Volume 27, Number 3

The Debate

Martha Clarkson

I’ve always been a follower of politics since I won the treasurer position at Albina Boys’ Home in seventh grade and held an office of some kind until junior year. This is an important trait I want to pass onto my children, understanding government authority, being involved with politics, influencing the landscape, I like to say. Years ago I ran for mayor of our little town, but I think wearing a hoodie in my pamphlet picture didn’t do me any favors. At least that’s what Eliza suggested afterward. And my hair, too shaggy, she said, so I’ve since sported a crew cut. This is before we had any kids to worry about, and once we did, she put the kibosh on my ambitions for city council, a job that paid half as much as what I was making back then.

I’ve limited the kids’ TV time to election events, to enhance their political well-being, which includes the debates, interviews, and I’ll even let them stay up special-late for candidate appearances on the Tonight Show or The Late Show. They are really tired at school the next day when we do that!

After a few weeks of intense viewing, they started to complain, and I don’t want any complaining going back to Eliza, who I meet in the Kmart parking lot between our towns to handoff or pick up the kids. Eliza is a big fan of letting them watch cartoons, which do not teach children about real life. When the kids started to complain about the quantity of campaign watching, I came bounding through the door after my call center shift announcing, “I’ve got it! Rather than watch all those election shows…” I could see their faces brighten even before I’d finished. “We’re going to be those candidates! We’re going to stage our own debate! Right here in the house!” The luminosity in their expressions seemed to fade. Quickly.

But my kids have always been adaptable, especially when a McDonald’s drive-thru dinner was threatened, so we spent the next few nights foregoing homework and getting ready for our scheduled debate on Saturday night when Eliza would be on a date with one of my former mayoral opponents. (He didn’t win either, but he did wear a suit in his pamphlet photo.)

Cammie, who’s eleven, wanted to be Hillary Clinton. “But this is a Republican debate, honey,” I said.

“Then change the rules, Daddy. That’s what politics is all about, isn’t it? Who can make a difference? I want an inter-party debate because the Democrats don’t even have enough candidates to go around this family, unless Biden gets in. Is that my fault?” So we changed the rules because she did have short blondish hair and that impertinent way about her like Hillary. We had to shop for a pantsuit.

Ben, eight, wanted to be The Donald. I knew it! Ben, the character. When I refused to buy him a wig, he took a thin sheet of Brillo and put it through my paper shredder, then covered it with yellow yarn. We bought him a little suit at Value Village. “Do you know what it means to be a mogul?” I said, looking him in the eye.

“A mogul? You mean like a ski bump?”

“Okay, let’s use ‘tycoon,’ big boy.” He rolled his eyes.

Lily, seven, who lately insisted on being called Lillian, looked at me beseechingly after these decisions were made. “What do I do?” she said. “Can I make up someone? Or do I have to be that Carly-girl?”

I took her small hands in mine and said in my softest voice, “Well, she is a person some people admire. She led a big company after all, took it into ruin singlehandedly. There’s something to be said for that. I think you’ll be really good with foreign policy, and so is she.”

“I want to play with Barbie now.”

“Tell you what, let’s figure out your dress, and then we’ll do that. In fact, why don’t we have Barbie be your campaign manager? She can offset your corporate coldness.” Lily released herself from my hands and went to help Ben with the shredder, which had stopped working.

I invited my new neighbor, Sonja Snegyriyov—what a name—to be the audience, and I would moderate, using different voices of course. I’d asked Sonja to dinner last month, and she’d declined with an excuse I couldn’t check on the truth of, but she did accept this invitation, I guess because she loved my kids. Still, I held out a glimmer of hope it was more than that.

Sonja’s a nurse’s aide at the last asylum in the state, just down the road, and worked nights, so often I’d get home from work and find her in my house, playing with the children. “You can’t liv them alone after schvool!” she frequently said to me. I did get the house in the divorce, but only because it has no equity and a balloon payment coming.


It’s hard to find a blazer for an eleven-year-old. I guess that style went out with Facts of Life and their school uniforms, and Cammie’s navy blue sleeves were too long. But Hillary’s outfits weren’t perfect either. Ben secured his wig with some model car glue and wore an old tie of mine, which took us forty minutes with a YouTube video to get tied right. Lily came down the stairs in her ballerina costume from Halloween. “Lillian” I said, “that’s not really proper for a debate.”

“But, Daddy, I need to show my soft side.”

Sonja showed up on the stoop in a black chiffon cocktail dress. She must not have owned a suit. Only being in the States for six months probably made it hard to understand fashion. I set Cammie’s Mr. Mike on an upturned steamer trunk full of Eliza’s genealogy rosters that I was getting ready to give to Goodwill.

I had taped together three new and oversized (supposedly for fine china, marked fragile all over the outside) moving boxes and stood them upright (yes, we were going to have to move soon) to make podiums. Or is it podia? Each of my children was ready with a piece of paper on the boxes’ tops, Lily’s written in crayon. I set a bottle of water on each of their boxes. I screwed my phone into a tripod and pushed “play” on the video button.

With vocal flourish, I said, “Greetings, candidates. Welcome! Lillian Fiorina, let’s start with you. Your face has been called ready for a Halloween mask. How do you react?”

“I like Halloween. I promise to make it a national holiday.” Lily looked at me and seeing my frown, grasped her Barbie and added, “I have thick epidermis.” To demonstrate, she raised her plump arm and pinched a wad of skin near the armpit. Epidermis? She was only seven!

Ben, not waiting for a question, said, “I, as a tycoon moguleer, believe Lillian’s skin can’t be thick enough for running the United States. This beloved country that should be Mexican-free.”


“But, Dad, you said to make it realistic. He’s said worse than that.”

“Okay, okay, but just don’t repeat that at school.”

“No way, Mr. Moderator,” he said, using a low voice. The yellow yarn was starting to droop down across his eyes. “If I did that,” he suddenly shouted, jamming his index finger in the air, “I’d surely be gang-banged, as my school is half-Mexican, which brings me to my next point.”

“Ben! Where are you getting all this?”

Sonja put a hand over her mouth, I hoped in recognition of humor, and not alarm.

Cammie didn’t give him a chance to answer. “We don’t need to hear your next point, Mr. Trump,” she yelled, her face turned to Ben. “You, Bankruptcy Lord, who doesn’t know the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah!” I guess we had watched that interview. She went on. “You’re a traitor to Americans everywhere, you are the one percent, and we hate you, even corporate sleazebag Fiorina over there hates you. It’s one thing she and I agree on!” Ben and Cammie had always been close, and I could see his eyes starting to water.

“Don’t call me names!” Lily screeched, leaning across Ben to yell at Cammie. “It’s not proper! I’ll have my teeth fixed, I promise!” Then she gave the audience a big smile and did an untrained pirouette. “This is my softer side,” she said, to Sonja in particular.

Ben was really crying now. “I don’t want to play this stupid game!” he said, gripping the yarn and steel wool to rip the wig off, then howling in pain.

“Oh no!” Lily said, upon seeing the dots of blood come through his real hair. She worshipped Ben, now putting her arms around his neck, herself starting to cry. Cammie grabbed onto his right arm as if she couldn’t stand up without him.

Sonja stood quickly, unsmiling, and straightened her chiffon that was doing a static dance with her slip. “We say thees is over Tom! Should be!” Though her accent always gave a sternness to anything she said, her tone was fierce. I imagined Sonja living through the harsh Russian winters, grateful for a fur hat. She walked over to the candidates and put her arms wide enough to embrace all three, who willingly went into her midsection, Ben slobbering on her dress. I was afraid to meet her eyes. Maybe some vodka would calm her down. Calm us all down. We could sit around the kitchen table and play Monopoly, which had its share of capitalist intrigue. Bartering was one of my honed skills. Ben would be the racecar. Cammie was always happy if she got the light blue properties, because we’d been to Vermont once. If things went well, maybe I’d consider the Cartoon Channel, just this once.