Charlie Foote’s Mayday
By Benjamin J. Gohs
When your last chance reaches across the latitude and longitude of impossible happenstance, and plucks your name from that old slouch hat, you don’t ask, you don’t argue—you just nod in solemn uncertainty and go.
Go where? Do what? Voice on the telephone said it would be good for the career, good for the soul … good for America. Not necessarily in that order.
Reporter? Biographer? Eyewitness to history yet unseen? Errand boy? Propagandist? No one knew, it seemed. Or, at least, no one was telling.
That was last week, the mysterious call. Now it was this week. Now it was quarter-of on May Day, heading eastward down Route 66. I considered screaming that eponymous international distress call. But, forty-two years and all my maydays had gone unanswered. It was this, or that other thing. And I’d already shown I didn’t have the grit for such business.
So, I took what I could get, which was this cloak and dagger routine. Did my secret Santa have one hell of an odd sense of humor or something more sinister? Which horse you think I bet? If there were any kicks to be had on this highway, they would be the kind with hard pointy boots into brittle shins.
A minor adjustment and the shrinking city of Flagstaff was obscured by the high moist forehead of the driver. His sunken coals blinked wild in the artificial shade. A college kid, maybe, from one of those countries I couldn’t point to on a map. The kind we like to bomb. Didn’t think air-conditioning was worth the gas. Asked him to turn on the radio instead. Special announcement. Any minute. President to address nation regarding most recent violence.
Was it the grocery store in Montana or the county courthouse in Bethesda? No, those were last week. Couldn’t be the massacre at Bowling Green. The incident two days ago happened at a school carnival in California. Or was it Utah?
“Turn this up, will ya?”
“You’re the boss, I guess,” the driver said through a thick tongue. He blared the volume but there was no point arguing. Besides, they were cutting to Albuquerque of all places. The reporter on the scene talked a little about what the president might say. And then silence. Crackle. “Hail to the Chief.”
The forty-somethingth President of the Something States of Something: Irv Gardner. A good white Christian name. “Gardner” hinted just the right amount of the old country without evoking visions of iron crosses and gas chambers.
POTUS opened the way he always had, far back as the campaign, with a sort of exaggerated concern in his voice. From somewhere deep in his throat, he chided the state of things with a series of scolding, “M-m-m-m-m” sounds. Even over the radio you could see him shaking his head.
“I told you they can’t be trusted,” Gardner said with subdued glee. “Radical. Islamic. Terrorism. It’s our biggest, our most lethal threat. And we are going to keep getting attacked until this great nation no longer harbors the haters of America.”
The cab driver pumped his brindle fist and grunted. He looked me in the mirror. A bonding moment? I smiled a little and nodded, hoping to placate the man who, temporarily, controlled whether we lived.
“The fraidy-cats don’t want to upset anyone.” Gardner sounded heartsick. “They cried when I put a stop to poisonous immigration. They hollered when I made the Muslims register. They begged me not to electrify the southern fence. Now they piss and moan when I try to put a stop to all these shootings and bombings.”
At 39, Irv Gardner was our youngest president. He had also been one of its poorest, and a high school dropout. It wasn’t until he fell from the top of a three-story condominium while laying shingles that his luck changed. Got him a big fat insurance settlement because the contracting company failed to supply proper safety equipment.
“Hell, they’re scared even to say the words,” Gardner growled from the speakers. “But I’m not scared. Radical Islamic terrorism is destroying our nation.”
The driver mumbled in agreement.
“Later this week, I will unveil a new presidential proclamation that will severely and immediately reduce the number of these bad guys from our country,” Gardner said. “Starting next week, all Muslims who have been in this country less than twenty years will be immediately deported. No questions asked. See-ya-later. Bye-bye. Anyone here longer, well, we’re going to have a good long talk with them and find out how they feel about us. And, believe me, they better love it here or they can get the hell out. That’s all I can say about it right now. Be sure to watch my show tonight.”
