The clock ticked.
A tree branch tapped on the windowpane.
Sunk deep into the cushions of the chair, the woman listened as the ticking and the tapping composed a certain staccato rhythm, like the sound of several hammers driving nails into wood. She looked out at an ashen sky above a pale city of marble columns, which buildings were set in neat little rows and square little blocks. Like mausoleums in a cemetery, she thought dreamily. She had lost the feeling of her body in the depths of the chair, and she felt her mind drifting, empty, before the illusionary infinity of the sky.
Then her eyes were struck by the vision of a white obelisk in the distance.
Tap, tap … Tick, tick … Tap … Tick, tick … Tap, tap … Tick, tick.
Have to move, the woman thought suddenly, fiercely, her eyes locked on the thin, white monument. Have to move, goddamnit! And she flung herself up from the chair. Standing, she wrapped her arms around herself. She felt her hands squeezing her shoulders. No movement, she thought. No reason to move. Complete security. Nonexistence. So that’s what death is like. She began to pace. She looked again at the bleak November sky. I’ll make a fire, she thought, glancing again at the white monument. I’m cold … and … and … with as little hope as he must have had. She felt the blood coursing through her legs as she walked purposefully over to the fireplace.
As it roared to life, the warmth she felt from the fire was made visible in the room. It became a living presence in the golden glow moving across the mahogany tables, the glass curios, the bookshelves, a vase filled with freshly cut flowers sitting atop a piano. She smiled, looking at the bundle of colors on the tips of the long, green stems. Then she remembered, and her smile vanished. It was ten years ago, spring, Greenwich Village, Washington Square—she was running across the park, like running inside an emerald, she thought…
“Hey! Even New Yorkers aren’t in that damn much of a hurry.” He was tall, slim and laughing at her as she sat there looking at his smile—both of them sprawled on the ground.
“I’ve got to get to work. I can’t be late, ” she’d spluttered angrily, trying to collect both her wits and the things which had spilled from her purse. “There’s to be a huge wedding and …uh…”—it was then that she’d noticed his face—”I’m in charge of the floral arrangements.”
“Life’s too short to rush like that,” he’d joked as he got to his feet.
“Life’s too short not to. I’m going to own that florist shop, or one like it, someday. And this is my first payment—in experience.”
She started to turn away when he grabbed her arm.
“Can I come to your wedding?” he asked impishly. “I can bring you a lot of business. I’m running for city alderman, ” and he went on hastily when he saw her frown. “There’s always functions … once I’m elected, that is, and … and functions need flowers.”
“Sure you’re not just interested in doing a little campaigning?”
“Only with one person.”
The woman smiled to herself as she reached into her purse.
“Here’s my card. Call me in an hour, and I’ll give you directions. Now I’ve really must go!” she said, starting away.
Then she stopped abruptly, spun around and kissed him impulsively. “Life too short not to,” she’d called out as she dashed across the park, disappearing in a streak of sunshine yellow, which was the cab she’d hailed.
Some campaign, she thought bitterly as she heard the wood crackle and pop in the fireplace. She’d gotten the shop, but it had been a little sooner than she’d anticipated. Actually, a lot sooner. She thought she’d just gotten lucky when the owner had come to her with an offer. She’d told John, who was now a duly elected city alderman, and he’d told her she should be happy. But when she’d heard the amount of the offer, she was shocked. Ill health had been the owner’s excuse for the ridiculously low selling price. She offered more, as much as she could afford.
“I want to feel as if I’ve earned this,” she’d told her, and wondered why the owner had looked at her so strangely.
It was only later, several years later, that she’d learned the owner had been forced to sell as the result of a threatened building inspection. It was an inspection the owner knew in advance that her building would fail. If Victoria had only known. The day she’d closed the purchase on the shop was the day John had asked her to marry him. She’d said yes. Life finally seemed not too short any longer.
“I just wanted to get you everything you needed, Tory,” he’d told her when she’d found out the truth. “Why should you have to suffer and struggle for a measly flower shop? So I had a talk with the owner. I just wanted to take care of you, to give you the kind of security I want everyone to have.”
Victoria Remington looked at herself in the mirror above the fireplace. I should have left him when I found out, she thought. Why didn’t I? Because I wasn’t sure that he’d actually been the one responsible. He’d told her that gossip at city hall had alerted him to the coming inspection. Later, when she’d found out the truth, she’d become too consumed by her work to care. Her work was the only way that she survived, the only way she kept from despising herself. But over the years she found herself fighting a lethargy that threatened to consume her.
Still, I sold the damn shop, she thought with an angry pride. It was this angry pride that had eventually saved her this afternoon as she sat by the window and contemplated her own suicide.
