by Anne Valente


You were born third in a line of only brothers, meant to take on the world from the plains of Kansas. You traveled from Abilene High School to the football fields of West Point and on to the rank of major after the first World War, the stars glittering their light upon you. You were poised. You fell in love. Stationed in Texas, you proposed on Valentine’s Day, the same year the temperature dropped in Montana from 44 degrees to -56 in a single day, the most rapid decline ever recorded.

You never minded the weather. You grew up knowing the ways that landscapes change, how tornadoes whipped across the Midwestern hills of your childhood and how their violent currents paid no heed to love or to loss. You watched as a boy from your front porch as a distant funnel churned and ripped every planted stake on its path. You watched its indifference, its unwieldy passage. You stood transfixed as it razed everything in sight, a slow storm roiling toward you, before your mother pulled every one of you to the basement and let the violence rage over the plains above you.

You think of that storm sometimes, only now as you paint. A storm that shouldn’t have mattered, that left you and your family alive but you imagine its shape, the slow twist of a swirling funnel, a rotation that works its way into the path of your brushstroke across canvases that have multiplied with your age.

People asked, sometimes. They asked, but you never answered.

They asked through your years of military service, from major to general, from the Panama Canal to the Philippines to the general staff of Washington. They asked through your feats during the second World War, one you thought you’d never see after the devastation of the first, and through supreme command of NATO and your declaration of candidacy for the presidential election. But you held your tongue, even as you took office. You held your tongue as military triumph became legislative conquest, as every challenge you faced kneeled down submissive and supine. You watched your dominoes scatter, one by one.

But he was the pilot light. He was the ghost beneath you. He was the shadow splitting from the soles of your heels, following tireless, pushing you forward and further and harder and faster. He held the reins. He drove you onward. He was the quiet darkness to your public light, the barbed spur you never spoke of.

They still ask. You retreat to your room. You paint canvas after canvas, your hands mirroring the motion of cyclones. They ask but you never answer, a toil of momentum and of forgetting, of forward motion and of slowly breaking.

You took office. You ended the Korean War. You signed the interstate system into existence, a lattice of roads and blue highways that pooled an open path before every American while you silently suffered your first heart attack.

You signed the Civil Rights Act. While millions across America celebrated, you endured a stroke, the remnants of your heart attack. You tried to call your cabinet to order and found yourself unable to speak, unable to even move your hands.

You created NASA, a wide universe beyond the connected roads of each state. While the nation looked outward beyond the sky, your own insides retreated, obstructed and inflamed.

During the Suez Crisis, you underwent bowel reconstruction.

During a diplomatic visit to England, you nearly fainted, your head swimming and dizzy.

You flamed onward and forward, even as you broke down, even as your body gave way beneath you. You sent your wife flowers every year on the anniversary of his birth. You pushed through it. You pushed past him. Your son, the culmination of every year, every feat, every bright star on the lapel of your military jacket. Your son – born all those years ago as summer burned away to autumn, then gone as swiftly as he came only three years later, the day after USC won the Rose Bowl, a new year that should have dawned bright but ripped away everything, quickly and absolutely.

He was the pilot light. He is a lifetime. He is the question you never answered, the bulb to blind your private ache.

You answered only once. When you became president, when you made a speech of peace. The world thought you meant to mourn Stalin. You said this is not a way of life.

This is not a way of life at all.

You paint. Your organs press upon you, their own swiftness toward decline. Your wife lets you be. She lets you acknowledge this only in flowers. You paint and he pushes and your hand swirls a funnel, a storm you know is coming, the tornado raging over you at last.




Anne Valente’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, CutBank, Sou’wester, Camera Obscura and Bellevue Literary Review, among other journals.  Her short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the 2011 Dzanc Books Short  Story Collection Competition and will be published in 2014.  Originally from St. Louis, she is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing and literature at the University of Utah. Read the next story, JOHN F. KENNEDY, here.

* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.