Forest and I went round and round about the photos.
“It’s a memoir,” I told him. “Memoirs start when you’re a tyke. The photos will help me remember.”
“People don’t want to know all that,” he said. “You should go straight to the weird shit.”
He sat at the foot of my hospital bed, looking like a farm boy in his jeans and red flannel shirt. Sometime between Cape Grange and now, he’d started wearing his hair in short dreads. He looked good, and I was delighted to see him, even if we did bicker. Of all my visitors, Forest alone made me feel like everything would be okay. No pity in those eyes, only that half-squint, the sideways tug at his cheek like he was trying not to laugh.
There was only one other person I’d rather have sitting with me, but his doctors kept telling him, You have to take it easy. Conserve your strength. My grandfather looked—oh, hell. Let’s just say I didn’t think I could put too many demands on him.
“People need background,” I said. Then I had to shut up awhile because the storm pounded the windows, put on a tantrum of lightning and thunder, like Thor himself was mightily crisped. I found out later, folks had already started calling it the Storm with a capital S. Like Noah’s Flood, which would surely come next.
When we could talk, Forest poked his thumb toward the ceiling. “Some folks say it’s the Beast.”
I snorted. “Then it’s up to me to explain things. The assassination, the deportations, the weather. The official story makes no sense, so folks are making it up.”
“Start your memoir at the election, then.”
Forest really didn’t want to drive to D.C. I wasn’t happy about putting him through it, either, but I needed something real in my hands. “Look, I’m sorry. I know it’s not easy traveling in all that wet, but I want my photos.”
“Would be easier to get one of the President’s staff to scan and email ‘em.”
I stared him down, then looked at the scar on the wall where he’d unscrewed the plasma screen. We’d come to realize the electromagnetic spectrum held its own unique perils, so I would no sooner open an email attachment than I would keep a television in the same room with me. Forest knew this.
“Point taken,” he said, following my gaze.
“It’s not over. They’re still out there.”
Bang, crash. Our eyes were on the Storm, or what we could see of it through the window. I knew from my bedside clock that it was close to sunset. The sky glowed dirty orange and had been like that for hours, as if the world had stopped turning, as if sunset would never come. Crazy thought, but you know what was really crazy? The fact that it wasn’t quite as crazy as it would have been ten days ago.
“I want my photos,” I said. “Folks have to understand about Dad and me. And Gator.”
He shrugged and I knew I’d won. “How you gonna start it?” he asked.
I made my voice all regal, like Bette Davis in one of those old black-and-whites I’d watched with Gator so long ago.
“I’ll say, ‘It is I, Kathryn Melissa Buscage, the media’s darling, formerly America’s First Daughter, bane of her father’s short sorry existence, and co-savior of the world. I am Kath to my friends, Widget to the Secret Service—may they sauté merrily in hell for that and other atrocities—and forever Shark to my beloved grandfather, Gator. No, no, please, do sit down. Thank you.’”
When we stopped laughing, Forest said, “Well, ain’t you Miss Pompous of Twenty twenty-five. Just say, ‘It is I, the Whore of Babylon.’”
“The press can be so cruel.”
Forest came back that evening with the photos. He left them in a box on my bedside table where I could reach them. He’s a good friend. The best. We could’ve been boyfriend-girlfriend in a very different kind of universe.
So now it’s morning and I’m lying here watching Alice in Wonderland decals peel off the walls—something about the humidity, I guess. The nurse keeps offering to bring in a TV. She doesn’t understand how I can just lie here with nothing to do.
My physical therapist comes at 9:00 AM. I wonder if I’ll be able to wiggle my toes today.
My grandfather takes photos the same way you or I do, but when I was growing up, he preferred using the Brownie box camera his father gave him. Gator bought his film on the Internet and developed it in his own darkroom. I remember the red light bulb that washed out all color, the cold and damp, the rattle of the fan, and the chemical reek which was almost a taste.
Gator’s hobby wasn’t all that much of an aberration. Some folks participate in Civil War re-enactments, some operate ham radios, some write blogs. Advanced tech is not always better tech. So I guess I could take Forest’s advice and have someone digitize these photos, but I have to wonder if they would still be the same. There are ways to change the past. There are ways to distort reality. I’ve seen it happen.
Here’s a good one. I’m three. My head is angled backward to help me balance Gator’s black black sunglasses on the bridge of my tiny nose. Look at that smile. This is one blissed kid. And why shouldn’t she be blissed? There’s Mom’s knee, fuzzed out in the background. There’s Dad, gesturing at someone with a tumbler of stink-a-drink. And there I am, a happy Shark, having a ball with her gramps’ sunglasses. Mom’s alive, Dad’s a drunk, but at least he’s an unambitious drunk.
Here’s another. Oh, man, Griff’s Skeet and Waffles. I can almost taste the maple syrup. Feed your face and bang out a few hundred rounds—where else can you do that? This time I’m wearing my own black black sunglasses, and I’m using both hands to hold Gator’s SIG-Sauer P229e. The glasses are Gator’s birthday present to me, and so is the P229e, sort of. We’re doing what Gator calls Practice Practice. The piece is unloaded, but he’s letting me fire at an off-camera target.
That’s your kindergarten teacher, he might have said. Oooh, what’s she reaching for in her purse? A yummy chocolate bar? No! It’s a Smith and Wesson M&P 9c! Boom, you’re dead.
Trust no one, Shark.
He talks me through it one step at a time, and when I pull the trigger, he shouts a satisfyingly loud bam!
Even with her sunglasses on, you can tell this kid is concentrating. There is no joy here. This Shark means business. I’m five and Mom’s dead. Dad’s a U.S. Senator, the asshole. But Shark has her Gator.
Oh, God. Look at this one. Not a Brownie photo, not one of Gator’s big, darkroom-made glossies, but a cell phone pic shot by one of Dad’s aides. It feels cheap in my hands, this thing coughed up from a color printer.
I’m six going on seven, and it must have been, what, early 2016? The scene is a Republican fundraiser, a barbecue hosted by the American Legion. I’m wearing my sunglasses. Back then, I wore them outdoors rain or shine, and would sometimes need to be reminded to take them off indoors. Hey, other kids have security blankets. At least I didn’t insist on carrying the P229e.
A woman with a lacy white blouse and red skirt stands beside me, her back to the camera. She’s holding out a burger dripping juice and ketchup, nearly pushing it into my face. There you have it: The origin of a lifelong aversion. The photo doesn’t show it, but I can’t forget her ferocious, unblinking intensity as she says, “What a yummy sandwich! Heavens, what I wouldn’t do for such a sandwich. Come on, sweetie, take it, it’s de-lish-e-us!” That’s when someone took the photo.
I didn’t know who she was, why she was nagging me, or why she called a hamburger a sandwich. I wanted to run away but I was afraid to turn my back on her. Amazingly, it was Dad who came to my rescue.
“Give it a rest, Liz,” he said. “She ain’t votin’ for another twelve, thirteen years.”
“Dale, honey, you’re such a cynic.” Though she was talking to Dad, she didn’t break eye contact with me, didn’t stop waving the burger at my nose. But with Dad’s arrival, I could run.
The photo has an odd chromatic aberration, a blue-green aurora arcing over the woman in question. The woman who would, that fall, win the United States Presidential election.
When Gator first saw the photo, he said, “Since when do cell phones have light leaks?”
“What’s a light leak?”
