BUSH ON MARS
"Mars is essentially in the same orbit... Mars is somewhat the same distance from the sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe."
—Dan Quayle, 1989
Around the rocket in four directions spread the little town, green and motionless in the Martian spring. There were white houses and red brick ones, and tall elm trees blowing in the wind, and tall maples and horse chestnuts. And church steeples with golden bells silent in them…
“How long you been here, Grandma?” said Lustig.
“Ever since we died,” she said tartly.
—THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury
He climbed up the ladder and wondered if he had the strength to get home. He had done what he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague. Stooped, holding onto the gateposts for support, he turned up the driveway of his own house…He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in the windows, saw that the place was empty.
—“The Swimmer” by John Cheever
George W. Bush had a headache and a ferocious case of cottonmouth. He reachedaround in the dark and felt a lump on the back of his skull. The floor under his cheek was metal, but warm and vibrating. He had a half-awake idea that he was in the bed of a pickup on a summer night, pals driving him home after a party. They’d probably dump him on the lawn, where he’d wake up in the morning with a dog licking his face and some old biddy standing over him in her bathrobe. He smiled, thinking about it. Mornin’, Ma’am, he’d say, pretending to tip his hat, then he’d get up and maybe take a long drink of water from the garden hose before he went into the house.
He drowsed. The ride was really smooth. And quiet. Felt like one of those Cadillac SUVs, maybe, that turns into a truck. But a Cadillac wouldn’t have a metal floor. It’d have a rug, for sure. Maybe a Hummer. Did Hummers have rugs?Since it was supposed to be a kind of a military-type vehicle, a Hummer would maybe have a metal floor. But Hummers hadn’t even been invented yet. Had they?
Things were kind of mixed up. There’d been a party, for sure, and mariachis with moustaches and big guitars and gold teeth, a lot of yelling and singing and red faces and him up on a table or something, dancing. Naked? Was he naked now? He reached down to his waist, felt the reassuring snap of elastic. Nope. Almost naked, but not quite. His boxers were definitely on him, even if big pieces of his recent memory were gone.
He seemed to have both arms and both legs, though, and aside from his dry mouthparts and sore head, he was actually pretty darned comfortable, so he decided to stay put for the time being. His pals, whoever they were, would get him home. A man’s best friends were a man’s best friends. That water would sure taste good. He’d always liked that sort of vinyl flavor when the hose had been layin’ on the lawn on a hot day. You wouldn’t want it all the time, of course, but those first couple of gulps—oh, man.
Bush shifted, rearranged himself. He belched softly, tasted Lord Calvert and corn chips. Just a little more shuteye and then he’d figure out what the heck was going on. His head bounced gently on the vibrating floor. He started to dream about a pair of scaly old-lady shins with a piece of nightgown hanging down and bugs in the grass right up close to him, little pearly drops of dew all lit up in the morning sun.
Bright, pale light hit his eyes. He wasn’t on a lawn, though; he was still on the metal floor, only now it wasn’t vibrating. He rolled onto his back, yawned and stretched. His head still hurt, but not quite as bad as before. He saw metal walls and a metal ceiling. It looked like a tool shed. A goddamned tool shed!
He smiled. Funny, guys. Real funny. But you know, you’ve messed with the wrong fella. You’ll pay for this, you can bet your asses. You don’t—how did that saying go? You don’t fool a—you don’t fool a fooler.Fool me once, you won’t fool me twice.
He thought fondly about the time he’d duct-taped a badminton racket into one of Marston Wetherill Chatsworth the Third’s hands and a dildo into the other, taped a church-lady hat on his head and left him passed out in his underwear on the green in New Haven. Maybe this was some kind of payback for that. But that was over thirty-five years ago. Or—no, it was last week. He gazed up at the ceiling, which had a lot of complicated–looking vents and wiring and pipes and such. He was definitely spaced. And he never could keep that name straight. Was it Chatsworth Marston Wetherill? No, Wetherill Chatsworth Marston. The Third. Yeah. That was the guy’s name. Old W.C. That’s how he’d remember it from now on. Just in case. Old Water Closet, old Worthless Crybaby…
Bush went to push himself to his feet, shot all the way up to the ceiling, clanged his head and descended gently to the floor. What the hell?
He was standing now, and there were a couple of windows, round with thick glass, not your usual tool shed windows. One window showed him a rocky landscape stretching flatly to a hazy horizon. The sky was cloudless lavender-baby blue. Out the other window, set in a door, he could see the sparkle of water, in a channel about as wide as a four-lane highway. The Rio Grande? In the distance, maybe a mile off on the other side of the channel, an oil rig shimmered.
For crying out loud. Those idiots had dumped him in Mexico.
Muy bueno. Hasta la vista, muchacha. Donde esta el baño, y quiero una cervesa, Señorita, por favor. Que es mas macho?
The door had a latch thing that looked like the handle on a walk-in freezer. He turned it, pulled the door open, and inhaled some of the sweetest, freshest air he’d ever breathed in his life, like being downwind of a jelly donut factory. His headache evaporated.
He was a good ten feet off the ground, though. He was about to lower himself carefully when he got the idea that the jokers who put him here might be watching. With binoculars or something, probably from that oil rig.
Bush looked at the ground and calculated. He was barefoot and there were a lot of little rocks down there, but he could jump. He knew how to do it. It would be like jumping off the garage roof when he was a kid. Bend your knees when you hit, absorb the shock.
Standing in the doorway, he yawned and stretched, made a big show of looking ultra casual for the benefit of the binoculars. Inspired, he turned around, dropped his drawers, mooned them, pulled his pants back up, then turned and jumped, all in one slick move.
He landed like an Olympic gymnast, puffs of dust billowing up around him, and he sproinged back up a couple of feet before he landed again and stayed there. Whoa! Sweet! Was he in shape, or what?
He filled his lungs. He felt good. Really, really good. He stood there for a minute, eyes closed, feeling like Tarzan or some natural guy like that, the warm delicious air on his bare skin, the sun on his shoulders, the breeze ruffling his hair, and kind of blanked out a little with bliss.
He opened his eyes and looked at the water. Inspiration hit him again. He started toward the channel, broke into a trot and then a jog, covered the fifty feet or whatever in the space of a few breaths, and because he could see, without having to pause for even a second, that the water was clear like a martini and plenty deep enough, in fact he couldn’t see the bottom at all, launched himself from the smooth cobbled stone embankment into a dive, noticing as he did in that split second that the stones were in a kind of really pretty geometric design and wondered what part of the Rio Grande had decoration work like that and figured it was Mexican. He sailed way up and out, discovered that he somehow had time to do a little jackknife, then straightened out and sliced into the cool perfect water.
He stayed under for a few long, vigorous strokes, picturing himself looking like a silvery torpedo, surfaced, swam a brisk crawl the rest of the way, aware of a gentle current carrying him along so that he moved diagonally. He had a little moment of apprehension, wondering if the wall of the channel was too high for him to be able to climb out, shoulda looked before he leaped, remembered pictures in the news of folks getting swept down storm drains and such, but he could just reach the rim with his fingertips. That was all he needed. He was up and out and on the sun-warmed stones. Huh. Interesting. The Meskins had decorated this side, too.
Okay, guys, here I come, he thought, and set out toward the rig. Probably they expected him to be pretty seriously hung over, so he humored them with a night-of-the-living-dead zombie walk, switched to Igor the Hunchback dragging one leg, then a spastic, then made a Bugs Bunny face and hopped like a jackrabbit. Here comes Georgie Cottontail, your worst nightmare, hopping down the bunny trail! Make my day, varmints!
Man, this was fun! Every bound was like he was on a trampoline. How come he hadn’t discovered this sooner? Walking was a waste of time compared to this. He got into the rhythm of it, flying, landing, flexing, flying, landing, covering about ten feet with every hop.
It didn’t take him long to clear the distance. He was sweaty and pleasantly winded when he got close enough to see a sign up on the rig. A few more hops and he could read it: ARBUSTO. His cheerful magnanimity slipped several notches.
There was something about the desolation stretching in every direction around the rig that made him stop before he quite got there. He squinted. No road, no vehicles anywhere in sight. He got a little closer and saw hunks of old broken machinery scattered on the ground, drifted with dust and grit. He peered at the rig. No chortling faces, no nothing but a kind of rusty creaky emptiness.
This was close enough. No point in wasting time here. He had a creepy little feeling for a second that when he turned around the river wouldn’t be there either, and he’d be really stuck out here, but he turned and there it was, catching the light in the distance. He started toward it, away from the rig, walking, not hopping. Just walking.
“Fuck you, assholes,” he muttered, feeling completely alone, but in some weird way that he was also being watched and snickered at. Arbusto, my ass. He kept his shoulders straight and didn’t look back.
Bush thought while he walked. Okay. Let’s see. When he was on the other side, south of the border down Mexico way, and looking across the river, that meant he was facing… north, in a general manner of speaking, because he knew the Rio Grande snaked up and down and every which way. When he’d been in the water he’d felt it moving left to right, which meant…..west to east. Now he was facing south, so the current would be going…..he held his two hands out as a sort of visual aid. The current would be going….right to left now. He concentrated. Yeah. Right to left.
Toward the Gulf. Folks were friendly out that way, and there were towns and people all along the river. He knew what he’d do. He’d get in the water and go where it went. Back to civilization. The closer he got to the river, the better he felt. His surly mood was already evaporating just like his headache had.
By the time he reached the decorative stone riverbank, he felt really good again. He gazed at the beautiful swirly designs of the stones, which now that he stopped, knelt down and looked really close, he saw were made out of stones that were in turn made out of smaller and smaller stones, the smallest of which looked to his naked eye as if they were smaller than grains of sand, also arranged in amazing designs of interlocking intricacy that went on forever.
Bush lifted his eyes from the hypnotic pull of the tinier and tinier designs and looked into the distance. The riverbank stretched in either direction as far as he could see, on both sides. He wondered for a minute if whoever did this had started with the smallest stones and worked up from that to the next biggest stones, and so onand so on, or if it was done the other way around. The enormity of the job of making this fancy riverbank started to loom in his mind. The Grand Canyon, he knew, had been dug by thousands and thousands of Chinese laborers with pickaxes and it took about a hundred years, and so all he could come up with here was a mental image of thousands and thousands of Mexicans working day and night, with everything from wheelbarrows to tweezers, but that made new questions pile up until it stopped making sense and so he switched it off like pressing the “power” button on the remote. He turned his attention to the landscape, the river and the breeze.
