“How’s that?” the president asked, drawn in by the man’s contemplative rhythm. Members of the public were usually so nervous in his presence that all there was time for was to tacitly communicate to them that the encounter was going fine—to, in essence, be with them in their moment of awe, and then usher them on their way. But there was an ease in this man’s voice, a finality almost, and the sound of it undid something in the president.
The man coughed, wincing slightly, before answering.
“It’s like this,” he said. “We’re becoming peasants again. Most of us. There’s the money people and the people around them, and then there’s you. But the rest of us, we’re peasants. And we dream about you. I dream about you. Mostly you and I are talking, sort of like we are now. But the strange thing is that I don’t need a message, I’m there to listen. It’s you—you’re the one who needs to speak. I’m your confessor.”
The agents were right, he thought. This wasn’t safe. The man might be deranged after all. As president, he shouldn’t endanger himself like this.
But then empathy—that was part of the job. He had to mete it out in tiny portions or else risk losing his mind in the suffering of others. But if he shut it down, he was lost. It was the piece of what he knew to be his otherwise virtuosic self-awareness that never moved with the same alacrity. It caught, it snared. It slowed him down.
“What you said about the money people, I get that,” he said, fumbling a bit. “It’s why we need to encourage citizens to organize,” he went on, hearing the hollowness in the talking point.
The man shook his head, either sighing or forcing out a breath, the president couldn’t tell which. As he glanced sidelong at him, he had the uncanny sense that he recognized him. From Chicago maybe, or New York. There was an openness to his face, as if his whole person were close to the surface. A guy, after all, about his own age. But he couldn’t place him, and what were the chances? He was exhausted, he thought, and beginning to imagine things.
“What you say, it may be true,” the man said. “But that’s off in the future. I’m talking about right now. Here. On this path. You’ve got something to tell me.”
“Have we met?” the president asked.
“Not until now.”
“I could have sworn … ”
“I can still walk a little ways with you,” the man said. “You’ve got time to think on it.” For a few moments they proceeded along the Mall in silence.
“I can only imagine how much must go through your head in a day. Is that food up there as good as they say it is? I read somewhere that you had a phone straight to the kitchen where they’ll make anything for you, day or night. Is that true?”
The president chuckled. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s a trip. Nothing but arugula—breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
At this, the man smiled. But his expression turned quickly into a grimace.
“Could we sit for just a moment?” he asked. It sounded as if he were wheezing now, his breath coming more quickly.
They headed toward the edge of the path as the agents muttered into their mouthpieces, sweeping the area ahead, patting their hands along the bottom of the bench and eventually calling, “Clear.”
“Ah, that’s better,” the man said once he was seated. He was holding both hands now against his side, pressing on his rain jacket.
Glancing down, the president saw a rivulet of red trickle over his knuckles, the blood glistening dimly in the lamplight.
“Sir,” he said. “You’re hurt.”
“It’s nothing,” he said. “It’s just these kids, they came into the store as I was closing up tonight. They’ve been taunting me for weeks. I’ve got my writing notebooks with me in there, behind the glass. And they taunt me. I was waiting for the bus. A few of them came at me. It’s probably nothing, a flesh wound, it’ll probably just heal itself right up.”
He opened his jacket just slightly, and they both looked down at his bloodstained T-shirt.
“Don’t say anything,” he whispered. “Not yet. They’ll take you away. You need to just sit with me. It’s all right.”
The president felt his pulse quicken; the sight of the blood momentarily paralyzed him. He had never seen so much of it.
The man must be in shock, he thought. He’d somehow brought himself down here in a state of shock rather than going to a hospital.