She was tired of reading aloud to kindergartners, especially in Kansas and Nebraska, and especially during election years. The only states that she couldn’t tell apart after two decades in political life were also the very states, it happened, on which the party’s fortunes always hinged when sluggish August turned to frantic September and polls that hadn’t budged two points in months abruptly swung around, swung back, then tightened. Once this happened, every precinct counted, and every square-mile of wind-scoured brown prairie became a battleground.
And here she was again. The week after Labor Day, somewhere dry and flat, frozen in the pose she most despised but also had become best known for: perched on a stool with her left foot on the ground, her right foot hooked behind a crossrail, and her chin pointed squarely at a stuffy classroom crammed with five year olds in bright new sweaters bought for the greatest occasion in county history: a visit from Madame President’s first lady, the no-longer-controversial Sharon Grayson, who’d brought along a wonderful old children’s book signed in violet marker by her great spouse.
Sharon opened the book to display the autograph as a slim young teacher with blue-green eyes leaned in beside her for a closer look and raised a patch of goosebumps on her neck by accidentally brushing it with her ponytail. Sharon had forgotten the teacher’s name already, but not her lean and liquid figure, which was the first thing she’d seen when she’d arrived and the last thing she hoped to see before she left.
“It’s real. It’s her writing,” the teacher assured the class. She grinned then, so delighted she looked panicked. Sharon sensed that the girl was desperate to touch the page — to trace the signature’s loops with a long finger — but she made sure to hold it out of reach. Later, perhaps. On the campaign bus. In the small but pleasant rolling bedroom that Sharon kept stocked with spirits, wine, beer and an assortment of souvenirs and trinkets — notepads, pencils, desk calendars, pens — filched from the Oval Office, and all authentic.
“Start reading,” a senior staffer crisply whispered. Sharon loathed this hag — Top Momma’s spy. Four years ago in Orlando, at Disney Realm, the crone had overheard a tipsy Sharon proposing a threesome to two teenage Amexicans during a banquet for Youth Climate Day. The old snoop didn’t snitch (or so she promised), but her secret knowledge gave her leverage. Sharon wondered sometimes if Top Momma had set a trap. To caution her. To remind her things had changed. Your life of clever capers is over, dear; I’m a major world leader now and you’re my bitch.
“Hit it. Now. We’re late,” the staffer hissed.
Sharon cleared her mucus-clotted throat. Following the convention in San Antonio, when Top Momma jetted away to the great cities and Sharon set off on the bus for the Great Plains, she’d been sneaking pre-prohibition cigarettes. Genuine tobacco from Belize, smuggled in by her chief Secret Service agent, Ono, the only straight man on earth she’d ever trusted other than, for a while, Santa Claus.
And now for the hard part. It couldn’t be avoided. But why did it always have to be this book? So sappy, so stale, with its themes of selfless motherhood, wise paternalism, sweet obedience and all that other stone-age crap that she and Top Momma had spent their lives disposing of.
“A book by Robert McCloskey,” Sharon said. “Ready, kids? Is everybody listening?” She winked at the cute teacher as a signal that they were both too smart for this charade, but then she remembered that teachers become teachers because they find charades exhilarating.
Sharon began to read Make Way for Ducklings.
“I’m sorry there aren’t any chairs in here,” said Sharon, sliding open a shallow aluminum drawer in the built-in multi-purpose storage center. “Get comfortable as best you can, and don’t mind those files on the bedspread there. They’re stupid. About some cold-fusion plant I’m dedicating.”
The teacher, who had a name now, Kim, sat on a plump hypoallergenic pillow that she stroked as if it were a kitten. Stunned, she seemed. Still full of wonder. In Sharon’s experience, this sense of awe could be expected to last two hours or so, which was more than enough. A bit too long, in fact. It made it hard to get them off the bus.
Sharon picked out a stout black pen with worn gold lettering (“The White House”), clicked it to make sure it worked, then shut the drawer. She held out the pen to dazzled Kim, who seemed confused about which hand to take it with.
“She signed the Organic Soy Fuels bills with this one. It’s not just an object,” Sharon said. “It’s history.” This wasn’t quite true but it was true enough.
Kim slid the pen across her glossy right cheek. She touched its tip to one earlobe. The lobe flushed pink. Instantly. Wholly.
“Lower,” Sharon said.
Kim hesitated, then complied.
“Lower, baby. Don’t deny yourself.”
The progression, for Sharon, was predictable, but that made it all the more arousing to watch. To put someone into a trance state. That was power. Top Momma agreed. Politics was mostly hypnosis. Years ago, before she won her Senate seat, when she was still Wisconsin’s attorney general, she used to tell Sharon in their frilly king bed that someday, someday very soon, perhaps, voters would become invulnerable to the corny old magic tricks. The rhythmic, repetitive speeches wouldn’t move them. The kissing of newborns would leave them cold. But that day never came, and Sharon now knew it wouldn’t, especially after today’s triumphant reading. Make Way for Ducklings had wowed them once again — the kids, the invited guests from the town council, the faculty, the janitorial staff, and pretty Kim, of course.
Pretty, twitching, moaning Kim, pants completely off now. Bra off. Socks off. Legs as far apart as legs can go. And black White House pen as deep inside her as Sharon could slide it.
“You now,” Kim mumbled. “Your turn.” Being polite. In fact, she didn’t look even close to satisfied. Her nose was still running, her eyes still watering, and the hand at the end of her limp, outstretched left arm was still curling up in a fist and then relaxing with every third re-insertion of the talisman.
“I’m fine,” Sharon answered. “It doesn’t work on me. It doesn’t have the same effect.”
Kim’s eyes had rolled back in her head. “Too bad,” she said.
Sharon glanced up through the window, at the fields. The bus was moving now. Next stop Junction City, her schedule said, a three-hour drive from wherever she’d just been in either Kansas or Nebraska. A dinner tonight at the Gay Baptists Club, a luncheon tomorrow with Hemp Farmers United, and a reading at three at another elementary school. Could she do it? She had to. Orders from Top Momma.
“Try it,” Kim said. She was drying up now. Finally. “When was the last time you tried it?” She closed her legs, reached down across her sweating belly, and gently tugged the pen away from Sharon. Their eyes met then, but not meaningfully, not intimately, because their real attention was elsewhere.
Two feet away, on a wall above the mattress, hung a framed print of Madame President’s recently completed official portrait. It made her look five years younger than she was and a tenth as intimidating as she could be. A beauty? Not quite. Not anymore, at least. Handsome? Distinguished? If you squinted. More than anything, she resembled a politician, with one of those faces that shift and alter according to the nature of the audience.
To Kim, her new vicarious lover, she looked like a shining queen, an ancient empress.
To Sharon, her mate, like a puffed-up mother duck.
This story first appeared on NERVE in 2006.