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humor — classics

Prelude to an Execution

14 min read

From the archives. Originally published March 31, 2008.

Her hands were still trembling as she reached for the closet door. As she touched the knob, the thin gold watch loosely encircling her wrist slid forward, ever so slightly, and it felt too cold and too heavy, like a handcuff. She turned the knob, and opened the door.

The closet was cool, and smelled faintly of dust. On the right side, her husband's clothes; on the left and along the back wall, her own. She flipped on the light; a simple bulb reflected itself in several pairs of shoes, lined up underneath the skirts and dresses as the only visible features of a ghostly chorus line. A stack of impeccably clean suitcases near the door tickled her face with the smell of leather. They were probably the most used things in the whole closet... weekends, campaign trips, strange hotels in strange cities. She was exhausted, just thinking about it. Too many damn trips. Too much smiling, even when there was nothing to smile about. Too much pretending to like crabcakes, or stuffed artichokes, or whatever else found its way with too much self-important pomp and bother to a plate in front of her. And too many damn barbecues... seemingly hundreds of barbecues, or maybe thousands, all interchangeable at this point, all with the same extra-heavy paper plates and red-and-white checkerboard tableclothes, but each hundreds of miles away from the other, as if it were the same traveling barbecue, a living thing, wandering from town to town, calling to each community with its quiet siren song of banjo plucking and harmonica blowing.

She stood before the lines of clothes, and contemplated what to wear. What does one wear to an execution?

The usual handlers had already talked to her, even while her face was still warm and flushed, but for the life of her she could not remember what they had said. The whole premise was so absurd... she had nodded along, she had asked questions, she had understood the logic behind every statement, but now that they had gone she could not remember a single word of it. There was a "specialist", too... someone national, whose face she knew but now could not quite recall... she had shaken his hand. He gave a dizzying array of orders, all delivered rapidly, authoritatively, but in a soft, monotonous, nearly bored voice. But what had he said? The others -- she knew them, she spoke with them nearly every day. What had they said, in the living room? Should she call them back, and have them say it all again? No, no time for that. And no energy. It was time to get ready, and that was that.

Cynthia, she thought to herself. I should call Cynthia -- she would know. She did this two months ago, she would know what to wear and how to act. She had such grace, and such class... but no, of course, she was gone now. The phone number had gone away, the old house was empty. She had gone from dear friend to just being... gone. Absent.

Maybe one of the black dresses, she thought. Black was an appropriate, somber color. But it also reeked of defeat, and of cold finality. She did not want to give such easy satisfaction. There would be no crying, today, and no mourning. Not a black dress sort of day.

It was to be at three o'clock. Too early for dinner clothes... that eliminated this dress, and this one, and this one, and these other three. What about a sundress? The light blue one, the one that was the color of the sky, with the ribbon around the waist? She loved that dress; it was a veteran of countless barbecues. It was definitely a lucky dress, too, considering it had survived the constant threat of barbeque sauce for that long and yet survived. A little luck was what was needed, but... hmm.

No, not the blue one. It wasn't really luck that was needed today. Today was a "message" day. She remembered that much, from the handlers and consultants and the specialist. She was supposed to convey a message, one of... she paused in her thoughts, straining to remember even a single snippet of the conversation... resolution. Resolve. Yes, resolve, that was it. Strength, and resolve, and determination, and pride and all the things she desperately wanted to feel, right now at this moment, things she longed for, those things needed to be shown even while she was standing at the gallows, even though she did not feel any of it, not yet, and had not even had time to feel any of it, herself. She needed to show all those things, and it all needed to be distilled down to a few articles of silent clothing. The clothing would do the talking, even while she stood silent. The clothing had more right to speak than she did today, she smirked darkly, and she was happy for a brief moment, happy that she could have a moment of quiet, bitter humor, all to herself. It made her feel like herself again.

