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Political Animal by Dan Morey

The football players entered first, bursting through a paper hoop and taking a celebratory lap around the gym. Next came the cheerleaders, slinking across the lacquered floor in a fleshy phalanx, assaulting us with a battery of claps and jiggles. Amid all this aggressive gaiety, the hippie art teacher slouched out and mournfully announced the cancellation of his decades-old comedy routine.  Apparently, someone on the school board had rented Up In Smoke and decided that Cheech and Chong references were no longer appropriate at pep rallies.

Now there was only one order of business in need of closure before everyone could go home, eat Pop Tarts, and watch Scooby Doo: the reading of the student council election results.  After a dreary attempt at mascot humor, the floor was cleared, and Principal Papick made his entrance to a chorus of groans and gaseous emissions.  He smiled dumbly and hunched over the microphone at midcourt.

James Jay Mitchell, candidate for president, had been smugly silent during the entire rally. I wondered what grandiose illusions were flickering through his mind. Was he standing at a congressional lectern, addressing his esteemed colleagues? Settling into the Governor’s mansion?   Bloviating on Meet the Press? Possibly he was at his own inauguration ceremony, before a throng of jubilant citizens, ascending to the country’s highest office.  This high school election was merely his first step toward national supremacy. And I was his right-hand man.

Our campaign had, out of necessity, been extreme. James Jay Mitchell was not well liked.  He wore blazers and ties to school, and bragged incessantly about his family’s wealth.  The Mitchells were devoutly Republican, and their eldest son never attempted to conceal his undying allegiance to Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the Bushes.

Our first collaboration had been a Joseph McCarthy project in 8th grade American History. Finding that we shared a passion for demagoguery, we’d become friends, or as close to friends as our exclusive personalities would allow.  He found my intellectual presence mildly stimulating, and deigned to carry on a half-mocking, half-humoring relationship with me through the years.  I flattered him by laughing at his elitist jokes and deferring to his superior knowledge in matters political.

When James Jay’s presidential ambitions began to manifest themselves, I realized that I had an opportunity to test some of my pet social theories (most of them pertaining to human depravity), and, at the same time, explore the limits of my own manipulative abilities.   I became James Jay’s confidante and advisor, the one student fully aware of his megalomaniacal lust for power.  His pretensions were at once laughable and highly compelling. He was, without doubt, a pompous ass, but he also presented an attractive challenge.  Could I somehow lift this universally despised snob from the depths of his social dungeon to the lofty rank of Student Council President? James Jay was fully aware of the difficulty of our task, and agreed to let his Machiavellian instincts run amok.

The incumbent was a vacuous but pleasant cheerleader named Holly Kirk, who was somehow voted most likely to succeed, though as a junior she had yet to pierce the veiled mysteries of introductory algebra.  We attacked without mercy, hanging libelous posters in every hall and publicly ravaging her do-nothing record. We went so far as to smear her good name by spreading false rumors regarding her insatiable sexual appetite, all so James Jay could utter the word “promiscuous” during his speeches, and point the finger of moral outrage at his passive rival.

When Holly refused to face James Jay at the annual debates, he derided her cowardice and mounted the podium alone, urging a return to conservative values and prudent leadership.

I was enjoying myself thoroughly. After all, I’d spent most of my youth moving and manipulating in various circles, destroying friendships and convincing others who their enemies were. I didn’t do it for personal gain—it was not my goal to reach the top rung of the popularity ladder by tearing everyone else down.  I did what I did out of pure schadenfreude, because I genuinely delighted in the suffering of others.

And I was not alone.  A small group of close acquaintances shared in my gleeful nihilism. We wanted to bomb every belief, detonate every dream, and explode every enthusiasm. There was a bond of blasé contempt between us—an all-encompassing disdain for the world, coupled with a strict policy of noninvolvement. We sneered at anyone who revealed an emotion or let slip a conviction, and remained, through lack of commitment to any ideals of our own, immune to ridicule.

So here I was, toiling with this delusional reactionary, doing for his campaign exactly what I had done for most of my life—plotting and jeering and trying to influence people in a negative way. Unfortunately, and though I exercised my talents to their fullest, I soon realized that James Jay’s cause was hopeless.  Persuasiveness, after all, has its limits.  Even I couldn’t undo what years of sniffing faculty rump and finking on students had done to my weasely candidate’s reputation. Despite our underhanded attempts at improving his position, the polls predicted a landslide loss.

There seemed to be nothing James Jay could do to win favor, so we resorted to a devious technicality.  Days before the election, by way of a contact in the administration, we obtained a document proving that Holly Kirk had not collected the required amount of faculty recommendation signatures by the official deadline.  The final signature had been one day late.  James Jay demanded justice, and, at the cost of infuriating everyone with his pettiness, was given it.  The cheerleader, denied a place on the ballot, could only throw together a last minute write-in campaign, which consisted mainly of the dispensation of pink, donkey-shaped flyers that read:

Don’t be a jerk, vote for Kirk!

And don’t forget to write it in, silly!

James Jay scoffed.  When had a write-in candidate ever won anything?

Two days later, we were in the gymnasium, listening intensely as Principal Papick stuttered and mispronounced his way through winning treasurers and secretaries.  The remaining students (many had slipped out after the art teacher’s announcement) were either squirming in their seats or nodding off.

After announcing the vice president, Papick paused and cleared his throat.  James Jay began to rise, his face taking on the mock glow of humble victory.

“Miss Holly Kirk!” said Papick, tossing the card into the air.

Holly hopped around the bleachers, high-fiving her friends and giving James Jay the finger.

Her gesture was wasted. James Jay had frozen in a half-erect position; he barely reacted when someone grabbed his shoulders and thrust him back onto his seat.  After a moment of dumbstruck oblivion, he stood slowly and said, “Recount.” His face was flushed and puffy. “Recount!” he said. “I demand a recount!”

Everyone began to laugh, and so did I. I laughed because it wasn’t my life, because it was never my life.  James Jay was just another anguished soul, flailing and failing beside me. I laughed because I was untouchable, because I was indifferent.   I would never run for president.  No one would ever remember me.

Dan Morey is a journalist in Erie, PA. His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in many publications, including Splitsider, Feathertale Review, Lowestoft Chronicle and Hobo Pancakes.