Joyland

Toronto |

The Dictator

by Cedrick Mendoza-Tolentino

There was once a dictator who cringed every time he saw someone of his profession fire a gun up into the air. It would be one thing if these dictators were on a farm — purchased with stolen and embezzled funds of course — in the middle of a deserted countryside, but these men had the habit of firing their pistols up in the air during speeches and rallies in front of thousands of people. Whenever he saw it happen, he wanted to reach through his television set and wring the neck of the perpetrator. Like every child, this dictator was taught that what goes up, must come down, and so whenever he saw the smoke from a loaded pistol on television, he wondered where that bullet — flying up through the air, only to come back down at an acceleration of ten metres per second — would land. Would it land safely without harming a single soul or would it come down right on top of an unsuspecting victim? Movies and other media always portrayed fictional dictators who laughed and waved their guns around, never taking into account the danger in which their actions placed their citizens. But maybe movies were right in portraying dictators as careless individuals who cared nothing for their people. What were one or two lives compared with the emotional rush you could get screaming slogans for the party line while firing off a round or two, people cheering you on? But this particular man was an idealist in that he still thought that the very word, his professional title — dictator — could be saved from its tarnished place as one of the most malevolent forms of government in a world where democracy was (he could admit it) the hot political ideology of the day. He leaned back on his leather couch and played with the gold buttons on his navy army jacket. His profession dictated the necessity of wearing military regalia regardless of whether or not one had served in the army. Luckily for him he had been an infantryman for two years before a gunshot wound to his right thigh left him unable to fight, something he often pointed out when people criticized him for not fighting in the front lines during the revolution. The dictator looked down at the single medal on his chest, the one given to him out of pity for his injury. He refused to decorate himself with fake awards and medals the way most other dictators did. How on earth could his profession earn any sort of respectability if people kept giving bad speeches, wearing medals they did not earn, and shooting guns off into the air irresponsibly? Even if the bullets landed safely in the ground, he was sure the noise alone was loud enough to damage the hearing of those within a few metres, meaning that the dictator himself would go deaf after a few years in power (unless he was overthrown and killed in a brutal fashion, something that seemed to be a common form of termination). “Sir, they’re ready for you.” The dictator looked up at his most trusted assistant. Manuel was also wearing a navy army jacket, but without any medals. At some point during the dictator’s rule, the people around him started stripping their uniforms of their medals because they felt that it was not right to be more highly decorated than their chief. What annoyed the dictator to no end was that their medals had been earned — won for truly heroic deeds that needed to be remembered. Manuel had twelve honors alone, most of which he had earned for bravery on the front lines, and yet he hid them away in a shoe box as if they were dirty magazines that were soiled with use. Whenever the dictator asked his advisers why none of them wore their medals, they did not give him a straight answer, but instead chose to shrug their shoulders, look down at their feet, or change the subject. The dictator turned off the television and stood up. He picked up the two guns that he always carried on his person: a loaded pistol strapped to the inside of his jacket, which he had carried since his scant soldiering days, and a cap gun housed in a belt holster, which he used during his speeches. He may not have approved of firing bullets up in the air, but he understood the dramatic value of being able to emphasize each phrase with a loud bang. With his low booming voice and firearm theatrics, he had been able to stay in power through his speeches and television addresses and had relied very little on terror and violence to keep his people in check for the past two decades. Unfortunately, regardless of how prosperous his country became, people on the outside, with their fancy educations and fancy diction, always condemned him for not doing things the right way, the democratic way. He had hoped democracy would be another of the trendy political ideologies that would eventually be proven wrong, like communism and fascism. But one by one, other dictators who subscribed to everything but democracy would fail miserably and end up in a jail for their abuses of power. Whenever he was asked what he believed in, he tried his best to avoid attaching his name to any “ism,” and instead filled most interviews with descriptions of the things he wanted for his country — the end of poverty, respect from other nations, and a booming economy — things that almost every ideology desired. Regardless of what he did or did not say, he was inevitably painted in a negative light. In the past few months, more and more problems arose — a drought that wiped out most of the year’s bean crop, an impending war with a nation who enjoyed flexing her muscle, and trade barriers sprouting all over the place. The country would dissolve if something drastic did not happen. “They’ve been chanting your name for the past few hours. They want to know what you are going to do.” Manuel pulled aside part of the large red curtain and looked out at the thousands of people cramming the square. “It would be better if they wished me dead,” the dictator responded. Manuel let the curtain drop. “Maybe it’s finally our time.” The dictator nodded his head. “Maybe this is why they put all of my kind in jail. We don’t get out when we have the chance.” He lay his hand on the gold doorknob and winked at his comrade. “It’s time.” When the dictator stepped outside, cheers and the rattle of gunfire immediately greeted him. He shook his head slowly in the hopes that the bullets would land safely in the ground. If any casualties were to take place, they would be yet another incident used against him in the democratic newspapers. He raised his hand. A hush fell over the crowd. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the pieces of paper where he had scribbled a speech down that he thought would buy him a few more months to try to save his country. A few more gunshots rang out and he dropped the pieces of paper onto the white stone beneath his feet. He wondered if the people even paid attention to the things he said. He knew that if the positions were reversed and he was the one starving in the streets, he would have much better things to do with his day than listen to an antiquated dictator on his last legs. And then it dawned on him. It seemed the obvious choice, the only way to go out on top and give his country a chance — the outside world would take notice and start sending in aid for his people. The dictator reached inside his military jacket and pulled out his revolver. He looked up into the sky and smiled. He raised the gun into the air, and as he did he felt the direction of the wind as it blew against his fingers. He had always been a great physics student. Objects do not behave as they do in a vacuum, he told himself. “For liberty and for God,” he shouted. He pulled the trigger of his revolver. Cheers erupted from the crowd. He hoped God heard his prayers and would help guide the speeding bullet upwards until its peak and then ensure that its downward trajectory would help him overcome the one billion to one odds. He hoped his calculations were correct. Already he could feel the bullet strike his own head, and he smiled, and held tightly to the single medal on his chest.