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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"Fat From Shame," by Clyde Edgerton (October 26, 2000)
"Enter pissed-modern history.... The struggle, strangle, poof, thuppernong, last gasp of religion, art, language, memory, and the electricity of the heart."

"Bluegrass Banjo," by Allison Amend (September 27, 2000)
"The fat musician picked wildly. He wore a pained expression, as though the music were getting away from him, and gradually he looked up from the instrument and into the audience with a wide-eyed helplessness."

"Travel Guide for Ameri-Students Touring Former Soviet Countries," by Anthony Doerr (August 23, 2000)
"Now that you have successfully deserted your sixteen classmates, three fat teachers, and one pompous Belorussian tour guide in Minsk by skulking past their rooms at dawn and through the empty hotel lobby, take the first train to Lithuania."

"Bienvenue à Dilbrith College, Marie-Claire Tremblay!!," by Simon Fanning (July 19, 2000)
"Marie-Claire is scheduled to arrive on the three o'clock train. And would Abélard himself not have relinquished his philosophical pursuits in order to accommodate his immaculate Héloïse?"

"The Limbo of Infants," by Sandra Riley (June 21, 2000)
"They like to go to Chi Chi's for cha-jitas, Claire and Tom, when they are off the island on an interstate, looking for a place to stop."

"Cicada," by Judy Wilson (May 24, 2000)
"These are things my son taught me to care about. Saturday nights he taught me to feel the thrill of the drag strip. 'The trick,' he said, 'is to not blink when the lights go green.'"

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

November 22, 2000

Presidential Election, by Mary McCluskey

When my dad announced that he was running for president, my mother dropped the haddock she was cooking right onto the floor. The cat was there in seconds. She was too stunned to shoo him away.

"You can't do that, Jock," she said, her face white with the horror of it. My sister and I stared at him. My brother Danny spoke up.

"You're barmy," he said. "You've gone daft."

"So much for family support," my father said, hurt. "I can't do it without the full support of my family."

"He's bleedin' serious," said my older brother, Mick, giving a low whistle. And he was. We were ordered into the front room to plan his campaign.

He'd been treasurer of his working man's club for fifteen years, so he knew the ropes. Treasurer was a lifetime position. President changed every four years, but it carried with it the name recognition, the decision-making, the glory. The president was the one who met the city councilors, the aldermen, and all the nobs from the union when they came to visit. Treasurer was backroom. My dad wanted his last few years to be in the spotlight. He wanted to be center stage.

He's a little Scotsman, feisty, round as a ball, with short legs. It's impossible to imagine him in the Navy, though he was. Of course, he was thinner then. In those days he looked like Cagney; today he looks like Humpty Dumpty. His waist size, as my mother complains to anyone who will listen, is almost the same as his height. He doesn't buy new clothes often.

He drew up his plan to crack the presidency.

"It's a simple plan, lads and lassies," he orated, when he'd got us all around the table. "Based on the sound principles that have ensured" -- he paused there to look hard at us -- "ensured political success through the centuries. But mine will be a clean campaign. Mine will be an honest campaign."

Our heads bobbed as one, all eyes wide as we regarded him. We would expect no less. He was so happy planning his campaign, setting out his strategy. What it finally amounted to was this: the two boys would buy a lot of drinks; the girls, Katie and I, would show up for the bingo games and dance with everybody afterward, and Mum would smile and schmooze.

As for him, he'd make himself visible. He would shake a lot of hands, he said. A lot of hands. Infiltrate and charm, he stated. That would be our family motto. Infiltrate and charm. The way he said it, with his rolling Scottish rr's, it sounded like something that could be fun. But we knew better.

There were two other candidates. Dad wasn't worried about one, the manager of the darts team, Andy Bratchie. He was a young man, newish member, nobody knew him. Dad's big rival was Johnny Rogers, the incumbent president. Johnny and Dad went way back, to their union days. They'd competed for shop steward at the old Midlands car factory. Johnny won the first year, but my dad beat him after that and kept the union job for six years. Johnny had always been a mad-dog opponent. He hated to lose.

