|Portrait of the author |
by Susan C. Price
By W.M. Dean
[The novel is set in the 1970s of Watergate. Chapter 5. “Home Movies (Blue),” appeared last month.]
At one o’clock on a muggy day in the end of June, a Cuban, Bicho Cicada, was manning the Ford panel truck across the street from Austin Froth’s brownstone. “MAINTENANCE” was painted in blue on the side of the truck.
It was parked in front of a fire hydrant, and Bicho had been lucky to get it. He cut in behind a stout woman trying to park her Electra there.
Inside the panel truck Bicho sat on a folding chair at a card table. He put the take-up reel on and threaded the tape. He adjusted the ear phones. Already his sensitive ears didn’t like wearing them.
He pressed the recording lever and adjusted the receiver to the frequency of the transmitter taped to the dictionary stand near the desk in Austin Froth’s library.
Bicho heard nothing. He turned the volume up. Still nothing. “Mamón!” He wiped the sweat off his greasy forehead and turned the dial to the kitchen frequency.
The over-amplified voice Bicho heard wasn’t loud enough to damage his ear drums, but it jarred them, and he jumped and upset his thermos, which luckily was unopened. He turned the volume down.
Voice quality was poor, but the speaker was identifiable: “…very good, Austin. Where can I get one of these contraptions to take back to Washington with me?”
“You’ll not want to go shopping today. You can have this one.”
“Oh, no, you couldn’t. I couldn’t take it.”
“I’ll ignore your polite banter. I can pick up another when I’m in Rome again.”
Bicho’s eyebrows rose like antennae.
His boss had told him they were putting the bug on this character because they suspected him of contributing to the delinquency of a public official. It sounded like smuggling.
The suspect was speaking: “…been any developments?”
These seemed more than conversational inquiries to Bicho. He wondered whether the Vice-President were already incriminated.
“My stock has plummeted. Jeff and Janet have come home from college to summer jobs, and they’re of more use than I am.”
Was this Froth sucking in the whole family?
“At least there was some publicity – the kids got their pictures in the paper.”
There was a pause and an almost inaudible: “My name was mentioned.”
“Have you talked to the President?”
“Ha! I asked him – this was by phone, I couldn’t get an appointment and the switchboard didn’t even want to put me through – whether the kids could use a couple of guest rooms on the third floor. You know what he said? ‘I won’t have any Noemanns higher than me.’ Of course he keeps the Queen’s bedroom and Lincoln’s bedroom and the other unused bedrooms on the second floor open for his guests. But I wasn’t about to ask if Jeff and Janet could stay on the same floor as him. They’re sharing apartments with friends.”
There was a long pause. “I’m glad they can’t stay in the White House. Seeing them is a constant reminder.”
Bicho readjusted the ear phones. Did the Vice-President regret their incrimination in the deal? Or were these innocuous-sounding statements a code the maintenance men would have to crack?
The other man spoke; “You seem to expect no improvement. Have you discounted any suggestion I might make today?”
Bicho heard no answer from the Vice-President.
“Let’s go up to the library. Bring your espresso.”
Bicho took out his handkerchief and mopped his brow. It must have been ninety inside the truck.
He opened the thermos, which he had stopped at a diner to have filled with coffee. Bicho believed that drinking hot liquids helped him withstand hot weather by activating his body’s cooling system. It was the same as holding a match to the thermostat of an air conditioner, or using anti-freeze in the summer as a coolant.
“Maldito sea!” The girl had put cream in the coffee. It was cooked and livid, and a scum floated on the surface.
Bicho tuned in the library again.
There was a minute of silence before voices approached the unabridged dictionary.
“…years ago I was taking the steps that led unwittingly to the White House – to the basement of the White House – but I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that by running for mayor I would end up as – well, as one of the unhappiest men in America.”
There was a pause.
“Well, look at me. How can it be otherwise? A Vice-President is on death row, the threat of becoming President always hanging over his head. And what has it got me? I’m in solitary confinement, practically locked up from the rest of the world. Clara says that a Vice-President deserves more respect. She says the American people deserve more too. They want to be able to love their Vice-President.”
“Bullshit.” The other voice was impatient.
“That’s what I say,” Bicho added aloud in private agreement.
“What?” The Vice-President’s voice seemed strained. He didn’t seem to believe Froth had said what he said.
“I said bullshit, Mr. Vice-President. You go on lamenting the road not taken and saying that you’ve not done the things you wanted to do with your life. Then you come on with this red, white, and blue spiel about the American people. What do you really think about the American people?”
There was a longer pause than usual. This guy sounded like an enemy agent trying to woo the Vice-President into disloyalty. Playing on his discontent.
“Well, I really think the American people are great. They deserve to have leaders they can respect. Leaders they can rally around.”
“But you, do you want to be one of those leaders?”
“Damn it! I am one of those leaders. I can’t walk away from my responsibilities. The American people elected me their Vice-President.”
“You’re not free, then?”
“No. I told you. I’ve accepted my responsibility.”
“Then you are free.”
“You’ve chosen. Everything a person is he chooses to be. You could have said no somewhere along the line. You didn’t.”
Bicho couldn’t make anything of it.
“I could say no to your scheme too, couldn’t I?”
“Certainly. You will do whatever you want.”
There was another pause. Was this guy trying to hypnotize the Vice-President?
“Would you like to hear how I prepared to solve your problem?”
Bicho yawned. He unscrewed the lid of the thermos to get some more coolant.
Someone rocked the truck and pounded on the back door. Bicho spilled steaming lactic coffee on his crotch. “Yeaowh!”
“Hey, you in there, open up! Police!”
“Hijo de perra!” Bicho jumped up and jarred the card table. The tape recorder and receiver bounced and the tape broke.
He got out his wallet and pushed open the door. “Just shove off,” he said to the bored patrolman, who was becoming more interested.
The stout woman who’d lost her parking space stood behind him. Her smile was ugly.
“Puta!” Bicho stuck his open wallet under the patrolman’s nose. “I’m here on official emergency federal government business – vital national security.”
The patrolman tried to look past the Cuban into the panel truck. “Too lazy to take your pants down?” He pointed at Bicho’s crotch.
Bicho looked down and saw the scum. “Buzz off! “ He slammed the door and went back to the card table.
He heard the patrolman explain. “You couldn’t park next to a fire hydrant anyway, lady.”
“What about the Puerto Rican?”
“It’s national security.”
Bicho wound a couple of loops of tape on top of the tape on the take-up reel and pressed the recording lever.
“…the scheme finally just came to you? You didn’t…figure it out?”
Bicho groaned – he could get the sack if he missed the scheme.
“I didn’t deduce it from anything. But it didn’t just come to me. The research, the concentration were work. Getting the ideas and making the connection was play.”
“Mamón! – what was the connection?” Bicho wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. His ears were hurting.
“Mr. Vice-President, as I understand how you see your position, you have been, uh—” Now the voice was coming through very clearly.
“…kept down by the President. He hasn’t allowed you to speak your mind, nor to speak for him. You see this as a shortcoming in the President, whom you respect and support—”
“For his own sake, and for the sake of the American people, you believe that the President ought to allow you to have more contact with them. The President ought to—”
Bicho took off his earphones for a few moments. “Damned campaign speech!”
“…couldn’t have summarized my position better myself,” the other voice said. “I’ve sought your help on behalf of the American people and their President…I ought to be able to write your fee off as a tax deduction.”
The Cuban chuckled. “Write it off, so the IRS can skin this rich hijo de perra.”
“Mr. Vice-President, you’re athletic. My research revealed that you’re an accomplished ping pong player.”
“Oh, beg your pardon. There’s a table in the basement of the White House?”
“Yes. I play everyday. It gives the Secret Service guys something to do. They’ve got one real cracker jack – Dupuy…Why?”
“You are fortunate to live in America, Mr. Vice-President. Where else is sport held in such thrall? Where else could a fifty-five-year-old hustler attract forty million television viewers to watch him play tennis with a woman? Evel Knievel had a hundred million pay to see him parachute into a river. He estimated that only two percent came expecting to see him die. Even at that low rate, he had more people in his audience hoping he would drown than President Dixon had in his last audience hoping he would stay afloat.”
Bicho tore off his ear phones and slammed them on the table. This attack on two of the most patriotic Americans of our time was too much.
He quickly put the phones back on.
“…television cameras installed around my table?”
“No, that wouldn’t come until after you were big. To get to that point you have to do something spectacular. I’ve got several things in mind. You could do a cross-country bike ride, or enter a marathon race, or challenge the women’s table tennis champion. I’ve already looked into it. Something could be worked out. But the thing is: all of this adds up to your becoming the middle-aged physical fitness champion.”
“Not a sex symbol?” Bicho could hear the Vice-President’s disappointment.
“No, America couldn’t accept that in a Vice-President. In a Senator? Almost, but not in a Vice-President. A Vice-President must be a symbol of moral leadership. Through you the American people will come to understand the meaning of ‘a sound mind in a sound body’…You’ll be the sound body.”
“But sex is evidence of a sound body. Couldn’t you—”
“No, sex is out. Why do you think no woman has had a chance to run for the Presidency or the Vice-Presidency? Women are sexual. A man is thought of as lots of other things first, but a woman is first of all a female. Americans can’t stand the thought of being governed by somebody who has sex. President Dixon understood this very well. He distrusted sex so completely, his campaign tried to pin it on the other guy.”
“So, your idea is athletic contests? You’d be my manager and handle publicity?”
“We can work out the details. But…can you ride a bicycle? Could you run twenty-six miles?”
Bicho shook his head in disbelief at the direction this conversation had taken. Was he tuned in to the right room?
The voice continued. “Look at it this way. You can reach the American people through sport. President Dixon specialized in the pre-game telephone call to the locker room. And his son-in-law made his first move toward the Presidency when he became a sports writer. Just wait till 1992.”
“Toward the Presidency!” The Vice-President’s voice was panicky. It seemed to come from farther away, as though he had stood up.
“Now wait – do you think I might end up as President through this sport thing?”
“Not necessarily. If it started to look doubtful, though, you could throw the match to the woman.”
“Uh, how much is it going to cost me – I mean Clara?”
“Fifteen thousand, plus expenses.”
“I know fifteen thousand is a lot of money, but, after all, your wife is paying, and you’re a very prestigious client. You can’t expect to have my services for nothing.”
“I haven’t told you everything I’ll have to do to execute the plan. You’ll see that I’m earning the fee.”
“Uh, our relationship is strictly confidential, right?”
“The relationship between a promoter and his client is as private as the relationship between a doctor and his patient.”
There was silence.
Bicho was relieved that the interview seemed to have come to an end. He listened for a few more moments and heard a door close.
He wondered why the last speech seemed to come over stronger and clearer than all the preceding speeches. Was that Austin character looking a word up in the dictionary?
Outside the library, Austin grasped Fred’s elbow with one hand and shook his head when Fred started to talk. He led Fred to a small room down the hall and flipped on the art lighting to reveal a rustic painting of a satyr hiding in the bushes spying on a mortal man and woman in embrace.
“Our conversation was being listened to, Mr. Vice-President. The library and kitchen were bugged three days ago by two men with telephone company credentials.”
Fred’s mouth sagged open and his eyes stared. He was a nag out of Guernica. “I want to sit down.”
Austin left and returned with a snifter of cognac. Fred inhaled some of it. “I feel better. What will I do? The President knows.”
“You think it’s the President? Well, if so, it might not bother him for you to go into sports. If it does bother him, he’ll probably think he can easily sidetrack you.”
“But, if he sidetracks me—”
“Let him. He doesn’t know our real plan. Mr. Vice-President—”
“Call me Fred again, please.”
“Ah, yes: Fred – I was a little carried away.” Austin smiled at his own theatricality. “The wonderful thing about living in the minds and hearts of the American people is that you don’t have to do anything.” Austin paused to give Fred time to roll that over in his mind.
“I don’t have to…do anything? How can that be? For this I pay – Clara pays – fifteen thousand?”
“Fifty thousand. I said fifteen for the benefit of the eavesdroppers. It’s fifty thousand. There are a few things for me to do to earn the fee.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Ah, I didn’t think you were going to ask.”
|Copyright © 2015 by W.M. Dean|