My father died because our house was infested with ladybugs. Our French neighbors, the Heroux, had imported a hearty species of the insect to combat aphids in their garden. The ladybugs bred and migrated. Hundreds upon hundreds were living in our curtains, our cabinets, the ventilation system. At first, we thought it was hilarious and fitting for us to be plagued by something so cute and benign. But these weren’t nursery rhyme ladybugs. Not the adorable, shiny red-and-black beetles. These ladybugs were orange. They had uneven brown splotches. When I squished their shells between my thumb and forefinger, they left a rust-colored stain on my skin and an acrid smell that wouldn’t wash off. Dad used a vacuum hose to suck up the little arched creatures, but they quickly replaced themselves. The numbers never dwindled. Dad must have smoked a lot of pot before he climbed the ladder to our roof. My guess is that he wanted to cover the opening of the chimney. He’d suspected that the flue wasn’t closed all the way. Our house was three stories high. When he fell, he landed on the Heroux’ cement patio, his skull fractured, his neck broken.
For months after his death, I kept finding the ladybugs everywhere. When I stripped my bed, I’d find them in the sheets. When I did laundry, I’d find their dead carapaces in the dryer. When I woke up in the morning, I’d find a pair scuffling along my freshly laundered pillowcases. Then just like that, they were gone.
* * *
Long after the last ladybugs’ departure, I pulled a pair of sunglasses from Mom’s purse on the car seat, fogged the lenses with my breath, rubbed the plastic eyes against my chest, and said to her, “You missed the scenic overlook.”
Mom swiped her sunglasses away from me. “There will be other stops, Elise,” she said.
We were driving through the Texas Hill Country in an upgraded rental car, cruising a roadway called the Devil’s Backbone. Our destination: LBJ. His ranch. His reconstructed birth site. The rental car guy had flashed a brilliant smile when he bumped us up from a white Taurus to a green monster SUV. Mom couldn’t resist bullying the skinny clerk. “No one screws me on gas mileage. I’m not paying extra to fuel that obscenity. Knock ten dollars off the daily fee.” As the car clerk hammered his keyboard and readjusted the price, Mom winked at me.
My mother the investment banker. Every morning, well before dawn, she would maneuver her own Ford Explorer across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, cell-phoning her underlings while cutting off other commuters. Mom called her first-year analysts “Meat” and bragged that she, in turn, was known as “the Lion.” Mom always wore her long, straightened red hair loose and down her back. She’d sport short skirts and sleeveless dresses, showing off her sculpted calves and biceps. Mom specialized in M&As, corporate restructuring, and bankruptcy. She traveled a lot. Dad had brainstormed our presidential sightseeing tours as a way for him to keep me entertained while Mom flew off to Chicago and Denver, dismantling pharmaceutical corporations along the way.
“I really think we were supposed to stop at that overlook.” We coasted past juniper trees, live oaks, limestone cliffs. As far as I could tell, the whole point of driving the Devil’s Backbone was to stop at that particular overlook and view the span of gently sloping hills from the highest vantage point. “Dad would have turned back,” I said.
Mom just kept driving. I passed the time by reading snippets from the Lonely Planet Guide to Texas
and rattling off the names of local towns: Wimberley, Comfort, and Boerne. I flipped down the sun visor, replaited my French braids in the vanity mirror. I’d worn my favorite outfit: red high-top sneakers, baggy khaki shorts, and a T-shirt I’d special-ordered at a mall in Teaneck. For twenty-eight dollars, a man from Weehawken had ironed black velvet letters onto the front of a tiny green jersey. The letters spelled out VICTIM. When my mother asked how I got off being so self-pitying, I told her it was the name of my favorite underground band.
