CHESTER A. ARTHUR
by Rion Amilcar Scott
The squealing in the night. When does the squealing stop? The man’s dead, but the squealing remains. Electric and undulating at my right ear. It comes late at night in the drafty expanse of this overlarge mansion. I command an army now, but have no power to command the squealing to cease.
The morning before the squeal first sounded, I watched the President on his hospital bed, mad with pain. I entered the room and sneezed loudly from the dust that swirled round me, startling the nurse changing his bandages. Three bullet holes, wet with blood and infection. Turning green and black, reeking of death. I stood near the doorway, removed my hat and stared. The nurse spoke: I’m almost done here, Mr. Pres — I gave her a sharp look. It was cold and bullying, perhaps the first exercise of my presidential powers. She finished quickly and slinked from the room.
The President shifted and squealed every few minutes. I sat and watched him in grave silence.
They’ve called me a murderer, I told the dying, squirming body. The madman who shot you … don’t ever believe him … he did it for himself. I had nothing —
The President writhed and grimaced as if bullets were once again striking him. It reminded me of my last days in Kansas and the first man I watched die, a young negro named Shango who, several months before his death, spoke to a crowd of abolitionists in New York. He was a steely sort. Bony jaw. Hard muscle lain carefully atop wiry limbs. Said he had constructed a network called The Forgotten Tunnel to free blacks in bondage, even those in the deepest South. It rivaled the Underground Railroad in efficiency and audacity. All it took were some fiery words and wild hand gestures to convince the foolish amongst us to move to Kansas. Only the presence of civilized whites could protect the territory from adopting the savagery of slavery. And like that, I became a Tunneleer, pledging to help smuggle coloreds up North.
I had reservations about the first mission. To start with, the signal was unsophisticated — three hard raps on my back door late at night. Shango said he would accompany the first negro himself as there was no one he trusted. I sat that evening by flickering candlelight writing a speech to deliver before the Kansas Abolitionist Society. I still question why I never heard the pounding at the door. The crack of my neighbor’s pistol sang out like a thunderclap through the heavens. When I got outside, Shango lay there with a bleeding hole in his chest. He squealed as the President later squealed. His travel companion escaped while my neighbors exhorted me to give chase. I walked through the darkness pretending to search while preparing the route my fiancée and I would soon take to flee Kansas for good.
While I daydreamed about regrets, The President got hold of his wits and mumbled toward me. Chester, he said. Give me your hand. I grasped his dry, rough appendage. The folds around his lips gave a slight upturn. Chester, he said. It’s what you wanted?
I dropped the hand in disgust, treating it as if it were not part of a dying thing, but rather an inanimate object incapable of pain. He grunted as it flopped atop the grungy white sheet beneath his failing body. What did he know of my intentions? When did we ever discuss my ambitions? For most of our acquaintanceship he ignored me. Rarely sought my counsel. I was just a vice president, nothing more. Did he even know that the madman said the shooting was in my honor or was this just one last bit of condescension?
I grasped his hand again, squeezing it softly as I did my wife’s. I love you brother, I said, kissing his cheek. Love is a strong word and one so insincerely chosen, but our feelings about a man are supposed to change as he expires, and again after his passing. I was confident that I’d soon consider those words heartfelt. I left Washington for New York that night and it somehow felt similar to fleeing Kansas.
Cries of, “Arrest the coward!” trailed me and grew louder as I barricaded myself from the world. That they’d imagine me a murderer says more about them, what this mob is capable of, than it says about me. Eighty days the country went without a leader. Twice the time Jesus spent in the Wilderness.
There I sat in New York waiting for Satan to dazzle me with visions of power. I shook and I drank. I made plans. I thought often of Shango’s dying cries, of the President lying there squealing and trembling. I prayed, sometimes even for the President’s recovery. Satan never did arrive, though the squealing came early. I came to know it well the way a man comes to know a lover, in the soft quiet spaces late at night. I dreamt of The President’s bullet wounds as watering holes for blowflies. In my visions, his skin flaked and cracked and fell from him. He expired and I returned to Washington a ruler. I saw the President’s assassin once at his trial and then once more at his hanging. Both times he smiled at me and appeared the happiest man on earth. In the courtroom and before the rope he danced and laughed and recited poetry and again dedicated the killing to my administration. At the first smile I thought I saw Satan in his face. There on the gallows he smiled at me again and I knew for sure that I saw Satan and, I don’t remember it, but there’s a picture in the papers of me smiling back.
Rion Amilcar Scott has contributed to PANK, Fiction International and Confrontation, among others. Raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, he earned an MFA at George Mason University and presently teaches English at Bowie State University. Read the next story, GROVER CLEVELAND, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.