Benevolent dictator

Mermaid“What I’ve always wanted,” Liz says for the 1200th time, “is to be the benevolent dictator of the world.” She pulls on her cigarette and blows a blue haze into the smoky room.

In the hallway, the aquarium shines green, bubbles rhythmically. The Siamese fighting fish flash orange sidewalls as they turn in peacetime synchronicity. The dining room is filled with antique wooden carousel horses, in various stages of restoration. Masks of animals, griffins, Victorian children and other grotesqueries line the walls. There is a smell: paint thinner, smoke, wine, melted wax, feathers.

“You, for example,” she leers at Cassius. “All alone, you are small change. But as my consort, I could give you so much. Generosity is cheap when you’ve got it all.” She lights another off the butt of the last, and Cassius pours her more white wine, carefully wiping the spigot when he is finished.

Cassius sits in the living room on the edge of the sofa, drinking a little, watching TV. On the big screen, Tom Waits flirts with a waitress at a Denny’s in Lompoc, but gives it a rest when she says her name is Bruce. He looks drunkenly at her mouth, watching the glitter of a pierced tongue as she reels off the day’s specials.


“I think I’d better go,” Waits mumbles and leaves. He drives home to his walk-up in this roach motel city, still beautiful even mid-winter. He makes himself a sandwich, peanut butter with marshmallow crème and sings to himself, “Tom Waits for no man, Tom Waits la la la,” but his tongue is stuck to the roof of his mouth. He twists open a diet Tab and flops into his rattan papasan chair.

He sets the Tab on his stomach, holds the remote in his left hand and turns on his 12” Sony. The remote only works for channel three and channel seven. He switches from clips of the moonwalk in 1969 to a scene in a coffee shop in Hyde Park, where a foppish young man and a girl in green leather are earnestly discussing Art.  One Giant Step for Mankind, then a close-up of the girl’s hand on the rim of the cup, the young man’s face watching her hand, her voice saying sweetly that it is all wrong, he thinking if only I were benevolent dictator of the world, how different this would be. I would dress you in silk made of pussywillows, you would see my third eye and how it watches, watches you and your polished index finger rolling on the rim of this coffee shop china. Suddenly, an omnibus passes the window of the shop, and when it has gone, so has the young couple. 

orbitingOn channel three, a younger Tom Brokaw is interviewing John Glenn, sitting behind a mahogany desk. He taps his fingers slowly, deliberately, before answering each question.  

 “What is it like to be a hero? It is as good as peanut butter on the roof of my mouth, as sweet as my wife singing in the shower while I sleep late. It is a fine as raw silk, as frightening as animals crashing through the underbrush, as ordinary as graham crackers, more inevitable, more stringent, more impossible than being benevolent dictator of the world or running for office after orbiting the earth.”

“I wish I was a monkey eating cheeseburgers with my girl,” Tom Waits sings to his flat Tab. He throws it away, opens a Pyramid Pale and settles back down. The girl in green leather, who has since married, walks through the gray streets of London in boots, her face blank. The foppish young man wears crushed velvet and writes sonnets to her might-have-been. Tom Waits belches, scratches, falls asleep.

Cassius fills another glass of wine and hands it to Liz. She rolls her finger around the rim. “You could have been my own dictator, you know,” Cassius says late that evening, as he takes a smoking cigarette from her sleeping hand. Iphigenia He looks around the room, at her griffins and masks, her carousel horses half stripped and half stained. Like me, he thinks. He leaves quietly, the door open for air behind him, drives to the airport and catches a plane to Hawaii.

Six months later he is tanned and fat, drinking Wahinis on the beach with Tom Waits, who never did get over the waitress named Bruce, the tattoo on her hand, the suggestion of moustache, the curve of his/her hip. 

“I am so fucking lost,” Waits hums to himself with no tune in particular, but it rumbles in his chest, which is warm from the sun, cool from the drink. “What the hell,” he thinks. He puts the parasol behind his ear and dances, dances, feeling the wind in the grass skirt lifting the hair on his skinny legs. They light a bonfire as the sun goes down. He and Cassius sing holy holy to the Hawaiian gods of mirth, until only the burning embers are left.


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