Ronald Reagan Walks Again
BY ERIC STIEFEL
Honorable Mention for the 2013 Adroit Prize for Prose
Judge: Marlin Barton
I had to get two different people to cover my shifts at work on June 22, the day when Ronald Reagan was supposed to stumble up to the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas, where my friend Cliff had decided to stake out and lay a trap for an ex-presidential walking corpse. Cliff came to pick me up at eleven. I got in his car and threw a backpack with a change of clothes and a few books in the back seat next to Cliff’s duffle bag, the one with the guns.
Cliff had always been full of good ideas. One day, he drank himself stupid in his basement, took a couple of ecstasy tablets, and then consulted his good old Ouija board to see what his future had in store for him. The results: Ronald Reagan would come back from the grave on June 5, the anniversary of his death, to march on Washington in order reclaim the White House. Cliff had this problem where he would use is Ouija board by himself, then do literally whatever it told him. Once, he filled the newspaper rack outside of the Mini Mart with homemade napalm and lit the thing on fire to “exorcise demons.” Another time, he convinced me to help him drink three cases worth of Budweiser in one week while my mom was out of town, so that we could use the cans to construct a “Beerosaurus rex” to make the spirits happy. Cliff couldn’t be trusted with the damn thing.
“Hey man, those things aren’t loaded, are they?” I said. The bag made me nervous—there were a lot of cops between South Carolina and Arkansas, a lot of chances for things to go wrong.
“What if we see him walking by?” Cliff said, “I saw those old movies he made. Reagan was kind of a badass. Why do you think the Iranians finally gave those hostages back?”
We had argued for the past month about Ronald Reagan and whether he would really rise from the grave. There was no way in hell that I was ever going to believe in that kind of thing, but I had a feeling that if a drug-using teenager with a car full of guns headed to Little Rock, Arkansas to kill a dead president come back to life by himself, something would go wrong. You might be asking yourself why I decided to go with him, and to be honest, there’s only one answer: I had done my fair share of bad things in my life, and I figured that I needed to at least try to make up for a few of them . I decided looking after Cliff was as good a place to start as anywhere else. After weeks of trying to change Cliff’s mind about the whole thing, I decided to say, “Fine, I’ll go with you.”
Cliff started going toward the highway and turned his radio up a good deal louder than what would one imagine the average undead slayer would. I said, “So why Little Rock again?”
“I already told you,” Cliff said. “I-40 is the best way to get from California to D.C. Little Rock is exactly halfway. He may have been creepy, but Reagan was at least a smart guy. He’ll take the fastest route he can.”
“And how exactly is he going to make it to Arkansas in seventeen-and-a-half days?” I said. Cliff had told me his plan every day for the past few weeks, but I had tuned him out for most of it.
“He’s going a mile in fifteen minutes. Most people can only do it in twenty, but Reagan’s on a mission. He can do it in fifteen,” Cliff said.
The whole plan seemed a little half-baked, and a part of me didn’t think that Cliff even believed what he was saying—his father was a lieutenant at the Little Rock Air Force Base. Cliff hadn’t spoken to his father in eight years, since he brought his mistress into the hospital room, where Cliff’s mother was giving birth to her second child. He was still wearing his Air Force uniform. Cliff’s parents got divorced, and his father petitioned to transfer down to Little Rock, and that was the last that Cliff had spoken to him. His father sent letters every year at Christmas, and the last Cliff had heard, his father had quit the air force to become a cop, to “patrol the streets of Little Rock like a real asshole,” Cliff would say.
The one time that I mentioned any of this to him, Cliff only said, “Don’t talk about my father. It’s not like you’re hearing from yours either.” And it was true. My father was a trucker, and I hardly ever saw him. He said that he spent so much time on the road so that he could provide for my mother and me, but we didn’t even see him when he was off the road. It had been so long that the only things I really remember about him are the metal cigarette case that I swear he left for me, and the framed Christmas photo of my mother, my father, and me that my mother keeps hidden in one of the kitchen drawers.
I spent a lot of time in the car reading and trying to think of ways to save our asses if Cliff did something stupid. By the time we made it to I-40, I still didn’t have a good excuse for anything that Cliff had done. Every once in a while we would pass a police car, and I would try to keep my head low, but Cliff didn’t seem to care. The sun beat down so hard that I couldn’t really see through the windshield. I started to sweat, even in my short sleeve shirt.
We pulled into the parking lot of the Red Roof Inn just as the last piece of the sun started to dip beneath the horizon. Cliff pulled a .30-.30 lever action out of his duffle bag, checked the chamber to make sure that it had a full clip of bullets, then scanned the surrounding area with the gun’s scope. Only a few other cars sat parked in the parking lot, and I didn’t see anyone else but us. Still, I kept a lookout. I wasn’t about to trust Cliff with a loaded firearm in public. Next thing I knew, he took some kind of pill when he thought I wasn’t looking, and I made sure that the car doors stayed locked. Just in case. Then I tightened my belt, in case Cliff got a little bit friendly on the ecstasy.
