Defeat. The word just hung in the air around A.S. She sat on the edge of her father’s bed and the two of them watched the small television. Big Buddha, the local morning news guy was interviewing Merriton’s new mayor. She itched with irritation.
Usually the Tongan news reporter did the fluff and entertainment pieces. A.S. had seen him painted in green and gold for a high school Up North. She had seen him eating countless meals at the fancy restaurants there. She had seen him try to make a pyramid out of himself and cheerleaders, ending in a heap of girls collapsed on his big belly, laughing and impervious to pain. Big Buddha was NOT a political reporter and A.S. rankled that he had been sent out to interview Tank.
She still couldn’t believe that Tank had won the election. She squirmed on the edge of the bed. He hadn’t even run, for God’s sake. The fact that the write-in votes for Tank had outnumbered both her AND Angie just made her skin crawl with irritation, but at the same time, she felt a huge relief. She thought of the two boxes of Merriton paperwork that she had gathered neatly just in case Angie won and imagined herself handing them over to the grinning boy on the television.
“So, you’re the youngest mayor ever to be elected in the state.” Big Buddha didn’t really ask him a question so much as start the conversation. A.S. realized that all his interviews in the past had basically been commercials for local businesses and businessmen were always willing to talk up a storm about themselves.
Tank smiled eagerly. “I don’t know about that. I imagine that there was some young miner who probably got to be mayor at about my age way back when. But people died lots younger back then.” A.S. was amazed at Tank’s grace and thought what she would have done if the news had sent Big Buddha to interview her. She would have been irritated that they considered her a puff piece. She blew out a breath of air at the idea that Tank was BETTER than her at this.
“We actually looked it up and you’re the youngest mayor ever elected in the state.” Big Buddha swiped the microphone back into Tank’s face. It wasn’t actually a question again. A.S. knew that if she had been in his position, her patience would have slipped away from her at that moment. Instead Tank, answered gracefully, “Really?! That’s cool.” He nodded to himself and then continued, “You know, before yesterday, the luckiest day of my life was when I was a sophomore in high school.”
A.S. was taken aback with Tank’s ability to just fluff talk with the joke of a news crew the station sent over to him. Tortimer started wheezing and A.S. unconsciously checked the oxygen line for kinks. She straightened out the plastic tubing as Tank continued, “I was walking home from where the school bus dropped me off.” He looked right at the camera, explaining, “The ride home from school isn’t like how it is for most folks. I had to walk a good three miles just to get from the bus stop to my house in Merriton.”
Tortimer nodded at Tank and wheezed, “Good boy. Mention the town. They’ll forget what town you’re from if you don’t say it enough.” Tank kept talking, unaware of the former mayor’s critique. “That day, Elvis saw me walking home and gave me a lift.” A.S. saw a flash of panic cross Big Buddha’s face. This piece was nothing like the fluff pieces he usually did and she could tell he was a bit worried.
“In that old and rotting pickup, was Random McCain. He lived in the old Bowen House a while back. That day, he refused to call me Pudgy James.” Tank touched Big Buddha on the shoulder. “That’s what my brother, Andrew, called me, but when he died in Iraq, I didn’t want anybody else to call me that.” Tortimer drew in an asthmatic breath. “Good, GOOD! Fallen soldiers!”
“Before Random McCain, I couldn’t convince none of them to stop calling me Pudgy. That was the day I became Tank. My whole life changed on that day.” Tank nodded and swiped at his eyes. “And yesterday was the first day to beat it.” He looked at the camera again and A.S. felt as if he could see her, personally. It was as if the new mayor of Merriton was talking directly to her. “And all because the folks of Merriton wrote me in as their new mayor. Thank you!” He waved a bit at the camera and A.S. felt a chill run down her spine.
Big Buddha lightened the mood by grabbing his large tummy. “Don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be called Pudgy. It’s always worked for me!” Tank laughed and A.S. could see the tears squeeze out of his eyes. The news crew made a light joke of Merriton’s young mayor and then switched over to the traffic cameras and a semi that had been blown over on the interstate by the gusts of winter wind.
Tortimer patted her hand. “He’ll do.” A.S. felt a rush of shame at her own defeat. She couldn’t let the words pass her lips, but she felt like a failure at the loss. Her father was winded from the excitement, so his words floated out slowly, “Not what… I expected… But he’ll do… nicely…”
A.S. stood up as the television blared a commercial for a wireless phone. She reached over to turn it off, but Tortimer stopped her. “He’ll come back…” She looked at him. “Big… Buddha…” She drew in a sharp breath. He was right. Big Buddha usually had two or three segments over the hour, painting himself green and making faces at food. She sat back on the edge of her father’s bed.
