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The President, a Precedent
Matt Weatherbee


He assessed his happiness by the color gray, an old stern look, and not much else. Both crept unnoticed from his hairline, though in opposite directions, until one day what looked back at him from mirrors and windows was dead-eyed, ancient, somber, and unrecognizable. He no longer understood time. At this new, yet not new, job, he had experienced the longest and shortest years of his life. The seconds, minutes, and hours he spent behind that oversized desk possessed him in some inexplicable way that turned him into an abomination, a man stuck somewhere in the middle of young and old, between hating girls and pining for them. It made eight years seem like twenty-four and three at the same time. Whichever was correct, he couldn’t tell.

He was reading something. He was at the bottom of the paper, but he didn’t remember what was in the middle or at the top. They were important, these letters on paper. His job was a letters-on-paper kind of job so he guessed that made him important.

His eyes flicked to the top of the paper and scanned left to right without absorbing anything. He wondered how he got there, a man with things at once possible for his mind and impossible for his body. In his head he could walk on the moon, hit a baseball out of the park, or sit in the Oval Office. He couldn’t do that with his body now, not all of it at least, not like when he was a kid. When he was a kid, he could’ve been whatever he wanted to be: an astronaut, a ballplayer, or the president. Yeah, that sounded good, the president. I was the president, not an astronaut, son, and I saved the world. Yeah . . . I was the president, not a ballplayer.

He remembered that kid who wanted to be president. He remembered being that kid sitting in history class as the teacher said, “It was unprecedented. It set a new precedent for—” That kid raised his hand to interrupt the teacher and asked who the president was. The teacher looked at him funny and said, “Not ‘the president,’ ‘a precedent.’” He nodded like he understood and she continued with the lesson.

That kid went home and asked his mom for the dictionary. While flipping to the P section, he asked her how a country could go “unpresidented”. She looked at him funny like his teacher did and told him he’d find his answer in that book. He thought “president” must be a word with two meanings, but he found the word with his finger and it didn’t have two meanings. He searched for an hour and a half through the p-r-e-s section of the dictionary without finding anything. That kid shut the book feeling stupid and inadequate. He hated that kid for not looking a little harder, for not going through the entire P section of the dictionary in search of a “precedent”.

That kid stayed in from recess the next day to ask his teacher what she had meant. She looked at him funny for a second time and told him as she wrote it on the board with a definition. That word made a little more sense now. He jumped when the other kids filed in from recess and filled the seats around him. He felt them turn their heads and see that word written on the board. Their eyes stomped across the board. The sounds of his humiliation—hissing whispers of insults, jokes and judgement followed by subdued laughter—pulsed from that word. His face went red. Fighting back tears, he stared straight ahead at that word for the rest of the school day because he didn’t want to see any more people looking at him funny. He slouched down in his chair and tried to hide his face behind a steel expression. He wished his teacher would erase it, but she didn’t. Over and over, he read that word, dissecting it, and wished it would erase itself, letter by letter. Instead, it was written into his memory, and that kid learned the full cruelty of words. When the bell rang, he collected his books and was gone. He remembered that kid, that word—P-R-E-C-E-D-E-N-T: noun, an earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances—and not much else from the fifth grade.

He flipped the paper over and began to read the other side. He longed to pinch the letters off the paper and torture the ink. Make it bleed. But they mattered too much. He could’ve been president. He knew a little about politics. He could write a paper on presidents and precedents, on president’s precedents, that would bring academia to its hands and knees. He scoffed and shook his head. Maybe this was also that kid’s grand delusion. He couldn’t achieve anything monumental. The proof was in the fact that he didn’t. All he did was address and accept and reject things, but mostly he sifted through the thousands and thousands of words printed on the stacks of papers on that desk. Remove this, destroy that. No. No. We can’t allow that. His scrutiny knew many words.

A violent itch shot up his leg to his heart and he wished he could kick that kid for believing he could be president. He hated that kid for letting clichés constitute dreams and for letting something so small and meaningless shape those dreams. He hated that kid for his naiveté. He hated that kid for being a kid. Or maybe he hated his parents for raising that kid.

He moved his pen to sign the paper and then he didn’t know what he was signing so he skimmed it over again. Right then, he wanted to crumple up the paper and eat it. His stomach craved it more than anything ever. Under different circumstances, in another world, or at an earlier date—all were the same to him—he could’ve made a stronger bid for his aspirations, got the right letters arranged on the right papers. He remembered that kid beginning the sixth grade and being asked by the new-old teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up. He remembered him saying that he wanted to be the president, not a ballplayer like his best friend Tim or an astronaut like his other best friend Karen. The other kids giggled at this, including Tim and Karen, and one of them said he didn’t even know what that meant. That kid went red from the audible quality of his humiliation all over again and never said he wanted to be the president again after that. That’s why he hated that kid, for not knowing.

Before him a grand mahogany desk folded into life. Flags like steroid muscle materialized behind him. Windows and drapes stretched and multiplied. More varieties of seats and hardwood came through the floor. Fine black, white and red tendrils of fabric spiraled up his fingers and toes, his arms and legs, and around his trunk. They twined into the black socks, shined black shoes, white collared dress shirt, black pressed trousers, black jacket with notched lapels and the red pocket square of a bespoke, single-breasted suit. An afterthought red tie wove around his neck like a forgotten cherry late to the top of a sundae. Everything was now Resolute and historic. Against this backdrop and in this suit, with his newish hair and newish look, he’d bet anyone he appeared pretty presidential indeed. Hell, he wasn’t sure he wasn’t the president. The uncertainty tethered him to that desk and weighed on him with a heavy, responsible gravity all its own.

With a flourish, he signed the paper and stood up. Once more he looked at it—decided that was too close to reading it—and laid the paper down. He drew the necklace his son had made over the collar of his suit and played with it for a bit: three-strand twisted fibers, thick and strong and natural. The feel of it strung up the hair on the back of his neck. Then he fell out of his chair and was the first person to walk on air in that egg of an office. Not the president, a precedent. And not much else.

Matt Weatherbee does not have an MFA. He picked the wrong major in high school.