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The Senator's Breakfast
Janet Kieffer


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 says.

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 black?”

“Black, please.”

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.

Sally’s quiet.

“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 his coffee.

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 window.

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.