"Political rivals in the beginning. Political rivals at the end," Dad said, pleased with the symmetry of it.

Johnny was a string bean of a man, stuck, like most of us are, in the decade when he'd been young and attractive. The fifties for him. He still wore the drainpipe pants, jackets with narrow little lapels, string ties. His hair was Brylcreamed back, with an oily little Elvis quiff that fell over his eyes. He was fifty-five years old. He had a bony handsome face and would have had a nice smile except that he was missing one tooth at the front. His smile was a thin-lipped single-line curve, like those smiley faces that later came on stickers. He could be mean as a snake when drunk, but he'd been watching his drinking the past few years. My dad's plan included increasing Johnny's alcohol intake.

"Why don't we just slip a vodka in his pint?" asked Mick, ever the practical one.

My father speared him with a look.

"This is an honest campaign," he said. "Persuade your mates to buy him a drink. Buy him one yerself. Don't let his wee throat get dry."

The timing of the election was awful. I was waiting to hear which university had accepted me, and I was nervous enough. This campaign work just added to the tension in my life. My sister, Katie, one year younger, was in a state of terror. She was pitifully shy, blushed if someone spoke to her or looked at her. She even blushed if she thought someone might speak to her or look at her. The idea of dancing with the oil-slicked Lotharios in the club scared her stiff.

"We'll pinch a drink before we do it," I said, to reassure her.

"I'll be sick if I have to dance with any of those yobos."

"Good, that should stop this stupid campaign right in its tracks."

"Oh no, Teresa," she said, loyal as she was. "Poor Dad."

Dad was obsessed. He started socializing that night at the club's Saturday dance. The band started up immediately after bingo and usually only a few of the young ones, or the dedicated ballroom showoffs who would bend and hotfoot around for the tango, would get on the floor. Dad was straight up there, first dance to Mrs. Round.

"The woman has five lads," he told Danny. She couldn't vote; only the men could vote in the working men's clubs in those days. Her sons could vote, though.

When I saw him on the dance floor I turned as red in the face as Katie, who immediately scuttled, crab-like, into the corner of the room to hide. Mrs. Round was six inches taller than my dad, and it was known that she liked to lead. He was tripping backward on his little legs, looking like he was hanging on to a life raft. Grim faced, she pushed him around the floor. My mother had a Scotch chaser in her left hand and a half of bitter in her right. She gulped down both.

"Jesus," she said. "He looks like a bloody fool. Where's your sister?"

"Hiding. Over there behind the daffs."

Katie's crimson cheek and one burning red ear were visible, poking out from behind a bunch of dusty plastic daffodils in the corner of the room.

"Get her back over here," said my mother, without sympathy. "We need to stick together for this."

Ten minutes later, Johnny Rogers took to the floor for a fox trot. He came by our table at a very swift clip, holding Mrs. Round delicately in his arms. She was leading. He was moving backward fast and still managed to smile at the crowd.

"Will you look at that old bugger," said my mother.

Johnny's smile never faltered as he whipped by; he even gave my mother a bit of a nod as he passed us.

Well, after that it was war. We started to take our responsibilities seriously. Once the names were announced, just the three candidates, we had two weeks. The chatting and dancing routine was hard for me, but I did it. Katie suffered agonies. Danny was supposed to canvass votes from the sports teams -- he was a top darts player -- but his heart wasn't in it. He'd become friendly with the other presidential candidate, Andy, and he hated to be pushy with the other players on the team.

"He's a nice bloke, Andy. He's a sportsman. Ace player," he said, in his sweet way. "He'd make a good president."

"Shit, Dan. Don't let dad hear you. Infiltrate, remember. Infiltrate and charm."

Danny had a soft heart. He was an attractive blue-eyed young man, masculine-looking, but there was something about him even as a young boy that was a bit different. Years later, when he came out of the closet, we knew for certain what it was that was different, though on some level, on some simple emotional level, I'd always known, and Katie had, too. My mum and dad were astonished by the news, but that's another story.

