by Brendon Barnes
A man in a suit told me recently that my son could be president one day.
“Your son could be president one day,” he said. “I’d cast my vote for him.”
This was at the good park in my neighborhood. We have a good park and a bad one. So why ever go to the bad park? I can hear you thinking it. Well, the bad park has the better-looking mothers. And an ice cream truck that sells Choco Tacos, and they’re always a touch melted, just the right amount.
So, my wife and I were at this good park, in the mulch that’s treated for bugs, watching my kid by the merry-go-round or the lazy Susan or whatever you call it. The thing where a kid stands in the middle, and other kids spin it and they chant “Faster, faster, we need another master.” That thing. My kid was helping to spin it.
Well, he wasn’t spinning it himself. He was coordinating the spinning—pulling other stronger, taller kids over to help really get the thing going. There was a little kid couple, a boy and a girl, couldn’t be more than four or five, and they were in the middle, hanging onto the merry-go-round with those little kid fingers that can be pretty disgusting when they aren’t your kids’ fingers, but when they are, you’d chew them like gummy worms.
He knew some of the other children by name and he was calling them over, but the more impressive thing was how he was getting strange kids, kids I’d never seen at the park before, to come over and lend a hand. He’s got this thing he does where he points at you and kind of bites his lipnd you just want to do whatever he says. I guess that’s a presidential quality.
Meantime my wife was over at the crepe truck because this was the good park, and we don’t have an ice cream truck here, but we got crepes to beat the band. She was talking to another wife, another mother, and waiting for a Nutella with whipped cream. She’s predictable, and I don’t mind it in the slightest. Have you ever predicted a pinkie finger in your ass? You don’t know my wife, then.
My son was three, by the way. I should make that clear. He was three and four months but we let him say he’s three-and-a-half because who was it gonna hurt. He was a tall three.
I asked the guy in the suit what made him think my kid could be president.
“Just a feeling,” he said. “It’s my job to know these kinds of things.”
By now I was thinking this guy’s a little odd, you know, and where’s his kid, anyway? I didn’t see him paying particular attention to any kid except mine, and he was the only guy here in a suit. It wasn’t even Sunday. Navy blue wool, very clean lines, with a shirt so white I wouldn’t have been able to look at him if it were sunny out. He handed me a business card.
“Let’s get together soon to discuss your boy’s future,” he said.
I read the card. It had my home address on it, next Sunday’s date, and a time, six p.m.
“We’ll keep it casual this time,” he said. “Just order some pizzas. I’ll bring some bottles of beer. You like pilsners?”
I can’t say why I wasn’t more hesitant about the man in the suit, other than when a man hands you a business card with your own address on it, you either decide to trust him in a complete, uncomplicated kind of way, or grab your kid and keep running until you see a police station. I’m a trusting guy.
I took a look at the boy and the girl in the middle of the lazy Susannd they looked dazed, eyes wide with their mouths in these little o’s like they were learning to whistle. My son saw me looking and stopped the chanting, and the other kids followed his lead. He stepped up onto the platform where the two spun-out kids were, and he started a slow, purposeful clap. The other kids did as he did and soon all the children around the merry go round were cheering and clapping for the three of them. He slapped the boy on the back and gave the girl a chaste little hug. My son. He’s always doing this kind of thing.
I turned back to the man, suddenly remembering I was still holding the business card between my fingers like a cigarette.
“What about my boy?” I asked. “Does he need to bring anything, prepare, take a nap?”
“No,” the man said. “He’s perfect.”
So Sunday came, and my wife was more nervous than I was. She didn’t get a chance to speak to the man, Garrett was his name, by the way, so she was second-guessing the pizzas and her dress and my shirt and my son’s hair and my shirt again.
“This is a nice shirt,” I said. “You bought me this shirt.”
She took a deep breath and went back over to the pizzas, which had just arrived, delivery.
“Should I put these in the oven?” she asked. “I’m just thinking maybe they’ll get cold. We should’ve ordered from Little Anthony’s. They do the thin crust and the spinach pie and it’s just… Hey, what do these boxes say about us?”
I studied the boxes.