The Devil’s Backbone reminded me of the shingles sore tormenting my lower torso. The giant scab resembled a hard red shell. The family doctor had explained how sometimes the chicken pox virus remains dormant in a nerve ending, waiting for the immune system to weaken before reemerging. He was concerned because he’d never seen shingles in anyone my age. Usually he treated it in older patients, or in cases occurring with cancer or AIDS. People closing in on death. I told Mom the shingles were proof I was special. The agony wasn’t limited to the blisters on my back. My whole body felt inflamed, as if a rabid wolf were hunting rabid squirrels inside my chest. The doctor recommended ibuprofen for the pain. He gave me pamphlets describing stress-reducing breathing exercises. The first few nights Mom slipped me half a Vicodin and a nip of Bénédictine. As I tried to sleep, I heard her roaming from living room to bedroom to family room. I listened. My mother the widow did not weep, did not cry out for her dead husband.
* * *
A year after my father died, my mother’s breasts began to grow. She developed a deep, embarrassing plunge of cleavage, a pendulous swinging bosom that attacked my own flat body each time she hugged me good night. Mom’s belly had pouted. Ballooned. I could detect the domed button of her navel pressing out against the soft silk of her blouses. Her ankles swelled and I became suspicious. Mom was maybe six months into her pregnancy. I did the math. Dad had been pushing dead too long to be the father. I was about to enter my sophomore year at the Academy of Holy Angels. Before school started, I wanted the shingles on my back to disappear, I wanted to tour the reconstructed birthplace of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and I wanted my mother to admit to me that she was pregnant.
* * *
With Dad gone, I’d insisted on upholding our family’s tradition of visiting presidential landmarks. Dad and I had been doing them in chronological order. We’d sightseen the big ones: Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, Sagamore Hill. Weeks before Dad broke his neck, we’d spent a lively afternoon in the gift shop of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, rubbing our faces in the soft velour of JFK commemorative golf towels. The less popular the sites, the more obscure the leader of our country, the more Dad got excited: “Elise, can you imagine? John Tyler actually sat in this breakfast nook and ate soft-boiled eggs from those eggcups.” In Columbia, Tennessee, I tore white azalea petals from James K. Polk’s ancestral garden while Dad rambled on about the Mexican War, the “dark horse,” and “Fifty-four Forty or Fight.” At the Albany Rural Cemetery, Dad and I knelt solemnly before the grave of Chester Alan Arthur. A giant marble angel with voluminous wings towered over us. We prayed to our favorite forgotten leader, the father of civil service reform. One year, we spent Christmas on Cape Cod at a beachside inn that had been a secret getaway for Grover Cleveland and his mistress. Mom couldn’t make that trip, so Dad and I tramped by ourselves on the snow-covered sand dunes, plotting my own future run for the presidency. “You need a catchphrase. And a trademark hairdo so the cartoonists can immortalize you.”
* * *
All day we’d been driving in various stages of silence and radio static. Mom asked whether I’d like to stop for sundaes. I considered patting her belly and making a joke about cravings for ice cream and pickles. I had expected Mom to nix my travel plans for us, but really, I just wanted her to be honest and say to me, “Elise, I can’t fly. Not in my condition.” Instead, when I said, “Johnson,” Mom folded her arms against her burgeoning chest. She swung her hair over her shoulders and said, “Texas in August? Why can’t it be Hawaii? I’m certain Lyndon Johnson loved the hula.”
The day before, we’d visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. Mom and I took the elevator up to the top of the Texas Book Depository. We slowly worked our way through the permanent exhibit dedicated to the Kennedy assassination. Though a glass wall surrounded the actual Oswald window, Mom and I got close enough to size up the short distance between the building and the X
on the street below. The X
marked the spot where Kennedy was first hit. I’d always imagined Dealey Plaza as an enormous expanse of traffic and park, but here it was in front of me, tiny and green, more like a miniature replica made by a film crew. One SUV after another covered the X
as the cars drove over the site in perpetual reenactment of Kennedy’s last ride. This was the bona fide scene of the infamous crime. Mom whispered, “Even I could make that shot.” She hugged me from behind and I felt the baby’s heartbeat vibrate through her belly. In anticipation of our trip, I’d begun calling my secret sibling “Lyndon.” I asked, “Is Lyndon kicking?” Mom ignored me. Weeks ago, when I’d asked her point-blank if she was pregnant and quizzed her on what she intended to do with the baby, instead of answering the question she told me that her new goal in life was to get me away from “the fucking Holy Angels.”
