Claire forgave herself. It was only two miles to the BART station, the rain was pouring down, Antioch had no local bus service and taking a cab would mean a vehicle making not one but two round trips. Besides, a cab would be enormously expensive and undependable for the trip home at the time of night she was likely to return. So she got into her twenty-four-year old car and drove to the train. She briefly considered driving the entire twenty miles to Oakland. The Antioch station was notorious for crime, even during daylight. But on balance, she figured the risk to her personal safety did not outweigh the certainty of adding twenty pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
The uniformed agent at the BART fare gate, a hydrant of a woman whose sausage-like arms distended her sleeves beneath the shield-shaped blue plackets they bore, scrutinized the interior of Claire’s purse as it passed through the scanner. Claire wondered how the security people kept up such intense vigilance throughout an entire day. She knew that if she were to look into those little screens for unrelieved hours her mind would retreat from her unblinking eyes as it did late at night when she found herself at the end of a written passage unable to recall its gist, let alone its details. She admired the dedication. How terrible it would be for the agent who let a bomb get by. The guilt would be unbearable.
She felt the press of people behind her waiting to pass into the paid area of the station. The red plastic leaves of the turnstile at last retracted into their stainless steel housings and she retrieved her handbag at the end of the conveyor belt.
After a half-hour train ride, she arrived at Oakland City Center. She climbed the concrete stairs and emerged onto the sidewalk as she pulled the hood of her jacket tightly down onto her head against the raindrops. At the end of the block, she entered the storefront whose plate glass windows displayed huge posters that read “Valiente for Senate. Share the Future.”
The thrum and bustle of the room wrapped itself around her as soon as she pushed the door open. She doffed her hood and individual sounds sorted themselves into her ears: phone bleats; voices, some energized, some worn to a drone by the continual repetition of the message; audio from a television; and the insistent clack of computer keys as volunteers tried to connect to barricaded hearts and minds. She crossed the floor and hung the shoulders of her wet coat on the back of an unused chair.
“Hey, there she is.”
Claire smiled and returned the greetings, waggling the fingers of the one hand she raised. She shuffled the papers and pens on the dust-fringed expanse of her workstation and rearranged her silver-shot hair around her headset while her body warmed the rickety office chair. What a relief it was to be out of the house with like-minded, committed people. Volunteer duty and a little human contact would roust the malcontented thoughts that squatted in her head and scrawled disturbing images on the inside of her skull. She already felt freer, more open.
After all these months, she could still not lose the sense that she had been fired from the school district for a divine reason, even though she knew that was the sort of fatalistic thinking that powered the Homelanders, who saw everything as preordained by God, and who tortured the details of any significant world event to fit the psychotic prophecies of the Book of Revelations. What was the collapse of the ice cap if not a sign of the Tribulations? What was the collapse of the Gulf Stream, the collapse of agriculture, the collapse of the world economy, the surge of Islamic terrorism, and the raging wars in Israel and Saudi Arabia, if not eschatological fulfillment? She resisted the impulse to link these events to an interventionist God, yet she could not shake the feeling that her dismissal had been meant to happen to allow her to reconnect with Hector and join his campaign full-time.
Her crime had been to refuse to lead her students in morning prayers. The irony was not lost on her. Hector was an openly Christian candidate—one could not be elected otherwise—and she herself felt the urge to bring some of the children to God, especially those who had no religion at all. She recalled one boy in particular named Stephen, very quiet, very bright, very inward, not unlike her own son, who precociously (and smugly and obnoxiously) claimed his atheism. She could see the pecking-order behavior evolve around him and feed on itself. The other kids, in the cruel and sneaky manner of children in packs, excluded him from games, resisted being paired with him for assignments, and called him names they thought she could not overhear. Her heart went out to the boy; he was just a child, after all, whose home life had closed his thinking. She wanted to persuade him of the possibility of a spiritual life beyond the seen. She recognized that the essence of faith was belief in the absence of evidence, and so forcing one’s faith on another through argumentation could never result in sincere belief. Her class also had kids who were Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist, and she respected those traditions. Faith, paradoxically, was as personal as it was collective, and to coerce it was deeply wrong. But the requirement for teacher-led prayer had been instituted by majority vote in the last state referendum, and the proponents trumpeted loudly the primacy of majority rule in a democracy, and America was a democracy, wasn’t it?
Though her assignment was to manage the phone bank, she spent most of her time making calls herself or walking slowly behind the seated volunteers to see if they needed anything—water, new batteries for a headset or, most importantly, encouragement. She found it wasn’t that different from teaching fifth grade. In Claire’s eyes ten-year-olds, with their blossoming minds, whole hearts, clear eyes, unblemished expectations, and sweet, open faces, were what God had in mind when he created humans. They just needed a bit of guidance and love to redirect their impulse to attack the different and the weak. In her experience, all but the severely abused gave of themselves instinctively and wanted nothing more than to be loved. Even their meanest behavior was at heart a way to protect themselves from having love snatched away. That was another reason Claire could not enforce public prayer; it created a clear risk for the nonparticipating kids to lose love, and a mandate for the in-kids to take it away. Then they experienced the betrayal of puberty with its unbidden, transfigurative hormones that made them mistrust everything they had ever understood about themselves. If their own bodies could do such a thing, what other treachery did the world hold? Working on Hector’s campaign brought all the volunteers she supervised back to that pure willingness to give themselves over to some purpose outside themselves, to embrace unashamedly the innocence of collective hope despite overwhelming evidence that it was not rational, that it was, in fact, dangerous.
The script for the phone calls for the next couple of days was simple. Hector’s major pre-election speech was scheduled for Sunday night at a rally at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. The message was go, and if you can’t go, check out the video on the internet. The government-approved media coverage, to the extent there was any, was sure to be distorted. Tell your friends it’s a message of hope and peace. Discount what the Homelanders might say; remember that Jesus’ message of hope and peace threatened the Roman government, too. Then on Tuesday, vote.
Shortly after noon, Claire ate her lunch by the phone. The campaign could afford to bring in only a few trays of thin sandwiches. Rick and Holly, a grey-maned couple in well-worn clothing that would have been considered confrontationally fashionless even when fashion was something one could contemplate without feeling selfish and antisocial, carried the trays around to ensure that the food got to everybody.
Later, as Claire hunkered down under her headset, wishing once again that she could speak Spanish (so many of the people she contacted were Spanish-speaking, as was Hector, although he had no accent and the richest, most resonant English-speaking voice she had ever heard), she sensed a modulation in the frequency of the room’s ambient buzz. She looked up. Hector had come in.
People from the four corners of the room gravitated toward him like satellites rolling along a distortion in the fabric of space-time. Everyone wanted to be in his orbit. As he moved up the aisle on Claire’s right and toward the offices behind her, he accreted an animated, clipboard-wielding, paper-waving contingent that talked at him simultaneously and thrust documents toward his lapels. He raised the palms of his hands while he engaged each individual with a smile and a few words. Claire rose from her chair but didn’t allow herself to be pulled into the competition for his attention, though she understood the impulse. She had known Hector since his days on the Antioch school board where he had quickly risen to president. Loquacious, relaxed, encyclopedic, and committed, he cast his soothing baritone upon whatever issue had broken from the pack of community concern and guided it toward manageability. He presented the same reassuring aspect ten years later. Tall, with black hair that swept from a sharp widows peak, dark eyes that turned down softly at the corners so they looked alternately sad and amused, dense shoulders, a deep chest, and thick, nimble hands, he conveyed instant warmth to anyone in his presence, an almost conspiratorial fellowship, as if he and each person listening were the only ones who really understood the matter at hand. Claire knew it was charm, and she distrusted it even as she soaked in its warmth. Back in Hector’s days on the board, she had volunteered for his first and unsuccessful run for state assembly and for his second, which he won. During both campaigns, he had talked to her even though she was just an envelope stuffer and, to her mild astonishment, he had listened, once or twice altering his point of view or recasting his speeches to incorporate her suggestions. Even if he didn’t agree, he had well-considered reasons that he explained in calm detail, always with an almost shy smile. It was only later that she would realize, again with mild astonishment, that he had changed her mind.
He stood now in three-quarters profile at the end of her row of tables with his retinue, his right arm raised and gesturing outward a few times to emphasize a point. Then, while getting off a final word and a quick laugh, he clapped his left hand onto the shoulder of the man in front of him and took a step between the tables toward Claire. When he turned fully to face her, it seemed to Claire that the room receded behind him.
