Christmas at the cemetery – with Bubba.

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

December 25, 1998

If you want to hear your thoughts echo into a perfect silence – go to the cemetery.

I do it a lot, actually, not to be too terribly morbid. Potter’s fields and VA graveyards and tidy middle-class golf courses of the dead and tony, upscale permanent condominiums where they frown loudly on walk-in traffic. But democracy makes her last stand at the cemetery, so no one is ever actually turned away, and I expect it would take quite a performance to get yourself ejected.

But the cemetery is not the story – it’s just the honest part. The other part – to be much too kind – starts with my growing a tail.

A Secret Service tail, that is. Last August I wrote a story called ‘How Bubba pulled it off.’ It’s about a teenage masturbator who just happens to be President of the United States, and just after I wrote it I started noticing the tail.

Like this is so hard. I walk from place to place, that’s what I do. Sometimes I take a bus or a train or the subway. Rarely do I fly. Mostly I walk. When you’re walking into an empty dawn on an empty two lane road in upstate New York and the only car on the road is a big black Crown Victoria with D.C. tags, when it’s following you at idling speed with the running lights on – it’s a safe bet you’ve been fed-infested.

Four teams of two agents each, it turned out. They worked in eight hour shifts, and there is no better way to draw attention to yourself than to walk through a small town during the shift change with not one but two big black Crown Victorias following you.

At first it kinda ticked me off. I would run little games on the bozos to lose them – skipping the wrong way down a one-way street, in one door and right out the other, exiting through the freight entrance, that kind of stuff. They would not get out of the car, so I spent about a week in Manhattan losing them for sport: I’d put them into the thickest traffic then just saunter away with them able to do nothing about it.

Of course I always had to find them again – find myself for them, that is. There’s no telling what would have happened if they’d actually lost me.

And after a while I began to feel bad for them. The poor schlubs were just doing a job, after all. It might be satisfying to take out my frustrations on them, but they weren’t the cause of their being inflicted on me, and they had no power to uninflict me. In truth, I became the very model of consideration. I would tell them where I was headed, in case they lost visual contact. I gave them travel directions, so they could avoid the heavy traffic. I even scouted parking spaces for them. Take it from me: You have not experienced the true scope of American citizenship until you’ve held a parking space for your pet feds.

That’s all by way of background. After a while my fedly tail faded into the scenery. They were still there, and I knew they were there, but, like cramped calves and calluses, they were just a part of life.

And they were with me all through the fall, all the while this impeachment battle was brewing. I sauntered here and wandered there, but the whole time I was inching closer to Our Nation’s Capital. I can’t say why, really. I don’t care that much for news. But I’d been too much involved with this drama to miss the third act, so me and my feds sidled our way crablike down the seaboard – at idling speed with the running lights on.

I watched everything. On TV, of course, not in person. Moths and flames, and I didn’t need a big black Crown Victoria to remind me. But there are TVs in bars and there are TVs in the lobbies of the more fragrant hotels and there is a big room full of TVs in every Sears store in every city of this great land.

I watched the hearings in bits and snatches. I watched the posturing and tap-dancing every night on the news. I watched the little boxed-up heads screaming at each other on the cable news shouting matches. And one fine Saturday morning in Silver Spring, Maryland, I watched as 228 members of the House of Representatives pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor and all their re-election hopes to the proposition that my non-friend Bubba, the Jerk-Off in Chief, had committed crimes worthy of trial in the Senate and removal from office. A piece of history, and me and my feds saw it all on TV.

Six days later was Christmas Day. I had no particular place to go, and when I walked past a cemetery in Laurel, I walked on in, dragging my tail behind me.

It was a cold day. Not frigid, but cold enough. I stuffed my hands in my coat pockets and walked the weary miles of the dead, the endless aisles of the dead, listening for the echoes of the words they’d left unsaid.

I hadn’t been there an hour when a big black Suburban pulled up behind the big black Crown Victoria. The right rear door flew open and out popped Bubba. Not such a big surprise. I figured that if the Secret Service had wanted me for Secret Service purposes, they would have arrested me and been done with it, disposing of my remains if necessary. Since they hadn’t, I knew the surveillance had been ordered by Bubba – god alone knows why.

And William Jefferson Blythe Clinton has seen better days – and recently, too. He was puffy around the eyes and puffy around the middle, and there was a strawberry on his cheek that had been incompletely concealed by make-up. His face bore a haunted expression, and I thought his gray woolen overcoat would have been more perfectly mournful in black.

He walked toward me with his hands at his sides, his chin buried in his collar, the Billy-at-the-funeral pose. It made me want to puke.

The Secret Service creeps kept their distance, which was fine by me. Only the feds and the militiapersons know how much ordnance you can cram into the back of a Suburban…

Anyway, Bubba made a long, drawn-out production of his notice-and-praise-my-humility walk across the cemetery. When he got to me he looked up and he was actually pouting. He said, “I never expected to find you here.”

I smiled, a wry little smile that stops just south of the eyes. “Given the company I’ve been keeping” – I nodded toward my feds – “I wondered if this might be my terminal destination. Forgive the black humor…”

“Aw, they wouldn’t hurt nobody…”

“Oh, shut up.” I stalked off without Bubba and he scurried to catch up.

“What do you come here for, anyways? The boys say you go to cemeteries about ever’ other day.”

“Sometimes. Not all the time.”

“Well what for? You can’t have people in so many differ’nt places.”

“There aren’t any people here. Except me, except all these folks who’ve come to pay their respects on Christmas. There aren’t any people under the ground, just the remains of the dead. I come to the cemetery to read the stories of their lives.”

Bubba’s face was rent by doubt, confusion, consternation. It may have been the only time I ever saw him bearing an honest, unfiltered expression. “There ain’t no stories at the graveyard. Just a lot of names and dates.”

“That’s where the stories are. Look at this one.” I pointed at the grave marker in front of me. “Harold Stanton is 68 years old, still alive. His wife died two years ago, so he’s all alone for Christmas. Isn’t that sad?”

“Shore is.” Bubba sounded humble, but it was the notice-and-praise-my-humility act again.

“But there’s more. Look to the right. Two sons dead, both in their thirties, both unmarried.”

“How can you know they’re unmarried?”

“They’re buried with mom and dad, no markers for surviving wives. No grandchildren. There’s more. Can you see it?”

Bubba said nothing, just pouted.

“Look around. Do you see all the little tokens that people leave. Poinsettias and potted plants and little nativity scenes and tiny little polar bears sliding down candy canes. People leave soda cans and beer bottle caps and little miniature menorahs and toys and trinkets and treasures, all the things these people loved when they were alive.”

“Yeah. So?”

“There’s none of that here. Harold Stanton lost his younger son, James, in 1995. How? Mid-thirties, unmarried – my guess would be AIDS, although it could be anything. He lost his wife, Fiona, in ’96. Was it suicide? Did she lapse from mourning for her son? Just old age? Harold Junior died last year, just about this time. AIDS again? Saturnalian suicide? Who knows? But there are no trinkets on these graves, no flowers, no signs of any sentiment. Harold Stanton is not just alone for Christmas, he’s lost in a cavernous loneliness – of his own devising, very probably. It’s like ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ but so much worse. A great and tragic story, richly, horribly detailed, all in a few names and dates…”

Bubba had tears on his cheeks, but I didn’t believe it for a minute.

“Do you want to do another one? Look at Victor Ramirez here. Twenty-two years old. Now that’s a tragedy.”

“It’s a beautiful headstone.”

“Isn’t it?” And it was, too. The grave marker was made of fine white marble. It was inscribed with perhaps two hundred words of text, loving and effusive but short on conceptual content. The crowning glory was a large photograph of young Victor etched right into the stone. “Four thousand dollars, maybe more. That’s a lot of money. Victor’s parents probably have other children at home, maybe even a few grandchildren by now. They have their retirement to think of and their own funerals to pay for. Where do you think they got four thousand dollars for their son’s grave marker?”

Bubba said, “Where?”

“Don’t play the fool with me. You’ve probably got a snootful of it right now. Little Victor was a street guy, a gang guy, a player. Coke or crack or smack or who knows what, but he had a lot of cash and a very short life expectancy. Which do you think his parents would rather have, four thousand dollars for a grave marker – or their son? Alive. Maybe poor, but alive.”

Bubba was silent, which was just as well.

I said: “You killed him.”

“Say whut?”

“‘A thief is shot in the night. Whose hand is on the bow?’ Who killed this little boy? A rival drug dealer, that’s what the police report says. But who put those little boys in the drug dealing business, and who had the power to stop it? What kind of horrible hypocrisy does it take to be a drug user, to employ drug users, and yet do nothing at all about these stupid laws that put twenty-two-year-old innocents in the grave forever? You killed this boy, you and all the other posturing jackasses of this stupid drug war.”

Bubba put on his hurt-feelings face, his how-dare-you face.

I said, “What are you here for? Shall we read your grave marker?”

He mock-chuckled. “Heck, I ain’t dead yet.”

“That’s what you think. No, that’s what you want me to think. But I know better.”

Bubba answered with his pretending-not-to-understand face, which I expected.

“Christmas Day,” I said. “‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year.’ Bubba has a wife and a daughter and a fat old cat and frisky new puppy dog, and where is he? Is he at home in his presidential mansion, toasting his feet by the fire, stirring a mug of hot cider with a cinnamon stick? Is he helping his daughter arrange and rearrange and rearrange her gifts? Is he hugging his wife, whispering and giggling about the gifts still to come? No. He’s traipsing around a cemetery being scolded by a wraith, all under the watchful eyes of hired killers. How homey. How joyous. How sad…”

“I, uh… I thought this’d be more fun.”

“I’m sure you did. Everyone gives you a pass, don’t they? Even me. You’ve come to me before, and I let you do all the talking. I thought it was funny, making fun of you. It’s not funny to me now…”

“Well, what’s–” He stopped himself, and a quick flash of guilt raced across his face.

“Yeah. What’s changed? It wasn’t your impeachment, if that’s what you’re thinking – what you’re failing to forbid yourself to think. No, everything changed for me just after your impeachment, during your little garden party at the White House.”

“Wudn’t that somethin’? I had me a good ol’–”

“Oh, shut up. Do you think you can lie to me? We’re walking through the cemetery, peeling away the layers of the lives of the dead. Do you think you can hide anything from me?”

“I, uh–”

“Just shut up. Just be quiet, for once. You can’t impress me. You can’t fool me. You can’t fool yourself into believing you’ve fooled me. Your closest approach to honesty is silence.”

Amazingly enough, Bubba said nothing.

“Do you know what we get from art?” I asked. “It’s nothing you can’t find in real life, it’s just more immediate, more pellucid, bigger. Art is big enough that you can see the truth of it in a glance, where real life can take a lifetime…

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of you in that context,” I continued. “Don’t be flattered. I don’t think well of you. But I’ve tried to think of what there is in art that I might use to understand you. Macbeth springs to mind, of course, especially taking account of that shrew you married. But it seems too easy, and your corruption is too vast. King Lear? The Bacchus? Faust? Nothing seems to fit you. That’s an honor, I suppose, but not a proud honor.”

Bubba said nothing, just walked beside me between the graves.

“At that garden party, your little victory party, you wanted to make believe everything was okay. You wanted to make everyone else believe everything was okay. You had your little tin soldiers there to recite the lines you’d written for them, and you gave your own little speech, blaming everyone but yourself for your problems. And then you mingled through the throngs, your loving wife by your side. Isn’t that nice?”

“I thought it went purty well.”

“Mr. Stanton thinks he’s got everyone fooled, too, doesn’t he?”

“Say whut?”

“You had her in a death grip, like a half-nelson from the front. You were mingling through the crowd, she was on your right, you were shaking hands with your right hand, and you had her right hand imprisoned in your left. A death grip. Not a clasp, not a clutch. You had her gripped so tight that she couldn’t possibly run away. You must have left marks. Pictures don’t lie. I saw it all on TV.”

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”

“Sure you do. You’re just dismayed that someone looked with his eyes instead of his ears. You’ve spent your whole life trying to paint over facts with a spray of words, but facts are facts. Your whole life is a performance, and you betray that fact with the actions you take to sustain the illusion. You think you can fool an audience, but an audience is just a collection of idle gawkers, half interested at best. You can’t fool anyone who is paying attention.

“Anyway,” I went on. “That’s what’s changed. I realized that you’re something new, you and your wretched family, with no convenient name from art to apply to you. Every minute of every day of your entire life has been a show, a performance, a lie. You sucked your wife into this vicious pantomime of life, and then your daughter, but at least they’re human enough to rebel against it once in a while. You never do. Whatever authentic human emotion you might be feeling, you bury it with your performance. You present to the world whatever face you think will let you get over, get by, get a pass. Never a break, never a lapse, never a slip…”

“Purty good, ain’t it?”

“You want me to think you’re actually proud of this, that’s the sickest thing of all. Because if you can make yourself believe you’ve made me believe that you’re proud to be such an accomplished liar, that will mean I don’t know who you’re lying to. But I do. That’s what’s changed.”

Bubba said nothing, and his face was blank.

I said, “It’s all a lie, it’s all an act, it’s all a show. It’s all a pretense. But what are you pretending? And who are you pretending for…?”

We walked and walked and Bubba didn’t speak. Grave after grave, life after life, death after death. Finally he said, “Well…?”

“You’re pretending to be a human being. You’re pretending to be alive. Not for my benefit. Not to fool the suckers in the audience. To fool yourself. To make believe inside your own mind that you haven’t killed everything within you that was ever alive, that was ever true to your own purposes, your own wants, your own yearnings, your own hopes and dreams and plans and promises. Whatever there was of you, you’ve buried it alive, and this dancing corpse that can’t stop lying, can’t stop jiving, can’t stop putting on this morbid show of living death – that’s not meant to fool me. It’s meant to fool you…”

Even now Bubba was acting, his feel-sorry-for-me face, his pity-the-poor-bad-boy posturing.

“It never ends. You’re like a vampire; you can’t die because you can’t live. Your puppet wife and your puppet daughter and your puppet life…” I stopped myself, disgusted in my own behalf.

“The cemetery is full of tragic stories,” I went on, “but not one of them is as tragic as yours. Not Macbeth, not Lear, not the drunken Bacchus, not Faust – none of those stories is as sad as yours. They might have died from their corruption, but your corruption forbade you even to live… The historians will write about the loss of your presidency and the loss of your dignity, the loss of your mansion and your family and your things, your trinkets and ornaments. They’ll write about the loss of your place in history – as if that could matter in any way at all. But the tragedy of your life has nothing to do with that. Your life doesn’t depend on losing your job or keeping it. You have no life. You snuffed it out – and not for power or prestige or money or love or the adulation of the uncritical masses. You killed your self, the one true spark of your life, and you did it for nothing. Not even to be seen as being the man you know you’re not – for nothing.”

I walked along, waiting to see what Bubba might say for himself. Finally I said, “Everything you might have had, wealth or poverty, fame or anonymity, strength or weakness, great ardor or just a gentle, loving comfort – every bit of it is lost to you. Your puppet wife pretends to love you – so long as you keep her in the death grip of mutual blackmail. Your puppet daughter props up your illusions – for now. But you know the truth, and you know that I know the truth, and in the deepest tomb of your mind you know that everyone knows the truth. And that’s the worst horror of all, to know without daring to admit that you know that you’ve traded everything for nothing and you have fooled no one – not yourself, not me, not the idle gawkers – no one…”

Bubba was hammered, and for once not by liquor or drugs.

I said, “Shall I write your epitaph? It’s what I came here to do, to tell the truth. How’s this?: ‘William Jefferson Blythe Clinton, paternity unknown. He lived a lie and he died a lie and the only honest parts of him are buried here.’ That’ll do.”

Bubba stood staring at the grave behind his eyes and I left him that way, as still as death.

I strode over to the big black Crown Victoria. I had four small boxes of Fannie Farmer chocolates in my satchel, one for each my surveillance teams of pet feds. I handed them in through the driver’s side window. I said, “Merry Christmas, gents. He’s done with me, I’m sure. I’d appreciate it if you’d let me get lost…”

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