he line for the polling booths at Charlotte Baptist Church was more than a hundred people long, and Warner Lutz rocked the unsettled baby in his arms while studying the diverse messages posted around Fellowship Hall. Pray for God to bring the lost and hurting people from your community to himself. Anger is just one letter from Danger. Every half minute a blue light blinked, and the next person would enter a vacated stall, drawing the curtain closed as if to screen a deeply intimate process. At the far end of the auditorium, uniformed children paraded across a stage under a green and white banner that said KIDS CAN VOTE, TOO! A handful of Girl Scouts guarded a cardboard ballot box, solemnly distributing sharpened yellow pencils with shiny pink eraser tips. In Boston, Warner and Megan had voted at a public elementary school, in San Francisco in a rowhouse garage of a ward captain. The principle of separation between church and state ought to have made Charlotte Baptist a dubious host, or perhaps he was just unfamiliar with the civic role that churches could play if they wanted. The other day a monied pastor had told him that Charlotte liked to view herself as a conservative town who loved her churches on every street corner, and Warner had felt the Jewishness in him cringe in a kind of fear and the atheist in him vow to do something anarchic about it. From the start, he and Megan had been torn between blending in and pushing out, but he was feeling increasingly damned if he was going to assume his born-into religion just because everybody around him seemed to put so much stock in theirs. The length of the hall his neighbors vaguely smoothed the minor faultlines in the creases of their business suits or sweater sets, absentmindedly double-checked the coordination of their wristwatches and cufflinks or necklaces and earrings. Behind him was Megan in her faded jeans and baby-stained cardigan. She leaned forward and lightly breathed into his ear. "He's asleep."
The little wobble head was already
imprinting an island of drool above Warner's heart. He felt the
familiar surge in his throat of gratitude and awe at the unearthly
ripeness of the boy's cheeks, the tender narrowness of his neck.
How hard he had fought against having him, and now look how it
was only the baby and Sophie who could affirm the rightness of
the family's mediocre middle-class lives. Or wasn't it actually
that the children allowed them to transcend it, or at least inure
themselves to it? Sometimes when he was at the office fielding
phone calls from the patronizing and irate trustees he understood
that his only real reason for living was five o'clock, when he
could go home to sit in the beige puddle of their living room
and build stacks of blocks to the strains of heartfelt songs from
various Disney animated classics. He bent carefully, held his
nose close to Daniel's partly open bow of a mouth, and took in
the milky breathing.
Megan reached and stroked the baby's
hair. "What a cuddlebug." Then she felt Warner's shoulders.
"You're still mad? You could just wait in the car."
He nodded at the high windows. "It's
"Everyone should vote,"
she said. "It's only an hour. You shouldn't resent it so
much." She unfolded a pamphlet on bond issues and began to
"Look, there's education and
highways and sidewalks, all that stuff we always talk about."
"It's a fucking waste of time,"
he said quietly. "All the bond issues are voted on out of
ignorance." The baby stirred, and Warner began to sway him
back and forth.
"You want me to hold him?"
He shook his head. The boy's bunched
knees pressed gently against Warner's ribcage, and his head lolled
in the contour of his shoulder. He was six months old, a native
Carolinian. Sophie was a Californian. Warner was a Pennsylvanian,
and Megan a New Yorker. They'd begun in graduate school, where
he was getting a master's in public affairs and she was earning
one in art history. She'd said near the end of their first afternoon
together, at a graduate student happy hour, that he was the most
negative person she'd ever met. He wondered if that were still
true. He supposed it was. He rested his head against the baby's
head and shut his eyes to a pearled old woman navigating her way
into a booth with the aid of a walker and an attendant dressed
in white. He wished he had a cellphone so he could check in with
the office. He'd denied their request for an electoral day off,
and he was uncertain whether they'd bothered to show up on time.
None of the seven people who worked for him were even from the
South, so he couldn't attribute any of the office tension to the
usual demographic issues: the drawling pace, the hazardous driving,
the donut downtowns, the bullheaded insistence on states' rights
being at the heart of the Civil War. The usual clichés.
But everyone at MORE--how he hated the acronym, how he pushed
to get them to at least answer the phone with M-O-R-E--was from
the North or the Midwest. Privately they called themselves nonprofit
carpetbaggers and imagined their lineage bound to the integrationists
of the sixties. Instead, they'd sprung from corporate Charlotte,
from the bank and airline and insurance conglomerates, and the
Metrolina Organization for Resource Exchange was a networker,
a facilitator, a broker--all the eighties-nineties tautology that
said what you actually did was as close to nothing as doing something
could be. Not that he didn't believe in MORE. As its director,
he was obligated. And before his time the organization had helped
create the Nonprofit Housing Coalition, the Emergency Food and
Drug Delivery System, and the Educational Access Network. Even
now they were interviewing stakeholders and preparing position
papers for an underprivileged neighborhoods infrastructural upgrade
effort. His eyes unfocused at the vocabulary. What he did was
still just paper. He was a technocrat. In Charlotte, who wasn't?
But he knew what those other people were making--not that it was
only about money but it was always at least partly about money--and
this distinction between them and him--his nonprofit, middle-
class, mediocre, mad-as-a-motherfucker lifestyle--made him sick.
"Look where we could
be," Megan liked to say.
And of course he looked--because
he could and he had to, it was part of his job--at what lay under
the trap door. The poor. The poor poor, the working poor, the
criminal poor. The there-but-for-the-grace-of-birth-and-circumstances-go-I
poor. The outhouse, crackhouse, madhouse, jailhouse poor. The
people-he-thought-he-worked-for-every-day poor. The goddamn-he-was-lucky-he-wasn't-one-of-them
poor. Yet he still wanted more. Every morning when he drove Sophie
in their shitcan 100,000-plus mile Honda with the guardrail crease
down one side to the private but only $175-a-month preschool and
he saw the other parents in their new Volvos and minivans and
Suburbans, he wanted more. Every noon when he stood in line at
the vegetarian take-out for his styrofoam cup of soup and can
of diet cola while around him the gray suits and sleek dresses
milled between garden salads and poached salmon, he wanted more.
And in the evenings when he drew up to the cramped red-brick townhouse
apartments of Crepe Myrtle Hill, having passed the magic dust
mansions of the growing rank and file rich with their screened-in
porches and their two-story great rooms and their eat-in kitchens
and their master-bedroom baths that were generally larger than
Warner and Megan's entire first floor, he wanted more. He used
to say to people who wearied of his whining that if he only knew
how to sell out, he would. Was he just a crank, a litanist, an
enraged self-pityist? He snuggled the baby, that soft solid mass
of flesh and foam, and wondered if he would ever understand what
enough was, and if so, whether he would recognize when he himself
had achieved it. Not twenty feet in front of him was a guy in
a sweater more ragged than Warner's, wearing pants with a baggier
ass than his. He turned and offered up a slightly grayer face,
halved by unfashionable prescription glasses that sat slightly
crookedly, and showed a set of browning teeth. UnderWarner. He
ducked into a polling booth, appearing to be holding his breath,
and drew the curtain closed.
Daniel pushed at Warner's chest
and examined his eyes, his own expression neutral after the abbreviated
nap. As they straggled forward in line, Megan reread the pamphlet,
her head down, slight shimmers of silver streaking the shades
of brown. Warner loved the gray hair. It made him feel as if they'd
endured something together. Now his own glasses bit into the bridge
of his nose and he stifled a yelp and snatched at Daniel's tightening
"No," Warner said. "Honey,
no." He groped at the tiny wrist and found the pressure point.
The baby released the glasses. Warner let go. He turned to see
if Megan was watching and his glasses raked across his face, slashing
his cheek, and sailed from Daniel's hand, clattering to the hardwood
floor. "Daniel! Godda--"
"--Let me take him," Megan
said, tucking the pamphlet into her back pocket and reaching.
"No, no." He knelt, still
holding the boy, and retrieved the metal frames. He bent them
back into shape and pressed them onto his nose, trying to ignore
a fresh pebbled crack in the lower corner of one of the lenses.
"It's all right."
Again, the baby reached for the
glasses, clawing at Warner's face. Warner held him out above the
floor, the baby giggling and cooing. The underWarner came out
from his booth, clutching his neck under an invisible burden.
Warner felt his own shoulders straighten.
Megan rubbed his back. "You
don't mind taking him in with you?"
"Of course not." Now he was concentrating, quietly vowing not to vote for who he was supposed to vote for, doing a write-in or choosing Libertarian even though it didn't quite mean as much equality of freedom as he wished it meant. A blue light flashed and Megan gently pushed him ahead. The curtain under the blue bulb of the booth was green with dark islands of old soil marks. He went into a tight space not unlike an airplane lavatory and pulled the fabric behind him. An electronic panel glowed yellowishly under a strip of fluorescent lighting. He saw the name of the candidate he was supposed to vote for and Daniel clawed at him in the metallic closeness of the booth. "Okay," he murmured. "Okay." His finger wavered above the choice and he bent back a switch at what he thought was Libertarian, only to discover that it was the guy he was supposed to choose, the guy with the soft gut and the husky slur and the pursed-lip imperiousness. He tried to flick the switch back but it wouldn't click. His heart thudded. His one chance and he'd blown it. He voted the rest of the ticket and then diligently chose positions on the various bond issues. At the last page he saw the word CANCEL and he batted at it as Daniel reached for his face. Now the baby was drooling down his neck and flailing his arms. He hit PROCESS and let it go.
|Photo Credit: Sara London|
Copyright © 1997 Fred Leebron.