see pt 1 for general disclaimers)

* * *

Things start to fall apart as CJ serves the after-dinner coffee and
the feeling of forced goodwill begins to dissipate. We've discussed
work--CJ and Josh insist Toby is lost without me, which he,
typically, denies; they've filled me in on the President's recent
lectures on both the mass migration of Native Americans on the Trail
of Tears and the fact that Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine fiend;
they've told me about Margaret's new haircut, a visit from Donna's
starstruck sister, the Republican congressman who got caught taking
bribes from a Democratic lobbyist, and the senators we're attempting
to woo in order to get them to pass the latest Medicare addendum. We
touched briefly on the weather, the latest Hollywood scandal, and the
time Toby and I got lost on our way to Wesley, Connecticut.

In short, conversational topics have been exhausted, and while
tonight's dinner may have all the trappings of a friendly get-
together with good wine and good company, social pleasantries are not
the basis of this particular evening.

There is one topic foremost in everyone's mind--namely, this hellish
world of pain and anguish that Lisa has created for me. Never one to
shy away from the bull and its proverbial horns, Mom asks Josh and
Sabrina how their legal research is going. The two of them exchange a
significant look, but it's a few minutes before my sister finally
speaks.

"It's going well," she says, nervous as always under our mother's
scrutiny. "We're pulling up all cases involving public, or even semi-
public figures like Sam. I'm helping Josh create a background file on
Lisa--"

But Mom interrupts. "I don't want the runaround, Sabrina," she states
crisply. "I want the facts."

"Well, we've done quite a bit of research--"

Mom waves a hand dismissively. "Yes, yes, that's fine. But what are
the *facts*, Sabrina? Haven't your years with your father taught you
anything? Facts are your first line of defense."

"Mom, I *know*," Sabrina protests. "If you would just let me *finish*-
-"

"Honey, you're pulling together a case for your brother! If you can't
present a case to *me*, how are you going to help Josh present it to
a court?" Mom makes this query sound innocent, yet curious, and gives
away none of the underlying defiance.

But Josh rises to the bait anyway. The man never could resist a
challenge, even when it isn't directed at him. He quickly leaps to
my sister's defense, CJ jumps in to calm him down, and Sabrina begins
to apologize profusely to Mom. It's all a little chaotic, because
Josh is climbing up on what Donna affectionately refers to as
his `moral high horse', and Mom is simultaneously patting my hand and
sniping at my sister about things like libel and precedent and
strategizing.

And then Toby speaks. If you know anything about Toby Ziegler, then
you know that a carefully-phrased sentence or heavy inflection--
placed casually, but strategically--from him can bring a room to a
halt. I've seen it with my own eyes. It works this time, too.

He clears his throat and we all fall silent. "If you'll forgive me
for speaking plainly, Mrs Seaborn," he says, which is a lie, because
he's Toby, after all, and he speaks plainly whenever he damn well
wants to, and he couldn't care less if you forgive him for it, "I
think you're directing your frustration at the wrong Seaborn. Don't
you think someone else deserves it a bit more than Sabrina?"

Mom draws herself up in indignation. "Surely you're not talking about
*Sam*."

"Mom." I sigh and pinch the bridge of my nose between my
fingers. "He's talking about Lisa."

"Mrs Seaborn," continues Toby, rubbing his palms together and fixing
Mom with a look of indifference, "I don't think you realize quite the
amount of stress Sabrina is under--that Josh is under. I understand
you're concerned about Sam, but you should recognize the effort your
daughter is putting into this case." He pauses for a minute,
expecting a response from my mother. When he receives none, he
continues softly, "She's working tirelessly. Josh is working
tirelessly. Any antagonism on your part should really stay directed
at Lisa."

Everyone looks from Toby to my mother, and back again. There are a
few agonizing moments of silence, during which it occurs to my mother
that she not only does she not *like* Toby, she may even downright
loathe him. I can tell the moment she realizes this, because she sets
her coffee cup down with unerring precision and her mouth purses,
settling in a firm line with which my sister and I are all too
familiar. As Toby speaks, her eyes narrow into slits of condemnatory
fury.

"I *beg* your pardon," she begins coolly. "Are you trying to tell me
how to speak to my own daughter?"

Toby grimaces. "It was merely an observation, Mrs Seaborn."

Another moment of silence passes. I can hear everyone else's
breathing steadily quicken in anticipation. Then Mom clears her
throat and folds her hands together. "*Mister* Ziegler" --the
emphasis on the formality is purely for everyone else's benefit-- "do
you have the first idea what you're talking about? That is to say, do
you have children?"

"No, ma'am." An eyebrow lifts as Toby responds.

Mom settles back in her chair, clearly pleased with herself. "Ah. I
thought not."

"Excuse me, Mom?" I venture hesitantly. "Is there a point to all
this?"

"My point, honey, is that Mr Ziegler really can't afford to have an
opinion on raising children when he doesn't have any of his own."

Now Toby looks perplexed. "I didn't express an opinion about
*raising* childr--"

"You were telling me how I should speak to my children, were you not?"

Typical Pauline Seaborn strategy: Confound the enemy, and then throw
in a little cross-examination for good measure.

"Mom, Toby was just trying to--"

"Hush, Sammy."

Okay, I'm not a dog begging at the table, so that right there--that
dismissal she's so good at it--it pisses me off. I feel my temper
rising a notch. Apart from the usual mother-son skirmishes throughout
my adolescence, and my frequent tendency to assert my opinion when
she gets particularly protective of me--or critical of my sister--
I've never really argued with my mother. To be fair, neither my
sister nor I really *argue* with her; Pauline Seaborn doesn't allow
arguments. You state your opinion and she provides a rebuttal, you
make another attempt, she shoots you down again, and this continues
until your offense has been decimated and your defense is hanging on
by its fingernails.

But if she keeps this up-this relentless nagging, this typical Queen
Pauline attitude, I'm going to explode, and I don't think even her
tactical conversational maneuvers will dissuade me.

I don't think she realizes I'm so close to the edge. She doesn't know
that in the past week I've flipped my lid, not once, but twice, and
both times at my closest friends. She doesn't know that before she
came to DC, her sweet, docile Sammy spent his days in his bathrobe,
eating a little and drinking a lot, and wondering what the hell
happened to his life. She doesn't know that every time I see my face
on television--and believe me, there have been many times since I
left the West Wing; DC doesn't give up on a story this juicy--it's
all I can do not to put my foot through the screen.

She doesn't know any of this. No one does. But my mother is the only
one who doesn't even suspect. Her Sammy would never think such
things.

"Don't tell him to `hush', Mom," Sabrina sighs.

"I think your brother can speak for himself, Sabrina." Mom turns to
look at me, perfect hair flouncing around her shoulders. "Can't you,
Samuel?"

I stare at her in incredulity. She doesn't even realize how
ridiculous she sounds. "Of course I can."

Mom turns back to Sabrina, satisfaction on her face, as if I had just
performed some trick only she had been able to teach me. "See?"

Josh, CJ, and Toby are quiet; by turns playing with silverware,
twisting napkins, and staring at my mother, sister, and me as if
we're a train wreck. What started out as a fairly pleasant, if
somewhat strained, dinner has rapidly spiraled downward into `The
Seaborn Family Does the Ricki Lake Show'.

On some level I know it's humiliating to air my family's piles and
piles of dirty laundry in what my mother would refer to as `mixed
company'; but you know, better in front of my friends than anyone
else I can think of.

"Mom, you are completely losing your perspective here. Getting angry
with Sabrina and me isn't the answer--"

"Oh honey, I'm not angry with *you*." Mom looks genuinely alarmed,
rushing to pat my hand in sympathy.

"Of *course* not," Sabrina mutters as she breaks a cookie in half,
crumbs scattering across the tabletop.

Mom's eyes widen. "I *beg* your pardon." She waits for my sister's
response. "Sabrina Ellen Seaborn, you will kindly look at me when I
am talking to you."

Sabrina's head snaps up in confusion. "Sorry?"

"You were talking under your breath just now. Whom were you
addressing?"

I toss my napkin onto the table and drag my hand through my hair. I
close my eyes and draw a deep, ragged breath, before opening them
again to stare around me at my friends. CJ is chewing her lower lip
and looking at the table in embarrassment. Josh is staring open-
mouthed at my mother. Toby has his chin resting in his hand, watching
my mother with the detached interest of an anthropologist.

Mom continues, waving her hand around for emphasis. "I mean, if you
have something to say, darling, haven't I always taught you to speak
up?"

My sister mumbles something indiscernible under her breath.

"Sabrina." Mom's voice grows more fervent. "You said, `Of course
not'. What does that mean?" It's more than a little disturbing to see
how ardently she is pursuing this. "I really don't understand why
you're being like this. You're supposed to be a woman, but you're
acting like a child." She is firm and unyielding, with the air of a
martyr in her every word.

"Mom, can't we just drop it?" retorts Sabrina. Some of her vitality
is returning; her eyes blaze as she addresses our mother. That's my
girl.

Finally CJ springs into action, rising to her feet and
smiling. "Well, I think I'll just clear these things up...And I think
Josh will help me." She nods at Josh's blank stare, then turns her
attention to Toby. Her voice drops lower, becomes laced with
steel. "And Mr Ziegler will certainly be glad to assist us, won't
you, Mr Ziegler?"

Toby smirks up at her. "As if I had a choice, Ms Cregg."

CJ reaches for Josh's shirt collar and practically yanks him to his
feet. He yelps in protest. I half-expect him to drag his heels as she
hauls him into the kitchen. He definitely wants to see where this
Seaborn fiasco is headed.

When they've gone, I sigh and push my plate away from me, settling my
elbows onto the table as I look at my mother. "Congratulations, Mom,
you cleared the place in just under sixty seconds. Impressive."

She fixes me with a hurt look and stares down at her hands. "You get
that sarcasm from your father. What's gotten into you this evening?"

I don't reply at first, instead wiping my hand over my face and
scooting my chair back so forcefully that it screeches against the
wooden floor. Then I say, "I got the settlement request from Lisa's
lawyer today."

Mom narrows her eyes and asks, "Is she using anyone we know?"

"Yeah, Aaron Kearney; he's a friend of ours--well, of hers. They went
to college together."

"And what is she asking for?" Mom is surprisingly calm.

I shrug. "What isn't she asking for? She wants it all--the stocks,
the bonds, the mutual funds, half the profit if I ever sell the
brownstone. She wants ten thousand dollars a month for the rest of
her life. She wants the insurance policies put in her name, for
God's sake."

"She wants it all, then," says Mom. I'm amazed at her resolute
expression, but then I remember that she was always the level-headed
one in any family crisis. Despite her penchant for the dramatic, and
all the hysterical phone calls she made before she came to DC, when
it gets right down to it, she's a pit bull. I think that's where
Sabrina gets it.

"She wants it all," I agree.

Sabrina is pensive, tracing one fingertip around the rim of her
coffee cup. "Josh and I will draw up a counter-offer," she says
steadily. Her eyes narrow as she thinks. "Half the assets. Don't
change the insurance policies. A thousand dollars a month for the
next seven years, or until she remarries, whichever comes first--
that's generous." She pauses, then nods. "Half the proceeds from the
brownstone--if you decide to sell--is fair."

I'm grinning at the self-assurance in her tone. She speaks with such
confidence and poise that I get the tiniest inkling of what she'll be
like in a courtroom. "You're going to make a hell of a lawyer, kid.
I'm giving that boss of yours a call tomorrow," I tease
her. "Whatever they pay you down at the DA's office, they should
double it."

To my bewilderment, the color drains from my sister's face and she
blinks rapidly as if she's fighting back tears. "Yeah," she says
softly.

The swinging door that divides CJ's kitchen from the dining room
suddenly creeps open just a bit, and Josh pokes his nose out. "All
quiet on the western front?" he asks anxiously.

"Yeah," I say, "come on in. I was just telling my mother and sister
that my premonition about Lisa taking me to the cleaner's was
something of an understatement."

Josh visibly flinches. "Ouch. She wants everything?"

"I get the feeling she'd ask for a pint of blood on a daily basis if
she could only work around the legalities."

He chuckles mirthlessly. "We should discuss this tomorrow. You up for
lunch?" He punctuates this question with the largest yawn I've ever
seen on a human being. It reminds me of the MGM lion.

I gaze at him, amused. "And how much sleep are we getting, Josh?"

"*We*," he replies witheringly, "are getting plenty of sleep."

"Seriously Josh, you're at work by seven, you have meetings all day
long, you barely take a lunch; and then you're at my house by eight,
staying till ungodly hours. You can't keep this up."

"I think I'm a fair judge of just what I can and can't do."

Sabrina and I exchange a look and her eyes are dancing. "Sure you
are," I say mockingly.

"Sam, just be at my office by noon, noon-thirty, okay?"

"Noon-thirty?" I grin.

He decides to ignore me. "I'll have Donna order us some lunch. I'll
show you what Sabrina and I have come up with so far. Bri? You up to
it?"

"No," she says, in a you-should-know-this voice. "I have that thing I
have to do, remember?"

Realization dawns on Josh. "Right. Okay, no sweat. I'll go over it
with him on my own. Hey...do you still need that thing from me?"

Sabrina looks quickly from mom to me, and then to Josh. Every gesture
screams, `Not now, Josh!'. She licks her lips nervously and
hisses, "Yes, Josh. *Later*."

"Right. Got it."

I, on the other hand, do not get it. My sister is keeping something
from me--something big, I can tell--and Josh is helping her. Josh is
helping her, not me. Not me, the big brother.

So let's sum things up here, for those of you who may not having been
paying close enough attention: My wife left me and proceeded to prove
that hell hath no fury like a woman with vengeance on her mind; I had
to leave a job I both love and rely on, for the sake of my boss, who
happens to be the leader of the free world; I'm holed up in my house
with my mother--California's own Joan Crawford-meets-Elizabeth Taylor-
-who arrived unannounced; I'm intending to sue my wife; and now my
little sister and my best friend are edging me out of their worlds.

I suspected it before this, but now it's official. Yeah. My life
sucks.

<><><>

 

 

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