This story reads like fiction. But it’s real. It happened.
It was an impulse buy. There was nothing I needed to celebrate — no upcoming birthdays or anniversaries. But from the first time I saw the piñatas hanging from the shop awnings along Mission Street, I was charmed. Brightly colored and cartoonish, they were a direct “fuck you” to the simplistic buffoonery of a candidate who’d vilely insulted Mexicans. When I found myself browsing in one of those stores two weeks before the election, I couldn’t help but ask how much the piñatas cost.
“Veinte dólares,” the clerk said.
Twenty dollars seemed a bargain for such a clever, handmade artifact. So I bought a piñata. Then I picked up cheap, post-Halloween candy from the drugstore to fill it.
Examining it at home, I discovered the piñata had no opening. From the Internet, I learned I’d need to cut a little door into the paper mache. Fine, but I was busy. I was teaching first grade and going to meetings before and after school. I was also spending hours reading bullshit about how well Clinton was polling. I was on a nonstop diet of absolute garbage about how thoroughly Team Democrat was trouncing the Republicans.
At home, the piñata kept taking me by surprise. I’d forget it was there and then, opening the hall door, suddenly I’d find it waiting. I sometimes wondered if it was bad karma to smash a human being in effigy. I reminded myself that I don’t believe in voodoo. I’m not superstitious. Really, I’m not.
A few days before the election, I started feeling sick. I was tired and had no appetite. Then, my period hit off-cycle; I was a bloody, suffering mess. Sunday night I had a bad dream. A man hunted me through a desolate city. I spent Monday night fleeing the same monster. Throughout childhood and young adulthood, I’d had similar nightmares, resulting, perhaps, from early exposure to men using sexuality as a weapon. Now, after nearly a decade of peaceful sleep, once again I found myself waking in the night, terrorized.
But then, finally, it was Tuesday. Before teaching, I voted. Maybe they’ll finish the count tonight, I whispered, marking my ballot for Hillary. Maybe, I told her, you’ll be declared our next president by the time I go to bed. At 5:30 p.m., after more meetings, I left school, taking home the special stick we used at class parties: Piñata Slayer, I liked to call it. My plan was to fill the piñata quickly and bring it to writing group; it was my turn to facilitate the critique session. I figured we’d all be ready for a cathartic piñata smashing by the time the night was over.
The problems started when I tried sawing a hole into the piñata. My serrated cutter barely made it through the tough surface. This is not an omen, I reminded myself. I’m not superstitious. I found a craft knife in the basement; it was slow going, but eventually I carved a little hatch. By the time I stuffed the piñata, I was running late. Without checking the news, I set off for Alley Cat, the bookstore where our writing group meets. I wondered what people would say when they saw me lugging my garish burden down 24th Street. Maybe they’d laugh. Maybe they’d cheer, I thought. But no, no one made eye contact. Was it possible they thought I was rooting for him? Finally, a middle-aged Latino man stopped me. “Hit the bastard,” he said in English. “Hit him hard for me.”
“Sí,” I answered. “Mis amigos y yo, le vamos a pegar duro!” I accompanied my promise with a forceful arm gesture.
“El esta arriba ahora,” he told me, but I shrugged, dubious. Early exit polls can be very misleading.
At the bookstore, only a few writers occupied the wide circle of chairs. “Everyone’s home worrying,” one man said. “Hey, why’d you bring that thing, anyway?”
“We’re going to smash it,” I said, my lips stretching wide in a poorly executed smile.
A few people read that night, but I can’t remember any of the stories. None of them, perhaps, was particularly brilliant. In any case, with so few attendees, we ended early.
“Anyone want to …” I started to say, but no one showed any interest in smashing the piñata. No one had time to grab a drink, either. So I went out into the street alone.
On the next block, just outside a bar, I found a low-hanging tree branch, perfect for my piñata. A group of young people stood there on the sidewalk, gazing at their cell phones with blank faces. “This isn’t good,” I heard someone say. I’d brought a clothesline to hang the piñata. Tossing it easily over a branch — You see, I thought, this is going very well — I attached the piñata. Then, I offered the stick to the bar patrons. “Go ahead,” I told them.
Slowly, they began the onslaught. One big guy took a powerful swing. The piñata swayed, then steadied itself. Another man stepped up, and then another; these men were young and strong, and the piñata was only paper, but somehow they couldn’t make a dent in it. Then, the stick broke. A young woman started slamming the broken staff into the piñata’s crotch over and over again. “Take that, pussy grabber,” she said. “Now, I’m grabbing you by the pussy!” The piñata hung heavily in the air, undismayed.
At some point, Anna from the writing group walked by on her way home. She stopped, an unreadable look on her face. Exasperation? Resignation? Anna had frolicked her way through the hippie years and then slogged through the relentless Reagan-Bush era. I wanted to ask her, What are we supposed to do? She left before I could frame the words. By then, someone had decided to pulverize the piñata against the curb. A few pieces of candy rolled listlessly out. I backed away; someone else could eat that junk. Someone else could clean the mess.
“Wait,” the crotch-bashing woman said. “Come inside. Drink with us!”
I didn’t want alcohol. By then, the news from the cell phones was decisive; it seemed safer to face the grim new reality sober. I went home and tried, unsuccessfully, to sleep.
Throughout the following week, the insomnia persisted as hate crimes were reported all over the country. I’d wake in the middle of the night thinking of the swastikas painted on walls, and of the Muslim Americans who’d been called terrorists. When one of my students asked if it was true that Chinese people and Mexicans would have to leave the country, I tried to reassure her: Many of us would fight to protect people like her and her family. Even to me, my voice sounded thin and uncertain.
More than a month has passed since the election and the night of destroying the piñata, with its royal blue suit, neatly creased, tissue-paper lapels and lemon-yellow hair that popped stiffly up. Its mouth was an oversized circle, wide open as if perpetually belching out threats and insults. I try to focus on other images: large crowds gathering in plazas and then marching, unified, down broad avenues. We’re fighting back; we make phone calls and sign petitions. We denounce corruption and intolerance. I wish I could make the piñata’s vibrant colors fade to pale nothingness, but I still see that mouth. It haunts me like a giant black hole, hungry to suck the entire universe into its grim, empty abyss.
Judy Viertel has been published in Gargoyle Magazine, Gold Dust Magazine, Identity Theory, Mad Swirl and Read Short Fiction. She’s one of four facilitators currently running The San Francisco Writers’ Workshop, a venerable local institution. A proud public educator, she was named San Francisco’s 2014 “Teacher of the Year.”
Donald Trump piñata created by Mexican artist Dalton Junior Ramirez