Alone in his office on the night of the second presidential debate of 2012, George W. Bush reached for the remote. It was time. He had to see it. After four years, surely they wouldn’t keep dragging him in, would they? He tapped the red button, and the television blinked on, bringing the two sparring politicians into sharper focus. The Kid, W noticed with some satisfaction, was looking worse for the wear, his dark close-cropped hair flecked with salt and pepper after four years on the job.
“Not so easy, is it?” W muttered under his breath, remembering the Kid’s searing words on Inauguration Day. Kids today, they had no respect for their elders. Not like him. He had always respected his elders, had destroyed any bastard who dared question Big George’s sterling record.
As he settled back into his armchair, the camera swung towards the audience. “Governor Romney,” said a middle-aged woman clutching a slip of paper. “I’m an undecided voter. While I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen these last four years under Obama, I also attribute some of our country’s economic problems to the previous Republican administration.”
W sighed and shifted his weight in the chair. Probably the woman was really a Democrat, and the Kid had disappointed many. Nothing to be too offended by.
“Since both you and George W. Bush are Republicans,” the woman continued, “I fear a return to those policies should you win the election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush?”
The camera paused on the chiseled face and slick hair of the Massachusetts governor. W was no fan of Romney, an East Coast intellectual snob incapable of connecting with ordinary Americans. The man was not even a Christian! Still, Romney was a loyal Republican and had even endorsed him for the presidency. Surely he would defend his record now?
“President Bush and I are different people,” Romney began, his words sounding smooth and rehearsed. “And these are different times.”
“Damn,” W muttered. He clicked off the television and buried his head in his hands. So Laura had been right, as always. It was astounding. Four years later and the GOP nominee—a man W had endorsed—couldn’t summon a single positive word for him? Had he not acted as any good, moral man must? Had he not repented enough for the blood on his hands?
“God Almighty,” W cried to the empty room, Texas twang in full force now, “if you got somethin’ to say, you oughtta say it. Can you not forgive me my sins?”
“Fine, don’t answer me. You just show up with your fancy, omniscient powers and give me these vague orders. George, go an’ fight these terrorists in Afghanistan. George, go end the tyranny in Iraq. George, go bring peace to the Middle East. Like I oughtta know how to do all that without more detailed instructions! I’m not perfect, alright? Anyone say I was? Not even Mother thinks I’m perfect!”
“Georgie, dear boy,” answered a voice, “if you’re going through hell, well then I say keep going.”
The voice was sharp and British, not the Texan drawl W had heard ever since his first conversation with God, July of 1986, when he woke to a blistering hangover the morning after his 40th birthday and vowed to never touch alcohol again.
W leaned back in his armchair, fingers pressed to his temples, eyes still closed tight. Surely the Almighty could speak in whatever accent he damn well pleased, but it was still a bit suspicious. A bead of sweat rolled from his knee to the mid-calf fold of his sock as a single syllable slipped from his parted lips: “God?”
His heart was loud in his ears, his cheeks hot from Laura’s kiss an hour earlier. This was it, the moment he’d been waiting for all these years. A reckoning with God. A chance for forgiveness, understanding, absolution.
“Bollocks, I hope so.”
W opened his eyes. Then he gasped. It was not God. Instead, a completely translucent man, the spitting image of Winston Churchill, was leaning casually against his desk, dark bowler hat pulled low over his brow. His voluminous neck spilled generously from a crooked polka dot bow-tie and siren suit. An unlit cigar hanging from his mouth weighed down the left side of his face so that, squinting, he looked frozen in a permanent blink. Churchill, or the ghost of Churchill or whatever the hell it was, crossed his palms over his belly and smiled. With the cigar still in his mouth and the left eyelid still pulled down, it looked like a grimace.
“I know, I know,” Churchill said, hands clasped behind his back. “You’re probably wondering, why’s he here? Why’s he talking to me?”
In fact, W was not wondering this at all. He was not thinking at all. There were times to think, yes, and there were times when you needed to listen to your animal brain, obey your lightening-quick reflexes, and dodge shoes thrown by irate Iraqi reporters. Seeing long-dead British politicians certainly qualified for the latter category, and so he scrambled across the room for the nearest weapon-like item which might conceivably wound a ghost: his signed Texas Rangers baseball bat.
“After all, I saved my people from an evil scoundrel...”
W lunged from across the room, swinging the bat hard through Churchill's diaphanous gut. Whiff. Nothing but air, like he was nine years old again striking out in Little League. Only this time, the disappointment was not etched on Big George's face but on Churchill's.
“Oh my, my dear ol' chap,” Churchill shook his head. “I shall not harm you in any way. You do realize I have already expired?”
W shrugged, embarrassed, and dropped the bat to the floor. He didn't know what to think. As he'd told Tony Blair many years ago, the British Bulldog was one of his personal heroes. He loved his courage, his sense of principle, and most of all, his ferocious humor. Now, watching the baseball bat roll across the floor and under the armchair, he wasn't so sure. Maybe the liberal pundits had been right all along. Maybe he was delusional.
