October 6, 2018
Denise should win this thing, if Francie doesn’t do something to blow it.
Francie is now 74 and ‘spry’ by the standards of annoying younger people. She has long, wiry, gray hair and a tendency to move her hips in ways that a wise woman wouldn’t move aging joints.
She’s working a canvassing table with her middle-aged son, Dean, at a small-town harvest festival on an unusually hot Saturday afternoon. They’re getting plenty of traffic, because they’re giving away passes to a pool party tomorrow. Denise is running for Congress as part of the big blue wave.
She’s a first-time candidate, running against a Republican incumbent who is a die-hard Trump backer. In this rural region of Ohio, her opponent has always had staunch support, and the Trump effect is holding strong here so far.
In a brief lull, Dean holds the giant blue wave pool party sign high overhead and waggles it to make the spangly blue streamers fly. As a lanky 6’3” redhead, he easily draws attention to himself. He calls out, “Swim the big blue wave with us!”
Immediately, six kids tug their parents over to the table. Francie hands them pool passes stapled to campaign literature, looking over their heads to speak to the parents. “A vote for Denise Culpepper is a vote for honest government!”
“Are you registered?” Dean asks, flashing a welcoming smile. “We have forms. You can register right here.” He sets down the sign to offer pens to people. “Please sign our mailing list to follow the campaign to victory in November.”
One little bright-eyed, brown-skinned toddler is dribbling purple syrup from a snow cone down her chin as she says, “Mama, who is that auntie?” She’s pointing at a big blown-up photo of Denise, surrounded by a multicultural gaggle of children at a swimming pool. At 45, Denise’s youthful willowy height has given way to the tall, sinewy stature of a formidable woman.
Francie says, “That’s the lady who is going to go to Washington to fight Trump.”
Dean drops what he is doing to interrupt Francie before she can finish her sentence. He offers the little girl a napkin with one hand, while he gives her brother a blue taffy candy with the other, and he loudly tells her mother, “Denise Culpepper is fighting for economic justice for all Ohioans, whether they’re farmers, factory workers, teachers, firefighters, doctors, lawyers, or homemakers.” Then he crouches down to tell the little girl, “She’s going to help make things more fair for everybody.”
Francie shuts her mouth and simply watches her son work the crowd. He’s good at this. She marvels at the changes in him. Yesterday in 1973, Francie chose a different name for him. As Michael, he was cynical, never voted, and had no interest in politics. He wore boots and a shaggy haircut. Now, as Dean, he’s a different person. He wears Oxfords and well-styled hair, and he’s become the chief volunteer wrangler for Denise’s campaign.
In the next quiet moment, Dean takes Francie to task. He’s gently firm with her, as though he’s talking to a child. “Francie,” he starts. As Dean, he calls her Francie, not Mom. “Francie, I’ve told you many times. We don’t talk about Trump. I know he’s the biggest issue in all of America today, but Denise isn’t running in all of America. She’s running in Ohio.”
“And she’s going to win,” Francie says. If all goes as it should, Denise will win and serve brilliantly in Congress for the next ten years. That’s the future Francie knows, but now she also knows that things can change, so she’s crossing her fingers behind her back as she says it.
Both campaigns are here today. The other side is canvassing at a table far on the other side of the park, with a sprawling stand of pin oak trees between the two groups. Francie has checked out their booth. The Congressman is personally pinning American flag lapel pins on well-wishers, reeling them in by saying, “Hello, now here comes a real American!”
The candidates are scheduled to make speeches soon, and Denise has taken a short walk away from the crowds to collect her thoughts and marshal her energy. She’s been drinking hot tea all day, fighting laryngitis. She was croaking like a frog this morning when she told Francie, “This thing is killing me.” Francie isn’t sure if Denise meant the campaign or the head cold.
Dean spots a ruckus starting near the oak trees, and he tells Francie to mind the table while he goes to find Denise.
A small swarm of alt-right agitators is milling around under the trees. They unfurl Confederate flags alongside American flags, and their leader shouts into a bullhorn, “America is for Americans!” Then they march into the crowds gathered around the food booths, shouting their slogan over and over again.
The assorted people of this small town quietly choose sides, parting themselves as suddenly as Moses parting the waters. Half the people back away from the sight of the alt-right group, and the other half rally around them. The factions are watchful of one another, encircling their own tribes, but not challenging the other side.
Even the folks lined up for funnel cakes leave the line.
The alt-right leader climbs up onto a picnic table, and it looks like he’s going to make a speech, but a woman in his crowd steals his thunder. She points toward Denise’s campaign table, and she screeches, “Baby-Killer!”
Francie has no idea what to say, so she says nothing, but she stands her ground and she places a loving hand on Denise’s picture.
The “Baby-Killer!” chant takes off among the alt-right people. They start to march toward Denise’s table, but they don’t get far.
Denise and Dean and a crowd of supporters reach the table first. They lock arms and sing, “God Bless America.” Denise’s resonant alto voice holds strong, and it carries the melody far across the divide.
The alt-right marchers stop, and facing off against ‘God Bless America,’ they seem to lose steam. They retreat to the picnic tables, where they cast a pall over the food vendors, many of whom are immigrants.
Denise sits to catch her breath, but her supporters carry on singing. A black teen-aged girl steps forward in this mixed-race group to lead ‘We Shall Overcome’ next. She’s clearly done this many times before.
Francie knows Denise has faced the ‘Baby-Killer’ chant often, ever since the President labeled her that in an early-morning tweet in July, but this is the first time that Francie has been here to witness it. It’s shocking how vicious it sounds.
Thirty years working as a nurse at Planned Parenthood have been the making of Denise. She has had to do her job under the protection of armed guards and watch her patients come through the doors in fear for their lives for much too long. It has tempered the steel of her spine. Her supporters love her for this. She is the champion of women who refuse to be fearful any longer.
These women encircle her now, as she sits and recovers her strength.
A loudspeaker blares the news that the candidates will be taking the stage now. This is twenty minutes early. It appears that the organizers want to move things forward to stop the stand-off between the glaring crowds.
Francie reaches for Dean’s hand. “Wait,” she says, “wait.” He’s not supposed to be here today. Francie has already lived the day after election day, and she knows the story of what happens today. She can’t let Dean interfere.
Dean pulls his hand away from her, and he says, “What now?”
It’s Denise who stops him. She cocks her head to read the tea leaves in Francie’s eyes, then she says to Dean, “Stay at the table this time. Okay?”
Dean shrugs and sits and stares at Francie.
Francie says, “Thank you.” She’s talking to both of them, but only Denise nods. Dean looks away and shakes his head.
Denise and her opponent lead their supporters, in separate crowds, toward the stage. Francie follows Denise’s flock.
The organizers have done something strange this year when they set up the chairs. The groups must sit on opposite sides of an aisle that has been divided with pylons and tarp, so that it’s impossible to see the people on the other side. This was called a safety measure, but from where Francie sits, it looks ugly and threatening.
Denise is first to take the stage, because she lost the coin toss. It’s always better to have the last word, but a rousing start is the next best thing. So, Denise bounds onstage and bellows a big, “Hello! You ready to vote yet?”
Her voice cracks as she says, “It’s almost time!”
When she starts to cough, she startles her sign language interpreter by handing her the microphone. She whispers, “I’m going to sign this one. You speak it.”
Francie is the only person present who is not surprised when Denise begins to actively sign her speech.
The interpreter matches Denise’s passion when she vocalizes her words, so it works. Denise’s campaign manager is sending this event out to the world on Facebook Live, and the hits pick up pace with plenty of ‘likes’ and ‘loves’ in the mix.
From her aisle seat, Francie spots Dean approaching, and she stands to stop him. She worries that even this small distraction will somehow change things, but he simply takes her seat. He looks fascinated by what’s happening.
So, Francie returns to the canvassing table. She thinks this will be easier. Now she won’t be caught in the middle of the melee. She’s been arguing with herself all day about her responsibilities in this moment. A good person might try to stop it. She has decided she must not, though.
At this vantage point, she sees how it starts. Someone stands to jeer at Denise, “Look at her! She can’t even talk!” Then it gets worse. “Go home! You don’t belong here!” That’s followed by an alt-right guy, dressed in an American flag t-shirt and a MAGA cap, shouting, “Go back to Africa!”
Denise was born in Toledo, Ohio, so that’s just stupid. She continues signing, ignoring the hecklers, and focusing on her customary talking points. Her interpreter pulls the microphone closer to her mouth, deepens her voice, and keeps speaking Denise’s words with vigor.
Then the folks on Denise’s side of the aisle get fed up. At first, someone loudly shushes the people she can’t see on the other side of the tarp. A chorus of people join her, and the shushing itself becomes very loud.
That doesn’t stop the heckling, though. The screeching woman from earlier is next to join the fray. She spits out, “Baby-Killer!”
Several people on Denise’s side stand then, and they shout, “Shut up! Sit down! Get out of here!” Dean is just one of them, and he’s making little impact.
Denise reaches for the microphone, and with a gravelly rumble, she roars, “Change is coming! You can’t stop it! Stand or sit, shout or shush, come or go, you can’t hold us back anymore. We’re up here to stay, my friends. We’re not going anywhere!”
It’s a shock, even to Francie, when it happens. It seems as though the phrase, ‘my friends,’ triggers the attack. A little guy, wearing an American flag bandana, hurls a big hunting knife at Denise. It hits its mark, stabbing her in the shoulder, close to her neck, way too close to her heart.
Francie screams. Denise freezes, her eyes wide, her mouth silently grimacing, before she begins to crumple. Dean runs to catch her. He leaps to the stage and breaks her fall.
Francie is glad Dean is here now. If he hadn’t been here, perhaps Francie would have caught her friend, but it’s not likely that this aging body would have made it to the stage in time.
Instead, Francie calls 911 and cries out, “Congresswoman Culpepper has been stabbed!” She’s forgotten that Denise has not yet been elected.
This attack has gone out live online. The video of it will go viral, along with a clip of the attacker throwing the knife.
It is happening just as Francie knew it would, but in this moment, after watching her friend fall, Francie wonders if she should have tried to stop it somehow.
Denise will be elected, but she’ll have a nasty scar, and the chronic pain in her shoulder will prevent her from nursing ever again.
Francie will just have to live with that.