BY MOLLY PATTERSON
It was a scandal and he was guilty, and it would follow the Washington script—the leak, the investigation, the camera flashes.
“Deny everything,” Senator Rockwell’s advisors told him when the first word came in.
“You’ve never met her before in your life.”
“Never even heard her name.”
“Deny everything outright and just act pissed off.”
Denial and anger: steps two and three of the Six Stages of Grief. “What about shock?” he asked. “When did we skip over that one?” A few minutes earlier there’d been no scandal, no anything. He’d been in a private conference with the Senate majority leader. Galbraith needed a horse to introduce a bill on the floor; Steve was in stable and it was his turn to run. Now, back in his office, the television on the wall showed an image of Laura, the words “Senator’s Alleged Mistress” in drop shadow beneath her name.
“What’s Laura doing up there?” Steve asked.
“Ducking into a car, from the looks of it,” said his chief aide, Geoff O’Connor. “Now let’s get out there, Senator, and start contradicting this thing.”
At his Georgetown apartment, they talked Damage Control. Paper paths, paper trails. Cyber trails: archived emails, voicemails, texts. “Is there a tape?” Geoff asked. “Let’s talk worst-case scenarios. A story is a story, but with optics we’re fucked.”
“No tape,” Steve said, pouring himself a juice glass full of gin. He felt suddenly bereft; there should have been tapes, something with movement, with sound: the sweep of feet over a mattress, the sharp intake of breath, the leap and fall of breasts released from a brassiere, jaunty and free.
“All right, good, great,” said Geoff. “I’ll circle up with Holly and get a plan for appearances.” Holly was Steve’s chief of staff back in Lincoln, a thick-built woman with prominent cuspids and a fearsome sense of organization. “What about your wife and kids? Let’s get Maureen and the girls here with the family dog.”
Steve didn’t have a dog, but it didn’t matter. The family photographed well. The four of them had long ago perfected the stance, his wife on one side and the two girls on the other, each of the women turned just slightly toward him. His daughters, now grown, shared a similarity of features with their mother that reassured the voting public.
“Do we need to bring Maureen into this?” he asked as he collapsed on the couch.
“No choice, Senator.”
The phone rang four times on the other end of the line. “Maureen, it’s Steve,” he said when she answered at last. He was seated on the edge of his bed in the other room, staring at the television turned to a court show on mute. He cleared his throat and listened to himself breathe. It sounded ragged and tubercular. His wife had hated him for a very long time.
“There are reporters stomping around on my marigolds,” Maureen said.
He settled his gaze on the television. Without volume he couldn’t tell which of the individuals was bringing the suit and which was defending. Both wore identical expressions of persecution, of indignation. Both leaned into the lectern the way a drunkard leans into the bar. “How are the girls?” he ventured.
“They’re handling it, Steve. Lizzie’s dorm mates took her out to dinner. Heather called to invite me to stay with her for a while in Berlin. She thinks I should file for divorce.”
“What do you think?”
“What do I think?” she echoed. “What do I think?” She made a snorting noise. “I think you should go to hell,” Maureen said, and there were some rasps and thumps, some scuttling around, before the phone landed in the cradle and the line went dead.
At the airport in Lincoln, Holly was waiting for him on the other side of security. She ushered him straight into a waiting car. “All right then,” she said as the driver stowed the suitcase in the trunk. “Let’s get you caught up to speed.” She handed Steve a folder, then took it back again and pulled out a piece of paper. “We’re doing the press conference tomorrow morning, so we’ll get replay at five and six. And I know Geoff wants you to go aggressive, but he’s wrong on that. The affair is a fact; Laura is a fact. So we go flawed but forgivable.”
Up front, the driver checked for oncoming cars as he pulled onto the ramp. He was humming something upbeat and triumphant. Steve recognized it as the Toreador Song from Carmen. “What about Maureen?” he asked.
“You’ve talked to her.”
