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stench is in the air,
-Vincent Price, from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”
Fay’s Psychic boutique is locked. Murphy reels from a wet gale, shielding his phone. His slight mass angled defiantly into the biting torrent, Jones contemplates where they might procure a reliable ark—in Cleveland, at this unholy hour.
St. Clair Avenue is queerly serene, unmarred by the bustle of human industry. It’s 1 PM in post-NAFTA America.
The two journalists had stormed Ohio—heedless of ominous forecasts and 193 enticing miles of sheds & firework billboards—for answers. And they’d get them by phone if necessary. They were on the cusp of an elusive and perplexing story rife with disturbing existential undertones and dire geophysiologic ramifications.
“Is this Fay?” Murphy asks. “I’m from, um, the uh… The New York Post, Ma’am.” And I need to know who’s going to win the Ohio primary…”
Jones is bearded and robed, poised over the prow of a majestic, “recently refurbished” ship. He chortles as a silvery deluge consumes thousands of campaign supporters. The deck beneath his feet teems with rats—Cleveland’s true aristocracy—rescued providentially from the city’s inundated catacombs. Their teacup ears pricked to the din of gurgling deaths overboard, the rats squeal a chorus of approval.
“You like Hillary—and so do the stars,” Murphy repeats, smacking Jones, who is quietly squeaking and gnawing his lower lip. “OK, thanks for your time.”
“The stars have spoken,” Murphy says, perturbed. “Let’s get out of this… place.”
“No. It won’t do,” Jones demurs. “The stars are mindless nuclear reactors with notoriously little political insight. Those fissile conservatives are likely following the latest poll numbers. No, they’re not a reliable source—we have to maintain some sort of journalistic standard here!”
They creep silently north. Folded within the gusts, one can hear the ghosts of outsourced jobs moaning softly, rattling chains and begging for change. Sandwich boards on street corners reassure pedestrians that “it’s OK to say no” to panhandlers, and warn that many beggars are drug-fiends in disguise.
“Damn!” Murphy grumbles. “They’re on to us.”
The two will spend primary day, fittingly, in a state of simulated vagrancy. Shuttling from the temporary shelter of one business to another, heads bowed against the withering inclemency; rationing their meager allowance fecklessly in surrender to their bibulous appetites. Booze only amplified the irreality, anesthetizing them to the cold and bleakness of their surroundings.
Passing a Starbucks—signs of life. Jones scoops a wrapper discarded on the sidewalk by an exiting patron. Glancing back over her shoulder, the litterbug catches Jones’s intervention.
“You’ll make the world a better place!” she spits caustically. Jones blinks at her, nonplussed.
A Michael Jackson "Thriller" anniversary marathon echoes through the empty Metropolitan Café at W. 6th. The décor is purgatory-chic. Murphy pages through a copy of Cleveland's Employment News-a lurid prospectus, garishly colorized and prettified with pharmaceutically upbeat inducements like "No Selling! No Explaining! No Convincing!"
"B'der der der der der derm," Jones hums along to Quincy Jones's classic bass-line. "B'der der der der derm. B'der der der-."
"Here you are, sir," the waiter arrives with his second tonic. "I'll be right back with your food, gentlemen."
"B'der der der der der derm..." Jones resumes humming and absently sips.
Murphy cringes behind the employment broadsheet.
"B'der der der der der derm—'ncha!”
He throws down the paper as Jones breaks quietly into song.
"It's close to midnight, somethin' evil's lurkin' in the dahahark," Jones croaks tunelessly. "Under the moonlight you see a sight that almost stops your hawaheart..."
Murphy closes his eyes and rubs his temples.
"You try to scream... but terror takes the sound before you make it," his partner continues. "You start to freeze... as horror looks you right between the eyes—you're paralyzed…"
"Here you are gen—" The waiter breaks off in a gasp. Murphy looks up.
"Cause this is thrillaaah! Thrillaah niyght!" Jones belts uninhibitedly in a breathy falsetto, revealing a fresh and quickly bloodying gash across the length of his lower lip. “And no one’s gonna save y—”
Murphy quickly seizes Jones's chipped, jagged glass and shakes it accusingly at the mortified waiter.
"I'm terribly sorry, gentleman, I—"
"Sorry like hell!" Murphy breaks in. "Get this man a receptacle—STAT! There's red gold in them thar lips!"
Jones, awakened finally to his lethal neglect by the commotion, lifts a napkin to his mouth.
"Don't be a fool!" Murphy barks, slapping the napkin out of his hand. Jones follows the napkin to the floor, noting the small red stains with terror. "Look, we have what you'd call a 'General Business Opportunity' here," Murphy calmly urges, shoving the want ads across the table.
ZLB Plasma's advertisement is surrounded by dubious offers for piecework and other contingency labor. The pitch is blunt: "Earn $40 Today," underscored by two $20 notes protruding in razor-sharp relief from a denim pocket. Here was genuine blood money. ZLB, with a ghoulish presence in 25 other states, had snapped a tourniquet around this dying metropolis to squeeze from its desperate, etiolated people their very last and most precious resource.
The waiter, panting, slides an empty soup bowl before the wounded reporter. Rivulets forming on his chin, the unflappably punctilious Jones fingers his silverware—unsure into which spoon he is expected to empty his potentially lucrative blood.
"They probably give you cookies, too," Murphy says, snatching the paper. "That looks good on a resume."
The rain turns to hail, stinging their faces. They drive aimlessly uptown and get back on the slick interstate.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Murphy shrieks as a silver Dodge pickup nearly clips his front bumper. The decal covering the rear window depicts a bald eagle soaring in front of wind-swept Old Glory. 100% hick. The truck peels right and decelerates to exit. The reporters drift by, extending the obligatory highway salute.
“This isn’t good,” Jones murmurs as the heavily flannelled local squeals rubber across the exit divide back into traffic.
“No,” Murphy affirms, spying the gaining madman in the rear-view. “No it’s not.”
“Give it some gas,” orders Jones, swiveling in his seat. “He’s right on our ass. I can’t get the plate number—someone should know who killed us.”
The car tops off at 90, and he’s right back on them. “You get it?” Before Jones can answer, Murphy takes his foot off the pedal. The Dodge falls back and lurches forward at ramming speed.
“You don’t have the balls, son!” Murphy screams, slowing his roll to 50, 40, 30…
“Oh, Christ,” Jones manages as the truck swerves left, speeding beside them. “Does he have a gun?”
The hick shoots a steely glance. The two men smile politely, waiting for a bullet to smash the driver’s side window and rip through their brains.
“I’m hit!” Jones squeals. Murphy strokes the intact window and inspects his own body. Nothing.
“What the hell are you talking—” Murphy halts. Jones’s blood-filled doggy bag, he sees now, has leaked all over him. “Great, now how are we supposed to afford a hotel room?”
The hick speeds away.
The phone rings at Jake’s Lounge in downtown Cleveland’s Key Center Marriott hotel. “Uh, how’s the election going, Bob?” the tender asks his elder counterpart. “Too early to tell,” he parrots into the receiver.
Murphy is draining a Guinness; Jones sips bourbon. To their right, a TV tuned to Fox is running a story about the Clinton campaign darkening Obama’s face in an ad. To their left, Howard Dean is yapping about something on CNN. A third television, behind them, replays NFL quarterback Brett Favre’s seemingly interminable retirement press conference. This isn’t a bar—it’s Best Buy with a liquor license. A fourth screen, ahead of them, flashes a commercial for a new video game, “Army of Two,” whose cooperative-play characters are mercenaries for hire by private security firms—one of which is called “Black Mountain Industries.”
A well-dressed group of businessmen order another round of “Heinie lights” and posture themselves as the dominant pack.
The bartender, Bob, is a smallish fellow with a sunken, John Waters face and a grizzled mustache.
“Did you vote?” Jones asks him.
“Yeah,” he says solemnly, fixing his convex eyes and nodding with slow emphasis. “This is an important one.”
Jones drops his gaze into his glass and puzzles wordlessly over this distasteful truism, swishing it around with the antiseptic sting of bourbon. This is an important election? It’s a common enough sentiment these days. But it’s worth noting that implicit in this newfound awareness is the damning corollary torpor that has so devastated the nation. Ohioans, for their part, have suffered not only disproportionate unemployment, but also a high number of military casualties in recent years.
“What do you mean, exactly? Is it because of the economy? The war?”
“All of it,” Bob says, his voice quickening with Jones’s coaxing. “People are hurting.”
“How long has it been like this?” Jones asks.
“About eight years—since 2000,” he replies tightly, as if Jones were now frisking his inseam. Bob is either cagily signaling liberal sympathies, or squirming to avoid self-incrimination for his baneful conservatism. His lipless glare indicates further probing is useless.
Eight years. How many arms had ZLB’s bloodletters pockmarked during George W. Bush’s hemorrhagic tenure? Their glasses dry, Jones and Murphy find themselves distressingly sober. Beyond the window at their backs, against the soft blueness of evening, sleet glows like tracer fire under the streetlamps. Earth’s assault no longer daunts them.
They stride through the lobby. Murphy approaches the front desk. Jones orbits the foyer.
“Can I help you?” the desk clerk asks.
“Yeah, how much for a room for one night?”
“The rate is $200.”
Murphy winces. He leers across the room at Jones, who is sniffing the scentless potted fernery.
“Do you accept plasma?” he asks the clerk, still fixating on his unsuspecting companion. Jones, ever innocent, meets his malicious gaze with a smile.
“Plasma,” Murphy repeats. The desk clerk furrows his brow. “You know, blood!” Concerned guests turn their heads and stare.
“I’m sorry, sir, our policy here at The Marrio—“
“Damn your policy!” Murphy scoffs, turning to collect Jones. “We’ll go to a hotel where they appreciate the spirit of human sacrifice!”
The two journos push through the revolving door.
“What was that all about?” Jones asks, clueless.
“Nothing. Forget it.”
Outside, a valet is discussing the incoming poll numbers with his coworker. Once again, there had been news reports of voting problems in Ohio. These initial rumors, later verified by the networks, came to the valet from his “cousin in Virginia,” who also told him Obama was trailing in Ohio at the moment, but leading in Texas.
“People can’t even vote right!” he declaims, smiling wryly and shaking his head. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist—it’s 2008!”
“You used an optical scan machine?”
“Touch screens?” Jones asks knowingly, jabbing his finger stupidly at an imaginary console.
The valet had a point about the public’s collective ineptitude. But Cuyahoga County, of which Cleveland was a part, had been directed to eliminate the sinisterly inscrutable touch screens at its polling places back in December. This was the first of several conflicting accounts about balloting Murphy and Jones would hear over the next few hours.
Softened by their repeated indulgences and hastening waywardly according to the wind’s caprices, it only takes a block or so for their courage to wane. They take refuge inside the Old Stone Church, a designated polling place. Slumped beside the registration table, a rotund policeman offers a captivating demonstration in strength of materials: He is compressing an undersized chair of unfathomable endurance. He sits placidly, his morbid geometry consuming the seat and inflicting a cruel warp on its four legs.
“How’s the voting been?” Jones inquires.
“Good,” the cop replies flatly. “Pretty steady, actually.”
The cop shakes his head, as if winded by the exchange. It’s a provocative question and his reaction might simply be an effort of self-preserving tranquility. He appears as though the slightest excitement could kill him.
Jones waits defiantly for something explicit.
The cop turns away from him with a labored rotation of his pink, ruminant head. “They said on the radio as soon as the ice breaks up to head out to the lakes,” he reveals to the campaign volunteer behind him. “There’s a lot of walleye around.”
Summarily ostracized, Murphy and Jones head back down the stairs, but pause to talk to a woman huddled in the vestibule, as she waits for her husband to pull the car around. She just cast her ballot, she says. She’s been voting at the church “since the ’04 midterms.”
“I’ve never had a problem here,” she says. “But the ballots always look different.”
Again, Jones asks about touch screens.
“No, it was a paper ballot.”
“Oh. You just fill it out and run it through the machine, right?”
“No, it was just a plain paper ballot. I just handed it in. No machine.”
She was brown—in Ohio. One can only presume her votes were counted.
Perched on a barstool, Jones’s mood is leavening again with his renewed intoxication. By now, the image of Favre, the outgoing Packers QB, is ubiquitous. Jones half-suspects the cartoonish Uber-rube—who once piously decried the ills of “fancy toothpaste” in a Sensodyne promo—of colluding with McCain to distract people from the Democratic contest. But he no longer cares. Exuberant and emboldened, he taps a middle-aged man in a windbreaker convivially on the shoulder.
“What’s the bigger story,” he asks, “the election, or Brett Favre’s retirement?”
The man strokes his mustache pensively, but stares straight ahead.
“Probably the election,” he concedes reluctantly.
The Chop House is buzzing politics and weather.
“It’s Tweedledee versus Tweedledumb,” a man to their left describes the congressional primary between Dennis Kucinich and his rival.
“Last week it was, like, 80 degrees one day, and tornados and cold the next,” boasts the barkeep. Jones is back on his ark. The end is nigh. The end of something.
Two waiters, a dumpy woman and a bald, skeletal man, lean against the bar’s end, discussing their votes.
“The thing was barbaric,” he says, alluding to an optical scan form. “It was just a folding cardboard sheet—and none of the lines matched up…I felt like an idiot.”
Like a pair of slapstick upstarts, Murphy and Jones have graduated to Scotch—the expensive stuff. Their low breeding is shamefully apparent as they order their single malts. “We’ll try the, uh, Lagavelin.”
