Gladys in the Era of Watergate

For a brief period back in 1973 Gladys had spent more time organizing and running our household, taking charge of food shopping, cooking, cleaning, and planning remodeling projects. It was a welcome change. I had no talent or ability for organization except when it came to astronomy with my observation log and detailed drawings, with my star catalogs, magazine clippings and photographs. I reasoned that if I wasn’t going to have a lover or a friend in Gladys, and a wife in name only, then I’d be content to have a mother, someone who could manage my life for me. Don’t misunderstand. The U.S. Navy had taught me to be independent and self-reliant and I had been for years. I didn’t need a mother or a boss, but if Gladys wanted to make domestic tidiness her contribution to the marriage I decided I would not deny her that role. Perhaps her change signaled a more permanent commitment in lieu of not raising children or her not being employed. We no longer had the dog.

This arrangement lasted a few months until the era of domestic tidiness abruptly ended for one simple reason.

Watergate. . . .

The Senate hearings began in the spring and were televised and Gladys soon was spending her days on the couch and glued to the TV set. She resumed taking tranquilizers because she figured she wouldn’t be doing much else while the hearings were on, and the whole Watergate nightmare—from Liddy, Hunt and McCord, on through Colson, Magruder and Dean, and later the big guns, Haldeman and Erlichman, would best be experienced in a narcotic fog anyway, more or less the way Nixon had experienced it. During this period, Gladys would also take a drink in the late afternoon as a segue from the byzantine plots and machinations of the hearing witnesses into the bitter but relatively incoherent depression of the evening with its promise of a few more drinks before unconsciousness. Needless to say, there was no longer a dinner waiting for me, and the rooms returned to their earlier chaos, and dust gathered and swarmed like a fuzzy plague.

But I also had entered upon a period far more troubling and crazy than my wife’s regression from distaff serenity to an unkempt chattering house. We soon entered into a drama of upheavals and tumults, of inflamed, near violent passions that would surpass any rancor, conflict or marital discord I’d previously dealt with.

You see, Gladys loved Nixon . . . and I hated Nixon. . . .

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So I would come home in the evening and face not only having to make my own dinner (which frankly wasn’t all that big a deal), but listen to a diatribe from quaaluded and deluded Gladys about how Watergate was nothing, and how the cover-up as an “impeachable crime” made absolutely no sense whatsoever, and the Democrats were sleazy and despicable in their vendetta to bring down a great president who was not only a brilliant, warm and compassionate leader, but also a master statesman who had opened the door to relations with Communist China of all places, and had withdrawn our troops from Vietnam essentially ending our involvement there, something the contemptible Democrat Johnson had failed to do and had made worse during his time in office. I decided I would not allow Gladys’s misguided politics and warped worldview to stand. I cursed Nixon and his gangsters and Gladys by extension and praised journalists Woodward and Bernstein, and prosecutors Cox and Jaworski, Senator Sam Ervin and Judge John Sirica. So began the evening news arguments with Gladys railing about liberals and Democrats and hippies, and about my being a pot-smoking free-love hippie. But at least we were talking and not battling over the miserable state of our marriage. Gladys and I had discovered a public forum to externalize our enmity toward one another and we seized upon the political schism of the day to vent our spleens without becoming too personal or hurting one another much— we’d already done enough of that. She: Pro-Nixon; Me Anti-Nixon; like “Point-Counterpoint” at the end of 60 Minutes. It was that simple! We had tacitly agreed to disagree about something else for a change. And yet through it all I was sadly aware that our debates and attacks, our slamming of fists and doors and hurtling of cheap unbreakable objects, would eventually come to an end once the politics of the day had changed, and that this brilliant and lovely bloodbath, our strangely comic operatic clash of opinions, masked how woefully different and apart we had grown over the years.

Not long after Nixon resigned, Bob Crane invited all Brainchild employees to his country club for a Labor Day party. The party wasn’t a celebration of Nixon leaving office; Bob Crane was more or less indifferent to politics except where it affected his bottom line. And I’d somehow managed to persuade Gladys to join me for the party, and it would be the first time since the day we were married 11 years earlier that Gladys would be attending an event with my boss and co-workers. I felt somewhat proud that she’d agreed to come with me despite all our disaffection and distance since the end of the 60s. After the period of Watergate and the call for impeachment and Nixon’s resignation the country seemed unmoored and cut adrift and my career looked more important to me than ever— the one and maybe only thing in my life I could still rely on.

