THE CANVASSER: A Short Story

From her perch on the patio, Ellen studied the dark-haired woman. She was standing alone on the street corner, clutching a clipboard tight against her lean frame. Her eyes grew wide as they met each passerby. “Are you registered to vote?” She asked anyone within earshot. When a gust of wind whipped through the air, the woman tugged her too thin cotton jacket snug around her neck and tucked her hair behind her ear for the millionth time, only to have it blown loose again seconds later.

Most people hurried past her, like she wasn’t even there, but she appeared undeterred. Occasionally, someone grunted a response, and from where she was sitting, Ellen could just make out their muffled retorts.

“Have you listened to the news? My vote doesn’t matter.”

“Why bother, it’s all rigged.”

“Who has time for that, honey?”

Ellen smiled when a tall thin man finally stopped to talk to the woman. He bent down to listen to her plea and accepted the clipboard when she handed it to him. As she watched them, Ellen felt a pang of guilt. She’d only lived in Virginia for a few months and hadn’t gotten around to registering at her new address. Up until this moment, it hadn’t seemed that urgent even though it meant she wouldn’t be able to vote in the upcoming election. When the tall thin man moved on, Ellen pushed back her chair, causing it to scrape along the pavement of the café patio. She stood up, drank the last of her coffee and took a few tentative steps toward the woman. “I’d like to register,” she called out.

The woman paused her canvassing and treated Ellen to a full dimple smile. “Okay, great.” She held up her clipboard, causing the papers it held to flutter in the wind. “You just need to fill out this form. It’s as easy as that. I’ll take care of the rest.”

Ellen took the clipboard and smoothed the sheets with her hand. Before she started entering her information, she glanced up at the woman. “It’s really great of you to stand out here and do this. I bet it’s frustrating when people just brush past you.”

The woman tilted her head to the side and lifted her hands into the air. “Yeah, it can be, but I keep at it because it’s so important.”

Ellen nodded and turned back to the registration form. When she was done, she handed the clipboard back to the woman. “There you go.” 

The dimples came out again. “Thank you so much. Now, don’t forget to vote!” 

“Um, I won’t.” Ellen bit her bottom lip. “I’m Ellen, by the way… Oh, but I guess you know that,” she said with a laugh and gestured at the form she just completed. 

The woman extended her hand. “Nice to meet you Ellen. I’m Layla.”

“Oh my gosh,” Ellen said when their fingers touched. “Your hands are like ice cubs, you’ve gotta be freezing.” 

Layla shrugged. “It’s chilly, but I haven’t frozen to death, yet.”

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” Ellen blurted.

“It’s sweet of you to offer, but I really should try to get a few more people registered before I call it quits for the day.”

Ellen waved toward the café. “I’ve got a little bit of work to do. I’ll be inside if you change your mind.”

Thirty minutes later, Layla slipped into the seat across from Ellen. When the barista placed a piping hot mug of coffee in front of her, she cuddled it with her hands. “Ah, warm. My fingers feel like they’re about to fall off.” She took a sip from the white ceramic mug and her dark brown eyes fluttered closed when the warm liquid reached her lips. 

When Layla set her coffee back on the table, Ellen asked, “So, how’d it go out there?” 

Layla snaked her hands back around the mug. “Not too bad. I think I registered almost twenty people today.”

“Wow, that’s awesome.”

“Yeah, I just hope at least some of them show up to vote.”

“What drives you to do it, to stand out in the cold and register people?”

Layla took a sip of coffee before responding. “I read somewhere that like half the population doesn’t vote. I may be naïve, or maybe I’m just clueless, but I was totally flabbergasted.”

“So you decided to try to do something about it?” Ellen asked.

“Not at first.” Layla leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table. There was a fire in her eyes. “My dad’s American, but my mom is from El Salvador and she still has some family there. After the recent crackdown on immigration, my now ex-girlfriend prodded me to join a bunch of protests, and what really struck me… Some of our fellow protesters weren’t registered to vote even though they were eligible.”

