Feminist, Fictionista, Foodie, Francophile

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Participatory Democracy: Fiction by Katherine Tomlinson

I don't write much political fiction, and this story, strictly speaking, is more of a noir-ish kind of tale. But after binge-watching the RNC and the DNC, I re-read the story (which I wrote several yaers ago) and felt like it suited the times a little too perfectly. And sums up why I'm With Her.
Nora had been working on the Congressman’s campaign for eighteen months. His neighborhood office was within walking distance of her apartment and going there every day gave her something to do with her unemployed hours; injected purpose into her otherwise
aimless life.
She liked working at the small political outpost. The people there were smart and funny and talked about things besides who was favored to win Dancing with the Stars. No one was paid, but there was always free coffee and a seemingly endless supply of muffins and cookies and bananas.
Bananas were very filling and rich with potassium. Nora had read that potassium helped regulate stress, so she made sure she always ate a banana at some point during the day.
Nora had voted for the Congressman when he first ran for office on a law and order platform that challenged bad parents and bad teachers to mend their ways lest they produce a generation of bad kids. Two years later, there’d been talk of a Senate run, but instead, the party had anointed a young black guy with three adopted children and a wife who’d lost a leg working for Doctors Without Borders.
The kids were really cute and you couldn’t tell the wife had an artificial leg. It had been made for her by the same people who’d made Heather Mills’ prosthetic limb.
People in the party said the Senator was headed for big things; that he might go “all the way.”
If the Congressman was bitter, he didn’t share his disappointment with the public.
He was popular in his district and he made the correct and crucial connections inside the Beltway, building a reputation as a guy the Party could count on to carry the banner.
He rebranded himself as a fiscal conservative and eventually landed a seat on the House Budget Committee. His constituents approved of his evolving priorities and he’d served four consecutive terms. It was widely assumed he'd have no problems holding on to his seat in the current election.
Nora liked the Congressman because he seemed to “get it.” His district had been hard-hit by the recession and when he was re-elected in 2011, his campaign had been all about job creation and getting people back to work.
That was a message Nora wanted to hear.
Nora had lost her job in March of 2011 and things had been going downhill ever since. The savings cushion she’d had flattened quickly. She hadn’t asked for alimony in her divorce settlement because she'd made decent money as a paralegal and she'd wanted out of her marriage as fast as possible.
It had soon become apparent that her ex-husband’s insurance plan was much better than the coverage at the law firm where she worked, though, and after a breast cancer scare that involved multiple tests, she was left with a large pile of medical debt that was getting larger by the month.
Fortunately, it had been a false alarm, and the lump had been just a cystic mass.
That was the only good news she got that year.
Nora lived on her unemployment benefits and updated her resume.
She moved into a smaller apartment and haunted online job listings.
She clipped coupons and went to every job fair the neighborhood had to offer.
She threw herself into social media, hoping to make a contact who could give her a lead on a job.
She lived off her credit cards and registered for temp work but by the time all the fees and taxes were paid, she was only bringing home about $50 a day for those jobs and that just wasn’t enough.
She started selling things.
By the end of the year, Nora had become a citizen of what her ex-husband had sneeringly called “the other America,” a place where people existed without bank accounts; where mothers of many children bought cigarettes and booze with their food stamps and let their children go hungry. Nora knew it wasn’t true about the food stamps, because after an enormous amount of paperwork, she’d qualified to start receiving them and there were lots of things you weren’t allowed to buy with them. You couldn’t buy toothpaste or soap or toilet paper, for instance. And you couldn’t buy pet food either. Nora had given Jinka, her beloved Pomeranian, to a former colleague when she was no longer able to feed her.
That had almost killed Nora and the dog hadn’t been happy either. The ex-coworker later told Nora that she’d had the dog put to sleep because she wouldn’t stop barking.
Nora had cried for a week and called a lawyer friend to see if there was any way she could sue the woman for Jinka’s murder. The lawyer, not a dog-lover, had laughed and told her she could try, but that any judge he knew would throw the lawsuit out of court.
Barton, her ex, had hated the dog and toward the end of their marriage had accused Nora of loving Jinka more than she loved him.
He’d been right about that.
By the beginning of 2012, Nora was getting desperate. Most of her friends were just barely hanging on themselves, stunned into shame by their inability to get so much as a response to their emailed resumes and carefully crafted job applications.
