We made it. After six weeks and nearly 4,000 stories, we've reached the end of Round 9 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest, where we ask listeners to come up with an original short story that can be read in about three minutes.
Graduate students from around the country helped read all the submissions. The winning story was chosen by this round's judge, novelist Brad Meltzer. Meltzer wrote the best-selling books The Inner Circle and The Book of Lies. His new book, due out in January, is called The Fifth Assassin.
Meltzer gave you this challenge: Write a story that revolves around a U.S. president, who can be fictional or real.
He says the submissions were as diverse as he had hoped.
"They came from every direction. They came from real presidents, they came from fake presidents, they came from their personal lives, they came from something that touched them, they came from something big about America," he says.
The winner for this round is Marc Sheehan of Grand Haven, Mich., who wrote The Dauphin. The story is about a man taking care of his father, who thinks he's President Spiro Agnew.
"Forget about whether Spiro Agnew was or wasn't president, forget about the fact that clearly this guy is not the president," Meltzer says. "It's really about this guy who's suffering and his son taking care of him."
Marc Sheehan of Grand Haven, Mich., wrote our Round 9 winning story, The Dauphin.
Courtesy of Marc Sheehan
Courtesy of Marc Sheehan
Meltzer says the story stuck in his mind, and the character was so well defined that a whole book could be written around him.
"And the one thing I will say that caught me more than anything else is it was the story I was most jealous of, and I mean that in the very best way," he says.
Sheehan has never entered the Three-Minute Fiction contest before, but he says this prompt really resonated with him. While pondering the challenge, Sheehan says he was interested in the idea of a fictional president and the possibility of writing an alternative history. Then it got him thinking about his own father, who passed away in 1984.
"I'd actually tried to write about that more realistically different times," he says. "It had never turned out well, and then suddenly having this different slant on it paradoxically gave me a kind of way into an emotional truth that I hadn't been able to get to, again, writing more realistically about it."
Meltzer lost his own father last year.
"Sometimes a story just hits you in that personal spot, and this one just hit me," he says, "and it helped me, and I appreciate [Sheehan] sharing it."
But Meltzer says his personal connection with the story was not the reason he picked it.
"That's just the emotional thing that I can feel in the back, but that had nothing to do with [being drawn to it]," he says. "What I recognized was just the complete picture that [he] painted of this man and his son and ... it really was more than just plot — it was real-world building."
For his day job, Sheehan is the communications officer at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. He writes on his own — he has even published two books of poetry. Sheehan says he recently finished the draft of a comic novel. Meltzer wants to buy the first copy when it's published.
Sheehan's Three-Minute Fiction entry will be published in the next edition of The Paris Review.
President Agnew is tired after his daily briefing and ready to watch a re-run of The Love Boat. Next to his glass of jug wine on the kitchen table rests The Football, an old scuffed Detroit Lions model. He refuses to go anywhere without it. He often complains about the responsibility of knowing the nuclear codes.
It's a mystery how, when my father's dementia struck, it took the form of his belief that he is President Spiro T. Agnew. Father was never political. He did get upset when Gerald Ford, the representative of our west Michigan district, became president without being elected, but not enough to even write a letter to the Grand Rapids Press.
Now it's 1984, after what would have been the Agnew administration, and long after I gave up athletics for chasing girls and smoking pot. Back in junior high, I was a second-string quarterback, and Dad, already in his 50s, used to jog across the yard with his arms outstretched for a catch as I practiced my spiral.
In the spring when I got laid off from my injection-molding job, I moved back in to spend time with him and give Mom a rest. The wine and Love Boat is everyone's reward for getting through another afternoon cabinet meeting.
"Are we doing all we can to further relations with China?" he asks. "After everything that's happened to Dick, I think it's the least we can do."
"Yes, Mr. President," I say, "although Chairman Mao is unpredictable as always."
"Would the president like Salisbury steak or turkey and peas for dinner?" asks my mother, the secretary of the Interior.
President Agnew ponders, a finger stroking the pebbly surface of the football. "Turkey and peas," he announces.
"Then the vice president is having Salisbury steak" she says, looking at me. "The White House kitchen has only one turkey and peas."
We've had frozen dinners most nights since an X-ray found a tumor, inoperable and fast-growing, in the president's lung. The doctor said we could try radiation and chemo, but thought the cure would kill him faster than the disease. Before the X-ray, we had gently tried to convince him he is not President Agnew.
Summer drags on. We survive the Mayaguez incident, the fall of Saigon and Hoffa's disappearance. His breath becomes shallow and labored, even with the flow from the oxygen tank cranked up high. By mid-September, it's just mother and me sitting at the kitchen table, drinking rosé and watching ocean-borne romance with the sound turned low while the president drowses in his recliner.
One night after eating our microwave dinners on TV trays in the living room, I help get the president dressed in his pajamas and tucked into bed. I ask him if he wants to keep up with events. He nods and I turn on the portable Magnavox perched on my parents' dresser. Father cradles the football next to him atop the chenille bedspread. He has the little nozzle portion of the plastic tubing from the green tank in his nose. The oxygen makes a hissing sound as he stares blankly at a man shaving his thickly foamed face with a disposable razor.
"You'll make sure everything is OK when I'm gone, won't you?" he wheezes. I don't know who's asking me this — my father, or Spiro Agnew.
"Yes, I will, Mr. President. Dad," I say. He smiles. Then he nudges the football up onto his stomach where he can grab it firmly, and hands it off to me.