It was all for her. I cared before that. There was no way not to care. People die, you care. I guess there must have been away though. There were lots of guys who didn’t. She called them flagwavers the same way you might say someone was a leper. She probably would have preferred lepers. At least flagwaving wasn’t catching.
Burning though. Flagburning was catching. I caught it from her.
Before her, I cared different. It was all so far away and I was against it in the way I’d be against torturing puppies or erosion. But I wasn’t up against it. She said to me at the start. Moral opposition in passivity. That was me. That and my teeth.
It was the teeth that first got me in. The mouth full of chicklets smile that’d horrified the girls in high school. Like a highbeam out of my throat. Like a prizewinning horse. But that summer, all of us coming back to campus in secret shrouds. Mourning Chicago. The Los Angeles Hotel kitchen. Suddenly my teeth were a ghost of Bobby. She said that at the party. You look just like Bobby. Almost in tears. If I were a better person I wouldn’t have used it to kiss her. The next morning I thought that. I’d gotten her into bed by impersonating Bobby. She’d been sleeping with a ghost. Watching her sleep in a room full of pictures of him. Vietnamese babies and Abbey Hoffman. It didn’t matter. Her shoulder mattered. Her hair.
I learned quick. The French occupation. The Gulf of Tonkin. The Johnson fumblings. He always seemed so sad on TV those last few months. Like he’d lost his wife on a bet. She understood better than most hating Johnson was missing the point. Johnson was a gear in a machine that ground people into blood and poured it out into the soil. Johnson was a symbol in a system of symbols. You could pick any of them to hate. She picked the flag.
Which was strange a little. There were plenty of folks all about the flag. No wait, I’m America too. She didn’t truck with that. Flags were for kindling. We’d make new ones later. Her flag was all white. Unmarked, unscarred. See-through with the sun behind it. She made it into a dress.
Her room was wallpapered in ghosts. Each one she knew the story for. Where they were killed. Why they didn’t have to be. On the walls, Viet Cong and NVA stood said next to Americans, Algerian dead. Palestinian and Israeli. When we made love, dozens of victims watched us. And on her dresser, an urn. The ashes of as many American flags as she could set her flame to.
Burning at the protests: not always popular. But I stood behind her. As if a scrawny boy from upstate could protect her from Lockheed’s thugs. Being at Syracuse, a lot of folks focused on Lockheed. Not Johnson or the flag, but the bomb. Bombs are easy to hate. Metal and ominous. Bombs only stand for bombs. Only symbolize the bodies they create, she said. That and the factory was only twenty minutes from campus. Daily commute to the barbwire with the signs. Once, the police showed up and gassed us. We ran from the stinging yellow. In an alley just out of reach, she grabbed me. Stuck her tongue down my throat. Pushed me up against the brick.
Everyone comes to politics in his own way.
When we heard about Cambodia, the strikes started in earnest. When the Bulldog explained the strikes on TV, they got worse. Whatever made us feel bad for Johnson, that trapped quality, the Bulldog lacked. On TV he was a math professor. A calculus of death. One Cambodian was worth two South Vietnamese. A Viet Cong was worth nothing. The precision drove her crazy.
Rumors the campus would shut down. Half us weren’t going to class anyway. Professors lecturing to empty halls. What could Victorian Literature say about a calculus of death? What chalkboards meant anything after the Bulldog gave us the Big Lecture? At the sit-ins, the die-ins, the be-ins, the jocks threatened violence. We were ruining their education. Costing them money. The Big Game would be cancelled and someone had to answer. Threats of violence. Threats of death. Who could look at her and think of harm? Until Ohio. Until Jackson State. We counted. A secret algebra. Students’ bodies outweighed soldiers by a factor of x. The jocks didn’t join up. Just quieted down, faded. When the campus shut down, the professors weren’t afraid. They only shrugged. They’d been hired to teach us America. The Bulldog had already taught it.
It was her call to go to DC. By then I had nowhere else to go. I’d been arrested in October. Her and I kissing desperately in the back of a police car. My parents had practically disowned me. Only practically. But a homecoming was out of the question for a while. Why would I want to be anywhere she wasn’t.
