Riya had prepared for this morning, for the 4 a.m. drive with Deedee at the wheel, both of them giddy with coffee and optimism until they pulled into the parking lot and squinting through the windshield, Deedee muttered, “Oh those a-holes.” Which a-hole exactly, they were not sure, but someone from the Bunn camp had smuggled lawn signs onto the polling premises last night, hours before such posters were allowed. There they were, sudden as a cluster of mushrooms, declaring BUNN for Congress. It was not yet dawn, and treachery was afoot.
Deedee parked in front of the old history museum, which today would serve as the polling station for precinct number three. Armed with signs, she and Riya slid out of the station wagon and into the dark. Among the choir of opposing slogans, Riya stuck several of her own, stuffing the wires deep into the damp earth. It was too bad her candidate had such a long last name; Bojanowski barely fit the width of the sign, even without the John in front of it. Bunn’s name sprawled out in a chubby white font that a child could read from a distance.
“You have to be strategic about these things, baby.” Deedee uprooted Riya’s sign, then plunged it a foot in front of the other signs with a conviction that she had earned from her years as a union organizer. A woman entubed in a long, puffy coat went shuffling by them, her head bent against the wind until Deedee called out: “Hey Judy, how you doin’?”
Judy smiled painfully. “I’m doin’.”
“You made up your mind yet?” Deedee half-jogged over to her friend, her windbreaker armored and clanking with Bojanowski buttons, a cut-out of Bojanowski’s head between her shoulderblades. While Deedee spoke, Judy’s polite, pained smile began to fade and a stitch appeared between her brows. Something Deedee had said moved Judy to speak with equal seriousness, her ungloved hands gesturing in the air as though she had suddenly forgotten about the cold. At last, Deedee sent her off with a flier and a genuine farewell: “You have a blessed day!”
Riya had met Deedee at the campaign offices. Deedee was difficult to miss with her mass of black rotini curls and that firm but honeyed voice in which she declared that Mr. Bunn was not a politician, but “a bunion on the big toe of this community.” As a longtime resident of Martinsville, Deedee knew how to approach all Virginians, particularly black Virginians, how to make their faces and postures relax as if they were discussing cake recipes or batting averages, not political loyalties.
Riya had been living in New York for the past seven months, only aware of state level politicians once scandal caused their names to rise, smog-like, over the city. She had her own problems. At 22, she had sprung free of Indiana and had taken a consulting job that laid her off five months after her business cards were printed. “Come home, Riya,” her mother had begged. “Santa is having diarrhea. I think your father poisoned his doggie dish yesterday. Just a feeling I have. I’m never leaving Santa’s dish outside again.” Ever since her father had moved out the year before, her mother had been carefully tending a garden of accusations against him, a hobby she had taken up with unhappy devotion. To her mother it seemed that there was no sin a man was too good to commit once he left his wife of twenty-three years.
But Riya would not return home. She refused to sniff Santa’s dish, refused to receive the back pats and shoulder squeezes of her mother’s few friends. Nor would she sit in the passenger seat of her mother’s car, parked on the street in front of her father’s apartment so she and her mother could wait and watch for a voluptuous silhouette to appear in his window, not after that last disastrous time. That would not be Riya’s life. She took a temp job and downgraded to a studio that lacked a doorman but had bars over the windows, powdery with rust, and three locks on the door. Taking temp job after temp job, she waited for her life to begin, for the ecstasy and energy of the city, her city, to bear her up.
She was still waiting when Julie called from Martinsville, begging Riya to come for the last month of the election and help out on the ground. Julie was the coordinator of Bojanowski’s Martinsville office, effective, organized, proud of her sleepless nights. Julie had moved to Martinsville from New York, and astonishingly, claimed to love it. At the time, Riya had assumed that Martinsville was the type of town one longed to escape, and then, later, longed for from faraway places.
