|Portrait of the author |
by Susan C. Price
By W.M. Dean
[The novel is set in the 1970s of Watergate. Chapter 4. “The Game Plan,” appeared last month.]
Clara got the impression on the telephone that Nadli’s voice was barely under control. Nadli seemed apprehensive about inviting her up to coffee.
And Clara was apprehensive about going up. She thought they were opposites: Clara, intellectual and businesslike; Nadli, playful and sexy, even exhibitionistic. Clara was comfortable with men because she knew she could compete with them on their own terms; Nadli was comfortable with them because she knew she could attract them. With women like Nadli, Clara felt inadequate and unattractive. Nadli wasn’t – or perhaps just didn’t care to be – as smart as most of the men around her, but Clara felt that Nadli could be harder to outsmart than any man.
Clara walked up slowly to avoid seeming winded or nervous and was admitted to Nadli’s sitting room at the west end of the second-floor hall by a girl dressed like a waitress at a topless luncheon, except that she wasn’t topless.
The sitting room was done in pink, and the girl’s costume was pink. If Clara had ever tried to imagine a bordello, she might have imagined something like this.
The walls were glossy pink, with streaks of silver. At least Nadli hadn’t sent the White House’s fine traditional chairs and sofas to the warehouse, but she had had them covered with pink crushed velvet, pink silk, and pink satin.
Nadli came out of her bedroom, on the left. She wore a simple off-white linen pant suit, which didn’t expose her freckled breasts, but did outline her narrow waist and her hips. Though only seven years younger than Clara, she looked fifteen years younger.
Without smiling,Nadli gestured toward all the furniture at once. “Sit down.”
Clara didn’t know where to sit. Every shade of pink shouted unwelcome to her lavender dress. She chose the straightest-backed chair.
Nadli lay her knee on the sofa and lowered her other thigh across her ankle.
Clara said, “It’s amazing the way you got all of the pink to flow together. It’ s a unique contribution to the White House decor.”
“But it’s not quite to your taste, is it?” Nadli smiled now, an amused, indulgent smile.
Clara laughed self-consciously. “I’d have to get a new wardrobe.”
“Were you serious about switching?”
The suddenness of the question startled Clara. “Switching?”
“Otis just told me. He thought you wanted him to go downstairs and the Vice-President to come up here. But I convinced him that you and I should switch, inasmuch as he’s the President.”
Clara gasped. “He took it wrong. Anyway, I was only kidding. Fred – the Vice-President and I…having to live in the basement. We wanted a place of our own, like other Vice-Presidents…Did you really think I meant that kind of switch?”
“Otis did, but I went along to tease him. Like I’m teasing you now...Yes, he seemed to take you seriously…In his sleep he often says ‘Clara’ – only he really says ‘Clarabelle’.” Nadli paused. “Do you know anybody named Peter?”
“He sometimes says ‘peter’ also – rather suggestive, don’t you think?”
The serving girl brought coffee from the kitchen, which was on the side opposite the bedroom.
Nadli blew on her coffee. “Does Fred ever say my name in his sleep?”
Clara wasn’t going to share her husband’s dreams. She might as well tell Nadli that the main reason Fred went to his office – the only reason, since t here wasn’t any other reason to go there – was for the chance he might see Nadli going in or coming out of hers. It was hardly different from the way he used to always wait to do yard work in Seattle until the neighbor came out to sunbathe or water her flowers.
Nadly added: “He tells me he sometimes dreams about me—”
“Impossible. Fred is incapable of dreaming. He thinks entirely in words – no pictures.” Clara was crushed that her husband had confessed his dreams to this woman, when he hadn’t admitted them to his own wife. But why was she defending him like this?
Or was she attacking him?
“Then how could he make up such vivid images of what he dreamed?”
Clara set her cup down and raised her hands a little higher than her head. “Okay, Mrs. P, I give up. But, quite frankly, it’s no wonder he dreams about you, the way you come on to men. You’ve probably got half the men in Washington, and lots outside Washington, dreaming about you.”
Nadli lifted her buttocks off her foot and leaned forward. “You really think so? Do I come across on television too?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Nadli leaned back and daydreamed a few moments. Then she looked suspiciously at Clara. “How come Otis doesn’t dream about me then? Why does he dream about you instead?”
Now the incongruity of it struck Clara. Why indeed? She had given up any allusions she might have started out with in early adolescence – men weren’t attracted to her, like that.
“Wait a minute.” Clara hoped she might have uncovered something useful. “You said he mumbles the name ‘Peter.’ Who do you think that is?”
“Oh, come on!”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. P—”
“Please don’t call me that. I know Otis likes to be called Mr. P, but….”
“Okay. What I was going to say was it’s better to get at what’s really bothering the President than to reject certain...ideas because they’re distasteful. You could have him treated—”
Nadli was genuinely shocked. “That’s preposterous. He’s perfectly normal.”
“Oh? I must say I’ve got the impression from what you’ve told me that he hasn’t…that he doesn’t— I mean, well, when was the last time…?”
Nadli removed her leg from under her and slumped back on the sofa. “Well, that doesn’t mean he’s turned….”
Nadli sobbed. “It’s been over a month.”
“Ah, ha! Would you call that normal? A man married to a woman who…arouses half the men in Washington, and he hasn’t…done anything for over a month?”
Nadli stared at her hands, clasped in her lap. “He just lies there twitching. He mutters and wakes up a lot to scribble meaningless notes on his legal pad. It’s awful.”
“It must be quite a strain on you. How often…before the last month?”
“It got less and less since we moved in here, and it was getting less already before that...during the campaign.”
“Believe me, Nadli, I hate to say this, but there was a campaign director named Pete in California.”
“No. No. He couldn’t change like that…He’s always been such a…pistol. It’s unnatural. He didn’t mean a man when he said ‘peter’.” Nadli sat up enthusiastically and raised a pointed finger.
“Whenever he said ‘peter’ he also said ‘pickle’ and ‘pecker,’ which are synonyms. You’re just trying to get me off the track. It was your name he said.”
“How can you be sure? People don’t talk with clarity when they’re sleeping.” Clara wished there were more doubt that Fred said “Nadli” in his sleep.
“Well, some of it was pretty mumbled, I’ll admit. He had trouble with all the p’s. But he said your name, I’m sure – that was as clear as a bell.”
Clara felt a peculiar glow, a kind of flattered-i-ness, that Nadli was about to suggest the President had been slipping downstairs to…slip it to the wife of the Vice-President. The idea of it was unbelievable, yet Clara was pleased to fantasize that she might appeal to the President like that. She was pleased with the idea that the President had been dreaming about…doing it with her. She was pleased that Nadli believed it.
Nadli put her cup down and sat up straight. “I had the wrong idea about all of this. But I understand now. The President seems to think you’re trying to screw him.”
Clara’s mouth dropped open.
Nadli laughed. “I’ve been under such a strain, as you said, that I got the idea he might be interested in you – but of course that’s ridiculous.”
Clara’s cheeks reddened. She said sarcastically, “You must have got carried away. No man married to a woman of your caliber would have to look at another woman.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere. I want to know why you’re trying to screw the President, Clara. How are you trying to get him?”
Clara was silent. She hadn’t decided yet where Nadli was headed with all of this. But she was convinced that the woman had to get some sex soon or go bananas for sure.
“Remember, Clara, you’re messing around with the President of the United States. You can’t do that lightly. It could have consequences, for the People as well as for yourself.”
“Let’s just stick to the important things. The President’s got the most important job in the world – and the hardest.”
“Yes, I’ve heard him describe it that way too.”
“He’s got tough decisions to make. For instance, right now he’s struggling with the decision how to let his secretary go, but she’s been with him so long, he doesn’t know how to tell her.”
“Miss Good’s very devoted. Why does he want to let her go?” Clara uncrossed her legs and leaned forward with particular interest.
“She’s getting old. Her arthritis makes it hard for her to operate the foot pedal on the dictating machine.”
Clara leaned forward even farther, but tried to hide her interest. She put a hand on the coffee table for support. “Has he someone in mind to replace her?”
“Ha! I don’t think he’ll let her go. He cares too much about his people –•he’d worry about her.” Nadli tossed her hands. “That’s just it. He has enough worries without having to worry about the neighbors too. And he has...responsibilities as a husband. His job’s a real wet blanket already, as far as that goes, without—”
Nadli stifled a sob. “So I want to know what you’re up to. Why have you been questioning Carla Burnstone?”
“Questioning? She’s doing—”
Clara reined herself in. The surprise of being confronted about Carla Burnstone had taken her off-guard. “How do you know I’ve been talking to her?”
“That’s only what Otis told me. He has to keep on top of what’s going on. That’s what President Dixon told him one time – and I was there. He said: ‘You’ve got to keep on top of things.’ I remember he turned to me then and repeated: ‘You’ve got to keep on top’.”
Clara was going to have to be more careful. Meeting in garages late at night wasn’t enough precaution.
She counterattacked. “You ought to tell the President his spies aren’t doing a very good job if they reported I was questioning Miss Burnstone. She was questioning me – for an article she’s doing on life downstairs at the White House. Anyway, why is the President interested in whether I talk to a society reporter?”
“Oh, Clara, I can see you don’t know anything about this.” Nadli refilled Clara’s cup. “Otis found out that she’s really an investigative reporter, disguised as a society reporter. She investigates things. She came snooping around here on the pretense of doing an article on life upstairs at the White House.”
Clara feigned surprise at this revelation. It was too bad Carla Burnstone’s cover was blown. “What was she…investigating?”
“She was interested in my career before I married Otis.” Nadli curled a leg under her again. “It’ll probably come out now, so I’ll tell you. I really don’t care, but Otis is sensitive about it – I don’t understand politics the way he does. Actually, I’ll like having people…know about me.”
Clara was anxious to learn whether she would pick up anything besides what Carla Burnstone had already told her.
“I performed in the buff.”
“What?” Carla Burnstone hadn’t used that term.
“I stripped. Oh, not in a dirty way. I was an entertainer. It was very uplifting.” Nadli laughed her silvery laugh.
“Do you miss it? Have you ever wanted to…do it again?”
“Well, as a matter of fact—” Nadli looked sharply at Clara.
Clara saw that Nadli was proud of her career and wanted to tell Clara about it. “It embarrasses you, doesn’t it?”
Nadli gave the expected response. “What? Embarrassed? Come on!”
“Well, I mean, you obviously don’t want to talk about it.”
“You promise not to tell anybody?”
Clara answered as solemnly as she could. “I promise.”
Nadli double-checked that the serving girl was out of hearing range. “I’ve performed since then, since Otis went into politics. He used to go out lots, in the evenings, writing laws and passing them and such. I didn’t have much to do. I got a job – secretly – for two nights a week. I told Otis I was playing bridge. I wore a mask to prevent anybody from recognizing me.”
“Nobody ever recognized you?”
Nadli blushed slightly. “Otis and a group of legislators came in one night. One of the Senators recognized my— I haven’t performed since.”
“That’s a shame. Why not? Wear a better disguise this time.”
Clara got an idea. There was lots of potential for useful material here, if she managed it right. “Look, Nadli, why don’t you quit fooling around? You call me up here because of some fuzzy notion about me and Otis – which I hope you’ve discarded. Then you accuse me of giving him a bad time and adding to his troubles so he doesn’t want to…with you anymore. You’re in a bad way – horny, we called it in college. But you won’t do anything about it. No, sit down and listen to me. You look outside yourself for reasons why you aren’t getting any…You’re afraid to follow your own career.”
“What should I do?”
“Let me ask you something. Have you, uh, tried anything unusual…anything particularly exciting? Think about it. You could do a lot for the nation and the whole world by taking his mind off his work every once in a while – maybe even call him away from the Oval Office sometime, when he’s in the middle of signing vetoes or something.”
Nadli narrowed her eyes and peered at Clara. “You seem to have some fancy ideas. You never did say what you knew about peckers and pickles.”
“Follow your career right here. Turn the President on. Make movies. Seeing yourself do it is supposed to—”
“Movies? You mean of my act? But he can see—”
“No, no, no. Not of your act – of the act…you know. Look, you want to help him relax, don’t you? Make him more effective as a President? Well, you owe it to the nation.”
Nadli was having trouble with the idea. “But…movies? Why, that’d be like…tapes. Otis is dead-set against tapes. He knows what President Dixon’s advice would have been on that score. ‘No home movies!’”
“You could try it once…with a hidden camera. You have a canopied bed, right?” Clara improvised. The potential for leverage against the President was Archimedean. “Then sometimes arrange to see a movie in the White House theater with just you and him, and…roll your little skin fli— Uh, your film. Observe the effect on him. See if he objects.”
“Gee, I don’t think so….”
Clara wasn’t encouraged. How would she get a hold of the film, anyway? Oh, well, she hoped that, one way or the other Nadli would get some sex – maybe she’d be less interested in Fred.
On the other hand, if she didn’t get any sex, maybe the President would get even more nervous and irritable than he was already. Maybe Clara could do something with that.
“Thank you for trying to help me, Clara. I’m sorry for the way I treated you.” Nadli extended a hand to shake Clara’s.
She drew Clara to her and embraced her. “I made that up about Fred. He doesn’t really dream about me.”
“It’s good to hear you say that, Nadli. You don’t know how relieved that makes me feel.”
“I’ve noticed he has rapid eye movements, though.” Nadli smiled sexily. “Quick side glances when I walk by – you know?”
|Copyright © 2015 by W.M. Dean|