Volume 32, Number 2

Madam President, Crazy Skunk Lady

Marshall Geck

Everyone has heard of crazy cat ladies. I'm a crazy skunk lady. Not only that, I’m a crazy skunk lady and former president of the United States.

It all started after my successor’s inauguration. It was a cold, dreary January day in Washington, D.C., which was made infinitely more depressing by the fact that I was yielding the White House to a brash, unqualified, populist clown from the opposing political party. My staff and I could hardly speak his name without adding the word “imbecile.” I held my head high, but everyone in America knew I was humiliated. I could not wait to fly back to northern Maine and hide myself away in our secluded estate on the sea cliffs once the peaceful transfer of power was over.

But we never made it to the airport after the ceremony. Instead, we ended up on the bank of the Potomac River. A powerful and unexpected nor’easter caused a fifteen-car pileup on the I-395 bridge. Our black secret service SUV swerved to avoid a rear-end collision and delivered us a much more disastrous fate. The vehicle rolled over and went spinning side-over-side, straight through the guardrail.

I lost two things that day: my husband and my sense of smell. Mike was not wearing his seatbelt. Some example he was for the nation’s children. He went straight through the glass of the passenger side window and ended up some thirty feet away in the snow. It was a horrific, although quick, ending for him. Fortunately, I was strapped in, but this did not stop my head from bouncing off the roof of the vehicle like a pinball and damaging the part of my brain dedicated to olfactory functions. Nor did it stop the front passenger seat and the stocky secret service agent sitting in it from becoming unhinged, flying backwards, and crushing my legs.

The tragic loss of the country’s “First Man” and the critical injuring of the first woman president became an instant media obsession. News outlets across the country—national, local, community, independent—reported on my condition in real time. Every American could tell you which leg surgery President Deborah McMullen had undergone last, as well as recite which parts of her brain—the piriform cortex and the thalamus—had been most damaged. The nation watched from their living room TVs as I re-learned how to walk, speak coherently, and do basic things like dress myself. My popularity and approval rating went sky high—much higher than they ever had been while I was in office. But half the time I was too drugged on pain killers to appreciate it. I also was not well enough to attend Mike’s funeral, which his family members ordered to proceed without me since there was no telling when, or if, I would fully recover.

But recover I did. In fact, by all accounts, my recovery was a miraculous success. While most doctors expected me to be in rehabilitation for years, it took a mere 11 months before I was discharged and boarding a plane back home to Maine. An enormous crowd of supporters met me outside the hospital on the day I was finally allowed to go home. They cheered and clapped and waved handwritten signs of admiration as I exited the building on my wobbly legs and carefully climbed into the back seat of another secret service SUV. I smiled and gave them a thumbs up before closing the door. Even my imbecile successor, who accused me of unspeakable things on the campaign trail, subtly praised my resilience on social media.

At first, it was a rejoiceful homecoming. After nearly a year being surrounded by doctors, nurses, reporters and documentary filmmakers, I could not have been more relieved to return to the solitude of our estate on the sea cliffs. It was a cozy and comfortable refuge where I had escaped to recharge and regroup many times during my presidency.

Unfortunately, the relief was short lived. Our estate was an entirely different place without Mike around. The nurses and psychologists who visited periodically to check on my physical condition and conduct my ongoing cognitive rehabilitation therapy sessions were a poor substitute for the invigorating philosophical arguments and mischievous political scheming Mike and I used to enjoy. I also saw members of the press with less frequency as the story of my recovery faded from the news cycles, depriving me of the stimulation that comes from being constantly on camera. The secret service agents who guarded the perimeter of my estate, meanwhile, were more like ghosts than company. They gave the illusion of human presence without providing any meaningful interaction. And of course, Mike and I had chosen political ambition over children long ago, so there would be no visits from them.

But perhaps worst of all was realizing how many pleasant sensations around our estate—which I used to take for granted—were wasted on someone without a sense of smell. Gone were the fresh, salty scents of the sea that used to drift through our windows and beckon me out of bed every morning. My daily hikes through the woods were also much less fulfilling without the therapeutic aroma of pine and earth. And Maine lobster was nothing to get excited about when every bite tasted like rubber.

I tried to keep myself stimulated by following politics, but all too often I had to turn away from the news in anger. Every story was invariably about how my imbecile successor was working to undo yet another of my hard-fought policy accomplishments. With the lifeblood of politics drained from me, it was only a matter of time before I began to feel bored. After boredom came loneliness. After that, depression.

One cloudy morning, while alone on a cold, misty hike along the sea cliffs of our estate, I saw a black-and-white animal emerge from the forest and trot along the trail. I recognized the little creature right away. It was a skunk, and it was coming right towards me. Pre-crash Deborah would have instantly spun around and hightailed it back home. Neither rabies nor a horrendous stink was befitting of a president, past or present. But that day, my injured brain failed to trigger the compulsion to flee. Instead, I stood my ground and watched the fluffy animal fearlessly approach me with its tail held high. When it was about a foot away, it stopped and looked up at me curiously, perhaps baffled as to why I was not afraid. After deciding I was no threat, it did something I never expected. It circled my wounded legs and rubbed its head against them like an affectionate cat. I was stunned, but also intrigued. I leaned over and put my hand down. The skunk sniffed it cautiously at first, but then allowed me to stroke its velvet-soft head and back. We stood there enjoying each other’s company for several minutes before the friendly fuzz-ball made its way back into the woods.

The moment I got home, I started Googling. Amazingly, there was an entire hidden community of people who swear by skunks as doting pets. The more I read, the more fascinated I became.

Within the next two weeks, I had brought the first of the smelly critters into my home. His name was Ozzy. He was a classic, black-and-white striped skunk. A month later, I picked up Knut from the breeder. She was a stunning, all-white beauty. Next came Rubin, whose creamy beige-and-white fur made him resemble a cappuccino. Prior to my newfound interest in the furry mammals, I never knew such color combinations even existed in skunks. This only served to deepen my infatuation with them. Within six months, there were at least 10 skunks running around my estate. Within eight months, 15. It was an exponential curve, and with so many new pets to love and care for, I no longer had time to feel bored and lonely. I began to affectionately refer to them as “my babies.”

I never had them de-scented. I did not have the heart to do something so inhumane. How could I take away the only means of defense God had given them? It would have been like castrating the poor animals. Sure, I never particularly enjoyed cleaning up the mess when one of my babies happened to throw a temper tantrum and spray in the house. But to a woman who could no longer smell the difference between manure and flowers, a little skunk spray was neither here nor there.

It was a much different story for everyone else. My nurses and psychologists ended their visits, unable to keep themselves from retching whenever they entered my house. The secret service men who guarded the perimeter of my estate had to start stocking gas masks in case they ever had to come inside. Friends and former colleagues insisted on connecting with me only by video conference.

But not everyone reacted with disgust. The documentary filmmakers and members of the press who still periodically came to check on me saw a media gold mine. My recovery had long since faded from the news cycles, but my new obsession with skunks added a bizarre, eye-grabbing twist that quickly thrust the story back onto the front pages. Suddenly, there were tabloid reporters at the gate of my driveway every day. It seemed I was getting more requests for media interviews than I ever did as president. By this point, however, I was busy tending to my babies and had much less time for the press, so they received only radio silence from me. This deepened their curiosity and speculation. They all wanted to know: Why the strange new fixation with skunks? Was she making a political statement about her successor’s policies? Just how badly had her brain been injured in the car crash?

One person who gave me a particularly hard time about all this was Jonathan, my closest advisor during my presidency.

“Look Deborah, I’ve always been the guy to tell it to you like it is,” he said one day while video conferencing with me from his home in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. “And that’s why I’m so concerned about this behavior with the skunks. We’ve worked extremely hard all these years to maintain your image, and the media coverage you’re getting right now is not helping. Do you want your legacy to be the McMullen Middle East Peace Accord and the biggest overhaul of health care in modern history? Or do you want the nation’s first woman president to be remembered for her obsession with foul-smelling animals?”

“Even presidents are human and have personalities, Jonathan,” I scoffed. “Andrew Jackson loved cockfighting. Calvin Coolidge rode an electric horse in his free time. John Quincy Adams was a skinny dipper. I’m hardly the only president to have a hobby that some people might consider odd.”

Jonathan exhaled, rolled his eyes and ran his hand through his full head of silver hair.

“Have you ever considered keeping dogs instead? Or cats? How about rabbits? If you had more conventional pets, you wouldn’t be receiving such unflattering scrutiny.”

“You know full well I’m allergic to cats,” I said. “And I’m not a fan of the barking and neediness of dogs. Rabbits? Well, I don’t even know how to react to that suggestion. I’ve never once met a rabbit that wanted to do anything other than chew grass and be left alone. People don’t realize that skunks can be great pets. They have the independence of cats but the affection and playfulness of dogs.”

Jonathan took off his black, thick-rimmed glasses and looked sternly into the camera with his piercing blue eyes.

“Look, I know it hasn’t been easy for you. I can’t imagine the grief you’ve gone through after losing Mike. But I think it would do you a lot of good if you found a cause to take up. It could be world peace, women’s equality, climate change, whatever. This is what other former presidents have done after they’ve left office. They’re not just doing it for fun. They do it because it helps ensure they’re perceived positively long after their terms have ended. This is what you should be doing instead of transforming yourself into a crazy skunk lady.”

I hung up the call after he said this, offended by the crude label. Rude as this reaction might have been, it was actually par for the course with Jonathan. Many of our conversations ended in heated arguments. This is exactly why I kept him around for so long. I did not need a lackey or a brownnoser. I needed someone who would give me brutal honesty, whether I wanted to hear it or not. He and I would usually go off to vent in our respective corners but then pick up our relationship within a day or two. It helped that both of us were more interested in winning political battles than drawn-out apologies.

Still, it was one thing for Jonathan to interrogate my political strategy. It was another for him to question my lifestyle choices. He and I went much longer than usual without speaking that time.

But he was right that the media coverage was ruthless. There were political cartoons with me symbolized as Pepé le Pew, appearing lovestruck by a black-and-white cat with a look of terror on its face as it dashed away in the other direction. The cat apparently symbolized my party, the members of whom increasingly began to distance themselves from me as my unorthodox new hobby took over the news cycles. The late-night comedy hosts also had a heyday with me, joking about how my house was probably the only thing that stunk more than my successor’s foreign policy approach. One paparazzi photo of me walking three of my babies on leashes along the sea cliffs ended up in international tabloids. I started receiving “Get Well Soon” cards from foreign diplomats with whom my administration used to negotiate.

None of this bothered me. I was thoroughly enjoying caring for my babies. Besides, I knew that media cycles were like thunderstorms. They flash and boom and clamber for everyone’s attention, but after 10 minutes, they have moved on somewhere else. Peoples’ memories of a story evaporate just as quickly as the raindrops left behind. Soon enough, the media would get bored of reporting on my skunk hobby and find someone else to torment.

However, one day during a rare down time between feeding and caring for my babies, I made the unusual move of turning on the TV. The roundtable of pundits chirped like a nest of hungry baby birds at the breaking news that my imbecile successor had just dismantled the McMullen Middle East Peace Accord, and the country was on the brink of war. I was furious. This went too far, even for someone hell-bent on destroying my legacy. The accord had taken years of negotiating and good-will building to forge, and my imbecile successor was demolishing it in the time it takes to stroke a pen. I seethed as I listened to one of his spokesmen on the TV say it was all part of my successor’s “maximum pressure campaign on illegal-weapons-and-oil-hogging nations.” What a load of crap. Everyone knew the only rationale for him doing this was because the accord happened to have my name attached to it. To add insult to injury, he tweeted that it was forged by a “mentally unstable person who canoodles with skunks all day.”

It was then I decided to break tradition. I knew it was unbecoming of a former president to criticize their successor, but what good was my platform if I could not speak up about an issue as important as avoiding war? Surely, silence was worse than impropriety in such cases? And besides, if my successor was breaking every tradition in the book, then clearly the person in the right could not win if she abided by the old rules?

I promptly contacted the press and arranged a video interview with a Sunday morning political talk show. On the day of my interview, I put on makeup and did up my hair for the first time in over a year. Determined to project a normal and orderly setting after all the wild media speculation about what a skunk dump my house must have become, I hired a brave local cleaning company to pick up all the globs of skunk hair in my house and move the furniture with yellow spray stains out of view. I even set a fire in my fireplace, which past set designers said gave my house a “cozy aspect.” Given the ominous leaden sky hovering over the sea outside my living room windows that day, I cannot say I disagreed.

When the time of my interview approached, I herded my pets into the garage where they wouldn’t disturb me and then set up my laptop just right. Within minutes, the producer initiated the connection and appeared on the screen.

“Good morning, President McMullen. Can you please speak for me to test your audio?”

“Good morning, I hope the weather in D.C. is better than it is up here in northern Maine.”

“It’s a beautiful day in our nation’s capital,” he responded. “We’ll be live in 5 minutes. Please stand by.”

I folded my hands in my lap and gazed out the window at the white caps breaking on the sea, taking some deep breaths to keep my firing nerves in check. Despite doing thousands of interviews over my career, I was never able to completely expel the jitters that always crept up beforehand. I reminded myself that once I started talking, I would quickly get into the zone.

“We’re live in one minute, President McMullen,” the producer said.

I sat up straight and stared directly into the camera, ready and eager to address the nation once more.

“We’re live in five… four… three… two…” the producer mouthed the word “one” and then pointed to me just as the host of the show appeared on the screen.

“And as we’ve all been talking about the implications of the president walking away from the McMullen Middle East Peace Accord, the former president whose name is attached to the treaty has decided to break her silence about what she thinks of this move. President McMullen, thank you for joining us by video conference today.”

“Good to see you again, George,” I said.

“And you as well. To start off, can you please tell us why you decided to speak up this time? Your successor has undone several of your policies. Why has this particular development brought you back into the spotlight?”

“Simple, George. It’s because of the sheer magnitude of the consequences we could face from this reckless move. It took the blood, sweat and tears of numerous diplomats in my administration to forge the McMullen Middle East Peace Accord. It’s the first credible chance at peace in the region in many years. I simply cannot sit back and watch it be squandered away in a day.”

“Uh huh. And what do you make of the president’s argument that the treaty gives away too many concessions, as well as his provocative claim that, and I quote, ‘it was forged by a mentally unstable person who canoodles with skunks all day’?”

“Well, first of all, I think the president should try civility for a change,” I said matter-of-factly. “Secondly, it’s simply not true that the treaty gives away too many concessions…”

“But it is true that you now spend your days in the company of skunks, isn’t it?” the host interrupted me.

I stared at the camera with a blank face, trying not to expose the agitation that flared under my skin from this interruption.

“George, with respect, I don’t think my pets are relevant to this conversation. Now, as I was saying…”

“So, you consider your skunks to be your pets?” he interrupted again. “They’re not a political statement or a special type of service animal?”

“Of course, they’re my pets.” I huffed, my muscles becoming increasingly tense. “And again, with respect, I’d like to stay focused on the McMullen Middle East Peace Accord.…”

“Yes, but the president has specifically questioned your competency because of your pets. Do you not want to say anything in response? Are you at all concerned that living with so many unconventional pets sends the wrong signal about your judgment and therefore plays into his messaging on the peace accord?”

I shifted in my seat and clenched my jaw, finding it increasingly difficult to contain my annoyance at his persistence.

“George, did you bring me on your show today to talk about foreign policy, or did you bring me on to talk about my personal hobbies?”

“I’m just asking questions I think many Americans would like to know the answer to, Madam President.”

The interview went on like this for some time, with me doing everything I could to redirect the discussion back to the peace accord without losing my temper and the weasel of a host finding a way to squeeze another question about my babies back into his line of questioning. When time was up, I had covered fewer than half of the talking points I had written down for the interview and could barely keep my anger from boiling over. I waited until the video connection terminated before slamming my laptop screen down and letting out an incensed scream of frustration that echoed throughout my entire estate. I could hear my babies scampering around the garage, startled by my sudden eruption of distress.

I clenched my fists. My blood pulsed with adrenaline. My skin blazed red hot. Not only had my imbecile successor gotten the better of me, but so too had the media. The fire burning through me consumed its fuel until I exhausted myself.

I spent the rest of the day sitting on my couch, staring vacantly at the storm kicking up the silvery white sea outside my living room windows. Strangely, all I could think about was Mike. Grief works in odd ways. By that point, I thought about him only sporadically. But in the moment, I suddenly felt an excruciating urgency to speak to him. I wanted him to tell me what to do. I wanted him to share inspiring stories about what revered past presidents did when they got knocked down. I wanted to join one of his political strategizing sessions to map out how we would get back on top together.

Several of my babies, who I eventually let out of confinement, clambered over my lap and pawed at me eagerly. They could tell I was upset. I stroked their velvet fur, but their attempts to get my attention failed.

When the rain finally stopped, I heard the chrome mail slot on my front door squeak open. The black glove of a secret service agent dropped a pile of envelopes onto the floor. I stood up and walked listlessly over to it. Just as I bent down to pick up the mail, something very strange happened. My babies formed a giant ring around my legs. Facing back to front, they started trotting around in a circle, their tails held up regally, as if forming a protective shield around me. It was the oddest but sweetest spontaneous display I had ever seen. I could not help but smile. I got down on my knees and opened my arms. They rushed up to me like excited puppies. We stayed on the floor for several minutes; cuddling, playing and commiserating.

Finally, I shooed them off and stood back up. Flipping through the mail, I was puzzled to find an envelope addressed to me in jagged scribbles. When I ran my finger through the seal and took out its contents, I realized it was a letter from a child.

“Dear President McMullen,” it read in a colorful scrawl. “How are you? You are very cool for having pet skunks. You are my favorite president. I hope you have a good day. From Jimmy in Scottsdale, AZ.” Along with this simple message came a picture of a stick figure woman with long hair and a boxy black-and-white animal by its feet. Two additional envelopes had letters with similarly squiggly penmanship and uncomplicated expressions of admiration for me and my babies. These had traveled all the way from Minneapolis, Minnesota and Santa Barbara, California.

It was fan mail. Fan mail from children across the country. It sparked a latent idea in the back of my brain.

I marched into the living room and opened my laptop. I went to my video conferencing system and began dialing.

“President Deborah McMullen, fancy hearing from you right now.” Jonathan appeared on the screen in a charcoal cashmere sweater, evidently working from his home library. “That was a pretty cringeworthy interview this morning. Let me guess, you’re calling to say you’re sorry and want to discuss damage control?”

“Jonathan, I’ve decided on my post-presidency cause.”

“Oh really? Well, let’s hear it then.” He leaned his silver head forward into the camera to show me he was all ears.

“I want to turn the grounds of my estate into a skunk education facility. There will be a rescue center to take in injured and mistreated skunks, enclosures designed to resemble their natural habitats and educational programs that allow people to interact with the animals firsthand, primarily aimed at children.”

Jonathan stared at the camera blankly. His shoulders rose and fell as he let out a heavy sigh. He then crinkled his nose, took off his black, thick-rimmed glasses and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger.

“So, what’s your view?” I pressed impatiently.

“Okay,” he finally said, the exasperation wheezing through his voice. “I think we can work with this.”

“We’ve pulled off much harder feats in our day.” I smiled.