Saturday, December 19, 2015

Chapter 7 of The Unmaking of the President (a novel)

Portrait of the author
by Susan C. Price
Better to Serve You With, My Dear

By W.M. Dean

[The novel is set in the 1970s of Watergate. Links to earlier chapters are provided at the bottom.]

John Zilch waited for the President to finish speaking on the telephone. He was anxious to continue with his report on the top-priority, top-secret MOY Project.
    The President looked haggard to Zilch, who supposed the President must be staying up late to give service to his country, perhaps hearing appeals during the night to do so. But the President nevertheless looked fit.
    “No, I won’t meet you in the listening room. Come to my office – I’m in the EOB. This administration doesn’t use electronic surveillance, so there’s nothing to listen to…Don’t tell me why I need to listen—”
    Zilch sat up straighter and thrust out his thin chest. He admired the way his President anchored every action in solid principle.
    “No, take your time. Remember what I’ve always told you: Haste makes waste.” The President transferred the phone to his other hand and thumbed through the EOB copy of Taking the Heat.
    “Read pages— Hello…Hello?” The President held out the phone and stared at it.
    “John, I think Addleman is running over here. Can you net out your report for me?”
    Zilch turned the corners of his mouth down. “It’s still early to say for sure that you’ll be Time’s Man of the Year, Mr. P, but—”
    “The question is: What are we doing to increase my chances?”
    “Well, we’re—” The telephone rang.
    “Hello…Oh, hello dear.” The President murmured.
    Zilch hung his head. He needed to impress the President with the MOY project. Merely being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed wouldn’t keep him in favor indefinitely – no matter how much these qualities were extolled in staff pep talks. He had to get some results.
    The President had retreated behind his free hand, which supported his head and covered his eyes and brow. He effected a drawl. “Yeah, I think I can get up for a little bit o’ that…Just about as you say…Oh, ho, ho, not quite that soon…I’ll be right there, dear…Bye-bye.”
    He replaced the phone gently. “Wrap it up, John.”
    “We’re still trying to identify all of the members of the selection committee.” Zilch barely managed to make the remark sound like a success rather than a failure.
    “Hmmm, that is the first step.” The President smiled at Zilch. “In politics, you have to know who your friends and your enemies are. Only then can your actions be efficient, You’re learning fast, young man.”
    The President started to get up. “Oh, damn! Addleman’s coming.”
    For the few minutes until Addleman came, the President discussed his philosophy with Zilch. More than anything else, molding the minds of eager young men gave the President a sense of accomplishment. He knew he was the most powerful teacher in the world – who else could reward quick learners with such fame and authority?
    “Think positively, young man. Believe the best; ignore the rest.”
    P.R. Addleman came into the little room in the Executive Office Building where the President liked to go for privacy.
    Zilch jumped up. The fervent demeanor of the Chief of Staff intimidated him, even in a room with the President himself.
    The President nodded for Zilch to leave. Zilch seemed glad to get away from Addleman.
    The President looked at his watch. “Make it quick, Rob.”
    “Clarabelle’s hired a hustler to promote Noemann,” Addleman pronounced.
    The President unconsciously stretched a hand out for his autobiography. “What’s the hustle? Who—?”
    “Austin Froth.”
    The President’s face went blank.
    “He was on the Simon Sample Show the day of the telephone calls.”
    “So?” The President shrugged his shoulders.
    “Well, we know those phone calls didn’t come from the White House. Sample swears he didn’t do it. He’s gone into sulking.”
    “Didn’t do what?”
    “What does he swear he didn’t do?”
    Addleman explained about the glasses. “CBS has studied the video tapes of the show. They don’t actually show the glasses coming from Sample’s coat.”
    The President’s face was as blank as it had been.
    “If you’ll listen to my tape—”
    “No. Destroy it. It doesn’t exist. Never has. This President has no interest in recording.” The President’s jaws were rigid. His shoulders were tense. He looked insecure. “What’s on it?”
    Addleman summarized the conversation recorded by Bicho Cicada the previous day. When Austin Froth mentioned physical fitness, the President laughed. “What did you tell Tinker this – uh, investigation was for?” The President grinned.
    “Don’t worry, I covered my trail. I told them the Vice-President had fallen into the hands of a suspected confidence man. They think the White House is handling it because of the possible embarrassment to the Vice-President and the administration. Sort of a personal thing, a family matter.”
    “Them? They? How many people know about it?”
    “Well – Tinker. And I suppose he tells his operatives something.”
    The President scowled. He thought for a few moments. His shoulders almost relaxed. He smiled and stood up. “Well, at least their findings substantiate your cover story – it certainly sounds like a con to me.”
    Addleman was alarmed. “No. I tell you, Clarabelle’s got long-range plans. The subject of Noemann’s Presidency came up. Noemann denied it.”
    The President was puzzled. “Well?”
    “Don’t you see? Everybody denies it. I think he’s making his move.”
    “Making his move? With more than three years till the next election? Rob, I know you’ve been under a lot of pressure about the money you got from Clara. Take a few days off. Relax. Study my book and compose your thoughts.”
    The President was putting papers into his new attache case, which Nadli had bought for him to bring work home from the office. “Let Noemann have a little publicity. I’ve never been against it all that much myself. I think you got confused about your motives with the money, and it’s affected your attitude toward the Vice-President.”
    “But, Clarabelle—”
    “Yes, it’s really your attitude toward her. But she’s paying only because Fred doesn’t have the money.”
    “Why have you gone soft on Noemann? You used to view Clarabelle as a threat.”
    The President fondled the leather grain of his attache case and inhaled its pungent aroma. “Nadli’s had a couple of long talks with Clara— Why don’t you stop calling her Clarabelle? There was a neighborly misunderstanding. Don’t worry about her. Let them have a little room.”
    The President chuckled. “Maybe I shouldn’t have turned Admiralty House into a museum of Happyfellerania.”
    Addleman laughed nervously. “I’d still feel better it I knew what Clarab— Clara was planning.”
    “What do we care what they do, as long as they don’t interfere? Maybe this sport thing isn’t such a bad idea, who knows? A match between a woman and the Vice-President of the United States might be good for women’s morale. Give ’em a feeling of participation in government.” The President snapped his latches.
    “I was thinking about the money…But anyway, you seem to be forgetting how a certain Vice-President embarrassed the Dixon administration when he would tee off into the crowd or no-love his partner in the back of the head. We don’t need any of that.”
    “Bah! Don’t worry about it. Noemann’s not going to hurt anybody with a ping pong serve, for Christ sake.”

