Nixon without Tears

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

In medias res, his trip had seemed to take only seconds, but perhaps it had been longer. The grounds were very quiet, even considering that, being dead, he experienced sound far differently than he had when living.

He stood at the base of the stairs, surveying the great and sorry spectacle. The place was an utter, relentless mess, and made him glad he'd set up the library in Yorba Linda, where the little people loved him. No hooligans with spray cans, like the one over to his left, were going to deface his resting place. Pull the top off a can of paint there and they'd crucify you as soon as look at you.

That's how he was looking at the kid standing on tiptoe to reach an unblemished spot on the wall, getting ready to squeeze the aerosol tip (Abplanalp's invention, he remembered, wondering if Bob had collected a royalty on this particular can and deciding that if he had, it had been at wholesale) when inspiration struck. He could still perform a public service, not quite from the grave, but almost.

Though his earthly presence was almost gone, he could feel a few vestiges, and he gathered them, as you might collect gobbets of mercury from a broken thermometer in the palm of your hand. He forced himself not to float, to become real again. It took all his will, the antipode of the gumption that had enabled him to climb the steps into the helicopter that hot day twenty years back.

Again touching the Earth, he walked to within inches of the kid, whose forehead was furrowed in concentration and paranoia. He knew those furrows, and in a sick way he could appreciate the desire to leave a mark that lasted beyond your own passing. But he'd committed to a job, and he was going to do it. So he leaned forward and in his best exaggerated impression of himself alive and vigorous, he barked, "Young man, stop that right now!"

Instead of echoing inside his own head, as they had in the hospital and on the cross-town shuttle, his words were bouncing off the monument walls and into the vandal's ears. The kid's body went unmuscled as a poleaxed calf's, eyes popping wider than any cartoon character's. He dropped the spray can and stood, riveted in awe and fright.

"I said, 'Stop that right now!'" he barked again, this time feeling the jelly-mold tremor of jowls he thought he'd left behind forever. The rosy glow diminished to nearly nothing, and under the mercury-vapor lights he could see himself as the kid was seeing him: a naked, red-faced ancient man, shoulders hunched but triumphant, shouting with hands held high and clawlike.

"Oh shit, oh fuck me," the kid whispered. He looked down. A dark stain was spreading across the front of his baggy dungarees. A stench fouled the air.

"Yes, fuck you!" he roared in response, feeling his momentary corporeality beginning to fade. "Fuck you! Don't you fuck with me! Don't you fuck with President Grant's tomb! He was a hundred times the man you'll ever be, a thousand times, and if I see you here ever again, I'll come after you myself, you shit-sucking little weasel! I'll haunt you until you die and then I'll chase you straight to hell!"

The kid yelped and ran as best he could, bowlegged like a child with a full diaper. As he watched the boy disappear down the greensward leading away from the tomb, he felt himself evanesce again, knowing that this time it would be permanent. The pavement grit beneath what had momentarily been his feet again slipped away. The glow rose and he saw dead Manhattoes left from a raid by the Iroquois, so many arrows piercing them they looked like inflatable porcupine dolls. Again silence wrapped itself around him. Again he was invisible to the living world. He'd read somewhere that the last sense to depart was smell, and what he smelled last of the Earth was the chthonic waft of voided bowels, teenage fear, and the sweet possibilities of a spring evening in New York.

Whatever had drawn him to the tomb now pulled him up its steps and through the locked doors. He entered a vaulted chamber, cavernous and once-elegant, its displays stained by leaks from the ceiling. The glow from outside followed him in, growing more intense. He moved across the rotunda, through another door, and down a hallway as bright as Key Biscayne in July. Brighter even A this gleam made the Key look like San Clemente on a foggy day, the damned surfers poking their boards out of the mist like mutant dolphins until the Secret Service drove them off.

He came to an archway. A young guy was leaning against the wall, with olive complexion, big hair, and a leisure suit. He seemed familiar, maybe one of the entertainers from the '72 convention. One thing he was sure about: The guy was too light to be Sammy Davis, and he didn't look like the hugging type.

"Tony? Tony...Orlando? Is that you?" he said, hoping his voice wasn't betraying too much of his old anxiety about show people. "I didn't know you were..."

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