Cabby turned off the radio and stared into his mirror until I leaned forward.
“Good speech,” he said. “He is amazing man. You know, he is self-made. No rich parents. No free stuff.”
“He’s something, alright.”
Gardner was the self-proclaimed working man’s working man. The reality was he spent his quarter-of-a-million-dollar settlement on a series of television commercials featuring himself and his desire to take back his country. He parlayed that celebrity status into a grassroots presidential campaign. Gardner ran as an Independent—the Independent’s Independent. He promised the Republicans everything they wanted. He did the same with the Democrats. With his blonde hair and blue eyes, he reminded you of a California surfer dude and looked enough like Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys circa 1963 for his Secret Service code name to be “Surfin Safari.”
Gardner really endeared himself to the common man when, while on the campaign trail, his bus broke down. Instead of waiting for a tow truck, the political hopeful took a look under the hood. Secret Service drove him to an auto parts store. And, in under an hour, he had the damned thing running. It was all caught on tape. His supporters went nuts.
“Let me tell you, my friend,” the driver said. He’d glance at the road once in a while and jerk the wheel to keep us out of oncoming traffic. “Present Garner is great man.”
I considered letting it pass but couldn’t resist.
“When they send you back,” I said, “to whatever Third World hovel you crawled out of, he still gonna be a great man, the president?”
The driver adjusted the mirror again and laughed.
“No, my friend,” the driver said, and held up the silver crucifix hanging from his neck. “Not me. I convert. Three years. Praise the Jesus.”
“My mistake,” I said. “I had no idea.”
“No, you did not.”
My thoughts drifted back to the why of the situation. Even such strange details of the what’s next paled, at the moment, to why I had been selected, why I was here. Why the light fixture hadn’t been designed to hold two hundred pounds of defeat. Why hadn’t I tried-tried-again? What was I afraid of … more failure? More rope burn?
The car slowed.
“Your guess good as mine.”
“It is or it is not, my friend.”
“Yeah. Pull over.”
The parking lot had been reclaimed by sand, scrub, ants, snakes. Desolation was too kind a word. The car sped off, hiding me in a cloud of dirt and stone. Decayed petrol signs swung loud in a gust, screaming their red death agony. Only shade was above a cement slab, foot of a decapitated gas pump. The brittle awning overhead buzzed from its grape-cluster mounds of fine gray paper. They didn’t even notice me, humming away in their angry certain solitude, mouths full of yesterday.
Dying of thirst in the middle of the desert and all I had was a bottle of water.
Entertained myself by rubbing a toe in the grit. Spotted a crusted blotch of mustard on the left pant leg cuff. Waited. Checked my wrist.
Went to the road. More scrub. More sand. More nothing. Couldn’t help but wonder if this was all a bad joke, an elaborate sendoff in the all-time annuls of revenge firings. Were they all back at the office having a good laugh? A drone high overhead, recording every droplet of hermetically baked-in humiliation?
The second hand swept slow and steady over noon. A far off rumble from deep in the cloudless landscape. From out of the east, a warped black vision shape-shifted across the simmering blacktop. Wide and long, in all its antediluvian glory, a Cadillac Fleetwood straight out of the Nixon administration. Big fenders, big tires, big balls—America on wheels. As old as leaded gas and black as the midnight sun. Hell, Tricky Dick and Secy Laird probably planned the bombing of Hanoi from the backseat.
The leviathan eased to a crawl and idled into the lot. Before it had even stopped, one of the impenetrable rear windows buzzed electric. I hesitated. My mind flashed. What if it’s a hit? Fired and murdered in the same fortnight? What a bummer. What were the chances? You think anyone’s gonna waste a bullet on you?
“Mr. Foote?” The voice deep, sure and kind.
“Yes. Charles is fine. Yes.”
A long arm extended from within the black den, slow and steady as a charmed cobra. I checked the fingers for fangs before shaking.
