TEN LETTERS TO THE PRESIDENT
August 6, 2001
Dear President Bush,
Thank you very much for your letter of July 30. It reminds me to tell you about how last Friday a spell of unseasonably cool days and a breeze from out of the northwest afforded Ted and me the opportunity to enjoy our lunch break outdoors. Ted maneuvered his forklift toward the back corner of the company lot, and I followed in mine. We went about as far as we could go from the warehouse. It’s quieter, the farther you go. Ted killed his forklift in the middle of some weeds, and I parked mine behind a pile of busted-up lawn gnomes. Ted overturned a long planter to act as a kind of two-man bench, and we set up there, between a pallet of ceramic cherubs and high stacks of ivory-colored terra-cotta bathroom tiles.
Ted took a bite of his sandwich, put it down, and lit a cigarette.
I unwrapped my sandwich—tuna fish, half made with the last piece of a loaf of wheat bread and half with the last piece of a loaf of white.
“So how’s it going?” Ted asked.
I chewed and made several ambiguous and rapid hand gestures to indicate my willingness to answer had I not had food in my mouth.
“Not bad,” I said. Most of my days used to be pretty good. When people asked me how I was, I’d say either “pretty good” or “real good.” Now the best I can ever seem to say for any given day is that it isn’t bad.
“Talk to Nancy lately?”
“A little bit,” I said. “On the phone.” I took a bite of my sandwich. “We mostly talk on the phone,” I said, “when we talk.”
“What’s that like?” Ted asked.
“You know,” I said. I looked at Ted, hoping he could supply the details.
Ted took a drag on his cigarette and shook his head in the negative manner. He didn’t know.
“It’s just exactly like how stuff was before at the same time that it’s so completely unlike how stuff was before. We’re the same people we were. She’s Nancy. I’m Harvey. And we got all the same jokes and stories, the same lingo and abbreviations and made-up words. Except sometimes all that doesn’t matter. None of it counts. The stories fall flat, the jokes fail to get a chuckle even, this despite the fact that she is still Nancy and I am still who I am. It’s impossible to understand almost.”
“Right,” Ted said.
“It’s a puzzle,” I said.
I took another bite of my sandwich and ran through what I’d just told Ted. It seemed to make sense. I swatted a dragonfly away from my can of soda. There are bugs in Durham the size of which never fails to surprise me. I did make sense at least. But that didn’t help.
“Maybe,” Ted said, “maybe if you and Nancy were locked in a house, and the house was on TV, and you both had to stay in the house in order to get the prize money, maybe things would be different.”
Ted was referring to his and my favorite TV show. “But we’re not locked in a house,” I said. “We never were locked in any damn house.”
“I’m just talking about the reward,” Ted said. “I’m just thinking that if there were some reward for staying together, if there were some prize, and if that prize were well defined and agreed upon by all, and everybody wanted it equally and was all willing to work together and stuff, then I mean, I don’t know where I’m going with this, exactly, but I just have to believe things would be different, that’s all.”
Behind Ted stretched a chain-link fence and behind that, another warehouse, virtually identical to the one we worked in but owned by another company. Beyond that the pattern of chain-link fences and warehouses continued farther than my eyes could see. I looked at Ted as if he hailed from a planet where bad timing, unsought advice, and unfortunate comparisons were viewed as the pinnacle of cultural refinement and the highest forms of compliment. “You were beaten a lot as a kid, weren’t you?” I said.
“Oh, sure,” Ted said. “My parents beat me all the time. They probably beat me and my sister around the clock.”
“I believe it,” I said.
“Lots of blows to my head,” Ted added. “The back of the head, especially.” The conversation could have easily gone in a different direction. As Ted smoked his cigarette down and I polished off my sandwich, I imagined how when Ted asked me how things were going and I answered him that things weren’t going bad, that Ted, in our wholly hypothetical lunch break on another planet, would turn to me then and ask what was wrong, and that I, for once, would actually tell him what was wrong. I would tell him how close I’d come to kidnapping Abby and Nick, how I’d had a cabby drive us nearly to Winston-Salem before I thought better and, you know, got a grip. It was a long story. I might require several lunch breaks to tell it in its entirety, but I wanted to try. When asked how it was going, I wanted to respond honestly. I always consider the honest response, however momentarily. I do want to be more honest. Inside my head, I feel the sentences arranging themselves, queued up like soldiers, in ranks and columns, ready to be deployed, ready to leap out into the air. But I pause. That’s as far as I often get. I speak maybe one sentence for every fifteen or twenty that I think. I pause, and I wait, and I think, come on, man, just ask me what is wrong—or whatever the question happens to be—please just ask me what’s wrong. It will only unlock everything.
I could wait whole years, speaking nothing but pleasantries. I’m sort of cowardly like that.
I looked at Ted. He was stubbing out his cigarette on the side of the planter.
“Ted,” I said, “I imagine you were also hanged upside down for hours at a time?”
“Oh, sure,” Ted said. “From time to time, sure, my parents gave us a good hanging. Didn’t everyone’s?”
“And was there water torture before the hanging?” I asked.
“Before, during, and after,” Ted said. “The water torture was pretty constant.” Like that, we talked on into the hour, laughing. When lunch ended, we headed back to the warehouse, and when the day ended, we did head home. Keep up the good work, sir.
August 13, 2001
Dear President Bush,
Yesterday Abby and I went to the overpass above the creek and fished for whatever it was we could manage. Gar, perch, alligator gar, small-mouth. It had rained the day before. It had rained in tremendous, ugly, world-ending sheets. At one point I looked out my window and thought the entire apartment building was passing slowly through the hard rinse portion of a carwash. There was lightning that made the lights waver and thunder that set the walls and floor of the building shaking.
The creek was left swollen and muddy. Abby lay on the grass, manufacturing surprisingly intricate boats out of sticks, leaves, and pieces of her chewing gum. She no sooner showed me the latest boat then she’d dropped it into the water. She’s too young yet to exhibit nostalgic tendencies. Every time one of her boats passed out of sight she squealed. “Bye, boat,” she said. The water ran well up the banks. Trees, loosened, dipped their uppermost branches into the water.
I handed Abby the fishing pole, showed her how to hold it, and leaned back to rest on my elbows.
Nearby, maybe three feet away, was the walking path I customarily will walk on. Another three feet of grass separated the walking path from a major parkway. Cars sped by at a pretty good clip. Durham is just like this, particularly where I live: If you look at the city narrowly enough, if you hold your hands up to the sides of your face, blinder-style, what you see can look magnificent and green and tender. But let even one hand fall to your side or take three or four regular-sized steps in any direction, and what you see is what you will see most anywhere else.
I sat up and held my hands up blinder-style. I wanted to remember Abby this way, without the walking path and the parkway to distract. I wanted Abby and her fishing pole, subtracting the unnecessary elements, the gravel shoulder and assorted road litter. Had I two more hands I would have plugged my ears.
Abby said, “What are you doing?”
“Focusing,” I said.
“What’s focusing?” Abby asked. She forgot she was holding the pole, and the end nodded and dipped toward the water.
“Hold it up,” I whispered. I doubt she could hear me over the traffic. “Like this, honey.”
A slow-moving car went by followed by a rented moving van. I wondered who is still moving here. Who are you and why have you come?
“Focusing is like another word for concentrating,” I said.
Abby looked at me. The pole started to dip again. “What’s concentrating?” she asked.
“Concentrating is where you think really hard about one small thing, where you like use all your brainpower just to, you know, think.”
Abby nodded, chewing it over.
“It’s not easy for me to focus,” I said. “I wish it was, but it’s not. I hope it’s easier for you to focus. I have a lot to distract me. It’s terrible, it’s just terrible to always be so distracted.”
A woman with hair down to the back of her knees walked by. She was a redhead.
“That lady has a lot of hair,” Abby said. She sounded impressed. Abby turned her head in the general direction of the redheaded woman and pointed with the crown of her head. She was as subtle as might be expected.
“When you are trying to concentrate,” I said, “you know, really trying to focus, at that very moment there will always—always—be a redheaded woman with hair down to the back of her knees who comes walking by to distract you and take you away from your thoughts.”
“But who distracts the redheaded lady?” Abby asked
I laughed. Abby laughed, not sure why I was laughing or how what she said was funny.
“That redheaded woman is very lucky,” I said. “The redheaded lady has the greatest concentration of any woman, of any person, for that matter, in the whole world. The redheaded woman is always focused. She is never distracted.”
Abby was still laughing, until she realized I wasn’t. She stopped laughing and looked back at the water and her fishing line in it.
I sat so still for so long I sensed my shadow lengthening. Abby was intent on the water now, determined to appear to be fishing.
“Just look at you,” I said to Abby. “I could just kidnap you.”
“What’s kidnap?” Abby asked.
“Kidnap?” I asked.
Abby nodded, watching the end of her pole for movement, any tug on the line stronger than the constant drag of the current.
“Kidnap is a word that means when you love someone so much you want to hug and squeeze them,” I said. “And kiss them,” I added.
Abby said, “Oh.”
“So instead of saying to you about how much I want to hug and squeeze you and kiss you, I can just say I want to kidnap you. It’s fewer words that way.”
“Then why don’t you kidnap me?” Abby asked.
A man, muscular in places he needn’t be, jogged by, bouncing one basketball with each hand. It made a pleasant sound, his feet and the basketballs on the pavement.
“Your mother wouldn’t be happy if I kidnapped you.”
“But Mom kidnaps me. Mom kidnaps me all the time.”
“That’s right,” I said.
“She kidnaps Nick, too.”
“I know,” I said.
“So what’s the problem?” Abby asked. She gingerly leaned the fishing pole against the railing and reached her arms out to me. “Kidnap me,” she said.
I gave her a hug like that. Then I took up the pole, and Abby resumed the manufacture of more small boats. The afternoon got away from us. It slipped through our grasp and became evening, and I took Abby back to her mother.
Keep up the good work, sir.
August 20, 2001
Dear President Bush,
I dreamed you and I were brothers again. This was last night. We—you, me, and my mother—were all riding in some sort of old SUV, manufactured back in the day when they weren’t called SUVs yet. It was late at night and the road was lit not at all, so naturally you were driving. My mother, who was also your mother in this dream, was riding shotgun. I was stuck in the middle again.
I asked you where we were going, and you said we were going to pick up the free passes.
“Free passes to what?” I asked.
“The movie,” you said.
“Yeah, okay,” I said, “but what movie?”
You said some title then but I couldn’t understand what you were saying. It sounded like no movie I’d ever heard of in my life. You saw a look of confusion come over my features and started to describe the movie. With all due respect, sir, what you described resembled no movie that could ever be made. It posed logistical challenges to rival a full-scale war, and yet featured the simplicity of a kitchen table underneath a bare light bulb. There was something at once so large and so intricate about this movie of yours, as if it was a game of championship chess played with pieces the size of high-tension electrical towers. Like so much, like so often, I just let it go. I looked back at the road and started trying to keep count of the yellow stripes.
This is when our mother broke out the cookies. From out of nowhere she produced a large flat rectangular Tupperware container of oatmeal raisin pecan cookies. She no sooner had the cover off then we all started in with eating them.
Except for the sounds of our eating, there were the sounds of the road, the rusty shocks of the SUV, and some staticky mumbling from out of the radio.
You took the lid of the Tupperware container, placed it against your window, and then leaned your head against the lid. You did this so gently and with such an audible sigh that I thought for a moment that you imagined it was a pillow.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
You didn’t answer.
“Look, you can’t sleep,” I said.
“I’m just resting the left side of my head,” you said.
“I don’t care if you’re resting the right side of your head,” I said, “don’t rest your head, not while you’re driving.”
A minor argument ensued then. The main gist of this argument can be easily guessed: You maintained that I can’t be telling you what to do all your life, and I said, that’s fine, Bro, but I can’t exactly say nothing and just let you fall asleep, not with our mother in the car with us. We were trying, you and I, to argue in hushed tones so as not to get our mother involved. I will say this, I am not sorry for starting the argument and do not feel any misgivings whatsoever about the content of my complaint; however, I do apologize for the manner in which I spoke to you. I am sorry for my tone.
Anyway, at some point in our ceaseless bickering, two kids appeared in the middle of the road. They were just standing there. Two little kids, one with a plastic beach pail and the other with a plastic shovel to match, both struck dumb. We came up on them fast and out of nowhere. I yelled, our mother yelled, and you swerved off the road, onto the gravel shoulder. For a while there the ride was a bit bumpy. It was one of those roads with a steep falling off. I thought we were going to flip over, but then we were back on the road. You braked, put the SUV into “park,” and jumped out to see about the kids. I rolled out your side and came running after you.
The kids had crossed the road by then and were sitting in the gravel. One kid dug in the gravel with the shovel while the other held the bucket out to be filled.
You introduced yourself to the kids, but they paid you no mind. You suggested this wasn’t really the best place for them to play or the best time for them to be playing. The kids didn’t stop or look up.
“Let me try something,” I said to you.
You shrugged, as if to say, be my guest, jackass.
First, I crouched down so that I was on their level. Then I waved my hand hello. The kids didn’t look at me. “Where are your parents?” I asked. I spoke the words as if I was expecting not to be understood. “Parents,” I repeated. “Adults,” I said, pointing back and forth to me and you.
“How did you get here?”
Again no reaction.
“Who are you?”
I thought perhaps these kids were deaf-mute kids.
“What are your names?” I said.
At this point I was on my knees and pleading with them, but once more received no response.
Our mother came up and started proffering what was left of the cookies, but the kids weren’t into cookies. That gravel just fascinated them, and after a time, not knowing what else to try or do and being completely out of even poor ideas, we all clambered back inside the SUV and continued driving.
Keep up the good work, sir.
September 3, 2001
Dear President Bush,
The company where I work served ice cream to those of us who had to work on Labor Day. The warehouse is a round-the-clock operation. It never closes. Someone is always here. There are no locks on the doors, and no padlocks hang unfastened from the gates.
The ice cream was our special treat, for coming in on the day we were assigned to come in. The company let us eat all the ice cream that we wanted, or until the ice cream was gone, whichever came first. The company ordered two bins from the ice cream place, one vanilla and one chocolate, and made available off to the side, on a little table, an assortment of toppings, including sprinkles, little jimmies, peanuts, some heinous-looking fake strawberry stuff that I saw nobody touch, and chocolate sauce. Two columns of paper bowls, each bowl decorated with a floral pattern to make it look like china, rose out of the puddle forming around the ice cream bins. Beside the bowls was a stack of yellow paper napkins that someone, thinking ahead, had swiped from the Wendy’s hamburger place just down the street. I went in for some vanilla ice cream with peanuts, and then, as an afterthought almost, squirted some chocolate sauce over the top.
The ice cream was good, but nobody but a monkey would confuse it with a bona fide holiday.
Ted and I took our ice cream out to our usual spot, fended off the flies and the bees, and settled in for an extra-long break.
Ted took a bite of his ice cream, put the bowl down, and lit a cigarette. He said, “I hear Labor Day’s like a holiday in certain parts of the country.”
“I’ve heard rumors about that,” I said.
“What’re you hearing?” Ted asked.
“Oh, you know, the usual stuff. Friends of friends of friends are telling me things, about how where they live Labor Day is this big day off, when people rent cottages by lakes and reunite with their extended families, people they hardly see but maybe once or twice a year but somehow still manage to feel instantly connected to, as if there’s a bond between them. Frisbees are tossed and baseballs are thrown, meat is grilled, potato salad is served, and lots of beer is drunk. Then, at some point, someone makes an unspoken, half-considered wish that a cousin wasn’t really his cousin, so that any pass he makes at the cousin seems guilt-free in that minute as the sun is going down and the minute before it’s gone for the night. Everybody talks about their mortgage payments and their car loans and their taxes, until invariably someone gets too sloppy and fucked up and picks a fight over something that happened years ago, something about somebody inheriting a couch when somebody else expected to inherit that couch, and things get heated up real fast and everybody chooses sides, even though they swear they don’t want to go and choose sides. Then, for some reason, maybe because someone’s kid says something outrageously funny but, in a weird way, oddly telling, everybody just laughs it off, the squabble seems petty, and the fight dissipates, blowing out across the lake or getting caught high up in the trees. There are hugs then and kisses on cheeks, and slaps on backs, and all that you see, if you’re stuck cleaning the table and folding up the tablecloth, is dozens of pairs of red taillights bobbing up the dirt road and disappearing over the hill.”
Ted nudged his bowl of ice cream with his toe to shoo a fly away.
“Sounds fun,” Ted said.
“I guess so,” I said.
As I was telling Ted the Labor Day story, I had in mind a Labor Day weekend Nancy and I spent together. This was years ago, back almost to when we first met, and, I think, it was the first time I met her family. We had driven down to Charlotte special for her family get-together. I had in mind telling Ted about how when I think of Nancy this way, and I cannot help but to think of Nancy in this way, I feel the sudden weight of having to go and eventually meet someone new, and it as at those times that starting over seems like an impossibly tall order, requiring too much talking on my part and worse, talk about things I’m tired of talking about—family stuff, stuff about me, my few likes, my innumerable dislikes, the discovery of minor preferences held in common, the whole personal biography such as it is.
Ted said, “I really liked this one cousin of mine.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” I said, “don’t tell me that.”
“Well, I did,” Ted said.
“Again, don’t tell me about that.”
“Her name was Melinda,” he said.
“The less I know about her the better.”
“I’m not saying I did anything,” Ted said. “I’m not saying I acted on my feelings. I’m just saying.”
“And I’m saying don’t tell me that.”
“She was pretty,” Ted said.
“I really, really, really do not want to hear about this.”
“She was an emergency room nurse,” Ted said. “Real bright girl.”
“Nurses are all bright,” I said, “until they get to that point where they get all burned out and then it’s like their vision narrows and their hands stop feeling warm to the touch.”
“Right,” Ted said.
I finished my ice cream and tipped the bowl so the melted stuff dripped out into the dirt. Straightaway, a couple of flies landed in it and started rubbing their legs together. Greedy flies.
“You going to finish yours?” I asked.
“No, go ahead. Help yourself.”
I reached over and picked Ted’s bowl off the ground. “So, what happened to Melinda?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Ted said. “Haven’t really heard. Married then I think divorced then married again and now separated. She has a kid now, or maybe two, I forget. Still works in the ER”
“Right,” I said. “Sounds like everybody I know, practically.”
“But it’s not,” Ted said.
“Right,” I said. “You’re right.”
That’s when Mr. Lambier drove up in his golf cart. “Gentlemen,” he said.
Ted and I said, “Hello, Mister Lambier.” We sounded like first-graders greeting their new teacher on the first day of class. We knew nothing about geography but were already bored with geography.
“I just wanted to wish you gentlemen a very merry Labor Day,” Lambier said.
“Is it happy Labor Day or merry Labor Day?” I asked.
Lambier said, “What’s that, Strub?”
It was patently obvious to me and I suspect to Ted, too, that when Lambier bid us our happy or merry or whatever Labor Day, what he was really saying was, “I believe it’s time to get back to work, gentlemen. Not only do I know it’s time to get back to work, I know that you know it’s time to get back to work, so let’s all stop nursing our ice creams and playing grab-ass out here and get back to work, shall we, gentlemen? P.S. Merry Labor Day.”
“I said, ‘I’m wondering if it’s in fact more proper to wish someone a happy Labor Day or a merry Labor Day.'”
“I’ve always heard happy Labor Day,” Ted said. “Growing up, I mean.”
Lambier shrugged. “What difference does it make?”
I said, “Well, on one hand you got your merry Christmas, but on the other hand you got your happy Halloween.”
“And don’t forget, it’s always happy New Year,” Ted said.
“Good point, Ted,” I said.
Lambier’s eyes looked as if they were crossing. He executed a painfully slow three-point turn in his golf cart and then called back over his shoulder, “See you back at the warehouse.”
As he drove off, Ted and I waved to him, though he could not have seen us wave. We waved and waved. We waved until which time it became obvious that we were making fun of the idea of waving to Lambier, and then we stopped, and then we went back to work exactly how he wanted.
Keep up the good work, sir.
September 10, 2001
Dear President Bush,
Since January, I’ve lost a good deal of weight. How much weight I can’t say. How many pounds exactly I have no idea. I don’t own a scale, is the thing. I’ve noticed that my pants bulge out around me. That was the first sign. My belt now functions more like a cinch. That was the second. I could really use a scale right about now.
When I sleep I customarily sleep on my right side, with my legs pulled up. Recently I started to put a pillow between my knees. Otherwise my knees rub together in a way that’s uncomfortable and that prevents me from sleeping. Sometimes I will put a folded-up blanket between my knees. In a pinch, I can just wad up some of the sheets and put that between my knees. In this way I can usually, after some turning and some tossing and after reading the time on the clock every few minutes and wondering how little time has passed and how very long that time has seemed to me, get some sleep.
Keep up the good work, sir.
September 17, 2001
Dear President Bush,
At work last Tuesday, Mr. Lambier was the only person with a radio, a privilege he no doubt savored, I’m sure. All the information about the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the downed plane in southern Pennsylvania had to be filtered first through him. How it worked was Lambier told his secretary Holly something he heard. Next Holly told the Two Bobs, both of whom are forever finding reasons and making up excuses to justify hanging around her desk—excuses like, does Holly need their help with anything? Does Holly need a hand with moving that incredibly heavy box of copier paper? Is Holly aware that she just dropped this pen here off her desk? No, no, no, Holly, please, allow me to get it. And now is Holly sure she doesn’t need any help with anything?—all in the hopes of finding a moment, not yet arrived and perhaps never to arrive, to ask her to dinner and a movie.
I imagine Lambier said, “Holly, I just heard a report on the radio saying a plane hit one of the World Trade Center buildings.”
Holly told the Two Bobs, “A plane flew into the World Trade Center.”
The Two Bobs then did their very best to forget what they’d just been told as they hustled out of the office and walk-ran the thirty-five-to-forty-five feet to the warehouse only to mangle further the particular facts and mix whatever details they could still summon with their own biases, juvenile preoccupations, and memories of certain action movies.
Soon after I imagine Lambier told Holly he would not hesitate to dock the pay and dock the pay severely of anybody stopping work to go out to his car and listen to a radio.
Holly said to the Two Bobs, who had by this time managed to misinform and confuse everyone so thoroughly that they thought it best to head back to the office and collect more inaccuracies and falsehoods, “Whatever you do, do not go to your cars and listen to the radio.”
The Two Bobs came right back to the warehouse. They lost no time in telling some people who then told some people who turned around and told some other people who eventually found Ted and me, “The people who toppled the World Trade Center have taken control of all the radios. Don’t play your radio, whatever you do.”
Ted and I took this new bit of information in stride and immediately went on break.
“What do you think?” Ted asked me. He was having some trouble lighting his cigarette. It was windy.
