by Hank Bunker
(Swans - April 24, 2006) The call came as I was bracing up my orthopedic truss after another perfunctory lay, this time with Paris Hilton, who was in town that day to receive absolution from Cardinal Spellman. Never mind she wasn't Catholic. Or that the two of us were dead. When you have power you use it. That was a lesson dad passed on to his sons, and, indeed, through us, to all Americans.
The phone on the nightstand rang like an ice pick between the eyes. The empty bottle next to it explained why. Kaopectate. I reached over to kill the ring but Miss Hilton had other ideas. She was calling for another screen test. This time a cowboy picture -- for the way she spun me back into bed and mounted up with such vigor I thought I'd find myself in Abilene by sundown. I pretended to be humiliated, but in reality was not. In the final analysis, I was still responsible for fully discharging the powers of my office. I picked up the phone.
"Yesh?" I said, fully discharging the powers of my office. "What izsh it?"
"Good news, Jack?" erupted my young companion.
The news was not good, but I somehow managed to conceal my emotion, if not my irritable bowel syndrome, which presently threatened the integrity of my lay. But the hot-blooded hotelier must have heard something in the tone of my voice, because the features on her face fell suddenly in a sort of a domino effect, until there was nothing left but a scarlet smear where her mouth used to be. And crooked, too, like a salamander. My mind filled with bloody premonitions, and I knew I had to pull out.
But this celebrated socialite was tougher to tame than the military-industrial complex.
"What is it, Jack?," she cooed conspiratorially. "Fidel quarantine your cigars?"
She was teasing, of course, making a coy allusion to my preference for two women at once, but I was in no mood for self deprecation. I put it to her straight.
"Get the hell off me," I said, knocking her a deft backhand across those famous chops. "There's trouble. Big trouble."
She clattered to the floor like her foresail had been cut, and I was instantly filled with regret.
What kind of man am I? I thought. A real man, who needs a good lay before bedtime? Or one of those boarding school fairies, who ties the red flag to his belt loop during flag football?
There was little time for serious reflection. She was hurt and needed help. Anyone could have seen that, even Jackie, if she'd have suddenly walked in on us right then. I reached down to help her up, risking a rupture, and that's when I melted inside. Tears welled up, and she made with those big Hollywood and Cahuenga eyes. I couldn't be sure she wasn't playing me for a sap. But I risked it. I risked everything.
"It's the president," I said. "He's disappeared."
"Don't make a fush. We've got a big job ahead of us, Mike." I decided from then on I was going to call her Mike.
I had never called a woman by a man's name before, unless you count J. Edgar Hoover. I'd never seen the leader of the free world take a powder before, either, and couldn't figure the angle. Mike sensed my trouble and suggested a quick lay. Something about it didn't sound right, however, and I was forced to decline.
The case was off to a slow start. But after making the obligatory rounds -- Betty Ford's, an Alabama senatorial campaign -- it hit me: If the president wants to go AWOL, what's to stop him? Not Congress. Not the Constitution. He'd concentrated too much power in the executive.
"Maybe he's just polling low," said Mike, traveling separately under the cover of her own name. "You've seen his numbers. He barely exists anyhow."
"Never mind," I said. "He's out there. And it's my job to find him. Dead or alive."
"You're the expert."
"I haven't been dead forty-two years for my health," I snapped. "My clients appreciate discretion. And I deliver."
"Take me with you!" she demanded suddenly.
"Forget it, kid. This isn't one of your silly TV shows."
"Please," she purred moistly, insinuating her long, thin fingers into my eternally youthful hair. "It's perfect for my project."
She had a way of making a bad idea sound like the Marshall Plan. But I resisted.
"You remember my project," she said, tucking herself under my chin like a Stradivarius. "'Real Politik.' With a K. Like Khrushchev."
She may not have been the brightest, but she was rapidly proving to be among the best. "Come over here," I said, unable to govern my healthy natural instinct any longer. "And let me show you what we do in the Navy when we cross the equator."
Her blonde hair fell loosely upon her shoulders as she collapsed into my arms. I looked down into her tanned, unlined features and leaned in close. My back was feeling fine. She pressed play and record.
I'd lost track of time, and grew concerned that my fornicating had begun to affect my job performance. It was impossible to predict how much time had passed. It could have been an hour; it could have been a week. When Mike assured me it had only been three minutes, I was relieved and dressed quickly. Time was critical -- if, for the president, time was still a relevant mortal construct.
We journeyed for what seemed like forever across a large body of water, until at last we mounted a distant shore. It turned out to be the French Quarter, and we were obliged to return to the boat.
