Wednesday, December 9, 2054

Chapter Nineteen

By Wednesday, I thought I might have gotten my life back. Jackson Duffield had called me Sunday afternoon of the show. He told me he'd thought it was a great show, and he had thoroughly enjoyed my appearance, up to and including walking off the set. By the end of that call, I'd accepted that Jackson and I might have a continuing relationship and told him to call anytime. We'd even made plans to play golf the next week. Hey, he's a nice guy.

People were actually starting to try to get their info through Jackson since it was becoming apparent he was the only media-type I'd talk to. He had called twice on Monday with some fairly irrelevant questions. Did I know that a girl I'd dated once in High School had recently been arrested or operating a high class brothel? Did I know one of the wholesalers I bought parts from was being investigated for tax fraud? I asked him if there was any reason I should care about any of it. At the end of that conversation, we agreed that, unless something earth shattering came up, we'd keep the Q & A sessions to once or twice a week.

The press corps at my house had waned to one freelance photographer who seemed to have set up camp permanently. This particular guy was there whenever I arrived at home, whenever I left home, whenever I looked out the window. I waved to him every time I saw him. He never followed me...just stood there leaning on the hood of his car and shot a few frames of everyone who set foot on the property. I never once saw him eat a sandwich, drink a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette, sit down, take a walk to stretch his legs or disappear to use the toilet. He was just always there. I couldn't imagine he had gotten a shot of anything anyone might have been interested in paying for, but I got used to having the guy around. Live and let live.

I took a fair amount of ribbing at work and I was recognized on the street a bunch, but that was all pretty enjoyable. On Tuesday, I'd had dinner with Zelda. If I hadn't called her myself, Rachel would have arranged a second date or thrown somebody new my way. All in all, I thought I might be over the hump and that life might be getting back to normal.

I spent Wednesday in my usual routine. After spending the morning in my main office, I decided to pay a visit to our store in Annapolis. It seems that my newest addition to middle management had a soft spot for the military. It had come to my attention that our Annapolis store accepted not only VISA, MasterCard and Discover, but also I.D.'s from the Naval Academy. He also extended a 10% discount for any bill paid within 30 days. Since it sounded like something I might have cooked up in my more idealistic days, I decided I'd give the kid a chance to prove its viability.

My only problem was that he'd just gone ahead and done it without telling anyone. I ended up having to "lead the witness" a little before he realized I wasn't going to fire him on the spot. We ended up deciding to try a program where we'd extend credit to any active duty military personnel under the same terms he was giving Academy Cadets. The policy would be limited to the Annapolis store for the moment. We decided to let it go by word-of-mouth; no advertising. We'd see how it went for six months and then either expand it to include all of the stores, or kill it if it wasn't working. Hell, none of those guys get paid enough and six months at one store wasn't going to break me, no matter how badly things went.

As I was driving back to Virginia, I called Tess, my assistant, to get my messages. I have a cell phone, but I only turn it on to make calls. If someone needs to reach me, they have to call my beeper and only three people have that number; Mom, Rachel and Tess. I've found that there is a direct correlation between the urgency most people feel the need to speak to me and the utter ambivalence I have for what they want to discuss. My gatekeepers know me well.

Mixed in with the usual call list that required my attention was a call from Addie Rotholz. Her dismissal from the President's campaign had rated a mention on the network news shows and in the D.C. papers, so I was certainly aware of it. I had decidedly mixed feelings about what had happened to her. On the one hand, there was no doubt she'd still have had a job if I'd kept my mouth shut. On the other hand, she was the one who had dragged me into the whole thing, so she could just live with the fallout. I felt sorry for her, but I wasn't about to beat myself up over it.

Naturally, I assumed she was coming after her pound of flesh and I was only surprised she had waited so long. The hell with that!

Now, another thing you should probably know about me is that I've got the ability to sort of blow things up in my head. I can start from a perfectly reasonable premise and the more time I have to spin it around in my brain; well, there's just no telling where it'll end up.

