Volume 25, Number 3

Handle with Care

Martha Clarkson

Nancy Reagan gets out of the Secret Service Jeep that drove her cross-country to deliver her White House dishes to Michelle Obama. It’s not easy to get out of these new-fangled SUVs. She doesn’t fly anymore, and besides, she likes riding in the back seat surrounded by the hunks of men in black. Coils of wires snake up into their ears, making her think of Ronnie’s hairy ears, which she never minded.

The cargo in the back is the precious Lenox china, “Autumn Legacy,” which she designed, seventy-five place settings bought with taxpayer dough. She remembers the brouhaha and how she and her aide laughed behind thick oak doors about the idea the American people had that she could be stopped from revamping the White House. It was her house, after all. She wasn’t going to live in the decorating legacy of Jackie Kennedy. The ones in between, Pat and Ladybird … well, they were not a threat; the style-less manner in which they kept house was pervasive on all floors. Betty was either drunk or in rehab, and Roslyn out raising money for her mentals. Now, Michelle, she needs the right dishes. She’s just a child when it comes to this kind of thing, even if she was on the cover of every magazine during the inauguration. Gloves from J. Crew? That simply won’t do.

Nancy wasn’t planning to drive the dishes across the country for a Democrat. She’d already made the drive once, for Laura Bush. But when she arrived, Laura was out in the Rose Garden smoking a cigarette while her husband magneted any possible stray press cameras as he attempted to talk down the war protesters chanting around the front lawn. A cigarette … well, that isn’t acceptable for the First Lady. She’d almost not come anyway. A woman who uses dime-store makeup in the White House? A shame. But the smoking was too much; it certainly solidified her as an undeserving keeper of the Lenox, so she ordered the boys to turn around and hit the road, without ever offering the place settings to her Republican brethren. That time, they had a Lincoln limo; boy, wasn’t that the life. But budget cuts are making her share cars in the fleet, and the macho guys like Clinton and Obama want SUVs.

It might be the last First Lady she can give the china to; she realizes that. She’s no spring chicken. Or even a hagged-out old egg-layer you’ve had for years. She’s ancient. Yet while she can’t remember what she had for breakfast, she knows every inch of brocade on every velvet curtain in the “big house,” as she likes to call it. The ranch is fine, but the White House was home.

Michelle had better be there to accept it. She asked the boys to call ahead. The china won’t be easy to juggle, even for these strong hulks, but she’ll enjoy watching them convey the load like it’s the most precious cargo in the world. She’s sure Michelle has allowed in some dishes from Crate and Barrel or a Vera Wang pattern sold through Kmart. Michelle fancies herself a woman of the people, Nancy knows from Oprah. But that won’t do for a First Lady, who should plan to look down her nose at everyone.

Steve, the driver, is holding out his hand to help her down from the back seat. Steve has a football-player’s neck and the only purple ear cord. Sometimes he winks at her. The hatch is up, and Rod and Marcus, who are black, naturally hired to meet a quota, are discussing the boxes. At the Reagan Library’s basement, Nancy’s trustworthy caretaker, Orin, and his boys loaded up the dishes like they were newborns, shaking their heads at the SUV mode of transport for something so important. Orin checked and double-checked the final nesting of the boxes, which Steve had tried to interfere with, as if he worked for Lenox itself. Now here are Rod and Marcus, the third or fourth tier of security for an old First Lady like her, rubbing their chins over the mysteries of how much each box weighs and are they sturdy, probably also wishing they had afros and were marching to the reflection pool in some protest or other, which these fellas always seemed to be doing. But they are here in the White House drive, a big change from their California stations, and the new First Lady is coming out onto the porch, waving to someone—them, surely—from a long distance back, glamorous and friendly woman that she is. Nancy hears Marcus say, “S’all fine, Rodney. We can lug ’em no problem,” which is not reassuring. Back in her day, she would’ve heard her Sam Senior (because he was the oldest of the Service’s guards assigned to her, and there was more than one named Sam) look her in the eye, slightly bow, and say “If madam will allow me to transport the Lenox to safety.” Sam Senior had once grabbed her waist in a sidewalk skirmish in a crowd and held on a little long after the danger had passed.

Out of a White House door bounds Bo, the Obamas’ Labradoodle, with a Secret Service guy running after him, but not fast enough. Maybe the fitness program for security has been cut, waiting for tax hikes to reinstate it. Bo jumps up on Nancy’s tiny thighs in greeting. The exuberant, obviously untrained dog knocks her back in the direction of Marcus, just unloading the first box. Marcus has pored over the manuals with their list of “harms” he’s to protect her from, and falling is one. Reflexively he lets the box go to catch the First Lady (because this is how he thinks of her), knowing she’ll be light as a feather. He’s caught her before. Nancy hears the crash of the box hitting the pavement, the simultaneous sound of perfect porcelain becoming pieces, and thinks she might as well faint, as long as she’s there in Marcus’ arms. She doesn’t really need to talk to Michelle, who could be related to Marcus somehow for all she knows. From a sneak-a-peek eye, Nancy sees Michelle on the porch, waving to tourists clinging to the black fence. Michelle hasn’t even seen her, didn’t know she was coming. Steve had promised to call, but Steve was a clod, a cut-linebacker-from-Yale wanna-be. She lets her body go limp in Marcus’ arms, then mumbles, “Let’s go,” like she’s talking in her sleep. She has to get in the car before anyone sees the paw-prints on her yellow skirt. Lenox will remake the broken dishes, and already she’s designing the lit glass case they’ll be displayed in back at the presidential library in sunny California.