August is a strange and ugly month in Washington. The streets are filled with tourists, despite the monstrously evil heat and humidity. Everyone and everything slows to a crawl, from the cabbies in their dilapidated old hacks, a.c. wheezing like an asthmatic smoker drawing his last breaths, to the pitiful softball teams struggling to keep playing through the damp, heavy air hanging over the National Mall. Late afternoon flights from National and Dulles Airports are subject to long delays when the almost inevitable thunderstorms roll through, drenching the city but never seeming to relieve the heat.
The August Recess, Congress’s annual holiday from the beginning of the month through Labor Day, is a holdover from the days before air conditioning. Prior to the arrival of that glorious invention, it was deemed simply too hot to live and work in the District of Columbia, filled-in swamp that much of the city core is. This despite the fact that most Congressional buildings and rooms – such as the glorious old Supreme Court room on the first floor of the Capitol Building – are actually quite cool during the hottest of days, thanks to their thick stone walls. But apparently it was the going back and forth between home and office that was too much for the delicate Congressmen and Senators of those more genteel days, and the August Recess became the annual tradition it remains today.
Maybe it was still that problem of going back and forth from home to office. Or maybe the simple fact that, by the end of a long, hot July generally marked by ugly partisan debates over legislation designed more to ‘energize the base’ – flag burning, estate taxes, the occasional renewals of the Voting Rights Act – than to actually accomplish anything meaningful, after a month like that everybody just needed to get the hell out of town so they could settle down, get themselves focused and organized, and come back to Washington ready for those few remaining months spent fighting over the things that really mattered: the money bills.
This year the House had remained in session until deep into the night on Saturday, August 4, passing the FY 2008 Defense Appropriations Bill a little after 1:00 a.m. so that they wouldn’t be heading home empty-handed with the country at war. As a result, the Recess didn’t start off until the following morning, Sunday, the 5th, when it was launched with a bang, a front-page follow-up Washington Post story on Will Richardson. This one focused on an entirely new angle to me, reports of ‘house parties’ that Will threw, small, intimate (in more ways than one) get-togethers where the Congressman and four of his dearest friends would gather with his five female tenants over a catered dinner to eat, drink and cavort the night away. The story read like it had been leaked from the FBI in the apparent hopes of scaring participating Members of Congress to come forward – it was a standard trick in corruption cases. It included several wonderfully sordid details, the choicest of which was the fact that one lobbyist tenant – immediately dubbed the Black Widow – apparently requested specific Members to be invited as her partner for the evening. No Member names were included in the article, launching a massive blast of rumors and utterly unfounded allegations throughout the blogosphere.
It was a bad way to start the Recess, remembering as I did Will’s invitation to join in one of those parties and how close I’d come to saying ‘yes.’ I’d never told Charlotte about that invite, and couldn’t tell her now – it would sound too much like I was coming clean before she heard something, and besides, I still had something to hide.
I must have read that story three times before heading off to the shower.
* * *
That Monday morning, I decided to try once more with Erin Monaghan, to see if there was any progress to be made on my African coastal fisheries amendment.
I’d been back by Sen. Colbert’s office twice since our first meeting, once when Erin wasn’t around and once just before the mark-up when we’d chatted briefly. That time, I’d told her about all the effort I was making to find another Senator to support the amendment in Committee, telling her I was ‘doing everything I could’ to get it into the bill. That, of course, meant nothing – in Washington, ‘yes’ means ‘yes,’ ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and ‘I’ll do everything I can’ means ‘no.’ It wasn’t entirely a lie, for even though I knew when I said it that there was absolutely nothing I could do, I didn’t actually tell her I was doing anything – so it was more of a way of avoiding the painful truth than a lie. And now that the mark-up was over, I needed to tell her my best hadn’t been good enough and get her focused on moving it herself.
I lucked out when I got to Colbert’s office; Erin was there, and, true to the receptionist’s promise, came ‘right out’ about 20 minutes later.
She was preceded through the door to the back office by a large stack of binders and loose papers, all of which seemed on the verge of toppling as she chased them into the front room. Pausing, she righted the stack, and herself, before coming forward toward me.
“Can I help you with those?”
“Thanks, no,” she responded, the pile balanced precariously as she freed her right hand, pushing her glasses back up her nose, before quickly sliding the hand back under her pile. She peered through her glasses at me, tilting her head slowly back to keep up with them as they slid again down her nose. Resisting the urge to push them back in place, I asked, “Have a few minutes to talk about the Committee mark-up?”
Glancing around, she saw that the couches were filled with constituents, most of them in shorts and sneakers – meaning real constituents, the voting kind, as opposed to the Washington reps for the State’s largest employers. She looked back at me, trouble written all over her face, and said, “Let’s go back to my desk.”
Ducking ahead of her, I reached the door first, opening it quickly so she could sneak through with her pile. I followed her down the hall past the first sets of cubies, and up the stairs. At the top, she turned an immediate left into her space, desk meticulously clean until she dumped her pile of binders on it before sitting. Coming around behind her, I glanced at the distant window and the many office spaces between here and there. This looked to be the worst positioned space on the floor. Not one of the more senior people in the office then, was she? Not that I hadn’t guessed that already, but in cases like this, one always hoped to be proven wrong.
But I had to play the cards I’d been dealt. Colbert, and therefore Erin, was my only way out of the mess Roger had gotten me into.
“Looks like you’re having a busy week.” I began sympathetically, giving her the boy-I-understand-your-plight approach. It was the beginning of the Recess, so she should have been able to relax a little, but the mess on her desk implied that for her there would be no rest.
“Yeah, I’m rrrrreally busy right now.” She reached into the pile of papers, and removed a folder. “I have a lot of appropriations issues taking my time, especially preparing for VA-HUD.”
VA-HUD, Veterans Administration, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill, one of the great cash cow bills for Congress, incredibly useful for grandstanding and partisan gimmickry. Everything bad about Washington, D.C., all rolled into one bill. “I didn’t know that was one of your areas,” I said.
“Well, yes, veterans, housing, urban affairs, environment, telecommunications, and women’s issues,” she replied, still looking down at the folder in her hand. After the briefest pause, she looked up at me and said, “Oh, and foreign policy and foreign aid, of course.”
‘Of course.’ Last on the list, and only remembered as a throwaway. Told me a little something about office priorities. And it sounded like I needed to focus on the environment side of the argument, since that at least was fourth on her list as opposed to an afterthought.
She was still looking at me.
“Well, like I told the receptionist, I wanted to update you on our environment and coastal fisheries amendment in Senate Foreign Ops.” That might have been pushing the point, since biodiversity and environment are two very different topics, but what the hell, I thought. Looking grim, I said, “We couldn’t make it work.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” she said, her hands crossed in her lap.
“So I’m afraid we need the Senator to step up to help us out during the Senate Floor debate,” I said after a few moments. I waited.
“Yes, but I can’t do anything right now,” she said. “There’s just soooo much else to work on.”
“It’s okay,” I said, looking down at my hands. “Really, not a problem.” I looked up at her again. She was so very young by Washington standards. Long, brown hair hung straight, the college look that most Washingtonians quickly shed. Clear blue eyes, open wide to look at me, seemingly without seeing much of anything. An innocent face, or more precisely, the face of a true innocent.
“You’re right to focus on the immediate,” I continued, nodding, “and you can’t work an issue until the boss is ready to deal with it. I’m betting that it will be just before the bill gets to the Senate Floor.”
“Yes.” She brightened, straightening up in her chair, as if freed from a weight. “Yes, we have to focus on this” – she reached out to pat the precarious pile on her desk – “before we can move on to the rest of the bills.” She turned to me, and put her hands on her lap. She didn’t even know the stand-up-to-force-me-to-leave trick yet. “So. Maybe we can talk when Floor debate gets closer?”