“I think I’d like to hear for myself what the hell’s going on.”
Ted shook his head. I couldn’t tell if he was disagreeing with me or frustrated about the business with his cigarette. I moved to stand in front of him, close enough to hug, and he got it lit.
“I’d prefer not to hear a thing,” he said.
I didn’t say anything.
“You want to know why?” he asked.
I shrugged. He was going to tell me one way or another.
“When I get home, I’m not going to be able to think about anything else but. I’m just going to sit in front of the TV and veg. I probably am not going to even have dinner. Maybe I’ll eat some junk. I’ll call my mom and dad to see how they are, and we’ll talk about whatever is on our TVs at the time.”
“What’s wrong with that?
He took a drag on his cigarette. “I just would rather be at work.”
“I mean, that’s how bad this all is. I’d rather be here. Think about that for a second. I’d rather be fucking here.”
“I know,” I said.
“You know what I’m thinking about now?” Ted asked.
I allowed that I had no idea what he was thinking about now.
“I’m thinking about what all I did yesterday. I’m trying to remember what the newspaper looked like, what I read. I’m remembering what I had for dinner last night. Because I think it will be the last good meal I eat for a while.”
“I don’t feel very hungry either,” I said. If you want to know the truth, sir, I don’t think I’ve eaten normally for months.
“I’m not talking about being hungry,” Ted said. “I’m talking about that I have this knot in my stomach now and I doubt it’s going away any time soon.”
“Nerves,” I said. “It’s just nerves.”
Ted nodded. “That’s what I’m talking about there,” he said.
A big bug started clicking and then flew off in a loose corkscrew pattern, settling about fifteen feet away. It started clicking again.
“I just feel like staying here and moving pallets all night,” he said. We were standing in the middle of a wide aisle that runs between two rows of large ceramic urns. The urns are stacked up four high there, so it’s a good place to hang out and take long breaks. Ted pointed at the urns with his cigarette. “I’ll shift these here,” he said “clear to the other side of the lot.” He looked down the other end of the row, at the chain-link fence. “Just for the hell of it,” he added.
I didn’t say anything. Silence didn’t seem appropriate, but neither did filling it up with talking.
“Do you think our show will be on tonight?” Ted asked.
“You know, I think the show’s probably going to be preempted,” I said.
“Yet another reason not to go home,” Ted said.
“I don’t think it will be on any time soon.”
“You’re probably right,” Ted said.
“Those poor people,” I said. It was as much as I could say. It didn’t seem appropriate to say so little, to speak three words only, but then it didn’t seem appropriate either to talk on and on. All eloquence was suspect.
“Are you kidding?” Ted said. “Are you kidding me? I’d give anything to be in that house right now. That house is like the last safe refuge on earth. You got your no TV and no radio. You don’t have to listen to the Two Bobs yammering on about what they can’t even comprehend. You don’t have to endure every single person you meet carrying on like some kind of puffed-up general. Everybody is a presidential historian now or a military strategist or a Middle East expert or a garden-variety conspiracy theorist. You got none of that in the house.”
“I was talking about the people in the Trade Center,” I said. “And at the Pentagon.”
Ted said he misunderstood. “Sorry,” he said.
“No big deal,” I said.
Keep up the good work, sir.
September 24, 2001
Dear President Bush,
Nancy phoned me Thursday morning and, in the course of talking about this and that, asked if she could come over later and watch TV. I still have her TV. When she moved out, she left it with me. Which was kind. I said to her, sure, come on over, and over she came.
Thursday night was the night the final episode of my favorite show was on. It was also, interestingly enough, the night you delivered your big speech about the new war to both houses of Congress. My favorite show follows a group of total strangers of all ages and from a couple of walks of life who agree to be locked inside a house someplace while cameras record their every move and microphones pick up their every word. All the world watches as the strangers compete and scheme and calculate to be the last stranger left. That individual is declared the winner and gets some money. For reasons I cannot adequately explain, I am fascinated with this show and its dwindling number of strangers. Bad behavior fascinates me, and these folks do behave badly. If I had to guess I would guess that the house is in California.
Over the past several months, I have told Nancy about the show, providing her with regular updates. When there are things I want to tell her that are difficult to say, inevitably I will end up talking about the show. My friend Ted and I talk about the show over lunch. Because the show deals with the fragility and unpredictability of human relationships under what are, at best, stressful circumstances, I can often draw fruitful analogies between something that I saw on the show and something that happens to me, or me and Nancy, in real life. Take the unlikely friendship between the mortgage banker, a family man from Kentucky, and the technical writer, who is gay. Who could have predicted such a friendship? And yet, who among us would mistake the respect underlying their bitchy banter over cigarettes and coffee? Who will, after seeing the mortgage banker rise in the middle of the night to cover the sleeping technical writer with a blanket, doubt that they are friends?
Or take the young doctor from Miami Beach. This doctor took a shine to the young real estate agent from San Antonio, and began pursuing her, some would say aggressively chasing after her. He hopped in and out of bed with her. He jumped into the hot tub with her. He whispered many things in her ear that made her giggle and squirm. She pushed him away in that manner that really, in fact, pulled him closer. The doctor’s behavior prompted me to ask certain questions regarding how genuine his feelings were. Did he feel deeply for the real estate agent? Or was he, in fact, only pretending as part of his clever strategy to be the last stranger in the house? Or was he merely lonely, and horny? And what of the real estate agent? Was she toying with the young doctor? Was she in love, or was she plotting something? Didn’t she have an ongoing relationship with a guy who plays volleyball on a beach in Texas? Did she feel genuinely or was she merely bored out of her mind? And what, for that matter, of my own feelings? My feelings in real life. Were they genuine ever? Did I have some master plan? Was I a schemer, too? Was my scheming so deep-seated that I was unaware of it? Or was I desperate for affection, and longing even for sweetness, its saccharine substitute? What are real feelings anyway? And how, finally, could I ever know any of this for sure?
Sometimes Nancy feigns interest in my interest in the show. Sometimes she’s the opposite of interested. It just depends.
You will want to know if Nancy and I had sex. You will want to know if during a commercial break or after the show ended we turned to each other and started talking, just chatting, in a relaxed manner, about things and stuff, and stuff and things, and saw, as they say, something in each other’s eyes that we hadn’t seen in quite a long time.
We did not see anything in each other’s eyes. I didn’t, anyway. To tell you the truth, we don’t really look at each other. We’ll look at each other and then look away. Eye contact is accidental. When we talk, she talks to a shelf of books or an ottoman. I talk to the carpet that happens to be near my feet. I address my toes while I’m talking to her. I had sort of imagined we might have sex. By which I mean I can see how it maybe could have happened, sitting there watching TV. Maybe there’d be a seemingly accidental touch. Maybe there’d be some shoulder-rubbing going on, maybe some kissing, and then, just like that, sex. But, no, to answer your question, no sex here.
Anyway, on Thursday, after the not uneventful departure of the candy store manager from Brooklyn who spoke like a prophet from the Old Testament, castigating everyone and warning them how they will forever and ever reap what they sow, amen, the show came down to two strangers: the young doctor from Miami and the newlywed chef from where I’m not sure anymore. In the end, the young doctor won all the cash and said he was going to Las Vegas.
Keep up the good work, sir.
October 1, 2001
Dear President Bush,
As you well know, I do like to take walks, and I try, for my peace of mind, to find time each evening to do so.
Yesterday’s sunset was a beauty. Everything was all purply pink. The buildings in my apartment complex are light gray, so they took on that purply pink hue and, frankly, looked better for it. My arms also took on the purply pink hue. I tell you everything had that color. Overhead, in the air, the clouds were arranged like a giant’s ribs, and I walked underneath high-tension wires that run for miles, vowing to follow them one day soon, to see where they led.
I looked at the sky and looked at my wristwatch and then I looked again at the sky. Given the hour, it didn’t seem nearly dark enough. It was too light, though don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t complaining.
I thought, “Maybe today is the day it will never get dark.”
For years now I’ve predicted this day would come. Sir, I maintain that we are all of us together living on the verge of a great unnatural event, something involving the earth and the sun and how one moves around the other. All that’s about to end, or change, I don’t know which yet. Anyway, so yesterday I convinced myself that the sunset was slowing and I was the sole witness. “Look at how light out it is,” I thought. I checked the time. Still later than I would’ve guessed, and yet there is still light in the sky. I was marveling. I am still marveling. “This is the day,” I think. “This is the day when the daylight isn’t ever going to run out.”
Would I be able to walk my entire walk under exactly those pink and purple conditions? I believed I would.
Minutes later, the sky appeared a little darker, though my hopes were not dimmed in the slightest. It didn’t seem that much darker, really, considering. It still seemed possible that the day would not ever end. Is my little theory born out of my disappointment? Perhaps. And is my little theory fed by the unshakable feeling that the days pass, and I allow them to pass, and little changes, and I am still here, where I was? Sure, sure, that’s a good point. Something to consider, anyway.
Well, as it turned out, the day did end in the end. But for a few minutes there it did seem possible that it wouldn’t. Sometimes when I’m out walking I think these things. I can’t help it.
Keep up the good work, sir.
October 8, 2001
Dear President Bush,
Last week I moved, so be sure to make note of my new mailing address.
