The Candidate's Wife
Jillian Walsh discovered her husband, Frank, was running for president when she was balancing the checkbook one Monday.
“Frank,“ she said, staring at the Bank of America website on the screen of her Macintosh, “what’s this check for one thousand dollars dated November fourteenth? I can’t figure out what we would have bought for so much.”
“That’s the filing fee for the New Hampshire primary.” His voice came into the dining room from the kitchen where he was fixing himself a toasted cheese on rye.
“Is this some kind of a joke? If so, it’s a mighty expensive one.” She tried to keep the anger out of her voice.
Frank appeared in the doorway. “Actually, it’s cheaper this way. If I tried to declare myself indigent to avoid paying the fee, I would have to file an election petition with the signatures of ten Republicans from each county in the state. There are ten counties in New Hampshire. If it took me a day in each country to get the signatures and I rented a motel room for nine nights, that plus the cost of the air fare and rental car would come to a lot more than a thousand dollars.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You can print off a form from the Secretary of State’s office website. All you have to do is fill it out to declare that you’re are a citizen, get it notarized, and send it in with the check.”
Jillian stared at him, wondering if he had gone crazy. He didn’t look crazy. His hair wasn’t flying away from his scalp, and his eyes were steady and serene. He actually looked better than he had in years. He’d lost fifteen pounds since August when he had gone on Weight Watchers with a vengeance that surprised everyone in the family. All through the summer, he’d lounged around the house in filthy old Levis, but now he looked quite nice. His hair was gray at the temples, but he looked more kempt than he had since he retired in the spring.
“Frank, you can’t run for president.” Maybe if she just stated it as an obvious fact, he would drop it. They weren’t rich, she thought, but a thousand dollars wouldn’t break them.
“Of course I can. I’m a native born citizen of the United States and I have resided here for the last fourteen years. I am over thirty five years of age.”
“That’s what the constitution says.”
"You’ve been reading the constitution?”
“Of course.” He disappeared into the kitchen, then his face popped back into the doorway. “You have to know the powers of the office.”
Jillian’s hands started to tremble. She’d known Frank hadn’t taken retirement well. It hadn’t actually been a retirement as much as being forced out of the company. “Early retirement bonuses” had been offered as part of the “right sizing,” but Frank’s boss made it clear that if he didn’t accept, there was no way his continued employment could be guaranteed. Frank was 59, but when the bonus was invested in his retirement plan, he would get as much income as if he had worked until he was 65. And it wasn’t as if Frank loved selling structural steel to warehouses all over Oregon.
“I’ve got to handle this carefully,” she said to herself. Frank had been a good husband and a loving father, the kind of man willing to be a scout leader or little league coach. She would talk to Jordy and Susan before she took any action. Maybe the three of them would find a way to get him out of this.
Both the kids understood immediately, but Jordy’s wife, Ellen, was more of a problem. “It’s not against the law. Who’s he hurting?” That was Ellen for you. She fancied herself a real intellectual and new age thinker. She cooked quinoa four times a week, claiming it would prevent cancer, or warts, or something. One time Jillian had given the grandchildren hot dogs for lunch. From the way Ellen responded, you would have thought she was feeding them rat poison.
“I’m not trying to hurt your feelings,” Jillian said to Jordy on the phone, “but when we confront Frank, maybe it would be better if Ellen wasn’t there. It’s not that she isn’t part of the family, but.”
“I understand perfectly,” Jordy said. He and Jillian had always been close.
Jillian arranged for Susan and Jordy to come over at lunch on Saturday, when Ellen would be taking their granddaughter to ballet class. Susan wanted to bring Tom who had been sharing her apartment for two years, but Jillian ruled that out. Tom was nice enough and really quite bright, but the thought of the two of them in the only bed in the apartment really upset Frank. They met on Wednesday to rehearse what they would say. With the three of them united against him, he would surely back down.
Disaster struck Thursday at six pm. Jillian should have been suspicious when Frank suggested they eat in front of the television. Usually, he didn’t pay any attention to the local news other than to launch wild screeds against the management of the Trail Blazers. Thursday, however, he perched on the edge of the couch cushion with his plate on his knees.
“A Portland man has announced that he is running for president,” the anchorman chirped, barely concealing the glee in his voice. “We’ll be back with an exclusive interview with Frank Walsh, a retired structural steel executive, after these messages.”
