The blue light glowed eerily on the walls of the West Sitting Room. If a journalist saw him now, somebody with a telescope in the Eisenhower Building, there’d be complaints in the papers tomorrow. The President shouldn’t be watching the tube at this hour. The President should be in bed. The President needs a good rest before he starts running the world.
Willoughby had really tried to act like a President, but a year in office and everybody was still trashing him day and night.
And he had to live in this mausoleum of a house, no company but his own. Every room was historic. Past presidents ate and snored here. Their pictures in all the rooms. The eyes followed him everywhere.
Still, the job meant doing something for your country. He cared! Look at that.
He wandered into the Living Room. All these books. His eyes landed on a biography of Lincoln. The face on the cover was serious. The frown, the eyebrows. Gravitas was the word. Gravitas was what Willoughby wanted. He should read up on Lincoln, get ideas for being presidential like that.
He put the book down and picked up a biography of Dan Quayle. People said Quayle was dumb, but the guy had style. Willoughby needed some of that—the smile, the gestures. The way you walk to the podium. Offer your hand but hold yourself back. He flipped through the photos of Quayle and Bush. How they stood was important. The stance of Chief Statesman.
He went back to the West Sitting Room and picked up the speech he’d started drafting. Concentrate, he said to himself and turned down the volume on the TV. This healthcare thing was complicated! He needed more facts.
He went back to the couch and turned up the volume.
A tall woman walked out of the wings and took the chair. The host smiled and stood to shake her hand. The woman looked familiar, but Willoughby couldn’t make out who she was. The aviator glasses. Old but not bad. He’d be okay with it. The host said her name. Gloria Steinem. Who was that? Somebody he didn’t like. She started talking. Women this, women that. A feminist of course. Gloria Steinem! He remembered. Bras on fire, the 70s. Jesus, he said to himself, what’ll she say about me? Everybody’s talking about me. He didn’t want to hear it, but then he did.
She started ragging on him. “Unspeakable…embarrassed…” He turned the sound off and watched. Take a close look at her tits. Sagging. She shouldn’t have burned all her bras those years ago. He belly laughed and wished he had somebody there to point with, somebody who’d say “she oughta keep her mouth shut and show more leg.” His shoulders went up and down in the dark with laughter.
People loved to hate him. He didn’t care. He didn’t care about liberals like Gloria Steinem or conservatives either. He wanted the family to think he was like a president. He wanted to be presidential for the man in the mirror.
He stood up and shuffled into the kitchen. In the fridge he found a couple of bologna sandwiches with mayonnaise, no lettuce, wrapped in wax paper, just like he’d asked. Sandwich in one hand, a glass of milk in the other, he walked back into the West Sitting Hall. On the TV a live action survival show was on. A guy was running a slalom course with a paranoid look on his face. He kept glancing back like he was afraid of something.
Willoughby finished the sandwich and patted his belly. Starting for the kitchen again, he stopped, shook his forefinger. “Don’t want to gain weight The President can’t be fat.”
He sat back down. A bunch of people ran across a field after the lone guy. The President turned off the TV and looked around the room. The door to the Center Hall was closed. He wondered if anybody was out there apart from the guards. The place was quiet as a morgue.
Oh, might as well, he said to himself. He slapped his thighs and got up from the couch, crossed the dining room and headed for the fridge. The other sandwich gleamed from the top shelf. He spoke loud so anybody listening could hear. “What the heck. I’m not gaining anything else in this job!” He picked up the sandwich, unwrapped it and took a bite.
He flipped through the channels and touched his belly again. The fat squeezed out over the sash of his robe. Give yourself a break, he said to himself. Fat bulges like that when you’re sitting down. Nevertheless, he said to himself. Nevertheless—the word sounded intelligent, like it complicated things. Nevertheless he better get some exercise.
Start right now.
He left the TV running and went out to the Center Hall. The guard stood at attention with his eyes closed, his breath a low buzz. The President took off his slippers and glided past.
He opened the door to the stairs and saw moonlight flooding through the window. Good. That’s a good thing. Nature. Exercise and nature.
Something moved on the landing ahead. At first he thought he was seeing things, but a shadow dodged and ducked to the side.
Willoughby stopped. His heart beat fast. The shadow was darker now. It shifted on the wall again; then disappeared but not quite.
He started down the stairs and heard a cough.
The silence was edgy and not like real silence.
Willoughby shouted. “I’m the President! Answer me!”
A low, watery voice wafted towards him. “—President too” it said.
“Who? I’m the only President here.”
The shadow moved again. Willoughby’s heart froze. He had the feeling whoever it was, they were very close. He lifted his arm, ready to strike. His only weapon was his fist, which he hadn’t used in a long time. It was weak. He’d have to hit hard.
A shape like a cloud of soot came up in his face. He struck out. His fist went nowhere.
“Ulysses S. Grant, sir.”
Oh, he thought, I know who that is. Before he could think further, the shade spoke again.
“Some of us…” The words were unclear, like the speaker had a mouthful of food.
“What do you want?”
“My reputation,” he made out. “Yours…be careful!”
List the possibilities, Willoughby said to himself. A, I’m going nuts from boredom. B, I’m asleep but I know I’m not. C—. Where does this go? C would be what? The guy’s actually there.
He slapped his cheek and turned back to the residence.
In the Living Room he flipped through the first pages of a biography of Grant. A lot of flak after the presidency. He got rich. A Manhattan town house, a place on the Jersey Shore. Impressive. Then he lost it all. Bad investments. “I thought he was a loser,” Willoughby said out loud, “even if he won the war.” He flipped to the end and started dozing. Time for bed he said to himself. President needs sleep.
The next night, after the last staffer left, the President got into his bathrobe, found the dinner tray they’d left for him and turned on the TV. Another reality show, people around a camp fire. The black and orange flames reflected on their faces made them look like witches plotting evil.
He turned off the tube and moved to a chair at the other end of the room. The light turned on automatically. A small shiver ran up Willoughby’s spine.
He thought of his wife in San Francisco and wondered what she was doing. Three hours behind, she was probably still at dinner. With who? Did she miss him? Obviously not.
However much the healthcare thing bored him, he had to get to the bottom of it. Somebody else would write the speech, but he had to have his own take on things. He could do that. Discipline was great. It made you reliable. People would know what to expect. You have the discipline effect, people think they can count on you.
After a while he got up and turned on the TV again. Tensions had developed in the group. Alliances and treachery were in progress. A guy who was scouting got caught by the enemy group. He slipped away, but some of his own people grabbed him and tied him up. He slipped their hold and ran into the field where everybody could see him. “Moron!” Willoughby shouted. As the ring-leader woman whispered to the guy who should’ve been in charge, a high-pitched note like from a flute came to his ears. At first he thought it was part of the show. Then he realized the sound was coming from downstairs.
The guard was dozing. Willoughby crept by and followed the sound. At the door to the back stairwell he hesitated. In a way he wanted to see Ulysses S. Grant again, although mostly he didn’t. He opened the door and started down. The moonlight wasn’t so bright as the night before.
Adrenaline ran up Willoughby’s spine when he spotted a drifting uniform collar and epaulettes. Grant again.
“You can’t threaten me!” he said in a loud whisper. “You were the worst President ever.”
“People say I was corrupt. I let it happen. I didn’t mean to and didn’t get anything from it. At least I was honest.”
The shape rushed to the center of the landing. “I wasn’t the worst.” Ulysses S. Grant pointed toward the ground floor where the flute was playing.
Willoughby followed with his eyes and rushed past Grant’s ghost to the ground floor hallway.
The guard nodded stiffly. President in his bathrobe outside the residence, Willoughby imagined the guy thinking. Who cares? It’s midnight, he said to himself. I’m President. I can do what I want.
He trailed the sound through the Cross Hall to the Red Room. This was serious public space. Who would be playing music so late? He opened the double door. Everything was still. Turning to leave, he heard a single note from inside the room. His breath went short.
Something or someone moved in the back. He pictured the scout in the TV show turning to face his attackers. Refuse to be intimidated, he said to himself and kept watching until the figure came out into the middle of the room.
Piece by piece the man became visible. Tall, handsome, wavy hair, strong jaw. He was dressed in a business suit and a shirt with one of those little rounded collars in movies of the 20s or 30s. He vanished but reappeared on the opposite side of the room. The man-ghost stared at the floor as if shameful about something, then drifted from one corner to another, in and out of visibility.
“Hey,” Willoughby said, “what’re you doing here?”
The figure kept silent.
“-rding.” It sounded like a voice under water.
“What?” he said.
“Haaardy.” For a moment he thought the guy was trying to imitate a laugh. Hardy har har. But the voice was dead serious.
“You’re gonna have to make yourself clear.”
“Harding!” The man sounded angry and impatient.
“Listen, buddy, I’m the President. You don’t talk to me like that.”
He heard a squeaking sound like a prolonged e. Then a booming “too!” Me too?
Harding, Harding, Willoughby thought. Who’s that? A President sometime. God knows.
“When. When were you President?”
“Roar-ing,” the voice says. “—en teas” The syllables were distinct, like he’d been practicing but still couldn’t say them.
Like he hasn’t said anything in a long time, Willoughby thought. Roaring twenties? President in the twenties.
Suddenly the figure spoke distinctly, like he’d turned on a recording in his voice box:
“I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”
Willoughby had no idea what the man had done, but he was sure he was being too hard on himself.
“Don’t say that. You were the President! Chin up, no matter what. Never say you did the wrong thing. Believe yourself.”
Harding drifted in and out of sight. The thin sound of the flute reached Willoughby’s ears. It made the tiniest cry, as if it came from far away. Infinitely sad was the word for it. He liked infinitely sad. It truly was so very sad.
The following night after dinner Willoughby made his way out to the Center Hall. Half way down the stairs he realized he hadn’t checked to see if the guard was awake. Doesn’t matter, he told himself. The guy knows I like to wander at night. Get a little exercise.
All was quiet on the first floor. The guard in the Cross Hall nodded and stared straight ahead. Willoughby opened the door to the Red Room and closed it behind him.
There it—he—was again, standing in the back of the room against the red wallpaper. Willoughby watched as Harding’s ghost moved forward. He was nodding, as if agreeing with something. “Bee—leave—IN!” Harding paused. “Myyyyyyy—.”
Right where we were last night, Willoughby thought. No sense of time.
“I didn’t say that!” Willoughby shouted. He stepped further into the room. “Believe in yourself—that’s how weak people talk, bleeding hearts. Like they’re bibles or religions.” He stopped far enough from Harding to maintain his position as the one in charge.
“I said believe yourself. Believe what you say. It gives your words thickness. Makes what you say true.”
Harding’s face wafted up, a full-frontal view. Out of thin air the flute appeared and fitted to the ghost’s mouth. Eyes closed, he blew a string of notes.
The guy’s been dead too long, Willoughby thought. He has zero sense of where he is.
He noticed the drawer of the antique table beside him was open. A tiny metal box slid forward. On the lid were the initials WGH.
“Don’t!” the ghost shouted. Harding shriveled into the dark zone at the back of the room.
An oval of light appeared where the ghost had been. It floated toward Willoughby, expanding as it came.
What the—, Willoughby thought. Poison! Everything in this house is ancient history. Like the Romans. Julius Caesar. Kill the king. Give him poison.
How could this be here so long?
“Do not touch!”
This struck Willoughby as ludicrous. He laughed out loud. Harding’s ghost stayed where it was.
“You put it there?”
The ghost looked at the floor with that shame-faced expression Willoughby had seen the night before.
Harding drew his forefinger across his throat and tipped his head to the side, hands together under his cheek like he was sleeping.
“Did you do it?”
The body faded then loomed back into sight.
“Nah.” Harding waved his hand across his face. “Saan Fraan—CISCO! Died there,” he said. “Natural.”
The ghost was fully visible again.
“Before your term was over?”
“Hmph,” Willoughby said. “You let ‘em kill you.”
The ghost cleared his throat and stepped forward. His turn to lecture now.
“Watch” Harding said in a low voice. Then he shouted, “OUT!” He put his hands behind his back, and paced the room like a professor. Willoughby watched as the shade of Warren Harding brought himself up to speed speech-wise.
“Friends! The worst. Watch out!” Harding warned. “I walked. Night times. The White House.” He stopped and pointed at Willoughby. “Like you!”
“What was the problem?”
“Teeeee POT,” the ghost shouted.
Willoughby scratched his head. Tea pot?
“DOME!!” the ghost of Harding shouted again. The word exploded between them. Teapot Dome. Willoughby had heard of that. A scandal. Must have been in Harding’s time.
“My——own——people.” The shade stopped and caught his breath. “Betrayed.”
“Your own people,” Willoughby repeated.
“My friends,” he said. “My goddam friends!” Harding stopped and put his forefinger in the air.
“Had the poison IN CASE!” He shook his head. “Bad times.”
He faded into the back wall and reappeared in the doorway where he’d tried to hide before.
Willoughby’s cabinet and staff were full of old pals. Others were waiting for appointments.
Harding cast his eyes to the floor. Willoughby waited for an answer but the ghost disappeared without a word.
The President climbed the stairs to the living quarters. He took the milk from the fridge and went to the sitting room where he found a biography of Harding.
Wow, the women! Here it is, Teapot Dome. Albert Fall, Secretary of the Interior. The guy knew how to make a buck for the country on the fuel reserves. Okay he took kickbacks. At least he resigned. Planned a trip to Russia with one of his oil buddies. Work the connections there.
Willoughby tossed his head side to side. I can see that, he thought.
He flipped to another page. After Harding’s funeral, rumors spread Mrs. H. had poisoned him; or the President had committed suicide. He thought of Harding’s gesture, the hand across the throat. The poison. Why would it be there after all these years? How many times would that drawer have been cleaned out?
Harding’s speeches amounted to “an army of pompous phrases…in search of an idea…Their very murkiness was effective.” This caught Willoughby. An enemy congressman said it, but voters saw something in Harding they wanted for themselves. Once you get people feeling like that, all you have to do is keep talking.
He read on. Scams in the Veterans Bureau, liquor sales from government warehouses during Prohibition. Harding died and Fall went to jail. Attorney General Daugherty stayed on in the Coolidge administration, trying to dig up dirt on the investigators of Harding’s White House.
There’s loyalty, Willoughby said to himself. He sat back in the chair and put the book down. His own man in the Justice Department was an untrustworthy cracker. Wouldn’t mind being rid of him. Send him off to Russia. He’d be fine. Willoughby laughed into his belly.
A moment later he pictured himself, alone in the middle of the night, depressed by the ghost of Warren Harding. He imagined a gray cloud hovering over his head.
“Enough fun for one night,” he said out loud and padded off to bed.
In the Dining Room the cook met him with a cup of coffee.
“Thanks, I need this.” He carried the cup to the table. Where was the get-up-and-go he used to feel in the morning? He pulled himself up and went to the buffet.
What’s the matter with me, he asked himself half way through breakfast. He put his fork down and sank deeper into lethargy. The gray winter light filtered through the curtains and cast a pall on the room. Willoughby felt old.
The shower woke him up. Willoughby had hopes for the day now. He dressed and made his way to the Oval Office.
There they were, the Secretaries of State and Defense, the National Security chief, looking at him like a bunch of judges. The four of them had been friends since college days. They’d gone in on a long list of business ventures, sparring over the details but getting along. Now they were running the world.
They talked about Turkey. The situation was dire. Decisions had to be made, steps taken immediately. They passed around a long report and started talking right away. Willoughby tried to listen. His head swam. He lost track of the data and couldn’t follow the argument.
“Gentlemen, I need a rest,” the President said. Without waiting for a response, he turned and walked out of the room.
He went to the gym, peddled for twelve minutes and lifted the ten-pound weights a few times. The conversation about Turkey had brought him down. Now he felt more like himself.
He liked showering several times a day. It made him feel moral. Wash off the exposure, get back to himself. That was who the people had elected, the naked man alone in the shower. Forget about presidential. His staff, the cabinet, Carmen tried to manipulate him. Why were they so panicky all the time? Why was everything always about to explode?
Staring at the drain, he felt it all run off his skin.
He headed for the Dining Room, feeling fresh and reinvigorated again. He chose fish and salad for keeping slim. After the cake and ice cream he felt fat and undisciplined.
Heading for the bedroom he noticed he was shuffling like an old man. He closed the door and hoped nobody would notice he was down for a nap.
A shadow crept over his face. Half asleep, he felt it come down on his mouth. The kiss was light but nevertheless smothering. A female ghost, smelling of perfume. He opened his eyes. She was still there, her lips to his.
Startled, he sat up and pushed her back.
