“It was November and the leaves were done falling. The gutters, choked with soft debris, overflowed sour water. Reds and golds piled dead on every corner. Barely a week earlier, the same colors still clung helpless to their branches, refusing the inevitable. Now they huddled together in dirt. I walked on them and heard a crushing sound beneath my feet.
I was spending the better part of my days looking down from the roof of our apartment. The old brick building stood at the top of a steep hill, and on clear days I could see for several miles to the west. I lay on my back and read or slept. I drank beer from cans and took one hundred pictures of light gathering on leaves with an old Nikon 35 mm. Saint Cecilia’s Cathedral was one block down and at a certain time every day the peaks of the bell towers turned half of 40th Street dark. Neighbors wandered back and forth between the shadows, escaping and then not escaping the loom of the church.
In 1959 my grandfather’s father built those towers. In my parent’s house was a framed picture of a young Italian, strapped sweaty around one of the peaks, two-hundred-some feet in the air. The person taking the photo must have said something that made him smile; he looked south toward the roof of a red brick building which contained, at the time, a small grocery store and an apartment above for the grocer and his wife. On November 1, 2008 it housed a failing photography studio and a young married couple who lay in bed at night, arguing about breaking their lease, about buying a house and starting their lives, about the luminous untold futures they imagined for themselves. They used words like weapons, heaving guilt and insult across the collapsible card table serving as a permanent piece of furniture.
My wife and I were those people….
The rest of the month rolled on with a strange sense of destiny. The days began and ended, while the newspapers detailed the preordained con-clusions. Election night found us with friends in downtown Chicago, squeezing each other round the ribs and raising our foggy voices in the cold air as Barack Obama was publicly Messiahed on live television. We listened as he spoke mystically of democracy, repeated the word ‘hope’ with a kind of sincerity that felt novel.
‘The true genius of America’ he explained, ‘is that America can change!’
Our country, he implied, was graced with some kind of perpetual youth, which had endowed us with a two-hundred-thirty−year love affair with ‘change.’ The infective optimism of the night worked to make real this very assertion. Our own presence in Grant Park that night was evidence enough. We can change, we had collectively thought. Progress was our birth rite. Newness pumped eternal in our young blood.
‘What we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow!’ we were told.
‘Yes, we can!’ two hundred forty thousand people replied. It was our trained response—the kind of mass conditioning that $650 million secures.
It was never quite clear though, just what we were saying ‘yes’ to. We were Americans, surely he was talking about us. But what exactly did this all mean? It didn’t necessarily matter what next year had in store we naively thought; as long as he could help us imagine that it would be better than last year, we were on board for anything.
At any rate, there he stood, tall and Black before us in the November chill. We were quite proud of ourselves to have so resoundingly stood up for our belief in ‘something else,’ ‘anything else. The speech broke for applause as he looked across the crowd. We looked back, impaling his young, athletic frame with thousands of uniquely unarticulated dreams.
‘I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me,’ he said. Whether or not he meant it, he was right.”
Patrick Mainelli lives and writes in Omaha, Nebraska. His nonfiction has appeared in Fourth Genre and Sport Literate. Much of his work deals with issues of place and absence; most recently, an essay he wrote for Orion magazine was featured on the Public Radio program Living on Earth.