The campaign bus is like
a big boat on wheels on snow-covered roads, with food, beds, and a bathroom.
The Senator fogs the passenger window with his breath, his protruding teeth
long as a beaver’s; he is on the road to running for President.
The red, white, and blue bus leans a little on the hairpin turns of rural
New Hampshire roads, and his campaign staff yells out whhoooaa! when this
happens, especially when it happens at cocktail hour.
The Senator’s campaign manager
is a young woman named Sally. Her strong perfume permeates the upholstery
of the bus, and she deftly balances her wine cooler in the plastic cup
when they round these turns. Sometimes the bus brushes the overhanging
limbs of hardwoods bending in the crisp snow; sometimes the branches snap,
and sticks and sparkling wisps of snow cascade past the window.
He always smiles for cameras.
A news commentator once referred to him as an idiot savant in tortoise
shell glasses, but this didn’t bother the Senator. It’s morning now,
and the video crew will be waiting for them. The one thing the Senator
feels uncomfortable with, he says to Sally, is having his picture taken.
It’s a little awkward. It doesn’t seem real or right somehow, especially
when you’re in politics.
“You have to do it,” she
says, shaking her head. “Now I know you don’t like it but you have
to do it. Promote, promote, promote.” She’s holding her cup
of coffee, and his, as he brushes his moussed gray hair in place and straightens
his tie. An aide to the Senator, an intern from Amherst, holds a
mirror up for him. “No wonder I don’t like the pictures,” he says,
but he smiles into the mirror. He can never remember the intern’s name.
Part of the campaign video
crew waits for him in the snow outside Berta’s Diner. Their bodies
dance in the cold like ragamuffin soldiers. They rub their arms,
dance from toe to toe, rub their arms, and erect tripods in snowdrifts.
The Senator watches them as the bus pulls up. They become visibly
excited and organized at the same time. “Well bless their hearts,” says
the Senator. Later, when he sees the video, he’ll see himself get
off the bus and wave to the camera people. He hates to have his picture
taken, but for them, it’s the least he can do. He pushes himself
against the snow to the front door to the diner.
Part of the camera crew is
already inside. “There were supposed to be more people in here than
this,” Sally whispers to him. She doesn’t want the mikes to
pick up what she says. There is a total of ten New Hampshire people
in the diner, six of whom are patrons. The owner is a chubby woman
with blue eyes and a strong handshake. “I used to work at the hospital,”
she says. “Doing the EKGs. Now I own my own business instead.”
The Senator thinks she’s beautiful. He is an aesthete. How
wonderful she should make such a leap, he thinks, and that she had the
courage to do so. There’s a proud light in her eyes. He comments
into the microphone. “Only in America,” he says. “Only
in a place like this.” He makes the grunting noises.
The video team motions him
and Sally to a table at which they’ve aimed high powered lights and tripod-mounted
cameras. “Sit down,” they seem to say, without saying anything.
The Senator looks around a little uncomfortably. Not only will his
moving picture be on TV screens across America, but they’re planning on
doing this as he eats! He’s wearing a suit, and none of the other
people in the country diner are wearing suits. Sally made him wear
it. “That’s what candidates do,” she had said. “You know that.”
The four patrons in the diner are wearing wool shirts and jeans and overalls.
The camera catches shots
of the Senator and Sally as he talks to the diner owner, as he walks to
the table, as he holds his hand gently over his tie to sit in the straight-backed
chair at the table with the red plastic carnation in the vase. He
looks around, and sits so upright that his back doesn’t touch the back
of the chair. He alternates looking at the camera and smiling with
watching the diner.
“Well, it certainly is a
cold morning here in New Hampshire,” says Sally. She puts a paper
napkin in her lap.
“It certainly is,” says the
Senator. His eyes roll one way and another and he smiles and lookes
around. His head is already beginning to sweat under the lights.
“Very woodsy around here,
very earthy people.”
“Yes, they are,” the Senator
The diner waitress
brings glasses of water and an order pad. She looks like a nurse,
or someone who works in a hospital, the way she’s dressed.
“I’d just like some orange
juice and half an English muffin,”says Sally. “We already ate once,”
she says to the camera.
“I’d like some orange juice
too. And some coffee. We ate already once this morning,” he
says to the waitress. “You know how that is.”
The waitress doesn’t smile.
“Regular, or black?” she says.
“With cream and sugar, or
When she leaves, the Senator
cranes his neck and waves to someone across the diner. The camera
operator misunderstands and pans over to a stoic old man in overalls and
a feed cap who is reading the paper. He doesn’t notice the Senator.
The Senator’s still grinning when the camera pans back. He rises
from the table to greet a newcomer, a young man who has just entered the
diner. The man walks in front of the camera and blocks the view of
the Senator at first, and the video crew whispers loudly to him before
he steps to one side. His hair is long and pulled back with a rubber
band. He wears tinted glasses.
“Senator!” he says.
“Friendly people here in
New Hampshire,” says the Senator to Sally, as an aside.
“I’m not from New Hampshire,
Senator!” says the man. “I’m from Ohio! No kidding! I’ve
been helping out with your campaign in Ohio! And I drove all the
way here, to help you now.” He shakes the Senator’s hand. “Name’s
Dave Ward,” he says, and then sits down at the table. “I helped with
your campaign in Ohio.”
“Well now, isn’t that nice?”
says the Senator.
“I can’t believe I’m here
with you, man,” the Ohio guy says.
The coffee and juice arrive,
and the Senator leans back in his chair. He smiles and loosens his
tie. He slurps his coffee and then his juice, grunting happily.
“I have my own business,”
Dave says, “I’m in the appliance repair business. And what you want
to do for small business sounds very good to me man.”
The Senator uses his napkin.
“I’m glad you approve. What is it specifically that you like?”
“Well, you don’t have a lot
of red tape. You want to take the red tape out of owning a business.”
Dave turns around, and for a moment his face is inches from the camera.
“Could I get some coffee?” he says. He turns the other way
again and calls out into the diner. “Could I get some coffee or juice
or something?” He faces the Senator again. “Like I said, employees
are a big responsibility, and as a business owner I’d rather spend my time
taking care of them than all this red tape bullshit, you know?”
The Senator nods and sips
Sally says, “Oh look Senator,
there are some more people who came in the diner. Think we ought
to say hello?”
“Those people were already
here,” says Dave.
The Senator’s eyes gaze vaguely
to the right. As if he sees nothing there, or forgets what he’s looking
at, he smiles at Dave again.
“Man, you’re not even like
a real senator. You’re a caring person, who’s out for the well being
of small business and a growing economy,” Dave says.
Sally looks deliberately
at the Senator and at the camera. “We’d better get going now, Pete.
We have an appointment at the house of the New Hampshire campaign chairman.”
“Oh yes! Yes.
If you’ll excuse us,” he says, nodding to Dave. He tilts his head
all the way back to finish the last drops of his coffee.
As they leave the diner,
Sally urges the Senator toward the four locals--the man with the newspaper,
a young woman with a tired face, and a couple of middle aged men--but nobody
really wants to talk to him. They shake his hand and look at their
food. The Senator glances back at Dave, who waves from his place
at the table, and catches sight of Berta, who has a twinkle in her eye.
At the campaign chairman’s
house, a very small ranch, the camera crew puts the Senator in front of
the hearth with the dried flower wreath and the pictures of children.
His supporters fill the place, and even the bus driver has come inside,
and stands in a corner nursing coffee too hot to drink. The Senator’s so
hot he can feel the pores of his skin opening, feel the thin dress shirt
stick and bubble on his back like the skin of a blister.
There are some non-supporters
there too, and they asked the Senator about morality and religion and the
life of the working man. The Senator politely ignores these questions.
It isn’t that he doesn’t care about them, but he doesn’t know what they
mean in terms of his running for President. The people in the house
touch him all the time, pat his back and shoulders and rub up against
his upper arms.
He smells cat urine, the
chili con queso in the crock pot, the salmon spread on the little
crackers, faded dime store powders on elderly women. He can feel
the radiant human heat in the pink living room, and he swaps sweat with
his well-wishers when he shakes their hands. A very old woman who
is all bosom wraps her small arms around him in a hug. The heat of
the house has run and cracked her foundation make-up, and she looks like
an ancient art museum painting. An squirming infant vomits milk onto
the diaper on its mother’s shoulder. The camera follows him everywhere.
Most are kind, elderly.
A woman in her late sixties with a breath fouler than last week’s garbage
breathes, “I want to know what’ll happen to my social security.
And how much drugs are going to cost. I saw terrible things on TV.”
The Senator doesn’t want to talk to her about drugs. Her eyes are
droopy and yellow.
This reminds the Senator
that the TV in the living room is on, and he glances at it. The current
US President is giving a speech, the volume is turned down, and the President
moves his thick lips in vain. Old women in wide flowered dresses
and men in overalls eating ham salad stagger the Senator’s view of the
President as they pass back and forth in front of the television, oblivious.
The Senator sees a serious and drawn expression on the President’s face,
his jaw moving stiffly up and down.
“There won’t be any social
security a generation from now,” the young mother with the baby says.
“You people will have spent it.”
Droopy eyes shouts suddenly:
“It’s our money!”
The Senator sees through
a window that it has begun to snow outside. He yearns to feel the cold
air on his face and in his lungs and hair, and looks around for Sally.
When he sees her she averts her eyes. The host of the campaign party
dodders over to the thermostat and turns up the heat. The video camera
follows the Senator everywhere. His head becomes light; people look
distant and then very near, and his eyes unfocus as if he’s dozing when
he is not. He puts his hand to a wall to steady himself, and he’s
still half-smiling. In his hazy perception of things, he looks out
The video later does a voice-over
in this part, saying that the Senator was contemplating the beauty of New
Hampshire, but at this point he is really looking at Dave from Ohio, not
knowing quite whether Dave, standing among snow-covered maples with a Molsen
in his hand, is real or imagined.
Dave has a T-shirt and a
navy blue stocking hat on; his large tinted glasses make him look like
an owl from a distance. He holds up the Molsen and gestures wildly
at the Senator to come outside. The Senator looks at a man
at his elbow who is trying to talk to him, a man who’s wearing a wool shirt
and a coat. He doesn’t hear the man because his heart is drumming
inside his head, his knees feel like toothpicks that won’t support his
weight. Some music starts, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and somewhere
in the mass of people the baby starts to cry.
The senator sees the camera
operator abandon his camcorder and disappear into the tiny, aqua-tiled
bathroom, as if moving in slow motion. As soon as he is well inside,
the Senator decides to shuffle through the kitchen to the front door.
When he opens it, a delicious rush of snowy air surrounds his face, and
he stumbles outside. “Come on, Senator!” Dave yells. He’s by the bus, jumping
up and down. “Come on! We’re going!” The bus driver’s keys
clink in his left hand as he holds them aloft.
“Well! Damn right we are!”
the Senator replies, smiling. “Damn right! And I’m driving!”
The Senator thinks Berta
is from heaven, she dances so well. She smells like eggs and has a round
body and small feet, and the tabletop candles are lit, and the juke box
is plugged full of quarters; and the snow outside has ceased, the night
lapsing clear and bright and peaceful. She holds onto him around
his neck, grasping the green bottle of a Molsen behind his left ear.
Willie Nelson is singing “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Dave from Ohio is playing
a quiet game of spades at the counter with a couple of men from nearby
towns who own small businesses, mostly farms. His Camel non-filters
burn down all the way, their ashes like snakes in the ceramic ashtray.
There are about ten patrons besides Dave from Ohio in the diner, but they
don’t know the Senator’s a senator. The only other one who knows
he’s a senator is Berta, in his arms, and Berta doesn’t tell anyone; she
whispers in his ear, and says she thinks she loves him, and that as far
as she’s concerned, the election is over. The Senator smiles with
his eyes closed. He whispers back, “It’s over here, it’s over now,
but only in a place like this.”
Janet Kieffer's work has
appeared in The Atlanta Review, Bomb, Sniper Logic, The Southern Ocean Review (New Zealand) and
World Wide Writers
(United Kingdom). Her story “Dust” placed joint-first in the BBC
World Service Short Story competition for 1997 and is to appear in a forthcoming
issue of Short Story Journal. She recently completed a
small novel and is starting another one.