by Allison Glock
for Esquire Magazine
The air-conditioning is broken at the Moore County medium-dollar fundraiser. The few Democrats in a population of self-proclaimed "half-backs" (they moved from the North down to Florida to retire, but it was too hot, so they moved halfway back) have gathered at a private home in the planned golf community of Pinehurst, North Carolina, to eat brisket and homemade rugelach and meet their newly elected Democratic nominee for Congress.
The donors applaud, but the sound dies quickly, and for a moment nobody stirs, a pregnant silence in the air. Then a male voice from the back of the room blurts out, "Are you going to sing?"
"We're working on it!" the host shouts, patting his forehead with a paper towel as he weaves through the forty or so men and women crowded into the house, sweating in brightly colored tunics, polo shirts, khakis with ducks or golf clubs embroidered on them. No one seems too bothered by the rising heat. The guests chat amiably about aquasize and putting technique and who's having what surgery when, their eyes trained on the front door, heads tilting up every time it opens just in case it might be the guest of honor, unaware that a mile down the road, their candidate has been detained at the security gate.
"The Clay Aiken?"
The guard wedges his belly into the open car window, leaning to take a closer look as Aiken passes him his driver's license.
"Yes, sir. What's your name?" Aiken asks, flashing an open smile.
"My name is Officer Danny Comer."
"Nice to meet ya, Danny."
Danny takes a step back, holds Aiken's driver's license up to the sun. "I'm gonna need to get your autograph," he says.
Aiken roots around his console, grabs a "Republaiken" sticker, scribbles Danny's name and his signature on the back. "Where do you live, Danny?"
"Oh my, well, that's a good drive. Up near Chatham." He passes Danny the sticker, which Danny cups as if protecting an egg. "Well, there you go. You remember to vote for me in November."
"Okay," Danny agrees, at last triggering the gate and allowing Aiken to pass through, shouting behind the car as it rolls away, "That's Clay Aiken! In person!"
Moments later, Clay Aiken in person enters the fundraiser. He was hoping to grab a plate of food, having eaten only a doughnut all day, but before he can step to the buffet, he is immediately swarmed. One after another, potential voters gently paw at his chest, encircle their fingers around his wrists, slap his back, snap photos above his head—men and women alike standing close enough to trace the curl of his eyelashes.
"Thank you for being here," Aiken says, calmly swiveling in the confines to shake every hand.
"Thank you for running," the donors answer, their faces flushing, sweating more now. Aiken, thirty-five, adopts a modulated voice of nonthreatening enthusiasm, a technique he likely honed back in his camp-counselor days. He's genial and funny. He listens. More than most politicians. More than most people. He tries to focus on the issues but keeps getting interrupted to pose for pictures or say "Hey there!" to someone on the phone who can't believe his or her aunt/mother/cousin is standing next to Clay Aiken in person.
When he does give a brief speech an hour later under the vaulted ceiling of the formal living room, he outlines his thoughts on education, veterans' benefits, fracking, party divisiveness. The crowd listens intently, with palpable gratitude.
"If you own a restaurant and there is another restaurant across the street, you don't burn it down. You do your best. You try harder. Why don't our political leaders put forth their best ideas? All they do nowadays is try to win by making the other side lose." He concludes with a story about witnessing a Privilege Walk, a psychology exercise in which a group of people line up in the middle of a room, then step forward or backward on the basis of a series of questions.
"And they say, 'If you are a man, take a step forward. A woman, take a step back. Black, take two steps back. If you brought your lunch to school, take a step forward.' It is chilling to watch it happen." Aiken takes a deep breath. "The reason I'm running is because I want everybody to have the same shot. To start on the same line, not ten steps behind. This is a race we plan on winning. We are fighting with everything we have."
The donors applaud, but the sound dies quickly, and for a moment nobody stirs, a pregnant silence in the air. Then a male voice from the back of the room blurts out, "Are you going to sing?"
Aiken shakes his head apologetically, straightens his posture a notch. "No, sir, not tonight. But if I get elected, I'll sing all you want."
