Sunday
Jul032016

The President

Andy Plattner


 

Even though Jennifer and I lived alone, she had set out three place settings for dinner. I took the chair across from her and she smiled in the direction of the empty setting. Of course, I could see that a life-sized plaster hand was placed on either side of the plate there. The hands were chalk white, the fingers slightly curled. I leaned over, took a closer look. Then I gave Jennifer a shrug. She wore a peacock blue blouse and a khaki skirt, the clothes she'd left the apartment in that morning. Since 2012, she had worked at the Jimmy Carter Library and Presidential Museum on Freedom Parkway. It was a job she enjoyed.

Each plaster hand ended just past the wrist. She hadn't put any food on the plate between the hands; that would've been silly. "Guess," she said.

I reached over to touch the right hand, which was the one closer to me. I tapped at the knob of the wrist. Guess at what exactly? I thought. When we were first dating, we'd go to flea markets on weekends. We'd see a torso from a mannequin or a wig-model head. I remember one vendor who was trying to sell the lower half of a prosthetic leg. We were never looking for anything specific, which was a good thing about those weekends.

These hands seemed to have been nicely looked after. No chips, not even a scratch. "The president," she said.

I tried to imagine President Carter seated at the table with us. A much younger version of him, waving his arms over his head just like when he'd been elected.

Jennifer said, "Rosalynn's assistant brought them in last week. There were a few boxes, things that had been given to the Carters while he was in office. Engraved pens, beautiful silk saris, letters from people like Billy Graham and Hank Aaron. The assistant thinks the casts for the hands were made when the Carters took a trip to Alberta in seventy-eight. The mayor of Calgary's idea. Of course, the president went along with it." She lifted her fork and speared a green bean on her plate. "We've been fooling with the hands all week. Tapping one another on the shoulder. Krista held her boobs with them. She kept saying, 'Oh, Mr. President, please. Not in front of everyone.'"

"Which one is Krista?" I said.

"The one who just graduated from Vandy. She's going to start writing speeches for the mayor next month." Jennifer glanced at her plate, then shrugged. She wasn't much into politics. When we met five years ago, she had been a poet, an aspiring one, but then she decided she wanted to be a magazine editor. One magazine, then another, gave her a tryout editing copy. Her skills were not strong and she'd eventually given up on that. Then she'd found the job she had now. She led tours, worked in the gift shop.

As I ate, I watched the hands from the corner of my eye. I said, "Because they are a president's hands, I keep waiting for them to crawl across the table, try to reach into my pockets." I wanted to be careful, though. Jennifer had met President Carter a few times and she liked him. He called her by her first name. At the museum, employees were instructed to keep a set of gym clothes in their desks. Once in a while, the whole staff did Pilates with Rosalynn.

Jennifer said, "Everybody's done it.. Krista had them last night. She lives alone, ate dinner on the couch while watching TV. She said she put the hands on a cushion next to her. While she watched a Seinfeld marathon, she got a call from an ex. She put the phone on speaker, propped it against one of the hands, told the ex she had company. She's young, she's great. Looks like Jessica Simpson."

Dinner tasted good to me. I was hungry. I had a job, I wore a jacket and a tie every day. I didn't have any president dropping in on me, though. Sometimes I went to the gym after work; the only person of notoriety there was a kid who used to play for Georgia Tech but had been kicked off the team for substance abuse. He mostly hung out at the info desk inside the entrance, joking with the club manager, who I thought looked a little like Vivica A. Fox.

"So, what do these hands do for you?" I said. Jennifer glanced at them, she might've sighed, but it was a quiet one. I said, "Are they going to be joining us later?"

"Do we have plans?" she said. Usually, if the weather was nice, we'd sit on our balcony and have a drink or two, look past the alley out to the edge of the city park across the street. I felt myself frowning. We have plans, I thought. But I didn't feel like getting into a big discussion about it right then. The hands were not bothering me. But I began to wonder if this was because they were President Carter's hands. I was a small child when he was president, and I remembered people complaining about him. But he'd never done anything to me. They called him Mr. Peanut, like the guy on the jar. I didn't feel that way about all of the presidents, though. No one was going to. People were going to have their favorites and then there would be the guys they blamed. My father kept saying "This fucker is ruining everything" when one guy was president. The thing was my father never swore like that because my mother hated bad language. My father inherited a lot of money after his own mother died so he quit his job and played the stock market. When it swooned, he lost a fortune. He blamed the president. I had a brother who lived out in California and when we talked about what we might inherit, which wasn't often, we'd guessed we'd be working forever. My brother was a salesman like me though he was employed by a company that made designer sunglasses. Last year for Xmas, he told Jennifer and me to go to their online catalog, order a pair apiece, and he'd take care of the bill. My brother said he'd once talked to our mother about getting our father to put some of the inheritance into interest-yielding bonds instead of gambling on the stock market. My mother had laughed off my brother, said my father had everything under control. To this day my father curses that president and when he does she nods her head.

"This is good, thank you," I said, when I was about finished with my dinner. It was one of those meals-as-you-go from Publix. "Did the hands help with the driving on the way home?" I said. I supposed that Jennifer wanted to play.

"I kept them in the bubble wrap," she said. "On the drive, I felt like I was in the Secret Service. When I pulled into the garage, I said out loud, 'Roger and out, the hands are safe.'"

"They are here and ready to help us," I said, trying to sound official, too.

"That's right," she said.

I took another look at the hands while Jennifer worked on her chicken. For a moment, the stillness of them made me feel sorrowful. I wondered if we shouldn't turn them palms up. But it might look then like the hands would be asking us to join them in worship. I said, "What would it be like if we lived in California or something? If either of us worked in a place where we could sneak home the wax hands of Marlon Brando or somebody?"

"It wouldn't be the same," she said.

I said, "Yeah, I guess wax hands would be different. No matter whose they were. They might look pretty real."

"They'd never be confused for real," she said. "That would be a difference between those and these." I sliced the last bit of chicken on my plate in two. When I glanced up, Jennifer had her own hands up in front of her, palms facing out. She looked unhappy. "Working at the museum has done something to me," she said. "I'm not impressed by things like I used to be. What would happen if we had a president over here for dinner? Would it change anything?" She lowered them.

I guessed that she knew how I'd answer. A president called her by her first name and her life was still the same. I said, "What does President Carter's handshake feel like?"

"An old man's," she said. "A kind old man's."

"I'd like to meet him someday. Do you call him Mr. President?"

"Just Mr. Carter."

I could not but help think about my father again. He was not as old as President Carter, not by a long shot, but I wondered what he would be like when he reached President Carter's age. He seemed bitter right now; he wasn't working and had all day to sit around and stew about how we'd all been misled. He hadn't been that way when I was growing up. He became angry over this or that, but my brother and I were always running around and laughing and my mother never told us to stop. He'd get over things pretty fast then. Nothing felt ruined at all.

"Let's sit on the balcony for a while," I said. When I checked, her expression seemed more resigned. I tried to picture her when she was a graduate student, living in a tiny apartment. A laptop on a desk, a small light next to it. On the computer screen were words she'd written. I imagined fingertips tapping at keys. I didn't know her then, though. I'd urged her to go back to school, make more time for her poetry. After a while, it wasn't a good subject.

I stood, carried my plate to the kitchen sink. I took out a couple of glasses from the cabinet and a wine bottle from the refrigerator. I walked to the balcony door. Our apartment was on the second floor. Across the alley stood another apartment building. At the closed end of the alley sat a Waste Management dumpster; the other end of the alley led out onto the one-way street. Our balcony was small and had a hip-high wrought iron railing. It was dark now, the sky the color of root beer, and the evening air was cool. Lights were on in a few of the windows in the apartment building across the alley. Everyone had their shades drawn; our balcony window was opened a crack and I listened to Jennifer setting things in the dishwasher. This was mixed with the sounds of cars going by on the street. I glanced at the kitchen table, saw she'd taken away the plate between the hands but left the hands where they were. Beyond the street, at the edge of the park, I thought I could see silhouettes of a few people.

Jennifer stepped out onto the balcony with me and I poured some wine into a glass for her. She sat down; both of our chairs faced in the direction of the street. She studied the backs of her own hands for a time. I caught myself doing it, too. I glanced through the window at the kitchen table. The light in the apartment reached past me, to Jennifer's shoulder, the side of her face. I tried to figure out what was bothering her. I said, "Sometimes, I think I'm doing my best. Other times I know I'm not. That's depressing to me. I wish I could do my best all the time. One day I'm going to regret that I didn't."

"Doing your best all of the time is impossible," she said.

I thought about what she was trying to tell me. I knew it had to do with the hands, and I wanted to say They're just plaster, you know. Mine work just fine. I cut my eyes in the direction of the kitchen table. What was there looked kind of sinister to me then. I formed a picture in my mind, of myself, Jennifer, and the president, plaster figures of each us, head to toe, seated at that table. I said, "I know we could use a little something."

Her head turned. "Yeah." Her eyes were clear.

"I'm glad you do things like this." I nodded in the direction of the hands again. I felt like swallowing, but I didn't until she was looking out to the street.

"I don't know what it gets me," she said, her voice quiet. She did something odd. She brought up her own hands and squeezed them together right in front of her chest. She wasn't praying, I knew better than that. Maybe she was simply trying to feel how much strength she had in them. She held them like that for a few seconds. I decided to do it, too. I could feel the muscles rise in my arms. It felt all right. It might've looked weird, though I guessed no one was watching us. After she brought her hands down, she said, "Sometimes, my life feels as if I need a miracle." She tried to smile.

"I know," I said.

