Monday, October 8, 2012

Former Presidents, the Painting, the Backpacker and the Banana All Lead to This

Logically, after three weeks of radio silence (the three weeks that we have been residents of Las Vegas), I should begin with the night before our move, sleeping on the floor, the entire house empty, and then the next morning, driving from Santa Clarita to Las Vegas, stopping in Barstow and Baker on the way, and, four hours later, reaching our new home, our mobile home.

But I can't. Not yet. I've an image I can't get out of my mind, and I need to write about it. However, it begins with something solved, the reason why, whenever I have a reasonable stretch of time, I log onto Amazon and watch 'The Stormy Present,' the episode of The West Wing that has President Bartlet, Former President Newman (James Cromwell), and Former Acting President Walken (John Goodman), flying to the funeral of President Lassiter, who, it seems to me, served eight years before Bartlet took office. Lassiter's presidential library is in Costa Mesa, California, and so we get these views of gardens, vines wrapped around poles, very pleasant, and very sad. I watch it all the time to absorb that atmosphere, to think about what it must be like for a former president to have his entire life and political career encapsulated in a library, a museum, a place for people to come and examine his life, however he, the library director, and other staff members, want the public to examine it. There are two books about post-presidential lives, one called Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies after the White House by Mark K. Updegrove, and the other called After the White House: Former Presidents as Private Citizens by Max J. Skidmore. I donated these two books to our future mobile home park, sending them along with Mom and Dad on what would be their final trip to Las Vegas as tourists, to cement our arrangements in moving here, to be sure that they were still holding property for us. It's a rental; no more dealing with a house, but just the same, we wanted to be absolutely sure that everything was ready, that we wouldn't have to stay somewhere else in the meantime. That would have been too much with two dogs and two birds in tow, as it was on the day we moved, September 14th, by the way.

I think I read Second Acts many years ago, but I need to reread it because yet again, I have an idea for another novel. I want to see where this one goes because there are two presidential history books I want to write, but this one can really get me into the area I want to be in. This spark began on Saturday, when we went to Colleen's, a consignment store in Henderson. (By the way, as a resident of Southern Nevada now, Henderson feels a lot more vast, a lot more spread out. It's good to visit, to pass through on the way to see Lake Las Vegas, as we also did on that same Saturday, or to visit Boulder City, but I'm glad we ended up where we are, surrounded by apartment complexes, another mobile home park nearby, and businesses all around.) We walked around, looking at bookcases and wooden wall units for living rooms, and dining room tables, and chairs, and recliners, and everything else that was being sold "as-is," "All Sales Final."

On the far back wall, way back, directly across from the front door, I saw a painting of a courtyard, with columns and vines and flowers, a small sliver of a lake showing, and a quiet, elegant white house pressed against the right side of the painting. I stared at it for a few minutes. Then I showed the painting to Mom, stayed a few minutes more after she left to look around some more, went back to Mom and Dad and Meridith to look at everything else the store had, then went back to the painting. What did it mean to me? Was it the presidential library aspect of that West Wing episode I was thinking of? Could this courtyard portrayed in this painting be part of a presidential library? Would any former president want something like this, so peaceful and unencumbered by who he once was?

Toward the end of our walkaround, Mom found a side table for $18 that she wants to put in a section of our home that needs something there. I'm not sure if she means next to the laundry room or somewhere in the hallway that leads to my room and Meridith's room, but her wanting that side table spurred me on. I went back to that painting, took it off the wall, and carried it back to where we all had been sitting. It was $38. Helen, who was a great help to us, did the figuring and the total, with 8.1% Clark County sales tax (worlds better than the 9.8475858757% sales tax prevalent in Los Angeles County), was $41. I didn't hesitate for a second in giving Helen my debit card. I needed this painting. It was mine.

Either later today, after Dad gets home from work, or during the week (he works from 7:15 a.m., I think, to 2 p.m.), we're going back to that Colleen's location to pick up the end table and the painting, since we couldn't take it with us right then because neither could fit in the trunk with all four of us in the car, still the PT Cruiser by the way, which Dad will soon trade in for another car.

Once I have the painting, I'll take a picture and post it here. I'm not sure yet where to hang it, since Mom likes it too. It may be best suited for the living room, and I'll be able to see it whenever I want, to probably study it even more closely than I already have.

The painting was only the beginning, though. Last night, at Smith's, which is our home supermarket (they have everything we need every week and the Kroger brand is excellent in cereal, yogurt, bottled water, and so many other things), Dad got ham, American cheese, olive loaf, head cheese, and Buffalo Monterey Jack cheese (for Meridith), and while that was going on, I went back to the produce section to get a slicing tomato for my daily salads. I had already gotten bananas, but I knew also that I needed to get a bag of Kroger spinach, which also has never steered me wrong in these three weeks, and I don't expect it to in the years to come.

I was examining the tomatoes, looking for the one with the least bumps or anything else on it, and a backpacker went to the bananas, the section right in front of me, took a small banana off a bunch, and presumably walked to the register. He had this look of grim confidence on his face. He looked like he didn't mind being alone, as he must be for days, maybe even weeks at a time. I wanted to know where he was going. Was he going to walk part of the way, get to the road where he knew the traffic was consistent, and hitchhike? Or was he heading for the Greyhound bus station on Fremont Street? Was he traveling the country? Did he have a destination?

I can't forget the vibe that came off of him, that utter self-sufficiency, like he knew to be wary of people, to rely on them insofar as conversation or brief company, but never placing his life in their hands. And I realized, watching him walk away, what I wanted to do: I want to write a novel about a former president. I want to research what Truman did, what Eisenhower did, what all the others did after they left office. How did they feel? Were they relieved? Did they miss having that power? Did they seek to keep people's attention on them or were they satisfied with relative obscurity? I want to know all of this, and then I want to tie it into what I think will be a story about a somewhat dissatisfied former president. Not so much dissatisfied with not being in power anymore, but not having been able to really do what he set out to do as president, what he was so passionate about that was lost in the screaming jet engine of the presidency. I'm not sure what that is yet, but it's part of what drives him in this novel, and I'm also going to research the cost of presidential libraries, wondering if the courtyard that's in my painting could actually be part of a presidential library. I'm also thinking of doing something with that house in that painting as part of this novel. Just yesterday alone, I devoured The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews by James Reston, Jr. It shows that not only do I need to dive deeply into my passions and stay there, but I need to see where this goes. Fictional presidents have always fascinated me as much as the real ones. Now I need to explore what I can possibly do with my own creation.