To Rest When I Can
by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
Most journeys begin with a single step. Mine didn’t.
I got a call from an old friend. We used to be real close. He told me he couldn’t go on the American way. He asked me if I’d walk with him as he passed out political literature. I said yes.
We were going to pass out flyers that asked voters to return a Democrat, Claire McCaskill, to the U.S. Senate. I live in Missouri, and Claire McCaskill was running against Todd Akin, a name you might have heard on the news. I’ll have more about him later.
My friend drove, and we approached a very tall building near the coffee house where they sell bad strawberry scones. On the ride up in the elevator my friend explained a few things. “They don’t let just anyone wander the streets and pass out flyers. You’ll have to go through some training.”
He looked me up and down. I was carrying a large satchel. “I understand the satchel,” he said, “but why the slouch hat and old dusty clothes?”
I answered him. I knew how to answer him. “When one eye is fixed on the destination, only one eye is left to search for the way.”
The elevator stopped at every floor. He asked me, “How is it that you pushed all the buttons, old man?”
I answered, “Young man, how is that you did not?”
We arrived at the proper level. The room was a typical office... if you’re used to offices where open folding chairs rest on their sides and fifty working phones are sitting on the floor. The phones seemed to be in the middle of some strange incestuous orgy. The crossed wires would have taken weeks to untangle. There were some phones sitting on the floor without being in their cradles. A small voice kept saying, “If you’d like to make a call...”
A young man threw down a phone and held out his hand. “Are you here to help with the campaign?
“I am,” I said.
“Do you want to work the phones or do you prefer to go door to door.”
“Door to door,” I replied.
He continued: “You’ll have some training in what to say, and you’ll have some training in how to handle people who are disagreeable. And you’ll have some training in staying calm when you deliver your message.”
When he mentioned, “disagreeable people” he held a pistol out, the handle pointing in my direction. I waved my hand at it, indicating I’d go disarmed... at first.
Next he took a tiny button from his pocket and held it in the palm of his hand. It was a campaign button. On it was Claire McCaskill’s face. He extended his hand until it was under my nose. “When you are able to take this from my hand, your training will be over.”
I tried to take the button and he closed his hand.
He walked away and I followed him. We passed lots of small chambers and I could hear training sessions in progress. Volunteers were being trained to say nice things about the candidate. I heard “roads and industry” mentioned and I heard something about “veterans” and about Claire’s support for the middle class.
I was trained to say: “Hello, I’m a volunteer going door to door and I’d like you to take a closer look at Claire McCaskill. Politically, Claire McCaskill has done a lot of good things. Good work to build roads and bridges and help restore industry. Veterans look up to her and she’s looking out for the middle class.” I was fairly sure I had the spiel memorized.
Just then my coach got a phone call and he left the room. There were five million single-sheet political pamphlets scattered about on the floor. Most had pictures of the opposition.
I knew what I had to do next. I took off my shoes and slowly crossed the room trying to stay light and ephemeral... trying to stay inchoate and mysterious... moving with twisting ankles and raised fists... trying to cross the room without disturbing the great pattern of the universe.
I stopped as I reached the far wall and I looked back over my shoulder expecting to see no ripples and no sign of my stealth. But there were no pamphlets on the floor. They were all stuck to the bottom of my feet.
My coach returned as I was pulling the sheets off my feet and placing them on a table. “Thanks,” he said. “So you think you have the speech memorized?”
“Here’s your lapel button.” He handed me a lapel button. “You’ll need brochures.”
I spied a box of colorful documents sitting on one of the many card tables. I crouched down and let both of my arms rocket up quickly, leaving my sleeves down around my elbows. I reached forward with my forearms and, pressing them against the sides of the box, I lifted the package. Brown cardboard dust stained my arms.
“By this... all will know you,” said my coach. “You and your friend stick together the first few days.” He gave us a map and we left the building, stopping on every floor on the way down.
Within a few minutes I was standing at my very first door. I was nervous. My younger partner stood to one side. “Let’s see how you do,” he said.
I knocked. The door creaked open. A man in sweat pants and a t-shirt opened the door. He was holding a paint brush. Paint was dripping from the brush and he was trying to catch it in his other hand.
I cleared my throat and began. “If you look real close,” I said, “you’ll see I remind you a lot of Claire McCaskill. In politics, Claire has put a lot of money into animal husbandry... I mean animal industry... industry being all about roads and filling potholes with animals... I mean... maps... And it’s well known that she looks down on veterans and hopes that some day you’ll show a little class.”
The man painted a big yellow X on the front of my shirt and then slammed the door.
“How’d I do?” I asked my partner.
“We’ll put him down as ‘undecided’,” he said.
We walked together. It was a nice neighborhood. I asked my friend if he was new to canvassing neighborhoods.
“I’ve been doing this for seven elections.”
“What have you learned?” I asked.
“Shape a bowl of clay and it is not the bowl you use. It is the emptiness inside.”
“If I live with no outward signs of my passions, will not my passions overwhelm me?”
“Shall we hold hands as we walk?”
* * *
We were standing before another dwelling. We knocked. The door was opened. A very old man stood before us. His equally aged wife was right behind him, looking past his shoulder. I could see the TV playing in the background. The TV was tuned to the FOX news channel.
“Good evening,” I said, “we’re walking the area trying to determine if Claire McCaskill has any support among the people who live in this neighborhood.”
The lady looked frightened. “They’re Democrats!”
The man who opened the door made the sign of the cross. “How can you want small business to fail? Why do you want us to use money from Kenya as currency and then take the sign of the beast? How can you support death panels? Don’t you have family members...?”
I leaned in and whispered. “Don’t tell anybody, but the death panels will only be used on people who vote Republican.” I leaned back out and placed my pen mid-air hovered over a piece of paper on a clipboard. “Shall I put you down for longevity?” I asked.
“Martha, get me a knife,” he said.
We ran about half a block and my friend asked me why I hadn’t tried to use persuasion.
“They were watching FOX,” I said.
“You still can’t talk like that,” he said.
* * *
We’d been given sheets with names and addresses. We were supposed to call at specific places. We had boxes to check off and guesses to make. We were supposed to guess income levels and the likelihood that certain people would vote in certain ways.
On one of the sheets it said the people at 1255 Arsenic Avenue were never going to vote for our candidate. It said they didn’t react politely when contacted. It said to leave them alone.
My partner noticed my concerns, even though I didn’t share the message of the list with him.
“What frightens you?” he said.
“I have heard the silence.”
“You have experienced oneness. The silkworm dies and the moth lives. It is the same with man, his false beliefs must die so he can become what he was meant to be.”
This time I knocked while my partner waited down by the sidewalk. Brutus opened the door. Not the Shakespeare Brutus, though that would have also been problematic; this was the Brutus that kept grabbing Olive Oyle and kept hitting Popeye with pianos.
This time I got the script correct but didn’t pause between words lest I invite correction. I said. “Hello, I’mavolunteergoingdoortodoorandI’dlikeyoutotakeacloserlookatClaireMcCaskill.”
He didn’t let me finish. All ‘Clint Eastwood’ he said, “Get off my porch.”
As luck would have it, earlier I’d noticed a big box sitting out for the trash. The box was about half a block away and I ran there and grabbed the box and ran back. I knocked at the same door and waited. The door opened. I pointed to the box and batted my eyes the way those ladies do on The Price is Right. “Would you vote for Claire if we gave you this big-screen TV?” I asked.
Punches were thrown but by my judicious use of screening, my partner and the big box took most of the argument.
There were still more adventures: big conservative dogs, wanted felons who thought they’d been discovered and fled before our brochures. I’ll have to admit there were useful discussions and reasonable opinions. Who can know well enough to speak for all?
* * *
We canvassed only during the evenings, so one Saturday I was at loose ends. I’d heard there was going to be a rally for Todd Akin, the man I’d mentioned earlier. Todd Akin was the Republican running for the U.S. Senate in Missouri. I’m sure you heard he’d made some strange remarks about women and reproductive rights.
I’ve always been into what I like to call ‘street theater’. The episode with the empty box that had once contained a big screen TV should have demonstrated as much.
I decided to ‘dress’ for the Todd Akin rally. I wore bib overalls and a straw hat. For a shirt I chose a t-shirt that displayed two cardinals and a baseball bat. For good measure I cut off the bottom half of the shirt so my prosperous girth had room to move and impress. One black shoe and one tennis shoe completed the ensemble. To hold before me, I made a sturdy sign. It said:
WES SO PORT U
I was half-excited and two-thirds embarrassed when I arrived at the rally. For a few minutes I considered leaving before anyone noticed me. I heard music and then the music stopped and I heard the president being maligned at 10,000 decibels.
I got out of the car and walked over to join the rally. As I approached, dozens of Todd Akin supporters turned about to face me. It was like seeing dozens of mirrors turning toward me. I saw myself here and there and close and far away.
Before going home I ate six free hot dogs and downed four free beers, and I started to rethink taxing the rich.
Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith