John Boehner fan fiction: Three novelists go inside the speaker's brain and imagine the shutdown's final hours

Novelists Joshua Furst, Elliott Holt and Alissa Nutting show us the shutdown through John Boehner's eyes

By Joshua Furst - Alissa Nutting

Published October 17, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

                                (Benjamin Wheelock/Salon)
(Benjamin Wheelock/Salon)

What was it like to be John Boehner as shutdown negotiations drew to a close? Salon asked Joshua Furst, author of "The Sabotage Cafe"; Elliott Holt, author of "You Are One of Them"; and Alissa Nutting, author of "Tampa," to put themselves in his shoes. The (very fictional) results are below -- with a lot of smoking, some tears and quite a few ties. 

7:15 a.m.

Pete’s Diner – John Boehner pokes at his fried eggs with his fork. He guzzles coffee, hoping the caffeine will kill his hangover.  A bite of yolk dipped toast catches like liver in his throat.  He chews and chews but he can’t get it down.  Finally he spits it into his napkin.

Well, shit.  The teabaggers ruined my dinner, might as well ruin my breakfast, too.  At least Amazing Grace sounded halfway decent.  Until it didn’t.

What did they expect?  I kept telling them, you can’t win at checkers when the Dems are playing chess.  I kept telling them, change the game.  And the teabaggers said, we did — we’re playing poker.  To which I said, you can’t win at poker when the opposition can see your hand.  Let’s play pinochle, that’s what I told them. They hate me. What they said was, OK, we’ll play bridge. Just to rib me. Just to spite me. Fine, I said, let’s play bridge. I’ll make the bid, you’ll be the dummy.

And I did as much. I trumped Mitch and Harry (God knows what they’ll do to screw me for that). I took the hand back. Twice. And I played the cards the teabaggers gave me.  Medical device tax.  Did they really think we’d win with that?  Nix congressional subsidies. Fat chance. It only takes two or three hundred evil eyes from the secretaries, pages and security guards around here to realize that idea’s not going anywhere. The second time, I gave them a face card of my own. Restrict the Treasury from using extraordinary measures to stop us from getting our way next time around. We even had a trump up our sleeve — cast the vote and flee town. Leave the Dems in the Senate holding the cards.

No dice.

What really gets my goat is that, after all that, the teabaggers — Cruz, especially — still managed to make me the dummy.

12:50 p.m.

John Boehner’s office in the Longworth House Office Building – The Senate announces a deal on ending the budget crisis.  Sunk in his office chair, Boehner watches in a state of near lethargy as CNN broadcasts video of Ted Cruz outside the Senate chambers, walking past reporters then pulling a U-turn and returning to take their questions.

And they wonder why I still smoke.

1:45 p.m.

John Boehner’s office in the Longworth House Office Building – Against his better judgment, Boehner has taken an interview with Bill Cunningham of WLW Radio, Cincinnati.  Now that it’s over, he sparks up a Camel Ultra Light and leans back in his chair.  He allows himself a small, self-indulgent smile.

Classic Willy Cunningham:  “Sometimes you want to be a soldier at the Alamo.” That was nice of him to say. I like the Alamo. Davey Crocket. He was a survivor. “You can all go to hell.  I’m going to Texas.” Sure wish I could have said that. But if I went to Texas, I’d just run into Cruz, and … Come to think of it, Davey Crocket died at the Alamo.

Screw it. When this is all over, and they squeeze me out of my speakership, I’ll tell them, “You can all go to hell. I’m going to the Keys.” Then, when they ask why, I’ll give them the deadeye and say, “What better place to work on my tan?"

3:00 p.m.

House Republican conference room – Boehner stands at a rickety wooden podium, licking his finger and flipping through his notes as he prepares to address a closed-door meeting of House Republicans.

The problem with herding cats is that when you try to force them to go in the direction you want, they scratch the hell out of you. They’ll be eating the flesh off my face once they’ve killed me, but here goes.

“We fought the good fight. We fought the good fight. We fought the good fight. We fought the good fight.”

Repeat it enough times and maybe they’ll believe it.

“The bad news is, well, we just didn’t win. It’s time to stand together now as we move on. I’m not going to stand in the way of the Senate bill coming to the floor.”

Wait for it … wait for it …

Holy bullcrap. Where are the fistfights? Where are the boos from Denham and Yoho and Coburn and Tim Scott  Come on, Michele, don’t disappoint me, bug those eyes, come on, start speaking in tongues.

Let’s try this one. It went over well with Cunningham this afternoon and it’s just logical sounding enough for the teabaggers to believe it if they don’t think too hard about what it says. And really, who among them thinks hard about anything?

“I’ll tell you one thing, though, there’s no giving up on our team and there’s no giving up in me.”

Whoa. What’s that I hear? Applause? Now they’re standing up. Not to leave. To cheer me. It’s got to be a trick. What sort of game are they playing? I wish I knew.

