2017 Prose Contest Winner
Chosen by Lily Hoang
“A story about a play where sound becomes violence, 'The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln’ made me laugh. Out loud. It’s funny. It’s frightening. It gives us real talk about race. It is a striking revelation of teenage wisdom.”
We were told the play was still happening! But the thing was you couldn’t have guns in school: that was a big no-no, plus also representation of them too, simulation—that type of thing. So for instance, water guns were off-limits and guns made out of paper and chicken finger guns, too. Regular finger guns as well. Remember Devon Taylor, who last year, pulled a finger gun on Pete Rohr at the lunch table? Devon was suspended big time for it even though Pete Rohr played it cool and said he was fine with it because he would just use a Sub-Zero fatality move on Devon if it ever came down to it. Guidance counselors swooped in like the geese that reappear after long winters along the cricks and rivers. They asked us if ever we felt angry and if so, in what ways would we deal with our anger. Think most of the answers they got shocked them, so new rule in school was: finger guns equal big no-no, too.
Here is a small list of things they heard:
I eat a lot and then touch myself until I’m hungry again.
I watch naked girls sucking cocks, acting like they enjoy it.
I watch naked guys sucking each other’s cocks, acting like they enjoy it.
I grab my cock real hard until it is blue like the sharpest crayon in the box.
I think about putting dead animals in my parents’ bed.
I think about my dead parents’ having sex on dead animals in their bed.
I think about hitting Jenny Moppet with my cock.
I hit Jenny Moppet in a dream I had where my cock was seven feet tall and angry as a car.
I torture crickets in a jar right now but will eventually graduate to torturing Jenny Moppetses in a jar.
Jenny Moppet was the girl who played Mary Todd Lincoln in Mr. Rem’s original school play—The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
It was the time in our school we were learning about Abraham Lincoln and, you know, all that stuff he did freeing slaves and saying important things while bearded. All of us were interested in the bearded portion—we had images of ourselves as grown people with beards that looked like the skies of an angry god with a big cock.
You might say the play was the highlight of our lives then. The thing we were waiting for—tradition. Mr. Rem was the teacher all the kids loved. Boys liked him cause sometimes he’d let fly a curse word like shit or damn, which wasn’t so bad but still cool enough to make us think he was the kind of adult we’d be around children. Girls were all gaga over him. His sleek and seductive form. They thought about how he had that effect of appearing before them as if in a dream. The dream where dad comes down the long staircase, the dad who touches you and makes you feel like your soul is returning to your body like a Frisbee thrown back from the other side. Cause you know, the thing about girls is they are not about sex at that age; some are, but most aren’t. It’s more: they like the idea of not being alone and there, out there, close to touch, is a man, dadlike on a dream staircase, who is just right for not being alone and so what if he has gross parts.
Mr. Rem talked to you and it felt like everyone was immediately interested in you because they had seen him talking to you.
Mr. Rem had that kind of hairdo that is cut out of your favorite TV show when you are thirteen years old and thinking about time machines in your heart of hearts.
I once saw Mr. Rem talking with Ms. Rumson, who was quite beautiful herself because she was young and she had lips and she had boobs that seemed to talk to us—the boys at least—that twittered in another language that we understood, and I felt like they were sharing secrets about their lives to one another and that this must be what adulthood is like—knowing the secret twittering of boobs.
The first school play we performed was hokey and dated. We were young and foolish actors. It was a play about pirates, and Jeff Wexler, teacher’s pet, in his eye patch, had to keep repeating the line: Where’s the treasure? I want the treasure!
The parents who attended were either overly ruthless or overly merciful with their praise.
It was called The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln but everyone wanted to be John Wilkes Booth.
Even some of the girls, like, for instance, Renee Baxter, who made a point to say men in Shakespearean times played the girl parts too and so, years later, why not the other way for a change. To which we were like, in our heads of course, and out loud: fuck off, Renee, you look like Stephan A. Douglas and no way are you raining on our parade.
