Three Fictions from FIRST PRESIDENTS: Joseph Scapellato

James Madison

James Madison stood on a log shaped like the limb of a great man. He was as short as the tallest American mushroom, yet more withered. For several days he had ridden from camp to town to camp in the woods outside Washington City, to assess the state of the British invasion. Every horse he had ridden had broken a leg, neck, or back. He had accumulated many concerns, but was chiefly concerned with the whereabouts of his son, the Constitution.

“Let us return,” he said to General William H. Winder.

General William H. Winder, a man of colonial breeding, crouched in the upper branches of an apple tree alive with ugly birds. One of his legs was broken. His military strategy, which stemmed from his interpersonal strategy, was to rout anxiety by speaking with confidence. From his perch he watched worms of smoke writhe from the blackened body of far-off Washington City. It was likely that the British were still about, roasting bangers on the fires they’d set themselves.

“It is likely that the British are still about, roasting bangers on the fires they’ve set themselves,” said General William H. Winder confidently.

“A chance we shall take,” said James Madison.

General William H. Winder fell out of the tree and broke his other leg.

James Madison helped General William H. Winder onto a dead horse, took hold of the reins, and dragged them both toward Washington City. They passed camp after camp of injured and embarrassed American militiamen who, inspired by the sight of their president, and for the first time in days, fell asleep.

The streets of Washington City were heaped with ashy rubble and the shattered noses of British rockets. The British had left, perhaps for Baltimore.

General William H. Winder said, “The British have left. Perhaps for Baltimore.”

James Madison climbed on top of an overturned cart on top of a broken merchant-stall on top of a dead mule on top of a dead merchant. From there he did not see the Constitution.

A mob of bankrupt merchants, grateful mothers, and silent children limped down the blasted street. Wherever the dogs had gone, they had gone together, and the chickens had been roasted by the British. The mothers were grateful because most of them had not been raped.

“The mothers are grateful,” said General William H. Winder.

James Madison studied the mob. He did not see the Constitution among them.

The mob studied James Madison. They did not see how this sapless little man could have fathered the Constitution. Despite this disbelief, their bodies tingled and perked in his presence—the men began to feel as if they could sire a thousand sons in a single coupling, and the women began to feel as if they could carry a thousand daughters in a single pregnancy. Their thoughts pulsed toward what might be left of their beds. When James Madison climbed down to return to the street, the men and women followed as though dragged by the horse he dragged. The children followed, too, fiddling with their privates.

Together they came upon the Treasury building. Everything that had been inside, including laws, had been hauled out, stacked, and burned. James Madison kissed the building as if it were his grandmother’s hand. When he stepped back, the roof collapsed. The windows belched sooty clouds that smeared the mob with filth.

Together they came upon the National Intelligencer building. Everything that had been inside, including facts, had been used as a latrine and burned. James Madison kissed the building as if it were his mother’s hand. When he stepped back, a stream of smoldering excrement gurgled from the front door. It spattered the mob with disease.

Together they came upon President’s House, where only a scorched limestone foundation remained. Bending, James Madison kissed the limestone as if it were his wife’s hand—he pressed, he patted, he stroked with gentlemanly tenderness—and soon his son, the Constitution, could be heard snoring beneath what was left.

Every man, woman, and child who made up the filthy and diseased mob imagined the Constitution’s sleep differently. Some heard in its snores the open-eyed omniscient slumber of George Washington, or the well-fed grumbling repose of John Adams, or the vast and vibrant nation-dreaming of Thomas Jefferson. Only General William H. Winder failed to supply the unseen Constitution with any qualities whatsoever. He strained to better hear its snores. When he tried to clear an ear of wax, his ear fell off.

James Madison cupped his mouth to the limestone and whispered secret fatherly wisdoms to his son. With blackened fingers he backed away, beckoning the mob to do the same. They did, the men and women holding hands.

Together they came upon the Capitol building. It was smoking from all sides.

“It is smoking from all sides,” said General William H. Winder, less confidently.

James Madison said, “But not burning.”

The mob leaned in for a better look. It was hard to say if James Madison was right or not.

General William H. Winder tried to raise an arm to point out the smoke, but his arm was broken. He looked to his other arm. It was missing.

James Madison climbed on top of the dead horse that he had dragged and faced the mob that had followed him. “Congressmen,” he commanded.

“None present,” said the mob.

James Madison repeated himself.

“All absent,” said the mob.

James Madison repeated himself.

The mob sloughed apart: at its center huddled a sorry assembly of congressmen, all marked by the places they’d been hiding—attics and crawlspaces, cellars and sheds, hedges and wells—and when they looked down in shame, dust and moss sifted from their brows and sowbugs dropped from behind their ears.

The congressmen followed James Madison into the smoke.

The mob, unconvinced, watched closely for fire.

 

James Monroe

James Monroe awoke alone in a bed without bedsheets. Again he’d dreamt of dark cannons lined across the land, their mouths as wide as harbors. The cannons had been breathing—their inhaling tugging at the heavens, their exhaling bending the horizon.

Though certain of being awake, alone, and in bed in President’s House, James Monroe felt that his head was out of place, that it was no longer his. Heavy with dream, it seemed on loan from another century.

He sat up and touched his cheeks. He patted his ears and tapped his temples. This head felt less handsome, but more confident. Broader, but not wiser.

Wider, but not deeper?

He rose and walked to a window, which he opened with a groan. Outside, night bit its black lip to keep quiet.

Under the bed, Elizabeth Monroe, James Monroe’s wife, pretended to be sleeping on the bedsheets she’d brought with her. With one eye half-open she watched her husband’s feet take uncertain steps. She was as furious as she was terrified. She knew what others didn’t: that what would be done would be done without anyone knowing anything about how to do it.

James Monroe opened his wardrobe and buttoned on his frock coat. Frock coats, no longer worn by Cabinet and Congress, were favored instead by ailing veterans, bewildered elderly gentlemen, and cheery beggars. In a frock coat, James Monroe looked like how he felt: a handsome keepsake from a war that would be misremembered.

Dressed, he took his uncertain steps through hallways that creaked with fear of fire. His head wobbled as he walked, as if it what was in it sloshed. In his study he lit a lamp from a faraway land. The flame sizzled, smelling of fat and hair. Again he opened a window. Night, embarrassed, looked away with a breeze.

He cleared a space on his desk, setting aside the stacks of letters, laws, and executive orders. He sat. He took his head in both hands, whoever’s or whatever’s head it had become, and after securing a tight grip, smashed it down forehead-first.

It bounced back up, his again.

Dizzied, he stared at his desk: left behind from the impact was a puny shadow, as dark and shapeless as a tea stain.

He scooped up this puny shadow.

He kneaded this puny shadow into a mass.

He teased this mass into a shape, a shape as uncertain as the steps he’d taken through the fearful creaking hallways. Into this shape he jammed the stacks of letters, laws, and executive orders. Fed, this shape became a form: something like a man, something like a woman, something like a child. Only bigger in all ways.

Morning peeked in at the window. When it looked at the form, the form began to breathe—morning gasped and stumbled backwards, bumping into night.

The form had now become a Doctrine.

“Are you here?” said James Monroe.

The Doctrine sat up on the desk and said, “I am.”

“I am pleased,” said James Monroe, but he wasn’t. He was crushed between pride and horror.

“I am not,” said the Doctrine.

“Why is that?”

The Doctrine shook its enormous head.

James Monroe nodded cautiously.

The Doctrine shook its enormous head.

James Monroe nodded recklessly.

The Doctrine sat there.

James Monroe yawned. He whispered, “When you dream, what do you dream?”

“Other men and women’s dreams.”

“When you are awake, what do you see?”

The Doctrine looked west and east and north and south, all directions at once. That it saw itself was self-evident.

“When you see yourself, how do you appear?”

The Doctrine stood. Its enormous head annihilated the roof and its enormous arms annihilated the walls, and when it opened its enormous mouth, James Monroe fell asleep at his desk.

 

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams sprung fully dressed from between the kissing lips of John and Abigail Adams. He landed on his feet at the foot of the bed, a well-groomed boy with a grim face. Behind his back he held a book of rhetorical stratagems. He paced between his parents’ legs.

This was in Peacefield, the Adams family farm in Braintree, Massachusetts. Outside the farmhouse, rain fell, tinkling like coins.

“I shall argue,” declared John Quincy Adams, his voice a child’s, his cadence an adult’s, “that we are to be a nation not of customs, but of laws.”

John and Abigail Adams had stopped kissing. John Adams, a sod-roll of a man, sat up. He was as fully dressed as his son. Abigail Adams chastely concealed herself with bedsheets. She was pretty, a fact that Congress found preposterous. As they listened to their son’s argument, their faces became lawyerly, sharp and sure of error.

John Quincy Adams supplied reasons, addressed counterarguments, and carried himself with a careful dignity that gave his position persuasive weight. He gesticulated properly.

Abigail Adams kissed his forehead. She seemed determined to be gracious.

John Adams grunted with amusement and bent at the bedside to lace his boots.

“In conclusion,” concluded John Quincy Adams, “it is through the sensible design and virtuous application of laws that our young nation will come to learn its watchword: union.”

He shifted his posture into one well-suited to receive applause. Waiting, he didn’t look at his parents.

“That will not be your conclusion,” said John Adams. He stood up to button his frock coat. A button popped off, hit the floor, and skittered away. He left the room.

The front door muttered open and closed.

Confronted with such sudden lonesomeness, the farmhouse didn’t know what to do with itself. It tried not to look at who was in it.

John Quincy Adams began to cry. When he wiped his face, he dropped his book. It clapped onto the floor.

Abigail Adams left the bedsheets, then the bed. In nakedness she moved to the wardrobe. She dressed slowly and spoke to herself, as if she’d been alone for a very long time. John Quincy Adams held tight to the footboard. He couldn’t make out her words, but in them he heard what he was feeling, a feeling he felt for the first time. In him it was sharp and many-headed, bristling without design from his body and into the world. Both ends of every point only pricked.

In her it was old, worn, and wrapped in a cloth in a pocket. She seemed determined to be gracious. She left the room.

The farmhouse sat down inside itself with a sigh. Rain jangled.

John Quincy Adams put his hands in his mouth. He didn’t know how to get off the bed.

From the kitchen, the clatter and the smell of a day’s meals being cooked.

“Come,” said Abigail Adams.

He couldn’t.

“Come,” she said, until he could.

***

Joseph Scapellato is the author of Big Lonesome. He was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. His fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, Post Road, PANK, Unsaid, and other literary magazines, and has been anthologized in Harper Perennial’s Forty Stories, Gigantic Books’ Gigantic Worlds: An Anthology of Science Flash Fiction, and &NOW’s The Best Innovative Writing. He is an assistant professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at Bucknell University. He lives in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife, daughter, and dog.

Photo credit: kconnors, morguefile.com

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