Christmas last year will not be a day that I—nor anyone in my family—
will soon forget, I dare say. I write this comfortably from a bed at my Aunt Sara's house. As you know, we did not make it to Sara's last year. And we were anything but comfortable. The storms and snow of last year were greater than any we'd seen in decades. And while that would not usually stop my daddy from makin' the trip, Ethan, as you know, was quite sick.
Poor Ethan—all of four years—had been a fairly strong boy till that last year—when various sickness overtook him. I had been packing an overnight bag for the trip up north when my Uncle Campbell told me that Ethan was burning up and we'd have to stay put. Daddy had gone for the doctor—a half-day trip, at the least. Ma was in her bedroom laying compresses on Ethan. His fever was high.
Over the past few years, my family had fallen into something of an isolation from the rest of the town, as tends to happen with farming families. Arguments are started and never resolved. Families lose touch and keep to themselves. And so, the begrudging offer to visit from my Aunt was quickly discarded when Ethan fell ill. Soon, a pallor lay over our house as wind crept in through chipped planks causing a low, solemn whistle. The holiday tree I'd cut down myself stood bent over, unseasonable.
Our town, Raglun, is a small one. There aren't but forty, fifty families—all of whom I can name by sight. There's little crime, no jail, and half the townsfolk can't write or read proper. In fact, a great many, in this year of our lord 1873, still believe Lincoln runs the capital, if you can believe that.
Which may be why Ethan's sickness—and his babbling in particular—came off so unsettling.
I was the one heard it first. I had woken up early that morning to his kicking and writhing. Still asleep, but tossing, turning. And saying words over and over that I couldn't understand:
Nixon meant nothing to me or ma. It was simply a nonsense word for which we had no particular reference. It was Uncle Cam, who had taught himself to write a bit and had been teaching me, who said that it sounded like something out of Alice—a book he'd seen at the general store—that was full of its own strange puzzles. Cam was the one who had started listening closely to Ethan, like what he was saying might actually mean something.
At first, he thought Nixon might be a city or a port. But of course, we had no map to look on. Our curiosities about Ethan's poor fortune did not exactly sit well with my ma, and we made efforts to keep our thoughts to ourselves. But that afternoon, after my mother fell asleep rocking him, Cam and I began takin' notes of his babbling.
Our roof leaked, and Cam had heard of "plumbers" back east. As my mother slept, Cam whispered gently to my poor brother to expand on his phrases.
"Boy—what is Nixon?"
"Ask about the water sluice, Uncle Cam," I whispered.
"It's not a sluice," he brayed at me. "He said it's a—gate."
"Ethan," Cam whispered, "what is the water gate?"
Ethan tossed, back and forth, "re-elect— re-elect—"
"Re-elect who?" whispered Uncle Cam, mesmerized.
"Re-elect . . . the president."
"The President—" said Ethan.
"We did," Cam said. "Grant was re-elected!"
"Nixon," moaned Ethan. "Re-elect Nixon." His quaking woke up my mother.
"Leave him be!" she scolded.
We removed ourselves to the outer room. Cam's eyes were afire. He studied our notes.
"What's wrong with him, Uncle Cam? What's Nixon?"
"Not what boy. Who. And only the President of the United States, I'd reckon."
"Oh no. After."
My eyes went wide.
"Boy, there's never been a President Nixon. Not ever. So, who is he? A made-up name? D'you know anyone named 'Nixon'? Your family ever met anyone—"
"Not that I—"
"'Course not. Even if you did, that boy's only four. He couldn't possible remember anyone with that name. Which means what he's sayin' is either utter nonsense. Or—"
"Or he's telling the future."
I stared at Cam, stunned.
"I've read of this. People in trances—taught to see things other than what's really there—"
"But nobody's told him nothing. He's just sick."
"Don't ask me to explain it. In a boy like Ethan—who knows what a fever's unlocked?"
Cam was excited, but I could only think of my little brother in pain, overcome by some demon.
"Will he be okay?" I asked.
Cam looked at me, blankly, the thrill drained from his face. He knelt beside me.
"'Course he will! 'Course he will! Bless that boy! You know you two are the best things ever happened to your daddy and Mary. You listen to me. Your daddy'll be back with that doctor and they'll take care of things. I promise."
Cam's words encouraged me. From my mother's bedroom Ethan groaned: Agnew.
Cam pressed the paper and pencil into my hand.
"Here! Stay helpful to your ma—and keep takin' notes. Maybe it's delirium. Or maybe he does know something."
"Like maybe this 'Nixon' is going to be president. Maybe the next president."
Cam grabbed his coat and headed to the door.
"Where're you going?"
"To McCall's, to think this through. And remember—this is just between you and me! So, don't upset your ma."
And Uncle Cam was gone. After two hours at McCall's, more likely than not, he wouldn't even remember Nixon. But now, somethin' was roused in me. Despite a gross burden of shame, I gave in to shiftless curiosity. Folding the paper neatly into my pocket, I went to help watch over Ethan, but secretly took notes as ma changed and cleaned his linens.
Two hours later, daddy still hadn't returned, and Ethan was more restless than ever. Ma rushed about, frantically switching between cooling him down, keeping our fire lit and prayer.
Uncle Cam returned, drenched in a staleness of beer and accompanied by Morton, a stocky farmer, and Bridwell, a shopkeeper. All came in, respectful, removing their hats. Bridwell had brown-paper-wrapped meats and coffee, and presented them graciously to my mother.
"Heard about the boy. Terrible news. Awful way to spend Christmas. Anything we or the wives can do—you tell us."
"That's kind of you, Charlie."
"Is he awake?" asked Morton, meekly.
"No, he's sleeping," said my mother.
The men looked at each other.
"Thank goodness," they agreed.
Bridwell helped ma take the packages to the kitchen. Uncle Cam and Mr. Morton quickly took me aside.
"Well, what's he said? Have you got anything?"
"I thought this was between us?"
"It is! This is just Morton! Bridwell! Neighbors!"
He knelt beside me.
"Now, boy—news like this, we need more minds to reflect on."
"But just these two? That's it?"
"I solemnly swear."
Mr. Morton peered down at me, his breath as sour as Cam's.
"Let spill, son. What've you got?"
I withdrew my notes.
"As I can make it out, he's said: Krogh, Colson, Hunt. He called them plumbers. He said: Creep. All part of creep . . . "
The men looked at each other, perplexed.
"Like creeping around?" said Morton.
"Sounded to me like more of a group," I said. "Like that was the name of their club."
"Ah," said Cam. "It's an organization. That's what I said!"
"That's what I said!" said Bridwell, rejoining us.
There was a slam at the front door as my daddy and the doctor—a burly man—came in, covered with snow.
"Where is he?" The doctor demanded.
"In the bedroom," said Cam. The two men went in, while the others returned their attention to me.
"Gray destroys evidence. Liddy. Cover up. He said that one an awful lot— Cover up. Cover up. Ma kept putting blankets on him, but he kept sayin' it. He said— Nixon knew and Cox resigns—"
Morton leaned in.
"There's a Wilfred Cox in Langston! He's a congressman."
"He's postmaster," corrected Bridwell.
"Same thing," barked Morton.
"This next part," I said, "I didn't really understand. Tapes, he said. Missing tapes. Said it a few times. An' then he quieted down."
The men looked at each other.
"What would he need measuring tape for?"
Bridwell stepped away from us, glaring.
"Confound it, Campbell! You drag us three miles in blistering snow—"
"Lower your voice!" said Cam. He looked at me, helpless.
"I don't think it was for measuring," I said, fumbling through my notes.
Morton grabbed the paper from me, remembered he couldn't read and passed it to my uncle. I pointed to a scrawled line.
"Something about— recordings—and they're—they're missing—"
"Harrumph" went Bridwell.
"Maybe these tapes are like—newspapers," I started, "Maybe they were recording their conversations and—"
"Of course," cried Cam. "You see what this means?!"
We all looked at him, confused.
"Scandal?" the other men gasped.
I didn't follow the implication, but Bridwell and Morton were now staring as wildly as Cam.
"Of the highest order! This man—this Nixon—president-to-be—becomes implicated in some—some cover-up. That's what he means. Right, boy?! Not that he was cold?"
