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Election Day

By Harry Turtledove

The alarm clock blasts you awake at 5:45. After you kill it, you stare at the digits in muzzy disbelief. You usually set it for 6:30. Why has it stolen forty-five minutes of precious sack time from you?

Then you remember. Today is Tuesday, the eighth of November. Election Day in the year of Good Lord!, 2016. You want to stop at the polling place before you go on to work.

Out of bed. Fast shower. Shave. Dry hair. Comb hair. Get dressed. A quick glance at the photo of Aaron and Amy on your nightstand while you knot your tie. But they’re with your ex and her new husband. You’ll get them again weekend after next. No photo of Diana. That would just hurt too much.

Coffee. You really need coffee this morning. Breakfast—a Pop Tart tossed in the toaster. While it’s toasting, you fix up a brown bag and check Youngstown weather on your phone. High in the low sixties. Partly cloudy. Chance of showers towards evening. Such excitement.

You think about turning on the TV while you eat the heated Pop Tart and absorb caffeine. You think about it, but you don’t. Republicans and Democrats both hope to win Ohio. That means they both flood it with money and ads. You can’t take a dump without somebody telling you to vote for Trump. You can’t wipe your ass without somebody screaming at you that Trump is an asshole.

You wish they’d all shut the fuck up and get the hell out of here. After today, they will. But these past couple of months have been rugged. The way it looks to you is, both sides are lying as loud as they can as fast as they can. You won’t be sorry when it’s over, not even slightly.

Wash the coffee cup. Chuck the paper plate the Pop Tart sat on into the trash. Out the front door of your apartment. Check the door. Yes, it’s locked. You stick the other key into the deadbolt and turn it. The bolt goes home with a satisfying snick.

Down the hall. The cheap carpet is lighter in the middle, where people walk and wear it out, than at the edges, where they don’t. Down the stairs. The soles of your shoes catch on those gritty strips they stick down to keep you from slipping when the concrete’s wet and slick.

Out onto the street. Your breath smokes. It’s not in the low sixties now. The low forties are more like it. You hope the Impala will start. It’s an ’04, with more than 100,000 miles on it. You get in. You turn the key. The engine coughs a couple of times, but turns over.

You sigh with relief as you crank up the heat. When the Chevy finally does crap out, you know you’ll have to buy some horrible beater. You can’t afford better. You just thank God you’ve got a job. A lot of people around here don’t.

Off you go. The high school that’s your polling place is only a few blocks away. You get there at 7:03. A line already snakes out of the auditorium. You aren’t the only one who wants to vote early.

You find a parking space and get out. You sigh. The heater was just starting to do some good. Now you’re chilly again. At least moms aren’t dropping off their kids yet. Classes won’t start for another hour.

Ohio is a battleground state. The line is almost a battleground line. Poll workers have stuck NO ELECTIONEERING WITHIN 100 FEET! signs on the auditorium doors and walls with masking tape, but people have opinions and give forth with them.

“You ask me, Trump’s just a reality-show host, a rich blowhard with a bad combover,” says a goateed guy in track pants and a hoodie.

“I didn’t ask you,” a fat, middle-aged woman says. “I’m voting for him. President shouldn’t be a family business. Look how Bush Number Two screwed it up.”

“How can you stand Trump?” the goateed guy demands. “Look how he talks about women!”

The woman throws back her head and laughs. “I’ve heard plenty worse than that!” She nudges the chunky gal with her, who may be her sister. “Ain’t you, Maggie?”

“Fuckin’ right I have. I ain’t made of spun glass, like,” Maggie says.

You just stand there and pretend you aren’t listening. You always thought nothing could be dumber than getting into arguments with strangers online. Getting into arguments with strangers waiting to vote seems even stupider, though. Strangers online can’t punch you in the nose. Some of these people look ready to start swinging at any excuse or none. It’s been that kind of campaign.

The line does move. People who get their ballots don’t waste time in the voting booths. Most of them are like you: they’re here on their way to somewhere else.

You give the pollworker your name. You sign the register. You get your ballot. You have to wait a minute or two before a booth opens, but only a minute or two.

In you go, as soon as a guy who looks like a laid-off construction worker comes out. You sigh when you start to vote. The loudmouth or the latest branch from the family tree? The choice doesn’t feel any less gruesome now that you’ve actually got to make it. If the Libertarians had nominated someone with his head on straight, you’d do that to tell the Elephants and Donkeys what you think of them both. But they’re running a dope-smoking space case, so that’s out.

