Fiction - Winter 2012

Tom, Dick, and Pat

Print

By Thomas Mallon


 

Most of the 34 passengers aboard Air Force One, traveling west from Washington to San Clemente, California, remembered to look at their watches as 12 noon EDT arrived and, somewhere over Jefferson City, Missouri, Richard Nixon ceased to be president. All chatter stopped for a long moment, until somebody finally muttered, “Air Force Once.”

Nixon—who had come aboard shockingly tired, observing that the back of the plane “smelled a lot better than usual” now that it was free of press—remained inside his cabin, taking the first sip of a martini with his press secretary, Ron Ziegler.

The stewards began serving shrimp cocktail and prime rib a little ahead of schedule. Some people couldn’t summon the energy for or stomach more than a couple of bites. In Haldeman’s day, the plane’s mood had been especially severe, but it hadn’t lightened all that much with his departure. The blue-gray décor of the new aircraft, which had become available after the ’72 election, suggested a submarine traveling at a low, serious depth. One almost expected to hear the pinging of sonar.

Inside her small private cabin, Pat Nixon sat behind a writing table, knowing that Dick was on the other side of the thin wall. She was comfortable enough, but even now would have preferred the old plane and its bright desert colors, no matter its taint of Jack Kennedy’s assassination.

She wanted to lie down on the narrow bed but had decided she should use the time to write some thank-you notes. And yet, when she saw the two stacks of available stationery, she didn’t have the heart to use either. One sported a letterhead saying The White House, where they no longer lived, and the other bore the words Air Force One, which this plane no longer was. She decided she had an excuse not to work, and she swept both piles of stationery into the trash basket—as wasteful a gesture as she’d allowed herself in the past five years—leaving only her untouched lunch and a pack of cigarettes on the table.

Closing her eyes, she thought again of what she’d seen on the South Lawn after boarding the helicopter: three soldiers rolling up the red carpet and hanging on to their dress caps against the chop of the rotors. They’d looked as if they were wrapping up a corpse. “It’s so sad, it’s so sad,” she’d heard herself say as the helicopter rose above the Ellipse. She had scarcely said a word since.

She regarded the blank, greenish screen of the little Sony TV in here and experienced a curious moment of joy, thinking that her own face might never again appear on any television, anywhere. She tried to prolong the thought, comfort herself with it, but there was one more thing she had to do before she could even pretend to relax.

She opened the door and stuck her head into the aisle, catching the eye of Colonel Brennan, who immediately came forward.

“I’d like to place a call,” she said, handing him a slip of paper. On it was Tom Garahan’s number.


She hadn’t really been happy until Tom came along. And then not really miserable until she’d pushed him away.

She had tried, over the years, to put him out of her mind, but it was hard to shut out the sensation of happiness, what she’d briefly known with him. The memory was undulled by the confession of it to anybody, ever. The eight months wearing kerchiefs and dark glasses; the afternoon meetings in movie theaters: there they were, the still-vibrant images and feelings, assaulting her now.

It was in Manhattan, on a fall day in 1966, that she first met him. That fall Tricia had been at Finch and Julie away at Smith, and she herself had relished having so many hours alone—until, for the first time ever, she found herself with too little to do. She would go out in the mornings for a walk, and late in the afternoons she actually began watching a soap opera, Dark Shadows.

The day it happened, Dick had been in the Midwest, speaking for some Republican congressional candidates. She’d been walking home from Elizabeth Arden and had stopped in a Schrafft’s on Madison Avenue. She’d had a big headscarf on, protecting her just-tinted hair, and was startled when the Puerto Rican waitress brought her a dessert she hadn’t ordered, saying, “The gentleman told me to tell you that he’s an independent, but that everybody likes apple pie.”

For some reason she hadn’t felt edgy, as she usually did when approached by even the nicest of strangers. She’d started to laugh, and to look around for whoever had sent the pie; she smiled when he nodded at her. She took him in right away, thanks to 20 years’ practice with quick introductions and size-ups: a few years older than herself; Irish, of the laciest-curtained sort. As she would learn in the next few hours and over the coming months, he was a widower, an early-retired trust-and-estates lawyer with plenty of money who lent his time to a dozen boards and organizations.

It was the mischief in his eyes, the kind her father used to have after the first drink but not the second, that made her wave and then beckon him to her table. Before she knew it, silver-haired Tom Garahan had sat down and they were talking, for two hours, until she joked that it would soon be time for her to go home and watch Dark Shadows.

