President Agnew is tired after his daily briefing and ready to watch a re-run of The Love Boat. Next to his glass of jug wine on the kitchen table rests The Football, an old scuffed Detroit Lions model. He refuses to go anywhere without it. He often complains about the responsibility of knowing the nuclear codes.
It’s a mystery how, when my father’s dementia struck, it took the form of his belief that he is President Spiro T. Agnew. Father was never political. He did get upset when Gerald Ford, the representative of our west Michigan district, became president without being elected, but not enough to even write a letter to the Grand Rapids Press.
Now it’s 1984, after what would have been the Agnew administration, and long after I gave up athletics for chasing girls and smoking pot. Back in junior high, I was a second-string quarterback, and Dad, already in his 50s, used to jog across the yard with his arms outstretched for a catch as I practiced my spiral.
In the spring when I got laid off from my injection-molding job, I moved back in to spend time with him and give Mom a rest. The wine and Love Boat is everyone’s reward for getting through another afternoon cabinet meeting.
“Are we doing all we can to further relations with China?” he asks. “After everything that’s happened to Dick, I think it’s the least we can do.”
“Yes, Mr. President,” I say, “although Chairman Mao is unpredictable as always.”
“Would the president like Salisbury steak or turkey and peas for dinner?” asks my mother, the secretary of the Interior.
President Agnew ponders, a finger stroking the pebbly surface of the football. “Turkey and peas,” he announces.
“Then the vice president is having Salisbury steak” she says, looking at me. “The White House kitchen has only one turkey and peas.”
We’ve had frozen dinners most nights since an X-ray found a tumor, inoperable and fast-growing, in the president’s lung. The doctor said we could try radiation and chemo, but thought the cure would kill him faster than the disease. Before the X-ray, we had gently tried to convince him he is not President Agnew.
Summer drags on. We survive the Mayaguez incident, the fall of Saigon and Hoffa’s disappearance. His breath becomes shallow and labored, even with the flow from the oxygen tank cranked up high. By mid-September, it’s just mother and me sitting at the kitchen table, drinking rosé and watching ocean-borne romance with the sound turned low while the president drowses in his recliner.
One night after eating our microwave dinners on TV trays in the living room, I help get the president dressed in his pajamas and tucked into bed. I ask him if he wants to keep up with events. He nods and I turn on the portable Magnavox perched on my parents’ dresser. Father cradles the football next to him atop the chenille bedspread. He has the little nozzle portion of the plastic tubing from the green tank in his nose. The oxygen makes a hissing sound as he stares blankly at a man shaving his thickly foamed face with a disposable razor.
“You’ll make sure everything is OK when I’m gone, won’t you?” he wheezes. I don’t know who’s asking me this — my father, or Spiro Agnew.
“Yes, I will, Mr. President. Dad,” I say. He smiles. Then he nudges the football up onto his stomach where he can grab it firmly, and hands it off to me.