There is no sterner duty of a political wife than to stand behind her husband, in the hours after her husband has been exposed to be a whoring, pandering, balding fraud. All the barbecues in the world, all the fundraisers, all the excruciatingly, agonizingly pleasant conversations with important people and unimportant ones -- it was all preseason nonsense, a preparation for the big game, that one (hopefully one, she thought to herself) eventual day when the curtain would be pulled back to reveal the one, darkest secret of any life, political or otherwise, no matter what that secret was or how long it had been kept. For some it was drugs, for a select few it was diddling poolboys or some other repulsive bullshit, but for most it was merely whoring around. She was lucky, in that regard, she supposed. He could have been caught in a tent with ten boy scouts, or with a nose full of powder -- she had been in politics long enough to know, she knew every story this town had to offer, both the true ones and the false ones and the ones inbetween -- but she had gotten lucky, and it had turned out that her own husband's tragic flaw was the most common one, and the most forgivable one, to others, and the one that hardly raised an eyebrow anymore. He simply liked going to whores.

The town would forgive him for that, and probably long before she did. No, no doubt he would be redeemed and resurrected soon enough... but if she ran him over twenty times with the Ford Explorer, one afternoon when the kids were at school, she would be the one they tut-tutted at. She laughed again, and this one almost came out her lips, but it could not quite make it and instead came out like a small, burping cough.

What about the burgundy blouse? It was classy... she pushed other clothes aside, to get a better look at it. Yes, maybe that would work. She filed it into a mental "maybe" pile, for the moment, and fingered through other things.

Nothing slutty. The last thing she needed was for the world to think her husband was sex-obsessed, a man she had tried valiantly to satisfy but had failed. Even if he was, that was not the message for today. But nothing dowdy either -- God, that would look all to the world like she was the prissy, sexless prop that political wives were constantly pretending at being. No wonder he went to whores, they all would tutter. No church dresses, none of the goddamn grandma clothes she had gotten to wear in the smaller towns. There was a balance, here. What did the consultants say, again?

She knew why he had done it. He didn't have to explain. He was, she knew, that sort of person, and she did not even begrudge him it -- she understood, mostly. It didn't mean she couldn't be angry. It didn't mean she could not feel betrayed. She could feel all these things, and she promised herself she would revel in them, she would spill his blood in her dreams a thousand glorious times, and she would make the morning coffee bitterly, eye-wateringly strong for a month and say absolutely nothing if he complained. She would not leave, but goddamn it, she would make him pay. There was a toll to be paid, after all the cameras had gone away and the microphones had been unplugged. He knew it, and she knew it, and she thought maybe the specialist from out of town knew it too, though he did not speak a word about it.

One of these blouses might work... gawd, not this one. Maybe this other one...

He had done it as an expression of power. He had slept with his whore simply because it was wrong for people to sleep with whores, and so he did it anyway because he was better than other people, and deserved more than they did. She had seen it ever since the first election, ever since the consultants started paying him ever more frequent visits, and with every minor scrap of power or victory she watched him become more comfortable with power and victory. To him, having a whore was just like having a reserved parking spot. It was a symbol of those things he should be granted that others were not, because his hands were the hands helping to guide the country. It was a perk of the job, an expected benefit of having to be in charge of so much, and work so hard, and shake so many hands in so many counties for so many reasons.

Certainly, it was about sex, but it was every bit as much about owning his environment. This was his town, at least in a proportion equal to his votes. He was its guiding force; the people, his disciples. She honestly believed he saw nothing wrong with visiting a whore because he was surrounded by whores. Every person who walked in his office was a whore, for something. Every aide he had existed only because of him; every meeting he had revolved around what he wanted, and how he could be served. And all these whores, and all this whoring, it was all good, because it helped the people. He was not King of the Whores, he was a leader of the people, and it was his duty to get these things done.

God, she thought to herself. Have I become like that too? The thought startled her. He was a good man... no, he is a good man, still, even today. If he could not see it happening, what if she was the same? Was she a whore, too? Were all the dishonest smiles, all the handshakes when there was nothing more substantial to say than to admire the weather or the decor, those were all so dishonest... was she the same?

