The Governor's Lady
“For my funeral,” Mickey said,“I want a good band and an open bar.” She was teetering on the edge of the hospital bed, feet dangling, struggling against a tangle of wires and tubes that tethered her to monitors and a rack of intravenous solutions.
“Mother, what in the hell are you doing?” Cooper threaded her way toward the bed through a forest of potted plants and cut-flower arrangements. She reached for Mickey, who jerked away.
Cooper took hold of her legs and lifted, swinging her back onto the bed, pulling sheet and blanket up to her chin. Mickey shivered and then collapsed against the pillow, eyes closed, mouth open, breath rattling. “I’ll get the nurse,” Cooper said, reaching for the call button.
Mickey gripped her arm. “No. I’m all right.” She motioned weakly toward a bedside chair. “Sit. Just let me . . .”
Cooper moved an arrangement of flowers from the chair, set it on the floor, and pulled the chair closer to the bed.“How did you sleep?”
“You should ask for something to help. Do you want me to talk to the nurses?”
“It’s my funeral. I can have anything I want.” Mickey turned away again and lay there for a moment. Pale, shrunken face, gray flesh not much darker than the sheets and pillow. Machines clicked and whirred and beeped. Green spikes paraded across the heart monitor—every so often, a blip, something not right.
“Aren’t you going to thank me for coming all this way to see you?” Mickey asked. Her voice was a fraction of what it used to be, in the not- too-distant days when she could speak a word and all manner of folk would leap to do her bidding. Mickey had a big, horsey laugh and a way of saying things that defied contradiction. Cigarettes and scotch had turned the rowdy voice into a rasp. Little of the starch and gristle was left. Pickett had brought home the joke making the rounds in political circles:“Mickey Spainhour has a heart? For what?” As it turned out, she did. And it was failing.
“Big doings today,” Mickey croaked. “My dear daughter about to become governor of the goddamn state. Pomp and circumstance, peo- ple jumping through their butts and kissing yours.” Despite the much- diminished voice, the sarcasm remained. Mickey pursed her lips and scrunched her nose.“Why didn’t you invite me, Cooper?”
“You came anyway.”
“Damn right I came,” Mickey said.“I’m dying, and I wasn’t going to let the day pass without being close to the action. Now that I’m here, do you think you could make a place for me on the reviewing stand?”
Cooper shook her head and gave way for a moment to the old, wearying futility that was such a constant in her relationship with her mother. Mickey seemed to always know exactly what she wanted, and if she couldn’t get it by simply demanding, she just wore you down. The best defense, Cooper had learned, was to stay off her radar, stay away. For a long time now, Cooper had done that. She had intended to have it that way today—her day, inauguration day.
“I wouldn’t want you keeling over during my swearing-in,” she said after a moment.
“Or grabbing the microphone and making a speech of my own.” “That especially. Tell me, Mother, how the hell did you manage it?” “I called the Governor’s Office. They handled everything. It was the least they could do. Now, since I can’t go to your ceremony, let’s talk about mine. The funeral arrangements.”
“Yes, a good while ago. He doesn’t come to see me. Is that your doing?”
“Pickett’s a big boy,” Cooper said. “He does what he wants.” She knew it was a sore spot with Mickey, who had launched Pickett into statewide politics years ago and helped him climb—legislator, treasur- er, lieutenant governor. But then Pickett had become his own man— two terms as governor and now a run for the presidency. Pickett Lanier didn’t need Mickey Spainhour anymore.
“He could have come to see the old lady in the hospital, instead of sending his wife.”
“Pickett’s not here,” Cooper said. “He’s flying in from somewhere. I’ve stopped trying to keep up. Iowa one minute, New Hampshire the next.”
“They’ve screwed up everything with all these damn primaries,” Mickey said. “The stupid things start in January and last eons. So here they are, a year until the first one, already out kissing ass. I liked it better when me and the boys got together in a hotel room and drank whiskey and smoked cigars and decided who to nominate.”
“Did you smoke cigars with the boys? Really?”
“I hope I make it to March,” Mickey said after a while. Cooper was staring at the window beyond the bed. The glass reflected the room’s dim lights, white bedding, machines, plants, and flowers.“I would hate to die in February. It’s a miserable goddamn month.”