The lady or the tiger? goes through your head. But you can’t stomach Trump at all. You hold your nose and vote Democratic. Then you make your downticket choices in the same spirit of enthusiasm.

“Mr. Tompkins has voted!” a poll worker says when your ballot goes into the box. She hands you your ballot stub and an oval sticker with an American flag and I VOTED—HAVE YOU? on it. You put the sticker on the stub and drop them both into the trash can outside the auditorium.

Back to the Impala. Off to work—at the Youngstown City School District office. You’re even a little early, so you get a good parking space. As you walk in, a curriculum specialist nods and says, “Morning, Ralph.”

“Morning, Fred,” you answer.

“You vote?” he asked.

“’Fraid so.,” you answer. He laughs, for all the world as if that’s funny. You roll your eyes.

Then he says, “How’s the payroll mess coming along?”

“Slowly,” you tell him. “Whoever bought that software package should…have to use it for six months.” The pause lets you not suggest inserting the software package into an orifice where it isn’t designed to go.

Fred takes the elevator. You walk up to the third floor. Exercise, you think, as if this were enough to matter. There’s your cubicle, smack in the middle of Dilbertland. There’s your desk. There’s your nameplate, in genuine engraved


Somewhere in the software package is a bug that makes it deduct only 87% of the Social Security payments and 78% of the Medicare payments it should. A lot of ordinary employees don’t mind a bit; it makes the checks they get on the first and fifteenth of the month a little bigger. But it drives the powers that be batshit.

So you paw through the code, hoping you can find at least one of the bugs and spray virtual Raid on it. It’s slow, painstaking work even with all the compilers and bug sniffers on your hard disk. If it were easy, anyone could do it. As things are, they’ve got you and two other IT people (both women, both—sigh—married) working on it.

Noon rolls around. You haven’t made much progress. You back up what you have done, open the brown bag and eat. You aren’t the only one chowing down at your desk. The building has a cafeteria, but nobody gets rich on what a middle-sized school district pays. Fixing your own food is cheaper.

After you eat, you use the men’s room and drink from the fountain three steps past the door. Then it’s back to the screwed-up payroll program. You do buy an afternoon cup of coffee from the cafeteria. Some people stash a jar of instant in a desk drawer. You draw the line there. Instant coffee tastes like mud. The best instant ever made tastes like high-quality mud. It doesn’t taste like coffee.

As four o’clock nears, you begin to get a handle on what’s wrong with the Social Security calculator. It’s just about quitting time, though. You save again. You back up. You scribble a note on a Post-It so you’ll be able to pick up the thread tomorrow morning.

At four precisely, you stand up, stretch, and head for home. It’s drizzling when you step outside, the way the weather app said it probably would. Forecasts are pretty good these days. You’re old enough to remember when they weren’t much more than WAGs.

When you get back to the apartment building, you park, go in, and check your snailmail. A couple of catalogues, an ad with a coupon for a new Indian restaurant, an insurance bill. Such excitement. Carrying the spoils and plunder from the box, you trudge up the stairs.

Once you’re back at the place, you change into sweats and a long-sleeved T-shirt. By yourself, you don’t need to look businesslike. Then you go out to the front room and turn on CNN. You check your Facebook feed while the talking heads talk. More than two hours to kill before voting ends here in the Eastern Time Zone; three after that before the West Coast starts counting. In the meantime, they go on about opinion tracking and exit polls and all the other crap talking heads talk about when they don’t have anything real to say.

You open the fridge and look inside. A beer? You shake your head. You did your share of drinking and then some when the divorce was raw and new, but you’re mostly over that now. It’s not as if you don’t drink at all these days, but you try not to drink when you’re the only one drinking.

Dinner? It isn’t even five yet. Time drags when you live by yourself. You drift back to the TV. You don’t feel like watching CNN till they’ve got actual news. No NBA games on yet. The HBO movie is stupid. Even the TCM movie is stupid. Stupid in black and white is no better than stupid in color.

Back to CNN. A Republican says Trump will cakewalk to victory. A Democrat says Trump will get his head handed to him. One of them will look like a jerk in a few hours. Whichever it is, that won’t stop her from showing up at the studio tomorrow.

You keep watching. The noise almost makes you feel you’ve got somebody else here with you. Every so often, you

find yourself talking back to the screen. It worries you a little, but not enough to stop you from doing it.

Eventually, the cable box on the TV stand tells you it’s half past five. You go over to the refrigerator. In a big Tupperware, you’ve got chicken thighs roasted with barbecue sauce—leftovers from a big batch you fixed Sunday. In a smaller Tupperware is half a package of mixed veggies—what you didn’t eat last night. You plop two thighs and the vegetables onto a plate, cover it with Glad Wrap, and throw it in the microwave. Two minutes later, dinner.

Dessert is an ice cream bar from the freezer. You pop a Lactaid before you eat it; since you hit forty a couple of years ago, you can’t do dairy products without it.

The stick goes into the trash. So do the chicken bones. Then you wash dishes. You’re good about that kind of stuff. You vacuum the apartment regularly, and dust, too. You’re Felix, not Oscar.

Back to the TV. It’s after six now—getting close. You go from CNN to Fox to MSNBC to CBS to NBC to ABC. They’re all trying to pump up the suspense for everything they’re worth. You don’t want that. You want numbers. Numbers are what an IT guy lives by. Diana said they were what an IT guy lived for. No, it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven. Dammit.

Commercials. You hit the mute button—a wonderful invention. But the ad agencies know everybody has one. They’ve figured out how to plug products (here, trucks) so they get in your face and annoy you even if you won’t listen to them. You change the channel. Take that, ad agency.

Seven o’clock at last. Within a couple of minutes, all the networks have called South Carolina for the Republicans and Massachusetts for the Democrats. Neither is exactly what anybody would think surprising.

You go, “One state, two states, red state, blue state.” When Aaron and Amy were little, you read them a lot of Dr. Seuss. You still mimic the style with ease.

When you were reading it to them then, though, it didn’t make you bite down on the inside of your underlip till you tasted blood. It didn’t remind you of what you had and what you don’t have any more. Diana’s new husband seems a nice enough guy. He’s not one of those monster stepfathers who make the papers and the evening news. He genuinely seems to care for Aaron and Amy.

But hell, they’re your kids. They’re your kids every other weekend, that is. Life sucks, is what it does.

New York and Connecticut turn blue. So does the District of Columbia, where Trump isn’t pulling even ten percent of the vote. All of the South that’s in the Eastern Time Zone goes red, except for Virginia. Just before eight, Virginia’s blue, along with most of New England. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan are still too close to call.

At eight, polls in the Central Time Zone begin to close. Texas turns red, along with the rest of the more westerly South. A lot of the Midwest leans toward the Elephants, too. Illinois is a nice pickup for the Donkeys, though. So is Minnesota. Wisconsin stays gray—no one can figure out what it’s going to do.

“The apparent loss of Florida has badly hurt Democratic chances,” a pundit says gravely. “If things play out the way we expect, what their strategists call the Blue Wall will have to hold for them to keep the White House. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin are vital to them. They can afford to lose one of those. If they lose two, we’ll see a Donald Trump Presidency.”

You’re on MSNBC just then. By the way the woman doing the talking pronounces the last four words, she may as well be talking about a severe outbreak of the Black Plague. Fox, on the other hand, treats Democratic wins like an outbreak of insurrection.

CNN shows a bunch of nervous people at Democratic headquarters, then another bunch of nervous people at Republican headquarters. The Democrats seemed stunned Trump can make it this close. So do the Republicans, in a happier way.

You remember watching the BBC broadcasters when Britain voted for Brexit. They all looked tight-lipped but gobsmacked, as if they couldn’t believe what they were announcing was real. Now a lot of the American talking heads wear the same expression.

Ohio goes Republican. MSNBC declares the state before Fox does, which is interesting. You swear at the plurality of people who live in your state. How can they be such idiots? By the look of things, they have no trouble at all.

But then, as West Coast results swing the popular vote Democratic in a massive blue tide, you see that Trump’s surge in white, hardscrabble western Pennsylvania isn’t going to pull him ahead after all. The same kind of thing happens in Michigan.

It’s after midnight when they finally call Wisconsin. You’re going to be a zombie tomorrow morning. Well, that’s why God made coffee. If you have no brains in your head, you can drink ’em from a cup.

