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By Roy Blount Jr.
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Roy Blount, Jr.
All rights reserved.
July 9, 1993
THE FIRST TIME I SAW HER she was naked, except for pearls and the look in her eyes. My thoughts, as best I can reconstruct them, were: "What? Hm. Well." It did not occur to me that some day this woman would make me the first male First Lady of the Land.
Aside from having no clothes on, Clementine was running from dogs at the time. No doubt Abe Lincoln was doing something more indicative of his prospects when Mary Todd first laid eyes on him, but even so, I doubt Mary's reaction was, "My, he's striking—why do I have the feeling that someday my portrait will hang in the White House looking crazy as a road lizard?"
They all do, you know, there's a hallway in the White House where the First Ladies' portraits hang, and they all look abused, taken advantage of, driven to distraction; and I don't blame them. Abigail Powers Fillmore looks like she has just been induced, for the good of the nation, to eat a dozen mud pies. Jane Means Appleton Pierce looks like she was required to spend the previous night in bed with three dead strangers. Eliza McCardle Johnson looks like she is sitting, out of the frame, in a tub of coffee grounds. Julia Dent Grant looks like somebody just sapped her over the head several times in order to obtain her consent to pose. Frances Folsom Cleveland looks like she has seen things that nobody who bathes daily should ever have to see. And all of those are my sentiments exactly.
Except, no they're not. My sentiments are that I have not been myself since I beheld that streaking vision one April afternoon in 1969. Nobody knows this story, and maybe the nation shouldn't, but there the future forty-third president was at first sight: naked, unruffled-looking and running, with her own odd almost-hitchy litheness, from certain forces of dumb-ass order. She did have a pearl necklace on. The pearls were bouncing, and so was her hair in a loose jet-black plait.
Our eyes met. Maybe the face comes first in a person, and the character follows or tries to. I know that some people have faces they can't live up to, and in time their faces give in. The thing about Clementine's face is, it makes us want to support her living up to it. It looks like a face that has taken things on board that it doesn't know what to make of, yet. A face that wants to laugh but can't quite, for reasons you secretly almost know. If you could help her face up to those reasons ... So I pulled her into some bushes, the first time I saw her, and offered her what I had, my dirty laundry.
She was nineteen and looked fifteen to twenty-eight. She has always looked older and younger than her age at the same time, more mature yet fresher. She regarded me levelly, conspiratorially up to a point (just as she did in a couple of quick glances twenty-four years later on the Wall of China, when we suddenly realized she was going to be Leader of the Free World). She swallowed, as she sometimes does now during a speech. In most cases that would suggest nervous weakness, but in her case it softens, without undermining, her poise. Her hand went to her pearls, which were yellowish against her coloring in the late-afternoon shrub-filtered light. I don't notice that sort of thing usually, but I did then. And she said, "Tell me your name."
Just that. Then waited for an answer.
Her face was almost too amazing. There may be a sense in which it works better on television, but in person it is more amazing, unsettling. For your own relief, you want to do something to help tune in that level look of hers that says, "Right. We'll go with this."
Remarkably, under the circumstances, she was close to that look then. Comfortable in her own skin, as they say. But not content in it—still off balance enough to take the offensive. Not "Thanks," on the one hand. Nor, on the other hand, "Who are you to intervene in my confrontation of the system?" Just: "Tell me your name."
It nonplussed me. I was concentrating on trying to find something in my laundry bag that wasn't too unsuitable for her to wear. Though she was in no position to be choosy— security men with dogs running around a few feet away, chewing on clothes (the dogs were) and salivating after nakedness. She was in no position to be taking anybody's name, either, but then who the hell has ever been able to tell Clementine what position she is in?
And then I thought she might be going to cry. Her. (Already I was thinking of her as her. Her Secret Service code name is Herself. Mine, Hubby.) That is part of her power. The country doesn't want her to melt into tears. Even at that moment three months ago when the nation had just witnessed its President killed by a fish; and, well, "not knowing what to make of it" would have been putting it lightly; and C's face, the suddenly new President Clementine Fox's, filled the TV screen—one reason the succession was so smooth, under the circumstances, is that the nation's heart cried out to her, "Don't cry!" And then, of course, she didn't cry. By any means. Nor did she cry there behind that bush that evening twenty-four years ago, as she eyed me alone.
"Guy," I said, it (the sixties) being an informal decade.
She took that under advisement. Whatever kind of bush we were behind, it was soft for a bush. A spray of it lay across her forehead and she brushed it off. She had dark, sad, almost too-steady eyes. They glistened, or glinted. You can't be quick to characterize what Clementine's eyes are doing. It seemed that all I could find was socks and then a jockstrap, which I stuffed back quickly. She took that in too.
"Guy Fox," I said.
A dog arrived. I saw it coming. And I saw her shrink back, stiffen. I didn't want to see that. I stuffed some bush in the dog's face and punched it in the throat—the only time I've ever hit a dog—and it went "SNUNK-kyak" and ran after some other protester. I love dogs. I'd always been able to look a barking dog in the eye and ask it what the problem was, before. But I was evidently willing to hit a dog for her.
"I'm Clementine Searcy," she said. "You don't look like you go here."
"Hell no," I told her, still digging and coming up with the same things. She must have thought I went through half a dozen jockstraps a day. "I don't know why anybody in their right mind would."
"Would go here? Or would look like it?" She didn't crack a smile or give away a nickel. She was slim, kind of kneesy, even, but graceful—graceful hunkering under a bush. She was wearing, as we all know she has continued to wear, bright-red nail polish, fingers and toes. Another violation of the Dingler dress code.
"Either one," I said. "I'm a wri—a reporter."
"A reporter for ...?"
"The Beacon," I said.
"Ah," she said levelly. Freckles on her nose. The Beacon was about as good a paper as Dingler was a college. A cruder and more defensive nineteen-year-old person would have thrown in some pat tit-for-tat sarcastic phrase, but Clementine just let me fill in the blanks. I'd never had such a shorthand conversation with a woman before, let alone a naked one, and as she talked she gave me something that I felt she'd never given anybody before: a quick candid tour of all that her face had so far learned to bring into play, with hints of what it hadn't. There was commonness and emerging elegance; unblocked sweetness guarded by bite. Fear; and determination to ride fear, not be ridden by it. There was a wistful pretty girl in her face, a girl to be snugly fond of; and there was deep gritty resistance to the lot of a wistful pretty girl. Resistance to something else, too. Resistance extraordinarily developed, but like a muscle, not a wall. Resistance to something in me? That was an open question, but one that seemed more interesting than daunting at the time. As to what I might resist in her, perhaps my look was less forthright in that regard than hers was, because what was uppermost in my eyes, I daresay, was desire. To her surprise, I think, she liked being desired, by me—why?
I had always seen in women a confusion—or a jujitsu—of yielding and imposing. In C, I saw the beginnings of something new, more nearly freestanding, less soft, less scary, more productively demanding. I also saw that she saw that I saw it; and that, I believe, is what she saw in me.
I say all that now, as if we realized—even realized we realized—all that at the time. I, at least, was not so acute on my feet as I make myself seem. But I did become more acute as I looked at her. I felt like I had brought down a dove, and was watching the dove browning tastily in the pan, and at the same time the dove was eyeing me and taking wing. Enough to put a man off bird hunting. But not to put me off Clementine. A base element in my makeup sighed, threw up its hands and gave way to something else.CHAPTER 2
July 10, 1993
I DON'T KNOW WHY I call it a "base element." If I represented any kind of oppressed people, I could call it "self-determination." Or "control over my own life." Or "the sense God gave a goose."
All I know is, now I have this job that I can't quit because I can't give up my wife.CHAPTER 3
July 12, 1993
"I HEARD FROM ORIE Ledyard today," I said to C last night. "You remember Orie Ledyard."
"We knew him in the country. He would do anything for attention? Drove around with a 'Honk If You Love This Sticker' sticker on his front bumper and a sticker on his back bumper that said, 'If You Don't Love This Sticker, Honk'? When you were with him in a car and drove through a skunk smell he'd say, 'That was me'?"
"Well, he's offering to be my new press secretary."
"No, no, I'm not going to take him up on it. That's what I wanted you to know. So you won't worry."
"Another major headache off my mind."
I went up behind her and put my hands over her eyes and said, "You nonnnn't want to know." (A family joke.)
She looked back and said, "Why, Hopsie!" (A marital joke.)
"Jean," I said. "Jean, I have been thinking about the Redick episode, and I'm sorry, I realize now, I was acting like a normal red-blooded American instead of a person in my position."
"Oh, Hopsie," she said. "Why didn't you take me into your arms that day, why did you let me go, why did we have to go through all this nonsense? Don't you know you're the only man I ever loved, don't you know that I couldn't look at another man, don't you know I've waited all my life for you, you big mug?"
That's the rest of the marital joke. She says it just like Barbara Stanwyck, almost. I mean, you can tell it's Clementine doing Barbara Stanwyck, but that makes it even better. I can't do Henry Fonda's voice, but I can get into the scene emotionally. It's the big reunion scene from The Lady Eve, our favorite movie. I drew her up out of her chair (which used to be Harry Truman's), and we melted into each other's arms.