“Or maybe not a light leak.” His voice became oddly formal. Theatrical. “Did you feel it, young Skywalker?”
“What?” I squeaked.
“A great disturbance in the Force!”
He giggled himself silly and wouldn’t explain the joke. I walked away, disgusted. The man constantly made references I couldn’t understand.
Oh! Here’s one of mine, must have been a few years later. The point of view is crazy. Dizzying. Dark bars stripe the foreground, unfocused—grass, maybe. Treetops stab a cirrus-filled sky.
It was the weekend. Dad was on a fact-finding mission in Aruba and Gator had Shark-sitting duties. He was still in the Secret Service, though. When the phone rang that morning, I knew by the look on his face we wouldn’t be hitting the matinee for Pixar’s Taxi Driver: The Musical in 3D.
“Oh,” I said, making it a three-syllable word, ending on a high note.
“Road trip, Upstate New York, someplace northwest of Newburgh.”
“That’s like an eight-hour drive!”
“Six, but we’ll make it in five, piece of cake. We’ll get her done, get some dinner—now don’t make faces, I know a place does a great black bean burger. And there’s an inn off the Interstate, they got hot tubs in the rooms. It’s a mini-vacation. Work and play, a real two-fer.”
When we got there seven hours later—this campground with cabins and trailers—he left me in the car with nothing but his tablet for entertainment. Told me not to wander off. Booby traps, he said.
I was in the middle of Harriet the Spy. Gator’s recommendation. “I want you to grow up to be an independent-minded woman,” he said. So naturally I wandered the grounds, taking pictures with the tablet’s camera. Mostly shots of double-wides, rusted hibachis, and dog poops. I lost track of time, but it was getting close to sunset. I’d just completed my series entitled Broken Bird Feeders of the American Northeast when someone crept up on me. “Hey.”
I nearly dropped the tablet. I turned and saw a tall black kid.
He reached for my tablet. “Gimme that. You ain’t supposed to be—”
I launched myself at him. Don’t know what I did, but we were both on the ground tumbling and grappling for the tablet. I accidentally snapped the photo in question and then did something that made him yelp and say, “Awwww, shit, girl!”
I ran as fast as I could, but I heard him behind me, closing the gap. When I got to Gator’s car, the kid came to a sudden stop behind me.
Gator was waiting. He looked annoyed, but not angry. Never angry. Plenty of that from your daddy, he used to say.
“There you are,” he said, and we drove off.
“Yeah, there’s more going on here,” Gator said, as if I’d asked a question. “Ain’t done here, not by a long shot.”
“We’re not going home tomorrow?”
“What? No, of course we’re going home tomorrow.” He looked over his shoulder at the campground receding behind us. I looked back, too, and saw the boy standing there, shaking his head, eyes smoldering. His chest was heaving from the run, and so was mine.
That was how I met Forest.
“Good people here,” Gator said. “We’ll have to come back sometime when things aren’t so hectic.”
Some years later, maybe halfway through Dad’s second term as Senator, I asked Gator a question.
“Fox says Dad is moderate-leaning. It’s always, ‘Moderate-leaning Republican Senator Dale Buscage.’ What do they mean? He either is a moderate or he isn’t, right?”
I was thirteen at the time; the year was 2022. Gator had been retired for three years, sacked from the Secret Service by President Bracken during one of her mad purges. We were at the ranch in Duffy for Dad’s Thanksgiving recess. The previous day, I’d had to watch Dad chop the heads off a half dozen turkeys at an NRA picnic. After that, he’d had a Town Hall at the American Legion, but I was spared that special torture. Gator took me to a Vern & Cotswold for a banana split and root beer float (we would order one of each and swap halfway through). But I wasn’t spared dinner with Dad, asbestos chicken at First Baptist. I ate both of our sides of carrots and peas, and filled up on bread.
Next morning my grandfather and I were back at the ranch, practicing our Tae Kwon Do forms in the bamboo-floored den Gator had converted to a dojo. Wall of window in front of us, couple acres of lawn one story down, then a white picket fence, a line of poplars, Division Road, and finally cattle grazing just close enough to see but not close enough to smell, provided the wind didn’t turn. Rancho de Photo Op, Gator used to say.
I asked my question, and Gator launched a hellacious front-kick. Amazing. The man worked out in soft body armor and scarcely broke a sweat. He said, “Means he’s good at pandering to the center while keeping the base happy.”
Tinkle of ice behind us—Dad, scotch rocks in one hand, morning newspaper in the other. A newspaper! Dad, the drunken Luddite, couldn’t manage to get his news off the Internet like the rest of us.
What would I do without my funny pages, darlin’?
Ever hear of web comics, Dad?
“Pandering, hell,” he said, eyes all daggers at Gator.
Yeah, we both knew he was back there. It was part of our long-running game to crisp Dad’s ass. I know why I did it, but I could only guess at Gator’s reasons.
“Means I’m positioned for twenty twenty-four, Kathryn.” He was the only one left who called me that. Kathryn, or Kathy, or Kate, or—this one’s really vile—Katydid. “Moderates’re the only Republicans folks’ll vote for anymore after that debacle with Liz Bracken.”
“Means he won’t support the death penalty for abortionists,” Gator muttered, talking over Dad. Kick. “Means he thinks gays may still deserve a few rights in the courtroom.”
“Watch what you say round my little girl,” Dad said. “She don’t know nothin’ about no gay abortionists.”
Gator humphed. I got a chill up my spine and faltered on my front snap kick. I turned to face Dad, who slouched against the door jamb, staring into his drink.
“Wait,” I said. “Lizette Bracken. President Bracken?”
“Bitch damn near kilt the party.”
“You don’t come up for reelection until twenty twenty-five.”
He tipped his drink toward me and nodded. “Smart girl.”
“So you’re thinking about the Presidency in twenty twenty-four?”
“Country’s hungry for some Buscage.”
Swaying a bit, he jiggled his scotch rocks and made his way down the hall. In those days, Dad had the look of a fatter man who had discovered Jesus, Son of Atkins, or a good bariatric surgeon. In Dad’s case it was all three. He liked to sneak up on us during our workouts, ogle us with the dismay of a missionary watching the funeral practices of a heathen race. He’d say, Can’t fight the fat, Katydid. It’s in your genes. Then he’d explain his jeans/genes pun and laugh like he’d never used that one before.
Don’t worry, Sweet Stuff, I’ll pay for a Gastric Girdle when the time comes.
The man missed the whole point of Tae Kwon Do. He saw two people moving and grunting. The man missed the point about a lot of things, but I suspect you know that already. I know, don’t speak ill of the dead. But some people.
Anyway, there he went, swaying and swaggering, having just dropped the P-bomb on me and Gator. I stood there, numb. It was the first I’d heard of a presidential run.
Gator had stopped working through his form. He stood at my side, breathing evenly. We heard Dad’s bedroom door open and close.
“I can’t believe it,” I said.
“He always wanted to get traded up to the majors,” Gator said.
“I thought the Senate was the majors.”
“Not to Dale.” He shook his head the fewest number of degrees necessary for a head shake to qualify as a head shake. “That boy will always be a disappointment to me.”
I should explain that Gator is not Dad’s father. He’s Dad’s father-in-law. His real name is Lester Earnley, so you can see why he would prefer Gator. He’s Lester Earnley, father to Lisa Earnley, my mother, whom Dad left during her second round of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Vomiting women with crooked wigs are not photogenic on the campaign trail, after all.
Dad left her, and then he divorced her (which Dad said was just a formality anyway, since they hadn’t been husband and wife for a good long time), and then her health insurance cut her off, and then she ran out of money, and then she died.
To his credit, Dad claimed he didn’t kill her. “I’d have given her the money,” he told me more than once. “All she had to do was ask.” You’d think Dad of all people would understand pride.
Damn chemo was killin’ her anyway, Katydarlin.
Dad claimed he didn’t leave her during chemo. In my father’s never-to-be-published biography, Buscage: The Man, the Myth, by Maria Antonia Borges (the woman Dad left Mom for), a copy of which I stole from Dad’s email, he claims he left Mom “some four years before we had Kathryn,” which Gator said shouldn’t confuse me. “People are complicated,” he said.
Dad got his start as a personal injury lawyer, but in 2022 you wouldn’t have known that from his Wikipolitics entry. I’m sure he must have employed a small army of volunteers to scrub the Wiki clean of all evidence of McBuscage. As much as I’d like to take credit for McBuscage, it’s Gator’s. Dad was McBuscage long before I was born. At county fairs, Wal-Mart parking lots, pet supply warehouses and anywhere else he could find people, he would distribute flat refrigerator magnets adorned with his phone number and his unsmiling three-piece-suitedness and his motto: Dale Buscage, Your Accident Attorney. I Fight For YOU! At the bottom of the magnet were the words: Over $175,000,000 Recovered.
Recovered, as if the money generated by Dad’s ambulance-harrying exploits had been salvaged from waterlogged Spanish galleons.
Gator used to keep a collection of these magnets. They were material evidence of the falsity of Wikipolitics’s claim that Dad cut his teeth as a public defender. The collection was chronological: Over $10,000,000 Recovered. Over $85,000,000 Recovered. Over $175,000,000 Recovered. Over $400,000,000 Recovered. He made his money from folks who didn’t realize hot coffee would be, uh, hot, and folks who stayed awake nights finding new uses for their ladders.
Then one day, a friend and client—a drunk-driver for whom Dad had successfully sued a manufacturer of flavored vodkas—told him: You could be in the State House. I could put you there.
He was an heir to the McKilbey Laser Tattoo Removal fortune and he had the money to make things happen. He liked Dad. They’d been to the same university, though at different times. They were drinking buddies. So this dude bribed the right people, and Dad, who had never voted in his life, was born again as a lifetime registered Republican who had never missed an election. You won’t find that in Wikipolitics, either.
After Mom died, why did Dad suffer Gator’s presence? You’d think Gator would’ve reminded Dad of his shame vis-a-vis my mother. But Dad had no shame, had even less ability to control my grandfather, and in any case no one gets between Shark and Gator.
Gator used to claim Dad kept him around because he was the ideal drinking partner. “He buys all my drinks and I give him nothing but shit,” Gator once said. “I appeal to his sense of self-loathing.”
After Dad’s big Thanksgiving Day reveal in Duffy, we flew back to D.C. My life threatened to become a mess of lunches, dinners, and speaking engagements. He ruined my Winter Break with ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the occasional stacked-audience Town Hall. Life was hell. One day, I took Gator’s advice and showed up at a Daughters of the American Revolution pancake breakfast wearing retro black eye shadow, and burst into streaky histrionic tears when a purple-haired Daughter put two strips of bacon on my plate.
“It’s a pig, not a portion, damn it!” I shrieked, and threw my plate to the floor.
Dad looked mortified, then resolute. By that afternoon, he had me in a psychiatrist’s office. Dr. Albion, this heavyset old guy who smelled like eggs and picked his nose when he thought I wasn’t looking, spent most of the interview taking a detailed sexual history and explaining to me that the newest generation of antidepressants had a decreased risk of suicide, but an increased risk of weight gain and hair loss.
“Small price to pay for an even keel,” he concluded.
I left the crumpled prescription in the front lobby’s waste can and told Dad that Dr. Albion had recommended an even stricter vegan diet and exercise. Vigorous daily exercise.
It worried me, the possibility that I’d overplayed my hand with the strict vegan diet thing, but Dad never even blinked. “Glad to hear it,” he said, and his nose stayed buried in the funny pages. So I bought some new running shoes with Dad’s money, and pounded pavement.
This worked for a while. But one Sunday when I thought Dad was going to a C Street prayer breakfast, I ducked out early and ran the Mall until I was certain he must have left. When I came home, he was waiting for me with the Cadillac and a carry-on bag. I eyed the bag with suspicion. My mind raced.
I knew Gator was off doing mature-person things with his ex-Secret Service pals, lawn bowling or vlogging or raving—who knew what these sixty-somethings got up to in their spare time? I wondered if Dad knew that Gator was out of the picture. He must have. He had that crafty grin, the one he wore when he thought he was holding all the cards.
“We never get much time together, Katydid. It’s either school or you’re at target practice with your granddaddy or you’re running yourself ragged. It’s this grueling campaign. A real family-destroyer.”
“Easy solution,” I said. “You haven’t even announced your candidacy. Call it quits and no one will be any the wiser.”
Even his scowl looked like something he’d pulled from a bag of well-practiced expressions.
“Not how it works. Not how it works at all. This political business, if you’re not reaching for the stars, you’re already six feet under. But that’s not what—”
“Strom Thurmond. Robert Byrd.”
“Like I’d want to spend the rest of my life doing this? Now, honey—”
“’Course not. Legislating is hard work. Not half as hard as being the Vanguard of Democracy, but still. How are things looking for that morning show on Fox? Probably be a cinch after a near-miss Presidential run.”
“You’re cynical, what you are.”
“We’ve been through this before, Dad. I’m a realist. You call realism ‘cynicism’ whenever reality is disagreeable.”
I could hear the man’s teeth grind. He had no answer to my last comment, so I anticipated a change in tactics. But I really thought I had won.
“Anyway,” he said, “what else were you gonna do today? I know you finished your homework. You always finish your homework first thing.”
“So it’s not like you have any real friends. Might as well keep your poor father company.”
“Lester’s off with his friends. And anyway, ain’t healthy, girl in the prime of her youth spending so much time with an old man. You should have a boy. I already had three girls by your age. Oh, they were lovely. Lovely.”
“Too much information,” I said, but I’d lost my spirit. I felt weakened, gut-shot. He’d won the damned argument.
On and on. It makes me so tired to think about it now. And I suppose you think it saddens me that I’ll never have the chance to argue with Dad again. That I treasure even those memories, now that he’s gone.
Um, not really. Mostly, I’m relieved.
“Press been harshing your daddy about your mother,” Gator explained later. “He needs you by his side. It shuts up certain people.”
So I figured. Anyway, we went on a Sunday picnic that happened to include a ninety-minute trip in the Cessna, barbecued ribs that looked dry and chewy (not that I tasted them), and a few hundred Southern Baptists.
He never left my side, kept his hand in mine or hugged me or gave me occasional cute little forehead kisses, fawned for the Baptists, fawned for the cameras, fawned on me more than he had the whole rest of my childhood put together.
This had to stop.
I wasn’t really spending all that much time with Gator. Dad exaggerated. Sure, we did breakfast together all the time. Gator slept (or didn’t sleep) at odd hours and would sometimes show up before sunrise to whisk me off to some hole-in-the-wall waffle house.
