“Land of the Voting Dead”

Miriam Showalter opened the heavy wooden double doors to the unseasonably warm November morning.  Sunlight streamed in, golden so early in the morning and so late in the year.  Miriam lodged the doors open with heavy wooden doorsteps that her husband Gene had carved thirty years ago to replace the ones that the previous twenty years had worn out.  Back then they’d been horses’ heads, like pieces on a chess board, and Gene had spent his days in the fields planting corn and beans.  Now all of the features, the delicate detail that Gene spent hours squinting at and refining, were worn smooth and Gene spent his days as a pile of ash in a brightly polished urn.

Miriam finished pinning the doors open and dabbed the sweat away from her brow with the tissue she kept tucked under her watch.  She could have taken off her cardigan, but she was no fool.  Just because she worked up a sweat, just because the sun was shining, just because they were having a late warm up didn’t mean that it wasn’t November.  Miriam wasn’t catching her death today.

From the front doors, Miriam walked across the dark wood floor, the insolated soles of her shoes barely making a sound in the open room, past the long table and single folding chair (with a many-times patched, pink cushion that she’d made about the same time Gene made the horse head doorstops) that she’d set up when she first got there, and down the back hallway where the sunshine couldn’t reach.  There was a storage room on the left, a bathroom on the right, a door at the end, and not a window in sight.  The light was still on in the storage room.  Miriam walked in, wrinkling her nose at the heavy musty smell and the lingering scent of something that just couldn’t be placed, but Miriam knew what it was.  She’d leave the doors open all day long.  That’d chase most of the smell out.  The place just wasn’t used enough to get rid of it entirely.

Another table and a stack of folding chairs sat against one wall.  There were several miscellaneous cardboard boxes along the wall opposite the door.  It seemed that there were more every year, but Miriam had no idea who brought the boxes or what was in any of them.  Shoved off to the side were two voting pedestals that stood like misshapen patio umbrellas, their dingy little screens separating six little cubicles, their little desks hitting Miriam just under her bust as she wheeled them out one by one into the main room, positioning them on opposite sides of the less than great hall and locking their wheels into place.

Miriam dabbed away the sweat from her face and replaced the tissue under her watchband.  She checked the time.  Russell Sims would be along any minute with the vote box.  That’s what Miriam called it.  It’s where the votes went after people were done filling in the circles with a special black pen.  That wasn’t the proper name for the thing, but Miriam didn’t care.  People gave stupid names to things anyway.  “Vote box” was accurate enough.  It wasn’t like anyone was ever going to quiz her on it.  They probably didn’t know the correct name for it either.

Russell showed up in his old truck that had the most ineffective muffler still attached to a vehicle and left it running as he wheeled in the black vote box and a cardboard box full of ballots on a dolly.

“You gonna be alright on your own, Miriam?” Russell asked as he positioned the box next to the table according to Miriam’s hand gestures.

“Yes, of course.  I’ve been dong this longer than you’ve been alive,” Miriam said.  “Just put the ballots on the table.”

“They’re supposed to be in a secure location.”

“They’ll be fine.”

Russell set the box on the end of the table.

“You got your voter book?” he asked.

“Picked it up this morning.”  Miriam opened the ballot box.

Russell looked around, unable to decide if he should put his hands in his pockets or not.  “Anything else you need while I’m on the get, Miriam?”

“No, no, Russell, I’m fine,” she said without looking up, dismissing him with a flutter of her hand.

“Good.  ‘Cause they’re on the move,” Russell said, hurrying toward the door.

“Of course they are,” Miriam said.  “They don’t like to be late.”

Russell said a hasty goodbye at the door and Miriam gave him another wave.  She listened to his truck roar off into the morning.

Miriam busied herself by testing all of the magic black pens as she placed them at the voting pedestals.  She opened up the voting book, took out a stack of ballots and a roll of “I Voted” stickers from the cardboard box, and retrieved her “voting stick” from the storage room.  Miriam sat down with a sigh, the cushion deflating beneath her, a delicate ache creeping up her legs and along her spine.  She waited.

The first voter of the day shambled in right at eight.  A trail of dirt followed him, falling from the cuffs of his pants and the pockets of his jacket.  Miriam grimaced at the sight.  She forgot to bring the broom out from the storage room.  Sighing, she got to her feet.  Miriam flipped the book to the correct page as he staggered to the table in a less than straight line, his eyes half-open, a faint scent of rot preceding him.  Miriam knew Douglas Kless when she saw him even if he had been dead six years, in part because embalming had improved over the years (Douglas had hardly moldered at all), but mostly because Miriam was always good with names and faces, even decomposed ones.

“Morning, Douglas,” she said, even though she knew he wouldn’t respond and honestly wasn’t sure if he heard her, but that was no different than when he was alive.  She liked to be polite.

With one hand, Miriam held out a pen for dead Douglas Kless, killed by a brain aneurysm on his way home from a movie, and with the other she pointed to the place in the book Douglas was supposed to sign.  Douglas took the pen with clumsy fingers and his hand dropped down to the book.  Somehow he formed something that looked like a “D” on his space.  He dropped the pen.

“Both sides, Douglas.”  Miriam flipped the ballot over and back before handing it to him.  She put a sticker on his lapel.

Douglas Kless stood there for a minute, blank and swaying.  Miriam picked up the “voting stick”, a stubby, faded blue broomstick, and prodded him with it.  Douglas started walking, feet dragging along the hardwood, to the voting pedestal.

The doorway darkened with the arrival of several more voters.

In Chicago, the dead voted in spirit.  Downstate, they voted in body.  At least in this town they did.  They voted until they were so rotted, so decayed that they couldn’t claw themselves out of their graves and shamble to the polling place.  It’s why Miriam’s husband Gene had himself cremated.  He had enough trouble deciding whom to vote for while his brains worked; God only knew the trouble he’d have once they stopped.

Miriam felt the same way.

She was the only living person left in her polling district. God help Russell Sims and the rest of the voting volunteers when Miriam Showalter died.  Not because she’d come back to cast her vote like the rest of them, no.  Miriam was going to be cremated like her husband, put into the same urn, and shipped to her oldest daughter in Missouri just to ensure a proper rest.  No, God help Russell Sims because Miriam wouldn’t be there to help the dead vote and she didn’t think anyone else in the entire county would be too willing to volunteer to take her place.

Miriam might not even wait until she was dead before she quit.  She had been manning the polling place on her own for the past few years, since Aggie McMichael died.  Miriam and Gene and Aggie and her husband John manned this table since they were all newlyweds in their early twenties and there weren’t that many voters.  Now it was fifty years later and Miriam was alone and it took all day to get everyone through and by the end of it, she was almost too tired to drive herself home.

Miriam collected signatures, handed out ballots, stuck on stickers, collected ballots, scanned ballots into the vote box, and poked dead people with a stick.

They didn’t have stickers when Miriam first started volunteering; they were a recent thing.  Back then no one needed to label themselves as patriotic in such a silly, childish way, and no one needed to label themselves in order to remind, persuade, or shame others into doing their patriotic duties.

It seemed a particular hassle to be sticking the stickers to dead people who didn’t do much attention paying to others and didn’t need to be reminded in any way to cast their votes.  But the committee in charge insisted that ALL polling places do it.  It was supposed to be a fun little perk for both volunteers and voters.  Miriam never found it fun, but don’t think those disagreeable people in charge didn’t check her roll to make sure she’d been using her stickers.

Of all the changes over the years, that one she liked least.  The one she liked the best was the vote box.  It beat counting the votes by hand.  And computer error was less likely than human error, but if there was a computer error, a human was behind it.

Miriam never once had a problem with her vote box.  Some of the other older volunteers groused about using them, complained about the change, preferred to do things the old way.  Not Miriam.  She knew a good change when she saw it and she embraced this one whole-heartedly.

Right at noon, just as Miriam was getting the sandwich she’d made that morning for her lunch out of her purse, Augustine Wilcox shambled through the door.

Even in death, Augustine was rude and inconvenient.  Making a hobby, a career, and a life out of being nasty, unpleasant, and cruel, had he been alive, he would have delighted in making Miriam put away her lunch so she could deal with him politely.  She suspected, though maybe a little irrationally, that a part of him buried in that rotting husk still did.

