In honor of this weekend's solemnities, I thought I'd post the chapter of Patriots set on Inauguration night. I'll mention: the incident with the drunken man asking rude questions of my protagonist's girlfriend actually happened to my wife Danielle and me at an inaugural ball in 1989. The man in the mullet haircut and flashing red bow tie is also taken from life - as, frankly, are most of the bizarre and ludicrous events in the book.
-- Chapter 18 --
Valerie shimmered into the General Brands dinner in a long silver metallic sheath, her thick dark hair swept up, a black jet necklace around her throat. For warmth she wore some kind of white fur wrap she had found months ago at a second-hand store in New York. The wrap looked a little scraggly close up, but from any distance Valerie seemed an image out of the golden age of Hollywood.
I was not the only one to like the dress. Minutes after we entered the Air and Space Museum, we were standing beside the display of moon rocks reconnoitering the situation. A drunken partygoer came stumbling up to her: an older guy, heavy, wearing $5,000 worth of ugly, oversized wristwatch.
“Are you a wife” – he couldn’t get his tongue working properly, the word emerged as “waaf” – “or are you a prostitute?”
You never know what’s going to upset Valerie and what will make her laugh. This time, she laughed. “Why can’t I be both?”
I put a hand on his chest. “Friend, maybe we should see about getting you a taxi.”
He got belligerent. “Who the hell are you? You’re no friend of mine.”
Valerie whispered something in his ear, and he grew calm, very formal. “I apologize to you, sir. Good night.” And off he slunk.
“What did you say?”
“I told him you had hired me for the whole weekend. He’s a Constitutionalist. He respects contracts.”
“Very funny.” I surveyed the crowd. “But do you think we maybe have come to the wrong place?”
At that moment we were passed by man wearing a mullet haircut and a bright red tie studded with little lights that switched on and off at two-second intervals.
“Looks that way,” said Valerie. “Somehow I imagined an inaugural ball would be … less gross.”
“Maybe it will be better in the VIP room?” I glanced down at the secondary ticket atop my general admission pass.
“Maybe,” said Valerie, not very hopefully.
The VIP “room” turned out to be an exhibition space that opened off the museum’s main hall. The big placard advertising the show was now trimmed with red-white-and-blue bunting: ANIMALS IN SPACE! The placard was illustrated with a black-and-white photograph of a crew-cut astronaut wearing a monkey around his neck.
As we showed our passes to the guard at the rope line, I was knocked aside by a short man with a white comb-over, charging forward double-quick into the VIP space. He must have had his pass bar-coded onto the shoulder of his antique tuxedo, for he did not break or even slow his stride. The guard caught me as I stumbled.
“Who the hell was that?”
A nervous young man just behind me the line overheard and answered, “That was Marvin Spivak. You know: the Constitutionalist guy on the Point-Counterpoint show on ProgTV.”
“What a jerk. Is he blind?”
“I think he assumed you were going to get out of his way.”
Inside the VIP room, the bowties at least didn’t flash. On the other hand, neither was anybody going to be inspired by the scene to sing, “I could have danced all night.”
Nobody was dancing here, despite the efforts of a five-member band belting out hits from the 1980s. Men in tuxedos and women in bright jewel-tone dresses crowded in thickets of intense conversation. The faces I didn’t recognize from TV still somehow conveyed an expectation that I should. Waiters moved in between the thickets, maneuvering trays of wine and champagne. I tried the champagne. Boring. I switched to the wine. Bleh. Back to the champagne.
Unless I felt like walking up to a justice of the Supreme Court, and receiving a second dose of the Bill Mihailovich treatment, there was nobody for us to talk to.
“God this is grisly,” I said to Valerie. “Do you think it was like this when the Romans inaugurated a new emperor?”
“It’s no worse than that horrible Constitutionalist Review dinner. The endless speeches, people leaving their tables between courses in search of somebody more important to talk to. Then at the end of the evening, the women lunged at the centerpieces, and the fastest pair of hands took the flowers home!” Valerie shuddered at the memory.
Cutting abruptly through the noise, I heard a congenially familiar sound: the squeaky voice of Freddy Catesby.
“Hello Walter, good evening Valerie. Let me introduce you to somebody. This is Lou Rogers. The most courageous man on radio! But Lou now faces a big problem. What’s he going to talk about now that he’s chased Williams out of town?”
Rogers was a squat, bald-headed man who sported a scratchy-looking gray goatee. His tuxedo had been bought at least twenty-five pounds ago. His gut bulged against the jacket, his fat short legs crushed his ankles. He looked deeply discontented with something. The tuxedo maybe. Possibly tonight’s party. Or perhaps the nullity of human existence.
Rogers snarled, “Don’t worry, I’ll have lots to talk about. I expect nothing good from this man Pulaski. And I still think we would have done better to stick by our principles and go with Esther Minden. Or Senator Bingham. Or even Governor Tremain, despite his being a two-faced weasel.”
“You don’t seem in a mood to celebrate,” said Valerie.
“I celebrated the defeat of Williams on election night, the way I like to celebrate: at home, in my bunker, with my dogs. I don’t see anything to celebrate tonight. If Freddy weren’t my good friend, I’d never have jammed myself into this monkey suit to drive into this horrible city. And if Freddy were a better friend, he wouldn’t have asked me.” Rogers twisted his mouth into an expression that I think was a smile. The effort squeezed his left eye shut in a horrible squint.
“Speaking of home,” I murmured to Valerie, “why don’t we get out of here?”
“Yes I’ve had all the glamour I can stand,” she whispered back. “I feel like an idiot that I spent a week shopping for this dress. I should have gone to Macy’s and picked the first damn thing I saw off the rack.”
We excused ourselves to Catesby and Rogers, then fought our way through the wall of VIPs. Then out through the throngs in the big hall, until finally – escape.
The weather had executed one of those Washington about-faces. The balmy day had turned into a bitterly cold night. Valerie’s heels precluded a walk home. Of course there were no taxicabs. Instead, a long line of limousines waited at the curb for the Florida high-rollers inside the museum.
I walked along the shining hoods until I came to a shabby town car at the tail of the queue. A freelancer. I held a fifty-dollar bill in front of the car’s side window. The driver lowered the glass.
“My girlfriend didn’t bring a coat. We live just on the other side of the Mall – you’ll be back in ten minutes.” The driver lowered the glass another three inches and snatched the bill. I opened the rear door, slid Valerie into the back seat, and tumbled after her. The disreputable limo somehow restored her good spirits.
“Hey,” she said, “why don’t we take this car to the Hotel Monaco and have a drink in the bar? Maybe we can retrieve the night. I can walk home from there, even in these shoes.”
I stroked the line of her dress. “I know a way to retrieve the night.”
She smacked my hand. “You’ll get that too. But I want my party first.”
Ten minutes later, we were walking through the lurid reds and purple of the Monaco’s lobby. If Dr Seuss designed furniture, he’d have designed just these bizarre twisted chairs and up-tilted couches. We aimed for the door to the hotel bar. To one side of the door, I spotted Colonel Cleland, his back to the room, his shoulders hunched to his ears as if to hide his face, talking intently into a mobile phone.
The bar was jammed, but I managed to shove my way through and collect a passion-fruit Cosmopolitan for Valerie, a Talisker for me. I wrestled my way back out to the lobby, where Valerie had found us a lone absurd armchair. We wedged ourselves in together.
We had a good view of Cleland, still talking intently. Valerie followed my stare. “Friend of yours?”
“Hardly. That’s Colonel Cleland. I saw him talk at the Constitutionalist Institute, not that he’d remember. He was just named deputy chief of staff at the White House. Important guy, one of the Pulaski inner circle.”
“By the look of it, he’s not having a good time tonight, either.”
“No. He’s probably signed up for four years of not having a good time.” We both sipped our drinks and were quiet together. After a time, I asked:
“Valerie, do you like it here?”
“You mean, here as in this hotel? Or here as in Washington?”
She considered the question for a moment.
“Yes, I do like it here. I like sitting on our building’s roof garden when it’s not too freezing cold and looking out over the domes and monuments. I like my work. I like our life together here. And I like what it’s doing for you.”
I liked the feel of her thigh through the silk against my trouser leg. I wrapped my arm around her and squeezed her waist.
“What’s it doing for me?”
“You’re working hard at something. You’re thinking about things. You have responsibilities. And people are respecting you.”
“When they’re not snubbing me at parties.”
“Just you wait, they’ll be sucking up to you soon enough.”
“They’ll be sucking up to my mustard money.”
“Yes, OK, that too. What’s wrong with that? Everybody’s got something. You’ve got mustard. The issue is, what do you do with your advantages? You used to do – forgive me – dick-all. Now you are doing something. So I’m happy.”
“But what about the ugly parts? What about Daphne plotting with me against Hazen? What about my friend Samir refusing to talk to me ever again because I took a job with a senator with a ‘C’ instead of an ‘N’ after his name?”
Valerie nestled herself into my lap. “Samir’s just a crybaby. I doubt he got bent out of shape about all those sad Constitutionalist losers when his team won four years ago.”
“Samir wasn’t complaining about losing. He was complaining about how we played the game.”
“Oh, please. If he’d won, he’d think the game was played just fine.”
I couldn’t argue with that. I couldn’t usually argue with Valerie. That beautiful head held a better brain than mine.
“As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “politics is mostly noise, money, and ego. Just like everything else. There’s no point getting worked up about it. And maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe it’s the people who talk about principles who are the really scary ones.”
She brushed her lips against my cheek, then slipped up and out of my lap. “Let go home.” The wind smacked us as we stepped out of the hotel, and she huddled against me in her wrap as we walked past the panhandlers on E Street. The long lines of traffic-jammed limousines filled the air with hot exhaust, red light, and angry honks.