Good Things for Jeannie Smith
by Josh Trapani
I never learned where the idea of hiring Harris Cooger came from. As with many things that happened when I worked for GOA, the Gun Owners of America, there were no explanations, only demands. Everyone was busy, there was little time for deliberation. Barrone said we were in crisis mode.
It started when Rachel James, the tiny blonde who’d survived a dozen years as Barrone’s assistant and was, remarkably, still allowed access to sharp objects, stood in my office doorway. “Barrone says go ahead and look into Harris Cooger.”
“OK. Who is Harris Cooper?”
“Cooger.” She spelled it, then raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t this your idea? Mechler said it was your idea.”
Mechler. That duplicitous son of a bitch.
In my six years at GOA, I’d moved several notches up the chain from Director to Associate VP. Now I was gunning — no pun intended — for a Deputy VP slot that would give me a larger office, bigger paycheck, and even more crushing workload. Mechler, I suspected, fancied the same job.
Before I could reply, Rachel hoofed it back to her desk, afraid to be away in case Barrone bellowed for something. Frank Barrone, VP for Strategic Initiatives, was a legend in the gun lobby. He’d started his career as House Committee staff 35 years before, moved into one of Our Party’s administrations as a Schedule C, then worked through corporate posts at Midway and Beretta USA before landing at the association. Barrone was dedicated as a monk, ruthless as a czar, and seasoned as a stick of beef jerky. As a boss, he was like Mount Etna: constantly smoking, ready to erupt at any time. We worshipped him.
A Google search for Harris Cooger confused me. I expected a pollster or PR consultant, but the only mention of the name, with that weird spelling, was on a plain black website that could have been designed by a teenaged Slayer fan in the late 1990s. His contact information — an AOL e-mail address, for god’s sake — was as archaic as his self-description: “psychic hit man.”
I rose from my desk and trudged to Mechler’s office. He held up a finger, bidding me wait, which I ignored. “Harris Cooger?” I demanded. “It’s on you if you want to suggest that Barrone hire some kind of New Age quack.”
Mechler smirked. “You know how things get garbled around here.”
“Leave me out of it,” I growled.
I returned to my office and forgot the whole thing. Have I mentioned I was busy? I clocked around 70 hours a week. Plus, Barrone was online 24/7, so I was, too. I slept with my phone on the nightstand, sound up. I’d set the ringtone to gunshots, specifically continuous fire from an AR-15 assault rifle. This was a source of tension between Barbara and me, but my responsiveness at all hours was undeniable.
Barrone said we were in crisis mode. I’d be hard-pressed to recall a time we weren’t. We reacted to everything, in a tornado of projects, initiatives, meetings, conferences, campaigns, talking points, surveys, polls, reports, letters, petitions, and other time-consuming debris constantly swirling around the office. Whether important or not, everything was urgent. The sky was falling every day. My association buddies, no matter what industry they represented, always felt like their thing was on the brink of cataclysm. Maybe this constant state of urgency was required to do jobs like ours. You might wonder what happens when crisis mode becomes business as usual, but that’s beside the point.
Especially since the national picture was terrible. Many of GOA’s friends on the Hill had lost their jobs in the last election. Their replacements wouldn’t meet with us at all; those that did continued voting the wrong way. The Other Party occupied the White House, with President Smith pressing an aggressive legislative agenda. Worst of all, gun control advocates included a spokesperson without peer: Jeannie Smith, the President’s daughter. Despite her history of childhood cancer, the cause she cared most about was gun violence, for which she, naively but predictably, blamed guns.
Jeannie was a high school junior, that age where most Presidents and First Ladies shield their kids completely from the media, much less let them actively participate in policy debates. But the only world Jeannie knew was one where her parents were public figures, and her self-possession exceeded her years. Her appearance enhanced her appeal: she had just enough cherubic child left in her face to balance all the signs that she was about to become an exceptionally beautiful woman. The girl knew how to build a platform, but more than that: Jeannie had class. She argued respectfully and avoided the oversharing, generalizing, and lecturing that dominated social media. America was too cynical and divided to have a sweetheart, but Jeannie Smith was the closest thing. “The little bitch,” as Barrone called her in private, was unassailable.
All that swirl of work and, in large part thanks to Jeannie and her father, none of it was gaining us any traction: we were in the weakest position anyone could remember. The ideas got wackier as our desperation grew.
Barrone said we were in crisis mode. Barrone was right.
The next afternoon, I was totally in the zone, plugging away organizing one of our new initiatives — I think it was Bring Your Gun To School Day — when my phone buzzed. It was a text from Barbara. She’d sent me a selfie of her and Sarah. They sat on a bench at the mall, wearing silly hats. Barbara did this sometimes, texted me random photos of their day. It irritated me. I found it distracting, first of all. It seemed to require a reply, though I never knew what to write. And I wasn’t sure what the point was: it felt like I was being labeled remiss somehow. I loved those two, and I spoiled the heck out of them. Barbara drove a forbidding Mercedes SUV with unmatched safety features and a tricked-out car seat for Sarah. When she wasn’t chauffeuring our daughter to one thing or another, she’d often be found in vigorous sweaty communion with our home Stairmaster or top-of-the-line spin machine, indulging her obsession with fitness. It’s true that Sarah wasn’t allowed in the main living room since the blueberry incident, but she enjoyed her own collection of toys whose combined retail price was in the five figures.
I ignored the text and tried to settle back into work, but then a calendar invitation for a meeting with Harris Cooger appeared in my inbox. My annoyance level rebounded. In a flash, I stood outside Rachel’s cubicle.
“Why am I invited to this meeting?” I demanded.
In his office, Barrone yelled, the sound only partly muffled by the door. Rachel didn’t look up from her screen. “Mechler told Barrone you recommended bringing Cooger in.”
“Mechler is a lying sack of shit.”
Rachel gave no sign she disagreed with this assertion.
