The little girl was thrilled to be in California. And not just for a few days but for three full weeks—Disneyland, palm trees wherever you looked, and maybe she’d bump into a movie star. Her patriotic mom wanted just one thing: to see Richard Milhous Nixon face to face and thus have some of that White House magic rub off on her daughter. This happened in 1973 at San Clemente on a Saturday morning back when skin to skin was still the best conductor of fame. San Clemente is where Nixon lives when he isn’t busy being president, the patriotic mom said. The girl was nine and not political, and sometimes you had to explain things twice. Her patriotic mom was a spirited forty-three—and a groupie for whoever occupied the executive office, so long as it wasn’t a Kennedy.
Lucky for the girl, the patriotic mom happened to be six feet tall, moved with the awkward confidence of Big Bird, and had a knack for boosting wee ones over presidential barriers in defiance of the laws of gravity. And as luck would have it, Nixon, who had the demeanor of a bear and was riding in a modified presidential golf cart, skipped a dozen adult hands in favor of the pudgy little girl hand. He shook it, his face glowing blue like a concealed gun. Afterwards, the girl jumped up and down, hand straight up in the air. The patriotic mom promptly grabbed it and kissed it as if it had been dipped in pixie dust. Listen, the patriotic mom said, don’t wash that lovely paw of yours for twenty-four hours, and you’ll remember this day for the rest of your life.
So the girl balled up her fist to keep the thirty-seventh president safe and stuck it away. Like having the White House in your pocket. Soon enough they were back at the hotel complex, reunited with the rest of the family: a dad and two nasty brothers, one older, one younger. This was on their third day in California. For the family, it was pure vacation. For the dad, mostly work. He was a GE engineer laboring on a nuclear sub, and for three weeks the military needed him in California rather than in Syracuse, New York.
—Are you a spy? asked the girl.
—Can’t share details, he said, but I’m engaged in keeping the world safe.
She was about to ask what that meant, but he zipped his mouth closed and pretended to throw a key out the window. She pictured it first as a golden key, then as a ticking bomb. She listened for an explosion but it never came. When the top-secret dad left the room, the patriotic mom told the girl her dad worked on sonar, which was radar, only underwater.
All day, the girl protected her Richard Nixon hand. Then the patriotic mom asked if anyone wanted a snow cone, and the girl forgot that this hand was special. Very quickly it became not only a lime-and-cherry hand but also a roly-poly-bug hand and a leaky-mustard hand and a wipe-your-bottom hand, not to mention a peek-into-the-metal-receptacle-for-used-sanitary-napkins hand. It still felt presidential but dirty. Was it brighter, did it pulse? She thought maybe it pulsed. In the back seat of the car, she’d close her eyes, then spring them open to ambush the hand. That helped her see
the pulsing more clearly. Was her hand famous yet? She pictured crowds of tourists. What if they had to go through her hand to enter the White House? She pictured her little finger like a flag pole, a flag flapping where her nail was supposed to be.
All day she longed for fourth grade to begin, even though it was a month away. She wanted to brag up her hand during show-and-tell and report to her friends how Nixon had chosen her hand out of dozens of hands. But would anyone see her hand pulse besides her? Should she take pictures to prove her hand had been in California?
For lunch they picnicked at a scrubby little park, all of them chewing tuna sandwiches while her top-secret dad asked what other sightseeing things they wanted to do. The girl opened her hand wide and placed it on the grass, as if she were going to trace it for some art project—fame made her hand feel bigger and sturdier than ever. That’s when she noticed a squiggle of movement under a bush. She investigated: a medium-sized robin, its matted red breast perfectly still, its body jerking ever so slightly. Wind riffled its feathers. Her older brother joined her, all elbows and knees and heavy breath. Even his shadow seemed to pollute the grass.
—It’s dying, he said, we should put it out of its misery.
—It’s not dying, she said back.
—It already has bugs eating it, he said, look at its glazed eyes.
She looked more closely—ants moving in and out of the beak, little white worms on the wing where flesh showed through. Her brother edged the robin towards a pile of gravel and then stepped gently on its head. They both heard a popping sound. She screamed and started beating on her brother’s chest. He walked away. Crying now, she knelt down, cradled the robin in both hands, and carried it to her mom.
—He killed it, said the girl.
—I saved it from suffering, he said.
—Go and wash your hands, said the patriotic mom, with soap.
—I never picked it up, said the boy.
—I can’t, said the girl, this is my Richard Nixon hand, and it hasn’t been twenty-four hours yet.
—Both of you, she said, I mean it.
—Listen, she said to the girl, I think you’ve left your hand unwashed long enough, you won’t forget President Nixon now.
In the public bathroom, the girl turned on the water and washed her left hand only. Was this what happened if your hand got blown off in a war? Your good hand had to wash itself? First she wiped the wet hand, then the dry. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her dirty hand felt heavier, as if invisible pieces of iron hung from each finger.
On the way home, miracle of miracles, her nasty brothers fell asleep. No one to tease her, no one to slobber on her shoulder and pretend it was an accident. She was so happy she almost cried, then started humming. She asked her mom for a mint toothpick, cleaned all ten fingernails with it, then rubbed her hands from pink to red, and red to sweaty. It wasn’t the same as washing but her hands felt cleaner. Earlier that morning, her mother had called her hand a paw. She could almost feel fur growing on her knuckles. If she had dog paws, she’d lope away to Alaska and live on a glacier. If she
had wild raccoon paws, she’d wash all her food three times. If she had cat paws, she’d click out claws like needles and scratch up her brother’s face till he promised never to kill robins again.
After a supper of pizza, which the girl devoured quickly by eating lefthanded, she asked if she could swim in the hotel pool. Except for my hand, the girl thought to herself. The patriotic mom said, Not tonight, how about a little TV? The girl went and changed into her sea turtle swimsuit anyway, a pair of foggy green goggles around her neck. Please, the girl said. I won’t drown, I promise. Finally the patriotic mom gave in and ordered the older brother to go with her because he was fourteen. He complied, his nose buried in a sci-fi book, which was okay by her. She didn’t want to look at that killer face of his.
Down two flights of stairs, around a corner, across the parking lot, through a noisy gate, and they were there. The girl eased into the water, warmer than she expected. Like kissed, over and over, by California. Good practice for their trip to the beach on Monday, when the same sea touching Japan and Australia would touch her. In the shallows she hopped like a bunny, then swam, her right hand raised out of the water, like someone asking a question at the back of class. No, more like a periscope on her dad’s top-secret sub, looking for enemies.
And now she was in the deep end. She dog paddled one-handed to the edge and sniffed her hands. Her left hand smelled like chlorine, her right like eggs and dirt and poop and feathers and disease and sweat, mostly like sweat. She gagged a little. She was tired of her slimy hand, tired of Nixon. Was he the enemy? He was right now. Her brother sat in a lounger. Maybe he was the enemy. He certainly turned pages like one, which made her want to drown him. Or at least dive to the bottom of the pool where she could mourn the dead robin by herself. Without thinking, almost as a reflex, she suddenly dropped both hands into the water and rubbed them together, as if cleansing them of heavy glue. Then she adjusted her goggles, took a great gulp of air, and kicked for the bottom. She couldn’t believe how clear it was down there, as if stepping from a dirty room into a clean one, her ears popping but pleasantly so. With both hands she hung on to the drain and let her feet drift directly above her, as if taking a nap in an anti-gravity machine.
Her record for staying under was fifty-two seconds. She could see a quarter and a few pennies but was in no hurry to grab them. Above her, at the surface, a dead grasshopper brownly bobbed. She closed her eyes, then opened them again. She didn’t have breasts yet, which was fine with her. What did she know about the world? Being famous was dirty and difficult, who cares about stupid presidents, blood came out of your girl parts when you were older, robins had a certain softness like girls and quivered before they died, brothers sometimes kill what you love. She was upside down in California, and she couldn’t hear anything beyond the slosh of baby waves. She was four feet seven inches tall, with eight feet of water pressing down on her. When she let bubbles slip from her mouth, they slid past her belly and broke at the surface like hands that were clean. She was nine years old, going on ten. She had at least twenty more seconds of silence.