A short story by Jason C. Houghton from Mountain Voices
A few months ago I contributed the below story to the Appalachian Author’s Guild Anthology. I’m proud of this piece of work, as well the book, which is a collection of Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction from Writers in Appalachia. Since moving to Southwest Virginia, The Appalachian Writers Guild has provided encouragement, friendship, and some developmental lessons for eachother. I highly encourage you to check out the entirety of the book, as well as the books from local authors in the website store.
Small Town Election
Jasper Carpenter coughed as he walked up the marble steps into the town hall. The large building at 1 Main Street made the entire community seem bigger than they actually were. Main street was just that, the only main road through town. Sure, there were plenty of alley ways and a few oversized dirt paths up the mountainside, but the only traffic Kindton ever saw was down this road. Because of the event in the municipal building all the townsfolk crowded the street. The apprehension from participating in his first ever debate added weight to his feet.
If he lived anywhere else Jasper would consider retiring at his age, but in Kindton no one ever seemed to retire. Working until your dying day was how the little town avoided the problems the rest of the state seemed to suffer from. Besides, being the only dentist in the community meant he had little choice but to help look after the eighty residents. It was just what people expected from each other here. “Do your part!” That phrase was engraved somewhere in the town charter, or so the legend went.
He stopped at the top of the stairs to catch his breath. He turned when he heard a door slam. His opponent for tonight, Gabe Barber, climbed out of the side door of his daughter’s mini-van. Some twelve citizens of the town assembled around him; the Barber family had the most members in town. By that count alone the debate tonight would be tough, and the upcoming election even harder. Jasper had no one.
He once had a wife but she was taken a few years back. He had no siblings, nor offspring, and his wife Mary didn’t want to bring more burdens into their lives. Large families were generally frowned upon in Kindton. That sentiment went against the usual Appalachian communities, most believed in plenty of mouths at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Then again, Kindtoners viewed their whole town as their family.
The white-painted oak door was rumored to pre-date even the nation. Jasper remembered learning that in Kindton’s school. All grades Kindergarten to high school graduation all in one building. Sometimes they even combined the different grades into the same classroom- the population never grew to need more.
At least tonight the weather was pleasant, the municipal building predated any type of heating system minus the old fashion coal stoves. The trees started to show the signs of rebirth, the aroma of the grass before a long night of rain filled the night. It smelled like hope despite the odds he faced. Hope doesn’t really have a smell, but it was spring time when he courted his departed Mary, so the aroma of pollen mixed in the air always brought about good feelings.
Tim Farmer stood in the lobby when Jasper entered. The brand-new father eyes fluttered to stay half-open. Gossip said the wife was in labor for almost a whole day. Tim must’ve stayed awake the entire time. Jasper chuckled to himself thinking that the poor kid was going to hear about it for the rest of his life.
“Hey Tim I didn’t think you would make it tonight!” Jasper reached his hand out before the door shut completely behind him. His hand grasped Tim’s, shaking it furiously. “Everyone would’ve understood if you stayed with your wife and newborn.”
Tim’s glare pierced deep into Jasper’s confidence. “Now Doc, we have to make sure everyone votes, or else the wrong man wins.” The smirk on his face was anything but friendly, the clamped teeth on the left side of Tim’s face told the dentist where the new father’s vote was going.
Jasper released the grip on Tim’s hand, there was a tension building. Jasper spent an entire career studying faces, along the way he learned how to read moods with just the slightest movement of a jaw. He didn’t know how to respond; a bit of disappointment and betrayal fills him. What made the kid who once cracked his adult incisor despise the man who fixed his smile?