“But it’s only five-thirty,” I’d whine, and he’d say, “Doesn’t matter. Gotta get there early to case the joint. Only a slacker eats breakfast after eight.”
But on many occasions, I kept to myself. One Saturday some weeks after that Baptist picnic, Gator went paint-balling with his buddies, and he asked me along. I begged it off. We’d done it once about a year earlier and I’d had a blast until I realized they were letting me win. Bunch of gentlemen.
The night before, I’d finished writing the weekly prayer for ninth grade English, then skimmed my reading for Early Christian Philosophers until I fell asleep, my drool making a wet mess of Anselm of Canterbury’s Ontological Argument. I woke up, put on some sweats, did bathroom stuff, then ran around the block until I saw the Cadillac peel away. I showered, made myself a peach smoothie, finished my Algebra-Trig problem set. Thought about working on my project for Biology, but it was too damned depressing.
Surely there was something else I could do with the day. The Smithsonian had a new Creation Science exhibit, which would jibe well with that dreaded Biology project. Or I could cross the Southeast Freeway blindfolded, which would be about as much fun.
Not like you have any real friends.
I’d thought about it, of course, usually in the context of, If I make up some friends, how long before Dad figures it out? I didn’t put it past him to have someone tail me. Mind you, I could have had friends if my father had put me in a normal school. But C Street Academy of the Word it had to be. Part of my bona fides, Dad explained. I’d been there since seventh grade.
If I had friends my age, what would we be doing right now? Surround-skyping. Raiding our fathers’ bars for gin and vermouth so we could blow bile-laced martinis out our noses. Malling.
Now there was a thought. And I knew just the place.
Hanson’s Sphere: No ordinary mall, but a Wonder of the Modern World. So people said. A testimony to the indomitable American Spirit, blah yadda yadda blah blah. Erected lightning-fast in twenty months, at a cost of 23.7 jillion dollars. Interior cavity so huge that on particularly humid Virginia days, condensation dripped from the arching rafters like a spring shower. And so far unvisited by yours truly.
I had to admit the idea gave me the shivers. Near-misses creep me. But hey, I’m not superstitious; it’s crazy to think a place would want to kill you, right? Something like thirty thousand people per day overcame their dread of terrorism and radiation exposure to shop there. Sweet Jesus, the risk was part of the attraction: consistently in the top 10 of ClothesMonkey’s best-selling tees was their Grandma and Grandpa took me to Hanson’s Sphere and all I got was this lousy tumor.
The place technically was Hanson’s Corner Sphere, which makes as much geometrical sense as Hanson’s Corner Center—almost as if one ludicrous name had to be replaced by another to maintain balance in the universe. Five hundred plus stores, sixty-two restaurants and fast food eateries, one amusement park, three arcades, one petting zoo, a five-story aquarium, a branch outlet of my gym and two other chain gyms besides, two luxury hotels and one not-so-luxury hotel. People came here as if it were Disneyworld. People came here and never even visited the Capitol, which I didn’t understand. Even if you’re apolitical, D.C. is still a pretty neat place.
It was one of those days when the weather couldn’t make up its mind if it was late winter or early spring. I took the Orange Line to the West Falls Church Metro station, then grabbed a taxi and asked the cabbie to circle the place at a distance. Twenty, thirty dollars of driving. The words formed in my mouth: Take me home. Amazing, how different my life would have been had I said those three words.
“I’ll get out here,” I said, and hoofed it.
Yes, Dad would have preferred me to call a pool driver for this adventure, but I wasn’t one to take advantage of senatorial perks at the taxpayer’s expense. It never occurred to me I might be an attractive kidnapping target, but back then, I wasn’t. No more than any other congressional brat, of which the DC area had scads.
You have to walk to the Sphere if you want to appreciate it. Once you’re in the parking lot, it’s nothing but flying buttresses and oh, hey, look, they got the patio tables at Gordon Biersch to form Southern Tasmania. They have helicopter tours for folks who want the full Sphere experience, but folks like me showing up on a whim aren’t about to get tickets.
I was walking down Watson, appreciating the sheer oppressive scale of the Sphere (ah, Brazil, you are one big motherfucker), when I passed a Hookah Hut and heard a braying horse, a clucking chicken, and an oinking pig. Oh Holy Jesus on a roller coaster, not them. They sat around an outside table sharing a pipe, blissed and giggly and grinning at me through a fog of apple-scented smoke. I wanted to ask if their parents had signed the tobacco consent forms or if they’d faked the signatures, but I knew I’d sound like a stick.
“Well, looka there. Gal reminds me of the highway between Fort Worth and Dallas. No curves.”
That was Selena Goldsmith, fellow ninth grader, horse-brayer, whose weirdly corrupted Southern accent made me laugh even if she was making fun of me. Long black hair, dark eyes, dark skin, all-around delightfully Semitic good looks. Get her alone and she could be remotely friendly. I envied her lush hair, and her robustness for lack of a better word; whenever Dad harshed me for my wiriness (“Need to get some meat on them bones, girl. Eat some cheesecake, will you?”), I thought of Selena. I envied the ease with which she could smile or erupt into laughter without warning, so different from dirge-worthy me. Her dad represented Borough Park, Brooklyn, an intensely Republican Hasidic enclave. She was the only Jewish student at C Street Academy. Teachers would politely elicit her religious opinions. Like, “Selena, as a Chosen Person, what can you tell us about the miracle of Chanukah?”
“I say, I say look at me when I’m talkin’ to you. Nice girl, but about as sharp as a sack of wet mice.”
Julia Wynne, ringleader of the three, and highest ranking since her father, Butch “Admiral” Wynne, was Speaker of the House of Representatives. Strawberry-blond, all forehead and chin, hidden piercings she would reveal to her friends in the locker room after phys ed. Skeet shooter, flautist, and recent pig-impersonator. She wore new black jeans and a white tee featuring a red-lipsticked cartoon girl, busty-trampy and strawberry-blond like Julia. The caption read, When the Rapture comes, you can have my crotchless panties.
She intimidated me because she was popular and brash. She was the kind of girl who could give you a nickname that would stick with you to the grave.
“I hope your innards turn to outards and your ears go visey-versey!” Destiny said, the third girl.
“What the hell was that?” Julia asked.
“Yosemite Sam,” Destiny said. “See?” She flicked her Surround’s cloud to public so we could see her web-feed, but she left it oriented on herself. Everything looked backward.
Julia rolled her eyes. Selena slapped her forehead, all high drama. “Goddamn it, we were doing Foghorn Leghorn.”
And there’s Destiny in a nutshell. If the other two razzed me with Scarlet O’Hara-isms, Destiny would do a Blanche DuBois. The trio’s weakest link, as my grandfather would later say. Destiny Hope Blank was the daughter of Sebastian Blank, an Exxon lobbyist. I’d met her during my brief, disastrous career in Band—Destiny played clarinet, and I tortured cats and dogs with my wicked string bass riffs. Destiny was elfin. Adorable. Boys who spoke to her never looked higher than her breasts, which seemed fated for greatness. She would absorb their wisecracks with faux ignorance, but I often wondered about the faux part. Destiny had hair the color of a Norwegian rat. That she routinely brought home straight As seemed proof that grading at C Street was negotiable, but the bidding began well above the pocketbooks of your average congressperson.
I don’t know why they used to harsh me over my accent. I don’t even have much of an accent, not like Dad. I shun ain’t and y’all and I don’t drop terminal consonants unless I’m regally crisped. Anyway, I’d like to say that a dozen snappy comebacks came to mind, but in truth, I had only one thought.
Hey, look. Instant friends.
“I’m going to the Sphere,” I said. “You guys eat yet? My treat.”
We lunched at Cream-Crème. If you’re going to do the Sphere experience, you might as well make a pilgrimage to where it all went down. Cream-Crème was the centerpiece of a dessert court that included a Mrs. Fields, a Sees Candywiches, a Thirty-one Flavors of Popcorn, and a new Elvis-themed place that would dip your cones first in butterscotch glaze, then in any of two dozen different kinds of jimmies. Past the food court we could watch the Sputnik-o-Fun zip by, children howling, and beyond that cruised huge dull-eyed groupers, reef sharks, and manta rays in their massive tubular aquarium.
Selena polished off her chocolate pastry cream-filled cruller in three bites, leaving behind a walnut-sized hunk that she cupped between her hands. She opened her palms a crack and peeked inside to see if it glowed. I decided that if I had to hang out with the Capitol Hill Gang, it wouldn’t be so bad as long as Selena was around.
“How often do you suppose people call in bomb threats?” Destiny asked. “You know, just to be dicks.”
Julia triggered her Surround and tapped the space before her eyes with a sugar-dusted fingernail.
“Here it is. Harper’s, last March. Number of bomb threats received by all public institutions in the State of New York, per month: one point five. Number of bomb threats received at Hanson’s Corner Sphere, per month: five point nine.”
“Hmm. Something like seventy per year,” I said. “That’s a lot of dicks.”
“All depends on what you’re used to,” Julia said, winking at me. The three of them chortled. She fiddled with her Surround, copped another Southern belle accent. “If that girl had as many dicks sticking out of her as she’s had stuck in her, she’d look like a porcupine.”
Selena had her Surround up in record time. Her contribution: “Girl looks like she’s had a country mile of dick in her.”
Destiny struggled with her Surround. “Um, she really likes dick,” she said, not even bothering with the accent.
“C’mon, you guys,” I said. I held up my left hand, displayed the silver band around my ring finger. “See? I still wear my seventh grade chastity pledge. I’m a good girl.”
“Easy to abstain when you don’t have a boyfriend,” Julia said.
“So says the girl who would be the first to die in a horror movie,” Selena said. “Anyway, I’m betting Mall Security ignores those bomb threats. What could make it past the metal detectors and Geiger counters?”
“Biological agents for one.” I grabbed another cruller and talked through the pastry cream. “A clever terrorist would come back here. Like, ‘I’ll show you we’re still relevant!’ Look, President Walsh made a big fat deal about rebuilding Hanson’s on Ground Zero, remember? And he built a big fat globe to hit us over the head with the ‘one world’ symbolism. Want the U.S. out of the U.N.? Fuck you! Here’s a big fat globe. It’s like he’s asking for another attack.”
“So you buy the Administration’s story.” Julia collapsed her Surround and gave me a curious half-grin. She made air quotes. “Domestic terrorism.”
“Sure,” I said. “The dirty bomb had the same isotopic signature as a domestic cache in Nevada. They had a record of the break-in. Christ, Julia, Revere’s Riders claimed responsibility.”
“Convenient, don’t you think?” Julia licked the sugar off her nails, catlike. “Walsh probably started thinking about his second term on his first day in office. One month later this happens.” She silently mouthed the word boom. “Remember how quick the Administration was to put the blame on President Bracken’s incompetence?”
“You sound like Fox’s flavor of the month,” I said.
“And you sound like that public radio moonbeam, Sean Penn. I’m only saying it was convenient. Worst terrorist act on U.S. soil since 9/11 and our Democratic Administration pins it on a right-wing militia.”
“Because they did it.”
“Children!” Selena said. She knitted her brow at me. “Honestly, Kath, you’d think your father wasn’t running for President. Don’t you want him to win?”
I wasn’t going to touch that. “Who says he’s running?”
Destiny tsked. “Well, duh.”
Ouch. Accused of denseness by Destiny Blank.
“Hey,” Selena said, “where were you all on The Day? I was with my family in Rhode Island.”
From this interruption, I gathered that Selena was the group’s peacemaker.
“Turkey coma,” Destiny said. “I have grandparents in Lexington. Um, Kentucky. I missed the first day back at school because the airports were still on blackout.”
“Me, too,” Julia said. “I was stuck in Akron at the family manse. Dad was able to jet back when the news came, but he wouldn’t take me. How about you?”
I squeaked, “Me?”
“Yes, you,” Julia said. “Gang member for a day. Cough it up.”
I wondered if they knew, but how could they?This was my story, after all. Not what you’d call common knowledge.
“I almost died here.”
Selena nearly choked on her cruller. “You were here?”
“I didn’t say that. But I was supposed to be here. T minus two days, my grandfather tells me his girlfriend Gina is gonna camp out by the Apple store. Remember? That’s when they first released the Surround. My grandfather thought it might be fun for all three of us to camp out. He said he would buy me a Surround. It would be my Christmas present. And besides, it would be fun. People were bringing tents, sleeping bags—it was crazy. You remember how it was. It was like The Event.
“But my father wouldn’t hear of it. Said that while he usually trusted my grandfather to watch over me, the After Thanksgiving Day crowds would be too crazy. You gotta understand, my grandfather is ex-Secret Service. Got fired one of those times President Bracken channeled Caligula. So what I mean is, he’s an awesome bodyguard. My father didn’t need to be so over-protective. We had this huge fight, he forbade me, blah yadda yadda blah blah. I told him to go fuck himself. Gator—my grandfather—he said, ‘Don’t talk to your daddy that way even if he is dead wrong.’ I ran off to pout, and next morning my father gave me a Surround, a full day before the release. I have no idea how he got one.”
“Wow,” Destiny said. “So, like, your dad saved your life.”
“For which I was grudgingly grateful, until the fourth or fifth time he brought it up. Almost always it was in the context of my poor judgment, or my grandfather’s poor judgment, or ‘Father Knows Best so you should shut up and do as I say.’ Trust me, it gets old real fast and gratitude has a limited shelf life.”
“Wow,” Destiny said again, and they were all quiet for a while, perhaps thinking about Kevin Devaney and Ruth Ann Moore, two 7th graders we knew who had died in the Cream-Crème dirty bombing. We have all lost someone dear, isn’t that what President Walsh said at the memorial ceremony? C Street Academy lost five kids, three of them from Congressional families.
“Wait a second,” Selena said. “What about your grandfather and his girlfriend?”
I didn’t trust myself to talk. I forced it out.
“My grandfather took me out to dinner and a show.” A vegan Chinese place near Georgetown, where I ordered my favorite dish: crispy-fried sweet-and-sour walnuts. The show afterward was A Christmas Carol, with Will Smith as Scrooge. All as consolation for not being at The Event. “And, Gina, well. You know.”
Poor Gina. Poor Gator.
“Kathryn, if you’re not too terribly busy with that wild social calendar of yours, I got a National Press Club luncheon this Saturday. Gonna be lobster, honey. You know how much you love Maine lobster.”
He could never seem to remember my dietary predilections. I’d given up trying.
“Can’t, Dad. We’ve got a prayer due in English next Monday and you know how Christ-challenged Selena can be.”
“You could see your little girlfriend Sunday. Problem solved. I need you, honey.”
“Sorry. Meeting with Julia and Destiny on Sunday to film our Spanish video. That’s gonna take all fucking day.”
“Language, baby girl.”
“Anyway you don’t need me, you need a date. What’s Maria Antonia Borges doing?” I loved using the woman’s full name. I put lots of dramatic effort into it. “You know how much the press loves Maria Antonia Borges.”
“Goddamn paparazzi crucify me every time they catch us in public.”
“Revel in it, Dad. Announce your engagement. You know you want to. And you’ll put an end to those appalling Beltway’s Most Eligible Bachelor stories.”
“Well, that’s just . . . just the opposite, that is. I don’t want to give those pricks a story about Maria, I want to shut ‘em up!”
“Oooooh. You want to shut them up about Maria Antonia Borges.” I waited for him to nod or say yes, but all he did was frown. “Bring a boy instead.” Then I sang the titular line from Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About,” a song which still got radio airplay hourly back in Duffy.
“Dammit Kathryn, other legislators have family who support them, not grind ‘em down like Brillo underwear.”
“But I am helping you. Admiral Wynne’s smoking a brisket for Sunday night and I’m invited. Think how much his endorsement would help you in the Ohio primary.”
“And I’m to believe you’ll be singing my praise, that it?”
“Man asks, I’ll tell him about all your good qualities.”
He opened his mouth, then thought better of whatever it was he was about to say. His frown deepened and he slunk off, shaking his head and muttering, scotch rocks jiggling all the way.
I decided it was good to have friends.
A hush settled upon us when He entered the debate hall—a “respectful” or “appalled” silence depending on your political religion. The machine that kept him alive swaddled him in metal, made him look like a young boy’s fantasy of a killer robot: brushed titanium chassis, rows of yellow and green LEDs. The head alone defied the Transformers resemblance, betrayed the weakness of the flesh. His hairless scalp, forehead, and jowls had been given the cosmetic brush of health, but the slackness remained. The eyes looked upward at the nimbus of his Surround, but at this distance we couldn’t tell if they flitted in the expected manner. To me they looked like fish eyes. And no amount of makeup could conceal the line of drool on his chin—his highest chin—glinting under the stage lights.
“He’s so brave,” Julia’s step-mom said. She had entered the Wynnes’ family room silently, as if someone had rolled her in on a dolly.
“Shut it, Kitty,” the Admiral said.
She shared my name, Julia’s step-mom. I wondered if the Admiral ever called her Katydid. She was closer in age to me and Julia than she was to the Admiral. Mrs. Wynne had waist-length blond hair, large blue eyes, and an expression just like His. Absent. If she took offense at the Admiral’s remark, she didn’t show it.
We were watching the first Republican Primary debate on the Wynnes’ plasma wall. I could have attended the debate in person, or I could have had the Capitol Hill Gang over to the townhouse, where we’d have drunk Dad’s booze and smoked his pot at our leisure. But Admiral Wynne had a plasma wall and, more importantly, a direct feed from the St. Louis Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium. The rest of the country would see the three-minute-delayed version—even the live audience, seated in their replica auditorium about 120 miles away. The three-minute-delayed version would contain only such gaffes as the Republican National Committee permitted the public to see.
Which is how we heard His opening remarks, but the rest of you didn’t.
Fox’s man of the hour gave the introduction, but I tuned him out. I was too busy trying to determine what was wrong with Mrs. Wynne’s eyes. Nevertheless, I picked up fully recovered from His third stroke and miraculous Surround Voice technology. The camera cut to the audience’s standing ovation; the rest of the country would see a seamless pan, and would never doubt that He and the audience were in the same room. Then He cleared His throat in a remarkably lifelike manner and said, “Kill. Me.”
They were croaks, not words. It was easy to imagine He’d said something else. Most stunning of all, he’d said it in His own voice, not the Surround Voice. And perhaps He realized how frog-like He sounded, how easy it would be for the announcer to attribute some alternate interpretation to the two noises. So he cleared the rattle from his throat and spoke again. This time, there was no mistaking it: “Kill me. Then do. Yourselves. Y’fuckers.”
“I knew this would be a total balls-up,” the Admiral said. “Didn’t I say so, Jul?”
“Sure did, Pop,” Julia said. She adored her dad, hated her step-mom. It was all very predictable. “You said, ‘Put Him out to pasture and anoint some other mouthpiece.’”
Since the Admiral shared my opinion of Him, I hazarded an observation. “Ever notice how we never see live footage of Him anymore? Not since the second stroke. Just His voice on the radio.”
Mrs. Wynne was transfixed by the plasma wall. Her lower lip trembled. “There’s some mistake. There has to be.”
Selena and I exchanged looks. Destiny munched popcorn and Julia gave a loud, “Shhh.” Something that sounded like Him was introducing the seven Republican nominees, and Julia wanted to hear it.
“Go upstairs then, hon,” the Admiral told his wife. “Watch it in the bedroom. You’ll get the saccharinized version. Not a single mistake.”
Amazingly, Kathryn Wynne did just that. She nodded, then turned painfully, like she’d been kicked in the ribs. She left as silently as she’d entered.
“I told her she should watch upstairs but she never listens,” said the Admiral. “Most people, you know, just like the saying goes. They can’t handle the truth. Not like you girls, not like you at all. You’re the future of America, every single one of you.”
After that first outburst, there were no more dire pronouncements from Himself. He made his introductions, laid down the ground rules, and asked questions with the same bullying vitriol He’d possessed as a much younger man. Were His eyes really darting about, pulling from his word-cloud so that the software could reconstitute His famous, pulpit-pounding oratory skills? I doubted it. We’d all heard His first sentence.
In any case, the camera never peered close enough to allow us a glimpse of His eyes. His eyes, which we’d been told were the only things left He could move.
The Admiral cornered me during the post-debate analysis—we call them postmortems. I had no stomach for it, so I volunteered to get more popcorn, plus another Diet Coke for Destiny and Julia. I had a can in both hands and the bowl resting on my forearms when the Admiral snuck up and surprised me.
To my credit, I didn’t drop either soda.
“Maid’ll get that,” he said while I swept popcorn back into the bowl with my fingers. I ignored him. One, I didn’t want to look like total spume to my new friends, and two, I had on my running shoes and didn’t want to get kernels stuck in my soles.
Above me, I heard him say, “Your father did well tonight.”
Here I must confess to having had a small, a very small, a nanocrush on the man. He had this stage presence—tall, with strong cheekbones and chin, blue eyes, an absolutely squirmy set of eyebrows. He looked like he’d stepped right out of an old black-and-white movie. I appreciated that he spoke to me as an equal, and that at times he made me feel like I was the only person in the room. I suppose I should have been severely shivered by Butch Wynne, especially since his wife had less than ten years on me. I should have been thinking predator, not sperminator. But the man gave me the vapors.
“You could help,” I said. Unsurprisingly, the Speaker of the House was unwilling to get down on his knees for a little popcorn-picking. So I added, “You really thought he did well? Because with every ain’t gonna, my soul died a little.”
“That’s authenticity, Kathryn. Don’t be so hard on the man. We all do it.”
“You don’t understand. He talks that way at home, too.”
“Then, no, I don’t—”
“He’s magna cum laude from Duke. Graduated seventh in his class at Stanford Law School. He doesn’t need to say ain’t gonna.”
He clucked his tongue. I finished my cleaning, got up, and upended the bowl of popcorn into the sink.
