Enjoy this free chapter as a Holiday present from me.
Liz A. Stratton, presidential candidate, peeked from behind the curtain. In front of her stood a crowd of thousands of horny women who had given up sex to show support for her effort to end the war in Mesopotamianstan. They expected her to say something that would inspire them and keep them from going to bed with their husbands or lovers—or both—until the war was over.
But Liz kept thinking about that…that…man—a secret service agent, no less—who was currently in her room on the bus waiting for her—as she’d left him, she supposed—naked and half-crazy with desire. Honestly, she didn’t know whether she was going back to him once she was done with the crowd. What could she possibly say to those women to keep them on track if she wasn’t even able to contain herself?
She slumped in a folding chair and flipped through her talking points, not reading them. She was thinking of Dion’s floppy hair, his sexy sunglasses, his lopsided grin, what his cock must look like. She sighed and swore.
Maybe this sex strike thing was more trouble than it was worth.
Earlier that year:
Liz Stratton made it a policy not to have bad days, but at 9:15 a.m., this one was already testing her optimism. An overnight blackout had jinxed every electrical device in her house, including her alarm, which unhelpfully blinked 12:00 at her when she eventually opened her eyes. She stumbled to her car to find that despicable yellow light glaring at her, daring her to attempt the highway with an empty tank. Once she was at the studio, her new hairdresser had to rush—because Liz was so late—and tugged on her tender scalp in new and excruciating ways.
And now, a timid little assistant was informing her that Ethan Falconwright, that day’s show guest, had cancelled. The star’s son had broken his arm and was at the hospital. Liz had to admit that this was a better excuse than she usually got for a last-minute cancellation. But now she had to find a new guest for her show, Spare Me!, who would be interesting and would show up on time—a tall order in Hollywood.
She glanced her reflection as the girl tugged—yanked—at the back of her head. Liz scrutinized her long, coffee-colored hair for stray grays, but didn’t see any.
Her tall frame was a tad too long for the chair, but at nearly six feet tall, Liz was used to not quite fitting in the world. She sighed, peered over her glasses at her makeup, and decided that she was presentable to a television audience.
Her cell phone rang. It was her producer, so she answered it with, “Zeke, please tell me something good.”
“You’re as beautiful as ever,” he answered, and she had to grin. “Are you smiling? Good. We’ve lined Cal up for your interview today. How’s that for last-minute tricks?”
“Zeke, you’re a peach,” she replied. “Have her come by my dressing room as soon as she’s here.”
“She wants to, anyway,” Zeke said. “She says she’s got some great ideas for ‘The Future.’”
He said this last part in a spooky voice that made Liz laugh.
He said this last part in a spooky voice that made Liz laugh.
“That’s Cal,” she said and hung up.
“Good news?” asked the hairdresser. She shoved a pin deep into Liz’s sensitive scalp.
“Yes. My friend Calliope Talmadge is going to be on the show today.”
The girl dropped her comb. “You know Calliope Talmadge?”
Liz took a closer look at her. “What’s your name?”
“Amber Hastings,” the girl said. Her hair was chopped in a short bob, and she wore trendy clothing in all-organic cotton. “Calliope Talmadge is a hero of mine. I’ve been a member of WAP since I turned eighteen.”
Liz assumed that was last year, but didn’t say anything. “I’ll make sure you’re introduced, Amber,” she said, and then winced at the girl’s squeals of excitement. “Now, don’t pull my hair so hard. I’m not a lawnmower, you know.”
Spare Me! was the highest-rated afternoon talk show on the West Coast and second only after Ellen east of the Rockies. It was named after Liz’s catch-phrase. During a radio interview with a state senator in Arizona, she said, “Spare me!” so much that everyone at the station called her “Spare Me Stratton” from then on. She re-named her radio show The Spare Me Hour with Liz Stratton, and shortened it simply Spare Me! when television finally called.
Ten years ago, Zeke Rowan heard her as he drove through the Southwest on an assignment for a news show he was assistant producing, and “fell in love.” That’s what he said when he called up her station and demanded a lunch with her that day.
The short, handsome, soon-to-be producer insisted that he could get her a daytime talk show in LA if only she’d give him her phone number and a handful of headshots. She had done so, though, knowing what she knew now about LA, she’d never be so trusting again. She had been lucky that Zeke had been the real deal.
At first, Liz had no aspirations for television because she didn’t consider herself beautiful enough for the small screen. Who would want to watch an Amazon interview anyone? Liz had played basketball in high school and had gone to prom with a boy of equal athletic prowess and low social standing. They were the knees-and-elbows couple. She couldn’t imagine being graceful in front of a television camera.
Zeke was persistent, though, and convinced her to fly out to LA for a screen test—a fake interview with an actor. After an hour in the hands of a talented makeup and hair stylist, even Liz had to admit she looked good. The camera loved her expressive face and caught the loveliness of her blue eyes against her dark hair. Once she relaxed into her typical interview mode, her forceful and lively personality even made the cameraman smile. She was a natural.
Of course, television was different than radio. A million decisions had to be made about the set, the format, and Liz’s wardrobe. She didn’t know how she would have survived if Zeke hadn’t been there every step of the way, helpful and attentive.
One of her first shows aired right after Congress reinstated the draft. She invited the local Congressman and any representative of the U. S. Army who would come. When she walked onto stage that afternoon, the two men sat confidently on her sofas. She began by questioning them carefully about the justification for the draft.
“Well, you see, it’s like this,” said Congressman Miller. “If we have any hope of winning this war, we need to attack both fronts with as much force as we can muster.”
“Right,” said Lieutenant Archer. “So the army asked the government to reinstitute the Draft so that we could send the reserve and national guard troops home and have fresh recruits for the field.”
“So, you’re telling me that in order to send the US Army Reserve and National Guard home, you began the Draft, so that you could just conscript them again for as long as you like?” Liz asked. She tried to keep a mocking tone out of her voice, but she wasn’t sure it worked.
Lieutenant Archer looked a little stricken, so Congressman Miller jumped in. “Now, Liz—”
“Ms. Stratton,” she said shortly.
“Uh, right, Ms. Stratton, this is a necessary step in our quest to win this war.”
“And why do we need to do that?” Liz asked, as innocently as she could.
“What do you mean?” the congressman said.
“I mean what I said. Why do we need to ‘win’ this war? What has being in this war gotten us so far? What does it promise to give us if we ‘stay the course’? I’ve always wondered this, and now it seems really important to know.”
“Well,” said the lieutenant. “I mean, think of the consequences of not winning.”
“You mean ‘losing’?” Liz spat at him. “What are the consequences of losing, Lieutenant? Giving up ground on a rock I’ll never see? Paying more for gas? I’m already doing that. Being threatened by terrorists? I’m still being threatened by them. Losing Mesopotamianstan democracy? So what? We’re not missionaries, or at least, we shouldn’t be. I don’t feel any safer than I did ten years ago when this thing started, do any of you?” she asked the audience.
A great “no!” was the reply.
“Gentlemen? Response?” Liz asked.
The lieutenant stared at her like the proverbial deer in high beams while the congressman glared at her meanly. Finally, he said, “I didn’t come here to be ambushed by you, Ms. Stratton.”
“Then you shouldn’t have voted to reinstate the draft or agreed to come on to my show.” Liz stood and stepped toward the audience. “And now, gentlemen, I have some people I’d like you to meet.” She gestured to the wings and groups of women began walking across the stage.
“This is Soledad, whose husband returned from a two-year rotation in the Middle East six months ago. He’s been drafted and is leaving in a week to go back.”
Soledad stepped up and shook both men’s hands as she held a squirming infant on her hip.
“Soledad works part-time to help support their five kids, but daycare is killing her budget. Her husband is an engineer, but the army only pays him a tiny percentage of what he could get at home.”
Another young woman stepped forward.
“This is Mindy, gentlemen. Her eighteen-year-old fiancé Bill was killed in Mesopotamianstan a month ago. She’s pregnant with his child.”
An older woman stepped forward.
“This is Ann. She had four sons, but now she’s down to a single boy who’s seventeen. The rest were killed in action. She’s terrified that her lone son will be next.”
“That’s enough,” snapped the congressman. “We had hearings that lasted two months. We’ve heard all these stories and others that were worse. We still decided that the draft is needed. Nothing you can show me will change my mind.”
“Oh, I’m not here to change your mind,” said Liz. “But perhaps you’re right. These ladies may have the saddest stories, but maybe not the most convincing ones. You may go sit, darlings.” Liz waved them to the front row seats. Then she turned to the opposite wing off stage.
Four men in suits walked on stage and sat in chairs opposite the couch the congressman sat on.
“Who are they?” the lieutenant whispered to Congressman Miller who shook his head.
“Gentlemen, meet Adams, Tappan, DeFord, and Malvadkar of the Winchester Research Institute. They study money in Washington.”
Miller shifted a little in his seat.
“Would you tell us what you’ve found, sirs?” she asked.
“Well,” said Malvadkar. “It’s quite fascinating, really. The amount of money the oil companies are making off of developing the reserves in Mesopotamianstan are quite astounding. There is more oil and natural gas in that part of the world than any other. The American presence in the area has kept OPEC countries from controlling the resource. It’s very lucrative.”
“That’s nice for the oil companies,” said Liz. “How does that affect Washington?”
“Oh, there are all kinds of donations to both major parties by oil companies.”
“Thank you,” she said, turning to another man. “DeFord?”
“My department researches contractors working on the ‘rebuilding’ of the infrastructure of the area. Again, very lucrative and big contributions to leaders in both parties who decide where the contracts go.”
“Wow. Anything else?”
“Well, many Washington leaders are major stockholders in such companies.”
“Now, wait a minute!” Congressman Miller stood. “Are you accusing me of something? If you are, out with it!”
Liz’s eyes flashed so brightly that the sparkle could be seen on a thirteen-inch black-and-white set with rabbit ears in Alabama. “Spare me, Congressman Miller,” she hissed.
The crowd cheered and Miller sat back down in surprise.
“I could accuse you of taking bribes from the oil companies to vote in favor of this war and of supporting it for the last ten years,” she continued. “I could accuse you of voting in a way beneficial the companies you own stock in, companies that make huge amounts of money not building schools and roads in the Middle East. I could accuse you of taking ‘campaign money’ from Russian sources whose interests in the northern oases of Mesopotamianstan are suspect, as Dr. Adams here has studied. I could use information Dr. Tappan has collected and accuse you and all of Congress of lining your pockets with taxpayer money earmarked for armor and ammo for the troops already in that God-forsaken land, the troops who are the lovers and husbands and sons and fathers of ladies like those who face you in the front row here, and who face you in the rest of the studio audience, and who are peering at you from behind their television screens all across the country. I could accuse you, Congressman Miller, of all these things, but I don’t have to. These things are all true, and documentation proving them are on my website for my viewers to see. The address is on their screens right now. So spare me your self-righteousness, and get off of my stage. Now.”
Congressman Miller sputtered angrily but then faced the audience, which was jeering loudly. He sat down and scowled at Liz until the hissing stopped.
“Listen here, Ms. Stratton,” he began. “I will not be ordered around by the likes of you. You and your media-dog cohorts have no idea how Washington works. You haven’t been there. True, it is difficult to extract oneself from the rat’s nest of loyalties. Besides that, many of the people in your audience are probably just as ‘heavily invested’ in those companies as I am because they are commonly part of mutual funds in 401Ks. Most of the things you accuse me of are true, but you forget that not everyone in Washington is the greasy, corrupt slime ball you make us out to be. Some of us actually try to make the broken system work to the benefit of our constituents. That includes protecting them with a strong military. Now, if you’ll excuse me—” Congressman Miller stood, stripping the microphone off of his tie and dropping it to the floor as he left the stage.
The audience taunted him again as he left. This was fortunate for Liz, who was speechless for the first time in ages. Zeke kept the camera on the audience and not on Liz’s stunned face. The lieutenant sat frozen to his seat, looking so frightened that Zeke signaled a commercial break so he could get both of them off stage.
It was looked like young Stratton’s finest moment on television, but the congressman’s words stuck with her.
The day was definitely looking up. Liz sat in her green room, re-reading the last press release from WAP, or the Womyn’s Achievement Party, of which Calliope Talmadge was president. When Liz and Cal were friends at Mt. Holyoke College, you wouldn’t have guessed that Cal was going to take up a cause. For the first two years of school, she claimed that she was majoring in Amherst men. Liz was the one who worked at the school paper and wrote angry letters to the Boston Globe about the treatment of women under the Taliban.
It took one required Women’s Studies course to change Cal, although her reaction was very different than Liz’s.
After reading a speech by Susan B. Anthony, Cal stopped “chasing boys.” After reading a book by Gloria Steinem, Cal cut her waist-length strawberry blonde curtain to a bob. Liz wasn’t as drastic. She stopped fretting about what her boyfriend thought about her wardrobe. After all, he was a Philosophy student, always dressed in black, and didn’t know a thing about cut and drape.
That summer, Cal interned at WAP’s political office in DC while Liz worked at a newspaper copy-editing the ed-op pieces. The roomies reunited the next fall with very clear ideas of where their lives were going. Liz was going to win a Pulitzer by the time she was twenty-five, and Cal was going to be the first woman president.
Today, Cal tapped at Liz’s dressing room door and peeked in, all grins. “He—ey!” she squealed. “Lizzy!” Cal was the only person in the world who could get away with this nickname.
“Cally!” Liz squealed in return and the two hugged in the doorway. “Come in, come in! How the hell are you?”
Cal, still sporting a short blonde bob, but dressed in a trim beige suit and shoes that showed off her sexy calves, perched on a make-up chair. “Oh, Liz. Big doings! Big doings this year! This is the year, I tell you.”
“WAP is going to have a candidate for president this year!”
“No way! You’re kidding! Cal, I’m so pleased for you!” Liz leaped up and hugged her friend. “You will be fabulous!”
Cal laughed. “No, no, you misunderstand! I’m not running. We have a much better candidate in mind.”
“Really?” Liz asked. “Who?”
Cal got a sly look in her eye.
“Okay, Cal. Spill it. Who’s your candidate?”
Cal drum-rolled on the make-up table, then leaned in to whisper into Liz’s ear: “You.”
“No. Hear me out, Liz.” Cal tucked her legs underneath her and leaned in. She had practiced this speech endlessly over the last two days. “The idea struck me when I was in the shower,” she said. “What if the Liz Stratton ran for president? She has the name recognition, the platform, the well-defined political bent. It would be perfect!”
“No, listen before you say ‘no’.” Cal wrinkled her brow. “We could finally end this war.”
Cal knew just which buttons to push to convince Liz. The “It’s your civic duty” line wouldn’t have worked, but Cal knew that Liz was angrier about the futile war than anyone.
Liz’s eyes sparked. “What? How?”
“Well, that’s our main platform. Our talking point. We bang that drum, get the word out as far and wide as we can. We make an issue out of it so all the candidates have to take a position on it,” Cal said through a toothy grin.
Liz nodded then smiled. “So, what’s next?”
“You and I and the WAP team will discuss policy, and you’ll have to study the issues like you’re taking the bar exam. Can you do that?”
Liz grinned. “Are you actually asking if I can pull all-nighters with my best friend in the whole world? As long as there are Oreos, I can learn anything!”
Cal laughed. “This is the real reason I picked you, Liz,” she said. “We don’t hang out enough.”
“Jesus, Cal,” Liz said. “Just invite me out to a movie next time!”
They laughed and, after the last giggle, Liz looked her friend in the eye. “So, are we going to win?”
“Oh, probably not,” Cal said casually. “But we’ll make as much noise as we can as we go down.”
“But, Cal,” Liz said a little urgently. “What if we do win?”
Cal’ eyes lit up. “Then we’ll change the world, my girl. We’ll change everything!”
There was a tap at the door, and Liz’s hairdresser came into her dressing room shyly. “Ms. Stratton? You need to be on stage in two minutes.”
“Yes, yes. I’ll be there,” Liz said, but the girl continued to stand at the door awkwardly. Then Liz remembered. “Oh, right. Cal, this is…” Damn it. What was that girl’s name? “This is my new hairdresser…Amber! Right?” She nodded. “Right. She heard your name and just went to jelly in admiration, didn’t you?”
Amber blushed, but stepped forward and shook Cal’s hand. “I am so honored to meet you, ma’am.”
Cal smiled kindly. “I like your hair.”
Amber’s blush receded and she smiled in pride. “I modeled it after yours,” she admitted. “I’m the president of my WAP chapter in Anaheim. I would love to talk to you about a couple ideas we’ve had about the upcoming presidential election.”
“That would be wonderful,” Cal said graciously. She pulled a card out of her purse. “Give me a call this week and we’ll talk.”
Amber could hardly contain her glee. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she said as she backed out of the room, clutching the business card to her chest as if it might try to escape.
Cal grinned at Liz. “You get this more than me,” she said. “Is fame always like that?”
“Amber is a sweetheart, but if she does your hair, bring a branch to bite on,” Liz said as she glanced at her watch. “We need to get on stage.”
The theme music of the show filled the studio and the audience began to clap and cheer. Liz made eye contact with Zeke who gave her five…four…three…two…
“And now, here’s the host of Spare Me!, Liz Stratton!” cried the taped announcer.
Liz took the stage, waving to random people as they stood and cheered for her.
“Hello! Hello, everyone! Welcome to Spare Me!, the show where…” Liz waited a beat for the audience to hear their cue.
“…we don’t take any baloney!” they cried happily.
“We’ve got a great show for you today. My dear friend Calliope Talmadge, the President of the Womyn’s Achievement Party, is here with a big announcement!”
There was genuine applause, not as exuberant as they might have been for Ethan Falconwright, who was presumably waiting for his clumsy boy to get a cast on his arm, but that didn’t bother Liz.
Liz looked for Calliope in the wings. Cal winked at her and smiled, signaling that she was ready for the show.
Liz spread out her arms. “Here she is, my dear friend Calliope Talmadge!”
Cal strode onto stage, waving and smiling as if she were running for president. The ladies in the audience cheered and the men smiled, because, despite her position in life as the short, unmarried leader of a women’s organization, Cal was as poised and beautiful as a movie star.
Cal and Liz sat on the comfortable upholstered chairs in the center of the soundstage, a contrast in femininity. Compact and bubbly, Cal was not the picture of a feminist leader, and rangy, athletic Liz did not fit the image of a woman who made her living talking.
“So, Calliope Talmadge, President of WAP, what are you here to announce today?” Liz asked her friend.
“Liz, I am here to announce that WAP will have a candidate in this year’s race for the President of the United States!” The crowd clapped and cheered as Cal smiled. “It gets better,” she said when the audience quieted. “I’m here to announce our candidate today on this show!”
The crowd whooped in excitement.
“That’s marvelous!” Liz said.
“It is marvelous, Liz. And the best part, everyone, is that our candidate will be our own Elizabeth Ann Stratton!”
The audience erupted out of their seats, cheering and applauding. Some of the younger women were actually screaming and jumping up and down, demonstrating how poorly their bras fit. Liz stood and waved to the crowd, smiling.
Then Liz caught Zeke’s eye. She and Cal hadn’t told him what they were planning, so he stood next to the camera with his headset wrapped around his neck and his jaw hanging open like a mailbox lid. She gave him a little wave and he blinked slowly at her.
He mouthed the word “Really?” and she nodded. He cued a commercial and sat down heavily on the floor.
© 2016 by Maren Anderson