Most nights for the first two months of my wife’s chemotherapy, I found myself wide awake at 3 or 4, but my mind was empty, or easy enough to empty out. I’d lie in bed thinking of absolutely nothing for two hours, or pick up a novel and read for 40 minutes and forget everything. Any novel would do: Tom Perrotta’s Election, about a race for class president at New Jersey high school taking place at the same time as Bill Clinton’s first run. Or Gayl Jones’ The Healing: I loved the way it made sense for the narrator to talk about absolutely anything that came into her head, song lyrics, news items, cable channel gossip, as if it was all part of the same story, a story that was its own frame of reference. I didn’t think about cancer: There was plenty of time to do that during the day, and to let the physical details of each day (“How are you feeling?” no longer casual, but a request for specifics, for facts when none are present) keep the looming questions at bay. “I’m tired of people saying ‘Oh, you’ll do fine,’ ” she said recently. “I wish someone would say ‘I hope you don’t die.’ “
February hasn’t been like that. I still wake up in the middle of the night, but obsession arrives instantly. The impeachment trial had something to do with it. When that got too bad, I’d say, There must be something else I can worry about, and there always was. My older daughter quitting a job that had become impossible and now–what? A column that I’d put off until it turned into a bad conscience: You can’t write me. You’ve waited too long. I got away. This was perfectly reliable–a neat if horrible game. Every night I traded off, one scare to the other. But this last week I woke up with my skin crawling in a new way, thanks to Law & Order and Homicide running a two-part, Wednesday and Friday show with mingled casts.
The premise was cops and district attorneys vs. the independent counsel–the one we’ve still got, named Dell but otherwise precisely the “Pink Monster,” as a friend called Kenneth Starr after watching him before the House Judiciary Committee. In a show that even brought back Joseph Welch’s rebuke to Joe McCarthy, “Have you no shame? At long last, have you no shame?”–here not as a lawyer’s attack but as a witness’s cry for help–the man was indeed a monster: a monster of smugness, the smugness of absolute power.
It should have been some kind of satisfaction to find my own fears and hatreds dramatized so perfectly, in a story told as at least a good part of the republic listened in. In fact it was too perfect. I had never drawn a picture of the monster half as real, as cruel, as sadistic as the one that for two nights walked the airwaves of NBC as if he knew he was invulnerable even to the attack on him that as a character he himself embodied. For five nights now I’ve been trying to think my way out of that one.