“Nice! Push your wife away.” Carmen put on a fake pout. “You’re cute when you’re asleep.” She leaned back and convulsed in voiceless laughter. For a moment Willoughby had the old feeling of being with her, fooling around. She brushed a lock of hair from her forehead. She was still good looking.
“You should be happy to see me.” She stared into his eyes, inspecting them. “C’mon, get up. Let’s do something.”
Willoughby felt groggy and irritable after the nap. “Shouldn’t have slept this long,” he said. “What time is it?”
She came forward and tickled his chin. “Let’s watch a movie. Put some life in that old theater.”
He climbed out of bed and slapped his cheeks.
“When’d you get here?”
She flipped her palm up like she wasn’t sure. “Little while ago.” Walking across the room she pulled a cigarette from her purse. Slowly she made her way back. Like a black widow in stilettos he thought.
“You know there’s smoke alarms all over this place. Don’t let anybody see you.”
“I know,” she said, and blew the smoke at him.
He waved it away. “Alright. Lemme see what’s going on first. I gotta check in.”
In the bathroom mirror he looked tired. Worn out, actually. He picked up the phone and called Wilson. “Carmen’s here. I’m taking that break.” No resistance. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or not.
He brushed his hair and straightened his tie.
Stopping in the open door, Carmen scanned the Sitting Room. Nobody there. He followed her out and spotted the guard turning back toward the Center Hall. What, he was watching them? Carmen seemed fine with this. She nodded as they passed.
Midway across the Center Hall Willoughby pulled her close and whispered, “What was that for?”
Carmen looked at him like he was crazy. Quickly her face went soft. She gave a sidelong glance at nothing.
“He’s a person. I acknowledged his presence.”
The red walls and chairs in the theater hit him like the memory of a bad dream: Harding in the Red Room. He hadn’t thought of the ghost since earlier in the day. The reality of it, so to speak, was bad. It drove home the fact—it was a fact, really—that he lived in a different world from Carmen’s. She had a fantastic new place on the other side of the continent. No idea what he dealt with every hour of every day. No sympathy.
Passing through the Visitor’s Portal he caught her giving a hip-level wave to the guy on duty.
The movie was all set up. Rear Window, one of Willoughby’s favorites. Carmen must’ve arranged it. Maybe that’s what all this waving and nodding was about. A surprise for him.
He slid into a chair in the front row and stretched his legs on the ottoman. Why was Carmen taking so long in the back? He smelled her perfume, and there she was beside him smiling as the lights went down and the screen unrolled from the ceiling. In the dark he felt his muscles relax.
“So how’d you like it?” Carmen asked when it was over.
“Yeah, pretty good. The camera’s tricky. Keeps an eye on everything. Like spying. You know it’s there all the time.”
“What do you mean?” Carmen frowned. “Of course the camera’s there all the time,” she said. “It’s not spying. That’s Jeffries. He’s the one peeping at everybody.”
“But the camera watches everything so obviously—Jeffries too.”
Carmen’s face was deadpan.
“What’re you looking at me like that for? It’s a simple point.” He heard the whine in his voice. “The movie’s all about watching people.”
She leaned forward and pulled herself up from the chair.
“Shouldn’t we be upstairs?” She pulled out her phone. “I’ll check the schedule.” She hit a few keys and kept looking at the screen.
“What d’you mean ‘check the schedule’? I’ve had it drilled into me since early this morning. Any change, Wilson’s in touch immediately. You don’t have access to it anyway!”
As he moved towards her, she dropped the phone in her pocket. “We better get a move on.” She glanced at him flirtatiously. “Can’t be watching movies all afternoon when you’ve got the free world to hold together. They’ll think you’re slacking off!” She gave him a thin, unconvincing smile.
At the far end of the Center Hall a man waited who Willoughby didn’t recognize. Behind him he spotted Wilson heading for the Dining Room.
Carmen marched ahead and shook the man’s hand. She turned to Willoughby, a sliver of fear in her eye.
“Darling, this is Clint Rostrom, the writer we contacted about your biography.”
She stood aside. Facing the man, not knowing how to take him, Willoughby half listened. “I spoke to Clint a few days ago. You were busy.” Carmen’s gaze was tight and focused. The President looked from Clint Rostrom to his wife. Images from Rear Window were still playing in his head. They had talked about his biography but he couldn’t remember picking out a writer. She must’ve decided on her own. He wasn’t at all sure he could trust her choice.
“Trust your people,” he heard Ward Miner say. Then came the voice of Warren Harding saying the opposite.
Willoughby offered his hand. “Good to meet you. Might be too soon for a biography.” He laughed. “Not that interesting, you know.”
Rostrom cocked his head. “I wouldn’t agree, sir.”
“Darling,” Carmen interjected. “Wilson says you have the next hour free. For Clint. If you want to, of course.”
The two of them, Carmen and Clint Rostrum, stood looking at him. Through the Dining Room door, he saw Wilson glide toward the kitchen. Willoughby had the feeling they were all waiting for him to decide; that a lot hung on whether the President would sit down with this biographer.
The man was too casual. He kept his hands in his pockets like he was fishing for change. His eyes probed Willoughby’s face. Rostrum cocked his head, smiled and asked where he wanted to sit. Like he, not Willoughby, was in charge.
Willoughby didn’t move. He stared at Clint Rostrum until the man’s eyes shifted. He followed the biographer’s gaze as it landed on Carmen, still waiting by the Dining Room door. She turned and left.
“Where do you come from?” the President asked.
“Ohio, sir, Cleveland.”
“You live in D.C.? Journalist or something?”
Rostrum rocked his head back and forth like you could say that. “It’s hard to make a living as a writer.”
“So you do other things?”
“Right,” Rostrum said.
“You gonna tell me or keep it to yourself?”
“If you don’t mind, sir, I’ll leave it at this: I spend a lot of time studying people.”
Willoughby shrugged. “Must be independently wealthy,” he said and laughed.
Rostrum didn’t say anything.
Taking a chair close to the door, Rostrum brushed his hand over his hair and blew out a mouthful of air.
“So,” Willoughby said. He sat on the couch and clasped his hands behind his head. “Where do we start?”
Rostrum threw his hands up. “Wherever you like.”
“Wherever I want,” Willoughby repeated. Convinced Rostrum was competing with him to appear more relaxed, the President kept silent for as long as he could. Rostrum was playing cool because he obviously wasn’t a great writer—not if he was studying people, whatever that meant, on the side.
“Wherever you think your story begins.” Rostrum leaned back in the chair and crossed one leg over the other.
Willoughby frowned. There was his mother and father, the house in Bridgeport. He didn’t want to go into it about his parents. There was school. These stories always started with somebody getting bullied in the school yard, either the person the book was about or the person who would become their best friend. He, Willoughby, had been the bully. He figured out early you had to be the one who pushed others around if you didn’t want to get pushed around yourself.
“Okay, my first job. Let’s start with that.”
Rostrum sat there waiting for more. He didn’t say Okay or That sounds good or even What was it? Just sat there poker faced.
“Ball boy. You liked calling yourself that?” Rostrum cocked his head like he was really interested.
Willoughby shrugged. “Decent job.” He laughed and gestured at the space around him. “A hell of a lot easier than this. Plus you got exercise.”
Rostrum brushed his hand across his hair again. “What was best about it?”
Through the door to the Center Hall, Willoughby spotted Carmen’s black stilettos marching toward the stairs.
He heard more footsteps. From the angle of his seat, Willoughby couldn’t see who it was.
“Where were we?”
“You as Ball Boy.” He said Ball Boy like it was the name of a character in a movie or a book. “What was best about it?”
“Right.” He tried to get back to the tennis courts, the sunny afternoons. Away from his mother. “The freedom! It was my own money. First time.”
Willoughby nodded. “I liked the great outdoors. You know I’m a big nature lover.” He gestured toward the window. “The environment and all.”
“What didn’t you like about the job?”
The President thought about this but stayed deliberately quiet for a long time. Turn this around, he thought. Ask him a question.
“What was your first job, Rostrum?”
The writer stared. A faint ripple crossed his face. “Summer camp job. Junior counselor.”
Willoughby pictured Rostrum at thirteen standing by a cheap wooden bunk house like the one he slept in at Camp Montohawkee when his father sent him away. In hiking shorts, the imaginary Rostrum seemed ridiculous, like he was trying to look sporty. A group of kids including Willoughby watched as he shook his finger at them.
“They pay you for that?”
“I think. Maybe they took something off the cost of camp. I can’t remember.”
Willoughby was enjoying this. He wanted to hear more. “They treat you well?”