“You’re right. You know, if I had won. They wouldn’t have sent anyone.” She realized in a wave of shame the truth. Because Tank was the youngest mayor ever elected in the state, he had been given uncommon publicity. Instead of being rankled that the news had sent Big Buddha, like A.S. was, Tank was incredibly lucky, once again, because he would get three segments on the news instead of being ignored completely.
Tortimer wiggled in his bed, struggling with the effort to sit up. She helped him situate himself as he tried to wheeze out the words. “You… would have… been the first woman…” A sinking regret filled her and she wished she had done more to win the election. Just like Angie, she could have devoted an entire booth at Onion Days to herself, but instead, she just assumed she would win because her father had for so many years.
“Tank deserved it,” she said, letting the rawness of her defeat show. Tortimer patted her hand. “Next time… my girl…” Then he pointed at the television. They were back in Tank’s mother’s home and A.S. noticed the worn furniture. It was obvious that they had cleaned up for the interview, but there was no escaping it. No amount of cleaning can disguise entropy.
“So, what are your plans for the city?” A.S. was surprised. Big Buddha had asked a REAL question. “I didn’t actually run for mayor. Before yesterday, my plans were to help take care of my grandma.” He looked at a part of the room that was off camera and pointed. The cameraman followed his finger. It revealed Grandma James sitting in a chair, looking like Tortimer had just a couple of months ago. She swatted the air as if to tell them to stop looking at her and it panned back to the boy.
Tank took in a breath and looked directly at the camera again, instead of the large man holding the microphone. “Truth is, I wasn’t ready to be mayor of Merriton and I’d like to ask the people who voted for me for help.” Big Buddha laughed. “Now, that was only 24 people, now wasn’t it?” Tank chuckled and lowered his eyes like a coquette. “Might not seem like alotta people to you, but in Merriton, it is.” He looked back at the camera. “All I know is yesterday was the luckiest day of my life and I’m going to do whatever I need to do to earn your support.”
Tortimer drew in a breath. “Good…” was the only word that escaped his aging lungs. The television showed the snow collecting on the road, and warned people leaving for work about the commute. She turned down the volume a bit and ran a hand along her arm, absentmindedly. “You know, that speech he did last Memorial Day was nice…”
Her father responded, “Best… in years…” She continued as the commercials raged on, “And that speech he gave introducing Angie at Onion Days was better than anything I’ve heard since Obama’s Yes We Can speech.” A laugh escaped Tortimer’s aging frame. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that.” The sentence left him in one happy puff and for a brief moment, all was right in the world. Papa wasn’t dying. John had never become a Jesus Freak. Teenage boys hadn’t been placed in charge of the only home she had ever known. They laughed together just as they had before the oxygen tanks and the smell of adult diapers.
Tortimer pointed at the screen. Big Buddha had asked Tank another question, but they had missed it. A.S. turned up the volume. “…not like that!” Tank was laughing. “Merriton’s actually a pretty great place. James Sebastian, the inventor of the Snow Eater, lives there.” Tank looked at the camera for support. “We can all be thankful for him. No drought in three years!”
Tank held up his hand for Big Buddha to give him a high five and they hit hands. “Elvis Lancaster lives there. He’s the owner of Lancaster Mills in Emigration. Family owned since 1917.” Tank looked at the camera again and A.S. felt as if he were talking directly to the cowboy. She could see the old man in her mind. “Though now, he’s spendin’ all his time with his sheep and goats and lets the big guys at the mill take care of alla that for ‘im.”
Then, Tank pointed at the camera. “And of course, I can’t forget Tortimer.” A.S. drew in a shocked breath. She felt as if the boy had come through the television screen and had entered her father’s sick room. “He was our mayor since before I was born and he was the best.” He looked back at Big Buddha. “First memory I ever had was of Tortimer handing me a sparkler on the Fourth of July. I musta been ‘bout four or five. Burned myself within seconds.”
Big Buddha laughed, obviously enjoying the interview. Tank continued, “I fully intend to keep all the traditions alive. Our last Onion Days was the best ever and it’s all because of Andrea Sebastian and Angie Robison.” A.S. felt a surge of pride and happiness rush through her at the mention of her name. He looked right through the camera, over the cable wires, out the television and right into her eyes. “And I can’t wait to hand out sparklers this summer at the Fourth of July!”