Read The President Is Missing: A Novel Online

Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton

The President Is Missing: A Novel (10 page)

T
his feels weird,” I say.

“You’re doing fine,” Mandy whispers. “Nobody’s ever done this to you?”

“No, and I hope nobody ever does again.”

“It will be more enjoyable for both of us,” she says, “if you’d stop complaining. For God’s sake, Jon, you were tortured in a Baghdad prison and you can’t handle this?”

“You do this every day?”

“Most days. Now hold…still. It’s easier that way.”

Easier for her, maybe. I try to stay as still as possible, seated in a pink chair in the dressing room inside Mandy’s bedroom suite as she uses a makeup pencil on my eyebrows. To my right, Mandy’s vanity is covered with makeup supplies, bottles and brushes and powders and creams and clays of all different sizes and colors. It looks like something on the set of a B movie about vampires or zombies.

“Don’t make me look like Groucho Marx,” I say.

“No, no,” she says. “But speaking of…” She reaches down and pulls something out of a bag and shows it to me—Groucho Marx glasses, the bushy eyebrows and mustache.

I take them from her. “Rachel’s,” I say.

When Rachel started getting really sick, it bothered her how sorry for her everyone felt. So when friends would come to visit, she had a little routine to lighten things up. I’d warn people that “Rachel isn’t really herself today.” And when they’d walk into the room, they’d see Rachel in bed, wearing the Groucho glasses. Sometimes it was a clown nose. She had a mask of Richard Nixon, too, which really got a laugh.

That was Rachel, right there. Always worrying about everyone but herself.

“Anyway,” says Mandy, before things get too misty, “don’t worry about your eyebrows. I’m just thickening them a little. You’d be amazed how they can change one’s appearance. Eyes and eyebrows.”

She scoots back in her chair and looks at me. “Honestly, kiddo, that beard you showed up with was half the battle right there. And it’s so red! It almost doesn’t look real. You want me to color your hair to match?”

“Definitely not.”

She shakes her head, still studying my face like it’s a lab specimen. “Your hair isn’t long enough to do much with,” she mumbles, talking to herself more than to me. “Changing the part from the right to the left wouldn’t help. We could forget the part and comb it all forward.” She puts her hands in my hair, gripping it, finger-combing it, mussing it. “At least you’d have a hairstyle that matches this decade.”

“How about I wear a baseball cap?” I say.

“Oh.” She draws back. “Sure, that would be easier. Does that work? Did you bring one?”

“Yeah.” I reach down into my bag and pull out a Nationals baseball cap, put it on.

“Reliving your glory days, eh? Okay, well, between the beard and the red baseball cap, the eyebrows, and…hmm.” Her head bobs back and forth. “The key is in the eyes,” she says, gesturing to her own face. She lets out a sigh. “Your eyes haven’t looked the same, honey.”

“What do you mean?”

“Since Rachel,” she says. “Your eyes haven’t looked the same since she died.” She snaps out of it. “Sorry. Let’s get you in some eyeglasses. You don’t wear glasses, do you?”

“Reading glasses when I’m tired,” I say.

“Hang on.” She goes into her closet and comes out with a rectangular velvet box. She pops it open and reveals about fifty pairs of eyeglasses, each perched in a small divot.

“Jeez, Mandy.”

“I borrowed these from Jamie,” she says. “When we did the sequel to
London
last year. It’s coming out this Christmas.”

“Heard about that. Congrats.”

“Yeah, well, I told Steven that was the last one I’m doing. Rodney couldn’t keep his paws off me the whole time. But I handled it.”

She hands me a pair of eyeglasses with thick brown frames. I put them on.

“Hmph,” she says. “No. Try these.”

I try another pair.

“No, these.”

“I’m not trying to win a fashion award,” I say.

She gives me a deadpan look. “You’re in absolutely no danger of that, my sweet, believe me. Here.” She removes another pair. “These. These, yes.”

She hands me a pair with thick frames again, but this time the color is more of a reddish-brown. I put them on, and she lights up.

“It blends in with your beard,” she says.

I make a face.

“No, I mean it throws off your color completely, Jon. You’re fair. Dirty blond and fair-complected. The glasses and beard highlight a deep brown-red.”

I stand up and go to the mirror over her vanity.

“You’ve lost weight,” she says. “You were never overweight a day in your life, but you’re looking skinny.”

“I’m not hearing a compliment in there.”