“You mean Lahg-a-voolin?” the bartender snaps remedially, impatient with their clumsy pretense.
The pair is doubly graceless, recoiling visibly at their accumulated tab. The sun is down. The sky is now disgorging a cannonade of concussive hail. Restaurant valets are dashing precariously back and forth to the lot across the icy street, shielding their heads with their arms.
“They’re crazy, running like that!” the dumpy chick exclaims. “They’re gonna fall!” In her insouciance, she can’t appreciate the necessity of their rash swiftness. If she had her druthers, they’d work at a deliberate pace; shelled by ice until facedown in the snowdrifts, bleeding from their ears.
“Are you drunk enough to drive?” Jones queries Murphy. “If we’re going to make the Clinton rally in Columbus, we should leave now.”
Murphy breaks his ice-scraper chipping away at a windshield glacier, and they fishtail onto St. Clair. Traffic lights are out all over town. Cars slide slowly south down Route 71. Nine miles, three wrecks and an hour later, the two reporters give up on Columbus. Marooned near the airport, they settle for Howard Johnson’s.
Murphy swallows his last Vicodin and packs his paltry amount of marijuana. He’ll need it to endure. They may have escaped the perils of one storm, but the hotel would provide no respite. Election night television coverage would drench them in a filth far more sinister than nature’s cold indifference.
9:30pm: Huckabee concedes, quotes bible repeatedly, affirms America’s enemies are many and dangerous, the challenges great and that American theocracy is imminent. Or something.
On MSNBC, David Gregory’s verbal treacheries continue unchecked. He uses “misnomer” as a synonym for “misconception” and distorts “imprimatur” into “im-PRIMIT-er.” Jones takes cover beneath a flimsy blanket.
9:45pm: Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell spouts nonsense about Clinton having a better shot against McCain in the general because she’s faired well in the big contests and swing states. Chris Matthews threatens Pennsylvania with “seven weeks of thunder!”
11:00pm: This is the end. Rhode Island, Texas and now, Ohio, are being flattened under 5 feet 6 inches of snow-white Hillary.
3:00am: A phone is ringing in the White House. Something is happening in the world. And the Clinton campaign has successfully shifted the campaign focus to national security experience and fear.
3:01am: Senator John McCain weeps tears of joy, sends box of monogrammed chocolates to one “Mark Penn.” The card reads: “I love you.”
5:00am: Murphy excretes more microorganisms than there are people on earth, casually flushes toilet.
Approximately 2050 AD: Billions die as temperatures and sea levels rise, and violent weather increases. Large swaths of Europe, Asia and the Americas resemble the Sahara. It’s your basic planetary shit storm. It happens all the time. Mother Nature’s one regular bitch.
Shafts of light penetrate breaches between the skimpy drapes, stirring the reporters to grudging wakefulness.
“We could head back into Cleveland, get some more quotes and—”
“No!” Murphy wails, thrashing about in his bed sheets, his eyes dilated with fear—PTSD from the previous night’s drive.
“We’ll just get breakfast next door,” Jones says evenly. They rise and prepare to trudge across the unstained tundra.
“Hmm…says here that Bob Evans decided to marry his wife when he first tasted her ‘fluffy stacks’,” Murphy ventures, perusing the menu. “You think that’s a euphemism?”
The front of the restaurant is staffed entirely by white women. Men and the darker races occupy the kitchen. Micki, their waitress, is an aging but robust amazon with a Thatcherite coiffure and clenched-teeth reticence. She thunders sternly from booth to booth on her powerful haunches as though management has fitted her puckered thigh with a cilice.
“What did you think of the primary?” Jones asks Micki, as she serves juice and coffee.
“What can I say?” she shrugs. “I’m happy. I voted for Hillary.”
She starts back toward the kitchen and Jones, believing she’s finished, raises a glass of OJ to his lips. Micki pauses halfway to the galley and turns.
“She’s the lesser of two evils, right?” she continues. Jones nods politely and continues sipping. Micki steps closer and, looming with growing menace over the booth, snarls: “Because, to be honest, Barack scares the shit out of me!”
Murphy and Jones swap glances. Jones, normally a gourmet of profanity, is astonished at this unseemliness. Who curses at breakfast?
