You better take care of me Lord, if you don't you're gonna have me on your hands.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas [Hunter S. Thompson]
Nobody ever really figured out TJ Hammond.
The list of people who never tried begins and ends with the name Hammond.
“It’s just a house.” A truth but a badly written one. It’s just a house, something rotten in the foundations, ghosts in the attic and dead men looking out from every wall. It’s just a house. TJ used to carry around a box of matches in case the need to burn it down got too bad. (TJ used to carry around a box of matches and eventually he needed an excuse and the burn of cigarettes was just the right sort of death and Douglas’s disapproval was sweeter than even that. TJ used to carry around a box of matches but one day he lit himself on fire—trapped the image of his demise on the cover of The New York Times—and has been burning ever since.)
It’s just a house but so was every other place the Hammonds tried to call home. The rot went with them. Sometimes in the walls and sometimes lurking in his mother’s eyes, in the way she never liked to answer the phone when they were kids and how Daddy wouldn’t quite look at TJ. But these are old sins. These are the sins you bury in the garden next to the pet that didn’t run away or throw into the ocean, before turning around and never looking back.
These are the sins that topple empires. It was just a house. What used to be in it was the deadly part.
Fourteen is a bad year. Fourteen is the worst year. Fourteen is the start and the end of it all and TJ is fourteen years old, stealing a cherry red convertible out of a movie theater parking lot. Hits the accelerator as hard as he can and the air reeks of burnt rubber and this is freedom. Fourteen is the best year. Douglas finds him two hours later, stopped by the side of the road ten miles out of Little Rock, his legs hanging out the side of the car.
“Jesus Christ, are you stupid.” And it’s not a question because it never is and Douglas’s accent drags like barely melted sugar because this is all before the White House, this is all before his mother ironed out their irregularities, but even then Douglas clung to precision. Douglas spoke with perfectly nondescript vowels right until he ran into whatever TJ left for him and then he lost it all and TJ smiles. (What will one day be the most famous smile in America, if you believe things like that. Smiles. Smirks. No. Snarls. TJ snarls because anything worth laughing at is worth stabbing yourself with and Douglas is so damn angry and TJ feels alive. TJ snarls and spreads his legs wide as they’ll go because already things are changing. Already Douglas can’t stand any of this.)
“You’re so goddamn stupid.” And TJ is laughing and sometimes he looks back and thinks that was the first time Douglas wanted to kill him. And sometimes he looks back and thinks that was the first time Douglas wanted to gag him and tie his hands together and fuck him into the ground. And mostly he doesn’t look back at all.
That was the last time Douglas ever cleaned up after TJ. That was the only time Douglas ever cleaned up after TJ.
The only time the true tragedy of the Hammond’s will be played on the public stage is at Bud’s funeral.
Douglas’s knuckles break across his brother’s face and TJ takes a stumble back and laughs with blood dripping out his mouth and reaches forward to kiss Douglas.
No one knows how to handle it. No one has a fucking clue.
TJ cuts himself off from the rest of the family the day he is born and he never tries to make peace. It’s nothing personal. He’s nothing like them. It’s the most personal thing in the world.
Bud Hammond is easy Southern charm and a smile that melts hearts and catches only the most flattering shades of limelight. His sons don’t take after him. Douglas kills himself trying but TJ doesn’t bother. From day one TJ looks at his daddy and finds something lacking. Finds that charm too easy and goes off to find a cliff for jumping. (Later, when they find him on the ground broken and bruised, he’ll say he was trying to fly. The laughter reveals the lie and no one knows what to do with a boy who courts death like she’s the prettiest girl at the party. No one knows what to do with TJ.)
He used to go to bed every night dreaming of waking in a different house, a different life and when he tells the world they say he’s playing his mother’s game. They say that when the cameras switch off he smirks like the devil with a brand new trick. What do they know. They know everything. Maybe he is. Maybe he loved it, loved the invasive fingers, the eyes watching his every move, the way the world gasped his name and took all of him. Pulled out his secrets and his lies and aired them out and when that wasn’t enough took his heart as well. Maybe that’s what makes life worth living. Maybe that’s what TJ Hammond is—the greatest public performance piece a life has ever been. Maybe he lives for the burn of it.