“They’re saying that’s right after the Recess.” I smiled. “First week in September.” Meaning, I thought, now is the time to deal with it.
“Then definitely by the end of August,” she replied. “I’ll definitely get to it then.”
Dammit, I thought. Rising from my seat, I smiled down at her. “End of August it is. I’ll be away a lot of the month, but I’ll check in with you as we get close to Labor Day. Is that okay?”
She smiled up at me. “That’s great. Thanks.”
As I approached the stairs, I turned one last time, and took three copies of an article from the manila folder I was holding. “Let me leave you this, at least. Front-page story from the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back on this very problem: Europeans destroying African fish stocks.” It had come as manna from heaven, the perfect cover for a crazy Senate Floor amendment, the right-winger’s financial bible identifying the issue as important. But only if I could get her to pay attention to it.
“Wow,” she said. After peering at it for a moment, she placed it atop the pile on her desk. Later, she was saying again.
Walking back down the stairs on my way out of the office, I had an image in my mind of a dark, twisting road in northern New Hampshire where I’d come up around a bend one night only to find the proverbial deer in my headlights. That day I was driving carefully because of the wet roads, and I’d had plenty of time to stop. This time, though, as my mind replayed the meeting with Erin, the image in my head had me running the deer down, over and over again.
* * *
“Well, that was certainly a most informative presentation, Ed.” It was Hendrickson, throwing it out there like he couldn’t think of anything else to say. I looked over at Charlie, who seemed similarly baffled, and smiled.
We were two weeks into the Recess, and here I was, in Chicago’s finest vegetarian restaurant, not that I could tell. It was some Indian joint whose name I’d forgotten as soon as I walked in the door, since I knew I’d never be going back there again. I’d flown out to Chicago that morning: the 9:40 a.m. United flight out of National put me at O’Hare by 10:45, time enough to limo into town for a noon meeting.
The meeting, back at the Association’s office, had been fairly routine if somewhat smaller than I’d expected – only the four players from that first Washington visit, Kincaid, Hendrickson, Bao and Charlie. I’d surprised myself with my ability to talk for 30 minutes about what we’d been up to so far, outlining the Committee hearings, the personal meetings, the discussions, the drafting sessions, etc., etc. Kincaid, of course, had spent the entire meeting on his Blackberry, glancing up every once in a while to throw me a grim smile, while Bao sat attentively, alternating between watching me and looking at my PowerPoint. I was pretty sure he couldn’t read anything on the slides, but he was taking his native politeness seriously.
For me, the meeting’s highpoint, of course, had been the presentation of the second check, the second $180K, the whole reason for my trip out here. We were just about six months into the contract, meaning it was time for that second payment; and in our business, you never trusted those to the mail when you could pick them up face-to-face. So here I was.
Much of lunch, which Kincaid bowed out of, was taken up with the simple pleasure of watching Bao in his element. The restaurant was Indian, but the spirit was the same, and Bao, despite the need for Charlie’s translations, was having a wonderful time, charmed by the restaurant and charming its caring staff.
Watching them interact, it was more like Bao was visiting someone’s home than eating in their restaurant. His ordering indicated a broad knowledge of Indian food and spices that the waiters and, subsequently, the chef clearly enjoyed, and resulted in our getting a meal not off the menu but from the various mixes and matches that they shared. As plate after plate arrived at the table, each with its own special garnish, Bao played with them all, bowing deeply to accept their offerings and then insisting that they share in the dishes. They did, in a custom totally unfamiliar to me, and returned to the kitchen to bring more of everything they sampled. I joined in the tastings, mostly the kind of vegetarian items carnivores like me never experienced, simply to be a part of this very odd pageant. Over time, Bao began to serve me, mixing chutneys and vegetables in ways I never could have, creating little bursts of flavors completely foreign to my palate. I marveled at the choices, laughing out loud at many of them, and always asked for more. Bao’s eyes would narrow as he peered at his plate; consulting a waiter, and sometimes Charlie, he would reach delicately among the many plates to choose another entirely new taste – and with a thin smile hand it to me expectantly, watching carefully as I ate.
Bao said something in his native tongue to Charlie, who told me, “You are most polite and friendly to share with us in this way.”
“No, not at all. You are sharing your food with me.”
Bao laughed at the translation, rolling out a response in his peculiar lilting voice. He waved an arm, to indicate our colleagues. “But you are sharing our way of eating,” Charlie invoked for him. “It is rare among your people.” Bao smiled at me.
“Thank you,” I said, “I am honored.” And I was. But as I leaned in to attempt a bow, I could see Hendrickson, his mostly untouched plate before him, looking grim.
That’s okay, I thought, I have the check in my pocket.
Emerging from the restaurant after lunch, we turned right out the door and began walking back to the Association offices. Charlie moved ahead with Hendrickson, while Bao and I began walking slowly behind them. Bao leaned on my arm for support.
“You are most kind.” I turned, surprised. It was from Bao.
“Yes,” he continued, “I talk little English. You are most human.” He smiled up at me, his wizened face in a wide, knowing smile, and I laughed.
“Thank you,” I said, tipping my head down. “You are most interesting, and full of surprises.”
Bao looked at me quizzically, and called out to Charlie something I couldn’t understand. Charlie stopped and asked, “What was that last thing you said?”
I repeated myself. Charlie nodded. “Surprises,” he said to Bao, “sur-prises,” and then again something in his own tongue.
“Sur-prises,” Bao intoned. “Surrr-prises.” He looked up at me with a broad smile. “Yes, surrrr-prises.”
* * *
“I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Michelle stood in the doorway of my office. She had a point – I’d promised to be out of the office for two full weeks, and here I was, late on Wednesday of the second week, scouring through the piles of paper on my desk. I’d done my annual summer visit with my folks in Maine, and Charlotte hers in Minneapolis, after which we’d met up in New York for a few days. We’d flown back into D.C. earlier that afternoon, and after dropping everything off at the apartment, Charlotte had headed to the Hill and me to the office. We each had a few things to get off our desks before life got back to normal.
“I was hoping to get in and out without anyone seeing me,” I replied. “It’s six o’clock – what about you?”
“Just cleaning up a few things I need done before they come back.”
It was another of the curses of Washington, falling behind during the year while Congress is in session, especially on anything that wasn’t tied directly into their schedule – amendments, report language, questions for Committee hearings. The rest of the company’s work – identifying potential new clients to replace the one or two you lose every year, developing proposals, learning new areas of the business that could be sold somehow – that stuff all fell by the wayside until Congress got out of town. Then when they did, you were so tired and cranky and needing a vacation of your own that you didn’t do much of anything for a week or so and before you knew it the Recess was almost over and you’d produced nothing.
“Did I miss much?”
“Just Gangaran’s comments,” she replied. “Other than that, it’s been quiet.”
She snorted in that way she had, the one that annoyed me so much. “Jeez, you’ve only been gone two weeks and you’ve already forgotten? Koliba’s Vice President.”
“I know who he is,” I snapped, glancing down at my desk and continuing my hunt through the piles. Despite all the work we’d put into the reception for him, in truth Gangaran was even less important than the standard U.S. Vice President, having no authority at all. And that Committee report I was looking for had to be in there somewhere. “What did he say?”
“He told a press conference that Koliba’s sacking of the Supreme Court last year had hurt the nation, and that the Justices needed to be reinstated.”
I sat. “He said what?”
“Yeah, that was pretty much Tom’s reaction.” Michelle smiled at me. “He actually decided to get on a plane and fly over there. In August.”
The Democratic – oops, just kidding – Republic of Golongo sits right on the equator. Hottest place on the planet. I smiled for a second at the thought of Tom sweating like a pig in that hideous heat and humidity before refocusing as I remembered what Michelle had said.
“Gangaran can’t have said that,” I told him. “He’s a figurehead, he’s nobody.”
