“Metonymy” — by Andrew Tonkovich


Andrew Tonkovich

THE CANDIDATE complained about immigrants, women and Muslims at a formal dinner on Monday, of headaches, dizziness, low energy and blurred vision on Tuesday, collapsed after an arena rally in Phoenix, Arizona on Wednesday, was admitted for tests on Thursday, and underwent emergency brain surgery on Friday morning at Banner-University Medical, the best facility in the American Southwest.

Identification of a tumor on the CT scan — likely source of pressure on that section of the frontal lobe affecting personality, speech and behavior — seemed perhaps cruel or ironic, if also instructive beyond only its medical import and assessment: “Benign yet potentially life-threatening” wrote the doctors in their official if ambiguous statement offered to the media, approved by The Candidate’s people. Surely this explained so much, finally, at least in the off-hand, easy, ungenerous, delighted way of social media, gleeful late-night comedians, smug liberal media wags and angry, militant activists who’d insisted that so much more mattered than The Candidate’s run for office, including their own lives.

Questions and speculation about his recovery began, twenty-four seven, and about whether The Candidate would or even could continue his campaign, the likelihood of his potential replacement by a recently named running mate — this most unprecedented of accession narratives — and changes to his campaign schedule in light of convalescence and perhaps weeks, even months of rehab, who knew?

But as if challenging even that impossibly medieval medical diagnosis associating health and morality via thinking which once inspired “humours,” spirits and resultant affliction or punishment, the pathology also provided an irresistible political metaphor. Yet, finally, both symbolism and history and reality were once again trumped, in a manner of speaking, by The Candidate’s own response.

Indeed, by late Sunday morning, less than a week after his diagnosis, he sat up, talked, laughed, read, and watched television, surrounded by family and advisors in his elegant hospital room. According to anonymous reports from the hospital’s nursing staff, he was nearly unrecognizable in demeanor, speech and affect, suddenly, dramatically gracious, affectionate, asking after others’ well-being, expressing gratitude for his care, and eager indeed to get back to running for office. The campaign and its spokesmen were silent, perhaps as so often to this point, themselves unsure or uninformed, apparently lacking instruction from their boss.

The post-op press conference found The Candidate in a wheelchair, wheeled out into the hospital’s solarium, his head obviously shorn of its tremendous wispy bouffant and instead wrapped in a white mesh beanie. He waved, smiled, wearing a standard-issue gown and bathrobe, slippers and IV. The room was bright, sunshine seeming to find him there in the hall, the glow of health obvious, his excitement and relief palpable.

He rose, slowly, from the wheelchair, and stood at the podium, and took the microphone. “I feel great,” he began, offering a characteristic thumbs up. “Again!”

And so, with genuine laughter and even scattered applause from the press corps he’d so recently alienated, taunted, threatened, even singled out for ridicule, The Candidate thanked those assembled, “the ladies and gentlemen of the press,” as well as his doctors, nurses, technicians, wife, ex-wives, family, children, friends, even expressing gratitude for good wishes and flowers sent by both the outgoing president and by his opponent. Within seconds it was obvious to all that his speaking voice was now somehow warmer, his syntax richer, almost even eloquent. His speech was modulated, affect and manner measured and genteel.

Gone was the too-familiar repetition of a single assertion or idea offered at the end of a provocative claim or accusation, an idea which, having suddenly struck him as a winner, was repeated, word for word, for emphasis or in some vain effort at verity. Gone were the characteristic finger pointing and high-volume monotone holler, the smirk and name-calling. Instead, he offered his remarks gently, with light syncopation, subtly, pausing to smile and consider, seeming to reflect and to acknowledge the attention and care of those around him, a hundred photographers, videographers, reporters from across the nation and around the world. The change was obvious, dramatic, and yet that was only the beginning.

He paused, then warned, in pleasing if totally unfamiliar self-deprecation, that he was “not much of a singer,” confusing the audience and perhaps causing them to reconsider his actual condition. But then he began, slowly, in a strong, vigorous baritone, to sing that familiar hymn of humility and wonder, famous celebration of cautious joy and affirmation, the call and response of empathy offered and empathy received: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

The room fell silent, or perhaps somehow more than silent, with many moved to quiet tears and only the occasional clicking and buzzing of hundreds of cameras calling attention to what was occurring. The Candidate ended the beloved song of redemption, including the oft-ignored verses, and resumed his remarks, acknowledging the seriousness of his medical emergency, sharing again that a team of excellent surgeons and other medical professionals had indeed saved his life, and reminding all that his expert brain specialists had been, respectively, an Asian American woman, an African American and a Jewish man, and that he was eager to continue his campaign if, for no other reason, than to make what he could of this excellent gift of life he’d been given.

He continued his homily on redemption and, yes, grace. The search for grace, The Candidate offered, would define his campaign from now until November, with details of a revised program forthcoming — in writing, he promised, and written by The Candidate himself — including proposals to fund massive governmental infrastructure improvement, vigorous scientific research, public health clinics, women’s reproduction assistance, environmental and education initiatives. He offered his commitment to destroying, as he put it, “the massive hoax, the historical conspiracy, of a terribly, terribly rigged system — the worst, just horrible, believe me! — of stealing from the poor, of the burning of fossil fuel subsidized and encouraged by national chauvinism, of industrial greed and war.” He pledged, he said, again, quoting here directly, “to undo, reverse, and make right the tragic history of a decades’-long transfer of public wealth into private hands.”

The room was even quieter now, most in attendance perhaps waiting for some qualification, explanation, punch line, as if — notwithstanding the song — the speech were a hoax or a joke.

These did not arrive. Smiling, The Candidate invited all assembled to anticipate a fuller list, with further details of his plans to reduce the work week, institute free higher education and day care, and implement campaign finance reform in order, he offered, “to save our democracy from the military-industrial-corporate-advertising complex which has nearly destroyed our planet.”

Indeed, he conceded, some might be surprised at his embrace of these positions. By way of explanation he recounted his experience of, upon waking from surgery, being shocked to see images of himself on the television in his room, pictures of someone who resembled him at least, if a cartoon person. Clearly, he continued, this stranger was a man long suffering, it seemed to him now, the obvious effects of a serious and debilitating medical condition. That man had been relieved, healed, restored.

Motioning to an attendant standing behind him, The Candidate took from him and offered there for display, a tumbler-sized specimen jar, holding it high — the tumor itself, all were meant to understand — a gray-white glob, an object of dread, a small artifact from the history of the unspeakable shame of the Republic. This was the explanation, he seemed to suggest, for so much that had been argued, challenged, explained, justified, blamed, excused, now finally excised from the body, his body and from, he explained, the body politic. And for which he apologized and, yes, asked forgiveness.
“I am sorry,” said The Candidate, “for all of it.” Returning to his wheelchair, he was wheeled back down the long corridor from which he’d emerged, out of the assembly, and into a place of unfamiliar if intriguing remove but also, somehow, the promise of total civic imagination realized, of engagement, participation, collective aspiration however mysterious and hopeful.

* * *

AND SO across the land The Candidate was celebrated, cheered, endorsed (by brave members of his party who’d previously shunned him, and by many of the opposition!) and, naturally, condemned. After a full next day of tweets, now advocating a startlingly new and different variety of greatness, including great humility and great empathy and great cooperation and great honesty, and the reported arrival of large checks at the offices of a dozen national civil rights, environmental, veterans and human rights organizations, Planned Parenthood and the NAACP, presumably as recompense, the attacks, slurs, indictments, political backlash arrived, with rumors, memes, insinuations, and speculation about his betrayal, cooptation, virtual kidnapping and treachery, and general unsoundness of mind. Was he now trying to buy the office? Had he staged his illness? Hadn’t he made a pledge to his own party? Could he be trusted?

In response, The Candidate appeared before the cameras again the next day, again in the hospital’s solarium, again in front of hundreds of cameras, reporters, the national and international press. He stood at the podium, no wheelchair, this time wearing an elegant tailored suit and silk tie, shoes polished, a campaign baseball cap on his head (bearing the familiar campaign phrase) and looking even healthier and nearly, it seemed, recovered. He declined to answer questions shouted from the floor, would not, he said, respond to critics or criticize, and welcomed participation by all in his new campaign.

He had little further to say beyond acknowledging the new elements of his agenda, leaving the assembled reporters, TV and radio news crews quietly stunned, amazed, and certainly more than satisfied by way of filing their stories, so much so that some began leaving the room, so grateful were they for another day of this extraordinary unfolding of The Candidate’s transformation. But, wait, he was not done, offering what soon became the most stirring and dramatic moment of eighteen previous months of already dramatic moments.

There, for all to see, consider, photograph, appreciate, learn from in a gesture which soon become an image as iconic as the eruption of Krakatoa, the Hindenburg exploding, the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, the Kennedy assassination, the Saigon mayor shooting his Viet Cong prisoner, moon landing, Twin Towers falling, was a truth hard to deny, miss or contradict. The Candidate simply removed the iconic baseball cap from his shorn head, slowly leaned forward and so revealed the surgical incision to all, stitches crisscrossed across his bare scalp, with dried blood and scabs and bruising, and just the very least bit of a thin layer of bright red stubble beginning to fill in over the wound.

* * *

THE CANDIDATE checked out that evening, flying to Florida to supervise the transformation (“rehabilitation,” he called it) of his premiere coastal country club into a full-service thousand-bed homeless shelter, a gesture received with incredulity, joy, cynicism, and delight, often many contradictory responses, simultaneously. A stunt? A fake-out? Or a genuine and brave effort at redemption signaling a new politics, a meaningful embrace of the challenges of representative democracy?

The next morning hundreds of protesters assembled outside the golf resort, the angry and disappointed, the betrayed and hurt, those disciples, followers and repeaters of his former slogans built on anger, despair, hurt and rage. Campaign caps and shirts and placards were burned. There were threats upon The Candidate’s life, this newly revived ex-patient, this survivor of a more tangible threat. Arrests were made by police and Secret Service, many in the crowd carrying guns and knives, displaying these as a matter, they proclaimed, of Second Amendment privilege, patriotism, and self-defense. Of integrity and what was right, or had been once.

They remained outside the grounds for days, with homemade signs challenging the diagnosis and the “so-called surgery” performed on The Candidate, calls for his arrest, demands that he abandon his campaign, ultimatums, petitions to return to them the real Candidate, a victim who’d obviously, they asserted, been replaced by this stand-in. As ever, they chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A,” however confusing and inexplicable, but still and forever available, a better or more appropriate chant apparently lacking. Robbed of everything except the mantra of hollow, easy chauvinism and nationalistic coercion, they seemed comforted if not particularly reinvigorated, soon disappearing altogether.

Inside, protected by gates, guards and armed men on the roof of his sprawling Spanish-style compound, The Candidate offered another press conference, assessing his new situation in light of a resultant dramatic bump in the polls, and speculating on the future of the campaign. He also offered painfully personal details of other recent developments, confirming his rumored estrangement now from his wife and family, resignations of half of his advisors and staff, but also acknowledging the massive increase in donations from millions of everyday Americans even as his own party’s support had been officially withdrawn and its search for a new candidate in the works.

He announced a renewed voter outreach and registration program, and offered to debate his opponent, this time on the issues, he promised, at a time most convenient to her, and to air when as many Americans as possible might view it.

* * *

A FEW DAYS later, and a similar press conference. More donations were reported by The Candidate, who seemed genuinely surprised, gratified if embarrassed. It would all go to charity, he promised. Please don’t send any more, he asked those watching. Looking straight into the cameras, he begged supporters to stop sending contributions. “I have enough money,” he said. “I have too much money.”

The Candidate acknowledged the confusion — understandable, he said — expressed by his opponent, now left with little to argue against, forced to sincerely consider his new positions and reconsider her own, and their actual agreement on many policy questions. “A good thing for the entire nation,” said The Candidate, chuckling, if noticeably quieter and tired-looking, appearing slightly weaker.

Then, the big announcement. The tumor, he explained, had reappeared. In only a matter of days, it had grown back. Imagine that, he said. No, he was not in pain, but was fatigued, subject again to headache, dizziness and nausea, but was primarily, urgently concerned about the return of those “symptoms,” as he called them, which had earlier defined him and his campaign and so profoundly defined the race, the reporting, the discourse of the land. And so, The Candidate further reported, he would undergo a second surgery, immediately, scheduled closer to home this time, again performed by another culturally and politically representative team of all-American surgeons, an operation from which he was confident he would emerge again, healthier than ever, even more prepared to make the nation great, believe me, he said, believe me, in a poignant and purposely ironic echo of his former self.

* * *

AND SO it went, for weeks and months. The Candidate would dutifully re-enact the original if exhausting, difficult, ecstatic if redemptive task of undergoing not one, but one after another, in fact dozens and dozens of surgeries, as the familiar golf-ball sized tumor was identified, then removed, his health assured, the campaign resumed, only for the pathology to return in days or weeks. He did not complain, and each time held another press conference, thanked all, sang or prayed or reflected, was joined now by clerics and celebrities and admirers, returned to campaigning soon after, but was back in front of the cameras before long, again wearing a white cotton bandage or a campaign cap or, bravely, doggedly, arriving bare-headed and showing again the long, ugly surgical incision which ran permanently now from behind each ear across his scalp, soon as familiar as the outlines of the fifty states or the nation’s borders with Mexico and Canada, the topography of the land and its fabled interstate network, as familiar to all watching even as the latitudes and longitudes of the globe, as familiar as the horizon line or constellations.

And each time he held another press conference, he also displayed the newest mass, freshly resected, so that long after Labor Day, well into what was normally, traditionally, the busiest and fevered and most contested period of campaigning, and only weeks away from the final, he had collected and routinely arranged for display on the long table next to the podium in the solarium, lobby, press room or country club patio dozens of matching specimen jars, each containing a golf-ball sized growth, the same familiar flesh white-gray totem of punishment or redemption or struggle, all lined up in an impressive if macabre display.

He seemed not only to grow these things, he said, laughing ruefully, but to survive them too. He’d lost weight, appeared pale and haggard. “I’m happy to do it,” he said. “And, apparently, I’m good at it, too,” he joked. Biopsies indicated that the tumors were consistently benign, a description which seemed itself to elaborate on that diagnosis, especially considering its dramatic consequences. Drugs and other interventions could not, would not, stop their reappearance. Nor would radiation or other treatments. The Candidate was, he noted, with something like pride or perverse satisfaction, getting better at surgery, with quick recovery and just enough time for the incision to heal until the next operation. Never did The Candidate complain or express anger. Not once did he show self-pity, disappointment or fear.
Each time he came out of the surgery rested and ready, if also prepared for an inevitable recurrence, reappearance of the tumor. His doctors expressed concern, wondering how much and how long he — any person — could endure.

The nation closely followed the story, holding The Candidate in its prayers even as, indeed, more was demanded, expected of the presumed front-runner, his opponent, who was healthy and un-encumbered by illness, un-assaulted by a clumsily sadistic metaphor or absurd and cruel existential crisis. The Candidate’s former allies and foes were themselves long past the outrage, bitterness, revenge, amusement and concern offered on behalf of the Republic, all of which he’d inspired only months earlier. His personal campaign seemed to have somehow become a campaign for all — for compassion and dignity and survival and, yes, grace, his struggle vicarious, and for something bigger and more ambitious.

And with the protesters finally shamed or embarrassed, tired or bored, robbed of their former champion, their numbers dwindled. The Candidate was free again to walk the grounds of his seaside mansion unassailed, now his default if much-diminished campaign headquarters. His privacy was respected. He was reconciled with his children. The press conferences were fewer. There were intervals of equal parts convalescence and modest campaigning, with brief appearances when possible at service clubs, senior centers, inner city schools, churches, mosques, synagogues, job training facilities, day care centers, with The Candidate generously allowing children and curious adults to shake his hand, embrace him, and even to touch the wound. He obliged their sometimes timid requests, leaning down in obeisance and respect, humility and generosity.

He declined an invitation to address the United Nations, and politely turned down visits with the Pope and the Dalai Lama. It was rumored that The Candidate was writing a book and selling off his assets and those of the campaign, establishing a charitable foundation, endowing an academic chair, turning a high-rise here into a cancer research facility, a luxury apartment complex there into a work training center. Finally, nearly all these rumors were confirmed as true — true! —, each having given reporters little to do except fact-check and repeat them.

And, as far as the national election, now nearly an afterthought, The Candidate’s opponent had by now adopted what were now understood as not only his positions but hers and nearly everyone’s – however available and ideal and universally ambitious or impossible or desirable — and, completely unopposed, found that previous polarities and divisions which had characterized the race were less important and urgent now than were careful discussion of policy, self-interrogation, questions and answers, elaborations on history itself and even the nature of representative democracy, the role of civic responsibility.

By virtue or dint of his simultaneous strength and vulnerability, his always precarious attachment to life and health, The Candidate’s introduction of those ideas and programs previously unspeakable, unconsidered and outside the bounds of national discourse were now not only allowed but invited and encouraged, from the role of the Supreme Court and the Electoral College to the place of money and wealth in politics, the failure of the former two-party monopoly to the role of malevolent corporations.

Television ads, now pointless in the remaining weeks and days of the presidential race, were withdrawn entirely, by both sides. Inspired, encouraged and emboldened, most Congressional and gubernatorial and local campaigns followed suit. In only a few weeks an entire media industry disappeared in advance of the pending election, with the now nearly fearless frontrunner announcing that she would from now on accept public financing of her own campaign, and return to donors any and all unspent contributions. Her victory presumably assured, she invited the full participation in her administration of esteemed and respected economists, labor leaders, scientists, artists, veterans and dissidents, announcing initiatives once scoffed at, laughed about, dismissed or ignored: free health care, a Department of Peace, alternative energy, taxes on the wealthy, a shortened work week, subsidized rent, gun control. It had all been there after all, if obscured by the official history, the media monopoly, the bait-and-switch of prejudice and privilege.

The Candidate entered a hospital once again on the Monday evening before Election Day, and died on the table the next morning, in the early hours, even as millions were already making their ways to the polls. The nation grieved, but that evening the returns came in, the results of the races themselves surprising enough but the tallies actually more shocking, the electorate having come out to vote in numbers so far exceeding the tradition, history, imaginings of any democracy as to overwhelm the system, and creating long waiting lines. This was widely interpreted as an expression of gratitude from the nation, a gesture of thanks acknowledging his example, penance or sacrifice or recompense, appreciation of all that The Candidate had set in motion. It was also surprising, or now perhaps not surprising at all — perhaps, indeed, as it always might have, should have been! — that hundreds of thousands waited patiently, peacefully to pull the lever, to fill in the ballot bubble, to press a button, with volunteer workers and state election officials staying late, uncomplaining law enforcement and firefighters and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and members of civic groups and church groups all there to assist.

They provided coffee and sandwiches, stood in as placeholders for those needing to leave the great cheerful assembly of suffrage, to pick up children or run errands, who returned later to find their counterpart, their fellow democrat, another proxy and personification of the best of the imagination, waiting for them, standing that much closer to the front of the long line, to the polling place entrance, to the curtained cubicle, and to its promise and hope, at least, of a representative democracy, now great, greater indeed.

(c) 2019 by Andrew Tonkovich. All rights reserved to the author.

Note on the author:

Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary journal Santa Monica Review and hosts the weekly books show Bibliocracy Radio on Pacifica’s KPFK (90.7 FM). His fiction, poems, essays and reviews have appeared widely, including in Ecotone, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Rattling Wall, Juked, Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Review of Books. He is author of a novella collection, The Dairy of Anne Frank. He writes for the OC Weekly, and with Lisa Alvarez co-edited Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday). A staff member at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, he teaches writing at UC Irvine and works with fellow union activists representing Lecturers and Librarians.

In addition to well-known (and some not so well known) literary models of parody and satire, the author would like to cite the following contextual excerpt as especially pertinent to its composition:

“In private, Mr. Trump’s mood is often sullen and erratic, his associates say. He veers from barking at members of his staff to grumbling about how he was better off following his own instincts during the primaries and suggesting he should not have heeded their calls for change.
He broods about his souring relationship with the news media, calling Mr. Manafort several times a day to talk about specific stories. Occasionally, Mr. Trump blows off steam in bursts of boyish exuberance: At the end of a fund-raiser on Long Island last week, he playfully buzzed the crowd twice with his helicopter.”
– New York Times, August 14, 2016

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