John Donne 9 p.m., May 27
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The Dictator's Ringtone (a short story)
I am waiting for my father. No matter the urgency, he makes everyone wait.
I am no different than everyone, son or no.
This is not entirely true. I am markedly different when it comes to material things. Being the youngest offspring of a dictator, especially one with forty years of wealth-hording rule behind him, has its advantages. For example, on the occasion of my fifteenth birthday I was given a Maserati, two elephants, and a woman who was supposed to relieve me of the burden of my virginity. As a fifteenth birthday present, however, the poor woman, though very beautiful and patient, was a year late and destined to fail. By fourteen, you see, I had realized that I was homosexual.
In this way, and in every other, my father and I are never on the same page. We are, for most of our lives, in different books. Both of them equally closed. But now he is in danger of losing everything: his kingdom, his head, his bowels; and of having his burned corpse paraded through the capitol on a pike.
This is my fate, as well, a virtual certainty. I can escape it only if I choose to abandon him.
To my exceeding disgust, I cannot do this. I am sick. We are despised. I have every reason to flee.
This family of mine is nothing worth perishing for. My mother is a walking dead woman and has been for years. Though addled and older, she is still a vaguely pretty face, a once decent soul turned obscene by decades of undeserved privilege and pills. She has been living in the villa on the island for almost two years, wearing bright and ugly dresses and eating box after box of Godiva chocolates. For the last two weeks, courtesy of a Foreign Powers warrant, she has been under house arrest. Before her brains were as scrambled as they are today, she told me she began taking the pills to forget how miserable she was being married to a tyrant, who had always kept her in de-facto bondage. I am sympathetic to this perspective, but only to a degree, since her chains, one cannot fail to note, had long been custom designed by Chanel. My love for her is biologically sentimental, not at all emotionally. Truthfully, my love for the entire family is like this. Obligatory and unalterable. It has malformed me. It is my most insurmountable flaw. Having any love at all, that is.
Maybe, like everyone, I am simply afraid of my father, and it is nothing more.
Often I hope this is true.
But my family’s hatreds, as well, are no less blood-borne. Take my two older brothers, whom I detest. They are, to say it in the most tactful way, irredeemable psychopaths whose deepest aspirations are, I am convinced, to live carefree lives of rape and cannibalism. Either of them would make my father’s rule seem downright pacifist. Each, of course, believes he deserves to succeed our father, and the fact that they are twins only complicates it. This is because neither of them can claim to have been born first, and thus be the oldest and natural heir, as the emergency C-section performed on our mother required both babies to be removed simultaneously.
Or at least this is the official story.
The unofficial story, told to me one afternoon by a bitter nanny who had taken too many of my mother’s pills, is that they are “adopted,” or maybe, wink wink, they are the product of one of the many women my father has taken. (It is said he has fathered more than fifty children, though only four of us are “official.”) And if I didn’t believe her, the nanny assured me that she had seen my mother naked, and that the Queen does not have a Caesarian scar. “See for yourself. You might be a hooker baby too,” the nanny laughed at me. I was eight years old. That night I asked my mother about this. The nanny was never seen again.
I do not think I have ever felt the proper remorse for this woman’s death. That I was only a child seems to me, for reasons I can feel more than express, an excuse. I am not to blame, of course, I did not order her execution, nor did I take too many narcotic pills that did not belong to me. But neither am I absolved. After all, when a despised King is overthrown and executed, the Queen and children are also dispatched.
My brothers are terrified to die, I am not. They are like celebrities mortified at the mere thought of an anonymous future without a homicidal buffet at their disposal. Genetically, they are ugly like my father, while I am pretty like my mother, even if she is not my mother. They have always hated this about me. I remember beatings from my brothers that lasted hours merely because of their jealousy regarding my physical appearance.
