This is the second in a series of flash fiction stories set in a near-future America, where the government of the United States has been overthrown by what appears to be a talking cat named Bootsey. At this link is “Bootsey’s America,” the first story of the collection. Each story is self-contained.
My daughter really, really, really loves Bootsey. She has all the figures, the plush toys, the playsets, the movies, everything. In her bedroom—a nightmare grotto of pink, white and black—a hundred Bootseys stare at you from shelves and posters and pillows and bed sheets. She knows “The Stars & Stripes Forever” so well that she could conduct the U.S. Marine Corps band better than John Philip Sousa. She once punched a sixth-grader who called Bootsey a fascist. Mind you, Ariella understands nothing about politics. All she sees is an adorable talking cat who loves children.
Not long ago a kid in her class had a birthday party and Bootsey was invited. I didn’t know you could hire Bootsey for birthday parties. This was three months before her seventh birthday. Suddenly the world, the entire universe, hinged upon convincing Bootsey to come to her party. She wrote letter after letter to Washington begging the cat to come. She sealed them in American flag envelopes and wrote I LOVE YOU across the seal. Each day the mail brought no reply was like another little death. “Daddy, why won’t Bootsey come?” she wailed, her chest heaving with sobs. “Doesn’t she know I love America?”
The local office responsible for chartering Bootsey for public appearances was in the federal building in downtown San Francisco. The only time they could work me in was at 1:45 on a Tuesday. I had to reschedule an all-hands meeting on the Melchoir deal to free up the time.
The place was like a fortress. I went through three metal detectors and two full-body scanners. They confiscated my shoes. I waited, in my stocking feet, in a dull gray lobby that resembled the waiting area of a dentist’s office. There were square holes cut out of the pages of the magazines there, including National Geographic. A sign on the wall warned, ABSOLUTE SILENCE.
“Your record is mostly clean. Mostly.” The lady behind the desk who finally interviewed me looked like a bank teller but she had a computer tablet scrolling with every official document ever generated about my life. “Do you know a man named Thomas Blanton?”
I strained to remember. “Thomas Blanton…Thomas Bl…oh, Tommy? My freshman year roommate at USC?”
“When was the last time you had contact with him?”
“Oh, hell, had to be twenty years ago.”
“Did you ever discuss politics with him?”
“If I did, I can’t remember. Look, how is this relevant to me hiring a guy in a costume for my six-year-old daughter’s party?”
The woman swiveled in her chair and set the tablet down on her desk with an air of grave import. “You are not hiring a guy in a costume, sir. Bootsey is the leader of our nation—the symbol of the renewal of America. She does not grant her presence lightly.”
She wasn’t kidding. The third degree in the little gray office was only the beginning. There were checks, and counter-checks, and counter-counter-checks. There were affidavits. There were certified copies and notary signatures and loyalty oaths. We had to provide tax returns and my daughter’s birth certificate. My wife and I had to provide our birth certificates. They sent a crew out, two young men in gray overalls and an older one in a business suit, to our townhouse to “look it over” for security and logistics. They never did tell me what was wrong with Tommy Blanton. Maybe he’d spoken out or something. I was afraid to look him up on Facebook. I assumed Bootsey was watching.
Finally an envelope, stamped with a federal seal, arrived in the mail. It contained an 11-page list of instructions on how to have our house ready the day of the party. There was a little red piece of memo paper with a laser-printed message: Dear Ariella. I will attend your party from 2:30 to 2:45 PM. Happy birthday! Love, Bootsey. This tiny square of red paper was tucked inside another sheet folded in thirds. It was an invoice for $3,117.42, payable immediately.
The day of the party was like awaiting execution. Even before I got out of bed that morning Meg staggered to the bathroom and I heard her retching over the toilet. When she came back in, ashen and drawn, I asked her if she was all right. “It’s just nerves. I’ll be okay.” She sat on the edge of the bed and smoothed back her hair. “I’ll be glad when this is over.”
Things got rolling at two o’clock. Ariella had seven young guests. Their parents, mostly mine or Meg’s co-workers, hovered in silent party-hatted shadows as we clanked like quivering automatons through the requisite motions with cake and ice cream. Ariella looked radiant in a new dress that Meg bought her for the occasion, but even she seemed subdued and apprehensive as 2:30 approached. As Ariella opened a gift from her best friend Chloe—a Bootsey pencil sharpener and eraser set—I could see her tiny fingers quivering.
Then a powerful knock came at the door. By my watch it was 2:30:03. A hush fell over the children. Except for Ryan—the youngest, only five—who said in an awestruck whisper: “Is it Bootsey?”
When my wife opened the door a gaggle of men spilled inside like slippery fish falling out of a net. They wore black business suits and had coily plastic cords snaking from their ears down the back of their necks. The bulges under their suit jackets were not subtle and not meant to be, but at least they spared the children the sight of the weapons by keeping their jackets buttoned. From the center of this human tunnel came a strangely muffled high-pitched voice with a harsh electronic warble: “And where’s the birthday girl?”
“Bootsey!” The children rushed the cat like rugby players diving for a fumbled ball. Even the bodyguards couldn’t restrain them. They leaped out of the way.
Bootsey was surprisingly chintzy. The fleece covering the huge bulbous cat’s head was matted in places and smelled vaguely of dry cleaning chemicals. The plastic eyes, waxen and dead, didn’t line up properly, giving Bootsey an eerie mismatched stare. The fingers of the gloves were dirty and the velour body suit was fraying at its seams. Ariella had clamped onto Bootsey’s hip in a huge hug which caused the suit’s pant leg to cinch up a few inches. I caught a glimpse of one ragged Air Jordan sneaker and the hairy calf of a young man, perhaps just a teenager. I doubted he would see much of our $3,117.42.
The cat handed out lollipops, each wrapped in crinkly colored cellophane. “Have you been good little girls and boys? Do you love America?” Something was wrong with the electronic voice modulator; Bootsey did not sound at all like she did on TV. The kids didn’t care. Bootsey knelt and hugged Ariella, then froze to let the glass eyes of every cell phone camera in the room record the moment. I was so nervous I almost dropped mine.
The agents, a few of whom had wandered away from Bootsey, were taking pictures too—of the townhouse. One stocky fellow scrutinized our bookshelves. Another snapped a picture of our family photos on the fireplace mantel. His phone instantly ran facial recognitions and records checks of everyone in the photos. As two agents swept into the hallway I heard one say, “I’ll cover the master bedroom. You take the child’s room and the bathroom.”
Bootsey, now kneeling in a ring of fawning children, led them in a chant. “Let’s all go forward together! Let’s…” The children finished in a chorus of voices: “Renew America!”
“Where do Muslims go?”
“Back to the desert!”
“Gays and transgenders?”
“Back in the closet!”
It was a wonder that five-, six- and seven-year-olds could even pronounce this word, but Bootsey had taught them well.
“Nuke ‘em here, nuke ‘em there, nuke ‘em, nuke ‘em, everywhere!”
I glanced at Meg. The expression on her face was perfect stoic blankness. We’d long ago learned to steel ourselves against the ugliness that spewed from the cat’s animated maw on TV and the Internet, but hearing the bigoted chants echoing between the walls of our home was something else again. I glanced at the display on my phone and thanked God it was 2:44. Bootsey was nothing if not punctual.
When they were gone Meg showered for nearly an hour, as if she could scrub away with soap the feeling of being watched, violated, surveilled. The agents had touched nothing, at least not that we could see, but we had no illusions that the townhouse wasn’t now thoroughly bugged, and they’d photographed and inventoried everything we owned. Such was the price of my daughter’s happiness.
We rarely drank at home but after dinner I opened a bottle of Beefeater gin that my friend Scott had given us after he came back from London. We drank it straight, Meg and I staring at each other over the kitchen table, saying nothing. Well, almost nothing.
The sound of Bootsey’s voice and “The Stars & Stripes Forever” drifted from the TV in the living room. Ariella sat there, watching in rapt attention, a brand-new stuffed Bootsey clutched under her arm.
“She’s on cloud nine.” Meg took her shot glass and belted it. “I know it was hard. But what else could we do?”
I glanced back to the living room at my daughter and then drew my eyes away from her. In a moment of pique, one I would probably come to regret, I damned the bugs and spoke my mind. “There is nothing in my life I hate more right now than that goddamned cat.”
The gin left a burning trail down my throat.