A Personal Account of Post-Election Loss
The eclipse darkened the sky and drained the color from our skin. We were leaden statues standing in the pale grass. Every detail stood out, sharp and artificial-looking; it was no longer possible to melt into the landscape, to pretend we were part of it. The dog hunkered under the lilac bush, watching us. When the moon moved in front of the sun, Dad removed his eclipse glasses, looked up at the corona, and said, “What’s the big deal?”
I spent a week at my parents’ place in Wyoming to see the total eclipse, and to escape the smoky skies hanging over the town where I lived—Missoula, Montana—the summer of the worst fire season in memory. On the drive, I learned that Greenland was burning—impossibly. Thawing permafrost, fire seeping into the ground. I personally know people who believe that global warming is a hoax and that what we are seeing now—drought, hurricanes, rampant forest fires—represents the Biblical end of days. I cannot disagree that we seem to be approaching an end to something.
The day I returned to Missoula it rained heavily. The smoke subsided over the weekend but on Monday it returned with a vengeance. I grudgingly took my car to the the dealership, where I’d accrued a number of coupons for free oil changes I needed to use up. I was no fan of the dealership. I’d had to take my car in several times over the fall, during the election, for persistent maintenance issues; back then, in the fall of 2016, Fox News ran continually on the waiting room televisions. The dealership lay between the airport and the interstate: nowhere to run. After the election, I heard a woman loudly whisper to her husband, “Now we’ll have a real woman in the White House, instead of that monkey.” She may have said something after that; I can’t be sure now. It was one of those things that cuts right through the fluorescent lighting of your tedious day and stops everything. Suddenly it’s impossibly to deny you know exactly what you’re dealing with and who is sitting next to you.
This day, eight months into the new presidency, the TVs are off for the first time ever. Houston is at this very moment threatened by devastating floods in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, yet the screens are dark, reflecting the smattering of people sitting stony-faced in the waiting room.
The man beside me is talking on the phone, telling someone how to administer pills to what I assume is an animal. I like this man. I like his voice. “You can put it in one hunk of bread and then hold up another hunk so that he’s looking forward to eating the next hunk and he’s not paying attention . . . Uh huh . . . Make sure he doesn’t spit it out . . .”
“Dad sieg-heiled me as I was leaving,” I tell my mom on the phone on the drive home from the dealership. He’d thought it was a joke—some meaningless, irritating little thing to do. “I know,” she says. I’m driving through heavy smoke, the air smells like chlorine, the mountains have disappeared completely. It’s like Missoula’s adrift in a sea of milk. It’s like someone dropped a lid over us and left us to stew.
“It’s old history,” Dad had said, about slavery, the Confederate War, racism. “It doesn’t matter. They need to let it go.” It wasn’t clear which “they” he was talking about.
Except of course it was.
My parents had told me they hadn’t really been watching the news about the deadly protests in Charlottesville. I’d filled them in, back in Wyoming, in the kitchen after supper, asking what they thought about the president’s statement that there were “good people on both sides.”
“Maybe there were good people in that group”—the alt-right group—“I don’t know them,” said Dad.
“Heil Hitler,” he’d hollered as I stopped outside his bedroom to call goodnight.
On the phone, Mom says, “He can’t help himself. Even if he could, he wouldn’t.”
I’d driven the whole nine hours to Wyoming with Charlottesville on my mind. I was wondering what my parents thought, if they were still going to stand by their vote for the man whose rise to power inspired a deadly spike in hate crimes across the country, a man who had practically gone and given his blessing to the white supremacist rage responsible for the murder of one anti-racist protester. Maybe it wasn’t my business—except that I woke up every day to this world they’d made clear they wanted, and I thought it was only fair to ask why they’d wanted it and whether they still did.
“Well, if the Democrats would have come up with a decent candidate . . . ”
“Not to us.”
At some point in the conversation, my mom had drifted to the computer and Dad had switched on the TV. I remained at the table, my back to the nighttime darkness pressing against the kitchen window.
Before, I would have asked why. Why not Hillary? But we’d been over that. We must have had this argument twenty times. This time, I wanted them to take responsibility. I wanted them to admit they’d made a decision and either defend it once and for all—or, I don’t know. I think I wanted something crazy. I think I expected them to apologize.
“Tasha, it doesn’t matter,” my mom said. “Our little votes didn’t matter.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I know who you voted for.”
“In the scheme of things it doesn’t matter.”
“Do you think we’d be having white supremacists marching around if Hillary was president?” I asked, feeling myself go numb. Something was dawning on me: I’d been deluding myself—I’d thought I’d been talking to someone else.
“Well,” my mom said, exasperated. “We didn’t have a choice. We don’t like Hillary. We don’t like her face. We hate looking at her.” She chuckled helplessly. “We just can’t stand her. Not that we like looking at Trump!”
“What she did, taking all that money, getting rich off of her foundation, wasn’t right,” said my dad.
“They’re all crooked,” Mom said. “I wish they weren’t, but they all are.”
On Facebook last fall, I’d shared a memory of seeing Hillary in person on a high school trip to D.C. Passing then-Senator Clinton in the Capitol Building had filled me with a powerful sense of awe and pride that my 16-year-old self desperately needed. In her comment, my mom chastised me, urging me in strong language to look up to someone deserving—virtually anyone else. Her words flooded back to me there in the chilled atmosphere of the kitchen.
“So you voted for Donald Trump?” I snapped. I reminded them that they’d known so much about him. They couldn’t pretend they didn’t know who they were voting for. There was no excuse. “This year has been hell,” I said. “For a lot of people.”
My parents had settled into silence, probably feeling unfairly admonished, afraid to make me any angrier. It was late; everyone was ready for bed. “You’re a good person,” said Mom. “You care about people.”
Don’t you? I wanted to say. She was a devout Christian; she went to church on Sundays and to prayer meetings midweek; she prayed for all kinds of people, for people she didn’t know.
All I’d wanted was a direct response—no more evasion, no more dismissal. Instead, we’d reached another stalemate. Another “It’s great you’re so passionate.” I couldn’t blame them; it was true, I’d mistaken my audience. I’d imagined I was talking to someone else. The conversation limped along a few minutes longer, but we all knew it was over.
Later that night, Dad sieg-heiled me and a door in my heart slammed shut.
He did it again as I was leaving. It was if everything I’d said hadn’t made the slightest difference. He couldn’t help himself. Even if he could, he wouldn’t.
The second time he goofily extended his arm—“Heil Hitler!”—as I was saying goodbye, we were on the porch, between the freezer and the dehydrator. They’d filled my cooler with elk meat from Grandpa’s freezer, with vegetables from their garden, with fresh eggs from a neighbor’s chickens.
“I’m sorry,” he said, putting on a remorseful expression.
We weren’t looking at each other, but out at the sunlight falling over the yard. Regular, yellow sunlight falling in the regular way on the regular, seemingly indifferent landscape. Of course it wasn’t indifferent, anything but; every cell of every plant pushed up against its fleshy walls to meet the electromagnetic rays falling silently all around.
I’d known all along and too well where my parents stood. But I’d always thought that when it came down to it, they’d be able to put their feelings aside and do the right thing. Instead, they’d voted for a fear-mongering reality star who surrounded himself with white supremacists and likely assaulted over a dozen women. And they didn’t regret it. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” this man had famously boasted while campaigning in 2016. He was right. Likely continued to be right. And my parents were those voters he’d never lose no matter what he did. What could I do with that knowledge? Where could we go from here? If they were anyone other than my parents, the answer would have been easy.
“I can’t get over this,” I’d told them, sitting at the table. They hadn’t apologized, but I found myself saying, “I don’t think I can forgive you.”
