Disclaimers in Part One.

Why Nineveh Is Still Standing (3/3)

The shock value of the Oval Office diminishes with experience. It
can't keep sneaking up on you, like the first time you come through
the door and find yourself in a scene from a Capra film. Still, the
round walls contain an air of reverence. It hushes tempers and
voices, steadies the mind. At least it's supposed to do that. Josh
exchanges a look with me as we step inside.

The President is behind his desk, signing his name to some official
letter. He looks up as Leo waves us in. "This year's Nobel Peace
Prize is going to be awarded jointly to the U.N. and its Secretary-
General," he declares.

Josh looks thoughtful. "Well, that's good, right? We weren't
rooting for someone else?"

"A compliment for them is a compliment for us," Leo says, sitting
down on the sofa.

"What I like is that the game of football was a nominee." The
President takes his glasses off, leans forward with his elbows on the
desk. "The U.N., the Falun Gong movement in China, Richard
Holbrooke, Fidel Castro, and football. Clearly they didn't open the
voting to the public. How was Iowa?"

"Hoynes killed." His smile of compassion flashes in my
memory. "Looked good, sounded good. It'll play. I don't like him
looking like the leader of the party."

"We'll take care of it next Monday," Leo says. He gets to his feet
as the President stands and comes around to the front of his
desk. "Crop subsidies passed the House; we need position papers."

"I've been reading up on agriculture," the President adds. "The
current plan does a lot of good for grain and cotton farmers.
Doesn't so much subsidize fruit, vegetable, and livestock farmers."

"We don't like the people who grow fruits and vegetables?" Josh asks.

"Not as much as we like the ones who are producing Wonder Bread and
Jockey shorts, I guess."

"Position papers," Leo says. "By Sunday?"

Josh nods. "We can do that. How's the weather looking in New
Hampshire?"

"Glorious," the President says, folding his arms. "Low sixties.
Might dip to fifty-eight while we're there."

"In June?"

"Abnormally cold up there." Leo gives a small smile. "How soon you
forget what it's like."

It's gaining on three years since we've spent any time in New
Hampshire. The Bartlet family farmhouse is handsome and elegant and
vividly American. It looks perfect in magazine spreads, but it's
seen some ugly conversations. And the political arguments, probably,
are nothing compared to the ones we don't know about.

Josh's train of thought, for once, is running close to mine. "Is the
First--"

Leo makes a sharp, small motion with his head. Enough to close
Josh's mouth. There's a split-second that reminds me of Andi. Andi
and myself and 1996. Locked bathroom doors, separate travel
arrangements, shredding bar napkins, springs of the couch stabbing my
back in the middle of the night. Then it's past and the President is
speaking to me. "Sam's not off to a great start on the speech."

"Yeah." Not quite agreeing, definitely not arguing.

"It's a hectic time; he's having problems with the people.
Whatever. You'll get it together." All the force of his personality
and his office is invested in the words. Executive order. He
glances back and forth between Josh and me. "You'll get it together."

"Yes, sir." We keep eye-contact for another split-second. Then it's
broken and we know we're dismissed. Josh leaves through the
reception area. Leo inclines his head and leads me out to his office.

"Sam's off his game," he says. "He's writing crap."

The door closes softly behind me. "With Doug and Bruno as back seat
drivers, I can't really blame him."

"Well, we can't afford it right now." Leo sits down behind his
desk. "Hoynes was good in Iowa, huh?"

Leo's couch is oddly shaped and stiff, but it gets comfortable when
you spend a little time on it. Only learned that a few weeks ago,
sitting here late, bouncing a ball off the wall. We talked about
Hoynes that night, too. "He's not one to miss an opportunity, Leo.
And Sam was right. He's pissed at us."

"He can get on the very long line." Leo lets his eyes linger on my
face. Not sure what he's looking for.

"Yeah, most of Iowa was pretty studious about ignoring us."

