Writer in Residence · 09/07/2010

Artifact 7: The Skeleton Fingers Have a Calming Effect

A stranger visits Richard Nixon on his death bed. The man wears a black cloak and domino mask. He sits beside Nixon, so fragile, so close to the death, and takes the Disgraced President’s left hand into his own. His skin is paper thin.

​“Did you know, Mr. Nixon, that every American president is granted one final gift before their death?”

​“Oh?”

​“Franklin set it up. We send you into the timestream. Pick an era and we’ll send you there. A final vacation before you meet your earthly demise. What say you, Disgraced President Richard Milhous Nixon?”

​Nixon rasps through the oxygen tubes, the IV, his voice robotic and small. “The future. The future.”

​“Unexpected choice, Dick.”

​The stranger turns his back and pulls something unseen from his cloak. Nixon closes his eyes, and when he opens them finds he is no longer in the Cornell Medical Center, but standing on the peak of a slag pit overlooking the ruins of cityscape: fallen towers, collapsed buildings like crooked teeth, red sky. Nixon is young and powerful, handsome in a familiar Brooks Brothers suit. He kneels to the ground and cups a handful of coal residue, then brings it to his nose for a powerful sniff.

​“Fire Sky,” Disgraced President Richard Nixon says. “Ruined Land.”

​Nixon walks down the slag pit into Ruined Land. His shoes leave footprints in the dirt, then in the dust of the cracked streets dotted with holes that expose the subway and sewer innards below, an acrid sweet smell drifting up, up, up. The buildings Nixon passes are toppled, but he keeps an eye open for something useful, for any signs of human life. He fears there are people here somewhere, feral, awaiting his presidential arrival. He remembers the Inauguration. The Secret Service refused to let him and Pat ride in an open limo because of protestors hurling eggs or worse. “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh. The NLF is going to win.” He recalls the anger, but mostly the alienation, the sense of otherness from those people. Nixon enters a gun shop adjacent to the sunken in remains of a Jewish deli. The inside is swept clean, the shelves tinseled in webs and spider eggs, the cash register carved down the middle.

​There’s a padlocked door in the back. Nixon inspects the lock. It’s rust orange and turns to dust when he touches it. He enters the back room, a kind of hallway, and reaches into his pocket where he finds a snake-skinned lighter. Nixon ignites the flame and discovers a chalky skeleton slumped against a wall, a revolver wedged between its bone fingers, a black brown stain the size of a dresser behind it. “How far did they send me?” Nixon asks the skeleton while prying the gun loose. But the fingers do not budge. They rip free from the hand, cemented into the gun itself. The fingers feel like hard candy from his youth.

​There are two bullets left. Nixon puts the gun and into his pocket and leaves. He recalls his mother’s name.

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​Later, the Disgraced President comes upon a domed building in what appears to be the dead heart of this ancient city. Marble and sparkling, it sits undisturbed in the center of a park, grass brown, dead in patches, the stone benches reduced to mossed rubble. Beyond the slag pits that surround this valley city, a cry can be heard, otherworldly. Nixon closes his eyes and imagines Green Island, where he was stationed with the Navy during the Second World War. At night, when the other men hooted and hollered over their poker and drink, Nixon would walk the air strip and hum Big Bill Broonzy songs. There, he often heard cries of the jungle cats who strutted around the mountains like anointed kings. It reminds him of that, this cry in Ruined Land, only more human, something too familiar in the diaphragm to be truly animal.

​He crunches through grass. He crunches through dried mud. When he reaches the unspoiled dome, he finds a single metal gate at the entrance not unlike the one at his family’s mausoleum. Like the gun shop padlock, it falls apart when Nixon reaches for it. He pulls out the lighter to see, then with his free hand aims the borrowed gun into the darkness of the dome. He enters.

​There is a tiny antechamber that leads to a large, open space. Nixon moves close against the wall and bumps into the nub of a light switch. He flips it, more out of habit than any belief that it will actually work, and lo and behold a golden light buzzes to life inside the main chamber, hanging high in the domed ceiling like a miniature sun. Nixon is stunned by the statues at room’s center. Glowing with light from above are four people carved from stone, a male, a female, two children in front. Their faces and bodies are bare. They could be anyone. Nixon hears a noise. Unseen speakers kick in. Music plays. Alternately electronic and harsh, then melodic and comforting. Something about this installation, about the deft combination of music, light and art, something about this moves him, pulls at his extremities. He crouches low besides the statues and aims his gun at the entrance. The skeleton fingers have a calming effect. He hears the crying again, then growling, a roar somewhere far but approaching quickly, quickly. He will defend this place. He will defend this place.

​What astounds Richard Nixon, what finally gives him pause, is how happy all this makes him, how exhilarating it is to be at the end of the world protecting something of value. Somehow, he always knew it would end like this, had maybe even longed for this conclusion since days suffered in his father’s woodshed. In that darkened space he learned the outcome of everything, what life really is.

​Disgraced President Richard Nixon cocks his revolver. He is ready for the end.

Salvatore Pane’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Annalemma, PANK, Quick Fiction, Weave, We Are Champion and others. He writes articles and reviews for The Rumpus, BOMB and PANK and teaches fiction at the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached online at www.salvatore-pane.com.

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posted by Amber Sparks