the golden age

book cover

   the golden age
Ohe ceremony at the State Capitol was solemn but brief since the President was due to leave before noon. Peter and Diana were led though the surprisingly large crowd by the governor, along with a number of other officials, many of them surviving witnesses to the birth of their lively state. A north wind blew steadily across American City, so-called because the Indian tribes had finally objected to the promiscuous use by white usurpers of their languages as well as land, nations, oil. So the blank adjective "American" had been proposed by Burden. "It has an Italianate ring to it," he used to say to the puzzlement of the Scotch-Irish settlers.

Inside the capitol rotunda it was still cold but they were, blessedly, out of the monotonous continental north wind. At the center, directly beneath the gray fluted dome, the closed coffin was set on a catafalque. Kitty stood beside it. She wore full mourning, complete with black veil.

Diana gave her a quick professional look. "She's had her hair done," she said to Peter, with relief. Next to Kitty was the governor's wife; at the opposite end of the catafalque was a small platform covered with red white and blue bunting.

The inevitable television lights were also in place. Peter noted that in addition to local television both NBC and CBS were on hand. Since the assassination attempt, security was intense and state troopers guarded the entrance to the rotunda. Mourners were obliged to present tickets.

"I flew," said Kitty. "I've always hated that train ride from Washington. Now I won't ever have to make it again." Diana embraced her mother as did Peter, whose eyes were inexplicably full of tears while Kitty, inexplicably, was cheerful. "We have a lovely lot," she said, "at the cemetery. Quite near my father's. We've also got a monument that Burden commissioned years ago. He was always prepared. Except for that bastard Clay." The ladies nearby stirred, not quite sure just what the word was that Kitty had used. Kitty continued, "We've also got plenty of room for both of you but you better let them know now. It seems everyone's dying at once these days, so reserve your space."

Diana changed the subject. "How are the gray squirrels?"

"Mange!" Kitty's voice echoed in the rotunda which was now almost full. "Of all things! The doctor insisted on giving them penicillin, of all things. They do look so forlorn with their moth-eaten fur."

The governor had climbed onto the platform. State troopers stood at attention behind him. Beside the platform stood the Episcopal bishop of American City, ready to perform those sacred rites that spring the locks to paradise.

"Ladies and gentlemen." The governor's voice was a mellow baritone. "Pray welcome with me the President of the United States of America, the Honorable Harry S Truman." A sudden burst of television light at the entrance to the rotunda illuminated the President. Truman wore a dark blue suit and a solemn expression. Back of him was General Vaughan and a quartet of secret service men, eyes anxiously looking this way and that for enraged Puerto Ricans; but there appeared to be none that day in American City. The crowd in the rotunda started to applaud the President until it was recalled that this was, after all, a funeral and a shushing sound stilled the applause. Truman smiled briefly in acknowledgement. A red carpet had been laid from entrance to platform and he walked down its center, precise as always, even a bit mechanical, as if he were still the army Captain of Battery D in France.

At the platform, he stopped. The governor said a few words of introduction. During breakfast on the train, Harry Vaughan had told Peter how these things could become a nightmare if you let the locals talk first: "Every candidate for sheriff is going to talk for hours, knowing the President is sitting there and no one's gonna leave till he gets up. So we said we wanted only a few words from their Republican governor. Then we say a few words and we go."

During the governor's remarks, the TV camera panned about the coffin, stopping, finally, at Kitty, flanked by Peter and Diana. At this most solemn moment, from behind her black veil, Kitty said, in a normal voice that sounded like the voice of doom in the echoing rotunda, "In my day mange was cured with a dose of sulphur and maybe Iye. The vets nowadays are simply killers!" Even Diana was shaking, trying not to laugh as Peter realized that the television audience would think that Burden had died at the hands of a rogue veterinarian.

Now Harry Truman was on the platform. He had a written text in front of him. He had a tremor of the hands--nerves? hereditary predisposition? or, as the talkative General Vaughan had confided at breakfast, "The Chief starts the day with a swig of Bourbon. Gives him energy. Then he walks a mile and goes to work." To Peter's surprise, Harry Vaughan, the crony of cronies in the White House, was a non-drinker. "That's how I'm able to look after the Chief."

The Chief was a bit rapid in his delivery. But he drew a convincing picture of the opening up of the west. The settlers coming in to what had once been Indian land that had now, somewhat mysteriously, become federal property due to a series of broken treaties, acts of congress, and the interventions of suspect courts. Needless to say, Truman did not dwell upon the dispossession of the previous inhabitants; rather, he spoke warmly of the courage and energy of those who had slept outside on the ground of cities which were then no more than lines drawn in the dust until the morning when they could start to build their houses on lots, created by government surveyors.

"James Burden Day was there. In the Senate, he was always there for your new state. Now he is still here, for you. Home for good."

Kitty sighed. Diana wept. Peter cleared his throat, recalling that Burden had had a job of some kind at the Treasury in Washington when the state was invented, largely by Kitty's father. But Burden had been, for so many decades, the symbolic visible living founder that few recalled who had actually done what.

The governor then led the President to the entrance where they shook hands. As the President marched from the capitol, the crowd cheered him while national television abandoned them to follow him back to the Ferdinand Magellan.

Kitty, Diana and Peter were driven in the governor's car to the cemetery. En route, on Day Avenue, they passed the Sunflower Hotel, a twelve story mustard-colored brick building which, at election time, had always become the Burden Day "home" so that he could vote for himself. Clay also claimed the Sunflower for his official residence. The folks didn't much mind that their representatives lived not among them but a thousand miles away at the capital. Kitty, however, had caused a bit of a scandal when, at a ladies' tea during Burden's last campaign, she was asked how long they expected to be in town this time and she had airily replied, from who knew what eccentric recess of her brain, "Oh, we just drove over from New York for the day." Even Kitty had astonished herself. "Since I don't suppose I've been three times to that city."

Even in November, the cemetery was more green than dun-colored. Burden's white marble monument dominated a small hill. The grave was open; coffin beside it; flowers banked everywhere. Several hundred people, more curious than mournful, stood about the tomb. Now the bishop took charge. Peter was somewhat surprised that Burden was not a Baptist or Methodist. He always sounded as if he were an evangelical Protestant on the rare occasions that he could be got to perjure himself and publicly abjure his life-long atheism, thus endangering his mortal self.

A large blonde woman moved in beside Diana. "I'm Emma," she said. "Your half-sister." Fortunately, Kitty was singing along with whatever hymn the bishop had called forth and did not hear this exchange. Diana stepped away from her mother, drawing Emma with her.

"This is very... filial," said Peter.

"I know." Emma was benign, as always, in her self-righteousness. "I thought I owed it to my mother."

"Caroline?" Peter was surprised. "I hadn't suspected that there was debt of any kind on either side."

"Oh yes. The gift of life is the gift of God." Emma crossed herself dramatically, causing several nearby Baptists to turn their backs upon a representative of the scarlet strumpet of Rome.

"You did that very well," said Diana. "You must have been practicing."

"I've been a Catholic for years. Even before I married Tim." Another hymn had begun.

"Is Tim here?" Peter had seen neither of them since the night at the Blue Angel.

"Oh, no. He's in New York. Directing plays for television. I'm in Washington with Fortress America. We've been working closely with Senator McCarthy, much good that it can do now. I'm afraid our homegrown communists have really done us in this time."

Happily the hymn was louder than Emma's voice.

"Done who in?" Peter kept his voice low, hoping to encourage her to do the same.

"The Chinese have crossed the Yalu river. Hundreds of thousands of them. Our army's retreating. Korea's lost. It's a total defeat for us. Our first ever. Truman and Acheson sold us out to Stalin. It was all I could do not to boo that dreadful little man in the capitol."

"Why," whispered Diana, "must you keep talking? After all, it is your father's funeral and respect must be shown him, even by you."

The bishop's voice vibrated in the air as the remains of James Burden Day were lowered into the grave. "For I am the way and the light. He that believeth in me..." Where, wondered Peter, in a kind of panic was God or anyone in the great nothing of eternity?

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Excerpted from The Golden Age by Gore Vidal. Copyright © 2000 by Gore Vidal. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.