Miriam took a big bite of her sandwich to spite him.

Augustine Wilcox was one of those that Miriam was surprised to see every Election Day and couldn’t wait until he rotted enough that he stopped coming.  Most that stopped voting, Miriam missed.  Sure, there was no conversation or catch up, but it was nice to see they were still together enough to vote.  In a way, once they stopped coming in it was like they were truly dead.

Augustine Wilcox couldn’t rot fast enough for Miriam.  Even though he was dead and no longer actively offensive, Miriam still despised him.

He probably delighted in that, too.  Especially since he’d laid dead for three or four days before he was found and had already rotted more than most of the dead that came in to vote.  The embalming was just a formality, preserving his hideous outside that now matched his personality.

Despite his extensively decayed state, Miriam was no more put off by the sight of him now than she was when he was alive.

Once Miriam finished with Augustine Wilcox, happy to see the back of him once again, she finished her lunch in peace, taking time to rest her legs.  She considered herself to be a strong, fit woman for her age, but since she was in her seventies, it didn’t take much to be considered fit for her age.  And, frankly, age didn’t care what she thought of herself.  Old was old and it came with a tiredness and an ache that she couldn’t shake.

Just when she thought that she might be close to getting her second wind, another group came through the door.  Among them was Felicity Whitman.

Miriam’s breath caught in her throat and a bubble of sadness popped up in her chest when Felicity Whitman staggered through the door.  Miriam had gone to school with Felicity, attended both of her weddings and both of her husbands’ funerals, got together with her and some other school friends once a week for more than fifty years to chat over tea, and just a few months ago, in August, Miriam had attended Felicity’s funeral.

Felicity wasn’t the first of Miriam’s friends to die and then show up at the polling place on Election Day.  In fact, lately Miriam felt like the last person alive when she worked behind the table passing out ballots.  But Felicity’s death had been so recent and so sudden, that it struck Miriam hard.  She struggled not to cry as she handed her old friend her ballot and Felicity thanked her with nothing more than a blank stare from vacant eyes.

Miriam pulled a fresh tissue from her purse and blew her nose.

Recently departed old friends were the hardest ones to see and that would just never change, no matter how old Miriam got.

She’d gotten better with it over the years, though.  The first time it happened, she’d only been working as a volunteer for a few years when her cousin, Celeste Mason, died of a bad case of the flu.  She’d always been sickly and this had done her in.  Miriam had been crushed; they were just as close as sisters.

When Celeste showed up to cast her vote, the sight of her sent Miriam running to the bathroom in tears.  Gene came for her after a minute and held her as she cried.  Then he dried her tears and told her it was time to go back to work.  It was Gene’s gentle way of telling her to buck up and tough it out and because it was Gene, she did.

Miriam never went running again when one of her dead friends showed up, but she couldn’t always stop the tears.

At 3:30, about the time school was getting out, a young one staggered in and caught Miriam off guard.  It was Janet Litchfield’s middle boy, Danny, who died that past spring when a late snow slicked up the road and sent him sliding into a telephone pole.  It wasn’t the state of him that shocked her, though judging by the mess of his face and the dent in his head, the poor boy must have had a closed casket funeral.

No, what shocked Miriam was that he was young.  Not that young people didn’t vote because they did.  Miriam had been a young person once and she voted.  But part of the dead rising up and dragging themselves to the polling place was force of habit.  Many of the young ones didn’t have the time to make voting a habit.  Miriam volunteered over twenty-five years before she saw a teenager come in.  Part of that was because the voting age had only recently been changed to eighteen, but part of it was because the teenagers didn’t have the drive to form the voting habit.  Voting must have been very important to Danny in life.  Otherwise, he wouldn’t have bothered in death.

During the afternoon lulls, of which several lasted more than twenty minutes, Miriam didn’t get much chance to rest.  She spent a lot of that time sweeping graveyard dirt from the floor and thanking God that it wasn’t raining.  She walked behind the table and leaned the broom against the wall, the delicate ache in her legs and back much less delicate.  Pulling the tissue from beneath her watchband, it shredded on the first tug. Miriam cleaned the bits of paper from her watch and arm and fetched another tissue from her purse, blotting the sweat from her face with it before tucking it under her watchband.  Her rear end barely touched the patched, pink cushion of her chair when another four staggered through the door, dropping their dirt on her clean floor.  Heaving the heaviest sigh she could manage as she was already fairly winded, Miriam got back to her feet.

There didn’t used to be so much dirt.  It didn’t used to take them so long to get here, either.  Every year they started digging themselves out earlier and earlier just to make it on time.  When Miriam started volunteering at this polling place, it was common practice to bury friends and loved ones only a few feet under the ground since everyone knew they’d be back soon enough.  But at some point over the years, people started burying their dead deeper and deeper, like they didn’t want them to vote.  It didn’t stop them.  Just took them longer to get out and they brought more dirt with them.  Dirt that Miriam had to sweep up.  She bet those people didn’t think about that when they were digging those graves.

Miriam stole another chance to sit down, the ache in her legs and back turning angry.  She counted the voters.  Ten.  A lot of corpses, animated or not, to have in a room.  It should have smelled stronger, but it didn’t.  At least not to Miriam.  She could smell it, of course, the different scents of decay, sweet and meaty and deep and rotten, all with the chemical aftertaste of embalming, all mingled together, but it didn’t affect her anymore, not like it did in the beginning.  Miriam took a baggie of cookies from her purse and nibbled at them while she watched the voters.  Fifty years ago, she went all day without eating, the stench robbing her appetite.  Now it barely registered as she snacked on her treat and wondered what to have for dinner.

Ten voting dead at once.

Had it every been that busy before?

No, Miriam didn’t think so, though maybe she didn’t notice before because she hadn’t been alone.  Or maybe there weren’t as many voters back then.  Fifty years was a long time.  So much had changed while so much stayed the same and so much had been forgotten.

But, like her wedding day, the births of all four of her children, her last Christmas with Gene, and that embarrassing scene with Uncle Meredith at her twelfth birthday, the first time Miriam volunteered at the polling place was forever fixed in her mind, completely untouched by time.  She had been too nervous to eat that morning, but fixed a simple breakfast of oatmeal and toast for Gene.  The world could be ending, the sky raining down hellfire and brimstone, and he’d still have an appetite.

Back then it was considered an honor and a big responsibility to be put in charge of the dead’s polling place.  The old volunteers, a husband and wife by the name of Harmon, finally decided to pass on the privilege and enjoy the time that they had left before they became permanent residents of the polling district.  Several people were on the list as potential volunteers and of all of them, they selected Miriam and Gene and Aggie and John.  The Harmons felt that two couples were needed to man the tables now because more dead were digging themselves out to vote.

Miriam looked at the ballot book that sat open on the table next to her.  Back then it was no thicker than a children’s book and the number of names inside of it warranted four volunteers.  Now it was the size of a Stephen King epic in hardback, felt like it weighed twice as much, and Miriam was the only one working the table because this job was no longer considered as dignified and important as it once was.

That first morning Miriam was so nervous that she couldn’t eat breakfast and by lunch she was so repulsed that the sheer thought of food made her stomach roil in protest.  She had no idea how little she actually knew about dead people.  She didn’t realize that embalming only did so much and that people still decayed to a certain extent.  The shuffling bodies smelled, a faint odor of rot that got caught in her throat and tangled in her hair and clung to her skin.  Weeks later, Miriam swore she could still smell the death on her.

And maybe it was a little naïve and a little foolish, both common symptoms of youth and the latter a terminal illness in some, but Miriam thought Election Day would be very different.  She thought that when the dead woke themselves from their eternal slumbers and pulled themselves from their graves and shambled to the polling place that, dirt and out of date fashions aside, they’d be just like they were when they were alive.  Oh, a bit stiff, maybe, from being dead in a coffin for however long, and probably not able to move very well because they hadn’t used their bodies in some time, but she thought that their minds would be there.

Miriam smiled in spite of herself, thinking back to that day as she handed a ballot to Stephen Pettyjohn, dead nine years from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.  There she was, a young, married woman, educated and reasonably intelligent, expecting a bit of magic and truly believing it.  She thought that these dead people were going to crawl out of their graves and walk into the polling place no different, thinking-wise, than they were when they were alive.  Just as clear and bright as the first frost of the season, Miriam remembered standing behind that table, nervous and excited, expecting the dead to walk through the door and say hello, no different than they would have when they were alive.  The idea of actually conversing with dead people had her so excited that she was fit to burst.

Gene told her that she was going to chew her lips off if she didn’t settle down.  Miriam pulled her lips from between her teeth and pursed them as she glared at her husband.  He just smiled at her in that playful way he had, blue eyes sparkling, and Miriam fell in love with him again.  It seemed like she fell in love with Gene again every day that they were together.

A shadow coming through the front door caused Miriam’s breath to catch in her throat.  She glanced at Aggie, who looked like she would vibrate out of her chair with anticipation.  The men looked relaxed, unflappable as always.

The first voter through the door that chilly November morning was Charles Bennington, dead fourteen years, the oldest dead voter at the time.  It wasn’t his face, gray and hanging and paper thin, that took Miriam’s breath away, it was his stench.  Bile rose in her throat in response, gagging her.  She swallowed it down and tried not to breathe.  Miriam looked at the other three people sitting with her at the table.

Gene was still looking stoic, but the way his jaw was clinched and the way his Adam’s apple bobbed told Miriam that he was working just as hard as she was not to vomit.  He grimaced as Charles Bennington shuffled closer to the table.  Aggie’s face was as green as her sweater and her knuckles were as white as her good tablecloth.  John’s face was stone-set, but he had tears streaming down his cheeks.

Charles Bennington stumbled up to the table, bumping into it just in front of Miriam.  She let out a startled cry and nearly fell out of her chair trying to get away from him.  His mouth hung slack and his eyes were rolled up looking at the top of his head.  He held his hand out, but the fingers and wrist were limp.

Miriam just stared at him in horror.  It was nothing like she expected.  There wasn’t a spark of intelligence to be seen in those rolled up eyes.

A clod of dirt dropped from the sleeve of his jacket onto the table.

“Miriam,” Gene had said gently.  “Hand him the pen and tell him where to sign.”

Miriam’s words stuttered in her throat, but she managed to get them out.  “How…how can he see where to sign?  His eyeballs are all…”  She waved her hand to finish her sentence.

“Miriam, please.  I know you’re…unsettled,” Gene said, and Miriam knew full well that he really meant “repulsed”.  “But this is a very important job and we’re the ones that have been chosen to do it.  Let’s not get our first Election Day off to a bad start.  Hand him the pen and point out where he needs to sign.”

Gene’s voice was firm, but not unkind.  Miriam looked at John and Aggie.  Aggie looked at Miriam in such open horror that it gave Miriam chills. John just stared straight ahead, hands clasped in front of him on the table.

Miriam picked up the pen from the table and held it out at arm’s length to dead Charles Bennington.  With her other hand, hardly daring to step closer to the table, and without stepping any closer to the table, she pointed to his space in the book.

“Please, sign here, Mr. Bennington,” she said, her voice a shaky wisp of its normal self.

Like the pen was a lead weight that he could hardly hold, Charles Bennington’s hand dropped to the book and with some full arm twitching, he managed to make some kind of signature before dropping the pen.  He stood before Miriam, swaying a little bit.  She picked up a ballot with two fingers and held it out to him.

“Your ballot, Mr. Bennington.”

Charles Bennington took it and shuffled off.

Miriam collapsed into her chair.  Aggie ran to the bathroom to throw up.  John finally spoke.

“Here comes the next one.”

That first Election Day, that first voter seemed so long ago and yet, just like yesterday.  It tested Miriam’s mettle, surely, but by the end of the day, the rot and decay and stink didn’t bother her quite as much as it had when Charles Bennington first walked through the door.  Over time she got used to it, and once she did, the job became the joy she’d hoped it would be.

However, all these years later, the lack of intelligence still disturbed her.

Miriam looked at the blank minds casting their votes.  The screens on the voting pedestals really weren’t necessary.  No one looked at anyone else’s ballots.  Dead eyes only had sight for their own.  And, really, the dead didn’t need to take the trouble of digging themselves up and tracking dirt all over the floor that Miriam struggled to keep clean.  Those dead eyes didn’t see anyone else’s ballots and they didn’t see any names on them, either.  Every single corpse voted along party lines, just like they’d done while they were alive.  If a member of their party wasn’t running for that office, then they didn’t vote for that office at all.  Miriam was sure that if there were a voter old enough, they’d turn in a blank ballot because there were no Whigs running.  There wasn’t a voter that didn’t stagger through the door that Miriam didn’t already know how they’d fill out their ballots. That was one thing that didn’t rot away.

It’d save her a lot of time and sweeping if they just let her fill out all of the ballots for them.

A traffic jam broke out by the voting pedestal closest to Miriam and the table.  She rose to her feet, muscles protesting, and got the voting stick.  These things happened sometimes.  In their single-mindedness, they blocked out everything else, like a horse with blinders.  They moved in wobbly straight lines and didn’t think to move to an empty booth.  They didn’t think.  Another trait that didn’t rot away with time.

Miriam prodded Wilson Freeman, fifteen years dead and somehow looking more together now than he did while he was alive, and it started a chain reaction, bodies bumping into bodies.  The clump separated a bit and Miriam prodded Wilson to the closest available booth.  She shuffled back and started prodding Regina Weatherly in the opposite direction when the voter that the group crowded, Junior Blye, a beast of a man and only slightly less of one as a corpse, finished his ballot.  He stepped back and knocked three of the other voters over like bowling pins, a strike that Miriam nearly got caught up in.

She stumbled away from the carnage, catching herself seconds away from a broken hip.  Miriam cursed under her breath and then out loud as she limped back to the table.  Horses treaded on her lighter than that dead man.  Junior Blye stood there, staring a foot above Miriam’s head, ballot dangling between two shriveled fingers.  Miriam caught herself just before she snatched it away from him and made herself take the ballot nicely.  He wouldn’t have noticed either way, but Miriam didn’t want to take her aggravation out on Junior, dead or not.  Bad enough she’d cursed.  No one minded, but that wasn’t the point.  She used to enjoy this job.  Now it was just a pain.  Junior turned and shuffled away, unoffended.  Miriam scanned his ballot into the vote box and sat down heavily, air hissing out of the cushion.  Her ankle throbbed where it had been stepped on.

The knot of corpses worked itself out as Miriam watched from the safety of her seat behind the table.  The rest of the voters managed to cast their ballots without seriously injuring her.

At 7:59, a minute before the poll closed, the place was empty and had been for almost an hour.  Miriam slid her ballot into the voting box.  She was always the last one to vote, just in case she decided to change her mind.  Gene used to tease her about that.  He might have put as much thought as she did into his votes, but he knew that morning exactly who he was voting for and why, no doubts.

“Voting isn’t a test, Miriam.  You can’t get it wrong.”

But you could get it wrong.  One look at the state of things told Miriam just how wrong people could get it.  Miriam liked being right, not being on the right side.

Miriam boxed up the rest of the ballots and gave the floor a final sweep before putting away the broom and the voting stick.  A little after eight, Russell Sims and his boy Kevin showed up to collect the ballots and the vote box.  While Russell loaded up the dolly, Kevin put away the table and voting pedestals.  Miriam insisted on putting the chair away despite her limp.  Her ankle was a little swollen.  She’d probably end up in the doctor’s office before the end of the week.

“Russell,” she said as she put her jacket on over her cardigan, picked up the cushion, and holstered her purse in the crook of her arm, “you’d better start looking for someone to take over this polling place.  I’m getting too old for this.”

“Miriam, you say that every year,” Russell said, wheeling the ballots out the door, his son right behind him.

“This year I mean it.”

Miriam moved the horse head doorstops aside, turned off the lights, and shut the doors behind her.  Russell’s truck roared off into the night.

Miriam stood on the concrete steps, her breath clouding up around the edges in the half-moonlight.

The cemetery laid quiet.

***

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