Churchill continued. “Anyway, as I was saying earlier. I saved my people from an evil dictator. You went and got yours killed by one. Then the nature of letters and rhetoric. Me, one of the greatest orators in the history of the esteemed English language—in fact, I have written a history of the English speaking peoples and won a Nobel Prize in Literature. And you, unable to pronounce the word 'nuclear,' a mere three syllables. Me, beloved by my countrymen. And you, on the contrary, not so much.”
W stared out the window of his Crawford ranch house, trying to mask the crimson rising to his cheeks. Even though it was early evening, the sun was only now beginning to set, streaking the purple sky with red and pink. All these years out of office and still he was not used to it, could not admire the sun setting without thinking someone would see, that his father would see, that the whole world would grind to a halt if he, George W. Bush, stopped to admire one beautiful thing while the world continued shattering around him.
“Ahem,” Churchill cleared his throat. “All that notwithstanding, I decided I shall assist you, dear ol' chap. You’re not a villain. I believe your heart rests on the right side of the iron curtain. To quote myself, because indeed I have said many lovely things, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’ I want to salvage your image, to make your father finally respect you—I sympathize, my father was an esteemed gentleman too—and to be honest, heaven is a bit dull.” Churchill stepped closer, until W smelled that curious scent of the undead—a mixture of rotting, mass-produced tuna steaks and freshly ground cinnamon—tickled his nostril hairs. “I know just the thing for you.”
W snorted. People were always trying to cheer him up, ever since he left office. “You'll be remembered as a moral man,” his wife had told him. “History will prove you right.” He was not so sure. Everywhere he went, he was greeted by jeering crowds. As a kid, he had always been popular, able to cheer anyone up. The jokester, the class clown. Now he couldn't even walk down the street without some neighbor's kid pointing and laughing.
“I'm sorry,” W gripped the window sill and turned around to face Churchill. “But I don't think you're gonna understand. Nothin' you can do for me.”
Churchill snapped his fingers, and a goblet appeared in his hand smelling strongly of whiskey and soda. He took a long, luxurious sip, then wiped his jowls with his shirt sleeve. “Oh, Georgie, my boy. George, George, George. Don't you think I suffered the same evil tidings after Gallipoli? Tens of thousands rotting in fresh graves. My own public career in ruins. The Black Dog my constant companion. Do you know how I persevered, dear ol' chap?”
“Whiskey,” W grunted, staring enviously at Churchill's glass.
“Well, you've got me there,” Churchill flashed his translucent teeth. “And it is a pity you no longer imbibe. But I also found a pastime. A pastime which made me a better man, a better statesman. Listen, Georgie, my boy. I know exactly the thing for you.” Churchill gripped W's shoulders, and a coldness swept through his body: like black ice streaming through blue veins, a freezing from the inside out. “You shall paint.”
“Paint pictures! You shall reform your image. Show the American people how sensitive you are. How you're not just a war-mongering dolt, but someone who can grasp colors. A master of his fate. Someone who can see light and nuance and details. Moreover, as I cannot help reflecting, it won't hurt to remind the commoners that you can read because sometimes, well, the public isn't so sure you can.” Churchill snapped his fingers, and a book materialized, hovering just inches from his face. It was a beaten-up paperback, maroon with large white lettering, PAINTING AS A PASTIME by Winston S. Churchill. On the cover was a black-and-white photo of Churchill himself bent over a wooden easel.
He handed it to W tenderly, like a swaddled newborn baby. W ran his hand across the cracked cover. “I dunno know how to paint, and I don't think Laura would like this...Me bein' a public figure again, embarrassin' her again...” He thought of all the pictures he had messed up during his presidency. Abu Ghraib. Mission Accomplished. The White House Correspondents' Dinner slideshow where he joked about looking for WMDs. The picture of him staring out the plane window after Hurricane Katrina, so distant and removed from it all. He looked up, swallowed hard. “But if I do this, fix my image and all, will the American people forgive me? Will God?”
“Bollocks if I know, ol' chap,” grunted Churchill. “Depends on how the pictures turn out, doesn't it?”
Churchill snapped his fingers and was gone, vanishing in a puff of smoke so strong it brought the former leader of the free world to his knees. The book was on the floor, split open to the copyright and title spread, and the TV was grumbling in the background, the two candidates both speaking over each other, their words blurred to senseless murmurs. How he missed that sparring. How he missed God and his lovely green earth and the whole hot, sticky mess. W closed his eyes and breathed in the sweet, musky odor of paper and ink. Then he turned the page and began reading.
Emily Greenberg is a writer, artist, and book editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac, A Bad Penny Review, Matter, The Copperfield Review, and Rainy Day Literary Magazine, and her art has been shown at Smack Mellon, AC Institute, BRIC, Intermedia Arts, St. Mary’s College Museum of Art, and elsewhere.