Laura Cooper was having one of those days.
She was already running late that morning, having completely forgotten that her youngest son, Milo, was supposed to be at school early for a special choir practice. While she was rushing around the kitchen trying to make Milo and his brother a quick breakfast she dropped an entire carton of milk that splattered not only the kitchen floor, but the ceiling, her clothes, and even her hair. Laura rarely cursed but if there was ever a time to do so it was now. She didn’t have to, though. The moment the milk dropped Laura heard a loud “Oh shit!”
It was six-year-old Milo.
“What did you say?” Laura asked.
Milo looked at her bashfully.
“Where did you hear that word?” Laura demanded.
“Daddy,” Milo’s older brother, James, declared. “He said it when he spilt his drink in the car.”
“Did he?” Laura replied. “Well that is not a nice word and it’s not a word that little boys should be saying.”
“But daddies can say it?” Milo asked, confused.
“Daddies shouldn’t say it either.”
“Is Daddy in trouble?”
“He will be when I see him,” Laura said. “Which is hardly ever . . . ,” she mumbled under her breath.
The last two years had been great for her husband Luke’s career but terrible on their marriage. He was now Governor Luke Cooper, one of the youngest governors in the nation and among a handful who are black or Jewish—he being both. And he was widely recognized as a rising national star in the Democratic Party. His friends had taken to jokingly referring to him as “Mr. President,” a nickname that Luke seemed to eat up, but which drove Laura insane. She had taken to calling him that herself, but only when she was irritated with him. As in “Mr. President. Would it be too much trouble for you to put your dishes in the dishwasher like everyone else in this family does—including your sons who are in elementary school?”
The night before Laura’s spilt milk, Luke dropped a bombshell that made the moniker more than a term of endearment among his inner circle. He announced that he was considering a run for the presidency. At the behest of some of his advisors he had done some polling and it showed that he was a viable candidate for the next presidential election, less than three years away. He had decent national name recognition and his favorability rating among those who knew who he was was through the roof.
“So what do you think?” He asked her like a kid waiting to receive a gold star from a parent for good grades on a report card.
Laura stood in her nightgown staring at him for a moment.
Finally she replied, “I’m . . . I’m sorry but I’m really tired.”
Luke, looking a bit like a deflated balloon said, “Oh. Well I know you’ve had a long day. We can talk about this tomorrow.”
But that’s not what Laura meant. She meant she was tired of it all. Tired of campaigning. Tired of living in a fishbowl. Tired of feeling like a single parent while he hopped from one event to another across the state seven days a week. And most of all tired of pretending that her black, Jewish husband didn’t receive death threats as regularly as most people receive junk mail.
She climbed into bed.
Luke climbed in beside her an hour later. Though she was still wide-awake, the thought of a presidential campaign weighing on her, terrifying her, she pretended to be asleep. He scooted next to her and wrapped his arm around her waist, reached for her hand and whispered in her ear “Love you.” She didn’t say a word, but gently squeezed his hand.
When Laura awoke the following morning she was exhausted, having gotten only a few hours of restless sleep, and she was torn.
As much as Luke’s happiness meant to her—and it meant a lot—she had to admit that while the two of them began their life with similar dreams—or so she thought—this was not the case today.
While Laura dreamed of a life out of the public eye, having been burnt by the nasty rumors and innuendo that accompanied Luke’s gubernatorial race, Luke now dreamed of the White House.
She had always put their family first even when he didn’t. She had loved teaching and being in the classroom but gave up her career as Luke’s political star rose. And that wasn’t the end of her sacrifice. There were days when he left the house at 7 a.m.—just as the boys were rising—only to return after 11 p.m. long after they had gone to sleep. More and more she began to feel not like half of a power couple, but rather like a single parent. She hadn’t signed up for having her own career goals and dreams become secondary. She had wanted to become a specialist helping children with learning disabilities from disadvantaged backgrounds and once thought of pursuing her PhD in the subject. That was a distant memory now. Laura recalled once hearing a relationship “expert” say that healthy relationships are characterized by compromise on the part of both but endless sacrifice by neither. And yet after all of these years she felt as though she was the only one doing the compromising and sacrificing.
