Every Dictator Was Once a Little Boy
I’m writing to you from New Year’s Eve, the end of 2017—a year that at points seemed endless—and I’m thinking backward on it and reflecting on what I’ve done and what I’ve let slip. What I’ve given up and what I’ve taken on. What I’ve said and what I wish I had said. This year has changed me, as it likely has many of you. A year ago today, I would have said that change was the loss of my optimism. I saw it coming then, when we were still all in those first crushing weeks post-presidential election. The world was darker for me in those days than it had ever been, and I couldn’t see how there’d ever again be light I wasn’t artificially producing for myself—a kind of placebo hope, just to get through another day. And I wanted none of it.
But now, a year later, I see that I was wrong. The change I’ve felt this year isn’t a loss of optimism but the recognition that optimism requires action, and that the energy of action necessarily produces the light we need to keep going. This year has been about that light-producing action. Like so many of you, I’ve marched and shouted, I’ve called and written, I’ve taught and learned. I’m a better woman today for the lessons of the last year, and even in the midst of the lasting grief and lasting anger at the state of things, I can’t help but be grateful for that growth. I can’t help but be grateful for the ways in which the last year has shown me how far I still have to go—how much I need to keep learning, and how much work I have to do. On this last day of the year, I’m taking stock of the light I’ve seen this year.
And that brings me to this. I’m going out on a limb with this one, readers. I wrote this story just over a year ago, in December of 2016. I wrote it because I felt paralyzed by my own anger and rage, and I knew I needed to find empathy again in order to carry on. I knew I did not want to lose myself to my lesser impulses this year—to give in to that anger and rage and let them consume me. I had to be better. I had to find—despite everything—compassion. And so I started this fable to get there. I wrote it over my Christmas holiday of 2016, sent it to my writing group in early January 2017, and then to several journals. It was rejected (and rejected) and re-submitted and rejected, and so time passed.
In the meantime, many other writers also stepped up and spoke out. Essays and poems and stories that cut right to the core of my fears and hopes began to appear everywhere, and I felt buoyed by their courage and anger and honesty. Artists were (as artists always have done) speaking the necessary truths. This, in fact, was one of the deep joys of 2017 – the community of artists all working to lift truth to the surface. The biting, beautiful, razor sharp art that has come out of this year’s darkness has stunned me. There has been, I think, no brighter moment for the arts community in my lifetime, and I’ve been more grateful for the work of other writers (and artists and musicians and dancers and actors) this year than ever before.
But today, cleaning out my files and weeding through the unfinished flotsam and jetsam of my year, I stumbled on this story again. I re-read it. It’s still not perfect, I know, and I feel a bit of anxiety offering it up to you, reader. I’m offering anyhow. This story is the dark point of my 2017, and I’m releasing it.
With hope, and in solidarity, here’s to a brighter 2018.
Every Dictator Was Once a Little Boy
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
Image by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
He is born into spring and money. He has a name, but we’ll call him Baby Boy. He is the next-to-last of a parcel of children, all of them fair skinned and blond headed and slightly bucket-eared.
He is born to a man and woman. His father likes gambling and good suits and women and obedience. His mother likes silence and chintz.
Baby Boy’s father is the son of immigrants. They had nothing so that he could have everything. Now the family fortune is in land and business. The land is in the form of second-rate boarding houses scattered throughout the city. The business is groceries. Eventually, Baby Boy’s father tells the children, we will have an empire.
The money permits Baby Boy’s mother to be frail and frequently ill. She has headaches, nerves, and a nanny to help her with the children. She has insomnia and a peptic stomach and undiagnosed but self-medicated melancholia. Before she married Baby Boy’s father, she herself was the help: an immigrant, a domestic. She scoured other people’s washbasins and polished their silver. She cleaned their soiled bed sheets and uncoiled their curled hairs from their tub stops. Before she married Baby Boy’s father, this country fell short of her expectations. She had expected mountains and had got expressways. She had expected an education and instead got a sixty-hour workweek. She met Baby Boy’s father at a party. He had good teeth. He wore his hair slicked back over the crown of his head. He took her behind the bandstand and slid his palm beneath her skirt, said, You’re my lucky penny. I can tell. Within weeks they were married. Within months their first child was born.