“Claire, how are you?”
He offered his hand, smiling. She took it, returning the smile.
“I’m well, Hector. How are you?”
He leaned in.
“Exhausted. And nervous.”
“But I’m feeling good. I think we have a chance, thanks to good people like you.”
In the brief moment before Claire replied, this is what rushed in an unarticulated confluence through her mind:
Hector had become a celebrity.
The genuine person was trapped and obscured inside.
Her heart rate had accelerated.
She was forty-eight, seven years older than Hector.
Hector was married and had three children.
She had no job and was blacklisted in the Antioch school district even as a substitute teacher. Her only income was the few dollars she received from being on Hector’s staff, and the sporadic, paltry checks her parents sent from Boston.
There was nothing more important to her than getting Hector elected to the Senate.
To hope that this one man could change anything imposed an impossible burden on him.
She had no choice but to hold out such a hope.
Claire sought out Hector’s eyes as she spoke.
“Yes, we have a good chance. I think so, too,” she said.
Hector smiled again.
“Listen, I’m getting a few people together at three to go over the key parts of my speech and I’d like you to be there.”
“You want me?”
She instantly regretted her choice of words.
“Of course. You manage the phones, you hear what people say first-hand. I remember those days on the school board. You have a shrewdness. And a good heart.”
“I never thought of myself as shrewd.”
She laughed. He put his hand lightly against her upper arm.
“In the conference room at three,” he said.
Then he was back out in the aisle, reabsorbed into the ad hoc entourage that carried him to the rear of the building. Claire resumed her calls, concentrating on the fading warmth from Hector’s touch until she could no longer feel it at all.
* * *
The people in the conference room were of a decidedly different cast than the solicitous, graying ectomorphs who stowed their backpacks under the tables behind the storefront’s plate glass. They skewed much younger, though they were not all young. They leaned forward, moved quickly, talked over one another, took notes and discarded them, flipped pages, jumped up to whiteboards to draw swooping red arrows into lopsided circles, exclaimed, argued, counterargued, wheeled their chairs back from the deck-like table, and threw their hands up into the air. Hector stood to one side, thumbing through a small sheaf of paper—his speech, Claire presumed—his brow knit, seemingly oblivious to the chaos swelling around him. Claire, who sat a bit apart at the far end, began to wonder how anything was going to get done. Hector, with that peculiar half-smile on his face, stepped to the front and raked his eyes across his staff, and each one fell quiet in turn.
“I don’t believe Claire has a copy of the speech,” he said.
Her hand went to her chest where she could feel the saltatory bumping behind her sternum. A tall young man with close-cropped red hair took three strides down the length of the table and dropped a stapled bundle in front of her. Claire scanned Hector’s face for some indication of meaning behind his singling her out, but his eyes were intent on the text. It was nothing more than a quick observation, a bit of efficient meeting management, but to Claire it carried the weight of something more, and whether it was expectation, responsibility, challenge, or intimacy, she couldn’t tell.
Don’t fall for him, she thought.
Somebody spoke of having to decide who they were running against—the earnest matron from their own party who opposed Hector in the primary, or the incumbent, a Homelander from the San Joaquin Valley who had been carried into Congress on the Dominionist tide. That would color the character of the speech. Hector raised his hand.
“Why do political campaigns have slogans?” he asked. Everyone understood it was a rhetorical question and remained quiet. Hector continued. “They are not so much for the votes we might want to pull from other candidates. Slogans convince no one. No, they are to remind ourselves of what we are about.”
He wrote on the whiteboard, Share the Future.
“That is the lens through which we should view this speech, whatever opposition we might imagine.”
Everyone returned to the text, including Claire. Certain passages caught her eye, words about true Christian values, sacrifice, and forgiving those who in the past didn’t realize that their prosperity was appropriated from the future—a future that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren now inhabited.