Luke and Laura rarely fought. Neither was really the raise-your-voice type, but they did have one legendary blowout that was still a source of teasing among Luke’s friends. Both of the boys had come down with the flu and Laura had spent her day wiping noses, making soup, and cleaning up vomit. When Luke returned home around 9, the boys were sound asleep while Laura was sitting on the couch staring blankly at the TV screen, clearly exhausted. When he walked in and bellowed, “Hey, hon!” she barely looked up and simply said, “Hey.”
“How are the little guys?”
“Awww. Hate I missed ’em.”
Then he took off his coat and threw it on a chair like he always did, and began giving a rundown of his day as he made his way to the kitchen shouting, “Hey, hon—where’s the leftover meatloaf?”
“Second shelf of the fridge.”
“I looked. Can’t find it.”
“It’s on the second shelf.”
“Can’t find it.”
“Well it’s there.”
“Hon, can’t you just come help me find it? I’m just so tired. You know I had to work all day.”
Laura sat upright. Jumped off of the couch. Walked into the kitchen. She reached for the Tupperware container, positioned smack in the middle of the second shelf, with a small label reading “meatloaf,” and handed it over to him. She then pulled out a container of gravy, opened it, and proceeded to pour the cold goop over his head.
“What the!??” he screamed.
“I worked all day too!” she said. “If you’d like to trade places and stay here tomorrow cleaning up puke while I fill in for you sitting and talking with a bunch of adults, be my guest.”
She then turned on her heel and walked out of the kitchen, but not before shouting back at him, “And in case you hadn’t noticed, the hall closet is for hanging clothes like your coat.”
Luke was stunned. In all their years together he had never seen Laura so angry.
The following morning, when Laura woke at 5 to check on the boys, Luke wasn’t beside her. She looked in the spare bedroom, then on the couch.
Finally she went into Milo’s bedroom and saw Luke sleeping on the floor next to his son’s bed with a box of tissues on his chest and an open bottle of children’s cough syrup next to him. Milo’s arm was dangling down the side of the bed with his tiny fingers wrapped around Luke’s thumb.
Laura walked into the kitchen to prepare herself a quiet cup of coffee and was struck by two things. The kitchen was spotless. The dishes were put away and the floor gleamed where a puddle of gravy had been the night before. There was a beautiful bouquet of yellow roses—her favorite—on the breakfast table, and a note that read “To the hardest working person in our home. I love and APPRECIATE you. Luke.”
And so Laura continued with their delicate compromise, and from that day on Luke continued making an effort to let her know how much he appreciated her for it. Their compromise then took them all the way to the governor’s mansion and now Luke was hoping it would take them all the way to the White House.
She needed advice. So she decided to talk to the one person she knew she could trust: her mother-in-law, Esther.
Ever since losing her own mother to cancer Laura had grown extremely close to Luke’s. Esther had longed for a daughter and in Laura she had finally gotten one. They were a bit of an odd couple, and the strength of their bond perplexed some, particularly Esther’s other daughters-in-law. After all, unlike them, Laura wasn’t even Jewish—far from it. But this black woman who had been raised Catholic, and now attended an Episcopalian church, was the one who most reminded Esther of her younger self. Laura was tough in a quiet and unassuming sort of way. She put her kids first—ahead of her own career and ahead of her husband.
Laura and Esther often did mother–daughter things together—something they actually began to keep secret so that the other Cooper wives wouldn’t grow jealous. They had a standing appointment for mani-pedis every three weeks at Bebe’s Day Spa, a perfect occasion for Laura to seek Esther’s help in coming to terms with Luke’s new ambition. As they sat with hands and feet under dryers, Esther finally asked Laura what was wrong.
“And don’t try to convince me that something’s not wrong. I can always tell when something’s wrong with my kids,” she said.
Laura smiled. It meant so much to her that Esther thought of her as one of her children.
Esther looked worried and tense—like she thought Laura was about to drop a bomb on her, like that Luke was seriously ill or that they were getting divorced.
“Everything’s fine,” Laura continued not so convincingly.
“Well clearly it’s not. What is it?” Esther replied.
“Luke’s seriously considering this presidential thing,” Laura continued.
Esther’s face relaxed a bit.
“I just . . . I want Luke to be happy . . . and I know that he would be a wonderful president. . . .”
“But?” Esther asked.
“I just don’t know that I want this life . . . for my boys . . .”
“And for you?” Esther added.
Laura nodded. “Yes. I just want us to be a happy family and I . . . just don’t know how we can stay one with all of this craziness.”
It then occurred to Laura to be mindful of how loudly she discussed this in the spa.
“I know I must sound so silly. I have a wonderful husband. Beautiful family . . . a great life . . . ,” Laura continued.
“And you want to protect it. There’s nothing silly about that at all,” Esther said. “It’s what we do. Mothers have made and maintained happy homes in the craziest of circumstances—wars, famines—forever. But one thing all of those circumstances had in common is that the women made it possible for the men to go out and conquer. Now Luke doesn’t want to conquer. He just wants to make the world a little better.”
They sat there for a moment.
“Just think what would have happened if Coretta Scott King had said, ‘I can’t stand the craziness.’”
“She wouldn’t have lost her husband?” Laura said.
“Perhaps,” Esther replied. “But you and I wouldn’t be sitting here together because we wouldn’t be allowed to. And Luke wouldn’t be my son.”
Esther’s courage and compassion had always been two qualities that Laura admired about her most. She had been a Freedom Rider during the civil rights movement and one of her childhood friends had been a high-profile murder victim at the hands of the Klan, a tragedy that seemed only to strengthen Esther’s resolve. She continued supporting civil rights organizations and, to her husband’s chagrin, was even arrested once during a protest march when she was well into middle age. Her bravest act to date, in Laura’s eyes, was adopting a little black boy and raising him into a strong black man.
After their big talk, Laura and Esther Cooper sat in silence for a bit. Then Esther carefully reached over so as not to ruin either of their manicures and squeezed Laura’s hand. Then she said, “You know what? I think we deserve a treat. What do you say we get the works today? I think I could use a facial and a massage, and you know my policy against getting spa treatments alone.”
She and Laura both laughed.
“Esther?” Laura said.
“You won’t mention our chat to anyone?”
“When you say anyone you really mean my husband and Luke.”
Laura smiled and nodded.
Esther continued. “Of course not, dear. Besides, half of a successful marriage is knowing what secrets to keep from your husband.”
She then winked mischievously.
They then summoned the receptionist at Bebe’s so they could schedule their next round of treatments.
Over the next seventy-two hours Laura kept revisiting her conversation with Esther in her head although she didn’t breathe a word of it to Luke. She assumed she had a week, max, before he would force the subject again and yet she was still undecided, despite her mother-in-law’s pep talk.
Laura hated politics. She felt it brought out the worst in people, and her early brushes with being in the public eye had left her badly bruised. But she cared about policy, particularly education policy. It bothered her that there were other boys just as sweet and smart as hers who would never have the same opportunities as they just because they didn’t have a father who’s an elected official, a mother with a master’s, and access to some of the best teachers in the state.
So on Sunday evening Laura curled into bed to watch Education Watch, the only political show she liked. Luke, who had appeared on the program several times, teased her that if she ever stopped watching the show, they’d lose fifty percent of their audience. U.S. Senator Laurence Sampson was one of the guests that evening. Laura couldn’t stand him. She felt he was a phony who had snubbed her and Luke. They first met early in Luke’s political career, when he was still a lowly state senator. Sampson had been nice to them only once Luke’s political star rose. But most of all she felt that he didn’t care enough about poor children and their education. She felt as though he wrote certain communities off. And the way he spoke about education policy suggested that if you weren’t middle class he wasn’t interested in you. To her, Sampson was both an ass and an intellectual lightweight.
Luke walked in just as the host introduced Sampson. “Your favorite,” he said knowing she would roll her eyes.
Every few minutes she would say, “What a moron,” prompting Luke to say, “You know, maybe you should run against him.”
She rolled her eyes again.
After twenty minutes of discussing various local and federal bills and funding initiatives, the conversation finally turned to national politics. The host mentioned that political insiders were already discussing the next presidential contest and noted that some local names were being mentioned as possible contenders. He asked Sampson if he would ever consider running. Sampson, predictably, replied, “Right now I’m focused on serving the constituents of this great state and doing the job of senator.” Prompting the host to reply, “So you’re not ruling it out?”
“I’ll listen to my constituents and wherever they want me is where I’ll be.”
“Another local name who’s getting a lot of attention is our very own Governor Luke Cooper. What kind of president do you think he’d make?”
“Well I think he’s a great governor who is certainly charming and charismatic.”
“What about president?”
“Well . . .” Sampson paused. “I don’t know if he’s there yet. I think he’s still very young in his career, relatively speaking, and I think there’s a learning curve to really, really be ready. But who knows? Maybe a few years down the road. . . .” His voice dripped with condescension.
Luke chuckled but Laura didn’t.
“That jackass,” she snapped.
“At least he called me charming.” Luke winked at her. Laura didn’t crack a smile. “Aw hon,” he continued. “He’s harmless. A jackass, yes. But a relatively harmless one.”
“I don’t know about that,” she replied. “If he’s any indication of what the primary competition is going to look like, you could win it hands down.”
Luke tilted his head, as though he hadn’t heard her correctly.
She turned off the TV and began rubbing lotion on her hands. Without looking up at him she said, “You should run.”
Luke Cooper wiped his shoes on the doormat as he had done thousands of times before.
“Who’s there?” his mother’s voice called out.
“Luke! Be right out.”
Luke then slipped off his faux moccasin loafers and mentally counted down to himself, “Three, two, one . . .”
“And don’t forget to take off your shoes.”
He chuckled. Esther Cooper said this every single time one of her boys came home—in spite of the fact that she had been telling them to do it their entire lives. It was as impossible for them to forget as breathing.
“Let me get this out of the oven and I’ll be right out,” she said.
He made his way toward the kitchen.
“Well this is a surprise.”
She removed her oven mitts and gave him a great big hug. She was so tiny her head barely reached his shoulder, yet he’d experienced the giant in her once or twice when, as a child, he made the mistake of breaking her two cardinal rules: lying and not working up to his potential. But more often than not he witnessed the giant unleashed on others—particularly those she felt were trying to hurt her children in some way. In one of the Cooper family’s now legendary tales she had almost been arrested for making terrorist threats after she told the mother of a fellow student at Luke’s Hebrew school that she would send her and her “little monster” home in a bodybag if the little boy ever called Luke the N-word again.
“You’re so thin! Feels like I could wrap my arms around you twice. Sit down. Just finished the cake for the bake sale at the center. Plenty of food in the fridge.”
The staff at the Gorman Center for children, where she had been volunteering for years, had come to rely on the leftovers she would bring throughout the week. The center was like a second home, as it was the place where, as a toddler, Luke Cooper first met the woman who would become his mother.
“We have flank steak and potatoes. I’ll heat a plate up.”
“I’m not hungry, Mom.”
“If I let you decide when you’re hungry you would have starved to death a long time ago.”
It never ceased to amaze him how quickly returning to his childhood home felt like a return to childhood.
“Mom, I haven’t lived at home forever and I haven’t died of starvation yet.”
“Where are my boys and my girl?”
Typical Esther Cooper move. If she didn’t like something you just said she would ignore it and move on to something she wanted to talk about.
“Laura took the boys to a birthday party. Where’s Dad?”