Picture a bright blue and green day, no humidity, a fine breeze—the best September weather. White canopies, buffet tables and a few bars were placed across the perfect sprinkler-fed lawn and a stage had been set up beneath the largest canopy. Approximately 200 people in attendance: friends of Bob’s, Rotary Club business associates, some fellow country club members and nearly all Brainchild Scientific employees, about 40-50 of us. Bob made the rounds with his current girlfriend, a smart and stunning red head considerably older than the pistol-toting child Wendy. It was rumored they would be getting married sometime next year and that the party would be the setting for making an announcement. Before the band started playing, Bob had taken the stage and microphone, and following an ear-splitting trill of feedback, welcomed everyone and thanked us all for coming to his party. In that moment I sensed that Bob Crane—tanned, serene, comfortable in his skin—had been reincarnated once more, or at least he wanted to appear that way. I recalled the terrified and desperate Bob who’d begged me to stay on his yacht in Nassau two and a half years earlier. I recalled Wendy with the tape and gauze bandages flapping like pennons in the wind. I recalled her reading aloud from The Art of Loving.

Gladys and I separated not long after the music (covers of soft rock with a little disco thrown in) started. Gladys needed to use the bathroom and I observed her chatting with a couple long-time Brainchild employees that remembered her from our wedding. She seemed to be enjoying herself. I wandered about the grounds and almost immediately struck up a conversation with a pretty woman in her late 20s who clearly intimated she wanted to do more than talk with me, but nervous that Gladys would discover us, and not wanting to spoil the day, I excused myself and a few minutes later noticed the same woman had come to the party with an escort, presumably her husband or a boyfriend.

As things turned out, Gladys demanded to leave an hour and a half after our arrival. She didn’t feel well. Was she sick? How sick? She wanted to leave, that’s all, and I drove her home but threatened to return to the party and have a good time without her. I couldn’t think of another time when I had hated her more than I did that afternoon. I hated her for ruining my day and the entire holiday weekend. She wouldn’t speak to me in the car, and as we drove home sunlight and wind flashed in the maples leaves and I was reminded what a sad time of year it could be, a carryover from childhood and school when summer came to an end, a subtle drop in the temperature and shortening of days. Inspiring and yet oddly depressing.

As soon as we were home I reached for another beer. I’d already drunk two at the party and I was going to drink several more. I didn’t ordinarily drink when we were arguing but I didn’t care and I didn’t care if we fought today and things got out of control . . . and that was when Gladys told me about Bob Crane. Apparently Bob had approached her at the buffet table, and while filling her plate with turkey and ham, lewdly suggested a partner swap with her, his girlfriend, and me. We stood in the kitchen, our favorite place for conflict.

“You’re saying Bob Crane, my boss, propositioned you for a night of swinging with us and his soon-to-be fiance’?”

“Yes, yes,” Gladys said, half hysterical. “He whispered to me, ‘I’d like you to consider it and talk it over with Soren.’”

True or not, I was still mad at her.

“I don’t believe it,” I said. “Bob wouldn’t say that to you.”

My denial was making Gladys angrier.

“Well, he did say it, whether you believe me or not. . . ”

“I really wanted to stay.”

“You could have stayed! Jesus! What is wrong with you? I could have driven home myself and then you could have gotten a ride later with someone from work. Or you can drive back now if the party is so important to you . . .”

“Maybe I will. . .”

“But now I want you to stay here . . . you should have been more assertive about not leaving the party.”

“But it meant a lot to me that you were there—damnit!—and I was not attending another one of these work functions alone. I wanted you to enjoy the party with me, and that just for once—for one fucking time!—we did something together that was fun!”

“Don’t yell at me,” Gladys warned, and she reached for her pint of Southern Comfort and a tumbler decorated with plastic painted daisies.

I sighed. “You know, it wasn’t official but Bob mentioned that at some point during one of the band breaks, he planned on taking the stage again and personally thanking Brainchild employees and maybe bringing a few key ones on stage for a round of applause. I might have been singled out for my contribution.”

“Oh, stop it! You know as well as I do he will never single you out for anything! Don’t pretend. And you never told me about his planned ‘speech.’ I’m not a mind reader.”

We drank and circled around the tacky kitchen table and chairs as if sparring in a boxing ring. I finally sat down.

