One beautiful spring afternoon full of sunshine and pollen, we had Shawn and Deb over. We barbecued out on the patio, burgers and sausages and whatever the women were having. Plenty of potato salad and baked beans. We drank beers and watched some of the Giants game. We told stories and joked at each other’s expense. While Supreme Leader was distracted, we laughed and laughed and laughed.
We hadn’t thought to run our little shindig by him. He was still only seven or eight years old, going on forty-five. Some days, today included, he seemed perfectly content to play with his toy soldiers by himself down in the rec room. (He had hundreds of them; maybe it wasn’t just play.) Still, he eventually heard us clanking dessert plates and clinking beer bottles. He marched outside, glaring at us, each in turn. He wore tiny, black jackboots polished to a high gloss.
Jon-Davis! he screamed.
I took a long drink of beer and said, Yes, son?
He balled his fists. His face went stony.
No son, Jon-Davis! You call Supreme Leader!
Shawn chuckled. He sure is a feisty bugger.
And cute as a cupcake! said Deb.
Supreme Leader fumed but said nothing. I thought his fat little head might pop off.
Honey? said Maggie. Would you like a cheeseburger? Daddy made one for you on the grill. Come sit down. I’ll get a bun and fix it just the way you like it.
Silence! yelled Supreme Leader.
We all sat up straight in our chairs, holding our breath.
No bugger, no cupcake, no honey! You call Supreme Leader!
Always fidgety, Maggie shifted in her chair, fingering up cake crumbs.
Imperialist pigs! he hollered. Stuffing faces!
Don’t get excited, I ventured. It’s just a little Sunday cookout among friends.
It’s a family tradition, said Shawn.
So know-it-all! Supreme Leader shrieked. Yet know nothing!
He paused to catch his breath. He was more worked up than I’d ever seen him, sweat beading on his fat upper lip. He was starting to worry me. Maggie, too. I could see it in her eyes.
Soon you learn, he said. Supreme Leader will teach.
He waited for his words to sink in, though none of us had a clue what he was talking about. We wouldn’t have taken him seriously anyway. No one said a word. We listened to the happy chirp of kids playing in the park. Across the street, the neighbor was washing his Corvette in the driveway. The awkward silence grew like a throat cancer.
Does he talk like that all the time? Deb asked when she couldn’t stand it any longer. It’s adorable!
We laughed our nervous laughs.
We can’t figure out where he picked it up, said Maggie.
Shawn finished his beer and cracked another, gazing at Supreme Leader the entire time.
Know who he reminds me of? he asked. That what’s-his-name over there.
Could you be a little more specific, sweetie?
Hold your horses, he said. I’m getting to it. It’ll come to me.
We waited. Supreme Leader looked dour.
You know, that Kim Something Whatever?
Where we had the war all those years back? said Deb.
Maggie sipped her lemonade. That’s what we were going to name him, she said. If he was a girl.
What? said Shawn.
Kim, I said.
Deb smiled and said, That’s a beautiful name.
I’m telling you, said Shawn, he’s a dead ringer.
Supreme Leader’s expression softened. He flashed his pointy teeth and said:
I so happy you notice!
We looked on, nonplussed. It didn’t faze Supreme Leader.
Now we ready, he said.
For what? asked Shawn.
Supreme Leader snapped a salute.
You see, he said.
Yet for almost a week, nothing changed. Not really. We went about our daily routine. I filed stories, Maggie cleaned teeth. We only got one call from Mrs. Wallace and none at all from Principal Vernon. Supreme Leader still gave orders and demanded strict discipline, but he seemed less edgy in his drill sergeant routine, his screaming softer, his grimaces less disparaging.
Maybe we weren’t paying close enough attention.
Because Saturday morning a cargo plane landed on our front lawn. We usually would’ve mustered for PT at dawn, awakened by Supreme Leader’s bullhorn screech. We would’ve run eight miles, then sipped bad coffee after cold showers. Today Supreme Leader let us sleep in. But the roar of jet engines outside our bedroom window was disconcerting. The panes rattled, the four-poster shook, Maggie’s collection of ceramic elephants clattered to the floor. We thought it was an earthquake and hunkered in the bathroom, adrenaline pumping though we were still half-asleep. Then we heard Supreme Leader shrieking through his bullhorn:
Wake, capitalist dogs!
Soldiers in drab green uniforms with scarlet collars hustled us down the hall and out the door. They shouldered AK-47s and gripped M68 pistols and screamed at us in a language we didn’t understand. Supreme Leader gave orders the soldiers followed.
Where did he learn to speak that? Maggie wondered.
Our boy is a genius! I said, glowing.
It was a beautiful morning, clear and cool. Fingers of fog stretched over the mountains. The blooming azaleas smelled sweet and heavy. We stepped across the decimated lawn, rutted with landing gear tracks. In the driveway, my Ford and Maggie’s Chrysler had been crushed like aluminum beer cans. So had the neighbor’s Corvette. We trudged up the cargo ramp. The soldiers followed us, and Supreme Leader followed them, still shrieking through his bullhorn.
Once we were airborne, I asked, Where are we going?
On Supreme Leader’s signal, the soldiers broke into an anthem of sorts. Not the most melodic in the world. Maybe it was the singers.
Where you think? said Supreme Leader when they’d finished. He grinned his pointy-toothed grin. The Fatherland!
J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Istanbul Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he spent time at Fundación Valparaíso, Spain as a fiction fellow. A Pushcart Prize nominee and Fulbright Scholar, he teaches at the University of Virginia.