This bit of shameless self-indulgence is an original work of fiction (copyright © 2008; all rights reserved). At least, I hope it's fiction. Just like last year, you can let me know whether it's a trick or a treat.
-- Phyl Diri, Esq.
In a characteristic spasm of righteous, patriotic fervor, the kind that could erupt as easily in a bar as in line at the hardware store, she might find herself proclaiming to you that you were certainly entitled to your opinion, and that she would fight and die to protect your right to speak it freely. Yes, even if she disagreed. Yes, even if the viewpoint you expressed happened to be an obvious abomination in the eyes of any upstanding, right-thinking person.
And she would believe it when she said it. Absolutely.
She often wondered privately if she really would fight and die for this, or for anything. Sometimes, picturing herself a citizen of another time and place while she drove herself to the mall or swam laps at the health club, she wondered what side she'd have taken. Would she have been a Tory in the American Revolution? She was, after all, middle-aged now, and middle-class, and things just weren't as clear-cut as they used to be. Sure, freedom of speech might be worth it, but taxes? Could she really picture herself advocating killing someone over money?
How 'bout the Civil War? As a girl, she had romanticized first abolitionism as she read Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and then slavery and bravely facing the world with loyal retainers and velvet curtain-covered hoopskirts when she read Gone with the Wind, and then a little of both depending on her mood. What would she really have thought, though, and more importantly, what would she have done in the actual time and place as her actual, true-life self? Could she have roused herself to take sides, or would she have been too busy feeding a family, probably on the narrow end of the economic spectrum without servants of any kind, just keeping her mouth shut and her head down and hoping everyone she loved would have the good sense to do the same? She couldn't say, not when she was honest with herself. It was easy to imagine herself doing the brave thing and the right thing in some time and place so far away that the stories about it all had become just that, stories, stories filled with people who were now only symbols.
The one thing that seemed real out of all of it was her set of rights. She knew these rights weren't immutable; she knew that they had to be protected, but she also knew that the best way to protect them -- for now, at least -- was simply to exercise them. She must speak her mind. She must vote. She must serve on a jury if selected. If it ever came time to fight, physically fight, and maybe even kill or die for these rights, though, she wondered if she would, or could. She wondered if she'd even know the time had come.
People in the past seemed so certain of everything. At least they were in the stories that got told. Things weren't so certain now.
Usually she loved election season, the ultimate expression of Constitutional goodness, but this year was different. There was just so very much talking. At least her headache had dissipated somewhere along the line. She wasn't exactly sure when or how. It's not as though the candidates or the pundits or the walking, talking media dolls had done anything to help.
She remembered that headache. It had been bad, terrifying bad, and it had lasted a looooooong time. It made her dizzy and it made her sick -- kind of like all this election hot air, she joked to herself. Har har. No, it was different from that, sharp and uninterruptable. She could turn off the TV and radio and simply choose not read the papers if she didn't want to. She couldn't turn off that headache, though.
She remembered going to the hospital, and she remembered lying down on the clean white sheet on top of the gurney. She remembered that little brown-haired guy trying to get an IV in her, stabbing at her as though she were an insensate piece of meat, stabbing and wiggling with the needle, missing, and then stabbing and wiggling again, and again, up and down both of her arms. She hurt so much, and she was so dizzy. She desperately wanted to slap him away from her like some gigantic, horror-movie mosquito, but couldn't have fought him off if she'd tried. She tried to breathe deeply and tell herself it was for her own good.
And then she was home again. Here at home, all by herself, not a mark on her, and no headache. She couldn't have told you how she'd gotten here, or when the headache had stopped exactly. But it really was gone now, and that was such a relief. They must have given her some drug at the hospital that made her forget.
At home, she tried to focus on the most important thing happening to her country, the presidential election. She did listen to the radio, watch TV, and read papers. She devoured it all whole, drinking in the mighty cacophony of Liberty In Process. It was just like any other election year.
But really this year was different somehow. At first she couldn't put her finger on it. Now she couldn't see anything else. She'd lived almost every minute of her life on this nation's soil, and she really couldn't recall it ever being this weird, or honestly, this bad.