“Wow,” Ellen replied. “You’d think if people were out there protesting, they’d be totally motivated to vote.”

“Yeah, you’d think. You’d be amazed at the excuses people come up with. A lot of them are disillusioned about the whole process.”

“Sometimes, I can’t say I blame them.”

Layla drained her coffee cup and the barista quickly replenished it. “It’s one of those cases, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Politicians know who votes and who doesn’t. They cater to the people they know go to the polls. We might actually see a shift in policy if more people voted.”

As they talked, Ellen found Layla’s passion intoxicating. She was so darn earnest. It was admirable, but also adorable.” 

It was well after dark when the barista started sweeping the floor around their table. Ellen leaned toward Layla and whispered, “You think he’s trying to give us a hint?”

Layla laughed and glanced at her watch. “Wow, I didn’t realize it had gotten so late. I should go. I’ve got a bunch of reading to do.”

Ellen pushed back her chair and stood. “Are you in school?”

“Sort of. I work full time but I’m also working on my master’s degree.”

“Jeez, do you spend all your free time standing on street corner trying to get people registered to vote?”

Layla chuckled. “Well, not all of it, but I—”

“Does that mean you might have time to have dinner with me? I mean, you’ve got to eat, right?”

If Layla was surprised by the question, she didn’t show it. She grinned. “I might.” 

“How about tomorrow night?”

Layla gestured toward the street corner. “I plan to be back out there tomorrow, but um, maybe after that.”

Ellen slipped on her coat. “Cool. I’ll be here at the café tomorrow afternoon. Come find me whenever you’re ready.”

“Okay, will do.” Layla looked down at her feet and then back up at Ellen. “It was really nice talking with you.”

Ellen gave Layla a friendly hug. “Same here.”

Ellen couldn’t contain her smile when Layla walked into the café just before six the following evening. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her cheeks were flushed from being out in the cold all afternoon. She looked incredibly beautiful. “Hungry?” Ellen asked when Layla approached to her table.

“Starving.”

“I know this little Italian place around the corner.”

“Perfect.”

“Do you want to warm up a little bit before you go back outside?”

Layla shook her head and tugged at her coat. “No. I had the sense to wear something a little warmer today. It seems like we went from summer to fall overnight and I think the weather yesterday caught me a little off guard.”

Ten minutes later they were seated across from one another at a small table near the window. As soon as they’d placed their orders Ellen asked, “So what do you say to convince people to register?”

Layla reached for the basket of bread on the table. “I ask them what issues they care about.” She broke off a piece of bread, slathered it with butter and slipped it into her mouth. She held up her finger to signal ‘one second’. “Like today, I talked to a young woman carrying a Greenpeace tote bag. Not surprisingly, climate change is a hot button issue for her. I convinced her to register so she could vote for candidates who share her views on the environment. A few other people I talked to had kids in tow, and for them, education was a big concern.”

“That makes sense,” Ellen said. 

“Yeah, the key is to connect with people.”

Ellen fiddled with the edge of her placemat. She’d only known Layla for twenty-four hours, but she was already hoping that tonight would be the first of many dinners together. She was desperate to get to know her better, understand what made her tick. “So, what do you do when you’re not standing on the street corner?” she asked. “You mentioned you work full-time…”

“Yep. I’m a teacher. High school algebra.”

Ellen laughed. “Ah, everyone’s favorite subject. Do people run from you at parties?”

“Ha, yeah, a lot of people cringe when I tell them what I teach. Apparently high school algebra conjures up terrible memories for a lot of people.” Layla held up her hands. “They think I’m weird.”

“I don’t think you’re weird.”

 “Well, that’s a relief,” Layla said and treated Ellen to another of her dimple inducing smiles. “What about you, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a flight attendant for Logan Airlines.”

