Al Burian, the writer behind the Burn Collector zine, delivers "Zangara," a reimagining of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak's 1933 assassination by height-challenged bricklayer Guiseppe Zangara at an FDR campaign event in Miami. Told from the point of view of Cermak himself, the piece addresses Zangara's profound lack of height and Cermak's infrastructural legacy, legendary last words, rumored mob ties, and more, all in the trademark style Burian's developed over almost a decade writing and producing Burn Collector. Below is a selection. For an easily-printed 6-page pdf of the broadsheet, click here.
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How do I feel about him? Put yourself in my shoes: Miami, mid-February, crowded streets, troubled thoughts, and above all, a preternatural suspicion, a nagging certainty -- you should not be here, not now. The wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Have you spent much time in Florida, generally? It's horrible. It's not America; it's some vestigial offshoot, but its own entity in the end, and an unpleasant entity to say the least. And then there's Miami, way down at the bottom-- to get there, you'll travel fifteen hours, minimum, from the nearest point of possible interest (whatever that may be--Orlando? Jacksonville? These are not exactly locations you are thrilled to wake up in either), and the rub of it is, once you get there you haven't gotten anywhere, you are at the end of the earth, surrounded by water, en route to nothing, and so you have no alternative but to turn around and start crawling back up that cursed peninsula, hanging there like an appendix, useless.
I'm sorry. My travails are not the fault of Florida. Let's try this again. Here's my situation: on a rigged-up bandstand stage in Belmont park, crowded in awkwardly with the VIPs, shoulder to shoulder with the regional royalty. To my right, a Mr. Joseph Gill, owner of Florida Power and Light, follows some train of insipid banter which I've lost track of several minutes ago. "--in proportional percentage to a metropolitan area's energy needs, or wouldn't you agree, sir?" he says. I nod politely. His wife, her hair arranged in a hideous advertisement for electrocution, a billboard for the flagship product, sniffs the warm morning air, seeming as unmoved by her husband's conversational bludgeoning as I am. She is probably dreaming of moments from now, when a newspaper photo will capture that towering hairdo of hers poking up from the background like a strange cactus in a sea of important personages. These people are not like me. Their ideas of immortality are shallow and fleeting; a nice outfit, caught on the periphery of an important snapshot, forever frozen and embalmed as youthful, beautiful, eternal.
Faced with this fickle imagination of immortality, my mind instinctively recoils, draws into itself, to the imaginary vistas of true eternity. Statues and infrastructure, made from concrete and stone. Moments like this always lead me to my fallback fantasy, the ever-present pipe dream always in the back of my brain, the subway. Sweet subway, I can picture you even now! The legacy, an eternal monument, like an aqueduct. Motion and life. The emperor is gone, but his aqueducts live on. I close my eyes and it all swims before me, a map of my city on which I envision, or dare to dream, that the central line, running from the northeast lakefront to the southwest side, might be named for me: my imprint, my immortality. Times will change, dynasties will rise and crumble, but my name will not be forgotten. I will be remembered each and every time a passenger pays their nickel for a ride.
A beautiful reverie. I open my eyes and I'm back on the bandstand. The crowd is anxious. Soon the big man will arrive. Already, it is reported, he has docked and disembarked; stepping (well, probably being carried, but that's a much less noble image) from a millionaire's yacht onto dry land, into the waiting motorcade. He's on his way, or so I am told. Staring down the long avenue, there is still no glimpse of fanfare and hoopla on the horizon, and this makes me anxious, too.
"There it is," says the pretty girl standing in front of me.
And, yes, now I see it too. In the distance, like a circus train, the cavalcade of cars. The crowd can't see it, yet, but from our elevated vantage we can just barely make out a grinning, waving figure, turning this way and that, reaching out to shake hands and pat the heads of small children.
The car is getting closer. Up on the bandstand, I seize the opening to attempt some small banter with the pretty girl. "To what do we owe the pleasure of sharing this stage with you, miss--"
She gives a practiced, professional giggle. "Margaret Kruis," she says. "I'm an actress. Down here from Newark. I'm performing in the new musical, Hold Your Horses! Perhaps you've heard about the show?"
