Election day was his favorite day, though it sometimes spanned days or even months. The boy had never experienced the electoral college or a voting process with multiple polling places spanning across every state. Pundits with no particular credentials or education had called it the great streamlining of modern democracy on varying indistinguishable television shows. They sipped their thermoses of decaf Monster Energy and laughed at each other’s jokes until their veneers fell out and their tonsils bled.
No one was quite sure where the new election process was born, but historians pointed back to episode 243 of America’s Got Talent when an alcoholic ostrich farmer dressed in a tuxedo woven by spiders overdosed on prescription hard boiled eggs and got a standing ovation from the judges and the audience. After the doctors injected his heart with adrenaline to revive him, he grabbed the microphone and predicted a future where the entire country descended on a single town to determine the next president. He died moments after and received another standing ovation, though he didn’t end up winning the season. The winner of that particular season went to a man who had his arms replaced by chainsaws and did magic tricks on a flaming dirt bike.
Now every four years, the voters traveled from near and far to South Bend, Indiana, to cast their vote for the candidate they thought most qualified to run the country further into the ground. Some refused, calling the voting process unconstitutional while others called it quintessentially American. Whatever the opinion, reality was a singular, seemingly unending line that spanned the entire city. Once the line reached the end, the election was considered over, and a winner was declared. Some questioned why an uninspiring town in northern Indiana was picked as the destination for something so momentous. The only logical explanation was the wide variety of abandoned warehouses to choose as the official polling place. That combined, of course, with the availability of heroin, an abundance of strip malls, and the proximity to the world’s largest recreational vehicle museum. It contained attractions or activities for virtually anyone visiting the city, from any walk of life.
The city did its part to appear festive by painting the streets as American flags and building effigies of former presidents out of asbestos. Some houses hung Christmas lights and others reenacted the Civil War. Most sat in their front lawns and reverently observed the monotony of the line. Many out-of-town people turned the occasion into an extended vacation, a perfect realization of civic duty and depressing family time.
They let their kids take pictures next to dying goats at the Potawatomi petting zoo and got them overpriced souvenirs from the University of Notre Dame bookstore. They would eat undercooked chicken at Bar Louie and barely tip servers. Sometimes parents would treat themselves to a Segway tour of a Chrysler dealership or a few gallons of Long Island iced tea from the Linebacker Lounge before driving home drunk. Driving drunk was a favorite local pastime that election tourists also grew to love. Something about blowing through a stop sign while vomiting out of the driver’s side window onto a raccoon corpse had a fairy tale’s makeup. Swerving in and out of traffic as they wrestled with consciousness was nirvana; it proved they loved country and family. It was more dangerous to not be drunk on the road on any given night in South Bend—at least that was the rationalization most made.
Most kids would resent Notre Dame for the rest of their lives, the four-leaf clover serving as a beacon for pain and suffering during those holidays. Parents came away with their own souvenirs, something to cherish the remainder of the uneventful year. A patch with a tiny American flag and the phrase, “I voted” was sewn onto their foreheads until it was scraped off four years later and replaced with a new one. The crude display of perceived patriotism was a badge of honor, a replacement for a personality, and perpetual proof of undying sophistication. It was something to talk about instead of the weather. The chewed skin that never seemed to fully heal asserted their ability to follow directions. Sometimes they paired this with a stolen bar of Irish Spring soap from the Wooden Indian Motel while the maids washed blood from the sheets.
People who didn’t visit the city to vote attempted to manufacture counterfeit patches, but there was an unmistakable look in their eye that they hadn’t experienced the wonders of northern Indiana. Maybe it was lingering happiness or the fact that the sulfurous air from neighboring Gary, Indiana, hadn’t permanently embedded in their skin. Maybe they just appeared intangibly less American.
When he was younger, the boy would set up a popcorn stand and sell tiny Ziploc bags for a quarter to people who waited in line. His parents would also sell parking spots on their lawn for $20. He loved that their yard was a temporary home for voters. Although the grass would be ruined and their yard would be an unredeemable slop pit of mud and garbage, it was worth it for the few hundred dollars and the privilege of hosting the voters. His family would spend the weeks after the election picking up unspeakable human filth. The boy remembered finding a bird that had choked to death on a bottle cap. They later had a funeral for the bird and his mom told him that it died doing what it loved. He wouldn’t ever grasp what she meant by it, but in the moment, it comforted him. He cried himself to sleep that night, all for a bird he never knew. He wondered if choking was really what it loved.
He would bundle up and play football with his brother, sometimes passing the ball to people in line and running as far as he could to receive their passes, which oftentimes fell depressingly short. He would scoop the ball from the cold grass and jog it to the next person in line until he was called in for supper and a hot bath before bed. Fall in South Bend meant burning leaves and jumping in leaf piles; it meant layering, hooded sweatshirts, wool socks, hot coffee, hot apple cider, football, the smell of cigars, and mustard; it meant soccer chairs and tailgating for things he didn’t care about.
Maybe it was fall he loved more than the election, but they became one in his mind because they corresponded. When he was very young, he would ask his parents every year why there weren’t visitors, unable to comprehend that it happened only every four years. His parents once held a fake election for him when he was particularly distraught, which delighted him to no end. They stood in a line outside of the house and took turns entering while the boy dutifully counted ballots. At the end of the night, they all ate mom’s famous chicken kiev casserole and playfully argued if the ballots were counted correctly, to which the boy said he would never betray the sanctity of the process. He slept without dreaming that night.
When he was old enough, he fantasized about participating in the ritual. He saw the look of pride from people exiting the abandoned warehouse and wondered what it must feel like to control the entire country’s destiny. The responsibility seemed unimaginable to him and sometimes he found himself wondering if he was worthy of such a decision. These were heroes he looked at in line, though they didn’t resemble those in the comic books he loved. Many appeared purposefully in opposition to the body types and chiseled faces he was accustomed to. His dad had explained that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and the boy nodded.
The boy was lucky enough to grow up in that town and even luckier yet to live only blocks from the abandoned warehouse in which votes were cast. At one point he and his brother bought a video camera and microphone to host their very own election day home video show. They walked up and down the enormous line and interviewed anyone who was willing to talk to them. He remembered asking his parents if they thought he and his brother would make it on the local news. His mom tousled his hair and told him anything was possible.
“We’re reporting live from the line in South Bend, Indiana. Which candidate are you voting for?” the boy asked a portly man with bowed legs and palpable indigestion.
“Have you considered killing yourself?” said the man, returning to his phone.
The boys ran to the next person in line. A liver spotted elderly woman who smelled like wet hay.
“What happens inside the warehouse?” asked the boy.
“Something special. Though, I fear this will be my last year voting,” she responded, coughing blood into a tissue before issuing them a hard candy that they reluctantly accepted.
The boy would never forget the way her hands shook or the rope-like veins that protruded from every thinning layer of skin. The hard candy was eaten on a dare years later, having the essence of a dog rawhide and ACE bandage.
They never saw the woman again but convinced themselves she was always hidden somewhere in the line.
After two interviews, they grew bored and gave up. They dropped the camera in the entry hall to their house and never picked it up again. The footage was erased eventually and replaced with the boy’s high school graduation, which was also never watched again. They would repeat this with piano, soccer, clarinet, woodworking, and just about every activity their parents dumped money into. It wasn’t that they weren’t grateful, they just couldn’t find what they were looking for. Maybe they knew that deep down, they weren’t meant to excel at anything. Maybe it was a restlessness for escape before they could wrap their heads around the concept of being trapped.
The length of the line itself was incredible, it went as far as his eyes could see and then some. Sometimes he selfishly wondered if waiting that long was worth it, but immediately reminded himself that the fate of the country was at stake. His dad had made sure he knew this. From a very young age, they were taught that voting might be the most important thing they do in their lives. Maybe this was the reason they quit everything. Though, it was more likely that they simply didn’t pride themselves on suffering through things like previous generations. They opted for comfort and convenience instead of painstaking, pointless devotion.