Dad was the Catholic. Mom’s family had come over on the Mayflower.
“Elise, a lot of Yankees brag about tracing their roots back. Always be conscious of your place in history. Most of the people on that ship were poor. Your relatives were the lucky ones with money.” Before her parents divorced and squandered everything, my mother grew up rich in Manhattan. Her childhood bedroom had a view of the Sheep Meadow and the Central Park Reservoir. Both of Mom’s doormen were named Fritz. When she turned six, her folks hired Richard Avedon to take the snapshots at her birthday party. At sixteen, she’d curtsied before Princess Grace at a charity fund-raiser for retired racehorses. I often felt as though Dad and I were descended from one class of people, while Mom hailed from another class entirely.
My father sold pies for a living. Nominally, he was the vice president of the Pie Piper, his parents’ international bakery corporation, but mostly what Dad chose to do was drive his pie truck around the Tri-State area. Checking and restocking Safeways and Star Markets. Shelving lemon cream, coconut dream, and chocolate meringue pies. Dad had a jacket with TEAMSTER embroidered on the back. He liked to brag that he knew the fastest routes in and out of Manhattan at any point during the day. He knew when best to take the Lincoln Tunnel.
Dad felt that my aristocratic heritage and working-class lineage would make me an ideal political candidate. He cast me as a liberal Democrat and cast himself as my campaign manager. Dad first ran me in third grade for homeroom line leader. I lost to Andorra Rose, whose mother, on election day, made two dozen chocolate cupcakes with pink rosebuds in the center. Dad viewed this loss as a tactical oversight. Our future campaigns always involved the Pie Piper, donating dozens of pies and pastries to Holy Angels. In fifth grade, I was class treasurer. In seventh grade, I was student representative to the advisory council on redesigning our school uniforms. Dad imagined I would win the governorship of New Jersey, and from there, if I could find the right Southern running mate, become the first woman president of the United States.
I was twelve the afternoon I caught Dad sprawled out on the Philadelphia Chippendale, one hand holding a silver lighter, the other hand cradling a short ceramic pipe. There’d been a bomb scare at Holy Angels and the nuns had grudgingly sent us home early. Dad was wearing his boxer shorts and watching a rerun of The Joker’s Wild
. He flung a cashmere blanket over his lap, swung his legs off my mother’s two-hundred-year-old sofa, and said, “Honey, come meet James Buchanan.” I sat beside my bare-chested father, his blond hair flattened on one side, and watched him twirl his pipe around. “Made this in college. Art class. The clay morphed in the kiln.” He showed me the blunt end of the pipe. “Looks just like our bachelor president. His first lady was his niece. Handsome fellow.” On the TV, Wink Martindale exclaimed, “Joker! Joker! Joker!” Dad smiled, “Don’t worry. Your mom has seen me smoke.”
My father confided to me that he’d had panic attacks as a kid. “I’d be paralyzed with fear. Knocked out with it. The only thing that helped was reading almanacs.” Dad memorized historical facts, like the years each president served in office, and he’d repeat these dates in an effort to calm himself. “Zachary Taylor 1849–50, Rutherford Birchard Hayes 1877–81, Franklin Pierce 1853–57.” At fifteen, Dad discovered pot.
I loved sitting in the living room while Dad toked up. Marijuana haze drifted around me, settling on the folds of my wool pleated skirt. I’d lean my neck down against my Peter Pan collar and catch the wonderful stink of weed lingering against my blouse. I was a nervous kid. I often threw up before big tests. No one at Holy Angels invited me to sleepovers anymore, on account of my loud, thrashing night terrors. Even my closest friend, Alana Clinton, often insisted I take a chill pill. I’d attempted hypnosis therapy to treat the warts on my hands, the muscle spasm in my left eye, the mysterious rashes that appeared across my stomach, my inner-ear imbalance, and my tooth-grinding problem. Only breathing in my father’s pot smoke truly relaxed me. He never let me inhale directly from Buchanan, but he’d grant me a contact high. Afterward, the two of us would split one of my father’s ancestral peach pies. This happened once or twice a week. Mom didn’t know.
* * *
Mom and I pulled off the Devil’s Backbone and stopped for soft-serve at a place called the Frozen Armadillo. She got a chocolate and vanilla twist with cherry-flavored dip, and I ordered a vanilla cone covered in something advertised as Twinkle-Kote. Outside in the August heat, the ice cream dripped down our arms. We decided to eat the cones in the air-conditioned rental car. I told Mom my theory about LBJ and the Kennedy assassination. I was convinced that Lyndon was the real culprit. Nothing that big could happen in Texas without Lyndon’s approval.
“Motive is obvious,” I said. “Who gains the most from Kennedy dying? LBJ gets to be president. Who’s responsible for the investigation and subsequent cover-up? LBJ gets to appoint the Warren Commission. There’s proof that LBJ actually knew Jack Ruby. All LBJ ever wanted was to be president. Not vice president. He was an old man. Time was running out.” I told my mother that there had been talk of Kennedy dropping LBJ from the ticket in ’64.
“How do you know so much?” she asked.
“It’s Dad’s fault,” I said.
“You know, your father always wanted to be a high school history teacher.”
“What stopped him?” I asked.
“Well, sweetie,” Mom said, wiping ice cream off my nose, “convicted felons aren’t allowed to teach children.”
Mom balanced her own ice cream cone against the steering wheel and turned on the ignition. She headed out toward Johnson City. We drove past brown, sandy hills crowned by patches of cacti with round, thorned leaves.
“Take it back.” I told her. “What you said. Take it back.”
“You shouldn’t idealize your father. You didn’t know him as well as you’d like to think.”
“From the looks of it”—I pointed to Mom’s belly—“Dad didn’t know you at all.” I was deciding between calling my mother a “bitch” and calling her a “fucking bitch” when she chucked the rest of her ice cream cone at the side of my face. The ice cream splattered against my hair and cheek. The wafer cone landed on the side of my leg. I picked it up and threw it back at her. I pulled the top of my own ice cream off of its cone and aimed for Mom’s chest. She shrieked, swerving the car and throwing back at me whatever clumps of ice cream she could pull from her cleavage. We each lost sense of our target, hurling any ice cream slop we could get hold of. The car’s green cloth upholstery and side windows clouded over in a sticky, cherry-flavored film. Chocolate ice cream melted in streams down Mom’s chest. The black velvet letters on my VICTIM T-shirt soaked up my dessert. Mom drove and swore. She called me ungrateful and threatened to leave me right there on the spine of the Devil’s Backbone. Mom didn’t notice the bend in the road. She screamed in confusion as our car lurched through a very real white picket fence, careening down a hill and into an orchard. She pumped and locked the brakes just in time for us to hit a patch of peach trees.
The air bags did not work. No explosion of white pillow. In that brief instant, as I watched the seat belt jerk Mom back and hold her safely in place, I thought of how the pressure and force of the air bag would have crushed Mom’s belly, crippling Lyndon, killing the start of him. Mom saved me from the windshield by holding her right arm out straight against my chest. “Holy fuck,” she said.
Mom surveyed me. “Are you all right?” she asked. We got out of the car together, the two of us still dripping with ice cream. We marveled at the damage. A peach tree appeared to be growing out of the hood of our rental car. Mom picked up a pink-and-yellow fruit, brushing the fuzz against her lips before taking a bite. “You and your presidents,” she said. “That’s it. I’m through. And you can be damned sure I’m not taking you to Yorba Linda. There’s no fucking way I’m visiting Nixon.”
* * *
I insisted on hiking the remaining mile and a half to the LBJ Ranch. The car was not my problem. I was a kid and this was my summer vacation. I stayed a hundred yards in front of my mother. She played with her cell phone the entire time, dialing and redialing numbers. From her loud cursing, I could tell that there was no service, no way to call a tow truck or taxi. No way to complain to her mystery lover about me. I imagined my mother had many young lovers. For all I knew, she didn’t know who Lyndon’s father was. I didn’t want to think about the Lion having sex. I wanted to remember the Saturday mornings when I’d wake up early, sneak into my parents’ room, and burrow a narrow tunnel between their sleeping bodies. I’d trace the beauty marks on Mom’s back, naming the largest ones. With the tips of my fingers, I’d smooth out the worry lines on my father’s forehead. Their bed was an enormous life raft. I would imagine that the three of us were the last family left in the world. I loved my parents best when they were asleep and I was standing guard.