After eating, Jones pulls Micki aside to inquire what precisely “scares” her about the Illinois senator. He already has a pretty good idea what she’s going to say. Just days earlier, “60 Minutes” had broadcast an interview with a cross-section of Ohio voters. Kenny—a drawling, gelatinous and imminently jobless peon from Chillicothe—expressed tentative support for Barack without elaborating. But he fretted over a rumor that Obama is covertly a Muslim who “doesn’t even know the national anthem,” and “wouldn’t use the holy bible” as his spiritual guide in office. Kenny’s jowls quaked and his eyes welled with tears as he pondered his grim future: no prospects for reemployment, no healthcare and a wife suffering from multiple sclerosis. He looked like a man who could no longer afford the luxury of his religious fantasies, or the dubious innuendos reinforcing them.
Sure enough, Micki is privy to the same scurrilities. Curiously, she claims Snopes.com had confirmed the Islam rumor and several others. Snopes had indeed listed these rumors on its Obama page—and categorically debunked them.
“He was a Muslim, but he won’t admit it,” Micki says. “They have whole list on there.”
She’s on a roll. Jones doesn’t wish to interrupt.
“If he’d just come out and said, ‘I was [a Muslim], but now I’m not,’ that would have been okay. But, he didn’t. He said, ‘I’m not and I’ve never been.’ Well, that’s a lie…I know [he’d be] the first black president. That’s fine: I don’t care what color they are. But with him being a Muslim, and everything else—it’s just too much.”
Jones steps outside into the winter blankness. He throws back his head and laughs. Over the past few months, Obama has subjected America to his zombie-like gyrations on “The Ellen Degeneres Show.” He has solemnly affirmed his Christian faith—from which it may be inferred that his sexual activity is exclusively and dully procreative (though he’s already begun disavowing his pastor’s less expedient preaching). And he’s sloughed off the impoverished subjects of Israeli apartheid in Gaza, intoning the obligatory and superfluous nonsense about the colonialists’ “right to exist.” No radical Islamic fifth columnist could likely endure these degradations; nor, for that matter, share a stage with Degeneres without detonating a suicide bomb. Besides, these odious exertions haven’t placated the nation’s staunchly bigoted constituencies. Obama has been wasting his time—and ours.
He has exuded a cautious and amorphous persona, encouraging voters to invest him with their discrepant aspirations. Consequently, the exultation of his supporters—from congressmen to pop stars—is a largely incoherent excitement. His lilting enchantments about “hope” substitute for genuine political courage, belittling the urgency for resolute leadership. Aggrandized by twelve straight primary and caucus victories, he arrived in Ohio a ponderously cultish figure. There, Obama bestrode the rubble of NAFTA like a dickless Colossus: moderating his attack on free trade, eschewing populist rhetoric in a sop to his corporate underwriters.
A piece in the March 5 Cleveland Plain Dealer cited AP exit polls indicating 20% of Ohio’s voters had considered race an important factor in their decisions. “In no other primary in this campaign have such a high percentage of voters cited race as a critical factor,” the article stated. Analysts chalked this up not only to hardcore racists, but also to Republican men opting to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic contest, viewing her as the weaker general election opponent. Obama lost Ohio 54% to 44%. His defeat, they argued, was mostly about his inability to counter the Clinton juggernaut. Ohioans, according to pollsters, “wondered who Obama was.”
The cretinous and masochistic masses in Ohio, then, voted for a reprise of the Clinton years. Nostalgic for the economic vampirism of Bill Clinton, workers and unions turned their cheeks on his NAFTA betrayal and offered up their throats to Hillary for a matching set of fang marks. As CounterPunch noted, Obama failed to make the “full case” on what the Clintons’ policies have done to working people. He fell back on narcotizing incantations and Ohio’s walking dead went for the candidate with ice in her veins.
The chilling events of election night mark the last meaningful contest of the 2008 Democratic primary. It’s now a mathematical impossibility for either candidate to secure the nomination without the backing of the “super” delegates. This was the winter of our disenfranchisement. And other clichés.
By 2040, some scientists estimate that 80% of earth’s species will be gone. There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere. Erratic and extreme weather will kill billions of people. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. There are no arks that large.
During these reporters’ stint in Cleveland, one driver was killed and four more succumbed while shoveling snow. It’s a start.
Elitist maggots colonize democracy’s bloated corpse. The politics of prejudice and fear precipitate the end of reason. The dusk of human civilization is at hand. A bold, new breed of citizen will evolve in this hopeless environment. Ones with new abilities; ones sufficiently ignorant to maintain the brutal folly of life.
Paying the tab, Murphy glimpses this grim future: “I don’t know enough to vote,” admits the plump, blonde cashier. “I don’t want to put someone in office just because I like their name or face.”
“That doesn’t stop anyone else.”
“Um, are you sure?” she blushes.
“More now than ever.”
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