“And you left because his offer was disgusting and made you angry?” I said, groping for some clarity. “You didn’t look angry.”

“I wasn’t . . . I wasn’t angry,” Gladys said cautiously.

I slammed my beer bottle on the table, though I was slowly coming around to the plausibility of her story.

“But you told me you were sick! Were you made physically ill by what he said to you? Or was it something in the food? Were you upset by him? He was being outrageous! He won’t get away with it. I’m calling him first thing tomorrow. Or I’ll drive to his house . . . yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll confront him face to face.”

“No, don’t!”

“Why not? This is absolutely crazy! You think I should just forget it? A violation like that? Of you? Of us?”

“I know, but please don’t’ call him,” Gladys said. “I wasn’t upset . . . kind of aroused, if you call that being upset.”

She looked far away one moment, and extremely close the next, fading in and out in my field of vision, as if I were seeing her through an alternating wide-angle and telephoto lens.

“The idea of it,” she said, and I noticed her trembling, her eyes turned away but wide, luminous “. . . it was a turn-on frankly . . . it got me excited . . . really excited. . . .”

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“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”
– Khalil Gibran

I want to talk to about the creations we only dream of, the unrealized masterworks that take up permanent residence in our minds but for whatever reason never see the light of day.

I am talking to Bud Wood, a twenty-something version of me (he’s real, I am the wraith, or some unholy vapor) and we are traveling aboard the spaceship Thanatos® heading for b-Eartha, sometimes fondly called “Bertha.” The first three letters of Bertha are the same as my mother’s name, Beryl . . . I am not in Heaven, there is no such thing, but I am traveling at the speed of light, musing whether or not I am dead or alive (like one of those kitschy wild-west outlaw wanted posters). Anyway, the question is irrelevant and not suited to my purpose. I can’t help talking so I babble endlessly in search of the true words, the true work. I would like to keep on talking, keep on telling, until my time is up, but even that faint wish I’m unsure of.

The starship has changed trajectory and now plots a course toward Rigel-7. We are small barely distinguishable points of light and energy and Zero-G doesn’t matter to us, though we tend to stay in or near our seat like good passengers as Thanatos® slithers through hyper space.

Of course we have Internet on the spaceship, and at the moment I can download what I’ve been searching for. There is a menu or search bar to choose from. You click on “Authors” for instance and type in a name (we were all authors by now). When I type in “Bud Wood,” the app retrieves an extensive list of songs, poems, stories, paintings, film scripts; stuff that was out there, published, but also some unfinished works and projects, beginnings of things—scrawls, some rough lines, maybe a few notes. But most important of all were the works that had never left his head, even those dreams that might have contained a germ of a creation, a single image, a setting, perhaps a phrase overheard in a crowd, or a random string of words that sounded profound in the dream state and upon first waking, much in the same way I am dreaming Bud Wood now: his thoughts and dreams, his creations, sealed within my own.

I select an idea for a short story, and step inside his head in order to begin my critique, though it’s not really Bud’s “head” anymore, is it? What I meant to say was his “mind,” a similar entity akin to “inside the head,” not the physical brain but the energy of the brain which still exists in Endland. I look for his thoughts, his imagery, his musings, his dreams, but only those that belong to the creation, the thing he may have intended to share, or still intends to share, not the private world of cogitation with its miserable daily toil, its worries and fantasies, its false memory and monsters, its necessary but mostly harmless scheming. I’m in search of the finer stuff, the intricate weave of rich cloth, the mosaic of gold and emerald and lapis.

“Your work looks good,” I tell him. “You have that uncanny talent or ability of stating your idea in simple form without appearing trite. You often present complex themes with simplicity and elegance. Not an easy feat to pull off.”

Of course he doesn’t answer me. Not even a “thank you” if my criticism is favorable, or an “I’ll think about it,” or “I’ll work some more on that” if I happen to point out a flaw. My comments are immediately absorbed by him/her in the instant that I think of them—before they are hatched into words. In this way we share a telepathic conversation and understanding.

“But you need a little more detail. When you empty your mind completely you begin to gather in more detail. You notice the grains in wood and even metal, the architectural lines of buildings, the shapes of lawns and fences, the pores and veins on people’s skin. You remember people, don’t you?

