Threading through the Venetian, Rod cast an appreciative gaze at the painstakingly painted murals of Italian skyline, while gondoliers poled between linen-laid tables. Some folks pilloried Las Vegas for being fake, but they didn’t get it—the power and the glory of façade. It never rained in this dive, and its sun never set.
Three foxy ladies two tables over were pointing, tittering behind their hands. Rod knew that laughter: nervous, self-conscious, starstruck. That was awed laughter. Poor girls were shy, all aflutter, probably conferring about whether to dare to ask for his autograph, wondering if he’d mind posing with the trio for a cell-phone pic. Of course, the shades didn’t do any good; when you were a celebrity, no disguise could keep the fans off. Fame was a burden you accepted, and it required grace, nobility, even sacrifice. It meant being the embodiment of other people’s dreams, and letting them see the best of themselves reflected in your eyes. You were entrusted with their hopes, and you had to seek, humbly seek, to remain worthy of their love. Michael understood that, too. Rod and Michael were soul mates.
“Hey, Joe!” Rod shook hands with the moody-looking mother at the bar. Maybe not the kind of guy you’d want to cross, but still one more perfectly decent human being who’d been given a bad rap, which meant they were soul mates, too. “Good of you to see me, bro. Can’t count the number of my appointments lately that end up no-shows. Must be that swine flu.”
“Have a seat,” said Joe. The jowly man’s eyes were sleepy, hooded, but there was an alert little pinprick of light in their centers that Rod recognized: It meant they could do business. Bidness, as these folks said.
“First off, let me personally share my grief about Michael. A father should never have to survive his own son. I can’t imagine what you must have— ”
“Yeah, yeah, shame about the kid. But let me tell you about this recording company I’ve started … ”
The hard sell went on for a while, and Rod’s attention drifted toward the television overhead. Obama—again. How many talk shows was that today? Thought he was so great. Holier-than-thou schoolmarm. Goody-two-shoes twit. Precious mustn’t-get-our-dainty-hands-dirty priss pot….
What a preening egomaniac. What an oily operator. Had absolutely no appreciation for the concept of media saturation, either—for when enough was enough. Just you wait, you sad, sanctimonious wuss, Rod vowed. Three years from now I’ll blow you out of the water, and everyone will be able to pronounce my name.
When Rod found his opening with Joe, he’d get straight to the point.
That was what those media dirtbags never registered. Rod knew how to deal. That was the kind of guy you wanted in public office, too. Somebody who knew how to deal. Who knew how to drive a hard bargain for his devoted public. Not some pansy, namby-pamby naïf, dotting his I’s and crossing his T’s and following every itty-bitty rule to the letter and meantime getting bleep-all accomplished. (Lately Rod simply assumed that his every conversation was recorded—providing a sensation of always having an audience that he now rather enjoyed—and it would save the networks a lot of digital editing if he just said bleep. He’d come to find the signature expletive stylish.) No, voters wanted an effective representative, savvy, cunning, and wise to the ways of the big, bad world. Not like Mr. Let’s All Be Friends up there. Voters wanted a leader who used his leverage to get them stuff. Who didn’t waste his influence. Who didn’t make a sow’s ear from a silk purse.
“Look, I told you on the phone I had a proposal, right?” Rod laid out at last. “Because it seems like a real waste, those 50 shows Michael had lined up—all those tickets to be returned, all those disappointed fans. That’s a whole lotta box office to kiss good-bye. So why not let Whacko Blago do the tour instead? I assure you that Michael himself would have loved the idea. Because Michael and I were very close. Like brothers.”
“Yeah, I heard that ‘very close’ routine from about 10,000 guests on CNN. Although considering the kind of company my boy did keep”—Joe shot Rod an appraising glance—“from you I actually find that believable.”
“I admit to a personal interest here. The tour would be a great launching pad for my 2012 presidential bid. I was going to go for 2016, but the iron is hot. The whole nation is indignant on my behalf. I may be banned from running for elective office in Illinois, but that’s only 21 electoral college seats out of 538.”
“So what’d we call the tour, ‘This Is Shit’?” said Joe. “‘Sides, there’s the issue of your reputation, man. That mug of yours couldn’t sell dog food.”
“But that’s why my doing the O2 would be so perfect! Michael and I have both been persecuted. Unfairly maligned. Wronged. Dragged through the mud, to the total outrage of our publics. With each of us, those media bleeps mutilated the truth. My filling in would be like running a victory lap for Michael and me both, a big bleep-you to the truth mutilators. Think about it”—Rod ran his hand through the thick, unruly locks that other people made fun of only because they were jealous—“the King of Mop.”
“But those Fed suckers caught you dead to rights on tape.”
“So? Michael said he took little boys to bed right on TV, but that didn’t make him a pedophile, right? Same here—they took all those quotes totally out of context! When I said, ‘I’ve got this thing, it’s bleeping golden, and I’m just not giving it up for bleeping nothing,’ I was talking about my grandmother’s coin collection. She had a double eagle from 1905!”
Joe still looked skeptical. “Your Tribune report say you got the lowest approval ratings of any elected politician in Illinois since they been doin’ them polls. And we’re talkin’ before you arrested, right? Before all this scandal about selling Obama’s senate seat broke. Thirteen percent? In your average poll, 13 percent answer they like you by mistake!”
“Yeah, well.” Rod looked at Joe significantly, for a moment letting Michael’s father see a darker, more dangerous side of this unjustly hounded but still terribly complicated man. “That’s why I arranged for some changes at the Tribune.”
Joe drummed his fingers on the bar. “Can you even dance, bud?”
“Dance? I’ve been practicing for weeks on the Goon Walk!” Rod slid off the barstool and sidled backward circling his pelvis, keeping his hand pressed sexily just above his manhood. In the corner of his eye those young ladies were clearly swooning; tittering with the same awed laugh, one of them actually fell off her chair, doubtless feeling faint from desire. “I’m bad, I’m bad!” Rod sang.
“You bad all right,” said Joe, and Rod beamed. Rod was hip to the lingo, and in African-American bad meant good.
“I owe it to Michael, Joe! When I was hauled into that court where they wouldn’t even let me wear my leather jacket, like Christ Himself mocked by Roman guards? When I was being crucified and hung out to dry in this grand Shakespearean tragedy— ”
“Which Shakespearean tragedy’s that? Ain’t sure I seen that play.”
“Just … you know, one that’s Shakespearean! Well, what got me through was humming Michael’s music under my breath. Beat it … just beat it!”
“I don’t think that’s what Michael meant … ”
“But honestly, who better in this world to sing ‘Never Can Say Good-bye’ or ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’?”
“I take your point there, Blago.”
In truth, Rod now preferred to be called “The Governor”—or just “guv-nuh,” pronounced in the toadying tones of nobody English people. “I got star power, I got name recognition, I got media experience up the wazoo, and my wife can eat tarantulas.”
Joe leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Let’s say I do put you in as a sub for Michael’s shows. What do I get out of it?”
“I don’t know … appreciation?”
Joe could be a little slow, but after a brief lag in the uptake they were both laughing uproariously. By the time the two parted, there was plenty of backslapping and hand clasping, and then Rod had to head back to his hotel. Now out of office, he was finding it more difficult to deliver on promises. But not impossible—he would just have to set his mind to it. Plus, 50 gigs would be demanding even for a fit, virile superstar, and he needed to start practicing right away.
Of course, later the press got the story all wrong, in their typically incompetent, mendacious fashion. The deal had nothing to do with any Jesse Jackson cat. It was Joe all along, morons! But show some respect. That’s Senator Joe Jackson to you.
Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize. Her next novel comes out in March.