Thank God for That

Chapter 4: A Naked Lunch

What’s she thinking?

That was the question asked throughout political society some months later when

Lady Gramm and Pitch Farnum became an item. Lady herself had asked it many times. Why was the polished and poised daughter of fundraising legend Polk Twetten and widow of the late-Senator Graham Gramm, hooking up with a nudnik like Willburr

Farnum?

Isn’t love funny that way?

Lady Gramm had zero interest in political office. But when her senator-husband had died with a year left in his term, Lady was appointed to finish it out. She didn’t ask for the job and she had no interest in running for a full term on her own. To Lady, there was cosmic meaning in the fact that Dodge City and the District of Columbia shared an abbreviation. But as long as she was there, she took her responsibility seriously.

The morning of her first day on the job, she told her staff she would work her butt off on behalf of her late-husband’s agenda.

By noon she’d had enough.

This is what he spent his time on?” she asked Rudy Almond, her husband’s chief of staff. “Reinsurance deregulation? That’s not only venal. It’s achingly dull.”

“The senator felt very strongly about it,” Rudy Almond said. “He believed everyone was entitled to representation.”

“But, insurance companies are already represented,” Lady pointed out. “It’s everyone else who needs a voice against them.”

Rudy shrugged, as if to say, “Tell me about it.”

Lady told Rudy that from now on, he was to keep a meticulous log of the issues her constituents were calling and writing to her about, what they wanted done, and whether she could reasonably accommodate their requests. “If we can get their names, great. If not, so be it. It’d be nice to follow up, but we’re not the Office of Global Listening and Eavesdropping, so don’t press it.”

A week later, she asked for a report. Rudy opened his folder and ticked off the names of eight large corporations, none of which even did business in her state. Lady told

Rudy to skip ahead to the people on the list. “Tell me about real people. Individuals.”

Rudy shut his folder.

“You mean that’s it? That’s all we’ve gotten?”

“It’s a free country, senator. The people are free not to care about their own interests.”

“Boy. I guess they really don’t.”

“Less work for us.”

Lady then asked about press calls and was told that the only reporter who had contacted the office in the last month was a Ted Randall from something called The Exonumist. Lady looked puzzled. She said “Exonumist” sounded like something of or pertaining to demonic possession. “I’m not on that committee, am I?”

“It’s a trade publication for numismatists,” Rudy explained. “Coin geeks. Very pocket-protectory. Would you like to know what he called about?”

Lady demurred. Some issues were simply too dispiriting.

Rudy agreed. “You’ll notice that we have high staff turnover.” She said she couldn’t wait to contribute. The world’s most deliberative body was turning out to be the world’s most somnolent corpse. Rudy pointed out that corpses are, by definition, somnolent.

Rudy liked “Senator Lady,” as he called her. She was so much more sentient than her dead husband even when he was alive. Rudy was going to miss her when her term ended. He pleaded with her to run for election when the term was up so that he could respect at least one member of Congress. But as she had promised upon taking office, she chose not to run for the seat. She would hardly be missed. On her last day in office, only one person came to say goodbye.

And it was a complete surprise.

“Really?” Lady asked when Rudy Almond called from out front to tell her that

Senator Willburr Farnum was there to see her. “Does he have an appointment?”

“No.” 

“What does he want?”

“He said he wants to say goodbye.”

“He wants to say goodbye?”

“That’s what he said: ‘I’d like to say goodbye.’ ”

“Hmm. What do you make of it?”

“I think he wants to say goodbye.”

Senator Farnum was looking at the photos on the wall in the reception room with genuine interest, the only visitor ever to do so. They were of the late-Senator Gramm with various foreign and domestic dignitaries and captains of insurance.

“Hey, that’s me!” Pitched said when he spotted himself in one of them.

Rudy cupped the phone to speak to Lady without Pitch overhearing. “He seems like a very nice man,” he whispered. “Boyish, but in a distinguished sort of way, you know? I think you’ll like him.”

“OK, matchmaker, I’ll come up front and we’ll do the farewell thing out there. No need to alert the media.”

Rudy was just about to hang up when Lady abruptly changed her mind and told him to send Farnum back to her office instead. What the hell. Might as well give him the courtesy of an invitation to the sanctum sanctorum, seeing as he had gone out of his way to come by, even if his office was just down the hall from hers.

She glanced around the office. With all the boxes and debris, it reminded her of the last day of summer camp minus the tear-stained pizza boxes. Then she chided herself for wearing jeans, a casual turtleneck and old flats to the office. True, it was her last day, and those jeans cost two-hundred dollars and the turtleneck was cashmere and cost even more. But around here, if you didn’t look the part, you were held apart.