Even though Hector was not speaking, she could hear his sonorous voice in the words. The round vowels and resonant pauses floated above the sharp comments that now sprang up around the room and parsed out the most minute, toe-curling, muscle-clenching implications of each word choice. Hector understood what it was to be a Christian, she thought. True Christianity was not in the Old Testament, or the Book of Revelations, with their angry, violent, and vengeful god who killed entire populations for the crime of being descended from sinners three generations back, but in the Gospels, in the Beatitudes, where Christ, the shepherd, the namesake of the faith, called to and comforted the outcast and the powerless and risked his own destruction by turning the other cheek to inspire the conscience of his enemies. The other candidates called on God to strengthen the country to resist its adversaries by force, cunning, subterfuge, or whatever means they might impute to divine sanction. Kidnapping. Torture. Unlimited detention without access to counsel. These are desperate times, they said, times of trial, and God helps those who help themselves, and rewards the righteous.
She read on in Hector’s speech.
Our planet is a globe. That may sound like a simple, even foolish, statement. But it is a profound and inescapable fact. We’re all in one place, the same place. We, together, are inextricably joined by the continuity of the oceans that wash the shore of every continent, that until very recently flowed with the great currents that regulated our climate, that carried the warm water to the poles and the cold water to the equator, that caused the upwellings and downwellings which sustained the chain of life in the sea. There’s an old song: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” The circle of the ocean’s currents has been broken. We have broken with nature. We must set ourselves to the long and difficult task of restoration. To do that, the circle of human kindness and concern—yes, I will say it, the circle of love—must not be broken. We must sacrifice to regain the world that God gave us. It will not happen in our lifetime, or in our children’s lifetime, or in their children’s. But we must have faith that it will happen someday, if we act now, together, to reshape our lives and our way of living.
She believed the words.
You have a shrewdness and a good heart.
Was that just flattery? Why could she not accept the compliment and move on? Why was she turning it over and over in her head like a schoolgirl, hefting it for its true weight, assaying it for its true content? She knew why, she knew herself well enough. She wanted it to have weight and content. She lived alone at the edge of a future that stretched out as flat and empty as the Pacific, once constant and now a source of menace, liable to rise with ice melt and flood her home or bring ships laden with methane through the mouth of the bay into the gut of the state where they would inject their poisonous cargoes into the pipelines beneath the thin skin of soil. Her future needed relief, something to shape it and ground it. No, not something. Someone. Ash and Josh were hurtling into the future on their divergent trajectories beyond her influence. She needed someone to tell her it wasn’t her fault, that she had done the best she could. She needed someone to say, I understand, I could have done no better. God knows that. He forgives you. You have a good heart.
She stole glances at Hector. She found herself focusing on the thick wrist that emerged from the fabric of his jacket and imagined how his arm would feel about her shoulders. She was too old for this. She knew the complications and disappointments of intimacy. She was here to help, that was all, if that were possible. Hector’s compact gestures and fatherly demeanor, their shared past, and his legitimate candidacy made her feel her help was genuine and sufficient, but she couldn’t resist wanting more. Hector gave breath and substance to pure possibility.
Love has many modes, she told herself. Good feelings are rare. She should not deny them when they arose. They were a gift, like grace. Accept the gift. Just don’t abuse it.
“How do we start?” she said.
Heads turned. She fought an incipient outbreak of self-consciousness, grabbed hold of it at the center, and turned it inside out.
“Civil disobedience,” she answered herself. “The LNG plant.”
Chairs wheeled back. Hands went up. A chorus of negation.
“People have been killed there,” a female voice said. The voice belonged to Riley Jankowicz, all legs and orthodontia, not much older than Ashley, a tough-talking, get-it-done sister from whom even a declarative sentence was a personal challenge.
Claire said, “They were suspected terrorists. You’re not a terrorist, are you Hector?”
“Keep going,” he replied.
“Gandhi and Martin Luther King had religious convictions that drove political action. You could use the speech to put everyone on notice: This is our Christian sacrifice. We will do with less gas and electricity. We will do without this plant. For the greater good.”
The half-smile on Hector’s lips blossomed into the real thing.
Claire felt her own smile bloom.
She said, “The people we call on the phones are hungry for leadership. They want to take action, and not be forced to choose between passivity and war. But they’re scared.”
A small, dark woman at the other end of the table said, “It’s true, Hector. They couldn’t touch you. You’re as Christian as they come.”
“It’s bold,” someone else said.
Then a new chorus began, a chorus of assent. Claire could feel the emotional momentum of the room flip over. She rode the surge to the top, and from that vantage saw Hector turn to dictate something to the red-haired man, who typed furiously. Hector had been right, she thought. She did belong here.