O Despot! My Despot!
I listen from my room below, as my despot weeps in his above.
But what can I do for him? He does not respond well to leaving his comforts. Yet leave he must, or else be forced out, along with myself and the few loyal nationalists who remain in the Great House, who keep guard and order, though I suspect even these proud men and women will in short time dismiss their fidelity and make themselves subjects of documentaries, like so many before them, reclaiming their love of country in the face of our great despot’s fall from grace.
In the morning, he will address the nation one last time, and it has been my job these past few months to prepare him for this address. This, he’s been told, will be his best chance to revive his legacy, to prove that he is healthy and fit, and leaving of his own volition.
Oh, how did we get here, my despot? I ask in silence. Sometimes, I do feel that our minds are one and we can hear the other without speaking.
He would tell me that this is nonsense. But I perceive, in his cries and his hacking coughs and midnight howls, a man who blames only himself.
Wasn’t it you, my despot, who once said, long ago, that we must be as vigilant as the earthworm, so that when we are cut we can regenerate still, and dig and furrow and provide for our land?
Yes, I grew up having misunderstood the true meaning of sacrifice, and I saw my parents give their lives away to ideas and thoughts and dreams.
It took time for me to realize what it meant to be grateful.
Many beatings and lectures. Many sprints and cold showers. I was poor and flabby. You, my despot, made me rich and lean.
Each night has been worse than the last.
My despot can’t sleep.
“I won’t sleep!” he cries.
What terrible nightmares he has when he closes his eyes.
“Pieces of me began to fall off, Dalton. First my ears, then my nose, lips, arms, and nails. All that was left were my eyes, so that I could see how terrifying I looked!”
I try to calm him by bringing him warm milk and singing a lullaby, but he won’t repose; he drinks his milk and paces around the bedroom. I begin to doze, and he wakes me with a kick to the gut.
“More milk!” he demands.
I can safely report that my despot’s health is just fine, but he doesn’t look healthy. We have attempted to address this with makeup under the eyes, yet my despot fusses and pushes away the stylists.
“Let them see!” he shouts. “Let them see what it takes to run this country!”
“But your appearance, sir,” I say.
“Yes? What about it? I am a man of peace, Dalton! Any man of peace looks like they’ve been kicked sixty ways to Sunday. Gandhi. Mandela. Jesus. So what if I’m beefy? Does that not mean I suffer?”
Oh, the level of hatred!
Cause of such anxiety, such debilitating depression. Truly, my despot suffers to know there are those who want to see his eye sockets filled with maggots.
“They call me so many names, Dalton. They say I’m weak, and my teeth are crooked, and my head is full of mashed potatoes.”
“Such indecencies, sir.”
“And blatantly inaccurate, Dalton. Feel my arms. No, not there—up higher.”
“Hard as rocks, sir. Nothing short of impressive.”
“And look here.”
“Perfectly straight, sir. Not even an overbite.”
“Shall I name every world leader in alphabetical order?”
“What would be the point, sir?”
We have tried desperately to restore my despot to good physical shape. He has been on a strict diet of root vegetables and fish, but he cannot go a day without peanut butter cups, and without peanut butter cups he’s not very nice.
As usual, though, my despot never ceases to amaze. Just last week, spurred by ridicule, he called for me to put on my jogging suit and come to his room.
“We must get fit!” he cried. “You’re the boy for the job, Dalton! I need to build my glutes. In my heyday, I had such glorious glutes!”
I noticed that my despot was wearing shorts that must have dated from the era of those glorious glutes. Now, however, his backside was rather large and dimply. The mustard-colored fabric barely disguised his dingle, the middle seam splitting his crab apples.
“Did you know that I was once a very good athlete, Dalton? I was considered one of the fastest men on earth.”
“I think I knew that, sir.”
“You think? Where’s your sense of history? You watch, Dalton.”
First, we performed knee bends, backbends, and light squats. Then I suggested we jog through the Great House.
