:: Buzzwords

3:AM in Lockdown 45: Matthew Jakubowski

The President’s Bucket
By Matthew Jakubowski.



This isn’t really the kind of story I want to tell. But it happened. It’s still happening. So it must be told.

A small part of it grew from the extra time I’ve been spending with my son since the lockdown began. He’s eight years old, really likes to build. The other day he built an obstacle course in our tiny backyard. He set a few bricks on the ground far apart to leap from one to another without falling. He, his mother, and I cheered each other on leaping from brick to brick in our quiet neighborhood.

Indoors he has Legos and a fort and he’s cried more in the past few weeks than he has in the previous year. Like so many others this is where we are now generally, in small spaces together between tears. But we are home together (which is a comforting thing, most days).

My son has naturally asked about what happened. Why is everything including his elementary school shut down? We’ve told him in measured, even terms about the virus and the bigger picture. Explaining it for an eight-year-old, we say President Trump won’t listen. That’s his main problem. If he did listen to other people, especially the scientists, we could’ve avoided this. My son nods and looks away. Then he speed-talks for two full minutes in a calm but rising voice that my wife and I understand as stifled fear and fury. It hurts to see but we know it’s good he’s pouring words out at what’s happening.

The larger story of the past few years is gargantuan. I haven’t shared the dark story below with anyone until now. It grew from a day-long fugue state I expelled late at night onto my screen after years of that same calm anger my son mirrored to us. This hyperbolic satire (which flatters the intelligence of such a titanic imbecile) may not be for everyone. But I think millions of us have our own versions. Some people have shared them. I think it would help if more of us did.

So if I had to tell it the way it is, the way it feels, in a scene that sums up the last few years for so many people in this country who are dead, in poverty, dying, diseased, living but contemplating suicide daily, without help or hope, and the millions who’ve been thrown toward that kind of life over the past month, this would be it, because the tens of thousands dead and counting during this pandemic are the capstone on the entirety of Trump’s presidency. The story goes like this:

Trump is standing with some soldiers and some children on the playground outside a school. The children are between five and six years old. Nearby, a shiny tin bucket full of water has been bolted to the concrete. All the schools have these now to advertise Trump’s global real estate empire, with his name stamped on the buckets in gold letters.

Trump tells a soldier to take one of the kids over to the bucket and face the group. The other soldiers stand behind the other children. When Trump says go, the soldier grabs the child and forces him forward, shoving his head into the gleaming bucket. The child kicks and flails, but he’s no match for the soldier.

The children watching scream and try to break free. The soldiers hold them back. “Stop! No!” the children scream. Some cover their faces. The soldier doesn’t stop, of course. When the drowning child stops thrashing the soldier releases him. It takes very little time. The child’s body rolls over onto the concrete. Water spills from his mouth. The soldier gets up, stands aside, and stares into space.

The children stare at their dead friend and are allowed to scream for as long as they like. When their screaming tapers off, Trump walks over and points to the dead child. “You probably feel pretty sorry for that kid, don’t you?” A few of the terrified children are lost enough in fear to scream back, “Yes! Yes! You’re insane! I’ll kill you!” Trump lets them vent.

“Sure, I bet you’re mad. Of course. This is sad. I get that. OK? But who thought about my bucket?” He waits. “I thought kids were supposed to have imagination. Isn’t that what you’re learning to have in school? But none of you really care. What do you think that was like just now for my bucket?

“Look at that bucket and think about it. You’re really going to remember it.” The soldiers unsnap their holsters so the children hear the click. “When I look at you I think you’re good kids just like your friend. You care about everyone don’t you and everything. Except this bucket. My poor bucket. Look, it just keeps shining. Poor little bucket. Try saying it when you look at it. Come on. Poor bucket. Poor bucket. Try that. It feels good.”

The children don’t repeat the words at first. But as he repeats it slowly and calmly and the soldiers start to whisper it then say it as loudly as Trump the words start to sound a bit comforting, almost like their own kind of poetry. And one child then another can’t take their eyes off the shiny bucket, right beside their dead friend, and they say the only two words it feels safe to say.

This isn’t a story for my son, but he’s growing up amid fascism. I wonder if deep down he knows what’s happening as he innocently builds and leaps and cries. He’s learned that our neighbors and communities have to work together to keep each other safe from every element of this administration’s vindictive, triumphant greed. Later he’ll learn how it came about, created by every person who voted for Trump, and those who’ll do so again, and everyone who’s given him political room to breathe. The story of these childhood years of his will be told in many other ways beside little bucket stories, by our historians and journalists who’ve chronicled the suffering in America since this man was elected. But in the meantime, most urgently, we have to stop the campaign to re-elect him. Because four more years of Trump will be far worse for all our children than a mere six months or a year more of potential lockdown.



First posted: Friday, April 24th, 2020.

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