It was bad.
People would say anything. So what's new about that, right? But every time someone spoke, there was a walking, talking media doll with a microphone. It didn't matter how stupid or vile or irresponsible or irrelevant any particular person's utterances might be. If it was about the election, it got put on TV.
"If Susan Blatherstone is elected, every woman will be forced to have an abortion. I just feel this in my soul. If you don't believe me, you should do the research."
"If Johnson Featherweight is elected, the nation of Canada will cease to exist! I'm dead certain of it! The man's a terrorist, and an Episcopalian!"
"Susan Blatherstone's running mate is a known turkey diddler! Ask anyone!"
"Johnson Featherweight's running mate has formed a secret allegiance with Lichtenstein! It's common knowledge on the internet!"
It wouldn't stop. It got worse and worse. And the worst part of it all was, everyone who spoke seemed hell-bent on trying to convince everyone in earshot that he or she was the Average American speaking on behalf of the Average American. Her fears were supposed to be that person's fears. Her levels of education and ignorance respectively were supposed to be this other person's. These people were all supposed to be representing her, especially the candidates, who said even less but talked even more. "Look at my plan! If you compare my plan to my opponent's, you can see clearly that I love you and America more!"
No, it wouldn't stop.
She started joking with her friends on the phone and in e-mails that she had decided she was going to vote for whoever shut up first. It was tempting. Sadly, she knew neither of the main candidates would shut up until Election Day.
She wasn't naïve. She knew the professional gasbags would all keep gassing on and on at some background level forever, that another election cycle was starting just around the corner, that this Election Day wouldn't really stop anyone's mouth for good. The level of intensity, though, the impenetrable miasma of insults to her intelligence and the imagination of her countryfolk, that at least would diminish. And then they could all breathe freely again, at least for a little while.
Tuesday, November 4. Election Day. She couldn't believe the day had come at last. She was beside herself with excitement. No, she didn't really feel all that aligned with the person she'd chosen to vote for, but she felt this person would do as well as anybody, and anyway, she just couldn't wait for it to be over and for the peace and quiet to settle in with the snows of winter. Her television programs would come back, no crazy interruptions. The pundits would stuff themselves back into their usual media cages, and she wouldn't be inundated with solicitors at the front door, people screaming at her on street corners to donate money for this or some other candidate's campaign, or those horrible, dreaded robocalls. After today, it would all go back to normal, at least for a couple of years before the next cycle began.
So it was a good day, a very good day. She decided to try and dress as though it were an occasion. Her red suit with the navy silk blouse, navy heels, white stockings. A big sparkly rhinestone flag pin she'd inherited from her mother. She knew she looked sharp, and cheerful, and just right for today, for this time and this place. She spent half an hour or so looking for a mirror, any mirror, anywhere in the house, just so she could confirm this. But as usual, or at least as usual since she'd gotten back from the hospital, she just couldn't seem to find one.
Whatever. She knew she looked fine, and the day was lovely, so she decided she would just start walking to the polling place. If her blouse were untucked or her underwear showing, someone would tell her. It was that kind of town.
She got to the polling place, cast her vote, accepted her "I've voted! Have you?" sticker, and left the polling place proud. So what if she wasn't crazy about her choice? So what if this person wasn't a statesman of historical stature, just a decent accountant and a hard worker only marginally more competent to her mind than the opposition? At least she'd made a choice. At least the whole ordeal was over. Now there was nothing for it but to sit in front of the TV with popcorn and her laptop and watch the results come streaming in, a trickle at first, a dizzying cascade later on, much later as all the time zones closed their polls and got busy counting and reporting.
When she went to bed, it was late, but no one had conceded yet. She felt at peace, though. The process had gone forward once again. She'd exercised her rights once again.
She got up the next morning and flicked on the TV right away, first thing. It was almost reflexive. She wanted the election results, of course, but besides that, all she expected to see was the usual morning news -- house fires, drownings, the weather, the latest rip-off scheme threatening the consumer. But that isn't what she got.
"I'm standing here with Senator Featherweight. Senator, how do you expect to do in this election in your home district?"
