Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Nixon Hand

My grandmother once shook Richard Nixon’s hand as she stood outside a leather tannery in Peabody, Massachusetts. The next thing we knew she stopped using the hand, refused to wash it, carried it about on an invisible pillow. In effect, her hand became what philosophers call “an independent object” like a flame in dry flowers.

“We’re all Greeks,” my friend Gary says. Like Wallace Stevens, Gary is both a poet and a lawyer--he sees the adventitious relations between instinct and natural facts; walks between thunder claps; discovers the perfectly irreversible flowers of intuition. “We’re Greeks,” he says, “I mean we’re like Plato. For us, in the end, essence and the contemplation of essence are the same.”

My grandmother was a Finnish minister’s wife. But once her hand had become The Nixon Hand she could no longer stand in the doorway of the church. She took to her room and sat among the prismatic dust motes. She waggled the fingers of the hand.

Let us, in the manner of Plato, put the matter before our eyes:


“I see purposes and intentions in everything. Magical thinking. The lucky rabbit’s foot…”

The Nixon Hand:

“I believe in crises, conspiracies; I abjure the childish anthropomorphism that puts God inside a cloud or coming luck in the eyes of dogs.”


“Oh, oh, oh! Dogs are filthy! I don’t care what anyone says, they don’t have souls!”

The Nixon Hand:

“But you would agree that there are lucky dogs?”


“Dogs can’t go to heaven!:”

The Nixon Hand:

“Look, excuse me, I don’t know how to say this, you look like a nice lady, but we have real enemies!”


“Don’t you tell me about enemies: when the Russians drop spoons in the snow they can hear it in Helsinki which means they hear it in Duluth!”

The Hand:

“Jesus! I should have known Kruschev didn’t have any spoons! What else do they say in Duluth!?”


“They don’t say anything. Quiet people; Finns and Norwegians. It’s dryly cold. You can hear the hinges on the mailboxes.”

The Hand:

“Don’t give me that! Everyone’s got funny little debts! Everyone flaps against the hedges. Or goes alone to the county fair and looks up at the rising lights of the Ferris wheel and says something aloud, something jaundiced tossed out at children or strangers…


“God provides. All you need to do is step gingerly over the fallen trees.”

Richard Nixon’s hand, the literal one, “the gripper” as he called it, was white and damp as a fat, Georgia onion. He waved it before the crowd as if it had its own life. Dick Nixon, the boy from Yorba Linda was the keeper of that hand, the huntsman with his hawk. The hand-hawk was sly. It flew straight for the old Finnish woman, the woman with the medical stockings. She shook that hand and went straight home. She lay down in the parlor at the front of the parsonage, a room ordinarily off-limits—a place for christenings and funerals.

Sometimes, without warning, resignation steals over the most spiritual women. She lay in a broad sunbeam and saw in the spinning motes tiny figures of faith and distrust. Nixon’s witch hunts thrilled the religious Finnish Americans, at last someone was speaking their language. And after all those years of listening to Roosevelt my grandmother was more than a little wild to see creeping socialism spaded over in Whittaker Chamber’s pumpkin patch.

Seasons of devotion pass. I once knew a man who made his living repairing television sets. He made house calls in the country, visiting farmhouses. He drove a station wagon that featured on its roof a tall, illuminated plastic Jesus. You could see his glowing yellow savior across the far fields. One day his Jesus was gone. He didn’t replace it with anything. There was a cover of duct tape across the spot where Jesus once stood. When asked he said he’d given the figure to a school for retarded children.

My grandmother was a reader of the Finnish language press and the Missouri Synod church calendar. She didn’t own a television and so didn’t hear of Nixon’s TV address to the nation concerning his slush fund and his little dog “Checkers”.

She was washing dishes with one hand when Mrs. Lehtinen arrived at the parsonage with a basket of cardamom bread. They spoke of the births and deaths; the drinking of certain men; the lurid story of a local teacher. When Mrs. Lehtinen ventured to Nixon’s speech and his emotional plea to the nation with reference to his little dog—well, Nixon’s hand fell from brainchild into essence. My grandmother saw Mr. Nixon fondling a dog in all its prime reality, saw the Nixon Hand stroking thousands, maybe millions of dogs, dogs across the nation from Maine to California.

Mrs. Lehtinen could see a magpie through the kitchen window, a peculiar bird, rare in Peabody. It was dancing sideways on a telephone wire. When she looked back she beheld a woman who was shivering though her hands were deep in steaming suds and the noon sun was flooding the room.

---Stephen Kuusisto


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