- - - excerpt from Killing the President by Teresa Bergen - - -
Killing the President
a novel by Teresa Bergen
Before he went underground, Justin lived like all his peers. Everybody rode bikes and brought their own bags to the health food store. They were vegetarian or vegan or at least cutting back on red meat. Fashion was out of style. They read books, drank organic coffees, compared microbrews. They ranted to each other about their jingoistic, imperialist government and its evil actions around the globe. And everybody wished the president were dead.
Back then, Justin lived with three guys in a decrepit house in Southeast Portland. They were strictly creative types, uninspired by brooms, mops and cleaning solution. One might find an exacto blade or a roach in their carpet, or dog hair, pizza toppings, a paint brush, guitar pick, even a condom, though likely unused. They weren't the luckiest guys but they managed some optimism despite the sorry state of the world.
Sam was twenty-nine and working on his ninth year of an undergraduate degree in political science. Publishing a string of small literary magazines had slowed his progress. Pete was twenty-seven, worked full time in a group home for the developmentally disabled, and played guitar. Gillis, thirty, tried to make the small yard yield heirloom tomatoes, peppers and herbs while collecting unemployment checks. And Justin, who was thirty-one and had never accomplished anything in life, had finally fallen in love.
Sure, Justin had dabbled in painting, karate, drums, college, activism, employment, temperance, celibacy, volunteer work and door to door solicitation, but nothing had really panned out. Surprisingly, love seemed to be his life's work.
It had happened to him as soon as he first saw Zoe. She was a skinny girl even back then when she could still pass for healthy. Straight blond hair, big, soulful brown eyes. She looked younger than her twenty-three years. Justin had discovered her two blocks from his house, behind the counter at Jojo's Fair Trade World Coffee Café.
"I'll have the Sumatran," was the first thing Justin said to her. "With room for soy milk," was the second. She smiled vacuously. She had a lot on her mind, but she was a girl who remembered to smile at the customers. She was already having her first symptoms, but hadn't told anybody. "Is that muffin vegan?" he asked, though he wasn't. But it prolonged the conversation, and he figured surely a girl who worked at Jojo's Fair Trade World Coffee Café must, herself, be vegan. She shrugged, the smile still in place. "Uh," he said, thrown off. "I'll take it."
The muffin was blueberry. He picked a table from which he could watch her work. She moved with an expert languor. He told himself her smile looked less sincere when she directed it at other people. Luckily, the muffin didn't taste vegan.
Justin became a regular from his first visit. It turned out his housemates were, also. Pete shared Justin's fondness for Zoe. Sam was too busy to hang out much, but he preferred Brenda, Zoe's loud, dark-haired, busty coworker, a girl who scared Justin. Gillis frequented the place because he truly cared that the coffee was fairly traded.
Life would have been easy. Rent was cheap, everybody he knew was an artist, dreamer or idealist, and Justin still passed for under thirty. But some planes had flown into some major buildings and Justin's government was using that as a reason to turn the country into a police state. Congress passed something called the Patriot Act. Whereas once patriots had fought to win personal freedoms, latterday patriots were expected to quietly surrender them.
Justin and his friends were smart and better informed than many of their country people. While they might not have read Noam Chomsky's books, they'd at least seen his films. They listened to the community radio station because they knew the mainstream media was corporate bullshit. They were hooked on truth, which can easily lead to depression. "How's it going?" Gillis might ask Sam at the end of the day, and instead of the usual benign, careless answer, Sam would say, "There's a reason someone coined the term 'ignorance is bliss,'" and turn back to indymedia.org on his computer screen.
At different times that fall, the medicine cabinet included Prozac, Zoloft, St. John's wort, valerian and Paxil. "Is this your Prozac or my Prozac?" one of the guys would yell to another, then help himself without bothering to wait for an answer. What did it really matter?
Love was the only thing that saved Justin, at least for a few more months. Zoe gave him a reason to get out of bed before noon. She only worked from 6:30 AM to 12:30 PM, so Justin had to readjust his schedule. Don't ask what he did for a living. He doesn't want to talk about it.
He wasn't in the habit of going to sleep before three or four in the morning, but he found that if he got up by eight, he could spend an hour or two in the café, then come home and try to nap before work. He usually drank so much coffee during that hour or two that sleeping was difficult. Justin learned that one can live on love. It certainly wasn't good nutrition or rest keeping him alive.
Justin always brought books and a notebook to the café. He cultivated the look of a writer or scholar or maybe just a student. This would account for why he spent up to two hours there daily. He pondered the complicated political books he'd long meant to read, hoping to impress Zoe. It was easy to maintain his air of mystery, because she never asked him what he was reading or why.
Once he saw her reading something in the Oregonian when the rush of customers slowed. He slinked up to add more cream to his coffee and see what had caught her eye. Horoscopes. Justin was so in love, he wasn't even disappointed. Instead, he found himself uttering that dread, outdated pick up line.
"So, Zoe, what sign are you?" he asked her. He had by then managed to learn her name, but not much more. He had never asked a girl her sign, and felt himself blushing for sounding so inane.
"Cancer," she said, wiping the counter with a damp rag. She didn't look up at him. Justin thought she was awfully thin. Her hipbones jutted out above her low-waisted pants. An inch of pale skin showed all the way around her middle. She suddenly looked up, catching him staring at her body. He raised his eyes guiltily to meet hers. "Do you need something else?" she asked. If she had been a flirtatious girl, she could have made this sound like a come on. But her face was blank. Justin had never felt more like a customer.
"Uh, never mind," he said, and went back to his table to mope. A Cancer. That meant nothing to him, as far as sun signs. It sure didn't sound nice. He wished she had said Virgo or Aquarius.
Two of Zoe's friends came in, a skinny boy and a skinny girl. Both wore hooded sweatshirts. Beneath her hood, the girl wore a pink wool hat. The boy's hat was brown. They leaned close to the counter to talk to Zoe. She smiled. Justin couldn't hear what they were talking about. He watched Zoe make mochas for her friends. She didn't charge them. Her friends looked so young! They couldn't have been much more than twenty. Justin began to worry about his looks. Would he appear younger if he shaved his goatee? Several girls had said his blue eyes were beautiful, but had his light brown hair grown too shaggy? He was about to go examine himself in the restroom mirror, but saw Gillis and another guy heading for his table.
"Hey, man," Gillis said, helping himself to a chair. His friend sat down, too. "This is Dale. Hey, did you start going to school or something?" Gillis said, nodding toward the books.
"Hey," said Dale.
Justin shrugged. Just in case Zoe could hear, he didn't want to talk about the books. "How's it going?" Justin asked Dale.
Dale wore a long-sleeved maroon pullover. He shoved his right sleeve back and revealed welts on his wrist and bruises on his forearm. Justin hoped Zoe wasn't watching. Dale's dark eyes darted around, and his legs jiggled.
"Uh, what's that about?" Justin asked, hoping if he acknowledged the irritated flesh that Dale would roll his sleeve back down.
"Fucking pigs," Dale said.
"Cops," Gillis said, sighing. "Dale's always having trouble with the cops."
"You mean the cops have some trouble with me!" Dale shot back. Zoe's friends glanced over.
"Yeah," Gillis said. "That's what I meant to say, man."
Dale settled back in his seat and rolled his sleeve most of the way down. Justin could still see the wrist welts.
"Handcuffs?" Justin asked, intrigued despite his aversion. Aside from a couple of long ago run-ins related to underage drinking, and a speeding ticket a few years back, the police had never come down on Justin for anything. But he had received hateful looks from them at the few demonstrations he'd attended. What had they been for? Causes to impress one girl or another, he couldn't even remember now. Tibet, maybe? East Timor? Definitely a T country. Taiwan? No, definitely not Taiwan.
"Yeah," Dale snorted. "Their fucking plastic cuffs."
"What did you do?" Justin asked.
"It's not like you have to do anything these days. Pigs got all the power." Dale had the kind of intense, light blue eyes that straddled the line between charismatic and crazy.
"Was it billboards again?" Gillis asked. Dale shot him a look. "Don't worry about Justin, man. He's cool."
"Yeah," Dale said. "Pigs were pissed cause none of them wanted to come up after me. Pigs are land animals, you know. Fucking donut eaters."
Justin looked to Gillis for an explanation. "Dale and his crew deface billboards," Gillis said.
"Improve, motherfucker! Not deface."
"Put up political messages," Gillis said, ignoring Dale. "It's cool."
Dale was as wiry and hyper as a monkey. Justin could imagine him climbing up on billboards. "What did you make it say?" Justin asked.
Dale looked around furtively, even though he'd already been caught for the offense. "'America is the Terrorist.' It was up for about one lousy minute. Someone tipped them off. I bet it was a fucking SUV driver calling from their cell phone."
Gillis nodded. "Yeah, man." Gillis always seemed stoned, whether he was or not. Justin wondered if he'd ever get a job.
"So did they have to climb up there and bring you down?" Justin asked.
Dale smiled for the first time. "Those stupid pigs didn't know what to do. They should have waited till I came down, then nabbed us at the bottom of the billboard. Cause if they climbed up and cuffed me, how were they gonna get me down? I was about thirty feet high. It was a standoff for two, three hours."
"But you finally came down?"
"Fucking pigs started pushing my girlfriend around. She was down below with two of my buddies. So I came down to help her and they threw me to the ground and put the cuffs on."
"Wow," Justin said. He didn't like Dale so far, and imagined how the cops would enjoy roughing him up. But aggravating as Dale was, who was Justin to judge? What did he do? His government was made up of tyrants who bombed and exploited people all over the globe, while Justin sat in Jojo's Fair Trade World Coffee Café, pretending to read difficult books to impress a girl who barely acknowledged him. He had to sort of admire Dale.