“We came so close,” a Fox commentator says mournfully. “We came way closer than the pollsters expected, but we fell just a little bit short.” He brightened. “Looks like the GOP will keep control of the House and probably the Senate. That’s important.”

“But you lost the big one,” you tell the TV, and go to CNN.

You get there in the middle of “—switching live to Trump Tower in New York City for a statement from Donald J. Trump, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for President of the United States.”

Out lumbers Trump, making for a lectern on the stage. He’s still sporting a red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN cap. His family trails him. His wife looks as if she aches to be somewhere, anywhere, else. She’s worn the look all through the campaign. His sons both sport that yeah-this-is-mine expression that makes you want to slap their faces. His daughter’s pretty, if you’re into Barbie dolls. You know her husband’s Jewish, but he reminds you of a bloodless Jesuit—of an Inquisitor, maybe.

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, you think vaguely, and then, If Trump’s lost, maybe we won’t get it here.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a close, hard-fought race,” Trump says into the microphone. “The big newspapers and the fake-news TV networks have been against me from the start. They wanted to keep the Presidency in the family, like.”

A feral sound rises from the crowd, something like a growl, something like a roar. Trump’s been throwing his fanatics raw meat for months. They’ve come to like the taste.

But he holds up his hand now. “Unless Wisconsin ends up close enough to make a recount worthwhile, or unless we can show enough illegal aliens voted to turn this thing around, we aren’t gonna win tonight.”

The growl/roar rises again, this time with a wounded note. These people may be nuts, but they’re terribly in earnest. The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity. A piece of some poem you read in Brit Lit that somehow stuck in your head.

“Not tonight,” Trump repeats. “I just called the Senator from New York with my congratulations and to offer my support as long as it turns out the election was really free and fair.”

Shouts of “No!” ring out from the crowd, and other shouts that should be bleeped but aren’t. Live TV, in all its

glory. “We apologize for that,” a CNN commentator says through them.

Trump isn’t done yet. “We fought the insiders as hard as we could,” he says. “We didn’t quite beat ’em. We aren’t gonna get to drain the swamp in Washington this time around. But we scared the living crap out of ’em. And I’ll tell you something else, too. We’re gonna keep on fighting! We’re gonna keep on scaring the crap out of the fat cats who screw the little guy. We’re just getting started. In four more years, in 2020, we’ll have another chance to—”

“Make America great again!” the crowd howls. They chant it over and over. Some of them pump their fists in the air. It’s not quite one of those Nazi rallies you see on the American Heroes Channel in grainy black and white—the choreography isn’t good enough. But you get the idea that’s what it wants to be.

CNN cuts back to the studio. A gray-haired guy who’s covered politics as long as you’ve been alive says, “That’s the most extraordinary concession speech I’ve ever heard. It’s the least gracious concession speech, too. But at least Donald Trump has not done what he’s half-threatened to do several times if returns show him losing—refuse to concede and fight it out in the streets.”

You try to imagine people swinging sticks or baseball bats in the streets of Youngstown. You imagine flying rocks and bricks and bottles and Molotov cocktails. You imagine flying bullets and SUVs or pickups plowing into people from the other side, whichever side the other is. The worst are full of passionate intensity. People don’t think of themselves as the worst, not even Nazis or Maoists. You shiver, though the apartment’s plenty warm. What you imagine feels all too real.

A blond woman who wasn’t born when the gray-haired man started reporting breaks in to say, “We’re going live to Democratic headquarters at the New Yorker Hotel!”

Away they go. The people inside Trump Tower’s big function room who weren’t glum were angry. At the New Yorker, the joint is jumping. The music goes from Sting’s “Fields of Gold” to Weezer doing “Island in the Sun.” This crowd is younger than Trump’s.

“Island in the Sun” cuts off in the middle. An aging African-American boomer in a purple pantsuit—some party honcho—comes to the lectern. She taps the mike to make sure it’s live. Then she says, “People? Listen up, people! The Senator will be down in a minute. Before Mr. Trump made his public concession, he called to congratulate the Sen—” She breaks off. “I mean, to congratulate the President-elect of the United States!”

Rage and resentment fueled the roars at Trump Tower. The racket here is pure rock-concert joy. People shake hands and high-five and hug and kiss and boogie. If you can’t get laid tonight, dudes, you aren’t half trying, you think.

A skinny guy who looks like a college sophomore dashes across the stage and whispers in Ms. Pantsuit’s ear. As she nods, the kid trots away again. She swings back toward the microphone. “People? People! Here is the junior Senator from the great state of New York and the next President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Junior!”

Out he comes. He’s almost fifteen years younger than Donald Trump, and does it ever show. He’s trim in an iron-gray suit. His hair is about the same color, and he doesn’t need a combover. His old man might have been the handsomest President ever. His mother was beautiful. No one’s claimed he lets the side down in looks.

His wife—who’s not exactly homely herself—and their twelve-year-old boy follow him to the lectern. So do Vice President-elect Bennet and his wife and three kids. He waves to the crowd. The Democrats yell some more. He waves again, then holds up his hand. The crowd takes a while to quiet down. Chuckling, the woman on CNN remarks, “Will Rogers said, ‘I don’t belong to an organized political party. I am a Democrat.’ It’s still true a lifetime later.”

At last, Kennedy gets to say, “As you probably know, I just got a call from Donald Trump.” The name makes the Democrats jeer and snarl. They may not be organized, but they’re united in that. The President-elect holds up his hand again. “It was close. We won. He admits we won. He wished me the best. That’s all that matters.”

You figure Trump was his usual charming self in the concession call. By the way the crowd keeps jeering, they figure the same thing. The slightly sour expression on JFK, Jr.’s, face doesn’t argue against that line of thought.

But the President-elect repeats, “That’s all that matters.” He goes on, “I’m not my father. I was born a couple of weeks after he won in 1960, and I wasn’t quite three when he…died. I barely remember him at all. But I know he also won a very close election, and I know Richard Nixon and Donald Trump did the country the same service by not quarreling over the results.”

You aren’t old enough to remember Nixon. Not many people you know who are have much good to say about him. One bald, wrinkled assistant superintendent did tell you, Nixon would pick his teeth with Donald Trump. He was a son of a bitch, too, but a smart son of a bitch.

“Like my father, like all the Presidents before me, I can’t just be President of the people who voted for me,” Kennedy says. “I am going to be President of the whole country, red states along with the blue, and I aim to govern that way.”

This time, the applause is more wary. After your side wins an election, of course you want all the campaign promises carried out the day before yesterday. Kennedy didn’t get into politics till after the turn of the century, but he’s smart enough to see that won’t happen. The Republicans still hold the House. No matter what Fox said, the Senate looks like a

fifty-fifty split. The Vice President-elect may need to break a bunch of ties.

“I will work to make out healthcare system better. I was proud to support President Obama on that, and I’ll work hard to extend what he’s begun,” Kennedy says. “I will work to bring everyone justice, regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation. We must stay strong and safe abroad, and I will work with our friends around the world to do that. No nation is an island, entire to itself. We are part of the wider world. We cannot help it, and we cannot forget it.”

Your best guess is, that’s a fuck-you aimed at Trump for a shitty concession call. Trump’s been screeching America First!, as if this were the 1930s. That proved stupid then, when the world was a much more loosely knit place. It’s way stupider now.

“Finally, I want to thank all the people who worked so hard to put me over the top,” Kennedy says. “I want to thank the party workers here at the New Yorker and in all fifty states, who got out the vote and made sure the election was fair and honest.” When he says sure, you hear a little Boston in his speech. He doesn’t have a bucketful, the way his father did.

“And finally, I want to thank Carolyn for putting up with me and for having enough good sense for both of us.” Kennedy leans over and kisses her. They’ve had some tabloid-fodder rocky times, but they’ve managed to put the rough parts behind them. You’re jealous. JFK, Jr., goes on, “I especially want to thank her for talking me out of flying us to Martha’s Vineyard one night not long before the turn of the century. I hadn’t had my pilot’s license long then, and I didn’t really get how dangerous flying over water at night can be when you don’t trust your instruments. I could have been stupid, but thanks to her I wasn’t. That I’m standing here today may be her fault. Thanks, honey!” He kisses her again.

Everybody whoops. Flustered, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy waves. People whoop louder. You eye the cable box. It’s half past one. You kill the TV with the remote and head back to the bathroom and bedroom. Tomorrow—no, later today—you’ll prop your eyes open with toothpicks or jitter from too much caffeine, but now you know who won. You can go to bed.

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