“Andy St. John. Good to know ya.” The calloused leathery vise crushed my sweaty, limp excuse for a hand. Only other part I could see was the clean-shaven bottom of a wide chin faint of cleft and, twinkling below, a golden cross. “Good to know you, Chuck.”
It felt like an old spy movie, and I was the dupe. I was the man who knew nothing. I thought about not getting in. What were my options? Shrivel in the sun? Let the scorpions eat my eyes? One last scan of the baking scenery. A billow of cold air decided for me.
Was this happening? Did it matter? In all directions, certain death. But I supposed it true regardless. Regardless of what? Maybe the answer was in the back end of this ghost of Detroit’s past. I reached for the door handle, as did another. Faceless body, heel to crown in black, drivers cap, mirrors for eyes; opened the door with stately flourish.
As I was getting in, the man I’d shook hands with exited on the other side. He scooted across the seat and brushed by a thin elderly gent, head full of salt and pepper and beard to match. Something Freudian about him. Was this some kind of demented Chinese fire drill? The seats faced each other limousine style. Serious coin had gone into customizing this bad boy.
A middle-aged woman faced us from the seat across. I smiled. She did not.
“You haven’t any picture-taking or recording devices?” she said. “No phone, no voice recorder, no cameras of any kind? As instructed?”
The driver slid back in the car and checked his watch. The old man seemed to be sleeping.
What were we doing? What were we waiting for?
Through the dark windshield glass and my open window, I watched. The mystery man circled the car with a roll of something under one arm. He swept off a patch of asphalt with the side of his shoe and unfurled a small rug. Took off his shoes and faced the direction from which he’d come. He talked to himself and bent at the waist. Funny, he hadn’t sounded different at the handshake.
The man knelt and put his forehead to the carpet. The strange dance continued. Seven minutes after by my watch when he put his shoes on, rolled up the rug and came back to the car.
What have you gotten yourself into?
I tried to think of a polite reason to excuse myself but we were already moving. The dim glass crept up on the last light of another life. Sealed in this subterranean land yacht. Couldn’t see but feel. Cold leather and chrome trim.
No foolin, what they say about these cars. Smoooooth ride.
“Drink?” The voice came from across the cavernous black.
Answer correct. Thinking hard. Last chance. Can’t screw this up. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi…
“I can forgive a great many sins,” St. John said, “but drunkenness on the job will never be one of them.”
The man next to me still seemed to be napping. Or dead.
“I agree,” I said.
“Good. Good. We have a lot of work to do and we’ll need clear heads to do it.”
The low light normalized. First good closeup of the new employer: white dress shirt rolled up to the elbows and tucked into blue denim; black boots. Beatle or engineer? Couldn’t tell. Tan, square jaw, mustache, handsome. An Italian or Middle-eastern Hemingway. Young Hemingway? No, Tom Selleck. And the strong scent of pink bubble gum.
“No,” I said.
“Good. I used to. Miss it sometimes. But, at some point, a man must cut vices from his life or get comfortable slaving to them. My only vice now is people … and popcorn. Guess I could eat about a trashcan of buttered popcorn a day. That is, if the wife let me.”
“And that dreadful gum,” said the sleeping man. He didn’t move or open his eyes but grumbled and went back to quiet.
“OK, two vices,” said St. John. He slapped his flat stomach, hard. “I suppose we’re all trying to cope with uncertainty. Don’t you think?”
I tried to seem like I had a clue as to why I wasn’t in the unemployment line.
“It’s all about perspective,” St. John said. “Why are people so masochistic? Why do they poison themselves with liquor and food and tobacco? Why do we ignore our children and browbeat our spouse and sodomize each other?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Oh, geez. Not this again,” said she-in-the-facing-seat.
“Now, hear me out,” he said, holding a finger up in front of the woman. “Jen, here, doesn’t care for my vulgarisms.”
