In the weeks after the election, George felt at loose ends, like a person who has set a task for themselves and forgotten it. There was a sense that he had unfinished business to attend. In the manners and the eyes of his friends, he saw a similarly implacable restlessness.
He swept the grass with the rake on a warm Thursday in mid-November; after the late frost the trees let loose the rest of their leaves and he set to work again. Still the winds that beckoned December brought more organic litter to the grass. He started to put on his boots one Sunday afternoon to go out once more for raking. Instead, he let the leather and laces slip through his fingers. The heel made a dull thud on the floor and he stared at his socked foot too long.
He began to see the problem at last. In putting all his hope into one outcome, he had reserved nothing to buoy him in the event of disappointment. Despite a certain degree of intellectual wariness, in his heart he had been certain. And that certainty had been ripped away; like a thing ingrown it had taken some heart flesh with it. Although it made him want to laugh at himself to admit it, he discovered that he was in mourning.
Election years had always been fraught with anxiety. This one was heartbreaking. 2000. 2004. Yet some had ended with a sense of joy. He would never forget watching a young black family take to the stage in a freezing Chicago park; a warm blaze of red against black on the stomach of a future first lady; a halo of light behind a pair of pronounced ears; the rich manly voice ringing out into the night, promising brighter days ahead. The camera cut away to tears glistening in the eyes of people uplifted by hope.
He didn’t want to call his mother to talk about politics. It was something they hadn’t agreed on since he was a child with no perspective of his own. Still he wanted to give her a chance to change her mind.
She answered on the second ring.
“Oh hi, honey.”
They chatted about nothing memorable for a moment. George took a deep breath and launched into it. “Mom, I want to talk about the election and I want you to hear me out.”
He had prepared a speech.
“I just don’t understand why you think they are your party. You are a lower middle class woman and they don’t give a shit about your rights. All they care about it tax breaks for the rich.”
“Now that is not true.”
“What have they ever done for you?”
“Despite what you think, I am not a party loyalist. I voted for Kennedy.”
He had never heard this before and he doubted it instantly. After a breath, he said, “Well, I’m asking you not to vote for this man.”
“I’ll vote for whomever I damned well choose.”
“You don’t care that he targets gay people like your own son?”
“He does not.”
“Yes he does, Mom. He’s using people not wanting us to marry to get votes from the religious right.”
“Well, honey, a lot of people aren’t for gay people marrying. It’s a religious institution.”
He knew then that she was not going to change her vote. Not even an appeal to her to stand with him would pull her away from the party that she called her own. If blood was thicker than water, than ballot ink was as viscous as cooling lead.
She broke the silence.
“I’ll think about it, honey. Okay? Now are you and Ray coming to Thanksgiving this year? We miss you.”
“I’ll think about it.”
He heard her sign as he dropped the phone into its cradle.
They had only been dating for a few months when election day suddenly was upon them. When Ray wasn’t in school and when George wasn’t at work, the two of them were living each hour of each day as one seamless and unending date. They drove through all the little towns in the valley, walking through junk shops and eating in little pubs. Heavy sandwiches, dark brown beer.
They found hidden areas in the woods and made love under a canopy of trees that was bright green when they first discovered one another. The tent was bones and blue heaven and a few stray leaves when November found them huddled against an ancient oak, watching the distant sparkle of afternoon light on the river. Their breathing was growing soft again when George said they would need to hurry back to the car if they would get to the polls in time. He wasn’t entirely sure of when voting ended, but he knew he didn’t want to miss it.
The last time the president had been chosen, he’d been on the other side of the political gulf and he needed this vote to express his own personal journey. It meant less to Ray, who was less certain about politics. They’d learned not to discuss abortion; protective of their shared peace, they sheltered themselves from disputes.
They took a scenic route across the county for George to vote in an old school-house where his family had voted for decades. After he cast his ballot, he took an ‘I Voted’ sticker from an old woman wearing a cream cardigan over a flowered dress. It took a few tries to get it to affix to his thin jacket and he was still pressing it when he climbed back into the beat-up Dodge Omni. Ray was looking thoughtful.
“Do you think we have time to get to West Virginia so I can vote, too?”
They had been living together in Virginia for a few months, but Ray was still registered in his home state. The question filled George with excitement.
“Let’s try,” he said.
While they drove through the three counties that separated their polling places, the sky darkened to a smoky violet. George felt himself getting anxious. They should have spent less time in shops and at the pub earlier in the day; less time making love in the woods on the side of the road. When he glanced over at Ray, he saw his lover wearing a tense expression unfamiliar to his typically jovial countenance. As another town receded in the rearview mirror, George pressed the car to go faster.
They had just crossed the state line when Ray said, “Wait. I think they changed the location.”
“Would your mom know?”
George watched for a phone booth as they climbed up into the mountains. Finally they saw one in a yellow fluorescent glow up ahead. George pulled nettles out of his sweater sleeve while Ray stood in the golden nimbus, leaning into the phone as a wind kicked up, scattering rusty leaves into the dusk.
As they got back into the car, Ray said, “They did move it but I think I know where my mom meant. It was a little hard to hear because her damned scanner was going off in the background.”
Noticing George shiver as he fitted the key into the ignition, he said, “You could have stayed in the car.”
“You looked cold.”
Ray reached out and gave his hand a squeeze as they pulled back onto the road.
“Are we headed in the right direction?”
“We need to get onto 29 when we come to it,” Ray said.
They turned on the radio to listen to NPR.
“…with only ten minutes until the polls close in West Virginia,” the announcer was saying.
Gunning the engine, they found the junction to 29.
It was hard to find the polling place. Twice they passed it and when at last they pulled into the lot, the absence of any line and the presence of only a single car made them suspect they were too late. Ray clambered out and George watched him talk to an old guy who was standing at the doorway of the fire hall, wearing a hat lettered with VFW. Ray’s shoulders drooped as he walked forward into the headlights.
George was jealous of their happiness – he didn’t want them to feel glum.
As they nosed back onto the road, he said, “Well, we tried.”
“Yes, we did.”
“We should go back to the house and make some soup. That would be cozy.”
It didn’t take them long to shake off their disappointment. At least they each did a good job of finding things to talk about and to laugh about. George’s ears popped at they descended into Virginia; he couldn’t remember if they’d gone funny on the way up into the mountains. They moved softly into the night, the cold and glistening world outside of the vehicle vast and mysterious.
Time would ink the map of their future, but there would always be something left uncharted. It was both a terror and a comfort were they to ponder it, but all they wanted just then was to get home. And they were thinking about ingredients: potatoes, celery, carrots, cream, salt, pepper, flour, stock.