Just got my confirmation e-mail yesterday for the NYC Midnight competition, meaning I can now share this story with all of you. I’ve still got five weeks to wait until I know the results of the first round, but I’m pretty happy with the story either way. The prompt was:
- Genre: Political Satire
- Subject: A Presentation
- Character: A secretary
“It can’t be that bad.”
Those were the optimistic words Sally had spoken not an hour before. Now she was standing in a room full of congressmen from both sides of the aisle, including her boss, a newly elected freshman from Ohio.
She had said those five hopeful words to him in his office. Congressman James Latimer had just finished the fifth of his morning papers. She’d put the report on his desk, something she’d wanted to bring up with him for a while but didn’t quite have the nerve. James had always been friendly with her, even if she was just his secretary. It was never in an inappropriate way, or at least not in an unwelcome inappropriate way.
He perused her presentation with bemusement.
“It’ll never happen,” was his gentle reply.
“But there’s bipartisan public support. I’ve got polls, surveys, letters to the editor. Surely the committee…” She flipped the file open, and was turning over papers when he touched her hand.
“It doesn’t matter.”
And that’s when she’d said, “It can’t be that bad.”
Now she was standing in front of the sub-committee, holding a clicker whose buttons she had to crush just to get to the next slide, watching weeks of work fly by. Somewhere along the line she realized she was talking.
“In the last month there have been twenty continuing resolutions brought to the House floor. Of these, seventeen were for the creation of national awareness days, weeks or months. The stated purpose of these awareness campaigns is to bring attention to diseases, causes or groups who are in need of that attention. It’s most helpful to minorities who otherwise might not capture national notice,” Sally began, finding her voice surprisingly steady.
“But as you can see things have gotten a little out of hand,” Sally continued, as she gestured to the briefing binders in front of each of them. Inside were more than a hundred pages, each with thirty-five or so lines each representing a holiday, observance, or awareness campaign.
“Forty-nine new holidays have been created since the beginning of the calendar year. We are currently in the midst of National Noodle Month, National Peanut Month, or if you’d prefer, Moustache March.”
There were a couple of polite chuckles in the room which were quickly silenced by the aged Congressman McCloister. “That’s all very well and good, miss,” he began in a thick southern accent, “But what is it you hope to accomplish?”
“I’m glad you asked that.” In truth, she wasn’t, though it had been frankly amazing she’d been allowed to talk for as long as two continuous minutes. “Such a glut of holidays and awareness weeks is resulting in very little actual awareness, and some ridicule. I have here a proposal for the elimination of 30% of these ‘holidays’, ones that I think you’ll agree will be missed by no one.”
“This is because Latimer here can’t grow any facial hair,” charged McCloister running a finger over his own soup strainer.
Again there was polite laughter, but Latimer just smiled. “Miss Raymond, please continue,” he said.
“Well,” she fumbled, “just taking a look at foods for example we have a variety of months celebrating unhealthy eating habits. We’ve got pudding snack month, snack food month, frozen food month…”
“Vegetables can be frozen,” cut in Congressman McCloister.
“When’s the last time you ate anything green?” quipped Congressman Brown, a democrat from New Hampshire with a hairline that had long ago surrendered and was in full retreat.
Sally nodded her head to the side, “Yes, but we’ve still got candy month, ice cream month, chocolate custard month, artisan gelato month…”
“Miss Raymond, all you’ve succeeded in doing so far is to make us hungry,” McCloister drawled.
“Then I probably shouldn’t bring up hamburger month, hot dog month, soul food month, or barbeque month,” Sally said. “We have a nationwide obesity epidemic…”
“Typical nanny-state government,” cried Congressman Paulson, whose high-pitched voice cut the air in two. “Americans have the right to eat whatever they want. Their diet is between them and their God. Why should the government be poking its nose in?”
“Not to mention big business,” McCloister interjected. “There’s a lot of money made from hamburgers, candy and snack food. A lot of jobs, Miss Raymond.”