His fascination with the election and the line itself waned over the years, though he still found himself hypnotized by the immensity of the line and the voters’ resolve. He and his brother grew apart for no reason in particular. Sometimes they would talk about the time they interviewed people in line and laugh at how embarrassing the prospect was. They promised to call each other more but never did. They planned game nights and complained about the obligation until a last-minute, sorrowful cancellation was offered with a promise to eventually reschedule.
After the boy graduated high school, he did what most people did: signed up for sports management classes at the community college for a degree he would never finish for a profession that didn’t exist. He worked at University Park Mall on the side and got drunk as hell with other friends who would never leave. Sometimes they slept with high schoolers they bought beer for. They were all dying under the faint glow of the garage refrigerator light but lived like kings who presided over an empire of melting snow mounds and liver failure. Their distorted reality was held loosely together by the resin scraped from varying weed smoking devices and the bacon grease they threw in their front yard.
They threw house parties and smoked menthol cigarettes inside and posted boastful pictures wearing flat-brimmed hats. He tried heroin once because it was around, but it made him throw up, and he felt guilty for months. He never tried it again and, at that moment, was thankful for the Irish Catholic guilt that dictated almost every other aspect of his life. He recalled his second-grade teacher telling him that every time he sinned, it was like nailing another barb into Jesus on the cross, and he wondered how deep he had driven that needle into the limp feet of his savior.
They sometimes traveled to Michigan for vacation and got just as drunk there, posting pictures of themselves drinking domestic beers by the lake with the hashtag #PureMichigan. They knew every bar deal in town on any given night and sometimes got free appetizers at Olive Garden. The sack of stale bread sticks and jars of expired marinara served as reminders of royalty.
The boy and his friends never missed a Notre Dame home game and they would remind anyone of this. Their infantile obsession with a university that was unaware of their existence was all they had. They cheered on the team as though they were brothers and got so drunk at their tailgate that all conversation would cease. The group was seen as an embarrassment by every other tailgate and the hordes of elitist alumni, but they maintained that their allegiance to Notre Dame was something they were born with instead of bought. Graduating from the university itself was an unnecessary formality in the undying quest to get loaded and have unprotected sex in a truck bed filled with Natural Ice. They wore the same quarter-zip sweaters and brunch boots as the other alumni and students who were equally insufferable.
No one lived like they did, at least as far as they knew. Their lifestyle was fueled by the insular nature of their friendships and the sad women they slept with. When people who had left the city came back to visit, he and his friends sneered and laughed at them because they were dumb enough to leave. It didn’t matter what city they left for or what job they took. By moving, they betrayed their hometown and, in doing so, forsook those who stayed. They betrayed the unsaid pact of unemployment, alcoholism, and poverty. Those people were viewed as inferior in every way: They had lost the pulse of the city whose heart barely beat anyways. They would never go to as many football games as they did or drink as many beers on any given weeknight. They sold out when the boy and his friends refused, even if that refusal wasn’t their choice and meant stagnating their lives in the pool of hardened Jagermeister that was caked onto the bottom of their coffee table.
The city gnawed away at him like it did all of its residents. Used his bones and flesh as mortar for another payday loan store. Burned his hopes and dreams to aid in its digestion of other residents and fuel to heat more heroin spoons. Washed him down its phlegm-ridden throat with another generous gulp from its polluted river.
On a rainy day in early November, he got a call from his parents. He had turned 23 months earlier and had spent the last quarter celebrating the passive achievement. The previous night was spent at the Glow Worm, where the boy and his friends casually drank White Russians while quoting The Big Lebowski in favor of having actual conversations. They got lap dances from women that were more OxyContin than human and complained to the manager about the quality of the strippers and what they felt they were entitled to. They themselves acted and resembled something that didn’t render on the evolution spectrum. Their inexcusable behavior was justified by designating the club as “a piece of shit,” even though they had been there every week in the last month.
That piece of shit had been reheated and snorted greedily with stepped-on coke, ground up in a pepper cracker onto sweaty microwaved dinners. That piece of shit embraced them in its steaming hot coils when no one else would, suffocating them in its unending girth. Although they lived in the city and were a portrait of its backward residents in many ways, they resented the very parts of the town that lived inside of them. They were contemptuous of the awful bars and restaurants even though they were the best the city could offer, even though they didn’t deserve better.
He was hungover as a bastard but answered the call anyway. He knew that if he didn’t, it would haunt every conversation for the next month. He would be shamed and ostracized, placed under the brutal scrutiny of his father’s microscope, and forced to pay back the debt with a flurry of feigned interest in varying family matters for months. Not answering was not an option.
“Son, it’s time for you to come home,” said the father forebodingly.
The boy’s heart sank. His mind combed through a Rolodex containing every imaginable opportunity for disappointment, wondering which card his father would pull. The father was constantly pulling, sometimes faster than he could fill it. He could always feel his father’s fingers dancing gleefully over his growing collection of regret.
The boy laughed. “What do you mean, Dad?” he asked nervously.
“The election is only three days away and you can finally vote,” said the dad placidly.
The boy hadn’t thought about politics in years. He hadn’t thought a lot about anything. Many of his memories were pissed into the ice-filled trough at Corby’s Bar & Grill, melting into the neglected South Bend sewer system with thousands of other recollections and bowel evacuations from other drunks. He remembered rare moments of drunken clarity standing at the urinals. Sometimes when the piss was extra long, it afforded him the time for self-reflection, which was retreated from in favor of soaking the paper towel dispenser with his dehydrated yellow stream. He would come back to his friends, sometimes morose, but was offered a shot and a cigarette and gladly sunk back into the realm of unthinking the city provided him.
Other memories weren’t worth storing at all, even for a moment. They were either unworthy, or he was incapable. Both prospects saddened him. He began to wonder why he seemed to remember things from his childhood more than he did in the last five years. He wondered if it was because milestones didn’t exist anymore. There were no great achievements or celebrations anymore. Unable to find a stud, it was impossible for anything to hang. Even things that seemed important at the time dangled from loose nails that would dislodge with every door closure. Without those anchors, memories drifted freely in and out of his head and were eventually cast far enough out to completely forget. Where had all of the ballasts gone? Without anyone serving him those formative memories, he was starving. Every significant moment in his life had been a consequence of someone else’s prescription.
First Communion. Graduation. Confirmation. Graduation. Getting a job. Losing a job. Succumbing to alcoholism, though he would never admit that.
He had no capacity to create his own, no way of tying a knot to any of the anchors he carelessly hoisted overboard. All he could do was watch the bubbles release from his empty indulgences as they plummeted to the seafloor.
He always remembered the line, though. The vividness at which it came back was incredible. The fake interviews, playing catch with strangers, his brother, and the sense of duty his dad instilled in him.
“Mom and I were thinking you come back home for a few days, enjoy the election festivities like we all used to,” continued the dad calmly.
Something about the summons was heartbreaking. Maybe it was the delirium caused by his hangover, but the somber invitation made him want to cry. In that moment, there seemed to be a shared longing for the boy he once was. He could tell his parents needed him and he needed them.
“Sure, Dad, that sounds great,” said the boy, fighting back the tears.
He convinced himself that the hangover had created that momentary vulnerability, but deep down, he knew he needed to go home. The ironic part was, home was only several blocks from his house, but there was something different about staying instead of visiting as well as something different in his dad’s voice.
Later that day, he packed a bag and traveled to his childhood home. He planned to stay at his parents’ house for two days and then get in line to finally place his vote. Something he had dreamt about for years, forgotten about, and was now the only thing driving him. It was good to have purpose, even if that vocation was standing in line for several days before casting an ill-informed vote for someone on the verge of a mental collapse. The boy viewed it as a redemption opportunity of sorts, something he would remember the rest of his life. He couldn’t wait to see his parents, stand in line, and soak in the sacred tradition of it all.