When finally we arrived in Crawford, Don Rumsfeld was there to greet us. He was clearing brush on the front lawn with Arnold Schwarzenegger when his Hummer started to ring. The governor picked it up. I think he'd been drinking. When he stumbled and dropped the enormous black rig onto Mike it was clear. The governor felt bad, as bad as a millionaire could feel after crushing a reality TV star with a Hummer, and vowed to commit vast public resources to study the design flaw. A profound silence ensued, until Rumsfeld conceded that some Hummers do ring, but there simply wasn't enough money to fix it. We all shook hands and looked forward to many satisfying poon days to come, when the ground split open and Vice President Cheney emerged from an underground bunker.
"Sorry about your friend," he said, in that tight-lipped oratorical style of his, while at the same time drinking a glass of water. "But I think we can all agree this is an acceptable level of collateral damage."
"No question," said Rumsfeld, following closely behind, as the vice president steered us toward a secluded area meant, it seemed, to remind me of Dealey Plaza.
"A replica," explained Cheney, without apology. "These Texas Republicans and their hunting retreats," he added, chuckling out the side of his face. I remained unmoved by his blatant scare tactics, fortified by the advantage that accrues only to those who've served their country on the field of battle, or balled Sam Giancana's girlfriend.
"Listen," I said, short of full retaliatory response, "if your man's missing, why not check the high schools, see who's got a new gym coach?"
"Let's see if I can put this in a way you'll understand," said Rumsfeld, who'd changed by now into a suit of jungle camouflage. "We like you because you're invisible."
"Invisibility factor," concurred the vice president.
"The Constitution," explained Rumsfeld, "permits us access to the private communications of departed Americans during wartime."
"And if the dead are talking, we want to know about it," followed Cheney, swirling about me now in a tightly choreographed ballet of evasive action, until he lost his footing and reeled headlong down the grassy knoll out onto Elm Street. A Secret Service agent reached for the defibrillator, but he waived him away.
"Fuck off," croaked Cheney, staggering to his feet amid swerving traffic.
"Mr. Vice President," I said, when he'd rejoined us at last, "what's the latest intelligence on the president's whereabouts?"
"Saw him Thursday," huffed history's most proactive Number Two. "We share an office."
"Can we trust it?"
"How do you mean?" he said, the corner of his face rising.
"I mean maybe we've been acting on bad information," I suggested. "Maybe the president never really existed."
That was all it took. Rumsfeld swooped in for a takedown, but I dodged him well. My back was feeling fit, so I proposed a game of touch football to settle this question of reality and perceivedness once and for all. But we didn't have a football, so we used the briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes instead, which the vice president carried at all times.
Rumsfeld was quarterback, and naturally called for the long bomb. Cheney went deep, and I stuck to his lapels like Bobby with a fistful of subpoenas. I felt alive and suffused with synthetic chemicals. He wasn't going to beat me. Not today. I was right about that. But wrong about why.
Rumsfeld's pass arched toward the end zone as Cheney broke for the post. Three shots rang out. The first passed right through me, and ripped into the vice president's knee, spinning him to the turf. The second exploded a direct hit upon the descending football, declassifying its contents instantly across a wide swath of private lawn. The third bullet missed its mark entirely, lodging harmlessly within the skull of a local attorney.
Someone pointed to the upper-level window of an adjacent building, where Governor Schwarzenegger looked down over the plaza, gripping an Italian-made carbine rifle. Later he claimed to have felt bad, as bad as a millionaire could feel about shooting the vice president, and vowed to abandon quail hunting all together by the following season.
Mr. Cheney lay on the ground writhing in blood, unwilling to accept defeat. His sloping rictus belied an obscene self-confidence, as though his condition might somehow be construed as anything but what it was -- abject and humiliating. Yet papers the next day would bear him out, reporting only that the vice president had suffered a minor ranching accident, and was being treated for an undisclosed dislocation.
I returned to my hotel, and with the waning light grew melancholy. I wondered how long the administration could maintain the illusion of its presence, or the president the reality of his absence. Perhaps a long time. He was certainly a man of discipline. Freedom has known many dangers, I thought, and in this maximum hour I dearly wished for someone with whom I could share my concern, if only for three minutes or so. Poor Mike. It would have been good to see her again.
Among her underthings I found a videocassette, and put it in the machine: There she was again, just as she had been, so vivid and alive, entertaining all those fraternity men.
Whether I wept for myself or my country I cannot say. It no longer mattered that her show was silly, or inanely contrived. Or even that it was called "Houseboat Honeys." I know now that she was merely doing a job. And that the truest part of herself she held in reserve for someone she cared about.
I know too that I began to suffer a profound sense of disorientation, as though the ground were shifting beneath me -- or was it above? -- when behind her on the houseboat, amid all those beautiful young women in swimsuits, appeared the forty-third president of the United States, waving a set of barbeque tongs and gesturing lewdly with a pack of frankfurters. I could not have distinguished for you then my youthful chestnut hair from my black Irish ass. Only that, as I watched the president radiate all the joy and assurance of a man grilling in his own back yard, I knew I envied him that fixity.
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