Riya agreed to come for a week, which soon turned into a month. In that time, she learned the contours of streets and precincts so well that she could thread her way around town without a map. She knew the school rivalries, the team colors, the sidelining injury suffered by the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback. And after long days of canvassing, Riya met her exhausted colleagues at the bar down the street and fed quarter after quarter into the jukebox, feeling brave enough to improvise a swaying dance by the window, not because she was drunk — though she felt pleasantly toasted — but because she could see lamp-lit Main Street receding through the window, as clean and empty as an abandoned studio set and full of sweet cinematic possibility.
After planting their candidate’s name along the lawn, Riya and Deedee took up their posts in front of the polling station, beside a sign that warned them not to pass through with their campaign materials, as voters were not to be bothered within 40 feet of the polls. A woman was already standing there, holding in both hands a box of fliers for Bunn. Riya had imagined that the Bunn volunteer would be white and tautly French-braided, maybe a bit glazed in the eyes like Mrs. Bunn, and that she and Riya would spend the day curtly avoiding each other. But this woman was black and of an ambiguous age, suspended somewhere between her forties and her sixties. Her flannel coat was misbuttoned, so that one half fell longer than the other, and in the breast pocket, she stored a bouquet of white pencils that bore the words: VIRGIL BUNN appreciates your vote.
“Now what’s this all about?” Deedee murmured, eyeing the woman. “I’m gonna go talk to her.”
Before Riya could reply, Deedee strode over to the flannel-clad opposition. “Sweetheart, what you got there?” The woman murmured something, to which Deedee shook her head, pulled out her pamphlet, and began her talk. The other woman listened in a childlike manner, her head tilted, her thumb rapping a light rhythm on the front of her box.
After a while, the woman allowed Deedee to take away her box of materials and replace it with Deedee’s materials. Deedee waved Riya over with a triumphant smile.
“This here is Miss Hortense. She’s our newest recruit.”
Hortense brought the Bojanowksi box close to her face and mouthed each syllable to herself, as if learning a new word.
Riya introduced herself to the new recruit. “Did Deedee convince you, Miss Hortense?”
“Well, I was just doin’ what I was told to do,” said Hortense, looking more worried than convinced. “I hope I don’t get in trouble.”
“Why should you get in trouble?” Deedee said. “You’re on our side now.”
But Hortense kept glancing around. “Miss Louise told me to hold that box…”
With so few voters at this hour, Riya went inside the polling station to use the bathroom. When she returned to the parking lot, she found the two women joined by a third black woman, presumably Louise, who was shouting and waving her arms at Deedee. Louise had on pressed slacks and thick gold earrings that swung and sparkled in the dark. For a rare moment, Deedee looked cowed while Hortense kept shrugging and muttering variations upon her theme, that she was just doing what she was told.
“Hortense works for me!” said Louise. “And I should report you for messin’ with her!”
“I didn’t know you were payin’ her,” Deedee said. “I didn’t know his campaign was up to all that.”
“What we do is our business! We support who we want to support!”
“Well, you supportin’ someone who hasn’t done jack for this community! All he does is get rich from Big Oil and eat off our backs and you sellin’ us out!”
Eventually, they struck a peace accord after Riya promised not to meddle with Hortense’s pencils and pamphlets for the entirety of their time together, from now until 7 p.m. At the volunteer meeting, Riya had been trained not to incite political wildfires; volunteers were to provide a benign presence as she had done thus far, even when confronted by slamming doors and blunt dial tones, dogs lurching at her from their chains as if they had been specifically trained to maul political canvassers. With the same reserve, Riya apologized to Louise while Deedee crossed her arms under her bosom and looked just the opposite, her ego as indestructible as ever.
Louise reassured Hortense that other campaign workers would arrive throughout the day. And, at Louise’s insistence, Deedee agreed to stay away from precinct number three, though Riya knew full well that Deedee would spend the rest of the day driving to other precincts, provoking similar mutinies among the enemy party.
The sky was beginning to pink as Deedee and Louise drove away, swiveling their steering wheels with purpose. Both cars raced down the road but were caught at a red light and forced to idle one behind the other, each stewing in her own station wagon.
Hortense turned to Riya, the box of Bunn fliers back in her hands. “Hello,” she said, unsmiling.
“Hello,” said Riya.
“My name is Hortense Hodges.” Riya was about to introduce herself a second time, but Hortense gently rambled on, her eyes lost in the horizon where the mist was beginning to loosen around the mountains. “I never met another Hortense ‘cept for Hortense Brown. She was in my class, but nobody called her names. Me they called all kinds of names. Horse’s Tits. Sometimes Horse’s Tail but mostly Horse’s Tits.”
Riya stared at her for a moment before saying that children could be very mean.
Hortense nodded solemnly, her focus sharpening on Riya, who predicted that Hortense’s next question would be: Where are you from? Whenever Riya talked to the locals longer than a minute or two, they inevitably asked after her ethnicity, then looked satisfied by the response, as if she were a sphinx to which they had silently and correctly guessed the answer.
Instead of this, Hortense asked: “You think it’s been an hour yet?”
“It’s this hip of mine. I could stand all day if it wasn’t for this hip.”
“Would you like to sit down?
“No, thank you. Miss Louise said we got to stand up for Mr. Bunn.” Suddenly, she brightened. “You know, I shook his hand at the State Fair? I liked his smile. I’m good at weighin’ a man by his smile.”
“John Bojanowski has a nice smile too, you know.”
Hortense shrugged, as if to say that Bojanowski’s smile was the last thing she would wear between her own shoulder blades.
The morning crawled along, cold and bluish, with a spitting rain that soggied the pamphlets which Riya handed out anyway. Hers was a socially aggressive approach: she pounced on voters with a “Hello, how are you?” and walked alongside them, pitching Bojanowski while they nodded and walked. She considered it a small victory if someone took a damp flier, even if out of courtesy. Others kept their hands deep in their pockets and politely grimaced, as if their inability to take a flier were a chronic and cureless condition.
Hortense’s strategy was to call out to those she knew, which seemed to be just about everyone — her niece, her nephew, her cousin, her sister, her friends, who asked in high, melodic tones, “Miss Hortense, what you doin’ standin out here in the cold?” Then they would stop and chat for a while. Those whom Hortense didn’t know, she would seduce with a white pencil; she slid one out of her pocket and held it out like a wand, softly calling, “Would you like a pencil?” Even the headshakers often paused to take one, long enough for Hortense to add that Virgil Bunn appreciated each vote. When the rain picked up, Hortense unfurled her umbrella and invited Riya to stand beneath it.
“I’m hopin’ to keep a pencil,” Hortense said. “Not many people use pencils any more but I use em for word puzzles.”
“Word finder. My brother got me hooked. Gary used to do Word Finders at work when no one was around, but he was still a good security guard. They shouldn’t have let him go. He was a real good worker.”
“I’m sure he was,” Riya began, awkwardly. The leap was always clumsy from the personal to the platform, from the issue to the Issue; the trick was to move swiftly, with confidence. “I’ve heard from so many people who’ve lost their jobs, and they all want to know what Congress will do–”
“Gary’s salary paid for my hip surgery. He paid for my hip, and for every night I was in the hospital, he pushed three chairs together and slept across them, right beside my bed. That was at Memorial Hospital. You know it?”
“Oh no, I don’t live here.”
“No? Where then?”
While canvassing, Riya had been wary of mentioning New York City; her candidate had studied in New York, and Bunn’s main rallying point was that Bojanowski was a city boy, riding a geyser of New York money, oblivious to the needs of the local folk down below. On the few occasions that the two had engaged in televised debates, Bunn always countered Bojanowski’s rhetoric with a favorite standard: “New York City slick, ain’t he? New York City slick.”
“I think you from Mexico or thereabouts,” Hortense decided.
“No, New York. My parents were born in India.”
Hortense wore an inscrutable frown, but her gaze gradually cleared. “So that’s how you have the prettiest skin and hair.”
Riya offered to hold the umbrella for a while, and as Hortense passed the handle to her, their fingers touched. “Oof! Your hands are cold,” Hortense said. She folded Riya’s free hand into the rough comfort of her own and leaned, ever so lightly, on the girl.
