My cell phone buzzed and rattled on the nightstand in the hotel room. I yelled an obscenitiy and picked it up. The display read five past noon. I sat up and chucked a shoe at Cloyd in the other bed. He responded, “Stop your kickin, Goat. I ain’t gettin up.” Last night had been his first drunken experience, and this afternoon would be his first hangover. I shook my head. There were two reasons I needed him to get up:
The first was because he had to have been at least twenty, and, by now, he should’ve been drunk and hung over more times than he could count on his fingers. The only for him to get any more experience was to man up and get drunk again—and he wasn’t going to do that by sitting in bed all day.
The second, less deplorable, reason was that I really could’ve used his help. This Tea Party psycho was no good news, and I knew a con artist when I saw one. He was trading on a misplaced sense of governmental distrust and, in doing so, trying to secure a seat of power. The man had to be stopped, and I was truly concerned about my prospects of going in on this alone.
I knew the sorts of people who were in this ultra-conservative, ill-informed grassroots movement, and Cloyd, with his borderline impenetrable accent and bouts of extreme idiocy, would fit in perfectly. My original plan—where I would walk into the conference room and try desperately to blend in with a bunch of hicks—was thrown out the window. Cloyd was the new operative and, if I could get this kid moving, I’d more than happily buy him a first-class train ticket to Nashville.
“Cloyd, come on,” I said.
He opened his eyes and groaned. “Mr. Yudavitch, I don’t much feel like gettin up. My head hurts somethin nasty, and, on top a that, I done puked about three times over the night and I keep feelin like I’m gonna do it again.”
“If you do, we can pull over to the side of the road.” I stood up and paced across the room. “Cloyd, you don’t understand how important this is. This state is my home. Unless I get into grad school, I’m going to be living here. I will not stand idly by and let some schmuck who wants to have prayers in public school take office in this state. It’s the duty of every American with a functioning mind—and yes, that includes you, my friend—to try and stop this prick.”
I walked back over to my bed and sat down on the corner. “Come on, Cloyd. We can be part of history. Don’t you get that? All it’ll take is just a little friendliness on your part and just a modicum of stealth.”
“I don’t know that word,” he said.
“No, that’s when yer bein sneaky. Apple called me that when I tried to sneak up to Cow and stick an apple in her ear, but tripped over the plow and shouted ‘Tarnation!’ and scared her off. He was being irony. The m word. I didn’t understand that.”
“Modicum? It means ‘a little bit.’ Kind of. Look, all you need to be is just a little stealthy and then bam, we’re done, we watch the proceedings from the comfort of a bar across the street, and you’re off to Nashville to find your Dad. What do you say?”
Cloyd groaned again, but kept his eyes open. This was progress. “Can you make this feelin stop? I don’t want my belly to feel like it’s a-gonna go flip again.”
“I can’t make it stop, but I can make it feel a little better.”
There is a place that has all the trappings of the stereotypical South. Old people in rocking chairs. The vague atmosphere that, unless you’re white and Christian, you’re unwelcome. Food that immediately brings on a heart attack. And, of course, country music blaring out of every nearby speaker—not the good country, music where drugs and death and murder are the subjects, but the bad country. The sort of music where Jesus is a recurring figure and the United States is an unstoppable vessel of God (generally spelled Gawd). This place is Cracker Barrel, and, as much as I hated it, it was the only place I could think of where the food could heal a hangover.
We walked in the front of the restaurant—cash registers on one side, and a carefully marketed, researched, and stocked gift and sweet store on the other—weaved through the hordes of elderly people and trailer trash, and got a table in the middle of the restaurant. Cloyd looked around him with a very confused face. No doubt, part of this was because he was getting whiffs of sick off of his shirt (neither of us changed into fresh clothes before we left the hotel), but, probably, another reason was because he, like myself, realized there was something dreadfully wrong about this place.
At any rate, he didn’t say much except groan occasionally. The waitress—using an obviously fake Southern accent—came over, I ordered for us and got a pot of coffee. “Here,” I said, “have some of this.” I poured some coffee into a cup and pushed it towards Cloyd. “This place may be one of the largest offenders in terms of institutionalized racism, but they have damn good coffee. Probably about as far from fair trade as you can get, but, hey, there you go.”
He took a sip and said, “I don’t know if I like this.”
“That’s a typical reaction. Like anything worth having, you sort of have to force yourself to drink it.”
I told him my plan for exposing the candidate and, though he looked fairly confused, I think he understood what I wanted him to do.
Our orders appeared at the table and we dug in. Cloyd said that he hadn’t eaten anything like this before—apparently the last homemade breakfast he had involved a copious amount of bagels and scrambled eggs, which really got me hankering for a place in Nashville specializing in kosher deli food.
At any rate, we paid back in the restarant side and left, headinb back towards the hotel and our date with destiny.
Just as I suspected, Cloyd got in without attracting any attention. I hung out in the bar next to the conference room and watched the TV. It was turned to CNN. The sound was muted, but the flawed closed captioning kept pace with what was going on on-screen. (Occasionally, jewels like “President Obama splayed that Iran’s knocker program has to be squelched by verdict of U.N.” would flash across the screen.)
One of the network’s talking heads stood in a room filled with TVs showing correspondents standing in front of blue screen-produced backdrops of Murfreesboro’s Broadway Avenue. Turned out that having the first standing candidate running under the Tea Party was big news.
I nursed my beer (five dollars for a bottle of Fat Tire). I shifted it across the top of the bar between my fingers, like an air hockey puck. The bartender looked over at me, then looked at the pool of water that was forming from the dripping condensation, and flicked a coaster my way. I put it under the beer and continued.
“H’eve just been alertold that candydate Bob Hackem is about to speak,” said the closed captioning—a good five seconds after the image of the talking head shifted to Hackem walking up a small set of stairs to a podium in front of a deep, red backdrop.
“God I hope this guy loses,” I said.
“Fuck you,” said a hick next to me. “Get outta the country.”
“You,” said the bartender, pointing to the hick, “get out.”
The hick, thankfully, knew better than to start up with a bartender. He drained his beer and shuffled out of the bar.
“God,” said the bartender. “I hate this state.”
Hackem, on screen, started talking. The closed captioning read: “Howdy neighbors. I’d like t‰o thank Jesus—the Gib Buy Upstairs—for bringing me hear today. Y’know, if there’s one thing I hate more than traffic on I-24, it’s g‰vernment graft.”
There was a pause. Presumably, the crowd was cheering their inbred heads off.
“I don’t kn‰w about you all,” continued the captions, “but when I herd that our Senate up there in Nashville told us God-fearing Christians that our kids couldn’t pray in school, well, I was plum about to [expletive deleted] m‰yself. My kid wants to prey, then lettem plry. [Expletive deleted] the Ahabs in the school, Jesus is the Answer!”
There was another pause in the captioning. Five seconds ago, Hackem gave the audience a manic grin/nod combo ripped from the playbooks of televangelists. The bartender snorted and shook his head.
I started worrying about whether or not Cloyd managed to drop the stuff into Hackem’s water. He wasn’t acting like a man who was drugged—he was acting like a man who had no conscience.
“S‰ yeah,” the captioning said again. On-screen, I thought I saw Hackem sweat a little bit. He loosened his tie. “What else I gotta talk to you about. Ah. The other week, I brought kids my to Sunday School d‰wn at church.”
Whoever was doing the captioning before must have been fored, because at least the delay was lessened to roughly a half a second—there were still some errors, but hey, typing quickly’s a hard thing.
“The lesson was about Jesus and some fucking friend of whis. Don’t matter who. After, I got the best coke-fueled blow job ever. Y’all got an escort service in Murfreesboro? Get em coke. They’ll do whatever you ask em t‰.”
The bartender’s jaw dropped.
One of Hackem’s aides rushed up to the stage and Hackem reached back and punched the kid in the face. The aide dropped to the floor like a sack of rice. “Fuckin faggot,” Hackem said. He turned back to the audience. “Y’know, he woudn’t take shots wih me the other night. God forbid I brought a whore on the bus—that one was liable to throw a Goddamn hissy fit. Whaddya’ll say? You’d run a train on a wh‰re with me, wouldn’t y’all? My constyants.”
Why another aide—or a group of them, for that matter—didn’t run up on stage was beyond me. Maybe they, like my friend the bartender, were in complete and utter shock. I, on the other hand, laughed.
Cloyd walked into the bar and said, “There you is, Mr. Yudavitch! Gosh, that guy sure can talk a lot, can’t he? Mighty dirty mouth on him, too. You know, if Mrs. Silver was to hear him, she’d pop right up and say, ‘Gul dernit, you watch yer language when there is kids around.’ Cause there is kids in there, Mr. Yudavitch. Buncha em had shirts what have that picture on em and—gosh, why you laughin so hard?”
I patted the stool next to me and said, “Just watch, Cloyd.”
On the stage, Hackem’s own jaw dropped and he, slowly, as if it weighed a hundred pounds, raised his hand up, pointing at someone in the audience. “Ma’am, you have the biggest Goddamn horn growin outta your head. Holy—holy shit, you see that?” he leaned forward and squinted. “You ain’t a person. You can’t be a person. No—DEAR GOD!” (Of course, in the land of closed captioning, everything is in caps lock—but, judging from his face and the way he pushed away from the podium, Hackem had to have been screaming his head off.) “WHAT IS THAT THING?”
And then, sadly, any more comedy that could have been dredged from the situation was stopped as two aides rushed Hackem and tackled him to the ground.
The camera feed returned to the talking head, who, sagely, opined that “this may be the death sentence for Hackem—no political candidate has ever recovered from a complete and total meltdown during a press conference—especially one in which the candidate referred to perverse sexual acts on prostitutes.” Truly, the voice of the media was an indispensable one. I clapped Cloyd on his back and said, “Good job, my friend. You may have saved this state from more ridicule than it deserves. I’d buy you a beer, but you’re driving.”
“I’m driving?” Cloyd asked.
“You bet ya. Going to the train station. First-class ticket to Nashville to find your Dad, right?”
“Gosh!” Cloyd said. “I plum forgot about that, what with havin so much fun with you.” Cloyd’s face fell. “Aw. Does this mean we won’t seee each other no more, Mr. Yudavitch?”
I shrugged. “Who knows what the future holds. Barkeep! Two celebratory shots of whiskey. One for me, one for you.”
The bartender, still looking at the TV set, nodded like a zombie and poured the shots. I drained mine, toasting in my head to American democracy, where politics were treated with all the reverence of a sporting event and an election was decided a month before the fact.