This is a piece I wrote for an anthology my friend Amber Sparks was editing, called Their Peculiar Ambitions, which was comprised of one flash fiction piece for each of the US Presidents. The book was supposed to come out on Dark Sky Books, which was the same publisher that was supposed to publish my second story collection. They tanked. Oh well. Here’s the Grover Cleveland story anyway.
The boy is walking toward him. He is eight, rotund but confident, with the plain features that Cleveland knows will turn distinguished in middle age, then comical past fifty. By then, if the boy has it, though, it won’t matter at all. Oscar hands him the rifle and Cleveland chambers another shell. The boy is quiet, confident, comfortable in his own skin. Exactly how Cleveland remembers himself at that age. “Nice shooting,” Cleveland says. “Well done, son.” He rumples the boy’s hair, kneels down and looks him in the eye.
“Mr. President.” He recognizes the voice. No. Not yet.
Maria sits by a window, the newborn at her breast. She smiles, nods to him in that way she had, affectionate and sarcastic at once. She is the only woman he has ever known who can say “fuck you” with such affection that you’d fall in love with her. How many times did that happen? Cleveland and Folsom, at least. They were both in love with her, in their own ways. In the end, which one was the father? Did it matter?
He leans over, kisses her perfect mouth. He kisses the infant’s head. He smells like talcum and fresh laundry. He smells perfect. It is a son. His son. His son Oscar, named after his best friend in the entire world.
“Mr. President! Grover!” That voice again. He feels he is rising up out of something. There is a swaying. He is on a boat. He remembers that. The yacht. A surgery. A secret. His mouth.
This feeling, the dreamy floating way his head is right now, in the ether. Even as he is recognizing it, his mind, always orderly, is starting to assemble facts. But he is losing the image of Maria, the boy.
“Grover!” the voice says.
He does not want to do this. Not yet. Not yet.
He pictures Folsom. It was all for Oscar. The truest friend he ever had, the only one who really understood.
“Mr. President!” The voice again.
He forces everything out of his mind – the financial crisis and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and Stevenson and Frances. He tries to let his mind drift, catch the current of the ether and float away again. He knows all too well what has really happened with the boy: Maria’s troubles with the bottle, the orphanage, the kidnapping, and then the trouble with money, and finally the adoption. He set most of it into motion himself. And yet here he is, his mouth raging with pain, surgeons waiting, the country teetering on the brink of disaster, and he is rocking in ether dreams and his subconscious reaches out for … Oscar?
This all started in Erie. Sheriff. And then Buffalo. Mayor. How could it wind up in a place like this, a secret surgery on a yacht steaming up Long Island Harbor? Grover the Good, that’s what they called him.
“Mr. President! Grover!”
His mouth. The pain coming on like sleep, overpowering and insistent. Everything hurts. The boat is swaying.
He tries to bring it back, the image of the boy, the smell of the infant. He pictures Folsom, Maria. But it’s not working. The ether is wearing off, his mind continuing to assemble facts, scenarios. He’s going to have to make a decision soon. Gold standard. Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The country is in financial crisis. People are struggling, hurting, and he is their President.
The boy. He is, what, twelve years old now?
Cleveland flutters his eyelids, holds up a single finger. He says, “wait.”