George W. Bush is staring at the dust particles swirling in the bright studio lights. He is wearing a navy blue suit and red patterned tie. The mic is pinned to his left lapel, and he sits on a soft, tan chair with his hands clasped across his lap. It is November 19, 2013. He is trying to look relaxed, at ease. Like he does this all the time. He can’t believe he used to do this all the time. Jay Leno sits to his left, wearing a black suit and red tie, his white hair neatly coiffed, a tiny American flag pinned to his lapel. Across Leno’s wooden desk, carefully positioned: another mic, some loose papers, a coffee mug. Behind them, through the windows: upscale office buildings, well-lit, purple-tinted. They have just finished the easy topics. The joys of retirement. An update on 41. W’s love of baseball. Throughout, the former president has been as charming as ever, cracking joke after joke in his down-home drawl.
Leno leans forward, looks down. “Now, I know you’ve taken up some hobbies. You’re painting now. You’ve showed me some of your paintings, and I was very impressed.”
“I am a painter.” W nods.
“Oh, you are a painter now?”
The audience laughs, the camera zooms in. “I mean, you may not think I’m a painter. I think I’m a painter.”
“No, but is it, is that second on your credits?” Leno jokes. “President of the United States,” he raises his hand as if to place something on a high shelf, then lowers it, “painter?”
W chuckles. “Well, it depends on whether you like the painting or not.”
“No, they’re very good. Did you take lessons or...?”
How did you start painting? Why did you start painting? Is there something deeper you’re trying to tell us through the paintings? Do you feel anything? Since a hacker leaked photos of the paintings in February, no one has wanted to talk about anything else. He knows what the audience wants him to say. That he’s guilt-ridden. That the paintings are his way of thinking about his presidency. Of soul searching. But it’s nothing like that. He never thinks about his time in office. Never thinks about the war. Search for the meaning beneath the brushstrokes, he wants to tell them, and you will come up short every time.
“I take a lesson from a woman named Gayle Norfleet once a week in Dallas,” he says, although this explains nothing, and he knows it.
He stares again at the dust swirling in the bright studio lights, the dust of West Texas, the dust of his childhood.
Ask anyone from West Texas about the dust storms, and they’ll paint you this picture. It is late winter or early spring. The earth is dry, the soil loose, the birds long gone. With little warning, the storm arrives as a wall of dust and debris. A big, black-brown, billowing cloud miles long and thousands of feet high. Your stomach sinks. Your ears fill with howling wind. You can’t see your own hands. Miles above, pilots see the clouds and panic. On the highway, drivers can’t see the streetlights, can’t see over their hoods, and so the cars pile up. The dust seeps through every crack and hole, blankets every window. The crevices are plugged with wet rags, until the houses ache with claustrophobia and static air and the weight of all those rags and still the dust seeps in. It stings your eyes and chokes at your throat, scratches you through your clothes. Every night, you place fresh sheets on the bed, but still they are brown by morning, still the pillow cuts against your cheek like sandpaper, still your life resembles more and more a sepia-toned photo: dim and hazy and prematurely aged.
Nestled in the Permian Basin, twenty miles from Odessa and thirty-nine from Big Spring, the small oil town where W spent parts of his childhood is victim to these storms. The summers are long and hot, the winters short and mild, but otherwise, Midland looks the same year round. There are few trees to lose their leaves, little greenery to redden in autumn. Instead, everything is coated in layers of fine dust. The diner counters. The trucks waiting in empty lots. The oil rigs where W’s father made his fortune. Ask anyone from Midland about the dust storms, and they’ll pull out their pocket Bibles, flipping through the yellowing, sweat-soaked pages until they arrive at Genesis 3:7: For dust you are, and to dust you will return. Ask anyone from Midland, and they’ll paint you this picture of a town tinged brown and stained with the aura of the unwanted and forgotten. A town sitting still for decades, just waiting for someone to pick it up, to shake off the accumulated years.
The spring of ’54 in Midland, W’s mother was growing dusty too. Every morning, she sat in the living-room staring into the yard, the new baby asleep in the back room. Every afternoon, he found her waiting in the same spot, wearing her uniform of the last few months: all black, her arms covered even though it was starting to warm again. She wore black shirts and black skirts. Black hats. Even black socks. She wrote with black pens in little black notebooks, slung a black purse over her shoulder, wiped her mouth with a black cloth, watched black birds flying past the window. Everything was black but her hair. Over the past few months, he had watched her light-brown hair change to white—an unthinkable transformation in this dust-covered town, where new socks browned after barely a week. Sometimes, he wondered if it would change back. If his eyes were simply playing tricks, like the previous October when his parents picked him up from school in the middle of the day, when he thought he saw his sister’s car seat in the back but was mistaken. His eyes were playing tricks on him then too.
One day, it took Mother a moment to realize he was home from school. When she did, her face brightened. “Georgie,” she called, using his pet name (he was not really a “Junior” as the family took great pains to remind his teachers), “why don’t you come over here and tell me about your day at school?”
Dutifully, he dropped his knapsack on the floor and crawled into her lap. He even let her kiss the back of his head though he was a big boy now, almost eight years old. He was still not used to the new routine. For seven long months last spring and summer, she had been in and out of town. “In New York,” his father had told him afterwards, when it was too late to matter, “trying to make your sister all better.” Now Mother was home all the time. With Big George away so often on business, it was up to him to be the man of the house. To make her smile when he could.
“We had art today, and I made you this picture,” he told her, unable to hide the excitement in his voice. From his pocket, he pulled a scrap of paper folded into quarters. Slowly, hands trembling, he undid the folds and began to smooth the paper. He wished it weren’t so wrinkled. Yesterday, along with a letter from the grown-up relatives out East, they had received a drawing from his cousin Hap. “To Aunt Barbara,” an adult had written on the back in neat cursive. Hap’s drawing was a landscape rendered via squiggle: green squiggles for grass, black squiggles for birds, a yellow squiggle for sun rays. Or lightning. He couldn’t tell. It was a bad drawing, but at least the page was flat. Mother had smiled when she saw it, the first time all afternoon, and taped it to the fridge.
W’s drawing was much better than Hap’s because it had people, which everyone knew were much more challenging to draw. It was the five of them—Big George, Mother, Robin, Jeb, himself—and they were holding hands. He had tried hard to make it look as realistic as possible, even trading part of his lunch so he could borrow a white crayon for the curlicues of Mother’s hair and for the cloud, because he imagined heaven was like a cloud. The people had circle faces with dots for eyes and red Us for mouths. The smallest circle-face person was on the cloud, and he had drawn a skinny O over her head in gold, because angels needed halos, and Big George always called her his “little angel up in heaven.”
He ran his hand over the page, trying one last time to smooth out the wrinkles before deciding it would never lie flat. “Do you like it?” he finally asked.
Mother didn’t say anything, just picked up the drawing and stared at it for a long time, tracing her right pointer finger across the circle faces one at a time. Her breath was warm against the back of his neck, and he felt his hairs prickle one by one. As he waited for her to answer, his eyes shifted to the mantle, where a painting of his sister hung. In the painting, she looked happy, just like he remembered her. She was wearing her pink Easter dress and sitting in a field of bluebonnets, her gold curls radiant against the dusty gray Midland landscape.
“Little George,” Mother finally said, placing the wrinkled drawing back on the table. Her lips opened slightly, and he could see her tongue pressed against the back of her teeth, searching for the words. Suddenly, a soft low-pitched wail echoed from the back of the house. “The baby,” she muttered. The baby had been born just weeks before Robin became ill, and she never called him by his name. “Little George, why don’t you go play outside for a bit? I have to get the baby.” She nudged him off her lap, walked to her room, and closed the door with a soft click.
He stood at the door and listened as she shushed the baby. He knew she would stay in there all afternoon. Shrugging his shoulders, he reminded himself not to take it personally. Mother had these moods and could not be blamed. Sometimes his tricks to cheer her up worked, sometimes they didn’t. Thank goodness Big George was returning home tonight, he remembered. Big George would cheer up Mother. Big George would know the drawing was good. Big George would tape the drawing to the fridge, pat him on the back, and beam with pride. Mother would smile. Then they would all eat biscuits and chicken pot pie and be a happy family again.
But it was not to be. That afternoon, he was walking home from stick-ball when he turned onto West Ohio Street. As soon as he saw the familiar gray siding and red roof of the family home, as soon as he saw the green Oldsmobile parked in the driveway and Big George’s tall figure silhouetted in the front windows, he knew something was wrong. He could not say exactly what it was, a slight change in the air pressure, the birds squawking overhead, the Oldsmobile parked ever so slightly left of center. Walking closer, he saw that the table was not set. That dinner wasn’t ready. That Mother had not returned yet from the bedroom. He pressed his nose to the window and waited for Big George to notice him, but his father was too preoccupied, turning from the empty table to the empty stove, then back again to the table, where Mother had left W’s drawing.
Big George held the drawing up and stared at it for a long time, totally expressionless. This was not the man from the photos W had pored over for hours, the smooth-skinned fighter pilot and dashing young groom. His father’s suit was covered in a fine layer of dust, his briefcase battered, his shirt wrinkled, his hair greased back and damp with sweat. He had loosened his tie so it hung unevenly off his neck. In the harsh lighting, his face looked tired, bone thin. With his long, slender fingers, he folded the drawing back into quarters, lining up the creases that were already there. When he was done, he slipped the drawing in the trash. Later that night, while W was tossing and turning in his twin-sized bed, after Mother was already asleep, he would hear his father pushing a kitchen chair across the living-room floor. A soft scraping sound. And in the morning, he would find the painting of Robin lying face-down in the dusty corner of the room, a dark rectangle above the mantel where the sun had failed to bleach the wall a lighter color.
“So here’s the thing,” W says to Leno now. The studio audience is waiting. He stares down at his lap, his voice as serious as it was on 9/11. “I want to share something with you. I do take painting seriously, it’s changed my life, and...” And is he really going to go through with this? He could tell them everything, reveal something of himself. An understanding of loss. Remorse for the blood by his hands. The faint stirrings of a long dormant interior life. But then the old smirk returns, and he is W again. The Bombastic Bushkin. Jokester and class clown. The candidate you’d most like to share a beer with. The cowboy born of and returned to dust. It is so much easier to be like Leno, he thinks: To put on a show, to make them laugh so hard they forget they’re bleeding. “And I brought a painting for you.”
“Oh, you did?”
From behind his chair, he pulls an acrylic painting of Leno and holds it up for the audience to see. It’s a view from the front. Leno’s head is massive, easily taking up two-thirds of the picture plane. The shoulders are cut off, the features flattened, the symmetry slightly skewed. Even so, it’s undeniably Leno, right down to the coiffed hair, the purple backdrop, the little American flag pin.
The crowd goes wild as Leno reaches for it. “Oh, did you paint that? Oh, look at that.” Leno holds the painting up to his doughy face and smiles for the cameras.
W beams. He feels a warmth in his chest, the crowd’s pulse rising through him like the best adrenaline, and he knows what they are thinking: This is a good guy, a guy who can laugh at himself, a guy just like us. A guy we can forgive tonight.
Emily Greenberg is a writer and artist originally from Memphis, TN. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Ohio State University.