After Fred told Clara about the bugging of Austin Froth, they searched their apartment thoroughly, following the directions Austin had given Fred, but finding only a few insects, both living and dead.
    Still, they took no chances: whenever they wanted to discuss the real plan Austin had divulged in the dark corner of his house, they either exchanged notes or went outside and talked at a distance from shrubs and trees.
    Fred explained his physical fitness regimen to Clara. Before returning to Washington, he had gone to Bloomingdale’s and bought jogging shoes – some blue suede ones with white stripes, lightweight, with excellent traction and adequate support (the salesman said) for running on pavements.
    At six his first morning back, proudly clad in a sweatsuit conservatively decorated with red and white stripes and white stars on a field of blue, Fred ran out the east gate and south along Executive Avenue, jogged past the Washington monument, cantered around the tidal basin, crept behind the Executive Office building, walked around the north side of the White House, and gamely trotted back to the east gate, where there was a guard who would recognize him.
    “Do you need some help, sir?”
    Fred was hawking and rasping and spitting. He feebly waved away the offered hand.
    He was thankful that physical fitness was only a ruse, although the table tennis idea attracted him. Table tennis players didn’t have to be in condition, did they?
    Maybe they did. Bobby Fischer claimed he had to be in as good shape as a heavyweight boxer. And all he did was sit in front of a checkered board with a bunch of blocks of wood on it. But Fred remembered he’d only be playing a woman, after all, so maybe it didn’t matter.
    This would have been a reassuring thought if the picture of Bobby Riggs hadn’t come to mind.
    Clara had to wake him out of a lifeless sleep for his afternoon bike ride. She enjoyed the spectacle. “Come on now, Fred. You said you were going to be convincing.”
    Halfway up, Fred discovered he was stiff all over – he felt like a pelt on a drying board.
    “In a few days you’ll feel great, and you’ll be sorry you aren’t really going to enter the marathon.” Clara grinned. “Or maybe you should join anyway. There’s nothing wrong with physical fitness” – she lowered her voice – “even if there are better ways to get a rating.”
    Fred adjusted his bicycle seat higher so his legs would be stretched out to counteract cramps. More than no publicity, he feared an unflattering picture of his rickety pedaling form or of him falling off or being carried to the basement on a stretcher.
    But he didn’t see any photographers. It chagrined him to realize, as much as he tried to convince himself otherwise, that no photographer would have the slightest interest, now, of taking a picture of him doing anything. He just didn’t rate. He was a nobody Vice-President, and that’s what this was all about.
    Fred made noisy inquiries into the national table tennis team on Friday. At first they were cold. Fred swallowed his pride and explained that he understood they didn’t recognize him, that he knew he wasn’t one of the people everybody recognized, but Goddamnit, he was the Vice-President, and he had as much right as the next guy to try out for the table tennis team.
    A team official asked him whether he knew Chinese.
    “Do you know Chinese?” Fred replied.
    The official changed the subject: “It wouldn’t work out. The Chinese are very polite. Against you they wouldn’t play to win. It wouldn’t be fair to them.”
    Fred returned the shot quickly: “From what I’ve heard, you need all the breaks you can get.” He surprised and gratified himself that he was holding his own. Maybe physical fitness was his field.
    “But, Mr. Vice-President, how would you feel if you won because your opponent didn’t try to beat you?”
    Fred let that one bounce. A headline sprang to mind: VP Only Victor over Chinese. It rivaled anything President Dixon ever accomplished in the Far East. This thing had more possibilities than Froth had given it credit for.
    He volleyed: “Now, just a minute. It wouldn’t do them any good if they did try to beat me. That’s what I’m trying to tell you – I’m good!”
    He jumped back and executed five imaginary returns, ending with a devastating imaginary backhand slam.
    “I want to play the captain. He can decide.”
    “Very well…Uh, Wednesday?”
    That was the day after the night the real plan was to go into effect. “Monday.”
    “He’ll be out of town till Tuesday afternoon.”
    “What time?”
    “I’ll play him at five-thirty.”
    “All right...Your table?”
    “He’s on.”
    Elated by the prospect of getting on the table tennis team, Fred biked twice as far as usual that afternoon, over the Teddy Roosevelt Memorial Bridge into Virginia. Now, there was a great one for physical fitness! A Vice-President too. Didn’t brag as loud as the Babe, but carried a big stick up to the plate. Something like that.
    It was dark when Fred came back onto the bridge. A patrolman pulled him over. “I’m citing you for no light.”
    Fred was glad the reporters weren’t interested in him yet. “I have a reflector.”
    The patrolman sauntered once around the bicycle. “You have a tail reflector, but no front reflector and no side reflectors.”
    “All that?” The indictment took away what strength Fred might have used to try to convince the patrolman he was the Vice-President of the United States. Anyway, he didn’t have his ID in his sweatsuit. Maybe he could have the ticket fixed later – or he would pay quietly. Why suffer embarrassment? His day would come.