My mother would lavish attention on me then, choosing my wardrobe carefully, and for a few years I was the top children’s model in the country. As if it wasn’t bad enough that my father’s image surrounded you as a citizen every day, that you had to all but worship him in public, you couldn’t open a magazine or turn on the TV without seeing me in designer clothing or pitching the latest crunchy breakfast garbage. I am sure the people hated that little kid as much as my brothers still do.
But that was so long ago. Gone ago.
Now we are adults, and the country is starting to burn, and today my brothers hate me for a new reason: because they think I am a traitorous fag who is going to take to the streets with the protestors.
I only wish they were right.
But I am a coward. Just like my father, just like all of us.
My brothers are the biggest cowards, however. They each feel so entitled to be granted the throne, brave men that they are, so where are they now that the heat is scalding us all? In hiding in the mountains outside of town, in one of the bunkers my father has built. They are holed up with pornography and drugs, this is certain, and they have probably kidnapped a few innocent women off the streets to keep as sex slaves. Hollywood, nor Bollywood, nor the film studios of an alternate dimension could make movies like this. My brothers are beyond fiction. But they are also too depraved for reality. I pray their bunker is gassed, or the entire mountain implodes. And I must be honest that a sickening part of me hopes they suffer for an extended period. Weeks would not sadden me.
My sister, on the other hand, is already dead. She was thirteen years older than me, and I spent little time with her in my life. Last month she was killed in a car accident overseas with her husband, the defector, my father’s erstwhile favorite in the Defense Ministry. My father favored his son-in-law more than he did any of the rest of us, and was said to view him as a protégé, believing his own sons unworthy. So far it looks to have been a tragic accident, but I do not believe that it is. I have little doubt my father arranged the fatal incident, and I have no trouble believing that he was comfortable killing his own daughter along with his enemy. In his rise to power, my father had his uncle beheaded, even his oldest brother executed in front of him; and, with the paltry value he places on women, it was probably even less taxing to order my sister’s death than his sadistic brother’s. Or perhaps it was my sadistic brothers, getting rid of their biggest rival.
But it does not matter, either way. She will remain dead.
Though I tried to, and desperately wanted to, I could not cry for my sister. Or I cannot yet. It seems that I, like the rest of my clan, have been rendered numb of soul. Animals far outstrip our humanity.
We are quite the family. There is not a single portrait in the last decade in which all of us are present. Only atrophied parts. I do remember childhood laughter, and fun, and a family that seems as normal as any other. This sweet illusion lasts until the time the nanny disappears, or perhaps six months after that, when my brothers take sickening pleasure in recounting to me, in mutilating detail, what has been done to her. After this point, that toxic immunity is the skin I am fit with.
* * * * * * *
I look at my watch. He is almost an hour late. The guards merely stare at me if I smile at them. They are afraid of me. Every meeting and relationship I experience in life is colored by this fear, determined by it. This is what I detest the most. That there is, in practice, no genuine me, or them. Only the fear of my father. When the men I have anonymous sex with recognize me, and it has happened on more than one occasion, that fear is more than some bodies can handle, and you can imagine the unpleasantness. Thus, when I think of speaking to one of the guards, I do not know what to say. I do not recognize him, and there are no words. Though we may speak the same language, it is for entirely different reasons: he to survive, I to determine if he’ll be allowed to survive.
This is forever the dynamic. There is no us. There is only the fear.
The room in which I wait is the large parlor where my father greets guests. The tile is golden, the furniture upholstered in a pure jeweled white. I am nauseous from it.
I wish the Foreign Powers would listen to me. Just buy him off, I try to tell them, but the FP won’t listen. And this is what our game has come to. The FP fattened my father when they needed to, propped him up for two decades like a decrepit wall. First it was water and fuel, then airspace, and now it’s some newly unearthed precious metal that is said to be the next big thing in micro-batteries. I was given stock in the mining company several months ago, as were, it turns out, at least two ministers in the FP alliance. My shares were sold, I am told, for a hundred million dollars, which sits in an account in a suitably discreet principality. I do not know where they keep theirs. And if we’re all hypocrites like this anyway, I tell the FP, please, just indulge this elderly wretch for a few months so that untold numbers of people will not have to meet gruesome deaths. Money does not interest him anymore. Mortality is all he has left. And what beats back the fear of mortality better than anything else? The youthful joys of bodily pleasure. This is not rocket science, I implore them. I tell the FP Intelligence Minister himself. Hips and ass, these are what break him. But no one listens to me. I do not think the FP trusts me, or cares if I live or die. I do not know why they bother talking to me at all. I am irrelevant to them at this point. As, it seems, is reason itself.
I should have left this place as a teenager. Why did I not take that fellowship to Columbia when I had it, fifteen years ago? The application had been submitted under a fake identity, and my acceptance based on merit, as opposed to money or power. Merit, of course, when one is dealing with a tyrant’s litter, must be taken with a grain of salt. My academic record, I confess, was as fraudulent as the British name on my application. Still, I had the chance to go west. I did not take it. Had I, there is little doubt in my mind that today I would be living in a downtown Manhattan loft with my Swedish partner, painting portraits of debutantes and Wall Street mistresses. And that I would have never returned home.
Once again, self-consciously, I look to my watch. My heart is starting to race like I’ve spent a night snorting too much cocaine. I feel, under my loose shirt, a single bead of perspiration roll down from my neck, angle left at my chest, and then drop from the tip of my nipple. My father is trying to torment me, I suspect, sending me a message by not showing up, or something else is the matter, but this is not his usual lateness, and I do not care to discover which alternative it is. I feel, for the first time, the overwhelming urge to flee immediately. But I do not get the chance.
My father enters.
He is, most glaringly, alone. This is highly unusual. He always has his security detail with him, even around the house. They are like a valet crew that follows and surrounds his every step. There is even a toilet man, who is paid a little extra to follow my father into the bathroom. Thus, that my father is here alone with me gives me pause. But I am never certain with this man. He may, for all I know, simply and plainly tell me that he wants me to have one of my testicles removed and stored frozen in the family bank.
The next thing I notice, which for most people would’ve been the first, is that he is not wearing his usual ethnic attire, but instead is wearing a purple jogging suit. It makes him look pudgy and pathetic. His hair is thinning by the minute. The jogging suit, I notice, bears the insignia of his thoroughbred stable out in the valley. His horses have already been evacuated from the country, or so the rumors float. No matter what he wears, my father looks ridiculous to me, though I stopped telling him this as a child. The tribal outfit that has become his signature look, in fact, is not even from his own tribe, or even the correct region, but is instead an interpretation of the clothing of a northern tribe not much heard of. Why does he do this? Because he feels his own tribe’s style makes him appear short-legged. This is why we fight. Vanity. “Gucci machine guns would be very nice.” I remember him saying this. “Third-rate minds, second-rate melodrama, first-rate weaponry.” But it’s not like my father has the market cornered in arrogance and stupidity. This is his chief problem. In the larger scheme, he is barely a minority owner. And who needs those?
The moment our eyes meet is cold.
In this brief silence, my remaining dysfunctional loyalties drop away. I will tell him now, I convince myself. I love and respect you, father, but I must leave.
But my father speaks first. “I know you are homosexual. I no longer care.”
A faint amusement escapes my lips, but I quickly suppress it. He frowns. In no way whatsoever do I understand what is in his withered heart, but of all the opening lines, how could he not know it was comedy? And he may not care, but his police still do, and they will arrest you for being gay. Several times I was almost caught up in raids of underground clubs. The last only six months ago. But this is love for him, I suppose. Letting me slip away like that. Could he perhaps, then, allow me to do so now?
Just tell him you’re leaving, I urge myself, stop waiting for him, just say it already!
“Your brothers have abandoned me,” he continues. “When they asked to go to the mountains, I gave my approval, but they knew what it meant.”