His mom and dad greeted him as he pulled into the driveway; the rest of the yard was already full of cars from election tourists. He couldn’t believe that the occasion had slipped entirely from his mind; bars around the city had been unusually full. Their collapsing rafters propped up by the laughter and livelihood of fresh blood. The corpse of the city would be loaded into a wheelchair and pushed around for the next few days. City officials would apply makeup to its jaundiced face and have it wear a fancy hat to distract visitors from its protruding ribs and withering arms. It would be force-fed enough prescription pills to mimic rudimentary human emotions. Cheap perfume would cover the stench of wound rot, and the voters would be unaware of the city’s looming and inevitable collapse. Once the election was over, the city would immediately resume its vegetative state.
The boy had sensed the frenzy, but was too stuck in his own haze to notice South Bend experiencing the false rebirth it did every four years. After the election was over, the city would be put back to sleep like the residents at Manorcare Nursing Home, with a damp ether rag and a steaming mug of skim milk.
That night his mom made her famous Chicken Kiev casserole for them. His brother couldn’t come back, since he had moved down south and had a family. The boy was disappointed as the dinner conversation ran in unison with the stuffing streaming slowly from his dried chicken breast.
“You look thin,” said the mom, tilting her head slightly and looking sympathetically at the boy.
It was the last thing he wanted to hear, as though weight fluctuation somehow dictated mental and physical health. There was no response to the conjecture either, even if he had or hadn’t lost any weight. There was nothing to say. He nodded and joked, “It’s because I’m not eating great meals like this!”
In actuality, the meal wasn’t great. It wasn’t like he remembered. The hormone ripe chicken breast, which was the size of a catcher’s mitt, was incinerated. Its grayish meat tattered with every painful cut, little white calluses, and tags clustered around enormous tendons. The vegetables were canned or frozen or both, inheriting the worst properties from either undesirable state. He reflected on the fake election day his parents hosted when he was a child and remembered it being the best meal of his life. Was that memory incorrect? Embellished? He pushed it around his plate and looked up every now and again to catch a corner of his mom’s caring eyes. They wanted desperately for him to like what was on his plate, to love the people he was sitting across from.
She had put everything she had into this awful dinner. Into recreating that special moment they shared all of those years ago. Something about her heart and soul being piledrived into a barely thawed chicken breast and baked in the oven they hadn’t cleaned in decades made his eyes well up. It made him feel unworthy and embarrassed, guilty for not coming around more. It wasn’t a lot, but it was a lot for her. A microwaved spring vegetable medley bag was her way of showing she cared.
The hardened peas and carrots were somehow a gift unlike any other. They sat on his plate like flesh carved from her thinning frame.
The boy welled up once more.
He smiled at her and she smiled back at him as he politely finished every last bite. The boy knew a stomach ache was coming, anticipated lying in his old twin bed and fluctuating between hot and cold all night. It was worth it to prove his love, to prove that he hadn’t changed and that they could still have nights like they had when he was a kid. He just hoped that the meat would leave his system before he got in line.
After several more hours at the table, the family exhausted every inconsequential topic of conversation. They discussed Netflix shows, the weather, a neighbor that he didn’t know had died, and the new beige paint applied to the bathroom. When they had no mundane observations left to give, they cleared the table quietly. The mom said she had a headache and was going to lie down early. The boy said he wasn’t tired yet and got a light beer from the fridge. He sat in the backyard and listened to his neighbor’s labored breaths while he smoked a cigarette. The emphysema cut through the night air, advertising to the neighborhood that he was slowly dying. They could both hear the indistinguishable chatter of the line as it breached their block of houses, which was about two miles from the abandoned warehouse where the voting would begin the next morning.
“Cold out tonight,” said the neighbor to the boy, his face obscured by a grapevine that hadn’t produced anything for years.
The neighbor’s usual primary point of conversation was around the most recent misfortune that afflicted him and his family. It was an endless list of oddities, unimaginable that they would happen to anyone at all, let alone all happening to one person. Though in some ways, the boy thought he existed because of these afflictions, that without them, he would have nothing at all. His entire life was spent correcting cosmic inconveniences and wrestling with his tainted kismet. He told the stories of financial loss and personal injury with an uncanny pride.
“Definitely,” said the boy, taking a sip out of his beer.
He wasn’t in the mood for talking; he wanted to listen to the strangers in the line. He had gone to sleep to those voices so many times as a child. Those were the best nights of sleep of his life that he remembered. He hoped that hadn’t changed too, like so much else had already changed.
“You gonna vote?” asked the neighbor, taking another long drag from his cigarette and following it with an immense coughing fit.
“I am,” said the boy, “Are you?”
“Last time I voted, I got a damn worm,” said the neighbor with a slight chuckle. The boy didn’t care to ask if this was a metaphor or reference to an actual parasite that still lived inside of him.
“I’m done with voting, I’ll be watching the results on my new flat-screen TV. Took out a second mortgage for it, but it’s got the best pixel ratio on the market!”
The neighbor took another long pause, perhaps waiting for the boy to react to his new luxury entertainment system, and the courage it took to live outside of his means. Instead, the boy sat silent, wondering who would inherit the neighbor’s debts once he finally passed.
“Knudson better damn well win it this year or this country is in for hell,” said the neighbor, dropping his cigarette and snuffing it out with one of his gas station flip-flops. “Anyways, good talking!”
The boy listened to the sound of his flip-flops as he walked back up his porch and disappeared into his ranch-style home. Just as the neighbor vanished into his consumerist abyss to enjoy an evening with his prized television, the boy heard the familiar sound of their back screen door opening. His dad popped his head with two more beers dangling between his fingers. He raised them slightly, and the boy nodded at the silent gesture, an agreement to the dad’s moderate offering. The dad grabbed a seat near the boy, a rusting, wrought iron chair that had plagued the family with its discomfort since the boy was little. His parents refused to get rid of it, a testament to their Midwestern obsession with waste and settling with what they already had. The boy appreciated this about his parents: Their aversion of luxury was in stark contrast to the neighbor, but sometimes their avoidance of convenience or comfort saddened him. They deserved everything, but for some reason, battled the numb legs and sore lower back inflicted by the chair.
“You ready for tomorrow?” asked the dad, quietly twisting the top off of his beer and throwing the cap into the yard.
“I think so,” said the boy. “I was actually thinking about going out there tonight . . . you know get a jump on things.”
“That so?” asked the dad, taking another sip from his beer. “Sick of me and your mom already?”
“No!” the boy blurted out immediately after the question was asked. “It’s just that, I don’t want to be too far back in the line. This is just a really big moment in a lot of ways for me,” he stammered, hoping that the immediacy of his response would diffuse the barbed accusation.
“I’m just kidding. I know it is. I think you should do it. If that’s what your gut is telling you, get into that line and get that vote in,” said the dad. “I was hoping we could all wait in line together, but I remember my first time voting, and it was my moment alone, so I understand.”
Relieved, the boy sat back in his chair. He looked at the bottle in his hand and realized his beer was already almost empty. He couldn’t believe how fast he drank sometimes. The pace of consumption was crafted and honed like an ancient swordsmith. Years of beginning every night with the sole intention of pants-shitting annihilation. There was no cherishing of moments, no natural flow to any given evening. Every night simply served as another opportunity to forget the piece of shit life he constructed. His memory mopped up stale beer and half drank cocktails before being mercifully rung into his clogged shower drain. He never really owned them; they belonged to the drink, the drain, and the city. On some lucky mornings, he could reflect on them briefly as they sat stagnantly in the nest of hair in the drain, but eventually, they were pulled into the rusted pipes and never thought of again. He was a beast of burden for the drink, which rode him into the pavement any night it could.
“Think it might be time,” he said to his dad, tilting the empty bottle at him.
The dad nodded, with a subtle disapproval that the boy could still distinguish. They both got up and walked back through the house toward the front door. The dad had packed a cooler for the boy and included a sleeping bag, as no one was ever quite certain how many hours or days the line would bleed from them.
“This was the same sleeping bag I used when I cast my first vote, same with the cooler,” said the dad proudly.
The small accumulation of items sent the boy spiraling again. It wasn’t much, but it was everything. The cooler’s size in particular saddened the boy as did the look of satisfaction on the dad’s face at the pile of things they had kept all of those years. Proudly stored in the attic for an eternity, waiting to fulfill their destiny of standing in line once more.
The boy would try not to disappoint the inanimate clutter that his dad seemed to cherish. The objects served as a medium between the two, where they could express emotion freely. They inherited the two men’s feelings, who poured themselves into the pieces of garbage on the floor. They used them as vessels to express what they couldn’t. Every year that his dad refused to discard the old sleeping bag and the worn cooler was time spent thinking about his son and the memories the family shared together. It was proof he still trusted the boy, that he thought someday he could still grow up and be like him. Now the boy would carry those objects just like his dad did. He would maintain his dad’s legacy through the insignificant comfort items because he had no other choice.
“These are great, Dad. Thank you so much,” said the boy, who wanted to hug his dad but wasn’t sure how. Instead, he desperately hoped that the tears occupying his eyelids would maintain their residency and wished he had more beer.
“You should probably be off then,” said the dad blankly, seemingly not grasping the waves of emotion guiding the boy back to adolescence, back to the way things once were. “Don’t wake your mom. I’ll make sure to tell her you wished you could have stayed longer.”
The boy was appreciative of the lie, even though it didn’t make sense. He could have stayed longer without empty wishes or false remorse. He wondered if his mom would believe it more coming from her husband’s mouth. Maybe he did want to stay longer, but everything seemed out of place. Maybe if he stayed long enough, everything would right itself. He thought about the time he spilled a glass of milk on a puzzle of Mount Rushmore they had worked all summer on as a family. He ran to his room and cried until the tears stopped and he just stared at the ceiling. His dad had called him back and he expected to be reprimanded, but instead, the dad dumped the rest of the pieces into the spilled milk and they merged together regardless of edge or fit.
“Sometimes things just work themselves out,” his dad had said to him, placing his steady hand on his shoulder.
After standing in the foyer for what seemed like forever, the dad pulled out his phone.
“Your mom would kill me if I didn’t get a picture,” he told the boy.
The boy picked up the sleeping bag and cooler and the dad fumbled with the phone, eventually allowing the boy to show him how to navigate the interface. Two men stood in the foyer of a home in northern Indiana, fulfilling an obligation they both claimed was for someone else. In actuality, behind the posturing, they were both happy that the picture was taken and relieved they had someone else to blame it on. He opened the screen door and stepped onto the front lawn, which was already buzzing with voters. The line extended far beyond their block and disappeared into the black of night. He wondered just how far the line went. For a moment he thought he saw the elderly woman with the hard candy, wishing his brother were there.
“Alright, Dad. I’ll talk to you when I get done, let you know how it went,” whispered the boy, with the sleeping bag under one arm and the cooler in the other hand.
He looked tired.
“You bet,” replied the dad, standing with his arms crossed.
The boy couldn’t comprehend how serious the moment seemed. He anticipated some lighthearted banter but instead endured something that looked like the culmination of every decision he had made up until that point. Maybe this was redemption, maybe he’d go back to school and get out of this town, and maybe his dad knew that. That they’d see him even less after this was all over.
He left their house and began walking to find the end of the line.
He couldn’t believe the types of people in line. Rabid supporters of either candidate, drunks, heroin addicts, merchants, racists, Bible thumpers, men in suits, and men in wizard hats taking shits into cans of Yankee beans. There were women holding bump stock rifles, small business owners, people who didn’t appear to own anything, and doomsday preppers. Every type of person imaginable standing in line for their chance to change the trajectory of the country. It seemed more wholesome when he was a child. He looked on suspiciously as a mom and dad took turns taping telephone books to their stomachs to prevent getting shanked. There was undoubtedly an edge to the collection of freaks that turned out to vote, which far outnumbered anyone seemingly ordinary. The boy walked for five hours straight before finding the end of the line, seeing things he never thought he’d see on his way there. The most grotesque being several enormous people with Confederate flag tattoos having an orgy while a man dressed as a statue smoked meth out of a Paris Hilton fleshlight and watched intently.
He got in line behind someone who didn’t look all that much different from him and was relieved that he wasn’t behind the Catholic priest who slit his throat several rows up. By rule, he was still able to vote with some assistance, but the chore fell on the people behind him in line to produce his corpse at the voting station and make his selection. The boy set his cooler down, pulled a beer from it, cracked it, and began sipping. The line seemed to be moving quickly, and the boy started questioning whether he needed the sleeping bag.
“Moving pretty quick,” he muttered, hoping the similar-looking voter in front of him would hear.
The man turned around briefly and stared at the boy with an expressionless face. His youthful face appeared ancient on second glance. The tip of his nose sagged into his lips, which seemed to melt into his chin. Every wrinkle was deep enough to be distinguishable even in the unlit street where they stood, the severity of their blackness conquered even the excruciating abyss of the starless South Bend evening. His eyes sank back into his face, apparently afraid of succumbing to the wrinkles that plagued the rest of him. His lips trembled and the boy could hear him clearing his throat, the productive rumble dislodging a Herculean mouth of tobacco spit and dip that dribbled slowly down the man’s chin before presenting itself at the boy’s feet. The log laid there provocatively, leaking saliva toward his tennis shoes and basking in the other assorted trash accumulating in the line. The boy stared at the convulsing brown mass for several seconds before looking back up at the man’s glistening chin and recessed eyes. The log may as well have been a part of the man judging by his longing stare. The boy could tell he wanted desperately to put it back into his mouth, but something stopped him.
Maybe he was ready to move on from the ball of tobacco and glass shards that provided him comfort all those years, or maybe it was an offering to the boy. The hairs and demeanor of the tobacco link reminded him of a dog the family had bought when he was in third grade, but returned it days later realizing they were in over their heads.
The man reached into his trench coat and pulled out a medicinal looking brown bottle. He took a long pull from it, tilting it upwards but never breaking eye contact with the boy. He remained silent otherwise and once he had his fill, he tipped the bag toward the boy as a courtesy. The boy politely declined and retreated into the blue glow of his phone. Behind him was another normal looking man with a square haircut and wearing an ill-fitting suit, but the boy didn’t risk conversation this time. He would look up from his phone every now and again and observe more brown liquid dribbling from the slackened lips of the man who had offered him a drink from his mysterious bottle. He reached into his cooler and retrieved another beer without offering any to the old man.
The line had slowed considerably after four hours and the boy bet that it was because people were giving their decision a lot of thought. He admired those who were willing to make an informed decision but grew restless. He himself had tried to do research on the candidates to pass some time, but would always be distracted by some other occurrence around him. A woman shaving her legs, a man removing a plantar wart, two men arguing over pornography preferences, insider stock trading, family recipes for the best sloppy joe, beer vendors, grilled cheeses, nitrous balloons, knife salesmen, sex offenders looking for signatures, a father and son creating a memory together, an albino giraffe being slaughtered for parts, and a group protesting animal cruelty.
The hours pounded on and he eventually grew numb to the insane. Sometimes nothing happened at all. In those moments, it was merely a group of ordinary citizens fulfilling an undesirable but seemingly necessary obligation. Those were the worst moments. In some ways, he could comprehend the freak show more than the mundane. It was the same desire for destruction and chaos he inflicted on his body on a nightly basis. He viewed the lunatics as non-conformists and considered himself in the same realm as them even though he wasn’t. They wouldn’t have settled in this town, save for the sex offender, which the boy recognized as having gone to his high school.
In actuality, the boy was a manifestation of the city itself in many ways. It lived vicariously through his flesh. Born into a favorable situation and squandering it in favor of nothing. Both the city and the boy thrived on boredom and the celebration of indecision. Its yellowing hands had entered the boy long ago and now moved his limbs and mouth, convinced his mind that he was thriving, and pranced his corpse from bar to bar to the sound of a skipping jukebox. It provided heat for the spoon and guidance for the needle. It kept his strings just taut enough to discourage movement on his own, tugging them only when he felt like leaving.
His personality was binge drinking, college football, and giving up.
He reached into the cooler and pulled out another beer. He tilted from side to side in an attempt to gain a vantage point that would give him the illusion of the line moving, but no angle suggested any motion at all. The excitement of the process had dwindled with the feeling in his fingers, which grew numb in the cold early morning air. His blood vessels retreated further inwards at the smell of rain in the air. He anticipated a substantial abandonment of the line if the South Bend rain decided to fall. It was a cruel baptism in the pure misery of the city, poured by the shaky hands of a dying Catholic priest. The gray clouds looked bloated with spoiled river water and regret, eager for more victims to its undying undertow, and before the boy knew it, it was raining.
Every distended stomach from the heavens burst at once, raining freezing cold entrails onto the line, who stood defiantly against the storm. Some even cheered; it seemed to energize those who had otherwise begun to nod off. The boy envied those who were foolish enough to have hope. Visitors who had no idea how long this could last, how long it always seemed to last. Bad weather was a source of pride for the town, which was allotted four bearable days a year. Residents would make comments about shoveling global warming from their driveways for a cheap laugh from neighbors when it snowed in March.
The boy waited for the line to thin, but it didn’t. He pulled the hood of his poncho tighter and was thankful for the overpriced, Notre Dame theme raincoat. He remembered purchasing the officially licensed coat and the sense of pride, knowing that he was likely partly responsible for the new solid gold altar that had been installed at the cathedral. His contribution was equivalent to the person who had died in China making the garment, who was also likely relieved that their efforts were rewarded in the form of an unnecessary solid gold church ornament.
Most of the line was woefully underdressed for the onslaught at hand, from a city that seemed to resent their presence all of the sudden. Conversation had stopped altogether, and an odd stillness set in on the once lively file of degenerates. Several more hours passed in the awful downpour. The boy looked up at the sky and pleaded with it, demanding that the clouds sew their tattered stomachs, but the rain continued on.
He reached blindly into his cooler, but his hand found nothing. The water from melted ice was indistinguishable from the rain as his pruned fingers plunged all the way to the bottom of the cooler. Looking down, he noticed there were no more beers. He was uncertain how many he had started with, but there weren’t any there now. He didn’t even feel drunk and yet there was nothing left to propel him. Nothing left to pass the time. Without the ability to drink, he noticed a waning interest in the day that had started with so much promise. Time didn’t pass the same without the mindless consumption of domestic beer. Sometimes it seemed like if he were to stop drinking, any given moment would be preserved for an eternity. The notion of that preservation was coincidentally what he avoided and so he drank to move forward.
Another several hours passed in the punishing rain and he soaked in every single minute of it. The prospect of quitting was budding rapidly in his mind. At first, a tiny seed, its roots now pierced and wove through every pore in his brain. Once the idea of quitting was entertained, it was only a matter of time before being euthanized by the comfort it brought. The excuses and justifications subdued the will to fight. Rationalizations and promises to do better next time were slaughtered and offered as sacrifice just before retreat. The mind always quit before the body, and the boy’s mind was quitting.
His shaking hands slipped his phone from his pocket and began to text his dad.
“Is any of this worth it?” he typed and sent.
“It depends on your definition of worth,” replied the dad after a few minutes.
The boy looked at his phone and analyzed every word of the response. His dad always had a way of crafting statements that immediately transferred ownership back on the requester. Morsels of disappointment nestled themselves in between each letter, every word suggesting he was a failure for having sent the text at all. He plummeted into the blue light. The vagueness of it begged for interpretation and projection. It never quite said what he wanted but always ended up being what he needed or at least what he thought he needed. He was forced to stare at his own reflection as it rippled in the seven-word reply. Every word was another piece of charcoal thrown onto the turmoil furnace that raged inside of him, the smoke from its chimney polluting his blood.
What was his definition of worth? He wasn’t sure anymore and actually wasn’t sure if it was ever defined at all. His beliefs and emotional infrastructure were inherited from his dad, scratched into his already slight bones with lectures on accountability and whittled further by an unhealthy hunger for all-consuming guilt. Recently, he attempted to abandon that inheritance, which wasn’t his to begin with. The desertion hadn’t worked, and the blame stained his skin like an unhealing rash.
He decided that the message was a challenge for him to finally become his own person, that his suffering on this day would ignite the change he desired. This led him back to his decision to submit or not. He knew that if he quit now, it would be another four years of the same. Although there was a delusional superiority he routinely projected about his dull triumphs in the city that were eating him alive, part of him was aware that he had peaked, and the summit was a mountain of tick-infested mulch in a Costco parking lot. He would vote. No matter how long it took. This was his moment. His chance to have a voice.
The boy didn’t text his dad back, instead deciding to sleep. Sleeping was always a sound fallback for when the drink was out, and he’d need his energy if his vote would determine the fate of the country. Sleeping shortened the days that didn’t deserve their length. It was something to do when there was nothing else. His sleeping bag was soaked, but it still provided at least one more barrier against the rain before it saturated his clothes and inevitably his bones. He wasn’t quite sure how it worked for people who were sleeping, but he assumed someone would wake him once the line began to move again. He zipped himself into his bag and drifted off quickly to the dull patter of rain on his forehead.
He woke up to motion and the sound of his shirt snagging against the gravel of a dilapidated parking lot. At first slow and methodical, the pace increased rapidly as he gained consciousness. Whatever force was dragging his limp body felt an urgency in their toil that directly correlated with his grasp on reality as he woke from slumber. He frantically blinked his eyes open and sensed the ground tearing at his back, which already seemed raw and covered in varying sized lesions and lacerations. It was still raining, the drops penetrating his skull without protest. And his eyes struggled for air under the weighty eyelashes that knotted and tangled like pubic hair on the moldy tiles of his high school gym shower.
His feet were elevated slightly and appeared in the firm grasp of two enormous hands. The scarred, meat vices were created with the sole purpose of dragging. Their lengthy fingernails were caked in desperation and neglect, familiar with hardships the boy could have never imagined. Certainly capable of heating foil and fondling tar, the veins on the hands appeared blown, shattered to sand under the skin. The nails frayed further as they dug into the bones on the boy’s ankles and he could feel blood pooling even in his wet pants.
Then everything stopped.
The hands released his legs as though triggered by a timer from an unknown master and they fell to the floor. The boy scrambled to his feet, feeling asphalt and broken glass pouring out of his skin into the brisk night air. Ascending with the wind before being pummeled back into the earth. The back of his clothes had vanished into the last hundred yards of asphalt, which greedily accepted the donation of licensed college football merchandise. In front of him stood the old alcoholic, another viscous strand of dip spit drainage hung from his jaw and connected to the brown bottle in his hand. Behind him was the abandoned warehouse.
They were at the front of the line and were the next two people to cast their votes. The boy considered yelling at the man, but there wasn’t anything human left to comprehend human emotion. Anything the boy said would melt into the folds of the man’s face, be absorbed by the wrinkles and wrung from his brown tongue into a jar containing decades of other spit, of other emotions. His eyes held a familiar indifference, similar to some of the pictures the boy saw of himself on any given bar night. Their smoothness implied decades of filing, chiseled into their state of uncaring by innumerable failures or mistakes. The glisten that suggested motion wasn’t present, perhaps having evaporated into the clouds like most things did in the city. With no will to replenish the moisture and continue stirring, his pupils had grown idle and transformed to concrete.
Missing from the historic moment was the cooler. The boy cursed himself, wondering what would happen when he returned home without it. He couldn’t fathom the disappointment of his dad, deprived of the joy of storing the items for another few decades.
There was a hallowed silence this close to the polling place. The boy had never experienced anything quite like it, the focus and dedication of the line was fixated entirely on the mossy, decaying wooden doors that contained the fate of every single person who had waited for their opportunity to change the world. People around him were silently praying, thumbing Rosary beads, or mumbling the National Anthem repeatedly. Some wept, still without sound, tears streamed down their faces and were patted dry with American flags. Initially embarrassed by his torn clothes, the boy saw dozens of others with the same affliction. Dragged by some other faceless dreg to where they were now. Once you entered the line, you didn’t leave until you had voted. Everyone shared the same purpose in those fleeting moments, even if they voted for different people, their burden was the same. The boy understood that now.