The crowd laughs, but it is clear they are disappointed. A white-haired man in a dress shirt and fitted pants pushes toward the exit, mumbling to a friend about twelve-term North Carolina congressman Bill Hefner: "Now, Bill, he'd close his events with a gospel number. He connected to the people that way." He nods toward Aiken. "Singing is what got him here. He oughta use what he got."
Back in the car, a piqued Aiken confesses that everybody asks him to sing. It is, on the surface, not an unreasonable request. Aiken came to our collective national attention because he sang, his eighties-power-ballad countertenor jarringly incongruous with his "kick me" sign exterior. He was twenty-four, the gawky, gummy ginger with a voice of gold. It was this very dissonance that compelled Simon Cowell to advance Aiken past his audition on American Idol in 2003, this same provocative contrast that turned Aiken into the pop scene's most unlikely multiplatinum, perimenopausal panty dropper, seducing a legion of "Claymates" so loyal they stayed true to him even when he placed second in the Idol finale, even when he came out publicly in 2008, and even now, when he is forsaking his God-given gift as the second coming of Steve Perry to run for Congress in North Carolina's Second District, a campaign fraught with an equal amount of improbability as his pop stardom, if not, it seems, singing.
For him, it is a question of solemnity. "I recognize there is a little bit of preposterousness to me running for office," Aiken says as we drive away from the fundraiser and past the lantern-lit Kinkadeian houses of Southern Pines, one of the more conservative hamlets in an already absurdly gerrymandered district. "People like me. But I need them to take me seriously." (A struggle his campaign team dubbed WTF mountain.) "It's still a laugh line: 'Clay Aiken running for Congress? Ha ha ha!' But when I'm done here, the people of North Carolina will know I'm serious. That this is real."
Aiken has been the butt of the joke since grade school, where other kids tormented him "like it was their job." He was poor, raised by a single mom, wore glasses and cheap, clunky tennis shoes, had freckles, walked with his toes pointed east and west, was redheaded and clumsy and effeminate. He was a nesting doll of vulnerabilities, a bully's fever dream, but especially in the South, where the signifiers of masculinity do not stretch to include musical theater or kindness to Down-syndrome kids.
Ever resourceful, Aiken embraced the clown that was him. He laughed at himself first. He leaned in to the derision and the cruelty and topped that bitch, and by the time he finished Idol, it was not merely Revenge of the Nerd—his vulnerabilities had become his assets (as they are for everyone, only most of us never crack that particular code). So he decided, "You don't have to like me, you don't have to vote for me, but you will know who I am."
He's playing by the same rules now, the unanticipated paradox being that in politics, he feels more himself than ever. Still, Aiken registers that when you enter the public consciousness via what was the country's most-watched reality show—his finale remains the highest rated of any season, netting thirty-eight million viewers—there are going to be some additional hurdles to acquiring gravitas. (A 2012 stint on The Celebrity Apprentice doesn't help matters.)
"If I sang on the trail, voters would think I was campaigning just to get attention. Or because I was bored," he observes as we snake through the back roads of Durham, nothing but stands of trees flanking the road for miles. "The minute I sing, I'm a punchline. I'm Lance Bass running for Congress."
To be clear, Aiken is not bored. And even if he were, there are myriad amusements at his disposal that do not involve walking into the belly of the Tea Party beast, pulling up a chair, and inviting unfettered ridicule and humiliation. Nor is he a huge fan of attention. Aiken fell into his music career much like the supermodel scouted at the mall. One day he was a devoted special-education teacher and the next he was painfully shimmying in a red bomber jacket for America's votes. ("I gave that jacket to my mama," he says. "She looks much better in it.") Unlike other Hollywood hopefuls, Aiken did not move to L. A. or Nashville in his teens, or harbor Bieberesque YouTube fantasies of insolent stardom, or moonlight in bars, praying that maybe this will be the night he gets discovered. He auditioned for Idol's sophomore season, back when it was still endearingly scruffy, at the encouragement of the mother of one of the autistic kids he was mentoring, unaware of how profoundly the result would alter his life. After it did, Aiken suffered from panic attacks and acute anxiety, often hiding from the crowds of thousands amassed to see him or grabbing his mother's hand, which she recalls back then was "always clammy."