He is not what his father hoped for. TJ is not what Daddy wanted. Too much fire, too much lust and greed and hunger. Endless hunger. Hunger like the sky, wanting the whole world and willing to pay anything for it. TJ is not his father’s son. Except when he is.
There were private schools and careful lessons in etiquette long before the White House. Elaine Barrish was no one until she married Hammond and people believe that right up until they meet her. Elaine Barrish made herself everything she is today. Elaine Barrish made the Hammonds what they are today.
When he was five TJ would come stand next to her desk and she would push the hair back from his face, croon softly to him, half meaningless phrases and half endearments. “My angel,” she called him and he never listened but if he had, TJ would have known she called Douglas nothing of the sort.
The first time he overdoses she comes to the hospital, pushes the hair back from his face and whispers, “my angel.” Elaine didn’t cry the first time her son nearly died. Nor the second. Not even the third. Elaine Barrish didn’t cry over TJ until the day he walked into her study, fresh off a transatlantic flight and without a tremor in his voice said, “I’ll kill him. If you want me to, I’ll kill him.”
There are lines he doesn’t cross but they are few and far between. In the bathroom of a dingy motel somewhere TJ holds a loaded gun in his hand, transfers it from palm to palm, feels the steady weight of it. The gun is in his hand and it is his twenty-fifth birthday and this is the lowest TJ will ever fall. The gun is in his hand but he never puts it up to his temple, never opens his mouth wide around the muzzle. He never points the gun at himself.
The first year in the White House is no better nor worse than the ones that came before it. It’s just a house but they paint it white so you can see the stains better. You can see the families that fall apart, the way that loyalty cracks down the center and lines are drawn and the board is set for something that only looks like a game. The Hammonds had a head start on all of this. And the House shows every flaw but the first year is no better nor worse than the ones before it and TJ survives. TJ keeps his head down, makes all the right jokes and the right friends and only smiles the smile that was approved for public consumption. And if all that extra space only serves to make brotherly fights echo louder and the new city spreads out like a map for causing mayhem, if it makes his veins itch, if the attention makes him crave more than nicotine—it isn’t anyone’s problem but his own.
(Take note: he’s wrong. TJ Hammond is wrong. It is everyone’s problem. It is everyone’s business. His life is no longer his own and when he learns this lesson he’ll be unstoppable, the fury of hell coming in his wake, deadlier than all the President’s nuclear weapons, but not yet. This day has not come yet. TJ lost everything the day his daddy became President but once he learns this lesson, once he gives all of himself away— Well. Watch closely.)
TJ wants the world but Douglas only ever wanted the keys to the front door. Douglas only ever wanted to be the Hammond Heir (capital letters a necessity and add as much dramatic emphasis as possible.) Douglas only wanted what he was born for but instead he got a brother who could light the stars with a look, who made every room stop and stare, who had a death wish and a streak of perfectionism like burnished gold. Douglas wanted to be the elder son but he got TJ as a younger brother and never recovered.
TJ knew who he was long before the White House. TJ knew what he liked, who he liked before he reached the teenage years. Knew that the way Douglas’s eyelashes hit his cheeks was something he stared at a bit too long and that he wanted to pull each lash off, swallow them one by one just to keep a bit of the perfection. Knew that the girl down the street with the candy pink lips and a mouth foul as anything was something he needed to keep.
At seven he could name every Congressmen alphabetically or by order of seniority. At fifteen he had four languages slipping past his tongue, calculus running through his veins, books and books and books tucked away into the corners of his mind. At seventeen he could play Bach liked he’d sat down and composed each note at the keys, could argue philosophy and tax law and likely evolutionary theories with equal ease. No one gave a damn about his education, about his school until the day they sold a picture to The Post of him and Archie Croft pressing open-mouthed kisses to each other’s lips. (Archie had been tall, blond and so utterly perfect that TJ lost what shred of self-restraint had kept him America’s favorite son that first year. Archie had spoken with perfectly arched vowels and never done anything but what his father told him to. Archie had been the worst sort of temptation. Archie had been perfection and TJ reached in and took apart his life and didn’t feel a damn thing when Archibald Croft ran to California to ditch the fallout.)
It would have blown over. Youthful indiscretions (not boys will be boys, only abuse of women is covered by that one. Apparently you haven’t been listening to Bud) sweeping a multitude of acts under the rug. Had TJ kept his head down it all would have been forgotten, one small blip in what was meant to be a picture perfect life. Because the American people are not smart. Because it isn’t forgive and forget. It’s forget and then incidentally, along the way forgive. And TJ let no one forget. TJ was born knowing who he was and if he had to know so did everyone else.
TJ had treated the attention as his due. Sauntered past the line of reporters gathered at the school, regulation tie hanging around his neck like a noose, smirk firmly in place and when they screamed for him he raised a single finger in the air and screamed right back. That was only the start.
(If you must know—but you already do—there were school nights spent slipping the agents’ tight web, wandering into dives that didn’t give a damn about IDs and whose son you were. Giving head in a mostly empty alley behind a bar; the picture of the President’s youngest son on his knees making the rounds and getting talked about by anyone with a mouth that opened. If you must know, you’re just like everyone else. If you must know, you’ve already lost.)
“You always hated me,” Douglas says to TJ.
Their father barely dead, his body not yet cold in the ground and a dead President means a dead President’s funeral and all and sundry are gathered here today to witness the first chapter of the second book of TJ Hammond. He is thirty-five years old and he is tired. Tired in a way that cannot be told in words and goes beyond pain. He is tired and he is hungry, the same old hunger, the same old need and you could compare it to the ocean, to its inability to do anything but wear the obstacles down. But the ocean is not knowingly cruel. But the ocean is not vengeful and TJ will be until the day he dies. TJ is still hungry but it has grown too strong and he’s set himself aflame too many times and still it isn’t enough.
“I don’t hate you, Douglas. I never did.” (Would you like to know what TJ Hammond sounds like when he is sincere? So would he. So would his brother. So would everyone but Elaine Barrish who used to push his hair out of his face and still calls him “my angel” late at night when he’s had too many and his fingers slip to the phone and it’s been decades since he asked her for anything but still the sound of her voice, the sharp rise and fall of her words, the way she always sounds competent above all else is what walks him down from the ledge he’s aching for. Elaine Barrish knows exactly what TJ sounds like when sincere. And Douglas does as well, he just doesn’t notice.)
When the blow lands, the whole room turns to watch the scene. There isn’t one. Not really. TJ laughs, low and wet, the blood already coating his teeth. “Good.”
The hand he curls around Douglas’s neck is oddly possessive, too hard for absolution, not strong enough for punishment, but the kiss is all brotherly. The kiss is Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. The kiss is bloody and unkind and the first time TJ does something he lives to regret. No one knows what it means. (It means forgiveness. It means damnation. It means that TJ will spend the next twenty years following a step behind, playing enforcer and kingmaker and spook in equal turn. It means that power really does run in the family and that there will be a Hammond in the White House until the end of time. Until the end of the House. Until whichever comes first. It means TJ tore his wings to shreds but didn’t lose the gift of fly.)
There never lived a Hammond who didn’t know how to use love like a weapon, who couldn’t barter and steal with it. Hammonds don’t do unconditional, Hammonds don’t give themselves away. There’s a reason Elaine stayed after the first scandal, and it sure as hell wasn’t loyalty. (Loyalty, in politics, in life doesn’t exist. Not the way you think it does. Not blindly and with utter faith. Loyalty has strings. Loyalty is about cost. This isn’t a lesson TJ learns. He is born knowing this one. It is in his blood.) Love is currency and a fence and a noose.
Douglas is always Douglas, never Doug or Dougie, because Elaine always called him Douglas, clipped the last syllable short, met his eyes but smiled only with her mouth. Elaine loves her sons. Elaine took good care of them. Elaine never won mother of the year. Never even came close. Douglas is Douglas and Douglas is her eldest son. TJ is her son. No qualifiers, no strings attached. (Almost no strings attached.)
TJ never broke his mother’s heart. No matter what all the reputable news sources insinuated and everyone else outright screamed, TJ didn’t break his mother’s heart. She looked down at him in her arms, on the first day of his life, and knew with the intuition that would lead her onto greatness that he was more than she had hoped for, more than she had wanted. She looked at him and knew he would never be happy with the world he would take, knew that even the stars wouldn’t be enough. She looked at him when he was five years old, leaning over her desk, hungry eyes aching to look at her work and knew that he would want until it consumed him.