Around noon, two middle school girls emerged from a minivan to help Riya with her fliers. Brianna was plump and sullen in her gray sweatpants, her hair brushed back into an amber-hued ponytail which she continually petted, inviting others to pet and admire its softness. Tuana was thin and electric with energy, constantly practicing the step routine she had learned at school, stylishly clapping beneath her knees and slapping her shoulders while maintaining a grave face. She passed the empty hours by teaching Riya the simplest combination which earned her the approval of both girls. “That’s vicious,” Brianna said. “I sure as hell couldn’t do it. I’m fat.”
But Tuana and Brianna went silent when faced with the task of approaching voters, and though Riya told them exactly what to say, they hung back, skittish and giggling. The girls gradually developed their own code for racial profiling. If the voter were black, the voter would likely be receptive to the girls. If the voter were white: hard to tell. If the voter were a white woman with children in tow: approach with reserve. If the voter were a white man with a rusty shipwreck of a truck and a face flattened by fatigue: look away.
At one point, a beautiful boy sauntered out of a silver Camry whose brilliant, glimmering rims showed how the car would always receive the majority of his affections. His braids were tied in a green do-rag, which matched exactly the green streaks in his sneakers. Freddie was his name, according to the thrilled whispers of Brianna and Tuana, who insisted that Riya approach him. She did so, giving her usual speech, but he did not glance at her flier once, maintaining a gaze of cool evaluation as he said: “If he was fine as you, everybody would vote for him.”
Riya forgot Bojanowski’s seven-point plan for economic revival and was glancing down at her flier when Freddie stopped her. “I’ve read up on both of em.”
“Oh? Okay.” She waited for him to speak or move on. When he did neither, she asked him if any particular issue had held his interest.
“Jobs.” He turned his eyes to the street. “My dad lost his.”
“What did he do?”
“He was a carpenter over at Hooker Furniture, before they shut down his plant. My granddad worked there too, right up to the day he died.” Freddie said that woodworking could be traced through his bloodlines, as fathers passed their skills to sons. Theirs was furniture fashioned of mahogany and cherrywood, pieces that could not be lifted easily or pried apart, but handed down whole through generations. “It’s not just a job to him, man, it’s who he is—” Freddie thrust his hands in his pockets, as if to renounce his verbosity. “I’m just sayin: what they make at Ikea — that ain’t furniture.”
Riya nodded guiltily. She owned an Ikea bookshelf, the Flärke, in a soft blonde color.
Now it was her turn to win him over, but instead she was engulfed by the thought of her father. The crackle of static as he pulled on his work socks, one pair from a whole field of navy and brown grenades sitting in his dresser drawer. His socks had remained there for months after his leaving, as did most of his ties. When she was a little girl, she would stand by the bathroom sink and watch him in wonder as he neatly shaved around his mustache, tightened the noose of his tie, completing all the urgent morning tasks of men. Sometimes he would impart discreet advice, as when Riya was struggling with her mother over whether to stay in state for college. “Don’t listen to her,” he said. “You are free, my dear. Go as far as you can, while you can.”
Taking Riya’s silence for discouragement, Freddie lifted his head with a slight smile. “You got a lotta work on your hands. People round here, they like who they know. Who they think they know. Who they recognize.”
“Do you feel the same way?”
“I don’t recognize you.” He narrowed his eyes, charmingly. “And I like you just fine.”
Meanwhile, Hortense’s relief never showed up. Hortense was uncomplaining as she continued handing out her pencils, but Riya noted the way she leaned to one side, favoring her stronger hip. The endless march of the past week had drained Riya as well, and her lower back clenched with every step.
To give Hortense a chance to sit inside the polling station, Riya asked Tuana to hand out some of Hortense’s items. “Me?” Tuana whispered, her hand dramatically pressed to her chest, while Brianna released her ponytail long enough to clap and laugh. “Why do I have to be with Miss Hortense?”
Apparently the girls knew her from church, where Miss Hortense had a tendency toward long, meandering, slightly senseless testimonials. Riya looked at Hortense, who was standing in silent stillness some twenty feet away, staring wistfully toward the mountains whose maples and oaks ranged from orange to wine. “My momma says she’s not right in the head,” Tuana added quietly. “You know she goes around callin’ herself ‘Horse’s Titties?’”
