Roger inhaled deeply. Smells of cigarette smoke and sweat filled his lungs. The dull drone of chatter filled the cramped, seedy bar, engulfing the little space that still remained between the crowded bodies. More crowded than usual.
Yes, today was different. The New York summer was particularly oppressive today, the East Side was substantially more crowded, and dusty televisions throughout their anti-establishment Bohemian neighborhood were tuned to 24-hour cable news networks for the first time he could remember.
Today, the President was coming to the dregs of Alphabet City.
He chuckled into his beer as he sipped. Collins would have gotten a kick out of it. Angel, too. They'd probably have rallied the troops and staged a protest. Maureen could probably still be convinced, if she wasn't in the midst of pouting over the fact that her on-again, off-again relationship with Joanne--now over a decade running--was now off-again.
Then again, maybe not.
This new guy, he was a Latino. Not like the long line of old white guys who'd come before him. Roger didn't keep up with politics, didn't vote. Much of what he saw on the news about Washington disgusted him. Just a bunch of rich guys speaking about "the American people" when they didn't have a clue as to what the hell went on in the real world. But as far as he was concerned, it was par for the course, almost expected. If you could rough up the establishment every once in a while, why the fuck not?
No president had ever set foot in the crime- and drug-ridden streets of the Lower East Side. When politicians came to New York, they went to Broadway and the Statue of Liberty. Every once in a while, they'd swing through a lower-middle-class neighborhood, just to spice things up. Photo op with a black kid. Bada bing. Bada boom. Back on the plane.
So yeah, he could tolerate this for a day. The past several years had seen much change, unwelcome change. This was a shift he could accept. He didn't expect anything in the way of real help for the community, but it was nice to see any type of acknowledgement.
Mark was out running around somewhere with his camera, trying get film of Santos for some nefarious purpose.
The tall, dark, and handsome young president was spending the day at a soup kitchen, a free health clinic (one Roger had often frequented), and a small, diverse public school known for its academic excellence—a rare occurrence in the area. Lunch at the Life. That's what brought Roger to this bar…he wasn't going anywhere near the café hoopla.
A sudden flutter of movement behind him caused him to shift in his seat. A harried, middle-aged white guy clumsily made his way toward the bar, pressing through the mass of bodies. Roger immediately identified the guy as a politician. Garbed in gray dress pants, pale blue shirt, and silver-blue striped tie, he looked more than a little damp around the edges. His sleeves were rolled up, suit coat draped over his forearm, brown hair all awry. As the older man finally reached the small expanse of bar next to Roger, the musician took stock of his flushed cheeks in the dim light, immediately thankful for his own light cotton shirt.
"Sam Adams." his new neighbor shouted to the bartender. Leaning on the aged wood, he stared up at the TV intently. Roger rolled his eyes and took another sip of beer.
Roger set down his glass, rubbing at his temples. He should really get the hell out of here.
"Hey." The insistent voice to his left caused Roger to turn.
"Were you here? For his clinic speech?"
It took a moment to register that Mr. Politico was speaking to him.
"Was I…? I…yeah." Roger eyed the harried bureaucrat before him suspiciously.
"It was…okay, I guess…I mean, I…"
"He screwed up the delivery on health care, didn't he? Damn it, I knew he did." Mr. Politico took a long sip from his newly-delivered beer and ran a stressed hand through his wiry hair, mussing it further. It was almost comical, really.
Meanwhile, the guy was still stressing out. "Families, families…stress the families. Ugh…all taken out. That…was a mistake." He was rubbing his cheeks now. Roger was getting a little worried.
"Listen, man, don't worry about it. You'll keep your job."
The man froze at this, then looked up at Roger with a strange expression. "What?"
Roger shrugged. "People here don't care about a word. They don't care about a speech. They want a cure for AIDS, for drugs, for poverty. Until people start solving those problems, there's not gonna be any revolutionary change here. They'll respond when you get rid of all the crap that's wrong about this neighborhood. Jesus," Roger spread his hands, "just look around you. It's a pit. Until someone comes here walking the walk and not just giving us some fucking lip service, you'll win whatever election you run in."
He paused, sniffed. Their conversation had fallen silent, but the dull hum of the rest of the bar continued. "But…" he said after a moment's hesitation, "if that guy does come, the guy who changes…that's when you'll want to watch out. 'Cuz then things will happen." He shifted in his seat and shrugged aimlessly. "Anyway. Some five-minute howdy-do photo-op bullshit won't do it, no matter what the subject."
They sat there a few more seconds. Roger staring blankly at the bar, replaying his own words in his head. Christ. Had he really just said that?
From the way he could feel Mr. Politico's eyes boring into the back of his head, he was pretty sure that he did.
A few more seconds of uncomfortable silence reigned between them before he heard the guy emit a sardonic chuckle. "You know, I needed to hear that." he said simply. He rubbed his eyes again, this time with a smile on his face. "You tend to forget it when you're in this business. It helps to be reminded from time to time." He inhaled, and extended his hand to Roger. "Josh Lyman."
Roger stared, vaguely amused. "Listen, you're wasting your time. I don't vote."
The man blinked. Then, unexpectedly, something like a smirk crossed his features. Withdrawing his hand, he cocked his head to one side. "Well, hey, thanks for letting me know. But we took New York in by a 12 margin without your vote in '06, so we're pretty optimistic for 2010."
Confusion set in as Roger tried to consider this. "But you…are you…?"
Josh Lyman extended his hand again and repeated his name, this time including an addendum.
"Josh Lyman, Chief of Staff to President Santos."
"You…I mean…oh." Well, this was certainly new territory. "I didn't mean to…" he began awkwardly.
"Don't worry 'bout it." Lyman grinned. "You're right. When you're in D.C., you're insulated from the rest of the world. You're like…conditioned to bullshit. When you enter reality, though, it causes problems." He tipped his beer towards him, gazing into it before taking another sip.
"If you're with Santos…why the hell are you here?" Roger asked, still a little taken aback.
"It's been a long day; isn't a guy entitled to a drink?" Roger was beginning to think that a smirk was this guy's default expression. "Plus, a police siren accidentally went off—they couldn't get it to stop—and the sound always…y'know, never mind, long story." he shook his head dismissively, good humor suddenly turned to another awkward silence.
Lyman's eyes suddenly shifted up to the TV mounted at the corner of the bar, brown eyes brightening and the hint of a smile returned. Roger's own gaze followed. On screen, an attractive young woman close to his own age was speaking. Willowy and blonde, she looked a bit more familiar. The caption under her figure read, "Donna Moss, White House Press Secretary."
Though the din in the bar, you couldn't hear a word she was saying, but Josh Lyman was gazing at her like his life depended on it.
Roger knew that look. The guy was in love. With a girl that was at least ten years his junior and far too attractive for him. Just for kicks, he decided to have a little fun with the older man. He leaned in conspiratorially. "Pretty girl." he noted under his breath.
Josh swallowed, smiling faintly. "That she is." he replied in a soft voice.
Roger grinned. "You got a thing for her?"
He shrugged and leaned back on the bar. "I think it's safe to say that I do."
Having fully expected to enjoy watching him tap-dance like any Washington suit, the straightforward answer took Roger by surprise. After a beat, he asked hesitantly, "Is that…allowed?"
That smirk again. It would be really irritating if the guy didn't look so genuinely happy. "Well, it's generally allowed—even encouraged—to have a thing for one's spouse, don't you think?"
"You…you're…I mean, she and you…?" How the hell did that happen?
At first, Lyman simply held up his left hand. Sure enough, a simple gold band encircled his ring finger.
"Just this past February." He shrugged sheepishly, then put his hand back down and gazed at the ring, fiddling with it, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "Ten years to the day we met."
"Tell me about it." He chuckled as if he couldn't believe it and took another drink, then stopped suddenly and turned to Roger. "You know, I just realized…I never asked your name."
Roger hesitated a moment before responding. "Roger…Roger Davis."
"You in love, Roger?"
Images flashed through his head. A pale corpse bobbing in a sea of red. A small, skeletal frame struggling for breath in a dim hospital room. Long dead. Long buried. Long gone. Both of them.
"A long time ago…once or twice."
"It's like an addiction. A smack high was how I described it the first time."
"A…smack high?" Roger squeaked, caught off-guard by the metaphor.
Josh nodded, then seemed to realize his mistake. "Sorry," he began apologetically, "I guess that's kind of a crappy comparison, given our surroundings."
"No, it's…don't worry about it."
"The only reason why I said it…it's just, if that's how drugs are, I guess I can understand addiction." He shrugged, a little embarrassed. "What you said earlier…it kind of reminded me of that." Another beat. "Sorry."
Memories of black and blood red and funerals and graves and needles and nausea and ecstasy and blinding pain all ran through Roger's head at a breakneck pace, temporarily distracting him.
"Truthfully…you're not so far off the mark." he heard himself say.
When he regained a measure of composure, he noted Josh eying him, a strange expression on his face.
Trying to ignore the awkward situation, Roger turned his attention to the bartender, trying to signal for his tab. He needed to get the hell out of here. This was too fucking weird. It took several moments, but when it was finally laid down in front of him, he was surprised to see an American Express card tossed on top of it.
"Put it on with mine." he heard Josh say from beside him. The bartender shifted his gaze to the older man and nodded, disappearing with the check and credit card.
Roger stood a moment, collecting his thoughts before turning to the middle-aged politico. "You didn't have to do that."
"I know…especially on a government salary." he laughed dryly. Growing more serious, he smiled at Roger, almost apologetic. "But we've screwed you and your neighborhood up against the wall. So it's the least I can do."
When the credit card was returned to him, Josh whipped out his wallet, replaced the card, and slid it back into his back pocket. "I'll see you around, Roger." he said in parting. With that, he slipped back into the mass of people, greeting a couple men in black who were standing at the door. The trio left, turning left and disappearing down the street.
Roger snorted, almost in disbelief. "Jesus." he muttered under his breath, to no one in particular. "Why does this shit always happen to me?" With that, he squeezed his own path out of the bar, now more crowded than ever, and pushed his way outside. Once in the oppressive, smoggy heat, he turned right and made his way back towards the loft.
He passed the familiar clinic where he'd gone for his AZT for fifteen years now. Dilapidated and dreary, it had always angered him on a subconscious level. It was a place of death and illness and despair, a tiny corner of the world forgotten by nearly everyone.
And for the first time, he felt a fluttering of hope and smiled a little.