When, by some fluke set of circumstances, I won the student body presidency in eighth grade, all I could think about was Allende. Salvador Allende in Chile. Remember? I liked the business-suit socialists best. Fidel and Che were great, but the business-suit socialists made me feel like a man could be methodical and routine about his compassion. That was the dream. Anyway, I knew I could never be Fidel, for a number of reasons, but the main one being that I doubted my ability to shoot somebody. Allende was more like it. The business-suit socialists proved in their manner and their bearing that socialism was not a wild mood, that brotherhood and equality were not swings of sudden passion. They were things that a man could wake up in the morning and attend to as regularly as I attended school. Of course knowing about Allende meant knowing about what happened to him too. I knew about the U.S. government organizing the coup that overthrew him in 1973. I knew about Kissinger saying make the economy scream. I looked around after my victory and wondered who would play the CIA in response to my presidency and I settled on the teachers.
“Congratulations, Babak,” Mr. Willig said as I was leaving Biology class.
“Thank you,” I said. I tried to keep things respectful and brief.
“I thought you gave a great speech.”
I didn’t believe him. In the rush of the triumph of popular will, he had to pretend to be supportive. Did they think I didn’t know anything? Did they think I didn’t know about Allende, about Mossadegh in our own country, about Arbenz in Guatemala, Sukarno in Indonesia? I wasn’t going to fall for their nice words.
“Every word of it was true.”
He looked surprised. “I never thought it wasn’t.”
Oh, so now you’re the offended one? Maybe next you’ll sound like Reagan talking of how the Sandinistas in Nicaragua pose an existential threat to the United States.
“Where did you learn that stuff about working collectively and leaving no one to be excluded?”
He wanted to know my sources. I knew what Fidel would have done, but I was Allende. I kept things close to the vest. I was one for the daily effort that built change over time; I wasn’t one for the melodramatic moment.
“I came up with them on my own.”
“Well, it was impressive. I was inspired.”
They were smooth all right. I couldn’t be too careful. The system wasn’t designed for somebody like me to win. It was meant for somebody like Ty Harrigan, who smiled so dependably that even I wondered if the world wasn’t so bad a place when I saw him walking down the hall. There were rumors that he had come in second only because some people wanted him to remain eighth-grade representative. Maybe they were true. All I knew was that the position wasn’t meant for me. Still, an election was different from a revolution. Let Fidel and Che ride into Havana gloriously after having ousted Batista. I didn’t need fanfare. The work was too serious for that.
Nobody cared what you believed when you were just a citizen walking around with your own thoughts. Nobody cared that you were seeing capitalism reproduced as popularity (though you hadn’t quite organized your thoughts around it yet). But combining those ideas with a position of power was a dangerous game, and required a great deal of sober thinking.
I tried to explain it to my cousin Ramin, who was a year younger and excited.
“It’s not going to be easy,” I said. “There’s going to be a lot of resistance.”
“This is great,” he said. “You know what happened after you won? Mrs. Newman tried to say my last name in class. She never bothered before. She tried to say it and she got it all wrong, but she looked like she thought it was her fault for getting it wrong, not like it was my fault for having it.”
“Well that’s good.” I didn’t want to dampen his spirit, but my eye was on bigger things than names.
“She’s going to be one of those who won’t like it,” I said grimly.
“Won’t like what?”
“What I have to say.”
“What do you have to say?”
I sighed heavily.
“Just because it was an election and not a revolution doesn’t mean the change doesn’t need to be revolutionary.”
He was impressed.
“Do you think so?”
“The problem is systemic,” I said. “How else can you try to solve it but with a solution that is also systemic?”
“I guess you’re right,” he said. “It was nice that Mrs. Newman couldn’t act like my name was my fault though.”
Some time I would tell him about Allende. I would tell him that a man like that could be replaced by a man like Pinochet. History didn’t always go forward. If we didn’t learn from that, it was at our own peril.
I was surprised walking home that our town looked the same even though I had been elected president. I watched a mail carrier across the street on Landsdowne and he was going about his job like it was just another day.
Look at you, I thought. You’re letting power go to your head. I told myself that for every arrogant thought I had, I had to do five pushups when I got home.