And I had the car. I was always surprised it got me anywhere. Good for cruising, but dicey over distance. DC seemed worlds away from Syracuse. She’d stick her head out the window. Let her hair blow around. Lay her head in my lap and talk about it all changing. Here. Soon.
Dark by the time we could park anywhere. Her first plan was to stay in the Hirschhorn because it meant everything new and fresh. But the fascists won’t let you sleep in the museums. Not even in the sculpture garden. Then she wanted to stay in the Jefferson. He being big on the side of revolutionaries. But the rotunda was full of revolutionaries already. So we schlepped our sleeping bag over to the Lincoln.
Bearded kids and girls with hairy legs. A litter of sleeping bags like crysali. She said maybe an army of butterflies would emerge in the morning. We found a few square feet of floor space and she wriggled into our sleeping bag. I sat up with a flashlight and a book. Headlights still echoing across my eyes from the drive.
Everyone’s breathing seemed to fall into unison. A rhythm of inhales and exhales. Like waves. Like the whole Lincoln was breathing. No one stirred. We were right. We had nothing to lose sleep over.
When he came in, he was stumbling a bit. He looked tall. The hunched quality people take on to hide their height. He stepped carefully over the bodies. Delicate, dancer-like. Not harming a one. The grey of his suit was the same as the walls of the Lincoln. Made his body look translucent. He stood over me. Looked at the spot of floor next to me. Like he was asking for permission. Like I had a choice.
He slumped down next to me. Crossed his legs Indian style. His face was like wax that’s melted and cooled. He nodded and hmmphed as he pulled out a cigar.
“Light?” he asked. I took my lighter out and handed it to him. She sighed in her sleep and he gestured towards her with the cigar.
“Is she yours?” I nodded, but he seemed not to notice. Puffed at the cigar to get it lit. “I know, you kids don’t talk like that anymore. She’s her own. No one belongs to anyone anymore. When Pat and I got together, that was it: we belonged to each other. Like a partnership, an agreement. We weren’t flying off the handle passionate about it, but there was caring. That’s what’s been lost: simple, rational caring. Something with a little thought in it. You kids, all heart, no head. Can’t do the math. No, not can’t, just won’t. Won’t appreciate there’s a plan, that we’ve done this kind of thing before. WE’re the toughest bastards out there and we can’t just…” He trailed off, then gathered himself. Started again.
“Sometimes though, I think you kids have got it right, not belonging to one another. Not with all the fucking around, I don’t support that for a minute. When you’re the president, there’s plenty of them who’ll give it up, just for the sake of saying they fucked the president. But I never went that way. Not like that Irish coozehound. Spent more time horizontal than upright, but when they talk about him now, you’d think he was Saint Cocksucker Almighty. Bloated little fuck. Not me though. Never turned my head for one of those little twits who’re only giving you the eye…giving the Office the eye, looking to get fucked in the Oval Office.
“None of it for me, just me and Pat, this whole time. She thinks I’m the whole world. And she’s right. I mean, who else? Not that little tinpot gook, holed up in his little bunker. Not the Russian, he’s in such a mess of shit he can barely tread water. And I know that shadowy little kike thinks he’s running things around here, but that fucking…” He shook his head violently back and forth.
“Christ, the language. I’m sorry. All the time, stuck in it. If I even once said what I wanted, well, it’d just be a string of curse words as soon as they turned the cameras on. A president can’t talk like that. Every one of you bearded punks can tell me to fuck off on the nightly news and what can I say back?”
He paused. Looked me over. Waved his cigar at me, like was about to make an offer on a used car.
“You don’t seem that bad. At least have the decency to shave, like a man instead of some rabid thing. They trap you in a different language. You get choices and you pick the one you can sell. That Texan bastard, he had a language, but his’d never work for me. They’ve got me talking in maps as if I don’t know the difference between a dead gook and a live American. I know.
“You kids don’t see it that way anymore. You think about absolutes and war in capital letters. Peace like it’s the west coast and we can all hop on the bus and be there in a week. There’s no peace. There’s old men and dead boys, always has been. And if you manage to dodge being one, you’ll end up the other.