Which is how they became Victoria and Roger, pet-named for two characters on the program.

All that fall, and during the winter and spring that followed, they would meet on a corner of Park Avenue at whatever time they’d arranged when she called him. If they went to the Frick, and someone did recognize her, people would assume he was a docent showing her around; if someone came over while they were in a restaurant having lunch, she would introduce him as one of her Ryan cousins, or a valued old contributor to the California campaigns who was here in the East on a visit. When she went to his apartment on Madison, she wore sunglasses, and identified herself to the doorman as Miss Ryan, as if she were still answering the telephone in Dick’s Senate office.

She always got home well before Dick, and always carried a shopping bag from Rizzoli or Bergdorf’s to show where she’d supposedly been.

And then the summer of  ’67 arrived, and there was no more denying what would soon be upon her. For three weeks she tried to delay giving Dick the answer—yes, you can run—the one she knew all along she’d finally offer. She gave up Tom, whose merry and hurt way of letting her go made her love herself for the first time in her life.

They didn’t again see each other or speak until that October day in ’72 when she’d gone to New York for an event at the Waldorf-Astoria. She had been looking out the window of a room 18 floors above Park Avenue, thinking how ridiculous it was that the committee for Dick’s reelection, which had money to burn, should be shelling out for a suite of rooms in which she would spend less than an hour, before the dinner downstairs and the flight back to Washington.

That’s when she noticed a basket of fruit and flowers on the table and thought she ought to read the card. The envelope was marked with a little green-and-gold harp, symbol of the American Irish Historical Society, the organization honoring her that night. The flowers were lovely out-of-season ones, and they took her mind back more than 30 years to the May basket in which Dick had hidden her engagement ring.

She extracted the note, recognized the handwriting as much as the names:

Victoria—I’ll be at table 28—Roger

“Oh, my,” she said, the twang in her voice suddenly exaggerated, the way it got when she became tired or elated. Her right hand was trembling. She willed her heart to slow down, telling herself the two hours ahead would be easier than the hailstorm at Yellowstone or the wind in Billings, both experienced in recent weeks on the campaign.

Downstairs, the ballroom contained 900 guests, and the flowers on the dais weren’t nearly so pretty as the ones Roger had managed to get to Victoria. She had the card in her clutch purse and was glad to realize that the lights prevented her from seeing beyond the first row of tables.

“Thank you, thank you,” she heard herself say a few minutes later, after the lieutenant governor of New York introduced her. Her remarks were brief, and in less than a minute she was back in her seat, eating dinner, forcing herself not to look beyond the dais, now that they’d dimmed the lights a bit. After the coffee came, there would be a short after-dinner receiving line for her to work, and that would be it. In 20 minutes she would be back on the plane to Washington, sitting down with the Taylor Caldwell novel that was in her purse.

Would he come through the line? Two of the first dozen hands she shook belonged to men wearing the little gold pin that signified their gift of at least a thousand dollars to the campaign. A couple of nuns then approached—not the habitless girls of today, all big on abortion and against the war, but an old-fashioned pair like the ones she remembered from her long-ago job at the TB hospital in the Bronx.

As the line moved and shortened, she felt her heart beginning to pound—whether from relief or disappointment she couldn’t be sure. And then there he was, right in front of her: a pair of blue eyes instead of Dick’s brown ones; a jaw that was firm instead of jowled. Here was Tom, with his small, good-natured Irish paunch, a man not forcing himself to eat cottage cheese for lunch.

“Thomas Garahan,” he said, extending his hand with a big grin.

She smiled and gave the Secret Service man the usual signal, a gently cocked head, to indicate the need for a private word with the person coming through the line. There was always someone special, often recently bereaved, and the agent would take them to a nearby little room that had been secured for this purpose.

“Victoria.”

“Roger.”

They didn’t embrace, just sat down on the kind of tufted bench you found in a powder room. By themselves for the first time in five years, they looked at each other.

“Well,” he said. “I held out for as long as I could. Then a couple of months ago I decided I was going to throw caution to the winds.”

“Oh?” she asked. “What made you do that?”

“That gesture you made down in Miami. Brushing back some phantom wisp of hair that wasn’t even mussed. You never do that unless you know I’m looking.”

It was true: speaking to the convention in August, she had caught a reflection of herself pressing an errant strand of hair back into place. It had been a fussy, vain gesture, not at all her style, and as soon as she saw it, she realized she was doing it for Tom. She had known he would be watching her on television, a thousand miles away and all alone, having a late supper off his widower’s tray in the library of his apartment. She laughed now, remembering the moment.

