By Ted Harvey
The writer approached the sick man hesitantly. The writer’s name was Samuel, but few people called him that anymore.
The sick man sat in a rocking chair. He was covered in a thick wool blanket. A wool hat was pulled over his head, the edge was almost touching his closed eyes. Samuel wiped the back of his own hand across his forehead. It came away damp.
Samuel stopped. He considered coming back another time. He knew his old friend needed the rest. But he needed the money too. A man of surety, Samuel had never felt so conflicted. Finally, he decided he would come back later. He turned to go.
“Better stay,” the gravelly voice said. “Even for a minute.”
Samuel turned back.
The seated man’s eyes remained closed, but his lips moved now, quivering.
“I can come back,” Samuel said, running his hand over his mustache.
The seated man opened his eyes.
“No time for that. Never know if I’ll still be here when you get back.”
Samuel opened his mouth to protest or maybe say something positive, he hadn’t determined what yet, but with a sudden vigor, the seated man waved his hand. It was a thick hand with stubby fingers, crooked joints, but even after all these years there was power behind it. Then, as quick as it had been flashed, that power dissipated and the hand dropped back into the blanketed lap. He sucked in a long breath and started coughing. Samuel took a step forward. But what could he do?
The coughing fit lasted almost a full minute before he regained control.
Samuel watched him, trying not flinch with each body spasm. They were worse now than the last time he was here.
“Can I get you anything?” Samuel asked.
“A few more months would be nice,” the sick man said, forcing a half grin.
“You’ll have more than that,” Samuel said. He could hear the doubt in his own voice.
“Maybe,” the sick man said. His body moved under the thick blankets. “I can never get comfortable. That’s the main thing. And the cough.” He cleared his throat and Samuel thought he would start coughing again, but he caught himself.
“How’s the writing coming?”
“Yesterday was a good day,” the sick man said. “Today?” He moved again and Samuel realized he was shrugging.
“I could help you write,” Samuel suggested. It was not the first time he had made this suggestion. He knew what the answer would be. But he had to ask anyway. The man was his friend. Of course he was more than that. A general. A president. A great man who risked being forgotten. I will not allow that to happen, Samuel told himself. Not this man. Even if it meant cheating a little. Even if it meant lending his own writing to the memoirs. No one would know. He would make it sound authentic. He knew he could. He had practiced at home. Late at night when he should have been asleep but couldn’t settle thinking of his old friend, struggling to breathe, struggling to finish.
“No,” the answer was definite. Samuel met the sick man’s gaze. The eyes never left him, determined. He saw the general there. The husband and father, too, and Samuel knew he would finish himself unless death came first.
“Fine,” Samuel said, “The offer is always there.”
“I think I’ll take a little rest now,” the sick man said.
“That’s good,” Samuel said. The sick man’s eyes were already closing. He moved his lips, mouthing something, but there was no sound.
The sick man’s eyes flickered open.
“Thank you, Sam,” he whispered, “I will owe you.”
“You’ll owe me nothing. I’m happy I could convince you to do it.”
Samuel meant to say more but the sick man’s eyes were closed now and his breathing was gentle and even. It was the most peaceful he had seen his friend in a long time. He turned away, and left him to sleep.
The sick man opened his eyes. The writer was gone. He wished he could stay, but he needed to be alone to write.
Samuel Clemens. A good name. Why he decided to use Mark Twain, he would never understand.
That’s what people called him too. Some people. Now they also called him Mister President, although he hadn’t been president for many years. General would be better. There were still plenty who called him that when they came to visit. He wasn’t sure what he preferred. Maybe Sam after all. A mistake, that name. Like so many things in his life it just happened. And it stuck. He was born Hiram. Hiram Ulysses Grant. Even he thought it was a bit of a strange name. He didn’t mind Ulysses, although he would never compare himself to his namesake. More of an Agamemnon. Or maybe Aeneas. He always liked Aeneas. Things just happened to the Trojan hero and on he went until in the end he founded the greatest empire the world had ever known. He could never be a Ulysses, although he wished he could. Such cleverness and wit! If he could have been more like Ulysses and less like a Sam, less like an Aeneas, maybe life would have been a little different. But he had known men like Ulysses, and if he was honest with himself, would he really have preferred that?
He sighed. What did it matter? He was what he was. Hiram. Sam. The General. Mister President. All of it. And none. He was simply himself and the few times he had tried to be something else, well, everybody who thought they knew something about him knew that version of him. A failed version. It was why he was writing. Better to be what you were. No more, no less.
Grant breathed in slowly. He was tired and knew he should rest. But the writing would not get done itself. Nor was he about to let someone else take it up for him. Not even Sam Clemens. Not while he was still breathing, and who knew how long that would be.
Slowly he leaned forward to his desk. The paper was half-filled with his scratchy marks. He began at the top and read what he had last written, moving his lips as he spoke each word. When he reached the end of the page, he paused and then, placing his pencil on the paper, began to write.
He did not stop after that for some time. The pencil rarely left the paper. He wrote slowly, but consistently. The words were there, they were his words after-all. It was simply a matter of transferring them down in writing.
It would have been easy to let the memories overtake him. But he would not allow it. There was no time for sentimentality or regret or anything else that came so often with thinking of the past. There was only space to write. Whatever came after that, well, he had no control of it, and in all likelihood would be gone from this earth for it to affect him. But that is not why he wrote. He did not write so others might know his thoughts or read of his exploits. He did not care what the outside world thought of his actions, his life. He cared only for Julia. And Fred, and Buck, and Nellie, and Jesse. But mostly for Julia. He could not leave her with nothing. Worse than nothing. With debts. With the debts he had brought down on them.
