A Wretched, Smelly Time: The Morning After




THE MORNING AFTER the election, I went out for a walk and saw a piece of shit in a doorway. The stores weren’t open yet; it was early, and there weren’t many people out on the street. The piece of shit was very big. It was just outside the door of an ice cream store, mostly on the ground but also smeared onto the lower glass panel of the door itself.

Was this the excrement of a very large dog, or a person? Had it been deposited and left there accidentally or deliberately? If it was dog shit, why hadn’t the owner cleaned it up? Had there been an owner, or had the dog been wandering alone? If it was human shit, had the person been drunk, stoned, crazy, homeless, helpless in some way? Had someone brought the shit in a bag and placed it there? If so, why?

Putting aside the possibility of helplessness — canine or human — it was hard not to imagine that the piece of shit wasn’t an angry gesture of some kind. It was also difficult not to assume that it had to do with the election. Maybe it was put there before midnight by someone furious at the prospect of Hillary Clinton winning. Or maybe someone had put it there at three in the morning after hearing that Trump had won. Maybe the location of the shit was random; or maybe the owner of the ice cream store, or an employee, or a customer, had said something about the election the day before that had riled the eventual shitter into returning after dark to defecate, or to leave a piece of dog shit, on that particular threshold.

I realized, looking at that piece of shit, that I didn’t know what I was looking at. None of us knew, the morning after the election, what we were looking at. Virtually all the polls, all the predictors, all the pundits and prognosticators, had been pointing one way, and the result had gone another way, with seeming suddenness, as though everything had changed overnight. It was white women, it was angry white men, it was low turnout in certain areas, it was Comey, it was the emails, it was the way the alt-right media spun the story of the emails, it was the way the mainstream media wouldn’t shut up about the way the alt-right media was spinning the story of the emails, it was misogyny, it was the Electoral College, it was rhetoric and registration policies designed to keep certain voters away from the polls. It was that the United States is a divided country, much more divided than we thought. It was that a lot of people had bought what Trump was selling — not just the ones who were waving signs and screaming “Lock her up” at rallies, but also the millions who must have been at home watching TV, and going to places on the internet that I have never been and have never wanted to go to, listening to Giuliani and the other “surrogates” (that word from the fertility laboratory) or listening to Trump himself and thinking either “Yes” or at least not “No.” Millions of people must have been thinking, “Yes build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it.” Or they were thinking, “Oh he’ll never build a wall but I get what he means, I get why he’s saying that”; while people like me were sitting home rolling our eyes or picking up the phone to talk to other like-minded people about what a racist this guy is and nobody was really taking this seriously, were they? (And now, in the election’s aftermath, it turns out that no, nobody really was taking him seriously about the wall — it was a metaphor; and I am irrationally outraged again. I want to scream, “You said you were going to build a wall — now build a fucking wall.” It’s not that I want him to build a wall; it’s that I want him to have to grapple with the economic and political reality — the presidential reality — of having promised such disgusting and outlandish things. Let’s see you build that wall now. Let’s see you make Mexico pay for it.)

At the end of September I had lunch with my mother’s friend Nancy. We’ve kept in touch for the past eight years since my mother died, even though the only thing we have in common is that we both miss her. The lunchtime conversation went along in the usual halting-but-full-of-goodwill way until the subject of the election came up, and Nancy said that Obama was a dictator and he thought he could just do whatever he wanted without consulting Congress, and Hillary was a criminal and the Clinton Foundation was corrupt and she was peddling influence to foreigners, and Trump was a brilliant businessman who had looked out for himself all those years because it was his job to look out for himself but if he were president he would look out for the United States because it would be his job to look out for the United States … And I tried to answer her, bringing up facts to challenge her “facts,” and she was sure that her “facts” were facts and sure that my facts were “facts,” and we yelled at each other. The restaurant was big, white, surreally empty; we were the only people in the room, except for the waiter, who stood very far away from us with his hands clasped behind his back, staring out the window.

We tried to change the subject, and said, “We obviously don’t agree so let’s not spend our lunch talking about this,” and then there’d be a silence, and then she’d say something like, “Tell me one good thing Obama has done for this country,” and I would tell her something good that Obama had done and she would say either that it wasn’t good or that he hadn’t done it, and then we would yell at each other some more and then there would be a silence and finally she said she was going to call her friend to come and pick her up early, and I said no, no, Nancy, don’t do that, and then there was another silence and then the whole thing started up again.

Afterward I felt furious at her, and guilty; she is in her 80s and had gone to a lot of trouble to come and see me. I also, briefly, felt guilty toward my mother — instead of honoring her important old friendship, I’d yelled at her friend — and then I thought: Well, but if my mother had been at the lunch, she would have said, “Nancy, what the hell is the matter with you? You’ve swallowed a crock of shit.”

I was sure that day, sitting across the table from Nancy, that I was looking at someone who was eerily out of touch with what Americans wanted and how they felt — what the United States really was, as a country. She felt the same way, looking across at me. Neither of us was entirely right or entirely wrong — Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and Donald Trump got the electoral votes — but overall I was wronger than she was. On the morning of Election Day, I was sure that Hillary would win, as was every journalist whom I trusted. When I walked down the street early on the following morning, things were weirdly silent, before the beginning of the big rush to explain and reevaluate and analyze why and exactly how we all got it so wrong.

But the truth is, we don’t know. If all the predictions were so far off, why should we think the post-election analysis, with all its instant pseudo-certainty, is any smarter or more accurate? What do we know now that we didn’t know before, except that the story wasn’t what we thought it was and that it didn’t go where we thought it was going to go? I am not sure of anything right now, except that on the morning after the election there was a big piece of shit in a doorway and I didn’t know what it meant or how it got there, and that someone was going to have a wretched, smelly time trying to clean it up.

¤

Joan Wickersham’s most recent book of fiction is The News from Spain. Her memoir, The Suicide Index, was a National Book Award finalist.

 

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