A Good Guy
Dan Mullen woke from a fitful night’s sleep just before seven. He felt more like fifty than twenty-five on this particular November morning. At the beginning of some very long workdays, his father used to say to his mother, “There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep, and that was nothing like a good night’s sleep.” Dan remembered his father’s words from that simpler time because that’s how Dan felt this morning.
The alarm that woke him for his classes at the community college wouldn’t go off for half an hour, but falling back to sleep wasn’t an option. His mind just wouldn’t stop. He fumbled in the dark for the TV remote on the floor alongside his uncomfortable fold-out bed.
The night before, he got home from his late shift at McDonald’s around eleven. He vaguely remembered seeing the election news tick by along the bottom of the TV screen as he drifted in and out of sleep while halfway watching a west coast basketball game featuring teams he didn’t care about.
Maybe it was a bad dream, he thought as the television came to life and he tuned it to the news. The CNN commentator spoke in mid-sentence: “… Electoral College victory but a substantial loss in the popular vote.”
Dan saw the announcement again this morning, this time in large print across the screen: “Donald Trump elected 45th President of the United States” under the newscaster’s blank face.
“Goddammit,” he muttered. This was real.
He mashed the power button, silencing the TV as the word “vote” echoed through his studio apartment.
“God. Damn. It,” he said to the blank TV screen.
Dan hadn’t voted the day before. He was in classes at the local community college most of the day before his evening fast food shift, but that wasn’t the real reason he didn’t vote. He just couldn’t bring himself to vote for the jerk or the lady.
He knew that the lady was more qualified, of course. Everyone knew that. But each one made big chunks of the country want to run the other way. And he knew that neither one, Trump or Clinton, would be able to return the country to what it had been when he was a kid—a place that meant something, a place where people pulled together and knew that they were part of one country. Dan feared that the country of his childhood was gone, and he had no idea how to get it back.
So Dan didn’t vote mostly because he just didn’t see the point. And he didn’t think he needed to vote. The idea of Trump winning was crazy. Even if Hillary was as bad as people said, there was no chance she’d lose. He just didn’t think it was possible. But crazy turned out to be possible, and now he had to go out into his crazy country and live with the fact that he hadn’t voted.
Dan started taking classes last fall because he needed to figure out what to do with his life. His parents had been killed in a car accident last February, and Dan’s life had changed in ways he couldn’t have imagined.
From an early age, Dan wanted to work with his dad. The family ran Mullen Landscaping from their home. As far back as he could remember, Dan had loved coming down to breakfast and seeing his mother and father serving breakfast to a table full of employees before sending them to various jobs around town. Some specialized in residential mowing with push mowers and weed whackers, some in trimming the shrubs around the schools or the industrial park.
As soon as he was big enough to carry a gallon-sized jug of water, Dan started going along with his father on weekend runs to visit his various crews around town. His father entrusted him with the task of taking the jug to the men as they did their manly work. They always took a deep swig like pirates with a whiskey jug and thanked Dan even though he knew early on that they had their own water bottles and often secret bottles of something else.
Dan’s favorites were the old pros who operated chainsaws with the skills of a major league pitcher nipping the corner of home plate with an arching curveball. In the winter, they would plow driveways without digging the blades into snow-covered lawns or knocking over mailboxes. Dan would perch on the plow truck’s big bench seat, just barely able to see over the dash and out the windshield. He shivered as these indestructible men spoke with the windows wide open for better visibility, their breath fogging out before their wrinkled faces as they described the best ways to move the mountains of snow to keep the cars moving like blood through veins. To young Dan, they seemed to know everything about everything. He wanted to grow up just like them.
As a teenager, Dan wondered if his father knew some of the men drank on the job. If he could see it, then his father must have seen it as well. None of them were outright drunk, and none ever operated dangerous machinery while impaired, as far as Dan could tell. He’d sometimes see his father take a man aside from a mower and hand him a rake, sending another man to finish the lawn in straighter rows. The men always accepted the rake without complaint, wiping sweat from their forehead with an oily glove that left a streak above their heavy eyes.
After high school, Dan started working full-time for the business. His father taught Dan how to use every piece of equipment, starting from the easiest hand tool and moving to the machinery. At age eighteen, Dan was taking down trees with the old-timers, accounting for lean, branch weight, and wind to drop the dead trees within three feet of whatever direction kept the trees from crashing into buildings or swing sets or cars.
Last spring, Dan’s mother had told him she and his father would train him to keep the business’s books.
“You have to know the whole business,” his mother had said.
“It’s more than just cutting trees and driving snowplows,” his father echoed.
Dan resisted in the best passive-aggressive way that he could, always claiming that he had to fix a mower engine or sharpen the saws. He loved everything about the equipment and tools of the landscaping business: their heft in his hands; their smell of oil, cut grass, and sawdust; their simplicity of motion and purpose. Dan just wasn’t that interested in accounting. Maybe he’d have a wife someday who could help with that part of the business the way his mother helped his father. He’d help her make the big breakfasts for the table full of workers, flipping pancakes and stirring scrambled eggs just as his father had on so many delicious mornings. Keeping the books was a little too close to schoolwork for Dan’s taste. Between sports and landscaping, Dan’s high school years had left little time for study. He had done just enough to get by, leaving the academic accomplishments to his big sister Darlene, despite his parents and teachers urging him to focus.
When Dan looked back on his lack of interest in the computerized ledgers his mother kept for the business, he wished he had taken school more seriously.
Dan’s cell phone emitted the single ping that told him he had a new text. The only person with his phone number who would be awake this early was his grandmother, so he knew the text must be from her. The day he and Darlene had bought 87-year-old Annie Mullen a cell phone and taught her to text had changed all their lives. For the better? Maybe. Texts at 6:32 a.m. were a mixed blessing.
