“Harry, you know as well as I do that the Representative needs this money or he will not be able to compete on the television market.”
The Tune Inn was a staple in Southeast Capital Hill. Harry had been coming here since his law school days, wandering home drunk and alone to his basement apartment on A Street, just down the hill from the Library of Congress. On the walls of the bar were dusty hunting trophies, signs requesting that patrons pay in advance if they are drinking to forget, stolen roadsigns from past inauguration parades, and flat screen TVs, tuned to various 24-hour news channels. It was the sort of place where the news cycle was more of a sporting event, Harry thought, than the baseball season.
Harry watched Lee gulp from his bloody mary, then wipe the red residue from his sweaty upper lip. Lee was 23, which, Harry calculated, meant he was born when Harry was just finishing basic training.
“Lee,” Harry said, “Coastal states, no matter how red, cannot keep pretending that we don’t need to respond to climate change.”
“Look, look, look,” Lee responded, stabbing his finger in the air at Harry. Harry considered grabbing the finger, snapping it off at the fat, fleshy base, and depositing it in Lee’s drink. “You can say you’re responding to anything you want. You can believe anything you want. But if you want TradPAC’s money, Congressman McGill votes no on 1191.”
Harry nodded. He took a sip of his coffee, wishing it was bourbon. Three years, clean and sober. He didn’t even want to be in this place. Lee had a mean streak, though, and when Harry suggested that they meet at a nearby diner, he knew Lee had considered the role temptation would play for him when he suggested this dive bar instead. Instead, it was a half hour of small talk about sports while they finished their brunch, before Lee started in on the hard sell.
“The Carolinas have been hit harder and harder, every single hurricane since 2015,” Harry began.
“No one cares, Harry,” Lee interrupted. “This is not about the Carolinas.”
“It is when McGill’s constituents are fucking bailing water out of their fucking living rooms.”
Lee snorted. “You sound like you are trying to say former constituents.”
“Fuck you, Lee.”
Lee smiled. The junior policy analyst from TradPAC had come down from New Haven just a few years ago, straight from law school. Harry remembered hearing about his antics during the last midterm elections, but had managed to avoid him on the Hill. One of the staffers from Representative Lincoln’s office had told him about it before she quit, the conversation taking place next door, at the Hawk and the Dove. “You don’t understand, Harry,” she said, half drunk, “It’s like dealing with the mafia.”
Harry looked down at his coffee. He felt sick, his sinuses throbbing from allergies that always seemed to get worse toward the end of the summer. Harry rubbed his eyes, then eased back in his seat. “Lee, what’s the endgame here? Let’s say you keep pushing this stuff through, and pushing this stuff through… what happens when, say, Savannah or fucking Charleston’s dikes fail?”
“Who says that’s going to happen?” Lee asked.
“I’m asking you, what are you going to do?”
“No,” Lee said, “where’s the fucking proof any of that’s going to happen?”
“Lee, I’m asking you: what do you expect coastal Republicans to do when this shit goes down? It’s not a question of ‘if.’ When.”
Lee didn’t respond.
“Look man,” Harry said, “I understand where you’re coming from, and why TradPAC wants this, but this isn’t even being an environmentalist anymore. This is about constituent interests. Infrastructure.”
“Harry,” Lee answered, “How many people have you worked for on the Hill?”
Harry shook his head.
“No, Harry, how many?” Lee asked.
Harry downed the cool remainder of his coffee, then held up his cup to the bartender, who nodded. “Three. Holman, Price, and McGill.”
“And why do you think you keep bouncing around?”
“Because that’s the fucking job,” Harry said.
“No,” Lee said, “because that’s what happens when you fail your leaders. That’s what happens when they can’t maintain their campaigns.”
“Lee, this is…”
“Harry,” Lee said, “Don’t interrupt.” His smirk was growing. “I’m telling you how it is, and how it’s going to be.”
Harry envisioned what would happened if he punched Lee in the throat hard enough to break the hyoid bone.
“You want to be an R,” Lee continued, “You want to be an R and have the money to win, you come to us. You come to us, and you do what you need to do, and you get your money.”
“Never mind what will happen to our constituents,” Harry said.
“Look, man, fuck them,” Lee said. “If they had the money to decide policy, then you wouldn’t be coming to me.”
The bartender swung by their booth with a Bunn carafe of coffee, a veritable artifact in the age of organic, fair trade, single origin third-wave coffee. Harry and Lee paused, leaning back as he poured. Harry remembered sitting in a lawn chair at his grandfather’s shack, just before his grandfather died. It was a comet, Harry remembered. They were looking at a comet. Hale-Bopp or something. Some comet that crashed into Jupiter or Saturn. Harry wondered if he was too old to go back to graduate school again. His wife would fucking kill him, he thought.
“Lee,” Harry said slowly, “you play video games much?”
Lee squinted. “The fuck that has to do with anything?”
“Just answer the question, Lee, do you play video games?”
“Yeah, sure,” Lee said.