Bush breathed deeply as little gusts played with his chest hairs. He felt like some legendary rugged explorer-adventurer. He’d swim home! It would make one hell of a story, something he could tell his grandkids about, and it would permanently wipe the grins off the faces of the jokesters who’d stuck him out here.
He looked up at the lovely lavender sky, thought idly that the sun looked kind of smaller than usual, but also thought that it was a grand day for a swim. He dived in, this time doing a somersault.
Doing a leisurely backstroke in the gentle current, Bush lost track of time. He’d never owned a waterbed, because they’d always seemed definitely a hippy kind of thing and also sort of gay, though of course he’d been on one a time or two, actually quite a few times if he was to be completely honest about it, heh-heh, and he’d liked the rolling, wavy motion, and now he was thinking it might not be a bad idea to actually get one. Did they still make them? Or…wait a minute…what did he mean by that? Why would he think they weren’t making them anymore? He must have taken a pretty serious bump on the head back there. Funny, though, he didn’t feel worried about a thing.
“Darling, it’s just too DIVINE,” a woman’s voice said from not very far away, carrying over the water and startling Bush out of his dreamy ruminations.
“Fore!” said a man’s deep voice, followed by raucous cocktail-party laughter and the sharp thwack of wood hitting wood. Something hard hit him rudely in the stomach. He splashed and gasped. A bright red-striped croquet ball bobbed next to him.
“Hey!” Bush yelled. “For Christ’s fucking sake! Watch what the fuck you’re doing!”
He reached for the ledge, getting ready to pull himself out, when a very tall old man with a nose like an arrow and abundant gray hair materialized above him. The toes of the old man’s shoes protruded over the edge just enough so that Bush could see cleats. Above that rose a great length of argyle socks, tweed golf knickers, a sweater vest and a blazer. The man held a croquet mallet in one hand and a cocktail in the other.
“And you watch your language, boy,” said the old man, peering down at Bush with an amused little smile.
“Granddad?” Bush said dumbly, treading water and gazing up at the towering figure. The old man took a swallow from his glass, knelt and extended the mallet toward Bush.
“Grab on,” he said. Bush obeyed, and was pulled up out of the water with as little effort as if he were a two-year-old and plopped onto the stones. Men and women in bathing suits lounged on lawn chairs or stood in little groups nearby, talking and laughing, on a stretch of lush green grass with croquet hoops placed here and there. In the distance, hazy like a cartoon mirage and far away like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, Bush could see his grandparents’ mansion. He squeezed his eyes shut for a second, and touched the tender lump on the back of his head. Not Texas. Not Texas at all. Greenwich. Connecticut!
“Drink?” said his grandfather.
“Uh—I don’t….” He stopped. He’d almost said that he didn’t drink anymore, butthat was crazy. Why would he say a thing like that? “Sure. You bet. I mean, yessir.”
“Gin and tonic?”
“What the doc ordered,” Bush said jauntily. Bottles, glasses and silver ice tongs glinted on a nearby bar cart. The roof of his mouth tingled in anticipation.
“Georgie!” A woman’s voice screamed from one of the knots of people. “How
absolutely marvelous!” She rushed toward him. She was deeply tanned, wore big dark glasses and a sun hat from under which sprung golden curly hair. She bounded up to him, threw her arms around his neck and gave him a sweetly gin-flavored kiss. He knew he should know who she was, but her identity seemed to be lurking behind a heavy curtain in his mind. For some reason, he felt his tear ducts swell a little, along with a rush of emotion he couldn’t name. He held her for a moment, reluctant to let go. Then she pushed him away like a coquette in an old movie, cocked her head and looked at him, smiling, her eyes hidden by her dark glasses. If she took them off, maybe he’d figure out who she was. He was usually so good at remembering folks’ names. She had the cutest little sprinkling of freckles on her nose.
“Look at you!” she said. “My old cowhand from the Rio Grande!” And she put her head back and laughed, displaying her fine rear molars, leading a chorus of uproarious merriment from the people nearby.
His grandfather put a cold drink in Bush’s hand. He drained half of it in two swallows. It tasted wonderful beyond anything he could imagine. It traveled down to his stomach, where it spread icily and thrillingly, and rebounded back up to his head in an instant.
Another woman, older than the blonde, with leathery over-sunned skin but a well-tended look and a few tastefully-placed pieces of very expensive jewelry, came to his side and clasped his arm and squeezed it to her ribs so that he could feel a hint of soft breast flesh. She wore big dark glasses, too. Bush looked around. Everybody except his grandfather wore dark glasses.
“Pressie, angel,” the older woman said to his grandfather. “I’m dying to be introduced!”
The old man sort of rumbled with a deep internal laugh.
“You are beholding the scion of my loins, the sprig of the sprout of the twig of the branch of the hoary, stout, gnarled and ancient family tree,” he said, still with that amused little smile and from the great height which was his accustomed viewing-place of the world below. “Which itself sprang from the forest primeval,” he added.
Ha, Bush thought but didn’t say. The Family Tree. That’s exactly what he and his brothers used to call the old man. You always had to crane your neck to talk to him. He took another drink, smiled up at his grandfather and then at the woman holding his arm.“I’m real pleased to make your acquaintance, Ma’am,” he said, tipping a nonexistent hat with his drink hand. “And you are…..?” He included the blonde in the radius of his smile, hoping she’d reveal her name, or that maybe someone else would say it.
“What a heavenly accent!” the older woman said, and she and the blonde laughed. “Say something else!”
“Where I come from, Ma’am, it’s just called talkin’,” Bush said, laying it on thick, thoroughly enjoying himself, downing the rest of his drink. Damn, this shit was going to his head fast.
“The question, of course,” said Bush’s grandfather, taking Bush’s glass and handing him a fresh one, looking him up and down appraisingly, “is whether, in a Mendelian sense, we’re seeing the phenotypic expression of dominant or recessive inheritance.”
“Dominant, shmominant—just keep your hands off MY inheritance!” said the older woman to roars of approving laughter.
Bush looked around, grinned, and raised his glass.
“I’ll drink to that,” he said, and did, deeply, to more roars, including the two women’s, deafeningly, right in his ears.
“I perceive an incremental generational tendency toward mesomorphic normalization,” Bush’s grandfather’s voice intoned from up above. “This leads me to postulate that we’re seeing a demonstration of the principle of the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, which, as any damned fool knows, states thatin a large, randomly breeding population, allelic frequencies will remain the same from generation to generation; assuming no unbalanced mutation, gene migration, selection or genetic drift.”
“Heck,” Bush said, winking at the blonde. “What’s a little random breeding between friends? Rotatin’ the stock, I think they call it.”
The women’s shrieks of amusement and Bush’s own braying laugh filled his head, along with a warm, fizzy sensation. These were some friendly folks!
“If you will permit me an inductive leap,” the grandfather went on, “since we know that heterozygosity at an appropriate genetic locus is often seen to be responsible for a cerebral stimulus, and that such allelic disparity is arguably missing in the physiologically more normal homozygous person—” he indicated Bush with one of his huge hands—“possessing two functional genes, then perhaps what we are seeing belies the assumption that the genetic source is diploid, the ancestral germ diverse.”
Bush kept on laughing, but his merriment curdled in his mouth. Had his grandfather just called him a homo? And he didn’t much care for the sound of a deployed genetic source. Maybe the old man was talking some germ warfare thing, World War I stuff, like he always did. These geezers and their whoop-de-do world wars, their big glorious moments in the past that everyone was always supposed to be in awe of. It was all they could talk about.
“You better have yourself some functional jeans,” Bush said, not looking at his grandfather, “when you’re clearin’ West Texas razor brush. I’d advise against tryin’ that in your Calvin Klines.” Howls of hilarity engulfed him. He downed the rest of his drink. “And my wife doesn’t let me brings germs into the house,” he added, as the blonde, in a single motion, whisked the empty glass from his hand and replaced it with a full one
“For that Texas-sized thirst,” she said, imitating his twang, and the two women, one on each side of him, leaned in and laughed into each other’s faces. The older one wriggled around on his arm while she convulsed, so he took a big pull on his drink and just kind of relaxed and allowed the arm to cop the feel she was offering, while he gave the blonde his sunniest big-sky smile, wishing it was her instead, but hey, who was he to refuse a little gift, even if it was an old broad, it still felt like some quality titty.
Bush’s grandfather was laughing, too, but it was a deep, steady undercurrent to the shrieks and whinnies around him, sort of like the bass line you hear in a piece of music.
“There are those who embrace the thesis,” the grandfather said, and everyone instantly shut up as if God himself were speaking, “despite obvious problems, that the observable abundant contemporary variation illustrates the operation of the same fundamental machinery that is responsible for longitudinal evolutionary adaptation. The irony, of course, is absolutely exquisite!”
“I like my irony exquisite,” said someone in the crowd. “Straight up!”
Contemporary abundant fundamental variation illustrates longitudinal evolutionary machinery adaptation. The old man’s words were a stream of malarkey in Bush’s head. He was groping for some joke to make about machinery, but got bogged by the image of rusty junk sticking up out of the dirt near an oil rig before he could extract something clever from his brain and move it to his tongue, which was feeling thick and too big for his mouth.
“The specimen before us refutes, as a matter of doctrine, the very dynamic of natural selection that created him, and which, in his person, manifests itself in the obvious ability of allelic balance to restore itself, in terms of outward appearances, almost immediately in the wake of beneficial genetic mutation, with virtually even odds that he is a silent carrier, a Trojan Horse, if you will, bearing the seeds of greatness but personally unburdened by them! Ah, the utter sly pragmatic resourcefulness of nature!”
“Last time I got asked for a specimen,” Bush managed, “I had to pee in a cup.”
“He’s divine!” the older woman said.
“Yeah, he’s divine all right,” said a man’s voice. “A divine douchebag.”
The crowd was parting for some other tall guy, not quite as tall as the old man, but tall, and a whole lot younger. He moved toward Bush with a loose-limbed assurance, large and floppy like a Golden Retriever. He wore baggy madras shorts and tasseled loafers without socks, and his lanky brown hair fell silkily over his brow.
“And a rootin’-tootin’ cowpoke,” he added, now looming over Bush with a pleasantly cruel grin. “Yippee ki-yi-yay, git along, little dogies. Gee-haw!”
WASPy names tumbled over each other in Bush’s brain like lotto ping-pong balls before the right ones settled out: Putnam, Howland, Burke, Webster, Hoyt, Calderwood, Winthrop, Chadwick….no, not Chadwick. Chatsworth. Wetherill. Chatsworth. Marston. The Third. So. His first guess had been right.
“Ol’ W.C.,” Bush said, grinning back. “You always were a worthless sack of shit.”
“What brings you to these parts, stranger?” said the big preppy, raising a drink and pouring it down his throat. “Showdown at the Lazy-Z Corral? Fast gun for hire ‘neath the calling wind?”
No way was Bush going to give Marston one iota of satisfaction. He’d act as if being dumped in a shed in the desert was something that happened every day. He was foggily wrestling with the idea of a desert in Connecticut, but felt unsure of what he was remembering now, so he kept his mouth shut about that.
“Just headin’ home,” he said,
“Where the buffalo roam?”
The women’s screams of laughter at this witticism hurt Bush’s ears. The old bag had let go of his arm and grabbed onto Marston’s, and the blonde’s face had gone a little bit pink with the doofus’ proximity. And the old man just looked on and kept up that steady rumbling amused sound.
“Better not get me riled, partner,” Bush said, trying for an Eastwood squint.
“Ooh, I’m all shook up. What are you going to do? Bury me on the lone
prair-ee?” More shrieks.
“Where I come from, those are fightin’ words.”
“Where you come from would be the Wild, Wild West of New Haven!” Now both women were rubbing themselves against Marston while they laughed. “Tell me something, Lip. When you say you’re headin’ home, what exactly do you mean? Sort of swimmin’ upstream like a salmon?” He pronounced it sahlmon.
“Somethin’ like that,” Bush said cautiously. His hands twitched with the desire to punch Marston in his well-fed kisser, but the fucker was way too big.
“Back to the place where he hatched. Hey,” Marston said to the crowd. “Have you heard about the Bush Special down at the Lone Star Café?”
“No!” they shouted. “Tell us!”
“Baloney on white!”
The laughter was now a sort of all-enveloping roar indistinguishable from the sound of his blood rising in his head.
“Fuck you all and the horses that rode you in…uh, the horses you rode on your way here,” he said, but nobody seemed to hear him.
“If I may quote Mr. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, speaking in the wake of the Scopes trial,” said the grandfather, and everyone shut up again. “ ‘He lived long enough to make patriots thank the inscrutable gods for Harding, even for Coolidge. Dullness has got into the White House, and the smell of cabbage boiling, but at least the President of the United States doesn’t believe that the earth is square, and that witches should be put to death, and that Jonah swallowed the whale.’ ”
“Hear, hear! A toast to William Jennings Bryan!” Marston said, looking right at Bush.
Bush flicked his eyes around, nervous, expecting some other three-named blueblood lummox to appear, carrying a Lacrosse stick or something, but he didn’t see anybody. This seemed to entertain Marston hugely.
Marston grabbed the blonde and started dancing with her, bending her way back and flinging her around tango-style while he sang and she dissolved with giddy laughter.
“Don’t know much about his-tor-eee…don’t know much bi-ol-o-gee! Don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took!” The crowd began clapping and singing along, laughing, drinking and dancing, all except the grandfather, who just kind of surveyed it all with his benevolent little smile, and the woman with the jewelry cuddled up to him. Bush wondered where his grandmother was.
Marston leaned in close and flashed Bush a huge smile. “I’ll give you ‘til sundown, sidewinder,” he said. “This croquet court ain’t big enough for the two of us!” And he whirled away with the blonde.
Bush finished his drink and wobbled back down the sloping grass toward the water. He felt hot, woozy, angry and a little bit sick to his stomach. He needed a dip before he decided what to do next. The party went on noisily behind him, and no one noticed him walking away. Low wooded hills lay in the distance on the other side of the river. Rich, moist aromas of lush vegetation rose around him and red-winged blackbirds called from a stand of cattails in a nearby marsh. Brilliant scarlet cardinal flowers punctuated the greenery, and weeping willows on the riverbank drooped their long dreamy fronds in the water. He stared at the green hills and thought that maybe he should get himself checked for a head injury.
He ransacked his muddled memory for some image of the geography of Connecticut. Was there a river in Greenwich? How far was it to New Haven? They had good hospitals there. It was such a runty little state, it couldn’t be too far. There were ranches in Texas bigger than Connecticut.
He rested for a moment on the riverbank. The fancy stonework was there, but intermittent, broken and crumbled in places, completely missing in others or obscured by vegetation, as if a lot of time had gone by and it was halfway reverted to its natural state. He wondered about Mexicans in Connecticut. He was pretty sure they only got Puerto Ricans here. He leaned over with care, steadying himself: Dark, opaque and swift, the water rushed along, and a blurry reflection looked back at him. The familiar outlines of his own eyes, nose and forehead were there, but he reared back in shock: How could he have failed to notice the ugly scratchy white beard? Christ, he looked like some alcoholic Santa.
