I wrote a short story for the Ballard Writers' Collective Friday the 13th event. For years, I’ve been toying with the idea of America electing our President via reality TV show, a concept that seems closer and closer to the truth every day. In this story, all American adults have endured standardized tests, and the twelve best testers will be drafted to run for President. I’m calling it "Civil Circus."
Eight years ago, Edward missed the cut by 7 points. Every time Northwestern’s faculty suggested his dreams were too lofty or his aspirations unreal, Edward rebutted, “Seven lousy points.”
This year, test results would be skewed. Ambitious Americans had studied for their chance to become the most powerful man in the world. Others had thrown the test to ensure they weren’t one of twelve candidates drafted for the months-long reality TV show.
Anna waddled into the living room. In threadbare yoga pants and a faded law school t-shirt, she still waddled two months postpartum, though he wouldn’t mention it.
When they got pregnant quite accidentally, Edward enthused that a new baby would increase his likability on the show.Now he wasn’t so sure. “She’s poopy,” he said.
Anna sat cross-legged on the sofa. “You’d better change her, then.”
Anna buckled the nursing pillow around her waist and tuned in to their first real time-TV broadcast in years. She wanted Edward to miss the cutoff by fewer than seven points. This baby was their last, and she hadn’t a baby in her arms for over a decade. Anna wanted to enjoy her maternity leave: to sleep when her baby slept, to enjoy the new-baby smell, to coo at tiny baby feet for six months before she was compelled back to her law firm.
If Edward was a candidate, producers would whisk away the whole family for two whole months. Privately, she was certain he wouldn’t be drafted. He probably fell short on business or economics. His knowledge of the law was unparalleled. His skills in geography and world politics were admirable, but Edward could hardly be one of the smartest people in the country about everything, though Anna wouldn’t say that aloud.
The music started and she hollered up the stairs, “It’s starting! Edward? Ryan? Emily?”
Edward bounded down the stairs and returned the mewing infant to his wife. Anna said, “You have a bit of spit up on your shoulder.”
“Her shit on my shirt, too.” He scoffed. “Emily! Ryan!”
Anna latched the baby onto her breast as their older children sulked down the stairs. Every social studies teacher in America had assigned the show as required viewing.
Emily threw herself onto the sofa. “She pooped again, Mom.”
Anna whispered, “It’s your dad who smells like poop.”
“Quiet, or find another television,” Edward said, despite the absence of another TV in the house.
“I cannot imagine what ludicrous tasks candidates will endure this year,” Anna said, as she coaxed the baby’s mouth back open.
“I can only dream,” Edward absently massaged his abdominal muscles. In January, just days after they sat for the civil service exam, his confidence led him to Chicago’s best gym and a personal trainer. He wanted the sexy vote.
“It’s all bullshit anyway,” Ryan said.
“Words,” Anna said.
“Well, it is. I can’t vote. I don’t care who wins. Dirk’s parents sent everyone home way earlier than usual so we could watch at home with our families. Seriously, this is why we have DVR.”
Edward crossed his arms over his chest. “Eight years takes you through college and into the job market, so you should care. The wrong guy could screw up your future and, indeed, your whole life.”
Ryan crossed his arms and pouted, the same crooked pout he’d made since birth. Anna sighed. In three short years, no matter who was President, her baby—the one who had made her a mother—would go to college, likely several states away. Maternity leave let her bond with the baby, but she was more grateful to bond with her son, who was becoming more of a man every day.
For two hours, energy in the room ebbed and flowed with each new candidate, the most promising of whom was a retired teacher from Seattle named Katie. The twelfth candidate was an actual United States Congressman. That hadn’t happened last time.
Host Cat Deeley said, “Folks, we have one last surprise for you. Two candidates tied this year, so there’s one more after the break. Stay with us.”
Desperate, Edward looked at his wife. She panicked that it might be him. He panicked that it might not be.
“I’m going to make popcorn, “Emily said.
Edward shouted, “Butt on the sofa in 90 seconds.”
The doorbell rang and Edward raised his arms. “Am I the only person who understands how important tonight is?”
Something crashed in the kitchen and Emily screamed. Edward ran to her as the doorbell rang again.
Anna glared at her son, who would not budge from the sofa. “Edward, I’m nursing here. Can’t you just get that?”
“In a second,” Edward said. “Jesus.”
Anna turned back to the television where her own, gorgeous cream hydrangea heads slowly bobbed in the early September breeze. The new landscaping looked good.
Music returned as Edward thumped down the hallway in his stained t-shirt. “Edward?” she said, as she realized exactly what was happening.
She rushed after him, too far behind to catch him and unable to articulate what lay on the other side of the door.
Edward’s phone rang and she could see its backlight through his thin back pocket. The baby wailed for more milk as Edward threw open the door to find the production crew.
“You are required to support for Civil Service,” the onsite producer blasted. “Anna Mitchell.”
The camera panned to their thirteenth candidate: disheveled and slackjawed with a nursing pillow hanging limply from her sagging postpartum middle. The baby wailed five inches from a dark, dripping, exposed nipple, and her father clenched his jaw.
I blog rarely, because I'm busy writing books. When I do blog, I focus on writing, friendship, family, and books. Because my family's best nicknames are private, I use their birth years for shorthand: