My father was my hero.
When he was ten, he went into the cigar factory. He sat on a long bench. His father sat on his right, his uncle on his left. They rolled cigars.
At seventeen, my father left the factory. “I wanted something bigger,” he told me, many years later. He had saved a little money. He started his company.
He made cakes. He made them himself. He delivered them on foot. He walked through the night to make his morning deliveries. When he made a little money, he bought a truck. When made a little more money, he paid someone else to drive the truck.
He made pink cakes and blue cakes, red cakes and green cakes. He made cakes that smelled like mint and cakes that smelled like cherry.
“Always call them ‘cakes,’” he said. “Always. Never ‘blocks’ or ‘pucks’ or ‘bricks.’ ‘Cakes’—always.”
He guaranteed that every cake would last for sixty days or your money back. And he never had to give the money back.
His cakes were good and cheap, and the company grew and grew. Newspapers interviewed him. They called him the King of Cakes. He sold his cakes from Pensacola to Homestead, from Lake City to Fort Myers. He sold them as far away as Valdosta. His cakes were in three out of four urinals in the state of Florida.
I loved him, and he died.
I became the president. I was the head of the Florida Urinal Cake Company. I moved into my father’s office. I didn’t change a thing.
I was a good president. Our cakes were still in three out of four urinals in the state of Florida.
A few years passed. I missed my father. He was a great man. He had wanted something bigger. And he got it. That was America—every generation bigger than the one before.
But was I bigger? I was doing my father’s job, just the same as him. I was holding on to those three urinals.
I decided to make the company bigger. I went after that fourth urinal. I took risks. I made threats. But I couldn’t get it. There were always other people who wanted to sell cakes in Florida.
I tried other strategies. I had a big idea—a urinal for women. If women started using urinals, we could double our market.
I spent two years on my women’s urinal. The biggest problem was the height.
One day, I went to a hair salon. I talked to the owner. I told her to install my woman’s urinal.
She didn’t like the idea. She told me why. But I didn’t listen. Something important was happening. My life was changing.
There was a TV in the salon. It was showing the news. A man was running for president. He was giving a speech. He was tall and handsome. He said that his grandfather had been a pig farmer. Now he was running for president. He said that this was the American dream.
I saw that man, and I understood my error. I could be bigger than cakes.
I left the hair salon immediately. I went home, and I read about the two political parties. I had a lot to learn. I had never cared about politics. I had only cared about cakes. But now I was going to be bigger.
I didn’t know which party to join. One party said it wanted liberty, but the other party said it wanted freedom. It was a hard choice. Both parties sounded very good. But I chose. I picked a party.
I called the party headquarters. I asked them how to run for office.
“It’s September,” they said. “We already have candidates.”
I told them that I had a lot of money, and I wanted to help them. They wanted me to help too. They said that the presidential election was in less than two months. “Whoever wins Florida will be the next president,” they said.
That sounded big.
I got to meet the party’s candidate for president—the man I had seen on TV. He was tall. I liked him a lot. I also met his campaign manager. She said they needed more TV commercials in Florida. I gave her some money.
Two weeks later, the commercial was on TV. It was a very good commercial. It had dogs and children, and it said that the tall man was going to make America strong. Then it showed his opponent. The opponent had thick eyebrows and a big mouth. He was not very tall at all. I was glad I had picked the tall man’s party. I was making America strong.
The campaign manager called me. She said the commercial was a failure. “I liked it,” I said. “It had a good message. It had dogs and children.”
She said that the commercial had not helped the tall man. He was still behind in the polls. “He’s losing with working-class men,” she said. “But we have an idea.”
She told me the idea.
I didn’t like it. It didn’t sound very big at all. I didn’t want to do it.
“When the candidate wins,” she said, “he won’t forget who helped him.” The president has all kinds of powers, she said. He chooses the business boards. He chooses the regulators. He chooses the ambassadors.
Ambassador—that sounded very big.
The plan has to be a secret, said the campaign manager. “It would be embarrassing for us,” she said, “if this gets tied back to him. You have to take full responsibility.”
I drove to my factory. I told them to stop the machines. I cancelled all deliveries. No new cakes, I said.
I talked to the head of the factory. “We need to make all new cakes,” I said. “Special cakes.” He cast a new mold. We put it into the machine. I paid the workers overtime. For three days and three nights, we made all new cakes.
The new cakes were a wonder. They looked just like the tall man’s opponent—thick eyebrows, big mouth. The mouth was open. I was very happy.
Soon, the opponent’s face was in three out of four urinals in the state of Florida.
People started to notice. Then the news channels started to notice. They sent men and women to interview me. I told them it was my idea.
I watched myself on TV. I watched them talk about me. One channel said I was evil and stupid. They called me the Potty Prince. Another channel said that I was a genius and a hero. They called me the Potty Patriot.
The tall man won Florida by two points.
The campaign manager called. She asked where I wanted to be an ambassador to.
I had been thinking hard about this. I wanted a big country.
“France,” I said.
She laughed. “Try again.”
“Why not France?” I said. “I helped.”