This was all a long time ago, of course. Now they are middle-aged, old by the day’s standards to be having another child. By the year Baby Boy enters the world, his mother’s red Scottish hair is already threaded with gray. His father has rheumatism in his knees and ankles from too much straining in his youth, too much salt and whiskey in his age. They have three other children at home already, and birth is less a miracle than it once seemed. While Baby Boy’s mother labors, his father smokes in another room. When the nurse delivers Baby Boy, his mother is only thinly conscious.
Here he is, the nurse says in a heavy Scottish accent as she hands over the swaddled bundle. Here’s your son.
Baby Boy’s mother is thrown by the accent and the tug of the drugs she’s been given. She isn’t certain where she is—new world or old?
Whose baby is this? she asks.
The Scottish nurse laughs, big and full. Poor woman, she says to Baby Boy’s mother. He’s yours.
Baby Boy’s mother looks at him—her child. Another. Through the swim of opiates and exhaustion, she looks at him. A boy, she says. In her arms, Baby Boy does not cry.
A little prince, the nurse says.
Baby Boy’s father is shown into the room and the nurse repeats herself: This one’s a little prince, isn’t he?
Neither parent is listening to the woman, but babies hear everything.
Maybe this is how it starts.
Baby Boy’s early years pass quickly. He grows. He is blond and blue eyed, cherubic, just like his siblings. Unlike them, however, he is wild. Feral nearly. From an early age he refuses even basic rules—no climbing on the bookshelves, no throwing one’s supper to the floor, no tantruming on the park lawn. He is a handful. A terror, the family nanny says in private. To Baby Boy’s mother, she says, No moss grows on this boy’s toes! Baby Boy laughs, smacks his mother’s cheeks. His mother sighs, nods, hands him over to the nanny once more, and disappears into her bedroom with another headache.
As a five-year-old, he is twice caught throwing stones at the neighbors’ windows. At six he breaks his mother’s favorite vase. At seven, his father’s decanter. The decanter is an accident. A BB gun fired in the house, a slipped trigger finger, an impulse not fully thought through.
Damn it, boy! Why? his father yells, but Baby Boy has no explanation. How can he tell his father that every action is like a spring ready-loaded in his mind? How can he explain that he doesn’t think—cannot stop to think—before these springs uncoil, launch him forward into trouble?
It’s not my fault, Baby Boy says. For this he gets the belt.
His father waits while Baby Boy loosens his trousers and bends forward over the leather ottoman in the office. Count, his father says, and Baby Boy squeezes his eyes shut, counts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven as the leather belt comes down across his backside. His father is calm, methodical. He takes neither pleasure nor pain in the punishment of his son.
When it’s over, Baby Boy stands, pulls up his pants without a word, his bottom stinging like he’s sat in nettles. He doesn’t hate his father. He understands that his father is a man, and sometimes men must do unspeakable things. He understands that the punishment is not about him, but about the decanter. One loss must be cancelled out with another—broken skin for broken decanter. It’s fair. It’s a lesson he must be made to learn, and he does. He doesn’t cry as he leaves the office.
Later, lying in his upper floor room, a bag of ice the nanny has given him tucked inside his britches, Baby Boy recalls the instant the decanter shattered with a kind of physical thrill, a shiver he can’t yet place in his catalogue of experiences. That instant has within it all the sweetness and pain of holding a piece of candy against his cheek until his throat aches and his mouth waters. Desire that hurts, and then the satisfying crush of teeth against hard sugar. Yes. He feels the chill of the ice on his bottom, and he shivers. In his hands, he can still feel the popped release of the gun exploding between his palms. Pop. He feels it. The decanter struck and shattering. Pop and pop. A double crescendo. Power. Whiskey flooding from the glass to the wood floor. Pop and splatter. Power power. Baby boy feels the words in his mouth like the smooth BBs themselves. Hot little balls. Sweet and hard. He purses his lips around them, delighted. How could something so pleasing to him be so bad?
The autumn of his seventh year, Baby Boy goes to school. His sisters and brothers have warned him to be good in the classroom, to sit still, to be quiet. He cannot help himself. School is a circus, a riot, an opportunity. There are so many new people to meet, to talk to and entertain. He finds himself writing jokes in his head during lessons, reciting them at lunch. Where does the general keep his armies? In his sleevies! The other children’s eyes on him feel like sunshine on bare skin, like the nanny’s kisses. When they laugh, he swells. When they call his name, a well inside him he hasn’t realized is there opens and fills.
In his first school report card, the teacher chastises him for talking out of turn, for making up fibs, for failing to sit or stand where he is told. He seems to believe the rules don’t apply to him, she writes in red pencil at the bottom of the card. He can be a real little devil.
Baby Boy must hand this to his mother, who reads it without speaking and gives him a worried, wearied look. We shouldn’t tell your father, she says. We’ll keep this just between us. She taps his cheek with one short finger, a gesture she often substitutes for a kiss.
Am I a little devil? he asks his mother.
She sighs, turns her eyes to the ceiling. You are your father’s son, she says.
Baby Boy doesn’t know what to make of this, and so he doesn’t ask the question a second time.
He continues to find trouble at school and in the schoolyard. At age eight he sits a detention for copying the spelling test of the girl who sits in front of him. At nine the crime is filling the boys’ toilet with paper and watching the bowl flood. At ten, he gets into a pissing match with another child and calls the other boy a Kraut cunt. It’s something he once heard his uncle say to his father. His father had laughed, but the other boy doesn’t laugh. The other boy tattles. For this, Baby Boy is sent to the principal’s office, paddled and punished. He must stay after classes each day for two weeks.
Every afternoon, when he is released from his detention, the nanny is waiting for him outside the school building to walk him home under the dusky sky. On the eighth day, the nanny waiting is not the nanny Baby Boy expects.
Who are you? he asks the girl who greets him.
She tells him the old nanny has quit.
This is startling news. The old nanny has been with Baby Boy since the beginning of his memory. She nursed him through scarlet fever, the chicken pox. She stood at his side each year on his birthday as he blew out the candles on his cake. She was old and sometimes gruff, but he believed she loved him.
Why would she quit? he asks this new girl.
The girl shrugs. I hear you’re quite the little dictator. The words are maybe a joke. He can’t be sure. The girl smiles, though, and squeezes his shoulder. Don’t worry, she says. I’ll take care of you now.
This girl is young, pretty. She is from a country Baby Boy has never noticed on a map. She has skin the color of a caramel, an accent that sounds like milk being poured into a tall glass. I think your old nanny was wrong, she says after she’s been with the family for several days. I can see you as you are beneath your bones. I’m good at reading people. She grins when she says this, as if she knows a secret about him. As if all along he has only been fooling everyone else just to amuse her. As if he—Baby Boy—has pulled off a great maneuver. He is pleased to have pleased her. She offers him her hand to shake, and when he takes it, he thinks he’d like to lick her fingers, to taste her. He thinks maybe he does have the devil of his father in him, but he also has his father’s luck.
This nanny is not afraid of Baby Boy’s temper, and she is not won by his charms. She is constant, honest, reliable in her affections and expectations. He loves her. He comes to know the sound of her footsteps in the hallway beyond his bedroom door. He comes to know the songs she sings to help him sleep at night—songs sung in a language he cannot understand. This language can sound both like butter and like the knife that slices it. He tries not to displease her. He tries to fight in himself the impulses to interrupt her when she is speaking, to grab her hand when they are out walking, to put his fingers into her mouth when she sits across from him at the table chewing her breakfast. This is difficult for Baby Boy. She is like no other person he has ever known. She is soft and careful and open. She does not seemed tired by his conversation. She has never told him she is too busy for his questions. She allows him to curl himself into the crook of her arm when they sit together on his bed for stories before sleep. When he is this close to her, he wants to crawl in closer—crawl inside her. He wants to inhabit her, like a snail in a shell. He wants to swallow her and know the weight of her in his stomach. He doesn’t understand why, but he knows this is shameful, and so he is always holding himself back from his full desire. Maybe this is love, he thinks. Oh, how he does love her.
Tell me a story from your old country, he often begs, and she tells him about mountains and blue seas, Greek ruins and golden eagles. Tell me what you saw when you first came here, he demands, and she recounts her surprise at the sight of skyscrapers and curbs lined in taxi cabs and bridges made entirely of steel. Tell me you love me, he cries, and she tells him he is the best of all boys.
Once, in the midst of this game, he says, Tell me about your father and mother. A darkness crosses her brown eyes like a cloud’s shadow crossing a wide field, and she says they were both killed in the war, along with her sister and brother and all her friends. I am alone, here or there. I have only myself left. I have to be my own mother and father now, my own family.
This cuts straight into Baby Boy’s heart, and he begins to weep.
Are you crying for me? she asks him, her tone surprised and moved.
But she has misunderstood him. He’s crying for himself and for the realization that she does not love him as he loves her. If she is alone in the world, then she has not considered him. She doesn’t want him as he wants her.
Without thinking, Baby Boy reaches out and strikes the nanny across her cheek.
The nanny screams. She touches her cheek where he has hit her. He’s left a red blotch, shape of four small fingers. Why would you do this? she asks him, but he has no answer. He has no words.
She sends him to his bed with no more stories, no more songs. She shuts off the light and leaves him in the dark bedroom alone with his coiling remorse.
When Baby Boy is twelve, his school announces an election. They will use the process to teach the children about their government. They will use it to examine civics and social dynamics and democracy. The children will divide themselves into parties, nominate candidates, and vote for a student body president and vice president. There will be campaigning with posters and debates. There will be voting booths made of cardboard. There will be an inauguration with lemonade and cupcakes. Among the students, there is a great deal of excitement about this last bit in particular.
You should run, the nanny tells Baby Boy with enthusiasm when he reports this on their walk home from school.
Baby Boy has honestly not considered this, but the light in her eyes when she says it makes him dream. What if he could win? What if he could win and make her proud? He imagines himself with a crown on his head. Do presidents wear crowns? He imagines himself walking through the school doors with the crown on his head. He imagines himself grabbing the nanny in a victorious embrace.
You think I should do it? he asks her.
I do, she says. She grins, tousles his hair—a gesture he would hate coming from anyone but her. She sees potential in him that no one else does. Maybe it’s everyone else who is wrong.
I might, he says. His face is pinked with the flush of her encouragement, the lingering warmth of the September air.
You should, she says. She takes his arm at the elbow. Baby Boy has grown over the summer, and she is now just a half an inch taller than him. She could rest her head on his shoulder easily. Everyone will love you, she says.
On a Tuesday in March, he submits his name as a candidate for school president. His challengers will be a girl with short, frizzy hair; a boy with skin the color of soft potatoes and glasses with lenses the shape of perfect squares; and a boy who heads the junior division lacrosse team. Baby Boy assesses these competitors and decides he might actually have a chance of winning. The girl will never win. The boy with the glasses may be smart, but he is weak. His face is speckled with a float of freckles like fish food on the surface of an aquarium, waiting to be devoured. He sniffles frequently and has skinny arms. He’ll be no real threat. It is only the third rival who poses a real conflict.
How can I beat him? Baby Boy asks the nanny that afternoon. He is regretting his decision to run. He keeps picturing himself standing on the stage in the gymnasium beside this taller, bigger, more athletic boy. He keeps hearing applause that is not for him. I’ll be tromped, Baby Boy says. I’ll be humiliated.
The nanny strokes his cheek. Her fingertips are as velvety as cattails, as pink as the tips of rose petals. You are too hard on yourself. He wants to believe this. He pushes her to go on. You will be fantastic, she says. You will be great. You will be the best of all boys.
Baby Boy closes his eyes as he listens to her. Her words sink like thrown stones into his chest and settle around his heart. They begin to form a little wall of confidence, a little dam for his doubts.
The campaign looks to be a bloodletting. In all his insecure imaginings, he could not have predicted the intensity of the race. The athlete is indeed the popular favorite from the get-go, and his voters are the ice cream on the cake. The girl and the glasses also each have their supporters—namely other girls, the debate club, the AV kids, and (quietly) the teachers. Together, these three candidates have the majority of the student body under their sway. Baby Boy is left to work with the remainders, and they prove to be the most difficult base to unite. His voters are the fringe, the leftovers, the ones not used to being courted. They are both the bullies and their scapegoats. The anti-social and the isolating. The begrudged and begrudging. They are disinterested in school and in him and in democracy as an idea, and for the first two weeks of the election he wastes his time trying to use typical tactics to engage them. He enlists help with his posters, making a trade of favors with a boy who is known to be a delinquent and an artist. Sure enough, the boy draws a skilled image of Baby Boy in the style of a street caricaturist. Baby Boy’s head comprises two thirds of the poster’s surface, and he looks recognizable and charming. There’s a wide grin stretching across his face. In his miniaturized right hand, he holds the reins of the straining horse upon which his miniaturized body is riding. In his left hand he holds a wad of cash. When he receives the finished original, Baby Boy isn’t sure what to make of it.
Why am I holding money? Baby Boy asks.
Because you have it, and you said you’d give it to me if I drew this.
Right, Baby Boy says, considering the image again. He steps back, squints, comes close once more. Is this supposed to make people laugh or choose me? he asks.
The boy who has drawn it shrugs his meaty shoulders. Both, he says. Do you have that cash?
Baby Boy has no choice but to print copies; he has made a deal with the other boy, and he is afraid to offend him. The prints come out glorious though—glossy and high quality—the good stuff money can afford. Baby Boy gathers a pack of other boys—these fellows the disenfranchised geeks from the science fiction club—to help him tack up the posters around campus. They resist at first, but he promises them a school-sponsored field trip to the movie theater in the city to see Attack of the 50 Foot Woman if they comply and he wins. They bring their own adhesive. They plaster the school’s entryway corridor in Baby Boy’s image.
Afterward, he is so impressed with their work that he offers them pizza. They follow him and the nanny around the block to the pizza place on Jamaica Avenue. The nanny seems amused by this new friendship. The sci-fi boys seem under the spell of the nanny’s femininity. They flush en masse when she asks any one of them a question. They goggle openly at Baby Boy when she tells them she sleeps in a room adjacent to his. This is all it takes, Baby Boy realizes, to secure their loyalty: they must believe that he is better than them, and that being in his orbit will enlarge their own. This recognition comes together in his mind with an almost audible click. Seat belt fastening. Bullet entering a chamber. Click.
On the way home from the pizzeria alone together, he tells the nanny he knows something he didn’t at the start of the day.
What’s that? she asks.
I’m going to win, he says. He can’t suppress his grin.
Oh ho! she laughs. I think you owe me something for that.
He turns his face to her, frowns. I do?
Of course you do! She is full-laughing now.
Baby Boy shakes his head. What did you really do? he asks. Walk us to the pizza shop? I walked on my own feet, didn’t I? And that was my father’s money you used to pay.
The nanny’s grin evaporates instantly. She drops her hand from where it has been resting around Baby Boy’s shoulders. They walk home side by side, but in silence.
The campaign proceeds through the rest of the month, a fierce contest. There are two debates at which the entire student body is gathered in the gymnasium to hear the candidates discuss the issues. The issues, which have been faculty approved before the debates, are: 1) a proposed additional dance to take place in June at the close of the academic year, and 2) the use of a small amount of the school’s endowment to purchase either new basketball hoops and balls for the gym or a new set of encyclopedias for the library. The candidates fall along expected lines on these issues. The girl argues on behalf of the dance and the books. Glasses argues against the dance and for the books. The athlete wants the dance and the balls.
Baby Boy is the last to debate, and he listens to their arguments with only half of his attention. Instead, he watches the crowd as the others speak. He notes with interest that many of the kids—even those he’d assume would be eager about this election—lean to whisper to their friends while the candidates are speaking. There’s the hissing burble of laugher under cupped palms. There’s the creaking of the bleachers as people rustle and fidget, bored in their seats. Yes, he thinks. They are all bored. This seems an important observation.