7:00 p.m.

Republican Conference Room – Boehner again finds himself watching Ted Cruz grandstand on a TV screen. 

Come on, Ted.  Don’t be so sulky.  If I can’t take the cards and storm off to my room, neither can you.  Remember the words of the great Kenny Rogers.

… every gambler knows the secret to surviving

is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep

da da-da-da da da-da, deet deet da da-da

the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep …

Hell.  At least he’s blaming McCain and Lindsey Graham instead of me.

10:30 p.m.

The floor of the House – The measure has passed.  Final tally: 285 to 144 with Republicans voting 87 for and 144 against. Unable to stomach the handshakes and empty congratulations on the floor, in desperate need of a cigarette, Boehner, followed by his aides, staggers out of the room before the vote is closed.  His usually bright face has drained of color. He chews at his bottom lip.

Well that was so much fun I almost want to cry.

Like Kenny Rogers says: know when to walk away, know when to run. I wish I could get that damn song out of my head.

The pundits have all declared that I’ll keep my speakership and if anyone knows what’s really going on, it’s the pundits. That means I win. I win. Republicans lose. Ted Cruz loses. But I win. Remember the Alamo indeed. I’m reminded of the coward Moses Rose. He knew when to run. And he survived to be mocked and hated forever. Sometimes even I don’t know how I do it.

I’m thinking, though, that when we go through this all over again in January we should stick with Go Fish.  Kindergartners like us shouldn’t be playing grown-up games.


Sixteen days. They think I don’t know that? I can count. Sixteen days. That’s about 600 cigarettes. More, maybe. I’m not gonna do the math. There are enough people spouting shutdown numbers. A man smokes more when he’s up shit’s creek ... but I have a paddle. I have a gavel. The gavel.

They want me to cry — they’re all just waiting for me to cry. "Here comes little Johnny and his overactive tear ducts, letting the Democrats beat him up." "Boehner is the weakest speaker in history." "Boehner’s a coward." "Boehner just wants to drink his Merlot." "Boehner just wants to hit the links and work on his tan."

I hear what they’re saying. I have ears ... I have feelings. I’m a human being. I’d like to see them try to deal with this mess. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right ... here I am ... Go ahead and create your little video clips, Jon Stewart. Have your liberal laugh … But does a coward help raise his 11 siblings? Does a coward work his way through college? Does a coward survive an attempted coup by his own caucus? I’m still here. I’m still standing.

Why? Because I put up a fight. Because the Tea Party knows I’m not a pushover. Because the American people don’t want Obamacare ... because the American people want fairness for all ... for ALL. This is democracy. I have the gavel! The gavel is mine!

Sometimes in the night, I wake up with my hands fisted and ready to fight. Because I know they’re coming for me … and I know how long it took to get here … and I’m not just going to roll over and … But default? Default this, that’s what I say. I’d never let the great United States of America default ... no, sir. That wasn’t going to happen. Not on my watch. That isn’t going to happen. I’m a reasonable man. A man of reason.

Christ … I know about the economy. I’m a man of business. I’ve got dollars and sense … but a man has to think about security ... job security ... isn’t that what everyone wants? I provide for my family. I’ve always provided … Providence. I believe in God and I have faith in this great country of ours … Who can blame me for trying to hold onto my job? The gavel ... the first time I held it in my hand, I’m thinking: I’m not in Reading anymore. It fits in my hand like it was made just for me.

But when I’m on my deathbed, what am I going to remember? Ted Cruz’s fucking grin? Bachmann’s wild eyes? Obama’s smug mug? Newt? I don’t think so ... Debbie, that night in the car, slipping and sliding on the seats like butter, panting like a Labrador ... maybe, maybe ... Lindsay in diapers, taking her first steps ... the football field on a crisp fall day … this is my life. And when my life is shutting down, am I going to waste time with regret?

I’m not going to live in fear. What are we all so afraid of? Bankruptcy, cancer, the terrorists blowing up our dreams ... this is America. We’re not supposed to be afraid. This is the home of the brave. Did we surrender to the British? Did we surrender at the Alamo? Did we just let the Russians win the Cold War? No. We took a stand. For freedom. For fairness. We didn’t surrender. The conservatives know I put up a good fight. History will show … A good fight. But I’m a reasonable man. And I’ve still got the gavel. What I really need is a smoke.


"Shit or get off the pot" is one of those sayings people rattle off without ever examining. First you have to ask: am I sitting on the right pot? If not, what pot should I sit on? Where should I be shitting, and which spaces should my shit avoid? Then you have to examine the act of shitting, which is not a uniform event. Sometimes you think you have shat, but when you stand up and look in the pot you see that you haven’t. Other times you feel you’ve hardly shat at all, accomplished nothing, but then when you stand and look back you see the situation much differently: you are greeted by the surprise of a substantial visual argument that your time on the pot was productive indeed. Or what if you’re on the pot very effortfully trying to shit? What if you’re straining, rupturing facial capillaries? Should you still get off the pot rather than continuing to try? What if the promise of forthcoming shit seems so close — wouldn’t it be far more painful, at that point, to abort the attempt than to continue? And what if you think you’ve finished shitting but stand up to find that you haven’t — because you got off the pot too soon, you made quite the mess! But say the best-case scenario happens: you are on the pot, and you shit, and then you get up and flush and walk away. Nothing has actually been completed, not in the big picture — very soon, chances are that you’re going to have to shit once again. 

This whole debt crisis, it trifles with one’s regularity. I burp at regular intervals as though I’m trying to digest a possible solution but it isn’t going down. I have nightmares about golf where the game is played by me having to swallow an oversized ball, run from one hole to the next as fast as I can, then squat above the hole and forcibly push until it passes out my colon and clinks into the ground. When I wake my bowels feel inflamed. It’s like the title of that artist’s piece I made the Smithsonian pull a few years back is haunting me — the film with ants crawling on a crucifix. I didn’t watch it; I don’t have to stab someone to know murder is wrong. Ants on Christ and federal dollars will be oil and water for as long as I can help it.

Except sometimes I need to be reminded of the immoralities in the world. They’re like a coach’s pep talk before a football game, forcing me to remember what I’m fighting for. Plus they help me better understand what the Tea Partyers are so riled up about, the common ground that puts us on the same team.

So one morning I rose a little early, emptied my bladder, and watched it on an empty stomach. “You might make me cry with disgust,” I told the video. “But that is the only fluid emission you have any possibility of evoking from this patriot.” 

Well, it was worse than I expected. Lips being sewn shut. Bread being sewn together. Mummified corpses. Falling coins. There was even the emergence of a very large penis, flailing to life in the dark like some recently surfaced deep-sea creature, completely ill suited to independent mobility on land.

It rocked me enough that I did, indeed, begin to weep, so violently that I felt like my eyes were bleeding. It rocked me enough that I turned wholly pale. Enough that when I went down for breakfast, my wife dropped her fork on the floor and screamed, “John what happened to your tan??? John? Johnny? Where’s your sunshine skin gone??”

At that moment, I knew that my life depended on me taking in a sight of beauty right away. Ugly visions had knocked the peace right out of me, and with it, my breath. “Deborah,” I wheezed, “help me up the stairs.” For a moment she stood frozen, paralyzed by my blanched appearance. Our dining room ceiling slowly began to fold in on me; I could see the trajectory of the chandelier inching closer and closer to my forehead — I was about to be crushed by its weight. “Take me to them!” I specified, hoisting all my strength into a final directive that immediately caused her to spring into action. Draping my arm around her neck and leaning into me like a crutch, she helped me hobble up the stairs, together limping down the hallway until my encumbered spirit lost all volition over my frame; at this point I fell to the ground and had to perform an inelegant, staccato version soldier’s crawl for the last several feet through my bedroom to the inside of our closet, straight to my tie rack annex at the very back.

My wife immediately pressed the button activating each rack’s mechanized rotational spin function; together they formed a chorus of robotic purrs as they began an orderly circular march above me. Normally their passage above my head functioned as a sort of sedative (although in this situation I’d been forcibly grounded from exposure to a toxic level of vulgarity, I often choose to lie on the ground beneath the ties and take in the dance of their composed choreography; something about it hearkens the safety and reassuring dazzle an infant would find in a mobile. I liked imagining their pendant tips to be banners hung in the grand gymnasium of American history, each one declaring my championship victories in various years of political sport). However, this time I noticed with horror that the triangular edges of the ties, placed together in a circular fashion, formed a peak-and-valley pattern not unlike the one found in the razor-sharp rows of teeth that make animals of prey so effective. “The jaws are closing in!” I screamed.

But then Deborah did something remarkable: she started taking the ties off of their racks and placing them upon me one by one. I initially thought of the mummies in the video and recoiled, but as she continued her work, very expediently placing them across every inch of my body, I realized their function as bandages was, in this context, quite a healing one. I felt the radiant glow of their satin warm upon me; when she placed the final tie — it featured a blue-sky background forcibly brought to life via electric yellow lines whose shape were part-lightning, part-EKG printout — overtop my eyes, I indeed felt a defibrillatory buzz whose heat fanned across me in waves. I continued to marinate in the tie-cocoon for several hours, vocally checking in with Deborah now and again so she understood the vital recharge that was taking place. “The light of my ties,” I explained, “the solar energy that nourished the plant, the plant that fed the silkworm, the silkworm that evacuated the threads from its body —” I may have been mumbling due to the tie, mint green with a navy blue quadrate sequence in its foreground, blanketing my mouth. “I can feel them transferring their life source to my insides. I will rise back upright once the transfer has completed.”

By my wife’s calculations, it took around six hours, 42 minutes for me sit up on the floor of the closet and declare myself fully healed, crisis averted. I immediately had the ties gathered up and taken to my energetic new crop of office interns, who were instructed to take them to the rooftop lounge at the W Hotel on 15thand hold each one up to the sun for 5-7 minutes so it might recharge. “They’re not just ties to me,” I stressed. “They’re batteries.” The freckled intern, the one from 2011 whose name I never learned, took an asthma inhaler out of her pocket and used it. She inquired as to whether or not the rooftop was accessible via elevator.

This was clearly the worst of it, that damn video’s effects. But I’ve since found, and this is likely true of all banned art, and much of the reason why I try to protect the general public from exposure to it, that like the chicken pox, the video’s virus has remained in my body even after my recovery. I think about its images all the time, despite my specific, voiced internal intentions not to.

That’s one thing, right off the bat — the film is silent! Not a natural thing for movies to be. And I’m speaker of the House. My first question, of course: where’s the dialogue? "Master and Commander," now that was a movie. Prescient, too. “Jack,” Dr. Steven Maturin says, “I fear you have burdened me with a debt I cannot fully repay.” Obama, listen up!

Naturally, as speaker, I tend to vocalize. But you can imagine my horror when I found myself, out of the blue, beginning to use “Ants on Christ” as an expression of anger! It happened first on the golf course, one of those days when it seemed like I was putting with anesthetized arms. “Ants on Christ,” I mumbled, then quickly realized what I’d said and apologized. Luckily I was playing with lobbyists — not a god-fearing man in the bunch.

But then, worse, I began to mutter it when the Democrats were speaking. And soon after, when the Tea Partyers were speaking! Cameras were in the room. I could get caught saying it, I realized. It was a terrifying feeling because I wasn’t choosing to speak that phrase — it was like the video had planted a chip in my brain that forced me to squawk it out like a parrot whenever something annoyed me. This led to a sense of claustrophobia and an itching, an actual sense that I was being invaded and crawled upon, that ants were indeed parading over my body. The more I itched the worse it got; it even began to burn. That was something else that happens in the video — the whole world catches fire. I started to imagine the satin light of my tie turning against me, its white-hot glow morphing to an angry red ember that suddenly ignites so that my jacket catches fire. And when the Tea Partyers and the Democrats would yell, I’d remember the film’s cockfighting scenes, its juxtaposition of the cockfights and Mexican wrestlers in the ring. I’d remember the film’s slow angry eyeball, the size of a globe, revolving just like one of my spinning tie racks —the whole world watching the fight, the spectacle of blood.

Sometimes, particularly these past few weeks, the images get so bad that I have to excuse myself from meetings; at times like these it will feel like the ants have found a way inside my mouth. Every dry swallow of forced saliva suddenly seems like it’s shuttling a new batch of ants down into my stomach where they can wreak havoc, tap into the tie-light energy stored inside my cells, use it to light the kindling sticks of the bran cereal sitting in my stomach aflame. So I run to the bathroom, choose the spacious handicapped stall and sit on the toilet until one of the GOP leadership aides comes and knocks on the stall door and asks if I’m all right, if I’m ready to come back. “You’re needed in there, Mr. Speaker,” he’ll say, “can you make that happen soon?” Shit or get off the pot, in other words.

“I’m not shitting,” I’ll answer. “But I am trying to shit.” And he will heave a great sigh and say something I know but refuse to be hurried by: “All of America wants that relief, Mr. Speaker. Our own obstructed citizens and nation, plus foreign countries, so let’s say the world.”

And what comes to me in these moments is actually the title of another vulgar art film! Another film desecrating museums, a film I’d once caught a glimpse of that was disturbing for reasons I haven’t quite placed; the looks of it alone stink with suspicion. I must truly watch it sometime; scan it for ants or a crucifix. It should be banned — I’d bet money that if I exposed my tie to the video, taking its temperature before and after, there would be a noticeable drop in the tie’s temperature by the video’s end. A noticeable dulling of its light.

“Mr. Speaker?”

Bizarrely, this is when I invoke it. “I am not me,” I recite, “this horse is not mine.”

Joshua Furst is the author of the novel "The Sabotage Cafe" and the story collection "Short People."

Elliott Holt’s first novel, “You Are One of Them,” was published in May. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology and elsewhere.

Alissa Nutting is the author of the novel "Tampa" and the short story collection "Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls," which won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction.

Joshua Furst

Joshua Furst is the author of the novel "The Sabotage Cafe" and the story collection "Short People."

MORE FROM Joshua Furst

Alissa Nutting

MORE FROM Alissa Nutting

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alissa Nutting Editor's Picks Fiction John Boehner Joshua Furst