With a grand roll of her eyes, Brianna volunteered to help Hortense, who sent her back almost immediately, claiming that she felt fine. When Riya protested that it had been six hours, that Hortense could not possibly be fine, Tuana shook her head in a way that she might have inherited from her mother.
“Some ladies round here are like that. They can stand and work all day long, longer than the men. They’re used to it.” After Tuana and Brianna left in their minivan, Hortense’s relief finally appeared in the form of Shawn, a chef who had studied an array of ethnic traditions at culinary school, only to find that the people of Martinsville were not particularly interested in taking gustatory risks. At least not the people he knew. “The number-one cuisine round here is All-You-Can-Eat,” he said irritably, stomping his feet. He had a frenetic way about him, making noises in order to combat the cold — chattering his teeth, huffing into cupped hands — which seemed to Riya a wise tactic to gain pity from passing voters. In his booming, musical voice, he called out Bunn’s name, and whenever an old person walked by, he added: “You’ll like what he thinks about Medicare!” He never seemed to elaborate on this point.
Riya was glad to have Shawn around, as Hortense had finally agreed to take a break inside the polling station. “Just fifteen minutes,” she had said, handing her fliers to Shawn. “If Miss Louise comes back, you tell her I’m in the Ladies — even though I won’t be in the Ladies — and you just run in and get me.” Hortense declined Riya’s arm, even though she could no longer conceal her limp and had to shuffle delicately, as if she hardly knew her own body.
With Hortense inside and Shawn chatting on his cell phone, Riya surveyed the houses across the street. Two were built of wood with gray shingled roofs, and the third and least welcoming of the trio was rounded by a chainlink fence, as if to prevent the theft of the yard’s Halloween decorations, the leftover webs of cotton strewn over shrubs, the plastic skeleton hanging beside a limp American flag. She had risked her way through the chain link fence two days before, to slip a Bojanowski flier into the screen door, and there it remained, trapped and fluttering.
At last, Shawn clapped his phone shut and admitted that none of his friends wanted to help him kill time anymore. “Hey, my brother said he saw you over on Fayette last week,” he told Riya. “Said that an Indian lady — you Indian, right? — knocked on his door.”
“Sure, Fayette.” She brightened at being remembered by a local. “I was there Thursday and Friday.”
“You were in some pretty rough areas though, drugs and stuff. It don’t scare you? Goin’ round places like that?”
“I didn’t know what was rough and what wasn’t.” In truth, there were times when she had suffered a slender discomfort, when she had felt more glaringly foreign to her surroundings than she had felt in any other country, particularly as she wandered down a road of double-wides and trailers, laundry strung out on lines, describing the ages and genders of those who lived there. The soft noise of television wafted through windows, and at the end of the street, a group of children tossed around a foam football that had been nibbled away at one end. Along that single block, Riya met three felons whose right to vote had been revoked, and each stated this fact in words of slurred resignation. The only trailer she did not approach had a Confederate flag draped across the roof.
“So you been up and down these streets for a whole week,” said Shawn, with obvious skepticism.
“How much they payin’ you?”
He didn’t believe her, even though she insisted that John Bojanowski was a friend of a friend.
“You came all the way to Martinsville for a friend of a friend?” he said. “That’s the reason?”
It would have been too simple to say I was inspired, though she had been, after reading each of Julie’s emails charting Bojanowski’s progress. Riya admired the way in which John had not given up on his district, despite all the years he had spent in distant cities, how he had returned and poured himself into a place she might have left long ago. The campaign had begun from a conversation with his mother, in which she begged him not to challenge a twelve-year incumbent, and now it was a conversation that included gunowners and churchgoers and students and veterans who appreciated his ability to breach the boundaries that had always categorized them. Slowly, Bunn’s long shadow began to shrink, and what was left were two weary men, one old and one young, both vulnerable, one loved a bit less than the other. For Riya, it was exhilarating to consider how she might be moved — even transformed, as Julie had been — by coming down to help.
