THE SUN FELL TOWARD THE WEST, casting a shadow over the Church of Christ. The parking lot was packed as I navigated my aging sedan inward. Out my driver’s side window, a pack of zealous humans was attempting some last-minute stumping for an incumbent district attorney, wannabe sheriff, or aging state house representative. It was for someone on the ballot, it makes no difference who, at least for me. For them, it did matter.
As I pulled into the packed parking lot, I was welcomed by two signs in front of the entrance.
One read: Vote Here ->
The other: Recovery Meeting ->
Appropriate, I thought. First one, and then the other. One thing at a time. The thought made me chuckle. We all could use both on this election night in America.
Through some careful maneuvering, well-timed cursing, and potentially one unfriendly hand gesture, I found my way into a suitable parking spot.
I walked toward my appointed polling place inside the gymnasium of the Church of Christ. As I entered the gym, my eyes quickly adjusted from the gathering darkness outside and to the harsh florescent overhead lights inside.
The gym was filled, and I found my place in line and settled in for what might be a lengthy wait. I briefly looked around. The people looked like I felt: tired, angry, and anxious. They stared down at their smartphones or engaged in hushed conversations with the person standing next to them. Total strangers bonded, while trying to avoid the one topic that brought all of us to this place of worship on a Tuesday evening somewhere in the heart of America: what unworthy individuals would be tasked with leading our nation for a mandated number of years.
In my back pocket was a thin book, and I pulled it out. It was a beat-up copy of a John Steinbeck short story called Burning Bright. It was written as a play in story form. It had the classic Steinbeck themes of complicated relationships, broken dreams, unfulfilled needs and passions, you know all those uplifting things necessary as you wait for your turn to cast your choice for who might be given the opportunity to become your future upstanding, morally-incorruptible representation.
I liked the book because it was thin, running only 85 pages, so it fit perfectly in my back pocket, and, yes, it came with no apps on it.
My smartphone sat in my front pocket and was the exact reason I decided to bring an actual page-infested, dog-eared book to my polling place. I was afraid without something physical to read, the digital world in my pocket might beckon as I waited to fulfill my civic duty. It was this, exactly, that I was hoping to avoid. It was this specific device, or at least the content contained within, that had caused so much internal wrestling over the past few months.
To be brief, the device had led to an equal dose of both fury and loneliness. It seemed to remind me that I was nothing more than a great spectator watching the world ripping itself apart using digital avatars as soldiers and news feed posts as well-armed, if less than well-informed, howitzers.
Suddenly, I heard a soft, yet confident voice come from behind me. “Steinbeck? They’re going to throw you out of this place for being a communist.”
My eyes lifted from the text. I turned around, and the first thing I caught were her eyes. They caused a quick catch in my throat. They were the color of cream-soaked coffee.
She was a few inches shorter than me. She wore a black boyfriend tee that fell casually off her right shoulder. The tee had a picture of Marilyn Monroe on the front. Her skin was light, and she wore a bright shade of red lipstick.
“Tangled Up in Blue” could be faintly heard coming from the white headphones casually draped around her neck. Her auburn hair danced around them.
“Dylan?” I said as I closed the book in my hands. I lowered my voice, leaned in close, and darted my eyes back and forth in frantic manner. “Careful, they might think you’re with HER!”
“Trust me, if they would let me, I’d walk in here with nothing on but her campaign sign.”
“Well that might change some hearts and minds. It would at least make this polling place great again. I tell you what, you’d have my vote.”
“You know this is the end of the world, don’t you? The four horsemen of the apocalypse are coming: pant suits, red hats, missing emails and misogyny. The day of reckoning is upon us. It has been for told. “
The silver-haired lady in front of us looked over her shoulder disapprovingly.
“I must have missed that in my news feed,” I said.
“Oh, you did, did you. Avoiding Walking Dead spoilers was just more important.” She winked at me and smiled. When she smiled, these dimples appeared on the corners of her mouth. They were incredibly cute.
Just then she turned to hear a voting official loudly announce the arrival of a first-time voter. The crowd cheered. The young voter, who looked no more than sixteen years old, seemed equally embarrassed and annoyed to suddenly be the center of attention in a crowd full of complete strangers.
As she turned to watch the spectacle unfold, I caught the back of her right shoulder. Her tee hung loosely, offering me a glimpse at the top half of a colorful cross tattoo.
She turned around, while I simultaneously darted my eyes from her back. “Nikki,” she thrust out her hand. “I’m, Nikki.”
“Enchanted, Nikki” I said, in my best haughty accent.
“So, do you come here often?” she said with a laugh.
“Only when I feel like it’s time for a change. Or the Constitution tells me its time. Or, you know, when I fill like coloring in boxes or standing in a line that doesn’t end in a rollercoaster.”
“You don’t think this line ends in a rollercoaster?” She thrust her fists into her sides, jetted out her elbows and cocked her head to the left while never taking her eyes off me.
