The place looks best at dusk, she thinks. The oak trees across the pond outside have turned dark and are casting their black profile across the lawn, but the western sky is still alight in vivid orange. It is very quiet now around Chapel Hill Farm; she can hear the silence. The place looks best at dusk, she thinks again, but when do I look best? She turns to the mirror next to the fridge and studies her reflection.
Anyhow, she is finally done with the dishes, so she picks up the tea things—already prepared—and crosses into the living room for a quiet evening with her husband. As always, he has offered to help, but tonight she has gently turned him down. There are days when the silverware dislikes him, chinking and clanging in his hands as if there was a problem, and today has been one of those days, and she would not have been able to handle more arguments in her kitchen. In fact, the silverware has become increasingly difficult lately. Her nerves? His nerves? Her nerves?
Doubya is already installed in the sateen slouch chair in front of the TV, theshinycowboy boots resting on the matching pouf, his left hand resting on his crotch. Hussein’s gun sits next to him on the side table; he must have played with it while she was in the kitchen. My God, she hates this gun—thepiecethat Hussein had carried when he was caught in a spider hole near Baghdad after the war.Didn’tthepiecebelong to the American people? Its proper place is in a museum. How could he justtakeit home?She had actually raised thematterwith Fredo, thepliableattorney general.The Museum of the War of Choice, she had suggested helpfully, but to no avail.
Doubya greets her arrival with his trademark grin, points to the empty chair next to him with the left shiny boot, and, grinning some more, turns his head to the television set where Betty Bartholomeo, the Lynx anchor, is already in charge. “It’s a special about us,” Bush says, while grabbing the gun and swinging it around his index finger. Laura follows his every movement with her eyes, hoping he will notice, but Doubya’s attention is already fixed on the TV. Laura sits down.
Bartholomeo has been a vigorous presence in the living room ever since their return from Washington, the blond wig resolutely strapped over her big head, the [expensive xx] hair falling into a face with broad cheeks, large lips and a long, aquiline nose, not to mention the strong chin, an odd mix of features that does little—or everything—to explain the anchor’s popularity. Her small breasts stand out. No, Betty isn’t pretty in the usual way of conservative ice queens, but she has the screaming presence of the closet transsexual that she actually is. Laura knows this for fact since her husband has enjoyed a very high security clearance while in office.
“And he led America successfully through its worst trauma in decades, many say its worst trauma ever,” Betty goes, while the screen switches to footage of the Twin Towers’ attack. “2982 victims died in the attack,” she continues, as desperate individuals, trapped by the flames, jump off the burning towers and trundle along the doomed structure to their certain death. “The nation rallied around its leader, whose approval ratings soared to unprecedented heights…”
Cut. Fortunately. Cut to an oversized, animated graph titled Bush Approval Ratings, which rises in slow motion from fifty five percent to eighty six, past seventy, eighty, and ninety percent, while Betty continues:”… at one point reaching ninety two percent, in itself a historic, and unprecedented, achievement.” Betty’s “92” is timed exactly with the “92” on the screen. She raises her shoulders and leans forward across the polished anchor desk. A moment of truth.
-“History’s justice is our subject tonight,” Betty pronounces, but the moment of truth doesn’t quite materialize as Doubya turns to Laura, and, swinging his gun, interrupts: “Well, make no mistake, the Freedom Fries were stupid.”
Laura can’t concentrate. ”You always make me nervous with that gun of Hussein of yours,” she says. Doubya stops the swinging, but insists: “The Freedom Fries were stupid.”
-“The House canteen isn’t edible anyhow, whether French or liberated.”
- “I wonder if they are still called Freedom Fries.”
-“No, they are not”— she knows those things.
-“Not a good excuse. They made us look stupid.”
-”From a French point of view you looked stupid anyhow.”
Laura turns away from the screen, seeks eye contact with Doubya, but fails. His eyes are shifting — away from the screen, away from her, away from the room — and an unexplained sadness has replaced the usual frat-boy twinkle.
Betty intervenes, thankfully: “Armchair pundits later blamed the administration, and the Nine Eleven Commission complained…” — on the screen, an animated human hand is leafing through a forbiddingly oversized report, one of those bookworks nobody wants to read — “…that the domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat, and that the terrorists exploited deep institutional failings within our government, but the fact of the matter is that NineEleven was essentially an act of God, for which not the Bush administration, but others, bear responsibility. Reverend Falwell…”
The famous reverend materializes from nowhere, takes position under Lynx’s bright studio lights, his jowls properly hanging, a halo firmly strapped over his head — no, let’s take that back, she is fantasizing, there is no halo — and takes over: “Throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionist got to bear some burden for this, because God will not be mocked when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad, I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists…”
Laura has heard this before.