Zoe's friends Rex and T-Bone wanted to borrow money out of her tip jar again. "No," she said, nervously running a hand through her straight blond hair. "You never pay me back."
T-Bone pouted. She was a pretty girl for whom the world provided. "Oh, come on, Zoe. We'll pay you tomorrow."
"Yeah, pay me with what?" Hardly any of Zoe's friends were working. Every Sunday, when her friends looked through the classified ads, that section of the paper had shrunk since the week before. Most of those who had been laid off hadn't worked steadily enough to collect unemployment.
"We have our ways of getting money," T-Bone said, smiling mysteriously beneath her fuzzy pink hat.
"Come on, Zoe. Please," Rex said.
"Please," T-Bone echoed, stretching out the word. "Please, please." They both joined in as though they were her five year-old children. Zoe could feel her armpits moisten.
"What do you want it for?"
T-Bone and Rex looked at each other, transparent as five year-olds trying to decide if they should tell the truth. They waited too long.
"No," Zoe snapped. She grabbed her tip jar and tucked it under the counter, on a low shelf at knee level. They wanted to get high with her money while she worked. Some fucking friends!
"Eric has the best E!" T-Bone said.
"And he's leaving! He's going to Europe. He's selling it cheap to finance his trip."
"I'm not financing your trip," Zoe said. They laughed. She was a detached sort of girl who hardly ever said anything witty.
A customer came in and asked for a double mocha. Zoe turned her back on Rex and T-Bone as she pulled shots of espresso and frothed the hot milk. Once she glanced over and saw T-Bone's incredulous face. The girl was eighteen years old. Zoe couldn't possibly be the first person to ever say no to her.
When she first started working at Jojo's, Zoe had thought the coolest part was that her friends could hang out. As long as she got her work done, the owner didn't mind if she socialized a little. But now her friends only seemed to come by to borrow money or to try to scam free coffee and muffins. Or for really bizarre, annoying things, like the time Rex was trying to get a job as receptionist at a realtor's office, and he put down the café's number and Zoe's name as a reference. He wanted Zoe to answer the phone, "Frankenmorgen Realty, may I help you?" Of course she had refused, and he had pouted. But they finally compromised. "You can just answer the phone, 'This is Zoe.' Like it's your direct line." And she had done this for three days, confusing countless customers until her boss called and reminded her to answer with the business name.
"Just ten dollars," Rex was mouthing at her now as she rang up a mocha. She felt anxious all the time these days. The knot in her stomach ruined her appetite, and sometimes her head pounded so she couldn't think. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning, hard to sleep at night.
She could see Justin stealing glances at her from where he sat with his friends. They were probably debating something political now, because the crazy little guy's arms were flying around and she heard "the fucking fascist government" and "the fucking pigs" now and then. It was kind of funny how worked up they got about stuff. Like it mattered. Like they mattered enough to change anything. Justin was nice, but it was irritating the way he constantly stared at her while she tried to work. And that Guatemalan hat had to go. Shave off the goatee and get a fashion clue, he'd be handsome.
Now Rex had his hands pressed together in prayer position and was batting his eyelashes at her. T-Bone still pouted. "Can I have that cookie?" she asked. Most of Zoe's friends were skinny, but T-Bone looked especially hungry. Zoe might be able to refuse her friend money for drugs, but she couldn't withhold food. Zoe opened the case and picked up an oatmeal cookie with the tongs. "No, the chocolate chip," T-Bone said.
Justin's friend Pete came in and joined the other radicals or hippies or whatever they were. Pete was a good looking guy with dark hair and a nose like a Greek statue's. He wasn't as obvious as Justin, staring at her maybe only half as frequently as his friend. Zoe had always been pretty, always received attention from men, but so what? At twenty-three, this had been going on for years. She was over any excitement caused by her own exterior. No one ever really saw her anyway; she was a brooding girl with deep feelings, which she hid behind social distractions and recreational drugs.
As a teenager, Zoe had thought too much, and it had depressed her. She had spent many hours in her bedroom, reading poetry and writing in a journal. A cutting phase had followed a hair pulling phase, both accompanied by the typical eating disorders of American girls. But that was over now. In her adult life, she had found that the key to normality was not to have her own bedroom. Sharing space had ended her most intense introspection and ritualistic abnormalities. She wasn't going to cut herself or pull out her hair for an audience; that would look pathetic, like she craved attention. People would notice if she ate nothing, or only consumed canned stewed tomatoes and unbuttered popcorn, savoring each bite so that sad little meal lasted an hour. No, instead she lived with too many people and ceased her endless self-contemplation. She let herself be less differentiated now.
Sometimes, after a late night, she would wake up in the living room amongst her sleeping friends, four or five sets of limbs sprawled out on the floor. And in the first minute or two of wakefulness, she could feel like she was part of one creature with ten legs, not just Zoe, alone in the world and powerless with her own skinny pale arms, a low paying job and no future on the horizon.