At home I went up to my room and did seventeen pushups. The last two were to have a couple in reserve for next time.
The big question now was how I was going to tell my father. He was the one who had told me about Allende, and everybody else.
When he came home and I told him I’d won, it came out like a confession. I knew he didn’t completely trust electoral politics.
“Congratulations,” he said, like a man who knew that now the hard part started.
It was nice to be grim about victory with somebody. The business-suit socialists always knew how to be grim about victory. I was learning that at least.
“You should be proud,” my father said.
“It is a great opportunity.”
“Remember that the people will follow a leader who does not seek to put himself above them.”
“The collective strength of the people when they are united is an unstoppable force.”
I wanted to bring Allende into the conversation directly.
“There will be those who will oppose this force,” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “There are always those who oppose it.”
We thought about those who always oppose it.
“Remember that the people will always recognize real courage when they see it,” my father said.
“Did Allende shoot himself at the end?”
“That is what they say.”
“Was that courage?”
“Under the circumstances, I believe it was.”
“Ramin said that Mrs. Newman had to pronounce his name correctly.”
“That is good.”
One of the aspects of being a business-suit socialist was being comfortable with incremental change. I remembered how happy Ramin had looked. I thought that I should tell him that the only reason I was being grim about victory was that I was thinking of other things down the road. I figured he probably knew, but I should make sure.
Nobody said much about it at dinner. I was glad that I was from a family that understood that being president was the hard part. Even if the teachers didn’t assemble against me the way that the CIA assembled against Allende, being president was still the hard part. I imagined that Ty Harrigan’s family would have had a big celebration for him if he had won. That was fine for them, I thought. If my presidency could achieve what I hoped it could, there’d be a time for celebration.
I went outside after dinner and played catch with Teddy Aveling down the street. It was nice to do something regular like I would’ve done before I became president.
“Can you do something about the food at the dances?” Teddy said.
“All they have is pretzels and M&M’s. I don’t care what else they have, just something.”
“What else do you want to change?” I said.
“I don’t know. It’s just school.”
“It doesn’t have to be just school.”
“What else could it be?”
“It could be everything.”
He threw me a high one.
“No,” he said. “It can’t.”
He said it like he’d made peace with the way school couldn’t be everything a while ago. Long enough ago that I felt scared to ask him why.
When I went inside, I asked my father, “How do you know when the people are ready for change?”
“That is the big question.”
I was glad to have reached the big question. But what if it didn’t matter about Allende and the CIA? What if I never even got there? I knew that the CIA had only gotten involved because Allende had achieved some real things and the people had liked it. If I never got there, there would be no need for the forces of imperialism to get involved.
Whatever it was, I knew I had to stay patient. The business-suit socialists understood that it was a matter of work. They were as regular and orderly about the potential for humanity as the capitalists were about the potential for money.
That night when I got into bed, all the excitement of victory finally hit me and I couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t be grim about it by yourself in the dark.
I lay in bed for a long time and then I went down to my father’s office and got a sheet of paper from a long yellow legal pad. I brought it back up to my room and drew a line down the middle of it. On one side of it I wrote: Hate, Materialism, Selfishness, Greed, War, Injustice. Then I thought some more and added a few other things. On the other side I wrote: Brotherhood, Equality, Peace, Nature, Community Justice, and Love. At the bottom of the page, I wrote: I have to take everything on this side (with an arrow) and transform it into everything on this side.
It was a pretty wild-eyed thing to do, for a business-suit socialist. But I figured even they could be wild-eyed at night. I imagined Allende and all those guys at night, when they didn’t have to be wearing business suits, I imagined them being as wild-eyed as they wanted then, being absolute dreamers at night. They knew how to take their dreaming at night and put it into steady and sober work in the morning. If nothing else, at least I was practicing how to do that.
In the morning I looked at the yellow sheet of paper with the two lists and I wondered if it was ridiculous. I decided that maybe it was, but that as a piece of writing, it had allowed me to fall asleep, and there was something to be said for that.
Siamak Vossoughi is a writer living in Seattle. He has had stories published in Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Bennington Review, Columbia Journal, West Branch, and Gulf Coast. His first collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and his second collection, A Sense of the Whole, received the 2019 Orison Fiction Prize.