Nixon without Tears

Dead, yes. Buried, yes. Gone to Heaven?

When it happened, the first thing he noticed was the sound A or rather, the absence of sound. No more bleeping. No more whirring, no more of that other clatter you got in even the most expensive hospital. God knows he'd heard enough such noise to know when it was gone. No more ticking, as if he were an inert part in a room-size explosive device, wired to go off the way that chunk of brain had the other day in the kitchen. He'd set the Pellegrino bottle on the counter, said something to the housekeeper, and collapsed like a worn-out lawn chair. Since then there'd been no rest, even as the swelling bulged and bulged inside his skull and he'd begun to feel the blossoming serenity of a man with a living will, a DNR order, and a paidup mortgage.

The outcome was obvious, but still his room had ebbed and flowed with bustle, right up to the end. Now, however, there were no more nurses. No more doctors. No more hiccupy weeping or feeble summings-up. The girls were gone, their husbands with them, the grandchildren.

That's it, he thought. I'm dead.
He wondered what time it was, then caught himself. Where I'm going, there's no time at all, and all the time in the world, he thought. All the time in the universe.

The words boomed in his mind's ear. That was a surprise, hearing himself for the first time as others had heard him. Now he understood the origin of the crappy impersonations, the ones that always involved some jerk-off waving V-for-victory signs with both hands and ducking his head and shaking his cheeks. Sock it to me? Your president is not a crook. Are you running for office, Mr. Rather? Pray with me, Henry; get down on the floor and pray with me.

The clock said 9:06. Outside it was dark, with a rind of sunset over toward Jersey. He rose from the bed, noticing that when he moved, the covers didn't. His body lay still beneath a white sheet. They had removed the wires and tubes. He realized he could see through the fabric, and when he looked down he saw his face gone slack, wattles and wrinkles fading like a sidewalk chalk sketch. Even the scar from the buggy wheel running over his head when he was three had begun to soften.

He remembered the cover Esquire had run after '68; they had used a photo of him napping on a flight during the campaign, except that the bastards had airbrushed mascara and rouge onto his face, then superimposed hands holding makeup, brushes, all that folderol. Made him look like a goddamned faggot. He told Haldeman or the other one to have the IRS sprinkle some audits on the masthead. Then the Ivy League fuckers could see how funny they were. Some of them were probably still running scared.

But as he recalled the episode, he couldn't feel the heat he'd felt at the time. He could remember every detail, same as he could remember every detail of every wrong ever done him over the decades, but instead of the anger billowing as it had with previous recollections, it now seemed that the juice had been drained from him, like electrolytes from a battery, and he felt flat.

Lifeless, you might say.
Ha ha ha. After I died, I was feeling pretty lifeless. He'd have to save that one for the next place. A guy really should have a joke ready to break the ice in new situations. People liked it when you came up with something, funny or not, as long as you tried, although he was the first to admit he'd never mastered the knack, not the way Jack Kennedy had, or Lyndon, or even Ike. Watching them work a crowd was like seeing lions among antelopes, whereas he'd always felt more like a stag standing alone in the deep woods, wary, waiting for the sound of a bolt being slammed into the chamber.

Not the others. They lived for the hunt, existed most fully when they were on the prowl, snapping off lines and shaking hands and kissing babies and stalking votes.

He, on the other hand, was in his element when he was by himself, or with just a few people. That was how he'd managed with the television camera in '52. Ike was ready to throw him to the dogs A he said his running mate had to be clean as a hound's tooth A but he'd shown the old fart a few new tricks. He'd arranged some time on the network and sat under the lights in front of a box that looked as if it had the bottom of a Coke bottle jammed into it, and with sweat pouring down his shoulder blades like a stinking thaw, he'd talked to the bottom of that bottle as if it were his best friend.

Not that he'd ever had a best friend. He'd never been the best-friend type, either being or having. Maybe it had to do with his family, the brothers dying young, his saintly goddamned mother always dragging him to church. Pat had understood. Right up to the last, when the cancer was giving her such a hard time of it, she hadn't grabbed. She'd known how much he needed slack. Bebe and Bob were the same; they gave you your slack, let you sit at the stern or out on the veranda in the dark or walk the beach by yourself, they weren't always pushing themselves at you.

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