July 12th, 2010

Millard Fillmore in the Rivervalley

FillmoreBuck.jpgI finally got a Millard Fillmore dollar at the bank today. I've been meaning to ask for one for a long time, but I hate to bother the poor tellers for silly things like that when there's a line. Today, for whatever reason, the Wells Fargo branch at Safeway was empty and staffers were standing around BSing, so I asked. And I got.

It's a ridiculous coin in a lot of ways, none of them involving poor President Fillmore. Nobody uses dollar coins, and the government only issues them as a means of making something out of a nickel's worth of metal and selling it to collectors for a dollar. The coins don't suggest "money," (and certainly don't suggest "dollar") and after only a little while in circulation they darken up and look like big ugly old pennies.

But I like Millard Fillmore, and have wanted to work him into a story for thirty years. I got closest in the fall of 1984, when someone in my SF group told me that Philip Jose Farmer was allowing people to write stories set in his Riverworld universe, as long as the yarns didn't conflict with anything in the novels themselves. I have a collection of such stories, which were far better than what we now call fanfic, and are worth reading if you enjoyed Farmer's epic even a little.

So I read up on Fillmore a little, and began a story. That was 26 years ago. I dug around in my two moving boxes full of old manuscripts downstairs just now, and found it without a great deal of trouble. Some quick OCR, and I can give you a sample:

It had been a quiet night, and the late night rains were past. Nicky was close by, too close: Through the merest wisp of thatch Fillmore heard female giggling. Soon, too soon, he suspected he would hear Nicky say something like, "I'll do that again if you'll go next door and be good to President Fillmore..." When the line worked, he felt wretched. When it didn't work, he felt worse.

Fillmore had died an unhappy old prig at age 74, and even after thirty years on the great River, where everyone had been resurrected a healthy, glowing, eternal twenty-five, he had never gotten the knack for seducing young women who seemed more suitable to be his granddaughters than his paramours. Telling them he was Millard Fillmore virtually always produced a shrug--telling them he had been President of the United States usually brought forth a belly laugh.

For five years he had lived with a woman who had heard of him: Phyllis Swoboda, a twentieth-century American from Chicago. She had been a psychologist and was fascinated by what she called a "self-persecution complex manifested in a claim to be an unimportant historical figure." She was clearly the one who was insane, but she had a magnificent memory, and she was from the future of America.

America! Phyllis told him tales of Apollo's conquest of the Moon, the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, personal computers, television, Chevrolets, and Space Shuttle Columbia. The most powerful, noble nation in the history of planet Earth, and he had led it for a little while. Wasn't that worth something?

When Phyllis Swoboda couldn't cure him of being Millard Fillmore, she moved on. Soon afterward, a tall, muscular blond man in a Panama hat approached him on the beach, set down his grail, and shouted, "You're Millard Fillmore!" He had almost fainted.

The man was Nicky Daniel Scroggins, who had died of polio in 1955 at twelve years of age. Nicky had collected stamps, and his favorite series of stamps had been the "Prexies," issued in 1938, including every deceased President up to that year. On the 13-cent issue was the face of Millard Fillmore. "I had a whole sheet of you!" Nicky had shouted, and it was the beginning of the longest friendship Fillmore had enjoyed in either of his two long lives.

I doubt I would have sold it anywhere, but the story had some promise: Fillmore and Nicky trudge on along the River, where they find an "America" every three or four hundred miles. Each of these ersatz Americas boasts a charismatic leader who claims to be someone like John F. Kennedy, FDR, or Andrew Jackson. In no case is this true, but in every case the phony Presidents tell Fillmore to hit the road. After having adventures and being insulted by Sam Clemens ("Millard Fillmore! The man who proved that no one can grow up to be President!") they happen upon yet another America, a small enclave led cooperatively by three men who claim to be Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur, and Warren G. Harding. Conceding that there was little point in falsely claiming to be Millard Fillmore, the three obscure former presidents welcome Fillmore and make him the fourth partner in ruling the cooperative. (Somehow I flash on a Victorian steampunk epic entitled The League of Unexceptional Presidents.)

I got a few thousand words down, but the story had started to wander when I set it aside. Shortly afterward, I took the job with PC Tech Journal, and my SF career went into near-immediate eclipse. Still, I'm glad I tried: It was the only time I had ever attempted to write a story set in someone else's world, and that whole challenge gave the project a very weird feel. I had to be careful not to be too imaginative, for fear of violating the fabric of the Riverworld saga, and I wasn't used to putting artificial limits on my inventiveness. That, of course, is a core skill of a really good writer, and anyone who claims to be a master of his/her craft should try it.