John Wilkes Booth was the guy who shot Abraham Lincoln in the play.
So there was a discussion and it was decided on that, no, girls would not be able to try out for the part of John Wilkes Booth, and also no, the black kids couldn’t either because the school was not sure what kind of message that would send the student body, who already had a very strange relationship with race.
In the boy’s bathroom the year before the n-word was found written in a stall.
It was a black kid, Dev Ward, who found it and he came out angry because, duh, he’s not a dummy and he knows what that word means and he told Mr. Charles, the only black teacher in the whole school. Then came the fires. We all had to go to this, well, it was a sorry excuse for an assembly. There was a small guy on stage calling himself Joe, The Guy With The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat Of Humanity. There was this big, brightly colored coat he wore, which some teased made him look like a rainbow you want to beat up just because it’s low enough. So, this guy, Joe, in his Technicolor Dream Coat, asked us what kinds of dreams we had, what twirled in our sleeping heads of which we should not be ashamed, and first it was Jack Volpe who raised his hand and said he dreamed about naked women making out in a Corvette while a guy in a trench coat gave him buckets of money. Then Joe, his head looking real small in his large, multicolored coat, said no, that is the wrong answer. Then he asked us what kinds of dreams we had for our futures again, like where did we see ourselves in ten years, like maybe what did we envision the world being like, etcetera, etcetera. And he said etcetera, etcetera as thoughtful as we’ve ever heard nothing expressed before. And finally he had to choose someone because nobody was raising their hands because, jeez, who thinks about this crap when they’re thirteen? Kid he chose was Manny Kemp, though his real name was not Manny, it was Michael, but he went by Manny for reasons that remain mysterious. So Joe asks Manny what his vision is, the dream he has for the future, and Manny goes on this long tangent about how, instead of all this future talk, he wishes he could go back in the past to when there was cowboys and Indians and how it would be cool to be a cowboy in the Wild West and shoot at Indians because they make funny yodelly (but not really yodelly) noises with their mouths and try and sleep with our white women. Laughter filled up the auditorium, but Joe, in his large coat, said to us to look at his coat, the colors in it, the blues and the reds and the oranges and the greens and the yellows and the indigos and the etcetera, etceteras, and he told us this coat worked because all the different dreams the colors made were working together to create one big wholesome reality.
And you know what that one big wholesome reality is? he asked, looking as young and hopeful as a kid you’d beat up in the fourth grade. Harmony, he said finally after no one said a thing except the short bus kids in the back of the auditorium who were moaning like they were getting hand jobs, and he had to say harmony again because the first time he said it one of the short bus kids had moaned so loudly you couldn’t hear Joe say harmony.
Then afterward our principal, Mr. Kassel, stood erect on the stage, threatening us, as if he were in his own play, telling us the school had cameras everywhere and they knew who put that word in the boy’s bathroom and if the person didn’t turn himself in by the end of the day there would be comprehensive actions taken.
No one turned themselves in.
No comprehensive actions were taken.
Jenny Moppet got the part of Mary Todd Lincoln because she was the prettiest. There’s just no other way of putting it.
She was weird, too, so it would make sense that she might be able to bring to life the abnormal head spaces of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Mr. Rem said Mary Todd Lincoln hated men. Just hated them, he said.
Jenny Moppet was pretty and probably hated men. Her only girl friend was Fran Sawyer, who had cheekbones, but not much else. Instead, after school, Jenny would hole up in Ben Brandt’s garage and watch his band play their bad songs, and sometimes would think real deep in her head how she wished she might ask one of them to take her over their knee and spank her, but instead she’d go home and maybe touch herself, but more likely not, and feel frustrated either way.
She already felt tired at such a young age, like she had lived another life already, or maybe she was living two at the same time, she couldn’t tell, but Mr. Rem thought she could bring a certain world-weariness to the role of Mary Todd Lincoln that other girls her age would fail diligently at.
