A Presidential Reception
by Michael Shammas
â€œWelcome, Mr. President,â€ 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. â€œWould you like to see your office, President Johnson?â€ he asked, glaring at the reporters who lined the hallway. â€œIn private.â€
â€œIâ€™d love that.â€
They walked in and the agent shut the thick sound-proof door tightly. Matthew sat at the fabled desk in the roomâ€™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 heâ€™d been bullied endlessly. He clutched the slip of paper in his pocket that he always carried with him, the one heâ€™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. â€œWell fellas, I assume youâ€™re Secret Service?â€
One of them stood and glared at him blankly. â€œSign this.â€ The agent set a piece of paper down on his desk.
â€œWhatâ€™s it for?â€ He couldnâ€™t make out the writingâ€”extremely small font, yet it filled an entire page.
Surely this wasnâ€™t normal protocol. â€œIâ€™m sorry sir, but I wonâ€™t sign anything until I read it.â€ He felt a headache take hold.
Another man, the one whoâ€™d let him in, stood. â€œJust sign it. Itâ€™ll make it easier for all of us. Trust me.â€ He breathed in sharply, as if he were frustrated. â€œYour signature lets us do what we need to do toâ€¦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?â€
Who were these people? He wasnâ€™t about to grant them completely unsupervised power. He had a bad feeling about it all. Very bad. â€œIâ€™m leaving, gentlemen,â€ he said, trying to sound official. He rose and paced towards the door. â€œI need to consult my advisors before I can make a decision.â€
An agent blocked the door. â€œNo.â€ He clutched a pistol in his left hand.
â€œNo?â€ Matthewâ€™s heart beat faster. â€œOpen the door. Thatâ€™s an order.â€
â€œNow listen here you little bitch,â€ said the one whoâ€™d first let him in. â€œI never liked you much in the first place. You want to know what happens to the pricks who donâ€™t sign the paper?â€ He pointed to the television next to the desk. â€œBobby, switch the TV on.â€
The monitor erupted into life with a video of the Kennedy assassination. â€œMy God,â€ Matthew mumbled as the gun cracked, as the poor manâ€™s brains erupted from his skull. His hands shook. This didnâ€™t make any sense; the president called all the shots. Right?
He relaxed as Jim walked in, shutting the door tightly behind him. â€œThe vice president is here,â€ Matthew said to no one in particular, feigning calm. â€œJim, I need your advice on something.â€
â€œShut the fuck up.â€ Jim gazed at him like never before, like an animal. He turned to the first agent heâ€™d met. â€œSteve, this pussyâ€™s giving you trouble? Just point a gun at him. Heâ€™ll sign it then. Trust me. I know this fucker better than I know my own wife.â€
Steve clutched the presidentâ€™s hair and pushed a pistol against his forehead. The gunâ€™s metal tip felt cold, hard, merciless. Fear seized the presidentâ€™s mind. He could hardly think. â€œPlease, let me see my kids. Let meâ€¦itâ€™s an order! Let me out of here.â€ His legs gave way, but he did not fall to the floor. Steve gripped his hair too firmly.
â€œFuck you,â€ someone said to him. Jim. â€œJust strangle him. Weâ€™ll tell the press he died of a heart attack, run a rigged autopsy, you know, the usual.â€
â€œWhy donâ€™t we shoot him?â€ Steve said, pushing the pistol against his skull more forcefully. â€œItâ€™s easier.â€
â€œBecause thatâ€™s too obvious if they see a fucking hole in his head, you moron.â€ Jimâ€”the vice presidentâ€”walked towards Matthew. â€œForget it, Iâ€™ll do it myself.â€
Matthewâ€™s head spun. He closed his eyes, as if that would change it all. The respect heâ€™d cherished his whole life for Americanâ€™s politiciansâ€¦gone. Appearance versus realityâ€”hadnâ€™t Machiavelli said it? Why hadnâ€™t he listened? Jim had played him. They all had.
A tightness encircled his throat like a viper. Jimâ€™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 heâ€™d counted a friend, utterly confused. Absurd, all of it.
Iâ€™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 Jimâ€™s iron grip. He thought of his children, the girls, so beautiful. His wife. Sheâ€™d been the only reason heâ€™d kept fighting during that horrible campaign, hadnâ€™t she?
He even thought of his fatherâ€”the good times when he hadnâ€™t been beating him. Sitting on the porch playing chess, picking strawberries in the field, the juicy ones that looked like theyâ€™d burst any instant.
Through a haze he saw the TV. It was set to CNN. The words â€˜Breaking Newsâ€™ flashed across the screen. A newsman materialized, wearing a sad expression.
â€œUnnamed sources tell us that President Johnson has just died of a heart attack. Vice President Jim Lofton released a statement minutes ago calling President Johnsonâ€™s death â€˜tragicâ€™ while insisting heâ€™ll try to â€˜live up to the great burden the American people have givenâ€™ himâ€¦â€
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, sharpâ€¦
And then there was nothing.
A Presidential Reception