I walked twenty-two blocks to find a can of Fix-A-Flat in Brooklyn. Anywhere else in North America, the stuff is kept several cans deep on the store shelves, but not in New York City. At last, in a narrow-aisled bodega, I found a single can, hidden behind a basket of paraffin-coated yucca roots. There were three red price stickers on the cap, stacked carefully so that only the top price could be seen.
I got "on line" behind a white-haired woman in a black tunic. There was Latin music playing from a radio. The woman bent over at the counter, scratching at something, then straightened and began to scream in short bursts, like this: "Aah! Aah! Aah! Aah! Aah!"
The man at the register took a step back and lifted a golf club over his shoulder. "What is she screaming for?"
"I've just won ten thousand dollars!" the woman said. She moved her body to one side, and I saw she had a New York Lottery scratch-off card pinned to the counter with both thumbs.
"You did what? Let me see," the man said. He lowered his club, and she turned the card around so he could read it right-side up. "No, no. You won a hundred. There's a decimal in there."
"A hundred? You're nuts," she said. "Get your glasses on."
He carefully slid on a pair of reading glasses, then bent over and peered at the card again. "Holy mother! You did win ten thousand! Aaaaahhh!"
"I told you! Aaah! Aaah! Aaaaaaahhh!"
New Yorkers are an excitable breed, but they're quick to settle down again. After a small crowd had gathered and dispersed, things went back to the New York version of normal. The woman tucked the winning card into her wallet and asked the man for a carton of Marlboro Lights and a bottle of Poland water. A man who'd been trying to sell some key rings on the sidewalk asked her to buy him a carton, too. She said she would buy him one pack, and a sandwich if he was hungry.
"I'm not hungry," he said.
She bought him a pack of Winstons and left. I paid for my Fix-A-Flat.
After six disappointing months in the city, this simple can of leak-sealing, tire-inflating foam was my ticket out. I walked the twenty-two blocks to where my yellow Plymouth Duster sat listing at the curb. By the time I got there, I had shaken the can quite thoroughly per the instructions. I attached the tube to the left rear tire valve and released the foam, and the tire inflated. I got on my way.
I was twenty-eight years old. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. had won a Pulitzer by this age. The thought depressed me, and I reminded myself that Professor Schlesinger had the benefit of some early advantages that I lacked, in addition to his no doubt considerable native intelligence. We all have to do what we can with the tools we are given. By this same age of twenty-eight, Andrew Johnson had advanced himself from tailor's apprentice to elected representative in the Tennessee General Assembly. Unlike Schlesinger, the future seventeenth president had no Exeter or Harvard behind him. He'd been taught to write by his teenage bride.
I left the city with my windows down, crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, then Staten Island. The Duster could not maintain highway speed with its air conditioner running. I followed U.S. 1 through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, then into Maryland. In Baltimore I spotted a medium-sized fowl bird with an eighteen-inch tail sprinting frantically along the gutter of Belair Road. Traffic was heavy, and the bird, whose head was green with scarlet patches, was badly out of place. I later confirmed it to have been a male ring-necked pheasant.
Farther south, in the District of Columbia, I spent an hour outside the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building eating two peanut butter sandwiches and trying to make myself feel, with all its fullness, this brief moment of my presence in the nation's capital. History is a difficult thing to imagine. Is it a line in which our lives form a tiny segment? Or is it a massive live beast to whose hump we cling? Andrew Johnson, I recalled, had in early days proposed converting the Smithsonian into a national trade school offering courses of study in carpentry, dentistry, and plumbing. What kind of man had thoughts like that?
Already the sights and strains of travel had fatigued me some. I'd gotten a later start than I'd meant to, due to some confusion with my landlady Mrs. Chouri over the security deposit. The sum was not an enormous one, but I had counted on it, especially in the light of certain inconveniences that I had quietly put up with during my six months' tenancy in her building. For example, the shower in my apartment had no shower head. There was only a threaded neck protruding from a hole chipped out between tiles. Warm, cloudy water gurgled from it. My neighbor crushed ice at all hours, on the counter top with a spoon if my ears do not lie. I hadn't complained. Then, that morning, as we walked through the apartment, Mrs. Chouri announced that my book crates had ruined her carpeting.
"They have only made a very faint imprint," I said.