I check myself out in the mirror. I’m still myself, but I see her point about the change in my coloring. The cap, the glasses, and the beard. And I never realized how much slightly thicker eyebrows could change the look of a person. All that and no Secret Service entourage. Nobody will recognize me.

“Y’know, Jon, it’s okay to move on with your life. You’re only fifty. She wanted you to. In fact, she made me prom—”

She stops on that, some color coming to her face, a sheen over her eyes.

“You and Rachel talked about that?”

She nods, placing a hand on her chest, taking a moment to let the emotion dissipate. “She said to me, and I quote, ‘Don’t let Jon spend the rest of his life alone out of some misplaced sense of loyalty.’”

I take a sharp breath. Those words—
some misplaced sense of loyalty
—were exactly what she said to me more than once. They bring Rachel right back into this room, as if her breath is on my face, her head angled as it always was when she had something important to say. Her vanilla scent, the dimple in her right cheek, the smile lines by her eyes—

Her hand clutching mine, that last day, her voice groggy from the pain meds, so weak, but strong enough to squeeze my hand tight one last time.

Promise me you’ll meet someone else, Jonathan. Promise me.

“My only point,” Mandy says, her voice gravelly with emotion, “is that everyone understands that there’s a time when you have to get back in the ring. You shouldn’t have to disguise your appearance just to go on a date.”

I take a moment of my own to recover and to remember something I never should have forgotten—that Mandy has no idea what’s happening. Sure, now that I think about it, it makes sense that she’d think I was meeting a woman for a date—dinner or a drink or a movie—and I might not want our first get-together observed by the international press.

“You
are
going on a date, aren’t you?” Her perfectly shaped eyebrows come together as she starts thinking things through. If I’m not going on a date, then what am I doing? Why else would a president sneak away from his security detail and travel incognito?

Before I let that imaginative mind of hers go any further down that path, I say, “I’m meeting someone, yes.”

She waits for more and is hurt when it isn’t forthcoming. But she’s handled me with kid gloves since Rachel’s death, and she won’t push if I don’t want to be pushed.

I clear my throat as I check my watch. I’m on a strict schedule. I’m not used to that. I always have a busy schedule, but the president is never late. Everybody waits for him. Not this time.

“I have to go now,” I tell her.

I
take the freight elevator back down and come out into the alley. My car is still parked in its spot. I drive to the Capitol Hill neighborhood and find a parking lot near 7th Street and North Carolina, leaving my keys with an attendant who hardly glances at my face.

I blend in with the pedestrians and the sounds of people enjoying a spring Friday evening in a vibrant residential neighborhood, restaurants and bars with their windows flung open, people laughing and mingling, pop music blasting from speakers.

I come upon a shabbily dressed man sitting against the wall of a corner coffee shop. A German shepherd, lying next to him, pants in the heat next to an empty bowl. The man, like many of the homeless, is wearing more layers than he needs. He also wears dark, scratched-up sunglasses. The sign he’s been holding says
HOMELESS VETERAN,
but it now leans against the wall of the building. It must be break time. On his other side, a small cardboard box holds a few dollar bills. Music is playing quietly on a boom box.

I remove myself from the wave of pedestrian traffic and bend down next to him. I recognize the song playing, Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” My mind whirls back to a slow dance in Savannah during basic training, closing time at one of the bars on River Street, my brain foggy from booze, my limbs aching from smoke sessions and training exercises.

“Are you a Gulf War vet, sir?” I ask. By his appearance, I’d almost guessed Vietnam before factoring in the lean years, which likely aged him faster than they should have.

“Sure am,” he says, “but I wasn’t no ‘sir.’ I earned my pay, friend. Platoon sergeant in the Big Red One. I was there when they breached Saddam’s wire.”

I sense the pride well up in him. It feels good to give him that moment. I want to throw another log onto that fire, get this guy a sandwich, listen just a little more. But I also feel the press of time and check my watch.

“First Infantry Division, huh? You guys led the charge into Iraq, right?”

“Tip of the spear, man. We rolled over those Republican Guard pansies like they were caught sleeping.”

“Not bad for a leg,” I say.

“A leg?” He sounds surprised. “You served? What were you, Airborne?”

“I’m a hooah just like you,” I say. “Yeah, spent a couple of years in the Seventy-Fifth.”

He sits up a little and raises his ungroomed unibrow. “Airborne Ranger, huh? I bet you saw some shit, boy. Raids and recon missions, right?”

