The clearing was lit by a ring of flickering tiki-torches on tall poles. A chill wind rustled the palms and papaya, but a roaring bonfire in a central pit kept everyone warm. The President's party and the castaways sat in groups, around low Polynesian-style tables Gilligan carpentered for the occasion.
The most boisterous table was that of the Howells and their distinguished-looking companions in expensive evening clothes. Someone had broken open a crate of champagne, and, whether it was the Howells', or had been smuggled on the plane, it flowed freely among their large group. Calling themselves "The First Class Cabin," they kept Gilligan and Mary Ann busy, shouting out "Waiter! Waitress!," and criticizing the service. One wit among them christened Gilligan "Abdul," after the thick turban of tight cloth bandages Mary Ann insisted he wear around his injured head. But they all agreed the meal was superb.
With Gilligan's help, Mary Ann prepared a tropical feast fit for Polynesian royalty. There was breadfruit, coconut, papaya, mango, and heaps of fresh fish slow-baked in the castaways' excellent brick oven. There was taro, poi, cassava, and platters of yellow, red, and orange bananas. To drink there was fresh water, coconut milk, tea, and kava. For desert, her special banana and coconut pies. She took pride in offering their new guests this special welcome.
"I will tell you all a political joke," said the Reverend Jerry to the Reverend Pat and their athletic entourage, gathered around a large table near the fire. Mary Ann hurried from table to table as each platter of fish emerged from the oven, catching short conversations like sound bites on the radio news shows she listened to before the war. Reverend Jerry intrigued her for some reason. She realized what it was: he reminded her of the busts of old Roman patricians she saw on photos of ancient coins. There was that well-fed, luxuriant look to his girlish face. Tonight he was somewhat drunk on kava.
"It concerns Richard Nixon," he continued. "One evening, Pat Nixon was accidentally listening to the Oval Office intercom with which the President communicated with Rosemary Woods. She was his secretary." He looked around the circle of his listeners, eyes twinkling mischievously. "She was startled to hear gasping and panting noises. Thinking her husband must be having a heart attack, she threw open the Oval Office doors and rushed in, only to find the President and his best friend, Bebe Rebozo, sitting together in the Presidential chair, in the dark, with their hands in each others' laps. Amazed, she gasped, 'Dick! What are you doing?!' And Nixon answered, 'Nothing! Nothing! I...uh...I lost a cufflink and...Bebe was helping me look for it.'" At that, the Reverends chuckled openly together, while their athlete friends giggled politely with their hands over their mouths. "I can only imagine the punch line if Edgar had been there!," added Reverend Pat, to the general hilarity. Mary Ann slid a platter of steaming fish onto their table and left without comment, thinking to herself what an ignorant farm girl she must surely be.
"Vicki!," reveled the Old Ex-President, beaming his immense enjoyment to one and all. Around his table were a cast of Hollywood's most famous right-wing actors and most beautiful young actresses, some of whom seemed to Mary Ann to be more than a little tipsy. To her surprise, many seemed preoccupied with their makeup, pressing their faces to mirrors on the table almost until their noses touched. She supposed that made sense, with their profession and all. But she was too busy to think about it.
Mary Ann was intrigued by a locket which the Old Ex-President's Wife wore at her throat. At first she'd mistaken it for a gem in the shape of a crawling black spider with a vibrant red patch on its back. Eventually she realized it was a real spider, encased in clear crystal. "Deadly poisonous," smiled the Old Ex-President's Wife, as Mary Ann replenished the tea.
"Turd Blossom!," bellowed the President's voice. Mary Ann came running, thinking there was some problem with the food. But no, the President was merely requesting his chief Strategist's attention.
The President's party occupied the largest table. Around it were the President's relatives; his circle of closest advisers, the "Strategery Group"; the Cabinet; numerous aids; and half a dozen Secret Service men armed and vigilant. More SS men cruised the clearing, eyeing the treeline suspiciously, and generally appearing tense. Tony, the President's English butler, knelt beneath the table shining shoes. Only the Vice President remained for security reasons at an "undisclosed location," which everyone assumed was the plane.
Turd Blossom, a flabby man with a soft, luxury-loving face, explained the afternoon poll numbers. After the flag-raising the President's approval rating held solid at 98%. The remaining two percent were undecided. "Our polling group and the Department of Inland Security are confident in the identity of these two percent, Mr. President," said Turd Blossom. "We believe he was a former Southern Democrat."
