|Portrait of the author |
by Susan C. Price
By W.M. Dean
[The novel is set in the 1970s of Watergate. Part I is titled, "The Unmaking of the Chief Aide," which begins with the quotation, “Fake it till you make it.”]
The book on Fred Noemann’s chest drooped, lurched, and finally fell with a thud, startling him. He rolled his head over and looked at the clock on the night stand. Eleven forty-seven p.m. He yawned.
Clara still not back? Why couldn’t the reporter come to their place?
It was too quiet to read. Fred needed distractions to keep him awake. He wanted to finish reading the President’s autobiography. Addleman’s memo said everyone on the staff as well as in the Cabinet was expected to read it. Even the Vice-President.
He couldn’t fake it – you could never tell when the President would quiz you on it. At least, that’s what John Zilch, one of the President’s bright young men, said. Fred wouldn’t know, he never saw the President.
He wished the President would quiz him on it. If he could see the President once in a while, he’d take a written examination on it.
Anyway, he didn’t want to take it. Maybe he could learn something to improve himself. Taking the Heat explained the President’s mental and moral principles.
In a basic sense, the President was a man of principle: he believed his principles, more than anything else, had put him where he was today. His autobiography, besides sketching his life – his childhood, his marriage, his entry into politics – explained those principles, which he hadn’t “got from books, but from taking the heat of experience.”
Fred, however, couldn’t claim that his personal qualities had put him where he was. His wife had done it.
He sighed and burrowed his head in the pillow. Bed felt good. Especially when you were tired, but not too tired to enjoy it.
The telephone rang.
Fred pulled himself up from the sprawling position into which he’d slid page by page. He laid the President’s book on the night stand.
“Gee, Dad, isn’t Mom there? I wanted to ask her something.”
“How much do you want her to send, Jeff?”
“Ah, come on, Dad.”
“Just kidding. How are you?”
“Fine, except exams begin next week...Has Mom found out about a summer job?”
“Not yet. She’ll let you know.”
“She already found one for Janet…Will there be room for us to move in?”
The question irritated Fred. “You know our situation here, Jeff.”
“Yeah, but…what about upstairs?”
“I’m going to look into it.”
“It’s only three more weeks…Where’s Mom? Isn’t it nearly midnight there?”
“Yes. She’s being interviewed for a society column in The Washington Post.”
“Why so late?...Dad?”
“Ask Mom to send a hundred, okay?”
“Good night, Dad.”
Fred got up. His flannel pajamas were loose and floppy. He stretched, twisting his torso to produce the reassuring snap in one of his middle vertebrae.
He stumbled down the hall to the bathroom. Having only one bathroom, located far from the bedroom at the opposite end of their apartment, had annoyed Fred ever since they’d moved in two months after the inauguration. Two months was how long it took the builders to convert the offices and storage rooms after the President signed the work order. He said he was economizing – two families could live in the White House as cheaply as one.
Only, “family” didn’t include Jeff and Janet. The President didn’t have any children – maybe that jaundiced his understanding of the word.
At least there was no commute here. But Fred wished they had a second bathroom anyway. They had four back home in Seattle. And a few more bedrooms too, you could be sure. Fred didn’t know how many – the house belonged to Clara.
“Ow!” He had banged his toe on a taloned foot of the bathtub, which Clara said must have descended from Chester Arthur.
Fred sat down on the toilet seat and massaged his big toe.
He twisted around and picked up the book he read when he went to the bathroom. Former Vice-President Torpedo had finally published a book. It was titled The Vice-President Who Came In from the Cold.
In the previous chapter the Vice-President had discovered a plot to send him on an extended lecture tour to the Eskimos. In this chapter, the Vice-President, unable to avoid going to the Arctic, smuggled a hot-water bottle into his trouser leg.
Fred turned on the fan. The bathroom was the room where having no windows was most noticeable and objectionable.
If he had a window, he could look out now and see the Washington Monument. The obelisk was the First Lady’s favorite. “It’s so stout,” she would say, with feeling.