Sounds pretty silly, I guess. In fact, I have learned to my astonishment that there are people who feel that The Lady Eve—or, anyway, Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve—is pretty silly.
Hey, marital jokes are all pretty silly.
And the more they have to cover up, the sillier they get.CHAPTER 4
July 13, 1993
I HAVE A PRESS secretary now, but we are not speaking. Which is okay by me, because I'm not doing interviews anymore.
My first press secretary was Redick. Back when I was just Second Hubby, spouse to the veep.
People seem to think that Redick was some kind of stunt on my part. Washington is such a hotbed of intrigue, everybody thinks that everybody is trying to pull something or prove something. Well, I have nothing to pull or prove, now that my irrelevance is, I hope, established. And no, I did not write Redick's statement for him.
Here's exactly what happened. Since my wife was Vice-president, they said, I had to have staff. I didn't want staff. Now I have not only staff but infighting staff. It's worse than children. Much worse. I hate my staff. (I love my children. Even though they don't call. Sometimes Lucy calls.)
But okay. Staff. I had to pick a press secretary. So I started interviewing candidates. I had a beer with each one, to see how we would get on together, and after about eight candidates, I knocked off and went over to Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, and sat down on a bench. I could still do that then. Trailed by Secret Service, of course, but crowds wouldn't gather.
And Redick sat down next to me. I'd never seen him before in my life, but he said:
"My head is so bad. Kaf, kaf. Do you know how bad my head is?"
"How bad is it?" I asked.
"I can only smell certain farts and green onions."
As he went on and on about his sinuses, about sinuses as the last environmental frontier ("Our sinuses are where all our chickens come home to roost, fnf"), and about what was wrong with Washington, I became fascinated. Also, I didn't want to interview anybody else.
So I hired him. And oh, the consternation. Even Leonard, whom I knew back when he was a reporter, when he was digging things up instead of putting spin on them. "Press secretary is a profession," he said, "and you bring some guy in off the street."
"Out of the park," I said. "Hey, he says he's an old newspaperman. Run a security check on him. If he's subversive, I'll tell him he won't do. I'll tell you what, though. I don't know whether it's age or my current eminence, but it isn't any fun getting shitfaced anymore. Anyway, Betty Ford has done alcoholism. I'm going to quit drinking except every now and then." I have, too, and it's a good thing, since otherwise I wouldn't believe anything that's happened.
As the new Second Spouse, I had to have a press conference. Why, I don't know. Redick took the podium to introduce me.
"Assorted inquisitors," he began. "By way of prologue, I would like to assure you that the stuffiness of my nose, which I have no doubt you can detect from my speech, kaf, snk, has nothing to do with cocaine. Like most sane Americans, I have had no more than ten or twelve—kaf, snrk—say, two dozen—snorts of cocaine in my life, and the last was years ago, in the Carter administration. Snrk. By which I do not mean to implicate that administration. Odd as that administration was, and I should say that I knew no member of it personally—odd as it was, it was immeasurably preferable, in my view, to the Reagan one, during which I seldom passed a day without thinking, often aloud: 'My President is such an asshole!' Snrk kaf-kaf. Day in and day out. A president should not be so integral a part of a normal American's life."
At this point some reporter asked, "Are you sure you're Second Hubby's press secretary?" This Hubby stuff started very early on. The male press seemed to get off on it.
"Yes," said Redick, "I am sure, so far as we can be sure of anything in this life—which, incidentally, I believe is the only life: that there is no hereafter, though I am willing to be pleasantly surprised: but not anytime soon, I hope. Kaf-kaf."
"Are you sure you're sure you're Hub's press secretary?"
"Ah. I seldom scrutinize my certainties quite to that extent, until they are shaken. Snnnrk. Certainties, I might mention, are often more shining than durable—an example:
"From watching a cat, I had worked it out the other evening, from watching, as I say, a cat, kaf, snrk, that what separates us from the lower animals is that we are not flexible enough to lick our own genitals. So we seek satisfaction in the arts, the sciences. Money. War. Kafkaf. Then, however, I stopped to think. And I realized that cows couldn't either.
"Are there any further questions, before I introduce the Second Spouse?"
Nothing arose from the Fourth Estate except odd—scarcely appreciative—grunts. What has happened to the press in this country?
"Well, then, before I do that," Redick went on, "please indulge me in a few remarks about the press. Reporters—I say this, having been one—are like children who say to their parents, 'But you said ...'—picking up every little contradiction. Most people don't care about that. Most people just want to do well. They want a government that will help them do well. Doing well is doing right, to most people; they don't see the conflict. What they want is to be done right by. And the terms of our government are: most people.
Excerpted from First Hubby by Roy Blount Jr.. Copyright © 1990 Roy Blount, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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