“They say Domino’s,” I said. “Three mediums for five bucks each. If anything, they say we’re teaching our son the value of a good deal. Presidents need to know about the economy.”
In one of those stupid coincidences, I looked at the clock on the microwave as it went from five fifty-nine to six p.m. and the doorbell rang at the same time, and I had a little micro heart attack. My wife took a dishtowel from the oven door and wiped my forehead before she kissed it. I went out the kitchen through the living room where my son sat on the couch working at a puzzle we put on the coffee table for him. It’s got a hundred pieces, and it’s supposed to be a candy red muscle car leaving earth, bound for the moon. Complicated shit, but my son can handle it. I opened the door and let Garrett in. The suit was dark gray, and he came in with the jacket folded over his arm.
My wife and I each brought a box of pizza out to the living room, and we drank cold Czech beers with our dinner while Garrett asked a fairly invasive set of questions. How long was your labor? Have you noticed your son has a slightly bigger than average head? How long, if at all, did you breastfeed? Is he a mama’s boy, or isn’t he? Do you plan to have more children?
We had given the boy a slice of pizza and a cup of water and left him to his puzzle. The TV was on, too, so he could take a break if he wanted. He left the three of us to our conversation until he finished his food. Then, he came up to the stranger and said, “I’m Hector. What’s your name?”
Garrett introduced himself and held out his hand, which our son shook in two little pumps.
“I like your shirt, Garrett,” he said. “Don’t get any pizza on it now.”
My son has a very grown-up laugh, a little double burst of a chuckle, and Garrett smiled and said, “I’ll do my best. How’s your puzzle coming along?”
We all stood and went over by the coffee table to see Hector’s progress. He’d put together the outline, the whole frame of it, and a little of the earth, which belonged in the bottom right corner.
“I’m all done,” Hector said. My wife went to him and put her hand on his head.
“No, sweetie, you have to fill it in,” she said. Hector crossed his arms and shook his head.
“What’s the matter, Hector?” Garrett asked. My son took a sip of water from his cup and pointed at the puzzle.
“Mom, I laid the foundation. It’s up to future generations to finish what I’ve started here today.” At that, Garrett got a little choked up, and I excused myself to get another slice of pizza. I was proud enough to die.
When Garrett pulled himself together, the three of us reconvened on the back patio where we could keep an eye on Hector as he watched TV. Garrett pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one.
“I see that neither of you smoke. I respect that. But I’m going to strongly suggest that you,” he pointed at me now, “that you pick up the habit. So that Hector can pick up the habit, too, when the time is right. I’m very excited about everything I’ve seen today. I’ve met a lot of kids like Hector, and a lot of parents, and I’m—your son has it. He has what it takes.”
I took a look at my son through the glass in our patio door. He had his finger firmly up his nose, either oblivious tor unmoved byhe idea of someone seeing him excavate the lower reaches of his little boy brain.
“What would we have to do to put Hector in a good position?” my wife asked. I was thinking the same thing.
“Well, you won’t have to do much,” Garrett said. “The good part for you two is, Hector will take care of a lot of this on his own. My job is just to help him along, steering the train as little as needed. Smoking would be a part of that. He’ll need an addiction to struggle with, something simple and easy to understand, even though very few people will be smokers by the time we’re ready for Hector to fulfill his promise.”
“Is there anything that’s off limits?” I asked. “Anything we can’t do, places we can’t go?”
Garrett nodded, exhaling a thin plume of smoke.
“Mexico, for now. And China. But Japan’s more fun anyway. You can go to India, just let us know far enough in advance to arrange some oversight.”
“Oversight?” my wife asked.
“Yes. Oversight. Don’t worry, you won’t see them. It’s just better to be smart. Europe’s fine, obviously, as long as you don’t go farther east than Poland. South Africa, good. Northern Africa, bad. Good Brazil, good. Bad Brazil, bad. What else? What else? Oh, no cell phones. None, not for him. We don’t want him to be the dick pic president. Between us, we’re already cultivating one of thosend he’s gonna be a hoot. But don’t worry. Hector will have friends with perfectly good phones, friends vetted by us. Very responsible kids.”