“Touché, Nikki, touché.” I said.
The line slowly moved forward and we followed instinctively, but not consciously. At least, I didn’t. My thoughts were certainly elsewhere than on my footsteps, nor in the book that I had already slipped back into my pocket.
“This morning my horoscope said something unexpected might happen to me,” she stated casually.
“Unexpected, good, or unexpected, bad?”
“You know, I don’t know,” she said, with a shrug. “Don’t you hate that? It’s like when Miss Cleo tells you there’s a good chance you’re gonna die, but when…? Well, that information is going to cost you a little extra.”
“Let me see your palm,” I said.
She looked at me rather curiously. Despite the arched eyebrow hanging somewhere between an auburn hairline and a subtle dash of smoky eyeshadow, she reached her hand toward me, and I took it softly by the wrist.
“Let me see here,” I sighed and rubbed my right hand over two days-worth of facial stubble. Then I gingerly trailed my pointer finger over the center of her palm. “I see some choices in your future. I see you’re going to have to make some important choices in the very near future. You might want to bone up. I hear social media is a great place to get your facts from.”
She laughed, and the sound gave me a slight jolt of powerful joy.
Behind us, a man wearing an electrician’s work shirt casually cleared his throat. The noise caused me to look up and realize the line was moving forward without us in tow. I dropped her wrist, placed my own hand softly on her back and ushered her forward.
“Unexpected,” she said idly. “Something unexpected. The super moon is coming, you know? Maybe that’s it? A giant moon, is that what my horoscope meant? Could it be my sudden opportunity to cast a vote for a Wrestlemania champion? I just don’t know. What does it all mean?”
“It means you’ve entered The Twilight Zone. In a minute Rod Serling is going to pop out of thin air and offer you a cigarette.”
“Identification, please,” a woman sitting in front of me asked politely. We were now at the front of the line.
“Well, this is my stop,” I looked at Nikki as I reached for my wallet to pull out my crumpled-up voter registration card. “Good luck.”
She nodded as she dug through her purse for her own card.
I was handed an oversized piece of paper that contained the choices I had for representation and a pencil; then I was herded into a small cubical to fulfill the right to which I was given because I was, rather gratefully, birthed in the womb of Lady Liberty.
It didn’t take me long to fill out the ballot; my decisions had previously been considered and decided. Yet, there is a rather small twinge of excitement that comes along with voting. It’s small, but it exists.
I then fed my ballot, which was hopefully free of hanging chads or dangling Steves, into the hungry machine that, presumably, would count said ballot along with many others.
As I walked toward the exit, I saw a familiar face. “I’m doing an exit poll. I’m going to need to know how you voted,” Nikki said with a grin.
“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. And then of course, there would be no one to expertly fill out that rather fortunate campaign sign.”
“Okay. Fair enough. Then I’ll settle for your number.”
The demand kind of caught me off guard. She, without hesitation, pulled her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans and thrust it into my hands. I, with fingers now slightly jittery, added my number to her phone and handed the device back to her.
There was a brisk chill as I exited the Church of Christ gymnasium. For the first time in a long time, a slight sense of autumn hung in the air. I drove home and, like the rest of the human population between the Atlantic and Pacific, tuned my television to whatever news organization had content delivered to me by news anchors who I suspected at least roughly shared similar political views to myself.
The states began to fill with colors: red and blue. As the virtual United States map became more color-filled, the tension mounted with unbearable intensity. This tension, unabated, forced me to the comfort of my bedroom long before a winner was declared or a concession speech was given. This night would end for me long before the proverbial dye was cast.
My dreams were filled, filled with a strange feeling in the air: disheveled men holding signs saying this is the end of times, liberal news anchors exhaling deep sighs of disbelief and displeasure, celebrities scrambling for passports to Canada, and Russian dictators toasting with overfilled glasses of vodka.
I woke up with my forehead and hair drenched in a deep sweat. I immediately curled up into a fetal position, trying to steel myself for whatever this world had waiting for me. I might have pulled the cover back up over my head and buried myself below a large stack of pillows, if only the siren call of my nine-to-five rang as an annoying, repetitive cry originating from my soon to be shattered alarm clock.
I reached for my smartphone, while still buried beneath my covers. I didn’t want to know, but I needed to know. I have learned at least one valuable lesson in this life: burying your head in the sand leads to nothing but closed eyes and a mouthful of dirt. So, I breathed deeply and prepared myself to discover the fate of the American nation.
However, the phone in my hand buzzed unexpectedly. I looked down and read the text message that had appeared without warning:
Hey, it’s Nikki. I don’t know about you, but I somehow managed to survive last night. I don’t know how. I’m still shaky though. I hope you lived through without any major palpitations. If you’re still alive, would you like to take me out to dinner tonight? 🙂
In that moment, briefly, a much-needed smile crept across my face. My fingers fell on three letters: