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Online Feature: “The Head Bodyguard Holds His Head in His Hands” by Lincoln Michel

When the Dictator settles on a day of shopping, the head bodyguard notifies the store twenty minutes in advance. In this way, assassination plots are eluded. The Dictator arrives in a black limousine along with his four favorite bodyguards. The head bodyguard sits in the front seat and lazily scans the tops of buildings for any glints that might signify a sniper rifle or bazooka. The Dictator reclines in the backseat between two of the other bodyguards—two brothers, in fact—and sips a small cup of single malt Scotch and water. Sometimes he will substitute the Scotch for an obscure brand of grape soda he has consumed since childhood, although only if the Dictator thinks that the bodyguards will not be able to guess the contents of his drink. This is why the Dictator only drinks from black mugs.

Hastily, the boutique has been emptied until only one female employee remains. It is well known that the Dictator is fond of well-breasted women, and indeed the woman in the red dress—for the Dictator prefers red dresses on well-breasted women—is the bustiest woman the store currently employs. The head bodyguard has known the three other bodyguards for as long as he can remember. Their fathers were junior partners in the same law firm, and they spent their summers exercising at the same country club gym. As schoolboys, their physiques and large allowances allowed them to twist and punch the arms and legs of smaller, poorer boys in the hallway between classes. The head bodyguard has also known the Dictator for decades. By now, he feels the inevitable affection that results from years of proximity. The bodyguards wear black Italian leather jackets, black sunglasses, and black slacks, and each carries a black snakeskin briefcase that contains various items the Dictator may or may not require. Each briefcase’s contents are unique. The head bodyguard’s briefcase contains the Dictator’s honorary diplomas—for the Dictator never completed university work on his own, having dropped out to pursue a career in advertising—an address book of various allies and surrogates of the Dictator; a list of the Dictator’s enemies, alongside each of their greatest weaknesses; a small box of ammunition; and two gold-plated .38 caliber pistols.

The Dictator stands at five foot seven, three inches below the national average, and has the vague sort of face that, if seen in a group photo, requires an extra second to place. In the store, the Dictator does not browse. Instead, he reclines on a white leather couch while the large-breasted woman parades the latest designs in front of him. The three other bodyguards stay in the store with the Dictator while the head bodyguard stands watch out front. This is the job the head bodyguard prefers, as it allows him to smoke his hand-rolled cigarettes and not deal with any fits the Dictator might have if the clothes do not fit him correctly. The head bodyguard takes a long drag of his cigarette and feels his chest fill up with scratching heat. He exhales into the face of a large woman carrying a small dog in her purse. Move along, the head bodyguard says, gesturing with his head. The head bodyguard takes off his jacket and drapes it over his arm. It is summer.

Inside the store, the other bodyguards nod along with the large-breasted woman at the outfits the Dictator has picked out. The Dictator carries a black credit card issued specially for him by the Minister of the Treasury, and when he pays for his clothes, he likes to say, Put it on the people’s tab. A little joke. Today he is wearing a tightly tailored gray and purple pinstriped suit, ostrich skin shoes, silver cuff links shaped like roaring lion heads, and a bright yellow tie printed with ionic columns. Since assuming power, the Dictator has always clad himself in the most fashionable of modern garb. He says that this is to inspire the people, although the head bodyguard secretly thinks it is a compensation for the Dictator’s otherwise forgettable appearance. When he was a little boy, the head bodyguard once held the Dictator’s head in the bottom of a toilet for a full two minutes while two other boys flipped the flush lever and punched the Dictator in his stomach. The Dictator, for his part, remembers every bruise and noogie and night spent crying to his sickly mother about the bullies at school. After the Dictator assumed power—through a series of title changes, departmental merges, and power transfers that left the public completely confused as to who was in charge until the Dictator interjected his face on every billboard and screen—he tracked down the bullies who had tormented his school years. When he discovered that one of his most persistent tormentors had broken his neck in a freak hang gliding accident, the Dictator was furious. He crushed two rusty and antique iron thumbscrews on his palace floor. Still, he succeeded in locating four of the most memorable bullies, and these he hired as his personal bodyguards.

The shouting of the Dictator, who is enraged that a certain pair of pants—one that contains real silver woven through the fabric—do not come in his size, fades through the walls and glass and into the ear of the head bodyguard as if descending on him from some great height. The head bodyguard would not consider himself a philosophical man. He dropped out of college in his second year to begin his short-lived sport-fishing career, which resulted in three sunken boats and one lawsuit, before being hired by the Dictator. Leaning against the large glass window, smoking his hand-rolled cigarette, and watching the awkward bodies of the city’s residents avoid each other on the sidewalk, the head bodyguard begins to wonder about his role. He is a bodyguard, and thus his job is to protect the physical body of the Dictator from outside harm. But what about harm that the Dictator causes to himself? The Dictator has been known, in moments of anger, to pound his hands against the wall, yet if the head bodyguard tries to restrain the Dictator, his hands will be bitten by the Dictator’s nubby teeth, for the Dictator grinds his teeth constantly in the night with a squeaking that at first kept the head bodyguard awake but now lulls him like a painful lullaby. Those teeth are a part of the Dictator’s body, of course, yet the head bodyguard does nothing to stop their erosion. Is this a failure of his charge? And even then, does his duty end entirely with the physical body of the Dictator? Is it not also, in some sense, his duty to protect the mind of the Dictator from corruption? These and other thoughts stumble around the head bodyguard’s head until the Dictator, trailed by the three other bodyguards, kicks open the door, either in anger or in imitation of the Western the five of them watched together last night.

Gathering a small crowd of women and children shoppers, the Dictator presents a short speech. There are times of fear and there are times of action, he tells the crowd, and as a man of action, he will act and act fearlessly to complete the actions that are required of him. Several people clap and hold out their id cards for the Dictator to sign, which he does. The people clap again as the Dictator and his bodyguards get into the black limousine and drive off with the windows rolled up. The small crowd stands around for a few seconds, then disperses.

The Dictator is guarded at all times by at least one bodyguard, except when he is sleeping in his massive canopy bed or bathing in his only slightly less massive claw-foot tub. The life of the Dictator is essential to the health of the state, and no chances can be taken. When he goes to the toilet, one bodyguard will lean against the bathroom sink and hand the Dictator any reading material he desires. The Dictator has long believed that images of nude bodies bound to furniture with ropes can ease bowel movements. When the Dictator is feeling amorous, he will have a guard bring the first lady, and he will perform the carnal act in the guard’s presence. The head bodyguard is nervous today, knowing that a set of new designer clothes inflates the Dictator’s libido. Sometimes the Dictator wishes to try an acrobatic position that requires two or more guards to hold the first lady in the air and guide the Dictator’s movements. Often the head bodyguard notices the Dictator staring at him when he orgasms into the first lady. The Dictator’s eyes perform a quick twitching moment right at climax, and his upper lip begins to curl. This unsettles the head bodyguard, whose parents fought often in his presence and who has long struggled with intimacy.

Driving home from the store, the head bodyguard cannot help but notice several messages spray-painted in shaky letters along the walls of buildings. The head bodyguard does not pay attention to politics. He was raised from a young age to never talk about politics or religion, and he certainly does not talk about either one with the Dictator on their strolls through the manicured gardens. The messages list a certain date, but it is a date the head bodyguard does not remember. Perhaps it is a future date that has yet to occur. Perhaps the date’s meaning will be clear only then.