Jasper needed a friendly face as he moved into the atrium. Surely, he would find someone on his side, if not, the opportunity to sway the masses would be a little more difficult. Chas Shoemaker just happened to be standing there. Chas had long been a good friend, but something about him left the rest of Kindton a bit skittish. Despite his diminutive size, the farmer always seemed to be the biggest distraction in the room. Greasy, yet combed light hair, capped off the leathery skin from working in the field. It was hard to tell if his wrinkles were from age or work, either way his appearance placed him in his mid-thirties to early fifties. Jasper knew the right number but as a favor to his friend he didn’t mention it to anyone who asked. Shoemaker’s farm grew the town’s supply of meat, so he was tolerated for his unsavory behavior.
Chas went unnoticed while moving up to his friend. It was obvious Chas’s focus was elsewhere. His eyes made a beeline toward Ashley Barber, the granddaughter of his opponent. The young woman had blossomed almost overnight, and her looks doubled her popularity. She now looked just like her grandmother once did, when Jasper thought about courting her back before Gabe was in the picture. Ashley had just turned the age to vote, it seemed that her decision tonight would be a lot clearer than what she will do with her life after she graduates. Chas did like them young. Probably the reason for his tarnished reputation.
In small communities it doesn’t take long for word to pass from one end of the boundary to the other. Chas’s stares and suggestions toward the young ladies took about one evening before everyone knew. He knew he had his friend’s vote but wondered how many it would scare away. When this election was over the town would have to come together again. Would siding with Chas help or hurt his cause? More importantly to him, would Chas be insulted if he asked him to be silent and not speak on his behalf? His longtime friend seemed pretty oblivious of the town’s view of him, or didn’t care.
Chas was still gawking at the young Barber girl when he broke the silence. “What’s the strategy tonight?”
“I’m going to point out my decades of service to the community.”
“You could always bring up the affairs old Gabe has had along the years. I believe one was even with your wife.” Chas’s said snidely.
“You know that was a rumor!” Jasper snapped. “A rumor that a friend wouldn’t repeat!”
“Rumor or not, no offense to your departed Mary, but it still sullies the character of your opponent.” Chas slowly rotated his gaze toward Jasper.
His fists clenched so tight his knuckles turned white. “Mary’s name stays out of it.”
“Just trying to give you a leg up Doc.” Chas’s hands rose up, palms toward Jasper. “No need to get upset, I got your back.”
“Then keep your mouth shut!” Jasper’s words were curt. “I will give ‘em the reason to vote for me without slinging mud or trudging up sore parts of the past.”
“Don’t you think it’d be easier pointing out his flaws?” Chas’s words trail off. Their volume diminished with every grinding of Jasper’s jaw.
“I am going to say this one time for you to understand. I…AM …NOT…SLINGING MUD. Period end of discussion, got it?” Jasper wasn’t a tall man but his shadow at that moment must have been ten stories high as quickly as Chas dropped his eyes toward the floor. He let out a sigh and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Look I understand you are just trying to help, but after this election we’ll have to come back together as a community no matter who wins. I just want to win the right way so there aren’t any hurt feelings.”
“It’s your call.” The beat-dog eyes didn’t lift from the ground as Chas moved away from Jasper and off to the corner.
Perhaps pouting would keep Chas from eyeing the young women and in turn not repulse a few votes. He adjusted his shirt took a deep breath, and was about to head to another potentially undecided voter when he overheard the young Ashley.
“Mr. Carpenter I just wanted to say even though you’re running against my papaw we still think you’re a good man.” She extended her hand and her smile didn’t look halfway forced. Unlike many others here tonight her words seemed genuine.
He graciously took her hand and shook it one time gently. “Well, I appreciate it. No matter what happens the town needs to heal afterwards.”
“Yes, we will.” She smiled at him and he could tell right away the braces he prescribed six years ago did their job. Straight bright teeth to go with her bright future.
“You’ll be graduating soon, what does the future hold for Ms. Barber?” Jasper knew talking to his opponent’s granddaughter would be seen by all, hopefully in a good way. And making sure that she didn’t have to deal with Chas’s creeping was an added bonus.
“I still don’t know.” She looked down at her feet for a moment. “I mean college is definitely my plan, someplace local. No one stays away from Kindton too long. I won’t be the first!”
“I didn’t know I was going into dentistry until I realized we didn’t have any in these parts. It seemed like a good way to give to the community and have some satisfaction in my job.” Jasper lifted her chin up and smiled, hoping to get another glimpse of his craftmanship in her smile. “You’re a good young lady, you’ll find your niche.”
“Thanks Mr. Carpenter.” She flashed a quick grin then returned to her family.
“Good luck in there, Doc,” he felt the hefty hand on his back before he heard the voice of Pete Taylor. “I hope you do better against the Barber clan than my brother Dwayne managed. The vote wasn’t even close.”
“They’ve been cutting everyone’s hair since before even our Grandpas’ Grandpas’ Granpas was a twinkle in someone’s eyes” Jasper truly appreciated Gabe and his family.
“Doesn’t mean they should win every vote.” A sneer hid in Pete’s words, possibly loud enough that anyone passing by may have taken notice.
Jasper cringed preparing to walk the fine line of appeasing the masses without pissing off his own support. “No matter what happens we need to be one Kindton after this election. We’ve enjoyed a few centuries under our charter as a profitable little town. And we’ve done it together. No need to create adversity and division.”
“Please, some people strive on adversity and division.” He nods towards Gabe’s wife Edna. Then rolls his eyes. “Her husband is the talk of the town and she likes feeding on all the gossip, no matter who’s the source. That’s mister and missus division.”
“Doesn’t matter it’s not how I’m playing tonight.” Jasper felt his temper rising. “Dividing just weakens all of us, makes us no different than those outsiders.” Without realizing it his hands snap to point out the door and snap an accusatory finger enforcing each syllable.
“Woah, I get it.” Pete backs away. He begins to walk backwards toward the auditorium. “Just know no one will blame ya if you do have to sling some dirt.”
Jasper lowered his head a moment stroking his chin. “I’ve watched how these things go, and if you go low you generally don’t win the second or other times here. No need for sore feelings.”
Pete smiled and slapped his back. No more words came from him. A try of cookies brought to the meeting as usual from Gladys Taylor, became the only thing interrupting Pete’s stride. The preacher cookies, sometimes called cow pie cookies kept Jasper’s office busy. Those sugary treats represented the biggest addiction in town. Especially when they came from Gladys’s kitchen.
No matter how much Kindton doesn’t like being part of the Appalachian community the culture still creeps in. The cookies are just a reminder to Jasper. The cookie was introduced into the community when a baked goods exchange brought them here way back before his Papaw was even alive, they became a staple for gatherings such as these.
Jasper exhaled an audible sigh. “No reason to keep putting this off.”
The auditorium was deceivingly large for the small community. With eighty seats divided into ten rows descending toward the stage. The first of the town members built this building on the back side of the prominent hill. They used a natural spur to provide the initial floor. Over the years, generations adjusted the construction, Jasper’s own ancestors doing much of the woodwork, so it wouldn’t become a relic of the past.
The dull ochre walls didn’t uplift anyone’s moods. If boring had a color these walls represented it. For the purpose of this building Jasper thought it should be a cheerier shade. The scent of old wood rotting underneath the paint added to the mix of perfumes and colognes of those in attendance. It was in bad form to attend the election and debates without being clean and almost in your Sunday best. Three steps into entering the room, uncomfortable silence fell over the murmurs and small talk of those already seated.
He knew he wasn’t as charismatic as his opponent, but Jasper didn’t expect to feel their condemning gaze. They haven’t heard one word of the debate, and yet he knew their mind had already been made up. Eighteen steps lead down to the front row, and the beginning of the debate. He had a seat of honor, and destiny reserved for him next to the one reserved for Gabe. No matter how difficult or derogatory the event became, they would still have to sit next to each other when they weren’t speaking.