It had taken every shred of her limited self-esteem for Nora to go to Barton and beg for his help. In hopes of keeping their meeting civil and businesslike, she’d prepared a spread sheet to show him where every dime of his loan would go. She’d brought a folder full of bills so he’d know she wasn’t just over-dramatizing.
 He’d looked over the spread sheet and then glanced at the contents of the folder, shaking his head at the overdue utility bills and the past-due warnings and the “final notice” messages.
“How’d you get into this mess Nora?” he’d asked with a hint of a smile Nora wanted to believe was sympathetic but knew in her heart was simply mean.
“It’s not my fault,” she had whispered, and even as she’d said it, she knew it was the wrong argument to use with him.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’m not going to loan you any money.”
Nora’s heart nearly stopped.
“I’m going to give it to you,” he said.
Nora’s relief was so intense that she almost threw up.
He watched her reaction and his smirk broadened into a real smile.
“But you have to do something for me.”
Nora just managed to stop herself from saying, “Anything” and instead asked, “what do you want?”
“I want you to blow me.”
“Okay,” Nora said. It wasn’t like she hadn’t done it before.
“Here,” he'd said and leaned back in his chair.
Nora looked around the restaurant he had chosen for their meeting, a place of dark wood and smoked mirrors and crisp, white linen tablecloths. It was the kind of place where they’d often eaten when they’d been married, a place where there were ten different kinds of steak on the menu and complicated desserts.
It was a restaurant where middle managers took their secretaries and then expensed the meal.
 “You’re a bastard,” she said.
“And you’re a whore,” he said amiably.
And there was nothing she could say to that because that’s how she thought of herself too.
Nora had dropped her napkin on the floor and crawled under the table as if to retrieve it.
She’d had to work at getting him hard, and had nearly gagged when he shot his wad deep into her throat. He’d come with an animal grunt he hadn’t bothered to disguise.
She’d emerged from beneath to the table to knowing looks and amused glances from the diners seated nearby.
After, he’d made her eat everything on her plate before pulling out his wallet and counting out five crisp one-hundred dollar bills.
She’d been dismayed by how little he was offering. Her phone bill alone had rolled three times and was now nearly four hundred dollars. If her service was cut off, she’d have to pay the bill in full, pay a re-connection charge, and also put down a deposit of $200 so the phone company could “secure” her account.
“Thank you Barton,” she had said and reached for the money.
“This is a one-time thing,” he said. “Don’t call me again.”
He’d gotten a text just then and as he answered it, she'd gathered up her things.
He looked up as she stood.
“Sorry,” he said. “That was my travel agent. I’m taking Laura to Venice next month for her birthday. It’s going to be a surprise.”
She was outside the restaurant before the first tear spilled down her cheek. That was good because she hadn’t given Barton the satisfaction of seeing her cry, but it was bad because everyone on the sidewalk could see the snot running from her nose and her mascara streaking because she didn’t have a tissue and she didn’t want to wipe her face on the sleeve of her suit jacket.
The suit was the last suit she owned that still almost fit her and she needed it for those times when she needed to camouflage herself as a normal person.
She mostly wore jeans and t-shirts at the campaign headquarters, cinching the jeans tight on her thin frame with a braided leather belt her niece had made at camp.
The leather belt had been a consolation prize.
Nora had asked her sister if she could lend her the money to fix her car’s transmission and her sister had hemmed and hawed and explained that after paying for camp and music lessons and riding lessons for her daughter, she didn’t have any cash to spare.
Nora had been furious with her sister and when the belt arrived in the mail with a chirpy note from her niece, a message that basically said, “I’m having a great time, sorry your life sucks,” Nora had considered just tossing it. But her days of throwing anything away were over, so she’d kept the belt.
When Nora heard that the candidate was going to visit his local campaign headquarters, it was exciting news. She wanted to ask him about the job creation plans he’d promised but hadn’t yet delivered on.
The night before the event, she hand-washed a white silk blouse and made a little red, white, and blue ribbon rosette to pin on the lapel of the red suit jacket.
She took extra care to wash and style her hair.
She polished a pair of Anne Klein pumps she used to wear to work, the only pair she hadn’t sold on eBay when it became clear that she was long-term, hard-core unemployable and if she ever did get another job it would be the kind where a uniform was supplied to the employees, and sensible shoes would be required.
