“Am I a Republican or a Democrat?” Katie asked, as if it were an inherited trait, like blue or brown eyes. Sonia handed her the buckles of the seat belt.
“Strap up,” she said.
She put Katie’s worn backpack in the floor of the back seat. Brian had bought it, back when they were still married. Other than a large child support arrearage, it was the only memento she still had of his paternity of Katie.
“Why are you asking?” she said, guessing that the question was context for some other question.
“I’m running for class mayor!”
Sonia smiled. That was exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to Katie. It was probably a class activity to teach the third-graders about voting and democracy because election day was coming up. She shifted the car into drive and pulled away from the curb.
“Did Ms. Pickleseimer say you had to be a Republican or Democrat?”
“Then don’t worry about it. Is anyone else running for mayor?’
David was a smart, skinny, blonde kid, not part of Katie’s posse but likeable to the kids and polite to adults. Sonia saw David as a lawyer in a couple of decades. He would be stiff competition.
“We have to make a campaign poster,” Katie said.
“You have poster board and markers at home,” she said. “Andy’s coming over. Maybe he can help.”
The words came out before she thought about them. She and Andy had been seeing each other only a few weeks. She was optimistic about where it was going, but it wasn’t smart to push. Brian had been a shitty dad, and she didn’t want Katie disappointed again.
“How do you get people to vote for you?” Katie asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. It wasn’t an easy question to answer.
“Do you have a platform?” Andy asked Katie.
Theoretically, he was in the kitchen to help Sonia fix dinner, but she didn’t need help – it was pasta and sauce from a jar–so he sat by Katie at the kitchen table where she was working on her poster.
Katie didn’t answer his question. She didn’t know what he meant by ‘platform’ and didn’t want to show her ignorance. Sonia intervened.
“A platform is what you promise to do when you’re elected,” she explained. “What things will you do if you’re the mayor?”
“What do you mean?”
For Katie, being elected was the point. She hadn’t thought about mayors doing things.
“You know,” Sonia said, “how would you make life better for all the kids in your class if you were in charge?”
She watched Katie’s face as she contemplated the possibilities of power, something else Sonia knew would appeal to her daughter.
“A waterslide,” Katie said. “We’ll have a waterslide.”
“The kids will like that,” Andy said.
“It will be higher than the waterslide at Big Park,” Katie said.
“How will you pay for this waterslide?” Sonia asked.
Katie’s face darkened. This was an unwelcome question. Damn freedom of the press. But Katie would not be stopped.
“We’ll sell cookies.”
“You’ll have to sell a lot of cookies,” Andy said.
Katie paused. Sonia could see her daughter puzzling it out. Big things were expensive. A bicycle cost more than a board game. A waterslide was way bigger than a bicycle. Suddenly Katie’s face lit up.
“We’ll ask Santa,” she said. “We’ll all ask Santa to bring us the waterslide.”
Collective leverage on Santa. The project wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime. Sonia wondered whether politicians in Washington had considered asking Santa to pay for the budget deficit.
“What’s David doing to get people to vote for him?” she asked, as she filled their plates with spaghetti.
“He’s giving everyone candy.”
Sonia laughed and looked at Andy.
Even third-grade elections are corrupt.
“That’s how George Washington won his first election,” he said.
“By giving away candy?” Sonia asked, as she poured milk for Katie.
“Whiskey,” he said.
“Is whiskey like candy for adults?” Katie asked.
“Sort of,” Sonia said. “Move your poster, we’re ready to eat.”
She pulled the cork out of a bottle of Merlot and poured for herself and Andy. The conversation turned to the adult’s election.
“Are we living in a reality show?” she said as she shook grated parmesan on her spaghetti. “We’re about to elect a sociopath as our President!”
It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, or a dream where you know something bad is going to happen, but you can’t move, or reading a story where each successive chapter uncovers more neighbors who have been possessed by aliens. But no matter how many clever analogies she came up with, she couldn’t change what was happening. The country had gone mad and it couldn’t be fixed.
She told him all this and he nodded, continuing to eat his spaghetti.
“He deliberately cultivates hate,” she said. “And people eat it up!”
He nodded and took a sip of wine.
“What’s wrong with people?” she said. “The guy says one thing on one day and then denies saying it the next, even though it’s on tape. Do people have the attention span of a tweet?”
He reached for the last piece of garlic bread in the basket.
“No way he will win,” he said, “unless someone hacks the voting machines.”
“What’s that mean?” Katie said.
“It means changing the votes so you win,” Sonia said. Katie’s eyes lit up.
“Can you do that?”
“No, that’s cheating,” she said.
Katie looked disappointed.
After dinner, they cleared the table and Katie put the finishing touches on her poster, but she didn’t like it.
“This is lame.”
“It’s fine,” Sonia said.
Actually, it was lame, even by third-grade standards. Just block letters that said VOTE FOR KATIE with red and blue sparkles appearing irregularly.
“I want to re-do it. Do we have more poster board?”
“Turn it over and use the back,” Sonia said.