After the florist shop, she took up the study of law with the money she’d made from the sale, an amount equal to that which she’d paid. When she opened her practice, it flourished almost immediately. Suspicious, she traced one of the clients, then another and still another. They were all men with nothing in common, except that they owed favors to John Remington. That was when the angry pride first took hold of her. She slaved to build a legitimate practice. After that, life was a blur. John’s political ambitions were being realized and, quite apart from them, she was becoming a success. Then came the trip to Albany and the State House. Then, the U.S. Senate and D.C.—the city of mausoleums—where her professional associations eventually extended to the House Speaker and the Vice President, both members of the party that did not include John Remington.
She walked across the room to the piano and pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse. It was something John had tried to get her to quit. She smiled, feeling a kind of rebellious independence as she took the first drag. Then she saw the gun. She remembered placing it there last night. She snapped the purse shut. She could hear John’s voice telling her that she shouldn’t own one.
“We have bodyguards if you go out, ” he shouted during an argument. “What the hell do you need a gun for, Tory?! You know my stance on firearms. How in the hell are we ever going to have any sense of security in this country if people are allowed to carry guns?”
Victoria Remington smiled as she exhaled the smoke from her cigarette; it curled around a stack of books lying on the piano. They were books about how excess freedom —particularly excess economic freedom—threatened a nation’s security. Security had been John Remington’s campaign commitment—economic security, psychological security, emotional security. He’d been elected to make people feel safe, to take the risk out of their lives, to envelope them—like soft cushions—in the peace which his kind of security brings. Many men who have come to Washington have sold out for money or influence or prestige. But not John Remington. He’d kept his promise with a ferocious will, like that of a medieval monk who swears his life to his god. And to his god John Remington offered not only his soul, but that of the nation’s; his countrymen came willingly to serve that god—and to serve John Remington. He’d found that promises of security—not money, influence or prestige—were the surest route to power.
Victoria crushed out her cigarette in the ashtray. She saw the headlines of a newspaper that lay folded on the piano stool. She’d been glancing at it all morning, looking at it from across the room, turning and staring down at it through whiffs of smoke, playing a kind of hide-and-seek in her mind about its implications The headlines announced a forthcoming press conference by Senator John Remington in which, it was speculated, he would announce his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States.
She could no longer hide from herself her thoughts; after ten years she could no longer defer judgment. She stood there beside the piano, her hand still outstretched toward the round, black ashtray. She looked at her past stretched before her mind’s eye, at the books piled on the piano, at the headlines of the newspaper. She heard the clock ticking, the branch tapping against the glass. It’s like nails being driven into a …
Very deliberately, Victoria finished stubbing the cigarette butt. She had reached a verdict. The flowers were a blur of color in her vision as she swung around to grab her purse. She stopped short, her eyes fixed on the object in the window. A ray of sunshine had broken through a crack in the gray wall of clouds, causing the obelisk in the distance to look like a radiant sword. She bowed her head slightly, momentarily closing her eyes, as a kind of salute, and then strode out of the room.
The press conference that had been called that afternoon was in the rotunda of the Capitol. Reporters surrounded John Remington, who stood behind a picket fence of microphones, smiling boyishly. None of them noticed the ramrod straight figure of a woman in high heel pumps and a gray business suit walking toward them. Shafts of light streamed in through the windows from all sides of the building; like spotlights they illuminated Victoria as she cut through the mob of journalists to finally stand before her husband. Never taking her eyes from his surprised face, Victoria opened her purse.
“Darling, ” she said loud enough for the microphones to pick up, “I just wanted to tell the nation how I felt about your announced candidacy this afternoon. You don’t mind, do you?”
Before her husband could answer, she’d pulled a piece of paper from her purse and turned toward the gathered newspapermen.
“Ladies and gentlemen, our nation was founded on the right of liberty. It has prospered because such a right is the greatest security a nation can possess. It insures that men are free to think and, therefore, to prosper. Before you stands a man who would do your thinking for you and in so doing create for you a placid, mindless state of contented slavery. That’s a risk I’ll never permit myself to take. And so I’m announcing that I intend to run for the Office of President of the United States. Incidentally, I understand the Vice President and the Speaker of the House, both of whom I have just spoken with before coming over here, will be endorsing my candidacy. That’s all I have for you now. Oh”—and, as if it were an afterthought, she turned toward her husband, who stood in stunned silence, and said, “By-the-way John, I’m also filing for a divorce.”
As Victoria walked through the rioting reporters, she opened her purse and replaced the piece of paper beneath the gun. My aim couldn’t have been better, she thought smiling.
“What’s your hurry, Miss Remington? ” one reporter called out after her.
“Life’s too short not to, ” she replied over her shoulder, as the automatic doors of the Capitol opened, revealing in the distance a sun drenched Washington Monument.
©1996 by Steven Brockerman. All rights reserved