Authors: Eric Dezenhall
FOR MY GRANDMOTHER
MARY “GIGI” BYER
After telling my grandmother a story when I was young, I overheard her say, “That boy has some peculiar imagination on him.” I don't think she meant it as a compliment, because she added, “I just hope there's some common sense in that head.”
My grandmother, “Gigi,” was onto something. I started writing
in 1980 when I was eighteen. Twenty-seven years of daydreaming later, it's here, so I hope you will take my grandmother's assessment of my credibility into account when reading this tall tale.
For the record, Rattle & Snap is a real plantation in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, that is listed in the National Registry of Historical Places. It was once owned by the indomitable Polk family, but none of the “Polks” (or Hilliards) who appear as live characters in this fictional tale are based on their descendants. The Polks have not owned Rattle & Snap since 1867. I was born ninety-five years later in New Jersey, so our paths never crossed.
Nor is this novel a coy attempt to portray any of the families that have owned and cared for the plantation since that time. My storytelling method inserts fictional characters into historical events and places. None of my relatives in New Jersey, for example, can remember the Civil War, but my scholarly research indicates that it totally happened. On occasion, however, I altered recollections of historical events to suit my storytelling.
I owe my discovery of Rattle & Snap to one of the South's stalwart daughters and her fine Tennessee family, who opened my eyes to another America when we were all so much younger.
For a more accurate portrayal of my actual life and heritage, I refer readers to Margaret Mitchell's
Gone with the Wind
. It is widely believed (by a roommate from my “special time away”) that Rhett Butler was modeled on me, probably because we have both been known to stand around telling people we don't give a damn.
It was one of those tragic loves doomed for lack of money, and one day the girl closed it out on the basis of common sense.
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD,
I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?â¦I wonder what Lattitude and Longitude I've gone to?
Alice in Wonderland
April 2005, Washington, D.C.
Omnia vestigia retrorsum
(All footsteps turn back upon themselves)
People ask me how a boy who was raised by a mobster grew up to become press secretary to the president of the United States. The answer is, when reporters started hammering me with questions about my pedigree, I did something sly that caught the Washington press corps off guard: I admitted everything.
: Jonah, is it true that upon the death of your grandfather, Mickey Price, you attended a Mafia summit?
: Who do you think called the meeting?
: Would you say your relationship with Mr. Price was of the conventional see-Grandpop-on-Sunday kind?
: It was the opposite of conventional. He and my grandmother virtually raised me after my parents died. They were my best friends.
GLOBAL WIRE SERVICE
: Mr. Eastman, it's been rumored that you arranged for the murder of a mob figure who was said to have crossed you?
: Absolutely not. I handled it personally.
As Henry Kissinger once said (but did not abide), “What will come out eventually must come out immediately.” People were stunned by my answers. Sure, I was using candor as a spin device, but Washington found it “refreshing.” Washington likes to think it finds candor refreshing, but honesty in this town is a novelty mint, not sustenance.
Nevertheless, the same frankness and irreverence that had been the “Jonah Eastman brand” for the last two years of the Truitt administration had finally become my undoing. I was fired this morning.
Before I took my job as the president's spokesman, I had been a Republican pollster. I specialized in handling difficult elections, ones that needed an unconventional boost. And, yes, my grandfather was the late Moses “Mickey” Price, the Atlantic City gangster known as “the Wizard of Odds.”
Despite its Nixonian whiff, let me be perfectly clear about something: I am not a gangster. My Edie wouldn't have married a gangster, but she wouldn't have married a choirboy either. She had choices and, at some level, knew what she was doing. I couldn't have gotten to the White House being a cherub, and some of the runoff from Mickey's jungle of shadows had crept into my frequency. While I am tempted to reinvent myself for the reader, I am no more immune from my environment than the minor prophet with whom I share a name, the one in the Bible who tried to run from God and was swallowed by a big fish. Jonah was chosen by God to be in a sea of trouble, and in my more philosophical moments, I believe I was genetically predisposed to scandal. Anyhow, spinning at this stage would be a lie that runs counter to the spirit of my forced retirement from the lying business.
Officially, I wasn't fired. I resigned. I did so after a few unfortunate catalysts put me in play. It began when the head of the Republican Party declared the current recession to be a “communications problem.” As press secretary, communications strategy fell under my purview. Then there was The Remark.
I made The Remark two days ago during a press conference after a suicide bomberâan erstwhile taxi driver from Yemenâblew himself up at a Phillies game, killing twenty-four people. Even though I was technically a New Jerseyan, Philadelphia was the provenance of my “hometown” sports teams. When asked by the White House correspondent for
The Philadelphia Bulletin
how I felt about the attack as a man who hailed from the region, I said, “It's hard to believe Western civilization is going to be taken down by a bunch of cabdrivers.”
To make matters worse, a network correspondent aboard Air Force One claimed to have overheard the president bark, “Aw, hell, we
negotiate with terrorists,” in a discussion about potential response options. Moments before taking off, the Big Guy had finished giving a speech where he echoed every other recent president with the canard, “We do not negotiate with terrorists.” (
PAUSE FOR APPLAUSE
The president totally said it, too. I was standing right next to him. Like the Secret Service agent who is trained to throw his body into the line of an assassin's bullet, I defused a potential crapstorm by instinctively telling the correspondent that I had made this remark, too. I was known for doing a mean Truitt impersonationâthe molasses Mississippi drawl, literary allusions, tractor-seat wisdom. The network, terrified of a White House freeze-out, agreed to make me the lightning rod.
The feelings of having been accused of something you did do and something you didn't do are both terrible, but have different manifestations. When you're wrongly accused, you feel lost in time and space: there's a sensation of motion between dimensions. When you're accused of something you really did, you feel paralyzed and trapped. I was suffering from a hybrid of these symptoms that averaged out at a common state: panic.
The Islamerica League demanded my resignation on the grounds that I had made a racist remark, the implication being that the Truitt administration saw all Muslims as angry cabdrivers. I dug myself in deeper when I attempted to explain that the suicide bomber really
a taxi driver. My buddy Dennis Miller rallied to my defense on his talk show by saying I got in trouble “for making comments offensive to terrorists.”
Adding to my predicament were the hearings that loomed for the president's nomination to the Supreme Court of R. MacDermott “Mac” Deweyâa conservative, white, Georgia-bred circuit court judge. Some of the same civil liberties people who were hammering me for my insensitive remarks would soon descend upon Washington to protest the Dewey nomination. Canning me wouldn't neutralize this challenge, but it would be a symbolic gesture to Democratic senators who were reluctant to turn a blind eye toward an administration they regarded as being an enemy of the progressive cause.
My assistant, Tigger, came into my office, which is in the West Wing of the White House (Coordinatesâlongitude-77.03740; latitude 38.89766)
facing Pennsylvania Avenue. She wore a quizzical expression. Her real name was Alison, but she revved in a reckless exuberance like Winnie-the-Pooh's tiger buddy, so I called her Tigger. In an environment where most staffers sought job preservation by taking no risks, Tigger was oblivious to the consequences of anything. She was my figurative sister, aide-de-camp, and personal social worker in one whippet-thin Chanel-suited vortex. What she lacked in subtlety, she made up for in devotion. (In Washington, if given the choice between genius or loyalty, choose loyalty.)
“Hey, Wonderboy, there's an envelope for you at the northwest gate,” she said, quizzically. A
Who's Who in the Truitt Administration
fell off my bookshelf onto the floor. Tigger recoiled as if this had never happened before, but every time she came in, something fell.
I glanced up from my computer screen, which was spitting out all of the reporters I had to call back.
Everybody wants the J-man to trash the president for canning him
“Tigger, I don't mean to sound like a diva, but since when do I go outside and retrieve envelopes?”
“The thing is, Jonah, I went out to get it myself, and, uh,
”âTigger drew out the
â“said she needed to give it to you herself. It seems personal.” Tigger bit her lip suggestively. She knew I was a married straight arrow with kids, but she had worked for politicians long enough to know that, well, one never knew, faÃ§ade being the cornerstone on which political reputations are built.
tell you her name?” I asked.
“She said she had a message from Claudine Polk.”
Heat shot up my back. I felt dizzy, and my throat tightened. My heart raced. I was supposed to be the Dark Prince of Cool in the face of hostile data. I had shooting pains in my jaw and arms. Heart attack. Dear God, heart attack. But I exercise and eat right,
“Claudâ,” I managed to half-say. I must have looked like an imbecile. I fell into my chair. “I haven't seen Claudine for twenty-five years. 1980. I was eighteen.”
“So, who can it be now?” Tigger asked, singing the question, which was a verse from an early 1980s song by an Aussie band.
“Claudine was a weather system. Something that engulfs you. I mean, you're
it. This woman outside, is she my age?” I stood and looked out my window.
“No, Wonderboy. Early twenties I'd say, andâ¦” Tigger sighed.
“Ruin-your-life/crash-into-a-tree/light-your-hair-on-fire gorgeousâ¦It's the only reason why the Secret Service guy at the gate buzzed me instead of telling her to get lost.”
“It's reassuring that our national defense is in the hands of a bunch of adolescents.”
The White House's northwest gate was about thirty yards from my office. I could see it from my window. The Secret Service gatehouse blocked my view of a section of Pennsylvania Avenue, and I could not see the mystery courier, just people milling about beyond the gates, and a lone rabbit scurrying among the bushes. Freshly scandal-bait, I wanted to avoid the press corps in the briefing room, so I went outside the West Wing's main door, the one where the Marine honor guard stands.
It was dusk. There's no more enchanting city in the world than Washington in April at duskâand, yes, I've been to Paris. It is cool, usually in the seventies, and a misty halo floats beneath the street lamps. I'm not sure what causes the mist, but it's not the humidity yet. Hell doesn't arrive in our nation's capital until May. The sky is a clear azure, flecked with stars slipping across the heavens like fugitive beads of mercury. Politics ceases to be about power, and becomes another excuse for falling stupidly in love. Even if we fail, we still sense our lover-shadow awaits us in Georgetown to fill that bagel hole we all drag around with us.
A few of the camped-out camera crews noticed me, and began to stir. I overheard somebody say, “Riptide.” This was the Secret Service call name I was given after I started receiving death threats early in the president's term. My politician's ego had hoped the threats would be traced back to a shadowy foreign revolutionary movement, but I was crushed to learn that my typical nemesis was a constipated retiree in Daytona Beach who had also threatened other people who were on TV.
As I approached the gate, I spied my messenger though the iron bars. She was in profile at first. Her auburn hair was shoulder length, her nose gently slopedâa nose you see in
. A ruin-your-life nose. She wore a white sundress, which gave her an otherworldly aura beneath the floating vapor of the street lamp. Lips like a bow, which made me wonder where she kept the arrow. When she turned to me, her green panther eyes narrowed in a challenging way, then quickly softened, opening wide. There appeared to be moisture around her thick lashes. When it comes to women and tears, quantity is an important variable: A few tears make men feel strong; a torrent makes us feel powerless, claustrophobic. Then I thought, April in Washington means allergies. That's what it was.
The thing about an outrageous beauty is that when she acknowledges you, you feel as if you've known her forever. It's the incarnation of the overused term
âGod touching you, leaving out the others. The problem is, when you're in your forties, your baser instincts are derailed by a chronological factor that has its anchor in morality: I was an adult when this
I felt the concrete go wobbly. My breath was short. Second heart attack in three minutes. I had a family history of fake heart attacks.
The uniformed Secret Service agent buzzed me out of the gate.
“Rattle & Snap,” she greeted me.
. Bewitching. Melodic. Southern. I smelled flowers, but didn't see any.
She handed me a small envelope. I took it. It was embossed:
RATTLE & SNAP
MOUNT PLEASANT, TENNESSEE
I felt my hands tremble, but they appeared to be still.
“It's a Passover greeting,” she said. That's right, I remembered. Passover had just begun. I had lost a sense of the calendar.
“Are you here to liberate me from bondage?” I asked.
“I got you to come out from behind those iron bars, didn't I?”
“Yes, but where are the plagues?”
“No plagues,” She of the bow lips said. “You look taller on TV.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Oh, I didn't mean it that way.”
. That voice. Tell me to impale myself on the White House gate, and I'll do it. No questions.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“A ghost.” She said this in a businesslike manner. But then I caught a quiver at the side of her lips, and a tiny dimple surfaced. I saw a few teeth. I wanted one of them.
“Ghosts don't usually drop things off at the White House,” I said. “Although there was that time Millard Fillmore brought me hot pastrami on pumpernickel. Which was nice.”
The ghost suppressed laughter, and dabbed beneath a perfect nostril with a tissue.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Hay fever,” she said.
“You weren't crying?”
She waited a beat, then nodded in the negative.
“I have it, too,” I said. “Where do ghosts get tissues, anyway? Do they have haunted Piggly Wiggly stores, Halloween items, antigarlic lotion for vampires?”
“You're borderline funny.”
“And unemployed because of it. The clown goes home alone.”
“Then who gets the girl?”
“The strongman. The acrobat. Somebody with no self-awareness.”
“I'm not sure about that. I read someplace that you wear a St. Jude medallion.”
I showed her the chain. “Patron Saint of Lost Causes. How do you know the Polks?”