"Maybe," I answered.
"He keeps some journal—some recording of their conversation—and this Cox finds it! And turns it in! To the papers! The authorities! And then— scandal!"
"You think so?" asked Bridwell.
"Has to be," said Uncle. "It's all there."
"But who are these people?!" asked Morton.
"They're from the future, Ben!"
"Unbelievable!" said Bridwell. "It's too fantastic!"
From the bedroom a creaky voice called:
"Impeachment!" the men echoed.
"We must go to the boy!" said Morton. "We have to hear more!"
Suddenly, a thin banshee's wail issued from the room, and then, just as quick, the house fell silent. The doctor came back out.
"How is he?" asked Morton.
"Sick," said the doctor. "He needs as much rest as possible."
"Of course," said Bridwell.
"I gave him something to sleep."
"You what?!" Morton blurted.
The doctor looked at them, perplexed. Cam stepped forward.
"Good. Good. Everything for the best. We've been quite worried."
The doctor eyed them, suspiciously, pulled his coat on.
"Will he—babble later?" Bridwell interrupted.
"Now, see here," said the doctor, glaring at them. "What're the three of you on about?!"
The men exchanged a glance.
"Alright, Doc," started Cam. "What do you know about tapes?"
Within hours of the doctor's departure, the word had gotten out, and our house had become a place of pilgrimage. By ten-thirty, despite the harsh weather, some forty people had come and gone. Some were sincerely concerned with Ethan's health and expressed their sympathies to his suffering. But many had intentions not so respectable.
Despite the size of the crowd, my folks seemed ignorant of their true reasons for coming. And this surprised me, as everyone following the story had developed highly complex opinions which they had great difficulty keeping to themselves.
"Ford?! He named Ford vice-president?! That bumbler!"
"Had to! Agnew resigned!"
"He was appointed! That Nixon could've picked anybody!"
"He should've appointed Kissinger!"
"Kissinger's not American!"
"Have they impeached him, yet?"
"Not yet! Anytime now!"
"Has he said what year it is!?"
"It's 1899—he said—"
"He didn't say that! He hasn't said what year yet!"
"It's got to be later! Turn of the century!"
"Three dollars says its 1902!"
"I'll take that bet!"
"And what on earth is Viet Nam?"
Most folks brought food. Many brought wreaths and decorations and a few decent types brought gifts. My mother—oblivious to the conversations—took comfort from the crowd. My aunts Min and Sara came—the three women having fallen out over raspberry pie disagreements some two-odd years ago. And there was tree trimming, laughter and drink, disrupted occasionally, by the reminder that we were all here because a small boy was suffering.
By the end of the evening what few people were left had either renewed friendships with my folks or were plain snoopers, waiting for Ethan's story's proper conclusion.
It was early the next morning when the doctor stepped out of my mother's room and rustled my daddy awake. All remaining guests lay asleep on chairs and the floor.
"Fever's broke," the doctor whispered.
"The boy—?" asked my father.
"Fine," said the doctor. "He'll be fine."
"He's sleeping," added my mother, coming out of the room and locking the door. "He's peaceful. Won't be any babbling anymore."
The doctor buttoned up his coat and left. Bridwell and Morton, dazed, got to their feet. They looked at my mother.
"Did he—did he—" Morton stuttered.
"Did he say anything?" Bridwell asked.
"Impeach Nixon?" asked my mother. "No. He resigned."
"Before they could impeach him. Yes," she said, smiling at me.
"Did he ever give a year?"
"Not that I recall," said my mother.
"Hmph. Well," said Bridwell, getting his coat. "The important thing—"
"Yes," said my mother. "The boy is fine. Thank you."
She took Mr. Bridwell's scarf and affectionately wrapped it around his neck, and then led our neighbors to the door.
"You two get home safe," she said.
And they were gone, leaving only me, my family and Uncle Cam, snoring soundly on the floor.
"Who's Nixon?" asked my daddy.
"No one, dear," said my mother. "No one important."
And she came over and covered me with a blanket and kissed me. She stoked the fire and, watching her, I drifted peacefully into a deep, sound sleep.