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The Last President

Story by James Zerndt (Read author interview) March 26, 2013

art by Erika Clark

My father took me. He said it was a once in a lifetime chance to see what a great man looked like. But I didn’t need that. I already knew what a great man looked like.

We sat in the front row, both of us mesmerized by the President. His eyes sparkled something crazy, and when he spoke he kept clamping and unclamping his thumb and forefinger together. Like there was this invisible something he couldn’t help but pinch.

He wasn’t our last president, but that’s what most of us refer to him as now.

In private, of course.

My dad was a scientist. A nobody scientist who worked in a nobody lab trying to make life better for strangers. He was trying to harness the forces of nature, trying to make it so people around the world would always have enough water.

“Watch,” my dad said to me back then. “They’ll kill him. They always kill what’s beautiful.”

And that’s exactly what they did.

They killed the President.

And then they closed the borders.

They didn’t just remove our footprint from other countries, they removed our whole foot. That was the pitch anyway. They also did away with science. They said it was the root of all our evils. So they took science out in the backyard, shot it in the head, and buried it.

More or less.

My dad died shortly after that.

They said it was from natural causes, but I’m pretty sure it was more from a broken heart. All he wanted was to make it rain in places suffering from drought.

I call that being a somebody.

With a capital S.

“Would you rather live in a prison or a home?”

That’s what my dad said when I asked him why he never locked the doors of our house.

I didn’t really understand then, but I do now.

Nobody thought it could happen here, but now that that world is long gone, it seems so obvious.

The President saw it.

I don’t remember much from his speech that day, but I do remember him talking about oppression, how throughout history most people never saw themselves as the oppressor. They were always convinced they were on the side of good.

Which can sometimes make it hard to tell the difference.

I found this in my dad’s things. A paper clipping from that day the President spoke:

They will never walk in, take off their hats, and introduce themselves as Fascism. No. Instead they will tell you you’re special. You’re different. You’re one of them. Part of a select group. And because something in our nature wants to believe that, we believe. That’s how it creeps in. How hate, and not love, quietly takes a seat at our dinner tables.

I think my father saw it coming, too.

But not me.

All I saw were those fingers of the President’s pinching away. And now I wonder if maybe he wasn’t trying to wake himself from the nightmare he saw on its way.

We’re safe now though.

Those of that are left.

We’re safe and there’s plenty of water.

God only knows about the rest of the world.

About the Author

James Zerndt lives in Portland, Oregon, where he rarely refers to himself in the third person. His debut novel, The Cloud Seeders, was the inspiration for this piece.

About the Artist

Erika Clark lives in Portland, Oregon, where she spends her days working in a lab, staring at other people’s microorganisms.

This story appeared in Issue Thirty-Nine of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirty-Nine

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