Part of his unease came from his being in the closet, as much to himself as anyone else. But the more salient truth is that Clayton Holmes Aiken was never constructed for modern celebrity. He was a natural introvert with a soft spot for kids who struggled, and if you'd asked him in middle school what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have said a teacher or possibly Senator Terry Sanford.
"There was no man I admired more than Terry Sanford," Aiken recalls, his enunciation crisp and deliberate, as if to mirror his respect for the North Carolina politician who built the community-college system and founded the first U. S. state-run arts school. As governor, Sanford was also the first southern politician to fight conspicuously against segregation in the sixties. In eighth grade, Aiken interviewed him for a school paper. "I didn't know what my deal was yet, but I knew I was different. And here was this man who was looking out for people who were different."
That same year, Aiken invited Raleigh Congressman David Price to visit his class. After Price spoke, Aiken went home and designed CLAYTON FOR CONGRESS! posters on his mother's computer.
"This isn't a new dream for me," he says coolly, lifting his brows for emphasis.
It was, however, a dream deferred until a former nurse and Saturday Night Live caricature, Republican Renee Ellmers, was elected in the district where he lives, sailing into Congress on a raft of outside money, shrieking the one-note Tea Party platform of Death to Obamacare, inspired it seems not by a genuine impulse to protect the greater good but by the profit margins of her husband's surgical practice. In the four years since, the Michigan native has revealed herself to be a particularly flawed mouthpiece, calling President Obama Louis XIV; getting into a snit on Anderson Cooper, in which she accused him of being anti-Christian; and explaining at the start of her new election cycle that if men want to court the female vote, they need to "bring [the conversation] down to a woman's level."
"My decision to run was a slow burn," Aiken explains, citing the fight over raising teachers' pay and the newly restrictive voter-ID laws as red flags. "In many ways, I don't recognize my hometown anymore. But when Renee said she 'needed' her paycheck during the government shutdown? Boy, that fired me up!" (While more savvy members of Congress donated their earnings when almost a million federal employees were involuntarily furloughed in 2013, Ellmers took a different route.)
When Aiken discovered that Ellmers last won by 14 points after outspending her opponent 14 to 1 in a district where Republicans hold a 10-point advantage and where Obama lost by 16 points, he saw an opportunity. As soon as he announced his official candidacy, team Ellmers warned voters that Aiken was "a performer whose political views more closely resemble those of San Francisco than Sanford."
Aiken laughs at the tactic. "Why not just cut to the chase and say 'He's a big ol' homo'?" he asks, slapping his palm on the steering wheel.
Aiken admits if Ellmers weren't in office, he probably wouldn't be running. He says there are Republicans he admires, like John McCain and most members of his own family. His younger brother is a former Marine; his cousin owns a local shooting range. Aiken knows his "ain't a swing district by any stretch," and his odds, on the outside, appear needle thin.
But he also knows his people. His family has lived in North Carolina for eight generations, as has Aiken for most of his life. And he sees what the political professionals don't, which is that Ellmers is vulnerable. The Second is a disparate district, encompassing the young tech workers of Cary, the military communities of Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, huge swaths of sleepy country farms, and the odd retirement village filled with rich Republicans from the North. "Look around," he says, nodding toward the view outside. "These are all small towns. Everybody talks to each other," he says flatly. "And no matter where you go, you'll never meet anyone who is excited about Renee Ellmers." He takes a beat, considers. "Hell, I'm not 100 percent sure she is."
I first met Aiken in 2003, when he was headlining the American Idol tour (sponsored by Kellogg's Pop-Tarts). His single, "This Is the Night," was one of the biggest sellers in the U. S. that year, and there was lingering controversy over his not being declared the legitimate Idol winner after evidence that multiple thousands of votes were unable to be counted and producer Nigel Lythgoe leaked to reporters that Aiken had led the tally every week until the finale. Aiken, for his part, did not indulge in any postcontest sour grapes, instead opting to model gracious losing for a fevered public, remaining dignified under circumstances that were anything but.
Today he is flopped on a generous sectional that dominates the living room of his rental house, his feet propped on a pillow, a computer perched atop his belly, his home phone tight to one ear. Aiken lives in a planned community in Cary, an exploding Raleigh suburb that had 22,000 residents the year Aiken was born and now houses more than 151,000 and counting. Aiken's modest row house is a twenty-minute car ride from the Target, the Harris Teeter, the Starbucks, the mall. The neighborhood looks and feels like a Disney-conceived residential theme park, a vibe that does not abate when you enter the interior of Aiken's place, where beige and soothing gray-blues dominate. The dining table is set with chargers and cloth napkins curled into silver rings as if staged by a realtor. The spare bedroom holds random home-gym equipment, which Aiken waves to as he passes by. The walls are covered with photographs of Aiken's six-year-old son, Parker—he shares custody with the mother, Jaymes Foster, sister of record producer David Foster—grinning and mugging and looking generally adorable at various ages.
"I've got gay trouble," Aiken says, dramatically pushing a whoosh of air through his lips. For the past half hour, he has been calling friends and campaign allies in New York, trying to determine why the Victory Fund, the primary vetting agency for LGBT candidates, still hasn't endorsed him, a stamp of approval that would considerably bolster his fundraising capability.
"Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic party chair, told me we're talking could be $100,000 just from them signing on," he bemoans, his powerful voice filling the room.
At the other end of the sofa, Charlie Flanagan, twenty-three, the deputy finance director from Maryland who traveled to Raleigh because he "couldn't think of a more exciting race to be a part of," forces a limp shrug. "Are you ready to make more local calls?" he pushes. Aiken ignores him, keeps talking.
"Mitchell Gold is very much on board. John Arrowood, a former judge in Charlotte. Christine Quinn, on board. When I get in a room, when I get in front of people, they come around. But I can't get in front of everybody. That's why I need validators. Without the Victory Fund, it makes me look like I'm not viable. They said come back after the primaries, so we did. They still didn't jump. I understand not taking something for granted, but I'm the first openly gay candidate from the South. I mean, shit."
Charlie shrugs again, preps him for the next cold call, something Aiken loathes more than "being punched in the throat." Nonetheless, he excels at the task. He chats with everyone like an old friend, which in a way feels right, since everybody recognizes who he is, usually from his voice alone. Most seem tickled when he says, "Hey, this is Clay Aiken. How're ya?" Some actually squeal.
"Oooooh, Clay. So niiiiice to hear from you."
"You're calling me personally? You need more to do, son."
"Clayton said he wanted to be in this district particularly, because they weren't being heard," Faye recalls. "If he'd run in another district, he'd have had an easier time." Though proud, Faye is not optimistic. She frets about Washington, the ugliness of politics. She fears "people making worse remarks about him than they have in the past."
"Clayton said he was tough enough to handle anything that came at him," she recalls with maternal resignation. " 'What more can they say, Mama?' he said."
While other politicians can be smooth as baby shit, Aiken has never once been suave, not even accidentally. But just as his inborn discomfiture evolved into a curious advantage, so too did an indomitable authenticity, which is perhaps his most winning quality. With Aiken, what you see is what you get.
"When we filmed my promo for the campaign Web site, there was more discussion about my outfits than when I did album covers. Everyone wanted to make sure I was 'relatable.' The amount of time spent deciding what shade of khaki, which belt—I told the crew I'd learned over the years that no one is going to die if I wear a stupid sweater. I've been in the public eye way too long to start being disingenuous now."
Since the campaign started almost a year ago, Aiken has steadily gained weight. "Everyone said I would," he grouses. He's had to invest in several new shirts, which he usually wears tucked into loose, neutral pants. He's converted from lace-up shoes to slip-ons so that he can get in and out of them
more easily. His famously disobedient hair has been tamed and sprayed into a modest, vaguely evangelical pouf. His latest campaign strategy is to rent a bus and hit every county in the district on an old-fashioned shake-and-howdy tour, believing if you go to the smallest forgotten places, find the folks there and remind them they exist, acknowledge them, then maybe three months later they'll pull the lever and return the favor.
"I may be naive, but I believe if people see you, if they shake your hand, if you make them smile, then it isn't going to be easy to ignore you. Maya Angelou said, 'People will forget what you say and forget what you do, but they will never forget the way you make them feel.' So we just have to spend a whole lot of time making people feel good."
If Renee Ellmers carpetbagged on to the darkest, most fearful shadow of the southern self, Clay Aiken has made himself the disinfecting sunshine. He understands the value of humor to the region, of self-effacement, of irony. He abhors bullshit but knows how to insinuate, seeing in a way Ellmers never will how in the South, what looks like fiction is the truth.
Earlier in the week, Aiken visited Dunn, the town where Ellmers lives. He went to a diner on the main drag, where his presence soon attracted notice. A woman rushed over to give him a hug. "She told me how much she loved me and she was a big fan, but that she hoped I lose." Aiken handed her one of his stickers, talked to her about voting for the person, not the party. "I asked her what made her a conservative and she said, 'I don't know—I just am.' "
Then she snapped a picture of the two of them cheek to cheek on her phone.
It's dusk and we're cruising down Moonshine Lane through the thick of the country summer. Aiken averages 150 miles a day since the campaign began, already logging more than 35,000 on his year-old Lincoln MKZ hybrid. He has classical radio on and the windows cracked enough to smell the ripe rot of the August landscape. As we roll past the farms and dollar-store towns, he provides a running narration of the district, something he'd do even if he weren't running for office.
"That's where they want to put the processing plant that will employ almost a thousand people," he says, pointing left. "There's concern about the noise and smell and chicken feathers everywhere. That said, Boeing ain't who's coming. This will pay $11.25 an hour. And we need to get folks employed."
He brags that Dunn has the largest manufacturer of dump-truck bodies in the country. And that he's meeting a farmer next week who uses pig shit for brown energy. "He powers fifty houses in his neighborhood!" he announces with zeal.
Aiken grasps that the Second District is not the most glamorous in North Carolina. Reporters from the national press visit and see the farms and low-rent strip malls and whisper things to him like This is the real America. But he brushes off their condescension. He appreciates that the South is about nothing if not masks and meaning buried deeper than dinosaur bones. Say what you will about our rumored regional intellectual challenges, but there ain't a southerner alive who operates on only one level. Nor is there one untainted with gut-sure self-loathing, a gift from our God, our history, and every southern mother who raised us to respect our puny place in this damned, transitory world. It's one reason Aiken hated living in Los Angeles so much. There was no gravity. Everyone was so guilelessly unencumbered. He missed the shame.
"I had to move back. I was born here. And I know how special it is. People are nice."
Aiken has lived in the Second District for so long that when he meets someone new, he already knows someone who knows them. If all politics is local, Aiken is local as dirt.
Earlier in the week, he attended a "prayer for peace" vigil at a church in Harnett County. The local sheriff spoke, advising people to "carry their guns everywhere" in case they needed to "take care of business before we get there." The district attorney also addressed the crowd. When the reverend opened the conversation to the floor, a man wearing a yellow shirt in the pew ahead of Aiken bolted upright and grabbed the mic. He introduced himself as a local preacher.
"Since 1974, thirty-eight million unborn children killed," he began to rant, a smattering of Amens filling the room. Then he turned and faced Aiken. "And homosexuality. It is tearing America's fiber apart. God's not happy with us."
Aiken sat stock-still, concentrated on keeping his face blank. He looked at the preacher, saw his eyes narrowed into angry slits.
"Let's stay on topic," the head reverend interjected.
"This is on topic," the preacher spat. "The country is in moral decline because of homo-sess-uality."
Aiken remained silent. The organizers hastily shut off the preacher's microphone, but he would not be subdued. "I don't need a microphone when I have God's word to amplify me!" he shouted, still staring directly into Aiken's eyes. "I will not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
By then, Aiken's skin had prickled pink, a thin veil of perspiration coating his whole body. The preacher finished his sermon, then, exhausted, marched out of the church.
Aiken already has a tracker, a gnat hired by undisclosed interests to follow and film everything he does from now until Election Day, a political paparazzo hoping for a Howard Dean scream or some other outsized reaction that, when bled of context, will make Aiken appear too off the beam (or queer) to hold office.
"All they'll probably get is something like that Vine of me picking my nose that's already all over the Internet," Aiken says. Still, he admits, in certain neighborhoods he thinks twice about going out to eat in public with just another guy. He isn't going to pull the pin on the grenade for them. Unless, of course, things start to nosedive.
"Then I'm gonna run nekked up and down the streets with 'No fracking!' signs painted on me," he says, slapping his leg and dissolving into gratifying laughter. "Frack you!" he squeals. "Fr-ack you!"
When we meet the next morning for another long day of campaigning, Aiken's mood is considerably less lighthearted.
"I'm in a hot damn funk," he barks. The Cook Political Report has labeled his district as even more heavily Republican, a regrading that prompted the local news to freshly label Aiken "a long shot."
"What upsets me most is that there are people who really need their congressperson to help them, who are counting on it," Aiken says, frustration rising in his voice. "They have a lot more confidence than they should in people in government. Because I don't see, at least in this seat, people giving a shit."
A half hour and several impassioned rants later ("Gerrymandering was a master plan to seize control in 2010. Our N. C. general assembly has a veto-proof majority. The governor is without question simply a figurehead. He may as well just go throw baseballs out!"), a reinvigorated Aiken pulls his car in front of the Spring Lake senior center.
"Well, hey there, Miss Carmen," Aiken shouts, rolling down his window. "We gonna deliver some meals today?"
Aiken is spending his lunch hour volunteering for meals on wheels, and Senior Enrichment Center administrator Carmen Gaddie is acting as driver and navigator. No cameras are present. No tracker, either. At the first stop, Aiken meets with Daniel Fielder, a seventy-five-year-old veteran of three tours in Vietnam. "No such thing as a front line," he recalls as he and Aiken sit in his basement, surrounded by his collection of vinyl—sixties funk and soul mostly. Fielder says the music reminds him of who he was back then. They talk about Walter Reed, President Obama, the O'Jays. Fielder tells Aiken he's glad to see him in the race. "I'd vote for my car before I'd vote for Renee Ellmers," he cracks.
The next house sits on a large country lot surrounded by a five-foot-high chain-link fence. The son was laid off from Fort Bragg with the latest cutbacks, so he busies himself keeping up his mother's yard. "Lookin' good," Aiken says as he strolls past, surveying the precise trim of the lawn. Inside the cluttered kitchen, Aiken asks what church the family attends, and when they say Lewis Chapel, he names their pastor and talks about hearing him preach a time or two.
The meal deliveries continue, each stop bringing a refreshed gratitude to both Aiken and Miss Carmen, who reminisces about how the streets they're on used to be soybean crops and rows of corn and how "don't nothing stay the same."
Miss Carmen turns onto Pine Tree Lane, navigating the van down a rutted dirt road past a collection of rusted-out caravans propped against pine trunks, some with plastic canopies haphazardly strung over the top. She tells Aiken the people living there work bundling up pine straw to sell for landscaping. Just as she eases to a stop, two women approach. "Mr. Willy done beat his girlfriend with a baseball bat last night," announces the one in the front as she flips her short hair back, dragging a fingernail across her pale neck. "The police come, but he'd taken off into the woods. He don't want to go to jail at his age."
Aiken sits in the passenger seat, uncertain if he should exit the vehicle, a Styrofoam lunch container steaming in his lap. He leans toward the women, asks if their friend is okay, if they should call a doctor. The older of the two recognizes him from television, even if she can't exactly remember from what. The younger one cocks her hip, "You famous?"
She's dressed in tight pale-blue bell-bottom jeans, a child's T-shirt that rides just above her navel, and an incongruous bright-yellow fisherman's hat. She takes a sharp draw from a hand-rolled cigarette.
"Did you watch American Idol?" (He knows she didn't.)
"Can I have your autograph?" she asks, sidling closer. Aiken grabs a business card with his campaign logo on the front and starts to sign the back.
"Who should I make this out to?"
"Your name is Woman?"
"That's what I am, isn't I?"
Aiken does what he's told, passes her the card, which she slides into the V-neck of her shirt, right over her left nipple, pushing her lips forward as she does.
Aiken passes both women a boxed meal, then smiles, says it was nice to meet them, that he hopes their friend will be okay.
As they back down the lane, Miss Carmen talks about how "people get so hard down in situations." But that doesn't mean they "don't need folks to take care of them."
Aiken is quiet, his face a rictus of shock.
"Was she smoking a twig? I swear that wasn't even a cigarette."
Deliveries complete, Miss Carmen drops Aiken back at his car. He hugs and thanks her, then climbs inside and starts the engine. He doesn't move. He takes a deep breath, then another.
"Pine Tree Lane is what happens when you don't raise minimum wage," he says bitterly. "When people can't find work. I have been to Uganda, Afghanistan. I've seen poverty. But I never thought this could happen in my district. Fuck. This. It's a disgrace. We need to get a busload of people and drive them down that lane so they can see what is happening in our backyard and that we need to do something to help these people. I mean how are they earning enough to live?"
"I don't think it's from bundling pine straw," I offer.
Aiken stiffens, releases a long whistle through his teeth.
"Lord have mercy," he says. And then "Jesus be a damn raindrop."
It's a drizzly Friday, and after an exhausting week Aiken is enjoying dinner at one of his favorite spots, the Brownie Lu in Siler City, a working-class Republican stronghold. He's gotten a slew of encouraging news. The Victory Fund has finally endorsed his candidacy. Several big-ticket fundraisers are in the works. His internal polls are showing his gayness is a nonissue and that he is more likable than even his team predicted. During a recent stop in Dunn, he met Ellmers's next-door neighbor, a former supporter, who said she's been trying to rip her Renee bumper sticker off her car for a year.
"Even her hometown newspaper dislikes her," Aiken says, widening his eyes.
He orders fried chicken, black-eyed peas, hush puppies, sweet tea. Before he takes his first bite, a woman named Christine waddles over, her right foot in a cast.
"Claaaaay," she squawks, hugging him like a stuffed animal. "I'll make you a deal. I'll vote for you if you sing at my funeral."
"Now, you know that's not going to happen for a very long time, Christine," he chides. Christine giggles and lingers, talking about her cortisone shots, how she hurt herself "kicking her husband." She keeps her hand on Aiken's shoulder the whole time, fingers dug deep. "Oh, I loved you on American Idol. I was so hoping you'd win."
Aiken signs an autograph for Christine, signs more autographs on the way out, and asks the cashier if she'll hang a "Republaiken" campaign poster behind the grill.
"Sure thing, hon."
Walking behind the restaurant to the toilet out back, he worries that maybe he's better at making friends than securing votes. "Am I in the bubble?" he asks himself, then shrugs it off.
"We're all just waiting for obscurity," he muses. "I came about because so many people from this area put me here. They voted for me once. Maybe they'll do it again."
On the way home, we drive past campaign headquarters, where, just around the corner, on Chatham Street, there is a Guffmanesque "Cary Now and Then" mural painted on the side of a former grocery store. On the front half, together with a ball-capped golfer and an old-fashioned street clock, a rendering of Aiken serenades a restaurant dining room, microphone in hand, eyes closed in intense emotive rapture. A closer look reveals his left incisor has been blacked out with a marker.
Later that night, Aiken will watch a Jason Bateman movie at home. He will order pizza with extra sauce, and he will eat it on his massive couch, wearing his slippers and his Dr. Pepper pajama bottoms. He will think about who he was and who he's becoming and the sad women on Pine Tree Lane and motherfucking Renee Ellmers, and he will murmur under his breath to no one in particular, "It will damn near kill me if I don't win."