“Where he always is. Upstairs watching TV. It’s like he’s in a coma. What brings you by?”
“Just wanted to see my best girl.”
As she pulled leftovers from the refrigerator Luke made his way over to the cake on the counter. As he reached for it a wooden spoon hit his hand.
“Get your hands out of there.”
“Well you could have said that without using your spoon.”
Edmond Cooper walked in.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Dad. She’s trying to kill me with a spoon.”
“Stop being so dramatic,” his mother said. “I’m making Luke a plate. You want something?”
“Not hungry,” his dad replied.
“I’m making you a plate,” Esther said as though her husband hadn’t spoken at all.
She turned to reach for a second plate, then a moment later Luke’s father shouted, “Ow!”
“Get your hands out of there!” Esther Cooper said to her husband of more than fifty years, who like his son was trying to sneak a little bit of cake.
The three of them sat in the kitchen, Luke enjoying leftover steak and potatoes while his father nibbled on a steak sandwich. His mom watched them eat.
“Mom, aren’t you going to have something?”
“No, I’m not hungry.”
“Working hard or hardly working?” his father asked.
“Working pretty hard, Dad, but I think things are going pretty good.”
“Umm-hmph. Well you know what they say, hard work never killed anybody and anybody it did kill . . .”
“Wasn’t used to working hard enough.” Luke could finish the thought because he’d heard his father say it a million times.
“Well don’t work so hard that you forget to take care of yourself. You have to eat,” his mother chirped.
“I know, Mom . . .” He took a few more bites then pushed his plate aside and said, “I actually wanted to talk to you both about work.”
“Politics? Goodie. My favorite subject,” Edmond Cooper said with a sigh and the sarcasm that was one of his trademarks. He found politics and most politicians both tedious and tiresome, but he supported Luke’s interest in it the way he supported all of his sons’ interests. He saw hosting a fundraiser for Luke’s campaign as no different from schlepping across the country so his oldest son could try out for the Olympic wrestling team years before, even though he found watching wrestling about as fascinating as watching paint dry.
“I’ve been talking with my team,” Luke continued.
“Your team? You make it sound like you’re playing sports,” his father said.
“Well, it kind of is, Dad. Like blood sport.”
“Remember to wear a cup,” his father mischievously replied.
“Edmond!” Esther scolded him.
“My team and I are talking about a presidential run,” Luke said.
His parents sat in silence.
“You look . . . surprised,” Luke said.
“Of course we’re surprised. Why wouldn’t we be?” Esther said defensively.
“Well?” Luke pressed.
“Well what?” his father asked.
“Well what do you think?”
“I think the bigger question is, what does the captain of your team think?” his mother said.
“The captain?” Luke replied.
“Laura,” his mom pushed.
“Come on, son. Even I knew that. You didn’t think you were the captain did you?” His father laughed.
Luke flashed a smile of commiseration. His father had spent more than half a century with his own loving but tough captain. “Laura’s on board.”
“Well then what are you talking to us for? That’s all you need in the way of a permission slip. Now you can go on the field trip,” his father said.
“I just wanted to see if you two had any reservations.”
“Reservations are for restaurants,” his mother countered. “If this will make you happy then you should do it.”
“You know that we’ll all be under a microscope. More than we’ve ever been.”
“Well if the news media finds out any secrets about your mother, tell them I’ll pay top dollar for them,” his father said, displaying a grin.
“Edmond, this is serious,” she snapped at him. “Go on, sweetheart.”
“Well, you know our family’s . . . different.”
His father cut him off. “Luke, we’ve already talked about this. As I’ve told you since you were five, we can’t give your brother away. We’re stuck with him and his red hair. I’m sorry. You’re going to have to let it go,” his father deadpanned.
When his brother was in a serious car accident as an adolescent and hospitalized for a week, his father arrived at the hospital one day with his hair dyed purple. His injured brother and all of the Cooper boys found it hysterical. It was the first day his brother Matt, still in pain from the crash, had laughed since the accident. The fact that their mother was livid only made the moment funnier. Though he hadn’t reached for a clown nose during this conversation, Luke could tell by his wisecracking that his dad was nervous at the prospect of this presidential adventure.
