Nixon and Armstrong, 1952
In the buzzy neon and fresh vinyl of LAX,
two men come together, the senator from California
and a trumpet player, they come together around
the spinning black track the baggage claim
makes and grip each other’s hand and
for a moment look like a photo and its negative.
I’m a big fan, says Nixon, smiling rich
as cream, if there’s ever anything I can do for you,
just let me know. And to the surprise of everyone,
Armstrong, his eyes shuffled down, says,
Well, suh, I got an extra bag an’ if you could grab it
I’d be grateful. And everyone’s watching now and now
Nixon’s grin falls a little
but he’s a little too good at his job
to be rattled and snatches the bag and carries it
through customs while the merry snickers
of the band follow him the way a wake follows a boat
into the dock. A blue marl of sky clouds the glasses
of the men who stand sentry around the senator
as the two men move toward the black silk
of their limos and Armstrong opens up
his picket-fence smile and takes the bag back
with a shuck and a nod to the other layers
of the story, race riots and war, the thicket
of heat rising up the manzanita hills, lies ready to brushfire
their way through the American experience. And given
all he was and all that will happen—black-capped
burglars with their satchels, wiretaps hissing on the line—
I’m only too happy to show you Nixon humiliated here,
but who’s to say that’s the story. The future’s still
blank as the glasses of the senator’s men.
A circus of hands gathers the bags and stacks them
in the trunks of cars as the sunlight sloughs off
the twin airlines parked nose to nose in the blooming heat.
Nixon knew what it meant to make a man a fool, but
Armstrong knew customs would never search
the senator and find the quarter pound
of Jamaican Pearl he’d hidden in that bag.
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” first appeared in Brilliant Corners Vol. 12, # 1 (Winter 2007): 5-9.