He leaned in close to tell me this. Scotch seeping off his breath. I thought of my dad, the night I’d come home for my grandfather’s funeral. Sitting in the kitchen with the lights out. Mom and my brothers gone to bed, none of them sleeping. He’d been drinking. The bottle of Johnny Walker we’d only kept around for grandpa. I’d tried a swig once. Tasted like band-aids and kerosene. I sat closer to him than I normally would. As close as the Bulldog was now. My dad told me how his heart …just…stopped. The scotch had been like a cloud around him. He’d taken a big gulp and coughed. Later, when I called her, I told her this is the way it is. Children bury the parents and carry the burials around inside themselves. The next day she drove out for the funeral. Met my parents for the first time. Held my hand. In the other room at the funeral parlor was a soldier’s burial. We’d run track against each other in high school. She took me across the hall and we stood in the back. Not always, she said. The children don’t always bury the parents.
“She’s pretty,” the Bulldog said after a bit. “Your girl there. They’re all pretty when they’re asleep. In my day, a girl like that wouldn’t give the time of day to a kid like you. That’s why I played football. A letter jacket on you and they just melt, no matter who you are. Who’s your team?”
“I’m sorry?” The first thing I’d said since he’d sat down.
“Your school. Who do you root for?”
“We go…we went to Syracuse.”
“Orangemen. Good program. Tough defense, teams respect that. A good defensive program doesn’t rely on one or two players. Stands up year in, year out. Pro game now’s changing. All QB. But he goes and blows out a knee, where are you? Good defense is like a good car: part breaks, you replace it with another part.
“Don’t you want to ask me anything? Of course not, you kids never ask, do you? Did any of you stop to think I might have the right idea? Might be moving us towards getting out of there? I mean, sure, the Texan left a big steaming shit on my plate. And don’t think for a minute he didn’t get a big cowfucking belly laugh out of that. Any of those other faggots won in 68, he’d’ve pulled us out of that swamp even if the generals all threatened to — ” he put his finger to his temple and made a sound, pfft. Jerked his head back and to the left. “Made him swear in right over the fucking corpse just as a warning. But he was more than happy to leave Dick Nixon with a fresh stinking turd on the White House desk.
“You know the last thing that big dumb Texan said to me? He came to me in the Oval Office on my first day. He’s as big as life, that cowfucker. Back in the Senate days, he’d come up to you and grab you by the lapels like he was going to chuck you across the Senate floor. And he’d get right up in your face and fix those eyes on you and say This is how it is. A regular bully out for your lunch money. But he came to me and he looked me in the eye and said, You just watch for em. One night you’ll wake up and they’ll be at the foot of your bed. Watching you. Silent. And I looked in those eyes, and that fire that used to have me shitting my pants on the floor of the Senate was gone and I could smell on his breath his insides were going rotten on him. He was sixty but he looked ninety. And I thought, I beat you, you fucker. I fucking won. And I brushed his hand off me like he was a little girl and I told him to get out. Out of my office.
“It was a week later it happened. Pat was off on some thing, I don’t know. One of the bullshit things they make you do when you’re married to the president. Speaking to the League of Women Voters in Bumblefuck, Nebraska. Middle of the night, I woke up and there they were, just like that big cowfucker told me they’d be. All of them missing arms and eyes and dripping blood onto the hardwood and just staring at me. I sat up and stared right back at them. And it was so dark, you couldn’t tell the gooks from the boys. You couldn’t tell at all.
“Mostly now, when Pat’s gone, I just sit up reading, having a few drinks. Catching an hour here or there. Any longer than that and they show up, always about ten feet away. And they won’t say a word. Those fuckers won’t say a word.”
I saw them before I heard them. They were like ghosts. They moved around the edges of the room before they spotted him. In their dark suits, they all looked the same.
“We have Searchlight,” one of them said into a walkie talkie. “Repeat, we have Searchlight. Searchlight is secure.” They swarmed around him. One of them took him by the shoulders. Gingerly, almost. And let him away.
She and I got married the day he resigned. Not a plan. It just worked out that way. Someone wheeled a TV into the VFW and we watched him getting into the helicopter. Throwing his fingers in the air like the forks of two tongues. Grinning ike he’d gotten away with it. I asked her the other day if she remembered the protest. The trip to DC.
She shook her head a little and made a tisking noise. Not looking up from her book. “We were such kids,” she said.