"Oh no! They have seriously gouged the carpet, which affects the value of my building."
The facial absurdity of this proposition did not embarrass her. She clicked her mouth at me, bringing it closer and closer to my face, flicking her fingers at the same time in a characteristic way that she had. When she got so close that her breath moved my hair, I had to leave, deposit or not.
Can a person so easily whipped as this look forward to any success in life? I turned the question around in my mind as I sat by myself on the National Mall. I had a postcard on my knee and was attempting to pen a note to my mother, but I could not think what to say in so few words. Across the pavement, a man emerged from the Arts and Industries Building with a puffy Uncle Sam hat on his head. He stopped for a moment, perusing a brochure. The giant hat was made of satin, and it flopped to one side. The man slid the brochure into a trash barrel and wandered away.
There are two kinds of historians: those who ascribe agency to vast impersonal forces, and those who give the credit and blame to individual humans. I hold the latter view, though I sometimes have to remind myself of it. I did this now. For a change, I had a plan, and I also had an advantage. Many had studied the scandal-torn presidency of Andrew Johnson; some had the backing of universities and endowed foundations, but I had a secret lead all the others had overlooked. The lead concerned a set of Johnson papers that had been deliberately mislaid, and had stayed lost for over a century. I had reason to think I could find them. All I had to do was stay on task with an animal tenacity. Setbacks and reversals would come, but I would deal with them, drawing on my life's experience and my bit of self-knowledge as needed.
Step one had been leaving New York, the city where I developed a tic of excessive blinking. If for no other reason, I had to go away to rest my eyelids.
Step two was Tennessee. I got back on the road.
The Duster had been mine for one day. I had bought it from Mrs. Chouri's nephew. When I stepped on the gas, a blue haze filled the rearview mirror. I had noted the smoky discharge on first inspecting the car, and when I mentioned it to Mrs. Chouri's nephew he said, "What do you expect for under two thousand dollars?" This throwing the comment back in your face is the New Yorker's idiom. He assured me some smoking was normal for a car with ninety thousand miles on it. But the smoking got worse, and now, on the interstate south of Washington, the yellow Duster started to hesitate. Women and girls scowled down at me from the passenger windows of tall SUVs. The Duster slowed to about fifty miles per hour, and I switched on the hazard lights.
The miles and hours passed slowly, until just below Wytheville, Virginia, the right rear tire blew out. I steered the crippled vehicle to the side of the road and got out to look. The sun was behind some hills, and a cantaloupe-colored light washed over the roadside grass and gravel. I found a ragged hole in the side of the tire.
I opened the trunk. The jack and spare were under all of my clothes, plus the entire University of Tennessee edition of the papers of Andrew Johnson, seventeen volumes counting the supplement. I had left the carpet-ruining crates in New York, having learned in the course of many moves that to pack a car truly full, the books must go in loose.
I decided to wait for morning. I read until dark, then tried to sleep, which was difficult in the little crowded vehicle under the stars at the edge of the freeway with eighteen-wheelers hurtling past all night at an irregular frequency, shedding enormous violent air wakes that made the Duster shudder in place, and some of them blowing their loud horns. At length I dropped off into a fragmentary slumber and dreamed I was a passenger on one of those haunted-house carnival rides where arms and squeals and hatchets pop out from the darkness, and you are strapped into your seat and can hear the wheels rattling underneath you on the tracks.
Then, in my dream, I was with my father at the Hall of the Presidents at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I was ten. A very rich and keen expectancy lay upon us as the auditorium lights dimmed and the curtain rose on a life-sized tableau of the thirty-nine American presidents. My father pointed out the current one, Ronald Reagan, towards the front in a brown suit, alongside Abraham Lincoln and the seated General Washington. I searched the back rows for the two fat presidents, Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft, and the sideburn-wearing Chester Arthur, and the hollow-cheeked John Tyler. I knew all of their faces well, having studied them daily at school. Their printed portraits were taped up in a row above the chalkboard in our classroom. My father clutched at my arm, and the shiny-haired Reagan spoke:
"I welcome you to the Hall of the Presidents, where the chief executives of our nation have gathered to share with you the story of our America."
The president's head turned smoothly a few degrees and stopped. His spotlight faded as another one rose on Teddy Roosevelt, who had a look on his face like he was being pinched by devils. His jaw chopped open and shut when he talked. The dozen or so major presidents spoke in turn, each pivoting his head in some way or lifting an arm to emphasize a point. Woodrow Wilson was eulogizing the League of Nations when my father and I noticed a low, monotonous sound. It seemed at first like something mechanical -- a noisy blower in the ventilation system, possibly -- but then a rhythm of muffled speech emerged. Wilson stopped in mid-sentence, his head twisting quizzically.
"Deem me not vain or arrogant," the muffled voice said; "yet I should be less than man if under such circumstances I were not proud of being an American citizen, for today one who claims no high descent, one who comes from the ranks of the people, stands, by the choice of a free constituency, in the second place in the government."
"What in the hell is that noise?" Teddy Roosevelt said.
"There may be those to whom such things are not pleasing, but those who have labored for the consummation of a free Government will appreciate and cherish institutions which exclude none however obscure his origin from places of trust and distinction," the voice went on.
"It's Johnson," Woodrow Wilson said.
"It ain't me," Lyndon Baines Johnson replied.
"No. It's Andrew Johnson," Wilson said. "He's giving his vice presidential inauguration speech again."
"Speak not over your interlocutor, nor weary him with tedious iterations," General Washington said from his chair down in front.
"You, Senators, you who constitute the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, are but the creatures of the American people; your exaltation is from them; the power of this Government consists in its nearness and approximation to the great mass of the people. You, Mr. Secretary Seward, Mr. Secretary Stanton, the Secretary of the Navy...."
"I cannot make out the man's words!" Franklin Delano Roosevelt exclaimed shrilly. He and Washington were the only seated presidents. "His speech is slurred!"
"The man has been drinking," Lyndon Johnson said. "He's shit-faced!"
"His jaw has no hinge," Thomas Jefferson explained.
Jefferson was correct. A spotlight found Andrew Johnson's place high on the back row of presidents and lit up his powdery white face and the obdurate blue eyes. Unlike the major presidents' mannequins, his had limbs and a head that were nonmotorized. His jaw was immobile, and he spoke through what appeared to be a narrow slit between his pale wax lips. "Humble as I am, plebeian as I may be deemed, permit me in the presence of this brilliant assemblage to enunciate the truth that courts and cabinets, the President and his advisors, derive their power and their greatness from the people. Such an assertion of the great principles of this Government may be considered out of place, and I will not consume the time of these intelligent and enlightened persons much longer; but I could not be insensible to these great truths when I, a plebeian, elected by the people the Vice President of these United States, am here to enter upon the discharge of my duties."
"Can it," Lyndon Johnson said.
"How'd he get drunk when his jaw won't hinge?" Harry Truman said.
"I welcome you to the Hall of the Presidents," Ronald Reagan said.
Andrew Johnson went on, unfazed. "I, though a plebeian boy, am authorized by the principles of the Government under which I live to feel proudly conscious that I am a man, and grave dignitaries are but men."
But then abruptly he stopped speaking, and his short, rigid frame fell forwards into the aisle with a soft crash. He was quiet.
"Thank you, Christ," Lyndon Johnson said.
"Andy has learned his lesson," Lincoln added.
My father, who was still squeezing my arm, said, "That was not at all what I expected, son."
I woke up to find the Duster's windows fogged and myself encased in a clammy sweat.
Copyright © 2005 by James Whorton, Jr.
John Tolley is a bumbling college dropout who yearns to become a bowtie-wearing, pipe-smoking historian. When he hears that Andrew Johnson's lost papers may have been preserved by an heir in Tennessee, he grabs his tweed jacket and heads south, convinced that he'll discover the key to a groundbreaking biography on the seventeenth U.S. president and the start of a respectable career.
But things start to go awry when his car breaks down in the town of Pantherville, Tennessee. Tolley rents a decrepit shack owned by a neurotic ex-con and is soon sucked into a world of cockfights, coon dogs, and the politics of Pantherville's good old boys. Surrounded by folks as eccentric as he is, including an alluringly shy mail carrier named Dweena, Tolley starts to feel at home -- even if his quest for academic glory might just prove to be a wild goose chase. Native and newcomer, highbrow and hillbilly cross paths and tangle hilariously in this wry and ribald tale.