A Presidential Reception

A Presidential Reception
by Michael Shammas
“Welcome, Mr. President,” said the doorman.
Matthew nodded. Mr. President. Even after a full day the title still felt strange. He walked through the hallway towards the Oval Office. When he reached the door a broad-shouldered Secret Service agent shook his hand. “Would you like to see your office, President Johnson?” he asked, glaring at the reporters who lined the hallway. “In private.”
“I’d love that.”
They walked in and the agent shut the thick sound-proof door tightly. Matthew sat at the fabled desk in the room’s center. His desk. He ran his hand over the smooth wood. Surreal.
For a long moment he gazed down at his new workplace, thinking of his Italian parents, dead now, of his childhood in South Carolina, of how he’d been bullied endlessly. He clutched the slip of paper in his pocket that he always carried with him, the one he’d scribbled the Gandhi quote on: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
For the first time in a long while, he smiled.
Matthew looked up. Five dark-suited men sat at the chairs in his office. “Well fellas, I assume you’re Secret Service?”
One of them stood and glared at him blankly. “Sign this.” The agent set a piece of paper down on his desk.
“What’s it for?” He couldn’t make out the writing—extremely small font, yet it filled an entire page.
“Sign it.”
Surely this wasn’t normal protocol. “I’m sorry sir, but I won’t sign anything until I read it.” He felt a headache take hold.
Another man, the one who’d let him in, stood. “Just sign it. It’ll make it easier for all of us. Trust me.” He breathed in sharply, as if he were frustrated. “Your signature lets us do what we need to do to…protect the American people. Without having to go through Congress or anyone else first. It slows us down, President Johnson, everyone watching us like vultures, you know?”
Who were these people? He wasn’t about to grant them completely unsupervised power. He had a bad feeling about it all. Very bad. “I’m leaving, gentlemen,” he said, trying to sound official. He rose and paced towards the door. “I need to consult my advisors before I can make a decision.”
An agent blocked the door. “No.” He clutched a pistol in his left hand.
“No?” Matthew’s heart beat faster. “Open the door. That’s an order.”
“Now listen here you little bitch,” said the one who’d first let him in. “I never liked you much in the first place. You want to know what happens to the pricks who don’t sign the paper?” He pointed to the television next to the desk. “Bobby, switch the TV on.”
The monitor erupted into life with a video of the Kennedy assassination. “My God,” Matthew mumbled as the gun cracked, as the poor man’s brains erupted from his skull. His hands shook. This didn’t make any sense; the president called all the shots. Right?
He relaxed as Jim walked in, shutting the door tightly behind him. “The vice president is here,” Matthew said to no one in particular, feigning calm. “Jim, I need your advice on something.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Jim gazed at him like never before, like an animal. He turned to the first agent he’d met. “Steve, this pussy’s giving you trouble? Just point a gun at him. He’ll sign it then. Trust me. I know this fucker better than I know my own wife.”
Steve clutched the president’s hair and pushed a pistol against his forehead. The gun’s metal tip felt cold, hard, merciless. Fear seized the president’s mind. He could hardly think. “Please, let me see my kids. Let me…it’s an order! Let me out of here.” His legs gave way, but he did not fall to the floor. Steve gripped his hair too firmly.
“Fuck you,” someone said to him. Jim. “Just strangle him. We’ll tell the press he died of a heart attack, run a rigged autopsy, you know, the usual.”
“Why don’t we shoot him?” Steve said, pushing the pistol against his skull more forcefully. “It’s easier.”
“Because that’s too obvious if they see a fucking hole in his head, you moron.” Jim—the vice president—walked towards Matthew. “Forget it, I’ll do it myself.”
Matthew’s head spun. He closed his eyes, as if that would change it all. The respect he’d cherished his whole life for American’s politicians…gone. Appearance versus reality—hadn’t Machiavelli said it? Why hadn’t he listened? Jim had played him. They all had.
A tightness encircled his throat like a viper. Jim’s clear blue eyes filled his vision; they hid a hunger within, a deep desire for power, firm and endless. Matthew should have seen it in those sharp eyes long, long ago.
The words flashed through his head: E tu, Brutus. He stared blankly at the man he’d counted a friend, utterly confused. Absurd, all of it.
I’ve done the right thing though, Matthew thought, and that is all that matters. For a moment he flailed his arms, struggled to get out of Jim’s iron grip. He thought of his children, the girls, so beautiful. His wife. She’d been the only reason he’d kept fighting during that horrible campaign, hadn’t she?
He even thought of his father—the good times when he hadn’t been beating him. Sitting on the porch playing chess, picking strawberries in the field, the juicy ones that looked like they’d burst any instant.
Through a haze he saw the TV. It was set to CNN. The words ‘Breaking News’ flashed across the screen. A newsman materialized, wearing a sad expression.
“Unnamed sources tell us that President Johnson has just died of a heart attack. Vice President Jim Lofton released a statement minutes ago calling President Johnson’s death ‘tragic’ while insisting he’ll try to ‘live up to the great burden the American people have given’ him…”
Matthew twitched. He felt like a kid in the schoolyard again, except now the bullies had won after all. His body shook in one last desperate try for life. His lungs exploded with a hot stabbing pain, heavy and tight and sharp, sharp, sharp…
And then there was nothing.

0 thoughts on “A Presidential Reception

  1. The greater fear for me is that there is no conspiracy. No great cabal of nefarious men running the show. It keeps me up at night to think there is no competent hand manipulating the masses I wade through daily. The idea that this is all real and consequences of choices can have unmitigated effects on my life, that’s frightening.
    No, I prefer to have a secret control standing in the gap moderating the whims of ideologues and would-be tyrants. It comforts me.

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