“I was hoping for a blush,” said Tom. “I’m not wrong, am I?”

“You watched the con-
vention?”

“Of course I did. I watch every piece of film the evening news runs of you. You should tell Agnew to let up on the network guys a little. They’ve shown some very pretty pictures of you out West.”

Now she was blushing and avoiding his gaze. “Kids okay?” she asked.

“The finest of fettle. Both married off, same as yours. I saw you dancing at Tricia’s wedding, too. I would have cut in if I’d been there.”

She laughed. “He really is the worst dancer, isn’t he?”

“I took a vow, you’ll remember, never to criticize him. But Herbert Hoover could cut a better rug.”

After a moment, she asked: “You want to hear about holding out?”

“Tell me.”

“I’ve twice written notes to Rose Woods saying, ‘Put Mr. Thomas Garahan of New York City on this or that invitation list’—Boy Scouts, cancer, one or another of your good works. Nobody would have thought twice about your being there.” She paused. “And I almost sent them to her.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I didn’t.”

“Good. Whenever I was with you, I hated seeing a third person in the room, let alone 300 of them.”

She would have given anything for it to be six years ago, noontime on a weekday, the two of them sitting over plates of spaghetti at Gino’s.

She touched his arm and looked down at her lap. “I’ve got to get back out there.”

He stood up, took both her hands, and gently brought her to her feet.

She laughed as soon as she noticed his
thousand-dollar-donor pin.

“Kiddo,” he said, “the things I do for you.” He added, softly, “But I promise I won’t pull anything like this again.”

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“I won’t need to next time.”

“Oh?”

“You’ll be the one who does.”


The following April, three months after the second inauguration and two hours before Dick would go on television to fire Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Pat was in the White House solarium. In a matter of weeks Watergate had gone from being nothing much to an all-consuming catastrophe. Her husband was still up at Camp David, polishing the speech he would give from the Oval Office.

She stubbed out a cigarette and picked up a phone she was certain had no tape recorder attached to it.

“Operator, this is Mrs. Nixon. Please get me Mr. Thomas A. Garahan in New York.” She gave the Madison Avenue address (acting as if she didn’t know the number herself) and hung up. As she waited for the connection to be made, she pictured Tom behind the tray table in his study, drinking a second cup of coffee after eating his dinner with Cronkite.

The phone rang. “I have Mr. Garahan in New York,” said the operator.

“Thank you.” Pat waited for the civilized click assuring her that no one was listening in, that for the next several minutes her conversation with Tom would only shine as a small red light amid all the switches and wires downstairs.

“I want to tell you what I’ve been thinking of,” she said to him. She was alarmed by the strain she could hear in her own voice.

“Tell me,” he said, gently.

“I’m remembering a day late in ’68. Just three or four weeks after the election. We were going down to Key Biscayne, and Johnson gave us Air Force One for the trip. We got on it together for the first time. And you know what he did? Dick?”

“Tell me.”

“He picked me up by the waist and spun me around. Twice. He hadn’t done that when we got the house in Whittier or even the one on Tilden Street, just a couple of miles from here. But that plane. That was carrying me over a threshold he could appreciate.”

She didn’t have to ask if Tom was listening; she knew his silence indicated patience, a willingness for her to tell this story at her own pace. And she didn’t have to worry that he was hearing anything in it but a tormented affection for her husband.

“We thought we were alone,” she continued. “Later I found out that Ron Ziegler was near the back of the cabin and had seen the whole thing.”

Her eyes were still dry, but she didn’t know for how much longer.

“I haven’t been myself since Easter,” she said briskly, straightening her shoulders. “The most horrible weekend we ever spent in Florida. I couldn’t make myself open the newspapers. I’m sorry; I’m rambling.”

“Ramble.”

“I can’t. I’ve got to go. I can hear the helicopter coming toward the lawn.”

Suddenly Tom Garahan roared with Irish laughter—over this absurdly grandiose version of the oh-my-God-he’s-home-early moment that each of them had seen a hundred times at the movies.

Pat herself couldn’t keep from smiling.

“Back in October,” she said, “you told me that I’d be the one coming to you next time. So I guess you were right.”

“My being right doesn’t matter. But I can tell you what does, Victoria. What matters is that much, much worse is yet to come. The reporters on the television are so worked up you’d think it was D-Day.”

“Yes,” she said. “Their liberation is in store.”

“Find a way to get up here,” said Tom.

