Rowan edits Untoward Magazine and has been published in (or has work forthcoming in Emprise Review, Red Lightbulbs, Everyday Genius, Metazen, and others. You can find him on Facebook if you’re looking for a friend.

“It would be better for him and it would be better for us if he no longer existed.” So had words been written in their implacable red ink, referencing the failure of an esteemed senior party member to smile. Party bylaws dictated that in order even to be considered for party membership one must always smile. One must show one’s bright teeth, which needn’t be white but certainly bright. This was the command of the general secretary, all the way at the very top.

Surgeries were granted to those in the party who worried they might be caught without an acceptable smile.

VERBOTEN! and a picture of, among other expressions, a frown were drawn to posters, which appeared around the capital city. The capital city was the city in which almost all decisions of this nature were decided. Another such decision was that party membership was required.

You were either in the party, smiling, or not and in prison, about to die or dead.

Except for one man, who was still not admitted to the party though he smiled as hard as anyone and damned if he hadn’t attempted every conceivable recourse.

He worked in a mail room at the consulate of an ambassador from a nearby state, where things were handled differently than how the party preferred. He was disturbed by the trend of differences he observed. And he continued to intercept and censor mail that went through his purview, all with hopes of ingratiating himself to the party and, subsequently, gaining entry. Instead, he was fired by the consulate.

Now jobless and penniless (he had spent much of all he had on smile-widening surgeries), he wandered the capital city as a vagabond. He remembered being told by a very old party member, when at age 19 he’d first applied for membership and been denied, “Give it time, my boy, just time. Things like this take time, and not everyone makes it on the first try. Just give it time and patience. Time and time again, that’s what’s needed, only time. Time and patience. Just realize that time is the course, proper and good. And have I yet mentioned patience? Why I remember the time I first joined the party, yes, that took time. So much time, but then it happened, in due time. Now’s time for you and I to go our separate ways, due time. I will no doubt see you tomorrow.” The man never saw the old man again, though not because either had in some way shoved off their mortal coils or become otherwise bedridden and/or detained by scheduling conflicts. They simply were not to cross paths again.

And contrary to what the old man had said, everyone was granted membership after the first attempt, because by law you must be in the party or in prison, and few chose the latter of these options. The man and only the man was left lingering on the outside, like a clerical error smiling brightly and, even, whitely.

But it had been no clerical error. Something that could be described as sinister was in play. The general secretary wrote this of the man who wished to be in the party, repeating a phrase which had now become his usual refrain in such circumstances: “It would be better for him and it would be better for us if he no longer existed.” It was one of the general secretary’s few good lines, and he liked to make use of it whenever he could. It was furthermore all he had written regarding the matter of the man’s party status, which was plenty enough to seal the man’s permanent partylessness. There was little made public in the way of why.

But if one investigated a bit more deeply one could easily determine why the man had been singled out. Despite what the man had thought to be the case, the case was that he — like marginalized groups of previously extant totalitarian regimes, Jews, Bourgeoisie, intellectuals and so forth — was at heart the single cause of the state’s various economic, social, cultural, historical, philosophical and political woes. He was the lone scapegoat to which all problems of every nature were indefatigably yoked. It had been routinely stated that he refused, on principle, to smile — no matter how hard beatings were meted as consequence.

And slowly his rights were removed. Anti-vagabond laws went into effect, and he was thrashed with truncheons as a matter of patriotic duty by those with whom he crossed paths. The saddest of all of these thrashings was one delivered by an old woman who much resembled the man’s grandmother, and against whom he wouldn’t have attempted to defend himself regardless. She thrashed him most spiritedly of all.

The man, whose name was Abe, subsisted on nothing and gradually grew sallow and gaunt. And soon he finally died. He died in a gutter, while someone urinated on him as he clawed listlessly for help. And he was conscious of the warmth of the piss stream, which was the most warmth he’d ever experienced in his short miserable life. But let’s not allow such qualifiers to lessen the fact that he was definitely pissed on whilst he died. He expired in a puddle of urine, at which point, at least, he presumably felt nothing, and hopefully that was an improvement.

Abe wasn’t missed. In fact, some opined that he may well be alive and in need of doing away with yet. They searched for him up high and down low, and in so searching, killed probably more than a few innocent people.

Meanwhile, the secret police continued disappearing people, which included the general secretary, whom no one had seen in a really long time.

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