GEORGE WASHINGTON IN CONVERSATION WITH JESUS CHRIST
Over dinner the night before there’s a fuss about Tom’s school play and my being there to see it. He refuses to pass the mashed potatoes and his mother side-eyes me until I set down my fork. I’m Benjamin Franklin, Tom says. It’d do you good to get out of the house, Mom says. Yeah, Dad, Tom adds. So Thursday evening I bundle against the snow and we drive the seven blocks to the elementary school. Mom and I settle in the auditorium among faces I recognize, but nobody speaks. The building reeks of vomit, of disinfectant and sawdust. Somehow concrete. Flat. They eventually cut the lights, everyone settles in their seats, and the kids start working across the stage. First they sing “America The Beautiful,” and then they come one by one for a monologue: Who they are, why they matter. It’s all Revolutionary figures. About makes sense for President’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, but not quite. A flute pipes in the background. Jaunty. Tom is better than some of them when he comes out. He’s loud and smiling. He discovered electricity and owned a newspaper, and we stand and clap once he hustles offstage. They break it up with more musical numbers, and by the time they reach Washington—our Founding Fathers alphabetically, we realize along the way—I’m bored senseless. The little girl playing him can’t sell chopping down the cherry tree. She isn’t honest. I work a new play over in my mind: Washington at the Delaware admits he can’t swim. Washington at Valley Forge considers unfaithfulness to his wife. Washington years later in conversation with Jesus Christ. What, our Lord and Savior asks, is necessary for liberty?
WASHINGTON: Oh, I don’t know.
CHRIST: Come on. Tell us. You know the audience wants to know.
WASHINGTON: Look, you’re in the same business, right? Sometimes a body just wants to be left alone.
CHRIST: But barring that?
WASHINGTON: Well, nothing short of independence will do, will it? You know how it went.
Mom shakes me awake when they’re finished. You’re pathetic, she says. Tom flies ecstatically ahead of us to the car. We cross the frozen world and he tells us how fine it was to stand in front of everyone, all eyes on him, to be in control. Free. We drive on through the dark with his voice filling us, keeping us carefully in time. Mom grips the steering wheel and leans forward just a bit. I look to the landing far ahead of us. We steer on through the ice toward home and revolt and freedom and dinner and something new and, I imagine, altogether unexpected.
AT THE VERY LAST MOMENT AND IN THE MOST SURPRISING OF WAYS
In a terrible scene yanked from a cheesy 80s film, the coach clutches his chest, down five with two minutes left in the fourth, and crumples to the hardwood. The boys make a ring about his body and once he’s carried away ring around again to pray. There’s talk of postponement, or forfeit, but the adults agrees they’ll best honor his memory by playing on. It’s what he would have wanted, the middle-school principal announces over the PA, his mustache trembling. But the coach isn’t even dead, at least not yet. On the ride to the hospital he sees, head over heels through the long tunnel of the ambulance and its windshield, the arches and pigtails and crowns and buckets of every fast-food joint in town. The irony of this final trajectory isn’t lost on him. But every word the medics and his frantic wife speak is a mystery, a terrible buzz of burning bushes and flaming swords delivering a message he cannot possibly understand. He looks to Heaven. He looks up into the grooves in the panel of the ambulance’s roof and finds the long polished lines of the basketball court. Everything will be fine. All the world’s noise gives way to the roar of the crowd in the stands. The boys line up and run and wind down the time, their parents cheer so wildly they sweat and sling the spittle from their mouths, but no one wins or loses. The buzzer sounds, and they don’t feel a thing. They shower and dress and file into cars that carry them many directions and far into the neon-lit night. From depths they’ve before now rarely imagined rise the hot and bloated bodies of their parents’ questions: Are you okay? How does this make you feel? Can I do anything for you? They don’t know. They answer carefully: Everything will be okay. They’ve read their textbooks, studied the materials, and they aren’t quite sure how adults forget. Life is long, but it ends. They tightly grasp the beating of their hearts and watch into the dark until it loses its colors and smothers them. It’s very quiet.
Marvin Shackelford is author of the collections Endless Building (poems) and Tall Tales from the Ladies’ Auxiliary (stories, forthcoming). His work has, or soon will have, appeared in Kenyon Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, Split Lip and elsewhere. He resides in Southern Middle Tennessee, earning a living in agriculture.