One door—not the only door, but an important one—had closed. It had been happening steadily, all along, and finally something had come along and latched it shut.
There are few places to go from here, together. That’s the answer.
It’s tempting to use the eclipse as a metaphor. But maybe there’s no elevated way to look at any of this—this place we are now, where things seem unmistakably literal. Black and white.
Now it’s a few weeks later, September, and I’m talking to my brother on the phone. The smoke has cleared for a few days. Soon it will snow and bring a close to this devastating fire season. That’s the hope, anyway. Personally I think snow, and relief, are a long way off. I think that so I can stay prepared for the worst. Who knows what will happen.
“What was Dad doing while you were down there?” my brother asked. “He said he was doing something to make you mad.”
“Sounds right,” he said. “He was laughing about it.”
Back in August, at my parents’ house, I’d decided to state the obvious. Our family is made up of both white and brown people, I said, and as a member of this family I didn’t appreciate seeing a goddamn Nazi salute. People were dying. “What does that have to do with anything?” Dad broke in angrily.
Outside, in the world beyond the kitchen window, the moon climbed, the wind came up, the cat sat alert on the wood-pile, a coyote slipped through the brush behind the house. I imagined being out there with everything that knew exactly what it was and how deadly a moment can be.
Mount Jumbo never looked like a mountain to me. But it’s steep, larger than it looks, with no trees in most places and houses lying directly below it. Our duplex huddled below the gentle, north-facing slope, the snow anchored in place by a wayward patch of dense trees. The house on Holly Street, around the curve of the mountain, lay beneath a steep, virtually treeless slope, directly below a ravine that acted as a chute, channeling the torrent of snow that would smash it to bits and swallow three people.
The avalanche was preceded by near-record snowfall and crushing cold. That afternoon, in February 2014, big flakes of snow were falling hard, faster and faster; the wind was blowing, creating white-out conditions; the road was covered in thick layers of snow and ice.
All that remains of the house today is a set of concrete steps leading to nothing but the weedy slope of the mountain beyond them.
The husband of the woman who lost her life to the avalanche—the sole fatality—was interviewed for an article on the one-year anniversary of the incident. “When I first started going back to the house,” he said, “it was almost as if part of me felt it’d still be there.”
I’d walked Mt. Jumbo many times in the months following the avalanche, on the slope overlooking town. My husband and I had just moved here. I didn’t have a job, and I wasn’t having any luck. I climbed up there to see what I could see. Missoula was pretty, but I didn’t enjoy looking at it. It spread before me like a pretty picture painted on a sheet of tin, closed off. My heart hung somewhere outside me, behind me, perhaps, as I studied the hazy little town like a military strategist, moving my pieces over a map of enemy territory: there was the university, there was the grocery store, there was the strip club. I was searching, looking for a way in. When I stood on the mountain in those days, I understood the limits of perspective.
In the story about the avalanche that demolished the house on Holly Street three years ago, the man returning to the remains of his house—concrete steps at the base of the hill—always expects it to be there, but it never is.
Can you be the house? Can we be the house?
Are we the mountain? The avalanche?
We’re not in this story. It’s not our story. It’s not right to borrow it, the story of this singular, life-shattering event. Yet I can’t help thinking about it. I’m obsessed with it. This story of something missing. Something stolen.
I hope that new mountains erupt out of this and carry us all up and save us somehow from each other.
I don’t know the answers. I don’t know what happens now. I don’t have the right lens, I can’t find the right way to look at this.
The steps at the bottom of the mountain won’t lead anywhere but to the mountain beyond it, once we’ve crossed the outline of what used to be. There’s no going back. A long climb ahead. Even as we hold tight to the people climbing with us, a few of us can’t help casting backward glances down the slope, looking for the people some part of us still expects to be there.
Tasha LeClair is a graduate of the University of Wyoming’s MFA program in creative writing. She lives in Montana, where she’s working on a horror novel. You may find her at prairietown.wordpress.com.