“Not exactly. We spoke yesterday, but that was before plans were settled.”
Holly breathed out loudly as she drummed her fingers on the seat. “Okay,” she responded, “that’s a wrench, for sure. Okay. Well. The plan is for her to stand beside you, looking serious, but not stern. Then she takes your arm when the two of you go back into the house.”
Steve leaned his head forward between the seats. “What do you think?” he asked the driver. “You think my wife’s going to stand up there and smile for the cameras?”
The man lifted both thumbs from the wheel. “You stand up and show her you’re in control of the situation. Respect her, respect yourself. It’s all about the respect.”
The man was a sage, full of the practical wisdom that Steve associated with the lower classes. “How do you like that?” he said to Holly. “From now on I go to this guy for personal advice.”
Without glancing up from her Blackberry, she responded, “Just let me know where I pick up my last check.”
The street in front of his house was lined with white news vans. Along the sidewalk, reporters and cameramen stood in little groups, smoking and sipping coffee from desultory paper cups. “All right,” Holly said. “Keep your face relaxed and don’t duck away from the cameras.”
“Aren’t you coming?” he asked.
“A picture of you and another woman getting out of a car together?” She lifted the corners of her mouth, not quite a smile. “I don’t think so.”
He opened the car door and pushed his way out into the sea of shouting reporters. Batting away microphones, he made his way up the front walkway and mounted the steps to the porch. The door was locked. Steve patted his empty pockets; his keys were in his suitcase in the trunk of the car. He rang the doorbell and waited with his hands folded in front of him. Then he took out his phone and dialed Maureen. “I’m locked out,” he said when she picked up.
“And you thought the doorbell would get you in. You didn’t think I’d have an opinion on your coming here.”
Behind him, the reporters had fallen eerily quiet. He could feel their cameras trained on his back. “Would you open the door, Maureen? Please?”
She sighed heavily. “I’ll go and open the back. You can come around that way.”
He turned to go down the steps, flashbulbs sputtering around him. “Wife lock you out, Senator?” he heard one of the reporters shout, and without thinking, he flipped the man off. As he rounded the corner of the house, taking care not to step on the marigolds, he heard a car horn beep a few times in quick succession and, looking back, saw the driver raise two fingers to his forehead in a salute.
His phone rang and rang. Almost every call was from Holly or Geoff. The shot of him flipping off the cameras, finger fuzzed out, was playing on all the news channels. Maureen was somewhere upstairs; he still hadn’t seen her. When he’d come in the back door, he found the kitchen empty, only a note on the counter that read: Get your own booze.
Around dusk, the phone rang and Steve saw his wife’s name on the screen. “Can I come up?” he asked, tilting his face to the ceiling.
“No.” She paused. “Yes. Fine. Bring up a bottle of wine.”
In the bedroom, his wife was standing at the window holding a glass the size of a small fishbowl to her collarbone as she hunched over to peer through the blinds. “Your hair,” Steve said, setting the bottle of chardonnay on the dresser. “It’s getting into your glass.” She turned to glare at him. It had been years since he had slept in this room; he always stayed in the guest suite down the hall.
“Come and look at this, will you,” she said, stepping aside to let him see out the window. “They leave a night crew, in case I decide to run down the street drunk at three a.m.” On the lawn below, the reporters and cameramen were chewing burgers and fries as they stared down at the glowing faces of their phones. Steve watched them until Maureen edged him aside to resume her place at the blinds.
“I’m talking to the press tomorrow,” he said, opening the bottle of wine.
“And you want me to stand beside you.”
“You don’t have to say anything.” He spread his hands out before him. “Thirty seconds, a minute: it’s a short speech.”
“Hm.” She fluttered her fingers, dismissing him. “I’ll think about it.”
