The Cobra






THE TEENAGE BOY WAS DYING ALONE. NO ONE KNEW and only one would have cared. He lay, skeletal from a life ruined by drugs, on a stinking palliasse in the corner of a filthy room in an abandoned block. The slum was in one of the failed housing schemes called a “project” in Anacostia, a part of Washington, D.C., of which the city is not proud and which tourists never visit.

If the boy had known his death was going to start a war, he would neither have understood nor cared. That is what drug abuse does to a young mind. It destroys it.

THE LATE-SUMMER DINNER at the White House was small by the standards of presidential hospitality. Just twenty diners in ten couples sat down after drinks in an antechamber, and eighteen were most impressed to be there.

Nine of these were major volunteers working for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, that nationwide body that concerns itself with the welfare of those who have worn the uniform of any of the Armed Forces.

The nine years to 2010 had produced a huge number of men and some women returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, injured or traumatized. As commander in chief, the President was offering his thanks for what his nine guests from the VFW had been able to do. So they and their spouses were invited to dine where the legendary Abraham Lincoln once ate. They had had the private tour of the apartments, guided by the First Lady herself, and were seated beneath the attentive gaze of the majordomo to await the pouring of the soup. So it was slightly embarrassing when the elderly waitress began to cry.

She made no sound but the tureen in her hands began to tremble. The table was circular, and the First Lady was on the far side. She glanced up from the guest being served and saw the tears running quietly down the cheeks of the waitress.

The majordomo, who missed nothing that could disoblige his President, followed her gaze and began to move silently but fast around the table. He nodded urgently to a nearby waiter to take the tureen before there was a disaster, and eased the elderly woman away from the table toward the swing door to the pantry and kitchen. As the pair disappeared from view, the First Lady dabbed her mouth, murmured an apology to the retired general on her left, rose and followed.

In the pantry, the waitress was by now sitting, her shoulders shaking, murmuring, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” The expression on the face of the majordomo indicated he was not in a forgiving mood. One does not break down in front of the Chief Executive.

The First Lady gestured to him that he should return to the soup serving. Then she stooped over the weeping woman, who was dabbing her eyes on the edge of her apron and still apologizing.

In response to a couple of gentle questions, waitress Maybelle explained her extraordinary lapse. The police had found the body of her only grandson, the boy she had raised since his father died among the rubble of the Trade Center nine years earlier when the child was six.

They had explained to her the cause of death as declared by the medical examiner and informed her that the cadaver was in the city morgue awaiting collection.

And so in the corner of a pantry, the First Lady of the USA and an elderly waitress, both descended from slaves, comforted each other, while a few feet away the leading lights of the VFW exchanged stilted conversation over soup and croutons.