Feeling grubby, itchy and bug-bitten, he lowered himself into the water. The strength of the current surprised him. As it took him, he saw the blonde from the party standing on the bank waving good-bye. Her mouth was saying something, but he was moving away from her fast and couldn’t hear. He saw her take off her hat and glasses as she receded and grew smaller until she was child-sized, and not tan and happy anymore, but pale and solemn, and the golden curls around the small face caused the heavy curtain in his mind to be yanked back abruptly and he saw Robin, his little sister, dead for so many years; the last time he saw her was through a car window, looking at him just like that, both of them just children. He called her name, but knew she couldn’t hear him. The river carried him away and around a bend, and she was gone.
For a long time there was just the sound of his own hoarse occasional sobs as he floated along. They came in spasms, and sounded so strange to his ears that he eventually got distracted from his grief and they subsided. Acute sorrow metabolized into self-pity and from there into pleasant fantasies of retribution. He pictured Marston in the dust, trussed up and bawling like a calf, and himself with a red-hot branding iron, burning a big sizzling “W” onto his ass…Bush drowsed to the noises of water and birdsong. Cicadas whirred, frogs ga-lumphed, crows cawed.
And voices sang: Soy un hombre muy honrado, que me gusta lo major!
Las mujeres no me faltan, ni al dinero, ni el amor!
Bush came to quivering, alert attention, as if he’d been grabbed by the hair. Soaring and melodious, the tenor voices got closer and rose in soulful harmony: Jineteando en mi caballo, Por la sierra yo me voy! Las estrellas y la luna, ellas me dicen donde voy! Ay, ay, ay, ay! Ay, ay, mi amor! Ay, mi morena, de mi corazon!
Tears of gratitude sprang to his eyes. This was some kind of miracle, for sure. He strained his ears to ascertain which side of the river the singing was coming from, andcollided with something soft but solid, snagged and partly submerged, which halted his motion in the strong current. Good. It would give him a chance to rest for a minute and aim for a place on the shore where the vegetation wasn’t so thick.
Now he could hear lively guitars accompanying the voices. Catching his breath, he rested against the thing behind him. A sofa cushion or something. There ought to be a law against folks throwing trash into rivers. Flies buzzed around him. A big shiny green one landed on his arm and rubbed its forelegs together like a car salesman about to make a deal and there was a kind of a ripe smell. He turned, hanging onto the cushion so he wouldn’t get carried off by the current again, saw fabric with whitish patches showing through here and there and after a strange moment during which he was unable to identify what he was looking at saw the back of a head, an ear, a bit of skull and trailing hair.
Bush recoiled, flailing and swallowing water. The cloud of flies rose for a moment and settled again on the corpse. He struggled against the current, which now sucked at him to pull him under, his feet and legs scraping against hard things sticking up from the bottom of the river, waterlogged branches or the sharp jagged ends of bones, he was sure, and with a mighty effort fought his way to where he could seize hold of a sapling branch and pull himself to a tiny patch of shore. He clung to some rocks, the noise of his heart battering his breastbone amplified through his open mouth as he gulped air.
Me gustan tomar mis copas, aguardiente es lo major! Tambien la tequila blanca, con su sal le da sabor! sang the voices, startlingly close, accompanied by heavy, brush-crunching footsteps approaching through the woods.
Ay, ay, ay, ay! Ay, ay, mi amor! Ay, mi morena, de mi corazon!
Two pairs of silver-tipped western boots appeared at Bush’s eye-level. The voices were right over him now. He looked up, saw spangly silver-and-black mariachi outfits, guitars, a couple of grinning singing dark-complected men, smiled weakly and started gathering up his Spanish to ask if he was anywhere near New Haven, when one of the fancy boots caught him with brutal force under the chin so he saw little stars and comets and the lights went out.
He woke to a knee on his chest and his arms pinned to the ground. He strove to focus his eyes on the men’s faces leaning over him, pom-poms dangling down from their oversized sombreros.
“Tengo…tengo dinero!” Bush said feebly. “Mucho, mucho dinero!”
“Money?” said the bigger one, baring a set of cruel teeth under his black moustache. “Money?” And he leaned down close and sprayed spittle onto Bush’s face with his words. “We don’ need no steenking money!”
“Let me kill him,” said the other.
“No, I’m going to kill him,” said the big one.
“You always get to do it.”
“You got that right, bro.”
“Then do it slow, anyway, so I can enjoy it.” There was a ripping sound, and Bush’s mouth was harshly duct-taped. Now the big one sat on Bush’s legs.
“I can’t stand whimpering.”
“Don’t do his eyes. Let him see what’s coming.”
“Let him see this!”
The leg-sitter ripped open his mariachi jacket. Jagged black stitches puckered hairy blue-white flesh, forming a crude “Y” that slanted in from both shoulders, met in the middle and traveled down the sternum.
“I’m a heartless bastard,” he said, and they both laughed horribly. Bush bucked and snorted, eyes bulging.
“Let’s give him a shave,” said the one pinning his arms.
The big one whipped out a long wicked blade and held it an inch from Bush’s eyes. He moved the knife slowly over Bush’s face, the tip delicately caressing the skin, from one ear to the other and back around the eyes like a cosmetic surgeon considering his cuts, then on down the throat and to the chest.
