The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 10, No. 4


by Robert Olen Butler

Employing recent developments in nanomagnetic imaging techniques, the National Archives and Record Administration has re-examined the Watergate-Nixon tape number 342, which was created June 20, 1972, on a Sony TC-800B recorder, and has recovered the 181/2-minute segment that was erased, allegedly on October 1, 1973, on a Uher 5000 reel-to-reel player. The erased portion occurred in a conversation between President Richard M. Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, in the Oval Office three days after the Watergate break-in. The following is a transcript of the recovered segment, in which the only speaker is President Nixon.

Elvis was right, Bob. You won't find it in the memo Bud Krogh wrote, but I had him leave me alone with that boy for a few minutes, after all the picture-taking and formal talk. You remember when he came to visit a couple of years ago, just before Christmas, asking me to make him a federal drug agent at-large. You were hiding in your office. But Bob, if you looked beneath the velvet cape and the gold necklaces, you'd find that he and I have a lot in common.
     You know, as a boy I plucked chickens. For a butcher in Prescott, Arizona, to make money for the family. For years, it feels like. Years and years, though in fact it was only for a summer. I was a sideshow barker too, out there, at the Slippery Gulch carnival. We were poor, Bob. My brother Harold was dying of tuberculosis in Prescott, and we'd eat chicken feather soup some nights. It was all we had. You know how to pluck a chicken, Bob? You have to dip it first in boiling water. If you do it too quick, if you don't let the chicken scald sufficiently, every feather will fight you. But if you leave it in too long, the feathers will come out fast all right, but the skin will go brown and start to break up. You see what I mean? You dip the sons of bitches long enough, but not too long.
     I barked the Wheel of Fortune. I could really put out the patter too. "Step up, step up. Step up to the Wheel of Fortune. That wheel spins for you every day of your life, only you don't know it. So if you've got to face your fortune anyway, why not put your own hand to the wheel and maybe walk away with wealth and power and victory over your enemies. Or at least a Kewpie doll."
     It was all horsefeathers, Bob. The wheel was fixed. The Kewpie doll sat there untouched all that July. When the carnival was closing down I asked the man who ran the Wheel how long he'd had that doll, and he said four years. So I stole the son of a bitch and took it home and I gave it to Harold. He said to me, "Dick, you little prick, what makes you think I'd want a Kewpie doll?" Harold was nineteen at the time, and he was acting pretty goddamn cocky for a guy walking around with a sputum cup. So I said to him, "It's all I have to give, you son of a bitch. You rather have chicken feathers?" I should have just gone ahead and given the Kewpie doll to my saint of a mother to start with, but I was sorry about Harold dying. I should have at least given her the doll after Harold said what he did. But he needed to be shown what I was made of, my goddamn brother. I took a ball peen hammer to the doll, right in front of him, where he sat swaddled in his deck chair out in the sun. The doll was made of bisque and shattered into a million pieces and a patch of yellow hair. Bob, I was mostly an ignorant runt of a kid at the time, but I was learning how to protect myself.
     I'd walk to school in Yorba Linda barefoot. You hear the Democrats sneering at me for wearing my wingtips when I walk on the beach at San Clemente, but they never had to walk to school barefoot. If you walk to school barefoot, Bob, you treasure your shoes. You've had enough dirt and grit and little flaky things between your toes to last a lifetime. And if you still get lint in there and grit that comes from God knows where and your skin flakes on its own account, well you just keep it to yourself. You're the president. When my saint of a mother sent me off to school barefoot she'd put extra starch in my white shirt to make up for it. Starch was cheaper than shoes, Bob. It turns a collar into a razor, but she knew what she was doing, my mother. She set me apart.
     Elvis was a barefoot boy, too. At some point, when he was sitting in that very chair you're sitting in, Bob, I said to him, "Elvis, I bet you were a barefoot boy, walking to school in your bare feet."
     And he said, "Well, sir, I did walk around barefoot some as a boy."
     "It sets us apart, you know," I said.
     "It was pretty common in east Tupelo," he said.
     "Don't let your enemies hold it against you," I said.
     "No, sir, I won't," he said.
     I said, "I bet you wear those funny high-top pansy shoes you've got on right now even when you walk on the beach, don't you?"
     Elvis just blinked, knowing that we were set apart together in this way.
     "You just keep your shoes on no matter what they do to you," I said.
     He's a good boy, Bob. You have to look under the surface. He despises Jane Fonda and the Smothers Brothers. He understands that they're traitors to America. He said as much. And he blames the Beatles for starting the country down the road of pot and protest. And we're all barefoot down that gravelly road, Bob. All of us.
     He even said to me, "I can go out among the protesters. They accept me. I can be your eyes and ears."
     "And my voice," I said.
     "Yes, sir," he said.
     "Our voices are very similar," I said.
     He threw his arms up in the air and made the twin V-for-victory signs and he said, "Let me make this perfectly clear," and, Bob, he sounded just like me.
     I said, "Love me tender. Love me true," and it was unquestionably Elvis's voice.
     "That's very good, sir," he said.
     "I've been meaning to say," I said, "don't call me `sir.' Call me `Mr. President.'"
     "All right, Mr. President. And you can call me `King.'" He said this with a laugh, Bob. Don't get him wrong.
     "Mr. King," I said.
     "Mr. President," he said.
     "I remember a strange, drunken young man playing your music during the campaign of '68," I said. "It was early one morning when I couldn't sleep."
     "I have trouble sleeping too," Elvis said.
     "You and I have a lot in common," I said.
     "What do you use to help, Mr. President?" he said.
     "I'm the president," I said.
     "Yes, you are," he said. "You deserve to get some help if you need it."
     "Seconal and single-malt scotch," I said.
     "Both very good, Mr. President," he said. "But if you feel you need a little something more, I'd recommend Nembutal, Carbrital, Amytal, Demerol, Valmid, and Valium. Those'll give you the rest you need to kick some Communist butt, sir."
     "I'll keep that in mind," I said. "But if you're using _Valium, I'd recommend Dilantin to you instead. Jack Dreyfus, who's made more money than both of us put together, introduced me to it in Key Biscayne a few years ago. Two or three a day will keep you focused. He sends them to me in bottles of a thousand."
     "I've heard about that," Elvis said. "But the FDA says it only works for seizures."
     "Fuck the FDA," I said. "This is a drug for presidents and kings."
     "I appreciate the advice," he said. "And I'm sorry for interrupting. What was it about this young man playing my music in the early morning?"
     And I told him a little story then. You'll want to hear this too, Bob. I know I caused you some anxious times in Houston, when I left the hotel before dawn on my own, and it's true enough that I wanted to get in touch with the working men and working women of this great country. But there was a little more to it, Bob.
     I couldn't sleep that night. The wallpaper was crawling around, so I got dressed and went out of the room and I made the Secret Service agents keep their distance. I walked out of the downtown district and there was nobody around and I kept going till I found an all-night diner. I told the agents to stay the hell outside, and they did.
     Inside, there were just two people. One was a Mexican-looking woman in an apron behind the counter, who was mixing a mud-colored liquid in a glass from a bunch of jars. The whole diner was vibrating from the jukebox going full blast. It was Elvis singing "Jailhouse Rock." There was a young man in chinos and loafers leaning forward with the top of his head against the jukebox, and he was not moving at all, in spite of the music that he was playing. I was thinking of finding another place, but suddenly the young man turned his face to look at me without removing his head from the jukebox. I had the impression that he'd somehow glued himself there. But he smiled and waved and gathered his resolve and stood up straight and made his way toward me.
     He had beady, deep-set eyes and heavy eyebrows and a goofy hayseed smile. "Welcome to the Elvis Pretzel concert," he said. It didn't sound right to him. "I meant to say, `Pretzel,'" he said. "You look familiar."
     "Yes," I said.
     "Famous even," he said.
     "I'm Bob Hope," I said. If this young man—who was slightly retarded or still drunk or both—didn't know who I was, I thought I'd seize the chance for an unvarnished conversation.
     "I love your shows for the troops," he said.
     "I feel it's my duty," I said.
     "I hope you'll come to the Texas Air National Guard this year," he said.
     "Are you a guardsman?" I said.
     He nodded and began circling the floor of the diner with his arms outstretched. I could hear his jet engine imitation under Elvis singing, "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see."
     The young man landed on a counter stool in front of the Mexican waitress's concoction and patted the stool next to him. I sat down.
     "That was an F-102," he said. "And this," he said, taking the glass in his hand, "is Maria's Magic Head-Fixer. Upper." And he drank down the contents in a long, single swallow, ending with a fit of coughing and throat clearing broken up by three boy-that's-goods, two boy-that'll-fix-yous, and, finally, one boy-that'll-put-the-peck-back-in-your-pecker. After this latter he took on a sober demeanor and said to the waitress, "Not you, Maria." Maria smiled faintly and turned away. "Mucho gracias, Maria," the young man cried at the top of his lungs, and then sang, "Let's rock, everybody," along with Elvis.
     He spun once completely around on his stool and then returned his attention to me. "Bob, do you have any F-102 jokes, preferably dirty?" he said.
     "I'm afraid not," I said.
     "Then maybe some jokes about guys with receding hairlines. Or maybe an Italian joke," he said.
     "I'm sorry," I said.
     He said, "There's a couple of guys in my unit who like to give me knucklies and talk some foreign language around me, laughing all the while. But they misunderestimate what I can do. One's going bald and the other's Italian, see, is why I'm asking."
     "You want to tell jokes about your enemies?" I said. For some reason I'd begun to feel sorry for this young man.
     "A good zinger or two," he said.
     "Listen," I said, "I'll give you some important advice. Don't zing your enemies, destroy them. When someone tries to harm you—or you even have reason to suspect they will—then you are free to do whatever you feel is necessary to thwart them."
     "Wow," the young man said, "lighten up there, Bob." And before I could back away he reached out and palmed the top of my head and he tousled my hair.
     He continued to tousle and I knew the Secret Service men would burst through that door in another moment. I turned my face to the door and pushed the palm of my hand at them, even as their faces appeared in the window. They stopped.
     When I turned back to the young man, he was goggling out the door. Then he looked at me and realized he still had his hand on my head, and finally he took it off.
     "I think I may still be drunk," he said.
     The diner was suddenly silent as "Jailhouse Rock" ended and the jukebox whirred and clicked, searching for another song. The young man was blinking into his empty glass of Maria's hangover drink.
     He said, "So, Bob, it looks like the life of a comedian can get to be a little intense."
     Elvis began another song, and the words turned my head to the jukebox. "Are you lonesome tonight?" he sang.
     I looked back at the young man, who'd picked up his glass and was licking inside the rim.
     I knew it was time to go back to the hotel. But I was like Henry V, the king in disguise among his troops, trying to understand what they really thought of him, and I wanted one more thing from this young man.
     I let him fortify himself from his licking for a little while, and then I said, "Can I ask you a question?"
     He stopped licking the glass and looked at me. His previous mood seemed completely restored. "Shoot, pardner," he said.
     "Are you hoping to fly in Vietnam?" I said.
     He looked at me and his beady eyes widened. "Hell no, Bob. The furthest I'm hoping to fly is Waco."
     "Do you think we should pull out?" I said.
     "Negatory to that," he said. "Not till we've whipped those Viet Conks. From what I hear, they've got some other countries they're hiding in over there, right?"
     "Cambodia and Laos," I said.
     "Then we should go on in there. Send a bunch of our best in there and kick some Cambodite butt till they won't help our enemies anymore," he said.
     I was interested in this common citizen's impulse, even when he seemed a little backward about how to deal with his own personal enemies. I said, "What if there are some who would say that an invasion of Cambodia or Laos exceeds the president's authority? They'd say that, under the present war powers approved by Congress, it would be illegal to send troops into those countries."
     The young man squared around and looked me steadily in the eyes and said, "Heck. If the president does it, it can't be illegal, right, Bob?"
     This seemed to me to be the voice of the American people. But even as I understood this, I found myself wondering if Maria would make me one of those drinks too.
     And from the jukebox Elvis sang the refrain once again, "Are you lonesome tonight?"
     So, Bob, I told Elvis this little story about his music when he came to visit, and I looked into his sympathetic eyes and I said, "You were right. You spoke to me there in the diner in Houston. I was lonesome that night."
     "I understand, Mr. President," Elvis said.
     And I knew he did. "Could you sing me a song right now?" I said.
     "I'm afraid I don't have my guitar," he said.
     "A cappella," I said.
     "What song would you like?" he said.
     "'How Great Thou Art,'" I said.
     So Elvis began to sing, and I swiveled in my chair and looked out onto the South Lawn. He sang about awesome wonder and making worlds with your own hands. Which is what presidents do, Bob. He sang of rolling thunder, and I was pissed that Johnson had already grabbed that phrase for his own bombing campaign in Vietnam. Johnson was an enemy we crushed pretty well, but not enough. He's down on his ranch in Texas right now, happily growing his hair as long as a hippie's. I never have trusted Texans, Bob. Even the Republicans, I'm sorry to say. And when Congressman Bush sent his son to Washington to have a date with Tricia and it turned out to be that dimwit boy from the diner, I was only confirmed in that distrust. But Elvis soothed all that over. I just closed my eyes and let him sing to me, "How great thou art. How great thou art."

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