Damage Control: Alternate Grover Cleveland Story

I wrote this for an anthology that my friend Amber Sparks was putting together called Their Peculiar Ambitions, which was composed of one flash fiction story for each of the US presidents. I got Grover Cleveland, which turned out to be pretty great after my father, who is a historian, filled me in on the whole deal with Cleveland marrying his ward — his ward! — who was his dead friend’s daughter. Nice one, Cleveland.


“Would you put that goddam thing down,” Cleveland says. “We have a bit of a crisis on our hands, my dear.” Frances gives him the look, finishes whatever she is pecking into her phone, and slips it into her waistband. He catches a glimmer of skin, bronzed and taught. Jesus, she is young, he thinks. Sometimes he wonders if all of them – Fox News, CNN, Politico, MSNBC, Limbaugh, Maddow, the Senate, the House, his own advisors standing right here in front of him – are right.

It’s like Woody told him, though: the only thing that matters is that they love one another. Everybody else be damned.

I am the President of the United States, he thinks. And the only person in the universe who understands what I’m going through is Woody Fucking Allen.

“Oh, a crisis,” Frances says. “But you’re so good at those, dear. So much practice.” She stomps out and Cleveland watches Carville’s assistant watch her ass bouncing back and forth in the yoga pants. She is young. She is young and that is the point. She is young and the daughter of his dearly departed friend Folsom and she used to be his ward and that is the reason Carville is here in the first place, why the whole communications staff, their assistants, and the special crisis communications people have been desperately flailing to control the 48 hour news cycle for the past 144 hours.

And in the middle of it all, this oasis: watching Carville’s assistant watching Frances’ ass. The look on the poor kid’s face. This is why Cleveland got into politics in the first place, Erie then Buffalo and now this. One man against another. One victor. Cleveland.

“Wait,” Carville says. He squints. “She wasn’t just tweeting, was she? Tell me she ain’t on Twitter. Tell me she don’t have an unauthorized account!” He puts a hand on the assistant’s shoulder and the boy winces. Cleveland almost feels sorry for the kid. In five years, he’ll be teaching political science in some backwater liberal arts college. It will be better for him. This is how it works, survival of the fittest, straight up Darwin. This is why Cleveland is sitting behind the desk and the rest of them are scurrying around in front of it.

Carville turns. “Jesus Christ Grover I told you we need to take that phone from her.”

“Have you seen a woman her age without a phone in the past five years?” he says. “Might as well try to take away her knees, or her neck.”

He licks at the thing in his mouth. He needs to tell somebody. It is growing. It hurts. He sits down, pretends to read the briefing papers. Carville’s phone rings and he wanders away. The rest of them, various aides and heads of something or other, and Carville’s people, and the crisis communications people with their spiky hair and futuristic glasses, all play with their phones. It is an entire generation of people who play with phones the way his father’s generation smoked: as a pastime, a nervous tick, a serious endeavor. What he would like to do is take the helicopter out to Camp David. Shoot something. Grill a steak. Have a beer, or five, or a dozen. What he has to do is sit here in this room and listen to these people tell him that something called “hash tag child bride” is trending on something called Twitter.

“You couldn’t just find some nice, full grown woman to marry, huh?” Carville says. “A movie actor or a singer? That soccer player made that goal and waved her shirt around? Sheryl fucking Crow? It had to be your own…it had to be her?”

Cleveland stands, leans over his desk. He takes his time. Carville folds his arms over his chest. The assistants and consultants stop their texting. “We are in love, Jim. She is of age. Now she is my wife. We’ve been around this before.” He sits down. “Now can we please get on with the business of running this country.”
“Here’s what we do,” Carville says. “The President and…Koppel? A woman? The President and Katie Couric. One hour. Get everything out in the open. Humanize him again.”

Now they are humanizing him. He is a man who has married the woman he loves and this will require humanizing in the form of Katie Couric.

Frances comes back in. “Kim is such a bitch,” she says.

“Tell me you are not in a Twitter feud with Kim Kardashian,” Carville says.

Frances stops, looks at him. “Who are you?” she says.

Carville takes the phone out of her hand and throws it to Cleveland. “This is the first step,” he says. “I won’t bullshit you. We have a lot of other work to do here. But this will help.”

Cleveland turns the phone over in his hand. It is pink. Solid. What I should do, Cleveland thinks, is break the thing, smash it to pieces. Or stuff it down Carville’s throat, shut him up for good. If he gave the thing to Carville’s assistant, he thinks, the boy’s first instinct would be to smell it. Cleveland tongues at the thing in his mouth. He needs to see the doctor, the dentist. But there are two wars on. The economy is a house of cards. Europe is collapsing. His approval rating is in single digits.

Frances smiles and for a second all Cleveland knows is her eyes. He can see it all in there – the pain, the resolve, the spirit. He can see her father in there. Folsom. She is beautiful and clever and twenty-one and she is his dead friend’s daughter and she is his wife. Cleveland hands her the phone.