They may have, but it did not occur to me. I realize, now, that it should have. On a positive note, I might not need the FP to take out my serial-killer brothers after all, perhaps my father is in the process of doing it himself. I calculate that if I start driving as soon as this meeting with my father is concluded, then I can be out of the country before the next morning. The safest and fastest route becomes clear in my mind. I will shave my head and use the fake German passport my sister sent me a few weeks before she was killed. I try to hear a German dialect in my mind. I can imitate anything. I remember how to count to three: eins, zwei, drei. Danke. We had a German nanny once. After the one who disappeared because of me.
“I am going to step down,” my father says matter-of-factly. I am shocked for the twenty heartbeats before he continues. “And you shall succeed me.”
It requires all my powers of physical and mental coordination not to burst into full-throated laughter here. So the Fag Prince is his only hope now. My goodness, how far he truly has fallen. He genuinely does not know, or care, that he is doomed. That our family is. How am I possibly going to tell him that I wish to flee now?
“And we shall do this right here,” he adds, his entourage entering on cue behind him, heavily armed as always, a film crew among them. We will record the transfer of power, he explains, then show it to the protesters, to the world, as evidence that times, that we, have changed.
I want to speak, to object, to tell him that it is all a farce.
But the fear remains, the malformed love, they are the same, and I am silent.
“They have stopped taking my calls,” he reports. “They are waiting for this action. Then all will be well again.”
He is insane. He is not even considering his own people. The FP aren’t either, of course, and they are certainly not waiting for anything from him. They are already bombing in the east, coordinating with their chosen rebels, others left to a fate no better than ours. Those people not in the streets and calling for my father’s head are fleeing the capitol, soon it will be hordes. I should already be marching with them. But before I have time to cough, the “ceremony” begins and ends, cameras rolling and still-photos clicking, and I am legally (whatever that means these days) made the new sovereign. My father kisses me on the cheek, which he has not done since I was a boy.
“A year from now,” he says quietly in my ear, “you will come and see the auburn colt race. He will be spectacular, and all this mess will be in the past.”
The feeling of his lips on my cheek lingers. As if they have left a hole in my face. He may as well have just told me that the auburn colt is a space alien, and that we shall be watching him race on Mars. It is equally as likely.
He says they are going to leave me alone now, so that I may meditate, or pray. “It is a custom,” he tells me. Not one that I have ever heard of. We are as religious as spiders. My new cabinet officers, he adds, will meet with me in ten minutes down the hall, and that someone will come for me before then. I do not know where he thinks he will escape to.
Before I can inquire, and without an additional word or gesture or the slightest emotion, he exits with his entourage. I suspect that I will never see him again.
* * * * * * *
I am alone in the parlor, engulfed by the golden floor and diamond furniture. My queer reign has begun. What do I do now? Will there be a press conference? Do I get a nice bouquet at least?
What the hell is this? The absurdity is unbearable.
So I try to focus myself. I am the head of state. It sounds so foolish that I repeat it several times. At this cabinet meeting, I will tell them we are opening negotiations with everyone, that all the madness is over: the people will have jobs, elections will be held, women will be made full and equal citizens, political prisoners will be released from their cells, natural resources will be used wisely and for the benefit of all, shirtless gay men will dance in the streets in leather chaps, everyone will be free!
I am as insane as my father.
I can hear the distant noise in the street. Our palace compound is so huge, with so many layers of walls, it sounds like miles. I move to the window and look out, viewing the various smokes and fires coming up from the concrete and glass landscape. Pops of gunfire, bursts, then momentary silence, until it pop-pop-pops again.
It is all coming apart.
To calm my nerves before this alleged cabinet meeting, I put in my earphones and listen to music as I continue looking out the window. It is jazz.
Beneath the palace, my father is getting into a town car. With him are two men: his driver and his security chief. A few years earlier, this security man and I engaged in a brief sexual affair. My memory is that he tastes like vinegar and soot, or perhaps it is gunpowder. It is one of the rare sexual relationships I have had that is not, to some degree, colored by the other man’s fear of my royal identity. Because I am afraid of him, which reverses everything, and this is an aphrodisiac in itself for a time, if a suicidal one. He is a man who will literally cut your throat to keep his secrets, without hesitation. He has personally put bullets in hundreds of heads. And he is the only person, I truly believe, with the primordial brutality it would require to cut off one’s own head. Because of this, I suddenly think that he must be on the take and working for the FP. I am sure he has told my father that he will drive alone in a lead car. This way, only my father’s car will be hit by the rocket, or missile, or whatever it will be. And the security man will get away with his million dollars and plane ticket to the tropics.
I wonder which tunnel road they will take. There are six of them, each surfacing in a hidden location in different parts of the city. One, I know, emerges in an industrial neighborhood of warehouses, where it would be easy to slip away – or be assassinated by remote control without having an apartment building or two hit in the process. That must be the tunnel they are in. I will not take that tunnel when my own driver comes for me. Thousands of people died digging those holes, I remember. Some say as many as five thousand. Usually, with my father’s regime, even the high end is conservative when it comes to body counts.
The jazz music ends. I do not replay it. I am hopeless. But in a fit of instinct, I tell myself no, this is not the end. I can still flee, I must at least try. A simple story comes to me: I will ask my new handlers to return to my apartment to retrieve some personal belongings (the most important being the suitcase of cash in my closet and that fake passport); while there, necessities in hand, I will slip into the service corridor and sneak down to the parking garage, where I will retrieve my car, with its full tank of gas, and head for the border. Adrenaline rushes through my body, hope returns. Yes! There are still a few days left before the capitol is bombed or fully erupts on its own, I have time, more than enough, I am reborn. Breathe deeply, I remind myself, as I stare out at the ominously kindling city.
In the window’s reflection, I see the door open behind me. It spooks me, and as I turn to see who has entered…everything explodes.
* * * * * * *
I am hurtling through the air, the building collapsing around me, as flying chunks and shards of it rip through my body like so many spears and saw blades. Then, just as quickly it seems, it is over. Everything is dark around me, except for thin veins of light leaking in through the few cracks in my very limited field of view. The air is hazy with the powder of debris. I do not even know if I am on my back, or my side, or my stomach. I am, strangely, not in pain. But I know, I am fully aware, that I am buried alive.
These FP bastards, don’t they know what they have in me?! I am the Fag King, I am more freedom than even they want! I am the only one who could’ve ended this idiocy the smart way. I know my father. Two blondes and two brunettes, and a par-3 golf course, and maybe a lifetime supply of spiced rum. All of this could’ve been avoided for a Fantasy Island episode! Because my father is an absurdity (as am I). Then you go get him later, when all of this bloodlust cools down. When he is in a Speedo lounging by the pool with a daiquiri and an issue of Vanity Fair. Where else would he be?
I can assure you, as well, that I would’ve asked for nothing in return. I still would’ve let you kill me. This life is no place for my heart, and I could’ve spared so many people so much trouble and blood. This is as vain a certainty as I have ever had. But trouble and blood are what the FP needed. As did my father, in his day. For obvious reasons.
I take my concluding breaths with, I believe, only one of my arms remaining and part of a hip socket still attached. It could easily be said that I deserve this fate. I accept the judgement. But, I complain, my brothers had better be dead already. I refuse to die before them. And is my father eviscerated yet? Or did he finally make a deal for himself and let me die anyway? He would do that, if he had to, or even if he simply felt like it. Such a terrible final thought. So I think of the face of the last man I slept with. He is beautiful, but I cannot remember his name. I am the dictator now.
As I expire, somewhere near me in the rubble my cell phone rings. I know it is my phone because of the ringtone. It is the sound of an old but powerful train, roaring at us up the tracks, thundering forward, screaming into our faces.