The President

by Ian Werkheiser


November 15, 2004   


(Swans - November 15, 2004)   On conspiracy-theory webpages, the number of secret passages running into and out of the US White House range between one and over a hundred. They are used, we are told, for everything from smuggling foreigners with undue influence into the oval office, to sexual dalliances (a particular favorite), to secret trade with aliens, to the more prosaic backup exits in case of war. Of these deduced passages, the Secret Service knows perhaps a dozen to actually exist. There is only one of which they are wholly unaware: a branch off one of the better known passages. It is toward this branch that the President now wanders, late at night.

He has told the guards always accompanying him to leave. They have agreed, believing they know the only egress point of the tunnel, and so after sweeping it they merely place men at the entrance and exit, trying to look innocuous in their earphones and suits obviously cut to hide a sidearm. So, alone the president walks through the main passage. Sterile and modern he knows it to be; lit in backup-generator neon, the floor painted an ugly government-nondescript green which bleeds halfway up the walls before switching to an ugly not-tan, and with tracks inlaid throughout for some miniature train that no one now seems to know anything about. Still he envisions it flagged in stone, with dripping sounds coming from nowhere and torches dropping burning embers along the walls. Perhaps it was this way once, long ago. Now this inner image is only in his imagination, and he wanders it often in his dreams coming always to the branch, which he sees as a heavy wooden door with dark metal studs pounded through it, then bent down. He comes now to the actual version -- merely a slight depression noticeable only by running one's hand along the wall the entire way. He stops before this and takes several quick breaths. He would straighten his tie if he had one on, but despite most Americans' inner image of the President, the actual one is often casually dressed. Today he wears sweat pants with an ugly fold at the top for too much elastic and a pink polo shirt that his handlers called "Salmon" (to make it sound less homosexual he assumes) and which he refuses to wear in public, one of his few victories. Today though it is clean and convenient, and no one that matters will see it. He presses the indentation, and after pushing on it for ten minutes which always seem like hours, it opens with a vacuum noise and his ears pop from the pressure change. Looking uselessly back and forth he goes in.

Stairs made of metal grating descend down in a spiral, allowing him to see obscured hints of the depths below. The stairs are bolted to the wall, and down the center around which they pivot is chain link fencing, possibly put in place to keep anyone from falling down to the bottom. The President disables the motion detectors he knows to be hidden in the stairwell with the wave of a card he uses to access most of the White House. He looks down the vertiginous central column of space and suppressing a brief hint of nausea begins to descend, sliding along the outer wall as he goes as a child might. He prefers to have his people come down here to do all the necessary work for him, but while he might not attend those disturbing yet necessary episodes, he occasionally feels a compunction to come himself and check, like a sore tooth that he can't help tonguing.

The main hallway passes right under the Washington Monument, a symbol fraught with meanings that a Mason like Washington would have both appreciated instantly and approved of totally. The secret stairwell exists precisely under the monument, an inversion of the phallic image. Every outgoing administration tells every incoming administration about this passage-within-a-passage. The knowledge of its existence supersedes any petty differences between the two parties, even over the more real personal animosity that can develop between two contenders. Many of the people on the president's staff have served past presidents, so he knows the passage and stairwell are occasionally altered as security systems improve or merely to suppress the damage of age or, in one case, fire. Thus the president does not know which other presidents have been down these particular metal stairs. Indeed, truth be told he can only name the most recent few presidents and the most famous of his predecessors before that. Still he likes to think of the others that have come down before him, for he feels less alone.

About halfway down the stairs the smell starts. It is a sickly, sour smell that the president associates with the age and bedsores of an uncle he was forced as a child to visit several times as he lay dying. The stairs end abruptly against a seamless wall, and he must again lean on this for too long until it gives way. He wonders idly if it is checking anything, perhaps DNA or palm prints like in a spy movie, but he has people to actually know these things and has never bothered to ask. Perhaps one must simply lean on the doors to discourage people from accidentally opening them. Opening and closing his mouth while tugging on his earlobes to yet again adjust to a sudden pressure change, he moves in.

Inside there is dark, and heat, and the smell doubled a hundred times. He knows he is on the beginning of a catwalk that extends out half a football field before ending in a platform and cage elevator, but he has never trusted the walkway enough to attempt going that far, and he can only see a few feet ahead from the light of the stairwell coming through the open door. He takes a few steps forward and looks down. At first he can only distinguish the grating under his feet, but slowly his eyes refocus to accommodate the difference in light levels, and he is able to see.

Below is a roiling mass of flesh. Huge rivers of it twist through the main mass like currents in a viscous liquid or the storm clouds of some other world, while tiny tendrils constantly extend and subsume each other. Perhaps some of these will eventually form a current of their own. The president doesn't know all the details, but scientists from meteorologists to psychologists study this all the time, he does know. He often half-listens to condensed reports of their findings during his morning briefings. The tendrils are not moving truly randomly. Indeed they are extending away from the light and the catwalk, for it has long since come to associate the light of the doorway with pain. The sound of their movements is like a full balloon being squeezed between wet hands. The mass is sometimes worked on once a day or more, though at other times months will go by between visits from the president's administration. The arcane rights, like the passageway, are adapted from ones that came before, altered and modernized. Masonic ritual modified with up-to-date research on operant conditioning, pharmaceutical advances, and whatever else the scientists and technicians want to try. Still, the old ways are never given over entirely, as many of their methods -- terror taught with pain, arbitrary punishment, small rewards -- are still the most effective at taming this thing to the iron rule of the Great Architect and His servants here in the White House.

The president has been staring at the torsion below him for too long, he realizes, as his nausea returns full force, accompanied by light-headedness and a ringing sound in his left ear superimposed over cottony silence. He vomits suddenly over the railing, and half moans. He sees the mass initially recoil from the acidity before it is lost in the totality. The president wipes his mouth with the short sleeve of the shirt he detests, and feels the unsteadiness of his legs as he moves back to the door. He totters and falls to one knee, his sense of balance telling lies to his feet. Holding the rail he once again tries to stand, this time nearly pitching over the side. Sitting down, he breathes heavily, taking in far too much of the smell. He knows he should have brought a mask; only those used to this can stand the fumes for long periods. He crawls toward the door, his vision tunneling to encompass only the light. For a moment he feels like his leg has brushed something, and insane ideas of the tendrils reaching up to claim him fill his mind. Finally he reaches the door and uses it to pull himself up. He closes it most of the way and stumbles to the bottom of the stairs, exhausted. It was a stupid risk, but at least he has seen what he came to see: even with his inadvertent action toward it, the mass barely responded. It is still almost totally somnambulant, the soporifics it takes are still in effect. There are safeguards that would allow people equipped to deal with that kind of emergency to be instantly aware of any change in the mass's behavior, but the president is still more comfortable checking for himself. He closes the door with relief, hearing the sound of it sealing. He makes his ways slowly up the stairs, again leaning on the far wall, this time also using the handrail for support.

He comes to the other door, and leaning against it to feel it close completely he utters the same silent prayer he always does to the good Lord every time he comes here. "Let the thing never awaken; let that disgusting mass's dreams be calm. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen."

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Ian Werkheiser is an activist, writer, and teacher currently living in Japan.

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Published November 15, 2004
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