by Joseph Scapellato
James Garfield’s noteworthy walk whisked him toward the train depot in Washington City. Beside him hurried half a dozen of his newest political allies, bushy-faced and well-fed men of Cabinet and Congress, all puffing to match their president’s pace. The air was spongy with summer heat, a heaviness they squeezed through together.
The walk — which provided the impression of a man grappling sensibly with private resolutions — was, in fact, a deception James Garfield had developed as a schoolteacher, applied as a principal, and cultivated into reflex as a brigadier general. Its function was to politely excuse him from active participation in conversation initiated by others.
Though I might not speak, lied the walk, I listen.
The political allies, hearing this, desired to claim the honor of having induced James Garfield to speak. Therefore they extoled his recently-implemented civil service reform, the subject of the speech he’d been scheduled to give that evening at Williams College, their destination. The blasts of flattery, deceptions themselves, were designed to sound accidental.
A one-eyed senator said, “Civil service reform has been the heretofore unreachable Grail of many a president!”
A one-eared member of Cabinet said, “Just this afternoon, I overheard my barkeep proclaim, ‘If this president can reform the civil service, why, he can reform man himself!’”
The walk responded to these attempts at conversation with a humble slowing of gait.
James Garfield, snugly inside his walk, did not hear these attempts.
Instead he listened closely to the conversation taking place inside his body.
One speaker in his body’s conversation spoke Greek. The other, Latin.
Pigshit, said the Latin. Of adult baptisms you have always known my mind: it makes babies of men.
The Greek said, Why should man not briefly be remade into the baby he once was, the baby he still is, from time to time?
Man is only man when man is moving forward. When man is of one nature.
Then man, laughed the Greek, is hardly himself.
James Garfield had first listened to his body’s conversation while working on a riverboat he’d hoped would take him to the sea. Fever struck him into uselessness within his first week. His angry captain confined him to his quarters. In bed he sank into the sealed spaces of himself, listening to packed-together voices whirl and dissipate like tavern-smoke. Only he could hear them: hungry fish and horses who with cozy bitterness discussed man’s education and appetite, and the preposterous consequences of their combination. As a volunteer minister, the speakers changed — as they would with every era of his life — and when his outside-self delivered sermons, he learned to listen closely to the raw materials of monuments that had yet to be built, great stores of brick and stone and brass who hollered, arguing about the identity of the past, some contending that it was indistinguishable from the present, others, the future. During the war he entered his body’s conversation the moment he donned his officer’s uniform. His outside-self ordered reports, missions, and attacks, while he listened to clods of crumbling dirt and well-polished clock-faces civilly agree upon the proper attitude to take toward man’s bodily functions, the functions discussed one by one, in detail.
Always had James Garfield only ever listened, never seeking to add his voice to the speakers’. In this way he remained outside his body’s conversation, despite its being in him.
Sometimes, between the shifting of speakers and subjects, this distance worried him.
The rest of the time — most of the time — he believed its effects to be enlightening.
James Garfield and his political allies arrived at the train depot. Black engines hissed and belched. Soot swirled, sticking to corners, hats, and gloves.
A well-to-do crowd of gentlemen, ladies, and porters, unimpressed by the president’s appearance but compelled by the power of his walk, parted into two groups, presenting him with a path. They murmured to one another in wonderment.
Man is mostly never man, corrected the Latin. This is why the task of being man is worthy of a life’s work.
A drunken gentleman who had not voted for James Garfield cheerfully revealed his opposition by shouting and swinging his cane.
Why must you laugh, said the Latin, irritated.
The Greek said, Tell me: where is the baby when man is mostly man, and where is the man when man is mostly baby?
Charles Guiteau, a starved-looking clerk, stepped forward in a gigantic stinking coat of the kind most commonly worn by the civil service’s lowest-ranking employees. He held a revolver in such a way that it seemed he had already used it to shoot James Garfield twice. He shot James Garfield twice.
The first bullet called out madly for the second. It ripped a red furrow across James Garfield’s arm.
The second, having heard the first, called out as madly in response. It dove through James Garfield’s back and into the density of his abdomen.
“What is this?” asked James Garfield, having heard the bullets’ cries.
Charles Guiteau hopped about and screamed divisive partisan statements. Although these statements contained identifiable emotions — rage, fear, and horror — the words themselves were unclear, and in the minds of the crowd-members they took up varied mantles of meaning. As each witness helped to co-create this event’s significance, Charles Guiteau leapt into the cab he had hired ahead of time. The driver took him to jail.
The second bullet said, Where have you — our promise!
The first, lodged in the drunken gentleman’s cane, said nothing. It had smashed its head.
State your promise, said the Latin to the bullet, and at the same time, the Greek said, Your promise?
The crowd continued to reframe retellings of what had happened as it happened.
The political allies carried James Garfield to Whitehouse. Whitehouse said nothing. It disapproved of the commotion.
Come, sit, eat, said the Greek, and at the same time, the Latin said, Show yourself.
The bullet hid behind the pancreas.
Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss, lately come from the experimental autopsy of four gunshot beef-cows, stuck his fingers into James Garfield’s abdomen.
His fingers said, Where are you, bullet?
Everything inside was quiet.
Here? said the fingers, hooking.
James Garfield screamed.
The terrified bullet made for the kidneys.
The Greek said, Bullet: more important than where you are is what you intend to be. Tell us, what do you intend to be?
Here, said the bullet.
The fingers plunged — they wormed and dug and scooped. James Garfield fainted. A black silence fell like a roof.
Do not worry, whispered the Greek.
James Garfield came to, saying, “Worry is my work.”
“Not anymore,” said Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss.
Alexander Graham Bell, opening a large case, heard this and began to cry.
Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss blushed. He added, “What I mean is, leave the worrying to me.”
Alexander Graham Bell, crying, crouched before James Garfield. He held one end of his most recent invention, the induction balance, to James Garfield’s abdomen. Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss held the other end of the induction balance to his ear and said, “Turn it on.”
The induction balance sang, Is not here/ superior to there?
The bullet scurried back to the pancreas and crawled inside.
The induction balance sang, Is not where/ superior to why?
The metal springs in the sick bed boo-hooed, Take me!
James Garfield had heard everything. He was as inside his body as he was outside it, listening deeply to both ends of being.
It became very hot. Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss ordered engineers to invent air conditioning. They did.
Ask now, said the Latin.
The Greek said, What do you intend to become?
The bullet pretended it hadn’t heard them.
Its terror has turned to grief, said the Greek.
The Latin said, To sulking.
The bullet sulked inside the pancreas.
Lucretia Garfield, James Garfield’s wife, knelt by his side. She kissed his shaking hands.
Gangrenous pus welled up from James Garfield’s wound. The pus wept, then died.
James Garfield, a man of many pounds, shed them. As they left, his body’s conversation moved to smaller spaces, from a dining hall to a parlor to a wardrobe, locked.
The Greek said, The bullet is more baby than man.
James Garfield’s political allies visited. Each tried to determine to what degree their president wished for them to be sympathetic or grave or jovial.
The newspapers said, All hearts beat with the Garfields.
In Virginia, the drunken gentleman with the cane drank himself into believing that he had voted for James Garfield.
Lucretia Garfield, kissing James Garfield’s shrinking hands, looked as she did when she had been his student, when he was not sure if he should marry her, when his prolonged internal indecision had broken both their hearts.
“What have you just now remembered?” said Lucretia Garfield, watching him watch her.
Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss prescribed the sea.
The newspapers said, “Engineers build railroad spur to Garfield beachhouse.”
James Garfield was transported like a box of gems to New Jersey.
“I have remembered you,” he said, as Lucretia Garfield opened windows to welcome healthy breezes.
The bullet wailed, But remember that I have no say in what I become!
“You hear me,” said James Garfield, dazzled.
You house us, said the Greek.
An honor, said the Latin.
The bullet whimpered, Neither do you.
Lucretia Garfield said, “I do.”
“The honor is mine.”
Tell us your view, said the Greek, for I contend that man, though he may not work to be man, is man nonetheless.
Lucretia Garfield said, “Don’t.”
And I contend that man must work to be man, said the Latin.
James Garfield answered, “The work is done.”
From the beginning, said the Greek, and at the same time, the Latin said, Only now.
Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. His work appears in Unsaid, Kenyon Review Online, Post Road, Artifice, Harper Perennial’s Forty Stories, and other places.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.