“And why is Mechler suddenly my middleman to Barrone?” I asked.
Now she looked up, but only to award me one her patented Really?! looks, the kind of people got for cluelessness. “See you at the meeting.”
I sat in my home study that night, playing with my Twitter account and brooding. What was Mechler up to? Usually I could sniff out the faintest scent of office politics, detecting strategies and motivations with a bloodhound’s precision. This was a useful talent at GOA, which was like a bathroom where the abundant spray of fake potpourri couldn’t mask the pervasive odor of shit. But, in this situation, things didn’t add up. Did Mechler think this nonsense would earn him the Deputy VP slot? Eliminate me from consideration? Or something else entirely? All I knew was that we’d waste Barrone’s time the next day, and he’d be furious.
There was a soft knock and Barbara came in. Her hair was in a tight ponytail; spandex pants showed off the lean body from which even all that fanatical cardiovascular activity had failed to excise some of the curves. Thank God. I disliked recent pictures of us together; she sleek and angular and me office-doughy.
“Sarah’s getting ready for bed,” she said. “Maybe you’d like to read her a story?”
“I’m pretty busy.”
She came closer. “Twitter, Brad?” I winced. GOA’s public affairs people recommended we each maintain personal Twitter accounts. I was trying to be a team player.
She read my profile description over my shoulder. “Passionate advocate of Second Amendment freedoms. Proud husband …” she paused for dramatic effect. “And dad.”
“Give me a break, Barbara. We’re in crisis mode.”
“Views expressed are entirely my own,” she quoted. My whole feed was retweets from GOA.
“So what? I agree with my employer’s perspective. I’m helping to amplify our voice.”
“When was the last time you read her a story?” she asked.
“I’m working to ensure that she grows up in a world where the right to bear arms isn’t …” This was over-the-top even for me, and I changed course. “I had a terrible day. I’m too beat.”
Barbara rested her hand on my shoulder, then left. I turned back to Twitter and, Barbara’s sarcasm in mind, retweeted a piece about how most Americans opposed gun control directly from the Fox News website, rather than from GOA’s feed.
That’d show her.
The first thing that went wrong at the meeting the next day was that Mechler didn’t show up. “This is Mechler’s meeting,” I informed Rachel, unable to hide my desperation. This earned me another Really?! look.
“He had to go to the Hill,” she replied, dialing the polycom into the conference line. “He said he’d try to call in.”
The second thing that went wrong was that Harris Cooger and his assistant were right on time. Their incongruity with the staid conference room jarred me. Cooger was built like a bull: trapezoidal face, massive forearms. With a long gray beard and angry green eyes, it was like being stared down by Gandalf the Grey fresh out after serving a tenner at Soledad Prison. His assistant, introduced as Billy, looked like the guy who runs the Ferris wheel at a parking lot carnival. Crank thin, with a lazy eye and weak mustache of sandy fuzz, the word that came inevitably to mind was peckerwood.
When Barrone charged in five minutes late, however, he appeared unfazed by the visitors. “Let’s go,” he ordered. Oversized bifocals perched on his bulbous nose, he peered around the room with hostility, baring incisors like crooked fenceposts. Acne or chicken pox had left his cheeks cratered with pockmarks and when he yelled, face reddening with fury, it felt like being attacked by the world’s biggest, meanest strawberry.
“Mechler here,” came the static-y voice through the polycom. I had just enough time to be relieved before he continued, “I may have to go suddenly. Coffman should lead.”
Barrone turned to me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Cooger and Billy. They frightened me.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Cooger said, and with his penetrating gaze I could believe this was literally true. I shivered.
“Don’t confuse appearance for competence,” said Billy, sounding a thousand times more educated than he looked. “Like everyone else in America, we’re businessmen. We portray the image most of our clients expect.” He gave that a beat to sink in, then declared, “We can help you.”
Barrone raised his eyebrows.
“Our approach is unorthodox,” said Cooger.
“Progress can’t always be measured,” Billy elaborated. “Sometimes only felt.”
Barrone, desperate for anything that might help us, appeared fascinated. My discomfort grew.
“But what do you do?” asked Mechler, somewhere on Capitol Hill and oblivious to the atmosphere in the room.
“I focus,” Cooger answered. “My attention: my thought, will, and desire. I focus, and I nudge.”
“Nudge?” asked Barrone, eyes narrowing. “Like Cass Sunstein?”
“I nudge circumstance. I nudge karma. In a particular direction. Tell them, Billy.”
“He makes bad things happen,” Billy explained.
Barrone looked intently at Harris. “We need a bad thing to happen to the President.”
Harris didn’t flinch. “Yes.”
I felt deeply uneasy. We were desperate, sure, but this was crazy.
Barrone said, “It could be any number of things.”
“Don’t suggest specifics. I can’t control what happens, or when.”
“In an essentially probabilistic, quantum universe,” Billy explicated, “there’s no way to predict.” His lazy eye drifted upward, as if in heavenly rapture.
“Like I said, I nudge,” continued Cooger. “When the bad thing happens, I can’t prove causation. You, the client, must accept that if something occurs within the term of the contract, we caused it.”
“I can live with that,” said Barrone. I hadn’t realized Barrone was ready for a Hail Mary like this.
Mechler’s voice chimed in from the ether. “Coffman’s idea to bring you in was out-of-the-box, I’ll give you that.” I cringed. “But I’ll ask again: what do you do?”
I needed to correct the record, but was spellbound as Cooger leaned closer and answered with a question of his own. “Do you know that dark, murky place at the edge of your nightmares?”
“I don’t dream,” announced Mechler.
“I don’t sleep,” Barrone boasted.
I’d never thought of it this way, but knew exactly what Cooger meant. I whimpered, “Yes.”
Cooger looked at me. So did Billy … or, at least, he swiveled his head in my direction. “Have you noticed that’s where all the bad things emerge from?”
I hadn’t noticed, but believed it if these two said so.
“That’s the place I go,” said Cooger.
“It’s a bad place,” Billy added, underscoring the obvious in a way that gave me chills.
“I’ve heard enough,” said Barrone. “Mechler.” There was no response. “Mechler?” Nothing but static. Mechler was gone. “Coffman.” Barrone gave me the look I’d always found so scary before encountering Harris Cooger’s Manson lamps. “Make it happen.”
Cooger and Billy left surprisingly professional paperwork, even as their contract more resembled a tour rider. They planned to pitch a tent in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. (I wouldn’t have thought proximity mattered, but didn’t want to ask.) The contract stipulated that GOA would pay for the tent and chairs, food and lodging, modest daily fees, and a hefty bonus payable when and if the bad thing happened.
This was Mechler’s project, right, so I didn’t sweat the details. I sent the contract down to get our boilerplate added: indemnification and all the other legal hoo-ha that GOA included to cover its ass. I told the finance people this was a favor for Mechler, but of course the final document came back for my signature. It sat on my desk until Rachel buzzed to inquire, on Barrone’s behalf, as to its status. So I signed it myself, then moved back to the other 75 million projects on my plate.
At home, a few nights later, with Barbara and I snugly ensconced at opposite ends of our king bed, I started to think about the situation again. What might “the bad thing” turn out to be? Was it possible that Harris Cooger could harm the President of the United States by sitting in a tent and “nudging circumstance?” It was a nice fantasy. I hated President Smith. He was smug, corrupt, incompetent, and gravely mistaken about the direction the country should go. Maybe the harm wouldn’t be physical. Impeachment, for instance. Unlikely given the Other Party’s control of Congress, but you never knew. Or, even better, criminal prosecution. President Smith in prison, now that was a fitting fate: getting fucked up the ass the same way he’d done to the country.
But President Smith was only one guy. We needed to change people’s views. For that, the undeniable truth was that nothing was more effective than an attack. But only if it fit a certain profile. Not another 9/11 or Boston Marathon thing: guns needed to be involved. And the perpetrator needed to be a terrorist; some random nutjob wouldn’t do. Maybe one of those batshit crazy ISIS people. At a school. And the entire thing — kids’ screams, Allah Akbars, the whole caboodle — broadcast on Facebook Live. Maybe the guy could even say, “Too bad no one’s armed or you could stop me” before firing … say it in both Arabic and English, just to beat everyone over the head with it.
I didn’t wish for it. But if such a tragedy occurred, GOA would be foolish not to take full advantage. With thoughts of what such an incident would do to national polling numbers, I drifted into slumber.
I awoke in the downstairs room that I’d set up after my last promotion. Barbara called it a man-cave, but it was a home theatre. Either way, the room was all wrong: its angles off, the edges hazy and darkened like a far-off horizon.
Suddenly, Harris Cooger materialized out of the wall. He appraised the surroundings. “Nice place, Mr. Coffman.”
“I see what you did there,” I told him. “You came from the dark, murky place. Didn’t you?”
He smiled. “Let me ask you something, Mr. Coffman.”
“Call me Brad.”
He scrutinized me. “Won’t it bother you if people die?”
“The world would be a better place without President Smith.”
“What about those kids you were thinking about?”
“Yes, but …” I paused, but only for a beat. “Give me a break, Harris. We’re in crisis mode.”
“I’d hate to burden your conscience with the idea that, by hiring me, you share responsibility for what happens.”
“Then why mention it?”
“You might have thought of it yourself one day,” Cooger responded. “After the bad thing happens. When it’s too late to undo. Then you’d have to face it alone.”
“Face what alone? The view from my new Deputy VP’s office?”
“No.” He pointed his thumb back behind him. “Face that alone.” The walls of the room roiled like a stormy sea, flashed like lightning. Terror seized me. “Take my hand, Mr. Coffman. Come with me to the dark, murky place.” A bloodcurdling scream from behind the wall pierced the air, punctuating his invitation. “I have things to show you.”
As if hypnotized, I reached out my arm to take his hand. Then I came to my senses and jerked it back. “What is this, a Stephen King movie? No fucking way, dude. And I thought I told you to call me Brad.”
Cooger appraised the room again: gargantuan flat-screen TV, custom-built wall unit, Bose speaker system, leather seats. “This must be a great little escape.”
I scanned the still-churning wall apprehensively. “Can you make that stop, please?”
“How often do you get to enjoy this place?”
I shrugged and he shook his head. “What’s the point if you never get to use it?” He snapped his fingers. “Ah, it’s not really for using, is it?” I said nothing, but he’d hit on some truth. “I bet what this room represents gives you far more pleasure than using it ever could. That’s true of a lot of things that are yours, isn’t it?” Again, he gave me a few seconds to mull it over before he went on. “But it all has a cost. None of it’s free.”
“Free?” He’d touched a nerve, and I was tired of his presumptuous clairvoyant moralizing. “Of course none of it’s free. I earn it, every penny, by slogging through shit 70 hours a week!”
He met my anger with a spot-on mimic of Rachel’s Really?! expression, which brought home to me the way I’d described my job. The dark, murky place mocked me with the sound of automatic rifle fire, and all my fear turned to rage. Cooger laughed and disappeared into the wall. In a mix of fury and catharsis, I screamed after him, “Slogging through shit! Slogging through shit!”
That was when Barbara tapped my shoulder and woke me up. “Your phone’s going off,” she yawned. “And you were mumbling about hogging the zit, or jogging to quit, or something.” Once I was sufficiently conscious to make those infernal gunshots cease, she rolled back over.
I basked in relief: my encounter with Cooger was a dream. Then I checked the phone. The message was from Mechler. Whats happening w psychic initiative, he’d written. At 2:14 am. Was he under the illusion that I reported to him, or just being sarcastic? Either way: what an asshole.