“I’m not offended by the vulgarity,” she said. “I’m offended because it’s nonsense.”
OK, I thought. Stop car. Interview over. This bad joke has played itself out.
“Because,” St. John said, “it helps them forget how hard life is. All that pain and humiliation it, well, it puts things in perspective. Take a hangnail, for instance. That little flap of peeled up skin at the edge of your thumbnail hurts like the dickens. But, accidentally smash that thumb with a hammer … and all that nagging discomfort, all the distraction,” he made a whooshing sound, “gone in an instant.”
I inched toward the door and felt for the handle to make sure it still existed.
“I think maybe there’s been some mistake,” I said. “If you could take me back—”
“C’mon, Chuck, relax. A lot of people applied for this position … but I chose you.”
Liar. We were even.
“Again, I think there’s been a terrible—”
St. John leaned forward with a great shark-toothed smile. “Americans are the same way about their politics. It’s all that guilt. Religion isn’t enough any more. They need something bigger, stronger, to exorcise all that angst. They need to pay for all that sin. I’m counting on you to help make my vision a reality.”
“Does your vision include sodomy?” I said.
The old man let out a sleepy, “ha!”
St. John laughed loud and shook me by the shoulders.
“I knew I’d like you, Chuck!” Then his face went slack but for death and seriousness. “I’m a hammer, Chuck. I’m gonna ring that Liberty Bell. I’ve come to wake my brothers and sisters. I’ve come to shake them shit-less. And I won’t stop until they look around and see the sickness.”
“What you want me to do?” I waited for the answer I knew would likely disgust or horrify me.”
“Nothing much,” he said. “Just tell the truth. Tell my truth.”
“You want me to ghostwrite your memoir or something?”
Jen rolled her eyes. “All he needs.”
“No,” St. John said. “Good idea but no.” He moved closer so our faces nearly touched. His warm bubblegum cloud mingled with my rotten steam. “I want you by my side.”
Then he whispered in my ear, “We’re going to change the world.”
It was later that afternoon, at a truck stop outside the city, I understood what St. John meant.
“You’re a damned fool,” I whispered into the dim blue fluorescent haze shining back at me above the sink. I came from a long line of such men. My father was a fool. In our time, and in our own way, we shared the truth and lies all fathers and sons quiet-keep about the nature of men—the necessary emptiness, the cruelty, the fear of love.
When my sister died, and the old man shunned us, even still mother fattened me on a steady diet of platitudes, for she had long sustained herself on them. They were hunks of moldy bread in her lifeboat lost at sea. She carried hope enough for the both of us. Though there were times I suspected the bottom of her pail had rusted clean through.
Mother told me not to give up on him. She told me something which scared me so that I had never forgotten: “If you can make an enemy of a good man, you should die from the shame of it.”
What she didn’t tell me was how long it took to die of shame. But that was a long time ago. Everyone I wanted to love was far away or dead. Once again, I needed the help of a good man, and couldn’t think of a one in the whole grim sea of well-dressed assholes clogging the corroded machinery of my life.
“Is Andy St. John a good man?” I straightened my tie. “I can’t do this anymore,” I whispered. Then I willed the frown into a grimace and said, “You have to.”
The crowd seemed thicker now than it had from inside the truck stop. Muscle shirts, hiking boots, tennis skirts, overalls, and plaid shorts jostled and swayed. Fleshy petals on the flowers of America perspired around him, this master honeybee come to pollinate their brains.
I remained on the periphery, fearing what manner of tomfoolery might ejaculate at such a wicked jamboree. Fellow dead-eyed miscreant in a wrinkled suit tap-danced sluggishly across the sweltering asphalt, snapping photos and ever-circling the assemblage.
St. John shushed the crowd. Jesus, he’s not going to give the sodomy speech, is he?
Up there on an overturned crate, St. John fluttered his hands in the air. The people quieted.