“AFP” – Agence France Presse, the French version of AP – “and the BBC were both there. It was in the Times, that’s why I thought you’d have seen it.”
Crap, I thought; comes from being married to someone who totally let go of the office when vacation was on. Charlotte always freaked out if I started talking about the clients while on vacation. Ruins the mood, she’d say; it’s hard enough that we both work the system without carrying it with us wherever we go. Like it was that easy to give up.
That was how I often found myself sneaking off to the business center of the hotels we were staying in, Googling our clients or pulling up the Post and the Times websites. This time, though, I hadn’t been doing that. Part of it, I thought, was coming from my parents’ house, which was a buffer of sorts between Washington and vacation time with Charlotte. I got to New York thinking about the folks, and the family, rather than work. Part of it – a big part – was my continuing guilt over the affair with Mary Anne in Paris, and my inner need to somehow make up for that. I’d been on my best behavior and, of course, missed something important that had gone to shit. Ain’t it always the way?
“So what next?”
“We don’t know,” Michelle, responded, laughing. “Haven’t heard much from Tom, especially since last time he called the receptionist dumped him into Welly’s voicemail. You should hear it, it’s hysterical.” She walked over to my phone, turned it around, and dialed into voicemail. Dialing in the code and extension number, she skipped ahead to the saved messages.
“Received Monday, August 17, at ten-oh-four,” the metallic voice said.
There was a pause, strong static and then what sounded like it could have been a long sigh before I heard, “Oh, Wellington, this is tragic. I don’t believe it. I’ve been dialing for hours and hours.” It was Tom, deep distress apparent in his voice even over those long distances, with long pauses between each sentence. “I just don’t believe it. I wanted to report on my m-mm-my-unhhh-mmmm-meetings, well, planned meetings, to talk about what’s next.” A very long pause. “I don’t know what to say. This is tragic, really.”
Tom had the technology sense of a rock, and apparently had never learned how to boop and beep his way out of our voicemail system; in Washington, he probably just would have hung up the phone and called back. Here, though, his voice rambled on and on, the way one does when trapped in voicemail with nothing to say, only much more distressed. He didn’t tell us anything about the situation there – for one thing, it’s safest to talk in code when talking about the clients from their own turf, but more to the point this time it just seemed like he was totally bummed by being out there alone. It got more depressed as he went, more down, more desperate for someone to talk to, with no way to get out from the machine. I looked up at Michelle, who had a broad grin on her face.
“You realize you’re enjoying this just a little too much?”
“Yes,” she said, “but I’ve been waiting for two days for someone I could play it back to. There’s no one else around.”
At least she was smart enough not to play it for the support staff.
* * *
“Edward, my boy, so very good to see you,” Harry boomed from the front porch as we approached. He held up his scotch as if in toast, his thin, ashen-white legs peeking out between his overlong shorts and his Docksiders. Those sticks are barely holding him up, I thought, realizing once again how much happier we’d all be if he’d wear long pants to these damned parties. A lifetime without exercise takes its toll. “And Charlotte, my dear, so wonderful to see you.”
Charlotte smiled up at him, her fake smile, the one she used for people who she couldn’t stand. “Senator,” she said, “a pleasure as always.”
He laughed. “Please, please, my dear,” he said, taking her hand and drawing her into a one-armed hug, “out here I’m Harry.” Even for people like you, he seemed to be saying, even for you.
Over his shoulder, Charlotte made a face at me. She’d come to dislike Harry intensely over the years; she simply couldn’t tolerate the fakery.
“Walter,” Harry suddenly boomed, looking past Charlotte to the next group coming in. She looked over at me as he breezed past her, or through her, sliding her to the side so he could greet the next set of guests.
“What a dick,” she said to me, turning to storm away.
“Okay,” I laughed, following after her, “you can either hate him for paying attention to us, or for ignoring us, but not both.”
“He’s such a politician,” she replied without looking back. I caught the screen door before it closed behind her, half-running after her as she breezed through the living room toward the back lawn where the party was. “We’re family, dammit.”
“Well, not on Harry’s side,” I said, almost running to keep up. She was moving, having gone out through the back hallway down to the kitchen. “We’re on Helen’s side of the family, and even then she doesn’t see Mom all that much.”
“Will you stop apologizing for the man?” She stopped, finally, just before heading out the back door. Poking a finger into my chest, she continued, “You’re always apologizing for him, just like you apologize for the system. He’s a dick.”
“He’s my uncle, sweetie. And for Chrissakes, will you keep it down?”
This screen opened from the outside, and a woman I didn’t recognize entered the room. While I didn’t know her, her formal Ann Taylor look at this allegedly casual party told me she was one of us, one of the Washington tribe, out here to see and be seen rather than for the food or the relaxation. My first thought was about what she’d heard, but I couldn’t read her face that well.
Charlotte could see mine, though, and must have sensed that I was more worried about what this woman had heard than about what she was saying. Sliding aside to let the woman through, she stormed out the door and into the party. I kept an eye on the woman a little too long, still not seeing her give anything away, before heading out onto the lawn. By that time, I’d lost Charlotte in the crowd.
I paused to get my bearings. Uncle Harry’s back lawn ran up against the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the bay to my right and the land running straight down for a couple of hundred yards. The house was set close to the water, the living room angled to face into the sunset, a gap cut in the pines to give that room the view’s full effect. Here on the back steps, I could see the crab pots steaming just off the back corner of the house, the picnic tables covered with paper and bits of smashed crab shells where some of our fellow guests had already been eating. This party was a food- and boozefest, eating and drinking going on all day long and into the night. The bar by the crab tables, though, would be stocked only with ice-cold beer and scotch, which weren’t what I was looking for.
Somewhat to the left, away from the water, I could see the steam tables set up for the roast beef, lamb and other delicacies that Aunt Helen would have arranged. Harry would have been happy with just the crabs and beer, a traditional Maryland feast to remind his lobbying friends how much he was at home in this environment. Helen, though, was the better hostess, looking to feed her guests well rather than to drive home a political point.
There, just to the right of the steam tables, I saw Aunt Helen, elegant as ever in a smart summer dress, chatting with a couple who looked like a Brooks Brothers store had exploded on them. He was in one of those greens that no human who hadn’t won the Masters should ever be seen in, and she, well, she had just the right skirt-blouse-sweater-tied-around-the-shoulders-just-so combination, the kind that said, ‘I don’t work, I’ve never had to, and wouldn’t soil my pretty little hands even if Biff lost ever single dime he inherited.’ Just like you’d see at pretty much every summer party in Washington.
As I walked over toward her, I could see that Helen was disengaging from her companions, pointing them toward the food. She took Green Jacket Man by the elbow as she came around him, and I marveled as always at her skill in getting rid of people without them even seeming to notice what was happening.
“Eddie, welcome,” she said gently as I approached.
“Aunt Helen,” I replied, grimacing slightly. As I got closer, I continued, “I’m sorry about Paris. Really, I am.”
She shook her head with a sad smile. “No, Eddie, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have laid that on you. You have a job to do.” She tilted her head to the side, the smile still in place, a deep sadness in her eyes.
“Not that way,” I said. “You were right, Helen. There are things I don’t have to do. And things I shouldn’t do, ever.” She looked over at me, and I could see a tear welling in one eye. “It won’t happen again.”
“Thank you, Eddie.” She looked down at the grass, watching where she placed her shoes, as if the immaculate lawn might hide some pebble or other obstruction. “I appreciate it.”
“I’m just sorry, that’s all.” I took her arm in mine, and turning her slightly, headed her toward the bar. The good one. The one where Uncle Harry’s wine collection was on display for all of us to savor – at least some of it was. Generally, the ‘very good’ wines were there, the lowest grade Harry drank. The excellent wines, well, those were still hidden away, down in the wine cellar. For a summer party, though, the ‘very good’ wines would be just fine for me.