“Do you know how many hallways there are, Dalton?”
“That I don’t, sir.”
“They are endless.”
My despot turned our amble into a trot, taunting me by galloping backward and squealing. Then he began to sprint, his glutes bouncing mightily. A moment later, he was doubled over.
“Oh, something terrible has happened,” he said.
That night, I sat on a stool beside my despot as he soaked in the tub. The doctor had instructed him to spend fifteen minutes in warm water and fifteen minutes out, and to keep doing so until his crab apples unwound.
When the first fifteen minutes were up, my despot called for his robe, and I draped it over his shoulders. As he reached for his dingle, I reminded him of the doctor’s orders.
“Let them unwind on their own, sir,” I said.
“Yes. OK,” he said.
He soaked and stood, soaked and stood.
“Can you play an instrument, Dalton?” he asked.
“I can blow on a harmonica fairly well, sir.”
“I mean a real instrument, Dalton.”
“No, sir. I don’t have much of a knack for music.”
“I haven’t heard music in so long. I just remembered that. I wonder what happened?”
“Sir,” I said, looking down. “They’ve unwound.”
“So they have,” he said, and tied his robe. “Much to look forward to, Dalton.”
He walked through the doors to his bedroom.
“Sleep well, sir,” I said.
I held a moment, hoping he’d heard me.
If this document ever becomes an historical record, please don’t think that I’m speaking badly about my despot’s nature. For, even with his balls tied in a knot, the strength and certainty of his eyes equip him with immeasurable powers. He has a handsome face with a sharp chin, and by the evening, when the stubble has grown back, he takes on the appearance of a rugged gentleman, adept at shooting clay pigeons.
His very presence commands attention from the vilest divisions in our nation. He walks and points, and where his eyes go so do yours, and then back to his, as now he is looking at you, the way he does from the banners draped along the crumbling buildings in City Center (even half of his face covers a good deal of crumble), and then he is passing out of the once-quiet room, leaving it in a state of confusion, unrest, and quickening instability.
I have seen how people follow my despot, as though in a trance, up to the barricades, to the great fleet of armored cars, where he turns and waves, ushering them back into the wild.
You cannot disremember that glorious day, years ago, when we stood at attention and listened over the caws of crows, and the laughter and screaming, as his voice boomed through the loudspeakers bolted to the trees in the green square. You cannot disremember the next day either, and the sight of a man being dragged by his feet from the back of a chuck wagon through the same square, now smattered with bird poop.
Boy, how times have and have not changed!
My despot closes each address with the same righteous sincerity:
“What more can I give to you than my heart, my soul, my life?”
And we stand there silently, as though listening to a prayer.
But now, my despot seems to be increasingly unpopular with his people.
“What can I do?” he exclaimed once, after we had watched a slanderous comedy skit on television that showed a much smaller and chubbier man using a bridge made up of his own constituents to cross a gator-infested tributary. “They don’t know the man I was before I was the man I am.”
What words! I thought. What humility!
“Dalton, are you aware that I’m an orphan?”
“Because I’m not! Still, I have great empathy for orphans. My parents never knew how to nurture me. But I miss them, Dalton. I miss summer. I miss the ocean. I miss the porch and seeing my trunks hang over the railing, dripping at the bottoms as they dried in the sun. I miss the smell of peaches! And, by God, I’ve never even liked peaches all that much. What a world my memory is! What a muscle my mind! How long must we suffer in its spontaneous revolution?”
“Sir, this is the raw stuff. This is what you need to share with the people.”
“No, Dalton. Tell the people your private thoughts, and they’ll ache from hope.”
Oh, but he aches! He weeps for days past and days to come! He weeps sometimes without knowing why!
“Dalton!” he cries. “My poor eyes won’t ever dry!”
“Sir, my hands are full of used tissues.”
“Kids are dying.”
“Yes, and grown men and women, too.”
“Grown men and women and kids.”
“Entire families, sir.”
