Fiction: Rachel Lyon’s “How Did He Become This Way, and Where Will He Go from Here?”

Consider a boy who compulsively writes his name on things. Maybe he starts by writing on a bathroom wall, in a hidden place where no one can see. Maybe as an elementary-schooler he carves it into the wooden surfaces of desks in school. Maybe briefly, as a teenager, he takes up graffiti. To write his name all over the city gives him the thrill of ownership. A thrill so intense it approaches madness.

But this boy is from a wealthy family. It doesn’t look good for the son of a millionaire to be spray-painting his name all over town. He gives up his hobby but, like a drug addict itching for a fix, he cannot give up the urge. Years go by. As an adult man he inherits his father’s real estate business. He buys a skyscraper and—what the hell?—emblazons his name across the front of it. To look up at his gleaming name among its hundreds of gleaming windows is better than an orgasm, better than anything.

It turns out to be far easier to license his name than to build new things, himself. He buys and renames other properties, whose purposes tend to reflect his own ravenous intoxication: a luxury hotel, a tropical resort, a casino. As his business grows, he finds he can lend his name to abstract things, too: businesses, enterprises. This is a revelation. It makes him feel almost limitless, almost immortal. He spends sleepless nights craving more. Can he lend his name to a concept? He can. He hires a ghostwriter and publishes a book that will associate his name with dealmaking. He arranges a reality television show, starring himself, in the hope of associating his name with leadership. But it isn’t enough, isn’t nearly enough. He wants his name to belong to a city, a country, a government.

You don’t really get to share your name with a country unless you discover it, or transform it somehow. Unfortunately most of his world has been discovered already, and his country is (more or less) a democracy; in order to transform it, he must get himself elected. Fortunately, his country is (more or less) xenophobic. Many citizens are concerned about immigrants stealing their jobs. Meanwhile, because his name is still associated with real estate, people still think that he builds things. Bingo! He enters his own country’s presidential campaign, and tells whoever will listen that he’s going to build a wall to keep out the immigrants.

The wall is a fairy tale. Like the tower of Babel or Jack’s beanstalk, it captures the citizens’ imaginations. He is elected leader of the country, and begins looking into ways he can write his name on the country itself. He wants it to be big. He wants it to be huge. He wants it visible from space. It will require a major construction effort. He staffs his cabinet with men who won’t mind if he evacuates and displaces millions. He announces to the citizens that he’s created thousands of new jobs in construction. Then he sub-contracts all the construction companies, and tells them to report to duty at once. All over the country, infrastructure projects are halted. New jails and hospitals are left incomplete. New roads peter out in the middle of deserts. Thousands of bulldozers, front end loaders, backhoes, and excavators get to work tearing up large swaths of the earth.

The project lasts nearly four years. He’s seen satellite images, and it looks terrific. But he really needs to see it with his own eyes. He sets a meeting with an acquaintance, an entrepreneur who’s channeled an obsession with colonizing Mars into manufacturing rocket ships. He tells the guy he wants to use one of his rockets. The guy’s hesitant, but he has to agree. There is a magnificent national ceremony. The leader emerges from the capitol building and is paraded through the city in a glorious golden spacesuit. Tens of thousands have gathered to watch the procession. When he climbs into the rocket, they cheer wildly. When the countdown commences, they chant along. There is a deafening, explosive sound, and the rocket thrusts up through the atmosphere. They are out of their minds with delight.

When he has reached the deep quiet of space, he unlatches himself from his seat and floats to the window to look down at his country. The first letter of his name touches the west coast of the continent, and the last letter touches the right. The letters in the middle, which cover farmland and prairies, are soft and flat. Closer to the coasts, they ripple pleasingly over mountains and valleys. He fogs up the globe of his helmet with a satisfied sigh. It is beautiful. It is perfect. But is it enough? All around him, zillions of planets and stars glow and sparkle. Even as the condensation of his own breath evaporates, he feels that familiar itch. Each of the zillion planets around him is an opportunity.

***

Rachel Lyon’s writing has appeared, or will soon, in Joyland, The Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, Arts & Letters, and elsewhere. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Scribner. Visit her at rachellyon.work.

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