A Speculative Fiction in which General George Washington is recalled to Duty, Against his Will, to answer the Challenge of a Tyrant
A few days before his first death, George Washington allowed himself one last mistake. A whiskey still had broken at the far end of one of his properties, compelling him to set forth before dawn in snow and sleet to oversee its repair. The storm grew stronger the farther he ventured, but he paid it little mind. He shooed away a boy dispatched by Martha bearing a heavier cloak and, upon his return to Mt. Vernon, he failed to change from his wet field clothes. He had not wished to keep his luncheon guests from their repast even if the boiled beef and peach preserves burned his throat as he washed them back with three tall glasses of claret.
A few days later he understood that he had fatally cut short that retreat from public life he had so long desired. The more the doctors fumbled the more apparent his mistake became. They bled him a dozen times and still his condition worsened. But Washington felt no bitterness. He considered himself a man with a debt of time to the Creator. When reflecting back on the darkest days of the Revolution he had often said that he and his comrades had fought “with halters about their necks.” He had been plagued with a vision of himself, his general’s coat stripped down to his waist, a rough noose slipped over his head. The sting, not of losing his life, but of exiting this world dishonorably — that was what he feared most. He could very well have ended that way.
But now, on December fourteen, the year of Our Lord seventeen hundred and ninety-nine, he sensed his real and noble end. His chest rose perceptibly less with each breath. At the last moment he placed his left hand over his right wrist and felt his pulse slip away. A whorl opened at the foot of his bed drawing him out into the benign Light of Eternity. It was good and it was right.
Which was why what was to follow was so disquieting.
Tonnelly paced the corridor outside the ICU that had been installed in the Mt. Vernon parlor room and realized that until now he had never once visited Washington’s home. Two things struck the visitor. First the expansiveness of the grounds, the clearly expressed love of open spaces that drew the eye toward long, pre-framed vistas; second the relatively diminutive size of the house itself. Which was odd given its owner. Washington was not a small man. If they ever got him upright he would tower over Tonnelly. Cardiology had filed their report — his heart though 67 years old was strong and vital. Had Washington been born in the 20th century he would have lived to be one of those centenarians who hoofed it to work and kept a weekend tennis date. But Gerontology had confirmed that this was not to be Washington’s fate in the modern era. The malaria he’d contracted in his youth was still with him and the associated infections over a lifetime of stress had perforated him throughout.
“Can we get eight years out of him?” Tonnelly had asked.
“If he is completely free from stress, possibly,” they’d said.
“What about four intensely stressful ones?”
“You can have two of those.”
Two. Two would be enough.
“Mr. Tonnelly,” the nurse from Transition broke in. “We’re seeing something on the scans.”
“He’s there. But we’re not sure if it’s all of him.”
“I’ll come right away.”
The approaching light had beckoned to Washington so invitingly and so inevitably. He could feel himself stepping through without stepping. There was no return from this. Congress would not call him back to horse as they had during his second term to do battle with that mob of drunks in the Pennsylvania hills. This was true rest at last.
And yet it was not. Midway through what he perceived as the welcome disintegration of his physical form, he felt the fibers that had constituted his mortal self, reweaving. The light which had bathed him so completely receded like the waters of the Potomac after the passing of a high tide. And like that ebbing he’d witnessed so many times it left a fetid muck to contemplate. His muck. Bestial. The thumb still held to his wrist felt his pulse quicken, rushing ahead at first but then slowly leveling out to the 55 beats per minute that was its salubrious norm.
The darkness which had seemed so warm and welcoming now felt close and humid and he was all at once desperate to flee it. He came to perceive a modest kinetic ability. With one of the greatest efforts he had ever expended, an effort that brought to mind the myth of his strapping father, Augustine, singlehandedly lifting the axle of a broken wagon, he lifted, lifted as if pressing a thousand stone upward. This great effort was General George Washington opening his eyes and taking in the world anew.
The decision to pursue a third term had been reached midway through the Tyrant’s pursuit of his first. It could be said that the pursuit of any term at all had been motivated by his desire to do away with terms altogether. The Tyrant did not abide limits. His first nanny’s “rule” about “no seconds” at meal times for example. Oh, excuse me, he would have seconds. And his nanny would not. She was gone within the month.
And so during his first term it occurred to him that those who opposed him had been right to question the election results. They had sensed something within him that even he had not fully realized. The idea of terms would be abolished. The pair of old men and witless younger idiots who had challenged him in his first reelection bid would be no match for an another go around. All the levers of a system that the unique privilege of incumbency blessed — he would use them all and accede to a higher level. The highest! A level beyond any previous president save one. And that one, lost to history — a history whose terms he could now dictate — he could make fade away as well. Indeed, it was that earlier president’s famous example that had established the precedent of a limit of two.
The Tyrant would break that limit. To even acknowledge it would be to open a subject which he had long ago banished from his mind — the limit of his own life. This, too, he found to be a matter worth questioning. Wasn’t that also up for debate? The National Institutes of Health, the CDC, the NSF, they were basically his. Should they not be repurposed to meet his needs? Weren’t his interests in some way also common interests? Who in America did not want to solve colorectal cancer, or to banish, say, arterial plaque, to the dustbin of history? His body would be the first to receive the most advanced treatments and this would be to the benefit of all Americans. This was something Americans would learn. Just as they had learned the value of the way he named things. Once they had mocked his habit of affixing his name to so many buildings and institutions. But what everyone came to understand was that when he named something he had done a service. “I have identified this (park, building, highway, emergency bailout check) as something I want. And because I want it, it must be good. And because I myself am good — the best, really — this thing I wanted and have claimed and have named for myself has also become good.” Actually, it was a helpful short cut he was providing to the public — a service that enabled people to discern the excellent from the just so-so.
Tonnelly and Eleanor Van der Kamp walked down the long corridor that led to the provisional ICU.
“How do we address him?” Van der Kamp asked, “Is it ‘General Washington’? ‘Your Excellency?’ I’ve heard he preferred ‘General’.”
“You should call him Mr. President. That’s the standard now and that’s the standard we want him to accept. It’s important that he feel committed to this time. He needs to understand that the past is the past. And that his country needs him. Again. Now.”
“I’d read that he was tired of his country’s needs. That he was happy to leave public life.”
“That’s true,” Tonnelly affirmed, “But it’s also true that he believed in duty. It’s our job to let him know, unfortunately, that his decision to step down was premature. He needs to feel as if his work remains incomplete. No one succeeds in politics when it’s practiced half-heartedly.”
“In my experience,” Van der Kamp said, “half-heartedness is its own condition. It can be as hard to shake as political ambition.”
“That’s a point you could have made when we started all this.”
“I only mean that, well, that any second thoughts on his part could affect the . . .optics. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last eight years it’s that seeing is more powerful than believing.”
“Which is why he needs to feel comfortable in this time. His discomfort will read as unbelievable to others.”
“Well, let’s get to it, then.”
Washington was alert but lost in thought when Tonnelly and Van der Kamp slipped into the ICU. An oxygen tube hissed underneath his nose obscuring the famous profile, but he was undoubtedly Him. Washington took note of the pair and from long experience recognized them for what they were: political people, learned in the grooming of leadership but with no inner character to lead. These sorts of people exhausted Washington. They were exactly the kinds of people he had sought to leave behind when he’d retired to Mount Vernon. And yet here they were again. With a lift of his chin and a narrowing of his eyes, he efficiently communicated to them where they should sit and the degree of deference they should afford him.
“If I am to understand matters, correctly,” Washington began, “I find myself situated not within the boundaries of my native chronology.”
His voice struck both Tonnelly and Van der Kamp as something both immediate and ancient. They were the only living people to hear what Washington actually sounded like. His voice was surprisingly high and reedy. His accent lightly British, reminding Van der Kamp of the way people sounded in Cornwall during a vacation she’d taken with her ex-husband. But it was his presence that resonated more than his voice — a natural reticence that left the listener desperate for more words.
“I think,” Tonnelly began, “you have grasped the situation accordingly.”
“And furthermore,” Washington continued, “I owe my presence here to a great danger that has befallen the Republic. And finally, in matters that you shall make clear presently, it has been concluded that in my person is seen an honorable exit from this present danger.”
“Well said, Your Excellency,” Tonnelly heard himself declare.
Toadies, all of them, thought Washington. Past, present, and future.
“And what,” Washington asked now siting up in his bed and realizing that without his powder and the dress he’d so carefully curated in his former life that his appearance to his interlocutors must be that of a man quite old, “what is the nature of the present threat that now endangers these lands? Has a Tyrant arisen?”
“He has, Your Excellency.”
“As we prefigured,” Washington noted to the distance. “Have none of the brakes I and my contemporaries fashioned been of service?”
“They were momentarily useful but. . . “
“As I had warned.”
“Of course. But I suppose that opinion has been suppressed.”
“No matter,” Washington concluded. “Whatever process you have employed to transport my person hither has fatigued me. I suspect I shall require a period of convalescence before I can prove myself of a value commensurate with your labors. Therefore, I should like to engender that convalescence with good and honest labor. I ask only that you provide your poor servant with the necessary instruments to further your cause.”
“Tell us how we can be of help.”
“I should like to know your Tyrant. Both how he himself perceives his own abilities and how others of his society thusly consider them. I should also require some summation of the years between these present times and those that lately were heavily upon my mind at Mount Vernon. These things I require to serve you further.”
“We’ll get you everything you need. And we’ll leave you now. But to your first request, why don’t you begin with this — this is how he imagines himself.” Here Tonnelly took a book from his satchel and lay it on Washington’s hospital tray.
“The Art of the Deal,” Washington pronounced slowly with a trace, Tonnelly thought, of positive appraisal. “Coarse. But well titled, nevertheless.”
Chapter the Second, in which General Washington reacquaints himself with his Country while fashioning a Plan to defeat the Tyrant
The doctors on the Transition team had warned that the shock of travel to the present time might prove fatal to Washington. But in truth all the “literature” on the subject was science fiction. No one had ever before adapted an actual time traveler to a chronology outside his previous experience.
In truth the General was remarkably unimpressed by the transformations that had occurred since his first two administrations. He had passed over and touched eternity and seemed to know intuitively that the physical world was at its root insubstantial. And so his daily sojourns from Mt. Vernon with Van der Kamp, tentative at first, became more and more wide ranging.
“This carriage. . .” Washington asked when stepping into Van der Kamp’s forest-green Subaru for the first time. “I presume a great many in the country aare purposed towards its manufacture?”
“This one is actually Japanese,” Van der Kamp answered, “but you’re right; automobiles are as American as apple pie.”
Washington considered the expression, wondered what it was about apples in pastry that qualified as American but dismissed it to focus on matters more relevant.
“It is as Hamilton foresaw — a nation of metal tinkerers held in thrall to money lenders.”
Later, when the Delta Shuttle passed overhead, he barely raised an eyebrow, “It hastens toward New York, I presume?”
“That City has always devised such machinations to draw the population thence.”
“It’s true,” Van der Kamp confessed, “I’ve wanted to live in New York my whole life.”
“I have never shared your sentiments, my dear. On occasion I have pondered whether its defense in ’76 merited such loss of life. It is a base and thankless place.”
“It’s where your opponent was born and raised, you know.”
“Yes, I have gathered that from his treatise on . . .” and here Washington screwed up his eyes as if smelling an un-mucked stable, “‘deals.’ It is I believe a synecdochal part of his character.”
“A device of the poets, my dear. A part that expresses the whole,” and here Washington began another of his famous silences. A silence that made the listener want hear more. More!
He did not think to speak again until they circled the Jefferson Memorial. He glimpsed the old Virginian’s visage within and his lips curled ironically upward in recognition.
“Is that my good friend Thomas so handsomely memorialized within?”
“It is,” Van der Kamp answered.
“How he would have treasured this. And may I ask which from our other august company has such an edifice dedicated to his memory.”
“The 19th president. Lincoln. He has one.”
“Has he? Am I to assume that Nineteen delivered to the nation a declaration as notable as young Thomas’s?”
“Of a sort,” said Van der Kamp. “He served during a time of civil war.”
Washington’s face clouded over and he sucked at his cheek in the first ungainly gesture Van Der Kamp had witnessed since his awakening. His hand trembled slightly as he brought a handkerchief to his brow and daubed off a bead of perspiration.
“Slavery was, no doubt, its cause.”
Silence. Washington lost himself in thought once more, tilting his head from side to side as if arguing two points of a single argument.
“You have one too, you know?” Van der Kamp said after some time.
“One what, my dear?” Washington said at last.
“I assumed as much.”
“Would you like to see it?”
“I confess that my curiosity is piqued.”
“It’s just this way.” Van der Kamp merged onto Connecticut Avenue and moved along one of the failed boulevards that L’Enfant and Jefferson had planned so long ago when they’d imagined a kind of Paris. Turning off D the monument dedicated to the man riding shotgun rose up. Straight and white cleaving the bright blue spring sky with its surprising emphasis.
“Oh dear,” Washington whispered followed by one word spoken, for some reason in French. “Pouvoir.”
The War Room, such that it was, assembled per the whim of the Tyrant at 11:30 to take stock of the field as they had four years earlier. And in the same chaotic way he flitted from person to person asking their opinions on who might offer a legitimate challenge.
“Joey boy looks as if he’ll try again,” one of his staff ventured but there were only titters at the thought of it.
“Our lady of Massachusetts?” the aid threw out just for laughs. “Our friend in Vermont?”
“Cardiovascular again. Stroke.”
“So that’s that.”
The Tyrant rubbed his hands together as he always did when he found he’d proved his efficiency.
“That’s that,” ventured Paul Manafort, his pardon still hanging lightly on his spring linen. “But there’s something sneaking around on their side. They’re quieter than I’d like.”
“Everybody’s quiet when they’ve gotten the shit kicked out of them,” said the Tyrant.
“Yes, that goes without saying,” said Manafort buffing a cufflink with his thumb. “But there’s something in the silence and it bothers me that we can’t see around the corner.”
“Bullshit,” the Tyrant’s national security advisor interposed, his own still-moist pardon seeming to bleach dry in the shaft of sunlight that had suddenly pieced the situation room. “Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida all signed onto the Elections Security Pact, we see their returns before certifying.”
“It’s true,” the Vice President interjected, “they’d need the all of the Southwest and then some to pull it off. Those are all solidly in our column.”
“Solidly, but not in the Pact,” ventured Manafort.
“Blame that on your lawyer,” the Vice President noted.
“Couldn’t force them in,” the Attorney General mumbled into his crotch. “Wouldn’t be legal.”
Here Manafort put out his level hand as if to plane down the world with his thoughts.
“Gentlemen. I’d ask you to listen for a moment. Listen and think. The only way for forward for them is to reframe and redirect much in the way we did eight years ago. And the guy who knows that best is Robert Tonnelly. Word is he’s just opened a campaign office on K Street. No one has said why but I don’t like it. I know the guy. Known him for years. Very good. Out-of-the-box thinker. Don’t expect a pussyfoot also-ran move from the likes of Robert Tonnelly. He wouldn’t be playing if he didn’t think he could win.
“What can we expect from him then?”
“Something surprising. Surprising but inevitable.”
When his strength had begun to return, Washington was moved into Washington proper. He was given a suite of rooms at the Hay-Adams Hotel, a track suit, and a set of elastic bands of different colors. A slender, energetic woman called Elise had been instructed to run her patient through the standard rehabilitation program for post-hospital seniors. But Mr. Rochambeau, as she was instructed to call her charge, was like no senior she’d treated before. He had strong sinewy muscles, and he easily graduated from the yellow bands past green and well into red. As she ran him through the leg strengthening routines and watched him prance from foot-to-foot she sensed a long-hidden grace. He must have been a hell of a dancer, she laughed to herself.
Washington, meanwhile, took a great curiosity in his treatment testing the rubber between his fingers as if it were fine silk. He made fun of the tiny barbells provided to him to address the necessity of what Miss Elise called “building muscle mass.”
“So, what brought you to Washington, Mr. Rochamebeau?” Elise asked him during their second session as they moved from legs to core. Washington averted his eyes and concentrated on the smooth floorboards of the exercise studio. The only element of this new time that took him aback was the easily available view of the female figure. In the entirety of his former life he had intimately known only one woman and that woman had been exceptionally modest. This Elise, though, stood before him without the slightest hint of shame clothed in a sort of black silk stocking that encased not just legs but the entirety of her torso. Her posterior and bosom were set in the most pronounced bas-relief like something from the statuary of ancient Greece.
“From whence do I seem?” Washington found himself coquetting.
“I assure you I am quite American. What conveys to you the impression of Great Britain’s provenance?”
“I don’t know too many people who can use ‘provenance’ in a sentence.”
“I suppose the national expression has drifted considerably since my earlier experiences. My idiom must per force of that drift be closer to that of a less proximate shore.”
“Pardon me,” Washington demurred. “What I meant to say was that, in a way, I was born English and later made myself American.”
“And where do you feel more comfortable, there or here?”
“There. Most definitely there I’m sorry to say.”
“You’re sweet,” Elise said. “Now Mr. R. I like what you’d doing with that shoulder roll, but what I need you to do is keep your back straight and just kinda pinch your butt cheeks together. That way you’ll get resistance across those glutes up into the abs. You feel that?” Here she placed a hand on Washington’s stomach and then extended his arm with her own while pushing her pubis against the back of his loins. He felt the warm breath of young life on the nape of his neck and smelled something florid, like fresh spring coming off her hair and was surprised to feel a youthful uncoiling.
“Perhaps, Miss Elise, I was a little rash in issuing my earlier condemnation,” he told his trainer. “Perhaps given a choice of there or here I should come to see here as possessing of merit equal to those merits which habit had formerly endeared me to that land and time which is intertwined with my earlier experience.”
“Sure,” Elise agreed. “I think you’ll get used to it. And I hear Mr. Tonnelly has a really good job lined up for you.”
It was already May by the time Tonnelly revealed his strategy for the coming campaign. Washington agreed to the essential beats of the plan. But he found much to fault in the present electoral system and remained fixated on those deficits. First and foremost among Washington’s objections was a firm belief that the enfranchisement granted to the population at large made little sense and was in fact the precise factor which had in Washington’s words, “so efficiently installed your Tyrant.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Tonnelly noted politely, “but that is the system we have to work with if we are to…”
“Yes, yes, expel the Tyrant.”
Washington also took great issue with the very nature of political parties. He found the so-called “Democratic Party Platform” lacking in many ways and was inconsistent with the qualities of good character.
“Nevertheless. . .”
“Yes, yes, always nevertheless,” Washington cut him short. “Have you read Mr. Hamilton’s most excellent pamphlet on partisanship?” Washington asked him after a pause. “Have you people learned nothing from the font of wisdom that sprang from that fine mind? All of this was foreseen, laid out for you . . . that poor man’s selfless gift to posterity. Are all of you as cowardly as this Tyrant who now presides over you? No wonder he rules with such ease. You have arranged to substitute character with self-interest, a grocer’s list of wheedling desires instead of a course guided by moral compass.”
“Guilty as charged,” Tonnelly replied.
“We must therefore lay bare the base nature of the Tyrant’s character.”
“We’ve done that already. A million times over.”
“How so? By what means?”
“Well, on numerous occasions the press has . . .”
“The press? They are a mob of idle pamphleteers.”
“You’re sounding uncannily like your opponent.”
“That he has acceded to office through the Will of the People even in their degraded state is no small matter. And I could venture that his winning of laurels rests upon his ability forthwith to obviate these pamphleteers to which you are in such thrall.”
“Again some truth there.”
“Mr. Tonnelly,” Washington said his voice grown suddenly austere — a lone fife piping across a field, “I presume you have never had to undertake the slaying of another man?”
“And you have never served your country on a field of battle?”
“I have not.”
Here Washington appraised Tonnelly with a palpable whiff of disappointment.
“This, Mr. Tonnelly, is entirely self-evident.”
Another, longer pause.
“I am loathe to impose on you, Sir, scenes of bloody murder that inevitably plague the mind of a Man of Action. Scenes that would break apart a tender, civilian mind such as your own. But I fear you lack an understanding of this most base and, at the same time, most noble of human actions.”
“Are you saying I need to shoot someone to finish my political education?”
Washington held his hand up, an unquestionable gesture which would have effectively silenced a room for 100 yards in every direction. “I have only this day in the reading Miss Van der Kamp left for me learned of . . .” and here Washington paused, his eyes growing moist. “I have learned that my dear friend Mr. Hamilton allowed himself to be slain in an insipid duel with a man I can only describe as a dandy. It was most troubling. I have always stood opposed to dueling. I never once regarded it as befitting of a gentleman. And I am of the opinion that many of your troubles today can be traced to untimely the loss of that great man. Mr. Hamilton’s heart was a moral force upon this country, which he loved, above all things. His will, had it been allowed to exercise itself in the Highest Office might have perchance even healed these divisions that so wickedly divide the Republic. Nay it’s possible that your 19th president, that frontier lawyer, Mr. Blinkholm, or however he was called — he might not have even been necessary had Hamilton sat in my chair in years that post-ceded me and did away with the Republic’s most loathsome vice.”
“I’m not sure I’m grasping your point Gen . . .”
“My aim, Mr. Tonnelly, is to reveal to you the importance of Character in the face of death. I have read many things about your Tyrant. I have read about the call to military service which he so effectively obviated in the year nineteen hundred and sixty-eight, through something your physicians called ‘bone spurs.’”
“Yes, everyone knows that. But no one cares.”
“They do not care because they no longer sense the vital communication between character and action. For this, my good friend Mr. Hamilton gave his life. And even though I so vehemently oppose the practice of dueling I cannot dismiss good Alexander’s decision in his unfortunate case. His was a conflict that concerned honor. And here the principles of the heart guided him correctly.”
“The heart, Sir. To persuade and cajole the slothful character that is common to most men toward purposeful action requires a leader to speak directly to the heart, without the interpolation of lesser hearts. Cream, Sir, rises of its own nature to the barrel’s brim. The People, when given opportunity, will hasten to skim it off.”
Chapter the Third, in which General Washington pleads his Case to lead the Democratic Faction against the Tyrant
Washington departed Washington for New York on the Amtrak regional with no small amount of trepidation. New York had been the site of his most embarrassing defeat back in ’76. That it had been chosen to house the Democratic National Convention in this dark year struck him as no small irony. At the first opportunity he strayed from Tonnelly, wending his way to the dining car where he found a table large enough to accommodate the volume of correspondence he wished to relay to Tonnelly’s staff. He ordered a circular piece of bread pierced by a hole and had the attendant adhere a paste-like substance across its surface. This together with a cup of tea (two bags please) made for a pleasant repast as the battlefields of his earlier campaigns strobed past him, far faster than they ever did atop his most valiant charger. Just past the border crossing he saw a sign informing him that “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” Though he failed to grasp the context he found it strangely applicable to his own feelings. Here in New Jersey he had made and made and made and his country had taken and taken and taken. He had made the Revolution stand on two feet at Trenton when he stole across the Delaware (a watercourse the Amtrak had forded in the blink of an eye). Ten years later when he again forded the river again en route to assuming the presidency thirteen maidens, dressed in white, lay petals at his feet. Scant recompense for the insidious toil of forging a government.
He was summoned from his reverie when Tonnelly’s shadow fell over him.
“You may, my Dear Friend,” Washington said, indicating the banquette across from him.
“Mr. Tonnelly, may I ask your age?”
“Do you that is the precise number that graced my own head when ’twas placed upon it such a burdensome crown.”
“By crown you mean the presidency?”
“A crown all the same with all of its burdens and none of its deference. The desire that I should seek it a third time has lately come to possess the taint of madness.”
“I think you’ll find it different this time around.” Tonnelly said, “There’s a fully formed nation under your feet. All you’d need to do is keep a hand on the reigns.”
“And my visage forever turned toward the unforgiving light of the noonday sun.”
“Mr. Tonnelly, may I be so discreet as to reveal to you the greatest joy that has befallen your Humble Servant in these supplementary days so generously granted to him by your aegis?”
“The fact that aside from that scowl of mine I see gazing up at me from the American dollar, I believe myself to be utterly unknown. As Mr. Rochambeau I may walk wherever I please. I may look my fellow countrymen squarely in the eye and take measure of his character and never fear that an unseemly obeisance may obscure our relations. I am for the first time since my youth, nay since the Creator made me, a man of liberty. Liberty Sir. The very gift to which I endeavored so assiduously to bestow upon this nation but denied to my own person. It is with the greatest perplexity that I find myself seeking to deny it of myself thrice over.” Here he broke off and gazed ahead at an obese man standing in the commissary line whose chemise bore the image of a smiling mouse.
“Liberty, I think is something of an illusion,” Tonnelly broke in. “Are any of us truly free?”
“There are degrees of Liberty. And its benefits are only detected when the weight of oppression is lifted.”
“Is an adoring public really that much weight to bear?”
“It may be. Particularly when one must bear its cost equally as both time and money.”
“What has money got to do with it?”
“May I continue my indiscretions, Mr. Tonnelly and further unburden the darker regions of my soul?”
“You may,” Tonnelly said cautiously.
“Though my visage is now embossed upon what must by now be many a milliard of note and specie, I myself during my presidency and in my retirement had access to very little of it. In truth when I returned to Mt. Vernon for the last time, there were thousands of pounds owed to my creditors and leans placed on half my properties. There were certain . . . judgements I made that I should have weighed otherwise were penury not so present in my thoughts.”
That Washington had been in debt had never occurred to Tonnelly. He had always thought of him as a man of unquestionable standing — a solid member of the landed gentry with all the trappings that accompany such standing. Tonnelly had read that he’d even refused to take a salary for the presidency. But this additional piece of knowledge gave him a thought.
“General, may I point out to you that your creditors have been dead for 200 years. Your promissory notes are dust.”
“That may be so,” Washington murmured. “But I know them full well. I could write out the ledger from memory — so burned is it in my soul. And the collateral that stood behind those debts was both dastardly and abominable.”
“I think you need to think about repaying that debt through . . . a different means.”
“And that different means would be?”
“A third term.”
A silence descended over the Amtrak dining car. Trenton gave way to farmland and if he framed his vision, cut away the underbrush of modernity that clung to every public surface he could see the outlines of the country he had once known. Someone passed between cars and the doors opened letting in a blast of heat from outside the carriage just as they passed by Monmouth — site of that blistering day in ’79. The dead piled up on carts, the stink of death and rot. The precarious time when he felt certain that he had led his army astray. He re-felt, viscerally, that time now, trapped between creditors on one side who waited to take his lands and on another the greatest army in the world sharpening their bayonets to encircle him and clap him in irons. Yes, he did indeed owe a debt to this place that allowed a man like Robert Tonnelly to summon him from the past. Quietly he nodded his head in assent and indicated with his chin that he preferred now to be left alone in the railway carriage as it rattled northward toward the city of his defeat.
Tonnelly caught his meaning and gathered up his papers and turned to leave.
“You know,” he told Washington just before exiting, “your opponent. He’s got quite a bit of debt on his shoulders too. That’s something I think we could use to our advantage.”
“Quite so, Mr. Tonnelly. Quite so.”
The delegates who were to take their place at the Democratic National Convention slated to begin July 7th stumbled along a filthy, neglected Sixth Avenue toward Madison Square Garden trying to come to some kind of resolution. While Washington under the careful guidance of his physical therapist and her kit of elastic bands had grown stronger by the day, the Party had become more disparate and fractious. For months they had played with different strings of ideology they hoped would weave themselves into a kind of tent. But by this late date they found themselves with a tent of the most leaky variety staked down on one side by J Henton-Sayed, the one-termed congressperson from Detroit and Sturges Van Retuer, the scion of a Chicago real estate family whose Dutch good looks and substantial personal war chest had elided a previous hostility to government. Together the two came to New York roughly equal in delegate count and even in national polling.
Tonnelly had foreseen a denouement of this kind. The electorate was itchy for a new face. And for their sins they were given two squeaky clean resumes each of which described an individual who was perfectly capable of being nominated but absolutely impossible to elect. Van Reuter because his family privilege, looks and naked good luck could not disguise the fact that he was at root an imbecile and Henton-Sayed because their identity embracing of so many identities had effectively neutered any rational challenge that had even the smallest trace of genderism, racism or religious intolerance. That the delegates were gathering in Manhattan, though, was the real reflection of how truly dire things had become. New York trending a dark pink in ’24 was in play and if lost the stake in the heart of whatever remained of a system that technically referred to itself as a democracy.
But Manhattan it was. And, so what? Thought Tonnelly. Washington could debunk the Tyrant from any location. Indeed this was why in the end out of all the political figures that could have been summoned during the Anomaly he had chosen Washington. Everything he’d read of him before his summoning and everything he’d learned since from the living, breathing man, confirmed that in the General was a figure literally outside party politics. And by the behavior of the crowd at Madison Square Garden someone from the outside was desperately needed. On the first day of the convention a low crescendo began to build itself in careful orchestration. The minor leaguers and also-rans paid tribute to Democrats of days past. Jimmy Carter, now 100 this very year was rolled out in a wheelchair (Carter still insisted on giving a speech in slurred tones that the audience politely applauded even if they failed to understand a single word he said.) The delegates were preoccupied with the stillborn choice before them to pay him much mind.
Occasionally, without warning, a small group of J Henton-Sayed supporters would begin a trickle of chanting that flowed into a wave “J-H-S! J-H-S!” and soon the chant was louder than that of whatever lackluster speaker occupied the podium. “J-H-S! J-H-S! J-H-S!” until, at last, a pair of planted supporters would unfurl the candidate’s banner, the eponymous J shaved into the trademark curls and the slogan revealed met with dizzying applause “THEY ARE WITH YOU”
The Van Reuter supporters answered this with double arms up in a “V” for both victory and Van. This they eventually closed into a clap, reminiscent, Tonnelly remembered, of the axe chop made popular once with the Icelandic national soccer team fans in the 2018 Eurocup.
JHS’s chant carried the stadium. Van Reuter’s “V” clap carried the airwaves.
Meanwhile, the platform of the Democratic party carried no one.
With the Convention’s program set long in advance and the present tussle to resolve both back stage and on it, Ellen Fein was surprised when her assistant messaged to tell her that Robert Tonnelly wanted to see her urgently. Three years earlier she’d wondered about Robert Townsend Tonnelly’s exit from public life. “The Old Dog” she had thought at the time. Leaving politics to “spend time with his family.” What family? Tonnelly had two ex-wives each of which despised him in different ways and a son he never saw who was arrested twice on marijuana possession at Andover. She probed her friends and allies for the sound of the other shoe dropping. The pregnant nanny, the devastating audit, the revelation of a secret, unsuitable lover. But his feet had remained shorn. And indeed, she had heard often of Tonnelly’s dying father at Annapolis. Tonnelly the dutiful son, there throughout his long hard passing. And then the obituary of Robert Townsend Tonnelly Senior (a one-time Gibraltar of the Democratic establishment) that seemed to shake the earth when he fell and was laid to rest at Arlington.
