The Man Who Never Made a Mistake

Everyone who met Stuart Jackson — even when he was a child — said he was an amazing person.

“He never gave me any trouble, even when he was a baby,” Stuart’s mother said in an interview for this story. “I called him my little angel.”

In a separate interview, Stuart’s father said, “Special guy. I knew he’d be a great man one day.”

His third-grade teacher said: “You don’t encounter children like Stuart Jackson very often. One time, we were getting ready to do the class play. I asked my pupils to vote for which children should play the different parts. Would you like to know something? They wanted Stuart to play them all. So we did the play with Stuie in every role. He was running around the stage, changing wigs like crazy. The audience ate it up.”

Stuart’s high-school sweetheart said: “He brought me flowers quite a few times during the five and half months we dated. Posies, daffodils, and tulips. The only reason we broke up is, I blew it. It was my mistake. Stu? If you’re reading this, know that I still got that old feeling.”

Stuart’s college science teacher said: “Stuart was precise in the laboratory. He never made a mistake, as far as I could determine, aside from befriending the lab rats.”

After college, Stuart worked seven years as a businessman. In that time he made more than two-hundred million dollars.

Stuart’s banker said, “One day he came into my bank and said, ‘Here’s two-hundred million dollars. Please don’t lose it.’ I looked in the sack and, sure enough, he had two hundred million in there.”

After his business success, Stuart showed up at an open tryout for a Major League baseball team. He made the club and played right field for three seasons.

“He could run, he could hit, he could field the [expletive deleted] ball,” said the team’s executive vice president of baseball operations. “It’s a shame he left baseball to — “

To pursue charity work.

“I was living in a hut in the woods,” said a woman who received financial assistance from Stuart’s nonprofit foundation. “Then Stuart Jackson came along. Now I operate a Wendy’s franchise.”

At age forty-one, Stuart ran for President of the United States. He gave dramatic but substantive speeches across the country. On Election Day, every voter in America cast their votes for him — well, all but one person. Who was that one person? Stuart Jackson.

“It doesn’t seem fair that you can vote for yourself,” he said at the time.

He was sworn in as President on a cold January day. He gave a short speech and walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., smiling and waving to the crowd. When he stepped into the White House, he felt confident and proud. To greet the American people as their new president, he sat on a couch in the Oval Office and gave an interview that was made available to every television station and streaming platform.

Interviewer: “You are Stuart Jackson. You are forty-two years old. You are now the president of the United States. How does it feel?”

Stuart Jackson: “It feels great. Thanks for asking. Can I say hello to my mom? I know she’s watching.”

Interviewer: “Uh, sure.”

Stuart Jackson: “Hi, Mom! It’s me, Stu! I’m in the White House!”

Interviewer: “I’ve spoken to many people about you, Mr. President. The one thing I’ve heard time and again is that you, Stuart Jackson, have never made a mistake. Any truth to that claim?”

Stuart Jackson [chuckling]: “Hey, I try to be careful. If I’m drinking milk, I try not to let any run down my chin. If it does, I grab a napkin and wipe off the dribble.”

Interviewer: “Talk about how important it was for you to give almost all of your money to people in need through your nonprofit foundation.”

Stuart Jackson: “Very. Everybody needs a hand in this mean world.”

Interviewer: “There are some baseball fans out there, Mr. President, and I’m sure they’re wondering: Will you ever attempt a comeback?”

Stuart Jackson: “No.”

Interviewer: “Why not?”

Stuart Jackson: “That would be a mistake.”

Interviewer: “And you don’t make mistakes?”

Stuart: “Well, I try not to.”

[Laughter.]

Interviewer: “If you had any critics, Mr. President, they might say: Is Stuart Jackson tough enough? Is it possible that a man who has never faced adversity is qualified to be the leader of the free world?”

Stuart Jackson: “I think you’ll find I’m ready to meet the task that lies ahead. I look forward to getting to work for the people of this great nation.”

Interviewer: “I thank you for your time. Stuart Jackson, everybody. President of the United States. Some say he’s the best person ever.”

[End of interview.]

Stuart removed the tiny microphone from the lapel of his navy blue blazer and shook hands with the interviewer. Then he noticed that a Secret Service agent — one of the men who guard the president — was giving him a funny look.

Stuart went over to the man and said: “What is it?”

“It’s time for you to meet Mr. Jones,” the Secret Service agent said.

“Who’s Mr. Jones?”

