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Brothers in Arms
I’m sharing a short story. This is from a collection called A Songbook - each story is tied to a different piece of music.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
How to talk about this?
He’s 22. He’s working on a political campaign in a small town – let’s say it’s in New Hampshire. Everybody on the campaign had ended up there because they’d watched Primary Colors at a vulnerable age. It’s the kinds of people he went to college with – good schools, bright people, it’s an exciting election year, there are a lot of volunteers.
The job itself is a cross between proselytizing and telemarketing. He’s on a bicycle – doesn’t drive yet, is taking driving lessons from a local misogynist – but rides from house to house asking to speak to people about the Senate candidate and if they’re not home (they’re usually not home) wedges a campaign flyer in the space between the door handle and doorjamb. In the evening they are on ‘call time’ – it’s a big deal to ask for permission to use the bathroom, you’re really supposed to be welded to your desk, and you call two, three hundred people. Most aren’t home, the ones that are are ‘all set with that’ – a cunning New Hampshire phrase that is indecipherable as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but means ‘leave me alone.’ The ones you get hold of are asked for their voting preference or recruited into volunteering for the campaign. He’s considered to be excellent in call time. The other field organizers describe him as having a ‘folksy’ tone. Once or twice, in the thick of it, he’s caught himself drifting into what seems to be a Southern accent.
The highlight of his day is the twenty or thirty minutes after call time when everybody sits quietly at their computers and tabulates their numbers. This is the only time all day when it’s possible to listen to music. He hooks his headphones into the computer – he has his Kazaa playlist; and YouTube is just coming out – and he could swear that he’s never appreciated music in this way before. How it washes over him, how every lyric, every phrase, brings the color to him. How he spends all of call time craving it.
From the beginning he senses that he doesn’t quite get on with the other organizers. There are the locals, who are a bit jocky, and there are the poly sci majors who spend too much time talking about the time they interned on Capitol Hill. The low point for him is the 4th of July weekend. There’s a great parade for his candidate. They’ve assembled their totems – these like wooden crucifixes with their candidate’s banner unfurled above it – and they bang wooden sticks against the totem and shout themselves hoarse, him as much as anyone, and then if everyone is going out drinking, which seems probable, he somehow misses the memo, bikes back to his supporter housing. They’re away for the weekend. He tries to make spaghetti and burns the handle of the wooden spoon. There’s a Tarantino marathon on HBO on the living room television and he watches Kill Bill and Death Proof and Reservoir Dogs. His host family comes back when he’s not expecting them. Quietly, he clears away the couple of beer bottles that have accumulated by his nesting spot. Makes his way back to the air mattress that has been prepared for him in the basement.
Alcohol is becoming a more central part of his life now. A new organizer shows up. She’s a few years older, Southern, really does have a folksy style. She walks in and his noirish thought is, “This one is trouble.” She has a dent in the windshield of her car from when her ex punched it during an argument. She introduces him to the best bar around – it’s run by a Libertarian, the other organizers have been avoiding it. There, he develops a taste for vodka martinis. He starts to understand the hidden underground of drunk driving. Basically, everybody is driving drunk all the time; the designated driver is a myth of public safety ads. It’s a little lucky that he’s been flagging in his driving lessons, that he’s not headed to the parking lot with the rest of the bar rats, instead just unhooks his bicycle from his post. He starts to wonder if this might be an issue when he’s biking up the high hill to the supporter housing, notices at some point that he’s drifted onto the wrong side of the median.
He's not exactly sure why he doesn’t connect with Pak before he does. Pak is Vietnamese, grew up in Georgia – doctor parents. He’s very small and very delicate. The two of them went to rival schools. Pak is part of the Capitol Hill crowd – he’s pretty convinced that he’ll have a career in government, something low-key but prominent, likely in the State Department. He’s amused by several things about Matt – amused that he can’t drive, amused that he entertains himself on the weekends by doing things like going to minor league baseball games, amused above all that he’s never seen The West Wing.
Pak has really scored in his supporter housing. Has a condo unit all to himself, own kitchen, own washing machine and dryer. There’s not much to do with the place – they’re working all the time; whenever he gets a chance Pak drives to Boston to go clubbing. But it becomes a comfortable spot for watching The West Wing.
The West Wing is like a Bible for what their jobs could be like – if only, if only. In no time at all, he and Pak are walking-and-talking every chance they can get in the office. They walk back and forth down the long hallways of the warehouse-turned-office where they work – the topics can be what they’ll do for lunch, a reprise of an entire scene from The West Wing. There are all sorts of references in the show that seem to speak deeply to their own circumstances. “I’ll send you to canvass in Alaska” becomes a frequent threat.
Television doesn’t have quite the same hold on him as music does, but it does take over, probably, the majority of his waking thoughts. There are all sorts of crises that he can’t wait to see resolved – the treacherous Vice President, the drug addiction of the Chief of Staff, the sort of international crisis of the week. It really is a wonderfully well-crafted show. Unfortunately, they’re working so hard and so late that they only have time for one or maybe two episodes before he has to bike back to his basement. At some point – around the time that the Bartlett administration is rallying to unexpected success in the midterms – Pak points out that it’s simpler all around for him to sleep over, they can watch an extra episode, they won’t have to spend the next day speculating about a TV election.
Which is true, it’s a good plan. He’s never shared a bed with a man before, but it’s really not so difficult, just turn on his side and fall asleep. In the morning he’s driven into the office – it’s too much of a pain to load the bicycle into the trunk, so it makes the most sense in the evening to drive back to Pak’s place again, pick up where they left off. There’s a new and – to him – unexpected season arc. The president has clearly had some sort of a secret for a long time, something health-related, and Toby Ziegler finally worms it out of him. The staff is of course livid with Bartlett, betrayed. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Leo demands of him. “Because I wanted to be the president,” says Bartlett.
The tension of this is a little difficult to take from their opposite sides of the bed, hands on chin, watching Pak’s laptop. This is tough stuff they’re dealing with, friendship, betrayal, the fate of nations, and it’s better to have proximity for this. He scratches the top of Pak’s head. If sleeping in the same bed as a man isn’t really so challenging, neither is scratching a man’s head – he had cats growing up, there was a period of time when his cat curled up with him pretty much every night as he was falling asleep, it became a mechanical thing for him, scratch the cat’s head, listen to it purr. Which, of course, Pak doesn’t exactly do. But a deep quiet when he casually, nothing to it, reaches his hand across the thick hair – very different from white people’s hair – how difficult it becomes to comment on what’s happening in the show, the sense of dropping into some other reality, how he can’t even catch the shape of it.
He's not completely alone at this time. He still, technically, has a girlfriend – in the advanced stages of long-distance. They talk on the phone. She comes to visit and rents a bike to go canvassing with him, lets him know every time there’s a car behind him. He goes on a few dates with a volunteer at the campaign – she’s a local, has her own car, a grown-up person’s job at a library in Boston. You’re not really supposed to date the volunteers, but everybody’s watched enough of The West Wing, they know that these boundaries are meant to get a little slippery. She’s a bicycling fanatic, that’s the main thing they talk about. They sit in her car as she’s dropping him off at the supporter housing and make out listening to ‘American Boy.’ That seems to be the only song on the radio that summer – Pak despises it; but that’s a losing battle, that just makes him amusingly cranky every time he’s out at a bar. For their last date, she stands him up. He finds himself sitting on a curb drinking a can of Jack Daniels – he hadn’t known that Jack Daniels could come in a can, there’s the sense, stumbling across it in the deli, popping it open on the curb, of some sort of initiation. Insignificant moments; lonely, shameful nights; but some odd shivering sensation inside of him as if everything is charged, the universe is taking his photograph.
At work it’s pretty much autopilot. The mornings are make-work – long coffee breaks. The afternoons sort of the same but he tries to get out and canvass on his bicycle. The evenings call time. Then the half-hour of music from the computer – Pak introduced him to Radiohead on their drives in to the office, that’s mostly what he listens to. He and Pak are less friendly in the office than they might be. Pak’s a bit cliquey and clubby, still part of the Capitol Hill crowd that make a big thing out of midday lattés. Matt’s usually on his bike around that time. The reflection at the moment is about what exactly’s wrong with him. He went to such a good school, should have such a future ahead of him. Shouldn’t be getting stood up by bicycle-riding librarians. Something that bothered her about the basement entrance to the supporter housing, the intervals between showering, bicyclist herself, but she didn’t like, he could tell, loading his bicycle in her trunk when they drove off on their handful of dates.
The point of the season’s arc of The West Wing is that there’s a clarity to desire, that certain things matter more than others. It’s not really a good idea to run for President if you happen to have MS, a whole bunch of things can fall apart around you if you do that. Within the show, though, the rest of the cast happens to be very forgiving. He wants to be the president, so he’s the president.
The story gets out. The press calls for his head, or at least his resignation. He has a momentous press conference to deliver. Shortly before he does that, his longtime aide, Mrs. Landingham, suddenly dies. Bartlett seems to find himself in an addled state. There’s a hurricane blowing, the ghost of Mrs. Landingham appears and chats with him about Democratic policy, he has his motorcade stop off at a cathedral and he rants at God in a variety of languages and tosses a cigarette butt on the cathedral floor. His handlers, the consummate professionals that they are, have orchestrated the press conference to make the best of a bad situation – for the first question to be from a science journalist who will ask about the president’s health and elicit some sympathy. But Bartlett is getting a very Martin Sheen-ish look in his eyes. A rock song that Matt hasn’t heard before is playing as the soundtrack – an extended sequence, like a ballet, like nothing Matt has ever seen on television.