But quite another sentiment had swept her up. She believed in Bojanowski’s platform, but such beliefs did not make you cling to an unfamiliar town, did not make you resist the idea of resuming your previous life, did not make you roll the local accent around your mouth like a sweet, as if it might dissolve into your tongue. Sometimes, after talking to a voter, Riya would repeat the words that lingered in her ear, like the way one old woman pronounced a forceful “hh” sound before the word “why.” Now why should I believe this big city boy won’t take away my gun? And Riya had continued down Altice Street, whispering the word to herself, until she could almost imagine that she belonged on Altice Street as well, in one of those shambly wood frame houses, sitting on her porch, snugly nestled in a new life.
People arrived and departed all the time, reinvented themselves, began afresh. There was a sturdy confidence to her father’s departure, the way he took only what he needed, the way he mentioned to Riya, later, that he didn’t mind living alone in his condo at Riverside Court. “I remember when they began building it years ago,” he said. “I used to stand and watch the cranes. I always wanted to live on one of those high-up floors but it wasn’t enough space for all of us.” She imagined him in the shadow of the crane as it inscribed an invisible smile across the sky. You are free, my dear. Go as far as you can, while you can.
The last time Riya sat in the car with her mother, keeping watch at her father’s condo, they saw him emerge with a white woman. She seemed as old as her mother and moved rigidly, her arms crossed over a brown cable knit sweater. Her shaggy bangs obscured her face, though Riya could see that the woman was rather ordinary, hardly the siren of her mother’s imaginings, which made the pairing all the more strange. But they were a pair, for her father’s hand was at the small of the woman’s back. Where had he learned to put his hand at the small of a woman’s back? He guided her down the short walk, to the taxi that was idling in front. They kissed on the cheek. He opened the car door for her. Who was this man, his hands in his pockets, strolling back to his condo and looking around at the trees as if all the world were new and curious to him?
Riya turned to her mother, who was sitting with her hands in her lap, her lips parted, unblinking, even after he had gone back inside. Her mother’s gaze swam about, trying to piece together her surroundings. “My key,” she murmured, patting her pocket, the gearshift, her lap, and before Riya could take her hand, her mother turned the key in the ignition.
Halfway toward home, her mother began to cry softly. She clung to the steering wheel with both hands and had to crane her neck to peer over the wheel, as she had left her extra seat cushion at home. Riya’s father used to tease her mother about the times when the cushion went missing: “Was that you in there or was the car driving itself?” Now she appeared smaller than ever before. Riya touched her mother’s shoulder, but her mother could only shake her head.
By 4 p.m., all the reinforcement workers had gone, and Hortense and Riya were left to man the polls themselves. The light was seeping from the sky, and it became difficult for voters to read what was on the pamphlets handed to them. They stuffed the materials into their pockets and purses with hardly a look.
During a lull, Riya called Julie to check in, and told her about Hortense.
“She’s getting paid?” Julie asked. “How much?”
“I didn’t ask her that.”
“Tell her you’ll pay her whole day’s wages if she’d rather go home and relax right now. I’ll pay you back.”
Riya looked at Hortense, who was standing beneath a tree, reaching for a high leaf. “I don’t know, Jules… I don’t know if she’s all there.” Riya felt a piercing of guilt; the sentence felt untrue as soon as she spoke it. “She keeps telling me I have the prettiest skin and hair. She’s said that five times now.”
“Oh, black women her age, they love straight hair and light skin.” Quickly, Julie added: “That’s what Deedee told me anyway. Who is she voting for?”
“Did she say why?”
“She met him at the State Fair. He charmed her, I guess. She liked his smile.”
Julie waited for more. “A smile? Christ.”
“She’s choosing him on her own terms. It’s her decision.”
“Riya, do you understand the margins we’re dealing with? It could all come down to a handful of votes, one of which could be your friend Hortess.”
Julie recommended the “persuasion” pamphlet for Hortense, as it was strategically bulleted and brief. By this time, Riya noticed that Hortense had snatched a leaf and was pulling the branch down to her face. She held the leaf to her nose and then let go of the branch, which snapped back up, bobbing overhead.