I was about to ask how many friends, and like Garrett was reading my mind he said, “Just one friend per school phase. Two in middle school, actually, but one for high school and one for college. I’ll introduce you to my colleague, Janine. She’s the one who finds the designated friends. She’s lovely.”
“That’s nice,” my wife said. “Nice that he’ll have people close to him, looking out for him.”
“Oh yes,” Garrett said. “You won’t have to worry about him at all. Now, this is important. Maybe the most important thing. You’ve both done such a good job, and I love what you’ve built here for him. It’s all, just, very solid. But me, and Hector, your country, we’ll need the two of you to divorce before Hector turns five. I can’t stress enough how important this is. One of the most important things we can do for Hector is to make him fundamentally unsure of where the love in his life comes from. The easiest way to cultivate this insecurity is through divorce. And I need you to trust me when I say we’ve done the research on this. It’s a simple formula. We need him to be desperate enough to crave constant approval but confident enough to succeed in gaining that approval. That’s what makes the train go.”
He paused a little between those last two words and did this thing with his free hand like it was some big magic trick. I looked at my wife and realized she’d been looking at me for what felt like a while.
“It’s that simple?” I asked.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but I couldn’t not believe it either. It made sense. How could there not have been Garretts all along? And he was going to be a friend to us. Janine, too, whenever we got around to meeting her. I could feel that as sure as I felt the last bit of pilsner sloshing in the bottom of the bottle.
“It’s that simple,” Garrett said. “We’d love if you’d do it willingly. I’ve heard of scenarios with kids that the program really wanted, where the higher-ups talked about accidental deaths for parents who wouldn’t go through with the divorce thing. These are the kids we really wanted. It gets talked about.”
I asked Garrett for a cigarette, not even thinking about it. I hadn’t smoked since before we got pregnant with Hector, but every part of it felt natural after the first drag. My wife coughed, a little dramatically, to be honest. Like, what the hell, Karen, we just had some pizza and beer and a cigarette is the ideal punctuation mark for that kind of meal. I mean, are we enjoying ourselves or what?
“Is Hector one of those kinds of kids?” my wife asked. “The kind people would talk about?”
I thought back to what Hector said about his puzzle. The way he hugged that girl on the merry go round. I think he’d even pinched her cheek between his thumb and finger, like she was his granddaughter, even though the girl had six inches on him, easy.
“Hector’s definitely one of those kids,” Garrett said. “Personally, I think the faked accident scenario is too traumatizing. It’s senseless. We’ve lost some really good candidates that way. They just buckled under the grief, you know? And then they stopped demonstrating the qualities that piqued our interest in the first place. It was very sad. So what we do now is just foster infidelity. If you aren’t interested in divorce, we just cull through your emails and your porn browsing histories to find exactly what you’re attracted to, things and types you didn’t even fully realize you were attracted to, and suddenly certain people start working in your office, going to your yoga class, coaching your kid’s soccer league, or buying you macchiato at Starbucks because you were nice enough to let them cut in line when they came in all frazzled with a stack of resumes in a manila folder.”
“Wow,” my wife and I said.
“We’re good at what we do. And we value what we do because it’s important. I can promise you: the feeling of patriotism you feel when you file those divorce papers, again, any time within the next twenty months, that feeling of pride and satisfaction, will be rivaled only by the pride you feel, just over forty years from now, when Hector is sworn in as the fifty-first president. Maybe fifty-second. We still have a couple balls in the air. This is as much an art as a science.”
The three of us stood there for a while. The end of Garrett’s speech didn’t have a ring of finality to it, not the one I’d expected, but there really wasn’t much else to say. Garrett silently offered me a second cigarette and, when I took it, my wife went back inside to sit with Hector. I gave Garrett one of those secret eyebrow shrugs that you learn when you’ve been married for a little while, and he returned the secret code. Wives.
Garrett reached inside and grabbed the last two pilsners off the kitchen counter, and we watched Karen and Hector through the glass panes in the door. My son was fixated on the television, drawing his attention away only for a second at a time, one second, to watch his mother’s hands working at the puzzle as she built the candy red car, and the pale moon, and the vast blackness of space itself.