* * *
On the LBJ tour bus, the man sitting closest to the door stood up to give my mother his seat. She smiled and said, “Not necessary.” We’d taken turns washing up by ourselves in the ladies’ room of the park’s Visitor Center. While Mom pulled knots of peanut Twinkle-Kote from her hair, I watched a short film about the ranch, the birthplace, and the family cemetery. The birthplace wasn’t really the birthplace. The original birthplace had been torn down. LBJ actually had a facsimile of the house rebuilt during his presidency. He decorated the house in period pieces, but none of the furnishings were original except for a rawhide cushioned chair. The film showed Lyndon in a cowboy hat and sports coat posing on the front porch of his make-believe home. Dad would have loved the film. He would have leaned over and repeated the story about LBJ and the goat fucker.
“Do you know about LBJ and the goat fucker?” I said to Mom. “When Johnson first ran for office, he told his campaign manager to spread a rumor that his opponent had sex with farm animals. When the manager pointed out that this wasn’t true, Johnson said, ‘So what. Force the bastard to admit, “I never fucked a goat.” He’ll be ruined.’”
“You curse like your father.” Mom sighed.
The reconstructed birthplace was the first stop on the tour. The park ranger/bus driver was a chatty older woman named Cynthia. She bounced around the bus taking our tickets, sporty and spry in her light green ranger’s uniform. A row of bench seats ran along each side of the bus facing a wide center aisle. Another row of seats ran along the back. There were nine other people on the bus: the polite man closest to the door, a pair of elderly identical twin sisters who wore matching red windbreakers, a middle-aged German couple toting two large canvas backpacks, and a family of four. The mother and father of the family laughed as their young daughter hugged her baby brother and scooped him up onto her lap. The little blond boy had a crazy cowlick I wanted to flatten and fix. Mom and I sat in the very back row, several seats apart from each other.
As we drove past the banks of the Pedernales River, Cynthia described the Lawn Chair Staff Meetings Lyndon held at his ranch during Vietnam. She told us that Lady Bird had kindly donated all of the land and the ranch to the National Park Service but chose to live part time in the main ranch house. My shingles sore was rubbing against my T-shirt, the pain ratcheting up inside of me. I was still angry at Mom. I held my breath to calm myself and ran through dates: “Andrew Johnson 1865–69, Benjamin Harrison 1889–93, Warren Gamaliel Harding 1921–23.” Mom leaned over and said, “Lady Bird is shrewd. Putting the ranch into a trust is an excellent way of avoiding taxes.”
We drove past lazy orange-and-white Hereford cattle grazing by the river. An ibex shot out from behind a sycamore tree, and then another ibex followed, and another. The cows ignored the elegant brown-and-white horned antelopes. Cynthia said, “Lady Bird also runs an exotic-animal safari on the ranch. As exotic animals are legal in Texas, hunters can pay the Johnson family to come and stalk rare creatures from the Dark Continent.” My mother whispered, “Lady Bird’s a genius.”
* * *
I’d always thought that Dad liked Mom because her mother’s maiden name was Van Buren. One afternoon, my father told me how he and Mom began dating. “You have to be careful with this information,” he said. “Your mother doesn’t know the whole story.” My parents met their freshman year in college. The same day Dad met Mom, he also met another woman, a sculpture major named Lisel. She had wavy black hair, a German accent, and an apartment off-campus. Dad liked both women and was stuck deciding whether to pursue Mom or Lisel. He decided to go after Lisel. He was dressed up and on his way to meet the German sculptress for their first serious date when he bumped into Mom. “She’d been playing rugby and she was totally covered in mud and sweat. She asked me if I wanted to take a shower with her. I went back to her dorm.” Dad smiled. “And that’s the moment when my life began.” He said something else about Mom being a sexy lady, but I clutched my hands to my ears and blocked him out.