“I thought it was a dogwood,” Hortense said later, when Riya approached her.
Riya nodded, opening the persuasion pamphlet.
“Dogwoods get on my nerves. Gary says I’m crazy but I can’t help it. They used to have a gang of ‘em right in front of my school, Patrick Henry, back there.” She pointed where she had pointed before but in the weakening light, Riya could not distinguish the school from the trees and houses and steeples.
“Miss Hortense, have I showed you this pamphlet yet?”
“I hated goin’ to school so much I started hatin dogwoods too, couldn’t help it.”
“What do you think of the school system now?”
“I don’t know ’bout the system but schools is different now. They got black folks and white folks all in one building, but back when I went, I was one of the first five colored children to go to Patrick Henry. Those days, you didn’t say ‘black,’ you said ‘colored,’ ‘cause if you said ‘black,’ you had to fight. So it was me and four other colored children, and I was the only girl. They called me all kinds of names: Horse’s Tail, Horse’s Tits…” Hortense shook her head at the ground. “Momma was a Freedom Fighter, you know, and she had her eye on that school. She wanted me to leave town, go to college. Become somebody.”
A long silence gathered up around them, a quiet both eerie and serene. Hortense fixed Riya with a gaze that was unmistakably knowing, lucid, aware of what others saw when they saw her.
“Everybody that mattered to me was right here,” she said.
At 6:30, Hortense went into the polling station to vote, leaving Riya alone. Riya had expected a rush of voters fresh from work, but most had already voted, and now she watched the glowing tailights of cars rumbling into their driveways across the street. A man climbed the porch steps of a bone-gray house as if dragging himself from the sea, grateful to reach the shore.
With just fifteen minutes left to vote, a jeep roared into the lot and parked across from the museum. Slamming the car door behind him, a man half-jogged toward the building, loosening his tie, and as he passed her, Riya called out the name of her candidate, adding that he would offer real solutions to the problems facing the fifth district. Without looking at her, the man shot back: “I’d just as soon vote for my dog.”
She watched the man burst through the double doors the way a stranger in a spaghetti Western would burst into a saloon. From his sidelong glance, she understood that he considered her the stranger, and worse, a meddling stranger. At yesterday’s volunteer meeting, she had felt the opposite, just one among an entire roomful of people, nodding, listening, cheering at the end because this was the year, they said, the year of the jobless, the jaded, the wishful, the abandoned, the faithful, this was our year, they said, and despite her fear that all these claims and prayers were piling one on top of the next, treacherously high, Riya had felt herself buoyed by the effervescence of that evening. She had assumed herself included.
But soon she would have to return to her studio apartment. The three locks on the door. The blur of neighbors whose names she did not know but whose voices and footsteps she heard faintly. And at some point, she would have to face her mother, who had sent Riya an email the day before:
Riya what is this? Not calling not writing. Or maybe you did but he deleted it. I wouldnt be surprised. Dont tell him I said that but he reads my email Im sure. He called me today and told me to stop acting crazy like this because Im embarrassing you. He said thats why you left. He said thats why you dont talk to your friends. He said you told him so. Did you tell him so? Lying through his teeth probably. He is good at that. Or maybe he isnt. I cannot understand sometimes I feel I am a stranger to everyone but you.
* * *
Moments later, Hortense joined her outside. “Ten more minutes,” she said, reading her watch close to her face. “They got one man left in there. I gave him my last pencil. I didn’t want to but he was comin’ when I was goin’, and he saw that last one in my pocket and asked for it. So I gave it to him.”
The man soon emerged with the pencil in his breast pocket. Riya said: “Thank you for voting.”
As he passed, the man spat at her feet and walked on.
He had misfired, the spit having landed on the tip of Hortense’s shoe, but the man kept going, unaware of his error. Hortense frowned at her shoe.
“Hey!” Disobeying every volunteer protocol she had learned thus far, Riya stormed after the man, fumbling for the right word, either shithead or douchebag, but what fell from her mouth was: “Hey douchehead!”
He turned around. “Did you call me a douchehead?”
“Yeah. Yes I did.” Riya gathered herself. “And you need to apologize. You need to apologize to my colleague back there. My friend.”
“The hell for?”
“You spat on her shoe.”
He hesitated, his eyes flicking to Hortense, who looked up from rubbing her toe against the asphalt. The man’s expression dulled again. “You apologize first.”
“For bein a nuisance. You know you people’ve hassled my mother three times this week? Three times you’ve knocked on her door and gotten the poor woman out of her chair when her legs are stiffer than a pair of peg legs, just cause she don’t agree with you.”
“Well, there must’ve been some mistake in the database then, because we try not to repeat—”
“We don’t need any more preachin’. We’re already saved, so you can go right back to where you come from and try savin someone else.”
At that moment, Riya felt a gentle, restraining hand on her elbow and though she knew that touch to belong to Hortense, she felt that it could have been her mother just the same. And with that touch came the thought of her mother’s uncombed hair, the grim downturn at the corners of her lips, an expression that had become all but permanent in recent days. As the man continued to complain, Riya stopped listening to his words and heard only the tone of his voice, which seemed to carry the question she had long tried to ignore — if she was of no use to her own mother, what use was she to anyone else? What use?
He finished by invoking the word douchehead again, this time in Riya’s direction. Just as he turned to leave, Hortense asked quietly: “Young man, are you a Christian?”
“Of course I am.”
“Then you don’t know your Bible very well ‘cause when the Lord said to wash thy neighbor’s feet—” Here she pointed at her spat-upon toe. “—that ain’t what he meant.”
“Well, I didn’t mean it at you, ma’am.”
“My shoe or her shoe, don’t make no difference.” She approached him and pulled the pencil from his breast pocket. “I do not appreciate your vote.”
He looked down at his empty pocket, then at her. Muttering something, he waved her away and went back to his jeep while Hortense watched until the vehicle coughed awake and pulled out. Standing there, Riya felt as though she had come unmoored from her surroundings, light as a cotton seed that could not find purchase on any ground it chanced upon. Hortense seemed built of some other substance entirely, rooted in an imperturbable calm that allowed her to pocket the pencil and pat it twice.
Exactly at 7, one of the poll workers, Miss Shirley, came outside and declared in a regal contralto: “Hear ye, hear ye, the polls have closed!” The world was quiet save for the occasional drone of a passing car, the swish of leaves in the wind. Miss Shirley turned and pulled on the doors, which had locked behind her. “Aw hell,” she said, yanking on the door handles, knocking until someone let her back in.
Until the very end, Riya stood next to Hortense, holding her hands. Riya could have drawn more warmth from her fleece-lined pockets, but there was something about Hortense’s hands that called to be clasped, and Hortense seemed not to mind. When Hortense’s ride came up the driveway, Riya wanted to say something meaningful and lasting by way of goodbye, but nothing came to her. She assumed that the figure behind the steering wheel was Gary. She imagined him draped across three folding chairs, watching his sister sleep.
Hortense and Riya hugged lightly. “All right then,” Hortense said. “You take care now.” She climbed into her seat and shut the door. Riya waved, but Hortense was turned toward Gary and didn’t see her.
Julie had called earlier to say that she was coming to pick her up, but Riya was in no hurry, idling in the sallow glow of a street light. She searched the lighted window of the house across the street, where she could barely make out the shifting pictures of a television, perhaps a local channel projecting the returns, painting the district in seemingly equal patches of blue and red. It seemed quite possible that tonight would not see the end of the election, that in the coming days there would be ballot recounts and celebrations on both sides, each trying to drown the noisy optimism of the other. By that time, Riya would no longer be needed here.
She went to the dogwood tree and fingered a flower that had begun to droop. The week before, Deedee had told her that Jesus had been crucified on a cross made of dogwood. The proof, she said, was in the bloom, where she traced the shape of the thorny crown and the markings of the cross. “See?” Deedee said and Riya had nodded, in spite of her wish to see more than those random brown strokes against the white, to be shown more than what seemed the thinnest evidence of love. Now Riya cupped her palm around the bloom as if she could wait all night to keep it from dropping.