“Are you happy with your kids’ education? Your healthcare? Jobs? Roads? Your leaders up there in Washington? I know. Last thing you need is some know-it-all politician looking to fill his pockets on the back of the working man. Well, by God, I am a working man.”
St. John held up his labor-scarred and calloused hands.
“Election after election, promise on toppa promise. And what you got? Corruption. Poverty. Drugs. Crowded prisons and failing schools. Mass shootings and hate. Jobs shipped overseas. It’s a mess.
“Don’t misunderstand me, now. I blame the Democrats and Republicans equal. Partisanship and party loyalty have killed our democracy quicker’na bullet fulla arsenic.
“Why, to some folks, even ‘cooperation’ has become a bad word. They say it forces you to go against your beliefs. They say winning one for their team is more important even than winning one for America. But I say compromise is the heartbeat of democracy.”
My stomached gurgled, threatening to mutiny. Not the heartbeat of democracy, I thought. Anything but that.
“Can you imagine where we would be as a nation if our firefighters refused to work together because of political differences?” St. John paused for the crowd to grunt their pity. “Or our soldiers, police, doctors, school teachers—man and wife? How long would your marriage last if you refused, flat-out refused, to compromise on anything with your spouse?
Some twangy southern mouth shouted, “About ten damn minutes, that’s how long.”
The crowd laughed and St. John laughed with them. That’s when the old man from the backseat appeared. He mingled and shook hands, talk in ears, listened, smiled, and held his hand out for some paper.
“Hell, they spend more time fighting over who’s more terrible than they do on worrying about our crumbling bridges, bad water systems, economy,” St. John said.
Someone in the crowd shouted “Hell yeah!” And another. And another.
“I don’t have any magical formulas,” St. John said. “I don’t have any easy answers. Getting this country on the right track is going to take a lot of hard work from me and you. I also don’t have any special interests or fancy donors. So, I ask you folks to consider supporting no party in this presidential race. No Democrat, no Republican, just America and me—Andy St. John.”
The crowd crackled with applause. Without realizing it, I too was clapping. There we were, turtles on his fence post, lifted up on the wings of words so juicy they might have quenched that dusty little square of desert if you dared to poke at them.
Before I could congratulate St. John on his speech, we were in the car and headed east on I-40. The old man nudged me and passed a thick wad of cash.
“Count,” he said. “Twice.”
I licked my thumb and forefinger and flicked through the bills.
“Three hundred and eighty-six dollars.”
He handed me a little cloth bag with a zipper on top.
“So, what’d you think?” said St. John.
“No. Dishonestly. Yes, of course.”
“I thought it was amazing. I think it was the most inspiring thing I’ve heard in a long time, maybe ever. I think you went full Mayberry on them, and I think you hustled those people out of money they prolly can’t afford to part with.”
St. John leaned in real close and smoothed his mustache and said, “People can deal with pretty much anything this filthy torture chamber of a life throws at them. Poverty and lost love and acts of God. What they can’t live with, what none of us can survive, is hopelessness.”
Thinking I might be thrown out of the moving car, I braced myself while St. John went on.
“You show me the biggest sad-sack loser on the planet, and if he’s got even an ounce of hope left in his heart, I’ll show you a man who can do dang-near anything.”
“Yeah?” I said. “What about the ones who’re too smart for hope?”
“You think you’ve outsmarted hope?”
St. John settled into his seat. “Me? I feel sorry for folks who give up because they can’t find any more hope. Or won’t. But you’re not there yet … and neither is America.”
“Oh no?” I said. My face flushed with a hint of anger. “Sure feels like it sometimes.”
St. John sighed and wiped his hands on his pant legs.
“If you were hopeless, then why ride out into nowhere to meet a stranger? Why not stay home and drink yourself to death?”
I pawed at my jaundiced cheek and tried to look offended. St. John pursed his lips and cocked his head knowingly.
“Look,” he said, “we only want folks here who want to be here.”
“I understand,” I said. “I’m just concerned that—”
“Don’t decide just yet. We have one more stop.”
“Fine. But do you really think America is ready for a Muslim president?”
St. John laughed even harder than than before.
“This country ain’t ready for a Muslim dogcatcher,” he said. “Americans have never been ready for any major change. No, they are not ready for me. But I am ready for them.”
We made Albuquerque a little after eight. The long fingers of evening reached through day’s dying ocher and stretched across the land toward the east as if night were crawling from its crypt, dragging tomorrow’s unconscious body behind it. But it was still today, and we had one more stop to make. One more test to pass. One more chance run.
The big black Cadillac followed signs to the University of New Mexico. I remembered the president’s broadcast from earlier in the day—something about not missing his “show.”
“Time to see what we’re up against,” St. John said, and took his rug over to an open parking spot for another seven minutes.
Due to President Gardner’s unique status as an Independent, the forum was open to all candidates who had garnered at least ten percent in three major opinion polls. As St. John was still under one point, he would have to watch with the rest of the peasants.
Nobody in the crowd recognized us, which was good because, by the number of signs, hats and T-shirts emblazoned with Irv Gardner’s slogans and likeness, these people had come to see their man from D.C., and no one else.
At a couple minutes to nine, the moderator laid down the rules for the candidates as well as the audience—chief among them was not to applaud, cheer or boo. When it was time, the crowd hushed and out poured the parade of titans.
First up was the dentist-turned-televangelist, a real nuclear-warhead-and-brimstone type. The pillars of his platform included provisions to bring back stoning for homosexuality, and eliminate the right of women and minorities to vote or own property.
Then, the Governor of Ohio, another Reagan clone overjoyed America was again on the outs with Russia. He did his first national TV interview from the underground fallout bunker he built in 1983.
Next on the dais, the billionaire tech guru. A lifelong Independent from Silicon Valley who’d thrown his lot in with the GOP. Pretty progressive on the social side, but terribly hawkish on foreign policy. Rumor had it he used former Sen. John McCain’s a capella “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb-Iran” (sung to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”) song for his ringtone.
Ah, former Miss America. A lovely liberal gal from Florida who turned her jug-jiggling and “world peace” speech into a cosmetics empire. Her strategy was to talk softly and carry a large pair of tits. Nobody argued she was gorgeous. Problem was she had a brain. Voters could not abide a woman capable of both twerking and trigonometry.
The most bizarre entry in the presidential race, aside from the sitting president, was actor James Woods. He was a certified genius with such distinctions as having stopped a potential terror plot on his flight shortly after 9/11 … and starring in 1983’s Videodrome.
There were others but, frankly, no one cared. You could haul two dozen sweaty lawyers with trust funds out into the street and shoot them execution style … and tear one would not be squirted—except maybe by their cocaine dealers.
Each of the eleven candidates gave his or her canned spiel on how they wanted to “give back” and how this was the “most crucial” election in modern times. They all had hardworking parents who taught them the value of a dollar and each one loved Jesus just a little bit more than the other. The crowd was damn near comatose by the time they got to the big man.
They saved the beast for last. Everything leading up to him was just dull noise—a fart in a coffee can. Gardner opened by complimenting Miss America’s breasts, insulting the rest of his opponents, threatening the moderator, and challenging the press to a duel—not a single reporter but the entire vocation.
The crowd swooned.
Gardner cussed out the moderator for leaving him to the end, and the people cheered.
“Kill all Muslims! Death to liberalism! Down with political correctness and to hell with the Moral Majority! Yeah, I’ve said those things,” Gardner shouted.
The crowd cheered some more.
“These scumbags’ve got me all shook up!” the president shouted while doing his best Elvis Presley impression. The republic in that arena was on the verge of nationalist orgy. The rage of paranoid tension was so thick in the hall it wanted for just the right word—a wrong look, maybe a lick of lips or an errant belch—to set off the chaos.
