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Things You Should Know

Imagine the Pain of the Reagans's Lives

By Linton Weeks

The no-doubt, behind-closed-doors existence of Ronald Reagan has been a source of national speculation since the former president was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994.

Larry King has built hour-long shows around the subject. Recently, Michael Reagan spoke on CNN about his father's battle against the memory-maiming disease.

"The real heroes," he said, are the people who "are working 24 hours a day to take care of their loved one, worrying about them 24 hours a day, are they going to walk out of the house, are they going to—you know, are they going to set something on fire?" 

Now comes fiction writer A.M. Homes, imagining the day-to-day lives of the Reagans in a tragicomic short story, "The Former First Lady and the Football Star."
The tale is in her new collection, The Things You Should Know.
"I am very interested in the ways we live our lives," says Homes, who took more than a year to research and write the story, "especially the ways we mix the cultural and the political, the fact and the fiction."

Toying with our minds

At one point, Ronald asks Nancy whether she remembers his "premiere in Washington," and replies, "Your inaugural? January 20, 1981?"
At another, he apologizes for being involved in an affair with someone. 
"I keep remembering something about getting into a lot of trouble for an affair, everyone being very unhappy with me."
"Iran contra?"
"Who is she? A foreign girl, exotic, a beautiful dancer on a Polynesian island? Did my wife know?" he asks. "Did she forgive me? I should have known better, I should not have put us in this position, it almost cost us everything."
He calls her "Mommy."
She calls him a carousel of nicknames, including Mr. President, Rough Rider, Daddy, and Dutch. 
"What movie are we in?" he asks. 
"We're not in a movie right now, this is real," she says, moving his dinner tray out of the way, reaching to hold his hand.
Homes is playing havoc with our minds, not just as readers but as Americans.
"This is a real couple we all have strong feelings about," she says. Nancy Reagan's recent life has been "heartbreaking and amazing. I was thinking a lot about how trapped I assume she must feel."
"What is real and what is not real and the blurring of that" intrigues Homes.
She delved into books by and about the Reagans and material from the couple's family and friends. She studied Alzheimer's and visited web sites and chat rooms. Factoids from her research pop up now and again. 
How the couple met: They were introduced by producer Dore Schary.
How many lives Reagan saved when he was a lifeguard: 77.

Borders on invasion

The story has an eerie intimacy that borders on invasion of privacy. 
Author Homes counters: "At this point, I don't think they get to be totally private people."

In a mixed critique, Kirkus Reviews described the story as "a bleak but oddly tender imagining of what Nancy Reagan's life is like now." Publishers Weekly said the volume, "confirms Homes's reputation as an expert stylist and unique chronicler of suburban drama."

Things You Should Know contains 11 short stories, not all of them as poignant and powerful as "The Former First Lady." Some are downright weird. In one, a woman tries to impregnate herself using semen from abandoned condoms. 
Homes is no stranger to the bizarre. She did, after all, grow up in Washington.
"Washington was always a very surrealistic city," says Homes, who now lives in Greenwich Village with her dog Lulu. "You'd be shopping for shoes at Saks and Nixon girls would be there."

Readers of "The Former First Lady" beware: The story takes a dark turn.
"I think it's an upsetting ending, disquieting," she says. 
"We have all been expecting something to happen."
But, Homes adds, "I would hope that people can see it is a sympathetic, comic and social story—about us."