November 23, 2014
‘Donald’: A Black Site of Rumsfeld’s Own
Posted on Feb 18, 2011
By Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott
He leans back twisty in his chair, belly out, shoulders wide, chin up, offering his nape. “You two married?” Triangles of light and shadow are moving across the broad oak table, poking their long fingers into the old biographies. It’s going on four. He’s got a drive ahead of him, dinner plans, a wife and guests. The kid and girl are wilting. “Married. Two. You.” The kid doesn’t move and the girl rolls in her bottom lip. “Not my business. Absolutely right.” The kid is someone’s son but who isn’t? “My life, on the other hand, has been a public life and so my life is now your business. Your report. The book you’re no doubt writing, as I am. Your history in progress.” He breathes in deeply through his nose, takes in the musk of old books and fear. “Characterized by excellent verbs and a personal touch. A wealth of secondary sources from the public domain. Your perspective as I guess a citizen. As I guess a man.” The kid is someone’s grandson and every boy is someone’s grandson. “Who has faced the threats and opportunities of this age and other larger stuff, with resolve and a profound sense of those who came before.” The girl is smiling. Her mouth is doing something at least, jagging at the sides.
“You are going to have to answer,” says the kid. His young throat beats like a jogging heart. “Things have changed.”
“They always do,” he tells the kid, “but never as much or fast as people think.” He leans forward across the table and spreads his arms in front of him, hands joined in a power triangle. “Tell me who you are.”
“No. Something real. A decision you made.” He glances at the girl. “A real one.”
The kid brushes his hair out of his eyes and looks, for that time it takes a person to push hair from the middle of the forehead towards the left ear, about twelve years old. Late afternoons perched on a thick branch over the garage. Kick the can with his sister in the neighborhood. Smear the queer. Stealing gum. Lighting weeds with matches. Five. Nine. Twelve. A hand¬stand on the gunnels of a canoe, diving off the no diving sign. Days of the body. “What are you talking about?” the kid says.
“That’s what I thought.” Down there in the kid’s eyes, Donald sees broad leaves of intelligence but rooted in such soft soil that it might as well be sand. A zen garden. With a few green wisps that will blow flat at the first breath of wind. The world they live in is a blustery place. This is the son of a father who never went to war. There’s a little war in the girl, maybe from her father, or maybe because every beautiful girl has glimpsed the natural state of man, at least the part that would rape her if it could. “Tell me,” he says to the girl, “he had to choose between his sick mother and his career. Or he won’t marry you but made you give up a. He put a dog down. He sent a buddy off to jail. You betrayed him, he forgave you. Tell me there’s something that’s happened in his life but do not ask me what I mean by what’s real. Because if you don’t know that, you really don’t know anything. Success is the exception. Failure is the rule. The record,” he tells the kid, pounding the table in front of him, a seismic event that ripples through the hall, rattling the books and cages and centuries, “the record is unlikely to be kept by the likes of you.”
The kid’s mouth pops open like a bottom-feeding fish. His plan has not survived contact with the enemy. The enemy is never who you think it is, and you are seldom who you think you are. That’s what the girl is ruminating as the light now stabs her cheek, a late low PM icicle of sun that points out inex¬pert flakes of makeup. What a waste. “Get married,” he says. “Get married, have a family, children, hit the beach, let them run naked. Write poetry about sex and rock n’ roll. Paint, play tennis, find some land. What are you waiting for? What are you doing here? The world’s not getting any nicer, is it?”
“You should have been a source of restraint,” the kid says, his voice dipped and thick now. “And you were not a source of restraint. You should have been. You used to be. I want to know why.”
The kid snorts. His nose sounds clogged again. It’s crooked, but not like he broke it. Crooked like a sick tree. “I’m not here to—”
“My daughter,” he cuts the kid off, “told me once that it takes everyone to make a happy day. Nine years old.” She’s middle-aged now, gracious, grown and long, a happy housewife who could have done anything. Her choices weren’t good but she made those choices work, except the marriage, of course, but he could have told her that. Did tell her. She could have had anyone. She was like her mother. Guys stuck to her like glue. There was something childish and poetic about her. Sweet, popular, laid-back, cool, courteous, gracious, accepting, pretty, skinny. Her weaknesses a glut of trust and dearth of judgment. Right ladder, wrong wall. She’d run away to the sunny west to study history but came back home—the only one who had—and now look at her! A mother to her children and to other children, on the board of countless schools and education projects, a philanthropist, a caretaker, although was she ever as wise as she was as a child? “This wise little girl lived a pretty comfortable life, you know, and she still knew how difficult it is, the perfect storm of happiness. And the thing is, I would say that I’m an optimist but I’ve always thought the other way of putting it was that it only takes one jerk to crud things up for everyone, and that means you have to avoid or isolate or neutralize that bastard best you can. If he’s ready to strap a bomb to his chest and kill innocents? Women, children, civilians. Poison them, infect them, crumble your cities, make you die and suffer any way he can with whatsoever he can get his hands on? When you’re nine, you’re looking at the world as a circle of playmates for happy days ahead, but none of us are nine here. You go out into the world?” The clock above her head is screaming at him. “Happiness can happen, but there’s always—always—some vicious animal out there waiting. And after him, there’s another.” He hasn’t felt like this in a while, filling a room, leaving just the tiny last nooks for them, the slits and grottos. “There’s another and another, and people like you need people like me to take care of them for you and shoulder the cost, because you? You people?” He reaches across the table so quickly that the kid can’t even flinch. He holds the kid’s hand, palms the long thin fingers, and presses them gently flat. Then he shakes his head on its slowest setting, softly, side to side.
His left knee pops as he stands but he makes sure it doesn’t register across his igneous face. The spell holds. He can still get out of here before he turns into an old fart again. “I hope,” he tells the girl, “you two get out there and prove me wrong.” She is beautiful after all, not like his wife, but in her own way, and he’s glad she was standing there to help him be his better self. But it’s undeniable: the kid is on the wrong side; the girl’s got the wrong boy; and he, unless some extraordinary piece of luck strikes, is going to be late for dinner.
Copyright © 2011 by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott from “Donald.” Reprinted by permission of McSweeney’s.
Square, Site wide
Previous item: Why I Miss Norman Mailer
New and Improved Comments