"You know my life needs a miracle?"

"No," I said. "I know the feeling. But I think it's all right, though. I think it's supposed to feel that way."

She looked out in the direction of the street. "You say that because you do feel that way," she said.

"This is how I've always felt," I said.

"I don't know what the gain in that is. Honestly, I don't."

"I don't, either, sweetheart," I said.

"It doesn't seem right to me," she said.

"No," I said. It was all I could think to say. "What you can do is try to make yourself feel a little better. There's nothing wrong with that." I nodded in the direction of the balcony window. "Those make me think of the flea markets, you know."

She said, "I guess I see that. You weren't into all of that, though."

"Yeah. I was. I liked going."

"I always had to drag you."

"I bought that thick binder full of matchbooks. Remember? The guy who collected them must've been a salesman. I still have it somewhere. The matchbooks were from places like the Chamberlin Hotel in Virginia, the Dixie Grande in Bradenton. Half of those places don't exist anymore. He put some work into that collection."

"I feel like skipping work tomorrow."

I had a couple of important calls to make in the morning. Still, I said. "I'm in. Let's go somewhere."

"I have to take those back," she said. "First thing."

"We can give them to someone you work with . . . Krista, let her return them for you. Let's get moving, at sun-up."

"She actually doesn't live that far from here," Jennifer said.

"Or maybe we could take the hands with us," I said. "Pull up next to a Salvation Army. Try to sell them out of the trunk. I could develop a little sales pitch. 'Come one, come all . . . let the hands of a president bring life to your décor.'"

"We'd make the news after we were arrested," she said. "I'm OK with taking a day off tomorrow. They won't care. They won't even notice . . ."

"OK."

"Where should we go?" she said. "Maybe I'll head inside, take a look at some maps."

"We could head for the Gulf," I said. "Or the Atlantic."

She said, "It rained the last time we took a trip. I want to say we were coming back from New Orleans. The rain was so heavy everything on either side of the highway was white. I remember that. We got behind that cookie truck in Alabama and rode in its wake all the way here. Maybe we ought to try and head for the Atlantic this time."

"Fine."

"Charleston, just for the day? Savannah?"

"You pick."

She exhaled, her shoulders sagged. "I can call someone at work about dropping the hands by. I don't have a key or I'd just sneak them back myself."

"Come on, don't worry about them. Nobody's going to be looking for those."

"You don't know that," she said. "It's my job."

"No," I said. "I guess I don't. You're right."

"You remember that drive from New Orleans?"

"I do," I said. "We argued a little about whether or not I should've pulled over. I wished I had. That storm was crazy. There wasn't any hurry. Everything was still going to be here." I tried to remember if I'd said this once before.

"Let's not sit here and talk ourselves out of it," she said. "I'm going to go inside and start looking over options for tomorrow." she said. "Before I lose my steam. You sure you're OK with all this?"

"I'm fine," I said. "I can make up any work I miss. I can do my job standing on my head, you know that."

As I spoke, she stood. She gave a tug to each of her cuffs. She looked to the one-way street, but I felt that she was picturing something else. "Charleston, I think," she said. "That's a good drive." She drew in a breath. She reached her glass from the table. She squeezed my shoulder in a gentle way as she walked by. From inside the apartment, I heard her steps going down the hall. I understood my heart was beating faster. I didn't know what had been solved, though. But I was glad I'd said what I'd said about driving in that storm from New Orleans. A lot of cars had pulled over and turned on their flashers. I'd just thought it was better to keep going. More or less, this was my answer to everything. I could be fairly accused of that. I looked at my own hands again. I wondered how they would stack up against a president's. By this, I mean I imagined having a mold made of them, then putting a plaster set of my hands next to a president's. Just going by these sets of hands, would anyone be able to tell who had been the most powerful man in the free world?

When I was back inside the apartment, I started to switch off the lights. Jennifer liked to leave the one on over the stove for some reason. I'd turn it off and then she'd come out to get a glass of water or something and when I walked out in the morning the light would be on again. I knew my way around the apartment, we both did. I guessed she just wasn't crazy about complete darkness out there. I left that light on, then considered the plaster hands on the table. The hands had not been made with Jennifer and me in mind. I knew that. But, in the morning, before we packed them away just for the hell of it I might set a cup of black coffee between them. I'd say, Now get out there. Don't make us do all the work for you. Jennifer and I would stand there like a couple of disapproving parents on a sitcom.

Before we took our trip tomorrow, we'd have to pack them up. I thought of how that would go. We'd place an open box on the table. We'd stuff plenty of bubble wrap in there. We'd close the box, carry it down to the garage. We'd drop them off with Krista. She sounded clever enough. While Jennifer and I were already on the road, Krista would slip the box back into the storage closet at the museum.. We might already be in South Carolina by then. We might feel as if we'd just gotten away with something. The sun would be rising in the east, right in front of us.