Fred’s jumping jacks shook the bed and woke Clara the next morning at six.
    Clara blinked her eyes. “It’s Saturday.”
    “You’re not running today?”
    He rushed to enter the isolation booth that jogging provided for thought. With the goal provided by Austin Froth, thinking was no longer a futile exercise in self-criticism, but a celebration in which he occasionally muttered to himself, “Big Fred!” or “Here I come!” He had begun to dare to think about what Fred Noemann wanted.
    Over the weekend Fred overcame his disappointment that no photographers were likely to cover the tryout game by rationalizing that he would probably lose anyway. The captain would surely be better than Dupuy, even though Dupuy hardly did anything but play table tennis. Guarding Fred Noemann from assassins who wouldn’t know Fred Noemann if they saw him wasn’t demanding.
    At five o’clock Tuesday, Fred had Dupuy warm him up. The pleasant muscle aches of running and biking felt good. At five-thirty Fred turned to the table tennis team official. “Where’s the captain?”
    “It’s a long way from the airport.”
    At four after six the captain appeared, a gentle-looking young man, leaning to his right from the weight of the suitcase he carried.
    He approached Dupuy. “Hello, sir, it’s a pleasure.”
    Dupuy was abashed. “He’s the Vice-President.”
    The captain followed Dupuy’s pointing finger. “Oh…sorry.”
    Fred saw that the captain was flustered by the mistake. He laughed. “For that you can have only five minutes to warm up.”
    The captain wasn’t sure he was forgiven – he agreed to five minutes.
    Fred rubbed his hands together when he saw that the captain was right-handed. Five minutes wouldn’t enable the arm to forget the suitcase.
    Fred felt guilty. “I’m sorry I have to hurry,” he lied politely. “I have important business at seven-thirty.”
    His first four serves were too much for the captain’s arm, but the captain took the fifth point with a well-placed backspin shot.
    With the score ten to three, the captain returned a strong serve and put Fred’s answer away with an invisible forehand slam. Fred captured the next point, then the captain shut him out.
    Fred was nervous when it was his turn to serve again. His hand was sweaty and shaking as he pulled his arm back to deliver.
    He brought his paddle around wickedly and followed through to the net. The paddle kept going and caught the captain in the eye, rupturing a blood vessel and abrading the flesh of cheek and brow.
    Everyone agreed to postpone the game for a few days.
    The gentle captain was apologetic. “It was going to be close.”
    Fred was eager. “Do you think so?”
    He walked to his apartment thinking about the return engagement. He would have to work on his forehand return.
    Clara opened the door for him. “You’ll have to hurry.”
    Fred didn’t understand. “I’m going to make the team. They’re going on a tour in two weeks.”
    “You won?”
    “Yeah…Well, I was ahead…until the accident…We postponed the game for a few days.”
    “Aren’t you forgetting something? It’s about time for you to leave.”
    “Ah, let’s forget that, Clara. This table tennis thing is big. I don’t need the real plan any—”
    “Shhh!” Clara gripped Fred’s arm tightly. She whispered fiercely: “You need a dramatic effect – you’re out to get a rating, not a sports average.”
    Fred sneezed.
    “You’d better take a shower, Fred. You’re all sweaty.” She lowered her voice. “Remember, don’t shave.”
    “Aw, I don’t want to do that. Physical fitness is big. Austin Froth said so. There’s the marathons, the bike tours. They’ll give me a rating, visibility.”
    “Fred! Will you stop being ridiculous? Austin Froth is a professional. Do what he tells you. There are big stakes – the Vice-Presidency…the Presidency—”
    “What? The Presidency? Is something going on I don’t know about? I won’t have anything to do with it. I was elected Vice-President, and that’s the job I’m going to carry out – not anything more. I’m not going to jeopardize my responsibility as Vice-President.”
    He threw his paddle down on the coffee table and turned over the vase of flowers sitting there.
    Clara shooed Fred out. “Go on. Take your shower. I’ll clean it up.”
    She picked up the vase and replaced the flowers in the water that remained, then brought an armful of dish towels from the kitchenette, took off her shoes, and got down on her knees.
    Something like a sugar cube wrapped in plastic caught her eye under the table. The wrapper was wet.
    She hurried to tell Fred to get a move on.

Links to earlier chapters:
Chapter 1. “Downstairs at the White House
Chapter 2. “Making It Happen
Chapter 3. “The Muse’s Fee
Chapter 4. “The Game Plan
Chapter 5. “Home Movies (Blue)
Chapter 6. “Keeping Up Appearances
Copyright © 2015 by W.M. Dean