When Jenny Moppet asked Mr. Rem where all her other lines were when she got the script, Mr. Rem said, Oh, you only have the one line. Most of your performance will be physical and facial, and then he smiled at her and she seemed to step into character as quickly as it takes to make Benny Gomez cry about his dumb mom who can’t speak English.
We don’t want to say everything was resolved or changed after the assembly with Joe and his queer coat, except that maybe a lot of gay jokes were flying around more frequently and, yes, that kind of took our minds off the whole business with the n-word Dev Ward found in the bathroom.
Some kids even started to become curious about whether or not, you know, Abraham Lincoln might have been gay.
But Mr. Rem wagged his finger, told us Lincoln was married. Then he reminded us that Mary Todd Lincoln hated, absolutely loathed, he said, men.
When we got home, after school, in those days before the snows hit, the late skies would be seared with a pink, as if salmon were jumping in and out of the pockets of blue between clouds. Lonely swing sets in those days would rattle and creak in the chilly evenings outside while inside moms and dads in kitchens would tell us how their days went, providing us with a cartography of their grief and the grievances that had penetrated their souls, making their faces grayer, unhappier, saggier, like candles that had seen the flame too many times.
All this is to say, things were very strange, strangish, off kilter, except pronounced how Brian Appel would say it. Off killedher. Off killedher because things were not sitting right how they should. The dust on the shelves inside our bodies wasn’t lying right. Our bodies seemed to exist in the future beyond our comprehension. We were wondering about, well, you know, everything: what the universe looked like up its dress, how we got put in our spots on this big map, why certain words hung like stars on our tongues— either too bright to turn off or too hot to form solid in our breath. Everything our bodies seemed to already know and yet hide from us like a secret.
The day before Devon Taylor pulled a finger gun out on Pete Rohr there was a discussion because of the incident with Tony Ducet’s mom, who was raped at her nightshift job and almost died, and so we all formed a circle around the classroom and said all the sad things we were feeling.
Mrs. Klasko was convinced we did a great job. We all sent pictures of what we thought our insides looked like to Tony to show him how similar we were in bad times. Mrs. Klasko called my drawing really great and that I might be something of an artist. When she walked away I cursed her under my breath, while nursing my boner.
My drawing to Tony Ducet was of a happy family—stick figures—and in between the mom stick figure and the dad stick figure was a space, blank and white—in the shape of a heart.
Jenny Moppet’s one line in the play was ‘O my dear departed husband O!’
Tim McMinn got the part of John Wilkes Booth. He wore a fake mustache that made him look exactly like his dad, who came to pick him up from baseball practice in a pickup truck that had a bumper sticker on the back that had four drawings of cute guns that said below them: ‘You have your family, I have mine.’ Watching it drive away, out of the parking lot near the diamond, we’d always think about what it meant, if we were missing the joke, because, like, Tim McMinn and his dad and his mom and his little sister were not guns. They were people.
John Boreaux got the part of Abraham Lincoln. He looked nothing like his dad, who was beardless and bald and wore a suit to work and called his secretary Janice, my love.
The only black kid who got a speaking part was Dev Ward, probably as reparation for seeing the n-word in the bathroom—but no, Mr. Rem said it was because he had a very pleasant speaking voice. Big and cosmic his voice was. He used it often at baseball and basketball practice to call us dumbass motherfuckers for being so bad at sports. Dev Ward played the guy outside of the theater that spoke to Abraham Lincoln. He grabbed his hand and told him you are a great man, but great men die in tragedy, and I have foreseen your tragedy, and please Mr. President do not go into that theater or you will see tragedy like I have seen tragedy in your life.
All these words were written by Mr. Rem, who was very proud and looked at Ms. Rumson with eyes like little Mary Todd Lincolns... her madness, her darling soul.
Of course, no, no, absolutely not, I’m in no way suggesting Mr. Rem wrote the play to get a hand job from Ms. Rumson. No, no way. That would be, like, well, that would be like suggesting Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves to get a hand job from Mary Todd Lincoln.