“So many tragedies, Dalton. How much empathy can one have?”
“It’s a great feat to summon all that empathy, sir.”
I have been serving the despot now for more than half of my short life, and there are still days when he seems to not know who I am and orders the guards to have me stripped of my clothes and searched in all the obvious places, and also some not-so-obvious places.
Yes, I was warned about the long nights he would spend weeping, his fickle stomach, the self-induced blackouts. One night, during the first week of my post, my despot began to feel nauseous after his supper of rockfish. I, too, had eaten the rockfish, and found it bland and pleasant, yet I dutifully followed my despot into the washroom, where my empathy for the noise (and smell) of his vomiting soon had us taking turns chucking into the rose-tinted latrine.
Once we were finished, we sat back against the wall and caught our breath.
“That was a doozy!” my despot finally exclaimed.
They were the first words he had ever spoken to me.
“Where are you from, Daniels?”
“And your folks? What did they do for a living?”
“My mother was an artist, sir.”
“Is that right?”
“She never liked to stay in one place for too long.”
“Do you miss her?”
“I do, sir. But not as much as I did before my days of self-reflection.”
“Good boy. And your father? How did he fail you?”
“He was not a strong man, sir. He had a perfect body and big muscles and a square chin. But inside, sir, his heart was made of applesauce.”
“Weakness, Delaney, is the bane of existence.”
“Please,” my despot said, and reached out for me to help him to his feet.
Each morning, I read to my despot from his own memoirs as he soaks his heavy skin. When he is finished soaking, I shave his face. Depending on his mood, he might playfully grab at my nipple, almost causing my hand to slip. In one instance, he held my wrist and pulled it toward his neck—the razor pressing against his Adam’s apple, a touch of blood—and then laughed me off as though I were a second-rate performer on audition.
After his soak and shave, I groom my despot as he gazes at his sensitive documents.
Once, upon noticing a fair bit of dirt and sock fuzz beneath his toenail, I guided his foot into my lap and gingerly inserted a pick to scrape the gunk out; and though my despot complained that the pick tickled, and threatened me with all manner of violence, he allowed me to continue. I then tended to the nail itself, which was due for its regular upkeep. As I clamped down on the hardened keratin and squeezed the clippers, a chip shot skyward and nicked my left eye.
My vision impaired, I wavered about and fell back against the tiled floor.
“Oh, a freak occurrence!” my despot lauded.
I moaned. I gritted my teeth. I put a hand to my eye and lowered it, and with my other eye saw the blood.
“I’m sorry for your pain, Dalton, but do you not love the freak occurrence? What else makes this great life worth living?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
I held my bloody eye and crossed my toes tightly. The pain was not so severe in light of my despot’s excitement.
“I don’t trust you to finish my nails, Dalton. But I cannot let you leave until I’ve finished my reading, and now that some pages have fallen onto the wet floor and into your blood, we must wait for fresh ones. You understand.”
“Yes, sir. I am happy to wait.”
I believe that the eye became infected during the subsequent hours, while my despot finished his reading, but what choice did I have?
After this morning’s grooming, we drove in a caravan to my despot’s hometown again.
We walked the main street, passing the church and library and penny-candy shop, and around the corner to his house, which is repainted twice daily to cover the heinous graffiti.
“Dalton, that is where I slept, there on the second floor. I looked out that window while my mother smacked my bottom, and I could see the penny-candy shop, and I thought how one day I would rule this sorry nation.”
“Was it that window, sir? Or the north-facing window?”
“You’re right, Dalton. It was the other room, wasn’t it?”
“I believe so, sir.”
“I dreamed so many dreams in this house, Dalton. Where did they all go?”
We went around to the backyard.
“I had many animals as a child—rabbits, goats, dogs—but none of them liked me very much. Nor did my mother.”
Hanging from a large tree were two ropes tied to a wooden plank. My despot’s eyes brightened.
“Oh, how I would swing, Dalton!”
He grasped one of the ropes.
“Will you give me a push?” he asked.
“Of course, sir.”
He sat on the plank, and the tree branch began to give way. The detail heard the crack, and before his bottom hit the ground, they shoved my despot out of the way. One of the men took the blow from the fallen limb and was ushered to the hospital with a brutal head wound.
“My poor swing!” my despot cried. “My poor childhood!”
Now my despot has ordered us to leave him in peace so that he can prepare for tomorrow.
Three times I asked if he wanted warm milk to help him sleep, and three times he denied any affinity for milk—whatever the temperature, whatever the hour.
“Many great leaders have enjoyed a glass of warm milk before retiring their brilliant minds for a few hours,” I reassured him, “including one or two popes.”
The truth is, asking for a glass of warm milk makes him feel embarrassed.
So I brought the milk anyway, and he tipped the tray over onto my shirt front and slammed the door shut. I frowned at the stain, because I don’t have many nice shirts, as there has been a crackdown on unnecessary spending since the war began, in order that we can keep building our military to show strength and unity.
But don’t pity me. Pity Emilio, who has to milk the cow.
Oh, my despot, didn’t we one night have such fun dancing in our underwear to happy music on satellite radio?
My despot is surprisingly nimble! Such impressive flexibility!
“Not many people know this, Dalton,” he said, “but in my youth, I wanted to be a professional dancer.”
I felt light, yet sure-footed and safe, as we floated across the room and he spun me like a young lover before snapping me back against his chest. The sharp whiskers on his face pressed against my neck like a dozen needle points.
“I’m being foolish tonight, Dalton,” he said.
“There’s no harm in being foolish on occasion, sir.”
“But what’s the occasion?”
“In my experience, sir, foolishness is most enjoyable when it comes about spontaneously.”
My despot twirled me away and released my hand. He plucked a pair of damp towels from the pyramid of damp towels and tossed one to me.
“What you’re saying, Dalton, is that I shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to dance while so many of my people are sick and dying?”
“Yes, sir. Even the sick and dying enjoy a dance now and again, if they’re up for it, that is.”
He pressed the towel against his forehead and sat on the sofa and crossed his legs.
“We are so wasteful, Dalton. That’s one lesson the aliens can learn from us—and I don’t mean the aliens down there,” my despot said, pointing vaguely southward and frowning, “but up there, in the galaxies or whatever. We really know how to build some waste. Great big piles we crush into smaller piles. And someday, the smaller piles will be the bigger piles, and we’ll have towers of waste that’s been crushed and stacked and crushed and stacked until it finally topples over and we’re gone. That’s what’s going to do it, you know. Long before we run out of water or burn to a crisp, we’ll drown in our chicken buckets.”
Shortly, his composure turned to one of dire constraint.
“Dalton,” he said. “I’ve been sick and dying all my life.”
In volume two of his yet-to-be published memoir, My Life Philosophy, my despot says of his life philosophy:
The past is only a test, but we forget the purpose of the test, which is to prevent us from making mistakes in the future. Instead, we say, “We failed,” and that’s the end, and we study for the next test, which will require us to know new things, further pushing away the old things we never really knew, so that, in the end, we know nothing and are unable to do anything. In order to prevent the mistakes, we must study the information, yes, but then we must execute across untested ground, building a new past as we go, taking with us only those willing to sacrifice ever more investigation into what was once home. We have been tested long enough—there have been so many songs about this, and even those popular songs, the ones that still play in the drafty houses where carpenters hammer away at wood like children or sons of God, even those everlasting three-and-a-half-minute symphonies can’t inspire us to move forward—and so, yes, no more teachers, and so on, or, to think of it another way, all the rounds are real and everything’s at stake. At this point, you do not have time to think about how this came to be.
The first night the people attempted to overrun the Great House and were ultimately destroyed, my despot shouted from his study:
“But I’m a good person!”
“Yes, sir!” I came running, crying. “You are a good person, sir!”
“And well-mannered! Mom made me learn to wash the butter dish correctly. Do you know how filthy a butter dish gets, Dalton?”
“No, sir. We used a tub.”
“Of course you did, Dalton. My apologies.”
“It’s nothing, sir.”
“My legacy, Dalton. Think of the men they compare me to. Did you know that Hitler was impotent?”
“He’d get off by hiring prostitutes to defecate on his chest.”
“Such indecency, sir.”
“Stalin wore boots to bed because he was embarrassed by his deformed left foot. If a woman laughed at him naked in his boots, he’d kick her in the crotch.”
“Mussolini stabbed his lovers for fun.”
“Double ouch, sir.”
“Saddam starred in gay porn flicks, for crying out loud. He went by the name Omar Studdif. Did you know that, Dalton?”
“Later, he married his cousin, and cheated on her with married women in order to humiliate their husbands.”
“Not just indecent, sir. Torrid.”
“Can you imagine? These are the men I will be pictured alongside in the annals!”
“But, sir. I will make a record of your virtues for the annals.”
“You won’t be wicked, Dalton?”
“No, sir. I, too, am a virtuous lover.”
“What do you know about making love, Dalton?”
What did I know?
The one time I thought it was in, it wasn’t.
“No. Better leave my annals to me alone, Dalton.”
“As you wish, sir.”
I just now had a very personal moment with my despot while attempting to deliver his third glass of warm milk. He’d left the door open, and I entered carefully with the tray so that I would not be down another shirt.
He had the curtains tied and the lights low and the fire going. He sat on the bed with his legs crossed and his belly settled like a net of fish on his knees. He stayed this way, looking off at a point on the wall.
“Can I ask you something, Dalton?”
“Will you go to my desk there by the fireplace and open the second drawer and take out the folder and read the piece of paper inside?”
I started for the desk before he finished his instructions, and quickly fetched the paper, which was folded into squares like a middle-school note.
I read the first words: “I am living proof—”
“To yourself!” my despot shouted.
“Of course, sir,” I said, and I can still remember those words exactly:
I am living proof that things
do, too, die
in the spring.
It was a poem!
Oh, my heart!
“Tell me in all honesty, Dalton. Is it very good?”
My mouth was dry. I couldn’t speak.
“Perhaps,” I started, and a sharp pain spread across my chest.
“Yes?” my despot said.
I thought of something sweet smelling—candy shops, split-pea-and-rose-petal soap scrub, cinnamon.
“Perhaps,” I muttered, “you could omit the do, or the too?”
He thought about this, then put on his glasses, then removed them, then hid them beneath a pillow. He studied the poem for a while, and ordered me to hand him one of the freshly sharpened pencils in the drawer. (He trusts me with a sharp pencil.)
He made a mark on the poem and refolded it into squares and slipped it into his breast pocket.
I will never know what my despot had decided just then, or if he had crossed out another word entirely.
“Would you believe me, Dalton, if I told you that all of this is a dream? That, when you wake, you’ll be on a boat, in a calm lake, surrounded by towering pine trees, and the air will be so clean that your lungs will burn with gratitude? Would you trade this life for that one?”
“I’ve never been on a boat, sir.”
“Forget the boat.”
“Forget the boat?”
“Yes. Just picture the lake.”
“Lakes frighten me, sir. I don’t like the squishy bottom.”
“Forget the lake.”
“OK, sir. Lake forgotten.”
“Where are you, Dalton?”
“In a boat on a lake, sir?”
“Good boy, Dalton. And can you fish?”
“Then what will you eat?”
“Whatever’s in the boat, sir.”
“There is only a single sleeve of saltines, Dalton.”
“I will eat those.”
“And once they run out?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“What will you drink?”
“The water from the lake?”
“No, Dalton, you fool! You’ll get sick!”
“Then I’ll boil the water, sir.”
