“Twelve Presidents” (a fiction, on the anniversary of the shooting of President William McKinley)

One hundred twenty one years ago today, President William McKinley was shot by an anarchist while visiting the World’s Fair in Buffalo, NY. Eight days later, President McKinley died of his injuries, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became President.

Being the scene of a Presidential assassin certainly colors a city’s local lore. Years ago the Buffalo News ran an annual short fiction contest, and in 2007 the contest theme was a story surrounding the events of the assassination. This is the story I submitted. And…it won!

***

Ernest Knight tried to conceal his wheezing as he pushed Hilda’s wheelchair up onto the sidewalk, but Hilda heard him all the same. Old and sick as she was, she still heard everything.

“Slow, Ern,” she said. “That heart of yours–“

“I’m fine,” Ernest replied. This eighty-six year old heart of mine is still strong enough to push my eighty-two year old wife.

Fifteen minutes later they arrived at a spot where the street sloped slightly downward toward the underpass. Ernest applied the chair’s brake.

“This spot all right, Dear?”

“Oh yes,” Hilda said as she opened an Agatha Christie book she hadn’t read in so long that she’d forgotten who did it. Ernest merely shuffled about.

“Lots of people already,” he said.

“Everybody loves to see a President,” Hilda replied.

Ernest took in a deep breath of November air, and let it out. Hilda was sick, and he was old. This will be our last President together, he thought; and then he turned his memory back to their first President together.

***
Lt. Ernest Knight of the Buffalo Police Force brushed an invisible speck from his shoulder and tugged at the collar of his newly-minted uniform. Sooner or later, it would start to get cold, but for now it was a hot and humid day, not uncommon for early September in Buffalo. The uniform didn’t help matters at all, but he was on special assignment and had to wear it. The line of citizens and well-wishers was already forming outside the Temple of Music, people who’d come to shake the hand of William McKinley, the twenty-fifth President of the United States.

As the newest Lieutenant on the force, it fell to Knight to supervise the uniformed officers outside the Temple in their efforts to control the crowd. Next time a President’s in town, he thought, at least I’ll be one of those poppinjays on horseback.

“Stop pushing, folks,” he called out when the crowd got a bit too restless. “The line will move quickly enough.”

“Oh please,” came the voice of a young woman. Knight turned to face her. She wore a blue dress and a matching blue hat, but what held Knight’s gaze were her wide hazel eyes and the red hair she wore in a style that was more daring than he usually saw in Buffalo. “We’ve been standing here for two hours.” She dabbed at the sweat on her lip with a handkerchief from her handbag.

“It’s hot for everyone, Miss,” Lt. Knight replied, recovering himself. “You were pushing this gentleman.” He gestured to a young-looking man in a dark suit immediately in front of her in line.

“Oh, it is all right,” said the young-looking man. “I just want to congratulate the President.”

“Well, the line’s moving again,” Lt. Knight said. “Good day, Miss.” He tipped his hat to her, and she smiled in return. A mischievous smile.

“They put too much starch in your collar,” she said. “At least it fits you well.” She smiled again. Lt. Knight couldn’t help but watch her as she disappeared into the Temple of Music. He would always remember that look in her eyes, the first time they met.

He would also remember afterward how that young-looking man never used the handkerchief on his hand to dab at the copious sweat on his brow.

***
Ernest continued pacing back and forth behind Hilda’s wheelchair. A passing policeman had told them it would be less than an hour now.

“Henry said this is a bad idea,” Ernest said. “He thinks we’re too old for this nonsense.”

“Henry always thinks we’re wrong,” Hilda replied, not looking up from her book.

Henry was the youngest of their three sons, and the most pig-headed. Born during the Wilson years – their fourth President – Henry had gone to war against the Germans in ’42 while his brothers, Walter and Joseph, had been sent to the Pacific. After the war, Henry had moved down south to follow the nurse he’d fallen in love with. Both Henry and Walter (born under Taft, Ernest and Hilda’s third President) were now nearing retirement themselves. (Joseph, their firstborn, had been buried in Arlington after Guadalcanal. He’d lived from Roosevelt to Roosevelt.)

“We should have voted for this one,” Hilda said. “He seems like a good man.”

Ernest nodded. So had McKinley.

***
“Lieutenant!”

Knight turned to his superior, Captain Hess, who’d just come from inside the Temple.

“Come inside,” Hess said. “Mr. Cortelyou’s nervous.”

