It was just Barack. He’d grown a dark retiree’s beard as an outward sign of erasing his memory along beaches and ditching the nervous men who dreamed new borders on the remaining world, and he was in mourning. One bodyguard had outlasted the rest so now stood in for all, and he wasn’t trying to erase his own memory. He kept showing up tall and businesslike on hilltops just off Barack’s walk. “Sir, China’s gone! Another blue bomb! The Russians are acting big!” All bad news. His name was Kevin. Barack had taken to flipping Kevin off.
It was him up ahead and not a new lover. Barack saw the suit and sunglasses before he noticed that someone was standing on the small cliff where rippling tall grass had drawn his eyes, and it seemed like a memory when he did notice or something he’d always known.
“Go away,” Barack called up once Kevin could hear him. This was his usual greeting, yet Kevin would make his report as if he hadn’t heard, with an otherwise earnest respect. This was what prompted the finger and last time a lecture on leaving people alone.
This time, Kevin stood silent with hands locked. He was upright, steely, watchful. Barack paused when he’d passed the cliff and dug his toes into the sand. He flicked his cigarette into the ocean, made a running start at Kevin and climbed up. It wasn’t hard. His bare foot slipped once, but he caught himself. At the top, he waited to catch his breath and then smiled at Kevin.
“Did your earpiece stop working?”
“There’s nothing to report, Mr. President.”
“There are no kings without countries, Kevin. Anyone who says otherwise is either a king or a suck-up.”
Barack sat down on the edge of the cliff and let his legs dangle. He stared at the sea. Kevin stared there too.
“Any more kings lose their status?”
“You said you would shine my eye, sir.”
“I rescind for the moment.”
“Just the one pen pal.”
“He must have thought it would have more boom.”
Barack plucked a blade of grass and tried to make it whistle. Though he’d had no luck with the trick as a child, he found it easy. He made it hum twice, then rolled the blade into a ball and flicked it over the edge.
“Did you have family back in the States, Kevin?”
“Yes, sir, a big one.”
“How many children?”
“I wasn’t married, sir.”
“Oh,” said Barack. He took out his cigarettes and pulled one out with his mouth. “You meant…”
He patted his pockets for his lighter, but it had fallen out on the run or the climb. Kevin kneeled and lit Barack’s cigarette and then handed over the Zippo. He stood back up.
“Keep it, sir. I don’t smoke.”
“You wouldn’t have lighter fluid?”
“I’ll get some.”
“No,” said Barack. He looked back to the ocean. “I’m forgetting things. Trying. It’s what I’m doing out here. Not just my time in office. There’s a whole life I don’t want to think about. That’s all I want to do is not think about it. For the time I have left, I want to forget that it’s gone.”
He clicked open the Zippo and dragged the wheel with his thumbnail, just scraping the flint. Kevin shifted his weight and then turned away to cough.
“You remind me,” said Barack. “Every time, you bring it all with you.”
“I’ll be less visible, sir.”
“Don’t come back.”
Barack lifted his legs above the ledge and wrapped his arms around them. He let his chin settle on his knees for a moment. Then he planted his hands and stood up. He was ready to keep walking.
“I’m sorry about your family, Kevin.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“What are your plans for the new old world?”
“My plan wasn’t changed by the bomb.”
“What is it?”
“I plan to protect you.”
Barack struck him.
He shook his hand after and then held his palm between his thumb and forefinger and spit his cigarette out. Kevin’s sunglasses were bent. One of the lenses was cracked and fell out. He covered that eye with his hand. His face was still stone, but a tear crawled down from behind the remaining lens.
“Go away!” screamed Barack. “Let a human being forget a dead world! I’m real! I had a family!”
Kevin bowed and then turned and walked back to the Cadillac and got in. Barack watched until the car was gone and then fell laughing on the grass. He rolled back and forth.
“Excellent job so far, Kevin” he howled and couldn’t stop laughing. His vision blurred. He rolled over the edge and slid to the bottom, where his tears fell out. He sat with his back against the cliff. He’d scraped his elbow, and he laughed at that too. “Good work, son,” he said and then said it again, and for a little it was all he could think. It was a kind of relief.
When he’d calmed down, he checked his pockets, and the Zippo was gone. He was still smiling. He wouldn’t have to wait long before someone showed up on his walk with a lighter and a smile of her own.