"Stop," he says, tapping the side of his hand on the desktop. "Stop
that. Stop focusing on the people outside this building until we've
put our own house in order."

"Leo--" My voice comes out sounding thick. Most of Iowa, not wanting
to look at us, faking smiles because we're tainted and we might be
catching. It's a dressed-up version of every restaurant in
Washington, during the last month or so. "Our own house?"

He draws back, face clouding. "C.J. offered me her resignation."

The breath leaves my lungs forcefully. Feels like being
punched. "When?"

"Not until after the announcement. Obviously, coming so soon after
the disclosure, it would look--"

"When," my voice says. "When did she offer it?"

"A week after the Haiti blunder."

"And you said--"

"--that it wasn't the time to consider it yet," he finishes for
me. "It's not something we can worry about right now."

Standing up too fast makes my back hurt. Can't stay still. "She
didn't say anything to me."

"I imagine she figured you'd try to talk her out of it." He shakes
his head at me. "It might not be the worst thing. It'd draw some
fire. We could sell it."

It was in this room that he told them, Josh and C.J. and Sam. In the
next office where he told me. And outside, on the portico, where he
said it would never come to impeachment. Only a few yards
distance. "We rushed this thing out of the gate, Leo. Something
like this was bound to happen."

"There are any number of proverbs that deal with this," he
says. "What's done is done. Everyone needs to be ready to move onto
what's next."

Our eyes meet. An unpleasant pulse beats in my temples. "You
remember what it was like in New Hampshire?"

"Cold as hell," Leo says, not looking away.

We're both thinking of Cal and Jerry and Mack and the other guy.
Both thinking about being unprepared and unprofessional before the
staff turnover. The way things turned around--it was a first in our
experience and in history. No one else has duplicated it. Leo knows
this, and is quiet too long.

"See how it's going with Sam," he says somberly, barely moving his
lips. "Settle things down in there, maybe you'll be up for the Peace
Prize next time around."

"Maybe." Hate being the first to look away, the one to leave the
room. His eyes burn the back of my collar until he can't see me
anymore.

*

Air Force One wings northward, coastline and clouds slurring away
below us. This intricate metal monster moves with grace through the
darkness. Night flights make us poets, the President said, and it's
true for whole minutes at a time. Then the mood is shattered.

"We're starting over," Sam bellows, and storms into the conference
room white-faced with frustration. He drops heavily into his
chair. "Back to page one. Can we all get together on 'My fellow
Americans'?"

"It's a little trite, don't you think?" Bruno cracks. He sits across
from me. Sam on my right, Connie on the diagonal. Doug paces near
the walls. The seat at the head of the table stays empty. "A little
on the nose?"

Sam rasps out humorless laughter. "Maybe we just give him bullet
points and have him do the whole thing as improvisational theater."

Doug twirls a pencil in his fingers. "As long as he improvises an
apology, I won't have a problem with that."

"Let's talk about the D section," Bruno says quickly.

We could repeat this conversation maybe a dozen more times tonight.
That would be fun. "The problem with the D section is that the B and
C sections suck."

Doug glowers at me. "I thought we decided B was okay."

"B is not okay. B is--listen to what you've written here. 'Like any
American citizen, I want to see this country's future safeguarded, as
its potential soars into the future'."

"It's a little awkward," Bruno says.

"A little awkward?" My pen scratches across the page. "It's
irredeemable."

"Toby--"

"First of all, 'like any American citizen'? He's not like any
American citizen. We don't want people thinking he's like any
American citizen."

"And let's not forget about the American citizens who shoot FBI
agents and burn abortion clinics," Sam chimes in.

"And the word 'future' is in that sentence twice, which is at least
once too often."

Sam chuckles. "Yeah, because I don't get it. Are we worried about
the future or something?"

"We can fix the language," Connie says.

"They don't really give a damn about the language," Doug complains,
rapping his knuckles on the top of a chair. "Toby, I didn't come in
and piss a circle around your desk."

"You were brought in," Sam says. His mouth narrows to a dash. "You
were brought in to help. You've been here a week and a half--"

"--And we've gotten nothing but static from you--" Doug cuts in.

"--And we've been here three years. Would you like me to give you a
tour, show you where the bathrooms are?"

"Sam." My arm nudges his. "We have to get this done. We should've
been locked by now."

His face is angular and plaintive, marble and shadow instead of
flesh. He exhales through his teeth. "Yeah, okay."

Connie rifles through her draft. "Let's just look at the conclusion
and work our way back."

"We'll try," Doug hisses, pulling his chair back over to the foot of
the table.

"Yeah." Sam sounds bitter. It doesn't suit him.

Bruno hesitates, then nods. "Toby, take a walk with me?"

Need to stretch anyway. "Sure."

Out in the corridor it feels like being on a plane, with the curved
wall and the rounded windows. Bruno leans against a panel. "Doug
seems to have gotten the impression that you don't like him."

"Now where would that be coming from?"

"Out of the clear black sky." He waves at the windows. "I get that
you don't like us, Toby. I'm just not sure you know why."

He looks surprised at my laughter. "I need a reason?"

"We're gonna help you keep your job, Toby. You need a reason.
Especially because you know an apology's an effective way to go."

"No."

Bruno shakes his head. "I'm gonna go check in with Leo."

He walks away. C.J.'s down the opposite direction, sitting near the
Press Corps. She knows she's being watched, it shows in the way she
lifts her head. But she doesn't turn to me. The sound of a book
being slammed onto a table makes me turn around and go back into the
room. We land on a naval base in New Hampshire a couple hours. The
President's speech is not done. Nothing is done.

*

The first break we have happens at Anthony's. The last time we were
here it was still dull and dingy and crimson. They've since touched
it up with polished brass railings and blue light. And a pool table.

C.J. rolls a second ball into the pocket. "I never learned how to do
this. I told you that."

My cue clanks against the railing. "You didn't say anything to me."

"You noticed that, huh?" She hugs herself, arms sealed tight under
her ribcage. "Leo was talking out of school."

"Did you, or did you not--"

"Of course I did." She breathes roughly, her chest trembling. In.
Out. "Leo wouldn't lie to you."

Move closer to her. There's danger here, in the dizziness of her
voice and the smudges under her eyes. Danger in the way she already
looks far away. "What exactly is it supposed to fix if you leave?"

"Could you not?" She puts her knuckles to her mouth. "People
weren't supposed to know."

Tempting to pull her hand away from her face, but we're in
public. "You can't possibly think you're going to just curtsey and
exit stage left."

"I don't curtsey. It hurts my knees." She shrugs and looks past me,
down to the floor. "Look at Charlie sitting all by himself."

"Zoey's coming up tomorrow."

The lights cast a sheen on her blouse and her face. It misses her
eyes. "You should talk to him. You seem to be in the mood to do
outreach. You should play a game with him."

"I'm playing a game with you."

"I'm going to the hotel to do my homework on crop subsidies and RU-
486." She watches her feet as she starts for the stairs. "Do me a
favor and keep this, keep this--"

"God, C.J., I'm not gonna grab a megaphone."

"I didn't think Leo would either," she shoots back. Her hair shines
through the crowd until she reaches the door.

Charlie wins my pocket money. Sam goes a couple more rounds with
Doug and Bruno. Josh bounces loudly off the walls and winds up sick
on the curb, Donna giving him a lecture with mixed exasperation and
amusement. The hotel has cramped hallways, painted an institutional
mint green. C.J.'s room is two doors down from mine. She makes me
knock two or three times before she opens the door. At last she
answers, wearing a huge Hoyas T-shirt that comes to her bare
knees. "What?"

"I have the feeling I've been hustled."

She puts her chin down. Her voice is oddly pitched. "By sweet
little Charlie?"