Example: I remember this one Sunday morning about a year after I graduated from college. I woke up very gradually, thinking about snow since it had been snowing heavily when I got home the night before. So, I'm lying there in bed all comfortable and warm and knowing there was no rush to get up. I know the paper will be out front and soon I'll be happily reading it, maybe doing the crossword puzzle and having my second or third cup of coffee. I didn't have any plans for the day other than to be supremely lazy. As I was getting closer to having the energy to get out of bed, I remembered I had bought a ticket for the lottery and the jackpot was up to something like 30 million bucks. The winning numbers would be the first thing I looked for when I got the paper. Then I started daydreaming about what I could do with 30 million dollars. "O.K., now don't get carried away," I thought, "even if you won, the taxes would be about 46%. That would leave me...Um, o.k. 50%...15 million. O.K., that's fine, 15 million's still a hell of a lot of money." So, I'm day- dreaming about the party I'd 100 people to some private island on a chartered jet...I should give a chunk of change to each of my relatives...well, only immediate a house or car. So that's the track my mind's following, trying to keep a running tally of how much money's left when...BAM, another thought intrudes. "What if I'm not the only one with a winning ticket." What if there's, like 4 other winning tickets. It happens all the time. If it happened, I'd be looking at only a 6 million dollar jackpot...3 million after taxes. How the fuck am I gonna live on a measly 3 million bucks?"

Well, you get the idea. Sometimes my mind gets started and God knows where it's going to end up. Sometimes, you know you've got a conversation or an argument coming up with someone and you try to rehearse it in your head beforehand. And you think you've got a pretty good handle on it. Only the person you're going to be arguing or conversing with has never seen the script. The first thing out of their mouth and boom, you're back to ad-libbing. So much for preparation.

Anyway traffic had been building steadily since I'd left Annapolis and slowed to a crawl as I approached the Beltway. I'll admit that sitting in traffic is one of the few things that really makes me nuts. I don't start cutting people off or taking pot shots at my fellow motorists, but I do get bent out of shape. I found myself yelling at the moron who kept changing lanes directly in front of me (as if everyone was going to move aside so he could get home first). This, of course made me start to feel foolish. Sitting in traffic, with nothing but time on my hands, and feeling childish made me start to feel cowardly for not returning Addie Rotholz's call. I fought the feeling, but after about 20 minutes had passed (and only about 2 miles), the feeling became unbearable.

I don't like feeling ashamed and I managed to convert my shame into anger at Ms. Rotholz for having the temerity to lay her problems at my feet. Well, she's the one who put me up to that ridiculous performance; she can just live with the fruit of her labors. Who the hell does she think she is trying to make me feel responsible for her whole misguided career? The hell with her.

I went on like this for another 1/2 hour (3 miles!) and found myself just itching for the confrontation. I decided to return her call, but I wouldn't give an inch. She could bully me all she wanted and I wasn't going to give her an ounce of satisfaction. That way, I'd be able to tell myself that I wasn't ducking her but I wasn't taking the fall for her shitty decision-making. Yeah, I'd gotten myself pretty worked up.

Treating it like a precious gift, I was keeping my anger just beneath the surface. I dialed the number she'd left. She answered after two rings, "Addie Rotholz". Terse and efficient.

"This is Paul Harkness returning your call", I said. No hostility in my voice, very businesslike. Good going, Paul.

When she spoke, she sounded very animated. "Paul, thanks for calling me back so quickly. I was hoping we could meet for a drink. Its important".

A drink? What the hell is this? My comeuppance has to be public? This sure as hell isn't the conversation I rehearsed for.

"Paul, are you there?", she said after I hadn't responded for a moment.

"Sorry, I was distracted by a guy who just cut in front of me," I said. Good cover, Paul. "A drink? No offense, but...what for?"

"I have someone I'd like you to meet and something to talk to you about. I promise, It'll be painless."

I took a short moment to try to formulate a smooth response before deciding I didn't have it in me. "Things happen to me when you talk to me and introduce me to people".

She laughed. "Yeah, me too. Look, I just want a drink and conversation. You listen, you drink, then you get up and leave or we talk more. Your decision. I swear."

Since my options would be sitting in traffic for another hour or heading into Washington against the afternoon rush, I decided to accept. Some of my decisions in life are based on some pretty mundane suppositions. I was sure that nothing she had to say could be worse than sitting in this goddamn traffic.

"Where"? I said.

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