(She picked him. Hung her hopes and dreams and the bit of ambition she could spare on him. Picked him because there was every chance that he would disappoint her, that the drugs and scandal would come. But he was more. More than Douglas’s wide-eyed admiration of Bud. More than her own ambition. TJ might burn but he could soar and she wanted an angel, wanted a legacy, not simply an heir. She picked TJ, but then again Bud picked Douglas.)
“Bud Hammond never wanted a wife or a family. He just needed one to be President.”
This is the quote with which TJ sinks his father. It’s not the truth but it’s not a lie either. That’s what makes it so potent. The suggestion of cunning. The edges kept smudged by Bud’s charm suddenly thrown into sharp relief and TJ can sell water to fish, lies to politicians; TJ sells this with a tear streaked down his cheek and the hint of scowl lurking at his lips. He’ll never be a sweetheart again, sold the love of the American people for thirty pieces of silver that in turn bought him the world, but for a moment, when the camera focuses on his hard eyes, tears falling down his face, he is something better than a favorite. He’s a fallen angel, an outlaw with a heart made out of gold and diamonds. He’s what the good American people love the most.
Bud Hammond sows the seeds of his downfall in his sons. No, not quite. Bud just fails to sow the seeds of his own ascension. Did President Hammond love his sons? For one short stretch of time this the most asked question in America. The answer isn’t what you think; no matter what you think you’re wrong. Love is currency. Love is a fence and a noose and the deadliest of weapons. Bud loves his sons. Bud can’t look at TJ, can’t say his name in public. Bud wanted the world for them or maybe he wanted it from them. Bud never liked TJ and that one’s easy to explain away. Any parent’s worst nightmare. TJ was the sort of boy that broke mother’s heart but Elaine was never going to go for that one so it fell to Bud. None of this is true. All of this is true. What the hell does it even matter?
A truth, if you’re desperate for one: TJ hates his father. No, not a truth either. But not a lie; certainly not a lie.
Here’s a truth, for real this time (as real as anything gets in this town): for the first fifteen years of TJ’s life Bud is daddy, heavy drawl, even a touch of affection at the end. Then the Presidency happens and TJ licks his lips and manages “my father” exactly once. (You can look that one up; there’s video. TJ straight-backed and smiling, keeping perfect eye contact with the American public and how no one noticed that he was a politician born is one of those mysteries that forms the base of the continued existence of the universe.) After that he was only ever Bud. This time the drawl was perfectly faked. An exaggeration of itself. A joke in poor taste but when there’s only one person left laughing in the whole of the world that person will be TJ Hammond. TJ mocks his father with his every breath.
What does President Hammond think of his sons? They’re the future. They’re his heirs. They aren’t what he wanted at all.
What do his sons think of President Hammond? Now that is an interesting question.
The most famous picture of the Hammond boys gets taken three decades after they’re no longer boys. In the White House (because it’s not just a house. It’s the weight at the center of the world, it’s the eye of the storm, it’s where they always end up eventually) Douglas is framed in a window, his silhouette sharp and so very Kennedy (mother would be proud), looking out over the city. But no one really looks at him. Two steps over, slouched against the wall, is TJ, biting his lip, arms crossed and looking straight into the camera, eyes wide enough for the devil to crawl through.
By that point there’s no need to make insinuations. Everyone knows exactly who sits behind the throne.
TJ loses his virginity in the middle nowhere Ohio during his father’s first campaign for President to a girl with cherry red lips who doesn’t know his name. She’s five years older than him, laughing and pliant and the way she moves makes him dig his nails into her back and run his mouth across her neck. (He does not think of her again after that day. Just like he doesn’t think of a hundred other boys and girls that come in the years after, hot to the touch and sweet smelling, all perfectly beautiful and broken and he loves each and every one of them. Loves the sounds they make and how they move and twist under his hands. He loves them all and never thinks of them. But they think of him. Sometimes in passing and sometimes for days on end. TJ is not the sort to be forgotten. TJ can’t be dug out from under your skin. That girl thinks of him. Maybe as the President’s son or maybe as the son of the Secretary of State. Or maybe she just thinks of him as the boy with shadows in his eyes, something dangerous and broken and too bright lurking in his smile. That boy who made her want to burn things.)