"Actually, I'm not from Miami, either," I say. "I'm--"
But I realize that it's already too late. I've lost Margaret Kruis to glassy-eyed distraction. I lost her the moment I failed to display interest in her show. The awkwardness of this realization makes me hesitate, and my voice trails off into silence. I become aware, to my left, of my personal aide Jensen B. Dunnlaw, displaying his usual pencil-neck fidget, muttering and rechecking his already overchecked list of appointments. As if to accentuate the awkwardness of my silence, Jensen chooses this moment to interrupt, butting in as casually as if I hadn't been speaking at all.
"Excuse me, sir," he begins, thrusting the schedule in front of me.
"It hasn't changed since the last time you rechecked it, unless you've changed it, Jenny," I chide him quietly. "Besides, I'm--"
He shakes his head. "We have a scheduling conflict tonight. The charity ball--"
"Wrong time," I say. "Wrong place. We'll discuss this later."
Indeed, it is not the time. Now is the moment of truth; the car has arrived at the makeshift bandstand, and the man who will assume the mantle of the presidency has pulled himself up onto the trunk of the convertible. There is applause. His legs dangle in the seat. The show has begun.
"My friends, I have had a wonderful twelve days fishing, it has been a wonderful rest," he says. The crowd cheers. He does look rested, relaxed, and, considering that it is February, almost hideously tan. "The only fly in the ointment," he chuckles, patting his stomach, "is that I've put on about ten pounds." Scattered laughs. He goes in for his shameless crescendo. "What a beautiful city this is! How fortunate you are to live here! I do hope to spend some time here next winter. Many thanks. Thank you. Thank you very much."
That's all. The crowd cheers and surges forward. I'm whisked on the hands of the handlers, ushered to the front, over to the presidential limousine, where flashbulbs explode and I'm thrust into my rendezvous with destiny.
"Mr. President, may I present Anton Cermak"
"Ah, yes. Mayor Cermak. How do you do…?"
"Ah, yes, I "
And then, there is a scuffle, a light ripple in the crowd, not really anything, ordinarily hardly worth paying heed to, but turn your head anyway, why don't you, purely instinctually, with a martyr's sense of destiny, of meeting fate head on: the assassin is in plain sight, and he's -- a midget? Is that a midget? No, just a tiny man, here to steal this moment of destiny, so small he's standing on a chair, and still straining to get a clear view over the crowd. He's lifting the gun, not like a trained killer but like a sissy, like a goddamn girl, holding it gingerly above his head like it's a kitten. I can see the killer's eyes, though, and they are fierce. Locked in a look of blazing hatred on the form of the president-elect, only his (the midget's) girl-arm aiming nowhere near the intended target, instead swaying over his head, bent all cockamamy and aimed in who knows what direction. BLAM! The anger in those eyes dissipates into the incompetence of those flailing limbs. Margaret Kruis, the showgirl from Newark, convulses and keels over in front of me.
A ghastly hush falls over the crowd. The assassin squeezes off a few more rounds. Let's revisit our earlier description of him, shall we? Specifically the girl-arm "bent all cockamamy and aimed in who knows what direction." Well! Wouldn't you know it! Bent all cockamamy in my direction! BLAM! All of a sudden, I've taken one to the gut! Blood starts streaming down my pants. Now people have begun screaming, diving over and under one another, attempting to avoid the bullet hail or else to throw themselves in front of the withered husk of the president-elect, to take a slug for the big cheese and accrue the glory that entails. What bravery! What heroism! BLAM! BLAM! You poor, dumb schmucks! Mrs. Joseph Gill holds her leg and blubbers. Mr. Joseph Gill, owner of Florida Power and Light, is yards away, sprinting for his life. Margaret Kruis's body is contorted on the ground. Obscene amounts of blood spew from her nose and mouth. I hold my side, dazed, looking at her. Her body seems to invite me to lay next to it. I'm warm. I'm cold. I slump to my knees.
But I knew, even then, that it was just a matter of time. No one suspected the great destiny which awaited little Antonin. It's 1931, the crazy panic of election, the taunts of my rival, Mayor Bill Thompson: "Tony, Tony, where's your pushcart at? Can you picture a world's fair mayor with a name like that?" My comeback dethroned him: "You don't like my name? Well, maybe I didn't come over on the Mayflower, but I got here as soon as I could!" People loved it. Two hundred thousand votes. So who's pushing the cart now, Big Bill? Ha! Ha ha ha! These hands, covered with grime and coal dust, I can see them in front of me, and now my life flashes forward again, wildly, these hands which would one day clasp the hands of a United States president, a man grateful to me, acknowledging me and my place in history, for I had won Chicago by two hundred thousand Czech votes and I had helped him win Chicago with those same immigrant votes. My moment, my importance. He thanked me. Anton Cermak, mayor! Anton Cermak, a name that won't be forgotten! Liberator and voice of the Czech people!
My life flashes back, forward, mostly back. At the precipice of an ignoble and tragically pointless death, back is a more comforting direction, for sure. So backward, backward until (and those who have looked death square in the face will all surely tell you, will all attest) there is that moment when it all sloughs away. Men of accomplishment, wielders of scepters, architects of their own grandiose sphinx-tombs, all face that final realization of their own inconsequential natures. Yes, all of those things which you've fought so hard to be remembered for are revealed, as the memories shed like dead skin into the shocking clarity of... It was those first three years, I now see, which mattered. Those first three years account for 99 percent of the sensory experiences that made life worth living. The discovery of color, sound, taste. The revelations that are gravity, size, distance. A sense of wonder, crushed slowly into dull acceptance of the great illusion. Bohemia! Oh, your naked folds. That I could hide my face within them one more time. Instead, we have come here, to suffer. We came here to die. Florida, I blame you, I really do, despite myself. As I recede, backward, into the womb, I don't know who else to blame.
I moan quietly. The seat is slick with blood. I search for the source, locate it within myself, and slip into unconsciousness again. When I come to the next time, Franklin Delano has gathered himself and is attempting to be conciliatory.
"There there," he says.
"Oh God," I whisper, "Oh God, God, God."
"It's going to be all right," Franklin Delano assures me. I find this reassuring, to be honest. Here he is. The President of the United States. It is awe-inspiring. But the wound, I have to admit, hurts, and my awe fades after a while, and when the President says, "Tony, keep quiet. Don't move, Tony," even though I haven't moved or said anything in four or five minutes, I realize he's just doing it so the journalists in the car can quote him on it. I become angry.
"Move?" I laugh bitterly. "I can't move. I've been shot."
"It's going to be all right," Franklin Delano repeats.
"For you," I moan.
"Maybe for you it's gonna be all right," I gurgle. "Not for me! Look at this! And that fucking little guy, that did this-God damn him? Who the hell was he? And why me? Why me? He didn't give a fuck about me, he wanted you! You just got lucky that it was me and not you!"
"What-what did he say?" Franklin Delano mutters. "I didn't quite get that last part." He seems genuinely perplexed. Fair enough. He probably hasn't got the greatest hearing in the world, and my voice is not much more than a coarse hiss by now.
"He said that he was glad that it was him and not you," an aide clarifies.
"Ah!" The President nods gravely. "That's noble. Thank you, Anthony. I won't forget it."
I attempt an argument, but manage only a moribund wheeze. The aide gives me a glance which suggests that he is contemplating smothering me with a pillow. I give up on the whole sad scene and adjourn from consciousness yet again. What's the point? If this little pencil-neck wants to kill me in my sleep, so be it. It will save the Illinois taxpayer the burden of assuming my hospital costs.
No such luck. I live twenty more days. At the press conference and in the weeks to come they repeat my "I'm glad it was me instead of you" line many times. The crowd loves it so much that it eventually becomes the truth.
Continued in THE2NDHAND #19; see above for ordering details.