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Reading: “Bounden Duty” (2004)

From The Best American Poetry: 2004, eds. Lyn Hejinian and David Lehman, pp. 233ff. Just act like nothing’s going on.

Bounden Duty

I got a call from the White House, from the
President himself, asking me if I’d do him a personal
favor. I like the President, so I said, “Sure, Mr.
President, anything you like.” He said, “Just act
like nothing’s going on. Act normal. That would
mean the world to me. Can you do that, Leon?” “Why,
sure, Mr. President, you’ve got it. Normal, that’s
how I’m going to act. I won’t let on, even if I’m
tortured,” I said, immediately regretting that “tortured”
bit.[1] He thanked me several times and hung up. I was
dying to tell someone that the President himself called
me, but I knew I couldn’t. The sudden pressure to
act normal was killing me. And what was going on
anyway. I didn’t know anything was going on. I
saw the President on TV yesterday. He was shaking
hands with a farmer. What if it wasn’t really a
farmer? I needed to buy some milk, but suddenly
I was afraid to go out. I checked what I had on.
I looked “normal” to me, but maybe I looked more
like I was trying to be normal. That’s pretty
suspicious. I opened the door and looked around.
What was going on? There was a car parked in front
of my car that I had never seen before, a car that
was trying to look normal, but I wasn’t fooled.
If you need milk, you have to get milk, otherwise
people will think something’s going on. I got into
my car and sped down the road. I could feel those
little radar guns popping behind every tree and bush,
but, apparently, they were under orders not to stop
me. I ran into Kirsten in the store. “Hey, what’s
going on, Leon?” she said. She had a very nice smile.
I hated to lie to her. “Nothing’s going on. Just
getting milk for my cat,” I said. “I didn’t know
you had a cat,” she said. “I meant to say coffee.
You’re right, I don’t have a cat. Sometimes I
refer to my coffee as my cat. It’s just a private
joke. Sorry,” I said. “Are you all right?” she
asked. “Nothing’s going on, Kirsten. I promise
you. Everything is normal. The President shook
hands with a farmer, a real farmer. Is that such
a big deal?” I said. “I saw that,” she said, “and
that man was definitely not a farmer.” “Yeah, I
know,” I said, feeling better.

— James Tate (2004).
From American Poetry Review.
The Best American Poetry: 2004, 233-234.

  1. [1](At the time this poem was published (2004), George W. Bush was President of the United States. –R.G.)

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