Later, she came downstairs wearing a Cornhuskers sweatshirt over a long silk nightgown. It was an outfit appropriate to a certain level of intoxication. “There’s some whiskey in the pantry,” she said, pointing the way with the bottle of wine from earlier. It was nearly empty. When Steve came back from the kitchen, she’d turned the TV to a dance competition show. He sat down on the other end of the couch and together they watched the rest of one episode and all of the next.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said when a commercial came on. “I’ve been thinking, and I’ve figured something out about you.” She took a drink, then another, the second longer than the first.
“I figured something out about you, Ste-ven, and I figured something out about me.” Her head swayed heavily and Steve saw that she was even further gone than he’d thought, much further gone than him. “It’s that you’re boring. You’re a boring person and I’m bored, and I’m going to die and I’m sick of it.” Looking him in the eye, she added, “And you are beyond incompetent.” She drained the rest of her glass and set it down beside the bottle. “But I’ve decided to do the press conference tomorrow.” And without waiting for a response, she got up and lurched out of the room, one hand lifted to her face, as if she were trying to keep her skin attached that way.
The next morning, they waited in the front hall for the clock to strike nine. Light from the high window puddled on the floor. “I just stand there,” Maureen confirmed, “and gaze at you lovingly while you apologize.”
“Not lovingly, necessarily. Just without visible hate. I know this hasn’t been easy,” Steve said, “and I want to thank you for doing this.”
She nodded. “You’re welcome.” The clock began to chime, and she turned to him and smiled. “By the way, you should know that I’m planning on doing something gruesome out there.”
He blinked at her. “What?”
“I don’t know, exactly. I figure I’ll play it by ear.”
She pushed open the door and stepped out onto the porch.
Steve had no choice but to follow. He heard the blood thumping in his ears. His hands drooped at his sides. He joined Maureen at the top of the porch steps, and from that vantage point spotted Holly at the back of the crowd, Blackberry out, furiously tapping. He attempted to send her a telepathic SOS: Danger, danger. Maureen on the loose. Holly raised her head, gave him a thumbs up, and went back to her phone.
The assembled reporters hushed; the cameramen ducked behind their cameras; the sound guys lowered their mikes into position over the spot where Steve and Maureen stood at the top of the steps. The porch stretched out empty around them. In the air was the drone of a lawnmower one street over. Clearing his throat, Steve took a half step forward.
“I think,” he said, searching, “that is, I believe—” He stopped, unable to remember how the speech began. If only he could get the first sentence, the rest would come easily. What was it? He stared openmouthed at the assembly as the moment skittered away from him. From the back of the crowd, Holly was making winding, fluttering motions with her hands. Steve watched a squirrel scurry up the trunk of the large oak behind her and wondered how she’d handle what was about to befall them. “I think,” he said in a shaky voice, “my wife here has something she’d like to say.”
Maureen turned toward him and for several long seconds they stared each other full in the face. Then she looked out at the reporters and glinting camera lenses. “Let me tell you all something about marriage,” she began. Steve’s heart was racing. He thought maybe he should sit down on the top step. But Maureen took his hand and went on, “Marriage isn’t easy, not under the best of circumstances. And I’m here to tell you that having a husband who commutes over one thousand miles to work, who is one hundred percent committed to nearly two million people—that is not the best of circumstances, not by a long shot.”
There was a titter from the crowd, quickly snuffed out. Steve watched Maureen raise her chin just an inch. A smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. “Marriage is about loyalty. And so is public service. My husband cheated on me—” She glanced at him before turning back to the crowd— “and now you’re wondering whether you can trust him, whether you, his constituents, can count on his loyalty.”
On the campaign trail, Steve remembered, his wife had occasionally given short speeches about family and education and playground safety laws. The speeches were written by his staff and she always looked a little bashful delivering them, happy to step away from the microphone once she was done. This was something different. The reporters, the cameramen, they were surprised. They were listening. Maureen had them holding their breath.
“My husband made a mistake,” she said, “but I’ve forgiven him.” She raised his hand briefly to her lips. “And I ask that you all do the same. He’s a good husband, a good senator. He is a good, good man.”