The suit skirt was loose in the waist but Nora fixed that with a safety pin.
With the white silk shell over the waistband, you couldn’t even tell.
“Lookin’ good Nora,” Lowell had said to her approvingly when she arrived the next day. “You clean up nice.”
Lowell was a kind man in his 70s who came in to the office a couple times a week to work the phone banks on the candidate’s behalf. He’d told Nora that he wasn’t really a political man but that he needed something to distract him from the pain of losing his long-time partner to prostate cancer.
Lowell had been her Secret Santa at Christmas. They were supposed to stick to presents that cost less than $10 but he had given her a $100 supermarket gift ccard with a message that said, “It’s our little secret.”  She’d recognized his shaky, old man handwriting.
She’d almost cried when she read the message and to cover up, she had made up a story that the gift card was for a local sex shop. That made everyone laugh.
She’d made that gift card last until February.
“Thank you Lowell,” she said to the old man who was wearing what looked like a Hugo Boss suit, no doubt a relic from his past as a brand manager for a well-known liquor company, “you look rather dapper yourself.”
And that was true, Nora thought. You could tell he’d been a handsome man in his youth and even now, he had a certain “Most Interesting Man in the World” thing going on.
The Congressman’s press secretary arrived with binders and folders and packets she passed around.
“I know you’re all anxious to get some one-on-one time with The Man,” she said, “but he’s running late, so we’re going to have to limit your contact to a handshake and a quick photo.”
Geoff and Jeff, the two poli sci majors from Cal State Northridge, groaned. They were both wearing button-down shirts and ties with their jeans. They’d obviously dressed to impress.
“I know, I know,” the press secretary said sympathetically, and then she was distracted as the first of the local reporters arrived.
“The Man” himself arrived a few minutes later, smelling like breath mints and Marlboros.
His people worked very hard to make sure no one ever photographed the Congressman smoking but he didn’t make it easy for them. The minute he retreated to his town car with the blacked-out windows, he was sucking down nicotine like he needed it to breathe.
The Congressman had a lot of charisma and even more charm and he had prepared a statement for the press and fielded some softball questions. Then a kid from a local micro-news blog asked him about his promise to generate jobs.
And the candidate blew him off.
He turned the question into a joke and started talking about “hard choices” and “fiscal responsibility” and “self-determination.”
Nora couldn’t believe it. The Congressman was almost smirking as he deflected the question and the expression on his face looked hauntingly familiar.
The kid who’d asked the question persisted. “Your district has the highest unemployment in the state,” he began, but before he had a chance to finish what he was saying, the Congressman interrupted.
“See, that’s the kind of negativity we don’t need in America right now,” the Congressman said with a phony laugh. Nora hated people who interrupted people. Barton used to do that to Nora a lot, as if what she was saying couldn't possibly be as important as whatever he had on his mind. She could tell the kid didn't like being interrupted either, but his moment had passed and he knew it.
 “Asshole,” the young journalist said as he left the room. An older reporter gave him an amused look but no one else even noticed. A staffer had brought out slices of cake and was handing them out.
The press secretary started directing staffers to step up to the center of the room so the campaign photographer could take some pictures.
No one noticed Nora picking up a pair of long, sharp shears from a table where the interns usually worked.
The Congressman flinched a little as he posed with Lowell, obviously uncomfortable being so close to an old man. His body language screamed discomfort when he posed with Caroline, a morbidly obese volunteer who always took the leftover pastries home with her at night. Some of the staffers made fun of her behind her back but Nora didn't. She knew Caroline was trying to make ends meet on a small insurance payout from a car accident that had left her with one leg shorter than the other and constant back pain.
Nora was the last of the staffers in the line for pictures and the Congressman smiled at her as she approached.
“You broke your promise,” Nora said to the Congressman as she stepped up next to him, giving him a last chance to make things right.
“What’s that dear?” he asked, bending down so he wouldn’t tower over her in the picture but smiling for the camera and not for her.
The Congressman slung his arm around Nora’s shoulder and pulled her close.
He barely even felt it as she shoved the scissors into his armpit, all the way up to the handle.
He was dead before the photographer clicked the shutter.
Nora had heard prison food was horrible but she didn’t really care.
It wasn’t like she’d have to pay for it.
And after months of eating nothing but tuna salad and peanut butter sandwiches, she was no longer a picky eater.

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