doctor says he's an agoraphobe… Very well, but he doesn't have a clue where he'll go if claustrophobia decides to close in as well.
The small dark restaurant—but with a sizable bar area—is the place du jour. He's recognized here, of course. The young patrons at the bar silently gape, a collective hope that, one day, people will covet them as they enter restaurants. An agent tells the maitre d' that the attorney general is to join a Ms. Vanessa Allen, and as soon as the nervous old man starts checking the list, the General knows she is not on the premises.
The General fingers an earlobe and springs up on his toes, two old habits that vault forth with the onset of stress, as during his confirmation hearing, when Senator Kennedy grilled him on his footnote intimations, Senator Graham all the while trying to oxidize the mental image of that photograph of a young Teddy after Chappaquiddick, looking silly with a tie around his neck brace. (There's a from-behind-the-back picture of the General at the hearing: seated behind that big lonely table, tugging on an ear, only the very tips of his toes touching the ground).
He's shown to his semiprivate table in the corner. His security detail relocates to their strategic positions, looking perturbed at the prospect of a long dinner, watching. A server materializes like a killer from the shadows. The General orders a drink: water. Deciding against using the Handi-Wipe in his coat pocket, he takes a deep breath, crosses legs and smoothes out his pant creases. The privileges of high office are exaggerated, but the ability to get a quiet table in a popular restaurant is a gem.
No, the perks of serving the people are not many, but getting away from the hoi polloi is reason enough to serve, away from the mindless tortures of the everyday, like waiting in line at the drycleaners, or driving.
He's aware that he's a misanthrope, but then again so were the Founders, truth be told. Growing up in the South he couldn't wait to get away from these people. At Yale he found he didn't much care for these people, either. In fact, this former St. Paul's, Andover prep school crowd used to rib him about coming from the "provinces," about his mush-mouth speech, surreptitiously dropping their g's when he was in their presence, even though he had never dropped one g in his entire life.
Many of them thought it "cute" that the American dream was to own a house. Middle-class conspicuous consumption was a punch line. He didn't have a prayer to get a Skull and Bones tap, sorry Chuck me boy. One guy had monogrammed slippers. Photographs of them as children showed cherubic brats. He actually knew someone named Holland Greenback III. The noblesse were obnoxious drunks, unfettered, because they had never been around a crowd rough enough who would split their skulls and snap their bones over their many insults. They made fun of him for sharing the same birthday as John Brown.
They came from houses with unappreciated two hundred-year-old map rooms. He knew guys who made supercilious cracks about Americans' lack of sophistication, "their gaucheness;" yet these very same guys were shamelessly vulgar. Dads called their grown sons "Honey." Even the way they walked demonstrated the movement of men who knew they could fail, fail every day for the rest of their lives, and it wouldn't matter, because another opportunity would be handed to them, and then they could fail again. Entitlement and power were birthrights and don't think for one Westport second they wanted you to join them.
But he did. Not on Wall Street, not an executive who makes three hundred fifty dollars for every dollar earned by the average employee. The argot of finance (hedge funds, even "trading was light today") was painful, like switchblades unfurling into his ears. Soulless all. He wanted public policy. He needed Washington, the real power structure. This required a move back home, where he came from, like it or not, and the people he knew, like them or not. He worked his way through the state offices, culminating in the state attorney generalship (thanks to the former president, no governorship).
Finally he saw an opening for the Senate, but to win the Republican nomination he had to move further to the right than were his sensibilities. It worked, though—he won, won it all, then re- election. He had made it. He was a grandee. Then a rough but winnable third term campaign…
Now, he's always known sentimentality to be a component of elections. What happened next, however, left him in the bathroom, on his knees, throwing up. He lost the honor to serve in the United States Senate (in which there are only one hundred members, in a country of around a quarter of a billion). To whom did he lose his seat in this exalted office?
A dead man… Perhaps you recall the story. The one where the voters opted for the candidate who had died in a plane crash three weeks before the election… Yes, well, this was sentimentality sent through a centrifuge spin, the byproduct radioactive and with an unknown half-life: a belief that governance is so abstract, so doable by anyone, dead people can be at the helm. ("Hey, we'll vote for the dead man and someone else will choose who takes the dead guy's place.") If that wasn't bad enough, at his opponent's funeral people looked at him as though he had personally downed the plane with a surface-to-air Stinger missile. ("What kind of despicable person runs against a man who will die in a plane crash?") He knew tragedy, he knew loss. Where was the bloat of public sentiment during his second term when his daughter was killed in an automobile accident? He chided himself for asking the question because he sure as heck knew the answer: it's all about how it's portrayed in your living room. People are desensitized to kids dying on roadways ("hey, that's life"), not candidates to the United States Senate crashing to the ground in fireball heaps.
So he retreated to his Watergate apartment, blocked out the sun and stayed in bed. He thought they had an understanding. He trumpeted limited government and used his clout and seniority to render all the federal money he could, whereby his constituents reaped the cash benefits and the peace of mind that they had voted for the fiscally responsible candidate.
Staring out the restaurant's smoked window, he uncrosses his legs, wipes the sweat from his upper lip with the back of a finger and spots the couples moseying through a seemingly carefree twilight, laughing. The cacophony of the bar has increased to an unignorable pitch. He tips his chair to the left so he can kibitz around the wooden partition and see its breadth. Like a ham- fisted PI who's been caught detecting, he snaps back, clopping the chair's legs on the hardwood floor. But he's not kidding himself. He knew what he'd see; it's an old scene, burned into his celluloid long ago—the amber bottles all lined up, waiting to be handled, fondled, gurgled.
This bar even has them sitting on some kind of an illuminated self, as if offering holy nectar, the soft white pouring up, calling you to pour down, relax and sip it on down—just like sitting in the most comfortable of chairs, watching the rain outside a bay window, a form of natural poetry you'd die to join. Some people are called to the Word. This is your calling. Every cell of you wants what is right here. Just come on over.
He yanks on an earlobe. His knee jumps in seven-eight time.
The world doesn't want you sober.
What pulled him out of bed was a call from the president. Validation. An honor and a privilege to serve your administration and the nation, sir, absolutely. Thank you again, sir. He will never go back to live in the state of his birth. Since his mother is gone now (during his last campaign, a no-life news cycle lifespan), there's no reason to be there at all…except to tell them that he would like to dedicate the rest of his life to repealing, and retroacting, the seventeenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the one allowing you people a direct vote for who will represent you in the Senate; there was a reason the Founders didn't want you people to vote. He shall never return. Look them in the face? Absolutely not… He has no home.
After the president's call, he wanted to visit his old Senate colleagues to have a laugh at their expense, to inform them that he had finally evolved from their world of massaging an electorate, of micro targeting interest groups, and to advise them that they had better take heed: it doesn't matter what you do, they'll throw you out for a dead guy. Who's running for a Senate seat now anyway? Leftover dot-com zillionaires. Drop twenty, thirty million, and bingo, you're in. A member of the Hollywood of the East, a celebrity on the cable news scream circuit, sharing the screen with a slew of folks who wanted to be on TV so bad they became video journalists. The Senate cloakroom was full of young senators who learned their oratory skills by watching sporting telecasts, whether it the old Saturday afternoon "we're spanning the globe to bring you affordable—" or the new thirty-second highlight reel "we're going to drive the lane on this issue—" or the professional wresting smackdown "we need to squash the terrorists like the cockroaches they are."
Just think, he had been jealous of the senators whose constituents didn't tacitly demand that they endure bass fishing, nor that they waste stupendous amounts of time using an iron stick to swat a ball into a hole in the dirt, nor that they playact tough guy by hiding behind a bush and then jumping out to blast a bird out of the air, "for sport." Praise be to God he didn't have to do it anymore. Never again would he have to read the nonsensical diatribes of men who spent their retirements devouring right-wing radio and scrawling ranting letters (with exclamation points in every other sentence, "… need to show them who's boss!
That's the thing to do. I'll say this to you right now, two words: liberal media!") demanding the senator's personal reply as recompense for the privilege of their votes. Never again would he do anything for them. And they didn't want him to do anything for them either. They thought a dead man would work just fine.
Nor did he have to listen to the Calvinist ministers who didn't do a very good job of hiding their elation that they were in possession of the true faith, so they would be beamed up during the rapture, not their heathen neighbors, maybe not even you. The same ministers who said they were his good friends. The same friends who will never know the truth surrounding his daughter's death: That the authorities—and witnesses later encouraged to remember differently—concluded it was no accident.
That she had intentionally gunned her car and swerved off the bridge. He couldn't tell this to these so-called brothers and sisters, people who think they've deduced the prejudices of a vengeful God. They would offer to pray with him, yes, but he knew what they would really do to her: inquest her memory in their hearts of fire and damnation, that they would be a few words away from whispering with a smile, "her soul is lost, all you can do is pray for it." It's who they were, and he detested them for who they were. He loathed himself for ever nodding yes to their words (where maybe, okay, he had once, and only briefly—and basically to spite his overexposure to Enlightenment thinking—found their absolutes alluring).
He hated himself for hoping that their God would punish them for defamation, would surge out their narrow-minded spiritual smugness, and that he would be there to bear witness when it happened.
If God is anything like what they say, this is no God he wants to know. He wishes a gentle God to be with his daughter now, one who sees the crush of spiritual pain—a pain from the epicenter of the heart, his daughter once said. A God who greets by nestling cheeks in kind hands and says, "You've had enough. There will be no more pain for you."
He checks his watch, takes a sip of water and returns his gape to the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome.
Sure, he has some fond memories of moments shared with Senate colleagues. He still chuckles when he thinks of the political trip he took with the junior senator from New Jersey, touring a wooded national park in Missouri. When the young senator showed up wearing new, exquisitely polished, in-need-of-breaking-in cowboy boots, the General knew this was going to be good. An hour into the guided walk he saw junior's eyes watering, his ankles not bending properly, but, to his credit, junior was keeping it together for the camera crew following close behind. But when a walking stick landed on his face, junior screamed like a schoolgirl.
When two squirrels attacked each other, screeching horrific cries, his colleague looked genuinely disturbed and no longer concerned that the cameras were archiving his emasculation. Three hours later they were set to deliver a speech of platitudes beatifying beautiful nature, but the countenance of the gentleman from New Jersey (sweat dripping off his nose, onto his sweat- slicked Brooks Brothers shirt) said this: don't protect it, get rid of it… That was good day.
"Pardon me, General Graham."
The General jumps and wide-eyes her as though he's recovering from a head trauma. He scoots his chair back with a teeth-cringing squall and stands. He's finding religion again, praying that he wasn't nattering and laughing to himself. But when he sees her—his eyes really gulping her in—he forgets about all that and almost says, "Mercy." The mute maitre d' makes a little flourish with his hands, as if presenting her as a votive gift.
Vanessa Allen, not much shorter than the General, extends a hand and introduces herself. The General shakes it and apes the maitre d' by pointing to the seat opposite him. She smoothly sits her small moleskin notebook on the white table cloth and tucks her long black hair behind an ear. He realizes he's staring at her as if she is indeed a breathtaking work of inanimate art. The undeniable power of physical beauty, pummeling you into a slab of need, leaving you graceless.
"I apologize," she says, sitting her elbows on the wooden armrests then coupling her fingertips and narrowing her shoulders, as if chilled. "There was an accident on Massachusetts Avenue and oh, General, wait to you hear this. I had to perform an emergency tracheotomy with my Cross pen. On James Carville, actually. Stressful, to say the least. You know, he was still actually able to talk with the pen in his throat… Well, it was amazing, unbelievably amazing."
She doesn't even flash her eyes, but the General does, and only then does she grin microscopically. He laughs, genuine and deep. That's the oldest joke! And no one talks to him like that! She's certainly cognizant of his tragic history with car accidents! It's a much-needed flood of endorphins.
He nods haughtily and straightens, his spine popping like bubble wrap. He wants to play, too.
"Well, I look forward to reading about your exploits tomorrow in the Post."
"Quite an ordeal. It's probably a 'breaking news' story on Inside Politics right now. A reporter tried to interview me, but I stuck my hand in the camera and said that I was already late for a very private dinner with Attorney General Graham."
"Perfect. I'm sure they won't follow-up that."
She manages to laugh at his standard Washington witticism, acknowledge the waiter and order tea, all at the same time, and he starts to like her all over again. He was wrong about her. She isn't brassy. She's pawky. That misread had been the cynic in him, and this reminds him of how he keeps getting more things wrong than right. He tenses his gut to bring himself back into the moment, before his mood turns acidic… What he sees before him is what?… An effortless urbanity? Whatever it is, people have killed to posses it. He's aware of course that he could be making all this up to go along with her exotic beauty. It's like looking at a gypsy in her civilian attire: a business pantsuit.
He's ready to catch her off-guard with his own quasi joke: What, exactly, is wrong with your uncle's eye? But the waiter does him a favor by dropping off her hot tea and two tasseled menus.
The General, deciding he has a voracious appetite, orders lobster with black bean sauce. Ms. Allen then does something the General hasn't witnessed in eons. She states that his order sounds "good, really good" and orders the exact same thing. None of this I had better order something different just to be different. She orders what she wants.
She thanks the General for his time and turns back the front cover of her notebook; he clinches his teeth, hoping to close it telekinetically.
"My pleasure," he says. "Tell me, I haven't been back to New Haven in years. What's it like?"
"On campus? Depends on the college, as you know. In general, people keep their Yale sweatshirts in the closet and wear them when they get home. The casual, brainy slacker, that seems to be the sought after demeanor. Everyone kills themselves to get in then acts as though it's no big deal now that they're there. But I imagine quite a few find their way into the 'sis boom bah' photos just for that day PBS does retrospectives on their respective lives."
She's self-actualized in someway, unlike so many of the young people he sees promenading into this town with chips on their shoulders from the Marxism still dawdling in their heads. It's as if they know a seductive grain of truth is buried so deep within ourselves, no one will ever find a way of extracting it, and by excepting this, they've somehow given up the fight for truth, that they will have to live the rest of their lives with the faint guilt of having betrayed something they will never identify.
And even as they research and write legislation for the continuation of this democratic nation, a collective part of them still clings to the romance of a revolution to end all revolutions, the dogmatic violence necessary for the utopian creation so abstracted they have no problem donning "War is Not the Answer" t-shirts. Nor does she seem like a Reagan groupie, equally defensive and hostile, especially to anyone who criticizes their jingoisms or their belief that America is a City on a Hill, blessed with exceptionalism, with the stability to produce, produce, produce…
"What about you, your future? Clearly you have a knack for medicine."
To this Vanessa makes no reply. He thinks she missed it. Or worse: he's wearing out the yarn.
But she smiles slyly and says, "No, I'm thinking lighthouse keeper." She twirls a finger and the General tics his head back. "I'm quite serious. I could give you the litany of clichés of how I want to serve humanity. But"—she shrugs—"you know. A professional job? I would only dream of the lighthouse perch. My family has means, no secret there. And, obviously, we have connections."
She points to the attorney general of the United States. "So I believe a lighthouse in Maine can be mine. That sounds rapacious in its own way, I know. But I can justify it in my own mind. Because ultimately this is for the public good, preserving a lighthouse." Her brown eyes flash gigawatts. "Everybody loves a lighthouse."
"I can disagree with none of that," he says truthfully. Oh, to be young and wealthy. To be young and to want to live in the world.
The waiter returns to refresh his water glass. The General watches her press her lips to the tea cup. He notices that she hasn't needlessly bejeweled herself like so many men and women nowadays. And then, with her eyes on that pesky notebook, she does what he's always thought the most provocative of moves in the entire natural world. She sweeps her right hand through the hair on her left side, lifting and leaving mesmeric waves that will soon break under gravity's weight. He sees her doing this everywhere in life: in class, in bed, as a sweaty olive-skinned peasant beauty in a peasant dress, picking olives.
She looks up on cue and his insides percolate with shame. She says, "What did you mean by 'When I think of history, I think of eternity.'?"
He goes to Defcon 3 and makes for his ear, his stomach thumping along with the tantara of static in his ears. This was supposed to be a soft piece. He looks over at one of his agents who's at the edge of the bar area, leaning hip-cocked against a wall, showing his FBI badge to a young blond, though the General isn't processing it.
"You don't have to answer that. Uncle dared me to say it," she says, placing her hand on his side of the table.
Good one. Feeling the flop sweat in his suit, he wipes his hands on his thighs and hopes they weren't this sweaty when they shook hands. He's more upset with his lack of sang-froid than the actual question. He suddenly and palpably feels like an old man next to her. He knows he's looking more like it every day. He used to look young for his age. (One year, when he was in the Senate, People magazine listed him as one of the twenty-five sexiest politicians in America—he had that scrubbed clean Hour of Power sheen. This made him feel worse, for he was placed in the last spot, and this, to him, was worse than not being mentioned at all; he was like Nixon in that regard…
They were making fun of him.) But in the last three years his skin has lost elasticity and dramatic clumps of hair have been found lying on the carpet (on the first sighting, he thought it belonged to the cat). To compensate, he tries to comport his eyes in a courtly manner: "I am not a man who worries about the cosmetics of aging." Although, he's managed to keep the weight off; but not eating tends to have that effect.
("Uncle dared me…" That's another thing, thinks the General. Not "My uncle." Among the überwealthy, Uncle is a forename.)
"I'll answer. That quote is often taken out of its secular context. To be sure, I'm partly culpable since I so egregiously used the word 'eternity.' As though it only has a religious connotation. What I meant… We all know the failure rate of democracies, republics, so forth. It's the task of the present to make sure there's not a crack that will lead to a core breach, if you will. Our present will become their history, and they will judge. We don't want to be seen as the people who were lazy, ignorant… I've even read misquotations where a 'my' was included before 'history.'"
She scribbles away and he feels his dress shoes contacting terra firma again. But then he replays what he just said and questions it. Can she see through him?
"Do you look for the coherence of random events?" she asks, with a smile.
He translates this to mean: Do you even believe in random events, or is it all God's will? Boy, she gets right to it.
"That sounds like historicism, and that's too antiquated to be of much use."
"Should I put you down for a yes?"
"Well, that's the question, isn't it? Like everyone else, I struggle with it. But it's like trying to prove that there are ten dimensions of space and time. Look, I just want progress in the form stability. Degradation is easy. Stability, though often maligned among the young"—now he points to her—"is difficult and vital. And if there's some nostalgia thrown in for the next generation, something that will make them proud, great."
This is always a tense moment. The follow-up. The trick is to make the last sentence of the previous remark dense and somewhat off the mark. You hope the interviewer decides that it will be easier to move on to the next question. Of course, she can ask that you elaborate. But in the flow of extemporaneous talk, the interviewer doesn't want to get that "what, you're not able to follow me" look.
Thankfully, the salads arrive.
"Evidently there's a prescient theocrat working the kitchen," he says.
He pauses to read the extent of her amusement, and when he gets a sinewy smile in return, he perceives that his old, reliable Dr. Jeckle of quotations, organ-grinding his vocal cords, isn't cutting it anymore. Why now, after all these years? It's probably due to being out of elected office and in Justice—he actually nods to himself—in the grisly business of enforcement, overseeing tactics that would make you pull the covers over your head at night. Justice is Sodium Pentothal for the soul. You see the ugliness that is you. That's the problem with public service. You can't distance yourself from your work. You are your work.
As Vanessa watches him pick at his salad, she sighs under her breath, as if confirming a fear: this meeting could be a waste of time. The General is a mess, Uncle had warned. "Chucky Graham was always on the verge, always just keeping it together." And sure enough, here he is, roller- coasting in and out of oblivion and self-pity… That bowl could be filled with maggots right now and he'd still be wearing that same lost expression.
He swallows a dry bite and feels his stomach use the shard of red-leaf lettuce to shiv itself. He eyes the pine nuts in her salad and realizes her breasts are right there and that someone might misinterpret his stare as an eye-fondle. Studying his own nuts, he says:
"I'm sorry, ask any question you'd like. It wasn't right that I restricted you to what is essentially a high school fluff piece."
"No, no, I understand how it works. It's—"
"A game. I'm aware."
"Well, not entirely. Sure, I mean that's why so many people come to this town. For the ego, to play Risk on a grand scale, impose their will on policy and see it eddy throughout the world. What better way to validate yourself. Money here, there, but not over there. I mean come on, that's power. Then the PR game to hide the truth, of course. And if the truth is dredged up and there's a negative reaction and someone has to leave town, fine. That's how it works. And if on the other hand you can sell perception over truth, then either we the journalists didn't do a very good job or everyone has lost their minds…
But—I'm rambling here, I know—but I also believe that hearing the truth doesn't mean you know the truth. Like that old example of the guy who five hundred years ago heard from some other guy that the sun doesn't orbit the earth. He heard the truth, yes, but that didn't mean he understood it or even accepted it. I'm sure you could tell me things that sound frightening, and just the sound of it, just the very words, could trigger in me a visceral need to repeal, fight doggedly against what you're doing. But I know things are not that simple.
That maybe repealing what, at first glance, sounds wrong and offensive might make the situation worse. So it's not only in your best interest to not tell me everything, it could—and this will always make me sick—it could very well be in mine. My perception of the truth might be worse than the truth itself. So I don't envy you, counselor. Unless you're the most sociopathic man on the planet, not only do you have to lie, you have to know that you lied. Either way, you're kind of a monster."
He's a statuette, fork in hand. The way her words almost growl from the back of her throat, humming like cello strings, telling you secrets, meant only for you. Lips and tongue and the words flow, as though she's never doubted one spoken word in her life. This is no small thing. Her words are like cantatas, beguiling a whorl of order and indescribable need.
Finally, he spears a fork load of lettuce, as much as he can, and uses his lips instead of his usual teeth-scrape to remove it. The lobsters arrive and they both dig in like movie-depiction pashas. A scene that makes you hungry just by watching. They talk, barely swallowing food before they speak. Swiping mouths with cloth napkins, nodding, shrugging, talking sociology.
"Wal-Mart. We have to blame somebody for that one, don't we?"
"Yes we do," he says.
"I'm sorry, I'm all for personal responsibility, but this place is winking at you to go ahead and buy the second pack of bratwurst because it's at the low, low price."
"It's interesting. People hate Wal-Mart now. Obesity—"
"I hate to sound so undergraduate, but the low, low price is not always for the greater good. This is obvious. Not just obesity. Consumerism, the excess thereof. Rising health care costs from millions of people buying that second pack of cheddar brats."
"True. Yes." He swallows. "But I guess I think of it differently. I don't know of too many rogue states with Wal-Mart Supercenters."
"No, they'll just want to become anarchists instead."
"Yes, but that'll take some time."
He asks about her family; she gives him quick answers. (He doesn't have the courage to bring up her uncle's eye, that George F. Will eye-wilt puzzler.)
Eating bite for bite.
"Merryville, Hometown, USA, or whatever you call it. What's that like?"
"I don't call it anything. What do you think its like?" he says, chewing, not meeting her eyes on this one.
"A row of theatres filled with dying country music acts. A hillbilly Vegas, fleecing families by selling some strange idea of family and family entertainment. Didn't they change the name years ago? M-a-r-y to M-e-r-r—"
"Yes. Yes, they did and your assessment is close. I have to be off the record here"—lifting his eyes, stopping at her nape—"but I haven't made up my mind on it. I suppose there are worse things."
Without really thinking it, he's sensing that in this cordoned off little corner of the world, they can talk about anything; yet it's public enough to where the danger of being heard (being caught!) is, by his standards, erotic.
They gossip Washington gossip and he isn't surprised to learn that she knows more than he. They talk of how the passing of beloved pets marks the passing of time. How autumn is their favorite season, and how tranquil the road trips to watch the colors turn. She looks so young and he wouldn't mind it if she just walked over and sat on his lap, as his daughter did and for no other reason than to just be there.
She asks about a state court upholding a physician-assisted suicide law and the president's speaking out against the ruling, and he wishes she hadn't. He assumed that they had moved on from this stuff. He doesn't want the outside world to menace them; instead, let's talk about the rarity of two people, in a world of billions, sharing a table, forming a crosshair of intimate energy.
With the conviction of someone reading a lawnmower owner's manual, he recites that since it was a state law the court was upholding, the conservative stance here is stare decisis, to let it stand, and that for him to issue a directive ordering a stoppage of all physician-assisted suicides—thereby prosecuting all noncomplying doctors—would only increase suffering. (This position will be news to the president, but the General doesn't care, not now anyway.)
Okay, enough about other people, he's about to tell her, has it worded just right in his mind—but she quizzes him with some complex hypothetical about a terminally ill patient and the patient's family and something about patient consent. He can't really follow it so he goofily crosses his eyes, hopefully a prompt for her to end it.
"What?" she says, tightening her eyes, unable to hide her peevishness.
"Off the record. When you're the AG, they think you're super-lawyer-extraordinaire. In fact, I'm not very good with syllogisms or with the molecular details of the law. That's why you surround yourself with people who can swim in minutia all day long. I like the big picture."
Vanessa mock-laughs. He throws his hands up and says, "Sorry, too complicated for me," then tells her a secret: He was amazed that he didn't flunk out of law school. He could not stand the reading of case law. Made him physically nauseous, seriously; basic words like "paramount title, mutual bilateral, UCC codes, stare decisis" made him close his eyes and rub his temples—a subconscious effort to erase them from his being, he surmises. He says the words he remembers most vividly from law school were those that popped into his head when he snuggled up with a nice thick volume of case law, crackly words, like the needle skipping back to the same chorus on an LP, over and over, for three years—who cares, who cares, who cares.
She takes a small bite of lobster that's probably too chewy for the price and slow-nods a few times, as if saying, "I know exactly what your mean." The waiter returns for the umpteenth time. Vanessa orders a shot of espresso. She needs to end this interview before it metastasizes into a confessional soirée, intriguing though it is…the attorney general for chrissakes; Charles Graham, Generalissimo, no less, the guy everyone assumes is so repressed he will have a breakdown at the podium.
But mostly, it's just sad. She's sympathetic as the next person, but why should she have to deal with it? It's offensive, really. She's going to hurry this along before irritation that another sad- sack thought he could turn a meeting with a young woman into a nurturing catharsis session is unmasked.
The constant boil of noise in a popular restaurant at night. And it has just stopped, been taken off the burner, and the General hears it (or doesn't hear it). It restarts, reheats, but he's still turning his head into it, straining to detect it. He thinks he feels a bug crawling out of his ear canal. He throws a few fingers into his ear as if someone had just given him a wet willy. He's about to ask her if she heard it (or didn't hear it), but she's posing the next question:
"Who's your Founder, your favorite Founder?"
"That disappoints me. The first time you disappointed me."
"I thought this would be your type of question."
"The second time you disappointed me… All right. Let's see, who shall it be this time?" He leans back and crosses his legs. "You know, as I get older, the paradoxes, the psychology of these men fascinates me"—moving his hands, attempting to parody the snooty professor, thinking it a hoot—"so someone like John Adams garners more respect. He held conflicting ideas in his head and believed them all.
A man who didn't own slaves but passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. I like that. This is America. Liberty and power. But I have to go back to Jefferson. His arguments against tyrannical governments are legendary of course, but what also raised his ire was tyranny of thought. He was against all impediments to free thought. I think this partly stems from his melancholia… His descent within himself forced a distancing from the world he sought to understand. He wanted something from the world, and he wasn't sure what, I think. There was something about the world that broke his heart."
Vanessa shoots her espresso. She's of the generation of mood-altering, mood-correcting, medication. Kids were raised on it. School nurses handed it out. No need to couch this guy, the attorney general of the United States, to work out his psychiatric profile. One mental health segment on "Good Morning America" would have you saying Manic depression. Get help now. Who knows, perhaps he should. But, he said it himself. The world breaks hearts. And for no reason, no reason at all. What pill, what talk therapy, will ever lessen the pain of that?
Time for the bum's rush. Most reporters would sit with him all night, Jacuzzi themselves in schadenfreude, feel its blood warmth, because there is news being made at this table, baby. But look at him. He's almost autistic. She'll be doing him a favor by adjourning. Think he's feeling bad now? Just wait until he makes the mistake of alluding to a long night with just the two of them.
A waitress, palming a snifter of cognac, passes dangerously close. The General, a dog who's wrapped his chain around a tree, follows her in spirit. Untwisting his neck, he sees Ms. Allen placing a Mediterranean hand (her mother is Italian) on her stomach. Must be full. She licks her lips and it's like a squib kick to his solar plexus. Christ, Christ.
She's looking away from the table, as if searching for someone. He wants to see her belly dance in a smoke-filled café in some godforsaken place in the developing world, where they are the only two English speakers, yet even then, they speak sparingly. This is demeaning. He knows. He's ushering it out lest his facial expression give it away. He would settle to sit next to her during a symphonic movement of mournful, high-whining violin notes, with an accompaniment of teeth-vibrating slow bow strokes, where the only thing you feel is that raw, weeping burn inside your chest, a moment you know you will never forget, will never want repeated, because it's just too much…
But mercy, the belly dancing thing is irresistible. Sexist? Okay, he shrugs, not noticing that she's watching him. Body movement can be poetry for the eyes, this is obvious. And perhaps Lady Allen wants to do it, knows how to do it, make art with her body like that. She could lure the city out into the Potomac. She would have the power to do it. They could inhabit the city for themselves. And he would do anything for her.
They could adorn silk bed sheets, festoon themselves in garlands of roses, take up residence in one of the neoclassical memorials, ogle each other, where hopefully she wouldn't employ the look his wife now uses, a repulsed leer that makes him feel ashamed for ever having been naked—like that libido-smash stare she laid on him the other day when she had the misfortune of seeing him step from the shower. Live like Romans. They could winnow down their vocabulary to one archaic-sounding word ("Carpathian," perhaps), live off one word ("ambrosia," if you please), convey meaning with just inflection and nuance—eyes, lips, tongue.
She's raising her hand… Oh no, he can see what's happening. Finito Maestro. She makes the gesture. Looking back to see if the waiter retrieved her code, the General meets the eyes of an agent who's sitting on a stool next to the kitchen, his eyebrows raised, as though interested in this melodrama. The General bounces his head among them like a man trying to follow a three- card-monte swindle. Words like "let's lose these agent lackeys and go sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and maybe, ha ha, gambol about the putrid Reflecting Pool" are piling up in the back of his throat.
When the waiter brings the check, she's already thanking the General for his time, and he's not hearing a word of it. He watches as she pays for dinner.
No discernable stimuli coming from the General, she slides out of her chair thinking she can just glide out of the restaurant without him trying to corral her back into his desolation dance. But he does try to get up, follow her. He tries, and he fails. Vanessa Allen reaches out for Charles Graham as she would her grandfather. She grabs him by the crook of the arm and says, "Let's go. We're going to get you home."
The words re-buckle his knees and send him back down, lucid again, back down into the time travel that is his life.
"Just a woozy spell. Thank you, Ms. Allen. You're a bright young lady. Good luck in life."
She hovers for a moment, sees the agents creeping in, and turns, resuming her life.
From the bar, the sound system cranks up halfway through a lively saxophone riff. Then Van Morrison's soul-chasing wail. The General flexes his mouth, not because he doesn't like it—he loves it. As a young man, anytime he heard Mr. Morrison he made sure he stopped, listened and, if available, turned up the dial, because he believed this was a man living the music, and this was no small thing.
You know passion when you feel it… But more achingly, it's a remembrance of the day he drove his little girl, his only child, home from school. Potentially one of life's throwaway moments, except for the magnitude of his bad mood. He was sheering the radio dial as if had a personal grievance against it. Then the yaw of Morrison came and he felt plugged in, jazzed up.
He couldn't help it, he began to sing.
His daughter couldn't believe it. She didn't know the words so she Euuuu You-You We'd along. They extended their drive just to finish the song. That night during dinner, his daughter looked at him differently, and he would always regret not acknowledging it.
A wink, a smile. Something.
Back at Justice he phones his wife to leave a message that he'll be working late. Since the death, his wife won't answer the phone. Since the death, all their conversations are filtered, told third person. They don't really look at each other when they talk.
He takes off his tortuous shoes and lines them up next to his desk. Not catawampus. Not one in front of the other. Even!
He checks his messages. Never stops. The White House again. "Make sure calendar is free a few months from now for when you travel with the president to the South." Fabulous. Riding on Air Force One, watching the president blink. Fantastic. That's fantastic.
He opens the top desk drawer, takes out a remote, aims it across the office, hits "power" and thumbs that damn "forward" button as hard as he can. Dvorák's "From the New World" is what he wants from this compilation CD.
His scalp tingles from the weight of a missed opportunity and the knowing that there will be no next time, from the guilt that his daughter will never come back and that here he is, sitting here, worrying about himself and that he should be more dignified and mature. More self-actualized.
Not until after about twenty presses of the button does he accept that it's not working. He pinches his thigh until the pain forces his fingers to release. He beats the remote against his left bicep for about ten seconds, freeing up enough battery juice to operate the—he looks both ways in his mind—fucking contraption.
Why can't he go guard a lighthouse, keep people from breaking its windows or whatever? He has a few dollars. Anyone lighthouse he wants. He has connections. He is the connection! Don't want to give up your lighthouse? How would you like for me to finagle FBI harassment for the rest of your life?
This music, this movement specifically and predictably, changes his brain chemistry. No aspersions. When the English horn solo sounds, a tear will fall. A brief sob—over in a few seconds—seems to help.
He thinks about America, his country, a quarter of a billion people, everyone of them.
This was what kept him sane as a child, he believes, kept his mind from working his built-in worry beads. To know who he was, what he was supposed to be doing, he needed to see what other people were doing. It's an involuntary habit now, the brain just does it. But the images have changed on him. They're less grand, more quotidian, more devastating.
In America, a woman flips the stems of her reading glasses and clicks herself into darkness, even though she knows she will not find sleep anytime soon. A man sits in a well-padded recliner and glimpses his reflection in the screen of his ten-thousand-dollar television set as it flashes dark between commercials.
Right now, a mother is expected to sit at home with the kids while the father is out, nowhere to be found.
People talking, saying nothing.
A couple is playing with a toddler, a daughter who will hold their hands when they die. Tonight, a woman will cradle a newborn, a son who will one day intentionally fire a bullet through his once-soft baby pallet, killing his mom, years before her actual death. Someone is out there dying alone this night, not a soul around. Then again, he remembers, we all have to die alone. Everyone must leave you in the end.
He digs a thumbnail into the lip of the desk blotter. He closes his eyes and then opens them frightfully wide. He places his other hand on the desk and pushes himself up. To the closet, where the cleaning kit awaits.
Photos courtesy of
Chair ETL - Netherlands
Capiol Building - Robert Linder, Springfield, MO
TV - Sacha Leclair
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