“You trust people too much,” Julia had told him once, many years before, soon after they were married. At least he thought she had said that. It was like something she would say. Not mean, just matter-of-fact. And true. That was always the worst of it, or maybe the best of it. The truth of her statements. And that declaration, of his never-ending trust, was as true as anything she had ever said. Even if she hadn’t said it exactly as he remembered. His trust was why he owed money. It was why he wrote now.
Once, years before, the memoirs from the war were a dime-a-dozen. And why shouldn’t they be? It was cathartic to write down all that had happened. Maybe cathartic was not the right word, because no matter what you wrote or how much you wrote, it did not relieve the memories. Time helped a little. And drink. But the war never really left you. As a soldier there was nothing you could do to make you forget, although they had all tried, and writing seemed to help some, at least a little.
Still, what did he know about writing? And why would anyone care what he wrote? He was no great philosophizer. His view of life was not worldly. Maybe he could have written a book on breaking a horse. Now that would have been something. But he didn’t think it would come out like he wanted it. It would have been like translating a foreign language that only he knew and there was no proper translation. No, it was better he had never attempted anything like that. It was better he stuck to what he knew, soldiering and moving forward.
He paused. Three new pages were filled with his words. He thought maybe he should read it back, but he knew he wouldn’t change any of it. It was what it was, no more, no less, and no amount of re-reading was going to alter what was written. Besides, he didn’t have time. The pain in his throat had grown significantly over the past week, much more than all the weeks before. He knew it wouldn’t be long now.
He had thought of death before. It had been all around him. At Shiloh and Vicksburg, the Wilderness, Petersburg. At Appomattox. And before that, at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Death was a constant, but it had always been a constant around him. Now he would be joining the ranks of the departed.
He sighed. His throat burned. He wanted to cough to relieve the pain, but the coughing would be temporary relief only, so he forced the cough to subside.
Sam Grant didn’t mind that he was going to die. He had accepted it as a fact of life, as the only fact of life, long ago. But the pain was beginning to grow unbearable, and he wanted it to end. Rarely in his life had he reached a point of desperation, but he was getting close now. Except he couldn’t yet, not until he was finished. He leaned back over the desk. He put the pencil down and moved his fingers, one by one. They were old and stiff and not inclined to grip the pencil. But he forced himself to pick it up again, and re-reading the last line, began to write.
Samuel Clemens was also writing, but his was an altogether different story. He wasn’t sure what would come of it. With Tom Sawyer he had been confident it was his masterpiece. It was good. He knew it was good. But he was also painfully aware something was missing. So, in a way, he was re-writing it now. Not really re-writing, but pushing the story beyond what he originally thought it could be. Now it wasn’t about Tom. Tom Sawyer was not the right person to take this new story where it needed to go. Instead Sam Clemens had turned to Huck Finn.
It was better. He was certain of it, although he hadn’t let anyone read it yet. It was much too raw. He thought he might let the General read it. He might enjoy it very much. There was not much time. Not as much as he had thought before his visit earlier that day. The General did not look well. Of course he wasn’t well, but until today it had almost seemed impossible he was sick. Now it was very clear he was very sick.
Sam stopped writing. He wondered if the General was writing right now. Sometimes he wished he hadn’t convinced him to start the memoirs. The only thing they seemed to be doing was speeding the illness along. Sam knew that wasn’t really true. And he knew the General would write anyway. It was the only thing he could now and it was the only possibility of saving his wife and children from monetary ruin. Having lived a life that had so profoundly affected the people around him, most of whom he had never met, the only thing that would matter in the end was whether the General finished the book.
Sam Clemens could not help but smile at that oddity of life. The man had been the finest general the country had ever seen. He had become president for eight years. He had toured the world as the most famous man in the world. And now, none of it mattered. Except the book. It was remarkable the clarity death brought.
Sam peered down at his own work. He scratched his head as he read over the last paragraph. It was good, but not good enough. He scratched it out quickly and tapped the pencil on his tooth. He began again.
“Thank you for coming back,” the General’s voice was so soft, Sam Clemens had to take step closer to listen.
He stared at his friend, wishing he could look away. It wouldn’t be much longer now.
“I need your help,” the General said.
It had been almost two weeks since his last visit. It was July 10th and Sam Clemens could feel the sweat dripping down his back. The General remained wrapped in the thick blanket.
Sam Clemens nodded. He had been waiting for this. He was prepared. The words he wrote would match exactly the words the General had written. No one would ever know the General had not finished.
“Sit,” the General said.
There was a second chair that had not been in the room before. When he had started, the General explained he didn’t want visitors getting the impression they could stay. But now it seemed that had changed. So Sam Clemens sat.
“Take the paper and pencil,” the General said, “I will dictate. I’m having a little trouble gripping the pencil now.”
Sam Clemens stared.
“I could just write it,” he said finally but the General shook his head.
“If you’re going to be difficult,” the General said, “I’ll find someone else.”
Sam Clemens shook his head, “No, I’ll write.”
He picked up the pencil and moved the desk that had sat by the General for so many months closer to his seat.
“No changes,” the General said, meeting Sam’s eye. Sam nodded. The General closed his eyes. “There isn’t much left, but I want to make sure it gets written. I can feel the end coming.”
Sam did not question him this time. He remained poised, ready to write.
The General began.
The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was completed on July 18, 1885. Ulysses S. Grant, former General and President of the United States of America, died five dies later of throat cancer. The Memoirs were an instant best-seller and provided his family financial stability for the rest of their lives.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was also published later that same year.
Ted Harvey has been writing for a very long time. His first memorable piece of writing was a condensed version of the Iliad, which he completed in first grade. Since then he has written thousands of pages of text with two publications to show for it: “Disappearing,” in the Aphelion Webzine, and “The Last Terrorist,” in AntipodeanSF. He is currently working in community development, although his true passions remain history and writing.