When he goes back to the hotel room he and Douglas share for the night, he crawls into Douglas’s bed (shoes still on because even then he knew how to make a quick getaway), curls around his brother and puts a hand around his dick. Douglas moans and pushes away and then comes back. Douglas is sixteen years old, broad in the shoulders, voice smoothed out of all imperfections but in the dark he is just one long stretch of skin. He doesn’t try to talk, doesn’t make a sound but for one strangled sigh when he gets close and TJ wraps a hand across his mouth and holds tight and in the morning they don’t mention it.
It’s just one of those things. It’s just inevitable. Not everyone is good enough for a Hammond.
(Oh, you thought Bud had secrets? Funny.)
The first public photograph of the Hammond boys was taken on a campaign bus, the two of them sitting next to each other, looking in different directions, not saying a word.
He goes to Columbia because Harvard is the family legacy. Because he can cling to some delusion of anonymity in New York. He goes to Columbia because Douglas is in his last year of Harvard and there’s no reason to subject the campus to more than one Hammond (to The Hammond—The problem Hammond but lets not talk about that now). He picks up another three languages, a handful of drug habits, two friends and dozens and dozens of confidants. (They confide in him, he takes what he wants from them.) He spends three years dressing like the devil, black eyeliner and purple bruises at his neck and elbows, studded leather jackets and boots that go right up to his knees. He spends three years with a perfect grade point average and a half dozen German Studies professors who think he’s the second coming. He spends the first three years with his face in the paper every other day but he’s not sleeping in the House anymore and that’s about as close to happiness as he knows.
A week into his final year his mother calls him, late afternoon, the Quaaludes just worn off and says, “Turn on the television.” That’s the day Bud Hammond becomes synonymous with philanderer. That’s the day TJ throws a phone against the wall so hard it shatters but that doesn’t matter, Elaine hung up a moment after she rang.
He doesn’t drag himself back to Washington. He doesn’t go stand at his mother’s side (only partly because she still stands with Bud). He gets up the next day, walks into class with as much sick laughter as he’s ever had, ignores every catcall (right up until he stops, gets into three fights, breaks noses like he was called to it by god) and doesn’t answer the new phone when reporters start calling.
Doesn’t answer the phone until Bud’s press secretary calls, saying, “we need to talk about your involvement in damage control.”
TJ is twenty-one years old. TJ hasn’t said a word to his father in two years. TJ is damage, not control and he calls up The Washington Post, Susan Berg’s direct line and, when her secretary tries to pass him off, laughs with a sound like cracking glass and says, “she’ll talk to me.”
TJ doesn’t have to give away family secrets to destroy his father. TJ doesn’t have to do anything but mention the truth everyone has avoided looking at.
(TJ never breaks his mother’s heart. He just shatters his father’s life.)
You think you know about Douglas Hammond? Douglas, who wants power so badly he can’t sit still, can’t calm his hands around a coffee cup. Do you really think you know anything?
Here’s something for you: Douglas is more like Elaine than TJ will ever be. Douglas is Elaine, minus a few years, a smile like lightening and the knowledge that can only be obtained by being a woman in power. Douglas wants power and he wants to help and everything he has ever done to get either has been something he believes in. Elaine married Bud because she loved him. (Bud married Elaine because he loved her, but that’s a story for a different day.) Elaine wanted to be President to change things. Elaine was born to be a politician but she never forgot that there were other things. Douglas is his mother’s son but he never loves her quite as well as he could. Douglas just wanted to be his father. Took the mold Bud created, a painting all in watercolors, and remade it in oil. The colors too vibrant, too honest, too genuine, just waiting to get his heart broken. Douglas is what his father made him. Douglas is what his brother made him. Douglas isn’t a Hammond at all. Or maybe he’s the best Hammond of them all, willing to shed his skin for a shred of authority, and that’s what damns him in the end.
Douglas is everything TJ ever wanted to destroy. So he does.
Sometimes when he closes his eyes TJ is still six years old, drinking too sweet lemonade on the porch his grandfather built, in the background Douglas and Bud playing the only game of catch that ever happened.