“You didn’t help that much,” she said. She told me that France was already taken by a very serious contributor. She told me how much he had contributed. It was very serious. “Try again,” she said.
I was not prepared. I did not have another country ready. I ran into the conference room. There was a map of the world. My father had hung it. He said all serious companies had a map of the world.
I looked at the map. I started asking for countries. England, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain—all were taken by very serious contributors.
“Well,” I said, “what countries are left?”
“Costa Rica is very nice,” she said. “South Africa is an important ally.”
“No, no, no,” I said. I wanted something big. I asked if there were any other countries in Europe.
She was quiet. “There is Narodistan,” she said. “That’s almost Europe.”
I stared at the map, but I couldn’t find any Narodistan.
She said it was a small country, shaped like a baseball cap. West of Russia, east of Europe.
I couldn’t find it. I looked where she told me. “I see the Soviet Union,” I said. “Is it near the Soviet Union?”
In the next few days, I learned a lot. I learned that there was no more Soviet Union.
Narodistan used to be part of the Soviet Union. But then, one New Year’s Day, an army lieutenant stole a tank. He drove into the main square of the capital. He rallied the people. The Russians left. Narodistan became independent. The people loved the army lieutenant, and they elected him president. They loved him so much that they kept electing him president, again and again. Even today, he was still the president. That made me happy. I looked forward to meeting such a good and popular man.
The news channels found out that I was going to be an ambassador. One said that I was evil and stupid. The other said that I was a genius and a hero. I was the Potty Prince, and I was the Potty Patriot.
In January, I went to Washington. I stood in the cold, and I watched the tall man swear the oath. The next day, I went to the Capitol. I had to appear in front of the Senate and answer some questions. I was nervous, but the campaign manager told me not to worry. She said I knew more about Narodistan than anyone else in the room.
The senators asked me some questions, and I answered them, and then I was the ambassador to Narodistan.
My wife was not happy. Narodistan is cold, she said. I told her I would buy her a coat—a real fur coat. “You will be Madam Mrs. Ambassador,” I said.
We left America. We moved to Narodistan. We lived on the tenth floor of the embassy—a big building with high thick walls. We were very safe.
The embassy gave me a big staff. I had a secretary and a publicist and a deputy ambassador. The deputy ambassador was a very smart man. When he was young, he had gone to Harvard. He spoke Russian and Narodi. He had been a diplomat for a long time. He was my advisor.
On my second day in the country, I met the president of Narodistan. Before the meeting, I talked to my advisor. First, he helped me say the president’s name. It was a very hard name. It had three k’s and two z’s. We practiced for ten minutes, and we decided that I should call him “Mr. President.”
My advisor told me that Narodistan was a good ally. “The president is very anti-Russia. And he has been helpful with the war.”
“Narodistan is fighting with us?”
“Well, no. But they do lease land to our intelligence services. Special sites, for things that we can’t do in America. Intelligence gathering.”
That all sounded very good. But my advisor said that Narodistan had its problems. “We want to press them a little on human rights.”
“What’s wrong with their human rights?” I said.
He told me about many terrible things— the huge Narodi jails, the lost Narodi ballots, the rich Narodi men who bought their seats in parliament, the cruel Narodi police who beat journalists and protestors.
“Poor Narodistan,” I said.
“The president is up for election at the end of the year,” said my advisor. “We expect protests. We expect problems.”
I said I would press hard on human rights.
We drove to the presidential palace. I met the president in his office. He wore a suit and spoke good English. He asked us to sit.
My advisor sat next to me. I told him to leave. I was the ambassador.
The president and I were alone.
“So,” he said, “you are from Florida?”
“Yes,” I said.
He said he had once visited Miami. He loved it.
We talked about Florida. We laughed. I looked at him, and he looked at me, and it felt like we were looking into each other’s souls. He was a great man, and here we were, together.
He made me a drink. I got serious. I pressed him hard on human rights. “I’m worried about your human rights,” I said.
He handed me the drink, and he smiled. “You and I are serious men, yes?”
“And so let us speak like serious men. Sometimes there are problems. You work to solve these problems. Solutions can be unpleasant. Some people do not understand this. But you understand, I think.”
I understood. Of course I understood.
Later, we went into another room. It had red curtains that went up to the ceiling. There were hundreds of chairs—all full. Photographers crouched.
We had a ceremony. The president spoke for a long time in his own language. I said a few words in English. I thanked the president for his hospitality. I said that he was a good friend to my country and to me.
We exchanged gifts. I had brought a basket of oranges from Florida. I thought about giving him one of my special election cakes, but I decided not to. I was bigger than that now. The president gave me a pickled whitefish and a shiny metal square. Engraved on the square were my name and the date. “This is aluminum,” he said, “from the Sukablyad bauxite mine—the pride of Narodistan.”
We shook hands, and the cameras clicked. I looked down at my square. It reflected my face—my big smile, my big happy tears.
All winter, we went to parties. We went to events at the embassy. We met so many interesting people and did so many big things.
The winter ended. My wife packed away her fur coat.
