Marine One wobbled down through the thickening afternoon clouds and broke clear less than a thousand feet above Catoctin Mountain Park. The heavy copter skimmed over bristling forested terrain, slowing when the distinct contours of Camp David appeared. It eased into a hover before descending onto the concrete helipad where it made contact with an unpleasant thump.
“Don't tell me Maj. Erskine disrespects you, too?” Ruth said as the rotors wound down.
The president's sheepish grin and wagging head was answer enough, but he added, “I don't think so, Ruth, but I really don't know. Coincidentally they transferred the major awhile back, right about the time the paper started giving away those little magnifying glasses so people could see me in the cartoons. I think they use cadets to fly me now.”
Moments after the engines went silent the forward compartment door snapped open and a stocky young man in a shiny olive drab flight suit stepped into the passenger compartment. Without speaking he gave an impatient flap of his hand beckoning them to disembark. Ordinarily the other passengers would defer to the president to go first, but Morowitz nodded to Ruth, sitting nearest the door, to precede him.
She stood, turned and found herself staring into the young Marine's plump face. His jaw was moving slowly, rhythmically as if he were chewing gum, an act of insolence that by its mere suggestion sprayed a quart of psychic fuel onto her rage, ignited moments earlier by the clumsy landing. His facial muscles, working the gum, assumed the contours of a smirk that further aggravated the disrespect he conveyed. Ruth scanned the nonchalantly pulsing face until she came to a pair of cobalt eyes that peered through her without a glimmer of recognition she was there.
“Bring the pilot out here,” she snapped, glaring at the unseeing eyes. It wasn't until the Marine showed no reaction that Ruth noticed the twin white strings forking from a pocket in his jumpsuit and ending in each ear. The slap came without warning and with such fury it rocked the Marine on his heels and flung one of his earbuds with its tether onto his shoulder where it dangled, emitting the predictable cadence of a defiantly chattering hip hop cricket. Ruth reached up and jerked the other bud from its fleshy nest.
She said in a tight, hard voice, staring first at the nametag sewn into his flight suit then back into his now wide, startled eyes, “Henderson, huh? Well, Capt. Henderson, if you haven't heard the old infantry expression 'don't step on your dick', it's too late now. You've just jumped up and down on yours. Do you have any idea who your passenger is?”
“Whah, yes ah do, Miz Pres...”
“I'm not the president, you goddamned fool! The president is standing behind me...
“If you were aware, Henderson, what were you doing chewing gum and listening to that shit you call music? Is this the kind of discipline they're teaching now in the Marine Corps?”
“No, my-em, ah shore do...”
“It's way beyond too late if you were thinking of apologizing, captain. You might as well kiss your career goodbye. If I had my way you'd be cooling your ass in the brig until I came up with a way to boot it out of the Corps for good.
“Speaking of asses, tell that incompetent pilot to get his out here right now!”
“Uh...yes'm...uh.” He lurched backward, bumping past the bulkhead, and stumbled toward the pilot's cabin. Ruth cursed when she saw him close the cabin door behind him. A heavy hand on her shoulder kept her from following him into the forward compartment.
“It's alright, Ruth,” said Morowitz breaking into quiet laughter. “Thank you kindly for defending my honor, my-em,” he said, mocking the co-pilot's heavy Southern country accent, “but I think it's better that I speak to the young man myself.” He patted her shoulder and carefully stepped around her.
“They're reservists. I find that mind boggling,” Morowitz told the others as their golf carts glided along the asphalt trail from the helipad into the Camp David compound.
“Whoever made that assignment should be court-martialed,” said Ruth, “I don't care what the excuse.”
“You're right, Ruth, but I have enough trouble without getting into a pissing contest with the Marine Corps.”
“Have the sonofabitch retired, or at least reassigned.”
“Nah. Nobody got hurt. Those boys were a little overwhelmed, I think.”
They'd better be now, Ruth thought, but kept her gaze straight ahead and her mouth shut. After what seemed like a strained silence she turned her face to the president, sitting beside her, and smiled. “You're a nice guy, Geoff,” she said quietly. “I didn't think I was going to like you, and I don't really know why I thought that. Media distortion had a lot to do with it, I suppose. And your voice.”
“My voice?” Morowitz said, puzzlement creasing his brow, but he, too, was smiling. “I've always thought that was my strong suit.”
Ruth patted his knee. “I remember as a little girl hearing Nixon on the radio and thinking he sounded like a good man. Kind, confident, intelligent. I felt like I could trust him. Then I saw a picture of him in the paper. His face didn't jibe with his voice. He looked mean and sleazy.”
Morowitz chuckled. “And wasn't it Lincoln who said by the time you're that age you're responsible for your face?”
“He did that, and he also said 'If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?' No quotes about the voice, though, and they say his was not a radio voice.”
“So my Nixon voice turned you off?”
“Probly just the association. Plus, you were with the wrong party.”
“Still am, Ruth, still am.” He sighed. “But hell, you know, there really isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two. Not once you get beneath the marquee issues, and no matter which way those things go anymore, we let the bureaucrats roll along and do what they always do. The little guy gets squeezed no matter who's in power. Sure, we play the game more cynically, pit one group of little guys against another, stir up the savages, as Mencken said, and the irony is that our pose comes off righteous...”
“And we look weak. Yeah, that's it, isn't it. Shit, Geoff, we've really let this country go to hell, haven't we.”
“How in hell do you stop those bastards? They kill Kennedy and we all roll over and spread our cheeks...uh, sorry, Ruth, I...”
Ruth, grinning, turned to the rear seat and winked at Geddes, although he shrugged as if to imply he hadn't been eavesdropping. She turned back to the front and leaned against the president. “Liking you more and more, Geoff. That image is gonna stick with me awhile. You ever consider stand-up?”
Only the changing pitch of the electric motor's whine as it negotiated the uneven terrain challenged the silence that followed Ruth's unanswered question. Then one of the cottages peeked through the greenery, and Morowitz spoke.
“You didn't come here much, did you, Ruth? I remember reading that somewhere.”
“I had one of the G-8 conferences here, and I brought Al up here a couple times when we thought he was...” She turned back to Geddes, now clearly attentive, and smiled.
“I...” he started, but Ruth cut him off.
“It's OK, Al. We were just afraid you were going to do something regrettable...”
“You and Warren were, how shall I put it, like two tomcats on the way to the vet's in the same carrier.”
“I don't remember coming here, except for the G-8, and that time we...” He cut himself off. She winked, and they both smiled.
Turning back to Morowitz, she said, “I never really felt comfortable here. It just seemed too isolated.”
“That's precisely what I like about it,” Morowitz said. “Away from it all.”
Their driver parked the cart in front of the Aspen Lodge and turned around in his seat. Ruth had recognized his deeply tanned impassive face, but didn't remember his name. He had removed his cap and nodded politely at both her and Morowitz when meeting them at the helipad. Now he asked if they wanted to wait for their luggage, which he said would arrive soon on another cart.
“That's OK, Roger, we'd like to freshen up inside. Thank you.”
As the driver led them past the walkway to the lodge entrance and around to the rear, Ruth looked up quizzically at her host.
“Ever seen the bunker, Ruth?”
“During my orientation after the Inauguration. Gave me the creeps.”
The president smiled and patted her shoulder. “I've had it fixed up some. It's fairly comfortable now.”