Thank God for That

Chapter 2: Shuck This

After five years as president of the United States, Viktor Karl Horvath had learned two things above all else. The first was that none of the immensely wealthy favor seekers who tramped through the Oval Office each day deserved a fraction of their riches. The second was that if those jamokes could milk the system until their bellies were full, then he wasn’t sucking nearly hard enough.

“In my life, Ray—in my life—I am yet to see a single one of those silver spoons lift a bale of cotton, tote a barge of hay, shuck a—shuck a—What the hell do you shuck?”

“I believe one shucks an ear of corn, Mr. President,” Chief of Staff Raymond Jarecki replied. As this was not a new line of thought for Viktor Horvath, Ray Jarecki didn’t bother to lift his eyes from the legal pad on his lap. He was working on a new poem and needed a rhyme for denude.

“An ear of corn?” the president asked. “Why would an individual citizen shuck a corn? Isn’t that what Big Ag is for?”

Ray shrugged. “Who knows.”

The president mulled the term. “Shuck an ear of corn. I don’t get a lot of these idioms. They sound stupid.”

“Our rural heritage.”

“Hayseed shit.”

Hopelessly crude,Ray wrote on his pad.

“The point I’m making, Ray, is that most of these guys were born on third base. Pell Barnish, Tommy Crandall, Harold Felcher—do any of them look like they’ve ever worked a day in their life? At a real job?”

“Not a one.”

“That’s all I’m saying.”

Viktor Horvath glanced at his fingernails. They were clean and polished. But they were nothing like what he had seen in the private sector. A man could go blind looking at

Thompson Crandall’s thumbnail.

Pissy attitude?

“Still,” Ray said, putting his pen down, “none of them can ignite a thermonuclear firestorm leading to the annihilation of life on earth with but a telephone call to

NORAD.”

“True.”

“So you see, Mr. President, the scales balance: They got the money, you got the power.”

The president was delighted. “Raymond, when you’re right, you’re right.” He lifted the receiver of the red phone. “Let’s make the call now.”

“That’ll show ’em.”

They laughed. The president set the receiver back. “Still, I’d like the money, too.”

“I don’t blame you. In the end, everyone wants the money.”

“And the girl.”

“The money gets the girl.”

“All right, let’s cut the crap and get back to business. Whadda we got today?”

Ray set aside his verse and handed the president the daily schedule. Ray wondered how someone this resentful had twice won the Electoral College, if not the popular vote. Then again, history proved time and again that lack of depth packaged as common sense was a winner with the public. “Enough With the Slogans Already” had kept Viktor Horvath in the White House. It made Ray consider whether, in retirement, he should devote himself to electoral reform.

The absurdity of the thought made him laugh out loud.

Viktor Horvath’s own retirement plans were more firmly fixed. They didn’t include signing off on a ghostwritten memoir, knocking around the lecture circuit, serving on corporate boards or advancing any interest other than his own interest in playing as much golf as possible between his first day out of office and his last breath on earth.

He lit a cigarette and returned to the daily schedule. On the radio in the background, Cole Charleston maundered on in yet another of his sermons on the natural partnership between free will and free markets.

Now there’s a survivor, Ray thought. Guy plots arson from the very spot where Ray himself now sat; goes to jail for numerous crimes against the public; finds Christ on the prison chow line; fashions a clerical collar out of a prison bed sheet; and returns from solitary confinement to tell everyone else how to live. As if Jesus Christ himself had nothing better to do than to materialize in the federal prison camp in Duluth, Minnesota, and recruit convicted felon Cole Charleston to the cause. Viktor Horvath had it right, Ray thought: “Cole Charleston was fucking nuts then, and he’s fucking nuts now.”

A coil of cigarette smoke drifted into the president’s eye. He squinted as he read the schedule. The major event of the day would be a Senate hearing on his nominee for chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Senator Willburr “Pitch” Farnum. Senators never opposed one of their own, particularly one as likeable and accommodating as Pitch Farnum, so the vote was a lock. Unless, of course, Farnum, a child at heart and very often in public as well, sank himself in the process. He turned to page two of the schedule.

Ray turned to the series of satellite photos hanging on the wall across the office purporting to show progress on the development of a golf resort on the West Pacific island of Pu’ukan. SoftHarbor at Pu’ukan®, it was called. No Club Med this. It was to be lap of luxury. A tropical treasure. “The Jewel of the Pu’ukans,” as Harold Felcher’s marketing brochures put it. “Where nothing matters but the here, the now, the greens, the grill. … And the you.”

“SoftHarbor” made no linguistic sense to Ray. Was there a “HardHarbor” somewhere? On the other hand, Viktor Horvath had wanted to auction off the naming rights of the resort to raise money for the project. He was dissuaded only when Ray pointed out that “Valvoline Island” might create the wrong image for a golf and beach retreat for the well-heeled.

In any event, FC2 now owned the property and was building the resort, so Harold Felcher got to name it. Whatever they called it, the prospect sounded pretty good to Ray, especially the part about living on a tropical microdot far, far from Washington, D.C.—a place where he could devote the last full measure of his energies to his poetry. And it made sense to Viktor Horvath, who planned on spending his post-presidential years playing golf on thirty-six holes of a Pruno DiPietro.

And so Ray and the president bought in as silent, though by no means quiet, partners of Harold Felcher and Felcher Communications Corp. The silent part was a strategic necessity: If word got out that the president of the United States and his chief of staff were investors in a hotel being built on government property recently sold to a private developer for the price of a coin, they’d all end up in Duluth nodding off to Cole Charleston sermons on wealth.

Ray took a cigarette from the open pack on the president’s desk. The resort seemed like a good investment. Not that a Madison Avenue marketing agency would know anything about the hospitality industry. Marketing people were among the most inhospitable people on earth. But Harold Felcher had parlayed FC2’s profits into acquiring a gaggle of businesses whose main function was to serve as in-house clients for

FC2’s marketing and public relations services. Unlike having to suck up to real clients and their narcissistic whims and short tempers, there would be no complaints from wholly owned subsidiaries, no trying to squeeze Harold on markups, no foot-dragging on paying their fees, no venomous personal insults offered in reply to such simple statements as “Good morning.”

Thus, FC2 now held interests in everything from swimwear and auto parts to sheet-metal fabrication, medical supplies and LGBTQIA online dating. And a West Pacific golf resort. FC2 might not know anything about resort management, but it was hugely profitable. And what this public relations firm lacked in resort-industry expertise, it made up in lack of public transparency, a very big plus for the president and his chief of staff. If FC2 could sell Viktor Horvath to the American electorate with those weird slogans that Denny Dash had cooked up, then how hard could it be to sell tropical golf vacations, which had actual intrinsic appeal?

“Just keep that fast-talking guy with the funny shirts happy,” Ray had said to

Harold. “He’s the key.”

Viktor Horvath issued some dyspeptic emissions and turned to page three of the daily schedule. Ray lit his cigarette and reviewed the satellite photos on The Great Wall of Pu’ukan, as he called it. The first one, on the far left, was taken at the outset of the project. It had been a gift from Felcher, the equivalent of a bronzed shovel. Pu’ukan Island had been used by the Army Air Force during World War II, after which it had fallen into desuetude. The photo showed a swath of jungle and the overgrown airfield, which FC2 would fix up and use for shuttling duffers in and out on island hoppers. The other photos in the series were taken at quarterly intervals and were intended to show the progress of development.

Of course he knows! He’s Pruno!’

Ray was fascinated by the time-lapse nature of the series. It was like witnessing the wonder of a seed as it pushed through the earth and bloomed into a flower, only in this case a high-end golf retreat on a spit of sand in the middle of the ocean that would make him revoltingly rich. But it was the architect’s scale model of the resort that enthralled Viktor Horvath. Harold had brought the model, along with the first satellite photo, to the Oval Office when he was pitching the investment to the president. Ray remembered the meeting.

“Lookit this, Mr. President,” Harold had said, lifting his caboose from his chair and pressing a pudgy finger onto the model, the brilliance of his fingernail manicure momentarily distracting Viktor Horvath. “That’s the mixed grill, right here. Pruno DiPietro designed it himself. He does everything personally: bunkers, hazards, greens, clubhouse, grill—the whole show. Kitten caboodle. And let me tell you, Mr. President, you won’t get a better quick bite than at that mixed grill right there.” He pounded his finger onto the board like it was a bombing target.

“DiPietro, huh?” In his mind’s eye, Viktor Horvath saw himself coming in at the turn between world-class front nine and world-class back nine for a world-class club sandwich and a world-class iced tea.

“Not too heavy, though, right?” he asked.

“What’s that, Mr. President?” Harold dabbed a hanky at his perspiring forehead.

“The club sandwiches. He doesn’t make them too heavy if you wanna go back out and finish a round. DiPietro knows that, right? Turkey has that—” He turned to Ray. “What’s that chemical in turkey that makes you sleepy?”

“Tryptophan,” Ray said.

“Tripped a fan! I don’t want that. Throws off your whole game.”

“Of course he knows! He’s Pruno!” Harold turned to Ray. “He’s Pruno. He knows.”

The investment pitch had taken a lot out of Harold. It was physical labor. Halfway through, Ray detected a wheeze in Harold’s breathing. He worried that Harold might drop dead right there, in the Oval Office. That would not be good. There would be questions about what the CEO of FC2 was doing in the OO with a scale model of an underfinanced golf resort being built on former U.S. government property sold to the president’s media firm for a coin. Ray wanted to finish the meeting and hustle Harold out while he was still breathing.

But the president lingered, his eyes drifting dreamily over the model. Ray had seen it before: The president was in his golf trance. “Pruno DiPietro,” he murmured. To an obsessed duffer like Viktor Horvath, the name was incantatory, and Harold knew he had clinched the deal. Everyone in the world knew what a golf nut Viktor Horvath was. He’d postpone a war to squeeze in nine holes. He’d start a war to squeeze in nine holes.

“Pruno DiPietro,” he repeated.

“The one and the only, Mr. President. It’s his course. Front nine, back nine, middle nine. You name the nine and Pruno D. is on it. Yes sir.”

“Middle nine?” the president asked. “I’ve never heard of a middle nine. You play?” 

“Oh sure, sure. All the time. Ya’ gotta play golf!” He turned to Ray. “Ya’ gotta play golf.” Harold’s wheezing thickened. He had never played a round of golf in his life. Not even a hole. Too hot, too much counter-radial hip and shoulder movement, and golf clothes made him look like an overdecorated Christmas cookie.

“All right, we’re in,” the president said. “Ray’ll make it happen. Ray’s in, too. You’re in too, Ray.”

When the meeting was over, Harold wanted to take the model with him, but the president insisted on keeping it.

“You don’t want this, Mr. President. It’s just clutter.” Harold grabbed an edge of the model to pull it away, but the president pulled at the other side.

“I like clutter. We’ll keep it here. It’ll keep me focused.”

Shit, Harold thought. That thing cost three grand to build and he only had the one.

Worse, there was no guarantee that the final product would look anything like the model. In fact, there was a guarantee that it would look nothing like the model. Reality never matched the models. Models were strictly sales pieces. And Harold did not want Viktor Horvath and Ray Jarecki shoving the model in his face after the fact and demanding to know what had happened to this and to that and to the other thing that they had been promised.

“I’ll get you a better one,” Harold said, giving his end another tug.

“The model stays. But you can go.” The president turned to Ray.

“The model stays, Harold,” Ray said. “But you can go.”

For an instant, Harold expected to be garroted by a Secret Service agent. Viktor

Horvath says it’s time to go. He looked over his shoulder.

He left the model with the president.

That was more than two years ago. On the first day of every fiscal quarter since then, Harold was required to produce a new photo to illustrate progress. Thus had Harold Felcher turned to FC2 Design Services every ninety days for creative assistance with phony images purporting to be satellite photos purporting to illustrate faster progress at SoftHarbor at Pu’ukan® than was actually case.

The president made his way through the rest of the daily schedule with mounting disinterest. Ray flicked a crook of cigarette ash into a glass ashtray cut into the shape of

North Carolina, a gift to the president from the state’s governor, Buddy Larber. The price tag on the bottom showed that it was acquired from the souvenir shop in the basement of the capitol building in Raleigh. Ten years ago, five years ago, six months ago this would have amused Ray. Now it just depressed him. Oh, this world, this dim, vast vale of tears was drowning his poet’s soul! He needed the Pu’ukan project so that he could leave it all behind forever.

But it was taking forever to finish. What the hell was taking so goddamn long!

Oh I’m in a very bad mood, he wrote on his verse pad.

Bored, the president tossed the daily schedule onto his desk and picked up a book he had been reading. It was a biography of Gary Player, the legendary South African golf champion from the 1960s and ’70s who went on to design world-class golf courses.

“I liked what Harold said last week about leveraging partnerships and co-branding,” he said, turning to the photos in the middle of the book: Gary at Augusta, Gary at St. Andrew’s, Gary at Pebble Beach. “I don’t know what the fuck that means, but it resonates, you know?” 

“Mm hm.” Ray knocked an elbow of ash onto Greensboro.

“Look at this,” Viktor Horvath said. He showed Ray a photo. “This is Gary in 1959 at Muirfield. Twenty-three years old! Can you believe that? The guy was a prodigy.”

“How about that,” Ray said. He crossed out I’m and replaced it with I am.

“Just incredible. You know what they called him? They called him ‘The International Ambassador of Golf.’ What a great job that would be: International Ambassador of Golf. We should get one.”

Ray said that given the great sums of State Department money they were funneling to SoftHarbor at Pu’ukan, they already had an embassy. “Might as well get an ambassador to go along with it.”

Just then the door flew open and Acting Secretary of the Treasury Roger Swing swept in, the president’s secretary, Dina LaFollette, on his heels in a panic.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. President, but he just—stormed right in,” Dina LaFollette said.

The notion of Roger Swing “storming in” anywhere was as implausible as his sudden, uninvited appearance in the Oval Office. Impulsive vigor was not a known trait of the buttoned-up, deferential wunderkind economist whom Viktor Horvath had appointed as interim Secretary of the Treasury until an older-looking, full-time occupant could be found. It had been more than two years since the interim appointment.

Cancer in the Oval Office

“What the hell, Roger!” Ray said. He took a vast drag on his cigarette and exhaled a poison cloud in Roger’s direction.

“Ray, I’ve done everything I can,” Roger Swing began, but stopped short and fell back on his heels upon colliding with the curtain of smoke. Only a choke came when he tried to speak. Ray and the president waited for him to recover. Dina LaFollette asked if he would like a glass of water.

“No,” Roger eked. “Trache tube be nice, though.” He touched a fingertip to his Adam’s apple, which was pressed tightly against his crisp shirt collar and the hard knot of his tie. He was convinced that nodules were developing at the back of his throat from his meetings at the White House. A cancer in the Oval Office.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. President,” Dina LaFollette said. “He just—”

“It’s all right, Dina,” President Horvath assured her. “The Secret Service should have blown his head off before he reached the door. You’re not to blame. Perhaps Acting Secretary Swing has some urgent news bearing on the fate of peoples, nations and markets. Either that or he’s gone bananas and nuts all at once.”

“It’s the pressure of the office,” Ray said. 

“It’s the smoke,” Roger squeaked.

“Swing, you used to be so organized and put-together,” the president said. “Engaged, you know? On the ball. Wasn’t Swing always on the ball, Ray?”

“Very much so.”

“Mr. President—” Roger said.

“But lately you seem so … so …” He turned to Ray.

“Disaffected,” Ray said.

“That’s it! Disinfected! You seem so disinfected, Roger. Like you don’t believe in the cause anymore. That pains me.”

“Turn on the T.V. news, Ray,” Roger said, working at the back of his throat for a stubborn lode of mucus. “CNN.” He turned to Dina LaFollette. “May I have that glass of water after all?”

The smile vanished from Viktor Horvath’s face at the mention of “news.” The president hated news. No news was ever good news. Good news wasn’t even good news. In fact, good news was the worst news since it compounded the impact of the inevitable bad news to come. He ordered Ray not to touch the T.V.

Too late. Ray had already turned it on. Jay Buckman, CNN’s marketing reporter, was in the middle of a segment. Viktor Horvath grew sullen as he watched

Dina LaFollette returned with a glass of ice water for Roger Swing but almost dropped it on the floor when she saw what Jay Buckman was reporting.

“Oh, my,” she said. Roger took the glass from her and bathed the back of his throat with a hearty quaff.

“Ray?” the president said, pointing his cigarette at the image on the T.V. screen. “Is that, or is that not, my Fed nominee?”

“That’s your Fed nominee, Mr. President.”

“What the hell’s happening?”

Ray sighed. He took the daily schedule off of the president’s desk and tore it up. “I think you’re being shucked.”