“You’ve never, not once, struck me as a naive girl,” he said. “But I’m beginning to have my doubts.”
I let that one go. Started up another bag in the microwave.
“Anyway, that father of yours has a tough row to hoe. Smart money’s on Joe Tripp, and after that General Holloway. People love actors, especially those action-adventure types. And the General, well, people eat up a war hero. And it’s a plus he didn’t piss his pants tonight.”
“That we know.”
He nodded. “That we know. So he and Joe will get all the attention, you wait and see. Tell your father he needs a little fireworks. Being solid on the debates, not looking like a loop-de-loop, well, that worked in Lizette Bracken’s day. But it’s not ‘sixteen anymore, know what I mean?”
“Yes, sir.” (And why was he telling me this, anyway? Did he really think I had my father’s ear?)
He finished his drink and washed out the tumbler. He’d been drinking cranberry juice on ice. I never saw the man touch alcohol.
“Dale will get his chance, you’ll see. He’s a smart one.” He faked a Southern twang. “All them ain’t gonnas, don’t pay them no mind. Them ain’t gonnas gonna land him in that Big White House, you jes’ wait. He’ll have his place in the sun all right.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“I know. It was written all over you tonight.” He was talking like an Ohioan again. “Tell him to stop yapping about America’s damaged infrastructure. Yes, yes, we all hate rolling brown-outs, and yes, the country’s power grid is shit, but that kind of talk isn’t going to capture the electorate’s imagination. Especially not the Republican electorate. Hellfire, for a few minutes I thought I was listening to a Democrat. “Tell him to grab a little limelight, Kathryn. Tell him. So when opportunity knocks, he’ll be the first to answer the door. Anyway. Guess I should head upstairs and make peace with my Kathryn.”
“Is that what you call it?”
He grinned. “You say g’night to my girls, y’hear?”
I did what he asked. I passed on his g’night to the rest of the Capitol Hill Gang. But I didn’t give my father Butch Wynne’s advice.
He’d already figured it out for himself.
Unless you are a monomaniacal Buscage Family junkie (and as for you assholes, I know your usernames by heart—stop spamming me, please), you probably don’t remember much about Dad’s May 26, 2023 press conference, other than some vague notion of what he said and the media shitstorm it created. As for the opening of his presser—his oh, God help me, confession—you probably don’t remember anything at all. None of that appeared on the news. You could have recovered summaries and even unexpurgated transcripts from a variety of web sources, but I’m probably the only one who bothered to find them. Because I had to read it, corroborate it with my memory. Because I couldn’t believe he’d said that. I mean, I must have turned beet red standing by his side, and my tears were not tears of sorrow (as suggested by the few reporters who noticed) but tears of mortification. I could have died.
Yes, I am a drama queen. This is not news.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I was even there. True enough, I’d had a ready-made excuse: A date. An actual date. Some friend of a friend of Destiny’s older brother Mitch, a senior from one of the more secular Georgetown high schools who had seen me sitting with Destiny and the rest of my crowd at a varsity football game. I don’t remember his name—sorry, whoever you are—and I confess (there, Dad, now you’ve got me doing it) that I only agreed to the date to cover myself for a Friday night. Julia and the rest were going to glam up for a karaoke videobar, and I couldn’t see myself singing backup for a girl-band. Not when it required me to wear nothing but a torn halter top and thong underwear.
I had my excuse ready and waiting, but Dad disarmed me almost at once.
“It’s like this, Kathy.” He used Mom’s name for me. “This may be the most important press conference of my life. I have something important to say—to the nation, but mostly to you.”
“I’m right here, Dad.”
“Some things a man’s gotta say in public. It’s about me, it’s about you, it’s about this election, and the people in it, and how it affects us all so very very deeply. I know you haven’t been happy with me running. I know that.”
“Dad, you’re not going to—” Drop out?
He shushed me with a hand wave. “You’ll see. Trust me, you’ll be happy you came.”
It wasn’t a huge crowd. He’d only attracted every major TV and Internet news service as well as the few remaining newspapers; I didn’t see anyone from the Southwest Business Journal, and the Anchorage Daily News was conspicuously absent as well. He held it on the Capitol steps and did the Presidential thing, perching himself behind a black walnut podium, framing himself with an American flag on either side. Dad had good handlers.
A couple of professionals in a motorhome fussed with my dress and made up my face. After they finished, I didn’t even know me. Then they positioned me next to Dad. I was flustered by all the attention; I couldn’t remember getting from the Winnebago to the dais. He beamed at me and, since I had convinced myself he was going to announce his withdrawal, I beamed right back at him. Flashes flashed. Those were the “after” photos you saw on the net and in the news, because in the true “after” shots, I was hardly photogenic.
Dad welcomed everyone and said he hoped they’d all indulge him just a smidge ‘cuz he had some opening remarks. Then he blathered on a bit about the state of the nation, the state of the world, and how now, more than ever, it was critical that the Leader of the Free World be a man of impeccable character.
Really, Dad? I thought. You’re going to admit to being peccable?
He had a firm two-handed grip on the podium as if it might get away.
“Sadly, since Man’s Fall from Grace, none of us are perfect.” Is perfect, Dad. Is. “That’s what the Bible tells us and I can tell you right now that it’s as true for me as it is for my honorable opponents. You deserve to know all about us. How else you gonna choose? And so here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna tell you everything about me, all the dirt. I want you to know what rumors are true so you’ll know the rest are lies.
“First, some of you maybe heard I like my drink. Well, I do. But I never touched a drop when I was on duty, I never once drove when I was even part tipsy, I never let it get between me and my family or me and my constituents. I know when to work and I know when to play, and like a lot of you, I work hard and play harder. Is it true I could whup all my opponents in beer pong? Well I don’t know, but consider this a challenge, boys!”
Polite laughter from the assembled crowd.
“No, it’s not my drinking that shames me.”
I had a moment’s prescience, and my gut knotted itself. Despite my schooling, I’m not a praying girl, but I prayed he wouldn’t go there.
“My, my second wife. Lisa. Lisa Earnley.”
He went there. Of course he went there. I found myself wondering if Gator were watching this on his little 36-inch plasma TV, and whether that screen would survive this presser.
“The mother of my daughter. The mother of my daughter. I didn’t fight for that relationship. It started to rot like a summer peach and I let it. By the time she was diagnosed with cancer, we were worlds apart. You all know how I finally left her when she was ill . . . but that’s not what shames me.”
He put a good hitch into his voice. I gave it a 9.7.
“We weren’t man and wife by then, hadn’t been for a good long time. Weren’t even living in the same city. I was in love with the author, Maria Borges and, well, the guys here all know that love makes you stupid. I wanted to see more of Miss Borges, but we weren’t about to sin. Y’all know how much my faith means to me. So I thought, the only upright thing to do is to divorce Lisa first.
“Call it mean, call it stupid, call it evil what I done. I’m sorry for it. God knows I’m sorry for it. But the real pity is what I done, or didn’t do, to the marriage in the first place. Letting it rot like that. Not fighting for it. Not working at it. And for that I am truly, deeply sorry. I am ashamed before the world, and I want to ask my beloved daughter Kathryn for her forgiveness. I know how much it hurt you, sweetheart, the way I treated your mother. If you can forgive me, maybe the rest of them can, too.”