Samuel Fisher sits in one of his many Eames Aluminum Chairs at the big, empty conference table while Betty Bartholomeo is ushered into his splendid office. Crossing through the double crystal doors into this ulterior world, Betty smiles the smile of corporate worship, while Fisher reciprocates in kind. He waves her lightly into the chair next to himself, turns his head, and points with his chin to a gargantuan screen on the opposite wall, where the famous Reverend Falwell is holding forth:
“…we make God mad, I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians, who were actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, people for the American Life, all of them, who tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen’.” The Reverend lowered his jowls accordingly.
Betty’s anchor image reappears on the screen, while the real Betty is feeling markedly uncomfortable next to Fisher. It is never a good sign when the boss is asking you to come watch your own show, but her other self on the screen doesn’t know and continues apace: “Our theme tonight is History’s Justice, and George W. Bush understood that, next to others, Saddam Hussein also bore responsibility for NineEleven.”
Betty now shares a split screen with Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state. Dr. Rice had been the first female black cabinet secretary in history, which was a big thing, and possibly the biggest thing in her life. She is not a good listener, but Rice has to listen this time because she is trapped in the canned footage of an appearance on Lynx in 2002, six month before the war. Betty continues: “Saddam Hussein was a dictator who, for years, had been menacing the world with the threat of the possibility of the suspicion of nuclear warheads — Dr. Rice….”
Rice opens her mouth: “We know that he has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon. And we know that when the inspectors assessed this after the Gulf War, he was far, far closer to a crude nuclear device than anybody thought.”
The split ladies fade abruptly into darkness — which then explodes into a blinding fireball across the screen. Rice’s voice survives, however: “He was maybe six months from a crude nuclear device. The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly Hussein can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
On cue, the fireball transmogrifies into a mushroom cloud. A poignant moment.
Betty relaxed a bit. A good show, she thinks, eying Fisher; he can’t be too unhappy. The media mogul, famous for his telepathic faculties, feels her gaze, lowers the TV sound per hand wave, and turns his head to two other screens mounted next to the first one on the palisander-paneled wall (there are more screens, which we ignore for the moment). One displays a large chart, containing 6 graphs, in various colors, plus a thicker line, in white. The graphs are animated, so to see; they appear to react to her broadcast. The next screen displays more charts under the heading Overall Ratings History. All those charts are pointing south.
“Basic emotions, you understand,” Fisher says to her with his signature South-African accent. “You know that we measure sample households for the ratings. Household members carry individual devices, People Meters, which connect wirelessly. Now, the latest models, top secret, they can sense the basic, raw emotions of human subjects, you understand?” He points to the second screen, with its 7 animated graphs. “The meters can sense fear, anger, disgust, sadness, joy, and surprise, all in real-time. Sort of telepathic. You see the colored graphs? Fear is yellow, anger is red, disgust is purple … see it?” Yes, she can see it, they are actually labeled; joy is orange, surprise is green, and sadness is blue.
Fisher gets up, excited now, and waves at the TV screen again. The sound of Betty’s show returns, while her anchor personality is saying: “President Bush came down hard on the Iraq dictator, who was toppled in a blitzkrieg of 42 days with a minimum of casualties on our side.”
Anchor Bartholomeo is replaced by footage of President Bush landing in a combat jet on the aircraft carrier Abram Lincoln. Dressed smartly in a brand-new combat suit, the commander in chief deplanes, beams, shakes the hands of his beaming sailors, strides across the flight deck, and takes position behind a lectern, while a huge banner with the text ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ watches over the unfolding scene from the ship’s control tower, flapping lightly in the breeze.
Meanwhile, the basic emotions on Fisher’s second screen are getting agitated. Joy and surprise are shooting up, sadness is down, fear is down, too, while the thick white line, whose meaning Fisher hasn’t explained, has an erection.
“Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” Bush reads from a cue card. “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
Perhaps it is the cue card, but joy and surprise take a step back, and the mysterious white line retreats. Fisher feels Betty’s puzzlement. He lowers the sound by hand, and says:”The white line sums it all up. It’s a secret formula that translates raw feelings into one number.” He is full of himself now. “And that number is receptiveness. Receptiveness means business. The right mix of fear, anger, disgust, sadness, joy, and surprise. A secret formula. Secretissimo. It’s already being called the Fisher formula, although I didn’t invent it, I have my minions. Anyhow, receptiveness it is. Receptive viewers stay with the show … and … buy the pitch of the next commercial.”
He sits down. Then he gets up again, performs a full pirouette on his left Stuart Weitzman loafer, and cheers: “Kassa, kassa!”
For more of this, visit the Freedom Fries blog
© Copyright 2016 Michael Winter. All rights reserved.
Book / Historical Fiction
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