Two steps forward put me over the threshold. "I have the feeling
someone knew ahead of time that he could play. I think I got taken."

"Imagine that." Her laugh is like a cough. "Is that all?"

"It's a bad idea and you know it."

"Oh, boy." She hugs herself again. "Well, close the door before the
lecture, at least."

We're standing maybe three feet apart. Seems like more. "Exactly
what is this supposed to fix? A flurry of editorials pointing out
that we can't expect the American people to be loyal when--"

"When you can't even keep your own staff on a leash?" Her foot taps
on the beige carpet. Her toenails are painted scarlet.

"That's not what I was going to say."

"Tell me you didn't make notes before you came down here."

It had been hard to resist. She knows me alarmingly well. "I
didn't. Listen to me. It'll look like you couldn't handle the
pressure. It'll look like we couldn't maintain a staff during
crisis. It'll be a blow to the administration, no matter how we time
it and spin it. You leave, you're playing right into their hands."

"They," she says. She sits down in the room's one scuffed wooden
chair. "I don't have the luxury of saying I don't care what they
think, Toby. You should've covered a briefing or two for me. What
they think is all I have to go on, and all they can think now is that
I fucked up."

"They're getting over it."

"Nobody's getting over it!" She hears her own voice echo and her
eyes moisten. "And if they are, well, wait until next week, when
we're in front of a jury and they're playing the fucking blooper reel
over and over again. That'll serve as a reminder. And when it comes
down to a choice, when someone's got to be jettisoned..."

She trails off. It'd be nice to tell her that won't happen. Nice if
there was some guarantee. "It was one mistake, C.J."

"It was my mistake." She shakes her head back and forth
slowly. "What happens in a month, when Katie and Steve and Danny are
shooting me down at every turn? When people won't come near me in
public? When you walk in my office behind Leo and you can't even
speak to me? 'Sorry, C.J., it was a good run, but the President
needs to ask for--'"

This is spiraling quickly out of control. "You leave, and you're
only giving them ammunition."

Shakes her head, negating everything. "I leave, and I don't get
pulled under."

"You don't believe that."

She doesn't. She shouldn't. She should know how good she is, that
this kind of weakness is what our enemies are counting on. She does
know those things, but she's still shaking her head. No. No. No.

"C.J." Her eyes flicker in surprise and warning when my hand touches
her arm. "You're not the kind of person who needs to be told things."

She doesn't smile, but she doesn't flinch, and it's not long before
her hands are drawing me down. Awkward, this half-standing position,
and it quickly becomes kneeling. She pulls the big T-shirt over her
head in one fluid motion. Her hands fumble at my shirt front, but
her body is more interesting than mine.

The notch at the base of her throat tingles, tastes of powder and
perfume and sweat. Tastes of travel and warmth. Her nipples are
hard and dark and hot against my tongue. Like embers from a coal
fire. No. That's incredibly stupid.

When my hands reach her hips she wiggles, slides out of gray cotton
panties and kicks them away. The chair is at a precarious angle,
have to hold on to her knee to keep us both from going over. The
insides of her thighs yield under my teeth. She's talking.

"You can't just make it go," she says. Doesn't matter. She arches
up like the edge of a seashell, but she opens easier than a shell
does.

No way to measure time while this is happening. No way to know how
long she's been wrapped around me, one foot braced on the floor, one
heel banging on my back. Her flesh scalding my mouth. Being careful
of my teeth and fingernails on her. Against her. Inside her.
Further. Careful about falling.

Above me she's voicing words, demands, questions, "do" and "don't"
and my name. She tries to cover her mouth. No. Free one of my
hands long enough to take hers away from her mouth. She reaches
blindly for balance, catches hold of the edge of the desk. Pushes
her hips forward, a cup to sip from. Syllables mix in her mouth
until she's only asking for more. Give her whatever she wants.
There's wetness the texture of honey, the taste of stars dissolved in
sea-water, searing and distant and salt.