She said nothing, just hung up, hoping he would think the rotors had drowned out her reply.

A month later, just after the party for the
returning POWs, they all went down to Key Biscayne—she and Dick, Julie and David, Tricia and Ed. Once supper was over they watched a print of Indiscreet.

“How dare he make love to me and not be a married man! ” Ingrid Bergman exclaimed about Cary Grant.

If only Tom had been married! The whole affair (she still hated the word) would have been easier, because it would never have gotten started in the first place: it would have been beyond the pale. She was still the only one in Washington to know of his existence. Or was she? Had Hoover perhaps started a file back in ’66? She wouldn’t put it past his reach or his appetite.

Dick sat there with his glasses far down his nose, eyes trained on a legal pad, flipping a page more loudly than necessary—the kind of thing that had made her grind her teeth ever since the girls were babies. But she needed now to be much more than annoyed. She needed to get titanically, openly angry with him, as she’d been only two or three times in the past 30 years. She needed to do it soon, if she was going to get through what they were facing. She couldn’t fight his enemies, not to the finish, unless she first fought with him, got it out of her system.

She saw Julie trying to catch her eye, motioning for the two of them to go out to the kitchen. Okay, she nodded, picking up a bowl of potato chips that needed refilling.

“Tricia and I went in and talked to Daddy in the Lincoln Room last night. He was smoking his pipe,” Julie said, laughing nervously. “With his feet up on the hassock.”

Pat didn’t know what to say. The pipe, the hassock—somehow it all brought to mind not Dick, but Tom, whom she badly needed.

“Mother, he asked us if he should resign.”

Pat shook her head in disgust, not at Dick’s tormentors but at Dick himself. “What did you say?”

“We said, ‘Don’t you dare!’ of course!”

She lit a cigarette. “He was just letting off steam, Julie.” But he was also extracting testimonials to his worth and valor from his own daughters. She wanted to go back into the living room and tell him: for God’s sake, do that with Bebe, do it with Kissinger—but don’t do it with the girls.

“What do I say the next time he asks?” wondered Julie.

Pat crumpled an empty bag of chips and threw it into the garbage pail.

“I’m going to bed,” she said.


By the middle of July—a month after John Dean’s monotoned, marathon session with the Ervin Committee, and days after the existence of the tapes was revealed—Dick lay in Bethesda Naval Hospital, recovering from pneumonia.

“Hi, fella,” Pat said, stopping in after dinner one evening and kissing her husband’s freshly shaved cheek.

“You know, now that the pain is leaving”—he tapped his chest—“I realize more and more what Arthur and Harold went through. Christ, not to mention your father.”

Pat instantly rejected all three comparisons. Like Dick’s tubercular brothers, Tom Ryan had lived with, and then died from, his disease—silicosis. The illness that had put Dick in here was already cured, dissipating into the air. She could again feel anger rising inside her, this time over his dramatics; she raised her chin imperceptibly and narrowed her eyes. If anyone here had pulmonary worries, it was herself: the doctor had warned her she was a prime candidate for emphysema. And it didn’t help that right now she was dying for a cigarette.

She took a chair near the window and looked out at the setting sun. “So,” she asked, after a couple of silent minutes, “do you want me to weigh in?” She was talking, of course, about the tapes.

“Sure,” Dick answered.

“Get rid of them. Immediately.” She’d been sick to her stomach with the thought of a hundred Democratic lawyers mocking every phone call Plastic Pat had ever made to the Oval Office. She could hear them mimicking her cheerfulness and twang as she conveyed to Dick the compliments of some African first lady, or told him how cute the Chinese pandas looked at the zoo.

He nodded, pleased that she was taking the hard line, but not really signaling his own intent.

“They will use whatever is on them, half a phrase, to finish you off,” Pat argued. “And they’ll eventually get all of them. Every reel, every syllable. They’ll say it’s all government property, created on the government clock.” She was determined to avoid bringing up any personal stake she might have in the tapes’ destruction, because she didn’t want him granting her a favor and thereby giving her a reason to quell the anger still building within her.

She couldn’t stand that her emotions were all over the place. Looking at the pill bottles, the now-silent respirator, all the dials and monitors, she became furious at the newspaper columnists and talk-show panelists who kept insinuating that Dick had barely been sick. And then, looking at Dick himself, she thought for just a second how much easier everything would be, for him and for her, if last Thursday night, with the fever still spiking, he’d run into some unexpected difficulty and died; if the diagnosis had been viral pneumonia, with complications, instead of without.

What she had held back finally erupted four months later, during Thanksgiving dinner at Camp David. She had risen from the table and, without excusing herself, walked off to her bedroom. To her considerable surprise, Dick followed to see what was the matter. For a moment she was touched, but she knew the flash of gratitude would not be enough to cap the gusher of rage that seemed at last ready to escape. She didn’t turn around, just kept staring out the window and down Catoctin Mountain.

“Anything wrong, honey?” her husband asked. “I thought we’d call Rose and say hello. I was sort of hoping you’d get on the line.”

“Do you know why Rose isn’t here?”

Nixon laughed, effortfully, trying to deflect the question about his long-time secretary. “Well, our Miss Woods has become a city girl.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m a reporter,” Pat snapped. “And don’t believe she turned down the invitation to be here today because she doesn’t like the insects and the cold. Do you know where she is spending Thanksgiving?”

Nixon looked down at his wing-tipped shoes. “With one of her brothers, I assumed.”

Pat turned to face him and threw a balled-up tissue into the wastebasket. “She’s with the family of her lawyer. It’s the first time she’s ever had a lawyer.” Rose was getting ready to go to court on Monday, where she would try to explain how a tape she’d been transcribing wound up containing 18½ minutes of silence.

“Pat,” said the president. “Calm down.” As he spoke the words, Nixon realized that in 33 years of married life he’d never before had to use them.

Pat was realizing the same thing. It was all too much, and it was killing her. Five days ago, in front of the press, who were now spreading lies about their tax returns, he’d let slip the phrase “I’m not a crook.” He’d said it more in desperation than defiance—but the awful vulgarity of it! Like some line in the gangster pictures she used to see getting made on the Warner Brothers lot, 40 years ago, when she worked as an extra.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “I know they’re to blame.” She didn’t have to tell him who they were: the Kennedys and Stevenson and everyone else who’d made him into the archfiend since the days of Jerry Voorhis and Helen Douglas, and who’d flung five times the mud and brimstone he had. “I would have made an enemies list twice as long as yours and Colson’s, and I would have done something to get the people on it. Anything to be rid of them forever. I hate your enemies, but you love them. You love their existence; they’re what gives you your own. That’s why I’m sick with anger at you: for bringing us to the top of this awful mountain. We’re never going to get back down it without being devoured!”

The slightest narrowing of her eyes was usually enough to drive him from a room. But he just stood there, for one more long moment, as if looking into an atomic blast. Finally, he turned to leave.

“I want to go home,” said Pat.

He turned back to face her, aware that his eyes were glistening with tears, same as hers. “Where’s home?” he asked, hoping to ingratiate himself with a sheepish shrug.

“I know exactly where home is!” cried Pat, before turning back to the window, turning her back on him, willing him out of the room. She was shaking, and wouldn’t be able to breathe until she’d had a cigarette. If he didn’t leave right now, she feared she would tell him everything, tell him that home was a widower’s apartment on upper Madison Avenue and that she hadn’t seen it in six years.

But doing that would only add Tom Garahan to the victims who were piling up like a cord of wood.

Once Dick was gone, she sat on the bed and smoked three cigarettes in the dark room. She felt calm returning. The storm that had gathered inside her for months had, in the space of a half hour, spent itself.

She knew that she would stick with him to the end.


And now, aboard the plane that had just stopped being Air Force One, she closed the door to her cabin and waited for the phone to ring. As soon as she picked it up, she realized that the signal was terrible; the roar of white noise sounded like the crowds in Cairo two months ago.

What? ” she asked. “What did you say?” She’d only caught a word or two.

Then Tom Garahan’s voice again broke through, a little more clearly this time: “I said you’re heading in the wrong direction!”

“Oh!” she cried, hoping he would hear her laugh. “For a long time now!”

“What?”

“—long time now—”

And then, suddenly, the signal cleared, as if the static had been turbulence and the pilot had just found a calm airstream.

“They’re waiting for you,” said Tom, sounding as if he were in the cabin.

“Who?” she asked.

“A crowd near San Clemente, at the Marine base where you’re going to land. There are thousands of them there, singing ‘God Bless America.’ ”

She took a cigarette from the pack. She could feel the tears and nausea coming. She could not face it, not after having to stand through that televised farewell to the staff, only hours ago, in the East Room.

“The screen keeps shifting back and forth between there and Washington,” Tom explained.

“Turn it off, please.”

She could hear the click, after he got up from the couch in the Madison Avenue apartment.