Sally was tempted to mention that two of the observances she thought about knocking off the list were actually very necessary given the congressmen’s diets, but she paled at the idea of saying diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome in front of elected officials.
“Besides,” Congressman Brown noted, flipping through the brief, “you’ve got plenty to represent the other side of the argument: garden month, soyfoods month, spinach month.”
“Actually, that’s spinach lover’s month,” piped up Congresswoman Babbington.
“What’s the difference?” asked McCloister.
“I guess one celebrates the vegetable, and one celebrates the people who like it,” Babbington answered.
“Like Popeye,” Brown observed.
“Not me,” McCloister scoffed, “I can’t stand the stringy stuff.”
Sally was regretting starting with the food, especially an hour before lunch. She flipped through a couple more slides while the group was focused on discussing favorite foods.
Latimer coughed when he saw that she was ready to resume. “Perhaps we’d better table that discussion for now,” he suggested, then gestured to Sally.
“Right, well…” she wasn’t really sure where to continue. “Here’s a favorite of mine. January is Awareness Month Awareness Month.”
“Meaning we should be having this meeting next year?” Paulson interjected.
“Or we could have another one this July during National Awareness Month,” Sally responded.
“But you said the purpose of these campaigns was to bring awareness to the issues,” McCloister said. “What brings more awareness than awareness?”
“Or awareness of awareness,” Brown laughed.
“Do we really need two recognized days that mean exactly the same thing?” Sally asked incredulously.
“Why not?” McCloister said. “Says here there’s both a potato day and a potato month.”
‘And now we’re back to the food again,’ Sally thought.
“Say, why is turkey lover’s month in June?” asked Brown.
“Excuse me?” Sally sighed.
“Well shouldn’t we be loving turkeys in November?”
“Of course not,” replied McCloister, “that’s when we eat them. Not a very loving thing to do now is it, Miss Raymond?”
“I guess not, congressman. Okay, how about Zombie Awareness Day?”
“Excuse me?” Congresswoman Babbington raised an eyebrow.
‘Now we’re getting somewhere,’ Sally thought.
Congresswoman Babbington’s blond hair may have succumbed to gray long ago, but she would never surrender her wits. “I presume that’s in October?” Babbington asked.
Sally shook her head. “In May actually. I’m all for fun and games, but I think we can agree that people don’t need to prepare for a zombie apocalypse.”
Of course it was Paulson who spoke up first. “You’re just looking for an excuse to take away my shotgun. We live in frightening times with all sorts of government funded research going on beyond the people’s notice. Why I’ve seen reports…”
Brown cut him off, “Actually, the zombie thing has been good for getting people to put together what they’d need in case of an emergency, like water and first aid kits. I don’t share the congressman’s view that an imminent living dead attack is upon us, but these doomsday preppers are all set for hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.”
“Besides, if there were a group of undead on the hunt for brains, I don’t think any one of us in this room has much to worry about,” Babbington joked.
Sally looked pained. Presidents tended to go gray no matter how young they were, or how short their term in office, but that was nothing compared to congressional secretaries.
She flipped through a number of slides until she stopped on an image of denim jeans. “How about pants awareness month? Everyone here seems to be wearing pants or a skirt. I think if you travel through the city you’ll find people wearing something on their lower half. Do we really need a whole month dedicated to knowing pants exist?”
Babbington was first to respond, “Speaking about pants cuts to gender equality, differing standards for men and women. It provides an opportunity to talk about just who is wearing the pants in the family.”
“Not to mention shining a light on the overseas conditions for making clothing of all kinds. Low wages, harsh working environments,” Brown continued.
“Plus cutting recognition of pants hurts big business, that’s jobs again, not just here but overseas,” McCloister finished.
“Squirrel awareness month?” Sally offered.
“Brings awareness to our national parks and the conditions of urban living.” Brown said. “Plus, the last thing I need is PETA camping out in front of my house.”
“Pickled peppers month?” Sally attempted.
“Tongue twisters help mental acuity and can prevent early onset Alzheimer’s,” Babbington replied.
“Plus they’re dang tasty,” McCloister added.
“Ballpoint pen day?” Sally tried again.
“We need to preserve our history, to connect with the physical in this technological world,” Brown said.
“Dirty Harry day?” Sally said exasperated.
“There you go with the anti-gun nonsense again!” Paulson retorted.
Sally shot a look at Latimer, who was trying to suppress a laugh. She wanted to glare at him but she had to make some attempt to keep the meeting together. After all, she was in the Capitol Building. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the history, the classic debates, the landmark decisions that had probably been made in this very room. But now she had a bunch of congressmen asking each other, ‘do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?’
“Gentlemen and lady, this is the kind of little stuff that makes everyone think we don’t take our jobs seriously. Days, weeks and months like these are fodder for the late night comedians,” Sally began. “And before you say it, yes comics are job creators too, laughter is good for the soul and the body, and sometimes a jester is the only one who can speak truth to power. Well, I’m not a jester, I’m just a secretary to a freshman congressman, but I still have something to say.
“I know that it can seem hard to agree on anything, especially in these times of fractured partisan schisms. In truth, these continuing resolutions are the only thing you people seem to consistently agree on without debate. What about meaningful immigration reform, balanced gun control, raising the minimum wage? What about the things the people sent you here to do, the things I came here to be my small part of?”
She had expected stunned silence. She had expected angry yelling. She had expected to be immediately fired.
Instead all she got was laughter.
“Somebody needs to celebrate July 31st a little early this year,” McCloister said with a knowing look.
Sally had a feeling that leaving national orgasm day on the list would not go unnoticed. Countless witty retorts sought escape from her lips. She could have commented on how a real orgasm was as mythical to the congressman as zombies or dragons. She could have pointed out that celebrating orgasms once a year could only improve the congressman’s sex life. Or she could have stuck to the old chestnut of those who are preoccupied with sex are rarely occupied by it.
What she did do was stand there, staring, clutching the clicker tightly. Her hand was shaking.
“Listen here, Miss Raymond,” McCloister continued, seeing that his joke had not amused his audience. “I’m sure you came here with a bunch of idealistic notions and thoughts for changing the world. I blame Aaron Sorkin. He’s ruined a generation of young minds and political operatives. You think politics can be noble, that it can be simple, but the real world is more complicated. Any one of these awareness things, even the one’s you think are ridiculous, have all sorts of interests behind them. They can work, even if they don’t always work in the way we intended. And they cost the government next to nothing, which even people like my friend Congressman Paulson can get on board with.”
“No more government spending!” cried Paulson.
McCloister raised a hand to both acknowledge and silence Paulson. “Listen, Miss Raymond, you want to get something done in Washington?”
“Propose a phantom vibration syndrome awareness week,” McCloister said. “Those nerve impulses can be a sign of something serious. And while you’re at it, I don’t think hot wings have been getting enough attention. We almost had a national shortage last year. I don’t want to even get started on the potential economic fallout that could have caused.”
The congressmen all pushed back their chairs in unison. The group left, leaving their briefing binders on the table, all except Brown who was apparently starved for a laugh.
When Sally was finally alone in the room with Congressman Latimer she turned to him and said, “That’s not really how things work is it?”
Latimer grinned, “How should I know? I just got here myself.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, “You knew this would happen.”
He raised his hands in innocence. “Washington’s not exactly known for its predictability. I had no idea what a logical, rational argument would do to a room full of my colleagues. Thank you for the opportunity to find out.”
“You’re welcome.” She clicked off the projector. “Alright, you win; I’ll let you take me to dinner.”
“Of course, Miss Raymond.”
“But I want sushi.”
Latimer grinned, “I think it’s their week.”