Chapter 1 1
For the weeks that followed the accident, Jane stayed in her bed, refusing food, weighing how to free herself from her life. She would lose herself in clouds of paregoric. She would slit her wrists with Franklin’s straight razor. She would suffer, as she deserved to. Moving into the White House was not among the options she considered.
She knew her husband was trying, in his helpless way, to reach her. He wrote her the most gentle letters from Washington. He told her how much he missed her. How he grieved too, but that together they may provide some comfort to each other. It was lovely. It made no difference.
Go to him.
She covered her head in pillows. It didn’t stop the voice from finding her.
There is one more step on the path. Only you can let me in.
Even her screams couldn’t muffle its words.
Open the door for me. And I can open the door for you.
There was no way.
It was the only way.
She started out. When she reached Baltimore she took a suite in the Exchange Hotel and sent word to Franklin asking if he would come.
It was the day before the inauguration. He left the capital immediately.
She opened the door before he could knock. He hadn’t seen her in a number of days and was reminded she was at her most beautiful when she had time to perfect her anguish.
“I feel I ought to ask if I can come in,” he said.
“You are my husband. I cannot hold you.”
It was a reply in which he tried to detect a trace of affection—the hold you, the possessive my husband—but no. Her tone as flat as a solicitor advising a client as to the extent of his property rights.
The room was overdecorated. Too small for the gold-painted Charles X chairs and the chandelier hung so low Franklin had to duck to pass under. It put Jane at an advantage, as she found her place on the scratchy-looking sofa with an ease he could never equal.
“I will not come,” she said.
In the minutes before his arrival she had changed her mind. She would resist him. Not Franklin. The voice. It was what her father would have wanted, what he asked her to promise at his deathbed. She would make an effort in her father’s memory at the expense of her husband’s understanding.
“Do you mean you will not come now, with me? Or tomorrow, for the inauguration?”
She looked up at him. Smoothed her dress over her legs. “I will not come.”
“It’s an important occasion. You are important to me.”
“Those are two arguments. Which do you wish to make?”
He went to the window. The street undulated three floors below, a dizziness within him that made all of Baltimore slither and writhe.
“You’re all I have, Jeannie. I’m embarking on a journey, and I don’t know the way.”
“You have Nate Hawthorne and your senators for that.”
“I’m not speaking of politics. I’m speaking of the direction we must take together.”
“You don’t require me for direction, Franklin.”
It was hopeless. She would win at a contest of blame because he was the only one deserving of it. His one way out was through her mercy, and she wasn’t ready to show him any of that, if she ever would again.
“I thought perhaps—” he said, turning, but stopped short at the sight of her crying.
“Something is happening,” she said. “Can I tell you?”
“There are voices inside me.”
She hesitated, as if to go any further would be to provoke some third presence in the room only she could see.
“Are they yours?”
“They are the voices of the world,” she said. “The people on the train. My little brother John. My father. So loud you can’t make out one from another, so their agony sounds as one. But then it stops.”
“And you find relief??”
“There is no relief in realizing its cause.”
“Which is what?”
“One voice that is apart from the others.”
Franklin had heard this kind of talk before. Campaigning in small towns where he would come across a tent or barn where a preacher would be quoting fire from the Bible. He dreaded entering those places. What unsettled him most was when one of the assembled would stiffen or start to shake, spellbound, and speak to the congregation with a message of salvation or destruction. They called it the touch of the Holy Spirit. To Franklin it seemed less a touch than an invasion.
“If you won’t come to Washington, will you please give me the locket?”
Her fingers went up to it. Rubbed the silver where it lay in the hollow at the base of her throat. The locket contained the hair of her two dead sons. A brown curl of Franky’s and dark strands from Bennie tied with ribbon cut thin as thread.
“Why do you ask for this?”
“Bennie wished to be at my side for the swearing-in,” he said. “I’d like to keep my promise to him.”
“And what of your promises to me?”
He reached out to her and she slid to the end of the sofa as if against attack.
“You can punish me—you have grounds for it,” he said, kneeling. “All I’m asking is to have my son with me tomorrow.”
Her fingers gripped the locket tighter but didn’t move to unclip it, the back of her fist turning white.
“He will stay with me.”
“I was his father, Jeannie. If you won’t stand with me, it will leave me to stand alone when—”
“He will stay with ME!”
She tugged. The locket’s chain snapped with a sound like a coin dropped in a pool.
Franklin held out his open hand. But she only gripped the locket tighter against her ribs.
“You think you hold sole ownership over pain. Perhaps you believe you invented it,” he said. “I have my arrogance. But this, Jeannie—this is yours.”
He stood. It made her look even smaller to him. Something a stage magician would introduce in his act as the Shrinking Woman.
“Those suffering voices in your head?” he said. “Has it occurred to you that the only suffering you could ever hear is your own?”
She didn’t relent. The locket stayed buried at her side, and her body withered more and more, transforming her from delicate woman to wrinkled child. When his back came up against the door he realized the illusion of her shrinking was the result of his retreat.
“If I could, I would stop it,” she whimpered.
“All that is to come.”
“We are both quite powerless against that.”
It was only when he was out of the room and escaping down the stairwell that he heard it as an odd thing for the president to say.
The day of the inauguration was blurred with wet snow, the audience scattered and blue-lipped. Those who endured the length of the ceremony shook beneath umbrellas that directed slush onto the coats of whoever stood next to them.
Franklin didn’t feel any of it.
There was a distance between his physical self that stood and spoke, and his inner self, which was nowhere near the steps of the Capitol. That part was with Bennie. And from this remove, he heard his voice begin to speak the words he’d written for the nation and realized they were addressed to Jane.
It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.…
It was closer to eulogy than celebration. He heard himself go on while feeling himself split wider into two men. One the reluctant president. The other lost in an immense darkness, refining his case against God.
He was never strongly religious, but he was a believer. Now he didn’t see himself as belonging to any church. None that was ruled over by a god that would push a train into a culvert and pluck just one life, the dearest soul among all its passengers, to join him in paradise.
The difference between Bennie’s death—all his children’s deaths—and the deaths of other children was that his had been taken. The world was full of loss, random and senseless. He knew it and accepted it. But his boys had been pulled from him for a purpose.
His standing there was proof of it. To deliver the words he was speaking, to be chiseled into the marble of history, required him to be free from the distractions of children. Maybe other men could be fathers and president at the same time, but he’d been judged to lack the focus to do both. Franklin Jr. gone before he had a chance to lay eyes on him. Franky pushed into the dark by the stranger in the smooth-skinned mask. Then Bennie. What explanation could there be other than the workings of a cosmic malice? A selection and destruction God alone had the power to enact.
Franklin Pierce was only the second American president not to swear his oath on a Bible. The first was Adams, who refused it out of principle. Franklin’s reasons were assumed to be the same, but the truth remained undeclared.
The snow came down, the parade canceled. When Franklin was finished the applause was a sparse thudding of gloved hands, voiceless and brief. It sounded to him like spades biting frozen soil.