“And you need to develop subtlety. You don’t want the media and others figuring you out too soon. Everyone is essentially a cop. You need to retain your inner core and an outward air of ambiguity and mystery. You don’t need an advanced degree, but on the other hand you can’t let it all hang out, because that’s a sign of limited education and breeding, a lack of refinement, a lack of sophistication. If people are able to read you in a matter of minutes they will quickly grow bored, they’ve already figured you out, and you don’t want that, do you? A lack of subtlety, of sophistication, will permanently consign you to the working and lower classes, and an obvious desperation in throwing yourself at other people—needing them too soon, needing them too much—is unattractive and distancing . . . Play it cool. Always play it cool.”

Her limb was always cold. The calf especially but the thigh too, which as a boy I would not be able to place my hand there very often if at all, possibly those times she was in a deep sleep. The entire leg was a chilled muscle-less tube of inert flesh and it needed to be borne along by the locomotion of the good leg and hip, as if it were some vagabond hitching a free ride . . . step forward, pull and drag, step forward, etc. . . . When sitting (and I observed this most when she was getting in the car) the dead leg was hoisted toward her with the hand beneath the crook of the knee, raised and then lowered into position parallel with the good leg. I may have written it about it before. I will have to find that sketch. Does it matter? Is it relevant? Is writing about your mother’s dead limb relevant? Does a dead limb have relevance?

There was always some kind of haze around cemeteries, or so it seemed, a hazy telephoto feeling like some movie cliché, a scrim overlaying the all too green grass hugging gravestones and the white of marble or pale gray of granite and distant black-clad figures — clergy, mortician, and mourners, their heads bowed, blots of color from the flowers that littered the coffin. Oddly, the haze may not have been subjective, may not have been induced by the general mood and activity of what typically takes place here but was more likely due to the summer heat and humidity. It seemed I was always here in the summer: June, July, August; father in June; maternal grandmother in July; mother in August, as though Death wanted to make a more poignant statement — no cold and barren landscapes for Him, he was all about equal opportunity regarding the seasons, as though Death would come a calling for my family (and who knows, maybe myself) in swim trunks, Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses.

In the August before we buried my mother, nearly one year to the day, I had driven her to the cemetery. Because of her limp from polio, she did not want to climb part way up the hill to the family plot, so I walked up, for her and for myself, to check on the graves. It was a warm August day but with a strong dry wind . . . I looked at the grave markers of my father, three of my grandparents, and a great aunt. There was only one unused grave left. I looked at the names on all the bronze plates and then the one plate that was nameless, and then I lifted my gaze and looked down the hill at my mother leaning against my car and felt an uneasy stirring over the certainty of her place in this ground. To me, my mother still seemed some years away from death, but one year later she would lie in this family burial site with the rest of them. She didn’t want to stick around. She had waited 11 long years. She wanted to be with my father.

My mother must have had the stirring herself, maybe anticipated the cancer that within a few months would begin shriveling her. She said it had been a great day, and I agreed, and when we returned to her apartment, she brought out from her papers a ruled yellow sheet with instructions for her service and burial. She wanted no viewing, no embalming, no special casket obviously. The cost of other funerals, including my father’s, had turned her against the death business, it didn’t make sense to her, spending all that money. We would simply meet at the undertakers on the day of burial, my brother and I would give readings and conduct prayers, we would buy our own flowers, and afterwards the mourners, if they chose to, could join us for lunch and then head back to their lives. The plans were simple, the way she liked things.

I landed in a basement corridor. I heard plastic trays sliding on metal racks, the clinking of dishes, plates and silverware, the voices of hospital kitchen workers who prepared the meals that were served in the cafeteria, and who also cleaned up the mess and emptied the garbage. Their presence was earthy and reassuring, life going on. Double doors swung open—a sharp bump, oiled hinges, and then slamming shut, though quietly, nothing too abrupt. I lingered here for some time, a cold dispassionate observer, before I noticed the elevator. The light above the doors was stuck on the number four, the fourth floor, but as the doors parted the light remained on number four. When I stepped from the elevator onto the fourth floor and looked both ways checking for patient room numbers, I realized I was 12 years younger than I’d been a few minutes earlier, and in a different hospital, which didn’t matter really: all hospitals feel the same at their core—the same starched staff, the same flowers and Mylar balloons, the same gurneys and IVs and surgery wings, the same TV’s flickering in patients’ rooms blocked by a half closed door, the same convalescing, the same dying, the same boredom . . . I didn’t need to check room numbers. I had been here many times already. I knew my way around and found the room. The door was shut most of the way, and I had to gently ease it open. I wasn’t sure if I would find my father or mother in there, lying there, but if I was really 12 years younger it would have had to have been my father . . . or maybe it would be me. I wasn’t sure.