“Granny Annie,” as she was known to everyone in and out of their family, had taken to contemporary communication as if she’d been doing it since the days of rotary phones. They had given her the cell phone for “Christmas in July” last year because they only visited her Florida home in the summer. The humid breeze swirled her gray hair across an expression of delight the first time she hit “send.” When Dan returned home, he could count on at least three texts per day from his grandmother’s retirement village. He figured that she didn’t have much else to do with Grandpa gone.
Dear Danny, this morning’s text began. He couldn’t get her to understand that she didn’t need to address her texts like a Civil War letter delivered by Pony Express. Call me. We need to talk. Love, Granny Annie. Yes, she signed her texts as well.
She’d want to talk about the election. He would have thought that Granny Annie had probably recruited enough senior citizens by herself to push Florida into Clinton’s column the night before, but she must have fallen just short. He just couldn’t face her, not even through the disembodied cell phone. Not yet.
When Dan was nine, he watched George W. Bush’s friendly face smiling through campaign commercials. His voice was soothing, but he was tough and strong, clearing brush with a chainsaw one minute, holding hands with his pretty wife the next. Dan thought then that Bush would be a fine president. How could someone with that smile and the ability to use a chainsaw fail?
Through the years as Dan grew up, he was always relieved to see Bush’s face on television, though Bush didn’t smile as much after 9-11. After a while, Dan came to understand that 9-11 and the depressing wars that followed were, at least in part, Bush’s fault. But that just made Dan feel sorry for him. Bush usually stared out blankly from the TV screen as he spoke, his face pale and lined like a good man overwhelmed by the world around him. Dan felt the same way most days, especially this morning. The word Dan remembered most clearly from President Bush was “evildoer.” Dan didn’t like evildoers.
Dan thought President Obama was a good man too. Dan liked how Obama hugged his wife and laughed with his kids. He liked how he cared and was smart and tried to do the right things. Dan avoided talking politics with the guys at his father’s landscaping company. Some tried to tell him that Obama was an evildoer who was trying to take all their guns. Obama didn’t come for Dan’s dad’s guns or even say anything that made him think he would. He was just trying to keep guns away from crazy guys who wanted to shoot up shopping malls with war guns. Dan had no interest in shopping malls or war guns.
So Dan kept his mouth shut and walked away when his coworkers talked about Obama, especially when they used terms like “libtard,” “commie,” “Muzzie,” “pinko,” and “Socialist.” The new hire, a young guy named Davis who had been a couple of years behind Dan at the same high school, seemed to spur on the old-timers. He amplified each insult with a nod or a laugh or an attaboy. Would the old-timers have talked this way without Davis’s encouragement? Dan wasn’t sure.
Dan didn’t exactly know why, but he knew they were using these words because of the president’s skin color. He hadn’t really noticed that all those men around the breakfast table were white until he listened to them talk about Obama. He had practically worshiped them, but now it was hard to listen to their insults and attacks. Not very many white people Dan knew were dumb enough to say the “N-word” out loud, but the intent of these insults was clear.
Dan had never been sure what to think of Hillary Clinton, and his parents were no help on that score. Dan’s father liked Bill Clinton, but he often said, “He’s just got to drop that wife of his.” Dan’s mother wouldn’t let that pass. Dan overheard only a few arguments between his parents when he was a boy. They never bickered about running the landscaping business together. But phrases like “that wife of his” caused raised voices in the living room while they watched the evening news after Dan had gone to bed.
Dan sometimes wondered what his parents had been talking about when their truck was T-boned on a slick road just three miles from home last February. They had gone for a rare dinner out to celebrate their twenty-ninth wedding anniversary. Dan knew they would have toasted the occasion with ginger ale because they never drank on evenings when they drove. Most people allowed themselves a glass of wine or a beer with a restaurant dinner, but not his parents.
A teenager from a neighboring town was driving those same slick roads with a high school classmate. Friends of both boys had no idea they even knew each other, let alone were friendly enough to be driving in the same car. Even their parents didn’t know why they were together or what had brought them to a town where no one knew them. All anyone knew was that the boys were driving too fast for the freezing rain and skidded through a semi-rural, blinking red light directly into the driver’s side of Dan’s parent’s pickup. Both vehicles ended up wrapped around thick oak trees just off the side of the road. Four fatalities made it the worst accident in town history.
Dan had heard from so many other people that Clinton was just out for power and that she had cheated in the primaries and that she was a liar. He didn’t know the details that made people say those things, but he figured they must be true if so many people said them. Even the liberals at CNN talked bad about her all the time when he flicked through the channels on a rare day with no homework.
He just couldn’t trust her and didn’t see much difference between her and that blowhard Trump. Granny Annie had sent him links to a bunch of websites, trying to get him to warm up to Clinton. His grandmother was something else, searching the web like a teenager with a paper due the next day. She could “fact check” anything he mentioned when he complained about Clinton, but he’d been too busy with work and school to look at the websites she sent him.
A few weeks earlier, Dan had passed by a group of students at the community college passing out flyers. They had big, blue signs that read, “Stronger together!” He automatically took a flyer, said thank you, and was prepared to drop it in the trash when he left their line of sight.
He glanced to see one side of the flyer had the headline, “100 Reasons Not To Vote For Trump.” He skimmed a few of the items on the small-print list. The words, “fraud,” “bankruptcy,” “sexual assault,” “lawsuit,” “failure,” and “cheat” stood out. Dan didn’t disagree with any of it.
The other side of the flyer contained a list called, “100 Reasons To Vote For Clinton.” Skimming this side revealed the words, “graduated with honors,” “Yale Law School,” “awards,” “human rights,” “women’s rights,” “health reform,” “Senator,” and “Secretary.” Dan looked back at the students handing out the flyers. He really studied them for a moment and admired their passion and certainty. He didn’t know exactly why they were so certain, but he almost wished he could be so sure who to vote for.
Dan’s parents certainly hadn’t planned on dying that night. Dan learned a week later from the family lawyer that they had no will and no savings and plenty of debt. Something about the crash happening at a terrible time when Dan’s parents had been trying to expand the business and had the worst kinds of loans from the worst kinds of banks. The lawyer tried to explain all of that to him, but Dan felt stupid and guilty for not understanding much of it. All he knew was that it was bad. Mullen Landscaping had been operating in the red for years. The lawyer said they needed to sell the business to cover what they owed, and Dan couldn’t think of any better options.
A few weeks after the funeral, Dan brought all the Mullen Landscaping employees together at the family home. He struggled through a short speech letting everyone know that the business was closing. None of the old-timers were surprised. They had seen it coming for years and stared at the floor as Dan spoke. Some asked how they could help. Dan didn’t know what to tell them. He just kept saying “thank you” and shaking every hand they offered.
Only the most recent hire, Davis, seemed angry. He stared at Dan as if his own parents had been killed or his own business shuttered. Dan didn’t see him leave, and he was gone before Dan could talk with him.
Dan watched tow trucks haul away the snowplows and trucks from the garage and storage buildings behind the house. He listened from a distance as an auctioneer sold off the various chainsaws, mowers, and other equipment on a Sunday afternoon that spring. He went to the lawyer’s office to sign papers, and a nice, young couple posed for pictures as they pulled the “for sale” sign from the lawn in front of the only home he had ever known.
Eventually, the lawyer presented Darlene and Dan with checks representing what was left. The number on the check had a comma, but the number to the left of that comma was the age of a toddler. Dan hadn’t been expecting much, but this amount of money wouldn’t last him through the rest of the year. It was just enough for first, last, and deposit on a basement studio apartment near the local basketball court where Dan had played every afternoon that he could as a teenager. Dan still went with friends to find a game now and then after he finished high school. It was weird to be one of the oldest guys there in just his early twenties. He played hard, but the games didn’t hold the same urgency as they did at fifteen. In the past year, he found the game just didn’t call to him the way it once had.
Darlene offered to give him her share of their inheritance because she was doing fine, considering her career as an ophthalmologist and her husband’s job as an electrician. Dan had visited their new house a few times with its shady porch and two upstairs bedrooms, one for Darlene and her husband, another for their twin toddler daughters. Dan had overheard Darlene tell Granny Annie a few months before that they would start looking for a house with more bedrooms as soon as she got pregnant again.
But Dan said it wouldn’t be right to take her share. She had expenses, he knew, and the inheritance could help with their move to a bigger place. He thanked her for the generous thought but said he’d be okay. He didn’t know how he’d be okay, but he told her he would be anyway.
The next day, Dan went to the local McDonald’s to apply for a job. He and his father had sometimes stopped here for dinner after long days of work in the hot sun or the bitter cold. It was a special treat. Working there wouldn’t be a treat, but Dan had to do something. He wasn’t the kind of person who could sit around and do nothing. He had always worked. The idea of not working hadn’t even crossed his mind. His parents had raised him to do what needed to be done.
The one time Dan had gotten the motivation to visit the basketball courts at Vonndonn Community College, he hadn’t enjoyed the experience. He only knew a few people there. His forty-something accounting professor was there, and he looked surprisingly like an athlete when he wasn’t wearing a bad-fitting suit jacket.
Davis was there, along with two guys from one of his business classes. Dan couldn’t remember their real names, but they told everyone to call them Moe and Jack. These were abbreviations of their Turkish names. They were nice guys who always did well in class, but they were terrible basketball players.
On the court, Dan liked to hit the boards, set picks, and make safe passes. He was a bit heavy-footed and not a leaper, but he played solid defense by being in the right place as often as possible. And he could give a foul when he needed to, being careful not to hurt anyone when he did. He could score when he needed to because his dad had taught him that the guy who never takes an open shot hurts the team just as much as the ball hog.
Davis was better than Dan thought he would be. He was almost six feet tall but too skinny to have a physical impact. But he handled the ball well and had a good outside shot. Unfortunately, his next good pass would be his first, and his defense mostly involved slapping at the ball while yelling, “Switch!” He also called both Moe and Jack, “Mo-mar,” and refused to be on their team.
Dan went home after about an hour of uninspired play. Like so many things since his parents died, sports just weren’t the same as they used to be.
Dan did see something online that made him rethink Clinton even more than the flyer or what his grandmother and sister had told him about her. It was a Facebook post of a grainy black-and-white photo from an old fake newspaper alongside the huge headline, “Hillary Clinton adopts Alien Baby.” He knew it was a tabloid joke. But he couldn’t stop looking at her face. He was surprised to see how young she was. She looked like his favorite classmate, Alessandra Gutiérrez, and the other mothers in his classes at the community college, coming back to school in their thirties and forties. They were trying to start over after divorces or losing their jobs or becoming orphans like him or just realizing that their lives belong to them and not to a parent or a man or their teenaged kids thinking they didn’t even need a mom anymore. Their lives were their own and not someone else’s idea of who they were supposed to be.
Dan knew the old photo with the alien baby was stupid, but he also knew that Hillary Clinton was beautiful in that photo. She wasn’t the coughing, scowling, old lady on the news. She hadn’t tried to sell secrets to our enemies with her foundation or her emails, or whatever the angry-faced men on TV said she did when they weren’t complaining that she didn’t smile enough. In that old photo, she was beautiful enough to stir something in him that he didn’t understand. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to make him certain he should vote for her. But it was something.
When Dan first heard that Trump might run for president, he thought, Okay. Maybe. He’s a self-made man who knows how to build things and hired a lot of people. And he’d spend his own money, so he wouldn’t owe anybody anything.
But then he went to Trump’s campaign website and saw a “donate” button. Dan wondered why someone paying his own way would need donations. So he did a couple of basic web searches and found that Trump was taking donations, just like all the other politicians. And he discovered some websites that said Trump really wasn’t a great businessman and had even declared bankruptcy a few times and had been the subject of countless lawsuits for cheating people out of millions of dollars. And he wasn’t self-made at all but came from a rich family. Dan had no idea how he hadn’t known any of this about Trump until he had bothered to look.
And Dan discovered that Trump had been one of the biggest “birthers” out there, the jerks who claimed that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Dan couldn’t understand how anyone would make that claim when five minutes on the internet showed that Obama had released his birth certificate years before. And then he released another version of the birth certificate, mostly to shut Trump’s mouth about it. But Trump didn’t shut up. He kept pushing the birther bullshit instead of talking about important things. And then Trump even blamed Hillary for starting the birther crap. How could anyone with half a brain believe that?
Worst of all, Dan was pretty sure Trump would try to start WWIII if he managed to get elected. Banning Muslims, building walls, insulting everyone around the world—Dan didn’t know everything about the world, and he had never even traveled out of the country, but he knew that was really dangerous talk from someone who wanted to be president. Trump even said he would kill the family members of terrorists. Dan wondered why this didn’t make Trump drop out of the race. He knew it wouldn’t be right for the police to arrest or kill Darlene or Granny Annie or his parents if he did something wrong.
When Davis showed up to work one day with a Confederate flag affixed to the tailgate of his oversized pickup truck and red MAGA stickers on the front and back bumpers, Dan asked him why the liked Trump. Davis quietly said, “I love America.”
“Okay,” Dan said. “So do I. And so does everyone here.”
Dan nodded toward that’ day’s work crew, which included Lamar, a Jamaican native who still worked a few shifts in warm weather even though he was nearly seventy. He had become a U.S. citizen forty years earlier and still visited the country of his birth each year for most of December and January.
“Too cold,” Lamar was fond of saying. “And your Christmas and New Year’s celebrations are sweet but a little quiet for my taste.”
The crew also included Teo and Jesus, twin brothers from Mexico just a few years older than Dan. Dan’s parents checked to make sure their work visas were in order before hiring them and helping them find an apartment in a quiet neighborhood just a few blocks from the Mullen family home. They were on Dan’s email chain for pick-up basketball games in the park.
“Yeah, but Trump’s on our side,” Davis said.
“What do you mean, ‘our side’?” Dan asked.
“You know,” Davis said, casting glances to either side before holding eye contact with Dan. “Us,” he said urgently, pointing back and forth between himself and Dan.
“I’m still not sure what that has to do with anything. What about his bankruptcies and lawsuits?” Dan asked.
“Liberal propaganda,” Davis replied.
“What do you think of Obama and Hillary?” Dan asked.
Davis sneered. “Back in the day, we had rope or firing squads for traitors.”
“What?” Dan said, stunned. “What makes Obama and Hillary traitors?”
“Whatever, dude,” Davis responded. Look it up. It’s all over the internet. I ain’t doing your research for you.”
“What ‘research’ are you talking about? Help me understand,” Dan said. He really wanted to know what Davis was talking about.
“Never mind,” Davis mumbled while walking away.
Dan didn’t see Davis at work very often after that, and he didn’t bring up politics at work again. In fact, most of the men who had bad-mouthed Obama for years avoided talking politics when Dan was around. He sometimes got the impression that they had been engaged in enthusiastic political whispers but changed the subject when he arrived.
And then the “pussy-grabbing” video hit the news. Dan wasn’t surprised to hear Trump talk that way. He had overheard some of the guys at work make similar comments—never directly to him because they were careful around the boss’s son. As Dan got older, he made a point of giving them dirty looks when the talked about women like that. He didn’t feel confident enough yet to tell them to stop it, but he wanted to let them know that he didn’t approve.
But people like Davis kept supporting Trump after that. Even when the news reported on all the other nasty things Trump said about women and all the women who said that Trump had grabbed them or said disgusting things to them. Even some of the guys at work who made a point of saying a little prayer before they ate lunch or who talked about their daughters’ confirmations at church still kept their MAGA hats on the front seat of their pickup trucks. Did they really think God wanted them to vote for someone like Trump?
Then, leading up to the election, Dan watched a couple of the debates between Clinton and Trump. Dan would be the first to admit that he didn’t understand everything about every issue or even something about most issues. But he was smart enough to spot a fake and the real deal. Trump was like a kid who didn’t do his homework, while Clinton was like the valedictorian of the class. Maybe the class clown is funny sometimes, but you don’t make him class president. Maybe you aren’t best friends with the valedictorian, but you still respect her.
But Dan couldn’t figure out how anyone didn’t see the difference by now with them both on public display, side by side. Clinton was far from perfect, but Trump was a nightmare. How could people not see that?
“Why McDonald’s, of all places?” Darlene had asked when she heard about his job choice. “You’re better than that.”
“Am I?” Dan asked. “What am I qualified to do? I’ve got a high school diploma and some landscaping experience. The Fortune 500 hasn’t exactly knocked my door down.” Darlene had no reply.
Even barely into his mid-twenties, Dan was usually one of the oldest people on his shift. Almost everyone else was a high school kid who seemed so worried about making a mistake that they tried never to do anything. The customers sometimes glared at them like they were lazy, but they weren’t. They were just scared—scared of messing up someone’s food, scared of burning their fingers, scared of looking stupid as they stared at the confusing numbers on the cash machine’s touch screen, scared of getting yelled at by the managers.
Two senior citizens worked with Dan. Akbar was an ancient Indian or Pakistani man barely five feet tall who seldom spoke, worked every shift he could, and spent every working moment cleaning every surface he could find. He once even walked into the restroom and started spraying the urinal next to the one Dan was using. Dan finished as fast as he could, and his urinal didn’t stay dirty for long.
The other old person was a woman everyone called Rooster. Dan had no idea what her real name was. Rooster was the unofficial assistant manager who clomped her big hiking boots across the floor from station to station, helping and cheerleading the young kids as they struggled to figure out even simple operations. Even stooped over a little, she still towered over everyone there except Dan. Sometimes she yelled at the kids a little, but she always apologized right away.
The two managers—one for the day shift, one for night—were two of the older employees. Both were retired cops just trying to keep busy. One was a man and the other a woman, both in their fifties, neither had advanced beyond walking a beat in their careers. And they rarely yelled at the terrified kids, except the few who actually were lazy. Maybe they found that the yelling method didn’t work very well at their old jobs. They spent a lot more time talking quietly between busy moments, more like counselors, teachers, or ministers for the youngsters. Most of the kids were still scared.
The two ex-cop managers had hired him on the spot the day he showed up, and the next day, he donned his uniform and cap and was assigned to the fryer. The job wasn’t permanent, but it was what he needed right at that moment. What else could he do when he felt like his whole life had been pulled away from him, his whole future canceled?
Dan worried about making mistakes too, but most aspects of the job were a lot easier than cutting trees or driving a snowplow. His biggest worry was that he might end up stuck in this job forever.
After the landscaping business closed, Darlene suggested Dan go to college. He had never even considered college before then, mostly because he planned to work for his parents until they retired and put him in charge of the landscaping business. He didn’t even know how to apply to college. And he definitely had no interest in living in a dorm at the state university seventy miles away.
Granny Annie told Dan that the community colleges in Florida were inexpensive and practical.
“I don’t want to move to Florida,” Dan told her in one of their cell phone conversations.
Granny Annie laughed. “No, silly,” she said. “I’m talking about Vonndonn.”
“What’s that?” Dan asked.
“Vonndonn Community College,” his grandmother said. When Dan didn’t respond, she continued. “It’s a fifteen-minute drive from your apartment.”
“Oh,” Dan said, remembering that some of his high school classmates who couldn’t afford a “real” college had spent some time at Vonndonn. “You mean VDCC.”
“Well, that’s a rude name,” Granny Annie said. “But it’s where your cousins Brandon and Sarah went. They both got two-year degrees and then started working. He’s a dental assistant and she’s a machinist.”
“I don’t know what I want to do for a career now that the landscaping business is over,” Dan said. He didn’t want to mention to his grandmother that he actually did know what he wanted to do. Reopening Mullen Landscaping was a dream he hadn’t shared with anyone. “But I know I don’t want to be a dental assistant or a machinist.”
“No one says you have to be,” Granny Annie said. “They have other programs. Look them up. You might be surprised at what you find.”
A few days later, after spending some time on Vonndonn’s website, Dan drove the seven miles to the run-down, one-story, former shopping mall that had gone out of business five years ago. Vonndonn had moved there when the mall finally closed, converting the food court to administrative offices and the stores to classrooms. Amazingly, an abandoned mall was a step up from the dilapidated former middle-school building that Vonndonn had occupied since its founding just a few years before Dan was born.
He enrolled in some introductory business and accounting courses that didn’t conflict with his McDonald’s shifts. Then the advisor he spoke with told him that if he declared a major and picked up three more credits, he could get state grants to cover his whole tuition. Dan thought it was weird that taking more classes would cost him less money, but he found many things about college to be confusing.
VDCC was fairly small and had limited offerings. The only other class that fit his schedule was Creative Writing.
When Dan pulled his laptop off the floor and into bed to check his email on election morning, he saw that he and Granny Annie weren’t the only ones up early. Like Dan, his creative writing classmate Alessandra hadn’t seemed to sleep well the previous night.
To: Dan Mullen
From: Alessandra Gutiérrez
November 9, 2016, 4:45 a.m.
Hi Dan. Still not sure about this poetry thing. But I’m trying. I have a lot of other work for other classes, but I really tried on this. Here’s what I came up with for today’s assignment after reading the Mark Twain story from last month again. Hope it’s okay. Do your worst and give me feedback. Looking forward to reading yours. See you in class. Ali.
Shit, Dan thought. With all the distraction from the election, he had forgotten to do his creative writing assignment. They were supposed to write a draft of a poem and email it to a classmate. Dan always submitted assignments on time in his business classes, not so much because he wanted to, but because he thought a business major would be the most practical thing he could do toward reopening Mullen Landscaping and avoiding the problems that his parents encountered.
One good thing about creative writing was that it filled his “arts” requirement for the business degree. He had no interest in taking painting or sculpture or dance or acting. And he remembered hearing his classmates talk about how easy their creative writing classes had been in high school. “You can just slap any crap on the page and call it poetry,” one football teammate had said. And besides, the creative writing class met just one night a week. Dan didn’t even have to miss any hours at McDonald’s to take it.
The course turned out to be much harder than Dan had expected, with quizzes and projects and reading assignments and, of course, lots of writing. Dan wasn’t a big reader, so that was the hardest part of the class for him. The professor, Jenn Mansfield, had assigned one story in particular that Dan struggled with but also couldn’t stop thinking about. The main character was a woman a hundred years ago who thought her husband had died. She’d gone from sad to kind of happy in just an hour. But then the guy turned out not to be dead at all, and then the woman died, either because she was too happy to see him again or because she thought she saw his ghost. Either way, he didn’t quite understand the story, except to say that we only get one life, so don’t waste it.
But Dan kept up as well as he could in the creative writing class partly because the best thing about the course was that Alessandra sat beside him. He didn’t want to look stupid around Alessandra. From the moment that she said hello to him on the first night, Dan had been in awe of her. She was probably in her late thirties, maybe older, but not quite old enough to be Dan’s mother. Dan definitely didn’t think of her as a mother figure, despite the recent loss of his own mother. He didn’t really know how to describe what he felt for her, but he couldn’t deny his fascination. She seemed as lost by the study of poetry as he was, so they agreed to be what the instructor called, “draft buddies.”
They had exchanged their first assignment draft, a short story, a few weeks ago. Dan wrote about a guy named “Dean” who mowed lawns for a living and discovered a cave to a secret world in a client’s backyard one day. His draft cut off right when “Dean” entered the cave, and he had expected Alessandra to think the story was stupid. But, miraculously, she thought it had potential and wanted to hear more. She liked the realism of how “Dean” mowed the lawns, and she was excited to hear about his adventure in the cave if Dan kept writing.
Ms. Mansfield had given him advice on developing “Dean” into a more fully developed character. She also mentioned that the narrative would move faster if he cut some of the many technical details of “Dean’s” lawn mowing skills. Dan had planned to get back to the draft later in the semester and keep working on it—if only to ask Alessandra to read the revised version. But he still didn’t have any idea what secret world “Dean” would find in that cave, just as he had no idea what would happen after the woman in the old story dropped dead on her own stairway.
Alessandra was a pre-nursing major, studying to start a better career than her current job as an agent at a local car rental place. Her story was about a nurse who was on emergency room duty the night her brother was brought in after being shot. When Dan asked her why she wrote about that subject, Alessandra just shrugged and said the idea just popped into her head. But Dan Googled her name and snooped deep into her Facebook profile to discover that her distant cousin had been killed a decade ago in a botched convenience store robbery. He had been a bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Dan had a hard time giving Alessandra feedback on her story when he learned about her cousin. He ended up making almost all positive comments about the plot, characters, dialogue, and suspense. It really was a good story, and he felt unqualified to tell her how to change it. He gave her some guesswork suggestions about a few commas that he thought might be in the wrong places, and how, maybe, the nurse at the center of the story could do CPR and save her brother. She wrote back the next day and thanked him and said liked his suggestion. She’d think about it.
Just before Dan closed his laptop, he saw that Alessandra had added a postscript to her email message:
P.S. I don’t know for sure who you wanted in the election, but holy shit. Please excuse my creative language. My ex-husband and my daughter’s boyfriend both wanted Trump, but I didn’t say much because I thought he had no chance. How can I trust the two most important men in my life knowing they think this jerk is worth voting for? I’m sorry to keep going on and on, but holy shit. Those are the only words I have right now.
On the subject of Hillary Clinton, Granny Annie had plenty to say when Dan and Darlene visited her last summer in the heat of the presidential campaign. She said Dan’s “macho sexism” was showing—just like his father. Darlene nodded in agreement. Granny Annie also called him an “ageist” because Dan wondered why she was running for president when she was so old. Darlene chuckled and stared at the floor.
“A lot younger than I am,” Granny Annie said.
“Everyone’s younger than you,” Dan joked.
Granny Annie laughed, just as he knew she would. But she countered, “She’s younger than that asshole, Trump.” Dan looked that one up on the internet. Granny Annie was right. But no one complained about how old Trump was.
Darlene usually avoided the subject of politics, but she couldn’t hold back. “You’re not thinking of voting for that orange turd, are you Dan?”
“I’m undecided,” Dan replied, mostly just to see her reaction.
“How the f— …” Darlene began with a sharper tone than Dan had ever heard before she cut herself off in mid-swear.
Darlene was three years older than Dan, had been an honor student in high school and college. Dan’s teachers had often invoked Darlene’s name when Dan’s schoolwork had, in the words of those teachers, “fallen below his potential.” Dan didn’t mind. He admired Darlene as much as everyone else and had been thrilled when she earned an ophthalmology degree, but he hated to see her move away when she set up a practice in a neighboring state.
“Close enough to visit but far enough away to be myself,” she had said in her last visit before their parents had died. Dan didn’t quite understand what she meant.
“Honestly, Dan,” Darlene continued after a deep breath. “If you vote for that pussy grabber, I might have to disown you.”
Granny Annie nodded. “I’m not a fan of that kind of language from a politician or from my own granddaughter—but I definitely agree.”
“Like I said, I’m still thinking about it,” Dan said. “Can we change the subject?” he asked, imploring his sister and grandmother with a helpless look. “Let’s go find a nice place to eat near the beach. We don’t come to Florida often enough to waste time arguing about politics.”
“You’re right,” Granny Annie said. She took both their hands and led them toward the door. “We’ve got lots of time before the election to win Dan over to the side of the angels. For now, dinner by the beach! Then you can convince me that I need this fancy-pants cell phone thingie!”
When Dan was done kicking himself for forgetting to write his poetry draft, he grabbed his laptop again and opened Alessandra’s attached file to skim her poem. Then he blinked, went back to the beginning, and read it again, closer this time.
ENG 215: Creative Writing
Professor Jenn Mansfield
Poetry Draft Assignment
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
in the sound-conducting air
of an open field,
a gunshot can be heard for miles
by hundreds, even thousands
of people who might never meet,
never see eye-to-eye,
never speak each others’ names.
in a small classroom,
among echoing cinder block walls,
deep within an aging brick building,
the only people
who really hear the shot
are those at intimate distance,
almost close enough to touch.
The only ones who
hear the shot
are the ones who
feel the shot,
whether it’s the killer’s recoil
or the impact of
Dan blinked. He needed to think about his response before he could reply to Alessandra’s poem. He was glad the assignment wasn’t due for a few weeks. Like talking with his grandmother, this was a task he didn’t feel up to right now. The country was going to hell in high gear. He didn’t know how to talk with his grandmother or to respond to such a poem by the classmate who was deeply grieving events that he could barely understand. The next few days would be rough. So would the next few years, Dan imagined.
During their most recent class, Dan had noticed that Alessandra seemed distracted in class. She kept looking at the door as if she expected to see someone there. At one point, the professor asked her what she thought about a poem from their reading assignment. Dan was very interested in her answer because he had read the poem three times and still couldn’t even guess what it was about. But Alessandra didn’t answer, and her silence stretched until it became awkward. The professor called on another student, and the discussion continued.
At the end of class, Dan asked her, “Hey, are you okay?”
“What do you mean?” she replied.
“You just seem kind of distracted,” Dan said.
Alessandra glanced from Dan to the door as she put on her coat. “I’m okay,” she said, and then she paused. “Actually, I’m not really okay. This guy in one of my other classes has been following me around and trying to flirt with me.”
“Oh,” Dan said, immediately feeling self-conscious. He worried that she was hinting for him to back off and give her some space.
“Can you walk me to my car?” Alessandra asked him. She met his eyes and didn’t glance toward the door. “I know there are security guards and they’ve even got guns and tasers and things like that, but I’d feel safer with a friend.”
“Sure,” Dan replied, relieved that she wanted him close.
“I told him I wasn’t interested,” Alessandra said, “but that just seemed to make him more determined.”
“That’s weird,” Dan said, not sure what else to say. He didn’t have that much dating experience. It was hard for a guy who worked and played basketball and didn’t do much else to have a romantic life. He had one serious girlfriend from eleventh grade until he turned twenty-two, but she moved to Texas with her family. Most of his few dates since then were awkward at best. But one thing he knew was that if a woman said directly she wasn’t interested, that was something to respect. His father had taught him that before he was even interested in girls.
Even though Dan was years younger than Alessandra, he wasn’t at all opposed to the idea of being her protector that evening. He wouldn’t call himself a feminist, of course, and he wasn’t sure he even knew what that word meant. But he knew that women were equal to men in many important ways. But he also felt good about being a big, strong man who could offer protection to a woman he cared for.
“I saw him in the hallway right before class tonight,” Alessandra said, “and he gave me a really creepy look.”
This time, Dan turned his gaze toward the door.
“You might know this guy,” Alessandra said. “He’s in my math class, and I think he went to the same high school that you did.”
“What’s his name?” Dan asked.
“Davis,” Alessandra replied.
The walk to her car was anticlimactic. Dan wasn’t worried, partly because he was half a foot taller than Davis and knew that he could be intimidating when he needed to be. And he had some special, secret protection that made him feel even bigger.
Alessandra thanked him and hugged him at her car. When she pulled back, she gripped his shoulders and said, “Strong.” Then her had brushed against the left side of his chest where his holster bulged slightly. She gasped softly, gave him a quizzical look, stepped into her car, and drove away quickly.
When Dan opened Facebook on the morning after the election, he wasn’t surprised to see a range of comments about the election.
Dan had only a few dozen contacts on the social media site, and it was a scattered group. He followed a few friends from high school, some of his college classmates and instructors, a few former Mullen Landscaping employees, and some distant relatives. He only checked in a couple of times a week. He enjoyed seeing Darlene’s photos of her husband and twin daughters, just three years old now. Now that she had her new smartphone, even Granny Annie had signed up a month before. Her first post was an October photo of a Florida beach at sunset, which made everyone up north jealous.
Granny Annie posted an upside-down American flag on the morning after the election. He understood how she felt. What surprised Dan was how ugly some of the other posts and comments were. Some were sad, some frightened, some angry, but some were completely insane.
“I didn’t know this country could be this stupid,” one high school classmate who had moved across the country to California posted. “We’re all doomed.”
“Trump sucks!” another posted, short and to the point.
“I pray for America!” one aunt posted. Another aunt commented, “I did pray for America and my prayers were answered!!! Trump won!!! Yay!!!”
One college classmate posted, “Hillary was robbed!” Dan was surprised to see that Davis, the guy who had been so angry when Mullen Landscaping closed, had responded, “Fuck you! That cunt can die and so can you!”
“What the hell?” Dan mumbled. He clicked on Davis’s profile photo, which showed him wearing a red MAGA hat and a blank stare. Within a few seconds, he wished he hadn’t looked. One post after another dating back months was a mix of hate and ignorance.
The night before, around the time Trump was declared the winner of the election, Davis had posted, “I’m not surprised because I knew the Donald would win from the second the great man descended the escalator with his gorgeous wife and said that Mexicans were rapists, murderers, and drug dealers! He hit the nail on the head about those illegal fuckers!”
A week before, Davis had posted, “What Christian names their son Barack Hussein Obama? Go the fuck back to Muslim!” Back to where? Dan thought. Wait, doesn’t he know that “Muslim” isn’t a place?
“I ain’t no racist! I don’t give a shit that obummers halfrican american. I hate commies in all colors! The libtards lose the second they play the race card!” Jesus, Dan thought.
“Killary murders children in the womb! Only a baby killer would vote for Killary!” Dan had heard almost those exact words from one of the old-timers at Mullen Landscaping years ago when she first ran for president. Even as a teenager who barely paid attention to politics, Dan knew enough to look that up on the internet and discover that it just meant she was pro-choice. He was stunned that anyone would still believe that kind of crap.
“BANG BANG BANG the BITCH is DEAD!!!! “Ok you libtard homo commie illegal acadamic snowflake demoncrap bitches you better be ready cuz Trump is in charge now and its payback time you motherfuckers.”
Does he know other people can read these? Dan thought. As he scrolled farther and farther back into the past, Dan saw that a few people had commented on Davis’s posts months ago, but no one had liked or replied to any of his posts in recent weeks. Even though Dan didn’t spend a lot of time on Facebook, he knew enough to realize that people had tuned Davis out, probably unfollowing, unfriending, or blocking him. Davis was shouting, but no one was listening.
Davis’s Facebook posts were so awful that they were almost hypnotic. Dan saw a video of Obama morphing into Osama bin Laden with the caption, “It was him all along.” Davis had posted a photo of Hillary dancing with bin Laden at some kind of a party. Even Dan could tell it was a bad photoshop job. Hillary was taller than Osama, but his head was bigger than hers. Caption: “Remember this when you vote.”
How does Facebook allow people to post this bullshit? Dan wondered.
There were articles for weird places that Dan had barely heard of called Twitchy, Breitbart, Newsmax, and InfoWars that seemed intent on creating some alternate reality where Barack Obama was trying to destroy the world with Hillary as his evil instrument and every Democrat as an enemy of God. Dan read things in Davis’s posts that he’d never heard before, words like “cuck” and “incel” and numbers like “2A” and “1488.” Dan didn’t even want to know what all this ugly stuff meant, and he had to force himself to slam his laptop shut to keep from going even deeper into the twisted mind on display for all the world to see.
Dan was just about to get up, but then hesitated and reopened the laptop. He remembered the reason he had opened Facebook in the first place. With a few clicks, he discovered that Alessandra was notably absent from Facebook this morning. Dan saw that her last post was from three days ago. “I’m optimistic,” she had written.
“Dammit,” Dan said again and he lifted his big frame from the bed. He didn’t know how he could keep going through four years of Trump’s angry face yelling on his television. Maybe he should have voted for Clinton instead of driving past the high school where he was supposed to vote yesterday. He had bookmarked Clinton’s alien baby photo so that he could come back to it now and then. That could be some comfort while listening to reports about whatever new embarrassment Trump was bound to put the country through every time he opened his ugly, little, O-shaped mouth. Maybe he’d even look up some other old Clinton photos. Maybe he’d try to learn more about her beyond the flyers or the news or from his idiot coworkers or the insulting memes that jerks like Davis posted on Facebook.
Not now, though. For now, he knew he had to get up and go to class. So he laid out his clothes, backpack, books, shoulder holster, and pistol—and then headed toward the shower.
Dan still carried a pistol out of habit left over from his landscaping days. His father always had one in the glove compartment of his big pickup, and he made a point of showing it to Dan when he turned twelve. They went to the shooting range together, and Dan’s father taught him to use the pistol just as he taught him to use a hammer or a lawnmower or a chainsaw. They were all tools, his father had told him. The gun was a tool for protection. Dan’s coworkers told a vague story about how his father had scared away thieves years ago when Dan was just a little boy. They talked about how they couldn’t be too careful, especially in “some parts of town.” Dan asked where, but no one ever gave him a straight answer. When he asked his dad, he just told him not to listen to the “big mouths.”
But Dan carried on his father’s tradition by keeping the pistol close by. He didn’t have a pickup or a need to drive into any parts of town where he might feel unsafe. Still, he made sure the permits were up to date and visited the shooting range every couple of weeks. He didn’t tell Granny Annie or Darlene that he carried the pistol with him, but feeling the bulk of the holster and gun beneath his jacket reminded him of his father.
Three hours later, when the police interviewed him handcuffed to a table in a locked room with bare walls, he was able to stop crying long enough to tell the investigators that the pistol was his father’s. He just wanted to be like his father. All he ever wanted was to be a good guy in a good world that he could help make better. He didn’t want his parents to be dead. He didn’t want his sister to move away. He didn’t want his beloved grandmother to grow so old. He didn’t want the family business to be ruined. He didn’t want to leave the only home he’d ever known. He didn’t want to start over in a tiny apartment and a dead-end job. He didn’t want to feel stupid struggling to get through classes that teenagers were acing. He didn’t want a good woman humiliated even if he didn’t agree with everything she said. He didn’t want his country in the hands of a dead-eyed jerk elected by people he couldn’t begin to understand.
He didn’t want to hurt Alessandra. Dan was trying to shoot Davis as the evildoer moved through the college hallways, yelling and laughing as he shot at people with a rifle. Dan couldn’t believe how many times Davis fired his rifle, one shot after the other for what seemed like hours but was barely a minute. Dan didn’t even see Alessandra as she ran away behind Davis until he saw her body jerk and fall forward on the hard tile, saw a plume of red mist fly up from her hair and into the hallway lights. Dan hadn’t even known she was there until he shot her. He couldn’t remember much of what happened after that, only that several people tackled him and pried his pistol from his hands. He was struck mute and stared at his own shuffling feet as uniformed men dragged him to a squad car and drove with the lights flashing and the siren drowning out his thoughts. And now that he could talk and think again, the police in the locked room with bare walls wouldn’t even tell him if Alessandra was alive or dead.
Dan only wanted to do the right thing. He never wanted to hurt anyone. Dan was a good guy, wasn’t he?