He turned back around to an enormous green light that apparently signaled the warehouse was ready for the next voter and the ancient man in front of him limped across the now filthy red carpeting for his chance at changing everything. The boy couldn’t comprehend what issues could possibly be important to the man or his capacity to physically or mentally vote. He wondered if the man would be allowed entry with the horrific spit can that seemed to spill with every staggered step. But the doors opened, just like they must have opened for every person before them. Maybe this was the beauty of it all, that even an ill-informed addict had as much say in that moment as he did. Maybe he was less different from the man than he thought. Maybe his dad wanted him to see that hope still existed in some form, no matter how dire the circumstance.
Moments later, the man stumbled back out of the doors and into the medical tent adjacent to the warehouse. Before the boy saw what was happening, the green light flashed once more, indicating that it was his turn to prove his loyalty to his country and to prove that he was willing to accept change in whatever form it came. He forgot where he was for a moment, his legs paralyzed under the pressure of decision.
His voyage was christened with the same bottle breaking as a ceremonial boat launch, as an inpatient voter behind him hurled a beer bottle at the back of his head. The glass casually shattering into the back of his skull ignited his March forward, the searing pain enough to wake him from his patriotic stupor. He turned around to see who had cast the bottle, but it didn’t matter, he walked into the green light with the vigor of a one-winged moth feasting on the fading glow of an antique lamp. He didn’t know what to expect, but at this point was ready for anything. As the doors opened, he began to cry, he had made it.
He walked through the corridor of the poorly lit warehouse. The first thing he noticed was the incomprehensible stench. A mixture of bouillon cubes, dried urine, and vomit marched into his nostrils like soldiers from the Revolutionary War. The moisture in the warehouse was drunk like a milkshake, his lungs burned as they spooned another heaving portion of lacteal air. He continued on despite the odor; he hadn’t come this far to quit now. He would go through hell and back to fulfill what was expected of him and what he now expected of himself. After 20 seconds of walking, he saw it.
The voting booth appeared like a church confessional, complete with an American Flag beaded door. It was constructed from shoddy, unstained plywood by someone with a rudimentary understanding of carpentry from what he could tell. Several nails jutted dangerously from the structure and were caked in a substantial amount of dried blood, their reddened tips only added to the patriotic nature of the scene. He considered the likelihood that its haphazard quality was purposefully substandard to save tax dollars and ensure unbiased decisions. To the right of the booth was a small birdcage holding an enormous, deceased bald eagle.
Its broken wings were frozen between the grates of the cage, feathers scattered on the floor suggesting a brutal struggle for freedom. Whoever was in charge of feeding or caring for it had apparently forgotten. The boy considered how many other people had simply looked at the starving creature as it killed itself in the confines of the cage, or maybe it entered the cage dead and was simply something used to accent the room. He approached the structure with subdued excitement, wondering if the directions on choosing a candidate would be unveiled once he entered the glorious nationalistic womb.
His fingers swept across the beaded curtain and he was in the booth. The smell was even worse than it was in the main hall, the air somehow even thicker yet. A wooden pew sat in the middle of the tiny booth, emblazoned with several prominent alcohol brands that had apparently sponsored its construction, or the entire process.
A large neon sign also hung above the pew that read, “This changes everything” with an arrow pointing downward at its flimsy base. Although it did little to actually illuminate the surprisingly dark booth, it gave off just enough light for the boy to notice the intricacies on either wall. One side of the box was off-white and read “Democrat” while the other side was eggshell and read “Republican.” Both words were in Times New Roman font face and sat above what appeared to be a slightly recessed portion of the plywood. The boy took the cue from the sign and sat on the bench. The wood splintered into his bare ass and he rocked from side to side in an effort to keep the barbs from burrowing deeper.
He immediately heard the painful grinding of wood and two holes appeared in the recessed segment of the wall on either side of him. Sweat poured freely from his forehead onto the floor below, already moist with voter enthusiasm. The boy looked from side to side, wondering what would be asked of him, if he would have to dictate his decision to whomever sat on the other side. If he would be given a parchment and quill and asked to fill out a ballot like he had read about in grade school history class. Before his mind could imagine any other prospects, he heard a dull moan coming from both walls, and before he knew it, the once empty holes were now filled.
Two flaccid, uncircumcised penises breached each hole and flopped onto the wood unenthusiastically. The sound of foreskin dropping on damp lumber echoed through the enormous hall and the boy recoiled immediately. He began to stand, but before he could, a harness dropped from the top of the voting booth. It landed on his lap and fastened him in as though he were preparing to ride a roller coaster. The chewed foam roller dug into his thighs and he could smell the essence of funnel cake on the carnie contraption. He struggled briefly with it, but knew that he stood no chance against something designed by the hasty fingers of an inbred county fair employee. Even in his panic, he considered all of the efforts that had gone into making the entire experience seem authentically American. He began to think that the dead eagle in the cage outside wasn’t the first of the election and certainly wouldn’t be the last.
“Who will you be voting for today?” he heard a voice yawn through one of the walls, though he couldn’t tell from which side.
“I’m not voting,” responded the boy. “I’ll be leaving as soon as you lift this goddamn thing” he continued, giving the device another futile rattle.
“Behind each wall is a Democrat candidate and a Republican candidate, and you must vote to regain your freedom,” said a still indistinguishable voice. “Let this country work for you, let it save you,” continued the voice.
The illusion of freedom hung sadly from either hole, sagging like a ceramic Christmas ornament on a diminutive branch on the verge of snapping. His participation in the celebration of choice and Democracy was submitting to its voluntary imprisonment. A fly landed on the Republican penis and sat rubbing its shit-covered legs in the neon luminescence before another hole opened and a hand holding a swatter pitifully swatted at the insect. It took flight briefly before landing on the Democrat penis and furiously rubbed its shit fingers once more, perhaps adding to the collection of filth in its tiny hairs. Before long, it grew bored of the endeavor and floated effortlessly through the beaded curtain and back into the long corridor. The boy was alone once more with the insufferable prospect of making a decision.
He continued to hear varying yawning and belly scratching from either wall. At some point, he smelled cheese and listened to the smacking of lips, followed by the audible licking of fingers. He could almost feel the hot tongue probing the fingernails and knuckles for any remaining cheese caught in their perspiring pores. He wanted to ask how votes were cast but he was almost certain he already knew, and his suspicion was confirmed when he noticed a small funnel duct-taped below each penis. The funnel was then stapled to a series of ribbed condoms that ran along a replica copy of the Constitution with the end of them piercing a box of limited-edition Cracker Jack. On each box of caramel-coated, molasses- soaked nuggets of sovereignty was a peeling piece of masking tape with smudged permanent marker reading “Republican Votes,” and “Democrat Votes,” respectively. Against the far wall was a deli meat scale that would apparently weigh the fluid of an entire country and determine which candidate had accrued more spunk and thus be the rightful heir to the free world.
“What’s taking so long out there? The choice should be clear by now!” screamed the Republican candidate from behind the wall. “Which America do you want?”
Each penis remained as unmoving as ever, no visible stance on any social or economic policies that may impact the country. Each one seemed equally unaffected by the heroin epidemic plaguing the city or daily police brutalities. The bunched folds of each flaccid penis seemed content with the way things were, happily occupying the dank air of the voting booth. They appeared at home jammed through a hole in an abandoned warehouse in a crumbling city.
“Clear as day, this should be one of the easiest choices you’ll ever make. You are literally molding the future for the next generation! Mold away, son!” retorted the Democrat candidate. The smell of tongue scrapings crept into the booth and stood proudly with the urine and vomit.
The boy failed to comprehend how bringing either candidate to orgasm would benefit the country, how filling a discarded box of sweetened corn kernels with cum could qualify a presidential candidate.
“Well, I guess . . . what is your stance on abortion?” the boy asked, his mind as empty as the warehouse he was trapped in.
He didn’t really care but felt obligated to ask something. He didn’t know any other policies, didn’t know economics or foreign trade. He didn’t even really understand the nuances behind the life vs. choice debate. All he knew was a video he saw in second-grade of a fetus being vacuumed from its womb and then told that it could have been the second coming of Christ. He cried for days after wondering if he had witnessed the death of his savior through a dusty VHS reel. His religion teacher had painstakingly wheeled the shared school television out of the classroom after the video and returned unimaginably sweaty. Later that day, she made the class sign a contract indicating they would never get an abortion. The ink from that contract still remained unfaded on the boy’s conscience and likely on the document itself, which was undoubtedly still enshrined in the immovable gray filing cabinet behind the teacher’s desk.
Maybe all he wanted was some type of answer. Any answer that could make the process incrementally more tolerable. He heard a cough from a heavily lubricated esophagus and then words cutting through a mouthful of spittle.
“I, for one, am pro the decision to choose. However, once the chooser infringes on someone else’s ability to also choose, they then lose their right to become the chooser and the roles are, by law, reversed. Choosing and chooser is a fluid relationship, and I for one choose both!” said the Democrat candidate assuredly.
“I’m the exact opposite, of course! Choice should never be given unless that choice is chosen by the chooser themselves. In this case, choice is acceptable, though not encouraged. For instance, I would never contravene on a chooser’s ability to choose, unless that choice was disagreeable, in which case I choose for the chooser not to choose . . . ahem . . . if that makes sense,” responded the enraged Republican.
“So, which do you choose?” asked the Democrat candidate.
The boy glanced to either side at the sickening ham logs, their omnipresence made the statements even more confusing. They remained utterly stationary as if taunting the boy, their state of permanent refractory was a beacon of Democracy.
“I choose my right to not vote,” said the boy, hoping that this was an option.
“Then so be it!” the two voices screamed in unison.
“You are an embarrassment to your country,” said the Republican voice.
“Your grandpa died in the muck on the beaches of Normandy to allow you to sit where you are right now and choose, but I guess giving his life for his country wasn’t enough for you, you privileged little fuck,” chided the Democrat candidate. The once diplomatic voices were replaced with abject hatred, hissing and snarling like he had never heard before.
The boy nodded, willing to accept the shame and internalize this entire event for decades to come. The foam harness then lifted, and the boy brushed his pants off. He began to stand and placed his hand on the Republican designated wall to steady himself, his legs uneasy after what seemed like hours of inactivity. Just as his hand grazed the wall, he noticed the penis pulsate several times and belch a substantial milky discharge into the funnel below.
“Congratulations!” gasped the Republican candidate, audibly lightheaded. “You won’t regret this decision! I promise to change everything or nothing at all!”
An Alvin and the Chipmunks version of the National Anthem began blaring from an ancient-sounding record player outside of the voting booth, the needle scratching and skipping over the warped wax. The celebration concluded with a wad of sopping wet confetti landing limply on the boy’s head before rolling off and plopping dully on the concrete floor. Both candidates were now reciting the pledge of allegiance through blown vocal cords. He wiped what felt like adhesive from the confetti from his head and looked at the condom tubing system. The dehydrated globule labored down each segment of thinning latex, its sinewy threads filling each rib before spilling into the next set. It seemed to be struggling against its inevitable fate.
As the boy continued to watch the gelatinous excretion flirt with the edges of the Constitution as it slithered nonchalantly down the contraceptive maze toward the Cracker Jack box, he wondered if this was what change looked like. Maybe a stranger ejaculating into a funnel was the catalyst for a revolution. Maybe a discarded commemorative box full of cum could be the spark that ignited the great explosion.
After several painful minutes, the vote dripped sluggishly to its final resting place, merging with the thousands of other loads that were previously deposited into the disintegrating snack box. Maybe this spent seed would impregnate the box with a new savior. Someone to replace his second-grade teacher’s previous messiah that had been vacuumed from its throne and now presumably ruled over a landfill kingdom of medical waste.
Something stirred within him, and he wondered if it was the feeling of being a contributing member to society, but the sound of his insides christening the floor suggested a reaction to the sadistic voting mechanism. The boy exited the booth and walked down the empty corridor toward the exit sign in the distance. He opened the door to more rain and checked his phone to see what time it was. Surprisingly the entire encounter had taken five minutes, though it had seemed like hours.
Once outside, he saw two masked surgeons beckoning him toward the medical tent that had been erected near the warehouse. One of them was waving an “I voted” cloth patch like an owner tempting their dying mutt with its favorite chew toy before executing it behind the old wooden shed in the backyard. Another stood by with a hot iron, ready to cauterize the boy’s forehead with the ultimate proof of patriotism. Both sets of eyes looked bloodshot and unqualified. The iron appeared more for ironing stained Long Johns than foreheads.
The boy nodded politely and began to turn toward a weakened part in the barbed wire fence. The prospect of immense physical pain as reward for an unreciprocated and unintentional orgasm didn’t seem as coveted as it once had. He remembered always wanting one of the patches as a kid.
He used to ask his mom and dad if he could feel their patches and the smooth scars surrounding it and they would politely accept. He would fall asleep listening to stories about the founding fathers and dream about a day where he could have his very own patch. Now that day was here, but the ceremony seemed like senseless branding instead of an exaltation of liberty.
Just as his fingers were about to peel back the broken links on the fence, he collapsed.
He woke up to one of the surgeons offering him a small carton of apple juice and a handful of broken animal crackers.
“You lost a lot of blood,” said the surgeon grinning and giving him a nudge with his elbow.
“What happened?” asked the boy sleepily, remembering his fingers peeling the fence in their quest for actual freedom.
“That’s an electric fence. You just took 20,000 volts like a champ!” said the other surgeon coming over to his hospital bed, which was just a mattress lying on the ground.
“Though that didn’t cause the bleeding, that was done by this goof,” said one of the surgeons, grabbing the other one and rubbing his head with his knuckle.
“Guilty as charged!” said the other surgeon, pointing at a scalpel attached to a lanyard around his neck.
“Sometimes I forget this thing is even there!” he continued, wobbling his head for comedic effect.
The boy instantly reached for his forehead, the sickening feeling of cloth forsaking his hopeful fingertips.
“Don’t you worry, we went ahead and got your “I voted” melted onto your face. We even snapped this picture of you to share on Instagram if you’d like—actually you’re fortunately legally obligated to. Here, have a look!” said the surgeon handing the boy his phone.
He looked at the picture they had taken. An apparent nicked artery poured blood from his neck onto the piss-stained mattress he lay on, his hair visibly burned from the electrical shock, a layer of bubbling skin hung from varying portions of the newly installed patch, and his hands had been taped into a thumbs-up position. They had even glued pennies over his shut eyelids. Their blown blood vessels enhanced the color of the copper, which added to the barely passable illusion of eyeballs.
“With a tasteful filter, I think it will generate some serious likes!” said the surgeon, helping the confused boy out of bed. He took the boy’s phone and shared the picture on his Instagram with a smoothing filter and the caption, “I fucking voted!” He looked at the post for several seconds before editing the caption to include a string of indecipherable emojis.
“On your way now! Go celebrate with friends and family—today you are truly a citizen of this great country!” yelled the surgeon, cramming another handful of animal crackers into the boy’s mouth and shoving him through the base of a Statue of Liberty replica that stood next to the tent.
Moments later, the boy was lying on the pavement of a familiar street. With nothing else to do, he began walking.
He walked past the few remaining people in line who stood anxiously awaiting their turn at vindication. Beyond them was the collective, malnourished bowel movement of a country. A singular, elongated skid mark on the already brimming diapers of the city.
The line, or what was left of it.
People were replaced with abandoned tents, Good Morning America fuck dolls, high-end yoga mats, bong water, ceremonial sacrificed animals, bibles woven from pubic hair, pumpkin spice lattes, Yankee Candles scented like marbles, and luxury coolers. He followed the line’s browning intestine, ran his fingers across the sickening garbage Braille that protruded like skin tags from its membrane. Each knob or lump would eventually be scraped off and dumped into the river. After a few decades, people could hope to drink the refuse instead of having to look at it. The line itself was as parasitic as the city and both feasted on each other relentlessly, happily passing their diseases back and forth in an eternal exchange of contaminated fluids.
He used the leaking runoff that saturated the earth around it as a northern star to get home. He wasn’t sure if he would stop back at his parents’ house or not—he might just get in his car and leave the town forever. He couldn’t imagine sitting through the celebratory dinner and cake and disappointing them again. He thought about their hopeful faces, waiting to hear how it had gone, who he had voted for, how happy he was to be an official part of the country. In some ways, he felt betrayed by them and questioned their blind allegiance to the process. He didn’t understand how they could participate in something so vile election after election. Though, at a certain point, all we have is routine. Without the ability to change anything for yourself, the next best thing was stroking the cock of an anonymous lunatic in an abandoned warehouse and hoping they returned the favor at some point. Although deep down, he knew that he would always be on one side of the partition and they would always be on the other.
He wondered if this was why his brother never came back.
Before he knew it, he was in front of his parents’ house. The stillness of the night air in stark contrast to how it was when he first entered the line. The only movement or sound was the rain. It was always the rain. He looked in the window where they both sat at the dining room table with a cake and balloons. He remained there for several seconds, observing their faces. His mom looked hopeful as ever and his dad checked his watch several times. They reached across the table and held each other’s hands, saying nothing. The boy stood there as long as he could bear it. Eventually, his mom blew the candles of the cake out and fanned the smoke gently. His dad checked his watch once more before drawing the curtains to the house. The boy was crying again and didn’t know why. For some reason, the thought of his mom waking up and relighting the candles was more painful than everything else that had happened in the last day.
Maybe he knew that he wouldn’t be there to blow them out, that he would never blow them out or eat any of the cake. It would be thrown out days later, the unexceptional gesture discarded along with the hope that burned from the candles and illuminated her face. The boy would never forget the thought of the $11 sheet cake sitting in the small white trash can under their sink.
He quietly got into his car, started the ignition, and drove off. He didn’t dare look back to see if the curtains had been opened to witness his departure. A small exhaust cloud remained in the place his car was parked for several seconds before disappearing into the moon.
When he got home, his roommates had already passed out drunk in front of the television, rocked to sleep by sports highlights and pills. A half-empty bottle of whiskey sat on the table along with a tipped prescription bottle that had sent its contents scrambling across the table and into the fibers of the carpet. A completely full ashtray provided the last proof he needed that it was a perfect evening. Neither one had the “I voted” patch fastened to their forehead, and he remembered a conversation about voting from several weeks earlier. Both had called it “fucking stupid,” without any elaboration. Their virgin foreheads taunted the boy whose fingers instinctively pulled at a few loose fibers that hung from the patch on his forehead. The threads suggested an infuriating false hope, fragments of something that was undoubtedly permanent.
He was overcome with a vagrant jealousy, the feeling of being left behind. He remembered that tomorrow, the Notre Dame football team was playing their rival, USC. One of the biggest games of the year, which would explain their current state of jubilation. Their cares and concerns saturated their sweatpants as they lost control of their bladders in favor of total oblivion. Their mouths hung open, their skin looked pale against the dark brown cushions of the abused, over-stuffed couch, but they seemed happy. The type of resolute happiness that is unachievable without substance.
He sat on the couch and with nothing else to do but forget, he picked up several pills from the mildewy carpet and slid them into his mouth through pursed lips. He chewed them and let the bitterness engulf his tongue. He raised the bottle of whiskey and washed any remaining medicinal residue. The combination stung as it coated his empty stomach. He liked that sting. It was a familiar pain, unlike his forehead, and he knew that soon enough he would join his friends in the place they always longed to be together.
Tomorrow, they would beat the shit out of USC, and they would be responsible for that. They would recount it to each other for years to come, maybe even share the memory with their bastard kids. The school needed them; the city needed them. Without them, the city had nothing. They took their self-appointed responsibility of destroying themselves for the sake of a college football team very seriously. Tomorrow would be legendary; tomorrow would be normal, the boy thought.
He waited for his brain to liquefy and flush out of his ass and onto the floor with his two roommates, but unconsciousness didn’t come like it usually did. A restlessness refused the drowning he sought, incapacitated undoubtedly, but his consciousness struggled against the water entering its lungs from the toilet it had been plunged into. Though weak, tiny bubbles still inexplicably found their way to the surface.
Frustrated, the boy had the sudden desire to masturbate, sometimes it helped him sleep. In fact, whether he’d like to admit it or not, he relied on pornography as much as liquor as a retreat from thought. The repetition of skin pounding skin functioned as a carnal metronome that was capable of injecting another dose of Novocain into his temples. He dreaded his inexorable orgasm because it meant the sound of grinding wet flesh stopped, and he was no longer drifting aimlessly and obliviously in that sea of skin. He preferred two miserable strangers fucking each other’s brains out for a hundred dollars to presence in reality.
He came quickly and into the toilet bowl and looked at the disgusting mess dripping from the side and into the water. Was his wasted seed any more or less significant than either candidate? He remembered the video from second grade again and thought briefly of rescuing his messiah from the beige water but thought better of it. Instead, he decided it was better to watch it meander toward the hole where years of other unspeakable things were sent to live, a vote cast for himself. He chuckled to himself and felt his patch again as sleep began to set in.
The next day his friends stormed his room with a fresh case of beer and the energy of two people who knew a full day of drinking was ahead of them. A full day of blunders and misremembering, sexual harassment disguised as playful flirting, and physically assaulting fans of the other team for their respective allegiance. A day without consequence awaited and it would end in the same glorious fashion as the night before. Except this time, their team would be one step closer to winning it all.
The roommates wrestled with the boy for several minutes and yelled at him to stop fucking around. They danced around the room and taunted the lifeless body by singing the USC fight song. One of the roommates picked up the boy’s prized Notre Dame jersey and mimicked wiping his ass with it, before accidentally vomiting up the Cheerios he had eaten with water. After several more minutes of hilarious humiliation, which also included placing their balls on the boy’s forehead, one of the roommates noticed how cold the boy felt. They had never seen a dead body before, though the boy always seemed to look like this when he was extra fucked up. Never on a game day though, thought the roommate. After sitting down to a few more beers and a few lines of Adderall, the boys decided it was the right thing to do to drive him to the hospital. Maybe the doctors could revive him before game time.
They piled into the boy’s car and drove to the hospital, blowing stop signs and hotboxing the old Pontiac like they always did. They took several pictures of the boy slumped in the back seat that they would hold over his head for being a total pussy when he finally woke up. When they reached the hospital, the roommates pushed the boy from the car like an old sack of McDonald’s. He hit the ground just as a greasy bag would, committing fully to his resting place on the pavement. They had more important things to do than sit at the hospital with someone who couldn’t handle their booze, and if they stuck around any longer, it would be impossible to get sufficiently drunk enough to enjoy the rest of the day.
Hours later, the boy was declared dead by a medical examiner. No one was quite sure why it took hours. Maybe it was just inefficiency in South Bend hospitals or the fact that there were hundreds of other bodies showing up there over the next few weeks. The doctor told his mom that it was a combination of several things, including early-onset liver failure, but the thing that pushed him over the edge was a rapidly spreading infection from the “I Voted” patch. He consoled the boy’s parents by saying that the boy likely only had a few more years to live regardless, because of the diseased liver, but it did little to take the guilt from the parents.
Notre Dame beat USC 49-21 that day and when his roommates found out that the boy died, they thought of it as the ultimate sacrifice for the team, though they ended up losing in the championship game weeks later.
They didn’t care much though. They’d get it next year or the year after.
At the boy’s funeral, his mom said the same thing she did about the bird all of those years ago. Holding back tears, she addressed the sparse crowd, stating that the boy died doing what he loved. In some ways, it was true.
The service was short and forgettable.
The results of the election were inconclusive according to those tallying the votes, or rather microwaving the Cracker Jack boxes full of cum and placing them on the official scale for final weigh-ins. The weight of both candidate’s output was identical. They had achieved a wholly equal number of orgasms, perfect parity.
There would be a re-vote over the next several days, and the line was already forming.