“I love them,” Harry said. “Play ‘em all the time. They help me think.”
Lee rolled his eyes. “That’s great, Harry. Really happy for you.”
“The thing with video games,” Harry continued, ignoring Lee’s comment, “is that they’re all or nothing. You are either winning or losing.”
Lee took a deep breath, then set his jaw.
“That’s not how things are, though, in real life. There’s no binary to things. There can be draws, there can be situations where all sides lose, there can be middle ground solutions… Lee, we don’t have to do it this way.”
“Whatever,” Lee said, “Look. Monday morning, Representative McGill votes no; Tuesday evening, TradPAC supports the campaign. That easy.”
“No alternatives. Win or lose,” Harry said.
“No alternatives,” Lee said.
When he sat on the lawn with his grandfather, Harry remembered, he could hear frogs and crickets as they stared up at the streak that held its position among the stars. “They’re travelers, Harry,” his grandfather told him, “making the circuit dictated to them by the sun’s gravity.”
“Lee,” Harry asked, “How come you never worked on the Hill directly?”
Harry watched Lee’s brief moment of confusion before he came up with a soundbite.
“I thought I could do more for the party if I shepherded its values. Politicians come and go,” Le said.
“I’m sure the money had a little to do with it too,” Harry answered.
Lee smiled, “A man’s gotta pay his student loans.”
“What do you think will be next for you?” Harry asked. He caught the eye of the bartender again, and decided against finishing his second cup of coffee. He pantomimed signing a check in the air.
“What do you mean?” Lee asked.
“You don’t plan on doing the same thing forever,” Harry said, “And you seem like the sort of guy that always has a plan, Lee. So that means you have a plan for what’s next. What is it?”
The bartender brought over the check on a little plastic tray with two mints wrapped in cellophane.
Lee shrugged. “I don’t know. The natural next step would be shift to the fundraising side. I’ve already proven my chops on the policy side.”
“Proven your chops,” Harry mused. “Then what?”
“Committees and foundations always need executives.”
Harry felt like he was there again, on the lawn that night. There was something so sad, so desperate in how his grandfather described the voyage of the comet. He fished his wallet out of his front pocket, pulled a twenty out, and deposited it on the check. Lee had already put down a credit card.
“What about back-up plans and exit strategies, Lee?” Harry asked. “If things go sideways, I mean.”
“You saying I need one because of this?” Lee asked.
Harry smiled. “No. Just asking. Trying to understand you better.”
“I can always go in house,” Lee said. “I’m still licensed in DC and New York.”
Lee paused, and Harry knew he was calculating what the question had to do with HB-1191. “What about you, Harry?”
The bartender walked back over to their booth, and Harry looked at him. “No change,” he said.
Harry looked back at Lee. “This was my exit strategy,” he said, “I was going to be a lifer until I got medboarded out of the Army.”
Lee nodded. “I didn’t know you served.”
“Yep,” Harry sighed, “Right out of college. Didn’t even dream of law school until they told me I was non-deployable.” Harry slid out of the booth and stood up. His back ached. The bartender brought back a fake leather folder with Lee’s credit card — a company card, no doubt — and Harry arched his back, trying to stretch while Lee calculated the tip and signed for his meal.
“Well,” Lee said as pushed his body out of the booth, his stomach pressing against the edge of the table. “Well, thank you for your service.”
Harry exhaled through his nose, loudly. He hated that phrase.
Harry started walking to the door, Lee close behind him. “Lee, you know what the party is?”
“It’s a comet,” Harry said, as he turned to head towards the exit of the bar. He pushed the door open, then held it for Lee as he squinted in the mid-afternoon sun.
“Drawn toward the sun in long, elliptical orbits,” Harry said, “but always splintering, casting off little blocks of ice until there’s nothing left of the comet.”
Lee stood opposite him on the cracked sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue, the late August humidity drawing sweat out from his brow and upper lip. He had his cellphone out, probably to uber his tipsy ass back to Foggy Bottom, Harry thought. “Let’s walk a bit,” Harry said with a smile as he regarded Lee’s sweating.
Lee slipped on his sunglasses from the pocket of his striped blue shirt. “I’m not walking anywhere, Harry. It’s too damn hot out.”
“That’s fine,” Harry said.
Down the street, past the bars, the greasy spoon diner, and the dingy looking real estate agent’s office with printouts in the window advertising “fixer-uppers” for three quarters of a million dollars, Harry could see heat shimmers where Pennsylvania Avenue headed downhill, toward the Anacostia River and what was left of the Navy Yard.
“Harry,” Lee said, shifting uncomfortably as sweat broke through the pits of his shirt, “I don’t know where you’re going with this but…”
“That’s ok, Lee,” Harry interrupted, “The comet is just going in circles, breaking up until it’s nothing. The pieces that last, though, they’re the ones that break away early enough to be far from the sun. The core never survives.”
Harry turned to walk away, then thought better of it. He turned back to Lee.
“Goodbye Lee,” He said, “Good luck on your journey.”