That arrangement sometimes begun a more physical altercation than the founders probably intended. Last election when Gabe mentioned something about his opponent’s family, tempers flared. Before Gabe could sit down Dwayne Taylor swung at him and Pete was climbing over the rows to help his brother. It wasn’t a good look for the Taylor family, and it affected the vote.
He took the first step, ready to face the inevitable. He chanted a mantra to himself. “Not going to go low, I will win on my own merits.”
A poorly whispered word from the back row caught his attention. “I hear Doc’s wife, stepped out a few times with good old Gabe, expect fists to fly!” The speaker apparently couldn’t contain his excitement as he burst into muffled laughter. Jasper ignored it and took the second step.
“I will win on my own merits.”
Jasper’s old seat was in the sixth row. He pondered for a moment how many debates he sat through just like this one, bored out of his mind, only half paying attention. He guessed he thought he’d never be in this position. A look at the young man in his old seat made him wonder if the people here were thinking the same. A yawn from the young man summed up Jasper’s old feelings on local politics.
“I will win on my own merits.”
Second row from the bottom the librarian stops him. “A lot is riding on you Doctor Carpenter. The idea of winning an election by having a large family taking precedence over the issues down plays everything the founders intended.” Her words carried whisps of cigarette smoke she must’ve enjoyed before the gathering, delicately conveyed the purpose of why they gathered. She was at least thirty years old, a good patient, always avoided candy never missed a cleaning. The smoking however was a well-known secret, and a pet peeve of Jasper’s.
“Don’t worry Betsy I’ll make it a good honorable fight.” Jasper felt a bit of pride rush through him. Someone seen his tactic and what he is trying to do. He wasn’t alone in trying to return this to the dignity the founders intended. “I will win on my own merits.”
Her eyes widened and jaw dropped a moment. Jasper wondered what he said that startled her. “No sir, you do whatever you have to do to win.” Her fists tightens and a single finger jets outward poking his chest. “No one wants a clean fight; they want blood and smut. So, give it to them before the Barbers add a few more kinfolk to their vote tally. Beat Gabe with any means at your disposal do you hear me?”
Without raising her voice somehow Betsy Miller had instilled an ultimatum. It wasn’t a friendly goal like Jasper gave his patients- floss and brush regularly. It clearly defined a life-or-death task that she seemed to be the one to deliver a harsh consequence for failure. Her intensity waned as a grin graced her lips and she sat back in her seat.
Jasper took the final step to the bottom row. His mind frazzled while he tried to remind himself of his strategy. “Win at all cost… No win by your own merits!” The debate went back and forth until he reached the only two open seats on the front row, right in front of the podium oriented toward the entirety of the population.
Everyone except the Barbers were in their seats. The muttered conversations and gossip wafted down the rows to hit Jasper with a full weight of anxiety. The sneers in the crowd stood out more than the covered mouths that whispered.
He couldn’t help but wonder if some of the minds were made up when they sat through a root canal or received treatment that hurt like when braces were first tightened. Surely, they understood it was for their betterment. There was no time to think about that now, just stick to his merits. He stood next to the chair to the left of the podium, last time this was where Gabe sat. Even the time before he remembered correctly. A small change might throw him off his game.
Gabe and family entered the auditorium, quieting the background noise of gossip. Jasper felt the shifting of weight from his shoulders toward the new arrival. Every eyeball added another five or six pounds of worry in his estimate. Even in a small town like this it became crushing.
Despite being a bit older than Jasper, Gabe still moved a bit faster down the stairs. It wasn’t his first election and his stride said it wouldn’t be his last. For a community that hated politics they had become endeared to Gabe playing them.
They shook hands, Jasper tried a tight grip. An honest man’s grip, but Gabe just rolled his eyes, obviously out of the view of others. An action that already started to break down Jasper’s idea of a fair debate. Maybe getting dirty would be the only way to defeat a man who knew how to play the crowd.
Gabe broke the grip first. Time moved slowly for Jasper, he barely turned around to find his own seat when he heard the sigh and knee pop come from Gabe. The guy was sure spry for his age, but the sound of it his joints didn’t agree.
When everyone else had settled down, Pete stood up. “Jasper since you’re still standing why don’t you start us off.” He looked around and nodded his head. When a few moved their heads in agreement of Pete, he asked the first question. “I’m going to start off with the most basic question we can ask tonight. Why should we vote for you?”
He had prepared for this question all morning. Pete liked the slow pitch questions, now all Jasper had to do was hit it out of the park. “Well thank you for the opportunity to speak first Pete. Thank you everyone for making it out today. If my wife was still with us, I’m sure she would be thanking you all as well.”
Pete cleared his throat; Jasper took it as a sign to cut to the good stuff.
“I have been providing everyone with proper dental care, and in turn health care since I was younger than our future graduates.” He nodded toward Ashley. “I knew back then what it meant to be part of Kindton.”
The man in Jasper’s usual seat rolled his eyes, had he already lost their interest? It was payback for his own apathy. When he was younger, he didn’t give two concerns the reason, but he stood here now, and he needed them to care. “Every single one of you sat in my chair at one time or another. You’ve trusted me with your care and your smile. I helped a lot of you new couples notice your spouse and have them notice you with those sparkling pearly whites. I need your support now with the knowledge I will continue to do the best for you. My opponent is a good man, and no matter what happens tonight I want you all to know it’s my honor to serve you. Thank you for trusting me.” A few hands clapped; Jasper had a good idea who they were even though he was too busy finding his seat to pinpoint their exact location.
He barely realized Gabe had stood up and moved to the podium, in the effort to quickly shrink into his seat. He wasn’t one to speak in front of everyone at once, unlike Gabe. Jasper preferred conversations in his office. With the walls protecting him from the judgmental whispers of others, he always felt he could say or do what he wanted there.
“The thing about my opponent, Jasper Carpenter is we really don’t know a lot about him. Now I know the good Doctor has made himself invaluable to us. But what is he hiding? I remember when his wife, an older and wiser woman before she married our good dentist, told me that he always had an eye for other women. And that he secretly talked about all of us to his friends when we paid his office a visit. And while I don’t want to spread rumors, I do encourage others to come forward if they have any concerns. I ask that you do the same for me, but after going through five of these elections already I don’t think there is anything new you could find out about me. My cards were put on the table long ago.”
Jasper realized at that moment he should’ve followed others advice. Living a quiet life just fed the gossip starved town throughout the years. Now they came for their meal.
Wearing her blue dress, the school teacher, Natalie Smith came forward. For a moment Jasper forgot her maiden name was Barber, and she was the niece of his opponent. Her timid stares quietly relocated their focus to the podium, only her brunette hair pulled into the usual bun was visible to the audience.
She stuttered her first few words. “I d…don’t ha…have proof exactly you see, but with looking at who the Doctor calls his friends I am more and more convinced. I mean it’s no secret that he hangs out with that pedophile, he was just talking to him when Uncle Gabe got here today.”
Jasper wished he could see her face, read her mouth’s movements and more importantly look her in the eye with whatever accusation she conjured. He knew eventually his friendship with Chas was going to bite him, but he always knew that he couldn’t live his life for the opinion of others, well not until today.
“Like I said I was not alert, but he definitely was looking at me, the same way the pervert looks at young girls around town. Two peas in a pod those two.”
She never once looked up during her accusation. Jasper knew his glare couldn’t be missed; she’d had to have felt it. He stood up and faced everyone. “Rumors and feelings are not facts. I understand why Natalie could be convinced into making those statements. Her kin is my opponent. And while Chas, cause we all know that’s who she’s talking about, has been subject to rumors since he was little, he isn’t guilty of any crime. Never even been charged.”
Betsy Miller stood up in her seat, “If we are entering hearsay into debates let’s talk about Gabe Barber.”
“Thank you, Betsy, but let’s not.” His wife was taken just a few years ago and it still hurt to talk about. “Our Founders wanted this discussion to be based on truth, good or bad, as well as a measure of character. We both need to present our case, but we’ve got to have some civility.”
“I agree with the Doctor.” Gabe was escorting his niece from the podium.
Jasper wanted to cry out. “Of course, you do!”
Pete moved to the podium, taking control of the gathered Kindtoners. “Doc Carpenter has always put us first. He knows he’s the only medical help some of us will ever get. Hell, he even answered his phone in the middle of the night for some of your emergencies. The man is just a dentist and you guys treat him as a physician, pediatric specialist, and he even helped my departed mother when she didn’t understand a single word from her oncologist. I firmly believe she pulled through that fight with his aid. Please remember that when you cast your vote.”
One by one, the Town members filed up and marked their vote. Gabe shook everyone’s hand playing last minute politics.
A drop of sweat trickled down Jasper’s face as he cast the last vote of the day. Handing it to Gladys Taylor, baker supreme and the Clerk of the town. she tallied them all immediately.
“In accordance with our bylaws, we have counted the votes in tradition since our founding. With every birth the two eldest members of the community must stand before all others. The people will then vote on which of the candidates gets to live and who must be sacrificed on the stone.”
Jasper never realized how many members were in the Barber family until they gathered around Gabe. Each put a hand on his shoulder sending their love and support, just like Jasper did with his sweet Mary during her election a few years back.
Gladys’s words were sweet and comforting for a woman about to condemn a man to death. “After counting every voice three times, I can tell you good people of Kindton, that we will be keeping our Dentist.”
A few of the Barber women collapsed when the verdict was read. Jasper wanted to go and console them; it was in his nature. But manners prevented it.
Gladys’s gave little time for the final words. “Everyone grab your knife and ceremonial robe. This shouldn’t take all night, some of us have things to do.”
The dark brown velvet like robe had been in Jasper’s family since the very first election. He doesn’t listen to Gabe’s last words to his family before his opponent is gagged. Heck he couldn’t even remember Mary’s last words to him at the moment, he was filled with so much relief now. When he took another deep breath of relief, he flipped his hood up, allowing the shadowy darkness to hide his face. The others followed suite, soon other than a distinction of height all seventy-nine present looked the same. One at a time they headed out the door in the order of which they were seated.
As the winner of the vote, Jasper led the procession up the hill. He stopped when he reached the graveyard. It was a warm crisp night, and the smell of hope populated his lungs once more. The graves of their ancestors formed concentric circles around a table of marble.
While the Barber family placed the gagged Gabe onto the slab, Jasper distracts himself by finding a tombstone that always fascinated him. Claude Cook, born June 3rd 1909 died on Jasper’s Birthday, December 1st 1951.
He returned to his opponent, “Your death will keep our promised prosperity.” He plunged the blade deep into Gabe’s heart. Blood drenched his hands, the victim let a gurgle moan.
As the victor stepped back the next robed individual repeats, “Your death will keep our promised prosperity. Our numbers must never be more than eighty, as per our Founders’ agreement.” This is repeated seventy-seven more times until Gladys voices their dark deal and plunged her knife into Gabe.
The group walked back down to where the cars were parked. Gladys collected their robes and small groups started smiling and laughing, talking about future dinner plans.
Jasper had escaped death, and now the town tried to achieve some normalcy. In the end it wasn’t merit or dirt that helped him win, it was pure necessity. He was the only Dentist the community had ever had, and they couldn’t afford to lose him. With a smile he looked over the community and was about to head out when Ashley Barber approached.
Her eyes projected a hatred he hadn’t seen since he looked in the mirror after voting against his Mary. “I know what I want to do after graduation Mr. Carpenter, I’m going to become a dentist just like you.”