Every few months I enter NPR’s Three Minute Fiction contest. Why, I have no idea. The types of stories that win and receive notice tend to resemble chick-lit – precisely what my writing is not. If you don’t know the contest parameters they are quite simple and direct: write a fictional story in less than 600 words (ie. can be read in three minutes) while adhering to a rule posed by a guest author. For example, the rule for the last contest was that the story had to begin with this sentence: “She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally decided to walk through the door.” You should not be surprised that the winning entry was an overly-sentimental trope about a mother and her cancer-stricken son. Not bad, but not my style.
The current contest calls for authors to enter a story “that revolves around a U.S. president, who can be real or fictional.” Pretty goddamned broad topic. I’ve entered three or four of these TMF contests and I can confirm that writing a coherent story in less than 600 words that develops character and rounds out plot is fucking hard. As Cicero once proclaimed, “I would have written you a shorter letter if I had more time.”
Anyway, here is my entry in the latest TMF contest. Barbs and skewering welcome.
I received Thomas’s letter nine days after he posted it on the final day of May in the year of the Lord 1826. The letter was sealed with a dollop of dark red wax stamped with a relief of the letters T and J, the initials of my friend and successor, Thomas Jefferson. I fingered the sturdy linen envelope which bore my address in Quincy, Massachusetts, written with steely-blue India ink in Thomas’s elegant hand. Fearing the letter might reaffirm the pact we had loosely agreed upon years earlier, I hesitated to slit open the envelope.
The last time Thomas and I met in person, in New York City, the midpoint of a line extended from my residence to his in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was dismayed to find my friend’s health to be in far poorer condition than my own, even though he was eight years my junior. In uncharacteristically pessimistic fashion Thomas spoke of the pointlessness of persistence, the futility of forbearance in the face of inevitability. Although it should have disturbed me, rather I connected with Thomas’s morbid assessment of the waning days of life. Nearly fifty years on from the defining moment of our generation, the unanimous declaration of the thirteen united States of America, Thomas and I now experienced a shared ennui that essentially had smothered our desire to produce. Following Abigail’s death eight years prior my concentration on – worse, my passion for – literature and the earthly and cosmic sciences waned significantly. As for Thomas, he seemed weary of defending against allegations that he was the father of children with a Negress concubine, coming as close as at any time that I had known him to admitting the truth. I departed New York City fully expecting never again to enjoy Thomas’s company.
As difficult as it is to imagine now, in 1826, fifteen years earlier Thomas and I were enjoined in a rancorous relationship stemming from my admittedly painful snub on Thomas’s most glorious day. Yes, I chose not to attend his inauguration – a decision I regretted moments after the ceremony. But we reconciled. We began to correspond with regularity, touching often upon the subject of natural aristocracy; that is to question whether government should seek to identify select men endowed with superior virtue and wisdom, and instill processes to ensure they rise to positions of leadership. Thomas advanced the thesis, I took a contrarian position. But such fun! Such intellectual stimulation!
I have been told that historians consider the 158 letters exchanged between Thomas and me to be among the most illuminating documents of contemporary America in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century. But it was the letter I now held in my sclerotic hands, and the response I would hastily send, that would have most fascinated these historians had they been allowed the opportunity to scrutinize their contents. But this was not to be, for Thomas and I agreed to destroy the evidence of our final correspondence.
At last I slit open Thomas’s letter. I was correct: it concerned the pact we made that dark day in New York City.
The fiftieth anniversary of our declaration of 1776 fast approached. There could be no more glorious day to die! He was right. I quickly posted my response: “I am with you Thomas. By the grace of God we shall meet again in Heaven! With unconditional Love and Affection, John Adams.”
July 4, 1826. I tapped some arsenic into my tea, stirred the crystals into dissolution, and imbibed the treacly brew. I knew Thomas would do likewise. I trusted him. I always have.