Back inside the house, Maureen took a few quick steps away from him and stood against the wall, panting and running her fingers through her hair. Her eyes were bright. She was looking around the front hall as if she had never seen it before. Steve opened his mouth to ask what had just happened out there, but then he felt his phone vibrate and pulling it from his pocket, he saw Holly’s name on the screen.
“Jesus,” she said. “Put your wife on the line.”
He did as he was told.
Four months later, Steve was seated across the desk from Holly in his office in Lincoln. It was Monday and raining. The city skyline outside the window was a row of teeth against the clouds. He was headed back to D.C. on a six p.m. flight, another weekend on the homestead under his belt. It was part of his penance; the electorate wanted to see him back in their midst, the prodigal son kissing the rich soil of his native land. He didn’t really mind being in Lincoln. In D.C., he was diminishing, wavering; at any moment, someone might punch right through him.
“The Pumpkin Patch,” Holly said.
“The pumpkin what?”
“Patch, Steve. Patch. Keep up with me now. Saturday afternoon out in Bucksville. You and Maureen strolling hand-in-hand, bits of hay in your hair, big cups of apple cider. Have yourselves a piece of pie. Carve yourselves a pumpkin. We’ll get some local press there. Flash, flash, flash.” Holly held up one hand and took pictures of him with an invisible camera.
“Can’t do it,” Steve said. “Maureen’s out in L.A. filming this week.”
Holly shook her head. “I talked to her this morning. She’ll be back Saturday a.m. on a red eye, and you’re back Friday night, so you can pick her up in the morning and drive straight up to Bucksville. I’ll meet you there.”
In the days after the press conference, Maureen had gone on the talk show circuit, defending him with zeal while he hid in the house. She had interviews in all the major news and celebrity magazines, and a ghostwriter helping her put together a book. Now she was on Dance With Me! doing the cha-cha and the samba with a man whose buttocks resembled two baby watermelons.
“So listen,” Holly said, “we’ll throw some pics on the Twitter feed, see if we can broaden it out. Better yet, have Maureen put it on hers. Do you know how many followers she has?”
Steve shook his head.
“One million plus. The soccer moms love her. The soccer dads, too. They’ll eat up the small-town festival thing.” She tapped the screen on her phone and held up for him a picture of a girl hugging a pumpkin, eyes squeezed shut, teeth bared like a raccoon’s.
“She’s my niece.”
Steve squinted at Holly. “Somehow, I never thought of you with nieces.”
“Somehow, I never thought of you with a wife doing the samba in sequins.” Sliding her phone into her bag, she stood up and gathered her things. “See you Saturday.”
Maureen had lost weight. Her skin was gleaming. Steve was a little in awe of her now. She looked to him, coming down the airport hallway dressed all in white, like some mythical creature arisen from the sea. “I’m telling you, it’s her,” Steve heard a woman whisper fiercely to her husband as they passed by. “I swear to God, from Dance With Me!”
“Oh, man,” the husband said. “Maureen Rockwell. Man, oh, man.”
There she was: Steve’s new, old wife, more recognizable than he was now. Not that she’d been unfamiliar with the spotlight before, but she’d had it only intermittently, and only at an angle. Now she was soaking it up all the time and there was a bullying radiance about her, a dictatorial perfection. She had a new way of looking at whoever she happened to be speaking to that suggested she had recently made a private, perhaps physical, discovery, something wonderful and strange and nearly impossible to keep secret.
Steve wondered if it was a sign she was having frequent orgasms.
She was on the phone, talking into a hands-free device, pulling a roller suitcase along after her and glancing around without letting her eyes linger on any one face or thing. Her flight was an hour late. Steve had spent the time sitting in the car, staring at a crossword puzzle. He’d only filled in two answers, and he was pretty sure that one of them was wrong.
“Who were you talking to?” he asked pointedly as she stopped in front of him. “It must be the middle of the night in L.A.”