Jillian gave a little cry of alarm.
“Isn’t it great?” asked Frank. “Free media. That’s the whole key to modern campaigning. People don’t trust advertisements, but the new technologies are revolutionizing politics. I’m going to open a Twitter account. That way the candidate can communicate directly with the people.”
Jillian stared at the advertisement for Burgerville on the screen. Patties of beef were being grilled, covered with cheddar slices and secret sauce, and wrapped in Styrofoam before her eyes. Onion rings glistening with transfat free oil cascading from fryer baskets. Her heart was pounding with fear. Would they mock Frank in front of the whole city? Would they take him seriously? What would her friends say?
“That stuff is junk,” said Frank, waving toward the screen. “We‘re going to outlaw foods like that. It’s costing the country a fortune in health care alone. I had a long conversation with Ellen about junk food last week.”
Jillian turned on him. “This started with Weight Watchers,” she hissed. “You’ve been planning this for months and you didn’t say a word to me. I should have guessed.” She glared at him. “And your hair – you’ve had it dyed!”
“Just a little Grecian Formula,” said Frank. “A youthful image is important.”
Frank’s face appeared on the screen before they could go on. He was standing with the Steel Bridge in the background holding a microphone in his hand as if he were afraid that it would bite him. “Republicans will need to carry Oregon to take the White House,” he said, his eyes shifting as if he were looking for an assassin lurking with a rifle. “None of the major candidates comes from Oregon and none has addressed the issues that are important to the people of our state.”
“And those issues are?” the young, attractive woman reporter prompted.
“Uh, Nike and Intel?” said candidate Frank, his voice rising. His image vanished.
The anchorman’s face reappeared. “Well, Trish, how does Mister Walsh feel his chances are of winning the nomination?"
“He says he knows that it is a long shot, but he pointed out that Jimmy Carter’s recognition factor was under one percent at the start of the year he was elected.”
The news program turned to weather and discussed the prospect of snow showers. Frank grabbed the remote and turned off the television. “That’s outrageous,” he stormed. “They didn’t cover my five point plan to save the Rogue River at all. No mention of unemployment. Nothing on payroll tax reform.”
“What do you expect?” said Jillian. “You’re not a serious politician to them. You’re a joke.”
“So you’re against me too? My own wife.”
“Frank, you’ve got to face facts. Nobody knows who you are.”
“Nobody knew who Jimmy Carter was.”
“You didn’t vote for Jimmy Carter. You had a Ford/Dole sticker on the Oldsmobile.”
“The country needs me, Jillian. I can’t turn my back on that.” He jumped up and walked out of the room.
Did he think he was going to save the nation and from what? Jillian had never paid much attention to politics, but this was scary. In a sudden, irrational moment she thought he might get shot. They shot the Kennedys and George Wallace and Martin Luther King. Those two women tried to kill Gerald Ford too. Reagan had been wounded. What if some crazy person killed Frank? They’d been married thirty-seven years. She couldn’t go on without him.
Tears blurred her vision as she looked around the living room. Yesterday she had been thinking about getting new furniture, but now everything was dear to her. The stains on the couch where the dog slept when they were out of the house, the Heriz rug that her aunt gave them when she moved to the nursing home, Frank’s Lazy Boy recliner which she always hated because it took up too much room - all threatened by this craziness. What was wrong with their life? Why would he want to abandon all this?
Friday afternoon, Ellen called. Little Jordy had been suspended from his elementary school for three days for fighting with two boys who said his grandfather was crazy. “When I picked him up, he had a bruise under his right eye and a bloody nose,” Ellen said. “This has got to stop. It isn’t fair to Little Jordy.”
Jillian wanted to remind Ellen of her “where’s the harm” of the other day, but decided that she better not bring it up. “Did they suspend the other boys too?” she asked.
“Yes, but that’s not the point. I don’t want my son labeled as a misfit.”
“Of course, of course.” Jillian considered changing her plan and inviting Ellen to the intervention on Saturday, but decided it wouldn’t be a good idea. She was just too unreliable. It was hard to understand what Jordy saw in Ellen.
Saturday morning Jillian stopped at the top of the stairs. Frank was standing in front of the mirror beside the front door, gesturing with his right hand as he stared at himself. “My fellow Americans,” he said. He frowned, and then repeated. “My fellow Americans,“ in a slightly more decisive tone. He cleared his throat. “My fellow Americans, I stand before you today.”