That was George Cortelyou, personal secretary to the President, who’d been very nervous about security for this event.

“Yes, sir.”

Lt. Knight followed Captain Hess inside through the exit door, thinking incongruously that he’d get to see that young red-haired woman again. He shook that thought out of his head – and then he was in the same room as the President of the United States.

President McKinley was a big man, dressed in a black suit with a broad, white vest. At the moment he was greeting two children whose parents stood beaming behind them. The queue extended down the hallway opposite. There, third in line, was the young-looking man; behind him, the red-haired woman.

“Captain!” It was Mr. Cortelyou. He did look nervous. “We will close the doors in five minutes.”

“We’ll be ready,” Captain Hess replied. “Lt. Knight here will help clear the room.”

Nodding, Mr. Cortelyou moved back to the President’s right. Across the room from the President stood one of his personal bodyguards. It all looked perfectly in order. Lt. Knight caught the eye of the red-haired woman; she gave him a small smile. He chuckled, returned her smile, and turned his attention back to the line.

Next came the young-looking man, with his handkerchief still on his hand. He stepped up close to the President, who extended his right hand in greeting. But the young-looking man did not clasp Mr. McKinley’s outstretched hand. Instead–

Lt. Knight heard firecrackers.

***
It was a little after noon now. Hilda put her book away, and Ernest wiped sweat from his brow. “I don’t know how Henry lives down here,” he said.

“Henry never did like the snow,” Hilda replied.

“Well, we’re never leaving Buffalo again.”

“No, I suppose not, Dear.” Hilda touched Ernest’s hand. They’d lived in their current house, their second, since Truman’s defeat-turned-reelection. They’d moved after the boys had left, to a smaller place closer to little Anna’s grave. She’d been born, lived and died — of dysentery – all under Taft. Their only daughter.

Behind them a man with one of those new home movie cameras was climbing up onto the concrete balustrade to get a better view.

It would be about fifteen minutes now.

***
Two shots.

Blood, running scarlet across President McKinley’s white vest.

The guards, piling on top of the young-looking assassin.

The President, saying “Be careful of how you tell my wife.”

Mr. Cortelyou, shouting for assistance for the President.

“Knight!” Captain Hess, shouting. “Clear those people!”

The onlookers.

Lt. Knight sprang forward as the guards pummeled the assassin. “Don’t hurt him,” he heard the President say, but that would be the least of the President’s concerns.

Knight found that most of the onlookers had been ushered out by the other guards, but the red-haired woman just stood there, her hazel eyes wide with shock.

“Miss? Miss?”

“H-Hilda,” she stammered. “Hilda Watt.”

Lt. Knight put a hand on her arm.

“Let me take you home, Miss Watt.”

***
Ernest took Hilda’s hand. Somehow her hand felt the same as it always had, even though both their hands had changed so much over sixty-two years together.

He could hear the sirens now. The President’s motorcade was almost here.

***
As the doctors operated in fading light on President McKinley – fading light, at a festival with hundreds of bright electric lights — Lt. Knight took Miss Watt home. She told him many things about herself: she was to be a nurse as soon as she finished her studies; she loved coffee and hated tea; she was a suffragette. She’d been in that receiving line, hoping to hand the President a pamphlet she’d written about giving women the right to vote. For his part, Knight told her about his time on the police force, and how he’d wanted to be a policeman since he could crawl. He told her how he loved horses and didn’t much care for snow.

As darkness fell, he asked if he could call on her again. She said yes. And so it began, as President McKinley lingered. Their first President together.

The first night that Lt. Earnest Knight came to see Hilda Watt at her home, all proper-like, was the night that President McKinley died. Vice President Roosevelt was sworn in soon thereafter.

Their second.

***
The motorcade arrived. It slowed and came around the bend. Cheers went up from the hundreds of people lining the street.

Ernest looked down at Hilda, and found her eyes – still that beautiful hazel – turned up at him. Her hair was no longer red, but her eyes had never changed.

They both looked back to the street. There was the car, and in it, their eleventh President, and almost certainly their last. Neither expected to live to the 1964 elections. She was sick, and he didn’t see much point without her.

And as President Kennedy seemed to make eye contact with them, Earnest heard something he’d once heard before.

Something like…firecrackers.

The End

 

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1 Response to “Twelve Presidents” (a fiction, on the anniversary of the shooting of President William McKinley)

  1. Roger says:

    I’ll have to try to remember this for next Presidents Day.

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