"Thin Margin" Part 2/8
Josh threw his trench coat in the general direction of the coat rack, missing the hook entirely. He didn't flinch as the wayward coat took out a stack of papers before landing in a heap. He dropped his backpack on the floor and took its place on the chair.
Still no Donna in the bullpen. So far this day was going swimmingly. He leaned back in the chair, propped his feet on the corner of his desk and stared at the ceiling.
"Don't you knock?"
CJ pushed his feet off the corner of the desk and claimed it for herself. "Nah, that would ruin the fun of ambushing you like this. And let me tell you, the silk they used to stitch you up matches your whole ensemble. Did you plan that?"
"You are exceedingly cheery for someone who had to be escorted to the car by no less than three people last night."
"What can I say? I'm a handful, but fun at parties. And we're not talking about me; I want the sordid little details."
"Can't you pick on someone else for a change?"
"Nope. You're it. Toby has his hands full talking with Leo about the President's radio address on Saturday. Sam is sitting under an avalanche of paper on that oil thing he was blathering on about last night. Donna's been holed up in the research library. And Carol is in a mood today, and I'm not touching that with a ten foot pole."
"Yeah, what is up with Carol? She growled at me this morning." Josh sat forward and tried to re-arrange the files on his desk. A typed itinerary of his day's schedule was half under CJ's leg. He shoved her off his desk to get at it. There was a post-it note with Donna's incomprehensible scrawl all over it on one of the manila folders under his itinerary.
CJ pulled the guest chair around to the side of the desk. "Me, too. But I attributed that to the fact she hadn't had her morning cup of coffee yet."
"She doesn't usually growl at people."
"And you usually do not walk into kitchen cabinets. I'm supposed to be the graceless one. What's the story?" CJ propped her feet up on the corner of Josh's desk before he could do the same.
"I thought we were talking about Carol?" He handed her the post-it note with one hand and swept her feet off his desk with the other. "What does this say?"
"'Latest R&D on hydrates'. Stop changing the subject. Tell me what really happened, or I will start dropping hints that Donna cold-cocked you. I am the founding member and manager of the rumor mill; there is not a single soul that won't believe me."
"I thought Margaret was the queen bee of the rumor mill."
"It's a puppet government. She's my front woman. Don't make me beat the answer out of you."
"That makes me feel better."
CJ stared him down.
"Are you really that hard up for a story that you're going to torture me like this?" Josh whined.
"Suppose someone at the hospital leaked the story that you were there this morning, and some nitwit in the gaggle called me on it. I should be prepared. And seeing that my briefing was pushed back to 9:30, you have approximately--" CJ looked at her watch, "--18 minutes to tell me before I take it upon myself to divulge your whereabouts this morning as I see fit."
"Is this a thing for you today? Calling people you work with names? 'Cause I think you may create an unfriendly work environment. And I refuse to represent you when someone hits you with a lawsuit."
"I wouldn't hire you anyway, Bruise Boy. And speaking of black eyes..."
"I don't necessarily want to be a part of the rumor mill either."
"Josh, you live for gossip. If you're not in the loop, you go into a depressive funk. Remember, you were the one to call me every single morning while you were in the hospital to hear the latest scoop from around the office; you couldn't wait until Donna brought you lunch. I swear sometimes you're worse than Sam."
"Speaking of the hospital, I find it disconcerting that the ER staff of GW knows me on sight. And watch, my insurance company will try to find a way to charge me fifty thousand dollars for 4 stitches even though I am now allowed to go to GW if I call my primary physician first and get a note from my mommy." He started to leaf through the manila folder Donna had set aside with the post-it note, hoping that CJ would take the hint that he was trying to work.
"Get Margaret to forge your mother's signature. I hear she's pretty good. And you're evading the question again." She sat forward, grabbed the folder from his hands and placed it on the corner of his desk.
Josh was not willing to admit defeat, but a temporary cessation of verbal tag-you're-it was in order if he was going to get anything accomplished on the list Donna had left on his desk. "If I tell you, will you leave me alone?"
"That's all I get, a 'maybe'?"
"Don't you have work to do?" The stare again. He relented. "There really isn't much of a story. I walked into a kitchen cabinet."
"The cabinets in your kitchen are recessed. I've seen them. How could you possibly walk into one?"
"A cabinet door was kind of... ajar."
"Yes, ajar, open, as in not closed."
"I know what ajar means. Why was it ajar?"
"I left it that way."
"And why would you do that?"
"Habit, I suppose. See, when I was younger, I... have you ever met my mother?"
"No, I don't think I've had the pleasure."
"Well, you see, we did this thing. With the cabinet doors. My mother... to call her a Stepford Wife would be too kind, at least when it came to her kitchen. We used to leave all the cabinet doors open to see how long it would take to set off her radar."
"And you did this on a regular basis?"
"And your mother let you get away with it?"
"Well, no, but it was funny to watch her get all hot and bothered about it. You've never done anything just to annoy your mother?"
"Sure. My brothers and I made a regular habit of eating out of the salad bowl without utensils. One night she declared, 'Can you at least put a fork in your hand', so we did. And then we continued to pick at the salad with our other hands."
"I've met one of your brothers. This explains a lot. You all share a brain, don't you?"
"At least I have an excuse. You didn't see that the cabinet door was ajar as you were walking towards it?"
"I kinda had my eyes closed."
"I was sneezing at the time."
"And you walked into the cabinet door."
"That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard." CJ stood up and replaced the chair, apparently satisfied with his tale of embarrassment.
"Oh, I seem to recall that you pulled the phone into a sink full of water not so long ago. I only remember that because you were on the phone with me at the time."
"That was an accident."
"The phone was mounted to the wall."
CJ shrugged her shoulders. "Sometimes I don't know my own strength."
"Yeah, you and the Incredible Hulk. Are we done here? Have I satisfied your curiosity? Because I just got dumped with figuring out what the hell the DOE is doing in terms of research and development and I'm going to need a translator to understand half the gobbledegook in these memos."
"You mean Mr. Theory of Everything is balking at his science homework? Guess you'll never open your mouth again about whatever you're obsessing over on The Discovery Channel."
"It was PBS!" he yelled at her retreating back. He looked down in the post-it note and wondered how CJ could read the chicken scratch. "And what the hell is a hydrate?!"
Donna dropped the records she had trucked over from the library on her desk, and sat down with a sigh. For all the complaining she had done recently about the cold weather, she was very happy not to be in the library anymore. If Ainsley Hayes thought her office was exceedingly warm, that room had nothing on the library. At least the rest of the information she needed she could find on the internet or could be sent over by messenger.
When Josh had not shown up at his usual time, she had been a tad concerned. Then Mrs. Landingham had told her about the trip to the emergency room. It was only after a phone call to one of the registered nurses she had gotten to know during her frequent visits after Rosslyn did Donna breath a sigh of relief. It was nothing serious, just a minor kitchen accident. However, Donna was superstitious: maybe now Josh would take the old woman's hex seriously.
With a pile of briefing binders, memos and reports from previous administrations' energy policies sitting on her desk, Donna was ready to help Josh tackle the energy crisis. By propelling her chair backwards she should see into his office. He was holding his head with both hands, his hair poking out in ways that gave 'bad hair day' a whole new definition. Both elbows were planted on his desk, all of his concentration on the papers she had pulled off the internet on energy resources. He probably would not appreciate her bouncing into his office to bother him about his stitches. Besides, she'd heard that CJ had already given him the business for his stupidity this morning. No point in pouring more salt in the wound. She'd save that fun for later this afternoon.
For all the prep work she had already done, Donna was not ready to sit down and leaf through pages and pages of policy papers. She spied Carol and CJ returning from the press briefing through the myriad of windows in the bull pen. CJ seemed to be in good spirits, so the briefing must have gone well. It was not an unusual occurrence to find CJ demanding the head of some reporter be brought to her on a silver platter, with Carol promising to do just that. Only Carol seemed out of sorts this morning. She had been out of sorts for a couple of mornings now. And Donna had decided enough was enough.
Donna left her desk and plotted an intercept course for the Press Pair. Carol was walking slightly behind CJ. Most people did out of necessity since CJ often walked faster than a hummingbird flapped its wings. CJ was talking a mile a minute as Carol wrote down everything on her notepad. She buzzed by the pair and hooked her arm through Carol's, dragging her down the hall.
Looking over her shoulder, Donna called, "Hey, CJ. Mind if I steal Carol for a moment? Thanks. Want anything from the mess?"
CJ turned around in circles as she watched her assistant be kidnapped. "Uh, diet coke, and when am I getting Carol back?"
"We'll be back in a few," Donna replied as she turned Carol around so that she wouldn't have to walk down the stairs backwards.
"Please don't give her caffeine," Carol begged. "She's wired enough as is. She's the only person I know that's hyper when she should be hung over and acts hung over when she's sleep deprived."
"Nah, we'll get someone to slip some benadryl in her lunch." The mess was uncharacteristically empty. They moved quickly through the cafeteria line, Donna grabbing coffee and Carol content with hot water and a tea bag.
Carol handed her a 22-oz fountain cup. Donna filled it three-quarters with caffeine-free cola and the rest with tonic water. Carol looked on dubiously until Donna noticed the furrowed brows. "Trust me. I do this to Josh all the time. He can't tell the difference. And if she asks, the mix was wrong."
"I will have to remember that."
They found a table near the far side of the room. Carol sat sideways in the chair, back to the wall and one leg drawn up on the chair. Donna faced her, absently stirring her coffee with a plastic straw, smiling and waiting. When Carol seemed fit to sit and stare at her tea, Donna took the initiative.
"You look like something one of my cats coughed up."
"Yeah, well, subtlety was never my strong suit, and I told CJ we'd be back upstairs in a few minutes. So that doesn't give us much time. Are you going to tell me what's stressing you out, or will I have to assume this new medusa hairstyle is the up and coming thing?" she asked as she started pulling pencils out of Carol's hair.
"Cut that out. And that one is holding my hair up," Carol replied, slapping Donna's hand away before she could take out the fifth and final pencil.
"I hope you weren't on the air like this."
"I was off to the side."
"Well, that's good. So, are you going to tell me what's up?"
Carol sighed and thumped her head against the wall. "You won't leave me alone until I do."
"Nope. Subtle, I'm not. Persistent, I am."
"Water heater," said Carol with a resigned sigh.
"What about it?"
"I don't have one."
"For how long?"
Donna's eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "Five days! You've been without hot water for five days? The temperature hasn't left the twenties all week."
"Tell me about it," Carol groused.
"You haven't told your super?"
"Of course I have. I think the whole building knew it broke after the scream I let out when I stepped into a an ice cold shower the other morning."
"Well, why hasn't he done anything about it?"
"Mr. Zarnowski has to be a million years old. He's hard of hearing, can't see a thing..."
"But, five days!"
"I know. My super's great with little stuff: a stuck toilet, busted windows, bad wiring. But he gets his nephew to do the big things. His nephew is, shall we say, a devious character. It took me three weeks to get my radiator fixed last winter."
"That's just criminal. Can't you ask Mr. Zowkowski to call in someone else?"
"Mr. Zar-now-ski is a sweet old man. If he sees me drive in from his window, he always walks out to the parking lot to walk me to the door, cane and all. Doesn't matter what time I come home. I hate to bother him."
"Yeah, but you can't live this way. You know what your problem is? You're too nice. You have to stand up to him. You have to pretend that he is the Devil Incarnate and demand that the water heater be replaced or fixed or whatever needs to be done as soon as possible."
"I hate to do that to him."
"Then I'll do it. We'll go at lunch. And if all else fails, we'll call in one of our bosses."
For the first time in their conversation, Carol showed more than resigned indifference. "No. Absolutely not. No way."
"Why not? We work for the White House. Use it to your advantage."
"No. No one in my building knows I work at the White House."
"What, they don't see you on television during press briefings?"
"Are you kidding? Half the building watches the game show network, the other half Nickelodeon."
"Half the people we work for are lawyers."
"It's a stupid water heater. My neighbor has been kind enough to let me use her shower in the morning. It will eventually get fixed. There's no need for litigation."
"Exactly. We threaten it, and things get done."
"Yup. Whatdya say?"
Carol was thumping the back of her head against the wall again. "I knew I shouldn't have told you. You're going to play the heavy?"
"Sure. Good cop, bad cop, I could do that."
"How about bad cop, no cop?"
"Nope. I need a straight man." Carol almost spit out her tea. Donna paused, replayed the conversation in her head, then added, "Get your mind out of the gutter."
"When I lose my lease, you'll put me up?"
"It won't come to that."
"And if it does? You'd leave my cat homeless?"
"Your cat would not like my cats. Well, technically, they're my roommate's cats, but as she is out of town for the month, they are my cats by proxy. These cats are demon spawn."
"Donna, you're not making me feel any better."
"You've got nothing to worry about. Trust me." Donna stood up. She grabbed Carol across the wrist and forearm and pulled her to her feet. "Let's go before CJ sends out the troops to find us. And don't forget your pencils."