Jed doesn’t remember much about meeting Mrs. Landingham, just a snapshot-memory of the usual Sunday crowd of teachers and boarders milling around the grey stone archways and the entrance to the chapel, the sky pale blue above.
He probably had homework, but on such a fine spring day he would have blown it off to drive somewhere, a paperback and a pack of cigarettes on the passenger seat next to him. He and his buddies were planning an editorial in the school newspaper. He had just discovered Ray Bradbury.
So many of his memories are like that. When Abbey asks him how old he was when his father became headmaster, he replies that it was just after he first read The Hound of the Baskervilles (still a pre-teen).
He remembers nothing of a summer he spent with an aunt and his mother in California except for a book on Lincoln that he took down from her shelf. We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. He whispered these words to himself, pleased by the shape they made on the page. He imagined them being spoken for the first time, rising just audibly above the shared exhalation of the crowd. Lincoln’s voice faint perhaps, before the age of public address systems and the Autocue. Like dry leaves in the cool air.
Once, his father knocked him to the floor of his study, after school had let out and the corridors were silent. He doesn’t remember why his father did it, but he remembers letting himself out of that room into the outer office with its smell of mimeo ink, the school-corridor smell of smoke and shoe polish. When he passed by Mrs. Landingham’s desk she nodded, mentioned as if in passing that his collar was torn. Not like you to be roughhousing, Jed, and he realised that she was telling him, in her own shrewd, matter-of-fact way, that she knew.
He doesn’t realise until years later what a gift she gave him when she turned to him in the parking lot, his broken-down car engine ticking between them. Self-awareness. A boy king, she’d called him. She placed him in a world bigger than this school and his teachers, his father. She asked him what he was afraid of, but of course she already knew that, as well. The sting of a blow across his cheek, his father's anger.
His English teacher answered his questions dismissively, his voice curt. He made it clear to Jed that questioning why some books should be banned from the library was an impertinence. Jed quoted the first amendment in the editorial he and his friends wrote questioning Professor Loomis (condemning, his father had said), and signed it along with his friends, and he really knew for the first time what an inheritance his name was.
“You stuck your hands in your pockets, you looked away and smiled.”
She knew him so well, not only knew that his mind was made up but knew that there was a part of him that hungered to do something but didn’t know how.
No other woman apart from Abbey has known him so well, his vulnerabilities and fears, the way the words and the ambition and the still small voice of inspiration mingle in him and spur him on.
When Jed parks the car he can see Leo there, sitting on the curb by the passenger door of his Lincoln. It’s a parking lot behind a motel, one of those beside-the-freeway boxes you can pass by a thousand times without ever noticing.
Jed remembers when Leo bought that car. Impeccable safety record, he’d said. Jed had nodded, put on his wise old professor voice, said something about safety mattering more when you had kids. With a family, you wanted the seatbelts, wanted the clunker. Leo had smiled so his eyes went crinkly at the corners, said what do you know, New Hampshire’s the only state without a damned adult seat belt law. That was the year Jed became governor, on a crisp fall afternoon at the Manchester house.
Leo doesn’t appreciate New England winters. Jed loves the cold, loves the way it’ll take your breath away if you don’t expect it, loves the shock of a new snowfall, Robert Frost nights when the world seems so real, so close.
The car is parked sloppily, diagonally. The front wheel mounts the curb. The essential wrongness of this, the car askew, Leo sitting on the ground, makes something clench in the bottom of Jed’s stomach.
Leo has his head in his hands, and when Jed approaches he lifts it up, slow, heavy. There's a strange, hunted look on his face, one Jed hasn't seen before. He's sitting there on the curb in his two-hundred-dollar shoes and a made-to-measure suit. There is a bruise down one cheekbone, and a brown smear of dried blood on the side of one of his knuckles.
"Jed," Leo says, then stops as if he doesn't know what to say. There's no upward inflection to his words, no tone.
Jed can smell the sweet-sour smell of whisky. There’s a small puddle of vomit off to one side. There are little white things in it, pill fragments perhaps. He can’t look at it for long without tasting bile at the back of his throat. Leo rubs his hands against each other slowly as if they’re itching for a cigarette, and the gesture looks too much like prayer to Jed. None of this is right. This man is his oldest friend.
The smell of the whisky and the vomit reminds him getting drunk with his brother Jon and his buddles one weekend when their parents were away. Jon passed him the bottle with a teasing smirk on his face, and he drank too fast and too much. He’d never felt so wretched as when he stumbled to his knees and retched in the back garden, and now he remembers that, barfing in his mother’s flower garden with his brother’s throaty cackling behind him.
“Leo,” Jed says, and it’s an effort to keep his voice steady, but he's very good at that. “What’s going on?”
Leo rises and stumbles back a little, and Jed puts a hand on his upper arm. Leo doesn't try to explain, just leads him into the hotel room and shows him the pill bottle in the pocket of his blazer.
“What were you thinking?” Jed realises that his voice is raised, just a little bit, and the nagging politician’s voice starts to go off in the back of his mind. Leo is the Secretary of Labor, he’s drunk here in a hotel room with the Valium. Does anybody know he’s here? Has he been indiscreet? Has he called anybody? Does he have papers? He hates himself for thinking these things, at a time when his friend needs help.
“I don’t know,” Leo says. His voice is small and lost.
“Come with me now,” Jed says. He puts his right hand on Leo’s upper arm, tries to lead him out the door.
“Can you remember if you paid or not?”
There’s probably more accusation in that sentence then there needs to be, and of course Leo can remember, he’s not that far gone. He wants to help Leo, but he can’t help being angry at him for doing this. Jed doesn’t think he’ll ever understand it, why Leo drinks.
“Give me your car keys.” Jed reaches into Leo’s blazer pocket for the keys, closes his hand around cold metal before Leo puts his fingers hard and steady around his forearm and pushes it away.
“Shut up.” Leo turns then, the words hissing between his teeth, and almost like an afterthought his left hand comes up and slaps Jed across the face.
It is the same way Jed’s father did it, the same casual strike coming out of nowhere, the same stinging impact across his cheek. Anger rises within him like a physical thing, and even though Leo is taller and heavier than he is, he puts his hand on Leo’s shoulders and pushes him back. A bright numb spot spreads across his cheek. He wonders if Leo’s father hit him in the same way. It’s such an uncharacteristic gesture. They both live their lives in words. We’re both sons of cowards, he thinks out of nowhere.
“You didn’t mean that,” he says, smelling the sick coming off Leo. And that’s all they say until the motel is miles behind them, Jed driving Leo’s car. He’ll have to send someone back to pick up his car. This is wrong.
Later, Jed drives Leo to the airport. It feels a little bit like penance. He has never been a good driver. He obeys all the rules, sure, but he’s never patient enough to sit there and let the miles pile up. He needs to adjust the radio, calculate routes. He can’t be patient.
Leo will drive for hours. Jed really learns this later when it’s just the two of them out in New Hampshire and Michigan, the staff he barely knows following behind. Jed naps in the passenger seat to grab fifteen minutes of precious rest and every time he wakes he sees Leo sitting there driving, his lined face active, as if he’s turning over strategies, and Jed can see the depth of the experience that they share.
When he wakes to the lines of speeches and press releases rattling through his head he wants to turn to Leo and let other words fall from his mouth, tell him about the blurred vision and the tingling in his fingers, tell him that he has multiple sclerosis.
But he wants to be in this to make things happen, and he knows that Leo will tell him that what he’s making a mistake. He also knows that Leo will lie for him, and then they’ll be held together in the embrace of some future scandal, and there will be questions, questions about right and wrong, about the pills and the booze. Jed doesn’t know that what he’s doing is wrong (that certainty comes later), he just knows it isn’t right, so he swallows down on his lie of omission like something bitter and asks Leo about the rubber-chicken dinner they’re driving to, about polls and speeches, asks him if he knows how many national parks there are in Michigan.
For Sierra Tucson, Leo has a small overnight bag at his feet, another full of hastily-chosen clothes in the trunk. There are some papers in the bag at his feet, books. He takes a hardback off the top of the pile. Jed turns, sees that it’s The Sun Also Rises. His father loved Hemingway, probably for the misogynistic, half-bitterness of it. Jed has never really enjoyed reading him for that reason, because whenever he does so he feels as if his father is near, a hardback held closed on his finger, ready to throw his hand up into his son’s face, vindicated by the mid-century maleness of it.
“Hemingway,” he says.
“Yeah,” Leo says, glancing down at the paperback. “I’m gonna re-read them. There won’t be much else to do there.”
“There’ll be time devoted to sitting around in a circle and crying,” Jed says, and he turns in time to catch a brief smile flitting across Leo’s face. He looks so old. Leo looked old the first time they met, though.
“Read much Hemingway?”
“My father liked him. A lot.”
Leo grunts, opens his mouth as if he’s about to say something, then closes it again. There’s a brief silence.
“I don’t remember my father reading much apart from the newspapers and the Harvard Law Review.”
Jed doesn’t quite know what to say, there, so he stays quiet.
“My father committed suicide.” That last word, sharp and heavy like bottle-glass, brings the hair up on the back of Jed’s neck. And then, automatically, a line from the catechism: we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.
“I’m sorry,” he says, because what else can you say? His father's anger has always been mystifying to him. A backhand to the cheek, maybe a fist to the midsection, all in the privacy of the study: that’s nothing. Nothing compared to that sort of violence, public shame. And it’s not why Leo drinks, he knows that. Leo drinks when he’s happy, and he drinks when he’s not.
“Don’t be,” Leo says, “It happened a long time ago.” Then he puts his hands to his face and breathes in quickly, wetly, and Jed just drives.
When he gets back to New Hampshire, Mrs. Landingham has papers for him to sign and appointments to reschedule and a press photographer from the Union-Leader who needs to be placated and all that shit is annoying enough to him on a normal day, but today he feels so edgy and tired that he’s snapping at her before he’s even had his morning coffee.
“There’s no need for that, Governor,” she says, with a razor-thin hint of irony in her use of his title. He can hear high school in her tone, and he immediately feels guilty for what an ass he’s been. It’s not her fault he’s been away, and she’s held the office together while he was gone.
He goes home late. Zoey is reading The Road Not Taken for an English assignment. He gets a cloth-bound book of Frost’s poems down from the bookshelf in his study. It has his father’s name in the front.
“My English teacher says it’s about regret,” she says, and he can hear her questioning it, turning it over in her mind.
“Your English teacher’s a doofus,” he says, and Abbey tuts. He sits beside his daughter and they read the poem together. He wants her to be independent, and so he tells himself that he doesn’t care if she likes English or hates it, whether she realises how useful math is. He thinks now, as a parent, that his own father was jealous of his intellect, and so all he wants to do is love them. But maybe that’s ego: he certainly has a lot of that, as Abbey says.
Ellie is the quiet one, focussed on biology and medicine, but he is infinitely careful not to overshadow her, steer her. But when Zoey reads the last line of the poem and smiles to herself, he’s glad: she understands, as he does, the power that these words can have over us.
Leo goes back to Washington after a month at the facility. When Jed speaks to him on the phone, he can hear the same scrubbed-clean weariness that his voice had in the car.
The next time Jed gets down to Washington, Leo wraps him in a bear hug that takes him by surprise. He can smell Leo’s cologne, and something vaguely like cigarettes, and he can’t smell whisky on him at all. He’s lost weight, and the dark bags are gone from beneath his eyes. His voice is his own again.
Then so much happens, Leo telling him they’re going to lift the roofs of houses, pride for his friend shining in his voice like something bright. Leo comes down to see him in New Hampshire without telling him why he’s coming, his eyes shining, almost feverish. He scrawls Bartlet for President on a napkin, and that phrase rings through Leo's mind long before Jed's. Leo has nothing, no party money, no Democratic support. All he has is his unflagging confidence and a series of AA chips in his pocket.
Jed feels ambition inside himself, and part of him wants to ignore it, the part that wants to be content with what he has. The small dark fragment of self-pity that he turns over and over in his mind like water worrying at a pebble. But he locks these things away deep within himself, the lies he doesn’t really tell to the doctor who examines him, the injections that Abbey gives him that none of his entourage actually see, and he goes with Leo, because he wants to win. This is the time of Jed Bartlet, Leo says with a smile. You’re gonna open your mouth and lift houses off the ground. It’s Leo’s time too. Jed loves him too much to take it off him. Then the campaign is his.
Leo comes to him a few days before the final debate, closes the hotel door carefully behind him, and quietly presses his five-year chip into the palm of Jed's hand.
"Josh knows as well," he says. He looks hungover and contrite. Jed feels terrible, laid low with what they tell the press is a middle ear infection. He knows he has to bounce back quickly, so they can spin it to make him seem eager and young. But he still feels terrible.
"It's okay," Jed says. "Don't worry about it, Leo. It's okay. You gonna drink tomorrow?"
"No," Leo says, his voice raw again.
"Okay," Jed says, "Let's go win."
He raises his right had and says I, Josiah Edward Bartlet, the words mingling with the held breath of the crowd before him, the January air as fine and delicate as spun glass.
Leo looks old, his face distorted by the glass panels in the portico door. Like a reflection on water.
When Leo lets himself in he clears his throat, and half of Jed’s mind still dwells on a telephone call that shock will half-erase from his memory later. He hangs up, and Leo comes closer, and Jed notices something tender in his face, something like pity.
“Mr. President,” Leo says, and then he pauses as if he’s out of breath. Jed knows then that something is wrong. “I have some very bad news.”
He remembers Leo calling him from the motel, his voice shaking like distortion over the phone line. He remembers Abbey shutting his office door behind her, her eyes shining, saying Honey, let me tell you what these test results mean.
Leo tells him that Mrs. Landingham is dead. Then Leo sits with him in silence for about ten minutes, until he’s remembered what he needs to do. Leo goes to the cut-glass decanter on the sideboard and looks at it with his back to Jed. He asks Jed if he wants a drink, and Jed loves him so much in that moment, for his strength, for everything he’s done for him, for putting him in this room.
Nobody knocks at the door in that ten minutes. His telephone doesn’t ring. Nothing but the wind vibrating the door to the portico, the latch rattling.
It is a jolt to him, when he is fresh and unguarded so it cuts straight to the bone, when he realises that not only has he forgotten what the telephone call was about, what the outcome of that brief presidential communication was, but that he does not have Mrs. Landingham to remind him.
“Oh, Jed,” Abbey says when she tells him, her voice shaking. She kisses him on the forehead, her hands cold at the side of his face. There is a deep pain at the back of his throat, but he clears his throat and it goes away.
That night, the past seems very close.
Nothing he ever does will be enough. That’s what he thinks when he comes back from the church, from her funeral, his heart still pounding with the selfish anger he felt when he strode up to the aisle and into the nave. He can still smell the warm-woody-sweet smell of the incense in his clothes, unlike anything else, a smell he’s found comforting for most of his life.
When he puts one of his hands up to his face, though, he can smell cigarette smoke. The weight of his lighter still in his pocket.
Haec credam a deo justo, he thinks as Leo sits him down in the oval office, after the interview. The word credam can be used in the indicative and the subjunctive: I shall believe, I may believe. Am I to believe these things from a righteous God? The succinctness of the Latin pleases him.
There’s a sort of gentleness in their voices, Leo and C. J. and the other staff, as if they’ve only just realised that he has an illness, as if they’ve just heard the news as well. Of course they haven’t, but he imagines that it’s hit them hard too. They’ll be angry later, but now a blanket of shock and fear is laid over the entire building. He never told Mrs. Landingham about the MS. He wishes he had.
The rain beats against the window and Donna is telling him that the weather they’re experiencing is a non-repeatable phenomenon. C. J. is telling him to speak to the medical reporter first, because that question will be a soft one. He doesn't want the press to be soft on him. Why should they be? And for what purpose?
It seems like the past is so close again, the close bookish smell of his father’s study. Was that supposed to be funny? His father had enjoyed asking that sort of question, probably because he hated funny people, hated his eldest son’s light, quick wordplay. His father’s hand coming up to strike him on the face, and Jed feeling absurdly proud for biting down on the anger and the pain and not letting any of it show on his face. He never did bring up the salary equity thing again, though. He's always felt bad about that.
He lets himself into the oval office. He doesn’t know why. It doesn’t seem like long until he’ll need to go before the press. But it seems like a long time, at the same time. The minutes go by like hours, and the rain beats against the window, and when the door to the portico blows open and he calls for Mrs. Landingham before he can stop himself, she walks into the room like she has so many times before. The wind is blowing so hard he can feel a couple of drops hit him on the side of the face and on his hand, so he knows he isn’t dreaming. He knows he isn’t going mad. He lets his conscience speak to him.
Your father was a prick, she says, and he’s always known that. He knew that when his father hit him, knew that his father was angry at him for more than talking back or putting his name to editorials. God doesn’t make cars crash, she says, and he knows that too, knew that even when he was walking up the church, his voice raised, his shoes echoing on the tessellated floor. When was the last time he spoke that loud in church? Probably when he said I do.
He remembers her speaking to him in the sunlight, that afternoon when he was still in high school. He hears her voice now. If you don’t run because you think it’ll be too hard. If you don’t ask because you’re afraid of your father. If you don’t run because you’re afraid to die. Then God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you, she says, and even though she only ever said that to him once the words ring as clear to him as anything she ever said.
He knows then. He knows what he wants to do, and what he has to do, and he goes outside to let the rain run stinging against his face, blowing his lucky tie up against the front of his shirt, soaking through his blazer. He wants the water to feel like redemption.
When Charlie comes to him he hardly hears him, hardly sees any of them. He’s praying for forgiveness and for strength. Leo makes eye contact, for just a second, and Jed knows that he’s walking just behind him. His shirt sticks to the front of his chest and he feels cold and raw and small, small in the face of all this. But he gets into the car and he doesn’t once look aside at Leo. He knows what they’ve both done, and he knows what they can do to try and fix it. When he gets up out of the car he stands there for a moment, looking around, and he wonders what they think when they see the president standing here, coatless, in the rain. A fleeting thought comes: I hope that Abbey will forgive me in time.
And when he gets inside the building, well. When he stands there in front of them he feels small again, feels raw and cold and wet, but he feels sure again as well, knows that to try and get hit in the face is always better than not trying at all. So he looks past the medical reporter, sitting there silently, expectantly, waiting for his question. He lays himself bare, standing there with his wet hair flopping over his brow.
“Mr. President, can you tell us right now if you’ll be seeking a second term?”
“I’m sorry, Sandy”, he says, “There was a bit of noise there. Could you repeat the question?” And there, in that room, he can feel the unspoken words hanging there, hanging under everybody’s breath. The cameras flash.
He sticks his hands in his pockets. He looks away and smiles.