Anyway, if Danny's heart wasn't in the campaign, Mick more than made up for it. His was the strong-arm approach.

"Voting for my dad, are you?" he'd growl, like a guard dog ready to spring.

Of course they'd say yes. Mick's knuckles had grazed quite a few of their faces over the years and his temper was legendary. Only my mother retained her dignity, sitting at the bar, smiling and waving to everyone in sight. She was drinking like a fish, though. The night before the election my brothers had to lift her from the barstool by the elbows and walk her to the door. It looked for all the world as if her two attentive sons were her escorts. Only the most observant would have noticed her feet weren't touching the floor. She kept smiling.

"Tomorrow, me lovelies," she called to the boys playing billiards. "Don't forget to vote."

"'Night, missus," said one, not bothering to look up.

"Surly bastard," said Mick, about to drop her and take off after him.

"Leave it, Mick," said Danny. "Let it go."

On Election Night my dad had us lined up in the hallway for an inspection before leaving the house. He was wearing his best navy suit, a white shirt, and a new red and navy tie my mum had bought for him. My brothers, similarly suited, were stretching their necks out of their collars, as if they were strangling. Katie and I had on new summer dresses and we looked like we were off to a dance.

My mother came swanning down the stairs at last, wearing the smart navy polyester dress and jacket with the white collar and cuffs she'd worn to my cousin Vi's wedding. She had on the hat, too, that was almost the same shade of navy and had a thick gold and white band. Slanted slightly on her head, it gave her a military look. We all stood to attention, like we were about to salute her.

My dad looked at her for a minute, wavering between pride in her quite stunning appearance and tact.

"No need for the hat, lassie," he said finally. "You should be comfortable."

She took it off, sighing. She'd had a nip upstairs, I knew. She kept a supply of Scotch in a cologne bottle in the bathroom. Her eyes were bright.

"You ready, Jock?" she asked.

"Ready as I'll ever be, lass."

"Feel like a winner, do you?"

He smiled at his troops: Patton before the battle.

"Ach aye. I do."

"Let's go then, Dad," said Mick. "I'm spitting feathers."

When we arrived at the club there was so much tension in the air that I was having difficulty breathing, or maybe it was just hot. The place was jammed with people. Andy Bratchie was over at the dartboard, standing with some of the lads. He didn't seem too anxious, he was smiling as usual. Johnny Rogers was already in the bar, surrounded by supporters. He looked like an undertaker in the black suit he wore for funerals. His skinny wife, Peggy, was wearing a black lace dress with a black fur coat over her shoulders.

"Nice-looking couple," murmured Danny. "Who's their embalmer?"

"Dressed to kill," said Mick.

"Wheesht lads," said my dad, furious. "Move in, fan out. Infiltrate and charm. Let's go."

So we fanned out, we danced, we smiled, we shook hands, we infiltrated and we charmed. Mick threatened a bit, Dan smiled and joined the lads in a game of darts, and my mother drank. I'd had to move her back to the bar earlier when I heard her conversation with Peggy Rogers.

"My God, Peggy, that coat's lasted well," my mother began.

Peggy flashed her such a poisonous look that a lesser woman would have fallen to the floor. My mother stood like a rock. Peggy had been a good-looking woman once, but the sooty black dye could not completely cover the gray of her wiry hair nor could the thick face powder disguise the deep, mean-spirited crevices that pulled her mouth downward. And her eyes were strange: the color of ginger beer and tilted upwards. A year earlier, a similar pair of eyes had peered out of the cradle at the end of Rosemary's Baby.

Peggy was sweating visibly, but she'd obviously be damned before she'd take that rat off her shoulders. She pulled it tighter around herself.

"Of course it's lasted. It was a good one," she said.

"Must have been," said Mum. "You've had some wear out of it."

I smiled and nudged my mother's elbow. We had a drink together at the bar.

"Be glad when it's over," she said. "It's a strain on him."

We both looked over at Dad, shaking hands in the middle of the room, happy as a sandboy.

"He's fine. It's the rest of us are suffering. Have another drink."

We did. We drank all night. We bought drinks for everyone we knew, and a lot of people we didn't know. I saw my brother Danny with a tray full of pints for the entire darts team: he was biting his lip as he lifted it over heads and carried it carefully through to the lounge. Didn't spill a drop. We watched the men strolling back from the voting area, and tried to guess from their faces whether they'd voted for Dad. We'd buy drinks for all the ones who waved and smiled at us, though there was no way to be sure. It was a secret ballot.

My sister, who was very nervous on behalf of all the candidates (she's one of those people who can't watch the Olympics, because she's mortified if anybody of any nationality makes a mistake) was gulping Babychams. She had a row of cherry pits lined up on the table in front of her like ancient talismans.

When they were ready to announce the name of the winner, I don't think any member of my family could see straight. My father was actually rolling on the balls of his feet; he looked like one of those toddler toys you can't knock over.

Alan Marston, the brewery representative, moved to the mike. He had the card in his hand, the results on it.

His eyes swept the room, fixing on each candidate, one at a time. He was having the time of his life.

"Ladies and gentleman," he said. "This is the moment."

I heard a large gulp as my mother swallowed her double Scotch. My sister was trembling; I could feel her hand on my arm, shaking. Mick was solemn, a bit worried. So was Danny. I took a deep, calming breath.

"Three hundred and eighty-six members voted today," said Alan, smiling round at everyone, pleased. "Quite a turnout."

"Give us the bleeding results, Al," said a voice at the back.

Alan lifted his head, peering over the crowd, aiming his disapproval at the impatient boys at the end of the room.

"All right, then. Here they are. What you've been waiting for, ladies and gentlemen. The results are: Johnny Rogers…………… 125."

While the crowd cheered, my father grinned round at us. He was starting to raise his fist in a victory salute.

"Jock McDermott…………… 130."

Dad put his arm back down at his side and frowned, puzzled. We were all trying to do the math with our few unpickled brain cells.

"Last but not least," yelled Alan, "the winner is Andy Bratchie………… 131!"

The crowd roared. My dad was looking at my mother, his mouth open in a soft gape. She had started to cheer already, until he shook her arm, and she stopped, realizing the truth, her mouth dropping open. Mick was shaking his head, looking murderous. He had his hands out in front of him and was clenching and unclenching them, as if he'd like to put them around somebody's neck.

I felt upset and embarrassed for my dad, and heard Katie give a shuddering sigh of disappointment. I glanced at Danny, and then looked again.

He had such an odd expression on his face; his mouth was round with surprise, his eyes were wide. I knew that look. The same look he had when he was caught pinching the last chocolate biscuit. It was guilt. He turned away when he saw me watching him. And then I knew.

"You didn't?" I whispered to him, pulling him away from the others.

He started to shake his head, but his eyes met mine.

"Shit, I didn't expect Andy to win. I thought nobody'd vote for him," he said. "It would have been bloody awful. No votes at all. I didn't think for a minute that... Oh shit. Don't, please," he said.

I knew he meant don't tell Dad.

"I won't," I said. He hugged me quickly, and I hugged him back. Then I went to hug my father.

"You did well, Dad."

"Played a blinder," said Mick.

"You beat Rogers, Jock," my mum said. "You beat that old bugger."

My dad gave a small smile, but his disappointment was swamping him.

"Aye, I did that. Well, I better get up there and make my speech. Congratulate the winner. Thank my family. And my supporters."

He headed for the stage, a short round man, a bit unsteady on his feet, waving to friends and enemies alike. We all watched him from the back of the room, swallowing our tears.

"It was an honest campaign, you can say that," my mum said.

We nodded in unison, speechless.


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More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Mary McCluskey is a British journalist living in California. She has just finished a novel called White Nights.

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