For the first time, she felt true fear, and it rose to a near-panic. The closet tightened and became coffin-like, and she found it difficult to breathe.

No, she said firmly. I am not like that. There is a big difference, there is a huge fucking difference...

She had to sit down. For a few minutes, she thought about nothing. No thoughts, no anger, no remorse. She sat, and listened to her own breath.

Maybe the blue sundress, after all... but Cynthia, where are you? Why did they send handlers, I don't need handlers, I need someone who knows what to do... I'm supposed to wear something, what is it? I can't speak, I can't cry, I can't look angry, I can't smile even if I wanted to, all I am supposed to do is get dressed, get driven to a building full of cameras and stand on my mark. That's all I am supposed to do. The only thing I have to do is dress myself, for the rest of it I can be a dead-eyed doll, I'm supposed to be a dead-eyed doll, I'm not supposed to talk or cry or even look anyone in the eye. Like a geisha, that's what they want? How the hell did you do it, Cynthia, and what did you do afterwards? How do you go from normality to the gallows, in a span of twenty four hours? Fuck what I think about him, how do I look myself in the eye, after all of this?

She looked around, ostensibly to find a dress. It was all so pathetic. She was having her own Shakespearian play, in the confines of her bedroom closet. All of life is a play, and here she is, backstage, a play within a play. The only true plays are those that happen without the makeup, without the lights. Everything else is just for show. She could live a hundred years, she could marry the goddamn King of Siam, but in the end she would just be another nameless person sitting in despair in her own closet, no different from anyone else. She laughed, and it came out as an actual laugh, this time. At least she was alive. At least this was a true feeling, and not stage direction. When she was in front of the cameras, she was to be nothing more than a prop, but here in her own damn closet she could feel or think whatever she wanted to, and it was a glorious feeling.

There was a soft knock on the bedroom door. "It's almost time," a female voice said, "we need to leave in ten minutes."

"All right, I'm just getting ready."

It was technically true, she thought. She was getting ready. Not making much progress, on the clothes front, but "getting ready" meant a lot of things, and she was doing all of them except the part about actually getting dressed. But now it was almost time to go, and there was no more time to be ready. It had to be now.

She stood up. What did the handlers say? What did that goddamn specialist say, the one who drove in just for this? Did he tell Cynthia what to do? How many others? Did he really make his career off of just this?

No talking. No answering questions. My duty, my only duty, is to be a terra cotta warrior standing stoically behind the very important, very remorseful whoring husband. No looking any reporters in the eye, or looking directly at any camera. Hold his hand, walking out. Stand behind him, and to the right. I am allowed to hug him if I want to. I can leave afterwards, but through a back entrance, and only after it has been cleared of reporters. Rachel will drive me there, Mark and Rachel will make sure I get where I need to go and come back without incident. There won't be any reporters at the house -- that's already been worked out.

So the only thing I have to do is dress myself. That's it. That is the only decision left to me, the only thing I am responsible for. Nothing slutty. Nothing too conservative. Nothing that is inappropriately festive, or too morbidly sorrowful. No store in the entire town has a section of clothes devoted to what you should wear when your famous husband has been caught whoring around the countryside like an oversexed dog -- but why the hell not? Maybe I should open a store like that, in this damn town I'd make millions.

She thumbed through the dresses, the blouses, the business suits. She lingered on none of them; all were wrong. The ones she didn't like, she couldn't bear to wear, and the ones she loved, she could not wear either... she could not associate one of her favorites with something like this, she did not want one of her favorite dresses associated with a day like this. I have to wear something. It has to show how I am feeling. It has to be true to me, not them. It is the only thing I can do, it is the only thing I am allowed to do. Everything else, I must do what they say. Yesterday, I learned my husband has been visiting whores for years. Today, his career is ruined and I am supposed to stand beside him and support him. There hasn't even been time to cry over any of it. Or hit him.

Her hands touched something... she remembered it, now. She had had it a long, long time.

Could she? To hell with the specialist, what would Cynthia think? Would she approve of this one?

She was ready. She got dressed; she was done at nearly the instant of the next knock at the bedroom door. It was time; she strode to the door, trembling but somehow with as much joy as tears, and opened it.

The figure on the other side fairly glowed.

"Cyn... thia?"

She did not know who had come to pick her up, to drive her to her flash-bulb execution, but whoever it was it looked like Cynthia. Like Cynthia at her finest, in fact; her face sharp and knowing, her mouth held in a tiny, narrow smile that always threatened to burst out into something much larger and grander. How she had longed to see that smile erupt, these last few months.

"It's time to go, are you ready?"

"I am."

The figure beamed, the eyes fiery and giddy. "All right, let's go."

The drive was uneventful, even pleasant. She rode in the back, and the figure that looked like Cynthia drove, and neither of them said a word. She was almost happy. She was not happy, but she could see being happy again, someday, and that was enough. She would survive. She would not be a Shakespearian figure in some other person's play, she would not end up like poor Ophelia, drowned in a pond.

The car arrived at the designated place, and floated into the underground parking garage like a silent bird. She walked through the catacombs of back corridors, her companion beside her, until they reached the door. Everything became dim, almost black... she heard voices, but they were not paying attention to her, nor she to them. This was the mausoleum, filled with the living dead. Her husband was there, eyes closed, collecting his thoughts, listening to a phalanx of ghostly handlers and strategists and aides. This was the final room, before the door was opened and she would be reborn, for better or for worse, into a new life. From coffin to daylight, in the span of an hour.

She could hardly hear or see anything. The figure that looked like Cynthia was gone... there were only quiet murmurs and shapeless, dark figures surrounding her. None paid her the slightest bit of attention; they were merely restless corpses, still mourning their own individual demises. Someone guided her to the door, a place just behind her husband. Remember to stand on your mark, a voice said. Everything will be fine.

The door opened, and her husband strode out with the pretense of purpose, and she followed behind without consciously being aware of taking the steps. She stood just behind her husband, to his right. Lightning flickered around her, countless flash bulbs blending together into one, unending bolt of electric light. Her husband began speaking, but she could not hear any of the words.

I am done, she said to herself. This is all I was asked to do; for the rest I can be a simple puppet. She had no notion of how long her husband's speech lasted, or what he said, or whether it sounded properly remorseful or contrite or whatever it was supposed to sound like. She still could not believe any of it, in truth. He had everything, he had worked so hard for everything, for so many years. He had a life that was nearly perfect, if too much work, a career that seemed at times to be supernaturally charmed, and he had thrown it all away for moments of anonymous sex with a whore that he wanted to momentarily own. The male sex drive must truly be an awesome thing, if it can responsible for that, she thought. It must be truly uncontrollable, one of the major forces of the universe, something that can bind stardust together and form planets, if a little sex is worth giving up all that. Cynthia had said something like that, once...

Her husband's speech ended, the sudden silence stirring her attention, but only barely. Still the lights and clicks and flashes continued, so the difference between him talking and not talking was a minor and pointless one. Apparently there were questions, now, though why on earth questions would be allowed seemed like a blunder on the part of the specialist. Too much faith in her husband's gifted tongue, perhaps. Whether planned or not, she faintly heard a reporter ask the first question...

"Sir, we can't help but notice that your wife is wearing an "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt... Do you think..."

She did not listen to the rest; she did not have to. All she had to do was stand beside her husband, look supportive, and not cry. She was not supposed to talk, or listen, or make eye contact with anyone; she only had to dress herself and stand there, like the specialist had told her to. She had done what she was told, and now she was done. She thought instead about what she would make for dinner... something simple, she thought. Pasta, maybe.


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