When it is his turn to step up to the microphone and speak, Baby Boy’s head swims with two images. The first is the nanny, leaning close to him, stroking his forehead. Best of all boys, she is saying in his vision. You are best of all boys. The second image is that decanter exploding, that rip of pellet through glass. The double helix of these images swirls and stretches in him, swells in his chest like courage. He grips the metal neck of the microphone with two sweaty hands, puts his face to the microphone’s grill. Hello, he says. I don’t think any of us really care about what we’ve heard in the last hour at all, do we?
The air in the gymnasium stills, hardens, becomes electric. Every eye in the place is on him, and Baby Boy knows with stunned certainty that he’s just won himself an election.
For the rest of the day, he cannot get a moment’s peace. Students he’s never spoken to slap him on the back in the hallway during the passing periods. At lunch, three different tables wave him their way. During gym class, for the first time in his life, he is picked for captain when they divvy up into teams for flag football.
After school, he swings his bag over his shoulder and slams through the front doors of the building, leaps down the stone front steps, his head as full and light as if it is a balloon about to rise into the atmosphere. He can’t wait to tell the nanny about this lucky turn in his fortune.
She isn’t there, though, when he reaches the bottom of the steps.
He waits. He paces around the schoolyard, first giddy, then angry, then anxious at her absence. She’s never missed pick-up before. She’s never been sick. Never forgotten him. What could have happened? After half an hour, he walks home alone.
The house is oddly silent when he arrives. The lights are off in the foyer. He doesn’t hear voices. He tries his room and hers to start, but both are empty. He tries his mother’s sitting room next, but it too is empty, and then he remembers that his mother has left today for a trip into the city.
He finds his oldest sister closed into her bedroom, her homework spread before her on her desk. What? she asks when he opens the door.
Where is Nanny? he says.
His sister sighs, rolls her eyes. God, grow up, will you? she says. She turns her face back to her work, waves him out of her room.
The air has been slowly leaking from that balloon Baby Boy has been carrying around all afternoon, and now he has a low ache at the base of his neck, a dull throb at his temples. He needs to tell someone about his day—anyone—and though this would be his very last choice, he decides he will interrupt his father.
His father’s office door is closed. There is, however, a slim knife-edge of light beneath the door on the carpet that tells Baby Boy his father is indeed inside.
Baby Boy knocks once with his knuckle. Dad? he says.
Wait— his father’s voice says, urgent, from the other side of the door, but Baby Boy is already opening it, stepping inside, seeing what he is seeing.
Here is the nanny.
What does he see?
A young woman with skin she’s been poured into like oil into a flask. She stands at the desk, her dark hair spilling over the varnished wood of the desktop, her hands braced against the desk’s hard edge. Positioned behind her is a man with his tie knot loosed, his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows, ready for the exertion of his task. His forehead is glossed in sweat. On his face, a grimace. But that doesn’t matter. It’s the girl’s face that fixes Baby Boy. She wears an expression he memorizes and will come back to over and over again throughout his life. His mind will chew on it like a bit of gristle he is unable swallow, this moment when he opens the door and sees the nanny seeing him. What is it in her eyes? Defiance? Regret? Why can’t Baby Boy understand her? Why would she try to confuse him?
In his personal revision, Baby Boy rewrites this scene. One: The girl extracts herself from his father’s grasp and leaves the office silently, with dignity. Two: She extracts herself and falls at Baby Boy’s feet in apology. Three: She extracts herself and cries out for rescue.
To be sure, there’s a certain thrill in each of these revisions.
But no. No. The story isn’t hers. Baby Boy doesn’t want her desire or her remorse. He doesn’t want her strong or weak or satisfied or sorry. He doesn’t want to want her at all. But how do you separate power from pleasure? How do you separate influence from love? He has to abandon questions. He doesn’t like them. What he wants instead is just simplicity. What he wants is not to be contradicted. What he wants is the nanny as she existed for him before—a song in his dark bedroom, a sweet taste of caramel under his tongue, a sure sign of his own good luck. And if he cannot have this, he decides, he wants her gone. He is, after all, his father’s son.
And so what about the ending? The family’s fate? The election? They all proceed as anyone could predict, and fall becomes winter becomes spring all over again.