By S. Krauss
Fallen leaves crunch under my feet. They foretell of waning days and icy streets to come. Once, the promise of Thanksgiving and Christmas would have mollified me, but lately the holidays have become ominous, markers of change.
The polling place is a high school. Today the lunchroom holds clusters of old ladies in shapeless woolen coats and parkas, gathered to cast their ballots. I start for the table by the wall, then remember I live in a different district now; I need to wait in a different line. This year I’ll be signing the record book with my maiden name.
I take a flier, a grid with candidates arranged according to party, and images of levers next to the amendments. It is too late to read about them now. It’s almost my turn; it would be like cramming for a test as the teacher is handing it out. I think about Jack, because he’s always on the back burner of my brain, that sore in your mouth you inevitably touch with your tongue, though you know it will hurt. In his tired, professorial voice he would tell me, Your investment in the election epitomizes the decline of twenty-first- century reason. Why vote if you’re unaware of the issues?
Could I ever explain to him why I voted, every year, since my eighteenth birthday? That I’d been going to the polls since I could walk?
That securely enveloped in family, I’d watch my grandmother from outside the curtained booth, like the Wizard of Oz performing unknowable magic, pulling levers that would turn a man into a mayor, or a governor, or a president. That to Grandma, who hid from soldiers during the pogroms, a vote was a privilege to be prized, and this belief she’d passed down to her daughters, to her granddaughter. A vote meant you had a say. A vote meant hope.
I would ask what was held from view behind that curtain, not really wanting them to tell me. Some secrets feel right.
The voting done, we (it was always my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, and me) would eat at the Parkway diner, where I’d have a tuna sandwich and a slice of apple pie. What did we talk about? Just the everyday Our Town conversations of supermarket sales, television episodes, husbands, children, neighbors, home. Comfort talk for comfort food.
We kept the tradition as JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter divided the decades. For Jimmy Carter, my grandmother chattered on, her eyes as warm as her Friday night candles. For Ronald Reagan, her toothless mouth hung open, her eyes dimmed. The people at the polling place said it was OK that my mother went into the booth with her. My mother took her into the booth and pulled the levers for her. The landscape had changed.
Everything changes, Jack would say. He said this to me not so long ago, in fact, as he packed his bags. Everything changes.
I look around me now. The curtained booths are gone. You mark your paper ballot with a felt- tipped pen and deposit it into a box.
The President is younger than me.
You get married for forever, but it’s really just until.
Not everything, I point out, in one more of my thousand arguments with Jack’s essence. The woman behind the table asks for my name. I sign the book, take a marker, and vote.
Outside the school windows, the day is crisp and tart as the season’s apples. Cinnamon leaves dance on the autumn wind. I’ll get myself a slice of pie on the way home.