* * *
The reconstructed birthplace was white with green shutters. It was small. Just two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a breezeway. Cynthia showed us the bedroom where Johnson was birthed. A queen-size bed dominated the room. I noticed long, shiny black beetles crawling over the chenille bedspread. One of the beetles flew up and circled past me. Cynthia said, “His mother claimed that he had it wrong. She kept insisting that Lyndon was actually born in the smaller bedroom, but LBJ was adamant.”
In the kitchen I saw the rawhide chair, the one authentic piece. I wanted to run my hand over the cow fur. Right by the kitchen table stood a baby’s wooden high chair with LADY BIRD etched across the backrest. Cynthia said that the first lady had been kind enough to donate her own Roycrofter high chair for the replica. Mom mouthed “Lady Bird” to herself and rested her hands on her belly. I pictured a plump, kicking baby fidgeting in the chair. “Mom, if you want,” I said, “I could steal the high chair for you.”
“What’s a ladybird?” Mom asked Cynthia.
“A ladybird is what we in the South call ladybugs.”
Mom looked at me. She shook her head. “Those little killers.”
* * *
Sometimes when I hung out with my dad while he smoked Buchanan, I’d get paranoid. The nuns at school loved bullying girls, and though I understood in theory how women got pregnant, the Immaculate Conception confused and disturbed me. I imagined invisible sperm floating through the ether, landing on my leg and inching up my Holy Angels uniform. Once, I even imagined being pregnant with Dad’s baby, but I couldn’t imagine anything after that. In her grief Mom had fucked someone. Maybe the Lion had some Meat after all. She probably couldn’t explain her own pain over losing Dad. At least not to me. I knew harboring a baby while I looked on could only make her feel alone. While he was alive, Mom was certain I loved Dad more than her. “The two of you have your own secret society,” she’d say. Now that he was dead, Mom was convinced I’d love the memory of him more than I’d ever love her. I wanted to tell her she was dead wrong, but I wasn’t sure that she was.
* * *
The Johnson family graveyard, nothing more than a small plot of land squared off by a stone wall, stood straight across from the birthplace. In the August heat, Mom and I wandered over to the cemetery. Cynthia and our bus mates were still loitering beside the house. Mom told me that Dad had been arrested before I was born. He’d been pulled over for speeding in his pie truck. The cop noticed a baggie of pot in the ashtray. A very big baggie of pot. Dad was arrested, tried, and found guilty of possession with intent to distribute. “Your grandfather could have made the whole thing go away, but instead he let your father do six months in prison. Minimum security, a life lesson. I was pregnant with you the whole time he was locked up.”
Mom tucked a wisp of loose hair behind my left ear. “I figured you should know about your father’s past, you know, for your political career.”
I wanted to tell her that I was sorry. As much as I loved my father, I was mystified as to why Mom, who worked ninety hours a week, would stay married to a man who was happiest when lying down on a couch, a man who couldn’t keep his balance on the roof of his own house. A man who could never find his wallet or remember to tie his shoes. A man who panicked every time the phone rang. I would never understand how she had come to love him.
“I’m sorry about the rental car,” I said.
“Insurance will cover it.”
Mom and I looked out at the family gravestones. The tallest one was Lyndon’s.
“Honey, your dad was a wonderful, frustrating, lovely, ridiculous man.”
* * *
When we reboarded the bus, our tour guide Cynthia smiled and informed us, “You’re all very lucky. Lady Bird is in Bermuda this week. The Secret Service has okayed us for a drive-by of the ranch house.”
Mom shouted down the length of the bus to Cynthia, “Can’t we leave the bus and visit the inside of the house?”
“I’m afraid not, ma’am.”
“But that’s why we came here,” the elderly twins said in unison.
“Sorry, ladies. Those are the rules.” Cynthia turned the bus onto a red dirt road.
Without even the slightest look in my direction, Mom shouted, “My daughter has visited every other presidential home in the country. We came all the way from New Jersey.”
