by Tim Horvath
1. A dog stripped of his consonants is far more pitiable than one robbed of his testes. Even without the latter, she thinks, a mastiff can do a pretty good impersonation of a descendent of roaming wolves, cling to his virility like the ghost limbs that so many of the khaki boys came back with. But without the makings of growling — the thuggish “ccch,” the throat-rending “rrhhh,” the simple, ominous “grrrrr” — a dog is a helpless lawn-jockey, a prop, a puppet. And which of these, she wonders, best describes her Woodrow, her bedbound and beloved?
2. Surly curtains banish sunlight as she does visitors. Only she and Dr. Grayson, he at the pulse and she at the other arm, feeling some other pulse — of what she’s not sure — less palpable than blood but no less real.
3. Like everyone else, she first mistook the stroke for exhaustion, with the locomotive’s eye always rushing ahead to the next town, state, coming himself eye to eye with his boosters and enemies. With megaphones and telephones this-phones and that-phones, his brand of politicking isn’t long for this world, she knows. But what a swan song he gave them! Arias the likes of which even she hadn’t known him capable, leaving him in post-coital quivers, staggering his way back to his berth on the Mayflower and lying railsick, somehow springing back every time. Somewhere between Colorado and Kansas, he didn’t, though. So they’d cleared the tracks all the way back to Washington, the crowds amassing en route like mourners to a funeral train, while the whole time he’d fretted, barely audible above the rattle, that they’d call him the worst he can think of, quitter.
4. For him, for History, she will wear a mask, will play her part. Neither he nor the country can know what straits he’s in. The craft of her performance will cure both or neither.
5. Of course they want to come behind the curtain — royalty and rogues alike. But the man’s spattering his urine into a pan, for crying out loud. She recalls their first trip to Europe after the War, how Churchill and Clemenceau thought him too removed from the trenches to appreciate what had taken place there. But they’d seen enough. The bombed-out cathedral in Reines, its roof mainly sky as they gazed together at the snow falling right through it, at the priest’s red-gloved fingers tracing its downward drift — that was enough.
6. And now the Great War has leveled him like any casualty, like some poison gas belatedly finding its way into his bloodstream. His mind, too? What is a mind? she wonders, as she shaves him like she imagined she would her father one day, till he gleams like an infant—a motherly connection, except futureless. She can’t ignore the left arm beneath the sheets, flopped like a chicken carcass or a paratrooper’s chute caught on a branch somewhere across enemy lines.
7. All these years she’s spent at his side have finally come to this, an education not only in statesmanship but in himship. She can joke like him, think like him, smirk like him, even feel like him, more him than him since she still has feeling in the places he’s gone numb.
8. She does not guide his hand, but follows it where it leads, unfolding his words and vision. Like one of those Ouija boards that are all the rage. She’s not naïve enough to believe in them, really, but some ambassador’s wife had one on a ship, and one night while he was resting she’d watched several gathered around one in a corner. Could you do a proper Ouija reading at sea? She pictures spirits vomiting over the rail. The woman, plainly a frustrated actress, had contacted the drowned captain of a vessel that went under somewhere in these longitudes. Afterward, Edith had conveyed it to Woodrow. Can’t you ladies stick to shuffleboard? he’d snorted. Now, as she conveys his ideas to the world, she wonders whether she is channeling a spectral self, whether he himself sank into the cold murk of some abyss while her head was turned.
9. Or maybe he’d drowned earlier, even, on that Caribbean island, in the depths of Mary Peck, that woman with whom he swore he’d never consummated anything, anything, that is, but endless conversations under fronds, against brokenyolk sun and the steady surf. Poor wretched woman. But then? Ripe, free, and available. She wouldn’t have blamed him.
10. But she trusted him, as they never would her. Even something as inoffensive as her speckling the White House lawn with sheep to free up more khaki boys made them scoff that she was turning it to pasture, making a minefield of dung. How could they have understood her attachment to those sheep, how she’d watch them shuffle around, clumped as if it made them less, rather than more, conspicuous. As if they knew this city was teeming with wolves.
11. She adored the creatures, but the same in a man — a certain cowering, shambling herd instinct, a wooliness — she found repugnant. Secretly she’d named them after those she didn’t fancy, House, for instance, her husband’s advisor, the sheepiest of them all, he who gimped along at the pack’s rear; she had to make sure it didn’t starve. Abandoned to a state of nature, House would have been devoured, she was certain, inside a Washington week. She loved to crouch down, sniffing his grungy dander. She’d blow loving words in his ear, her cheek grazing the soft fold of flesh at the neck where a knife could have eased in to the hilt.
12. She misses violet gowns and matching hats. She misses the first taste of victory. She misses the sheep, even House. She misses her first husband. She misses her grandmother, and her father, who brought her Shakespeare. She misses the fat watchman on the Chain Bridge, with his weird salute.
13. Once they had talked about taking a bike tour of Europe. No room for bikes in the cramped shacks of her youth, so she’d never learned to ride, and had stolen lessons in secret in the White House basement, sure that one day they’d cycle through Avignon and ascend the Alps, though first she needed to learn to effect a simple turn and stop. Again and again, she’d wobbled and crashed and giggled, matching that bike’s enamel bruise for bruise and pedaling on.
14. What is a body? What is a mind? What is a voice? What is a stroke? What is a war? What will endure? What will matter? Who will remember?
Tim Horvath (www.timhorvath.com) is the author of Understories, published by Bellevue Literary Press (2012), as well as Circulation, published by sunnyoutside (2009). His stories appear in places like Conjunctions, Fiction, and The Normal School, and he is a Prose Editor for Camera Obscura. He teaches creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and works part-time as a psychiatric counselor. Read the next story, WARREN G. HARDING, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.