My father was sleeping after one of the hospital’s many surgeries—futile intrusions upon a dying body to keep the machinery of modern medicine working and profitable. Father was on a morphine drip and unaware of my presence, the IV tree at his bedside like a sterile harbinger. There was a food tray with some uneaten applesauce. Racing cars circled endlessly on the television alongside his bed, a loud modulated drone, a swarm of bees with little change in motion, the same few cars in front, moving up, falling slightly behind. There were four camera angles: above from in front, on the ground at the mechanics pit, directly overhead and higher, and above and a little in back of the cars. Around and around they went with their incessant hum, with their constant looping speed and noise. There was something Zen-like in the televised drag race, and perhaps the monotony was helping to keep my father asleep which is where he needed to be at the moment. I was unable talk to him, there wouldn’t have been much point, he couldn’t hear me. The cars spun endlessly around the track. I finally turned off the television and let him rest.

I left his room and left the hospital. I approached a line of mourners across the street, and made my way to the head of the line where the pall bearers were loading the casket into the hearse. The undertaker recognized me and mentioned something about following him, about being the lead car. I saw that my car, at the front of the line, and the 20 other cars in the procession already had those orange signs with the word “Funeral” in bold black letters. Was I attending my burial? (I could have been in the casket, the casket was closed) Or more likely the burial of one of my parents, but which one?

God, the way they decorate these rooms. The placement of flower vases, of overstuffed armchairs and settees, all so artificial and bland, neutral, characterless, a staged representation of Life. They are called homes, but they’re not homes, homes are for living people, these places are theater sets for the dead. The living people, when they do gather here, are only gathered for the purpose of paying their final respects to the dead, and the rooms and furniture are so many props on a stage set. The bereaved and their guests greet one another and talk. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? How are you and how is so-and-so. The guests’ talk is predictably hushed, though a little hurried and tense too, a conversation to establish a secure wave of presence above the undertow of certain mortality. (“Hey, we’re still here, you and me. Have you heard the one about the duck who walks into a bar?”) Sometimes the gathering is large, like tonight, a room full of people, some finger pastries and coffee and the same level of sibilance and laughter as at a staid gala reception — well, not quite a gala reception — but the same aura of polite decorum.

When they are leaving you there isn’t much you can do except be there with them, a presence in their presence. They are often heavily drugged and asleep, and if not asleep and not eating, then possibly incoherent, far away. They may be aware of you but their speech is often desultory and fragmented, sometimes surreal and humorous. You help with whatever meagre skill you can marshal under the circumstances—possibly feed them or give them drink, reposition their body on the bed, procure more ice chips, find the TV remote and either turn the TV off or change the channel. You may stroke or kiss their brow, hold and squeeze their hands hoping for a reciprocal tension, a response, but you should not need a response, you should have no expectation of them acknowledging, or thanking for your care, don’t take it personally, it is not about you at all. They are simply leaving, their bodies slipping from your confused grasp. And it’s the idea of total release that seems hardest to wrap one’s mind around. I try to imagine total release from the body—the energy, the soul if you will, which has animated the body and quickened the flesh for decades, being cataclysmically dispersed and scattered into the larger or exterior world, or space for that matter. But space then takes on a double meaning. We have the “space” of “outer space”—the cosmos, the heavens arrayed beyond the window of Starship Thanatos—but then there’s the space immediately surrounding us, the air beyond the tips of our fingers, the crown of our head, the elastic curve of our skin. The two really aren’t different when you stop and think about it. Space is space. We are released into nothing. I try to conceive of nothing. I get a mental handle on merging with space and nothing, no separateness, no personal energy of one’s own, but simply rejoining the universe from whence we came. There is no longer harm or hurt to the volatile ego, or pain or shock to the flesh, nothing remotely threatening or horrifying; so why is it then that I’m still occasionally scared shitless by the thought of Death? I believe these memories and musings, random and disjointed as they may appear, will serve as a personal eschatological check list, the way my mother’s yellow notepad did.