Barbara emitted a snore that sounded like a dismissive snort. I got out of bed. Something about the dream sent me to Sarah’s room. I crept in and nestled into the glider by her little bed, placing the phone on her dresser.
Unlike Barbara, Sarah’s sleep was silent. They say that small children change incredibly fast, and the times I’d been away for work I noticed something different about her each time I returned. But I could never put my finger on what precisely changed. In the glow of the nightlight, her face looked ageless. I could envision her as an eight-year old, a 16-year old, a grown woman. I saw the future in her features and wondered, as I hadn’t since her birth, about the person she’d become.
The sound of gunshots disturbed my reverie. I swatted for the phone and knocked it to the floor. I stood up and nearly tripped over it, catching myself on the edge of Sarah’s bed.
“Sarah, it’s just me. Daddy. Goddammit.” Had I kicked the phone? Where had the stupid thing gone?
“Mama! Mama!” Her panic grew.
“It’s OK, Sarah. It’s Daddy.” I reached under her bed, groping, and managed to push it further away. The artillery barrage continued, my daughter’s room transformed into a scene from Saving Private Ryan.
“Ma-MAAA!” came the full-on shriek. “Ma-MAAA!”
“Sarah, chill, OK?” My fingers felt the phone and I got down on my belly for the extra reach to grab it.
I heard footfalls. The light came on and Barbara’s voice said, “Honey, it’s OK. Mama’s here, Mama’s here.”
“Ma-maaa!” The cry changed from fear to relief as Sarah leapt out of bed and ran to her.
I finally grabbed the phone and stood triumphantly, only to be confronted by a squinting, angry Barbara. Sarah sobbed, her face buried in Barbara’s shoulder.
“Would you turn that thing off?” Barbara demanded. The cessation of gunfire was bliss. “What are you doing in here?”
“I wanted …” This would be difficult to explain. “I came in here to …”
“You woke up a three-year old,” she said, in the tone she might use to inform me that I’d put my underwear on over my pants. “And me. Again.”
“It was an accident.” I peered at my phone.
“It’s from Barrone,” I told her. I expect status report on Cooger at 3:30 staff meeting.
“I don’t care if it’s from God.”
Sarah, groggy and disoriented, released her death grip on Barbara. “Daddy?”
“Comfort your daughter, maybe?” Barbara said.
“Sure, yeah, hold on.” Got it. Will do. I thumbed back.
Barbara plopped down in the glider, Sarah on her lap.
“I can take her,” I offered.
“No! I want Mama!” Sarah exclaimed.
Barbara shot me a withering look. “Shut the light when you leave.”
My terrible night’s sleep didn’t mitigate the work I needed to do. Late the next morning, I took an Uber the half mile from GOA’s office to Lafayette Square. It was bright and sunny, warm for the season. The streets were filling with office drones. Lunchtime in downtown DC was a cattle call. Fortunately, I stayed busy enough to eat at my desk and avoid the whole scene.
If you’ve ever walked by Lafayette Square you know that, besides tourists congregating for White House pictures and suit-and-tie types scurrying between buildings, there are always protesters of one variety or another, some with tents. Cooger’s tent — a miniature version of the backyard type people rent for weddings, white with a fake window, about eight feet square — stood out. It was far classier than the others, and the only one without signs. Billy sat in front of it, sketching on a pad.
“He inside?” I asked, trying to peer in.
“He’s at lunch,” Billy told me. He scribbled strange symbols. Was he creating the proper aura for Cooger’s work? Inscribing an occult incantation to weaken the President? Preparing for his weekly Dungeons & Dragons group? Whatever it was, I noticed he was doing it on stationery from the Four Seasons, the most expensive hotel in town.
“He likes that place up a few blocks.” He gestured, his eye still on the pad. “The steak place.”
“The steak place.” This was supremely unhelpful in narrowing it down. But I had a hunch and headed up to K Street. Capitol Steak and Seafood was one of the priciest restaurants around, and I found Cooger alone at a table for four. A platter of surf and turf, largely consumed, rested before him. Various side dishes — mashed potatoes, mushrooms, asparagus — littered the table. A nearby chiller held a bottle of white wine, though there was red in his glass.
“Brad,” he greeted me cheerily. “Long time.” He winked in a creepy way that made me wonder whether my dream the previous night was truly the product of my own subconscious. But that was ridiculous.
“Just checking on things,” I stammered, standing next to his table like a supplicant.
“Doing your due diligence. Smart.” He put a forkful of steak into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “I must say: this place is good, but not quite up to the standard of the hotel restaurant.”
“You mean at the Four Seasons?”
Cooger nodded, then raised a mocking eyebrow. “Maybe I’m not the only one around here with special powers?”
“You are staying there,” I chided.
“We’ve got to stay somewhere.”
“I saw your assistant,” I told him. “He was writing in some kind of runic script.”
Cooger guffawed, displaying strands of expensive beef trapped between his teeth. “It’s not runic script, Brad. It’s math. Complex math. Billy may look like he flunked out of carny school, but he’s got a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Caltech.”
“Then why is he minding a tent for you?”
Cooger shrugged. “More lucrative and less taxing, I suppose.”
“How is it going?” I was unable to hide my sarcasm. “Working hard?”
“Sure am,” he responded. Eyes twinkling, he asked, “How is your work going, Brad? Enjoying your job?” He forked another bloody nugget of steak into his mouth.
“You know,” I said. “I recall that when Jesus faced down the Devil, he slept out in the desert and fasted for 40 days. He didn’t stay at the Four Seasons and go out for surf and turf and Bordeaux at 11:30 in the morning.”
“I’m not Jesus.”
A tuxedoed waiter approached the table. “More wine, Mr. Cooger?”
“Yes, please, Hector.” We watched him refill the glass in silence.
After Hector departed, Cooger sipped his wine and looked at me seriously. “Brad, I need my strength for facing down the dark, murky place. It all helps: rest, sustenance, even a little libation. Let me tell you what it’s like there.” He gestured with his fork. “It’s like a prison, but an alluring one. Full of tormented souls who can’t leave.”
I couldn’t help it. “The dark, murky place is the Hotel California?”
“No, Brad. It’s a dangerous place, and one that can wear you down until you’re nothing but an empty shell.” He nudged the remains of his lobster with his fork and pursed his lips. “Have you ever spent time in a place like that? Can you imagine how it saps your soul?”
I checked my watch. I needed to get back to the office. “No, not really.”
The waiter returned to the table, carrying another massive slab of meat.
“Thank you, Hector. Could you wrap that up, please?” Cooger caught my stare and explained, “Billy needs to eat, too.”
“Can’t he go to Cosi?”
“I think the Gun Owners of America can afford a steak. Anyhow, Brad, we’ve got things well in hand here.” Cooger smiled. “But look, all this food, and I didn’t offer you anything.” He scanned the table. “Want some mushrooms? I’m not going to finish them.”
“How about you bring them for Billy?” I quipped.
“Good idea. Thanks, Brad.”
One doesn’t become an Associate VP at a trade association without the requisite bullshitting skills. Which is to say I survived my status report on the project that afternoon. But I was uneasy.
I was right to be.
About a week later, Rachel appeared at my office door. “Harris Cooger is here to meet with Barrone.”
I jumped up.
“Did you know about this?” she demanded, though I was clearly shocked.
We rushed to Barrone’s office. Somehow, some way, Mechler was already there. God, I hated him.
Cooger was euphoric. “Gentlemen, I’m happy to report success.”
“What’s happening?” asked Mechler.
“You’ll know within 24 hours.”
“What’s happening?” demanded Barrone.
Cooger chuckled. “I can’t tell you.”
“Well, Billy would say that it’d disturb the space-time continuum. My explanation is it would be unwisely fucking with karma. Either way, you’ll find out soon enough.”
Barrone glowered. “Cute.” He pushed a button on his desk phone. “Get me public affairs. Wiggins, anything big happening now?”
“Like … like what?” came the voice of GOA’s public affairs director, nonplussed.
“Like anything big!” snarled Barrone.
“Biggest story today is the Instagram sex thing with that reality TV star. Slow news day …” Wiggins trailed off and I imagined him wincing, waiting for Barrone to chew him out for whatever he’d missed. Instead, Barrone buzzed off without another word and glared triumphantly.
Cooger laughed. “Just remember you heard from me first.” He proffered a thin white envelope. “I’ll expect payment by the first of next month.”
I grabbed the envelope. The total charges, including all those nights in a five-star hotel and all that steak and wine, must be off the charts. Barrone would blow a gasket. And who knows what nefarious uses Mechler would find for such an invoice.
After Cooger left, Barrone commanded, “Find out what he’s talking about.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying. I called my friends on the Hill, checked in with the reporters I knew, even utilized my weak connections at the Smith White House. There was nada. Mechler also turned up blank. Barrone fumed.
My sleep that night was abysmal. I kept checking my phone for news alerts. Barrone messaged me and Mechler hourly to see if we’d heard anything. On her side of the bed, Barbara tossed and turned, until at some ungodly hour she yanked off the blanket and said, “Maybe you should pick up a dozen roses and play some Barry White for your phone, since you’re planning to make sweet love to it all night long.” She grabbed her pillow and departed the bedroom.
The next day, midafternoon, Rachel sent an e-mail ordering staff to assemble in the conference room. The President had announced a press conference, and Barrone wanted us to watch live. Whatever Harris Cooger had done, this was it.
“Sit next to me,” Barrone said. He attempted a smile. It would have been a proud moment save that Mechler already sat on Barrone’s other side.
To our surprise, as we watched on the big screen, the President and First Lady trudged to the podium together. They looked grim.
One of my colleagues yelled, “Resign!” to general amusement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon,” President Smith began. “Cindy and I come before you today with heavy hearts.”
Barrone muttered, “Whatever weighs down their hearts lightens mine.” I chuckled.
“Many of you know,” said the President, “that Jeannie, our daughter, has struggled with leukemia. We’ve just received news that the cancer has returned in an extremely aggressive form. It’s metastasized to her lungs, liver, and brain. Doctors have no suggested treatment, and we’re making arrangements for her last days to be as comfortable as possible.”
Our collective mirth vanished, we all looked at the floor. The First Lady began speaking about her memories of Jeannie as a small child. Barrone’s jaw clenched audibly. “Clear the room now,” he ordered. “Rachel, you stay, along with Mechler, Wiggins, and Coffman.”
When everyone was gone, he turned to us. “So this is what Harris Cooger has done for us. Coffman, do you know what you’ve accomplished here?”
Mechler began to interject. “Don’t forget, I also had s …”
“You have totally fucked up everything!” Barrone roared. I’d witnessed Barrone furious — at me, at others, at the world — many times, but never like this. “Do you know what this means?” he screamed. “He will be untouchable now. He’ll have the sympathy of the whole goddamned nation! I can picture it already. The Jeannie Smith Gun Control Bill. Honoring the legacy of the President’s poor deceased daughter.” He pounded the table with his fist. “Who can stand against that?”
Nobody dared speak, except Mechler, who offered, “I knew Coffman’s idea would never work.”
This was a step too far. I needed to let him have it. “Mechler, you f…”
“Shut up, Coffman,” Barrone said, with a look to wilt flowers, turn green grass to yellow husks, and transform butterflies to smoking black cinders falling from the sky. Then he dropped his voice to a chilling whisper.
“Let me tell you two things that will happen now. First, tomorrow morning, bright and early, we’ll meet with Harris Cooger again, and he’ll begin reversing this thing. Stat. Rachel, make it happen.” He paused for a breath. “Second, damage control.”
I sat in my home study that night, working on my Twitter account. Demonstrating I was still a team player by retweeting GOA’s stuff was like trying to fill the Pacific Ocean with a teaspoon. But it was something to do.
When Barbara peeked in the doorway, I didn’t wait for her to speak.
“I know,” I said, “it’s getting close to Sarah’s bedtime.”
“Read her a story, Brad. Play dolls with her.” Her voice surprised me with its softness. “She wants to spend time with you. And I bet it’ll take your mind off things.”
“Today was miserable.”
She saw the stricken expression on my face. “Is it Jeannie Smith?”
“Such a tragedy for that poor girl, and her parents.”
I looked at her, surprised, not by the sentiment she’d expressed but by her thinking the tragic aspect of it had anything to do with my shitty day. She met my look, then her eyes cut over to my screen. She shook her head.
“Oh, Brad. No.”
You’d think she’d caught me posting on Ashley Madison or looking for prostitutes. All I’d done was tweet GOA’s meme and hashtag.
Guns don’t kill people, cancer does. #RIPJeannie.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Brad, if you don’t know …” Her voice was taut.
“We don’t want people to lose sight of the real issue,” I explained.
Barbara didn’t respond. She threw up her hands as she walked out of the room.
I yelled after her. “I’m amplifying our voice. Give me a break, Barbara. We’re in crisis mode. Our meme will go viral. Our hashtag will trend. Wait and see!”
“It’s simple, really,” Barrone said. “Undo it.”
It was 8:30 the next morning and Mechler, Barrone, and I were back in the conference room. Cooger and Billy’s luggage was piled against the wall. Job done, they were headed for the airport.
“It’s not that easy,” Billy responded.
“You made it happen, didn’t you?” Barrone challenged.
Cooger shrugged. He looked rather proud of himself.
“Our contract stipulates you accept that we did,” Billy answered, one eye focused on us while the other checked the corner for dust mites.
“So you can undo it.”
Cooger and Billy said nothing.
“We’ll pay you double,” Barrone offered. “Triple!”
He didn’t quite understand the financial commitment this would entail … most of it, if the previous contract was any guide, for high thread count sheets and sommelier service. “Um,” I ventured, “we might want to …”
“Shut up, Coffman.”
“I’d love to take more of your money,” said Cooger, “but I can’t reverse it.”
“It’s complicated. Billy?”
“He only does the dark, murky place,” Billy explained. “He’s, like, a bad stuff specialist.”
Mechler snorted. “So put us in touch with a good stuff specialist.”
Cooger and Billy exchanged glances. “I suppose there’s someone we can recommend. But she’s on a three-month retreat in the Himalayas. It’ll take time to reach her.”
“We don’t have time,” Barrone hissed through gritted teeth.
“Honestly,” Cooger said, “you’re better off not going with a third-party vendor on this.” He looked at me. “From a karmic perspective, the best thing is for the person who desired the harm to seek to undo it himself.”
“That means one of you guys,” Billy added.
Barrone, Mechler, and I exchanged looks.
“Coffman,” said Mechler.
“Mechler,” I said.
“Coffman,” barked Barrone.
“What about you, Mr. Barrone?” Billy suggested. “After all, you’re the b …” He stopped talking as his own boss laid a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.
“Coffman,” Cooger decreed.
They all looked at me, like a pack of drooling wolves who’d cornered a cute little bunny rabbit with a fluffy white tail.
“What does he need to do?” asked Barrone. “Is there some shiny, happy place he needs to go to?” He eyed me ominously. “Even shinier and happier than GOA?”
“Do I get all-you-can-eat surf and turf?” I asked. Everyone ignored me.
“The most important thing,” Cooger said, “is to find a peaceful spot and focus. You must eliminate all distraction and relax.”
“We can help him relax,” Barrone said, then yelled, “Rachel, get in here now! Take Coffman’s phone. Lock his office door.” Rachel shot me a sympathetic look as I meekly handed over my phone. “And move all meetings downstairs. Nothing in this conference room.”
“Think of it like prayer,” said Cooger. “Gather all your feelings of benevolence, goodwill, and lovingkindness, and send them to Jeannie Smith and her parents.”
“Ugh.” Barrone grimaced.
“Or meditation. Have you ever tried meditation, Mr. Coffman?” Cooger asked.
Even if I had tried that hippie BS, I’d never admit it in front of Barrone and Mechler. Though Barbara did yoga at the gym sometimes. At least I thought it was yoga. Maybe she’d said Zumba.
“This is like meditation,” Cooger explained, “except your point of focus isn’t your breath or a mantra, it’s the good things you want to happen. For instance, you can picture Jeannie’s sickness as dark clouds, and envision the sun burning them off. It’s important to imagine Jeannie and the President and First Lady as healthy, happy, smiling, laughing …”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” muttered Barrone.
Billy held his watch up close to his face and nudged Cooger.
“We’ll miss our flight if we don’t get going. Questions, Mr. Coffman?”
“Very good.” Cooger smiled, satisfied.
Everyone except me stood up. Cooger and Billy grabbed their bags.
“Make it happen, Coffman,” Barrone ordered, exiting after them.
“Good luck, Coffman,” Mechler gleefully called, following the boss.
I admit: flipping my middle finger at his retreating back wasn’t the best way to begin my quest for lovingkindness. But the bastard deserved it.
Not yet 9:00 am, and I considered the day I’d expected to have. There was a ton to do and I couldn’t do any of it. Deadlines would be missed. People would be angry. Barrone waltzed out without making any provision for my workload. Didn’t any of it matter?
Now my job was to “nudge circumstance.” Not a bad description for much of GOA’s work, honestly. This realization led to a moment of despair, but only a moment. Barrone considered what I was doing high-priority. He’d cleared the conference room for me, after all, which — given the volume of meetings around this place — would inconvenience practically everyone. If this work was indeed important, I ought to give it a try, as idiotic and — come to think of it — humiliating as it seemed.
I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. Good things for Jeannie Smith, I thought. Good things for Jeannie Smith. I pictured the words running across the darkness behind my eyelids, like one of those stupid scrolling tickers every TV newscast has taken to using.
Repeating this phrase was like counting sheep, with the same effect. When I next opened my eyes, it was 10:30. I was embarrassed. I was also desperate for caffeine and needed to drain my main vein something fierce. But as I walked past Rachel’s desk, her head swiveled up in dismay.
“Brad,” she whispered, “you’re not supposed to leave the conference room.”
“I haven’t had any coffee.”
She glanced toward Barrone’s office. “He will flip his shit if he sees you.”
“And the bathroom’s not optional, either.”
“You need to get back in there now.”
This made me angry. “Do you want me to piss in the conference room coffee pot? My bodily functions don’t cease at Barrone’s command.”
In a huff, I went to the men’s room, relieved my bladder, and washed up. Then I headed to the kitchen, grabbed the largest cup I could find, and filled it with coffee. Rachel and I stared each other down as I walked back the other way.
In the conference room again, I hesitated over the coffee I’d so eagerly sought. My little catnap had been nice. Maybe I could arrange more. I sat back, closed my eyes, and tried again with the Good things for Jeannie Smith stuff. At first I was too irked by Rachel’s behavior and, now that I thought about it, by the way we all tiptoed around Barrone. I knew the guy was a superstar, and yeah, he was the boss. But did he have to be a complete asshole all the time?
Eventually I drifted off again, and when a soft knock at the door woke me, it was nearly 1:00 pm. I felt good. Sleep was underrated, especially when you took away the threat of being woken up by an automatic rifle fire ringtone. I went to the door. Outside, on the floor, was lunch from Sushi Bob’s in a plastic container.
Though ravenous, I ate slowly, savoring Rachel’s act of kindness along with the food. Why couldn’t there be more kindness around here, I wondered, instead of Mechler’s backstabbing and Barrone’s malevolence? Weren’t we all on the same side? I regretted my gruffness with Rachel. It occurred to me what an extraordinary job she did, tolerating Barrone’s moody browbeating and running interference for the rest of us. She was remarkable.
Maybe, I thought, I should take some of these warm fuzzies and aim them at the First Family.
Yeah, right. My mind wanted to go everywhere but there.
As I polished off my lunch, I thought about how I needed to lose weight. Sushi was kind of healthy, right? Maybe I’d already taken the first step.
I followed the motion of the second hand around the clock … four revolutions before I took my eyes away.
I mentally catalogued my retirement investments. Were they properly diversified? This was an issue worth revisiting once I escaped this room. Along with the weight thing.
I counted. Several times. Once almost to 1,000.
After an eternity, I tiptoed out of the conference room. Rachel was gone, Barrone’s office dark. I dumped my stale coffee in the kitchen, then rummaged through the fridge and wolfed down someone’s leftover pasta that they’d probably planned to have for lunch the next day. Well fuck ‘em, I thought, a guy’s gotta eat. But then I felt sorry — what happened to all those kindness vibes? — so I washed the container and put it back in the fridge with a $20 bill inside.
I hadn’t been aware of the hum of the building’s ventilation system, but I noticed its absence when it shut down at 9:00 pm. The silence grew profound when I flipped off the fluorescent lights and lay down on the conference room floor. In the dim quiet, I stared at the ceiling tiles and felt like a prisoner locked in his cell. Except nothing stopped me from leaving: to a restaurant for a real dinner, to a bar for a drink or ten, even home for a few hours’ rest in my own bed … or, given things with Barbara, on one of our many couches.
I didn’t move.
I awoke when the ventilation system kicked back on at 6:00 am, after the most solid, peaceful night of sleep I could remember. As I strode through the empty office, the physical exertion added to my wellbeing. It occurred to me that, at home, Barbara would already be awake and pounding away on the Stairmaster. Did she get a high from exercise? Surely it wasn’t solely fear of a few extra pounds that kept her motivated. Fear could only get a person up in the morning for so long. Soon Sarah would rise and … did she have daycare today? Or was it only afternoons? I couldn’t remember. Photos of the two of them hung in my office. I made casual small talk with coworkers about them. But they were there, and I was here, and that was that.
It would be different for President Smith. He lived and worked in the same place, and his wife and daughter were part of the endeavor. GOA endlessly made hay on social media with all the sordid stories about the First Family: the accusations, conspiracy theories, claims of corruption. It wasn’t enough for people to disagree with the President’s policy positions. They needed to hate him. Even better if they hated his whole family. That was how to mobilize action. It was also, I realized with the morning’s clarity, a good way to keep those of us who ought to know better motivated through an endless crisis.
I sat down in the conference room again and tried once more to do what Cooger had suggested. I imagined the corniest image ever: President and Mrs. Smith frolicking — I apologize for that word, but it’s the right one — through a green field, holding their daughter’s hand. The sun shone, wildflowers bloomed. Puffy white clouds drifted lazily overhead, stolid bumblebees and delicate butterflies flew hither and thither. Total cliché. A scene you’d see on TV only as dreamy irony or a Claritin commercial.
Then it happened: the First Couple transformed into Barbara and me. Jeannie shrank down to the size of a three-year old and became Sarah. She grinned up at us.
It was that image, equally heartbreaking and stupid, that sent me into the mental time warp. Days passed. I didn’t worry about my work, ponder what else to scavenge from the office kitchen, or watch the second-hand travel around the clock. Uninterrupted by the ding of e-mails, the constant Twitter refresh, or the dreaded gunfire ringtone, my mind settled into focused, concentrated thought.
I wished good things for Jeannie Smith. I wished them for her parents, and for the parents of all the imaginary kids I’d envisioned gunned down, whoever they were. And the kids themselves: what had I been thinking, more worried about poll numbers than actual lives? I wished good things for Sarah and Barbara. For Rachel. For Wiggins. My kindness, my magnanimity, seemed boundless.
But of course there was a limit. I hit it when my attention turned to Mechler. The gushing fountain of lovingkindness abruptly sputtered to impotence. I tried again. Total failure to launch.
Then I thought about Barrone, a man to whom I’d devoted more attention than to my own wife and daughter. A man who kept me, kept all of us, in constant fear and stress. Around whom we slavishly maintained a cult of personality. Like some tin pot dictator, the more absurd his ideology and outrageous his demands, the more we loved him. All so that he might bestow on us … what? In my case, a Deputy VP slot that meant more abuse at his hands.
How could a person live like he did? Constant work, continuous agitation … his physical condition must make my office pudge look like Olympic triathlete. I imagined his arteries, clogged and brittle. His heart, angry and swollen. Pounding through meetings where he growled and glared, phone calls where he screamed into the receiver, nights he spent firing off one angry message after another. How long could his heart hold out? It was miles away from kindness, but I began imagining that heart of his going kablooey.
Then I started to desire it.
This was much easier, and a hell of a lot more fun, than imagining good things for Jeannie Smith or anyone else. I was like Harris Cooger in that regard: a natural bad stuff specialist. Circumstance, or karma, or whatever, must have recognized it, because the wall I’d hit became real. It wavered and flashed and pulled me in: finally, I entered the dark, murky place.
Inside was cavernous: the illumination orange and shuddering, as if torchlit. It was like no place I’d ever been, yet somehow familiar. A distant chanting put me in mind of the movies. Was this the Mines of Moria? Some dungeon from Conan the Destroyer? Yogurt’s cave in Spaceballs?
Suddenly it dawned on me.
It was that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — you know the one — and I was the high priest. On the altar before me rested a giant stone god, hungry for sacrifice. Its eyes and mouth were lit by the glow of molten rock. In my hand, I held my victim’s still-beating heart. Cratered and rotten, just as I’d envisioned Barrone’s, it ejaculated black blood with each feeble throb. I was frozen in place, shocked and disgusted.
I looked up at the statue again. Its face was familiar: pockmarked cheeks, globular nose, crooked teeth. The chanting increased in volume and pitch, and the god’s voice rang in my head: Make it happen, Coffman.
Wait, I thought with dawning horror, if the god is Barrone, who is the victim?
The chanting reached a crescendo. I looked down and gasped as I saw who was in the cage, whose heart I held in my hand. Not Barrone. No, not at all. It was ….
I opened my eyes. I was back in the conference room. Rachel stood at the door.
“It’s Barrone,” she said, eyes wide. “Brad, it’s bad. He’s …”
I stared at her, the reality of what I’d somehow done sinking in. There was both hope and trepidation in my voice as I asked, “You mean he’s …?”
“He’s incredibly pissed off. Like, beyond the pale, even for him.”
“Go back to your office,” Rachel told me. “Close the door. Stay away from Barrone right now, OK?”
“Jeannie Smith died this morning,” she said. “Now go.”
Being in my office felt at once familiar and strange, like moving through your house after returning from a long trip. I checked Fox News: the top headline was Jeannie’s death. I didn’t know how much of it, if any, was my responsibility. But I was sorry.
2,472 unread messages sat in my e-mail inbox. My office phone flashed with 17 new voicemails. On my smartphone, which Rachel had placed next to my computer, were 30 new texts, including 13 from Barrone and 10 from Mechler. Yeah, those idiots kept texting me even after they’d taken the phone away.
There was also a text message from Barbara. Of all that junk, it was the only thing I looked at. She’d sent a silly little photo of herself and Sarah bundled up on a playground bench. Both were smiling. This time, I saw it for what it was: an invitation.
Beautiful, I texted back. I’ll be home soon.
I wasn’t as talented as Cooger. Barrone lasted 12 more years. It was a stroke that finally did him in, and it happened in the middle of staff meeting. The story I heard is that no one called 911 because they confused the shaking, inability to speak, and contorted face with his normal paroxysms of rage. Mechler, by then quite advanced in the Deputy VP slot we’d both coveted, ascended to Barrone’s position. I saw a photo of him online. He looked terrible, like a snaggle-toothed old fox who’d outrun one too many hounds. There but for the grace of God, I thought.
Sarah’s now about the age Jeannie was when she died and, though she lacks the First Daughter’s celebrity clout, in some ways reminds me of her. Her intelligence, curiosity, passion. I love the way she is, and at the same time can’t wait to see who she’ll become. For one thing, no one would have guessed that Barbara and Brad Coffman’s daughter would be an ardent environmentalist, but that’s where she seems headed as of now.
A few weekends ago, the three of us were on Capitol Hill, going to dinner. We came up from the Metro just as the sun was setting, and I spied a miniature backyard wedding tent outside the Rayburn Building. In front of the tent sat a skinny man who looked like he was sketching in a pad.
“Dad?” Sarah asked.
Though it wasn’t on our way, I approached. The sunlight near-blinded me. I couldn’t make out the man’s features. Then I noticed another man, this one stocky, walking toward us, carrying something. For a moment, I was sure it was Harris Cooger, bringing dinner in a doggie bag to Billy.
“Brad?” asked Barbara.
But when I got close enough, “Billy” turned out to be one of those pestilential Lyndon LaRouche supporters. “Cooger” was just some guy carrying a bag. He walked right by.
We went on to dinner.
Too bad. I would have liked to thank them.
Josh Trapani is a scientist turned policy wonk who lives just outside Washington, D.C. He helped start the Washington Independent Review of Books and served as its first managing editor. His fiction and humor have appeared in Parent Co, The Big Jewel, The Del Sol Review, Neutrons Protons, Brick Moon Fiction, The Higgs Weldon, and others.