The muscles in her thighs vibrate. After a while her sounds aren't
words at all. Her head is all the way back. Don't need to see her
eyes close and open to know when it happens.

Sometime, an indefinite time later, we both need air and water. The
chair comes flying forward. Feels like being drunk or stoned; the
room is a haze. She stays collapsed in it, watches me fill two
glasses from the tap in the bathroom. She glows, watching me sit
down on the bed. The water is cold and metallic.

"You know," she says, out of nowhere, "the Victorians believed that
women couldn't control their sexuality. That they had to be forced
to remain chaste, or they'd get wild and hysterically lustful."

Really not sure how I'm supposed to respond to that. "Sure."

She's giggling, ringing and sweet, and it breaks through the fog.
She lifts a hand to the light switch. "Who would've thought, Toby?
I'm a Victorian."

The lights fizzle out and she crosses the room, leans in for a
shallow kiss. She takes my fingers into her mouth, licks them
clean. Her hands are busy, gentle, and expert. Her palms are soft,
right there. This is familiar and slow. And--

The room goes bright and dark again.

Wake up abruptly, watch the early light strike her face. She looks
relaxed and young. Deserves better than this. Her eyelids tremble,
then tighten. She pretends to sleep for a while longer. Then a
conscious frown. "You need to leave," she sighs. She won't look at
me. But she's right.

*

Late in the afternoon. Twenty-four hours to go and we still don't
have a speech. The high school is picturesque, generic New England.
The band practices incessantly. Did we actually need the band?
Yes. These things are essentials, along with photo opportunities and
handshakes. Standard operating procedure.

Sam sits with me in the first row of chairs. We write, edit,
scribble, argue, start over. But the words start coming now, first
in a trickle, then in a flood. Leo comes by to check our pulse;
later, we stop to stretch. Doug and Sam are almost on civil speaking
terms. Moronic signs are stacked in the aisle. Glad to find a
Sharpie, to fix this.

"Bartlet For President," Josh reads over my shoulder. "That's really
sad. Good thing you're making alterations."

"It's quicker than ordering a bunch of new signs."

"And cheaper. Plus, maybe he changes his mind again, and you can
start writing 'Bartlet for Homecoming Queen.'" He plays a drum riff
on the top of a folding chair, in an odd counterpoint to the
band. "I was sure we were done, Toby. I was sure--Answer B. You
know?"

"I know." This day is aggravatingly bright. "I don't like being
outside."

"I'm not crazy about crowds and rope lines." Josh shades his eyes
from the sun. "Maybe this is all for nothing. Maybe we're already
screwed and we don't know it. But, hey. That's, that's politics,
right?"

My hand aches from gripping pens and markers. "That's government."

He smiles. "I was sure we were already done."

"Yeah."

"Not so much, now," he says, and walks away whistling.

C.J.'s not far behind him. She comes up casually, long shadow
creeping along ahead of her. "I want the First Lady to do the
introduction," she tells me.

"It'd look good."

"More than that. It would look right. Husband and wife and their
beautiful daughters." She yawns. "The problem's that she doesn't
want to do it."

There was a long stretch of time when Andi would have eaten nails
before she'd have shared a platform with me. The reverse was also
occasionally true. The sun is screaming here, but the air is
crisp. "If you're looking for a new field, steer away from marriage
counseling."

She doesn't laugh, only tosses her hair off her shoulders. Her arms
hang sleepy at her side. "I'm trying to put the best event
together. And Leo agrees with me."

Don't ask what they've agreed on. "I made you a sign."

She holds up the square of poster-board so it throws a square of
shade over her head. She reads my print silently at first, then
repeats it. "'Bartlet is my President.' Okay. How's the speech
going?"

"I hate the English language!" Sam hollers from across the
lawn. "Gonna learn Japanese!"

"We're making progress."

"I see." C.J. reads her sign again, then sets it down in the
grass. "Nothing's official today, Toby."

