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‘So you found him.’
‘Yeah I found him, but I had to stop him running into traffic, and he was upset and I forgot to call back.’
‘Hey, that’s okay. It’s just that I was wondering, you know, if you could finish off this draft with me.’
‘I guess.’ Charlie sighed. ‘To tell the truth, Roy boy, I’m not so sure how well this work-at-home thing is going for me these days.’
‘Oh you’re doing fine. You’re Phil’s gold standard. But look, if now isn’t a good time …’
‘No no, Joe’s asleep on my back. It’s fine. I’m still just kind of freaked out.’
‘Sure, I can imagine. Listen we can do it later, although I must say we do need to get this thing staffed out soon or else Phil might get caught short. Dr Strangelove –’ this was their name for the President’s science advisor ‘– has been asking to see our draft too.’
‘I know, okay talk to me. I can tell you what I think anyway.’
So for a while as he walked he listened to Roy read sentences from his draft, and then discussed with him the whys and wherefores, and possible revisions. Roy had been Phil’s chief of staff ever since Wade Norton hit the road and became an advisor in absentia, and after years of staffing for the House Resources committee (called the Environment committee until the Gingrich Congress renamed it), he was deeply knowledgeable, and sharp too; one of Charlie’s favourite people. And Charlie himself was so steeped now in the climate bill that he could see it all in his head, indeed it helped him now just to hear it, without the print before him to distract him. As if someone were telling him a bedtime story.
Eventually, however, some question of Roy’s couldn’t be resolved without the text before him. ‘Sorry. I’ll call you back when I get home.’
‘Okay but don’t forget, we need to get this finished.’
They clicked off.
His walk home took him south, down the west edge of the Bethesda Metro district, an urban neighbourhood of restaurants and apartment blocks, all ringing the hole in the ground out of which people and money fountained so prodigiously, changing everything: streets rerouted, neighbourhoods redeveloped, a whole clutch of skyscrapers bursting up through the canopy and establishing another purely urban zone in the endless hardwood forest.
He stopped in at Second Story Books, the biggest and best of the area’s several used bookstores. It was a matter of habit only; he had visited it so often with Joe asleep on his back that he had memorized the stock, and was reduced to checking the hidden books in the inner rows, or alphabetizing sections that he liked. No one in the supremely arrogant and slovenly shop cared what he did there. It was soothing in that sense.
Finally he gave up trying to pretend he felt normal, and walked past the auto dealer and home. There it was a tough call whether to take the baby backpack off and hope not to wake Joe prematurely, or just to keep him on his back and work from the bench he had put by his desk for this very purpose. The discomfort of Joe’s weight was more than compensated for by the quiet, and so as usual he kept Joe snoozing on his back.
When he had his material open, and had read up on tidal power generation cost/benefit figures from the UN study on same, he called Roy back, and they got the job finished. The revised draft was ready for Phil to review, and in a pinch could be shown to Senator Winston or Dr Strangelove.
‘Thanks Charlie. That looks good.’
‘I like it too. It’ll be interesting to see what Phil says about it. I wonder if we’re hanging him too far out there.’
‘I think he’ll be okay, but I wonder what Winston’s staff will say.’
‘They’ll have a cow.’
‘It’s true. They’re worse than Winston himself. A bunch of Sir Humphreys if I ever saw one.’
‘I don’t know, I think they’re just fundamentalist know-nothings.’
‘True, but we’ll show them.’
‘Charles my man, you’re sounding tired. I suppose the Joe is about to wake up.’
‘But you are the man, you are the greatest Mr Mom inside the Beltway!’
Charlie laughed. ‘And all that competition.’
Roy laughed too, pleased to be able to cheer Charlie up. ‘Well it’s an accomplishment anyway.’
‘That’s nice of you to say. Most people don’t notice. It’s just something weird that I do.’
‘Well that’s true too. But people don’t know what it entails.’
‘No they don’t. The only ones who know are real moms, but they don’t think I count.’
‘You’d think they’d be the ones who would.’
‘Well, in a way they’re right. There’s no reason me doing it should be anything special. It may just be me wanting some strokes. It’s turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. A real psychic shock.’
‘Well, I was thirty-eight when Nick arrived, and I had been doing exactly what I wanted ever since I was eighteen. Twenty years of white male American freedom, just like what you have, young man, and then Nick arrived and suddenly I was at the command of a speechless mad tyrant. I mean, think about it. Tonight you can go wherever you want to, go out and have some fun, right?’
‘That’s right, I’m going to go to a party for some new folks at Brookings, supposed to be wild.’
‘All right, don’t rub it in. Because I’m going to be in the same room I’ve been in every night for the past seven years, more or less.’
‘So by now you’re used to it, right?’
‘Well, yes. That’s true. It was harder with Nick, when I could remember what freedom was.’
‘You have morphed into momhood.’
‘Yeah. But morphing hurts, baby, just like in The X-Men. I remember the first Mother’s Day after Nick was born, I was most deep into the shock of it, and Anna had to be away that day, maybe to visit her mom, I can’t remember, and I was trying to get Nick to take a bottle and he was refusing it as usual. And I suddenly realized I would never be free again for the whole rest of my life, but that as a non-Mom I was never going to get a day to honour my efforts, because Father’s Day is not what this stuff is about, and Nick was whipping his head around even though he was in desperate need of a bottle, and I freaked out, Roy. I freaked out and threw that bottle down.’
‘You threw it?’
‘Yeah, I slung it down and it hit at the wrong angle or something and just exploded. The baggie broke and the milk shot up and sprayed all over the room. I couldn’t believe one bottle could hold that much. Even now when I’m cleaning the living room I come across little white dots of dried milk here and there, like on the mantelpiece or the windowsill. Another little reminder of my Mother’s Day freak-out.’
‘Ha. The morph moment. Well Charlie, you are indeed a pathetic specimen of American manhood, yearning for your own Mother’s Day card, but just hang in there – only seventeen more years and you’ll be free again!’
‘Oh fuckyouverymuch! By then I won’t want to be.’
‘Even now you don’t wanna be. You love it, you know you do. But listen I gotta go Phil’s here bye.’
After talking with Charlie, Anna got absorbed in work in her usual manner, and might well have forgotten her lunch date with the people from Khembalung; but because this was a perpetual problem of hers, she had set her watch alarm for one o’clock, and when it beeped she saved and went downstairs. She could see through the front window that the new embassy’s staff was still unpacking, releasing visible clouds of dust or incense smoke into the air. The young monk she had spoken to and his most elderly companion sat on the floor inspecting a box containing necklaces and the like.
They noticed her and looked up curiously, then the younger one nodded, remembering her from the morning conversation after their ceremony.
‘Still interested in some pizza?’ Anna asked. ‘If pizza is okay?’
‘Oh yes,’ the young one said. The two men got to their feet, the old man in several distinct moves; one leg was stiff. ‘We love pizza.’ The old man nodded politely, glancing at his young assistant, who said something to him rapidly, in a language that while not guttural did seem mostly to be generated at the back of the mouth.
As they crossed the atrium to Pizzeria Uno Anna said uncertainly, ‘Do you eat pizza where you come from?’
The younger man smiled. ‘No. But in Nepal I have eaten pizza in tea houses.’
‘Are you vegetarian?’
‘No. Tibetan Buddhism has never been vegetarian. There were not enough vegetables.’
‘So you are Tibetans! But I thought you said you were an island nation?’
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