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The Candidate

candidate

It was going to be a beautiful day—sunny, bright, cool.

The dew was thick but would soon vanish. The blue sky stretched forever, a fresh breeze darted in over the river, furrowing the long dark-green grass in the town park. The knee-high rows of corn in the field just outside town fluttered on short stalks.

Jeff lifted his summer suit on the hanger. Made of light, taupe linen, it was perfect. He began to smile, then paused. Was a suit too dressy? Would something more casual be appropriate? Perhaps a polo shirt and chinos? Would it get wrinkled? That was the way of linen, even though the day would be cool and dry. No, the linen suit was best. Jeff had ironed it that morning, creasing the front, and pulled out a nice white shirt and a blue tie. Red tie? No, blue.

Yes, he’d wear this suit, it was perfect. He’d put it on right before the speech—there’d be a bathroom in the school next to the park. He brought an iron too, just in case.

He threw on a T-shirt, jeans, sneakers. He had work to do.

Using his thin chest to support the weight, Jeff eased large, numbered plastic tubs out of the small trunk of his Nissan. Miriam, who had parked nearby, rushed over to help.

“Jeff! There you are. I just got here. Do you need help? Here, let me help.” Her skirt fluttered and blew flat against her chunky legs, her bare arms freckled with age spots and patches of red. She was a good volunteer, always early and willing to do anything.

“Here, take these. We need to unload the car.” Jeff handed her the smallest of the tubs and piled bags of loose bunting on top. “Where is Tom? What time’s he coming?”

“Oh Jeff, doesn’t that look nice! Is that new bunting? Oh, that’ll look great on the stage!”

“It will. If we hang it right. I just ordered it. I had to iron it myself last night—it came folded in the package. Did you clean the flags? Are they in your car? And where’s Tom?”

“He’s coming, we drove two cars. He’s bringing the wood for the signs, needed the truck. I’ll text him again to make sure. I have the flags—they look great! I’ll get them. And Erin and the girls are coming too, later. Erin’s real excited about meeting the Candidate.”

“Well, they’ll take a photo with him. They won’t have time to meet him. He’s very busy. Is she bringing people, too? As long as people show up. We have to get a good crowd.”

“People will come. Definitely. How many do you think we’ll get?”

“I’ve been calling folks all week. The press is interested because of the holiday, and it’s the first time in a long time that anyone running for governor has spent the holiday here, should be good. It’s a great story.”

“Why do you think he’s stopping here? Because we’re so important?!” Miriam clicked her tongue and shook her head, like she wanted to believe what she said but knew she shouldn’t.

Jeff looked her right in the eyes. “Because he cares about small towns, Miriam. He’s said that. We do matter. We are the livelihood of the state. Our independent spirit. OK, grab those tubs, we have a lot of work to do.”

Jeff and his team—a few people who arrived slowly but surely—unloaded the cars.

They lined up everything neatly on the small stage, which was at one end of the park and would be the center of the rally this afternoon. They piled bunting, staple guns, glue guns, flag poles, flag stands, wood planks, a podium, zip ties, scissors, and lots of other things that Jeff grabbed because they might come in useful, like a few rolls of duct tape, a box of safety pins, and thick, black markers.

Taking a step back, Jeff took in a long view of the stage, envisioning how it would look in a few hours. Nothing was missing, everything was here. Volunteers were working hard. It was all ready, and it was going to look great.

“Jeff!” Miriam called, holding up a hanging suit. “I’m up closing your car. I saw this—do you need it?”

“No, no put it back. I don’t want to get it dirty. I’ll change into it.” Miriam ran back to the car as Jeff shouted “Make sure it’s not wrinkled! And then get started making signs, we need lots of signs.”

When a reporter from the nearby city showed up around nine a.m., he was told by an eager volunteer that Jeff was the district field coordinator, and that all reporters should talk to him. Jeff introduced himself, “I’m in charge. It’s my job to set up the event, with the help of everyone here. It’s going to be a great day—it’s a beautiful day. He really cares about small towns like ours—”

“Yeah, thanks,” the reporter said. He shuffled his bag off his hip and onto the ground and began tapping on his phone. “I just wanted to know the operations. We’ve got cameras coming. Where is the press avail? What’s the schedule? Are you the advance team?”

“Well, no, but I can help you, of course. The parade starts around noon at the far end of Main. It comes down past the shops, around the fountain, past that beautiful flag there.” Jeff replied, waving eagerly towards the small structure at the far end of the grass field and a beautiful Stars and Stripes that flapped and cracked in the wind. “And then they swing by here, and then he walks over to the stage, from the left side, like this.” Jeff began to act out the sequence but was interrupted by the reporter’s deep, dry cough.

“I’ve got some cough drops if you want.” Jeff pointed to tub #3.

“I’m fine. Where is the avail? Afterwards?”

“Well, the campaign will know more—they will arrive soon. I imagine he’ll begin his speech and answer questions afterwards, before he leaves. Or perhaps he’ll do it on his way up to the podium, before he starts his speech. I think that’d be preferable, so people would have time to walk from the main street up to the stage in time to gather here.” Jeff opened his arms to take in the wide, grassy space.

“Do you have a release? Is there a place to plug in?”

“I don’t have a press release, sir, no. I’m setting up the stage. We’ll have power, yes, definitely. He has to use microphones. The guy setting up the speakers is back there. Do you see him? Ethan!” Jeff called. “Do you mind coming over here a second? We have a reporter who wants to set up.” He turned to the reporter. “This is Ethan, he’ll get you hooked up. The campaign will write a release, of course. They will have emailed it to you, but I’ll have copies later this afternoon. Or I can forward it to you, if you want to give me your email, I can take care of it. Of course I haven’t seen it, but I expect the candidate will talk about small towns and how important we are to the rich economy and culture of this state, and this nation. That is a big aspect of his platform, being from a small town himself.”

“Ha.  Yeah, cares so much he’s purposing reduction of local aid. Schools, public safety budgets . . . ”

“Say what?” Jeff stepped a bit closer to the reporter, feeling this man might be about to give him some trouble.

“Forget it. Thanks great.” The reporter talked briefly to the sound guy, then trotted off to find a coffee shop to write his piece before the speech started.

Jeff pulled two zip ties out of his pocket and fastened down the flags that had been set up behind the podium. “They are facing every which way, doesn’t look good,” he said curtly to the volunteer who had set them up—a young girl in high school years. She knew Jeff but he didn’t recognize her. “Here, look, the stripes and the stars all have to fold to the left, so the line is perfect. Remember, he’ll be photographed in front of them. It has to look perfect.”

“Jeff?” Miriam hurried over. “I don’t have—”

“Miriam, find some black paint. The stage needs a few spots—it’s scuffed, worn. You have to patch it up.”

Miriam looked down at her feet and moved around. “Yes, it is a bit, some places. OK, I’ll get on it. You have a brush?”

“Over there, tub #2.”

“Right, but Jeff, the Candidate’s advance team just arrived, over there. They want to know where his holding area is. I told them I didn’t know, but they need one and want to talk to you.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Jeff assured her. “Miriam, get the paint. Small blotches only, so it dries. Take care of it. I’ve got to make sure the signs are set up. And I want people out there, to the left, where he’ll walk up to the podium. I want him to see signs with his name on it—nothing but his name.” And I have to change into my suit, he reminded himself quietly as he extended a hand to one of the guys with earpieces he assumed was a member of the Candidate’s advance team.

“Jeff Smith, district field coordinator. How can I help?”

“Yeah, hi, Jeff. The Candidate needs to make a few phone calls between the parade and speaking. Is there a place he can go near here?”

“Well, uhm, we kinda imagined he’d come right here… “

“Nope. He’s going to make a call. Where can he go? He needs privacy, shade.”

Jeff quickly scanned the lawn. It was lush, green, put in that spring. He’d played here as a kid on the ball fields before they cleaned it up and made it a real park. This was the heart of the town, it really was. He was so lucky to have been born here, born into this great town.

Jeff inhaled sharply. Things were starting to pick up. People were walking to Main, and the high school band was warming up at the school grounds across the road—he could clearly make out the brass and the large drum. A few people he knew.

“I know, I know. There is a parking lot. He has an SUV, right? Park it right up here, over on the grass. He can sit in there, would that work?”

“No. It would confuse people if he gets in a car. They’ll think he’s leaving.”

“Yes. Right. OK, OK, OK. What about—how about he goes… I know, the picnic area! Right over there. There is a small covering, a few tables. That would be perfect.”

“It looks shitty. Can you get it cleaned up? Get those people out of there?”

“Sure. Yes… Yes. I can do it. Do it right now.”

“Great. Thanks, Jeff. Jeff? Big help.”

“Yes, of course, yes.” Jeff quickly grabbed a few volunteers and gave them instructions to remove the spilled pop cans, stuck gum, melted popsicles, cobwebs and a few sun-weary townspeople from the picnic area. “I’ll show you what to do. Let’s go.” They headed over with extra trash bags, paper, and thick black markers with which they made signs to indicate the area was closed to the public.

By early afternoon, the day had gathered a few dark clouds, but was still beautiful.

The sun never wavered, nor did the cool breeze off the river. The sounds of the parade, the bands, the clapping and cheering, and the soft sound of gentle motors drifted over the grass and rolled up in a wave to the podium. People who had been walking down Main with the cars and the bands began to arrive on the grass with their small coolers, their American flags, and even the occasional chairs. People dressed up from the floats, dancing troops, police officers and firemen, veterans in uniform, even members of the Humane Society, each leading an orphaned dog, poured onto the green. Jeff knew the Candidate would be there soon, in a matter of minutes, he was at the tail of the parade.

Unfortunately, Jeff was filthy. Some discarded pizza boxes had fallen open and spilled grease down his front. He hadn’t had time to change yet. Or did he, could he change? The Candidate was going to go to the picnic table to make a call, so maybe he did have time, if he moved quickly.

Jogging to his car, Jeff was cut off by another advance guy with an earpiece.

“Jeff, right? You live here?  Anyway, real quick: Do you happen to know the name of a few local shops? The Candidate wants to mention them as examples of small town independence, but he wants the ones a local would know. Can you write down a few?”

“Shops?”

“Yeah, pizza joints, coffee, Chinese restaurants things like that. No chains. Independents.”

“Sure, OK.” Jeff thought for a second, then wrote on the notepad he always carried. The Candidate’s parade car rolled up to the edge of the park, with the man himself sitting high on the backseat. The car was red with long chrome tips, something special that they borrowed just for the parade. It had a large medallion on the side with the campaign sign. His wife was next to him, in a bright red pantsuit.

Jeff handed the paper to the staffer. “Make sure he pronounces this sky, not shy.”

“Sky-lars?”

“Yeah, that’s the bar down on Woodlawn. It’s popular. Mr. Schyler—”

“Oh no, no bars. Nothing like that. Are the rest of these bars?”

“No, this one’s a donut shop that’s been open forever, still run by Louie, who makes the donuts early in the—”

“Oh great, that’s perfect. Perfect. Thanks, this is really great!” The guy ran back to the tables to give the note to one of the staffers, who looked at it, made a note himself, and handed it to the Candidate, who was pacing and gesturing wildly on the phone while his staff crowded around looking frantically occupied.

Smiling, Jeff turned back to the stage. He had sent a note to the future governor! He would read his handwriting, say his words!

Jeff looked down at his shirt. It was filthy but there was no time to change. He quickly took it off and turned it inside out. Perfect.

He heard his name shouted from the direction of the picnic area. “Jeff, hey! Hey! You Jeff? The signs, the signs! Where did you get them?” It was another guy, with an earpiece, black sunglasses, yelling and running towards him.

Jeff looked at the crowd, the red and blue yard signs with the Candidate’s name had been nailed by volunteers to two sides of tall, thin, wood planks. Held up by excited voters and campaign volunteers, they made a really strong visual, Jeff thought. “We got them from the campaign, a few weeks ago, what’s the matter?” His brow started to sweat and he could feel the pizza grease trickling down his chest.

Raising his arms and dropping them in exasperation, the young guy shouted “Shit, shit! Get them down. Get them all down, now! We can’t have them in the press.”

“What.. what? Of course, but why? I don’t underst. . .

“Kid, they’re old signs. They don’t have the union bug. There is no union bug. That’ll kill us, kill us.”

“The union-?”

“Bug. Little thing on it says it was made by union workers- nevermind. Doesn’t matter. Get them down now! Can’t have photos. Shit. Goddam it. Shit.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t – “

“Stop talking and get them down!” Jeff nodded, wiped his face with his shirt, and searched for Miriam. He waved her over and she hurried, jogging and jostling, she was sweating too and couldn’t move very fast for her size.

“Miriam, the signs, something about a Union thing, we can’t use them.

“I don’t understand. We got them from -”

“Doesn’t matter where they are from, take them down! Quietly. Put them behind the stage. Make sure the press folks don’t see. Get Tom, do that bunch of over there, I’ll take these guys.” As if to show Miriam what to do, Jeff quickly began removing signs from eager, confused supporters, yanking them out of people’s hands with a few terse words just as the Candidate was finishing his phone call.

With a puffed out chest and squared shoulders, the Candidate ducked into the bright sun and was directed by his people towards the stage. He stopped and waved to no one in particular and everyone in general. He shook hands with people who walked up to him, but he also steadily and quickly made his way to his mark, bounding up the steps to the podium. His wife walked slowly behind him in measured steps, smiling and waving.

Having yelled at a few more volunteers to help, Jeff ensured there were zero signs in the audience when the Candidate took the stage. He piled them behind the flags out of view and shooed his helpers back to the front, telling them to stand in empty spots so the crowd would look fuller. Stepping carefully to the side of the stage where his dirty shirt and sweaty face wouldn’t be in any shots, Jeff waited for the speech. His view of the candidate was blocked by the carefully positioned American flags but Jeff could still hear the voice through the speakers.

“Happy Independence Day! It’s so great to be here.” the Candidate bellowed across the park, the taking a moment to let the crowd cheer their welcome. “First a fantastic parade, now I get to see all you beautiful Americans, then fireworks—good thing I began my day with a donut from Louie’s!” This was received with laughter and cheers. Jeff smiled, he had influenced the Candidate.

Feeling a light tug on his sleeve, Jeff turned and saw a middle-aged man, stout with kind, tired eyes, dressed in a wrinkled suit and a tie with yellow dogs on it.

The man held nothing but his phone. He leaned in so Jeff could hear him over the microphone. “I’m Glenn, with the campaign. You’re responsible here, aren’t you? You’re our field volunteer?”

Jeff smiled brightly. “Yes, well, I am. I’m in charge. Such a great day.” He smiled towards the candidate, who was still speaking in broad gestures, and warm smiles to everyone he laid eyes on.

“He just wanted to thank you for all your hard work. Great job here. You got a car?”

“I do!”

“Are you working this summer?”

“Nope. Just volunteering till school starts. Doing whatever I can.”

“Tell you what, come into the offices—you know where they are—on Monday, round ten. I’ll be there, I run campaign operations. Come in and I’ll see what we can do for you. Our advance team needs help.”

The candidate’s voice rang above the crowd, “It is in these small towns that the future lies. Here, not in the big cities, but here. Among all you great, hard-working people. This is what makes America great!”

A job. “Really? I’d love that, yeah, I’d love that! I’ll do anything. Thanks so much!”

The man nodded, smiled, and walked back to his people—people Jeff would soon be one of. The candidate, finished to tremendous applause and cries and shouts. He walked off the podium and shook a few more hands and answered press questions as he walked to his parked SUV with tinted windows.

People milled around for a few hours, waiting for the fireworks. Everyone was red and happy.

It was a success. It had been a success. People congratulated Jeff on the fantastic set up, he smiled proudly and thanked them. He knew he had done terrific work. And it was noticed—a job, with the campaign! Then what? Who knows! This was it.

While his people were starting to pull everything down, packing the containers, folding the flags back in their cases and cut the ties that held up the bunting, Jeff walked across the stage, slowly. He heard crowds, people. He felt their eyes on him. He side stepped to the spot where the podium had been. He imagined lifting his hands up to grasp the sides, leaning in, then standing back, tall and firm.  He’d never quite seen the town from this angle. He looked at the American flag, flapping tall across the park. The wind had picked up quite a bit and was knocking it against the pole. Clouds, thick and dark, shifted on the horizon.

Jeff felt a strength in his feet rise up through his hands. It was powerful, standing here. He looked right at the flag, it flapped anxiously, uneasy, waiting.

Smiling broadly, Jeff held up his hand for silence, and began to thank the crowd.

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