She shrugged. “It’s early morning out there.” Gazing past him at the sliding glass doors, she said, “You got a car here or what?”
He jangled the keys in one hand and took her bag in the other. In the car, she buckled her seat belt and turned her face to the window. “I’m taking a nap,” she said, leaning her seat back a few inches. “Wake me when we get there.”
“Don’t you want to enjoy the beautiful scenery? Cows and barns and all that?”
“No,” Maureen said without opening her eyes. A few minutes later her breathing slowed and he glanced at her sleeping beside him. She had not answered his question about who was on the phone, but he suspected it was her dance partner—Steve had had his young dalliance and now she was having hers. It was part of his punishment. Once completed, he’d be a new husband, a new father, a new man of principles; he’d find his old ideals waiting for him, untarnished and complete.
The Pumpkin Patch was set up behind chain link fencing in a trampled field next to the town’s high school. Maureen woke up just as they turned into the parking lot. A four-foot high, pumpkin-shaped sign made of plywood pointed the way.
“Well, isn’t this quaint,” Maureen said, yawning.
He slowed for a family of four cutting across the parking lot in front of them. One child was asleep in the mother’s arms and the other one rode the father’s shoulders, clutching with both hands the top of his balding head. “Didn’t we take the girls to something like this years ago?” Steve asked. “I feel like I remember a maze. Haystacks and scarecrows. Lizzie screamed her head off.”
“Not that I remember,” Maureen said.
But he was feeling something real swirling around in his gut: nostalgia, regret, a mixture of the two. “Christ,” he said, the swirling sensation deepening. “Will you just take a look at them?” He nodded at the family, now getting into their minivan. “Mom and Dad and the kiddies on a beautiful fall afternoon.”
Maureen flicked her hand at his arm, her knuckles hitting right on the bone. “Save the sentiment for the cameras.”
Holly found them by the entrance and told them they’d hit a minor snag: she hadn’t been able to get anyone from the Journal Star to come up. “But someone from the Bee might show, and I brought my point-and-shoot to take some candid shots. Make you look like a real man and woman of the people.” She squinted at Maureen in her all-white outfit and added, “Almost.”
Maureen folded her arms over her chest. Steve could see her assessing Holly’s plan, trying to decide how much to push. “All right,” she said at last. She pulled out a pair of sunglasses and set them carefully upon her nose. “We might as well get this howdy-doody show started.”
For the next half hour, they strolled down the rows between the food booths, Steve and Maureen arm in arm, Holly close beside them. There was no press to be seen. “It figures,” Maureen whispered as they stopped before a table selling pumpkin-scented candles, “that they wouldn’t follow politics very much up here. But you’d think they’d be watching Dance With Me!” Lifting a candle to Steve’s nose, she said, “Smell this and look happy.”
“I’m gonna go find the bathrooms,” Steve said when they reached the end of the booths.
Holly tipped her head in the direction of the entrance. “They’re down that way,” she said, “under the football stands.”
On his way, he was stopped by a fat woman in a too-small sweatshirt. “You’re that senator, aren’t you?” She had two young boys with her, four or five years old. Both of them were sucking on candy sticks and they squinted up at Steve with the suspicion of children whose parents often get into shouting matches with strangers. “Yeah,” the woman said, dragging out the word, “the one who cheated on his wife.”
Steve glanced at the boys. “I’m sorry, but is this the best topic—”
“What, them?” the woman said. “They’re used to it.” And she proceeded to tell Steve how she’d been cheated on, too, how their dad had picked up with some little whore he’d met God only knew where—definitely not on the job, since the bastard didn’t have one. “And that’s where your wife’s one step better than me,” she said, narrowing her eyes at Steve, “because at least you’ve got money. That divorce will pay.”
He cleared his throat, annoyed that this woman should think she knew anything about him. “See, the thing is, my wife and I aren’t getting a divorce. I made a terrible mistake—”
“Mistake?” The woman laughed meanly. “Not much confusion in screwing the wrong woman, is there now, Senator?” She put a hand distractedly on the head of the boy standing closest to her. Both he and his brother narrowed their eyes at Steve. “In fact, that sounds like about the most intentional thing a person can do, and I don’t care if you are a politician, I don’t care how much money and power you have. In fact, I call that an abuse of power…”
Steve watched the woman’s face grow red and pinched as she spluttered on. He waited for her to be done, and then was almost disappointed when she abruptly left off. Grabbing her boys’ hands, the woman tugged them away toward the exit, leaving Steve standing alone until he went in search of the bathrooms.
They ended up at last in The Patch itself, a fenced-off square of grass with the pumpkins lined up amid long tangles of plastic vines that created the illusion of actual agriculture. Young children were running up and down the rows, hyped up on sugar and sunshine, brushing past Steve and Maureen as they made their way slowly along. Maureen was reenergized; her publicist had called a few minutes before to say she’d gotten her an interview with one of the morning talk shows next week. Suddenly, the photographs had a tangible use. The publicist said to make sure they had a good selection. Maybe a shot of the senator and his wife squatting on the ground, mouths wide open in laughter, hands brushing the dirt from a misshapen pumpkin?
Holly had gone back to the car to get a fresh battery for her camera. “Find yourselves a good one,” she said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Now Steve and Maureen were marooned in the middle of The Patch, waiting. She was tapping away on her phone. “‘Pumpkins on the Vine.’ Ha,” Steve said when he bent down to thump one of the gourds and saw that it was tied to the vine with green twine.
“They moved the festival a few years ago,” Maureen said without looking up. “It used to be on a farm where they had the actual vines.”
“How do you know that?”
She shrugged. “I was talking to Holly while you were in the bathroom.”
Still squatting, Steve considered the pumpkin. It was nearly flat on one side and had a sickly pallor. “Talking about what?”
“Pumpkin festivals,” she said, “and infidelity, among other topics.”
He began untying the twine and Maureen stared at him. “What are you doing?”
He stood up, grasping the pumpkin. “Go ahead,” he said, holding it out to her in both arms. “Throw it on the ground. Drop it.”
She turned her eyes quickly to a young family a few rows over. “No.”
“Come on, it’ll feel good. Throw it at the ground. Toss it at me, if you want. Right at my gut. Kersplat.” He poked his elbows at his stomach, showing her just where she should aim. “It’ll feel great, Maureen, I’m telling you—a load off your chest.” He thrust the pumpkin out at her again. His arms were beginning to hurt.
“I said I don’t want to.”
“Oh, come on, Maureen. You’re angry. You should let it all out; it’ll feel good, it’ll feel fantastic.”
“Stop saying that,” she said. “It won’t feel good, it will feel ridiculous. It will look ridiculous. I told you I don’t want to.” She reached down and brushed at a streak of dirt on her pants, closing her eyes briefly and then opening them again. “And, besides, I’m not angry.”
He blinked at her. “Of course you are.”
“No, I’m not. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.”
She set her mouth in a line. Off in the distance, a flock of sparrows danced above the trees, careening up and to the left, then dipping down and veering right. It looked like a trick, like a bullfighter waving a flag. The muscles in Steve’s arms were almost shaking now and he set the pumpkin down on the ground and rubbed his hands over his face. When he opened his eyes again, Maureen was gazing past him. “Look, there’s Holly,” she said. “She’s found the photographer.”
He turned and saw Holly with a man in jeans and black t-shirt, a bulky camera strung round his neck. The man raised the camera and began taking pictures as he picked his way down the row of pumpkins toward them.
“Wave,” Maureen said.
Steve lifted his hand and waved.
Molly Patterson's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, Image, and Colorado Review. A 2013 Pushcart Prize winner, her debut collection (which includes an extended version of this story) will be published by Five Chapters Books in early 2014.