We were a sneeze away from pandemonium in the aisles. They were close already: stiffened spines, pumping arms holding obscene signs, sweaty brows and heaving chests. The rabble vibrated with such lust and adoration of their candidate, I was sure we would soon be tops and bottoms and naked middles all akimbo … an archipelago of frustrated souls begging invasion and absolution. The only thing standing between this crowd and full-on Roman ecstasy was a thin layer of denim.
There would be no rape that night, for you cannot rape the willing.
St. John scanned the crowd and shook his head. His mouth moved but I didn’t catch a word over the din. It wasn’t a debate, it was a religious experience—frenetic-Satanic-Cathartic mass.
“Is this beautiful or what?!” Gardner said, his mouth too close to the microphone. “You know, it’s a pretty great day to be a true American. Not so much for the establishment. They hate this country. They hate me. Most of all, they hate you.”
The crowd’s pent up yearning exploded from eyes, noses, mouths in gobs and sobs of hysterical glee. A fat man in a trucker hat and suspenders threw up on himself. An old woman waving a flag passed out. A group of college girls shoved their hands down their pants and swayed to the chant of, “Scrub the scum!” And, the large woman to my left stroked my arm and wiggled her eyebrows.
Gardner’s opponents stood frozen to their podiums as the room swelled. It almost made me misty, seeing such proud pigs stunned into terror like livestock on the kill-room floor.
The moderator flapped his arms and pleaded until the crowd calmed. He addressed his next question to Miss America but Gardner went on talking.
“Once again, they’re saying I can’t do it,” he said. “That we can’t do it. But we have to do it. We still have a lot of work to do to take our country back from you-know-who. This used to be America the beautiful but they’ve turned it into Scumbag, USA!”
POTUS gave an exaggerated frown, shaking his head slowly from side to side. The crowd booed and again broke into chants of “Scrub the scum! Scrub the scum!”
The billionaire tech guru slammed a fist on his lectern and shrieked, “Can we be civil?”
Some of the other candidates also protested and threatened to walk off stage.
Gardner did what he did best. He balled up his fists and wiggled them at the corners of his eyes while shaking his butt.
“Wah! Wah! Wah!” the president cried in a cartoonish display. “Baby wanna bottle?”
That was it. All there was. Thunderous guffaws rippled through the room. Signs were thrown at the candidates. A man climbed a curtain in the back. Women lifted their shirts. The moderator, shouting and banging his gavel for order to be restored, was swallowed by the rush of flesh to the stage.
And I could swear, just before we ran for the exit, with throngs of crazed audience members being tackled by Secret Service all around him, the President of the United States of America started doing The Robot … and some in the crowd danced along.
At the cusp of the bum-rush was when I finally knew. It was like having my fortune read by an Earth Science teacher—no emotion, no razzmatazz, and no smoke or flashes of mysterious light. No promises that all would be well. Just a straight reckoning of the way things were, all the way down to the molecular level.
“These people need to be saved,” St. John said once we were outside.
“From who,” I said, “themselves?”
Gardner had devised a method of cultural smelting. He boiled down angst and self-loathing, cut it with propaganda, and delivered it sweet, thick, and sticky. Forget brainwashing, we got vein-washing. Mainline mankind like a Trinity enema. Instead of the Father-Son-and-Holy-Ghost, you got the Mother-lover, the Gun-toter, and the Unholy Boast!
Were these people hapless? Was this their mayday? Or did they truly want a gilded jester in blackface to dance naked and flex his muscles and urinate on the stage and “caw” like a bird and sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and pass gas and holler “fuchi capesta” before tucking them in at night with bedtime stories about American Exceptionalism?
“So,” St. John said, as we walked to the car, “you wanna help me change the world?”
I nodded and got in and quietly wondered how you save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.
How could I save the world? I couldn’t even save myself.