"Well, Dick, the people in my district are good people, small town Americans with common sense and a fair work ethic. I know they'll make the right choice."
Wha'? She rubbed her eyes. Obviously she'd misunderstood something. She flicked to another channel.
"Senator Blatherstone, polls show you ahead in several swing states. But polls can be wrong, as we've ALL found out! (chuckle, chuckle) Do you think your being a woman and a Lithuanian-American will set off the Bradley effect once voters actually get to their polling booths and close the curtains?"
What was happening? This was so confusing. She'd voted yesterday. She had! She went to the refrigerator. Yes, there on the door was her red, white and blue "I've voted! Have you?" sticker. There in the recycling bin was her ballot stub marked November 4. She hadn't dreamed it! She hadn't! So where were the results? What was going on?
She looked at her Word-a-Day calendar. She was almost religious about ripping off each page right before she went to bed every single night. November 5. Wednesday, November 5. That's what it said this morning.
She went back to the TV. Oh, good, it was the weather. "It's a bright, clear morning here in town, so you should have no trouble getting out there and getting out the vote this Election Day! It's Wednesday, November 5, and we'll be right back after this commercial."
What? What was going on?
Was she going mad? Election Day was the first Tuesday in November. Wasn't it? Yes, of course. It was always the first Tuesday in November. Always. Unless there was a special election, of course. Was this a special election? Had there been a tie, or a malfunction of some kind? Did everyone have to go vote all over again?
She called the office of the Town Clerk. "Um, hi. This is going to sound stupid -- or maybe crazy -- but --"
"Yes? I'm sorry, but we're really busy here today, Election Day and all. What's your question?"
"Um -- what's going on? Is there a run-off election or something?"
The clerk laughed. "Funny! We haven't even held the general election yet! Don't you watch the news? Call back tomorrow if you want to know about run-offs!"
She was confused. And her red suit and blue silk blouse needed to be dry-cleaned. Her duty was clear, though. She had to vote. Whatever else was going on, she had to protect her right by exercising it. Things might not be what she thought they were, but here it was, somehow an Election Day on what she was quite sure was the wrong day, and yet it was an Election Day; everyone else seemed to agree on that. Everyone but her. So, okay. She'd wear her green suit this time. She could pretend she was making a statement about the planet or something. Whatever.
Again the same ritual, the dressing, the search for the elusive mirror, the decision to just give up and start walking toward the polling place. Again the voting. Again the sticker handed to her by a cheerful, elderly volunteer she knew from church, and again even the proud walk home, although this time she felt less proud, more jittery. She met no one's eye, but she kept her head up and smiled in the general direction of the blue-skied world. When she got home, she kicked off her pumps, drew the curtains, and parked herself in front of the TV with her laptop again. This time she had chamomile tea, no popcorn.
Just as before, she watched the count start, a trickle, then a flood, then lots of talking, lots of speculating, and then before the results were in, sleep. She'd find out in the morning like everyone else. There would be tape of a concession speech. There would be balloons. And then there would be quiet. Then they would all shut up and life would return to normal.
Thursday. This morning she showered quietly, made her pot of coffee, poured herself cereal. She sat at the dining table, alone as always. She fingered the remote a little tentatively, but finally she turned on the TV.
"I'm here with Senator Featherstone. Senator, what do you think will happen to the Hawaiian Islands if your opponent is elected president today?"
"Bob, if Senator Featherstone wins the election, you can kiss your roofing tile good-bye. She's been adamantly opposed to roofing tile from Day One, and her campaign has never denied that."
"Yes, Mary, you really couldn't ask for better. You can see on the map we're right smack in the middle of a high pressure zone, and that means another day of blue skies! It's clear and perfect Election Day weather ahead this Thursday, November 6. We'll be right back after this message from our sponsor."
She started to cry. Then she started to laugh. She laughed until she was so tired she could almost not stand up and get dressed afterward. She knew what she had to do, though. Whatever else might be happening, she had rights and only one way to protect them.
She put on her beige suit. It wasn't flashy or proud; it was serviceable, if a little rumply around the middle. It would show her solidarity with other average people.
But damn. Why oh why couldn't she ever find a single mirror?