“I sent you something,” she said, when Tom returned to the line. She’d written him Tuesday night, sent him back the little gold shamrock he’d once given her.

“I already got it, this morning. In fact I’ve already carried out your instructions.”

She’d told him not to keep it but to go to Schrafft’s and leave it—a shiny, mysterious piece of luck, for someone else to find—on the table where they’d first sat together. The gentleman told me to tell you that he’s an independent, but that everybody likes apple pie.

“Schrafft’s has seen better days,” Tom informed her.

“So have I.”

“I offered it up, Victoria.”

He had once explained the phrase to her. It was what the Catholics did with any sorrows and trials that had to be borne: accept the burden, carry it, and make a gift of the labor to God. She’d asked him why they couldn’t make an offering of joy, and he’d replied, “Are you sure you’re even half Irish?”

“I offered up the joy,” he now told her.

She could no longer live between him and Dick, could no longer walk between two fires, one steady and warm, the other a wild alternation of blaze-ups and gutterings that seemed on the verge of going out for good. But only that second fire truly needed her tending. She did not know what lay ahead—certainly not joy—and she doubted her strength to endure it, let alone offer it up, but she knew where she would be.

“Thank you, Roger.” She felt relief and sadness, a cold wave of each crashing into the other.

She realized from the funny blank buzz on the line that the connection had cut out, the way it sometimes did at this altitude. She hung up safe in the knowledge that there was no recording of the conversation: Johnson had taped every call to and from the plane, but Dick had had the system removed after taking office. And he’d left the jet unwired when two years later everything else got tapped. The mystery of this exception was one more thing she intended never to think about once they were back in their own house.

After the plane had traveled another 10 minutes, another 100 miles west, she knocked on the door of Dick’s cabin. Her husband looked so hollowed out that the swivel chair he sat in seemed like some prescribed medical appliance.

“How is it?” she said, asking about his enlarged, phlebitic leg, the one he’d stood on for hours in Cairo, looking for a last chance to save things with the miracle of a peace settlement in the Middle East—where, after all, water had been turned into wine and Lazarus had been raised from the dead.

“All right for the moment.”

“It ought to be up.” She pulled the hassock toward him, and as she leaned over to do so their faces came closer. Each could see how much the other had been crying.

“I’m so—mystified!” He groped for this word she couldn’t remember him ever using, and once he found it, he started to sob. “I don’t know how it happened, how it began. Half the time when I hear myself on the damned tapes, I realize that I was barely remembering who worked for who over at the reelection committee. I hear myself acting like I know more than I do—pretending to be on top of the thing so I don’t embarrass myself with whoever’s in the room—”

“Dick,” she interrupted, patting his swollen knee. “You’re going to make yourself sick.”

He closed his eyes, and the sobs let up, at least for a moment. She was alarmed by how bad he looked, didn’t know how he could put himself in front of another crowd an hour from now.

“Dick,” she whispered, taking his hand.

He was looking at her now, wanting to tell her that he loved her. She knew that he couldn’t, no more than he could make himself ask if she loved him. For an awful second she feared he would say, “I hope I haven’t let you down,” as if she were one more Nebraska congressman he was calling to say goodbye.

She rubbed her thumb back and forth across the top of his hand, soothing him, trying to change the subject. “You can’t say this isn’t a smooth ride. Remember that first one?”

He nodded, like a child subsiding from a tantrum. He knew what she was referring to: their first plane trip together as a family, in ’48, flying east to west, both girls in little bonnets. Six prop flights to get them from Washington to California. Julie’s infant ears hurt each time they touched down, but the baby’s mother never lost her temper, or so much as a pair of gloves, the whole trip.

She looked at him now, a sight so painful she couldn’t conjure any further image from the better years behind them. She could see only the months ahead—the encouragements, the scoldings, the jokes and stratagems it would take to keep him alive, at home or in prison. That would be her work, and she would offer it up with whatever tenderness she had in her. It was the one thing left for her to do, and she would be worthy of it.

“Do you love me?”

Suddenly the words were out of him, making her flinch, like a firecracker thrown during a motorcade. He wanted her to answer a question he hadn’t asked in more than 30 years. She leaned over to kiss his forehead, trying to find the words to use, and they came to her, from all the campaign banners they had walked under two years ago, on their way toward this moment, this ruin. “Now more than ever,” she whispered.

Thomas Mallon is a contributing editor of the Scholar and the author of seven novels and seven works of nonfiction. His writing appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and many other publications.


Comments powered by Disqus