“Mr. Jones is the man behind the president. He keeps track of things after one president moves out of the White House and the next one moves in.”

“Will he answer my questions?”

“Yes,” the Secret Service agent said. “Let’s go see him now.”

“I’m curious about two things above all else,” Stuart said as he followed the agent down a White House corridor. “Number one, is there really a button the president can push to shoot our most powerful bombs at other countries? The other thing is, have aliens from other planets ever landed on earth?”

“Mr. Jones will answer those questions and more,” the agent replied.

“Why are we going down all these stairs?”

“Mr. Jones is in the sub-basement.”

They kept going down, down, down, down.

“Why is the sub-basement so far under the ground?”

Down, down, down.

“If we’re attacked by bombs,” the Secret Service agent said, “everyone who’s in the basement will survive. The walls are made of stone a thousand feet thick.”

“Wow!”

At the bottom of the stairs an automatic door slid open. Stuart followed the Secret Service agent into a white room. Seated at the table under a strong light was a wrinkled old man, who said, “Hello, Mr. President. I am Mr. Jones.”

“Mr. Jones, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

They shook hands.

“Sit down, Mr. President, if you would.”

“Hey, now, I believe I give the orders around here,” Stuart said as a joke.

Mr. Jones did not offer even a chuckle. “This is not a moment for levity,” he said.

Stuart sat down, saying, “If you don’t mind, Mr. Jones, I’d like to know a couple things right off the bat. First, have aliens ever landed on earth, as far as you know?”

“Yes. Quite a few times.”

“Wow! Don’t you think we should tell the people about it? It might be nice.”

“I think not.”

“Why not?”

“The data we’ve collected shows that the people would freak out and go crazy, if they knew about the space aliens landing on earth. Now, Mr. President, the main thing I would like you to focus on is this table.”

“You mean the table we’re sitting at right now?”

“Correct. Study it closely. You will notice three buttons on the surface. The red one, right there, sends our most powerful bombs to the east. The blue one, right there, sends our bombs to the west.”

“Red one, east. Blue one, west. Got it.”

“Very good, Mr. President. With previous presidents, I have worried that they might stupidly push the wrong button at the wrong time. But I have no such worries with you. For they say you have never made a mistake.”

“Oh, I think that’s a bit of a myth,” Stuart said. “Say, what’s this white button for?”

“I almost forgot about that one. If you push the white button, Judy will bring us coffee and sandwiches.”

“Judy?”

“We’ve got a fully equipped kitchen just beyond that door. And that is where Judy is stationed.”

“You’ve really thought of everything, haven’t you?”

“We try, Mr. President. Now remember. The red button sends our bombs to the east. The blue button sends them to the west.”

“Red, east. Blue, west. Check. And what would happen if someone were to push the blue button and the red button at the same time?”

“In short, Mr. President,” Mr. Jones said, “the whole planet would be destroyed, including the United States of America.”

“Why is that?”

“Pushing both buttons creates what we call a ‘double-power effect.’ Every last vestige of civilization would be flattened.”

“Interesting. So was that everything you needed to show me?”

“That’s just about it,” Mr. Jones said. “There are a few other things I should tell you about — boring stuff, mostly — but that can wait till morning.”

“I’m pretty hungry. What do you say, Mr. Jones? Shall I push the button to get Judy in here with those sandwiches?”

“Fine by me, Mr. President.”

Stuart leaned across the table and pushed the red button.

“No!” Mr. Jones said. “Wrong button!”

“Huh? What?”

As if to correct himself, Stuart pushed the blue button.

“You imbecile! Now you’ve made it worse!”

“Darn it!” Stuart said. And he pushed the white button at last.

Mr. Jones had gone pale. “You’ve just blown up the world,” he said.

“How come we don’t feel anything?”

“Because we’re a thousand feet underground and the walls are a thousand feet thick!”

Just then a woman came into the room, pushing a wheeled serving cart. It had a pot of coffee and a variety of sandwiches on top.

“Here you are, Mr. President. I’m pleased to meet you.”

“You must be Judy.” Even now, Stuart tried to be polite. “I’m pleased to meet you, too.”

He found he didn’t have much of an appetite, after what he had done. Still, he grabbed a ham sandwich and poured himself a cup of coffee, because he didn’t want to seem rude.

In the doorway, the Secret Service agent was sobbing.

“What’s he blubbering about?” Judy said.

“Dumb-head here just blew up the world,” Mr. Jones said.

“Did he push the red button?”

“And the blue one.”