The critical moment, Matt comes to feel, isn’t the conversation with the ghost in the hurricane wind or the slightly over-the-top rant in the cathedral. It’s a quiet shot, the president’s motorcade is approaching the briefing room, and, abruptly, all the other vehicles, the motorcycles, the whole entourage peels away and all that’s left is a single limo with the president inside it, making his way to speak. And when he arrives, there’s of course a hubbub among the gallery, C.J. points out the science journalist, a balding, gentle man, timidly rising to ask his softball question, and Bartlett, taking center stage, looks at him and instead points to a tough political reporter who asks him the only thing anybody cares about which is if he’s going to run again. Bartlett asks her to repeat it – “Can you repeat the question, Sandy, there was a bit of noise,” he says, which becomes Pak’s favorite line, the line he uses around the office – and she asks it even more insistently, and the scene cuts to Toby off on the side figuring out what’s going on and saying, “Watch this,” and then back to Bartlett putting his hand in his pocket, which is a gesture that connects to Mrs. Landingham, and there’s a smile he has, just as the shot dissolves and the season ends, which lets you know that he’s the master of the situation, that he’ll prevail no matter what.
The episodes are cunningly arranged and a set of critical cliffhangers falls right at the break between the two episodes, Mrs. Landingham killed right at the end of the penultimate episode and the president’s condition leaked. There had been a break in their watching towards the middle of Season 2, while Matt had his thing with the bicycling librarian, and he and Pak make up for it with a marathon. By the time they get to the news about Mrs. Landingham, it’s like 3 in the morning. Their regular staff meeting is at 8. Matt insists on falling asleep. Pak has already seen the closing episode of the season but he’s livid. He actually flails on the bed. “I don’t know if I can take that,” he says. Matt says that they shouldn’t miss the meeting because they were up watching TV. Pak is curled up, hands and knees, towards the lip of the bed, as close to the laptop as he can get. He’s very kittenish, he’s both pretending to be upset and actually upset. “And when are we going to wildly make out?” he says. Matt takes him in his arms, scratches the top of his head as he’s been doing. After a while, he closes the laptop. The two of them sleep on their sides.
They white-knuckle it through the next day, listen to Radiohead on the drive into the office, listen to Radiohead on the drive back to Pak’s. In the evening, they watch ‘The Two Cathedrals’ – the great balletic episode, the best television Matt has ever seen, he and Pak both stunned, both kind of sprawled out on different sides of the bed, unable to process the greatness of what they’ve just witnessed. The next morning, after Pak drives him in to work, Matt looks up the song that’s been playing all through the closing sequence. It’s called ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits. And, in the half-hour after call time, he listens to it on headphones.
It really may be the best song Matt has ever heard. ‘These mist colored mountains / Are a home for me now / But my home is the lowlands / And always will be.’ He plays it sometimes with the original music video on YouTube – a sort of cheesy music video, animated drawing of waves and mountains and Knopfler silhouetted on the guitar – but, needless to say, seems like the most beautiful music video he’s ever seen. And plays it sometimes with the YouTube video ripped from the ‘Two Cathedrals’ – the limos diverging, the walk to the podium, the hand in the pocket.
He and Pak never really get into the third season. They watch a couple of episodes, but the dynamic in the office is changing. It gets more frenetic as they get closer to the election. There’s a fresh round of volunteers and organizers – friends of friends, people taking a semester off school. A friend of Matt’s is one of them. She’s smart and funny, a political junkie, finds her way quickly to the Libertarian bar and the drunk drivers. Calls Matt on his office line and makes up some excuse whenever she wants him to join her for a cigarette out back. Matt thinks she’s just about the funniest, most charming person in the world. Pak says, “She drives me fucking nuts.” One evening at a bar she and Matt get into a long, windy argument – something to do with whether polls are reliable or not, the kind of thing Pak is supposed to find interesting. But after it goes on forever, after another round is ordered, Pak goes to his car and brings back the bag of laundry Matt had left in his trunk, that they were going to do while they watched The West Wing, leaves it at his feet.
Matt never ends up finishing the season. It really gets chaotic at the end – they’re working full-full-time. He bicycle canvasses before he comes in to the office in the morning. Call time is extended later and later. On election day – it’s a blowout, a big win – he’s about the happiest he’s ever been. In an unsportsmanlike mood they all call Wasilla, Alaska – Palin’s town – to try to canvass for the Dems. The next day three of the guys in the Obama office next door get matching tattoos of the campaign logo.
There’s barely time to listen to music, even in the quick, accounting portion of the evening, after call time. But when he does it’s pretty much only ‘Brothers In Arms’ – and pretty much only the ‘Two Cathedrals’ clip. ‘Someday you’ll return to / Your valleys and your farms / And you’ll no longer burn to be / Brothers in Arms.’ Limos diverge, Bartlett asks to quiet down the bit of noise, the reporter asks her question, hand goes in pocket.
As an episode in his life, it doesn’t mean much of anything – the more he reflects on it, the more that’s how he thinks of it. Gay, straight, these things don’t really matter. That never even really developed. He and his college girlfriend broke up, the librarian didn’t work out, but he and his fun, drunk friend fuck all night of election night and float into the office the next morning to start packing it up. He and Pak never really had all that much in common to begin with – Pak the sort of politico who liked to sip lattés, didn’t like to argue about the value of polls. In the end their conversation turns out mostly to be catchphrases from the show.
The way to talk about it is that it was just loneliness – that’s all there was. He was just starting to glimpse the extent to it.