Poppy raised his finger, sagely, looking around the table. "It's no exaggeration to say the undecideds could go one way or the other," he opined. Everyone nodded.
The President chuckled. "Long as yer gotcher eye on 'im," he said in his man-of-the-people voice, with a folksy wink. Smiles of admiration went round the group. He was so good at that.
Mary Ann found herself distracted by the President's unusual accent. At times thickly Texan, at other times strangely Northeastern, the President's odd speech reflected his upbringing inside the innermost circles of power and privilege.
The family history was like a free-enterprise fairy tale. His great-grandfather had the foresight to become associated with E.H. Harriman, the stockbroker-turned-railroad-tycoon. Harriman, denounced by President Theodore Roosevelt as an "undesirable citizen" because of his "cynicism and deep-seated corruption," took Great-Grandfather under wing, providing entrée to the elite patrician circle of bankers, stock speculators, arms manufacturers, and railroad magnates who became the administrators of national industrial production during World War One. After the war the Harrimans brought Grandfather into their international banking firm, which controlled among other resources much of the German shipping and armaments industries. In 1931 they merged with a leading British bank, forming the most powerful private financial concern in the world. Under Grandfather's management they partnered with Fritz Thyssen to build the New German Steel Trust, a huge industrial-military combine which during World War Two produced approximately 40% of Nazi Germany's war-related industrial output. Thyssen was a major financial and political sponsor of the Nazi movement; Grandfather was his New York banker. These operations were so central to the German war effort that in 1942, as American troops landed in North Africa, several American corporate entities organized and managed by Grandfather were ruled Nazi fronts by the U.S. government and seized under the Trading With the Enemy Act. Naturally these seizures did not impact Grandfather's substantial personal fortune. Neither did they impact the family's political future. While old E.H.'s son Averell administered the Marshall Plan, Grandfather and other Harriman associates such as the company lawyers, the Dulles brothers, became significant powers-behind-the-power, helping elect Eisenhower in 1952. Grandfather became Senator, and Ike's favorite golf partner.
Poppy's future was arranged from childhood. Raised in patrician opulence, educated in Andover and New Haven, in 1948 he was encouraged to join the oil industry. Where his official campaign biographies spoke of an adventurous, independent entrepreneur, it would be more accurate to describe him as a colonist sent by transatlantic financiers to ensure control over an emerging regional industry. His first jobs were with Dresser Industries, an international oil conglomerate owned by the Harrimans: he arrived in Odessa Texas in Dresser's executive DC-3. His own eventual ventures were financed by family funds and family connections including Grandfather, the Walker family, various London and Edinburgh bankers, and Eugene Mayer, owner of the Washington Post and later president of the World Bank. His companies were unprofitable, and made millions in stock valuations. Through family connections he became a C.I.A. operative with shadowy links to the Bay of Pigs disaster and the sinister group of Cuban exiles later associated with the Kennedy assassination, the Watergate break-in, and the Iran-Contra scandal. The same connections assured rapid and smooth political advance: Congressman, U.N. Ambassador, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Nixon cabinet member, Ambassador to China, head of the C.I.A., Vice President, President: a career whose essentials were predictable in his childhood. It was all very easy.
The President's peculiar accent reflected the same patrician patrimony. Educated at the traditional elite East Coast schools, he grew up at the centers of American power and prestige. A series of arranged businesses brought him wealth, but these were uninteresting formal exercises in resume-building. He was destined to be President one day, and, when the day came, it was arranged for him. In public he assumed a falsely exaggerated Texan accent: it was part of the role. Ironically, Turd Blossom marketed him as a "political outsider." But that was for the rubes.
Poppy suddenly doubled-over, threw up, passed-out, and fell off his chair. Mary Ann rushed to assist, but an aide waived her away. "Don't worry," he said. "He does that." Only the Governor of Florida looked concerned. "Poppy," he said, with creased brows. "Did you get pukie on your jacket?"
The military table kept Mary Ann running back and forth. The Generals and Admirals jealously demanded three or even four times as much food as all the others combined. She noticed them glowering, enviously eyeing the other tables, as if to ensure that no-one received as much as themselves. Much of this treasure went directly into their bellies, which were expanding visibly. More remained in piles on their table, like a challenge to the group. She brought them whatever they asked for, but because they refused to share she was unsure there'd be food go around.
She was becoming dizzy, running from table to table as fast as she could. Her legs and arms were tired; a lock of loose hair fell over one eye. As the party became more raucous there were voices and calls from all directions.
"I'll tell you a joke," said the President. "Two guys are in a locker room when one guy notices the second has a cork up his ass. He says, 'how'd you get a cork up your ass?' Second guy answers, 'I was walking on a beach one day when I tripped on a lamp. There was a puff of red smoke, and out pops a redskin in a turban. "I am Tonto, Indian Genie," says the big guy. "I grantum one wish." And I said, 'No shit.'"
The President's Strategery Group applauded with appreciation. "Butt plug!," agreed the Old Ex-President, two tables away. The President was encouraged to tell another.
"Ann Richards is dining in a five-star restaurant. The onion soup gets to her. As the waiter serves the main course, she lets fire a range-rippin' fart. Trying to save face, she demands of the waiter, 'Sir! Stop that immediately!' 'Certainly, Madame,' replies the waiter with a bow. 'Which way was it headed?'"
Arnold, the actor who will be President one day, stood, belched, and grinned. "I-L B ba-aak," he quipped, with his trademark thumbs-up, as he walked toward the jungle accompanied by a lovely young actress. Everyone laughed appreciatively, although, Mary Ann thought, they must all have heard that joke before. "Where are they going?," she thought to herself, apparently loudly enough to be heard, for the Old Ex-President's Wife answered her, "For a nature hike. It won't take long. They'll be back soon." Mary Ann thought it was odd to combine dinner with a walk in the woods, but she left everyone to their own ways.
"Did you hear about the constipated composer?," asked the President. "He couldn't finish the last movement."
"Abdul!," cried a tipsy voice from the First Class Cabin. "Where areya ya camel jockey!" Loud laughter and cheers broke out around the clearing.
The Generals' and Admirals' stomachs grew so fat that their table rose off the ground. Some of the junior officers arranged piles of hoarded food into a fort on the tabletop. Others made toy soldiers and cannon by sculpting fruit slices. In time much of the hoarded food was flying around like canon balls. The Skipper floated a little boat of mango inside a bowl of kava.
"Would you like more fish?," Mary Ann politely asked the President's table. "One single word," replied Poppy. "Puppies. Worth the points." Mary Ann wasn't sure what that meant, but she left the fish anyway.
Men from all the tables began taking the Old Ex-President's lovely actresses for nature hikes. Some of them also took the Reverends' athletes, which was liberal of them, Mary Ann thought. Many of the actresses had been on several hikes already. Mary Ann even noticed one or two who returned with scuffed knees. "The fitness fad sure become big while we were away," she thought to herself.
The clearing began to fill with fruit rinds, and fish bones, and broken bowls. At first the garbage piled up on table tops, but there was so much more than Gilligan could remove that it began spilling underfoot. Eventually people threw trash into the fire pit, which filled like a compost heap, scenting the clearing with a fine organic tang of dead fish and decomposing fruit. The ground was muddy from spilled drinks, and in places there were puddles where drunken guests had been sick.
"Did you hear about the constipated accountant?," asked the President. "He couldn't budget."
Mary Ann was exhausted. She served the last of her fruit pies, then slumped for a moment near her oven. She and Gilligan had set aside two plates for their own meal, but marauders from the military table found them. Gilligan brought her fresh mangos and a coconut from the jungle.
Little by little the party thinned, as couples left for the jungle, or the huts, or passed out drunk with their heads on the tables. She helped Gilligan clean up, as the torches burned low.
"Warm towel?," inquired Tony, the President's English butler. With a stately bow he distributed steaming cloth napkins to all who remained. As the President's group departed he gallantly placed his own topcoat over noxious puddles in the President's path. "Will that come out?," gasped the Governor of Florida, wide-eyed. "That's potty."
"Vicki!," drooled the Old Ex-President. "Horsy!," he said. He, his wife and Ginger were among the last to leave. An officer at the military table attempted to salute, but passed out drunk instead.
A straggler from the Old Ex-President's group introduced himself as "Chuck." Mary Ann felt there was something unusual about him, but, it took some moments to put her finger on it. Once a Hollywood leading man, the star of spectacular Biblical epics, he'd spent his declining years leading gun and rifle associations, and waiving the flag. With a start she realized he hadn't blinked once during their conversation. He wandered toward the jungle, asking where the bar was, and the target range.
Thunder followed a bolt of red lighting across the jet-black sky. The torches flickered. It was cold. The banquet was over.