by Matthew Kirkpatrick
Franklin Pierce poses for his portrait, the portrait that will be engraved onto a plate to replace Fillmore’s head on the seven-dollar bill. His war wound aches. His head aches. He worries about his face.
Do his cheeks appear swollen like balls of rising dough? Shall he ask the portrait artist to smooth out his cheeks? Will he appear presidential on the currency? Does the country really need a new seven-dollar bill?
He has had too much to drink, again, but perhaps not quite enough. He asks for a drink. He asks the portraitist what he thinks about Cuba. He asks the portraitist if it’s cold enough for him. He asks the portraitist what he thinks about all the snow. He asks the portraitist what he is doing after their portrait session, if he lives close by or has a long commute. He tells the portraitist to make his hair as presidential as is possible. He asks the portraitist what he thinks about Buchanan, what he thinks about Fillmore, what he thought about lunch. He asks if he shouldn’t try a version with him facing the other way. He asks him to add a flourish to his already grand presidential wave. The portraitist’s hair is styled the same way: the Pierce, they call it, a hairstyle only briefly the rage. Am I handsome, he asks? Can you make sure I am handsome?
The portraitist tells Pierce not to move so much. He approaches and with a gentle hand touches Pierce’s cheek and guides it back into position. He picks up Pierce’s trembling hand and moves it across his lap. Pierce feels something. He tells the portraitist it is difficult to sit still for so long, with so much on his mind, so much left to do. I know, says the portraitist, I understand. Not much longer, now, he says. The light is failing. He touches Pierce’s face again; it is a gesture of kindness, of understanding. Do not worry about your face; it is perfect.
Pierce has not been able to forget his son’s face, still smiling on his head so many feet away from the body. His son’s smile betrayed his stupidity, but it’s the only thing Pierce can still picture. The smile brings him some peace. Whatever thing had made him smile—the steam or the massive drivers of the locomotive—it was the last imprinted thing on his son’s dull but functional brain. He has always wished they had reattached the head to the body for the funeral. Would it have been easier, if they had preserved that last smile, his son’s last memory, a happy one? Should they have simply displayed his son’s smiling head in a box? Would that have been too much? Why had they thought it was okay for Bennie to stand so close to the train? If he had lived, would the public have thought differently about the Olmstead Manifesto? Would Pierce still be so thirsty?
Has he already lost? Has he already faded? Will he be remembered? Will the seven-dollar bill be remembered? Who will they put on the eight? Will Buchanan make them all forget? How much should he tip the portraitist? He looks in his wallet: three fours, a six, and a fifteen. He hands him the fifteen and immediately regrets the decision.
Matthew Kirkpatrick is the author of Light without Heat (FC2). He is an Assistant Professor of English at North Central College in Naperville, IL. Read the next story, JAMES BUCHANAN, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.