Right now, my stuff is as much unpacked as packed. It’s impossible to tell, looking around, whether I’m moving in or out. A box turned on its end doubles as a kitchen table. I set a chair down beside it and a bowl with two apples on top. Elsewhere, I leaned a stack of flattened boxes against a wall, and I call that, too, a table, since it’s proven stable enough to balance a lamp.
On moving day, Nancy came over to help. We were together all day, practically. When she dropped me off at my new place the last time, I stood surrounded by boxes arranged in stacks almost up to my neck. I was overwhelmed by the task before me and I told Nancy as much. I searched her face for small pools of sympathy and spotted them, just behind the walls of fatigue and the rosebushes of defensiveness. When it became clear that the sympathy was inaccessible to me, I became upset. Nancy, seeing my eyes well up and all the rest, said, “I can’t do this.” We hugged. It was, under the circumstances, all we knew to do. She had an ear to my chest, and I was looking over the top of her head. She gave me a squeeze and then a second, kissed my chest, and then she left. When Nancy says she can’t do this, it’s not always clear what “this” is, but I knew what she meant.
Since moving I have had the same dream. In my dream I am in my new apartment. My new apartment is smaller and cheaper and so just what I was looking for. Sometimes I’m unpacking in my dream, or cleaning up, when there’s a knock at my door. Who could that be? I wonder. I go to see who it could be, and it’s a complete stranger.
The stranger is a woman who every night looks different. I notice these women have two things in common: They wear matching clothing and prefer uncomplicated hairstyles. Always the stranger claims to be visiting me and always I believe her, because I am overjoyed.
Yes, I am surprised, and yes, I am a little taken aback. It’s true, I wasn’t expecting anyone, but still, I invite the stranger in. We drink tea or coffee or Coke or whatever, and we visit. It’s always late when the stranger arrives, already dark outside, but we stay up later, unconscious of the hour and heedless of our yawns.
When we both fall quiet, the pauses between our thoughts grow longer, and the gaps between jokes and laughs widen until it seems that no joke is all that funny and every laugh comes out of nowhere, I go into my bedroom, make up the bed with fresh sheets, and set out a towel, a facecloth, and a bar of soap for her.
Then I go back out to the front room. In the time that I was gone, the stranger has dozed off. I wake her. I try to be gentle without being romantic. The stranger opens her eyes, she smiles absently, remembering where she is, and who I am, and then almost immediately begins to drift off to sleep again. I suggest the stranger take my bed for the night. She declines, saying it is my bed, after all. I insist. I tell her she must. I’ve already made it up for you, I say. I add that this is no way for her to sleep, indicating the way her head rests on top of boxes. She finally agrees.
She closes the door to the bedroom, and I hear the bed take her weight. Then I hear her shift once or twice, and within a minute, if that, I hear her breathing slow, and I think, she’s asleep, and I think, what a pleasant visit, and I think then I go to sleep myself.
In the morning the stranger and I say our good-byes. We shake hands. The stranger leaves, and that is that.
When I awake from this dream—and I always awake at that point—I go back over the dream to recall what is so pleasant about it. It occurs to me then that I never asked the stranger her name, and she never volunteered it. I replay the dream a second time and realize we only ever called each other “you.” Do you, she asked, like your new place? (I do.) Do you, she asked, like it here, in Durham? (Well, it has its pros and cons.) Have you, I asked, been to Durham before? (She hadn’t. She had never been to North Carolina and, what’s more, had had no clear plans. She only showed up.) As the stranger leaves, and I body-block the screen door, even then I do not ask for her name. What’s more, I don’t even think to ask her. I only ever crave a name, something to call her, when I awake.
Keep up the good work, sir.
October 15, 2001
Dear President Bush,
What do you make of this? Nancy called me last night on the phone. I said hello, she said hello, and then there was silence. For more than an hour, neither of us said a word. I heard her breathe, as I’m sure she heard me breathe. For the next hour, we were also silent. On the line, in the static, I heard the garbled halves of other conversations. Here and there I could make out a word or phrase. In other cities, apparently, people were talking. Someone was getting a swimming pool installed. Someone had or was having a birthday. Some woman conducted some business. It sounded to me like sales, pharmaceuticals. A man, apropos of nothing, announced he was in Denver. Another man promised he’d see someone soon. A third man said, “Is my mother there? Can I speak to my mother?” He said it several times. I never heard the answer. Nancy, meanwhile, said nothing, I said nothing, and Nancy, in reply, said nothing.
Then, just like that, Nancy hung up the phone. I called back immediately, I’m not sure why. Her phone rang, just half a ring, and she picked up. She didn’t say hello. She knew it was me. I didn’t say hello back. I knew it was her. We had had more than two hours of utter quiet and now we were having some more.
Keep up the good work, sir.