When the Dictator returns to his mansion, the head bodyguard walks quickly to the compound’s coop and then returns to the house with two live chickens squawking in his hands. The Dictator comes outside, and together they walk to the moat. Once there, the head bodyguard hands the chickens to the Dictator, who launches them, one at a time, toward the yawning jaws of his alligators. The feeding of the alligators always visibly excites the Dictator, who paces around the moat as the alligators sink back into the muddy water, wet white feathers dangling from their lips. It is typically after feeding the alligators that the Dictator has intercourse with his wife, so when the Dictator heads back inside, the head bodyguard rolls a cigarette and remains. The head bodyguard carries two automatic pistols, one tucked into the shaft of his right leather boot, the other stuck into his left armpit. The head bodyguard is unsure what the Dictator carries beyond the six-inch blade sheathed along the side of his personal briefcase. The Dictator’s gun cabinet contains at least two-dozen firearms, including a silver-lined .44 Magnum, its handle engraved with a lion tearing into the flank of a unicorn—the Dictator’s personal crest. One time, the head bodyguard walked into the Dictator’s study and found him half-naked, sobbing, and carefully cleaning the Magnum’s cylinders with Q-tips and hydrogen peroxide.

Finishing his cigarette, the head bodyguard stretches his arms and legs. Through the muddy water, he can see the black shadows of the alligators twisting. Even though the head bodyguard is aware that he is surrounded by a 25,000-volt electric fence, monitored by twelve closed-circuit cameras, and standing next to a man-made moat, there is something about the arranged foliage that gives the head bodyguard a sense of being at peace with nature.

When the head bodyguard returns to the mansion, the Dictator has retired for the night. One of the other bodyguards is in the shower washing various fluids out of his hair while another drops a few soiled items into the washing machine and presses start. It is at this time that the four bodyguards can relax and discuss their bodyguard duties with each other at leisure. The last bodyguard has cracked open a few bottles of the Dictator’s imported Château Duras. The bodyguards hang their black coats over the backs of their chairs. They remove their black sunglasses, put down their black briefcases, kick off their black shoes, and wiggle their black-socked toes. The bodyguards play their cards and drink their wine, hunched over in their wooden chairs. They drink the red wine in gulps. The night grows long.

Although a short and almost unnoticeable man when face-to-face, it is after the Dictator has departed that his presence is felt most strongly. While the Dictator has retired for the night, the bodyguards have a slight nervousness in their eyes as they play cards. Every now and then, one of the bodyguards twists his head and hops slightly from his chair, as if a command has been barked only to him, before sitting back down and taking another gulp of wine. The head bodyguard has not watched the news in many years. He wonders just what it is that the Dictator does. What does he govern? What enemies stalk him in the night? When the first bullet is fired, which of the four bodyguards will leap into its path? While the head bodyguard is pondering these questions, the youngest bodyguard gets drunker and angrier. He has emptied a bottle and a half of wine himself, and his face has grown as red as the woman’s red dress. He bangs his fists on the table. He says he can no longer be a party to the Dictator, whom he calls the little twerp, making the head bodyguard cringe reflexively. The youngest bodyguard says the people are angry, and it will only be so long before these angry people put bullets into the Dictator and each and every bodyguard. Well, I’m not going to take a bullet for a kid who cried every time he got a wedgie, the youngest bodyguard says, and leaps up with his gun already in his hand. Instantly, the head bodyguard’s training takes over. He whips his own chair from under his behind and knocks the gun out of the youngest bodyguard’s hand. The other two bodyguards join in. The four descend on each other as they used to do to boys on the dusty playground of their high school. With each punch, the head bodyguard is transported back to that innocent place.

All the crashing and yelling awakens the Dictator. He lies awake in bed staring at the door. His room is completely black, and he pulls the silk covers tightly over his face. There are many people who want to kill him, and he imagines each and every one working their way up the stairs. Thousands of imaginary feet march up the staircase of his mind. After a minute, the Dictator shouts down to the bodyguards.

Sir, please go back to sleep, the head bodyguard shouts back. We are only fighting over the inestimable honor of being the first bodyguard to accept your assassination bullet.

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This story appeared in Indiana Review 33.1, Summer 2011.

Maggie Su (Fiction Editor): In this well-rendered portrait, Lincoln Michel imagines the inner workings of a dictator and his bodyguards. Both urgent and eviscerating, Michel’s nuanced political critique invites questions rather than answers them.

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Lincoln Michel is the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, NOON, Tin House, Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. He’s the author of Upright Beasts and the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.

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