It occurred to Fred he could take the President’s book along to his office to read. His office was in the East Wing, next to Nadli’s. She would see him reading it, and he could praise the book – maybe hint that he’d like to ask the President to elaborate on a point or autograph it for him. She might pass the word along to him.
The President’s last words to Fred came back to him: “We must never be together where an assassin could strike.” The President had said that at the inaugural ball.
Fred wished the President was just jealous of his charisma and didn’t want any competition.
He washed his hands and went into the kitchenette. The ice tray in the mini-refrigerator was almost empty. It wasn’t unusual for them to step over to the White House kitchen, which was also in the basement. Raiding the refrigerator was one prerogative of being Vice-President about which there was general agreement on the White House staff.
Another prerogative was swimming in the White House pool, which was directly above their apartment. The President had filled in the almost new outdoor pool (“The White House is no resort”) and restored the one in the West Terrace, which President Dixon had filled in for the press.
He went back to the bedroom and lay down. He twisted his hips and kicked his right leg vigorously across the left, parallel to the bed. Snap, crackle in the lower back.
He wished Clara would return. He would leave the light on for her.
Through his eyelids glowed an orange halo.
He tried to recite the President’s principle of truth. He’d just been reading about it…“Always speak….” It was a tricky concept…The President was a…deep…thinker….
Fred was asleep.
Soon he was standing in the back of a long white convertible, creeping through a tumultuous crowd of citizens.
“There’s the Vice-President!”
“Oooh! He’s so handsome!”
“That’s what I want my son to be – the Vice-President of the United States.”
The cavalcade stopped. The people were scores deep along each side of the avenue. They roared and surged through the barriers. Dupuy of the Secret Service shouted to the Vice-President: “Here they come – hang on! You’re a superstar.”
They pulled at his rings and watch, his cuff links and buttons, yanked his sleeves. They peeled off his jacket and extracted his belt and shoe laces. They were undressing him.
They caressed his arms and his head. They stroked his hair and kissed his hands.
The kaleidoscopic images changed abruptly. He was reclining on silk pillows, among rich canopies. Before him knelt a perfumed princess with a huge ruby in her navel. Her bosom was deep within her gown and delicately sprinkled with copper freckles.
Fred’s lips were cracked and his throat was parched. He pulled the princess to him and kissed her lips. A dry wind scorched his body.
The princess pushed him away. He had no strength in his arms to hold her. She laughed at him.
“No, Nadli…Nadli,” Fred moaned aloud. He clasped his pillow.
“Wake up, Fred.” Mrs. Noemann slapped him vigorously.
“Nadli, indeed.” She slapped him some more.
Fred sat up. His pajamas were soaked. His head throbbed and the hot wind still rustled the canopies.
“I must have fallen asleep waiting for you.” He looked at the clock.
“Yes, you seemed to be dreaming.”
Fred’s face reddened. He swallowed and tried to will the harem scene from his mind.
Clara was unbuttoning her dress.
“What were you doing so long with the reporter?”
“She had some very interesting information about…our neighbors upstairs.”
“Oh, she’s writing an article about them too?”
Clara laughed. Her dress fell to the floor.
“I’m sorry I was so long, dear.” She kissed him on the cheek. A strand of her ash-blonde hair fell onto her forehead.
She pulled her nightgown over her head and sat down on the foot of the bed. She draped an arm over the brass rail.
“What kind of image would you say you have, Fred.”
He was surprised by the question. “Image? That’s nothing to talk about at one in the morning.”
“I’m afraid you’re right, but answer my question.”
“What are you talking about? My image…well, I don’t have a bad image. One thing about President Flawless – he doesn’t use me for dirty work the way President Dixon used Vice-President Torpedo.”
“Ha! You say that with a straight face.”
Fred’s face was rather straight. His huge nostrils, his long upper lip, and his wide front teeth were positively equine. But it was an honest face, and it may have had as much to do with his being elected as Clara had had to do with his getting the nomination.
Clara slid up to her side of the bed and stretched out with her hands behind her neck. “The President hasn’t used you for anything. He used you to win the election, and that was that.”
Fred brightened. “You really think I helped him with the election?”
“Of course. But that was months ago. People have forgotten.” Clara looked at Fred sadly. “You don’t have an image anymore, Fred.”
“I’m going to take one of these blankets off.” Fred got up. He wasn’t hearing his wife.
She raised up on one elbow. “Tell me, what was your rating on the last poll you read?”
Fred carefully folded up the blanket.
“Do you read the polls, Fred?”
“No, I don’t read them.” He dropped the blanket in a heap at the foot of the bed.
“Do you read the polls, Fred?
“Yes, I read them,” he snapped. “Of course, I read them. There’s not one politician in this city who doesn’t, I don’t care what they all say.”
“What’s your rating, then?”
Fred turned around and looked in the mirror over the triple dresser. It barely fit along the wall between the hall door and the closet.
He turned his head down from his eyes and examined his toes. The second toe on his left foot was longer than his big toe. The big toe was still sore from its encounter with the bathtub.
“I don’t have a rating.”
“What is your job, Fred?”
“Do you have to bring this up again? You know what my job is.”
“Yes, but you don’t. You think you can live out of sight down here and walk over to your office occasionally – where you probably spend most of your time entertaining Nadli Flawless (or do you drop by her office mostly?). You think that’s all there is to being the Vice-President of the United States. But that’s being nobody. That’s what Flawless and Addleman want you to be. Why aren’t you somebody? Why don’t you have a rating?”
The second toe on Fred’s right foot was shorter than the big toe. Now, why was that? “None of the polls ask any questions about me.” He got back in bed.
“Right – and why not?”
Fred stared at the ceiling. “Nobody’s interested.”
“It’s good the way you’re facing up to this, Fred…Okay, now what happens if Flawless gets shot or something?”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re talking about assassination.”
“All right, let’s not talk about assassination. Let’s talk about…resignation. What if he resigned?”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“We’re just assuming it…for the sake of argument. If Flawless resigned, you wouldn’t be in a position to take over effectively. People wouldn’t be able to think of your name. The people have to know who you are to have confidence in you – you have to have a rating.”
Fred knew she was right. He had thoughts like these, but they embarrassed him, and he was ashamed to admit he had them, like he was ashamed to admit he liked Lawrence Welk.
“What is the Vice-President’s job supposed to be, Fred? Forget the routine stuff, like dropping in at the Senate once in a while and hunting Easter eggs with the local ministers.”
“The Vice-President’s job is to stand by in case the President is unable to hold office.”
“To stand there with your hands in your pockets?”
“Well, no— To be ready.” He tightened his jaw.
“Dear…you’re not doing your job, are you?”
Fred turned to Clara with huge, sincere eyes. “God forbid that I should ever have to take over! I didn’t run for President. I ran for Vice-President!”
“Okay, okay. I know you don’t like to think about the possibility of becoming President. But look at it this way: You have an obligation to the people to be prepared for the worst – you’ve got to become a part of things, learn what’s going on, what you might have to do…Flawless and Addleman don’t want you to have anything to do with the administration. And so long as nobody notices you, there’ll be no pressure on them to give you anything to do. You’ve got to get people to notice you.”
Thinking about the responsibility of the Presidency was like watching a horrible automobile accident – Fred felt as though his blood had turned to water, or his testicles were about to be shot off. But as he had tried to convince himself on other occasions, he was just as unlikely to have to become President if he was ready as if he was unready. If he could just believe that, he could avoid lots of grief.
“So, what do I do? You were the one who convinced me to say yes when Otis sent Addleman to ask me to run with him. What should I do now?”
Clara smiled. “You mean you’re ready to do whatever it takes to get noticed – to get into the polls and have a rating?”
Fred felt determined.
Clara rested her chin on Fred’s shoulder. “I’ve learned about a man in New York City who makes things happen. He’s sort of a promoter.”
|Copyright © 2015 by W.M. Dean|