An American Dreamer
It was November 3, 2020—Election Day—and soon after Brent Cummings woke up, he called out, “Hey, I’m going to vote.”
Who in his big house heard him? He wasn’t sure. Probably no one, he realized. His wife, Laura, was already gone. His older daughter, Emily, was away in college, and his younger daughter, Meredith, was asleep in her bedroom. A marriage going on twenty-six years, a twenty-one-year-old daughter, an eighteen-year-old daughter, five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a front porch with a couple of rocking chairs, a large backyard where his daughters had spent hours bouncing on a trampoline in the warming sunshine of Georgia—this was the life Brent Cummings had built since his days as a soldier in the Iraq War, although another way to describe that life was that the trampoline had eventually become covered in leaves and hauled away, his younger daughter who’d been born with Down syndrome had mysteriously stopped speaking, his older daughter was twirling her hair a lot and wringing her hands sometimes and feeling anxious about her future, his wife, normally so upbeat, was spending more and more time fighting off feelings of melancholy, and somewhere in all of this he had become middle-aged.
Out of one war and into another—that was how life in the United States was increasingly feeling to Brent.
The day before, he’d turned fifty-two, and at the end of dinner Laura had brought him a slice of birthday cake.
She was smiling. “I didn’t realize till Sunday that there’s a difference between white frosting and vanilla frosting,” she’d said, and then asked him: “Which do you like?”
“Vanilla,” Brent had said.
“Well,” Laura had said, “this is white.”
He’d taken a bite.
“Yeah,” he’d said, “I like vanilla.”
He’d slept fitfully, which happened often since he’d come home from Iraq in early 2008, and when he woke up, he was relieved to have gotten through the night without a bad dream.
He got into his pickup truck. The polling place wasn’t far away. He used his turn signals. He didn’t exceed the speed limit. He parked between the lines. He opened the entrance door for someone else and let that person go through first. He believed in courtesies and in rules, and he believed that anyone who held doors, didn’t lie about cake frosting, didn’t cheat, worked hard, and treated people with respect would have a shot at a life of opportunity and meaning.
“Here to vote?” a poll worker asked him.
“Yes sir,” he said.
Thirteen years earlier, Brent had stood in a wide-open field with a few dozen other U.S. Army soldiers, all of them waiting for the rockets that would kill them or the helicopters that would take them out of Iraq. They smoked cigarettes and ground them into the weeds. They talked of the first thing they wanted to do when they got home, and the second thing they wanted to do, and they kept searching the sky. An hour went by. The sun began to set. Another hour went by. There was no telling when the helicopters would show up. That was the best their war could do for them after a year in which dozens of them had been carted away with injuries and fourteen of them had died, and as the survivors kept waiting, a nervous silence descended until one of them said, “They’re coming.”
It was Brent who had said this.
Everyone had looked toward where he was looking and then had seen them too, a pair of small silhouettes in a big sky lit by a dented-looking moon. The helicopters had come in fast, giving everyone a final coating of Iraqi dust, and then the soldiers were up in the air and on their way home, all of them wondering what was waiting for them in America.
Thirteen years later, Brent had his answer—what had awaited him was this moment on Election Day. In the grand scheme of the day, the vote he was about to cast was the smallest of acts, a mere one vote among what would be one hundred fifty-nine million. And yet as Brent looked at the first name on the ballot, Donald J. Trump, and then the next name, Joseph R. Biden, the moment felt like a reckoning with everything he had been experiencing since he’d gotten on the helicopter and come home to a country that more and more was feeling like it was coming apart at the seams.
He was aware of what people who didn’t know him might assume about him, including how he would vote. He’d been born in Mississippi in 1968 and lived there in his formative years, so obviously he was a racist. He’d been raised in New Jersey, where he played center on his high school football team, and then went on to play rugby in college, so of course he was brutish and crude. He had spent twenty-eight years in the U.S. Army and had been in combat, so surely he had killed people. He was a white male pickup-driving ex-soldier living in a Georgia county where in 2016 Donald Trump received 71 percent of the vote, so absolutely . . .
The truth of such assumptions? “It’s complicated,” Brent sometimes said about all manner of things. He wasn’t a brute, although he had once gotten in a fight and hit someone so squarely and with so much force that as his fist kept moving forward, he felt the man’s face collapsing bone by bone, a feeling that had sickened him. He wasn’t crude, although he was as likely to say the word “f***” when he was exasperated as the word he wished he would always say, which was “golly.” He wasn’t racist, he was certain of that, but he wasn’t immune to the complications of race, either, not since he was a child who one day climbed into his grandparents’ car and began beeping the horn again and again until it got stuck, at which point a black man who worked for his grandfather and was always friendly and patient came over, raised the hood, fixed the horn, lowered the hood, leaned in the window, and whispered so no one else could hear, “You sticks that horns again, I’s beat you as black as I is.”
The mystery of those words, and the way they made Brent feel, had seared into him and, along with everything else, turned him into the man he had become: probably more Republican than Democrat, probably more conservative than liberal, but most of all a man in the middle, a man who throughout his life had been searching for some sense of larger purpose and meaning. That search had been defining of him, including when he had gone to war talking about the need to be empathetic and honorable, always honorable, with the intention of being the most moral soldier of all.
“Fight over. Congratulations again on a job well done. I’m really proud of you,” his father had written to him when he was on his way out of Iraq a year after arriving there. Always, his father had been his guide. In the first hours after his younger daughter Meredith had been born and diagnosed with Down syndrome, when he’d been crying and asking what he was going to do, it was his father who’d given him the answer he’d been trying to live up to since. “Brent, you’re going to love her,” he’d said. Once again, Brent wanted to believe his father’s words, but soon after he got home, he realized that the fight wasn’t over, because of a dream he started to have over and over, a bad dream that explained why the election of 2020 had come to mean so much to him.
It would come, and it would go. But it always came again.
“I haven’t had a bad dream in a while,” Brent said to Laura one night at dinner.
“In four days,” Laura said.
“No,” Brent said.
“Yes,” Laura said and told him what had happened:
“It’s bad! It’s bad!” he had cried out.
“Brent, be quiet,” she had said, trying to calm him.
“No! It’s bad!” he had said.
“Be quiet!” she had said.
She looked at him, waiting for him to finish eating and say something.
One thing about a bad dream for a onetime combat soldier—it could be about so many different things.
A floating body in a billowing shirt, for instance, which some of the soldiers had discovered in the septic tank of an abandoned building they were thinking of moving into. The body was that of an Iraqi. It was toeless and fingerless, and the head was separated and floating nearby, and yet as Brent stood staring at it, the lazy way it was drifting and swirling was kind of hypnotic.
That wasn’t the dream, though, and neither was it about the night when the small, isolated base he was on was being bombed and he dove under a truck to take cover. Vehicles were exploding, fuel was leaking from tanker trucks, and fires were breaking out, and as he watched the fires get bigger, it occurred to him that the truck he was under was a fuel tanker and the flames were coming for him.
So the dream could have been about that, or about the early morning mortar that had exploded just outside his room and blown out his window as he slept.
Or it could have been the late afternoon mortar that exploded as he waited in line for his laundry.