Full episode
Transcript

606: Just What I Wanted

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue

Ira Glass

This Christmas, Luke was in Iraq with a sniper unit in the Marines on a little forward operating base in Ramadi, maybe 200 guys-- bunk beds, dirt floors, pretty basic. They'd go out for two days at a time, set up a covert position in a house or a building, with a long range rifle, monitor what was going on in the street, shoot at guys who were setting up bombs in the road.

Luke Huisenga

The people we encountered, mostly I don't think they were really well-trained. And if we're doing our job right, they don't necessarily know where they're getting shot at from. So that makes it harder for them to turn around and return fire.

Ira Glass

Spending hour after hour on watch, his is like the military cliche-- lots of extended boredom, broken up by moments of great intensity.

Luke Huisenga

And then you're constantly trying to then stay sharp and pay-- you know. It might be boring. There might not be anything going on, but you sort of have to stay-- try and keep focused and stay vigilant and sort of think your way into it not being boring and having your brain turned on.

Ira Glass

Men, these tough guys, Marine snipers, will come off duty, go back to their base. There wasn't much entertainment, not the greatest internet back then. This is 2005. So they watched DVDs, specifically this.

Lorelai

Well, I believe three minutes is plenty of time for some coffee.

Rory

Yes, coffee, please!

Lorelai

Hey, we're dying. Load us up.

Luke

It isn't ready yet.

Lorelai

What?

Rory

Mommy.

Lorelai

What do you mean it's not ready? It's 6:00 in the morning. Nothing says coffee like 6:00 in the morning.

Ira Glass

And what is this?

Luke Huisenga

That's the Gilmore Girls.

Ira Glass

Yeah, the Gilmore Girls, the story of single mom Lorelai Gilmore, her teenage daughter Rory, her mom Emily, and the small town they live in, fictional Stars Hollow, Connecticut, beloved by a generation of tween girls and their mothers-- and other people too.

Ira Glass

It's a very girly show.

Luke Huisenga

It's a girly show. The girl is right there in the title, sure.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

I mean, there are a lot of scenes of like, you know, a mom and her daughter talking about how they're obsessed with coffee.

Luke Huisenga

Yeah. I mean, I'm of two minds on how girly it is. I mean, I think that's part of what we liked about it too. Because there were zero women around where we were, and also because I think my platoon, my friends, we sort of liked doing things that were different and weirding people out a little bit.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Luke Huisenga

You know, and it would sort of bother the crusty old first sergeant who was always yelling at us about things and making our lives miserable. It would sort of bother him if we were watching a girly show or if you wore a pink t-shirt to a company event, things like that. But he couldn't yell at you like you were doing something incorrectly like he could everything else. So it was almost like a little bit of a rebellion that the sniper platoon was all holed up watching Gilmore Girls.

Here's a typical scene. It's about being a mom and being a daughter. Lorelai, who's the single mom on the show, is being criticized by her mother about the way that she's raising her daughter, Rory.

Emily

Lorelai Gilmore, I've watched you do a lot of stupid things in your life, and I have held my tongue.

Lorelai

Ha, you've what?

Emily

But I will not stand by and let you allow that girl to ruin her life.

Lorelai

Mom, back off.

Emily

She spent the night out with that boy, the one you let her run off to that dance with.

Lorelai

Mom, so help me god, I will not get into this with you.

Emily

She's doing the same thing you did.

Lorelai

No, she's not.

Emily

She's going to get pregnant.

Lorelai

No, she's not.

Emily

She's going to ruin everything just like you ruined everything.

Lorelai

No, she's not! No, she's not! No, she's not! Rory is a good kid, Mom. She's not me.

Emily

What kind of mother are you?

Ira Glass

So yeah, Marine, what do you see?

Luke Huisenga

Yeah, I mean, it is girly. And there's a lot of women talking. And I know there's the whole scale. Like, two women can't talk on screen, like men won't watch the show. There has to be a man or they're talking about a man. Yeah, it's girly, but it's also a funny show. It's a smart show. It's a well-written show.

I think first, it's good. And I don't think we would have watched it if it wasn't good, the same reason everyone else watched it. But I think it struck a particular chord with us as sort of escapism, a different world from where we were.

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah. It's hard to imagine like a world further away from a war zone in Ramadi.

Luke Huisenga

Right. Yeah. It's a really idyllic kind of world, but it's not super sappy. It still has sarcasm and weirdness that makes the idyllic part of it-- the really nice warm part of it-- it sort of makes it even more palatable and real maybe.

Ira Glass

Luke says they all learned about the Gilmore Girls from their corpsman Jess, whose sister watched the show and got hooked himself after he noticed a Tom Waits reference in one episode. He's into Tom Waits. A few of the guys started watching. Other guys who complained that it was on, and then they reluctantly get pulled in themselves until they had a core group-- Jess, Erik, John, Greg, seven or eight guys in all-- who watched everything.

Ira Glass

Hey, where were you and your friends on the show's big controversies? Like Rory had three guys over the course of the different seasons. There was Jess. There was Logan. And there was Dean. And for people who haven't seen the show, it's sort of like Jess was the rebel. Logan was the rich kid. And Dean was the townie, maybe a little boring.

Luke Huisenga

Right.

Ira Glass

Who did you guys side with?

Luke Huisenga

So Erik was a big Dean supporter. There was a lot of-- like sort of a running gag of Erik coming to Dean's defense and us making fun of him for it.

Ira Glass

Well, Dean was married. I mean, Dean was married.

Luke Huisenga

I think Erik would say that they were always true love, and the marriage doesn't count.

Ira Glass

Mhm. OK. And you, who were you with?

Luke Huisenga

I'm anti-Dean, and I'm kind of OK with Jess and Logan.

Ira Glass

I'm with you. I never had a problem with Logan. I think Logan was really-- he was so into her.

Luke Huisenga

Yeah, he was good to her. And I think he was really-- she sort of needed--

Ira Glass

OK, we don't need to play any more of this part of the interview on the radio. You get the idea. They were real, actual fans. And probably this is a good time to out myself, if you haven't picked this up already. I have seen all the old episodes myself, though not the new recent Gilmore Girls reboot reunion shows.

I have lots of opinions about the show, I should say, that Luke did not share. For instance, there's a whole host of cartoonishly wacky B plot townspeople characters I was not into.

Luke Huisenga

You hate Kirk?

Ira Glass

I hated Kirk.

Luke Huisenga

Oh, Ira.

Ira Glass

I also believe the Gilmore Girls has the worst music cues of any series in the last three decades of television. Case in point.

[MUSIC - SAM PHILIPS, "LA LA"]

Luke Huisenga

I think the cues that you're talking about, like the la la la stuff, I mean, I think we sang that, you know, walking around. Well, like, (SINGING) La la la la la la la.

Ira Glass

But that's not what we're here to talk about. I'm telling you this story because, of course, it's Christmas, and this is a Christmas story. Back in 2005, when they were in Ramadi, as Christmas approached, they were far from home, missing family and life there. Luke decided to go online.

Luke Huisenga

I was going to try and buy-- and I thought it would be a fun and funny gift to try and buy guys Gilmore Girls t-shirts or something as a Christmas present. And the Gilmore Girls website store at the time, all the clothing was either like a spaghetti strap tank top or a baby doll tee.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Luke Huisenga

There was not any unisex or male anything on there.

Ira Glass

And you guys were bad asses. But you weren't going to go that far.

Luke Huisenga

Yeah, well, I mean, it's not flattering.

Ira Glass

Yeah. [LAUGHS]

And so he wrote a letter to the creator of Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Here's a bit of it.

Luke Huisenga

"I have to tell you, my guys and I absolutely love your show. I know you must hear that all the time. I even read a recent endorsement of the show in Esquire magazine. Still, I'd venture to say that we are even further outside the Gilmore Girls target audience. I live in a strict, macho sometimes violent world that very often does not make sense. Stars Hollow, the small town where the Gilmore Girls takes place--"

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, you explained to Amy Sherman-Palladino what Stars Hollow was in your letter? [LAUGHS]

Luke Huisenga

Being reunited with the reality of this letter 10 years later has really disabused me of a lot of my illusions. Because I remembered the really good parts, and I thought I must of wrote a great letter. And then reading it again, I see like, oh man. This was not all good.

Ira Glass

The rest of the letter actually is pretty good, a really nice summary of what he and his guys like so much about the TV show. And then at the bottom, there's a PS. "PS," he writes--

Luke Huisenga

"I checked the website, and the shirts appear to be cut for girls. What gives? I was going to buy the guys Christmas presents."

Ira Glass

Which, I have to say, was handled perfectly, just enough of a hint. A few weeks later, sure enough, packages arrive-- five big boxes.

Luke Huisenga

And we opened them up, and they were full of these like navy blue wool jackets that had very subtle teal embroidering on the breast that said Gilmore Girls in the typeface and a really nice letter from Amy Sherman-Palladino.

Ira Glass

These were crew jackets, made as gifts for the show's camera people and gaffers in men's sizes.

Luke Huisenga

It was a big morale boost for everybody. I remember taking them back and giving them out and sort of reading the letter. And even guys that didn't watch the show were excited.

Obviously the show meant a lot to my friends and I. I think I tried to tell her that she let us feel like it was ours a little bit.

Ira Glass

Are you choking up?

Luke Huisenga

Yeah. Yeah. I just think it was really generous of her.

Ira Glass

It really felt like Christmas morning, he told me. The jackets were just what he wanted, even though he didn't even know that jackets like this existed. I wonder if it felt that way to Amy Sherman-Palladino also. You know? The letter Luke wrote to her, like a present she didn't even know she wanted, didn't even know she could want till it arrived. And then she was really happy about it.

She's told people that she's kept Luke's letter in her desk all these years. It's been over a decade now. Well, today on our program, with the holidays happening, we have stories of people wanting stuff, daring to want stuff-- really, really feeling it. But getting the thing that you want can feel so much different than what you imagined. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our show today in two acts-- Zoe Chace coming up in the second. Stay with us.

Act One: Lopsided Tannenbaum

Ira Glass

Act One, Lopsided Tannenbaum. Let's begin today with this Christmas story. It's a piece fiction read by the author, Maile Meloy.

Maile Meloy

Everett thought it was a good tree. His four-year-old daughter agreed. His wife said it was lopsided and looked like a bush. It was a tall Douglas fir, bare on one side where it had crowded out its neighbor. The branchless side could go against the living room wall. The bushy side was for decorations.

Everett dragged it through the snow by the trunk, and his daughter, Anne Marie clung to the upper branches and rode on her stomach. Pam, his wife, followed with an armload of pine boughs and juniper branches. She seemed to have decided not to say anything more about the tree, which was fine with Everett.

The Jimmy was parked where the trail split off in the logging road, and Everett opened the back to throw the tools and boughs in, then rope the tree to the roof with nylon cords. Pam brushed off Anne Marie's snowsuit and buckled her in the front so she wouldn't get carsick. The smell of pine and juniper filled the car as they drove down the mountain.

Everett sang "chestnut's roasting on an open fire" in his best lounge singer croon. "With Jack Frost nipping at your nose," he reached over and nipped at Anne Marie's and she squealed. He stopped, forgetting the words. Pam prompted-- "Yuletide carols," half singing, shy about her voice. Everett picked it up again with, "being sung by a choir."

That was when they saw the couple at the side of the road-- "folks dressed up like Eskimos." Everett thought for a second that he had conjured them up with his song. The man wore a blue parka and held up a broken crosscountry ski. The woman wore red gaiters over wool trousers, a man's peacoat, and a fur hat. They waved. Everett slowed to a stop and roll down the window.

"Nice day for a ski," he said. "It was," the man said. He was about Everett's height and age, not yet pushing 40, with a day or two of bristle on his chin.

"I broke a ski and we're lost," the woman began. "We're not lost," the man said. "We are completely lost," the woman said.

She was younger than the man, with high, pink cheekbones in the cold. Everett felt friendly and warm from the tree and the singing. "Your car must be close," he said, "you're on the road." "The car is on a different road," the woman said. "Well, we'll find it," Everett said.

In the rear view mirror, he saw Pam's eyes widen at him from the backseat. Pam was slight and dark-haired and accused him of favoring the kind of blonde who held sorority car washes. It was a joke, but it was partly true.

With a bucket and sponge, this hitchhiker would fit right in. Everett got out of the car and untied a nylon cord to open the back hatch. His wife had sleds and jackets in the back seat with her, and he thought she would want some separation of family and hitchhikers. She wouldn't look at him now.

"You'll have to sit with the juniper boughs," he told the couple. "Better than freezing in a snowbank," the blonde said, climbing into the way back. Even in the wool pants, she had a sweet figure, of the car soaping type. "We really appreciate this," the man said.

Everett shut them all in, lashed on the skis, and tied the tree down. It made no sense for Pam to be angry. This wasn't country where you left people in the snow. The man looked strong, but not too strong. Everett could take him if he needed to.

Back in the driver's seat, he pulled onto the road as snow fell in clumps off the big pine the couple had stood under. His daughter turned around in her seat as well as she could with her seat belt on and announced to the new passengers, "We have a CB radio."

"A CB?" the man in the parka said, "what's your handle?" Anne Marie looked confused. "Your name," Everett explained, "on the radio."

"Batgirl," Anne Marie told the strangers, her cheeks flushing. "You've got a handle?" Everett asked the hitchhikers in back. "I'm Clyde," the man said. "Bonnie," the woman said. Everyone was silent for a moment.

"That's really funny," Everett finally said. Though between his shoulder blades, he felt a prick of worry. "You must have a CB too." "No, those are our names," the man said.

The CB crackled on. "What's this Continental Divide?" a man's voice asked. Everett picked up the handset still thinking about Bonnie and Clyde. "You mean, what is it?" "Yeah," the voice said.

So Everett explained that the snow and rain on the west side of the mountains ran to the Pacific. And the water on the east side ran to the Gulf of Mexico. "I never heard of such a thing," the voice said. "That's what it is," Everett said. He thought of something, the recruiting of a witness.

"We just picked up some hitchhikers named Bonnie and Clyde," he said. "How about that?" A wheezing laugh came over the radio. "No kidding?" the voice asked. "You watch your back then. So long."

Everett hung up the handset. "So," he said to his passengers, as if he hadn't just acted out of fear of them, "whereas your stolen jalopy?" "We parked by Fire Creek," Clyde said. Everett could tell he wasn't from Montana. If he'd been from Montana, he would have said "crick." "You didn't get far," he said. "No," Bonnie said. "How'd you break the ski?" Bonnie and Clyde both fell silent.

Everett drove. The windows were iced from everyone's breathing, and he turned up the defroster. The fans seemed very loud. He took the road Fire Creek. "This is it," he said stopping the Jimmy. There was a place at the trail had to park cars, but there were no cars, just snow and trees and the creek running under the ice. Everett didn't look back at his life. He scanned the empty turn out and hoped this was not one of those times you looked back on and wished he had done one thing different, though it seem perfectly natural to do what you did at the time.

"Where's the car?" Bonnie asked. "This is where we parked," Clyde said. They were genuinely surprised and Everett almost laughed with relief. There was no con, no ambush. He untied the rope and the couple climbed out and walked to where their car had been. Bonnie's arm brushed against Everett's when she passed, but he didn't think she meant it. She was thinking about the missing car.

He got in the Jimmy to let them discuss it. Pam reached into the way back to pull the saw and the axe from under the boughs Clyde and Bonnie had been sitting on, and she tucked the tools under her feet.

"What are we doing with these people in our car?" she asked. "Can't leave people in the snow," he said. "We have a child, Everett." "And," he said, with the confidence he had just now recovered, "we're showing her that you don't leave people in the snow. Right, Anne Marie?" "Right," Anne Marie said, but she watched them both. Pam gave Everett a dark, unforgiving stare.

Outside in the snow, Bonnie and Clyde's voices rose a notch. "You said we could leave the keys in it," Bonnie said. "You said this was Montana, and that's what people do." "That is what they do," Clyde said. "Then who stole our car?"

Snow off the trees drifted around them, and the two stood staring at each other for a minute. Then Bonnie started to laugh. She had a throaty, movie star laugh that rose into a series of uncontrolled giggles. Her husband shook his head at her in exasperation. Everett felt the opposite. He liked her even more-- a woman who could laugh at her own stolen car and who looked like that when she did it.

She was still laughing when they started back to the car. "You ask for a ride," she told her husband, her voice not lowered enough. Ever looked to Pam in the backseat. Pam frowned, then nodded. He got out of the Jimmy, and this time Bonnie did brush his arm on purpose. He was sure of it.

When she and Clyde were bundled in the way back again with the tree tied down, Everett called in the theft of the car on the CB. "Do you think we should wait for the cops," Clyde asked. "I'm not waiting in the cold anymore," Bonnie said. "Jesus, who steels a car at Christmas?" Clyde said, "People do all kinds of things at Christmas." No one had any response to that.

The road was empty and the sky was clear. Barbed-wire fences ran evenly beside the road. And the wooden posts ticked past as they drove. In the snowy fields beyond, yellow winter grass showed through in patches. Everett peered up at the tip of the tree, which seemed stable, roped to the roof.

After a while, Bonnie asked, "What do you do with the boughs?" "Make wreaths," Pam said. "I hope we're not crushing them." "No."

The two women settled back into a silence just hostile enough that Everett could feel it. The white-capped mountains in the east beyond the low, yellow hills were lit up by the late sun through the clouds, and he was about to point them out to Anne Marie. "I broke the ski," Bonnie said out of the blue. "I was cold," she said, "so we tried to take a shortcut through some fallen trees with snow on them. Clyde took his skis off, but the snow was deep. And I tried to go over the logs. And the ski snapped right in half."

The sunlight had faded on the mountains, and Everett watched the road. "He came up here to find himself," Bonnie said, "from Arizona where we live. And he met this woman. She reminds me of you, actually." Pam glanced at Bonnie in surprise. "You're totally his type," Bonnie said. "Bonnie," Clyde said.

There's a long pause, and Everett wondered what his wife was thinking, if she was at all stirred by that. "Anyway," Bonnie went on, "this woman, she skis, and dives into glacial lakes, and canoes through rapids. And what doesn't she do? And he writes me and says that the air is so high and clear up here that he understands everything. And he has met his soulmate."

"Bonnie, shut up," Clyde said. "But we're married," Bonnie said. "And we have a child, so I have this crazy feeling that I'm supposed to be his soulmate. So I leave our son with my parents and come up here, too. And we go to a party, where people get naked in a hot tub and roll around in the snow. And I meet the woman, his perfect woman. And the first thing she does is proposition me."

Everett glanced at his daughter to see what she understood. He couldn't tell. She was looking straight out the windshield. He looked back at the road. "So I told Clyde about it," Bonnie said, "thinking he'd defend my honor. And he said it was a good idea. He thought we might just move into his soulmate's cabin and get along."

She seemed to think about this for a second, about the right way to sum it up. "So we tried to go for a mind-clearing ski," she said finally, "and the karma gods stole our car." She started to laugh again, the throaty start and then the giggle.

No one answered her. The only sound was her trying to stop laughing. Everett pulled quickly to the center of the road to miss a strip of black rubber truck tire.

The CB crackled on. "Continental Divide?" a voice asked. Everett answered that he was there. "You've been shot full of bullet holes?" the man asked. "Nope," Everett said. "That you reporting a stolen car?" "Have you seen it?" "Yeah," the voice said, "I just seen Baby Face Nelson driving it down the road. Ha. No, I ain't seen it. I'll keep an eye out." Everett thanked him and replaced the receiver.

"Why did he say Baby Face?" Anne Marie asked. "There was a Bonnie and Clyde," Everett told her, "not these ones, who were bank robbers. And Baby Face Nelson was a bank robber. But he didn't like to be called Baby Face."

In the back, Bonnie said, "My first mistake was marrying someone named Clyde." "I don't recall you being real reluctant," Clyde said. "Do you have to talk about this here?" Pam burst out, and Everett was surprised. It wasn't like her to burst out, especially in front of strangers.

"We have to talk about it some time," Bonnie said. "We were supposed to be talking up here. Then we got lost, and I broke the ski. And Clyde goes crazy." "I did not go crazy." "You did," Bonnie said. Pam glared out the window with her arms crossed over her chest. Everett looked at the road.

They were nearing the outskirts of town, the first houses. A few had decorations out-- Santas and snowmen. Windows were already lit with red and green outlines in the dim afternoon. "Should I take you to the police station?" Everett asked. "That would be great," Clyde said. "I'm sorry," Bonnie said. "This has been a hard time." There was a long silence.

"What's the little girl's name?" Bonnie asked. His daughter turned in her seat belt. "Anne Marie." "Do you have ornaments for the tree?" Bonnie asked her. "Yes," Anne Marie said. "What kind?" "Angels and two mice sleeping in a nutshell," she said, "and some fish." "Those sound nice," Bonnie said. "We've never had a tree. Clyde thinks you shouldn't cut down trees to put in your house."

"Bonnie," Clyde said. Anne Marie said, "Our tree was crowding up another tree, so we made the other tree have room." "Would that meet your standards, Clyde?" Bonnie asked. Clyde said nothing.

Anne Marie looked out the windshield again, trained in the prevention of carsickness. "They could help decorate our tree," she said. "I think they want to find their car," Everett said. Anne Marie turned back in her seat. "Do you want to help with our tree?" "Honey, they're busy," Pam said.

"I would love that more than anything in the world," Bonnie said. "No," her husband said. "Baby, please," Bonnie said. "We've never had a tree." "Leave these people alone," Clyde said.

Everett stopped at the police station. He untied the rope and opened the back of the Jimmy for his passengers. Clyde didn't get out right away. He said in a low voice to Pam, "Look, I'm really sorry about this. Thank you for the ride." Then he climbed out, past Everett, and walked with what seemed like dignity into the station.

Bonnie sat on the boughs with her legs straight out and gave Everett a forlorn look. In her fur hat, she looked like a Russian doll. Pam had leaned forward and was talking quietly to Anne Marie in the front seat. "Why don't you go make your report," Everett told Bonnie. "See what they can do. I'll go home and unload and then come back and get you both."

Two things happened at once, as in a movie-- one close up and one in deep focus. Bonnie broke into a brilliant tear-sparkled smile, and Pam's leaning form stiffened and she half turned her head. Then she looked away and occupied herself more fiercely with Anne Marie.

Bonnie clambered out of the back and kissed the side of Everett's mouth, her wool-bundled breasts pressing against him for a long second. "Thank you," she said.

Embarrassed, Everett stepped back and unlashed the skis and poles from the roof. He gave them to Bonnie, and she stood with the spiky bundle in her arms as Everett pulled away.

Pam said nothing as they drove. Their daughter must have felt the tension in the air. Everett whistled "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," for lack of anything more sensible to do.

At the house, he park the Jimmy and started untied the tree. Pam pulled the boughs out of the back, dumped them on the front deck, and took Anne Marie inside. Everett carried the tree around to the sliding glass door and tugged on the handle. The door didn't open. He thought it might be frozen. He tugged again. They never locked the doors.

He went around the corner of the deck and pulled on the other sliding glass door, the one to the kitchen. It was locked too. He rapped on the glass, and Pam came to it. "The door's locked," he said, pointing to the handle. "Say you're not going back for them."

The tree was heavy on his shoulder, and he stood it up on the deck, holding the slender trunk through the branches. He studied it. It was a fine tree. He turned back to his wife. "It's Christmas," he said. "I don't want them here," she said through the glass. "Say you won't go." "Did you lock all the doors?" "Say it," she said.

He sighed. The temperature dropped, and it was cold. "I won't go back for them," he said. "I'll leave them stranded and unhappy without a tree at Christmas time. Are you happy?" "They're crazy," she said. "Of course they are. Now let me in."

She unlocked the door. He carried the tree through the kitchen, set it up in the corner of the living room, and turned it until the bare side faced the wall. Pam was right. It looked like a lopsided bush. Anne Marie clapped her hands in approval. He showed her how to fill the reservoir in the stand with water. Then he crumpled the newspaper in the fireplace, built the hut of kindling, and set it alight.

Pam called the police station to renege on the hospitality, asking them to deliver the message to the people whose car was stolen. Everett strung lights on the tree and lifted Anne Marie to put the angel on top. There wasn't really a single top to the tree, but he helped her pick one.

Pam moved around the kitchen, making dinner. Anne Marie gamely kept up an almost professional patter, like a hostess who knows her party has gone wrong and her guests are miserable. Everett sat in a big chair between the fireplace and the kitchen, feeling the soreness from chopping and hauling set in. He wasn't 25 anymore.

Leaving a pot of soup on the stove, Pam made a juniper swag for the mantelpiece, her slimness in jeans set off by the firelight. She nestled three white candles among the branches, evenly spaced, and lit them. Everett watch her, thinking about the fact that she was Clyde's type and wondering why he still wanted to go get the outlaws and put himself in the way of temptation.

Pam turned from the mantel. There was sometimes a funny, ironic smile that came over her face when she caught him looking at her, a grownup smile, at once confident and self-deprecating. But now she looked defiant and young. Pam put a hand on her hip.

"Look, if you want to go get them, just go." "They'll have gone by now," he said, with a catch in his voice. Pam threw the burnt matches into the fire. In the kitchen, she put the matchbook in the kitchen drawer, then she dialed the phone, watching Everett as if waiting for him to stop her. "I called earlier about the couple with the stolen car," she said in her business-like phone voice. "Are they still there?"

She waited, looking out the dark, glass door she had locked against him. "Hi, Bonnie," she said into the phone. "It's Pam from the car. We picked you up. Hi." Her laugh sounded social, but Everett could hear the nervousness in it. "No, I don't think I introduced myself. Do you still want to help with the tree? Everett could run down and get you."

She paused, listening. "Put Clyde on," she said, and she turned away from Everett. He watched the curve of his wife's ass as she leaned on the kitchen counter, lifting her right foot and nervously tapping the toe on the floor. "Clyde," she said, "please come up for dinner. Anne Marie would love to show off the tree. Really, we'd love it. Good, he'll be right down." She hung up the phone and turned to Everett. "Merry Christmas," she said.

He was not sure how to behave. Anne Marie was still decorating the lower branches of the tree. "So," Pam said. She stirred the pot on the stove with a wooden spoon, "Do you want to go get them?" Everett pushed himself out of the chair. "Want to come along, Anne Marie?" he asked. His daughter looked up at him. "Are you going to get those people?" "Yes," he said, "to help with the tree."

Anne Marie nodded, untangling the loop of string on a tiny ukulele. "I'll stay here," she said. He kissed his wife goodbye on the top of her head. Was she attracted to Clyde? He wanted to take off her clothes right now and see. He was conscious of his own breathing, and he could tell she was unsteady. "It's Christmastime," he said. "I'll be right back."

He went out into the cold air. The Jimmy started up easily, and he had it in low gear down the hill toward town. He wanted to decide as he drove what they were doing. He wanted to separate his impulse to be a good Samaritan from the kiss on the corner of his mouth.

Bonnie did not, he was fairly sure, just want to hang angels on a tree. Clyde's asking her to move in with his mistress had put her in a giddy, reckless mood, and Everett was the beneficiary. He wasn't going to think about Clyde's low, sincere apology to Pam or about Pam turning away on the phone to ask Clyde to come to the house. Although he found he wanted very much to think about that.

He thought instead about Anne Marie and how the evening might work out for her. The lesson about not abandoning people was a good one. The silent, submerged unhappiness of the evening couldn't be good for a kid. And now it was gone, dissolved by Pam's call into the buzz of unsettled excitement.

The streets were dark and empty, the houses warm with light. He wanted to keep thinking, but he was at the station before he'd sorted things out. And Bonnie was waiting on the curb. She climbed into the front seat and kicked the snow off her boots. "Hi," she said, and she clutched her hands in her lap. She shuddered once from nervousness or cold. "Clyde'll be here in a second," she said, "he's signing something about the car." "OK," he said.

She looked at Everett and seemed about to say something, and then she was in his arms. He gathered her up as well as he could given her thick coat and the awkward position and kissed her sweet face. Her cheeks were cold, but her lips were warm, and she was trembling. The peacoat was unbuttoned and he reached inside to feel the curve of her breast through her sweater. A second later, they pulled apart and Bonnie smoothed her hair.

The lighted glass door of the police station opened, and Clyde walked with his long stride toward them and got in the backseat. Everett thought there must be a smell in the car from the kiss, an electricity. But the husband said nothing, and Everett drove the outlaws back to his house. They talked about the stolen car, and the cold, and the tree. All the while, Everett felt both the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted all at once.

Ira Glass

Maile Meloy. This story appears in her book, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.

[MUSIC - "MAKE YOU BETTER" BY THE DECEMBERISTS"]

Coming up, why some Republican leaders in North Carolina are feeling weird about Santa Claus this year. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: He’s Making A List, Checking It Nice, Gonna Find Out Who Voted Twice

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today, Just What I Wanted. We've arrived at Act Two of our program, Act Two. He's making a list, checking it nice. Gonna find out who voted twice. So this fall, what certain Republicans thought they would discover under the tree was proof of voter fraud. This, of course, is one of the big divisive issues that separate the Right and the Left in our country. Democrats in the mainstream media point out that there is no evidence of significant voter fraud happening in our elections. Republicans say that it easily could be happening, given the way our elections are run, and we do not have the tools to track it.

And this year, the place where the search has been the most intense for voter fraud was North Carolina. And this time, Zoe Chace reports, Republicans really had moments when they thought they had found proof of organized fraud.

Zoe Chace

The man leading the hunt for voter fraud in North Carolina is Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. Picture a Southern party boss. It's probably Dallas-- white guy in an Oxford shirt, bottom buttons undone, loafers, no socks--

Zoe Chace

Are you really smoking a cigar right now?

Dallas Woodhouse

I am.

Zoe Chace

--a cigar in the corner of his mouth. Younger and handsomer than you're imagining, I think. He used to be a TV anchor. He's trying to cut back on cigars since the election ended. I point out there have been a lot of studies looking into voter fraud that conclude voter fraud is minuscule, almost nonexistent.

Zoe Chace

I think that if you see any study, there is no study that ever points to--

Dallas Woodhouse

You know, look, look.

Zoe Chace

Look, I've got to say this.

Dallas Woodhouse

Don't show me studies. Academics, I mean, a bunch of knuckleheads, pointy-headed professors. We deal in the real world.

Zoe Chace

In the real world, Dallas looks for voter fraud, he will tell you, as a matter of principle. There was also a numbers game going on this November. The Republican governor of North Carolina refused to concede the election for weeks because it was such a close race. At the moment I met Dallas, the governor was down just 8,500 votes out of 4.7 million. There were other close races also.

Dallas was out running down every claim of voter fraud around the state. His team accused people of voting twice. That was dismissed. People who voted when they were dead, that was dismissed. Felons who voted.

Dallas Woodhouse

Yeah, but we made a challenge. It ended up not being correct, of a person who showed up on the felon list. And we found somebody that voted, had the same first name, same last name, same birth date. It turns out it wasn't the same person. It seems like to me you have to make an attempt to address that.

Zoe Chace

Dallas found 24 ineligible felons out of 43 they accused. He's not perfect.

Dallas Woodhouse

Look, I'm not-- the only perfect person I know walked on water, and he's my Savior, Jesus Christ. We are not perfect.

Zoe Chace

The day we talk, Dallas has a smoking gun, a few hundred ballots in the southeast of the state, lots with the same handwriting on them. Jackpot. He takes a breath.

Dallas Woodhouse

They do realize that 300 or 400 write-in votes can't be done by one person. They do realize that's illegal.

Zoe Chace

Here's what happened. Down in Bladen County, North Carolina, this guy Brian was going through absentee balance at the Board of Elections. He's a board member, a Republican. His job was to scrutinize each ballot as it came out of the machine. He's heard a lot about voter fraud, never seen it before, but he believes it's widespread. He's heard a lot about it on the news. His eyes are peeled.

And then he notices something. Way down at the bottom of the ballot, there was room for a write-in candidate, the county soil and water district supervisor. And he kept seeing the name Franklin Graham.

Brian

And it looked like the same handwriting a lot of times.

Zoe Chace

He demonstrates by writing the name in my notebook.

Brian

Every time I write this, my R's are going to be the same. My A's are pretty much going to be the same. My K's are going to be the same. So if I write it again as you watch.

Zoe Chace

Franklin Graham.

Brian

You see similarities between certain letters every time.

Zoe Chace

Like how many times?

Brian

Considerable, I would say, I don't, 50 to 100.

Zoe Chace

Of one person putting in 100 votes.

Brian

You could infer that.

Zoe Chace

In all, maybe 300 ballots. Brian is a paramedic. He's used to looking at EKG waveforms. He says he has an eye for patterns like the way someone writes their name. Brian is also pretty careful. He wasn't sure it was fraud. But it looked suspicious.

Brian

I wouldn't infer that, because obviously I'm not an expert. But you could infer that.

Zoe Chace

Dallas Woodhouse does more than infer.

Dallas Woodhouse

Come on. You cannot look at me in a straight face and think the same handwriting puts in several hundred votes for one person and not call that fraud. That is the definition of fraud.

Zoe Chace

It wasn't just one person's handwriting. It was around a dozen people. Dallas has a term for what he thinks this is. He calls it an absentee ballot mill. This is what he pictures when he hears about all these ballots with the same handwriting on them. Key Democratic operatives, running around searching for old people who barely know their own names and then filling out ballots for them. A blatant scheme, Dallas thinks, that gins up votes for the Democrats. And the Democratic governor, remember, is only up by a couple thousand votes.

Dallas Woodhouse

Should the election board find that these are absentee ballot mills, with the purpose of fraudulent voting, those people should go to jail. They should go to jail. They should spend the first term of the Trump administration behind bars.

Zoe Chace

I go down south to meet the victims of the alleged scheme, the democratic voters of Bladen County. It is an unusual interviewing situation.

Man 1

This is Zoe.

Zoe Chace

Hi.

Man 1

She's out of New York. She has a talk radio show.

Zoe Chace

I'm at a senior center in this classroom. I'm standing up at the front with a microphone like a teacher. There are rows of older people sitting quietly, staring back at me. Their dominoes game is sealed up in a Tupperware. I go from person to person and ask each one about their vote while everyone else silently watches. It's awkward.

Zoe Chace

May I ask you about your vote? OK.

Her name is Lula Pearl Graham. She did vote absentee this year. She says someone helped her get an absentee ballot in. This person worked with a political PAC, the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC. And she followed their advice on how to vote. They gave her a sample ballot with a slate of endorsed candidates.

Zoe Chace

Did you know everybody who you were voting for on the ballot this year?

Lula Pearl Graham

No, I didn't.

Zoe Chace

But did you know who you were voting for for governor?

Lula Pearl Graham

Yeah.

Zoe Chace

OK. What about for soil and water? Can I ask you who you voted for there? Do you know?

Lula Pearl Graham

I don't remember.

Zoe Chace

But do you trust their recommendations? The PAC with the sample ballot and everything?

Lula Pearl Graham

Oh, yes, they're good. They're good.

Zoe Chace

Why?

Lula Pearl Graham

Because when you don't know the people, they'll tell you-- they explain them to you. So you say, well, I would like to vote here, but I don't know who this is. They tell you.

Zoe Chace

What she's describing doesn't sound illegal. If the PAC bought her vote, it would be illegal. If the PAC threatened her, it would be illegal. Giving someone a slate of candidates to vote for is not illegal. Having someone assist you in filling out your ballot is not illegal. Though if you do assist someone, you're supposed to give them some space while they actually vote and then sign the envelope saying you assisted them. But I do think if Dallas, the Republican guy, chewed his cigar into this room and heard Lula Pearl talk, he would be horrified, based on how he thinks about this stuff.

Dallas Woodhouse

Under a select few circumstances, you can get assistance from a relative or somebody who declares your help. Now, that is intended to be a neighbor helping a neighbor, a friend helping a friend. If somebody is going out there and helping hundreds of people, they are harvesting ballots.

Zoe Chace

For Dallas, Lula Pearl saying she doesn't know anything about the candidates she's voting for but votes for them anyway, at the suggestion of volunteers who get $35 a day reimbursement for gas and food, that's shady to Dallas on its face. If it's not technically illegal, it should be. It's supposed to be one person, one vote. As soon as you have one person helping lots and lots of people vote, it feels like a scheme to him. Lula Pearl sees it differently. Having a volunteer come to the house makes it easier for her to vote. She wants it.

Lula Pearl Graham

I don't drive, and I have two knee implants. Sometimes it's difficult to get around. So somebody would come and pick me up. But sometimes I don't feel like going that way. So I just let someone come and vote for me and let-- come and let me fill out the application. And then it goes, and it comes back.

Zoe Chace

Voting is very important to her. She feels like, why shouldn't it be easy?

Lula Pearl Graham

My mother and my father, they marched all the way from Selma, Alabama to Birmingham, Alabama for the right for me to vote. And I'm going to vote.

Zoe Chace

This is, in fact, why this organization that helped her with the ballot exists, the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC. It exists to protect the vote for black people in the community.

The head of the PAC is Horace Munn. Horace Munn-- for a man allegedly at the center of a blatant scheme to rig an election-- Horace is pretty easy to find. Like, I couldn't get any service on my phone driving down to Bladen County, so I went into this convenience store at the side of the road. Tammy let me use her phone. She goes, oh, you're talking to Horace? That's my godfather. Let me have the phone. Horace, where do you want me to send her?

He was at the town hall in East Arcadia. He's on the town council. He's the fire chief. Horace is a former soldier, a paratrooper, got the Bronze Star in the First Gulf War. He uses that old civil rights era language like, I fought for freedom abroad, but we're not free at home.

Horace Munn

I served to make sure that we all get freedom in America. And I come home, and I find out that they say that we're free but in actuality, we're not. They say things are equal, but in actuality, they're not.

Zoe Chace

Meaning black voters in this area have been subject to extra scrutiny, to harassment, extra rules, all things that keep them from voting. This is how Horace sees it. The PAC exists to get people to the polls and also bring black people together as a voting bloc. And he says, yes, his group was behind the campaign to get people to write in Franklin Graham for soil and water supervisor. And he explains it. Basically, there was an incumbent running unopposed. They did not like him. So Horace decided, let's get my buddy Franklin Graham on the ballot.

Horace Munn

Well, I missed the window. I missed the window to get his name placed on the ballot.

Zoe Chace

Does Franklin Graham actually know anything about what it takes to take care of soil and water as a district supervisor?

Horace Munn

No.

Zoe Chace

The soil and water supervisor, as far as I can figure, keeps the water from being contaminated by the soil and the soil from being eroded by the water. In any way, the incumbent didn't have any special expertise either when he got the job. That's what Horace thinks. I asked Horace about why so many of the ballots seem to have Franklin Graham's name written out in the same handwriting. But he can't discuss the Franklin Graham thing. It's under investigation. And while Lula Pearl's vote seems legit, there are about 300 others that might not be.

There is an official body that decides whether it's voter fraud or not, the State Board of Elections. And on a Saturday afternoon, they have a special hearing to decide who's right in this case.

Man 2

We are here to conduct two hearings. We assume jurisdiction that--

Zoe Chace

The board is rushing to rule on all these election protests coming in so the state can actually have a governor. The Republican governor still hasn't conceded the race. The election is up in the air. It's not made for TV. It's not even a courtroom. It's a badly lit press conference-style space. Rows of chairs are just dragged in. There are five board members who will decide things. Three Republicans, two Democrats, a big audience, a slew of lawyers at the table.

Man 3

Did you say the vote should be discounted or the ballots should be discounted?

Man 4

The entire ballot should be discounted.

Zoe Chace

The governor's lawyers come off a little sloppy. Because a few hours in, the complaint starts to fall apart in this kind of mortifying way. It happens when the person who actually filed the complaint against the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC takes the stand.

Man 5

How you doing, sir?

Mccrae Dowless

Doing fine, Mr. Michael.

Zoe Chace

McCrae Dowless. He's actually the guy who won the soil and water supervisor race in Bladen County. And he takes the stand looking like he's not quite ready for this. He doesn't have a suit. He's got a big beard, skinny guy, windbreaker. And once he's up there being questioned by one of the Democrats on the Board of Elections, he seems amazingly unfamiliar with his own case.

Man 5

You allege that there was a scheme that was taking place in Bladen County, correct? That's the words that you used-- "blatant scheme"? What did you mean by that?

Mccrae Dowless

Scheme?

Man 5

You used the words, "resulting from a blatant scheme."

Mccrae Dowless

Are you saying I used the words or the attorney that wrote that up used the words?

Man 5

Well, it's got your signature at the end.

Mccrae Dowless

It's got my signature here on it. But as far as writing that personal-- writing that up, I didn't do that. The attorney did. The attorney was the one that drew the protest up.

Zoe Chace

He tries to remember who that attorney is, like what his name is.

Mccrae Dowless

I can't think of the gentlemen's name. Steve? I can't remember his last name.

Zoe Chace

His attorneys seem embarrassed. It is embarrassing when a client who's supposedly lodging a complaint is not familiar with the complaint. They try to object. It doesn't work. McCrae just ignores his lawyers and keeps talking over them. I look over at Horace Munn from the PAC, and he is all giddy. He's tapping his lawyer, spinning around in his seat. He pulls his glasses down his nose and makes eyes at me.

The hearing goes on for five hours. Some people who wrote in the name Franklin Graham on 300-odd ballots broke the rules by not signing the envelope, saying they assisted the voters in filling out the ballots. But over those hours, no one disputes that real voters cast those votes. Finally, one of the Republicans on the election's board says he's not buying this as a massive ballot scheme that's thwarting the Republican governor.

Man 6

There does not appear to be any dispute that the signatures of the voters on all the ballots are proper. And I think that's something that I would have to hear before all of you wanting to throw out a lot of ballots.

Zoe Chace

The complaint is dismissed, 3 to 2. Dreams of the perfect Republican Christmas gift melt away. I can't say for sure, but in talking to reporters, election board members, activists, it seems that no one in North Carolina was able to find a single case of true voter fraud, where someone deliberately impersonates someone else, casts a ballot in their name, real fraud, except possibly one case. One. And that one comes out in a very strange twist during this same hearing, just not where the Republicans were looking. One of the board members starts asking McCrae, their incumbent Republican soil and water supervisor, about whether his side had committed voter fraud.

Man 7

So you keep saying GOTV, does that mean--

Man 5

Get out the vote. Get out the vote.

Man 7

You get paper.

Mccrae Dowless

Get out the vote.

Man 7

And what exactly was it that she got paid to do?

Zoe Chace

Here's what tumbles out of McCrae under the board's questioning. He had some people working for him, getting out the vote-- volunteers, McCrae calls them. The volunteers, though, were allegedly getting paid for each ballot they turned in. That is illegal. One of the voters who signed an affidavit said that Get Out the Vote workers came by and had her family request absentee ballots. But then they never received their absentee ballots in the mail like they were supposed to. Then, when the family went to vote on election day, they were told they'd already voted. In essence, McCrae's getting accused of paying people to obtain absentee ballots, fill them out, and cast their votes on someone else's behalf. That, for sure, is illegal. McCrae says he didn't do anything wrong.

An election board member then calls for further criminal investigation, what appears to be Republican voter fraud.

Man 8

I will be making a motion, that any and all information that this board has in its possession shall be forwarded to the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Zoe Chace

The attorney could choose to keep looking into Horace as well, but the focus of the investigation seems to be what McCrae has just revealed. Two days later, the governor of North Carolina concedes the race to the Democrats. There are just no votes left to recount, no more fraud left to look into.

Dallas Woodhouse, the Republican fraud hunter, says there is still systemic voter fraud out there, stuff that's not being caught. And that is going to continue until the voting system itself changes. Right now, Dallas would say there are too many opportunities for voter fraud, too many ways that people could pretend to be someone else. Right now, you show up to vote with no ID, they let you vote. You show up at the wrong precinct, they let you vote.

Dallas Woodhouse

Our side does think the voters have some responsibilities. And the best example is showing up to the right place to vote on election day. I do think that's a fair statement.

Zoe Chace

I think that is the exact thing that Democrats will point to saying, that disenfranchises our people because our people--

Dallas Woodhouse

How does it disenfranchise their people?

Zoe Chace

Because their people--

Dallas Woodhouse

See, they have such a negative, horrible, demeaning view of their own people, that they can't show up at the right place to vote.

Zoe Chace

The two parties have very different ideas about how we should vote. To generalize, Democrats think it should be as easy as possible. Republicans don't. Conveniently, each of these positions ends up helping their side at the polls. Tougher voter requirements tend to disproportionately discourage minority voters. That traditionally helps Republicans. Higher voter turnout of minority voters usually helps the Democrats. Dallas, a passionate partisan, will keep arguing and keep looking for fraud, though he keeps losing these fights.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections tracked 57 voter fraud complaints this year and dismissed the vast majority of them. For those searching for voter fraud, it's like they waited all election year, opened up their presents Christmas morning, and there was nothing inside.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "JUST WHAT I WANTED FOR CHRISTMAS" BY BING CROSBY"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo, our production staff-- Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Karen Duffin, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meeke, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Research help today from Christopher [? Sotala, ?] music help from Damien Grave.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, great around the office, but whenever I try to talk to him about my personal issues, he sticks his fingers in his ears and he says--

Luke Huisenga

(SINGING) La la la la la la la la la la.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "JUST WHAT I WANTED FOR CHRISTMAS" BY BING CROSBY"]

Serial Season Three: Hear Every Episode