“Oh, wow. That’s got to be a tough job. No way I could do that. Oh, man, you must have some stories. I mean, people can be so awful. I’ve heard people pitch a fit because their coffee wasn’t piping hot. It’s like get a grip.” 

“They can be awful, and trust me, I do encounter my fair share of obnoxious idiots, but for every one of them, I meet a hundred people who are kind and interesting.”

“So, you must travel a lot, huh?” Layla asked as she reached for the breadbasket again.

“Normally, yes,” Ellen replied. “but I’m not flying much right now. I’m helping to train new hires at a facility out near the airport.”

The waiter returned with the beers they’d ordered. Ellen picked up her glass. “Here’s to high voter turnout.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Layla said. She clinked her pint against Ellen’s and took a big swig of her IPA. “So, what made you want to be a flight attendant?”

“Growing up, I never had much money, but I’ve always dreamed of traveling the world, and meeting people from different cultures. Working for an airline seemed like a good way to make that a reality.”

“I hear you. I taught English in Tanzania for a year for much the same reason.”

“Gosh, just when I thought you couldn’t get any more amazing.” Ellen blushed as soon as the words were out. “Sorry, sometimes my thoughts come out of my mouth without asking my permission.”

Layla gave her a tender smile. “It’s okay. I think you’re pretty amazing too.”

After dinner, Ellen walked Layla to the bus stop. They stood back away from the street while they waited for the bus. There were very few pedestrians that time of night and a large oak tree shaded the sidewalk from the streetlights. 

“I want to kiss you,” Ellen whispered. 

“Well, what are you waiting for?”

Ellen slid her arm around Layla’s waist and kissed her softly on her lips. When she began to pull back, Layla ran a hand into her blond hair and brought their mouths back together. The headlights of the bus quashed the fluttering in Ellen’s stomach.

“See you tomorrow?” Ellen asked hopefully. 

Layla stepped on the bus and turned back to wave goodbye. “I hope so.”

Ellen watched the bus pulled away from the curb and stared after it as it disappeared down the street. She reached up and ran a finger over her lips before turning to walk back to her car. She practically skipped down the sidewalk. Yep, it was official. She’d been swept off her feet

Ellen walked into the café late the next afternoon and was surprised to see Layla sitting at a table in the corner. Her back was to the door and her head was hanging down, like she was reading something on her phone. 

Ellen gently tapped her on the shoulder. “Hey, I didn’t expect to see you…” Layla looked up.  Her eyes were red and moist, and there was a smudge of mascara on her cheek. “Oh, gosh, are you okay?” Ellen asked.

Layla gave her a weak smile. “Hey, yeah, I’m fine.” She gestured toward the street corner. “Just had a rough day out there.”

“What happened?”

Layla dabbed her eyes with a wadded-up paper napkin. “This guy started going off on me, accusing me of trying to ‘poison’ people about the current administration. He was really belligerent.”

Ellen pulled a chair up next to Layla. “What an ass.” Her eyes darted over Layla’s thin frame. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“No, thankfully not, but he really got in my face… I tried to explain to him,” Layla’s lip trembled, “that I was just trying to get people to register, regardless of whether they were red, blue, or somewhere in between. I work so hard not to be partisan. I just want people to vote, to participate in our democracy.” Tears welled up in her eyes again. “I’m sorry. I’m just overtired. I think it might be time to throw in the towel on this whole voter registration thing. I did what I could.”

Ellen gently rubbed Layla’s back. “It’s okay. I don’t blame you for being upset, but shoot, you’re doing such a great job, I’d hate to see you give it up because of some jerk. You’d be rewarding him for being an asshole.”

“I know, but I’m just not sure I’ve got it in me to do it anymore. Most people ignore me anyway. It can be so—”

“Maybe I could go out there with you tomorrow,” Ellen said. “I can be your moral support”—she nudged Layla’s shoulder—“and bodyguard.” 

