The Honored Lady likes an earnest suitor—a rich suitor, a patriot. She likes a tailored suit and a crisp tie. A nice smile won’t hurt.
She likes a married man. She likes a father. She wants to see how he’ll manage a family before she’ll let him manage hers.
Caleb Conroy yearns for her. He keeps a full wallet and wears a silky red tie. He uses tooth whitener and maintains an arsenal of hair products in his medicine cabinet. He obsesses. He stresses. He gazes into the mirror and hates himself. He rubs petroleum jelly over his teeth to remind himself to smile, and he loves himself again. He marries another woman and has a kid, just to get his lovely prize’s attention. But, he must remain faithful to his wife until he takes his new vows.
His wife, Margery, doesn’t mind: she tells her husband so. Margery dresses up in powder pink skirt suits, hats, and a vacuous grin. She sits with her legs crossed for hours. She waves, turns her hand as if it’s made of plastic. She speaks well of her husband. When she’s at home and the cameras are off, she kicks off her pumps and lies on the sofa. He compensates her for time she spends in character.
He buys the house she wants. He gives her lots of money. When he performs at The Poll, he asks her to introduce his act, so 308 million leering spectators will know she’s happy to let them see her husband stripped bare, and the audience will vote for Conroy as the most eligible bachelor that was ever married.
“I think it all went exceptionally well,” she says, and crunches her next potato chip. “You’re a hit, Caleb. I peeked at the audience. All eyes were on you.”
Conroy takes his son by the shoulders and coaches him for the next big exhibition. “And when they ask you about Daddy, what will you say?”
“I’ll say my daddy is the best daddy ever—and, and he’ll be the best candidate ever—and, and—”
“And his finan-shul? policy is the best ever. And he’ll be so great ’cause he is so great! And we go fishing together and he loves me so much.”
“That’s right.” Conroy gives a dazzling grin. “Because I do, don’t I, son?”
Owen’s gaze sinks away and up, as though he’s trying to remember his times tables. His father’s hands tighten dangerously on his shoulders.
“Come on,” Margery says. “You know this. Be a good boy and help Daddy.”
“Y-yessir.” Owen blinks and snaps himself out of his daze. “S-sorry. Yessir.”
“Good boy.” Conroy laughs, pats the boy’s shoulder, and shoos him away.
* * *
At The Poll, Conroy stands with the other eligible bachelors. Sometimes, an eligible bachelorette joins the competition, but the Honored Lady has never chosen a woman. Conroy’s sweet prize will be watching from somewhere, through her many-faceted opera glasses. He won’t see her, but he’ll feel her gaze. It will make him giddy. He will vow to win her heart. He’ll entice her with promises of employment, arouse her with sweet tax reform nothings, tease her with alternative energy touches, and seduce her with his wartime prowess. She will love the way he works the poll.
A crowd gathers. The game show begins. The candidates stand behind light-up podiums on a stage of holographic stars and primary colors. Each recites his love spell. The announcer asks the candidates questions to help the Honored Lady get to know them. I like adventure, finance, and long walks on the beach. I’ll treat you right. I’ll take you to the top of the world.
The announcer taps his cue cards on his podium, neatens the stack. “If our good lady chooses you, how will you provide for her and all her children?”
If you choose me, I will stop at nothing to keep you safe. I’ll rebuild your house. I’ll abolish your debts. I will feed your 308 million gorgeous mouths.
“What sets you apart from the other contestants?”
I’m not a whore.
One of the contestants, Richard Armati, pipes in then. “Gentlemen, gentlemen! Let’s not be catty. Shouldn’t we be getting back to the issues? Amour-propre, my friends.”
Conroy rolls his eyes and thinks “what a tart!’; but, he catches himself looking at Armati’s studded wristwatch, his patterned blue tie, and his neatly swooping bangs. He thinks, “I wonder if I could pull that off.”
“So, where’s your plan, former Governor Armati?” another contestant asks.
“Cooling off in the fridge,” another answers, “along with his boxer shorts.” Armati forces a good-natured laugh and smiles for the cameras.
After the first round, Conroy goes home and scours The Poll’s magazines. He finds a photograph of the winning contestant on The Poll’s Russian sister show. The shirtless winner is standing knee-deep in a river. His expression is calm, controlled. Fine beads of sweat and freshwater glisten off his skin. He grips a fishing net, is poised to drag it from the water with a swift, calculated flex of his strong arms. Conroy dreams of 308 million gazes starving to see him just like that. He wonders if he will look as good with all his clothes off.
“Why do you want this so badly?” his wife asks. “It won’t last. In four years, there will be another poll. She may pick you again, but she’ll leave you for good the next time. She’s not allowed to keep a husband more than eight years, and by the time she’s done with a husband, he’s aged twenty years and his hair is white.”
“I don’t care,” he says. “No one can care for her like I can. The others won’t love her like I’ll love her—they can’t. I need her, Margery, and she needs me. I’ll go crazy if I don’t have her. But that’s not going to happen because I’m going to win.”
“Whatever you say, Caleb.”
“Help me, Margery. Help me win, please.”
“O-kay.” Margery rolls up her bag of potato chips and lurches off the couch. “But I get a raise.” She sits at her desk and scripts his next act.
A week after the first show, Conroy finds out Armati is ahead in the polls. Conroy is incensed. He demands Armati’s demise.
“He’s filthy! He’s a traitor! He’s a liar! He spent fifteen years in France, for crying out loud! He’s infected with her bourgeoisie. And who knows how many other beds he’s crawled into.”
Conroy has his sponsors create dozens of pamphlets, ads, and commercials saying just that.
“He’s built his fortune on top of infant corpses. He steals money from your retirement accounts. He bribes his sponsors. He collaborates with drug dealers. They pay him to pour their drugs into our water. He crams their poisons down our throats.”
Armati launches a counter-campaign. It fails. He weathers Conroy’s criticism for two stalwart months, then quits The Poll.
Now Conroy is free to dazzle his way to the top. With Armati gone, only three contestants remain: a hobbling old senator (what chance does he stand?); a washed-up economist (surely, she has better taste that that); and a farmer’s son (Conroy is richer; he’s vastly more qualified to head the Lady’s beautiful white house). He sees the ratings and shivers. The competition is his.
On the day before the fifth Poll, Conroy wants Margery to tie his tie. He calls her name. She doesn’t answer. He looks for her on the couch, but she isn’t there. Instead, he finds her standing at the door. She has Owen by the hand. She’s wearing a new suit and pumps. She has cut her hair.
“Margery, what are you doing?”
“Do you know how much your tirade against Armati cost us? It cut into my manicure budget and I don’t like it.”
“You’re leaving me?”
“No.” She raises an eyebrow, as if the suggestion is ludicrous. “I’m not leaving you. You’re coming with me. You’re going to be a very good husband, and you’re going to very happily announce your wife’s candidacy.”
He stands in shock, then sneers his outrage.
“Don’t give me that. You’ve always been weak. You had to run a smear campaign against Armati because you couldn’t have won otherwise. But I’m not weak. I thought I could trust you to manage us, but I guess if you want something done right—Nah-ah, ah!”
She wags a finger in front of the switchblade Conroy has grabbed from the mantel. Conroy grips the handle tight, as if he means to lunge.
“If you kill me, if you do anything to suggest we’re not the happiest little family on the Poll, it will ruin you. Then you’ll never have her.”
His breath is quick, but he lowers the knife. “Good boy,” she croons. “Now, come along. If I’m made a wife twice, you’ll be a husband twice, and you’ll live in her house with me. I just might let you have your time with her, once in a while. But you must behave.
Now, what do you say?”
His reluctant surrender nauseates him. “I’ll fight you, Margery.”
“Of course, you will. We’re in competition. Now, Caleb, I’ll see you, as they say, on the stump.”