Rostrum gave him the stone face again. “Sir, excuse me, but we don’t have much time. We’re supposed to be talking about you.”
“C’mon. Humor me. I went to summer camp.”
Something relaxed in Rostrum’s face, then tightened around the mouth. “Sure.” His eyes gleamed.
“It was better than home. Better food, time to myself. Respect. How ‘bout you?”
Willoughby shrugged again. “It was okay.” He tried to get back to the young Rostrum giving rules to the kids at camp. The picture wouldn’t come. He felt drowsy and wanted a break.
Willoughby waved his hand in front of his face. “Forget it.” He was bored with the topic but Rostrum had his teeth in it.
“What’s your most vivid memory of Camp—?”
“Montohawkee!” He heard himself say it too loud and too fast, like it pissed him off. What? That Rostrum couldn’t remember the name? Willoughby didn’t get his own mood.
Rostrum’s owl-eyed look irritated him.
“Getting there! Leaving!” He waved it off again. “I don’t remember.”
The owl blinked. “How about a little background. What was happening at home?”
“Forget it,” he said. “Let’s not get into some therapy scene.”
“Therapy scene?” Rostrum was intrigued by this.
“You know,” Willoughby said, waving his hands around. “What happens when people talk about their home life. The parents.”
He was saying too much. Get back to the mute thing, he told himself. He peered at Rostrum with deliberate hostility. The man needs to know he’s not in charge.
“What’s the matter, sir? You look disturbed.”
“I’m disturbed alright. You need to give me a plan. Asking all these questions. You’re the writer. Carmen asked, you responded. You must’ve had an idea. What’s your strategy?”
Rostrum brushed his hand over his hair for the third for fourth time and sat up straight.
“We should start with your boyhood years. Before you got the job. We’ll let the background lead up to you as Ball Boy.” He pulled out a notepad. “What did the house look like? Did your father have a study? What about your mother? Was she in the kitchen all the time. Did she talk about wanting a career?” He took a deep breath. “Let’s get that set up. Your readers’ll love it.”
The door to the Master Bedroom opened a crack. Carmen leaned out. “Will, can you tie it up soon? The VP’s waiting.” She seemed stiff and nervous.
“Tell him to wait. He can wait.” She frowned and closed the door.
“Okay, the house was downtown, off the main street. Two stories, wood frame, that sort of thing. My father hardly talked. A man of few words. Kept to himself. He didn’t have a ‘study.’”
Willoughby felt his breath tighten. A headache might be coming on. Stifle it. “He sat in front of the TV in the TV room. Nobody bothered him. My mother, forget it.”
Rostrum looked at him bug-eyed. “Forget it?”
“Leave her out of this. Let’s just say she was away a lot.”
“So she did have a job.”
Willoughby leaned forward and enunciated slowly. “I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it.”
The writer put his hands up like the President was holding a gun to him.
“Okay, okay. Your call.” He pursed his lips and squinted. “Hard to do a biography with no talk of the mother.”
Something shut down in his mind. Willoughby could see himself sitting there, staring at the door behind Rostrum. She better not open it again.
Fuck it, I’m President. I can sit here and stare at the wall as long as I want to. He can wait, the VP, Carmen, all of them can wait.
The door remains shut.
“President Willoughby, can you share your thoughts?”
He turned and looked out the window. The sun was going down in Washington.
Your friends. Watch out. Willoughby heard the words plain as day. “Who?” he said, looking at the wall and seeing Harding. “Which ones should I watch for?”
“Mr. President, who are you talking to?”
Rostrum’s voice came from far away. He turned and looked. The man’s face was all fear. He leaned forward, hands between his knees like he was praying.
“You were saying something about watching out for somebody. Who were you talking to?”
“What do you mean?”
“At night, sir, when you’re here alone?”
“What about it? Who told you that?”
The tap on the door could only be Carmen. The light touch that went so far. She’d brought this guy to the White House. Now he’s asking questions about who I talk to at night. Who told her? Somebody was listening.
“Who are you?”
Rostrum’s eyebrows went up. “Sir?”
“You heard me. Who told you I talk to people at night?”
Shut up, he said to himself. Calm down.
The tap at the door again. It opened a crack. Carmen’s face was all plot and worry. Well?