Nothing passed by us but cars on the highway and eighteen wheelers speeding by. The sun set, and floodlights cut on when it got too dark.
“Hey man, I’m going to go check into the hotel,” I said. I needed some space, away from the car with Cliff and his guns. I figured that if he did anything stupid, I would hear it from my room.
“Wait, use my fake I.D.,” he said. “You’ve got to be eighteen to check out a room,”
“What?” I said, “I look nothing like you.” Cliff had light blonde hair and green eyes. My hair was brown, my eyes blue.
“Your hair’s light enough and your eyes are close to mine. They don’t really look at those things, anyway. You’ll be fine,” he said, and handed me the plastic card that said that he lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I checked in at the front desk and walked around to my room.
A crate sat outside of one of the rooms, but even with the flood lights, I couldn’t see what was inside. I crouched down and shined the light that I kept on my keychain into the crate, tried to look inside. A dog whimpered from the back. He wasn’t very big, some kind of mutt that I had never seen before. His ears stood up but folded over at the top, and he was white with big brown spots. I couldn’t tell whether he wore a collar. I picked up the crate and carried it up to the front desk—none of it felt nearly as heavy as I had thought. When the light struck right, I could see the mutt’s ribs.
“Is this anyone’s dog?” I said. The woman at the front desk looked up from painting her nails some kind of redneck red. Her fake blonde hair looked like a Poison music video.
“What?” she said. “No one’s staying here but you. It’s a Tuesday night. We couldn’t beat Motel 6’s prices even if we had people coming through.” I let the crate sit on the ground, and then went to open up the metal door.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the receptionist said. “You can’t let him out in here.” She went back to painting her nails, and she turned the radio up. Bad music from the eighties played in the background.
I took the crate outside, and I set it on the floor next to the passenger side of Cliff’s door. I tapped on the glass—Cliff jumped, and he pointed his gun at me, before realizing that I wasn’t a zombie and dropping the barrel out of sight. He rolled down a window.
“What the hell, man?” he said.
“Look at this dog,” I said.
“What?” he said, he opened his door and stepped out of the car.
“This dog, I found him outside of the motel,” I said. “He looks sick. Let’s at least give him some food.”
“But we don’t have any food,” Cliff said.
I opened the front of the crate, and the dog sniffed my left hand, then crawled out of the cage, his head lowered beneath his shoulders. I looked around for a collar with some kind of tag, maybe a name or a phone number. Finally I found one, buried beneath his long fur. I took it off—it looked tight, and some parts of the fur on his neck had rubbed off. There was a tag with a name but no phone number, no address, nothing but the name Cicero engraved in some kind of metal. “Who the hell names their dog after philosophers?” I said.
“I don’t know, but we’re wasting time,” Cliff said. “Every minute we waste, Reagan is getting closer.”
“Come on, we’ve got to help this dog,” I said. The mutt shook where he lay on the asphalt.
“Not on my watch,” Cliff said. “Reagan isn’t getting by me.”
“This is ridiculous,” I said, and I put Cicero back in his crate, walked away from Cliff’s beat up Buick, and started down the street looking for some kind of a fast food place.
“Welcome to Taco Bell, may I take your order?” the woman said through the speaker box.
I ordered a couple of tacos, some rice, some beans. I walked through the drive-through, dog crate in one hand, wallet in the other. Every once in a while, Cicero whined, but he stopped shaking and lay still in his crate.
“That’ll be eight dollars and—” the woman at the window started to say. “Um, we don’t take walkers. This is the drive-through,” she said.
“Come on,” I said, “this dog probably hasn’t eaten in days.”
“We don’t serve dogs,” she said. She looked down at the crate and the right back at me.
“That’s why I walked through.”
“You can’t do that.”
“I don’t understand the problem.”
The woman almost said something but she caught herself halfway through. I turned around and a brawny policeman with a gun that was way bigger than necessary—a .357 revolver, I guessed—hulked over me and said, “Is there a problem here?”
“I’m just trying to buy some food. My friend’s asleep down the road, and I found this dog outside,” I said. Cicero started shaking again. The cop stared at me for a second. It was hard to keep my eyes locked with his. I couldn’t tell whether he was thinking about something or just trying to stare me down, until he took in a long breath and said something.
“Why don’t you leave the dog in the car? It used to be part of a K-9 unit. He’ll be fine. You can walk in with me,” the police officer said. For some reason—I’m not quite sure, but it might have had something to do with the gun and the chest that must have been at least fifty inches all the way around—I didn’t say anything, and I did what the guy said. I left Cicero in the cop’s squad car, and I followed the officer into the Taco Bell.
“Have a seat,” the man said. “I figure a dog lover can’t be so bad.” We both paid for our food, and we sat at one of the empty booths. “So what brings you to Little Rock?” he said
“Just passing through,” I said. It was the middle of the night, and we were the only ones eating in the restaurant. I didn’t think that he would believe what I told him, but I didn’t think that he would believe the real story either.
“Yeah, right,” he said and laughed to himself. I thought about Cliff, who was probably still sitting in his car with his rifle’s scope pressed against his right eye, waiting for an undead Ronald Reagan to walk or limp or move however zombies move into sight, so he could blast him back into his trickle-down economics-filled grave. The cop pressed his lips together and stared at me—he had hair somewhere between blonde and gray, and his eyes might have been a hard green. For a second, I thought that he might have been Cliff’s father, but I knew that I was wrong. It was all just too big of a coincidence, like the chances a dead president stumbling across your exit almost seventeen hundred miles away from his grave.
Neither of us said anything, but the cop unwrapped his food and started eating a chalupa with refried beans. I didn’t touch my food. “It’s for the dog,” I said when the cop looked at me like he was about to ask a question.
“I’ve got a son,” the police officer said. “I figure he’s a good deal like you.” He took another bite of greasy Mexican food.
“How’s that?” I said. I liked this police officer. He wasn’t like other cops that I knew—he gave the same look, like he didn’t trust me, but it didn’t look like he thought I was doing anything wrong. His gun weighed down his belt and tugged on his pants.
“He’s always getting himself into stuff trying to do the right thing,” the cop said. For the first time, he looked outside, away from me and his food. “He thinks he can find all of the answers. Fact is, in this life you can only find more questions.”
I ate one of the tacos—I figured that a sick dog’s stomach couldn’t handle too much fake beef at once, and I didn’t want to be rude to the guy. And then I saw the cop’s hands. He didn’t have a wedding ring, but he did have a tattoo on his thumb. Some kind of bone, I thought, or maybe a key. “Thanks for dinner,” I said. I wondered what the tattoo meant, but I didn’t think that I would ever find out.
“Do you need a ride?” he said. “I just got off duty.”
“No, but thanks,” I said. “I don’t have far to walk.”
The cop picked up his trash and took his tray to the counter. He opened the door, and he nodded to me before he walked away. His shoulders were so broad, for a second I wasn’t sure if he would make it through the door. I followed him, took Cicero out of the squad car and into his crate, and then headed back to the Red Roof Inn. I watched the cop drive away in his gray patrol car with K-9 painted on the back windshield, and I wondered what had happened to his dog, why he was driving home alone. I looked at Cicero, and he reminded me of my dog Jake, who had died just a few weeks before.
Cliff still didn’t wake up the second time that I knocked on his window—those pills must have really done it, and there’s no telling what he could have done while I was gone. I opened the door, unbuckled Cliff’s seatbelt, and dragged him to the passenger seat. Cicero’s crate fit just about perfectly between the duffle bag and my backpack, so I put him there and placed the seatbelt around his crate as best I could. I hopped into the driver’s seat, found the keys still in the ignition, and started Cliff’s car. It kicked a little, and Cliff stirred next to me, but didn’t quite wake up. I slipped the food into the cage. Cicero smelled it for a second, then started to eat.
“I met one of the cops from Little Rock,” I said, just in case Cliff could hear me. “I think he’s doing alright.”
Cliff stirred, and I couldn’t tell whether he understood what I had just said.
I pulled back onto I-40 without the slightest idea where I was headed. I didn’t worry though—if any part of my father’s being carried over to me, I would be able to navigate my way through the highway and all of its webs of transportation.
I thought about it a good deal in the car, and the cop at the Taco Bell looked nothing like the few pictures that I had ever seen of Cliff’s father, a wiry looking man who didn’t look right in photographs. But maybe that was just my memory screwing with me; you know the way things go.
I tried to come up with something to tell Cliff when he woke up—maybe I could tell him that the cop and I took out Reagan, maybe I could even tell him that Cicero helped us drag him down. But eventually, Cliff would have to find out the truth: not one of the dead presidents was ever coming back, and his father probably would never come back either. Sometimes I thought that neither of us lived anywhere near what most people call the truth.
When I crossed onto the interstate, I wondered where Cliff’s real father was, what he was really doing. I thought about my own father, who could have been anywhere from Tallahassee to Ontario, driving his dark blue Peterbilt through the dark. I wondered what he was really like, if he ever thought about my mother or me, if he ever stopped just going in his truck to consider the events that really mattered in his life. And then I wondered about our mothers, who were so busy working or spending their time at church or drinking cheap wine that they had already begun to lose their sons the same way they had lost their husbands. My mother, with her garden, would probably try to bury me the same way that she was slowly burying my father between the romaine lettuce and the tomato vines. The same way that she had buried my dog Jake when he had died a few weeks before the beginning of this story. In all honesty, I didn’t think she would know that I was gone.
Eric Stiefel is a sophomore at New York University, where he is studying Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. His work has previously appeared in West 10th and Aerie International.