“Mi morena de mi corazon,” he crooned.
“Lower,” said the other. The blade continued its southward migration. Bush sucked air through his desperate nostrils. “Lower. Are you a pussy?”
“I’m no pussy. Are you a pussy?”
“Someone’s a pussy.”
“No, I think you’re a pussy.”
“Uday! Qusay! You stop that this instant!” said a woman’s voice, and the two men froze. Quick light footsteps approached. Bush raised his head. Sweat and tears blurred his vision. Someone wiped his eyes. He blinked. A lovely, pouty-lipped, dark-curly-haired, dark-eyed woman leaned over him.
“Honestly,” she said. “Y’all are hopeless. Tormentin’ a helpless man like he was some little bug. I can’t leave you alone for one minute!”
“We were just having fun,” the big one whined, still sitting on Bush.
Bush focused. He knew her, for sure. She smiled.
“George, you look like hell,” she said. Her Texas twang drained the terror out of him.
“Mmph,” he said through the duct tape.
“I’m workin’ hard with these guys. I really am,” she said. “Readin’ the Bible and stuff. And I’m makin’ progress. We just have these little setbacks from time to time.” She flicked her gaze toward the two men as she spoke, telegraphing a message to Bush with her big black eyes, telling him they were still maybe dangerous. “I can get you out of this, George. I can get you a…you know, a stay of execution. But you got to help me just a little.”
“He’s a pussy,” said Uday. “He killed my dad.”
“Help me, George.” She said. “Read my lips.” Her perfectly beautiful mouth formed a sound “Puh…puh..” she encouraged him. He struggled to comprehend.
“Mmmm,” he said.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, and yanked the tape off his mouth along with considerablebeard hair.
“Yowch!” he squealed.
“Puh,” she continued. “C’mon, say it. I just need to hear you say it. All you have to do is say it. It’s easy. Four little magic words. Puh…please….please don’t…” she coaxed. And he saw the words, as if on a teleprompter in his brain.
“Please don’t kill me!” he said.
“Say it again,” she said, “But do this first,” and she pursed her lips and knit her brow. “And say my name.”
“Please! Please don’t kill me!” he pleaded, and then out of nowhere her name popped to the surface. “Karla Faye,” he added weakly.
“He’s a pussy,” she said. “Let him go.”
His arms and legs were freed. He struggled to his feet. Uday and Qusay sulked and glowered. Uday, glaring at Bush, pulled a Kalashnikov from a holster on his back and pointed it skyward.
“Run, George,” she hissed in his ear. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold them off. They’re real disappointed. Run!”
He turned toward the river, his legs rickety and collapsing. Automatic weapons fire drilled the air behind him. Slimy river rocks brought him down, hard, on his knees, chin, elbows. He scrambled on all fours. There was another fusillade, yips, barks and howls, and he was back in the water in a mad blind splashing panic.
He blundered directly into a corpse, which rolled languidly onto its back for a moment as he fought it so that he caught a glimpse of naked jawbone and teeth. Bullets tore into the corpse, making it jerk and lurch as if alive, spraying Bush with gore. He struggled for the deeper part of the river, bullets stitching the water around him. Another corpse collided with him. He shoved it away. In the depths, his feet slid over what felt like arms, heads, backs, and the current pushed him into a floating tangle of corpses, men, women and children, some of them naked, some wearing shreds of bright orange, or black, or plaid, or Coca-Cola t-shirts. A decapitated torso wearing a satin Nike jacket wedged itself against him, heavy sodden limbs wrapped themselves around him.
A fresh volley of bullets cut into the corpses. Heads exploded, bones cracked, bloody water and shredded flesh frothed around him, the logjam broke up and he was free. He thrashed in the current, occasional bursts of bullets kicking up the brown river, echoes of harsh laughter fading in the distance.
He had no idea if he’d been hit. He felt weak, so weak, his life running out of him. He dog-paddled, just barely able to keep his nose above the water. And he prayed: Help me, Lord. Thou art my shepherd. Help me. Save me. Soft velvety black clouds rolled over his brain, and he started to sink.
Something bumped him from underneath. Now what? Alligators? He had no strength left for fighting. Let it take me, he thought. ThoughI walk through the shadow of the valley of death…uh, the valley of the shadow of death…
Hands, living human hands, turned him so that he faced the sky, and an arm cradled his chin while his head rested on a chest. Whoever had him was doing the classic lifeguard rescue stroke. He looked at the smallish sun, watched a peculiar shadow start to take a bite out of the pale yellow disc. What the heck?
“Wild, huh?” said a man’s voice, calm and friendly. “Three times a day, every day. It’s so cool. I never get tired of it.” Bush felt relaxed like a sleepy baby with a stomach full of warm milk. The threshing panic of a few moments ago was gone, utterly wiped away. It almost seemed funny now. “Phobos is a lot closer than Deimos,” the voice continued. “I really dig those names, don’t you? Astronomers are poets, man. I mean, think of it: they look through their telescopes at some cold, dead rock, and they bestow these beautiful names on them, so pure and full of a kind of hope, like magic words beamed through space that’ll maybe transform those rocks into what they’re named for. Mare Tranquillitatus, Fecunditatus, Nectarus.”