Judy looked at the president. “You pushed ’em both?”

“I don’t know what got into me,” Stuart said. “I must have been a little nervous, my first day and all, and I just — I slipped up.”

“I thought everybody was all, ‘Oooh, this guy never made a mistake,’” Judy said.

“Nobody’s perfect,” Stuart said.

“That’s putting it mildly,” Mr. Jones said. “Maybe you ought to go on up those stairs and have a look. Tell us what you see.”

“No, thank you.”

“Get going,” Mr. Jones said. “Now.”

“And if I refuse?”

“I’ll put a hole in you,” Mr. Jones said.

“And how, exactly, do you plan on doing that, Mr. Jones?”

Mr. Jones pointed a pistol at Stuart. “With this gun,” he said.

“Go ahead. Shoot me. I don’t care anymore, after what I did.”

“Go take a look. Now.”

“Why the heck not,” Stuart said. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters anymore.”

He began the long climb up the stairs. His legs were wobbly. His mouth was too dry to work up any spit. After a while he figured there would be no more stairs to climb. The upper part of the staircase would be blasted to dust; and once he had reached the top, there would be nothing but smoke and ash. But the stairs were solid all the way up, and he came to a door. The door was intact. He opened the door and found himself in a White House corridor.

A man in a suit said, “Good evening, Mr. President.”

“Is everything — all right?”

“Everything’s just fine, Mr. President.”

“No news bulletins?”

“Nothing major, Mr. President.”

“So the world didn’t blow up?”

“Are you jesting, Mr. President?”

“So it was a trick?”

“A trick, Mr. President?”

“The red button and the blue button and Judy and the sandwiches.”

“Sandwiches, sir? Judy?”

“It was a practical joke. A test of some kind. Am I right?”

“I don’t know, Mr. President, but I can check with someone, if you like.”

Stuart peeled off his necktie and handed it to the man, saying, “Hold this, please.” He ran to the White House’s front door, opened it, and stepped outside. He broke into a sprint. He chugged past the guard booths and onto Pennsylvania Avenue, shouting, “We’re alive! We’re alive!”

A Secret Service team mobilized and followed him in twelve black cars and one helicopter as he tore through the wintry air, arms pumping, all the way to the snowy Virginia countryside.

When he got back, after midnight, chilled to the bone, he entered the grounds by the South Lawn. He saw mellow lamplight in the enclosed back porch, and there sat Mr. Jones and Judy. They were playing cards.

“Glad you made it back, Mr. President,” Mr. Jones said. “We hope you don’t mind what took place here today. But we think you’ll agree it was all for the best.”

“You see,” Judy said, “we knew you were bound to make at least one big mistake, so we fixed things up so you could get it out of your system without hurting anybody.”

“Gee, thanks,” said Stuart, in a dejected tone.

“We let you off easy,” Mr. Jones said. “You should’ve seen what we did to Reagan!” (Mr. Jones was referring to Ronald Reagan, who was president from 1981 to 1989.)

“I still have one question,” Stuart said.

“What is it?” Mr. Jones said.

“The thing you said about aliens landing on earth — was that true?”

Mr. Jones grinned and said, “He’s curious. Reminds me of Truman. I like that.” (He was referring to Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third president. He lived in the White House from 1945 to 1953.)

“Wait. Were you here when Truman was president?”

“I’m even older than I look,” Mr. Jones said. “When Harry first got here, he was a bundle of nerves. He tried not to show it, but I could tell.”

“But how could you possibly know I would press the wrong button? Or buttons, I should say.”

“We didn’t,” Judy said. “But if you hadn’t fallen for that scheme, we had plenty more to spring on you later. The main thing was, we had to get that mistake out of your system.”

“Ah, yes, I think I understand,” Stuart said.

“Don’t feel too down, Mr. President,” Mr. Jones said. “You’re going to make a fine president, or at least a passable one. I can sense it.”

“I obviously stink at it.”

“Oh, don’t talk that way,” Mr. Jones said. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”

Stuart walked away, taking slow steps. In his new bedroom he put on his pajamas and got under the covers feeling very relieved he had not blown up the world.

Down below, on the porch, Judy said to Mr. Jones, “Do you think we were too rough on the guy?”

“Oh, he’ll be all right,” Mr. Jones said. “Deal the cards.”

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Jim Windolf

I’ve published short fiction in Ontario Review and Five Dials, and humor pieces in The New Yorker. Songs at https://soundcloud.com/jimwindolf.