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Night Walk

With Afghanistan on his mind, the president leaves the White House grounds and encounters a stranger.


Fictional photograph* by Alison Jackson. Grooming by Patrycja Korzeniak for Halley Resources; Shot on location at Brooklyn Botanic Garden
*Real photograph, fake Obama

He opened the door from the West Wing hallway out onto the colonnade, letting Jones pass through it ahead of him. He could already feel the loosening of the skin at the back of his head and the slackening in his jaw. The anticipation alone triggered the letting go.

They walked a few steps along the passageway, the darkened South Lawn drawing their eyes across it to the spot-lit obelisk down on the Mall. The city was quiet.

“This is a difficult one,” Jones said, his hands held together behind his back.

The president nodded. In his jacket pocket, he rolled the filter of the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. Reggie being out today, he’d had a hard time procuring it. A few hours ago, around midnight, he’d tried his secretary’s desk but found it locked. On the way to Communications, where an aide who worked late usually came through in a pinch, he’d been waylaid by Summers clutching new figures on wholesale inventories in the Southeast, and who would have no more noticed that he was in a hurry if he’d been jogging in a tracksuit. By the time Larry had explained the import of the numbers, he could see Jones over his shoulder signaling that they needed him downstairs.

“The guys in the village—how long have they been informing for us?” he asked, fingering the lighter in his other pocket, wondering how long it had taken his predecessors, the ones who hadn’t been head of the CIA, to get used to uttering lines fit for a Bond film. The number of roles the job required was practically infinite. And each of them had to be played to near perfection. To convince and to mean it and to know every audience better than they knew themselves—that was the talent. It was the power of knowing his own appetites, giving him the time to step back and let others show themselves first, as he calibrated just how much of himself to use for comfort or control. Thoughts he could not share just now, Jim Jones being no ironist. A man who’d mastered Washington as well as the Marines. A player deep in the system. And at six-four, one of the few aides whose eyes he didn’t look down to meet.

“A year,” Jones said. “And the video is crystal clear. The confirmation’s redundant.”

On this still autumn night, the air in the gardens carried a faint scent of the late-blooming roses.

The war didn’t stop for him to review it. It had been over two months since he’d received McChrystal’s report. For weeks now his counselors had been pressing their conflicting stories of what awaited him on the other side of a decision, while the emergencies and the wreckage kept piling up. Along with the choices like the one he faced now.

“Back in June I had a signing ceremony out here,” the president said. “The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. You happen to catch any of that one?”

“No, sir,” Jones said.

“No ads within a thousand feet of a school, and they can’t flavor them like candy. I signed it with ten pens.”

Jones nodded.

“You ever smoke?”

“I have.”

“I’d offer you one,” he said, taking the cigarette out of his pocket, “but it’s the only one I’ve got.”

The expectancy was exquisite. Sheltering the tip with his right hand, he lit it with his left. First came the heat on the lips and then the warmth in the mouth and then his lungs slowly filling. A deep, full breath. Instantly, the calm rose up through the back of his neck, spreading like a flood of perfectly cool water across the surface of his overheated brain. He was in it now—that longed-for gap in time, that merciful pause.

The girls were asleep. The phones were quiet. The media had gone home.

Exhaling was a meditation unto itself.

The speed at which he moved from one performance or task to the next had grown vertiginous. Which, strangely, made the pleasure of executing each one all the keener. Not only to reply by hand to a few of the public’s letters each night, but knowing precisely how to communicate his sincerity through the dark eye of the camera as he explained for the White House website what reading the letters meant to him—there was a pleasure in the exactitude of all this. The strain of it and the pleasure twinned.

A cigarette suspended all that. And for a moment, even here amid the splendor and consequence, it joined him back to the counterlives: the kid who didn’t care about his grades; the freshman listening to the young leftists quote Nietzsche and Foucault; the short-story writer alone in his room after a day miming faith in progress (kneel and you shall pray), believing for a few evening hours that a well-wrought sentence might set people free. Before the organizing principle of Michelle. Before the sorting power of a more concrete ambition. Taking him briefly back to the comforts of the slacker and the cynic. That dark, scattered home promising its own kind of safety.


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