“Can you get me to New Haven?” Bush said.
“I’ll get you home, dawg, don’t worry. We’re almost there. Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo. They were some righteous dudes. Galileo especially. If he could have got down with Ptolemy and compared notes, Ptolemy would have seen that my man Galileo was right. Had to recant for the Inquisition, but who could blame him? Getting crucified wasn’t in his job description. He was old, and they were going to beat the hell out of him, lock him up, maybe burn him. I can definitely sympathize.”
Tolamee was some Indian chief, Bush was pretty sure. That other name sounded familiar, too.
“Wasn’t Galileo a rocket ship?” Bush asked, still watching the shadow move over the sun. His rescuer laughed kindly.
“You might say that. Hey—you know what I like to think about? I like to imagine my life if I’d just been an ordinary guy. No big famous father or anything, just making it in the world according to my native abilities and weaknesses, finding my own natural place in the scheme. Galileo’s dad was broke, but that didn’t stop the kid. Now me, I think I might have been an okay rug merchant. Or a street juggler, some kind of magician-huckster-prestidigitator, playing for my daily shekels in the marketplace. Not the greatest that ever lived, but not the worst, either. Carpentry wasn’t really my bag. It was kind of a public relations thing.”
“Relations can be a public pain in the ass,” Bush heard himself say, and realized he’d actually begun to doze.
“What about you? Ever think about what you might’ve been?”
Bush drowsed. He looked through a dirty windshield onto a bleak gray urban scene with patches of dead snow here and there from inside a car with an ashtray full of cigarette butts. His big stomach hung over his belt.
“Hunhh,” he said, jerking awake. “Bad dream.”
“Never mind, man. Here I am, gabbing away, and you’re bushed. Just relax and take it easy and we’ll be home in a jiffy.”
Bush let himself be towed like a barge. He felt safe, secure and serene. The water was warm. The slow, steady thump of his rescuer’s heart underneath his head soothed him. Sort of like in the womb, he thought, and let his eyes roll up and close.
“Avast, matey! Thar she blows!” said the voice, and Bush blinked and smiled as he was steered around a half-sunk mattress. “Steady does it, me lads!” They maneuvered between a television with its screen smashed in, a sofa and a mound of green plastic garbage bags. “Land ho,” said the cheerful voice. “All ashore that’s going ashore,” and the arm released Bush, who drifted in the calm shallow water onto a gently sloping concrete embankment. Like a sailing ship slipping into its home berth after a voyage around the world, he came to rest amidst a pile of tires, a Barca-Lounger disgorging its stuffing and a grocery cart lying on its ear.
He was at eye level with an advertising placard attached to the grocery cart’s child seat. There were four smiling heads, attached to absurdly small cartoon bodies, one in each corner. ARBUSTO BOYS REPO said the big letters. No Deadbeat Can Beat us! Bridgeport’s Best!The smiling heads with the little bodies had a name under each: “Big Jeb,” “Starvin’ Marvin,” “Neil the Merciless,” and down in the right-hand corner, an impudent mustache and goatee scratched on it with a ball-point pen and the front teeth blacked out, “Little George.”
A pebble bounced off his temple.
“That white man alive?”
Three little black kids no older than eight or nine stood on the embankment.
“You think?” They sounded disappointed.
“He sure is a ugly old white man.”
“Looks like he been swimmin’.”
“He on vacation?”
“Vacation’s over for him.”
His cellphone burbled. That fucking annoying little tune Jeb had programmed into
it just to piss him off that he didn’t know how to get rid of. Happy days are here again! The skies above are clear again! He groped around for the phone. A pebble bounced off the car window where his head was resting. He rolled the window down a few inches.
“Scram, you little cocksuckers!” he yelled at a bunch of black kids, who grinned and capered, zinged a couple more pebbles, and just as he got the window rolled up again, a big sloppy snowball. Let’s sing a song of cheer again!
He focused his eyes in the dawn light. New wet snow surrounded a bare patch where the Escalade had been parked. Fresh tire tracks led into the street. The fuckers had been partying in the Caddy most of the night, motor running, joints and cigarettes glowing, speakers thumping, while he waited for them to give it up and go inside so he could make his move. He’d snoozed, the car was gone, and Big little brother would be on the line to deliver a fine ball-busting. His head hurt. His brain was a rotten egg yolk sloshing around inside his skull. He pounded the steering wheel. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! He ignored the phone, started the car, rolled the window down. “Catch,” he said to the kids, tossed the empty Lord Calvert bottle and rolled the window up again fast as another snowball hit. A breakfast beer first, little brother later.
Happy days are here again!
“Arbusto” was the name of George W. Bush’s failed oil business, which was ultimately bought by Harken Energy, which made GWBa shareholder and consultant.
Karla Faye Tucker was the woman put to death in Texas in 1998 when GWB was governor. In an interview with Bush for Talk Magazine in 1999, Tucker Carlson says that when asked by Carlson what Karla Faye might say if she could speak to him, Bush pursed his lips and said, mockingly, “Please don’t kill me!”
“Lip” was Bush’s prep school nickname, shown under his picture in the ‘64 Andover yearbook.
His little sister, Robin, died of leukemia at age four.
Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Their small size and closeness to Mars means three partial solar eclipses every Martian Day.