Well, what was I supposed to do? I’d have looked churlish if I’d told him what I really thought. And, okay, maybe I wanted to believe this was a sincere apology. So I nodded, we hugged, and that was the other photo many of you saw from Dad’s May 26 presser.
The camera flashes slowed. People began raising hands, yelling questions. Presser things.
“No, please,” Dad said. “I got more to say.”
He went back to grabbing the podium like he was riding a Segway, and waited until the reporters were silent.
“There you are,” he said. “I’ve come clean. And now I appeal to my honorable opponents to do the same.”
Yup, just when I thought it couldn’t get worse. Thought-beams of No, Dad, no! went unheard. If Dad were tweaked for Surround I could have messaged him, but Dad’s technotardity was unblemished. He didn’t even like using a smart phone.
“I have knowledge, ladies and gentlemen of the press, terrible knowledge. Now, it’s not my place to name names, but I happen to know that two of my opponents have had multiple extramarital affairs, and one of ‘em has his name in a certain madam’s little black book, and no one would accuse him of bein’ a missionary, if you know what I mean.”
I felt sick. The world started to look blocky, the colors surreal, like I had fallen into a thirty-year-old computer game. My dinner had taken a U-turn at my small intestine and was hurrying the hell up my throat.
Dad pulled a McCarthy.
“Three of my opponents have profited from insider trading and one has a serious gambling addiction, owes a six-figure sum to a man you wouldn’t want to meet in no dark alley. Another got a DUI fixed through his daddy’s connections. Most peculiar of all, one had a number of homosexual dalliances in his youth. Search me out, all of you, you won’t find no such skeleton in my closet—though as a young boy, my adoration of President Ronald Reagan verged on a, what do you call it, a ‘man crush.’”
Snickering laughter from certain members of the press, but it sounded tinny and fake, like a laugh track. And I was stepping backward, away from Dad, feeling for a seat that wasn’t there, and bodies were all around me and faces looked down on me and my back was on the cold, cold floor.
I went down like a sack of drowned kittens. And in so doing, I did my father one final service for the evening: I got him out of answering any of the media’s questions.
The postmortems, and there would be many, focused on either (A) Dale Buscage’s “daring gambit” or (B) the identities of the people on Dad’s list of shame. No one mentioned me. No one mentioned the long-dead Senator Joseph McCarthy. “Americans have no history,” Gator once said.
Gator’s was the only post-mortem I cared about.
When I got home, he was waiting at the door. He smirked at Dad, shaking his head slowly. Said, “I’m taking your daughter,” and Dad shrugged. If Gator were taking me away for good, would he still shrug like that? I doubted it. I was a valuable commodity.
“Get in the car,” Gator said.
I got in. Part of me wanted to curl up in bed, but I knew I would never sleep. And I think Gator knew it, too.
Whenever we were in DC, we used a dojo near Georgetown University, a converted brownstone owned and operated by one of Gator’s friends from his time in the Navy SEALs. We headed there now. It didn’t take a detective to figure this out, since he’d put our gear on the back seat.
“You doing okay?” he asked after a few minutes of silent driving. He kept his eyes dead forward.
“Did you watch that?”
“He’s not going to get away with it.”
I fumed all the way to the dojo. I was crisped because I knew he was right. He was always right.
When we got to the dojo, he handed me my gear. “Meet me in the back room, come out fighting, and don’t even think about going easy on me.” Then he disappeared into the office to pay his respects to Brad Kim, his SEAL buddy.
When I came out of the dressing room, he had on all his protective gear.
“Someone told me you kick like a girl,” he said.
Despite his drumbeat of nasty taunts, I pulled my kicks and punches. I don’t care how much gear you’re wearing, some of these blows hurt. I didn’t want to give him premature senility or a subdural hematoma or something.
“Harder,” he said, pinching his brows together, beckoning me with his hand.
“Harder, goddamn it.”
“Pretend I’m—who was that boy you were supposed to have gone out with tonight? Pretend I’m him, and I’ve just tried stealing second base.”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“Then pretend I’m a mugger, someone who chose the wrong woman to mess with. He snuck up on you and—”
Well, that did it. I didn’t see a mugger. You know who I saw. At some point I began swapping four-letter words for the usual shouts, no doubt violating at least a few of my Tae Kwon Do precepts, but Gator kept encouraging me. So I kicked and punched until I was sore, and before long I was saying, “Why, goddamn it, why!”
He didn’t answer, just kept on being my punching bag. But when I shouted, “Stupid. Idiot,” he stopped me.
“No, Kathryn. Not stupid. Unprincipled. And brilliant.”
I couldn’t look him in the eye. Brilliant? I thought. Really? You’re supposed to be on my side! “Clearly, I should have taken it easier on your head.”
He put a hand on my shoulder. The other lifted my chin so I had to look at him. “Point number one. What the base likes more than anything else is ruthlessness, capisce?” There was mischief in the man’s eyes. “And here they are, staring a possible two-term Democratic presidency in the face. What they don’t want is a replay of twenty-twelve. They need someone who can take it to Walsh, bloody him up a bit. They’ll forgive your daddy’s moderate leanings if they think he’s the man for the job.”
“Point number two. The others might not know it yet, but what Dale did will separate the wheat from the chaff.”
“On the ride home with Dad, when I was giving him the silent treatment? He said, ‘All I done was separate the sheep from the goats. You’ll see.’”
“Yeah, but how?”
“Because the smart ones will know what they need to do. The dumb ones will let this crush them. They’ll threaten lawsuits, they’ll issue denials.” He eased himself down—he likes to play old person every so often—and patted the tatami beside him. “They’ll do everything but come clean. And I’m guessing Dale doesn’t think Joey Tripp’s one of the smart ones.”
I flopped into a half-lotus. “What about the General?”
“Holloway? Holloway can’t come clean. He’s the gay one.”
How Gator knows these things, I do not know.
“Point number three. He may not even realize there’s a point number three, but he will soon enough. You ever see the movie Jaws?”
“I am not discussing porn with my grandfather.”
“Smart ass. It was a shark movie. Robert Shaw, great actor. Plays a sea captain, right? And he tells these two greenhorns about the Indianapolis, a cruiser torpedoed by the Japanese in World War II. Tells them about the survivors floating in the water, waiting to be rescued, getting picked off by sharks.
“So I want you to imagine that your daddy and the rest of ‘em, they’re survivors from a wrecked ship, like the Indianapolis. They’re out there in the cold, floating in their life preservers, and they see sharks out there, dorsal fins cutting the water, circling closer. Sniffing things out . . . not really sure yet. By some stroke of good fortune an aircraft flies by, sees the survivors. And by some stroke of bad fortune it’s a tiny thing, a two-seat chopper. Drops a rope ladder. Whoever makes it to that rope ladder first, well, he’s gonna survive, right? No telling about the others.
“Now your daddy, he sees a few of the others are closer to the rope than he is, so what’s he do? Takes his pocket knife, slices his palm. Bloodies the water. Sharks go crazy, make their move. My question to you is, does your daddy have any advantage over the others?”
I saw it. Of course I saw it. “Sure. For a few seconds, he knows what’s coming and the rest don’t.”
Gator pulled off his head gear. “Best person to take advantage of chaos is the one who starts it in the first place.”
That’s all the postmortem I ever got from him. Afterward, I was so busy wondering how Dad had gotten dirt on the other candidates, it never occurred to me to wonder how Gator had known about my almost-date. I’d never once mentioned it.