Layla’s face lit up. “You’d do that?”

Ellen nodded and draped an arm over Layla’s shoulders. “Yeah, I’d do that. I bet you and I will make a mean voter registration team.”

“Wow, I don’t know what to say,” Layla replied. “That would be awesome.”

True to her word, Ellen was out there with Layla the next day, and the next, and the next. She was amazed at the easy way Layla has with people. She patiently listened as they talked about their gripes and grievances. Even when a person had a different point of view, Layla encouraged them to register.

Each night after they were done, Ellen and Layla retreated to the café for a beer and a bite to eat. Even after a long day of teaching and canvasing, Layla never lost her dry wit. The poor barista always had to sweep up around their feet. But at the end of the night, Layla always had to hurry off to catch the bus. To go home and face the mound of schoolwork that awaited her. 

They’d walk to the bus stop hand in hand and steal a kiss beneath the old oak tree. When the bus hissed to a stop, Layla would climb aboard and disappear into the night. 

They followed the same routine for about a week, until one night when the sky opened up just as they were finishing dinner. The rain hammered the windows of the café.

Ellen reached for Layla’s hand. “Can I give you lift home?”

Layla patted her backpack. “Thanks, but I’ve got an umbrella. I don’t mind taking the bus.”

“Don’t be silly. My car’s parked just around the corner.” Ellen gestured toward the front door of the cafe. “Plus, an umbrella will be totally useless in this weather. You’ll get drenched.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Layla said. “A ride would be great, if you really don’t mind.”

Ellen tugged her coat on and flipped up the hood. “Don’t mind at all.” She threw her arm over Layla’s shoulders and they ran through the driving rain to her car.

When they turned down a narrow tree-lined street, Layla pointed out the car window. “It’s the white house, the one with the porch light on.”

The rain had eased up slightly, and Ellen could just make out the entrance to the driveway. She pulled in and put her car in park. When she shifted in her seat, Layla’s deep brown eyes met hers. Neither of them spoke, and Ellen wondered whether Layla felt it too. The intense electricity between them. She got her answer when Layla’s warm lips crushed against hers. When their tongues came together, she melted against Layla. The outside world disappeared. Her head swam and a heat spread through her body. It was as if a warm wax was being poured over her head, trickling over her shoulders and inching down her torso. When the pulled apart, they were both gasping for air.

The outline of Layla’s face was barely visible in the soft light cast by the porch light. Ellen reached up to trace it before leaning in to bring their lips together again, but Layla stiffened and held up her hand. “As much as I’d like to keep kissing you, I can’t. If I don’t stop now, I’ll never get any work done tonight. You’re a wonderful distraction, but as it is, I’m starting to fall behind in two of my classes.”

Ellen leaned back against her seat, willing the ache between her legs to subside. She gave Layla a sideways glance. “Don’t mind me, I’m just dying over here.”

Layla laughed and gave her one last peck on the lips before she reached for the passenger door. Cold air rushed in and when she climbed out of the car, the leather on her seat groaned, as if it also was protesting the sudden absence of her warm body. Layla bent down and waved goodbye. “Just so you know, I want nothing more than to take you to bed,” she said before shutting the door. Ellen sank back into her seat as she watched Layla trot up the steps to her house and disappear inside. She cranked up the heat and reversed out of the driveway. 

After a week of canvassing together, Ellen and Layla bumped up against the state-imposed deadline to register for the upcoming election. As luck would have it, the deadline fell on a Friday and Ellen insisted on making Layla a proper home cooked meal to celebrate their achievement—together they’d registered almost two hundred people to vote.

Ellen smiled as she watched Layla expertly twirl pasta on her fork and slip it into her mouth.

“What are you looking at?” Layla asked when she finished chewing. 

“You.” Ellen felt her cheeks get warm “You’re incredibly beautiful, you know that?”

Layla looked down at her plate. When her eyes rose to meet Ellen’s, they were full of warmth. “You’re incredibly sweet.”

Ellen reached across the table and squeezed her hand. “This past week with you has been amazing.” 

After dinner, they wandered through the garden behind Ellen’s house. Because it was fall, most of the raised beds were empty but a few clusters of asters and mums swayed in the breeze. The full moon lit up the sky until a cloud passed overhead and extinguished it. Ellen stopped next to the garden’s small fountain; it’s gurgling was the only sound in the still night. Layla was at her side. Their faces were inches apart. 

Layla reached for her hand. “Thank you for dinner. This is the nicest evening I’ve had in a very very long time.”

“You’re welcome,” Ellen said. She rested her hand on the nape of Layla’s neck and brought their lips together. “This is,” she whispered between soft kisses, “one of the nicest nights I’ve had in a long time too.” She ran her hand over Layla’s shoulders and down her back, wanting to touch every part of her. A heat broke through their tender kisses and Ellen pulled Layla tight against her. She felt Layla shiver in her arms. “Are you cold?” she asked. “We can go back inside.”

Layla shook her head. “No, I’m okay. Perfect, actually. Just feeling an intense rush of emotion. I think it’s making me shake.” Layla winked. “But we should probably go inside anyway. I mean, unless you want your neighbors to see you naked.”

Ellen grabbed Layla’s hand and lead her back to the house. 

As soon as they stepped inside, the stumbled toward the couch. Layla pinned Ellen’s back against the cushions and straddled her. Their lips came together for a kiss that was long and deep. Minutes pass before they pulled apart. 

Layla stared down at her, her brown eyes full of desire. “Will you take me to bed?” 

They rolled off the couch and slowly made their way up the stairs, leaving discarded clothing in their path. 

Ellen woke a few hours later. The feel of the warm body curled up next to her made her smile. It was still dark outside, but there was a hint of orange in the sky. Layla’s breathing was slow and shallow, but when Ellen ran a gentle finger over her cheek, she smiled. One eye opened part way before falling shut again. Ellen nestled her head on Layla’s chest and fell back asleep. 

A week later, Ellen got unexpectedly called back to her regular flight attendant duties. It required her to be gone for long stretches at a time, and the deadline for absentee ballots had past before she finally realized she’d be three thousand miles away from Virginia on election day. She frantically called in a few favors and managed to get her schedule changed. So what if it meant she’d be on the Vegas red-eye for a month. After all the time she and Layla spent pounding the pavement, there was no way in hell she was going to miss the chance to cast her vote. 

On election night, Layla hosted a small party at her house. Along with a few friends, she and Ellen huddled around the TV. The results trickled in and everyone cheered when they announced the tally for one especially close Virginia state-level race. With ninety-eight percent of precincts reporting, their candidate has just pulled ahead and was now leading her opponent by 103 votes. Some of the other local races were nearly as close. Not all of the races were going their way, but overall, it’s a very good night for the candidates and ballot measures they supported.

Layla collapsed on the couch at the end of the evening. “Talk about some serious nail bitters,” she said. “I can’t believe I didn’t have a heart attack!” 

Ellen laughed. “One of the joys of living in a swing state, huh?” She threw her arm over Layla’s shoulders and pulled her into a hug. “You know,” she whispered, “all of that work you did, all of those nights you stood on that street corner, it may have impacted the outcome of some of the close races.”

Layla pulled back slightly and kissed Ellen on the nose. “That’s sweet of you to say, but I don’t think I registered that many people.”

 “You never know,” Ellen said, “and think about it, maybe some of the people you spoke to went home and talked to their friends and family, and maybe they got some of them to vote too. You should be really proud of yourself. I know I am.”

“Thanks, that really means a lot.”

 Ellen tightened her arms around Layla. “I can’t wait to get back out there with you next year.”

A broad smile crossed Layla’s face. “You mean it?”

“Uh-huh. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

THE END

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