In our heads then, under the spacious skies of the football field where they had us throwing dodgeballs at each other, we dreamed up what it would be like to receive a hand job from a crazy person. It must be like getting your thing caught in a washing machine or the spoke of a bicycle—
The baseball card with the face of the baseball player clicking to the sound of what you thought was your desire and is now, regrettably, your misery.
Abraham Lincoln, as the play depicts, regrettably goes into the theater.
So here it was: the big thing was we couldn’t have guns of any kind. So here we were: No guns, their representations and simulations included. It was forbidden because there had been, you know, all that stuff, all that misery and tragedy that had happened.
Far away and close to home.
Not just with Devon Taylor, but with all those kids dying too in Toledo. Haven’t even gotten to that part yet. The part with the little kids in Toledo. All those little bodies sent off into nothingness, unless you believe in God, in which case, yes!, into Heaven, where they are running around with Barbies and GI Joes, shooting and fondling each other up there.
So to remedy the issue, the issue of the guns in the play, Mr. Rem told Tim McMinn to clap.
Clap? Tim McMinn said.
Yes, said Mr. Rem.
He clapped, loudly, to demonstrate. Then said: Never was there in history a person or thing that was arrested for clapping.
Even if there was, Mr. Rem reasoned, and he was white, he’d be given the benefit of doubt.
But I am John Wilkes Booth, Tim McMinn said. I do not get the benefit of doubt. I get 86’ed in the end.
But remember the good times! Mr. Rem said and clapped his hands together.
At night, in our homes, our parents would watch the news. Things that happened outside the home became stories designed to make the home better, safer, more conditioned to certainty. They’d ask us how school was and what new things we learned. We told them about the world. They watched the news and listened to what it said.
Here is a small example of what the news said:
Over sixteen elementary school children were clapped dead today in Toledo.
In the days after Toledo clapping, there was a heated debate over whether or not the school should proceed with the production of The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Everyone seemed divided. Those who called for the play’s dismissal were showered with accusations of being “wussy,” “un-American,” and “morally homosexual.” Those who supported going through with the play were called “insensitive,” “callous,” and “medieval.” The entire debate spiraled into many nights of husbands sleeping aggressively with their wives and the wives, if they cooked, fixing chilly breakfasts in the mornings. Those of us who were in the play, performing various roles, too small to have voices in the world of reason, were in the dubious position of being “fuck-ups.” No matter which side it was, we were the ones going to be fuck-ups. Us kids.
There was a moment of silence for the children, younger than us, who went away. We never like to say “died” because of the way Brian Appel said it. He said died, but he was actually saying dad. When he said “died” and meant “died,” it came out like “dead.”
During the moment of silence, nothing happened. We became so unlike. We all were silent. Nobody even moved. The stars slept in the places they go to hide from the bully sun. Moving would make it real. Because, in our heads at least, this wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. So here we were—silent as homes without televisions in them, and supposedly in the act of remembering little children we never knew. Here we were, wondering what jubilation was to be discovered in the silent water of our bodies. Outside the school, our parents were at their jobs or not at their jobs because they were the kinds of parents that didn’t work, (it all depended on who your parent was). If they loved you or hit you with whippy things or yelled at you because of your disobedience or not knowing otherwise or if they felt deeply tired of living in a world closing in and in and in. They were busy with paper, with clocks they would look at religiously like pieces of fine jewelry from the saddest of carats. No matter what happens, the universe always gives us weather.
After the moment of silence, some of us wondered if this was the part where we clapped.
Jenny Moppet was virtuosic as Mary Todd Lincoln. She had one line in the play, but she made that line last twenty and a half minutes long. Doors in the auditorium could be heard opening and closing due to pee breaks.
Was she possessed like others later claimed?
We’re not sure.
She was beautiful for twenty and a half minutes long. She lived forever in that twenty and a half minutes.
Most mass shootings are over in far less than twenty and a half minutes. This is what we were told for some reason. Matters of life and death last so little.
Mr. Rem later gave Jenny Moppet an embrace to end all embraces, and Ms. Rumson drank jealousy from a water fountain.
The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln went on as planned, of course. It was decided it would be not in the spirit of the country not to go on with it. We became fuck-ups. Other children died from various causes: cancer, crib death, drowning, misadventure, suicide, murder, seesaw accidents, etc.
In the nights leading up to our performance we would dream.
Our dreams were like opening your eyes under water. Water with light in it. Swimming pool light. Glittering, pretty, telling you the secrets. Those shapes we all hope they find inside us when we go away and they carve us open like trees.
In our dreams the children came to us. All of them. Not just the ones with holes in their faces in Toledo—yet there they were too—but all of them, coming out of a light littered with sadness.
They smelled like outer space.
They thought we were their moms and dads.
They said: Died?
We shook our dreaming heads.
They told us: Pretend nothing has ever happened ever. In this way, you will live.
Then they’d ask to play dodgeball because apparently playing dodgeball with the dead is no fun. No fun at all.
And we did play with them, and then we woke up, and outside, the cold seemed to be working out all the possible ways it could get in.
It wasn’t just Jenny Moppet. It was everyone. Everyone played his or her role beautifully. Mr. Rem put his white hands over his face and told us what an honorable memory we had given to him and to our parents and to ourselves.
We were not ourselves.
We were strangled in our old-timey clothes. Beards itched on our short faces. Vests and dresses hung on us like soaked wings. We talked like England, because we felt that is what happens when you get older.
And in that condition—that condition of being not-ourselves—we carried on with
The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Dev Ward gave his warning to Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln ignored it.
Abraham Lincoln got shot in the head by the clapping hand of our John Wilkes Booth.
Jenny Moppet, in her hauntingly adolescent Mary Todd Lincoln, let out twenty and a half minutes of pure wonder and grief at what was happening to our bodies, our minds, what futures we would find them in if we ever did catch up.
There was much sorrow and responsibility in our faces.
Our hearts were blissful and heavy with confusion.
We had assassinated Abraham Lincoln together.
Looking down on our Abraham Lincoln, a smear of ketchup on his face, we knew this is what had been handed down to us. The sight of Abraham Lincoln, a thousand Abraham Lincolns, being clapped to death in front of our very eyes couldn’t stop our belief in the knowledge that life is the only thing.
Our Abraham Lincoln was dead but we looked alive.
Where’s the treasure? I want the treasure!
Meanwhile, in the darkness of the theater: our parents watched us up on the stage with guilty eyes. Us, their little fuck-ups. Them, someone else’s little fuck-ups before us. They had seen Abraham Lincoln perish too. Too many times to tell. Had killed him over and over. They acted shocked anyway.
Mr. Rem pulled the curtain down. It fell in slow motion across us like how we’ll think life has done when we’re older, slumped over, and regretting.
Our parents were clapping now.
That is all we could hear.
Clapping and clapping and clapping. The violence of the sound mocking its meaning.
When the curtain was pulled back for our bow, their faces looked like the maps to places gentrified. The sound they made bulleted the auditorium. Their hands clapped together like doves trying to fuck. They were proud of us. They were proud we knew our history. That we exalted it. And now they were exalting us.
We were a million miles away. We looped and looped.
We stood buried in our costumes, propped up by their praise, feeling preordained and cursed from the start: listening to the sitting parents clapping and clapping, so loud and with such force it sounded like they were shooting us.
Shane Kowalski was born outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His work appears or is forthcoming in The Offing, New Delta Review, Passages North, Hobart, Ohio Edit, and other places. Currently he is a lecturer at Cornell University.
Lily Hoang is the author of five books, including A Bestiary (winner of the inaugural Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Nonfiction Contest) and Changing (recipient of a PEN Open Books Award). With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde.
Photo by von.