Ocassionally I like to post short fiction here that doesn’t really fit anywhere else. The following is an alternate history in which Donald Trump won the US presidency.
This story appeared last week in the Melville House newsletter. If you liked it – or like Melville House – or like freedom – the paperback edition of A Man Lies Dreaming is out now in the US.
By Lavie Tidhar
From the 40th floor of Trump Tower, Mercator, standing at the high glass windows, could look out all over New York City. His eyes were drawn to the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, how proudly they jutted up into the sky. The sky was an orange haze, the sun setting. His room was spacious and air-conditioned. The bed was opulent. A calendar on the wall gave the date, 8 November, 1989. Just under a year since the election. A television set flickered in one corner of the room. A bird twittered in a cage suspended from the ceiling. Mercator went to look at the bird and it looked at him with glazed, glassy eyes, and he realised that it was mechanical. For just a moment it had seemed so alive.
The telephone rang. It was a large red telephone. Mercator lifted the receiver and waited.
“The Breakfast Club,” the voice said, expectantly.
Brain, Athlete, Basket Case, Princess, Criminal. The code words ran through Mercator’s mind. He picked at them cautiously.
“Princess,” he said at last.
“Molly Ringwald?” the voice said, startling Mercator. “I like her.”
“Who? I’m sorry, I didn’t watch the movie.”
The unseen voice sighed. “Meet outside Macy’s, in half an hour. Belfast Rules.”
The line went dead. Mercator picked the remote control and turned the volume up on the television.
“Saudi billionaire heir and freedom fighter Osama bin Laden arrives in New York today to meet with US generals as tensions rise in the Soviet War in Afghanistan. Bin Laden is here to liaise with US counterparts as America today deploys the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion—“
Mercator flipped channels.
“Thank you, thank you. We’ve got some great guests lined up tonight. George Bush is here! Remember him? Come on out, George! How are the kids?”
“Thanks for having me, Johnny. It’s good to be back on the show. The kids are doing well – Junior is back in Texas with the oil company, and Jeb’s investing in something called a “cellular phone”—”
“That sounds very close to science fiction, George.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Jeb’s predicting a very bright future for us all, Johnny—”
Mercator flipped. A commercial for Betamax followed by one for those new personal computer machines from Texas Instruments, followed by one of the new ads for Benetton, for the new all-orange jumpers that were so popular all of a sudden. Then the news again, one was never very far from the news these days.
“Attempts to demolish the Berlin Wall were met with military intervention by US forces stationed in West Berlin. Several civilian casualties have been reported. President Trump responded to the incident by vowing to ‘Rebuild the Wall… it will be a beautiful Wall.” A spokesman for the government of East Germany issued a strong rebuke to “American aggression against the unification of Germany”. The White House has increased military presence in West Germany in recent months as—”
Flip. Another commercial, Bill Cosby grinning loveably at the camera as he extolled the virtues of Hypnosoul – Sleep Better, Live Better! Canned laughter from an unseen audience. “Oh, forget about it!”
Mercator switched off the television and left the room. America was a foreign country. They did things differently there.
In the elevator, soft music played, and it took him a moment to place it – it was a muzak version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”. Mercator seemed to remember it was one of the new President’s favourite songs.
The floors whizzed by. On the 26th a lone woman stepped in, wrapped in a mink coat. She glared at Mercator but said nothing. He felt tawdry under her gaze, in his cheap store-bought grey suit and his trilby hat. He wasn’t beautiful, and in this new America, much like in the old America, you had to be beautiful, everything was beautiful, the President loved beautiful things. He was going to make America beautiful again.
Mercator wasn’t beautiful any more than an accountant or an airport or a traffic cone are beautiful. He was functional. He did things, on behalf of other people, sometimes to other people. In every nation in the world there were always people like Mercator. Grey. Average. You wouldn’t look at them twice in a crowd and you’d never pick them out of a line-up. He was never asked for his opinion and he seldom volunteered one. He merely was, as replaceable as a Walkman battery. His real name wasn’t Mercator, and sometimes he couldn’t even remember his real name anymore. The more he was, the less he preferred to remember.
“Nice evening, sir,” the doorman said. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, thank you.”
“Going to the theatre tonight, sir? Bob Dylan’s playing the Beacon.”
“They should give him the Nobel Prize, sir, if you ask me.”
“The Nobel?’ Mercator said, numbly. “For what?”
The doorman looked at him with evident pity. “I don’t know. Literature?”
“I don’t think they give it to musicians,’ Mercator said. ‘Does he know chemistry? Or, economics?”
“Well, I’m sure he must know something about economics, he’s very rich, sir. Not as rich as President Trump, though. Of course.”
“Of course,’ Mercator said, nodding seriously. “The rich get richer, right?”
“The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?”
“I’m not sure I understand you, sir. President Trump’s a rich guy who gets it. He knows what it’s like to be the common man.”
“How?” Mercator said.
“How, sir?” The doorman frowned. “Are you foreign, sir?”
“I, yes.” He regretted saying anything.
“Not Japanese, are you, sir?”
“Haha, no,” Mercator said. “No, no.”
“President Trump was right,” the doorman said. “They were killing us with their imports. Coming over here, buying up companies, pushing cheap electronics. They were buying up America, sir. And we are not for sale.”
“Quite, quite,” Mercator said.
“He was right to impose the sanctions, sir. It wasn’t right, what they did.”
“No, quite,” Mercator said. “Quite right. Here.”
He took out a five dollar bill and passed it to the doorman, who turned it in his hands and then gave it back to him.
“I’m sorry, sir. I can’t accept that.”
“I’m sorry, I thought—”
“It’s very kind, sir, but we only accept Trump Dollars.”
“Here, sir.” The doorman took out a bill and showed it to Mercator. It was almost identical only it had President Trump’s grinning face on it instead of Abraham Lincoln’s. “At the moment we only use it in Trump properties but next year they want to roll it out nationwide.”
“I’ll be sure to get some,” Mercator said, as at last he escaped the lobby.
He popped a Hypnosoul as he stepped outside onto 5th Avenue. He carried an unremarkable briefcase with the samples inside. He adjusted his trilby. He began to walk with long but unhurried steps. He checked periodically for a tail. New York had changed since his last visit. He passed the burnt-out shell of an Atari store. The sign, which would have once, not long ago, shone neon, lay gutted and dark on the ground. A group of teenagers stood on the side, staring at the faces of passers-by. They glared at him but seemed to find nothing remarkable in his features and then their attention fell on the man walking just ahead of Mercator. He was a man in a suit not unlike Mercator’s and with his head bowed down and his hat pulled down low, but the armband on his sleeve identified him to all and sundry as Japanese or of Japanese ancestry, and the teenagers pounced on him. They surrounded the man in a circle and began to push him, as though playing a game, but all the while neither they nor their victim said a single word, and Mercator hurried his steps so he would not have to bear witness. He passed the Milton Lumky typewriter store and a newspaper blew in the wind and hit him in the face. As he pulled it away he caught brief sight of the headline, Arkansas Governor’s Wife Leaves Cheating Husband, Accepts Junior Cabinet Role in Trump Reshuffle. Mercator tossed the paper back into the wind.
Foot traffic was high along the avenue. It began to rain, softly, and he sought temporary shelter under one of the new Beauty Stores that had opened up. Nude girls standing in enticing poses, a raft of explicit titles that caught the eye. Grab America By The Pussy. Grab America By The Pussy 2: When You’re A Star They Let You Do It. Move On Her Like A Bitch. All the girls had glassy, frozen grins. For some reason they made him think of the bird up in his hotel room, that mechanical bird that chirped periodically inside its cage. He was late and the rain was only a drizzle and he pushed on.
A massive construction project where he seemed to recall St. Patrick’s Cathedral had stood only the year before. A large banner hung between two cranes, reading Trump’s Universal Temple And House of Prayer, and below, Making America Beautiful Again.
Outside Macy’s he saw the contact. The man was holding a rolled up copy of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, one of the only newspapers still extant in America: the rest had all fallen afoul of the President’s ire and closed down by young Senator Cheney’s new House Un-American Activities Committee.
Mercator approached the contact cautiously.
“Excuse me, sir, have you seen The Goonies?”
“I love that movie,” the man said, equally cautious. He had a flat Midwestern accent. “Who is your favourite character in it?”
“Mikey?” Mercator hazarded.
“Oh, I love Sean Astin!” the contact said.
“Who?” Mercator said. “I’m sorry, I haven’t actually seen this one either.”
“Come with me,” the contact said. He grabbed Mercator by the arm and stirred him away from the entrance, until they found a dark corner to stand under. The man lit a cigarette, a Kool. “Jesus,” he said, “do you not get any American films in Armenistan?”
“I am from Moldova, sir,” Mercator said, reproachfully.
“Whatever, whatever,” the contact said. “Did you bring the samples?”
“I have them right here.”
Mercator opened the briefcase. Boxes of pills lay inside, marked in Cyrillic and Latin.
“Hypnosoul Plus,” Mercator said. “Erases unpleasant memories, clears consciences, a good night’s sleep guaranteed. I took one myself, just now.”
“Beautiful, beautiful,” the contact said. ‘And you can deliver in bulk?”
“At half-price, as agreed,” Mercator said.
Mercator closed the briefcase and handed it to the contact.
“Then transmit confirmation through the agreed upon channel,” he said. “Shipments can begin immediately.”
The contact nodded. “Good job, man. Why Mercator as a code name, anyway?”
“He made maps, into the unknown. My superiors felt it was fitting.”
“I don’t get it,” the man complained. “And why do they call it Belfast Rules, anyway?”
Mercator popped another capsule of Hypnosoul and dry-swallowed.
“Honestly?” he said. “I don’t remember.”
As he walked back, the details of the encounter, and his purpose there, were already fading. Why the Japanese? he wondered, for just a moment. But then he supposed that, in another time or place, it could have been the Jews, or the Moldovans, or even the Muslims. It didn’t really matter who you hated, as long as you all hated someone together.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” he said.
“Oh, nothing,” he said. It was the woman from the elevator earlier, he saw, the one with the mink coat. Only now she bore an uncanny resemblance to the First Lady, Ivana.
She said something he didn’t quite understand, and stalked off. He realised he was walking a little crookedly, and the world was blurry. He would remember none of this in the morning. He supposed he should have mentioned to the contact about the possible side effects, but then again, the White House was getting the drugs at half-price.
“Oh, excuse me,” he said again, bumping into someone.
“Back off, pal,” the man said, and when Mercator looked he saw that the man bore the face of President Trump. He mumbled an excuse and staggered away. Past the burned down Atari store, the same sullen teenagers were still standing, but now they, too, bore President Trump’s face.
The whole world was misty. Mercator blinked back tears. He staggered back into the tower and peeled a five dollar note and handed it to the doorman, and of course when he looked at it, it too bore Trump’s face on it.
He took the long ride up in the elevator, listening to a muzak version of Queen’s “We Are The Champions” all the way back to the 40th floor. He opened the door to his room and went and stood by the window. It was quiet but for the chirping of the little mechanical bird, and it suddenly drove him so mad with anger that he ripped the cage from the wire it hung on and plucked the little bird out and threw it on the floor and stomped on it and stomped on it until it was silent at last. Then he stood at the window and looked at the view.
Everything was so very beautiful.