Yeah, I got nothing.
Chalk it up to my being a teetotaler. Chalk it up to this being the beginning of the school year. Chalk it up to that piece of chalk I injested in the first grade. I have absolutely no viable response to this prompt. My creative powers - such as they are - have been entirely uncooperative.
So instead, have a sneak peek at my much-babbled-about new novel, The President's Defense:
Inauguration Day brought with it a gaggle of traditions, not the least of which was a light breakfast hosted by the sitting president and his spouse for the president-elect and his spouse. The breakfast would be followed by a motorcade to the Capitol. The families would ride together.
This year’s breakfast was held in the Red Room, and the White House staff had assembled a lovely, modest meal which consisted mainly of fruit in priceless porcelain bowls and pastry on priceless glass dishes. The president’s wife, Loretta, was especially taken with the strawberries. While waiting for the Fishers to arrive, she’d eaten nearly half the contents of the bowl.
The Fishers were thirty-five minutes late.
The president, Christopher Keneally, flashed a glance at the gold-plated clock on the Empire mantle. Thirty-six minutes late now. “Maybe they’re stuck in traffic,” he mused.
“It’s disrespectful and I’ll tell you what else – it’s intentional. ”
“Darling,” Christopher replied, “not everyone is as passive-aggressive as you.”
Their sweet Southern accents waltzed with each other across the room – might as well have been Johnny Cash and June Carter singing “Jackson” into each others’ eyes.
Loretta waved away his barbed comment and reached for another strawberry. She stopped herself , her fingertips about an inch away and returned her hand to her lap. “Christopher, I say if they don’t get here by eleven, you get to be president another term.”
“I thought you were glad to be rid of all this.”
“That was before the country decided to elect a robber baron and his nitwit wife. And yes, I’m aware her name wasn’t on the ballot, thank you very much, but please – it’s always been a package deal. If you think the male voters in 1960 weren’t thinking just a little bit about Jackie O and her pillbox hat when they pulled that lever…and Kat Fisher is no Jackie O. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gutted half of the East Wing to install a tanning booth.”
Christopher concealed his amusement with the brim of his ceramic tea cup. “Why would she have to gut half the East Wing to install a tanning booth? I’m sure she’ll be able to fit it just fine within the confines of your old office.”
Her green eyes flared at him, and for a moment he considered locking the door and having his way with her right there on the sandalwood table but alas, the Red Room had not one door to lock but six; the sandalwood table was a 225-year-old Lannuier original presented as a gift to President Truman by a gracious Charles de Gaulle; and as to his having his way with her, well, the reverse was far more likely. He sipped his hazelnut dry-roast and returned the cup to its saucer and once more checked the clock on the mantle.
The Fishers were forty minutes late.
Was it possible the robber baron and his nitwit wife had decided to ditch custom – not to mention the Keneallys – and arrive unescorted to the inauguration? All through the campaign, Roger Fisher had made sure to include in every stump speech how his vast wealth made him “unbeholden to Washington influence.” Surely it was this more than anything which had contrasted him from his opponent, lifelong politician Martin Pond. Wouldn’t it be something if Fisher demonstrated his independence right off the bat by altogether snubbing the outgoing administration?
No, Christopher decided. Snubbing them - snubbing tradition – was far too risky, even for a self-anointed non-conformist. What one person might perceive as independence, another could easily interpret as aloof elitism, and the American people loathed elitism almost as much as they worshipped tradition. The Fishers would be here. While it was unlikely they were caught in traffic, ha-ha, what with their police escort and all, there was any number of other possibilities…
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Loretta’s right hand creep across the sandalwood table, climb into the porcelain bowl of strawberries, and pluck out her fifteenth, and he was half-sure she was doing it without even a conscious thought.
God, he loved this woman.
“You read his speech yet?” she asked him.
Of course he had. Furthermore, she knew he had. Sure, they hadn’t yet discussed it, but half of Capitol Hill was already up in arms over the inflammatory language in Roger Fisher’s Inauguration Address, phrases like “political imperialism” and “rubber-band imperative.” Fisher had promised to run the country the same way he’d run his corporation. Apparently no one had yet informed him about the difference between an audience of like-minded stock holders and the pluralistic audience of the world. Christopher had been a much more pragmatic president, but what repercussions had his careful pragmatism dealt upon his country?
“You’re judging yourself again,” said Loretta and she wagged her ring finger in his general direction, always her ring finger when chastising, always the wedding ring catching this light or that in its silver shine. “Get out of your head. I’m not going to spend my retirement years with Hamlet.”
“Loretta, a little honest introspection never hurt anyone.”
“There’s honest introspection and then there’s beating yourself up over things you can’t change. You were a good president.”
“I wanted to be great.”
But before Loretta could offer a retort, one of the staff appeared at one of the doors and announced that their guests had arrived. Another member of the staff, to her credit, emerged with a fresh bowl of strawberries and quietly replaced the one on the table. Another member of the staff refilled Christopher’s tea.
It was as if the past forty-two minutes hadn’t happened at all…only they had, and now the Keneallys and the Fishers had about a half hour to spare before time required them to gather up their winter coats, pile into the motorcade, and trundle those 1.6 miles to the Capitol Building and history. Christopher and Loretta both rose in anticipation of the newcomers’ imminent appearance at the north doorway. What would the Fishers be wearing? The press had fawned over Kat Fisher all throughout the campaign, filling out column inches with adjectives and photographs dedicated to her ski-bunny adventures on the slopes in Aspen and her almost-topless sunbathing on a yacht off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. True, countless articles had also been written about Loretta Keneally and her penchant for wearing green, but Loretta Keneally had never been featured in Maxim.
Today, Loretta’s green dress was a slimming blouse and skirt number chosen specifically because it matched the furry LL Bean parka she planned to wear during the outdoor ceremony. She’d always preferred green, even as a child, and she still liked how – to her - it made her short, freckled limbs and unleavened chest appear sylvan. Plus, the green contrasted nicely with her black hair, and if, when she had on a Kelly green ball-gown, people happened to notice a resemblance between herself and Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, well, she wasn’t about to reject the compliment.
“I can’t wait to hear their excuse,” she said.
“I can wait.” Christopher settled into his chair, allowing the ancient sturdy wood to creak and breathe under his considerable weight. He was built like a minivan, all hard curves and cuboid, with an unruly outgrowth of chestnut hair on the top of his head that no brush could conquer. Loretta had picked his suit for today, just as she had picked his suit for just about every other day of their marriage; today she’d selected a brown Versace two-piece with pressed slacks.
And oh, here came the Fishers, both dressed conservatively in black. His grey hair was moussed into a tight helmet, her long blonde hair was done up in a bun, and the combination of his musk deer cologne and her vanilla-cinnamon perfume mingled unappetizingly with the room’s fresh scents of fruit and pastry, not that it mattered much, of course, because very soon this would be their house and they could dress, smell, and act however the hell they wanted.
“So you’ll never guess why we’re late,” said Roger, as they took their seats.
“Traffic?” asked Loretta, and Christopher, to her left, barely suppressed a grin.
“The car wouldn’t start,” Kat told them. “Can you believe that?”
“Not really,” Loretta mumbled.
“Something about this freakishly cold weather we’re having.” Roger nodded at the server as she filled his cup of coffee. “I almost envy the two of you. By this time tomorrow, you’ll be in Atlanta and the weathermen are predicting a record freeze here in D.C.”
“There’s nothing like the weather,” Christopher said, “to put what we call power into perspective.”
And with that, the meteorological portion of the conversation was over. A minute of silence followed, during which hot beverages were sipped, croissants were nibbled, and strawberries were ogled. Then Kat asked:
“So why red, blue, and green?”
Loretta and Christopher exchanged a glance. Neither knew what she meant.
“The rooms,” she explained. “This is the Red Room, naturally. Next to it is the Blue Room and on the other side of the Blue Room is the Green Room. Why red, blue, and green?”
“Well,” said Roger, “red, green, and blue are the primary colors. Most people mistakenly believe the primary colors to be red, yellow, and blue, but that sequence is only really works with painting. It all has to do with the human eye. Isn’t that right, Christopher?”
The sitting president replied with a polite shrug.
“There’s always so much to learn,” Kat said.
Roger clasped her hand in his and replied with absolute sincerity: “That’s why you’re fortunate to have married a man who knows everything.” And he grazed the bony knuckles on her hand with his lips.
“OK,” said Loretta. “So, Christopher, didn’t you want to take Roger into the Oval to discuss a few things? We do seem to be running short on time.”
“Yes.” Christopher placed his napkin on the table and rose. “Yes.”
Roger, in no hurry, finished off his buttery croissant, and washed it down several gulps of his coffee (black, one sugar). Just as the two men were about to leave, Loretta tugged on her husband’s left cuff. He bent down and she whispered in his ear: “While he’s gone, I’ll slip a laxative into his coffee. It’ll be the fastest Inauguration in history.”
Christopher replied with a kiss on her earlobe, and then he joined Roger by the north doorway, where the businessman was mooning over the Gilbert Stuart painting of then 41 year-old Dolley Madison. Together the once and future presidents walked the corridors and stairs to the West Colonnade, which was covered in frost, and from there straight into the Oval.
But how naked this room appeared! The paintings were gone, for one, leaving much of the peach-painted wall essentially gap-toothed. Apparently the chief usher, assuming the current president wouldn’t be stepping in here today, had already removed Christopher’s selections and returned them to the National Gallery but had yet to replace them with Roger’s selections, whatever they may be. What would Roger Fisher hang in place of Norman Rockwell’s “The Problems We All Live With”? Perhaps a photo-realistic rendering of the gold depository at Fort Knox or a blown-up snapshot of the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange...
“Before I was first inaugurated,” said Christopher, fixing his feet atop the blue carpet’s grand bald eagle, “before we left for the Capitol, President Smithson – may he rest in peace - brought me in here and offered to answer any question I might have. I’d be remiss if I didn’t do the same for you. So – ask away.”
Roger ran his fingers across the vast surface of the Resolute Desk, which appeared, to Christopher at least, conspicuously uncluttered. Where were the stacks of briefings and errant folders angling precariously near the edge? What became of a functionless desk? Well, not functionless forever, of course, but as far as he was concerned, this was goodbye, old friend, and meanwhile Roger Fisher was sliding his fingertips across her like a den mother searching for dust.
“I have no questions,” the man said, and he slid his hands into his pants pockets.
“Roger, I’m serious. Put your pride on hold for five minutes. Please. I’ve been here eight years. I’m not saying this is the only time you can ask me for advice, but this may be the only time you’ll be able to do so without a dozen other people listening in. From Day One, you’re going to need to be expected to know protocols and procedures and yes, you’ll have plenty of advisors, but each of them is going to have his own agenda and you can’t ever forget that. Now I see that you’ve kept on Dick Armstrong as your Secretary of State and I think that’s wise, but what you need to know about him is-“
Roger held up a hand.
Roger spoke: “When the chairman of the RNC asked me to run, I was the CEO of a multinational corporation. Do you know what my annual salary was? You can look it up in Forbes. So trust me when I tell you, Christopher: as daunting as this office may be to most people, as intimidating as this office may have been to you, I am not most people and I most certainly am not you. Your insistence on pragmatic compromises rather than steadfast determination had been either naïve or criminal, depending on whether or not I give you the benefit of the doubt, and your much-ballyhooed diplomatic Kumbaya in Central Asia may have done wonders for the people of Pakistan but it sure as hell did squat for the country you were hired to serve. Now you asked me if I had any questions. Well, I guess I do have one to ask before you go off into the sunset and become a footnote. My question is this: how do you sleep at night?”
Now Roger paused.
And Christopher began to chuckle softly, and the room filled with the sound of chestnuts popping in a fireplace.
“I wasn’t aware what I said was funny,” murmured Roger.
“I know,” replied Christopher, “and that’s what makes it so damn hilarious. Wow. Oh, thank you, Roger. I think I really needed a laugh. And I’ve got to tell you – coming here late – you and your wife – that was priceless. You still think showing me up is what matters. Buddy, I’m already out the door.”
He placed a large hand on Roger’s pinstriped shoulder and stared him eye-to-eye until the president-elect had no choice, really, but to look away.
“One word of advice,” Christopher said, his Piedmont drawl dipping especially deep, “and then we’ll go join our beautiful wives and pile into Cadillac One and head on up to the Hill. You may not want to hear this, but it’s good for you and so you’ll listen. OK? Here goes. There’s always someone bigger and smarter and meaner and richer just around the corner. You act like a schoolyard bully, and they’re going to love taking you down. Do the country a favor and grow up, would you, please?”
Christopher headed for the South Colonnade door.
He didn’t bother waiting for Roger to follow.