Then again, that’s one reason why she was leaving: she just never fit in. And it was one reason why she wore this very outfit today. Besides, she liked the way she looked. And frankly, so did just about everyone else in and around the Capitol. At 51, Lady Gramm, trim and sanguine, had never looked sexier. Her thick brown hair was cut short around her ears, exposing a smooth and graceful neck beneath soft, pink earlobes. She must be doing something right: No less than four committee chairs as well as the Senate chaplain and the minority whip, Lucille Smoot, had made passes at her over the past few months. Lucille’s was the only remotely tempting offer, the whip’s helmet hairdo notwithstanding.

It occurred to Lady that despite his strained relationship with decorum, Farnum, who was tall, ruddy and very handsome, had never made a pass at her. She knew he was a bachelor and that he wasn’t gay. What, she wasn’t good enough for this lout to hit on?

She was in Lucille Smoot’s league but not Willburr “Pitch” Farnum’s? Please.

Suddenly she wished she had told Rudy to tell Senator Empty Suit that she wasn’t here. Instead, she turned up the volume on her office sound system to antagonize Farnum with gritty old blues music, a taste for which she developed while living in Tennessee.

No one around here had enough cultural sense to like the blues. She played “Big Boss

Man,” the original Jimmy Reed version:

Oh you ain’t so big

You just tall, that’s just about all.

A couple of minutes passed, and still no sign of Farnum. Lady called Rudy up front.

“Where is he?”

“Who?”

“Farnum! He’s not here yet. Did he get lost or something?”

“How would I know?”

Just then, her door nudged open a few inches and Pitch Farnum’s disembodied head poked inside, nearly scaring Lady out of her flats.

“Is this the right one?” Pitch asked.

“Never mind,” Lady whispered into the phone to Rudy Almond. “The Eaglet has landed. … Eaglet. Instead of Eagle. … No, it’s a reference—oh forget it. Go back to

Facebook, Rudy.” She hung up and shook her head.

Lady came over to greet her guest. She had seen Willburr Farnum countless times—on the Senate floor, in hearing rooms and hallways, on the Capitol subway, in the Senate dining room, and of course debasing himself on television. But they had never collaborated on anything, including a conversation. So why the last-day drive by?

They shook hands and sat down in the wing chairs opposite Lady’s desk. Farnum was well- and crisply attired as usual and seemed freshly washed even this late in the day. Trim and healthy, Lady thought. He had an open face and a sense of happy wonder in his eyes that seemed out of place in a grownup. A few locks from a thick head of hair dangled over his forehead like a cowlick, underscoring his boyishness. He seemed very approachable. Even better—and more unexpected—was his blessed lack of cologne.

There were times when you couldn’t spend five minutes on the Senate floor without your eyes burning from the fumes rising off members’ bodies. You could detect the Middle States delegation on its way from the Dirksen Building. “Memo to Capitol HazMat Team,” Pammy St. Pierre had once written. “That’s not a chlorine leak in the Cloak Room. That’s a Senate quorum.”
            Farnum seemed like a little boy in a big-boy suit. Charming yet vulnerable. Lady didn’t realize she was staring.
           “What. Is there bean soup on my tie?” Pitch asked, looking down his shirt.
            She caught herself. “Oh, no,” she said, touching Pitch’s arm reassuringly.        “Crazy day, that’s all.”
            Pitch looked around. Half the office was boxed up; the other half was spilled across the carpet waiting to be boxed. “Looks like the last day of summer camp,” he said.
           Lady almost fell off her wing chair. “Except I bet you’re not going to miss any of us.”
           She smiled.
           “We thought you got lost,” she said.
           “I think I did,” Pitch replied. “Your chief of staff even drew me a map.” He held up a slip of paper with a sketch of the map. “Guess it didn’t help. I usually need a GPS to get out of my driveway.”
           Isn’t your office identical to this one?” Lady asked, amused.
           “Well I suppose if you—” Pitch rotated the map to orient it to the office. “If you turn it this way or—or if you go—Oh whatever,” he finally said, crumbling up the map and jamming it in his pants pocket. “I got here somehow. But I will need help getting out.”
           She laughed and reached for a paper clip from her desk to occupy her hands. She was nervous! They made small talk about legislation to keep the government afloat until the next crisis, their plans for the holidays, and what Lady would miss most about public office.
           “Nothing!” she said.
           “Nothing? I don’t believe it.”
           “Not a thing.”
           “The collegiality?”
           “Nope.”
           “The thinly veiled hostility?”
           “That’s the same thing.”
           “The inability to make a difference in a suffering world?”
           “Uh uh.”
           “The smell of the Middle States delegation?”
           “Definitely not that!” She couldn’t believe he said that!
           They laughed some more.
           Lady was glad Pitch hadn’t raised the dead Graham Gramm, even in passing. The way people would work him into conversations always seemed aimed at reminding Lady of how she had gotten to the Senate—on the back of her husband’s corpse. It happened in almost every debate: The minute she gained ground on a point, an antagonist would resurrect “the memory of your late-husband” to shut her up. As if any one of them had gotten here on merit.
           Pitch’s cologne quip reminded him of an anecdote. In his first month here, he had developed an itchy rash on the left side of his face and neck every time he attended a hearing of the Tropical Air-Transport Subcommittee.