“Why don’t I take Katie to the copy store?” Andy said. “We can get more poster board, and maybe stencils, too.”
“Yes!” Katie said, high-fiving him. It was sweet. Sonia found her purse and came back with cash for Katie. He held up his hand.
“Let me take care it.”
“Okay, thank you.”
Sonia zipped Katie’s coat and gave Andy a kiss, the first time she’d done so in front of Katie.
After they left, Sonia started the dishwasher. She poured herself another glass of wine and checked the TV menu for a movie she and Andy could watch after Katie went to bed. Then she put kindling in the fireplace grate and rested two logs on top. She lit the kindling and blew, watching as the logs took the fire, waiting for that moment when the she knew for sure that the fire wouldn’t die.
She wondered if she and Andy would reach that point, where they knew the fire wouldn’t die. She found herself humming Christmas carols as she watched the flames dance. Brian never would have taken Katie to the copy store on a snowy Thursday night.
She heard the front door open. Katie came in the room and hugged her, the cold air a cloud surrounding her overcoat. Andy was behind her, carrying a big plastic sack, his eyes as bright as the fire.
“Wait till you see the poster!” Katie said.
Andy lifted it out of the plastic sack and held it for Sonia to see. It was a two-foot by three-foot color photo of Katie’s smiling face wearing a stars-and-stripes Uncle Sam top hat. Across the bottom was VOTE FOR KATIE! MAYOR OF THIRD GRADE!
“Isn’t it awesome?” Katie said.
Katie’s grin was so wide it would have circled her entire head if that were possible. So, Sonia bit her tongue, didn’t say that a professionally-made campaign poster for a third-grade class election was over the top. Way over the top.
Katie’s poster had impressed the kids on Friday. Now, it was late Saturday afternoon, and Andy was back at the house.
“If her opponent’s giving out candy, she should, too,” he said, handing Katie two bags of malted milk balls.
“Maybe I should give them money,” Katie said.
Sonia shouldn’t have shouted, but this was getting out of control.
“I’ll go along with the candy if David is doing it,” she said, “but you cannot give them money to vote for you.”
“But if I gave them money,” Katie said, “then they could buy whatever candy they liked!”
“Sounds like a voucher program to me,” he said with a grin.
They’ve both lost their minds.
The landline rang. It was Emily’s mom.
“Would Katie like to spend the night?”
Sonia felt like a door had just opened inside her chest.
Andy and I will be alone tonight.
“Hold on,” she said, covering the phone.
“Katie, do you want to spend the night at Emily’s?”
Emily and her mom were on their way home from the mall and could stop by to pick up Katie in ten minutes. She packed an overnight bag while Katie gathered games to take. Sonia winnowed Katie’s picks to a manageable number. She turned on the porch light and they all stood by the front door, waiting, all impatient but for different reasons.
“I thought of something else to promise,” Katie said to Andy.
“What?” he said, without missing a beat. He’s become her frigging campaign manager.
“Ah, no school on holidays,” he said, smiling. “Very clever.”
Sonia would be glad when this election was over.
“When is this election, exactly?” she asked.
“Monday,” Katie said.
“That makes sense,” she said. “The day before the real election.”
“This is the real election,” Andy said, grinning and patting Katie on the back.
“There’s a party at the end of the day and then we vote,” Katie said. She added casually, “The parents can come to the party.”
She wants me there but is afraid to ask.
“I’ll come,” Sonia said.
Katie’s face lit up.
A car horn honked outside.
“Bye,” Sonia said, hugging Katie.
She shut the door and smiled at Andy.
“We have the night.”
She was curled up in his arms, on the couch, across from a softly-burning fire, working on a second glass of wine, when “breaking news” interrupted the movie. Polls showed the sociopath was gaining in key battleground states. Pundits said the election would be close. She turned to Andy.
“Honestly, how do you think the vote will go?”
The foreboding she felt was incapacitating, as if Russia had launched missiles and Armageddon had begun. She wanted him to say she was wrong.
“She’ll win if somebody passes out the candy,” he said. “My schedule is light on Monday. I can come, too.”
He was talking about Katie’s campaign.
“That is, if you want me there,” he said. He was studying her face, searching.
She couldn’t believe it. A buffoon was about to become Commander in Chief. The country’s future, maybe survival of the world, was at stake. And all he could think about was bribing eight-year-olds with malted milk balls? He was as crazy as the sociopath.
“If Katie doesn’t win,” she said in a chilly voice, “maybe they’ll elect you the mayor of third grade.”
He let go of her and gave her a funny look. Then he stood, put his hands in his pockets.
She hadn’t intended for her offhand remark to have such an impact. She felt her chest constrict with despair. But if they were breaking up, better now than later, before Katie grew to love him too much. Or she did.
He dropped to one knee.
“Do I have your vote?”
He opened the box and showed her the ring.
Mike Wilson, a writer in Lexington, Kentucky, has had stories and poetry published in small magazines and anthologies including Appalachian Heritage and Windmill. He is the author of a biography, Warrior Priest: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and The School of the Americas.