Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Candidate I Could Have a Beer With, Part III

It's been nice, in a way, to see the town so awake these past couple of weeks, responding to the presence of all these powerful strangers, but it's made for uneasy variations in the old routine, waking my mind up in ways that it's not really used to. Maybe one of these days I'll start to keep the same sort of cool that my wife manages. There is a woman who can make connections. On Friday, all three of us--Jane and I, with little Simon toddling along (he was an opinionated baby, and we named him after our favorite music critic)--over to Applebee's, which is something of a payday tradition. That place gave us the strangest run-in so far. Even at the entrance, you could tell something was off: there were these identical-looking guys in suits everywhere, and I had to push my way through them just to get over to the hostess and drop off our names.

Forcing my way back, I reported to the boss. "It looks like its going to be a wait, Hon. You want anything to drink for now?"

She shook her head, but since my teeth were already clenching, I decided to body surf my way over to the bar for an aperitif. I pushed my way through the clones, past some jokers setting up lights, and I squinted at the glare from those upside-down umbrellas. The very end of the bar had the only open space, and I wedged found myself there with my elbow between some cheesy decorations, a dusty football and a framed photo of a sunny family picnicking in Anywhereville, USA.

At Applebee's, I like to get a Yuengling or two, my weekly attempt at upscale beer-swilling. I drink 'em a little slower, and my wife doesn't give me as many funny looks as we get through our meal. I looked back over the crowd at her, and she was, to my surprise, looking right back at me, excited as hell.

I mouthed a brilliant response. "What?"

She waved her arms around, and made grimaces off to her left.

I smiled back and gave her a thumbs up.

She hitched her hands left again in an even more exaggerated fashion, almost pulling little Simon to the floor. I looked over, and under all the light--in the middle of the shoot I'd just bowled through--was this blonde woman in a pantsuit, looking right pissed off. I smiled dumbly at her and shrugged an idiot apology, and then looked back at my wife. Yeah, she looked familiar, I tried to say with my face, maybe she's on TV? I looked at the crew again to see if I could place her, and in her place was standing a long-haired hippie type (who reminded me of myself in college, before it all fell out) was looking at one of his colleagues. He pointed at me a couple times, turned and pointed to Jane and Simon, nodding so that his ponytail bobbed up and down. (Just you wait, pal.) I finally spotted Ms. Powersuit in that conferring as well, but she'd turned her back to me. She shook her head at some comment or other, and then nodded curtly. All at once, the three of them turned these steel gazes right at me. Ponytail whispered something to a guy behind him, and I could see, with growing apprehension, a ripple of gray twill moving through the crowd in two directions, one at my family, and the other straight at me. The last one, some unsmiling red-haired woman in a black business suit and wire glasses, who had until that moment been edging me into the wall-mounted Americana, turned her face right into my craw and said, "she wants you." I've never felt smaller. Weakly, I nodded.

The crew (I was thinking "press gang" by that point) somehow maneuvered me under the lights, which, I realized, were focused on a single table, which had chairs arranged on only one side of it. Jane and Simon were already sitting in two of them, she eager and he only a little bit terrified. Four plates were arranged in front of us, and as Red pushed me down into the chair, she said "eat some of it." I gave her a dumb look. "Don't worry, it's on the house," she said. Gingerly, I took a sip of my black and tan, thinking it would have to last.

"What's going on," I asked my wife.

"Can't you see the camera, Bob?"

"Holy shit."

Ponytail broke out of his endless conference and wormed his way over to the table. "Here's the deal," he said, "you need to act like your sharing some really interesting ideas with the candidate. Do you have family dinners?"

My wife interjected. "Is she--"

It got her a glare, shot her way over little round glasses. "She's going to sit and talk to you. Act like it's an fascinating family discussion." He looked at me and shook his head. "Okay, what I mean is, you can ask her a question if you like, but most of all, you need to look interested and engaged. You," he looked at me again, "just do your best to act like you're pretending to understand."

"I see..."


My wife: "She's going to--"

"Yes. Quiet now."

He jerked his chin at an assistant, and a short man scampered up with a little plush animal to entertain Simon. The boy grinned, and soon he was happily chattering with a stuffed donkey. Of all of them, this assistant seemed nice: I considered asking him for a refill, but instead took another tiny sip. I took a bite of the hamburger they provided, which under the lights, tasted like something you'd get at a truck stop at 3 AM. The fourth plate, salmon and vegetables, had been carefully half-eaten, with bites strategically taken here and there.

Just as I dribbled a little mayonnaise (hate the stuff) down onto my chin, yet another assistant swung by. This one smiled at Simon (who was enjoying himself by now, with all the attention), and whispered to my wife in collaboration before dotting her forehead with a compact a couple of times. She turned and looked at me more critically. After she wiped the white goop off of my face with a napkin, she held me under her gaze, shaking her head but holding her powder puff at bay. "Authentic," she muttered. Some of us are perfect the way we are.

The ponytail came bobbing back. "Now, now!"

The crowd of bodies parted, and the woman in the pantsuit walked down the breach, framed by glaring light. Jane stood up, beaming, and I followed. The woman looked at me first. "Hi, I'm Bob," I said, and shook her hand, which she returned gently, but with authority. She was lovely for her age, but this close, I got a good look at all the makeup caked into years of stress lines. Damn, if she didn't look familiar. I tried to not let my eyes wander from the cracks around her eyes. "Hillary Clinton," she said, the very edge of wryness getting into her voice. Finally the recognition dawned, and I sat down fast. My wife squirmed a little as she introduced herself, but before she could speak anymore, the director started waving his arms, and babbled something about a strict timeline.

Jane and Mrs. Clinton both took their spots. Evidently, we were done eating, but I held onto my half beer, wishing I had a few full ones. The red-haired assistant was at my shoulder again, a constant hum of instructions directed right into my ear. I got the gist--act interested--and began practicing the art immediately on my temporary advisor. Clinton was looking away from us, listening to the last-minute directions from the ponytail man, and my wife nervously was nodding her own guide, no doubt listening for real. When someone yelled "go," Mrs. Clinton turned toward us again, and became effusive. Suddenly, Jane, Simon and I were not just at the center of her attention, but were the entirety of it. This calmed my wife down a lot.

"Is this a popular place in town?" Clinton asked. "How are the gas prices?" She went on with inconsequential small talk like that for a couple minutes, and as she went on, she patted the air authoritatively with her hands, making the most inane comments and questions seem deeply edifying. As Jane responded, the candidate would tilt her face toward the lights like a benevolent gibbous moon, and she laughed expansively or chuckled thoughtfully at my wife's most trite conversation.

She turned to me, "How are jobs here, Bob?"

I can't tell you how I replied, but it didn't seem to matter. She listened graciously, and when I was done gibbering, she grew serious without losing her appearance of camaraderie. She could communicate with her employees, but she was definitely in charge, the Cee-Eee-Friggin-Oh. "We have to keep industry in Pennsylvania," she said, "we can't let Republican outsourcing and mismanagement cripple the most vital sections of the economy." She made a fist for emphasis. She was tough. She cared.

Something occurred to me. "Mrs. Clinton?"

Perhaps taken aback at my interruption, she raised her eyebrows and smiled to wait for the question. It was a surprisingly disarming expression.

I stammered. "D-d-d..."

Pure patience from her, and I took the last swallow from my glass. "I, um, was talking to some guys at work last week. D-didn't you v-vote for--"

Ponytail snapped something. "That'll do it," he shouted.

The warmth instantly melted from Clinton's face, and I noticed the spackled crow's feet once more. She stood up, and thanked the crew. "I think we can use this," she said. Jane and I were dumbstruck (Simon was babbling sweetly), and as she got up to review the footage, the lights already began clicking off. Until then, I hadn't really appreciated how hot they had been. I looked helplessly at my wife, who didn't notice me, eyes glued to the candidate.

The red-haired woman was coming to the table with some papers for us to sign, but Mrs. Clinton strode our way for a last moment before joining her escorts, and the assistant dove out of the powerful woman's way. Clinton turned her camera smile on a last time for Jane, thanked her, and politely shook her hand. She clucked Simon under the chin, and then turned to me. "Please vote for me next week," she said politely, but the gaze she nailed me with could have frozen the sun.

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