Santa Fé, New Mexico – June 1995
At the kitchen table, the First Lady leans forward to listen to Sister Rosa. The Sister, in tight jeans and house slippers and a faded black Guns N’ Roses t-shirt, dark hair up in a large high bun, appears as though she might have just gotten off work, and not from the convent. More like where the First Lady had dinner tonight. Sister Rosa murmurs in Spanish, maybe a prayer. Sister Rosa opens her eyes and sweeps the air in front of the First Lady, so as to tell her to sit back and relax. Sister Rosa closes her eyes again.
Before sitting in the kitchen, while she had waited in the living room, hot from the shelves of burning candles, walls covered in carvings and paintings of the bloody crucifixion, the First Lady almost left. No agony like that in the Methodist church. But still, the imagery grabbed you and didn’t let go. It was so blatant. And that’s why she had come anyway: for the God’s honest truth.
The First Lady had told her aide, “Do not tell anyone I’m coming here. Do not say a word.”
Now in the kitchen, the First Lady ponders the payphone behind Sister Rosa’s left shoulder: What would they think of me visiting a spiritual counsellor? They’d think I was some kind of Nancy Regan loony. Ha!
Sister Rosa finishes whispering and opens her eyes. Her calm brown pupils bore into the First Lady, and she feels exposed. Surely Sister Rosa would keep her identity a secret. Wasn’t there a contract they could sign?
Earlier tonight, the First Lady had dined at Tomasita’s, where they’d built a special room and named it after her. She noted the afternoon sun shining through the glass at the top of the small rectangular space, and the scent of the new timbers – the crossway beams they called vigas. The restaurant owners had installed a gold placard with her name above the doorway. No one had ever built a room for her.
After dinner she had her driver bring Secret Service and her aide to the Walgreens to get her some Tums. The green chilli and chicken and fried dough hadn’t sat well. And the First Lady was fairly certain the refried beans were cooked with lard. It tasted delicious at the table – just spicy enough – but once in her belly, it felt all piled up in there, and she thought it probably looked inside of her how it looked on the tin plate it was served on.
Sister Rosa blinks herself fully alert. She takes a small piece of paper from a stack she has on the kitchen table.
When Secret Service had walked the First Lady up to the door, she had expected she’d be greeted by an actual nun. She noticed the nice drapes inside the home, thought maybe there would be a confessional booth where she could anonymously seek guidance.
Instead, a young girl had answered the door, and muted Wheel of Fortune. She seated the First Lady on the couch, and left her alone for about a puzzle’s worth of time. The category was Before and After.
WAL_ LI_E AN EG _PTIAN P_ RAMI_
The First Lady shook her head at the silent TV. How do these people not get it? And why would anyone ever buy a vowel?
The young girl returned and brought the First Lady to the kitchen. The faint and steady whishing of a washing machine emanated from a room beyond the old yellow Frigidaire.
Now, the washing machine stops. The load is done. Sister Rosa takes a small pencil near the papers and scribbles a sentence.
“First, the answers to your first two questions,” she says.
When the young girl had led the First Lady to the kitchen, she told her, “Please think of three questions you want to have Sister Rosa answer. They can only be yes or no questions. Think of those questions very deeply and pray on them. Keep praying on them until Sister Rosa comes.”
The First Lady had noticed the pad of paper and pencil then.
“May I write them down?” she had said.
“No.” The girl turned to walk back to the living room. “Do you want a Danish?” She pointed to an opened package of Svenhard’s Bear Claws on the counter.
“Oh, no thank you,” the First Lady said.
“Are you sure?” the girl said.
The First Lady shook her head.
“Well, help yourself,” the girl said. “Sister Rosa will be with you shortly.”
Now, Sister Rosa shimmies her shoulders just a bit. Eyes open she fixes on the First Lady. “First question,” she says. “Yes.”
The First Lady smiles and nods. Another four years in the White House would be great.
“Second question: The answer is yes.”
This didn’t surprise the First Lady. He was a dirty man and a recidivist. She swallowed and waited for the final answer.
“Your last question,” Sister Rosa says. “You’ve been praying on this one for a very long time. Maybe too long. It might be time to stop meditating on it and try a different question. Or maybe ask the same question a different way?”
“What’s the answer?” the First Lady says.
One thing the First Lady’s friends always told her: “You’re one tough cookie.”
More than anything, she hated being called a cookie.
Sister Rosa slides over the piece of paper.
The First Lady picks it up and reads Sister’s scribble:
Once a tyrannosaur, always a chicken.
The First Lady lays the paper down. “Did you just write this?”
“This isn’t a canned answer or anything, is it?”
“No, your question made me think of it.”
“But this didn’t answer my question,” the First Lady says.
“It’s not supposed to. It’s a riddle. You’re supposed to think about it.”
“More than I’ve already thought about it? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”
“I know.” Sister Rosa stands, goes to the counter. “That’s why you came. Here, take this.”
Sister Rosa takes a small napkin and wraps a Danish in it. She places it on the table in front of the First Lady.
“I don’t want the Danish,” she says.
“Yes, you do. Sometimes you don’t know why you want what you want. Sometimes you do. Either way, just go for it. Even if you might not get it.”
The First Lady stands, considers the Danish. Her stomach is settled now and the sliced almonds and that band of artificial frosting does look good. You don’t get stuff like this in the White House.
“I know I didn’t answer your question,” Sister Rosa says. “We can’t answer questions about life and death, or who will win elections. Psychics, that is.”
“Can’t or won’t?” The First Lady takes out a one-hundred-dollar bill and sets it on the table. The young girl had quoted her forty dollars.
“That’s too much,” Sister Rosa says.
The First Lady smiles and takes the Danish wrapped in the napkin. She goes toward the living room. Jeopardy is on now. The young girl gazes at the blue screen. She blurts out an answer before the contestant. “Who is Hoover?”
Alex Trebek says, “You are correct.”
The girl makes a fist in the air. She mutes the TV and stands.
“Keep up the good work,” the First Lady says. “Your sister?”
“No,” Rosa says. “She’s my daughter.”
“I like your hair,” the girl says.
“Thank you,” the First Lady smiles. She sees a Jesus above the entertainment centre she hadn’t noticed earlier. He’s in his robes, praying in the garden.
The First Lady reaches for the front door.
“I did pray for you.” Sister Rosa says. “I prayed with all my heart and sent you many blessings for today and far into the future, until your dying days. No matter what happens.”
“No matter what happens?”
“It doesn’t matter what happens anyway.” Sister Rosa goes to the First Lady, keeps her from turning the knob. She makes the sign of the cross in front of the First Lady’s face.
“You can sit and eat that here,” the young girl says. “They’ll wait for you, won’t they?”
The First Lady had thought about tossing the Danish later, or maybe eating it when no one was watching, in the car on the way back to the tiny Santa Fé airport. Or maybe she’d transport it all the way back to Washington and have it in the White House. But why wait? Why not eat it right now?
“Yes. Yes, they will.” The First Lady moves back toward the couch. She sits, takes a bite, turns her attention to Jeopardy. “What’s the category?”
The girl unmutes the television. “Presidential History.”