As we arrived at the bar, she stopped and looked me in the eye. The tear was still there, in her right eye, no bigger but still there. “It’s done, Eddie.” She smiled, and wiped quickly at her eye as she turned to the bartender. “Now I think I could use a cranberry wine spritzer. I have a long day ahead of me, so I’ll stick with that.”
I flinched, thinking of the $45 Chardonnay she was corrupting with cranberry juice. Then again, long before she’d told me how little she noticed the difference between Harry’s wines and the $10.99 supermarket variety. Maybe she was just enjoying the idea of ruining a fine wine.
While the bartender poured Helen her drink, I looked over the row of diverse reds and whites behind him, two of this, three or four of that, recognizing several from the occasional dinners at Harry’s. He obviously bought his wines by the case, I thought, probably billing everything to his campaign war chest, and used the leftovers for his lawn parties. It made for so much nicer a lifestyle having enormous campaign accounts to subsidize your standard of living.
“Could I see that one?” I asked, pointing to a lone French wine that, if I was right, was surely out of place. “No, to the right. Yes, that one.”
As he held it out to me, I turned to Helen and said, “This shouldn’t be here. It’s the Chateaux Margaux I gave him on his birthday last year. It was a four hundred dollar bottle then, and must be more by now.”
The waiter started to take it back, but Helen reached out and took hold of it. He held it out for her, delicately, as she read the label. “1985.” She looked at me.
“That’s the one.”
“Open it,” she commanded to the bartender. She stopped his protestation with one finger in the air. “Open it, and keep it hidden behind those others, just for my nephew here. And whoever he chooses to share it with.” She smiled over at me, and gave me a light kiss on the cheek before turning to rejoin her guests.
I watched her walk away, smiling. Turning back to the waiter, I asked him, “If you open it now, how long should I wait before that first glass?”
* * *
Twenty minutes later, wine in hand, I set off to find Charlotte in the crowd. She wasn’t by the steam tables, where I’d looked for her while procuring myself a plateful of items that would go well with a Chateau Margaux. I was planning to surprise her with it, and also to see how well the wine opened up over the course of the afternoon. It was already quite magnificent, thank you very much, but I expected it to get better as time went on.
As I crossed the lawn back toward the house, I caught sight of her in the crowd near the crab tables. Must have found someone interesting to talk to, I thought, since Charlotte – after trying it once or twice – wasn’t into smashing steamed crabs into tiny pieces so you could hunt for tiny little bits of crabmeat. Wasn’t worth the time or energy, she’d said. I had to agree with her, except on those rare occasions when I was in the mood for drinking really cold beer; I’d figured out years before that the crab smashing part was all about keeping you at the table longer, so you could pump down an extra two or three beers over dinner.
“Ed,” I heard from my left, and looked over to see Roger hustling across the lawn toward me, a plate of food in one hand, a half-filled glass of iced tea in the other. I stopped to let him catch up to me, thinking as I watched that I didn’t feel like conducting any business right now. His plate, which looked empty from afar, proved to be holding five asparagus, two shrimp, and a single slice of roast beef, each carefully separated from the others by a good inch of empty plate. Jesus, I thought, no wonder you’re so thin and pasty.
I took a long sip of the wine and savored it. “What’s up?”
He came to a halt in front of me and stared, his eyes big, his glasses for the moment askew. “What are you going to do?”
I shook my head. “About what?”
“Oh, that,” I said, annoyed. This was still my vacation. “He’s the duly elected vice president, and he can say what he wants. It doesn’t change anything.”
“You don’t know?” He reached out as if to take my arm, the tea and ice sloshing back and forth in his glass. He stopped to let them settle again before continuing.
“He’s dead, Edward.” He was serious. “This morning. Butchered in his home with his entire family.”
“That’s impossible. The house is guarded by Government troops.”
“That’s your real problem,” he said. “They weren’t there. Sometime last night, they were withdrawn to the barracks, and this morning a mob attacked the house, hacked everyone inside to death with machetes, and burned it to the ground. When the police got there, they just watched.”