work in progress    

  from Six Figures

The 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 really pouring."

"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 read.

"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 fist.

"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.

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    Photo Credit: Sara London  
Copyright © 1997 Fred Leebron.