Cooper got up, went to the window, pulled the curtains back. It was still dark—just the orange glow of the lights in the doctors’ parking lot below. And bitterly cold—the coldest day of the winter, the fellow on the radio had said while she was on the way to the hospital.
What this particular snort meant, Cooper didn’t know. Mickey used it often, and it generally suggested she was disgusted, frustrated, or just being plain mean. Cooper had heard many of Mickey’s snorts in her lifetime.
“Have you seen the paper?”
“They won’t bring me a newspaper or anything else to read. They won’t let me have a telephone. They won’t let me watch television. All they bring are these damn flowers. They keep toting ’em in by the truck- load. The place smells like a goddamn funeral parlor—which I suppose makes sense.”
The room held a riot of them, a cloying profusion, sickly sweet smell, explosion of color and greenery. Cooper plucked an envelope from the arrangement she had moved to the floor beside her chair. A typed greet- ing:“‘Best wishes for a speedy recovery,’” she read aloud.“‘Woodrow.’”
“Of course,” Mickey said. “I get a card every few days from Woodrow.”
Cooper remembered the first time Woodrow Bannister had come to the house, thirty years ago. She was home for spring break during her junior year in college. He was finishing a term as president of the student body. Someone had told Woodrow that if he wanted to get a start in state politics, he needed to be scrutinized and vetted by Mickey Spainhour. Cooper had answered the door and chatted with him in the front hall before Mickey came downstairs. She found Woodrow’s earnestness both amusing and attractive. The attraction seemed to be mutual. He called later, and one thing led to another. In other circum- stances, she might have been Woodrow’s wife, following him up the political food chain.
“If you won’t attend to the details of my funeral, Woodrow will,” Mickey said.“He’ll see to it that the legislature, a great number of whose sonsabitches owe their political careers to me, will meet in special ses- sion and pass a resolution authorizing my lying in state in the rotunda of the Capitol.” She paused, laboring for breath. “Then a mile-long pro- cession, lots of limos, a church ceremony, and a eulogy by the governor.”
house, especially since word got out I’m about to kick the bucket. They hold my hand and kiss the hem of my garment and hang on every word of my political wisdom. And they hope that when I’m gone, I won’t leave a black book lying around with their dirty little secrets in it.”
Cooper doubted Mickey drew anything resembling a constant pa- rade, assholes or otherwise. The word she got, mostly from Pickett, was that Mickey spent a good deal of time alone in her upstairs bedroom, the air thick with the smell of her cigarettes, listening to the ragged sound of her fading heart. She had once been powerfully influential, a woman who pulled strings and maneuvered and strategized, for which people who held public office in the state were quick to give her credit. But over the past several years, she had backed a string of candidates who crashed and burned, some spectacularly. Pickett was her last big success. She had lost the golden touch and was old news. This business now, this descending on the capital, crashing the party—well, Cooper imagined, there might be a good deal of desperation in it. For God’s sake, somebody take notice before it’s too late.
Mickey pushed back the covers.“I have damn well got to go to the bathroom.”
Cooper reached for the call button.“I’ll get help.”
“I don’t need help.”
“Yes, you do, and I’m not it.”
“Afraid you’ll dump me on my ass?”
The door swung open, and a nurse marched in, a young black woman: broad face, close-cropped hair peeking from under her cap, trim in a white uniform that drooped from the night shift. Nameplate: ESTELLE DUBOSE, R.N. Her quick eyes took in the room as she closed the door behind her.“Good morning.”
“My mother seems determined to go to the bathroom.”
“Number two,” Mickey said. “Or maybe it’s just a ruse to help me escape. Either way, my daughter the governor-to-be is just useless.”
Nurse Dubose cut a quick glance at Cooper, looking for some sign of how things were in here. Cooper rolled her eyes. Dubose nodded. “Honey,” she said to Mickey,“let’s get your rear end to the potty.”
It took awhile, what with all the wires and tubes, but Dubose worked sure-handedly. She soon had Mickey slippered and headed to- ward the bathroom, an arm around her waist, the other guiding the IV rack.
“Take your time,” she told Mickey.“Let me do the work. Don’t get rowdy. You’re not exactly jet-propelled this morning.”
Mickey looked at Dubose.“Let me guess. You don’t take crap off of anybody.”
“Not here,” Dubose said. “Here, I’m the boss.” She kept Mickey moving, inches at a time, while Cooper stood back, seeing how small and frail her mother was, a shadow of the old Mickey, someone who might drift away if not held firmly.
“Do you take any crap at home?” Mickey asked.
“Not lately. Had a husband, but he was a silly man and not much for work. I ran him off.”
“Good for you.”
Dubose got Mickey settled in the bathroom and left her there, the door open a few inches.
“Is she okay?” Cooper asked.
“As long as she doesn’t do anything but her business, she’ll be fine.”
“She said she didn’t sleep last night,” Cooper said.
“Every time I checked on her, she was fine. Must have slept more than she thought.”
“Has she been giving you a hard time?” Cooper wondered how much she should tell Nurse Estelle Dubose: My mother will charm your pants off one minute, take your head off the next. Give her a couple of days and she’ll be running the place, making everybody jump. Just wait.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Dubose said, hands on hips. “How about you, Miz Lanier? You’ll be governor in a few hours. How are you doing with that?”
Cooper smiled.“Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Do you need anything?” Cooper asked when Mickey was settled again in the bed, tubes and wires reconnected, Dubose off down the hallway with a cart full of flowers and plants Cooper had told her to share with other patients.
“Cigarettes,” Mickey said.
“Don’t start with the cigarettes.”
“All right, if you’re not going to humor a dying old lady, I’ll bribe somebody to bring me some.”
“No you won’t. The hospital people wouldn’t dare, and I’m going to make sure you don’t have visitors sneaking in contraband. If I have to, I’ll put a state trooper at the door.”
Cooper gathered up coat and purse.
“When will you be back?” Mickey asked, sounding petulant.
“I don’t know. I’m busy, you’ll recall. This new job and all.”
And then something changed in Mickey’s face, just a hint of softness, lines and angles easing. It surprised Cooper, because she could not remember many times in her life when Mickey was in the least bit soft. She had been mostly hard as nails, the woman everyone called “the Dragon Lady.” There was once—when Cleve, her father, died. Mickey had imploded then, had stunned Cooper with her sudden raw, help- less vulnerability. But that was with Cleve. With Cooper, it had been mostly hardness. In the last few years, as Mickey slowly declined, Coo- per wondered at times if she ever regretted the way it had been between them—the lifetime of conflict, hurts, disappointments, estrangements. Did she ever feel a sense of loss the way Cooper did? Was she ever sorry it had been that way? Cooper saw no evidence of it. In the recent past, she had kept Mickey at arm’s length, avoiding any chance of reconciling. But now, here, this strange glimmer of softness. Was she simply afraid of death? Or was there something else?
“Are you ready?” Mickey asked after a moment.
“For what, the job?”
“For all the shit that goes with it, Cooper. Are you ready for people lying to you, manipulating you, pushing you into corners? Because I’ll guarantee they’ll do it. When you least expect it.”
Cooper took a deep breath.“I did this on my own, Mother. Pickett and his people made it possible, but I made it happen. And if I could do that, I can do the rest.”
“Be careful who you trust.” Then Mickey broke the gaze, looked down at her hands.“But you don’t need my advice.”
“No,” Cooper said, but with no bitterness in it. She told herself she was beyond bitterness, had been for a good while.
“You froze me out.”
“Mother,” she said with a sigh,“I’ve spent a lifetime doing what other people wanted—you, then Pickett. But not this time.” She turned to go. “I’ll tell the hospital to turn on the TV.”
She was almost at the door when Mickey said,“You’re not ever going to forgive me, are you.” It was a statement, not a question.
Cooper turned back and took a long look at Mickey—shrunken, frail, failing, swallowed by sheet and blanket, tethered to technology. For an instant, she wanted to go to her mother, touch her hand or cheek. But she hesitated just long enough to think, Forgive? There is so much.
So instead she said,“I wouldn’t have any idea where to start.”
The Executive Mansion was an aging beast of a place—two stories of white-painted brick, columns sheltering the front portico, sweep- ing curve of driveway passing under a porte-cochere on one side, all of it hunkered behind a tall wrought-iron fence, an imposing gate, and a guardhouse manned by at least two state troopers. Part public building, part home, part fortress, the house was more than a hundred years old, a victim of long neglect, presentable enough on the outside, sagging within. Over the years, it had received just enough maintenance to keep it from falling in on itself. A fair number of first ladies had argued with their husbands over the need for renovations, but no governor had shown enough backbone to spend a good chunk of the state’s money on his own dwelling. The mansion had been Cooper’s home for a good part of her life, beginning with the eight years of her youth when her father, Cleve Spainhour, was governor. Mickey had never bothered Cleve with anything as mundane as renovations. Mickey had her mind on other things. And then there had been the eight years of Pickett’s two terms, during which he shrank from the notion of fixing more than was desperately needed. Now, four more years, and things might be different.
The issue was hers to decide. This morning brought barely controlled chaos outside the front fence. The street was clogged with TV satellite trucks, parked end to end out in the middle to keep their sky-probing metal dishes from tan- gling with the oaks on either side. Street and sidewalk were crowded with people—reporters, technicians, photographers—stumbling about among a sea of equipment and cables, hopping from foot to foot and flapping arms in an attempt to keep the cold at bay, dodging the army of local police and state troopers who wandered about, watching every- thing. Floodlights, harsh in the predawn, bathed the front of the man- sion. Having nothing better to do at the moment, the encamped herd was repeating the story from the early television shows: the state’s first woman governor was taking office; the outgoing governor, her husband, was making waves as a contender for his party’s presidential nomina- tion. Pickett Lanier had a long way to go, but today was a boost to his profile.
Say what you want about Pickett, Cooper thought with satisfaction, this is my day.
Somebody spotted them—Cooper’s dark blue Ford, an identical car following with two men from the security detail inside—and start- ed a stampede toward the gate as it swung open. The small army of state troopers there stepped aside to let the car through and then formed a barrier to keep the press people out. Cooper heard the shouted ques- tions as the car moved through the frenzy of noise. A television camera- man, jostled from behind, went down hard on the pavement, twisting his body to protect the camera as the gate slid toward him. The troopers stopped it and helped him up. Cooper’s driver pulled under the porte- cochere, jumped out, and opened the door for her. The crowd outside the gate started moving away. Then came more shouts and another rush as a white van with STATE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS on the side pulled up to the gate. The house staff peered horrified out the windows as the reporters flung questions at them.
Cooper wondered what on earth they thought the house staff could add to the story: What are you fixing for breakfast? Are the sheets clean?
She waited inside while the staff piled out of the van—the house manager, Mrs. Dinkins; two cooks; three maids; and two men whose duties seemed to be lifting and toting for the others. When the weather warmed, they would be joined by three groundskeepers. All were state prison inmates, most of them murderers serving life sentences. Many murderers, she had learned, having done their one foul deed and settled into incarceration, were a good deal safer to be around than thieves, who never got out of the habit and would steal you blind.
“Mrs. Dinkins, make coffee,” Cooper said, “lots of it. And some food, whatever you can rustle up. That mob out there looks wretched. Maybe if we feed them, they’ll calm down.”
“Mrs. Dinkins believes they are wretched, ma’am.” Mrs. Dinkins al- ways spoke of herself in the third person. In her early sixties, she was orderly and organized, brisk and energetic and plain-spoken. She had years ago carved up an abusive husband and stored his body parts in Saran Wrap in her freezer until relatives, beginning to suspect he wasn’t really on an extended fishing trip, called the sheriff. She had begun at the mansion the first day of Pickett’s term eight years ago, and she and Cooper had straight off learned to accommodate each other. Each had her own turf and stuck to it.
“We’ll probably have a houseful before long,” Cooper said.“Governor Pickett and his people.”
“Pastries, sandwiches, tea, and coffee.” Mrs. Dinkins lingered a moment. “Mrs. Dinkins wants you to know,” she said formally, “that we are pleased by your accomplishment and hope that we will be able to continue—”
“Mrs. Dinkins,” Cooper interrupted with a smile, “this building is in mortal danger of falling in on itself. If you and your staff were not here, a vacuum would bring it crashing down around our heads. So yes, indeed, you shall continue. You are the one indispensable person here, and that includes my husband.”
Mrs. Dinkins gave a quick nod and trotted off.
Cooper went to a front window and looked out. She saw a flurry of movement on the street—trucks firing up, antennas folding, crews dashing about. And then they pulled away in a rush of diesel, leaving the premises littered with Styrofoam cups and Krispy Kreme boxes.
Pickett was coming.