“It was the strangest thing. The second I sat down—the very second—my neck and cheek would just flame up. Just the one side, though. I thought I had that flesh-eating disease.” He scratched at his neck in memory of the horror. “It was embarrassing! And so uncomfortable.”
           Lady finally understood why people took an easy liking to Pitch Farnum: He was easy to like. He was sincere and innocent and a little needy. He wanted you to like him. She could also see how his need to be liked could get him into trouble on the Hill and with the White House since he tended to oversubscribe his franchise to make friends. It made him the hardest vote to count since you never knew how many conflicting promises he had made.
           “And then one day I finally realized that it was Lucille Smoot’s perfume that was giving me hives. She always sat to my left!”
           “No!”
          “I kid you not!” He held up two fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
           “You weren’t a Boy Scout! … Were you?”
           “Well, no, I wasn’t. But if I had been—”
           “Oh stop!”
           “I don’t know how to stop. That’s my problem. Don’t you watch the news?” They laughed. Lady said she had her own Lucille Smoot story.

“Is it about Lucille propositioning you?” Lady’s jaw dropped. “Because we’ve all heard it. Lucille tells it all the time.”

“Really?”

“Mm hm.”

“I can’t believe it!”

“How else would I know?”

“But I didn’t tell anyone!”

 “Boy, you really don’t belong here.”

“I take that as a compliment.”

“That’s how I meant it.”

This whole conversation was rattling Lady’s confidence in her ability to judge character. “Can I tell you something?”

“Oh please do!”

“You don’t look at all like a ‘Willburr.’ I mean, when you hear ‘Willburr,’ you

think Charlotte’s Web. It sounds like—”

“A yokel in overalls and knee-deep in pigshit?”

“Yes! And yet you’re not even wearing overalls.”

“But I could be a yokel in pigshit.”

“We are in Washington, Senator.”

“Agreed!”

Pitch explained that “Willburr” was his countercultural parents’ idea of an inside joke—a literary reference by which they had hoped, not very seriously, to imbue their first and only child with the beatnik spirit, “Willburr” being a contraction of “William

Burroughs.”

“William Burroughs—Will Burr. Get it?” he said. “Pretentious, I know. And evidently not very effective given how unliterary I turned out.”

“So they weren’t yokels?”

“Drew and Lena? Good God, no. They wouldn’t have known an udder from an otter if you had shown them pictures and pointed them out.”

“Speaking of bohemian, I sometimes feel like we’re living Naked Lunch around here,” Lady said. “It can be a very seedy place.”

Pitch liked the idea of a naked lunch with Lady Gramm. Or dinner, breakfast or late-night snacks, naked or fully clothed. She had such a unique manner and style, and she seemed to enjoy their conversation. But he didn’t see where nude meals fit into the

conversation.

She noticed his confusion. “Naked Lunch?” she said. “The novel? By Burroughs?”

“Oh right. Him! The guy we’re talking about! Will Burr.” Pitch confessed that he

had never read anything by William Burroughs.

“The funny thing about Drew and Lena?” he said. “They started out as hippie-freak-beatnik types, bound for the ashram and share-the-land and whathaveyou. But they were always such searching types, and they ended up doing a complete philosophical three-sixty.”

“Wouldn’t that have brought them back full circle?”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” She asked how his parents had changed so dramatically.

“They became born again.”

“Really!”

“Yep. Found the Lord. Did it when I was in middle school.”

“That’s fascinating that they would undergo such a turnabout.”

“I guess. But when you’re in eighth-grade and mostly interested in girls and social survival, the fascination value of having nut-job parents can be elusive. I always wished they had stayed hippies. It would’ve made high school so much easier.” He paused. “Of course, I’m still interested in girls, but apparently not so interested in social survival.”

“The press can be pitiless,” Lady said.

Pitch shrugged.

Lady asked a few more questions about his parents. Did they make him go to church every Sunday? Did he have to pray every day? Did any of it rub off on him? Did they proselytize?

“Oh no, not at all,” he said. “They were born again, but they were too well-bred for cramming it down everyone else’s throats. Is it ‘everyone else’s throat’ or ‘everyone else’s throats’?”

“I’d say ‘throat’ since each person only has one.”

“Right. But cows have four stomachs. Isn’t that interesting? Anyway, it was mostly a personal thing for them. They read the Bible constantly, but they never pressured me to get with the program. I think they just hoped that if they read it aloud around me often enough—”

“Aloud?”

Pitch nodded and finished his thought. “Then some of it would sink in.”

“Did it?”

“I think we both know the answer to that question. Deep down, I’m very shallow.

But I can still quote tons of passages by heart.”

“Let’s hear.”

Pitch leveled a firm but caring gaze at Lady. “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.’ Leviticus 19:18.”

“I’m impressed! Although I’m not sure anyone around here subscribes to that view.”

“It’s not a very Christian place, is it. Except on Election Day: ‘Please, God. Let me win just one more term and I swear I’ll work for the public weal!’ Honestly, sometimes this place seems more like a revival meeting than a legislative chamber.”

Lady said that she had heard a lot of political gossip over the years, but nothing about this aspect of Pitch’s background. Pitch said he rarely spoke about it because people would assume that Drew and Lena were right-wing nuts and that he was homeschooled and, thus, an uneducated idiot. “Which isn’t true at all: I was never homeschooled.”

“Oh stop it,” Lady threw the paper clip at him. It hit Pitch on the tip of the nose.

“Hey! I come to say goodbye and you assault me with an alloy projectile? Those things are manufactured in my state, by the way.”

Lady said she didn’t like it when people bad-mouthed themselves unless they

deserved it.

“Thanks for the compliment,” Pitch said. “It is a compliment, right?”

Lady asked Pitch where his parents were now. Pitch said they were Members of the Assembly of God.

“That’s in Arlington?”

“That’s six feet under.”

“Oh Jesus, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be, unless it was your fault. Which I doubt since they died in a car wreck on Route 1 in East Brunswick, New Jersey, many years ago.”

“What happened?”

“They were heading to a retreat when a dump truck tipped over and fell onto their car. Crushed ’em like bugs.”

“Oh that’s just awful!”

Pitch brushed it off. “People get so uptight about death. But we’re all going sooner or later, right? Ashes to ashes and blah to blah and blah blah blah.”

True enough, Lady thought, but she’d rather go almost any other way than getting

crushed to death under a garbage truck. In New Jersey.

Lady had always thought that in men, self-deprecation was a contrivance and, usually, a reverse indicator of character: the more self-deprecating, the bigger the id; the bigger the id, the bigger the idiot. But Pitch Farnum struck her as sincerely unimpressed with himself. Maybe when your church-crazy parents get flattened by solid waste on the way to a Jesus retreat, there’s not much to be haughty about. Or maybe Willburr Farnum

was the one case of a politician who really was getting an unfair rap from the press.

It was an hour before they realized how long they had been talking. It was late afternoon in December and the windows were already dark outside, but it was bright, warm and cozy in here. It was the most pleasant hour Lady Gramm had spent in this unpleasant job.

“So what do you think of magpies?” Pitch asked.

“Pardon?”

Pitch checked his watch. “I’m due at a Birds Without Borders rubber-chicken dinner in a few minutes, although I doubt they’ll actually serve chicken. I’m guest of honor, no less.”

“The avian-rights group?”

“Tonight we’re honoring the kakerori of the Cook Islands. Spectacular plumage.”

“You’re leaving now?” Lady was incredulous, not that Pitch was leaving in the middle of a wonderful conversation—although that, too—but that he was going to a fundraiser for birds that were not native to his home state just as the Senate was about to consider a funding bill to keep the government operating for the next month, and the vote was expected to be close. Every member of Congress had been whipped and rewhipped. More importantly, camera crews were crammed in front of the briefing room podium, which members would troop up to for their soundbites. 

“You’re going to miss out on all that,” Lady said. “Even I’m going to be there.

And I stopped caring three weeks ago.”

“No biggy,” Pitch said. “I’m overexposed anyway. Besides, I hate all that budget stuff. I just don’t have a head for numbers.”

“I got that impression when you said your parents did a three-sixty instead of a one-eighty,” Lady said.

“I guess I’ll never be Fed chairman. Exactly what I do have a head for …” he

trailed off.

Lady reached for the stapler. “Don’t make me do it!”

Pitch threw his hands up in defense. “OK! OK! I withdraw the comment!”

They stopped talking for a moment, and it was quiet but for the music playing in the background. It was Buddy Guy, singing “My Time After a While.”

“That’s a funny song,” Pitch said. “He sounds very angry. Like someone done

him wrong. Is it done him wrong, or did him wrong?”

Lady smiled. She asked if he liked the blues. Not particularly, he said. It was lonely music, and he didn’t care to be reminded about that aspect of the human condition.

“Well, we certainly don’t want you to be lonely.” She got up to turn off the music

player.

“Khabubbala’s becoming big fan of the blues. Or so Senator Horvath says,” Pitch said. “Isn’t that odd? Although I suppose there’s plenty to be blue about in a place like

Chechibennigan. Such poverty.”

Lady was having trouble with the music player. “For something that’s supposed to be so simple to use, it can be pretty difficult to use. Where’s the damn on/off button?”

“Just pull the plug out. That’s what I always do.”

“I won’t get electrocuted?”

“Not if you’re wearing rubber-soled shoes.”

“Fat chance!” Lady grabbed the cord, shut her eyes, looked away, and yanked the plug out of the wall.

She survived, but the music was still playing. They looked at each other and simultaneously said: “Batteries!”

She pulled out the batteries and sat back down, but with a bewildered look on her face. “I meant to ask you something. About something you said a minute ago. But I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. What were we just talking about?”

“I think you suggested that we get naked and have lunch. I felt very

uncomfortable.”

“Oh I’ll bet. My God, what’s that noise?” Lady said. “Is that you?”

“Oops,” Pitch said, placing a hand over his stomach. “I think so.”

“Didn’t you have lunch? Clothed or naked?”

Pitch looked discomfited. “I sometimes forget.”

“You forget to eat? You must be famished!”

“I am a little lightheaded. That happens when I don’t eat. It also happens when I do eat,” he joked.

Lady reached into the mini-fridge she kept next to her desk and handed Pitch an oat bar, an apple and a bottle of water. “Here, take these. They’ll get you through your

bird bash.” Pitch grimaced at the pun.

“You’re sure you can’t come?” he said. “I bet the kakerori would like you just as much as I do.”

“Oh no, I—really, I can’t. The budget vote and the packing and all. But thank you.” She had no idea why she said no when she wanted to say yes.

They walked to the door and shook hands. “Thank you so much for coming by,

Senator,” Lady said, immediately realizing that this was the kind of pablum you’d say to hustle out a constituent.

Pitch closed his eyes and lifted his chin, as if searching for a thought. Having found it, he opened his eyes and looked squarely into Lady’s.

“ ‘I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem: but I will return again unto you, if God will.’ Acts 18:21,” he said, and finished with a bow.

“That’s a beautiful quote. And a lovely sentiment.”

“See? It’s in there someplace.” He put a finger to his temple. “Just takes some jostling to get to it.” He said he could find his way out. “I hope!”

Lady stood in the doorway and watched Willburr Farnum step down the corridor. He had such an easy gait. He was so comfortable in his own skin. What a gift, she thought.

“I’m not really going to Jerusalem!” he called out over his shoulder. “It’s just a quote!”

“I know! You’re going to the bird show! Save the kak!”

“Save the kak!” He turned right at the end of the hallway.

“Left!” Lady corrected. “Left!”

Lady loved to wander over that memory, particularly now, when the world was being so unfair to Pitch, one of the sweetest souls on earth. And being set up in a phony sex scandal involving panty models but no sex qualified as unfair.

“Oh, Pitch,” she said as she watched the cheese tape. “Oh dear, sweet, good Pitch.

Screwed again.”

Pitch had overcome the frat-house episode. But this was going to be a steeper climb. Not only did it seem part of a pattern of behavior, but this time he wasn’t a garden-variety politician pressing the flesh a little too conspicuously. This time he was the president’s nominee to head the Federal Reserve, a global position of public trust that required dignity, decorum, character, composure and pants. It was nothing like Congress.

Jay Buckman also knew that it would be different. He knew it the second the cheese tape fell into his lap inside a clasp envelope, courtesy of his absconded friend

Denny Dash of Felcher Communications Corp.

Even The Journal, which so recently had been so high on Pitch Farnum, turned on him. The editorial page lowered Pitch’s political credit from Triple A to Triple D— “approximately the cup size that figured so prominently in Messr Farnum’s recent spectacle of vulgarity.”