Read an Excerpt
On a Saturday I have to abandon the office to cut down bamboo in my mother's backyard. I know she worries about me. She sits, troubled, in her house on the highest point in Washington, thinking about my springtime spent in a windowless office. Her thirty-three-year-old daughter talks on the telephone all day-as she did as a teenager-her job somehow spun, made up by these patchy, thick conversations, fueled by coffee and ticking clocks. She guesses that I am distracted by the problems of other people, swallowed by their plans, ruined on my blurry trips between the Old Executive Office Building and the West Wing basement, my late-night dashes into glaring power. We never discuss my job, though I can't help thinking she views me from afar as a certain kind of ferry in some ever-near typhoon, her daughter chugging back and forth, carrying messages from one sorry piece of land to the other. She reminds me about her "psychic feelings," and by her tone I know these must be ones of darkness and doom.
She tells me, too, that she respects journalists, believes in "integrity." And considering my job is to manage the media, herd them like a flock of sheep, she must be more concerned by this than my lack of fresh-air oxygen and my caffeinated complexion. Considering it was once my own vague ambition to be a journalist, she must fret about my own regrets. Plus, her daily view from her French doors over a long lawn to the lovely pines is being threatened by the bamboo.
So I stand in the blinding sunlight on Saturday in the backyard of the house I lived in for eighteen years. I know I am pale, skinny, and my eyes are blocked by the same kind of sunglasses I wore in college-many such pairs bought, lost, crushed-Ray-Bans, very black. I like my brightness filtered.
I walk down the sloping lawn and have forgotten how green the grass becomes in spring: sharp green even through camouflage glasses. The grass smells dark in the sunshine. It is the familiar damp scent of cool shadows, and it reminds me of the lawnmower buzz on late afternoons. The grass is flecked with violets, small purple spots woven across the endless green, but my feet crunch as I walk.
The bamboo sprouts hide everywhere, and I step on them like crackle-back insects. Adult bamboo stands tall, three feet deep against the fence, swaying patiently in the breezes. However, its offspring pop up unexpectedly, spread through the lawn and surprise me like so many rumors. I make my way: bending, grabbing the asparagus-like shoots, and tossing them toward the fence.
I haven't told my mother yet how much Harry has changed, slowly over two years and suddenly in the past two weeks. Maybe I am afraid of all sorts of psychic feelings. I will not tell her about the call on Thursday night, when the phone by our bedside sounded alarm at four A.M., the voice telling Harry something as he startled out of an already uneasy sleep. From the other side of the bed through the blue darkness, I watched Harry half-sitting with his head against the wall, his palm pressed against his forehead like a cool washcloth, listening and nodding. "Yes, of course I'll come now," he said simply and only. I knew his mind had already raced past me and was heading right back to the White House.
"They can't be serious," I said through a new panic that has taken me over, one that jolts me out of half sleep on these nights when he fumbles through his dark closet looking for the right suit. It's the same panic that sometimes makes me feel uneasy in our apartment, that makes me go to his closet and count his suits, feel each sleeve to be sure they are all still there before I cautiously open the top two drawers of our bureau to be certain that they are crowded with his socks and underwear. I have begun to have the same dream: the one where I am eight years old and I look at the waves on a strong summer day. I walk into the waves and they crash against my chest, low and harmless, great cool water on a hot day. But then a bigger one comes and I misjudge its arch; it crashes down on me and I cannot find my way back to the surface.
"Don't worry," he said on Thursday night as I followed him to the front door in a pale blue nightgown, "I'll see you tomorrow." But he was moving so quickly he forgot to kiss me or look back as he dove down the stairs.
I carry a pair of old, long hedge clippers; they have worn wooden handles, but I have never used them before. They are the ones I remember my father using, or at least I think they must have been his, because nothing has been moved in the garage for twenty-five years. I wear black jeans and a man's dress shirt; I figure at least Harry can help me with this task; his office shirt is now outside in a bigger world with me. And I wear black mules on my feet. Even though they are tough, nonparty mules, my mother still looks at them strangely. An alien sighting in her garden. She hands me the clippers and disarms me of my only useful tool: The cell phone lies mute on the kitchen counter; it keeps company with the strong iced tea my mother has brewed to brace me.
I weed the garden of the firm, stubborn shoots and shudder at the work of clearing them, the nasty disease growing in the sunshine. At least I keep them from spreading any farther and mutating into a jungle. I understand now why someone felt compelled to torch foreign landscapes, burn mean terrain, rid it of its ceaseless, concealing bamboo.
I have my own large trouble to address, grown high against the fence, and I face the immediate danger with my clippers. The bamboo looks taller up close, and I cannot even see the fence through its forest. The greenish stalks are thick and weatherproof like copper wire, like telephone cables meant to last through centuries of conversation. My clippers are dull. The blades have lost their edge; they have seen too many hedges to begin fighting bamboo now on this Saturday.
My mother stands on the brick patio, outside the French doors; she shields her green eyes, calls out encouragement, promises cold tea, air-conditioning, a warm bath, and movies. She laughs like she does when she is happy. Her husband, my stepfather, doesn't cut down bamboo. He reads quietly upstairs or tinkers with his train sets in the basement, which seems to please my mother, who loves him but sometimes likes him parked away. Her two beagles, Franklin and Eleanor, supervise me; they try to squeeze their puppy-plump bodies into the deep reeds; they try to help me plunge into the maze in front of me. I have known many other beagles-all belonging to my mother and named for presidents and their wives. These two are young and eager, hopeful, unlike the generations I have watched grow old until their dark patches have turned white and their eyes gloomy blue with cataracts. My mother keeps the dead dogs in her lingerie drawer, brightly colored packages of ashes among her nightgowns. "For safekeeping," she says. But, I know, when she dies she wants to be buried with them (or them with her), a party of dogs. She will only hint at this. When she does, she raps quickly on something solid with her knuckles; she tap, taps on wood to keep her and the living ones safe.
On Friday I wouldn't see Harry in our federal anthill; he would spend the day huddled in our gated compound with his boss, the president, and his other advisers discussing, I imagined, whatever had called him out of our apartment at four A.M. in his navy blue suit. I guessed they would sit sequestered in a soundproof room that excluded their assistants, helpers, catering staff. They would evaluate risks, forecast damages, sketch control scenarios as, I think, they must do every day.
The honest fact is I don't know much about what Harry does in general or in specific in the West Wing basement. It makes me feel silly and afraid somehow that I don't. I should. I work in the White House, although in a less senior way than Harry does, and have a business card that says,
Public Affairs Officer for the Vice President of the United States
Deputy Assistant Director of Communications,
Speeches, and Commentary
I also have a printed federal government job description that says exactly what I do, and has recently been amended to include the speechwriting duties.
Copyright © 2005 by Melissa Pranger McConnell
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.