What could she do? She didn’t dare go downstairs and interrupt him without making some reference to what he was up to. But what could she say? She shrank back a step. He was trying again, this time punctuating the fellow with a short jerk of his right hand. She felt like a prisoner. How many times was he going to practice before he let her cook breakfast?
She casually mentioned to Frank over their poached eggs that Jordy would be stopping by in the late morning. He looked so pleased she felt as if she was baiting a trap for some innocent animal that had, through no intention of its own, become a pest in the backyard. Some tiny part of her soul wanted to relent, to say that if Frank wanted to make a fool of himself, she would stand with him. Maybe people would understand.
The smirking face of the anchorman flashed in her memory. People wouldn’t understand. Her friends might act sympathetic, but she knew that in their hearts they would be congratulating themselves for not marrying someone as crazy as Frank. It would be awful. Not just for her, but for the kids. Maybe if she told Frank about Little Jordy being thrown out of school, he would understand.
“Little Jordy got suspended from school yesterday for fighting,” she said, blurting out the words in a rush. Frank was intent on the front page of the Oregonian.
“Did he win?”
“Frank, he was fighting because his friends said you were crazy.”
“I’m glad he stood up for himself.”
“Frank, the reason Jordy is coming over is to try to talk you out of this stupid idea of running for president. Susan is coming too. We can’t let you do this. It will cost a fortune, and it’s just, well it’s crazy.”
She was afraid that Frank would flare up at her, begin shouting, or rage around the kitchen like a madman. Instead he just stared at her steadily, though his lower lip was pinched against his teeth. He took a deep breath. “It will take some getting used to, I can see that.”
“Will you at least talk to them? Will you listen?”
“Sure. When have I ever not talked with them?” Frank walked out of the room, leaving Jillian to rinse the dishes and stack them in the dishwasher. A juice glass shattered on the floor, and when she went to sweep it up, her hands were trembling. It would be three hours until the kids arrived. What would she do until then?
Jordy and Susan came through the front door as if they were entering the house of a recently bereaved widow. Jordy hung up his overcoat. He’d picked up the mail from the box on the porch and held it out to her.
“There’s a letter here from the Secretary of State’s office in New Hampshire,” he said. “Should I give it to him?”
Jillian shrugged. All at once she felt devoid of any feeling, as if most of the blood had been drained from her body and she was a walking zombie. She tottered into the living room and plopped down onto the couch. “I guess so.”
“What are we going to say?” whispered Susan.
“Frank, the kids are here,” Jillian called, trying to make her voice sound the way it did on any other day.
“I’ll be right in.”
When he entered the room, Jordy held out the envelope from New Hampshire. They watched him rip it open, glare at the letter, then crumple it, and throw it into the corner. “Well, I guess that’s that,” he said.
“What is it?” Jordy asked.
“I’m not on the ballot. There’s something about having to supply the names of a dozen delegates pledged to me. They say it was on the back of the form. Who prints things off a computer two sided?”
He sat down on the couch beside Jillian and she felt herself shrink away from him. He put his face in his hands and suddenly, frighteningly, he was crying. Great gasps of pain punctuated his grief. She forced herself to put an arm around his shoulders. He didn’t respond. His chest continued to heave. Nobody knew what to say.
“I just wanted to do something important,” he said after a while. “I just felt so useless hanging around all day.”
“You do things that are important,” said Jordy. “You volunteer at the church. You raised your children, you love your grandchildren.”
Frank didn’t bother to respond. He just shook his head.
“You could run as a write in candidate,” said Susan.
“Write in candidates never have a chance,” said Frank.
“That’s true,” said Jordy, perhaps a little too hastily.
“I’m sorry about the thousand dollars,” Frank said.
“They’ll have to refund the money,” said Jordy, without conviction.
Jillian could see Frank was embarrassed by the tears that continued to streak his cheeks. He squeezed his eyes to hold them back with no success. At last, he rose and staggered from the room. No one tried to follow him. She hadn’t seen him cry since the news arrived that his mother had died, which was how many? Fifteen years ago?
“I feel so guilty,” said Susan.
Jillian wondered whether she should feel guilty too, but she didn’t. All she could be was relieved. Frank would be all right. He always was if you gave him enough time.
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