The Presidents Mouthby Shelley Jackson
“Scar tissue makes the best tongue,” said the president, whose own tongue had been lashed with small whips, beaten with mallets and rubbed with steel wool by an intern until it was long, purple, and hard, and could not be put away at the end of a long day, but poked stiffly out of his mouth day and night. With that tough tongue the president could do more than just talk, and he proved it by hanging weights from it and, once, using it to slap a pert reporter. These gestures proved so effective in communicating the simple messages that are a president’s bread and butter that he spoke less and less. His speeches these days consisted only of showing his tongue. Triumphantly staring, he would turn his head this way and that so the cameras could capture the tongue from every angle. Sometimes he rowed the tongue threateningly in his mouth, to huge applause. In the bright lights aimed from all angles the shadows of the tongue ringed his mouth like petals of a black rose.
“Speech is effete because it is made of wind,” revealed the president’s press secretary. “The president wishes to demonstrate that he is a solid citizen. He will hold up objects if necessary to clarify his points.”
A president’s tongue can’t be coddled. It has to be strong enough to lift the heaviest sentences or lower the boom. His is a military tongue, ready for national defense. Its only vocabulary is the salute. This tongue can’t even pronounce surrender. You can bet that even in private it never bends to “unicorn,” “pinafore,” “mother-love”—giddy words for giddy men. Words a president must do without.
On telephone conferences, he listened politely, then laid his tongue firmly on the mouthpiece. Who could argue with that?
The president made a public appearance. His purple unspeakable raised some doubts in tots held up for kisses. Seeing the dismayed faces, he playfully waggled the mistake. The children burst into unanimous wails of fear. The president was distressed and later cried. His tongue was slicked with spit and tears, and that cocktail dripped off the tip and soused his lap. It was the first time his tongue had seemed too big to him. He tried to say, “Please love me,” but he could not pronounce those words.
His aides started making the youthful kissers practise beforehand on an effigy head with a mechanized tongue that darted unpredictably to and fro. They learned to angle in fast, peck, and retreat. The expert children made kissing fun again for the president.
But the incident had started him thinking. Should he reconsider his lips? Their softness was a source of concern for him, and maybe for the nation. Now that he had beefed up his tongue, he could no longer press his lips firmly together; they were always slightly parted. He looked girlish, or European.
The president began stretching and toning his lips. He scraped and scarified them. At night he wore a training device of his own design. It was a protruding muzzle, held on with elastics twain, and it was of seven wire rings of graduated sizes, and the smallest was snug against his face, and the largest aspired to the heavens. Every night he stretched his lips as far as they would go and clamped them to the appropriate ring. Every night they went a little farther. Needless to say there would be no more kissing for the president.
“Consider the distinctive entelechy of my face,” the president mused. “It’s weird that I am, as president, the representative of the people, yet, as president, also a unique instance. My funky mouth marks my distinction from the people I serve, but has to be, too, the culmination and concretion of their dreams, otherwise I’ve failed. That’s the irony of excellence.”
The president’s mouth now resembled the bell of a trumpet. His teeth and gums were exposed, with ferocious effect. The orchidaceous tongue thrashing between them seemed menaced by the teeth, but defiant, even jubilant. Saliva seeped continuously from his mouth, dividing at the edge of his lower lip into several silvery lines that stretched and swung and snapped and moistened his tie and lapels. This worried him, until an aide mentioned that he resembled a jutting natural feature, from which a spring of pure water flows. Then he knew that his mouth represented not only the citizenry, the government, and the military might of the country, but its geological wonders.
Its flora and fauna could also be added to the list. The president’s mouth was floral, the tongue like an engorged stamen standing out of a cup of petal-like lips and an inner ring, like a dandelion’s, of teeth. It was also bestial, resembling most closely the predatory symmetries of sea anemones and starfish.
“I am animal, vegetable, and mineral,” declared the president, via semaphore and flash cards. “I remind myself of orchids, razors, French horns, guns—sleek, heavy, glossy guns, warm from the warmth of the hand; a wasp on a meringue; the shark fin in rapid approach. Zebra crystals, trigonometric flamenco dancers, radio telescope fanfares, Ninja ice sculptures, categorical imperatives in stiletto heels.”
“A vagina dentata giving birth to a phallic monster,” added a critic, not inaccurately.
An international crisis brought the president under critical scrutiny from the UN. He appeared on television. He held his head high. His mouth was inexplicable, magnificent. He carried the day without saying a word.
We dream of the president’s mouth. Maybe the family dog rolls over and begs a tummy rub, and there on its furry undercarriage is the presidential aperture. Maybe you lift your shirt to discover his orifice in your side.
“The president’s mouth rules,” we agree. Nobody can look at that pink enigma without admiring the man who conceived and carried it out on practically zero budget. It can’t be easy for him, cracking open the healing flesh time and again. Sometimes we don’t understand why so much pain is really necessary, but that’s why he’s president and we’re not. It’s enough to see to what extraordinary lengths he’ll go for us to feel loved and safe.
“Sometimes I’m not sure about my mouth,” weeps the president, in the arms of his secretary of defense. “It’s so hard trying to do something truly new! I wish there were another president. Then if I looked at his mouth and admired it, I’d know my own mouth was everything I wanted it to be. But that’s a contradiction, because my mouth only is what it is because it’s the only one. And I’m the only one who can have a mouth like this, because I’m the leader. But that doesn’t mean I escape judgement. No way! I am my mouth’s harshest critic. I believe it has merit, but how can I be sure, when I can compare it to nothing but itself? Still, I think I’m on pretty sure ground when I say that pain is what toughens a man, and that a stiff upper lip is not going far enough if you want to call yourself a president.”
He didn’t really say those things, because he couldn’t pronounce them, he just puffed and chugged and beat his tongue against the shoulder of the secretary of defense. But the secretary of defense understood. He looked into the president’s eyes. Without breaking his gaze, he wet his finger and slid it along the stiff ring of the president’s lips. A pure note sounded out.
The president displayed his mouth to the Congress. “Ngich ngy ngunket-ngike hache ich chukchecha ing ginging agouk a kagagichica Changegica,” he said. The secretary of defense gently hushed him. It was obvious what he wanted to say: “If my trumpet-like face is successful in bringing about a paradisiacal America then it will become obsolete, otiose; in the future I imagine, such measures as this won’t be needed. My mouth will then look like the rankest barbarism. I have created it in that very hope. In the future I dream of, I will have no place. I will drape a cloth over my mouth, so that its aspect will not remind people of the dark time that made such means necessary.”
Congress applauded the president’s selflessness and approved his budget, which included a provision for a two-ring addition to his night muzzle.
The president made one mistake. He forgot to tell his aides to shut down the Young American Expert Kissers program, and it is still turning out expert kissers with nothing to kiss. They will grow up. They’ll fall in love. They’ll angle in fast, peck, and retreat. They’ll have the persistent feeling that something important is missing. One day they’ll start working on a mouth of their own. And then somewhere, somehow, someone’s gonna get kissed.
Shelley Jackson is the author of Half Life, The Melancholy of Anatomy, hypertexts including the classic Patchwork Girl, several children's books, and "Skin," a story published in tattoos on the skin of 2095 volunteers. With artist Christine Hill she is co-founder of the Interstitial Library, Circulating Collection. Shelley Jackson lives in Brooklyn, NY.