by John Minichillo
The Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of the Rebellion, the War for Southern Independence, the War of Northern Aggression, the Freedom War — it was now ended, over, finalized with pen strokes. No Iron Brigade, no Stonewall Brigade. Everybody walk home.
Abraham Lincoln had gone out to see a comedy, the mood in Washington jubilant. Abraham Lincoln was murdered in the president’s box.
Andrew Johnson sat at the president’s desk. Andrew Johnson was the president.
The photographer removed the photo of the four hanged conspirators from his leather case. He held up the photo for Andrew Johnson, the four hanged bodies wrapped in sack cloth and bound, one a woman. The new president studied the photo, the hanged woman at one end, his own would-be assassin at the other.
There was a boy in the photo who stared up at the gallows platform. The photographer claimed he wanted the boy in the shot. Said the boy lent perspective and brought life to the image. The photographer saw the boy as a symbol of hope, of a new nation.
Andrew Johnson’s would-be assassin had signed up for a kidnapping. He didn’t want to murder anyone. He got drunk and chickened out. There he was in the photo just the same.
Booth was the brother of the famous Shakespearean actor. The funniest line of the play, Our American Cousin, was the cue for Booth’s single-shot Derringer: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap.” After he shot Abraham Lincoln, Booth shouted an unrehearsed line: “Sic Semper Tyrranus!”
The Tennessee Tailor stared at the row of hanged bodies. The Tennessee Tailor was now the president. The peasant-dent.
His eyes darted from the hanged body of the man ordered to kill him, to the body of the hanged woman who had helped them.
Then Andrew Johnson understood what the photographer meant. There was something about the boy in the photo. The eye was drawn to him.
The boy in the photo reminded Andrew Johnson of when he was a boy, and his mother sold him and his brother into indentured servitude to a tailor. They worked for two years then ran away. In South Carolina he sewed for the gentlemen and made a name for himself. At seventeen he sewed a quilt for a sixteen-year-old girl he hoped to marry. He gave her the quilt and proposed.
Andrew Johnson thought he would have everything: his sixteen-year-old bride, his brother, his trade, his freedom. But the sixteen-year-old girl had refused him. And the master tailor took out an ad in the paper, a ten-dollar reward for the boys’ capture.
The sixteen-year-old girl explained he was poor white trash, only propped up by the lower rung of slavery. Her mother would never approve of him and she handed back the quilt.
From the president’s desk he looked at the boy in the photograph and he remembered himself at that age. He remembered his mother giving him away. He remembered running away and he remembered having his hopes dashed by a sixteen-year-old girl. By seventeen Andrew Johnson had experienced servitude, freedom, and the bottoming out of his heart. A year later, in a new state, he had money and he married a different sixteen-year-old girl. Once they were married he asked her to teach him to read and to write, and his sixteen-year-old bride set him on his ambitious path.
If Andrew Johnson were less of a romantic and he saw his life more clearly, he would remember back to the earliest beginning, to when he was four and his father, the bell ringer, rang a church bell for the last time. At four, Andrew Johnson heard silence interrupt the bell’s tolling as his father succumbed to the illness contracted when he’d saved two men from a capsized canoe. There followed a new bell ringer. And a new man that his mother married. Fourteen years would come and go before Andrew Johnson could read the dedication on his father’s stone: An honest man, loved and respected by all who knew him.
John Minichillo’s novel, The Snow Whale, a contemporary retelling of Moby-Dick, was a regional gold medalist in the Independent Book Publisher Awards for the West-Pacific, an Orion Book Prize notable, and a Hey Small Press! best of 2011. A collection of his short fiction was a finalist in the University of West Alabama Press’s 2012 Tartt First Fiction Award and two pieces were selected by Dan Chaon for the 2012 Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions. He’s the recipient of a 2012 Tennessee Individual Artists Grant, and he lives in Nashville with the writer Katrina Gray and their son. Read the next story, ULYSSES S. GRANT, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.