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Fri October 19, 2012
It was an unimaginative cliche, and in this case, untrue. "He ties his shoes just like everyone else," someone in the diner said after the president and his entourage departed.
I knew that was wrong, because the president went into the kitchen to meet me after eating his obligatory burger and after shaking the eager hands of the regulars during a campaign stop, after chatting with Joe about Joe's farm, the spotlight of concern shining from the president's eyes like lighthouse beacons, trapping Joe in his seat.
Joe had hated the president, thought he was a fascist, but now Joe found himself rambling on about cow lactation and chapped udders. Joe hesitated, perhaps reconsidering cow breasts as trivial in the grand scheme of things. Yet, the president nodded, brow knotted, eyes fixed, and put one of those well-manicured hands on Joe's shoulder as he leaned forward an inch.
"Your work is what makes America run," the president said, and at that moment Joe would have fallen on a grenade for the man he voted against in the last election.
Then the president smiled, shook Joe's hand (an image that would be printed in the local paper and considered thereafter as either a travesty or a miracle, depending on disposition) and walked back to the kitchen, where I had been watching the scene through the service window, my cheeks pink from the heat lamp. Camera lenses followed him like sniper rifles.
"Who made such a good burger? You should work at the White House." The president was putting his suit coat back on as he said this. He adjusted his shirt cuffs and then extended his hand to me.
I had the misfortune to glance down as I took his hand and gathered myself to speak. The black leather lace of one presidential shoe was untied, and the president was stepping on it. A false move and he might stumble, and if he did, that would be another picture in the local paper, and not a good one for my diner.
"Laces," I said, feeling stupid at once, and his ever-ready smile held fast. The corners of his mouth stretched a bit.
"That's quite a name. Well, Lace ..."
"Your shoelaces, sir." I put my left hand on the president's shoulder, as he had done to Joe, though I did it to steady him, not to assure him of any patriotic duty involving bovines. The president's dimples sank back toward the middle of his face and, after a few seconds of puzzlement, he looked down at his shoes.
"Oh." In the flickering second before he turned his searchlight gaze back on me, I glimpsed a different man. His face had changed, shifted, as if some midnight carnival had ended and an exotic and adventurous companion suddenly removed his mask to reveal that he was just as lost as the rest of us, that he still stumbled, that he was mortal and ordinary.
He had the look of a tired, wandering salesman. And then the mask was back on as the president laughed, still grasping my hand.
"Can I call you 'Laces'?" he asked with a sly grin.
"Your work is what makes America run, Laces." He let go of my hand, turned, and walked out. It wasn't until his convoy of sedans filed out of the parking lot, kicking up gravel dust, that I realized with growing dread that he never had tied his shoe.
Disaster could still strike. He was still vulnerable. Most alarming of all, his mask might slip again.