“There’ll be people curious about the adoption. You might get some questions.”
“What’s there to ask? What’s there to know? You’re my son. That’s the only thing anyone needs to know,” his mother said.
Luke reached across the table and squeezed her hand. His mother was one of the toughest people he knew, but whenever she felt as though somehow her love for her family and capabilities as a mother were under assault it was as though she became the most vulnerable woman on the planet, particularly when she felt her bond with her youngest son challenged. When a black woman she had considered a friend casually said she thought the then seven-year-old Luke would be better off with a family he could better “relate to,” Esther Cooper first instructed Luke to cover his ears, then proceeded to give the woman a tongue-lashing like no other. When they returned home that afternoon Luke heard his mother sobbing behind her closed bedroom door.
He remembered a moment at a grocery store when he saw a black family—or “brown” family, as he called them—all together and it dawned on him that his parents were a different color. He wasn’t sure what age he was. Then he remembered becoming conscious of the fact that people stared at his family, particularly when he called for his mom or dad in front of strangers. Heads would swivel when he ran to them or his dad picked him up. His father told him the stares were because he was so good-looking, just like his dad. He learned to ignore them.
He tried to play with some of the other boys at the Gorman Center, where Esther volunteered—sons of the teen mothers enrolled in the training program. It was there he first understood that some people might consider him different in a way that was not good. One of the boys told him he “talked like a white boy.” Luke wasn’t sure what that meant. But he did notice that the boy and his friends subsequently excluded him from the game they were playing. He could never talk about the moment, not even with his family. But it stayed with him. He became conscious of wanting to be accepted by people who looked like him, and this was later one of the reasons it was so important for him to attend Morehouse College—one of the oldest and most prestigious historically black colleges for men—instead of Harvard, where each of his brothers had gone. There were other defining moments along the way, though, such as when he got into a fight with a fellow high school student who teased him by comparing him to the characters from Diff’rent Strokes, the TV show about a pair of black orphans adopted by a wealthy white widower.
After spending his whole life fighting for understanding and acceptance when it came to his racial identity, Luke was ready for any upcoming battles on the presidential campaign trail. But he wanted to make sure his family was up for the fight as well.
“I want to make sure that you guys are okay with all of this.”
“We’re okay with whatever helps you accomplish your dream.”
Esther bit her lip and made a face that suggested to him that she really wasn’t ready.
“You know you guys are my real parents. No matter what, but . . .”
“But what?” Esther asked, looking as though she were on the verge of tears.
“But I’m going to need to revisit the details around my adoption before someone else goes digging around in it, which they’re bound to do, if they’re not already. And that won’t be the end of it. It’s going to be a challenging year, at the very least, for all of us.”
His father chimed in. “What he’s saying, Esther, is that you can’t threaten to send everyone who’s mean to Luke home in a bodybag.”
His mother stood up as though she were about to leave the kitchen in a huff, but Edmond grabbed her hand and pulled her to his lap and planted a kiss on her cheek.
“You always have to bring that up. I never really threatened that woman.” She giggled.
“Mom. I was there, remember?” Luke said. “And yeah, you did.”
© 2011 Keli Goff
The GQ Candidate
Michigan governor Luke Cooper, one of the few black and—by virtue of adoption—Jewish elected officials, stuns his tight-knit friends with his decision to run for president. But could their efforts to help ultimately be his political downfall? Scandal and gossip surrounding his supporters rock his campaign, and even Luke’s wife grows wary of the spotlight when a surprise from their past inconveniently resurfaces. . . .
Selected for the Los Angeles Times’s summer reading list and as one of More magazine’s “Beach Reads You’ll Love,” Keli Goff ’s clever and entertaining debut novel is a spot-on golden ticket into the secret heart of the political circus.