“Not as much as you guys in the bigger units,” I say, deflecting the narrative back to him. “What did it take you guys—a week to get halfway up the country?”

“And then we stopped short,” he says with a crimped mouth. “Always thought that was a mistake.”

“Hey,” I say. “I could use a sandwich. How about you?”

“That would be much appreciated,” he says. As I move toward the door he adds, “This place makes a killer turkey sandwich, by the way.”

“Turkey it is.”

When I return, I’m committed to a quick exit, but not without finding out a few more things. “What’s your name, hooah?” I ask.

“Sergeant First Class Christopher Knight,” he says.

“Here you go, Sergeant.” I hand him the paper sack of food. I put down the dish full of water for the dog, who laps it up until it’s gone.

“It’s been an honor to meet you, Sergeant. Where do you put your head down at night?”

“Shelter’s a couple streets over. I come here most mornings. People are a little nicer.”

“I have to move along, but here, Chris, take this.”

I pull the change from the meal out of my pocket and give it to him.

“God bless you,” he says, squeezing my hand with the still-firm grip of a warrior.

For some reason, that starts a catch in my throat. I’ve visited clinics and hospitals and done my best to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, but this is what I don’t see, the homeless PTSD vet who can’t find or hold down a job.

I move back along the sidewalk, taking out my cell phone to store his name and the coffee-shop location so I can make sure this guy gets some help before it’s too late for him.

But there are tens of thousands like him. The familiar feeling passes through me, the sense that my ability to help people is both vast and limited at the same time. You learn to live with the paradox. If you don’t, obsessing over the limits will keep you from making the most of what you can do. Meanwhile, you keep looking for chances to push the limits back, to do as much as you can for as many as you can, every day. Even on the bad days, there’s always something good you can do.

Two blocks beyond Sergeant Knight, as I walk among the shadows created by the setting sun, the crowd ahead of me has stopped moving. I walk through some people and step into the street to get a better look.

Two police officers from DC Metro are trying to force a man to the ground, an African American kid in a white T-shirt and jeans. He is resisting, trying to swing his arms free while one of the two officers tries to cuff him. They have weapons and Tasers but aren’t using them, at least not yet. Two or three people along the sidewalk are holding up their phones and filming the incident.

“Get on the ground! On the ground!” the officers are shouting.

The man they’re trying to take into custody stumbles to his right, the officers along with them, spilling over into the street, where traffic has stopped, blocked by the police car.

I take a step forward, instinctively, then step back. What am I going to do, announce that I’m the president and I’ll handle this? There’s nothing for me to do but either gawk or leave.

I have no idea what led up to this moment. It could be that this man has committed a violent felony or even a purse snatching, or maybe he just pissed these guys off. I hope the officers are simply responding to a call and acting properly. I know that most cops, most of the time, do the best they can. I know that there are bad cops, just as there are bad actors in every profession. And I know that there are cops who think of themselves as good cops but, even if unconsciously, see a black man in a T-shirt and jeans as more threatening than a white man dressed the same way.

I look around at the watching crowd, people of all races and colors. Ten different people could watch the same thing and come away with ten unique takes on it. Some will see good cops doing their job. Some will see a black person being treated differently because of the color of his skin. Sometimes it’s the one. Sometimes it’s the other. Sometimes it’s a bit of both. Regardless, in the back of every onlooker’s mind is the same question: Will this unarmed man leave the scene unshot?

A second squad car rolls down the street as the officers get the man to the ground, cuff him, and lift him to his feet.

I cross the street and head to my next destination. There are no easy solutions to problems like these, so I try to follow my own advice—understand my limitations and keep doing whatever I can to make things better. An executive order, a bill that reaches my desk, speeches, words from my bully pulpit—these things can set the right tone, move us in the right direction.

But it’s a battle as old as humanity—us versus them. In every age and time, individuals, families, clans, and nations have struggled with how to treat the “other.” In America, racism is our oldest curse. But there are other divides—over religion, immigration, sexual identity. Sometimes the “them” strategy is just a narcotic to feed the beast in all of us. All too often, those who rail against “them” prevail over earnest pleas to remember what “we” can be and do together. Our brains have worked this way for a long time. Maybe they always will. But we have to keep trying. That’s the permanent mission our Founding Fathers left us—moving toward the “more perfect union.”

The wind whips up as I turn a corner. I look up at a troubled sky, ash-colored clouds.

As I walk to the end of the street, toward the bar on the corner, I fear I’m facing the hardest part of a very tough night.