Playing with words, watching her stroll away. Campaign strategy.
Exit strategy. She takes out her phone and calls someone, probably
Carol. Leo isn't wrong. We could sell this, if we had to.
Relieved. Resigned. Re-elected. But there's less than a day, and
there are pages to write. No time. Sam drifts back over. We work.
It's all we can do.

*

The apology doesn't happen in the speech. It happens in the
classroom, seconds before, not a second too soon. Doug Wegland can't
be wrong all the time. He's invited back to the farmhouse,
afterwards, along with Bruno and Connie. They trade glances and
decline.

The primary living room of the house is showered in taste, all
antique wood and creamy carpet. It's inviting and flawless. So we
tear into the case of Heineken on the back porch. "They don't know
what they're missing," Sam proclaims. "Hanging out in a smoky bar on
a night like this."

Josh coughs. "The President's starting to rub off on you."

"Seriously. Breathe that." He does so, tranquilly. "They're
missing the party."

"The party," Josh says, "is where we are."

"We're party people," C.J. says dryly. She leans back on the wooden
steps, face tinted indigo by the twilight. "It went well, I'll give
you that."

"Well?" Josh swigs his beer and elbows C.J. "It was better than
that. Better than we expected. Some people here wrote a remarkable
speech." He beams at Sam and me. "But I won't mention names,
because I've heard we're pretty smug as it is."

Sam smiles. "Well, it worked, anyway. The cheering came from the
right place."

"Which would be?"

"The socks." Sam looks at me. "It came from their socks."

He's young, still ludicrously young. My voice sounds embarrassingly
old. "It was one speech. It was a pebble."

"We'll have new numbers tomorrow." Josh creases his forehead. "They
won't be as good as we're hoping. And RU-486 will stir up the Ann
Coulters out there."

"Hoynes is going to Florida in August," Sam adds, wilting a little.

"Subpoenas," C.J. says, dropping the temperature a few degrees.

"And we have to raise money when we can't even sit at the table."
Another unpleasant thought hits me. "And we have to work with Bruno
Gianelli for another damn year."

The silence circles us for a long time. Then: "Fuck it," C.J. says,
and sets her beer down.

Josh stands, wavering, beer in hand. "I'm gonna go find the
President and shake his hand."

Sam follows suit automatically. "The, the President's--"

"Taking a little personal staff time," C.J. supplies.

"Oh." Josh's eyes widen. "Oh. I could shake Leo's hand, I guess."

Sam's expression turns brittle at the speed of a shutter-click.
C.J.'s mouth firms in recognition. The same look is probably on my
face. Josh studies his hands for a moment.

"I'm going to go see if I can find Donna," he says.

"And I'm going to find the bathroom. I hope." Sam follows Josh
toward the French doors, pauses at the handle. "Hey, Toby. We could
drive back to Washington, do some antiquing on the way."

"Or I could kill you and bury your body in the horse pasture."

"Fair enough."

They disappear inside the house. C.J. brings her legs up to her
chest. "I'm not dancing," she says. Maybe she inches a little
closer to me.

"It was hard to tell."

"It's not all better now. I'm not happy. I won't be happy tomorrow
morning. And it's going to cost us." She rests her head sideways on
top of her knees. Looks me in the face. "No welcome back speech,
huh? No 'I knew it all along'?"

"No."

"I'm glad," she says. Her eyes are deep and uncertain. Not shining,
not smiling, but looking straight at me.

The last of my second beer goes down smooth. "You're not the kind of
person who needs to be told things."

She nods, gradually and gravely. Yes.

We drink without speaking until Josh and Sam come back. Then we talk
about Jerusalem and Iowa, about John Hoynes and Kofi Annan and the
common man. Color drains out of the sky. There's only a minor
breeze to move the darkness around us. The house, the field, the
beer. One cigar. One pack of cigarettes. Three men and one woman.

This is a world that has been lacerated and stitched and waits to
heal.

*

End.

 

 

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