Four Scores and a Doomed Proposition - A response to Jodah's Writing Challenge
A few weeks ago I read a short story by Australian Hub Pages Author/Poet Jodah that included a challenge for his fellow hubbers to come up with a short story in which the first word of every sentence comes from a sentence taken from a magazine, book, or another source. Although I have not previously participated in any of these writing challenges, Jodah's idea seemed like an interesting way to stimulate some rather unexpected ideas.
For a while I puzzled over an appropriate guiding sentence for this challenge, until for some reason I started thinking about Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address. In particular I was pondering the line "all men are created equal," and thinking about how ridiculous it was to utter such an absurd statement at a time when men were being held in chains against their will and Indian tribes were being forced from their homelands. Then again, in his speech Lincoln was careful to say we are really only dedicated to the "proposition," which is a lot different from saying it has worked perfectly in practice.
In case you are unfamiliar with American history, Gettysburg was the most bloody battle in American history, an engagement in which approximately 50,000 soldiers, North and South, poured out their blood onto Pennsylvania soil. On November 19, 1863, approximately four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to the field to help dedicate a cemetery for the fallen soldiers. His two minutes and change speech is considered a masterpiece of American letters, and I have included a recital of it at the end of the hub so you can marvel at its brilliance.
At any rate, without waxing too political here, I have written this story in honor of Lincoln's birthday 2015. In my view Abraham Lincoln was one of the best presidents; and if not the best Chief Executive he certainly was the most brilliant orator. He never relied on a teleprompter or employed a speech writer, as our modern day Presidents do. I've even been told that he wrote his speeches on the back of a dirty napkin, or such is the legend.
I decided to use the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address as my guide, and although this was awkward and difficult to work with because it features some rather cumbersome words, I have nonetheless dedicated myself to this proposition, so here goes. I warn you in advance that, unlike Lincoln, I'm a rather strict constructionist when it comes to the rules of Jodah's challenge, so in order to confirm to the guidelines my sentences may have expanded to rather Faulknerian proportions and in some cases stretched the boundaries of proper English. Please hold your breath while reading.
Here is the sentence, for those of you who were lucky enough not to have to memorize this in school:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Beautiful words indeed, but now let's get down to business.
Four scraps of paper fell out of the locked briefcase and onto the floor of the enormous warehouse; four scraps of paper for Misters Nicolay, Hay, Everett, Bancroft, and that's all they were to the decidedly non bookish but otherwise highly skilled thug Garfield McKinley Kennedy; a man who didn't even know what his own name meant but boy was he ever good at what he did for a living, which right now involved these four simple handwritten scraps of paper that represented a boatload of money and absolutely nothing else to him.
"Score one for the janitors," he chuckled to himself as he used the unofficial term adopted by he and the four other crooks involved in this caper; these being Seward, Chase, Cameron and that loudmouth cracker Bates, who was the only one among the "janitors" who actually seemed to be interested in the outcome of this affair, actually had a horse in this race that had been pushed into the starting gate for reasons other than financial. "And man isn't that Confederate Flag tattoo on his flabby redneck belly going to jiggle with glee now," Garfield said to himself, although his laughter was a bit subdued as he started to wonder exactly when the one delayed scrap of paper for Mr. Bliss would show up and make them all filthy rich.
Seven revolutions around the sun had passed since they had started working on this complicated caper, seven years during which Garfield was forced to sideline as a petty thief to support himself while the members of the group set themselves up as janitors working the Library of Congress, another library in Springfield Illinois, a third at a prestigious Ivy League University and the last at the White House itself, where they had managed to infiltrate their way into the very abode of the President of the United States. Years had been spent sitting on their hands, pushing mops, scrubbing shitters; including the prestigious porcelain throne of the Chief Executive, waiting for the right moment. "Ago" was a word that popped into Garfield's head an awful lot as he contemplated this agonizing, impatiently unnerving process, as in seven years ago, many moons ago, all dressed up and no place to go; well, one got the general idea. Our business depends upon a man not dwelling upon the past too much, he tried to caution himself as he recollected this lengthy span of years that had mostly consisted in doing a whole lot of nothing, but his confidence and cool-headedness at this moment were just not dressed for the occasion, which perhaps they would be when Bliss finally showed up.
Fathers, or perhaps the lack thereof, was a subject Garfield started to think about as he sat there cooling his heels in the dimly lit warehouse; the sweet, syrupy, soothing stereotypical fact that all five of the "janitors" had not had their fathers around to raise them, and therefore had theoretically gone bad because of it, had turned into the horrible rogues and villains that they were. Brought up by mothers alone, they obviously didn't get the requisite paternal butt whooping that would have made them all respectable citizens, pillars of their community, instead of lowly, desperate thieves.
Forth was where he liked to go, toward evergreen fields where none would know, was a rhyme his own mother used to recite when she was lost in these same thoughts, a little piece of doggerel of unknown origin that seemed to help her get through it when the weight of the world was on her shoulders and a man in her life might have eased the strain a bit. On his life Garfield couldn't figure out why that little ditty kept popping into his head lately, but instead of making him feel better these memories made him nervous, rousing his hoodlum's instincts to catlike sensitivity and filling this suffocating, coffin-like warehouse with the unmistakable smell of rat.
"This isn't the way it's supposed to go down," he kept telling himself, despite his best efforts to suppress these ugly little gnawing fears. Continent Bakery, the abandoned brick tomb his pink, punk, pimpled hoodlum arse was laid out in at the present, was supposed to be the hiding place for five scraps of very unremarkable but very valuable paper right now, not four, and in his head he replayed four biographical scenarios behind these scraps in his mind, mostly as a diversion to keep the uncertainties gnawing at his head from swallowing it whole.
A more uninspiring group of crooks had never been brought together in the history of criminal enterprise, Garfield thought, and the least inspiring of all of these was Dean Seward, the graying, paunchy senior with the sagging jowls who had succeeded in heisting the Nicolay scrap even though he looked the part of a grumpy, jaded, unmotivated, unremarkable janitor better than any in the gang, but was also equipped with the shrewdest, calmest, most frigidly reptilian brain among them. New to the con and caper gang Seward was not; he had pulled off some the most headlined heists in the last thirty years but had never once been caught or had his name in the newspapers.
Nation to Nation, Pole to Pole, crust to core is how the criminal history of Douglas Chase, the man who had lifted Hay scrap, could be described. Conceived by a poor prostitute and a forgotten Joe in the back seat of a Plymouth Fury, he had nonetheless molded himself himself into a very dapper, James Bond-like con artist, very unlike the janitor role he was assigned to play, pulling it off with the suave nonchalance that radiated dangerously and magnetically about him.
In direct contrast to the shamelessly immoral and apolitical machinations of Seward and Chase was the bombastic black fury of Robert Cameron, the man who was assigned to make the haul on Everett and hated himself all the while for doing so. "Liberty was all Granny used to talk about when she sat me up on her knee; liberty for my people propped up by stories about how long and hard we had to fight for it, and she even made me memorize this damn thing we're about to lift. And now you want me to steal it and sell it like it's just some cold, dirty cash in a vault," he protested with a vehemence that gave Garfield cause for many restless, sleepless nights.
Dedicated to varying degrees as they all had been to the proposition of gathering up these handwritten scraps of paper and then exchanging them for double digit millions with a faceless, shadowy figure they only knew as "Weishaupt," the most dedicated among them had been Robert Bates, the one they not so affectionately called Bobby to distinguish him from his black co-conspirator Robert Cameron, between whom absolutely no love was lost. To the rest of the gang Bobby Bates was an obnoxiously vile racist whose rants along the lines of: "When we take these precious papers from humanity it will be a lesson to the n-loving followers of that n-loving President of yours who went down South and freed the slaves when everybody knows they was better off," had made the hair of the four other men in the room curl from indignation, these being often violent men who were not best known for their Sunday school attendance, and this had nearly brought him to fisticuffs on numerous occasions with the other Robert seated across the table. The long and short of it was that Bobby Bates had an axe to grind and a personal dedication to this mission, as attested to by the tattoo of John Wilkes Booth he had on right bicep and the good old Dixie banner that was permanently emblazoned into his belly.
Proposition after proposal after plan were bandied about round that dimly lit table in the cavernous, cold warehouse seven years ago, heated only on occasion by the passionately angry racially charged arguments between Robert Cameron and Bobby Bates. That they ever came up with a plan at all through all this discord and had finally arrived to near fruition of the scheme was a remarkable achievement, an amazing endeavor unheard of in the annals of crime.
"All present and accounted for now," a voice that Garfield knew well said from the blank obscurity at the back of the warehouse, and rising from his reverie he breathed a temporary sign of relief until the voice took a very unexpected turn, "so hand over those papers and I'll get them back where Grandma intended them to be without anybody needing to know what happened here."
"Men like us are thieves," Garfield laughed, loudly enough that he never heard the click of the hammer issuing forth ever so softly from the darkness, "and taking things out of the proper hands and putting them into our own is what we live for, it's our livelihood, it's what makes us get over whatever moral reservations we might have about doing business and what should make you drop this ridiculous charade that you really care more about Granny then you do about money."
"Are we really going to have to do things this way," the visitor in the dark said in a way that was more a statement of fact than a question, and then the deafening report of a gunshot echoed off the ancient, decaying brick walls of Continent Bakery.
"Created in God's image my ass," the man from the shadows remarked as he towered over the lump of meat on the floor before spitting down in its general direction. "Equal respect for all historical documents is what my Granny taught me, even those written by that N-loving Lincoln," are the final words the racist redneck Bobby Bates said rhetorically to Garfield's lifeless form as he put aside his gun, gathered up the four heisted original handwritten copies of the Gettysburg Address, and went outside to turn them over to the agents of the people, by the people, for the people, that they belonged to.