“Security risk.” Cynthia said. “Plus, the ranch house is Lady Bird’s primary residence. None of us would want a bunch of strangers trudging through our homes while we were out of town.”
“It’s fine, Mom,” I said.
“Besides, you’ve seen the birthplace,” Cynthia said.
“The reconstructed birthplace,” Mom retorted. “Elise, you came here to see the house, and I’m going to make sure you see it.” My pregnant mother pushed herself up from her seat on the moving bus, clutched her leather purse, and waddled to the front. Cynthia continued to drive. Mom held on to a railing and leaned into the back of Cynthia’s chair. Cynthia shook her head. And then she shook her head so violently that her mirrored sunglasses were flung off her face and skittered to the floor of the bus. Mom kept right on talking. She reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet. Everyone on the bus heard Cynthia say, “Ma’am, I am a ranger for the National Park Service. I cannot be bribed.”
While my mother continued to buzz in her ear, Cynthia picked up the microphone on her CB and radioed headquarters. She spoke in a quick, clipped lingo that I did not understand. Then Mom swiped at the CB, grabbing at the spiral speaker cord. The entire bus and I witnessed their slap fight for control over the CB. Neither Mom nor Cynthia could hold on to the gadget, and the black cord snapped and struck against the dashboard console. Mom leaned in and appeared to snare Cynthia in a headlock. None of my fellow passengers moved. The polite man who had offered Mom his seat looked at me and said, “Can’t you calm her down?” Mom let go of Cynthia and said in a hoarse voice, “You win.” Cynthia announced that the bus would return to the Visitor Center, immediately. We would not be driving by the Johnson ranch house today. The German couple spoke German, in quick, violent snatches. The little boy with the cowlick put his hands over his ears and screamed in three sharp blasts before his sister covered his mouth with the back of her hand. I felt my shingles pain run down my neck and arms. Felt the ladybug shell on my back harden.
Mom strode down the length of the bus, past identical fierce glares from the twin sisters. She sat beside me. I shook my head and said, “This is not Manhattan. We’re in the Republic of Texas. Pushy doesn’t work here.”
Mom said, “Don’t worry, kid. I got it covered.”
* * *
Cynthia sped back to the Visitor Center. She tried to calm the agitated passengers by turning on the bus’s stereo system and blasting Lyndon Johnson’s favorite song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” I stared out the window at the terraced farmland and tried to remember why I ever cared about the presidents. I loved them because my father loved them. Since he’d died I’d been trying every day to reclaim his sense of history. All I’d managed to do was re-create his level of stress and discomfort. The red sores on my back proved to me that I was nothing more than the nervous daughter of a panicked man. That was my place in the passage of time, my inheritance. I could never be president. I was the would-be pothead child of a convicted felon and a whore. I tried to picture my father relaxed, stoned, resigned to his shortcomings. His eyes bloodshot, his smile goofy, a halo of ladybugs flying over his blond head: that was the father I loved.
When Cynthia parked the bus, she pointed to Mom and me and said, “You two stay seated. For the rest of you, I’m sorry but this is the last stop.” Mom clutched my arm. As Cynthia ushered our fellow travelers off the bus, I imagined the Secret Service descending upon us. We were a family of felons. I figured the penalty for assaulting a park ranger included a prison sentence. Maybe now, with the threat of incarceration pending, Mom would admit her pregnancy. I was furious with her. She’d ruined our vacation, stained my VICTIM T-shirt, tarnished my father’s reputation.
Through the bus window, Mom watched Cynthia confer with a fellow ranger in the Visitors Center. Mom said, “I told Ranger Cindy to wait ten minutes in case those Germans got curious.”
* * *
The Johnson ranch house was smaller than I had imagined. The white paint on the outside needed a touch-up. The large bow windows sagged in their rotting casings. Before Cynthia dropped us off, she pointed out the security cameras and told us which ones were working. “I’ll give you twenty minutes like we agreed. The house is locked, but you can view the grounds and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s antique car collection.”
A massive live oak stood on the front lawn. Lyndon, or some other hunter, had attached two plaques with enormous stuffed deer heads directly to the tree’s trunk. Mom petted the buck’s antlers. I’m not sure what Mom promised or paid Cynthia for our private tour of the Johnson Ranch. Mom believed in cash and always had at least a thousand dollars stashed on or near her person. She also believed in threats and bribes. With a phone call, Mom could place a lien on your ancestral home or buy you the ostrich farm you’d always dreamed of owning. Mom knew how to bargain. How to make a deal. She was fearless. She knew that she couldn’t appreciate the presidents the way Dad and I had, but she could give me something Dad never could. Mom could provide access. She could make things happen. She had what it took to be president.
We walked into the open-air front of the airplane hangar that held Lyndon’s cars: a red Ford Phaeton, a Fiat 500 Jolly Ghia, a vintage fire truck, and a little green wagon. The sun had tanned Mom’s face. She looked beautiful, victorious. I put my arms around her, rubbed her tummy. “What is it?” I asked. She looked down at me and placed my hand flat on the crown of her belly. “It’s a boy.”
Inside the hangar, I recognized one of the automobiles, a small blue-and-white convertible. “This is one of those land-and-sea cars. An amphibious car. Johnson used to drive his friends around the ranch, take them down to the river, and scare everyone by plunging them into the water. The car turns into a boat.”
Mom opened the driver’s-side door. “Get in,” she said.
We sat in the white leather seats, proud of our hard-earned view of the Texas hills. Mom took out a linen handkerchief from her purse and handed it to me. “Your father told me this thing helped you guys relax.”
I knew by the weight and size of the gift that it was Buchanan. I unwrapped the pipe. The bowl was still packed with a small amount of pot. I’d never smoked Buchanan before.
“Your father died too young to have a will,” Mom said. “Just think of this as your inheritance.”
“I don’t suppose you have a lighter.” Mom handed me a silver Zippo with Dad’s initials. She watched me light the pipe. I coughed. The smoke burned my throat. I offered Mom Buchanan, but she shook her head no and pointed to her belly.
“When the baby’s older,” she said, “I want you to tell him about his dad. I want him to know where he came from.”His dad
We sat together in this magic convertible, me smoking, Mom breathing in the air at my side. We needed a new getaway car. One that could take us back home and beyond. Up the Hudson and along the Garden State Parkway. I gazed down the hill to the Pedernales. Mom pointed out a zebra. I laughed. It was just a gray spotted pony. Everything was clear. I would skip Nixon. Dad would understand. Instead, I’d take my little brother to Omaha, then to Michigan. Gerald Ford, 1974–77, born Leslie Lynch King Jr. He was renamed after his adoptive father. Ford didn’t know who his real father was until he was practically an adult. I’d tell my brother about Ford and all the men fate brought to power, the chief executives, all the fearless men in charge. He’d know that Andrew Jackson was thirteen when he fought the British in the Battle of Hanging Rock. I’d explain the difference between John Adams and John Quincy Adams. I’d give him reasons to like Ike, to be grateful for the Monroe Doctrine, to appreciate the irony of William Henry Harrison dying of pneumonia one month into his term after staying out in the cold to deliver his endless inauguration address.
Mom said, “Now smoke in moderation. Don’t get caught. Don’t let your grades slip. Promise me.”
I could hear the walkie-talkie static and chatter coming from the Secret Service agents. We’d been caught. Mom would certainly be arrested. Cynthia would lose her job. I’d be left to raise Lyndon alone. Dad’s pot was strong but mellow. For the first time in our relationship Mom and I had a deal, an understanding. I began to hum “Hail to the Chief.” As the agents approached in their dark, shiny suits, I promised Mom I would tell Lyndon, my running mate and my half brother, all the things I knew about my father, his father.
Copyright © 2013 by Amber Dermont
Amber Dermont received her MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held the prestigious Teaching-Writing Fellowship. Her short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Crazyhorse,
and Zoetrope: All-Story,
among others. A graduate of Vassar College, she received her Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. She is also the author of The Starboard Sea
and is currently the Charles Loridans Chair and associate professor of English and creative writing at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.