At the end of May, we received a note from the president. He asked us to spend the weekend at his country house.
The house was outside the capital. Behind it was a little lake. There were no other houses for miles—nothing but birches.
We had a very good time. We met his wife—a beautiful woman. We had a picnic in the birches. We picked wild mushrooms. We played badminton on the shore of the lake. We listened to the president’s stories, and we laughed and laughed.
He invited us back the next weekend, and the weekend after that. Soon, we were spending every weekend at the country house.
The president loved to fish. On Saturdays, at dawn, he and I walked to the lake and went out in a little boat. We felt the sun on our skins. We waited for the fish. At dusk we carried our catch back to the house.
Our wives met us at the door. They had become friends. While we fished, they drank tea and walked in the woods.
At night, the president’s cook prepared our catch. We always ate well.
The summer passed quickly. We were all very happy.
At the end of August, we went to the country house for the last time. The weather was already changing. We sat in our little boat, and we wore sweaters.
We fished all day. We had a good catch. The sun set early. I grabbed my oar, but the president stopped me. He said he had to ask me a question.
“I have an election in the fall,” he said.
I told him he would win. He always won. The people loved him.
“Yes,” he said, “I know. But still, some people want to cause trouble. People who believe in nothing but violence and chaos.”
I said that those people were very bad.
“In the past, I have controlled them. But this time—I am not so sure. There are more of them now. And there are only so many police, only so much money.”
He was silent. A bird made a noise.
“Will America help?” he said.
He moved. The boat shook.
I told him that I knew how to make a president. When the tall man wanted to get into the White House, he had called me. “When you need help,” I said, “you call me.”
He was very happy. We rowed to the shore. He trusted me. He was the president of Narodistan, and we were very good friends.
The election happened in November. The president won. But some people weren’t happy. They gathered in the main square. From the embassy I could hear them.
My advisor and I watched them on TV. I asked him to translate.
“They say the election wasn’t fair.”
“Are they right?”
I tried to call the president. He was busy, his office said.
For days I heard the people. They got louder. There was shouting and fighting. I smelled gasoline and rotten eggs.
On the fifth day, the president called me. He asked me to keep my promise.
“They say the election wasn’t fair,” I said.
He told me not to listen. “They’re a crowd—nothing but a crowd. They don’t know anything about running a country. You and I—we understand these things.”
I called in my advisor. The embassy had about fifty soldiers here to protect us. I told my advisor to get them ready. He said I couldn’t deploy troops. He said I was just the ambassador. “You have to call Washington.”
“Then call Washington.”
He said that Washington would not approve. “They won’t use troops to help a small fry like him.”
“He isn’t a small fry,” I said. “He’s the president of Narodistan.”
We called Washington. They said I couldn’t use troops. I asked to speak to the tall man himself. I asked to speak to his campaign manager. I called again and again.
I told my advisor to prepare my car. One of my soldiers drove me to the presidential palace. It took hours. We drove around and around, trying to go around the crowds.
The palace was full of soldiers. They took me to the president’s office. He was wearing a military uniform too. I told him it looked nice.
I gave him the bad news. He was very angry. “You promised,” he said. “You promised. You said that you made presidents.”
I told him that I had a lot of money, and I wanted to help. “You could make a commercial,” I said.
“I have tried commercials,” he said. “Commercials did not work. But I have other ideas.” He made some phone calls in his own language. He hung up the phone, and he smiled.
He said that there was one other thing I could do. He called for a photographer, and she took pictures of us. We shook hands and laughed and smiled. The president said the pictures would go on television immediately. “People will know that America supports Narodistan, not violence and chaos.”
I stayed for dinner. We ate fish and told some funny stories from the summer. The photographer took more pictures. When we finished dinner, it was very late. The president said I could spend the night at the palace. It was a great honor.
The next morning, my soldier took me back to the embassy. The trip took even longer than the day before. The protestors pressed my car. Their fists hit my windows. They tried to turn the car over, but my soldier drove away.
They followed us to the embassy. We ran through the crowd and behind the gate. The protestors stayed outside the embassy. They burned American flags and shouted.
After a few hours, I got a call from the president. He thanked me for the money. “I have used it well,” he said. “Some friends are coming from Bulgaria.”
“Policemen?” I asked.
“They are a kind of policemen.”
He was going to pay them, and they would come to Narodistan and help.
The protestors stayed throughout the night. They were very loud. My wife couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep either, but I didn’t want to sleep.
The next morning, the Bulgarians arrived. They were big men with black shirts and shaved heads.
They came to the embassy. There were six big buses, all full of Bulgarians. They fought the protestors.
I watched the battle from my window. My wife told me to stop watching, to pack our bags and take her away from Narodistan and back to somewhere sane—back to Florida. But I stayed at the window, and I watched.
I saw them, the protestors and the Bulgarians. I saw all their little faces. I saw their tears and their spit and their angry teeth. I saw the battle, and I felt a very big thing. My stomach filled with air. My mouth tasted sweet. I was more than happy, and I was more than sad. My father had never felt anything like this.
Image: Andrew Butko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons