This story is by John MacIlroy and won an Honorable Mention in our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
John MacIlroy lives along the coast of South Carolina with his wife, a painted ceramic dodo bird named Dumont, and a pesky mortgage. His co-authored book, Not Exactly Rocket Scientists and Other Stories has just been released. A collection of zany “mostly, mostly true” stories, Pat Conroy called it “a great book about friendship . . .”
By the end, I wanted to believe him, although it really doesn’t matter.
He was simply one of my best friends, Chester A. Arthur, and we met at a small community college in the spring of 1972, near Richmond.
We were then both largely adrift. My early story was unexceptional, in a kind of stylish Sixties way, dropping out of Middlebury a few years earlier. Odd jobs along a Southern arc, coupled with an interest in history, finally landed me in the Capital of the Old Confederacy.
That’s where I met Chester, both of us finding seats in the back row of HIST. 203, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT.
Chester was stout, a bit formal, his luxurious mustache extreme even for the times. He looked to be in his early twenties, a bit distant at first, looking for his bearings, too. And like me, he loved history. Our class was taught by C. Coatesworth Eddington, a surprisingly engaged adjunct professor on our Tuesday and Thursday nights together. His lectures were polished, his judgments balanced, and Chester and I happily went along for the ride.
When Eddington’s usually up-tempo march through the American Presidents reached our Twenty-first, some six weeks into the course, things took a surprising turn. You see, Eddington simply didn’t think much of—or really about—the Presidency of Chester A. Arthur.
“This President,” he began, “is the very definition of political obscurity.” This was not the usual Eddington way, and I think he had come to like the attentive Chester A. Arthur sitting in his classroom. But the professor was Old South, and the story of the Arthur Presidency he told was one of urban intrigue and Northern machine politics, born of an assassin’s bullet. Eddington’s diminished accounting of the Arthur years was soon too much for my pal in the back row, and Chester took a deep breath.
“Give me a break! The Arthur Presidency may have lacked—what did you call it—verve? But it brought us no real scandal, a stronger Navy. And his civil service reform? You blew through it in minutes . . .”
Chester was rolling.
“I mean, forget that crook Harding. Even look at John Adams. Everyone loves him. I did. But the Alien and Sedition Acts? Come on!”
Where was this all coming from? I mean, I got the name thing, but this was weird.
“This ‘accidental President,’ you failed to mention, also suffered terribly throughout his term with Bright’s Disease.”
“Called nephritis, today. Awful. I have it.”
Chester stopped, giving Eddington a chance to jump in, and the professor finally conceded that the tragedy of the Arthur Presidency was simply his achieving “an historic obscurity.” That calmed Chester, and as class ended, he suggested we all go for a beer.
. . . . . . .
The Two-Spot was a popular college hangout just off campus, and the three of us took a booth.
Chester bought the first round, and looked at Eddington.
“Sorry I lost it tonight, professor. It’s just . . . ”
“. . . Well, here it is. In the early fifties, bio-geneticists at Cal Tech stumbled onto a procedure to clone people. Even dead ones. It was rogue, quickly fire-walled. But no nuttier, I guess, than exploding atomic bombs in the desert. But it worked. Some genius—most of us thought it was some looney at the Smithsonian, maybe Defense—figured it a great idea to clone as many American Presidents as possible, mining them . . . us . . .”
” . . . for our DNA, I guess. Who knows. So they did.”
Eddington coughed up his beer.
“You got it. Cloning the American Presidents. What a mess,” sighed Chester. He suddenly looked much older.
“Only a few Presidents made it to Full Clone: Lincoln, Adams, Pierce, a couple others.” Chester looked away.
Chester paused again. “The process had flaws. Within a decade, Lincoln—a lovely, tortured soul—was gone, just before his eighth birthday. He was the first, others quickly following. Adams was the last, my best friend. A really funny guy, too.”
Chester looked to the both of us, sadly.
“John was almost nine.”
Chester continued, quietly.
“No one knows why I survived. Lucky, that’s what they said. But I don’t know. Maybe. They let me out a couple of years ago, with a handsome government stipend, a plausible cover story to fill in those years in The Program. You know, it wasn’t a bad life, at least at first. All of us orphans, they said, growing up together. Kind of like a boarding school, which the place had been once. Kept us busy. Studies, sports. Pierce the jock, Adams the smart one. The whole thing hidden in plain sight, really. Blow your mind if I told you where.”
He looked away.
“But once we started losing kids—most just didn’t wake up—they came clean. Talk about a mind-blow. And all that for a Chester A. Arthur? Look, I was never even on a bank note. . . .”
“Everyone agreed that I could keep my name, convinced no one would believe my story anyway, or really care. The new Chester A. Arthur. No better, some may say, than the old one, drifting once again into obscurity.”
Chester looked at Eddington with a sad smile.
“About tonight, professor. It’s just that I really get pissed-off when anyone counts me out, history-wise.”
. . . . . .
Eddington gave Chester an Honors that spring, convinced, I suppose, he was nuts. I figured Chester had simply pulled off a masterful goof to cop that grade, although today, well, who knows. It’s that kind of world.
The Eddington Beers, as we started calling that night, cemented a friendship lasting until Chester’s early death. He was 57, taken by a cerebral hemorrhage.
Just like our Twenty-first President.