The old dog, her old rival seemed to have had the juice sucked right out of him then. His father’s passing had made the great contests which had been the shared matter of their lives seem small and petty. Once when they’d met back in January ’21 just before the Tyrant’s second inauguration he for some reason seemed to her to be made out of sawdust. He still smelled of wood but his bearing had been ground to a powder. The fibers that had made him into such a stiff board had given out.
But now Tonnelly had requested an audience. A chance to lay out a position which Ellen Fein knew from experience would run her in circles. What could he possibly want? Tonnelly was out this time around. She didn’t have time for this. She had a convention to bring to order.
“Send him in,” Ellen Fein blurted into the phone in a cloud of smoke. “Tell him to have his guest wait a few minutes.”
A moment later Tonnelly appeared in a new deep blue suit, the light tie that highlighted both the background azure of his eyes and brought out the small gold flecks in his irises. Even in the autumn of his life he was disarmingly handsome. In spite of herself Ellen Fein found herself asking, “Now why didn’t Robert Townsend Tonnelly ever run for office?”
Before she could drive this thought from her head, Tonnelly beckoned toward the open door to produce a figure that eclipsed Tonnelly’s with its stature.
“I’m sorry to drop in on you unexpectedly like this. But I wanted you to be the first person in the party to meet what I know to be our best hope. Ellen Fein, please make the acquaintance of His Excellency, General George Washington.
“So you’re saying here that you want me to backburner the Henton-Sayed/Van Reuter negotiations and insert this person — you want me to put him up there and expect a brokered convention to go in his favor.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Robert, you know that long ago I learned my lesson with you. You know I’ll listen, even when I know you’re wrong. But this feels like a ruse.”
“Ellen, in the twenty years we’ve known each other have I ever put something out there that was completely impossible?”
“No but . . .”
“But this is beyond ridiculous. How can you even begin to explain this?”
“Do you remember back in ’17, do you remember the ‘March for Science’?”
“Unfortunately, I do. Science dug our hole even deeper. We didn’t realize how much people hated it.”
“What you don’t know, Ellen, is that not all the scientists were marching down Pennsylvania Avenue that day. The best of them were out of sight. Thinking. They had been observing the Anomaly for about a decade. That we could do anything with it was mostly theoretical. But as things started to get out of hand, they realized they had to move beyond theory. They knew that we would be passing through it in the lead up to the election. They knew we would have an opportunity to exploit it. And when they came to me, I took them seriously. I realized that the General was our only hope.”
“And you,” Ellen Fein said, turning to Washington, “What do you make of all this?”
“I make of it what I can, Madam. I am a servant of the Creator. Provenance has seen it fit to unite me with my Country’s fate yet again, heavy though the burden is.”
“You’ve got that right.”
“Look,” Tonnelly said, “I’m not asking you to rig this thing. I’m not asking you to force the convention one way or another. I know the Henton-Sayed people will cry foul and that would be the end of it. All I’m asking is that you give the General fifteen minutes of stage time in a convenient moment to make his case. Let Van Reuter say what he has to say. Let the Henton-Sayed people chant their chants. But then let the General have his fifteen minutes. If he can’t sway them at this point then we’re beyond lost and you and I can go into something else. Didn’t we talk about an advertising agency once? Do this now and I’ll be whoever you want me to be in the future. “
Chapter the Fourth, in which General Washington proposes his Candidacy to the Democratic Faction while the Tyrant ponders a Strategy of his Own
George Washington stood in the wings of Madison Square Garden and prepared to make his first public address in 225 years. There had been much fussing over how he should present himself to the New York audience and even some debate as to whether the delegates would even recognize him. Any living person differs from even the best portraiture. This was especially true of Washington. His face was subtly animated in a way that was never grasped by the artists of his day. To complicate matters further, the improvements modern medicine had made upon his visage were not insignificant. His lingering pneumonia had been resolved with antibiotics and good color had returned to his complexion. A pustule in his thigh which had three times during his first term broken out into a nearly fatal condition had been removed and this longstanding affliction which had strained his expression every day of his presidential life was now gone.
But by far the most noted improvement concerned the Washington’s mouth. Over the course of his years first as General and later as president he had enlisted the services of two dentists whom he’d taken into his greatest confidence. Only his dentists knew that but a single bicuspid remained and that lonely soldier of a tooth was tortured cruelly. Made to anchor a set of dentures fashioned from other human teeth it was further abused by a wedge of hippopotamus that opened and closed through the intervention of a gold spring. This to the dentists of the modern era was a work of steam punk — so gruesome and yet so ingenious was its design that they photographed it with their phones and saved the pictures for a time when it would be permitted to discuss their illustrious patient.
Removing the last tooth which was quite rotten by this point, the rehabilitation team had spared no expense fitting the General with a set of implants that matched perfectly his jawline and restored what would have been his natural profile. So much so that when the dentists finally finished, Washington’s famously jutting lower jaw jutted no more. Nearly every day that he woke and felt no oral pain Washington dropped to his knees and thanked the Creator tearfully.
In the final years of his former life Washington had been known for the stilted qualities of his speech. But no one had known how much of this reticence stemmed from the fact that the simple act of moving his jaws was jarringly painful. Sibilant sounds — the lovely S’s, Sh’s and Zh’s were particularly hard to enunciate and he had by the end of his second term come to excise whole lexicons from his public discourse to avoid the most troublesome consonant clusters. Now in the wings of the Garden he felt that reticence lift. He could say literally anything he wanted without fear of his teeth falling out or of aspirating a word he wished to use as an anchor for the next sentence. He felt, in short, nearly the same as he felt when addressing his troops when he first took up a battlefield commission against the French in ‘54.
When the curtain parted, he heard the old fife and drum music played and then strode to the center of the stage, remembering his blocking precisely, giving the profile that would be the most recognizable to the majority of latter day Americans. Laughter punctuated the arena on one side, the crowd sensing perhaps a late night comedian brought out to lighten the atmosphere. But on another side of the arena a gasp went out and then all at once applause rippled across the venue as Washington moved closer to the edge of the stage, smiled a broad smile with his new teeth and began his address.
“My friends, my good fellow citizens, my brethren in love of liberty. It is no less a surprise that I find myself here than you would have found in presupposing my presence. I have come hence tonight at the behest of this Democratic faction to intervene at a moment of Tyranny. Those that preside over this faction saw fit to summon me from the Mansions of Rest so that I might impartially and without want of personal gain guide you through this particular storm toward a safer shore. That at least was the hope presented to me.”
Here Washington paused and looked through the stage lights at the 20,000 odd delegates and hangers on that had gathered to anoint a nominee. There was a rapped, puzzled silence. And, Washington a long student of silences understood that here he would be well advised to break it with a bit of directness.
“I am indeed that whom you heretofore knew only through your histories. I am for lack of a better explanation your humble servant George Washington, son of Augustine, formerly of Mount Vernon of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
A murmur stirred in the crowd. And then slowly a chant built. Wash-ing-ton. Wash-ing-ton. Wash-ing-ton.” Here Washington held his hand out and asked for silence.
“When some 10 score years previously we along with my good friends Mr. Madison and Mr. Hamilton set forth a Constitution we had full premonition that a moment would come when a Tyrant would arise. We knew from experience of both the Great Terror in France and from the monarchical terror visited by George the Third on these lands — we knew it inevitable. Such is the nature of Power. It was as a bulwark against the arising of such a Tyrant that I dedicated my previous eight years as head of the executive branch of this government. It was with assurance of our victory over Tyranny that I declined a third term in ‘98 — that is of course the year of Our Lord seventeen hundred and ninety-eight.” (laughter). “Now an excess of two centuries have elapsed. If I am to interpret history correctly, those years have bestowed both liberty and prosperity I would fain have hoped to have been bestowed on to this good people. I would have been more than content to rest beneath my vine and my fig tree for eternity.
“But a Tyrant has indeed arisen. And insofar as I am acquainted with that Tyrant’s art of deal making, I find the same perfidious false republicanism again wooing the sympathies of an all too pliable mob. It is in succor, therefore, to that predicament that I present myself humbly for your consideration, lest this nation for all times be stripped of the armor of its good honor.
“Thank you. And good evening.” And with that Washington exited the stage as the loudspeaker played “The Dying Redcoat” — a Revolutionary ballad which the General had specifically requested as his recessional.
“As I see it, we have two choices with this,” Paul Manafort said, as he called the briefing to a kind of order. “We can ignore it — just brush it away. Or, we can show it up for the real scandal that it is, get the courts to shoot it down, have him withdrawn and consider November a done deal.
“I like option one,” the Tyrant’s son-in-law weighed in. “It seems cleaner. Nobody wants judges this early on. Let’s keep our powder dry just in case. A clean win.”
“Maybe that’s the safest thing,” The Tyrant replied in a rare moment of reflection. “But, I dunno, I mean it could be true. Who am I to say he isn’t who he says he is? It’s not impossible. Nothing’s impossible.”
“I think this might be impossible,” Manafort ventured.
“You know what?” The Tyrant continued, “I don’t think it really matters if it’s possible or not. All that matters is if people think this guy is the real item or not. Seems to me, flipping around, talking to people, seems to me some people are buying it.”
“Well on that, it depends on who’s doing the polling,” Manafort broke in. “Rasmussen has 58/42 on fake versus real. That’s a pretty big margin.”
“Fuck the margin. I’m telling you people are buying it. I can feel it.”
An uncomfortable pause quieted the room.
“Listen,” the Tyrant began again, “Let’s play this out. Let’s say he is who he says he is. He is who he is. But who is he?”
The question lingered. Not a few of the dozen men thought to themselves, “If he is who he says he is then he’s the fucking Father of Our Country and he’s a brick shithouse full of kryptonite.” But no dared say a word. There was instead just a shrugging of shoulders and tilts of heads, and true curiosity as what could possibly come from the Tyrant’s mouth.
“He is who he says he is. OK? But who is that? Just a guy. A guy from another goddamn century. Mr. Outta Touch. What the hell does he know about what we do around here now?”
“Keep going. I’m liking this,” chimed in the Attorney General.
“I mean what did a guy like that have going for him? A horse?” (laughter). “Buncha medals? Guy couldn’t even have kids. I read somewhere he shot blanks.”
“That is possible,” the Senate Majority Leader ventured.
“See what I’m saying? Everyone’s got issues. The guy is just a guy. Work with that.” And with that the Tyrant turned back toward his private rooms, sought out the remote and settled in for other more important news.
“In my further communion with society,” Washington told Tonnelly as they boarded the Amtrak bound for Boca Raton, “I should no longer wish to appear as if dressed for a masqued ball.” The time for the first debate was fast approaching and with the smell of outright competition in the air, Tonnelly could detect a notable shift in the General’s tone. He had shed his air of a grudging acceptance and there now appeared in him the first wisps of an undeniable longing for victory. And with that longing, elements of Washington’s character emerged that had heretofore been hidden.
“I should like to assume the dress considered most fashionable for this era,” Washington continued. “From what I can determine vestments of this nature are most likely to be procured in the northern states of the Italian confederation. Here then is what I require.” Washington handed Tonnelly a neatly written out list signed “Gen G. Wash.”
Tonnelly glanced down the list and felt a creeping horror as he examined its contents. He had blown past Armani and Prada (“too common”) and instead opted to fill his wardrobe with Corneliani and not one but five Brioni suits. Altogether the wardrobe added up to nearly $100,000. It was undeniably true. Washington was a clothes horse.
“If you’ll excuse me now,” Washington said cutting short Tonnelly’s attempt at a reply, “Miss Elise awaits me in the next carriage to further torture me with her elastic bindings. She informs me that we have acceded to purple.”
Chapter the Fifth, in which the Tyrant compels General Washington to appraise his most Tragic Error
George Washington and the Tyrant finally met on a studio stage in Boca Raton Florida. Coming out of opposite wings to face one another for the first debate, there was an awkward moment when The Tyrant extended a hand to shake. Washington disregarded it and offered a polite half bow instead. The Network’s Host moved quickly to stand “between the centuries” as he joked and with that the contest officially began.
Per an earlier agreement, The Network had provided the list of questioners and questions to the White House in advance and they had been pre-vetted by Paul Manafort and the Office of Communications. The Host glanced at his note cards, embossed with the White House crest and per its direction scanned the studio audience for “the middle-aged white man with blue eyes and a red checked shirt who will ask the question about being out of touch.” The host quickly found his target in the town hall audience.
“Tom Crenshaw of Winter Park has a question. Go ahead Tom.”
“Yeah, first of all I wanna say that it’s a great honor to be able to be here with these two great leaders, with General Washington and also, especially the President. But I wanted to ask a question first to the General. I’m just wondering I mean, you were President, what, 200 years ago? I’m just wondering, I mean, isn’t that kind of a long time ago? Like waaaay before the internet and everything. So I guess I’m asking, well how does that factor in?”
For this Washington was well prepared.
“There is but one factor in leadership, irrespective of era,” Washington replied, “That is character my good Sir. The evidence of which is contained within your histories.”
A full 10 seconds elapsed. Washington stood placidly, his faraway gaze drifting regally over the heads of the audience.
“And?” the Host queried. “You’ve got 40 seconds left for your response.” This was not good television.
“I do not require them. I would, however, be most honored to entertain a second question from these good people.”
“But you didn’t answer the first one.”
“You are mistaken.”
“What he’s saying,” The Tyrant broke in, “is that he thinks he’s above all this.”
“You believe yourself not to be?” Washington interjected. An oooh rippled through the studio audience.
The exchanges continued in similar fashion for the next 80 minutes. Each of Washington’s responses were oddly evasive but increasingly effective as the night wore on. Distant history, the one thing that evaded the Tyrant’s grasp was an easy crutch for the General and Tonnelly, a man highly adept at extrapolating polling from the emotional timbre of the moment felt himself inwardly pumping his fist.
With just five minutes remaining the Host heard Manafort break in over the IFB and begin to argue with the producer. Then all went quiet in the ear piece and he was given a signal to at last look stage right toward “the African-American man in green.”
“Gentlemen,” the Host broke in on an exchange concerning emoluments, “my apologies but we’re running out of time and I wanted to get to one important issue we’ve been avoiding tonight. I think that Mr. James Lincoln of Pahokee wants to weigh in on something. Go ahead James.
“Yeah,” a man in his forties said as he stood to take the microphone. “So, with all due respect I wanted the General to say a word or two about slavery. As far as I understand it, he owned over a three hundred of my people and he didn’t free any of them until after he had, um, died. How come that turned out that way? I mean, from what I heard, plenty of our folks stood by his side in the Revolution. You’d a thought the man’d do right by them. At the end at least.”
Tonnelly’s mouth dropped open. And for the first time he saw Washington startled. His pause was unlike any of his previous stately varieties. He stared at James Lincoln with intensity and pain. It looked as if he were begging forgiveness with his eyes. After a half minute the Tyrant finally broke in.
“James, that’s an excellent point,” the Tyrant said, “I mean, slavery, wow. Slavery. I don’t think one human should have the right to own another human being. Period. Next question.”
Here the Host indicated a woman three rows back from Lincoln. “Go ahead Monique.”
“Following up on what Mr. Lincoln was saying,” she began, “What I heard is that the General couldn’t free his slaves because he was too far gone in debt. He needed our people as collateral.”
“You know what I always say,” The Tyrant said rising up on his toes and seeming to inflate and fill the room, “if a man can’t manage his own business he shouldn’t have any say in managing other people’s business.” A murmur of agreement let his statement hang in the air for longer than was its due.
And with that the Host cut off further questions and asked for closing statements. The General, though well prepared with his final remarks, delivered a stale, wooden address that neither he nor anyone in the room seemed to believe.
Back in Washington, Washington read Washington — a biography that been written about him by a man who had also written a book he had found of use called Hamilton. Much had been well-captured by the author of Washington. Now as he turned its pages its subject was surprised by the tenacity with which the biographer had unearthed his most hidden intimacies. From love letters to bills of sale, no secret remained. Here were embarrassing revelations of his earlier coquetry with Sally Fairfax, a married woman in an adjoining estate. Here too were exposés of his expenditures and debits, his dispute with an English merchant over a faulty carriage and his vain obsessions with fineries of every kind. And always the debt. The crushing debt and the lengths he went to mitigate disaster.
Herein was the thing in Washington that most horrified Washington: the biographer’s exhumation of the way he had used human beings as collateral for further borrowing. Reading Washington it was as if Washington were reading a Greek myth in which the gods gave the doomed hero chance after chance to choose a nobler course and yet the hero, deaf to their entreaties, carried on in his pathway to Hades. Here was a portrait of Billy Lee, his faithful servant who served by his side through all of his exploits from the despair of Valley Forge to the triumph at Yorktown, who had more than once shielded his master from the spray of musket fire and whom his master had rewarded by maintaining his enslavement for the entirety of his life. Even after the man had broken both his knees Washington kept him in shackles. Here too was an account of his relentless pursuit of their cook, Hercules, who had fled north from the presidential mansion in Philadelphia. Why had he chased him with such ardor? Were his victuals so scrumptious as to merit the paying of slave catchers who tried and failed to track down the poor man in a state that had already chosen the path of liberation?
Even more damning were the accounts of friends and confidantes who had comported themselves with stronger character than he at the time. Other biographers of Washington had elided this point. They had placed Washington within the context of his time, a man who like many other men of his era, had relied on the bondage of human beings to pursue a respectable livelihood. But amongst his contemporaries he could see now there were many examples of exemplary behavior. Dear, brave Lafayette, a man who on occasion reminded him of Robert Tonnelly, had traveled to French Guinea bought a cinnamon plantation and one-by-one freed the souls in bondage there. He had written from his estate “La Belle Gabrielle,” rejoicing in his experiment exhorting his “father” Washington to do the same. Washington had replied with his customary silence.
Here too were the words of Hamilton, a man who had advised him throughout war and peace, who had despite the fashion of the time stood steadfast in opposition to treating human beings a chattel. With Hamilton there was no wavering of character, no equivocation. No wonder the man had rebuffed his friendship when he’d proffered it on so many occasions. Indeed, when Washington read Washington side by side with Hamilton he found that the biographer appraised Washington the lesser man. A man deficient in character. A man who filled all difficult moments with silence. And for his silence he had sealed the fate of millions. How many died in the Civil Conflagration of the 1860s? How many more namelessly perished in bondage because he had chosen to “compromise” when the union had formed?
And now he read over and over again the biographer’s account of his own farewell address, a speech that he could not bring himself to write personally; an address he’d relied on Hamilton to craft. He realized now that what had come to pass was not what he had intended in his adieu. He had confessed to the crowd on the last day of his presidency that he had committed “many errors” but that he’d hoped that his “faults of incompetent abilities” would be “consigned to oblivion” even as he would soon be consigned to “the Mansions of Rest.”
Nonsense. It was all an evasion consistent with the evasions of the entirety of his life. He had in his public addresses typically struck a tone of self-deprecation vaguely referring to his errors to cast himself as the “humble servant” he’d imagined himself to be. But in fact, he had been mercilessly cruel and cowardly with regard to the only error that truly mattered: liberty for all Americans. After his first death that error had remained like a spear planted in the breastplate of the Republic. In the decades that followed it had multiplied and bred of its own accord until a time that it created such a degree of strife that only a personage such as the Tyrant could be the end result. Looked at from this light even his sweet two years of retirement to Mount Vernon now curdled in his mind. His had not been a noble slipping away into some Parnassos. Rather his retirement had been a desperate flight, the consequences of which he now felt in the full soul of his being.
And what of this latest, chapter, this latter-day evasion? He had been seduced by all its wizardry. Formerly he considered himself frail and declining at the age of 67. But in the new present, 67 was nearly youthful. If he took inventory of his bones and sinews he felt remarkably sound. He could foresee the possibility of a score or more of fruitful years. His new teeth, his mouth free of pain, he felt liberated to speak his mind. And yet when he thought even of his teeth he realized a phantom pain remained. For the implants he had received long ago in his former life had been the teeth of his own slaves, removed without their consent so that he might better chew his cud.
“A campaign, once commenced must be fully prosecuted until the Creator reveals its rightful end.” He’d once written this to adjutants from Valley Forge when the remnants of his army bound their feet up in rags and scoured the farms of the countryside for the last scraps of provisions. But here he went against this prescription, sat down at his writing desk and drafted his letter of resignation.
Chapter the Sixth, in which both The Tyrant and General Washington seek New Friends
The woman brought before Washington to save his campaign showed little patience for the former plantation owner.
Washington for his part sat uncomfortably staring at the very incarnation of those he had wronged. For when he searched his memory he was certain she bore a certain resemblance to Ona Judge. Narrow of face and keen of eye she had the same mirthful yet rebellious gaze as his wife’s long time woman-in-waiting. Looking at her he realized that he had never grieved their acrimonious parting when Ona had fled the presidential mansion in Philadelphia some two centuries earlier. She had been a friend to the Washingtons, or so Washington had thought at the time. And he had indeed signed her papers of emancipation in his final will and testament in spite of publicly decrying her at the time as a “thankless fugitive.” Now in these very different times as he took in the whole of Holly Chisholm he understood that he had made yet another unfathomable error.
Tonnelly sat opposite the two and considered the optics. At first he had been drawn to her by her name alone. Her great Aunt, Shirley Chisholm, had been the first African American woman elected to Congress and the first woman to run for president. Holly Chisholm had followed in her Great Aunt’s footsteps. After a decade as a historian at Vanderbilt, she’d left academia and gone on to run and win Georgia’s 89th district in ’20. She rose fast through committee work in the four years that followed. But now as he considered them together he understood that together she and Washington had a kind of balance. She was precise to his vague. Emotive to his cool. “First and first,” Tonnelly thought as he watched the two uncomfortably begin a halting exchange. “Yes, first and first.”
It was hard to say, though, who of the two was the more unwilling to take on the partnership. She was unsparing in her judgment of the General. When he mentioned courteously that he had enjoyed his “sojourn through Georgia in ’91 despite the poor condition of roadways therein,” Chisholm countered that the roads were not so bad that he wasn’t able to meet with Governor Telfair and come to an agreement on the pursuit of slaves who’d escaped to Spanish Florida. At this Washington bowed his head in the same way he had done at the first debate, conceding the point solemnly. He continued to listen and nod his head in painful agreement when Chisholm raised point after point. That the first casualty of the American revolt against the British, one Crispus Attucks killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770, had been a man of color, that Washington had never acknowledged that fact. That it was black soldiers, who willingly volunteered mid-way through the Revolution, that had no small effect on turning the tide of the war.
And as he listened, for the first time since his return, he thought of the whorl that had appeared at his feet on that cold December day in 1799. Just why exactly had the Creator allowed his resurrection? He had seen the light that beckoned toward eternity, but to which destination was it leading him? Was it possible he had been destined for Inferno rather than exaltation? He remembered the fetid stink of his own flesh as he’d begun passing from his old life. Had that been an odor of corruption and damnation? If that was the case, was it the cleansing of this muck that was the real cause for his return? He silently blessed the Creator and addressed his interlocutor.
“Madame Chisholm, I am afraid it is not within my capacity to issue a retroactive annulment of that Peculiar Institution that led to the suffering of so many souls. I can only produce my heartfelt apology for my own misjudgment.”
Here Holly Chisholm looked into the eye of the Plantation Master squarely. Washington was taken aback by her direct gaze.
“If we were friends,” Chisholm began, “I might consider your apology, on a personal basis. But as a historian, I am unable to consider it on behalf of every American who like it or not is still suffering because of the same thing. For that part, we need a political solution.”
“What would you ask of me in that sphere?”
“I would ask for partnership.”
“What would the terms of such a partnership be?”
“Equality. And reparation.”
“Would this be a public agreement or one made between friends?” Washington asked, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Public, as you could imagine, would carry as its accompaniment a number of liabilities.”
“If we keep it private,” Chisholm continued, focusing her eyes on Washington’s, “how would I know you would keep to what we’ve agreed upon.”
“Madame, as an historian I believe you are aware of the fruits of my reputation. I assure you in this way your historians are quite accurate. I am very much a man of my word.”
The Tyrant watched The Network’s morning program and fumed. He had roundly defeated Washington in their first debate and the polls had risen in lockstep. The Network had duly taken up the slavery issue and the Other Media, in making light of it, had inadvertently promoted it all the same. The exchange and resulting confusion had exactly the kind of through-the-looking-glass redirection the Tyrant appreciated. What black person in his right mind would vote for a plantation massah?
But then this Chisholm thing. As quickly as Washington had dropped in the polls he had surged the moment Chisholm came on as VP. Even The Network was reporting on the dramatic reversal of fortune. How would he counter it? He had called Treasury and asked how quickly it might be possible to roll out the Harriet Tubman dollar bill replacement note. He’d even looked into putting Martin Luther King on the quarter. But there were so many Washington notes in circulation he’d never be able to pull them in time. And there were, of course, limits. His people weren’t crazy about slavery. But they didn’t like the alternative. Still the omnipresence of Washington’s face and name constantly irked him. The Washington Memorial, Mount Washington, The George Washington Bridge. For Chrissake he even lived in fucking Washington. Somehow he had to move past it. And when he did there would be some serious renaming to do.
Just then a knock came from the door and Paul Manafort slipped in.
“I’ve been meeting with some of the scientists involved in the Washington project.”
“So he’s phoney after all?” The Tyrant blurted out hopefully.
“No. Sadly, no. But one of them turned out to be friendly to our side. And we think we might have come up with a workaround. Can you join me in the Cross Hall for a moment?” The Tyrant rose and followed Manafort down a corridor. Coming to the door Manafort gave a soft knock. A voice within answered in an ancient southern twang. “Come eein.”
The Tyrant stepped through the door as Manafort indicated and took in the face he was supposed to have instinctively known. It was the face of a man whom he had invoked time and again on during his first campaign. In fact once he even claimed to be this man’s political reincarnation. But it was not from reputation that the Tyrant physically recognized the man before him now. No. Where he really knew him was from money. The swirling hair, the high collar. Before him was the man on the twenty dollar bill.
But no portrait ever does justice to a person’s eyes. The Tyrant felt the intensity of their scrutiny. The man before him had murderous, contemptuous eyes; eyes that had gleefully taken in the butchery of defenseless men and women. Those eyes now took stock of the Tyrant, his modern day political descendant. In less than a second they sized him up and accurately assessed his character. The seventh President of the United States raised an eyebrow and curled his lip up in a wry smile and uttered a chuckle.
“Mr. President,” Manafort began, “let me present to you who we think would make an excellent Vice Presidential candidate. I think you’re familiar with him. Let me introduce you here to the Seventh President of the United States Mr. Andrew Jack . . .”
“Send him back.”
“I think you’ll find, after a moment that you . . .”
“Send him back right now you fucking idiot.”
And with that the Tyrant turned his back on Manafort and made his way to the Vice President’s office telling him he could keep his job.
The Network had modified the script somewhat for the second debate which was to take place on the campus of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. The talking points as requested from the White House were to revolve around issues other than slavery — that beat having been played out and left in the air. It might still prove of some use — the goal after all wasn’t to get African Americans to vote for the Tyrant. Rather the aim had been to cast doubt on the General and keep that part of the population home where it belonged on Election Day. Moreover, Manafort’s panicked flirtation with the past aside, others in the Tyrant’s camp realized that with Holly Chisholm in the mix another disruption had occurred. Perception of the General had feinted left. A sizeable portion of the Tyrant’s constituency who had previously imagined Washington as a neutral, unifying figure now saw him through the lens of race. It was with these sorts of easily malleable people — white hairs and knitting circle folks — that the Network had filled the Notre Dame auditorium and it was with these people that the Tyrant would seal the deal. Additionally the White House had requested that three seats be reserved and left empty at the front of the venue within the eye-line of camera two.
Washington was given a brief tour of the Notre Dame campus before he was brought to the auditorium. For inspiration he was taken past a kind of simulacrum of the Colosseum at Rome where presumably athletic competitions of a sort were waged. He was shown a large mural of Our Savior that faced the Colosseum and informed that this rendering was known locally as “Touchdown Jesus.” The General had no suppositions as to why such an appellation had been applied to the Son of Man.
The General had been buoyed up by the addition of Chisholm and it showed in his television appearances on the Other Media. It was as if a terrible burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He was, for the first time, allowed to speak freely about slavery. About why he had not opposed the Southern States back during the ’87 convention. Chisholm for her part acknowledged his faults and explained the General’s historical constraints. He was not a man “without problems” as she’d put it. But, she explained that we had to work with what we had and that by correcting this fault with the actual person who had set it in motion might be just the medicine the country needed. True Washington had made a few gaffs, misreading a cue during his first joint appearance with Holly Chisholm during an interview with a person called Maddow. He had said that marrying the Tyrant to a Third Term would be as absurd as “marrying Miss Maddow to Miss Chisholm.” Maddow had looked at Washington over her glasses, had thought for a moment of calling him out. Remembering the alternative, she’d let it slide. Let Washington be Washington, she thought.
All these successes, though, dimmed as Washington approached the podium embossed with The Network’s logo. Washington could spot a rigged contest when he saw one and he awaited with dread what new machinations his tormentors had crafted for him.
The Network led with a reprise of the out-of-touch theme. Washington replied as per usual, accentuating character over immediate experience. He parried over issues of foreign entanglements, citing his position of neutrality with France in ’98 as evidence that he would buffer against overseas meddling in American affairs. The Tyrant grew heated at the word “meddling” but kept his composure. As the debate drew to its last five minutes toward the inevitable surprise the Network had planned, Washington felt that he had held his own.
It was at that point that the back doors of the auditorium swung open admitting the Tyrant’s three adult children, each carrying a grandchild. They duly took up their seats at the front of the auditorium. Applause and then a standing ovation for the brood thundered until The Host gently quieted them and closed in for a final question.
“General, you’re often called the Father of Our Country, and, really, kudos for that. Really (applause). But since family is such a big part of the American experience, why is that you yourself never had any children of your own?”
Washington reddened here but held his ground.
“The Creator during those years had not seen fit to grant me such gifts.”
“But you did want children, didn’t you?”
“My wants and The Creator’s designs are fully independent of one another.”
“Listen,” the Tyrant broke in. “What goes on down there — nobody’s business but his own. Guy shoots blanks, he shoots blanks.”
“I assure you that I regarded Martha’s children as very much my own and bestowed upon them with vigor the labors of patrimony.”
“He brought up vigor, not me,” the Tyrant laughed.
“What about now?” The Network’s Host interposed. “You’re a single man now. Plenty of prospects out there. Do you see yourself starting a family in the future?”
“If the Creator wills it. If He wills it, then I shall not stand in opposition.”
Chapter the Seventh, in which General Washington reveals a Most Startling Intimacy
Only a landslide would persuade the public that General Washington had won the presidency. After the second debate with the Tyrant that prospect was growing increasingly unlikely.
Yes, middle-aged Midwestern women seemed to have brushed off the impotency issue raised at the last debate. Sixty percent of women regardless of party affiliation viewed the General positively and the adjectives they most commonly associated with him were “appropriate,” “trustworthy” and (where did they get this?) “dashing.” But after-debate polls taken for white men in the 20–30 year old range showed a profound dip. Adding in the Elections Security Pact to which the majority of states now subscribed, Tonnelly felt a disturbing agitation as he pored over the latest numbers. His agitation only grew when Washington slipped into the room and addressed him for the first time by his Christian name.
“Robert, I should like your guidance on a matter that requires the most extraordinary discretion.”
In nearly eight months with Washington he had never heard the General sound so cautious. Tonnelly pushed aside the data before him and appraised his charge in full. There was something indisputably youthful in the way the General stood before him. Long before all this he had never quite understood why Washington had been viewed as such a charismatic figure. Even since coming to know Washington, the man, he had chalked it up to different times and different tastes. But now taking in the General with the morning light catching his high cheek bones and seeing the sparkling in his keen gray eyes and the breadth of his shoulders he understood that along with his intellectual strengths that there was something undeniably physically compelling about the man.
“You have my full attention,” he said finally.
“May I ask, whatever became of Mrs. Tonnelly?”
“Have there been multiple Mrs. Tonnellys?”
“Three in all. The last one was the longest. She lives in Alexandria with our son.”
“I see.” Tonnelly couldn’t help but notice the General backing off slightly from his earlier attempt at communication. But after a pause, he leaned forward and began anew.
“In your relations with this third Mrs. Tonnelly, may I ask how you endured . . . dissatisfaction?”
Tonnelly stared. What he wanted to say was “who said marriage had anything to do with satisfaction?” But instead he posed his doubts about the institution as a question.
“Were you . . . dissatisfied with Mrs. Washington?”
“My Dear Friend, perhaps it does not merit further explanation. But what I may say with respect to my wife (may the Creator keep her soul) is that in this world there are women of the hearth and still others that are of the heart.”
“Hearth. Entirely hearth, I’m afraid.”
“How radically would your esteem of your Poor Servant be altered should he reveal to you that another has arisen who would claim his heart?”
Pause. This time, at last, Tonnelly’s. Washington took up the cue of silence.
“I should wish to propose a betrothal to Miss Elise.”
“Your physical therapist?”
Washington blushed. “It seems we have exhausted the color regimens of her rubberized bands and acceded to a more fruitful form of exercising the constitution.”
Another Tonnelly pause. He was starting to understand the power in saying nothing.
“I should wish to relay to you my Dear Friend that this experience has caused the arousal of a feeling of . . . liberation. And I assure you that my intentions with regards to Miss Elise have and always will be, honorable.”
“Mrs. Washington, I believe, knew the degree to which I had foresworn those more tender sentiments for the sake of the Nation. And . . .”
“She is, after all, with her Creator now.”
Tonnelly pushed aside the polling data with disgust and looked the General squarely in the eye.
“So were you.”
Was it luck or the designs of this Creator Washington invoked so often that the third and final debate was to take place in Las Vegas? Tonnelly wondered to himself. It being Nevada, it was remarkably easy to arrange the wedding of George Washington, son of Augustine, to Elise Ramirez de Solar of Bayonne, New Jersey. She had acceded to his request that they be married at a black stone cube called Grace in the Desert Episcopal Church. For his part he posed no objection when Elise had asked that a priest from the nearby Church of the Holy Spirit also bless the union, sprinkling holy water over the contemplative stone labyrinth the couple walked leisurely upon completion of their vows. It was a simple, understated affair, the General in his best Brioni, Elise in a simple almond tinted gown from Jenny Yoo. The pictures were beautiful. The effect upon the campaign, disastrous.
Looking at the overnight numbers Tonnelly smiled morbidly at the uptick among men 50 and older post-Elise. “Thanks for your support,” he muttered bitterly to himself. For the real statistic that predicted the most likely outcome of the election was blatantly in front of him. In just a single week there was a 30% flip in all women of all ages against the General. Even though the Campaign had made the case with push calls and strategic advertisement in women’s media that Washington was a widower, women couldn’t quite get past the fact that, technically, it was Washington who had died first and that, were he to have remained dead, he would be known by history as Martha’s eternal husband. Elise unsquared that circle. Months of campaign work and the most advanced applied science in human history were no match for the optics of a senior arm-in-arm with a Latina divorcée more than half his age.
By the time The Tyrant arrived in Las Vegas it was with the scent of imminent victory in the air that he toured the casinos he’d so loved as a younger man. He played Baccarat at the Bellagio, had a good run at the roulette tables at Mandalay Bay and finished with a lively round of blackjack at Cesar’s just for old time’s sake. Then, his chips cashed in, he repaired to the Cesar’s green room where, he remembered he’d once dropped in on Holmes four decades earlier just before the fight known as the “Last Hurrah” — the contest where Larry Holmes had pommeled Muhammad Ali for ten rounds and ended Ali’s history once and for all.
How would The Tyrant deliver his own knockout punch? He and the Network had agreed that for the sake of his own legacy it would be proper now to adopt an air of pity and go easy on the old fossil. The Tyrant would at last praise the General. He would speak of the sacrifices he’d made. He’d thank Washington for all the years he’d selflessly devoted to its prosperity in the early, long gone days of the Republic.
But as Manafort fussed with The Tyrant’s tie, and pulled at his cuffs, something about the plan didn’t quite sit with him. He recalled now how during the most heated moments of the Campaign the General had needled him again and again, returning constantly to the issue of character. Again and again he’d brought up the fact that “a man of good character is forthcoming about his debts and does not seek the succor of foreign powers for recompense.” Repeatedly he had admonished The Tyrant for breaking promises evidencing a “flaw of character” and in turn provided audiences with lists of his own unerring judgment. Indeed, Washington had used the word “character” so often against his opponent that a meme had appeared and spread into certain corners of the right-wing internet: Washington as a “character” — a wild eyed cartoon avatar with axe in hand chopping down cherry trees and American flagpoles, indiscriminately hunting for “truth.” The Tyrant would echo the meme in interviews and at rallies. “I like Washington, he’s a real ‘character,’” complete with air quotes. These volleys were as effective on the General as the musket shots fired in vain at him by the French in the Ohio country back in ’55. It just didn’t work. Washington never went online.
But now with his opponent at last mortally wounded by the Elise affair, The Tyrant had a final opportunity to put Washington’s character in its proper box. In the week preceding the debate he had espoused various counter theories about the General’s leadership during the American Revolution that he’d read on the internet. Always falling back on the fact that the General was of course “an incredible hero. One of the best. But some people have said a few things. Believe me I talk to the historians.”
On Manafort’s direction, The Network’s Host attempted to pilot the conversation of the third debate to avoid this theme for the first 45 minutes. Like Tonnelly, Manafort had seen the overnight numbers. He knew that the campaign was all but won. But he also knew The Tyrant’s heart, such as it was, and he knew that the issue of character needled him. He had told The Host “if the fucking character thing comes up, tack back to Elise.” The Host had gamely complied several times. But each time the Tyrant was drawn back like a planet to a sun, returning again and again to the Revolution and the General’s wartime reputation. Each time it was raised, the General grew agitated, pulling at the tips of the calve skin gloves he had persisted in wearing to every debate, despite their anachronistic effect. By the fifty minute mark the General was so agitated that he could barely wait for the Tyrant’s speaking time to expire.
“And I just want to come back one more time to this whole Revolution thing,” The Tyrant persisted, “I mean people make a big deal about 1776. ’76 this ’76 that. But I was talking to one historian, very intelligent man, and he was telling me that in 1776 the General — he up and ran. Could have stayed in New York. Lotsa people say New York was totally defendable. I mean, who gives up New York? If the General has just shown a little more courage this whole thing could have been wrapped up by what? ‘77? ‘78? Instead the thing drags on for like five years just cause the General here was a coward.”
The Tyrant’s speaking time had expired and Washington’s had begun. But there was only silence. The longest and most chilling silence Tonnelly had been party to in his eight months with Washington. And then after all murmurs from the crowd had subsided there rang out across the venue the sound of leather slapping concrete. Between the two podiums George Washington’s right glove lay on the floor awaiting an answering gesture from his rival.
Chapter the Eighth, in which General Washington awaits The Tyrant on the Field of Honor
Washington had made the challenge. Protocol dictated that The Tyrant should choose weapons. Paul Manafort had said it was all “ridiculous” muttering something equivocal about pistols.
Washington surprised his campaign manager with a keen awareness of modern firearms. He suggested a pair of Browning Buckmarks. The recommendation was accepted by Manafort and it was these pistols that Tonnelly now cradled gingerly on his lap as his taxi carried him over a stone bridge and deposited him at the location. Through these months Tonnelly had considered himself many things to Washington. A gopher. A consultant. A confidante. Dare he say it, perhaps one of the small coterie of surrogate sons the childless Washington had kept by his side from the French and Indian War on through the Revolution into his first and second terms of office and now during the campaign for a third term. But as Tonnelly rode in the back of the DC Red Cab toward Rock Creek Park in the predawn gloaming on the morning of November 1st he realized that history would likely only remember him as Washington’s Second. He had wanted Washington to ride with him in the cab to the “appointment” (as Washington kept calling it) but the General chose to remain in his suite at the Hay-Adams with Elise until the last possible moment, promising to meet Tonnelly at the Horse Center on Glover Road precisely at 6:00 AM.
News of the duel had leaked to the press. Tonnelly saw a scrum of reporters milling about the stables when he exited the cab. Vans from the Other Media were there, lined up along the embankment of the creek. But, most notably, so too was a satellite truck from The Network — its dishes fully deployed and its floodlights all too brightly throwing the scene into a sharp, chilly relief. Tonnelly took in the tableau and waited as the familiar mutterings of news people filled the morning air with stale humor and impatience.
“Might I request,” Tonnelly heard the General’s voice ring out in the cold autumn air, “My dear people that you extinguish your illumination. I fear it will startle my mount.”
Tonnelly turned to a brake in the wood. The clop of hooves rustling through dry leaves issued forth and then at last appeared the silhouette as history knew it. The broad black Field Marshall’s hat, the wide lapels, the erect carriage at one with the steed beneath it. The reporters turned. The photographers were too startled to shoot. For all his talk of not wishing to appear as if at a masked ball Washington knew very well when a costume was in order.
“Have the weapons been secured, Mr. Tonnelly?” the General asked.
“They have,” Tonnelly replied. He felt as if he were reading off a script rather than speaking in an actual moment.
Washington descended from his charger in one quick fluid motion, surprisingly youthful in its grace.
“I am most satisfied to have spent these final moment of what could very well be my last morning on earth in the company of a horse,” he said to Tonnelly and to the crowd at large. “I fear that it is the only sort of creature with which I have ever established a true intimacy.” Then turning to the left he strode forward toward the opening past the brook, the location of which Tonnelly had relayed to Manafort the previous day.
“You know,” Manafort had said during the meeting of seconds the day before, “He’s actually a pretty good shot. Went to a military academy and all.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“And the General, he’s not open to any kind of . . . negotiations, right?”
“I tried. What can I say? The guy is a stickler for honor.”
“I was afraid you’d say that. But hear me out. This isn’t the 1700s you know. There are laws on this kind of thing. The police wouldn’t have any problem throwing your boy in jail.”
“The General is aware of the consequences.”
“Did I mention he’s a very good shot?”
“You did. We’ll bring the pistols. Can you bring a doctor?”
“I suppose so. What time did you say dawn was, again?”
Tonnelly took up his position alongside Washington in the clearing. Through the brake he saw the flash of police lights as three squad cars pulled up to the scene. But no sirens blared nor were any weapons brandished. Rather, the patrolmen, the kind of people who would normally have been squarely in the Tyrant’s corner, exited their vehicles and leaned against their doors. Jesus Christ, thought Tonnelly. They want to watch.
At 6:35 Tonnelly opened the case and examined the pistols. Per Washington’s instructions he loaded each with two rounds of ammunition. One for the initial shot, the other for a “blow of mercy” should one be required.
At 6:45 with still no sign of Manafort and the Tyrant, Washington took up one of the guns and tested out its weight and balance.
At last at 6:50 a black sedan bearing the presidential crest pulled up to the location. There was neither police escort nor Secret Service accompaniment. “Good optics,” Tonnelly thought. Two men, alone on a field of combat. Stagecraft again. The door swung open and a foot shorn in a fine shoe exited tentatively and set itself upon ground. It was an odd kind of leather, Tonnelly thought. Thin and delicate. Not the Tyrant’s style really. It wasn’t cow leather, was it? No it was something else. Something much finer and more expensive. As the wearer of the shoe exited and revealed its owner, Tonnelly understood that the shoes were made from ostrich skin.
Manafort, ashen-faced and shaken emerged from the vehicle and walked slowly over to Tonnelly. At once Tonnelly caught the meaning of it all and beamed, first at the General and then back at the Tyrant’s second.
“He’s not coming, is he?”
“He thinks your man’s showboating,” said Manafort. “He isn’t going to take part in any kind of illegal activity.”
Tonnelly studied Manafort’s face. Over the course of the last few decades he’d played a few of hands of poker with the man, once during the Angola stuff and later when he’d been repping Mobutu at the tail end of Reagan. Actually Tonnelly had lost quite a bit of money to Manafort over the years. But then he came to know his tell: a slight, ironic tilt of the right lip upward. Now this same tic alighted on the consultant’s face as he made excuses for his boss’s absence.
It was, Tonnelly well knew, the sure sign of a bluff.
The evening set for the inaugural ball was a balmy 67 degrees and Tonnelly was concerned, once again, with costumes. The President-Elect had requested a worsted woolen suit, again from Italy, in a vibrant emerald green. Elise would also be in green, albeit of a more subdued shade. Tonnelly had tried to impress upon the new President that a conservative blue flannel would be more fitting but, as always when it came to questions of fashion, Washington was immovable. He had been unhappy with a spread in GQ that had featured him in a stilted black and crimson riding outfit and he felt it imperative for this next phase of his life that he should “express a certain vibrancy which would flow contrary to the expectation of my years.”
More concerning to Tonnelly, though, was the lack of attention Washington was paying to forming a government. In fact he had delegated nearly all aspects of the transition to Holly Chisholm who had for the last two months been in constant motion, vetting and revetting, balancing this interest against that. Whenever Tonnelly looked into the Vice President-elect’s office he found Chisholm impatiently pacing the room, seamlessly moving from phone call to briefing, swiping right on an iPad, swiping left on a phone an aid proffered. Stress wafted off of her but always highlighted by a warm smile when he came by to pay his respects.
“Some things never change,” she joked to Tonnelly on the morning of the inaugural ball, “black folks do all the work while white folks have all the fun.”
But in truth she relished the work and it was a good deal more fun than those tense days after the election. As Manafort had realized at the moment, the optics of the Tyrant failing to show at Rock Creek Park would echo far beyond Glover Road. The image of Washington erect in the field, pistol turned up, waiting alone at attention for the sake of honor would rebound across every news site in the world along with the headline “WHERE WAS THE PRESIDENT?” And though Washington himself would never say it, Holly Chisholm would say it out loud on all the Other Media and even on The Network. “The President is a coward.” The Tyrant in his turn attempted to mock Chisholm’s statement on the Social Media Platform, posting pictures of Chisholm doodled up with all sorts of ungracious adornments. He’d even posted a picture of himself standing alone in that same field off Glover Road, Washington absent, he holding the pistol, hedefending his honor. But even The Network would fail to share that image. It just wasn’t believable.
But even though on election night the contest had been called for Washington at an early 8:33 PM after Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and West Virginia fell in quick succession to him, The Tyrant refused to concede. He pointed to New Hampshire, the only state in the Union that had broken for him. He heralded the small state as “the ultimate democracy” where the “only legitimate election happened.” He continued to beat that drum on November 6th and 7th, refusing to leave the White House under any circumstances, posting hourly evidence of some new outrage that had rigged the contest. Washington, meanwhile had held his peace. To Tonnelly who kept urging a statement Washington counselled caution. “When a man hastens to fashion his own petard,” the General quipped, “tis best to refrain from intervention ‘ere he hoists it.”
Hoist it he did on November 8th when a late season hurricane made landfall in South Florida and began a slow devastating creep up the Eastern Seaboard. The Tyrant declared a national emergency, dictating that all federal operations focus exclusively on storm relief and that the irregularities in the election could be straightened out later. Since M was in the cue for hurricane names The Tyrant dictated that the present storm should be named for his wife.
The National Weather Service was the first agency to disobey orders.
They named the storm Martha.
From that moment on, one by one the different agencies and branches of the military stepped forward to affirm the results of the election. Finally on November 11th the Tyrant emerged from the White House, a larger than usual secret service detachment more pushing him than escorting him out the door. He delivered no concession speech. Offered no parting words to the electorate that had chosen him twice over and almost did so a third time. He merely marched his way to Marine One, back turned toward the crow and appeared to bat the onlookers away with a dismissive backhanded gesture. Then without pomp or circumstance the helicopter rose into the air and tilted north toward his club in New Jersey, his Florida estate having been destroyed by Martha.
And so Holly Chisholm knit together a government while 45 Neopolitan tailors sewed the Washington a new Rubinacci suit. President and Vice-President-elect finally came together on the evening of January 17 the Year of Our Lord 2025. And it was clear by the time guests arrived and the carefully designed lighting was set ablaze, that all the fussing Washington had made over the preparations for the ball had been time well spent. The footmen wearing livery in harmony with the suit and gown chosen for him and Elise sparkled. The chamber orchestra seamlessly flowing from revolutionary ballads to 50s swing to arrangements of recent works by Adele and Beyoncé kept the evening light and hopeful. And when it came time for the traditional first dance, no one was put out too much that the President-elect chose Chisholm for his partner. Though she was a personal trainer and kept to a strict daily fitness regime, her new condition had surprised Elise with its physical demands and she was happy to cede the floor to the President and the Vice-President-elect.
On cue, the orchestra struck up The Sussex Waltz and Washington and Chisholm traced a figure they had rehearsed complete with synchronized turns and bows. The assembled crowd stood in silent admiration and Elise too beamed at the sight. She had been right in her assessment of him back when she was only his trainer and he was only Mr. Rochambeau. He was a hell of a dancer.
And when it came for the rest of the revelers to join the stage, Washington demurred at the opportunity for a second dance. He declined the embrace of governors and movie stars alike, beating a hasty retreat from the spotlight. “The floor, Madam, is all yours,” he said smiling to the Vice-President-elect. Chisholm was taken up on the dance floor by her choice for Secretary of State, a tall Virginian she’d taken a shine too early in her talent searches. She beamed over his shoulder at the General and the General bowed in return as he backed away and eased up next to Tonnelly.
“She will make a most excellent President,” he said before leaving Tonnelly’s side and taking up his rightful place next to his wife.
“May I occupy this seat here?” Washington asked indicating the place in the de Havilland single engine normally reserved for the co-pilot. He looked back at Elise, saw her radiant face nestled among the packages being brought northward to the Inuit with whom he would soon share a village. The name of that village had on his request been kept secret from his staff and the world at large. Not even Tonnelly knew where the General was heading.
“I have always felt myself at ease among the native peoples of this land,” he had told Tonnelly just before they’d parted at Ted Stevens Airport in Anchorage. “Their teachings kept me from many a dark turn in my former years.” Tonnelly had flown with Washington as far as the General would permit. While Elise had slept the two of them had talked long into the evening during the overnight from DC to Seattle, draining more than one glass of the good Scotch the General had sneaked aboard the plane. For once, Washington’s famous reticence retreated and his expansiveness and wit made Tonnelly laugh with true relief. It was only at the tail end of a story or an anecdote they shared that the looming sadness caught up with him, causing him to choke back a sob, knowing that these were the last few hours he would spend with this man who had meant as much to him, maybe even more, than his own father.
He did not begrudge the General’s choice to cede the Presidency to Chisholm. All he had wanted from Washington was to return the country to what he had considered to be “normal.” But what was normal? The old normal no longer fit and the new normal had outpaced even Tonnelly. From the start, the doctors had warned that the stress of office would likely limit any Washington presidency to a scant few years. It would be inordinately selfish for Tonnelly to insist that those years that remained to him be spent in another indenture. And who knew, really, what this man was capable of when set truly free? He was, Tonnelly realized, a man well versed in the study of his own errors. He used them as hammer and anvil to his soul, bettering himself under their blows. In wild Alaskan country he would study the tricks for survival from the Athabascan people who had agreed to make a home for him in this last untrammeled land. There would be many more adventures. Tonnelly had no doubt of that. But they would be private adventures, unrecorded by history. He thought all this as he watched Washington and Elise leave his field of vision, making their way toward the part of the Anchorage airport devoted to small planes and tiny villages.
Washington took up the co-pilot’s seat in the de Havilland single engine. He strapped himself in with the flimsy safety belt and reached back and held the hand of his young wife, her other hand resting calmly on her rising belly. He was done with the metaphorical job of being the father of his country. The nation was now in better and more rightful hands than his own. Now Washington looked forward with joy and no small amount of trepidation to the prospect of being the actual father to a living, breathing soul.