“The VP’s here.” She was looking at Rostrum, not Willoughby.
“I think you’re needed sir.”
Rostrum stood up before Willoughby did. This guy is way out of bounds, he said to himself. “Who’s in charge here, you or me?”
Already at the door, his back to the President, the biographer turned. “You are, sir, of course.”
“Then get back here!”
Rostrum slipped out the door and Carmen came in. In a commanding voice, she uttered the words he’d been fearing for days. “This has to stop, Will. You’re talking to yourself in the middle of the night. Everybody on staff hears it. Now you’re doing it in front of Clint.”
She looked at him like he was crazy. “Clint Rostrum, the man who was just here.”
“You’re on a first name basis,” he said.
“Of course. We’ve talked. It needs to be informal, the relationship with your biographer.”
“What are you getting at Will?”
She sat down in the chair where Rostrum had been.
“Who is he? He’s no writer. He says he studies people. He asks questions like some kind of shrink.”
She leaned forward and put her hand on his knee.
“Honey, biographers have to ask questions like that. They need the full story.”
“How come you hired him? What’s he published?” He watched closely as she narrowed her eyes. Anger and a profound deviousness glittered from between the thick lines of makeup. He pictured black smudges on the pillow case in the bed where she was tossing around with Rostrum.
“Listen, I’ll tell you who Clint Rostrum is. He’s the best psychiatrist in Washington. He offered to help.” She leaned forward again and lowered her voice. “Will, I’m not alone—.”
The door opened and the Vice President came in. He looked like a man expecting to find a cobra in the room. He rubbed his fists together and gave Willoughby a smile so phony it was absurd. “Will—“ he started.
Willoughby stood up. “What’s going on? Carmen’s been telling me for hours you’re on your way. You want a briefing?” Stanson was his boyhood pal, the one he stayed with after his father died. He was one of the few people Willoughby trusted. Now here he was, looking at Willoughby like he was some kind of snake about to bite.
Watch your friends.
Carmen stood up and went over to Stanson’s side. “Will, you need a rest. We’re all going to Camp David for the weekend. Wilson packed your bag. The car’s ready.”
Anger raged across his chest. They’re all in on it. He couldn’t stand up to the whole lot of them. Don’t be their victim. Act like it’s a good idea. Get out of this house. Take charge.
“Okay,” he said. “Lead the way!”
Outside the door in the Center Hall, the residential staff were milling around. They weren’t standing at attention. Nosey vultures. Who cares, he said to himself. I’m getting out.
At the top of the stairs, he turned to say something to Stanson, but the VP was still at the other end of the hall, surrounded by the three Cabinet members. They had their heads together, like a cabal.
Carmen was half way down the stairs now. He raced to catch up with her. She moved faster. Somebody held the door open, and he was in the basement hallway. Four Secret Service guys surrounded him.
They ushered him through the door, across the garden, into the Secret Service area. Carmen lead the way through the West Wing lobby to the foyer and out the door to the sidewalk where a van waited.
Half way through the lobby, a disembodied, dark blue shoulder appeared, then a gray one. Grant and Harding materialized. They lowered their heads. “What is it?” Willoughby asked. Grant shook his head and put his fingers to his lips. Willoughby looked at Harding. “Your Pres-i-dential exit!” Harding’s laugh was threatening. “Watch those friends.” It came out like a spurt of gun fire.
A sharp jaw line appeared, a beard, nose, dark brows. The eyes looked downward. The other ghosts were silent, as if Lincoln’s presence were sacred or so shaming they couldn’t speak. Malice was all Willoughby heard.
The Secret Service gathered closer and urged him on. He climbed in the van and looked back. Harding, Grant, and Lincoln stood on the door step to the West Wing. “Good bye” he said out loud. Carmen leaned forward and waved. The Presidents’ ghosts turned and drifted back inside the White House.
 “I am not fit for this office…” Harding quoted in Nicholas Murray Butler, Across the Busy Years: Recollections and Reflections Vol. I (Charles Scribner, 1939) p 411. https://archive.org/stream/acrossbusyyearsr01butl/acrossbusyyearsr01butl_djvu.txt
 Harding’s speeches amounted to “an army of pompous phrases…” William Gibbs MacAdoo, cited in John W. Dean, Warren Harding (Henry Holt, 2004) p 72.
Great story! I loved it.