“Did you bring matches, Dalton? Pots, kindling? Did you not anticipate the worst? Have I taught you nothing?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“So, you’ll admit then that this country does need me after all?”
“Yes, sir. There is no doubt.”
“How can we possibly move forward with a nation full of unprepared dreamers?”
“We can’t, sir. Unless, as you said earlier, this is all a dream.”
“Sometimes I dream I am burying people alive, Dalton. Hundreds and thousands.”
“Psychology tells us this has to do with burying some kind of pain from your past, sir.”
“Yes, Dalton, and the bodies, too.”
My despot rose and walked to the fire and took the poem from his breast pocket and tossed it in.
“Now, go and rest your head, Dalton. Tomorrow is an important day for our nation.”
“Sir?” I said. “Your milk, sir?”
“By now, it has cooled, hasn’t it?”
It is just after two in the morning, and I must be awake in four hours to prepare my despot for his speech. As I lie here, though, I’m too afraid to sleep, and even more afraid that if I sleep, I will wake up.
I cannot help but think of my father and how he had been a loyal and faithful worker, taking only three sick days during his entire career at Balthazar Inc., and all three due to my being sick with a cold, which, he often reminded me, unfortunately became unbearable during an evening rather than a morning, forcing him to take one more day than was probably necessary, and thereby ensuring his defeat to Neville Dirkenroot, the senior VP, who had taken only two sick days, and both near the end, when he had forgotten where he worked and drove instead to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts and ordered turkey dumplings.
Ultimately, all my father’s bitterness toward me, and toward the long-deceased Neville Dirkenroot and my mother and a host of hapless telemarketers, cashiers, and waiters, was for nothing. Just prior to his retirement with full pension, he was let go for wearing mismatched socks twice in the same week (noticed because of his great long legs, and how he often crossed them and dangled his foot while pondering). This, he understood. Years before, during one of the three talks that we ever had, he avowed the idea of acquiescence as a cure to the curse of terminal uniqueness. A willingness to conform and to receive bits and pieces of pleasure for your service to a larger structure that had existed long before you were ever known. Something was not right, he knew. And on the many nights when he refused to come to the table for dinner with my mother and me, remaining in his room, his head a blotch of darkness against the glow of the computer screen, I’d hear him tell her the same, over and over, “Something’s not right,” until she could finally convince him to take a bath. I’d eat and clean up alone, then peek through the cracked door to see her washing him and shaving his face.
My poor father.
I remember him with great remorse.
Finally, it is light out, and the sad day begins. Crowds have gathered around the Great House. I can see their maddened faces. I can feel their hatred and disgust. I can taste the blood as I bite down on my tongue.
But I can’t hear any noise from above. No crying, no shouting, no pained moans. Fearing the worst, I dress in a frenzy and bolt up the stairs, only to find—to my ecstatic relief—my despot in the tub, shaving his own face, grooming his own nails.
“Are there no sensitive documents for me to read, Dalton?”
I go to the closet to gather his clothes.
“Please, Dalton,” he says. “I must learn to live without you.”
He struggles into his pants and socks and stands there in the closet, with the button open at his waist and the socks stretched loose at his ankles.
I fasten the button and secure the sock garters snug around his calves.
“Thank you, Dalton,” he says.
We proceed down the many halls of the Great House, the window at the end of each blinding us with light, until finally we pass through the doors to the dying garden.
He pauses for a moment and looks out at the people in their sea of rage, and then he steps to the podium with his head high and eyes downcast. The crowd halts and heels, the formative training modules so ingrained in our psyches.
There is such great silence, and one ill-timed flatulence.
“My God . . .,” he says. “What life!”
We wait for more. We salivate like dogs.
But that is all.
He turns and walks through us, and we dutifully part and follow him out to the helicopter pad, where he lifts off and thwaps away to his encampment in the hills.
I am left to watch his people tear the Great House down.
I am left to watch it burn.
O despot! My despot!
From above, you must feel you have escaped such a fiery hell!