Sometimes when TJ closes his eyes he is fifteen and trying desperately to be something he isn’t. Walking through the halls of a school where money is nothing and blood is everything and being a Hammond still doesn’t mean a damn thing.
Sometimes when TJ closes his eyes it is like death and there’s a gun in his hand and when he goes to pull the trigger nothing happens. When he pulls the trigger he wakes up and TJ Hammond doesn’t believe in god. What sort of god would play a joke like that? A god that loves like a Hammond. A god that knows what love is, that can steal and barter and kill with his love.
There is no god. TJ is his own god, come down from heaven to share the good word: life is a very long, boring prelude to death. Life is a cruel joke and the one drug that you’ll never take enough of but that will kill you anyway. Life is what you make it. Life is what keeps TJ laughing and constantly aching and hungry for the things he cannot have but will reach out and take anyway. God isn’t dead. He’s right there, in the White House; his hand on the red button, shaking the floorboards and staring from every wall with dead men’s eyes. Life is what you make it. God is what you make him. God is power, the sort that Douglas can’t imagine, the sort TJ abuses every time he spreads his legs wide and snarls straight into camera. God. What do you need god for anyway? You’re America. You bless your fucking self.
He learns to love it. Once he’s lost everything, once they’ve taken the truth of him and the lie as well he learns to love the invasion. TJ gets off on strangers’ hands pulling at his skin, eyes eating up his soul, the quite hiss of fag that dogs him becomes music and he takes everything that people throw at him and with a quick turn tucks it all into himself. This boy can’t be beaten. This boy’s too bruised to feel another hit. This boy cuts likes the glass he eats for breakfast and there’s cocaine in his veins and god knows what on his hands and if you touch him you’ll burn.
The first time he went to Washington, the air tasted of power. Twelve years later his mother calls him, tells of him of the Presidential run he already knew was happening and he doesn’t ask her what she wants. He drinks tequila on the plane ride in, smokes cigarette after cigarette in the cab and shows up just in time for the announcement, Italian wool hiding all of his bruises. She smiles at him across the room, a quick flash that has only ever been for him and he doesn’t bother tucking it into his heart—it won’t be safe there either. When he walks across the stage, a smile that doesn’t even pass for real tacked to his lips, he gets louder applause, more attention, more adoration than Douglas’s perfect combination of smile and wave has seen.
Power isn’t what they define it as. Power is walking into a room, any room, and having every conversation stop, every eye turn to you, ever person rush you asking questions, wanting a bit of you. TJ doesn’t have power yet. The cameras don’t rush towards him yet; just catch him in dark corners and places where nice young men don’t belong. TJ doesn’t have power yet but he’s had the taste of it on his lips since he was sixteen years old. And an addict is an addict is an addict and you can substitute any substance in the world for another. Power isn’t a drug. It’s the drug. And TJ is the addict.
A match made in the heaven TJ will one day build; smoke pouring out of every building but no one can put out the fire because he carries it in himself. You can keep your harps and pearly gates. TJ will take Washington D.C., tear it down and rebuild it in his own image.
The plan starts here, on the stage where Elaine announces her first campaign, where TJ sees his brother for the first time in years. Where TJ doesn’t look at his father no matter how hard Bud tries. TJ makes up his mind and the flood doesn’t come after, it comes with him and still no one sees it coming. Still no one understands.
Douglas marries Anne. TJ gives the toast at their wedding. Three years later, Anne fucks TJ. (That’s not the full story. Not even close. TJ has the scratch marks Douglas left all over his back. TJ bites at her neck and she lets him leave bruises. TJ wants to scream and cry and rip his own skin off, peel away the layers until he’s bone, clean and simple. At the wedding, his toast made her cry.)
A chance meeting in a hotel bar, somewhere else, and Anne presses a glass of whiskey to her lips and an hour later they’re in her room, door shut tight and she moves with a sort of desperation that makes even TJ ache for her. “I used to feel so bad for you,” her voice cracks against the words. He bites at her lips, at her neck, at the skin of her thighs. He doesn’t ask her if she knows, how she knows. Anne is a smart woman. A surgeon. Competitive and hard working. Anne has everything but the killer instinct that makes a Hammond. He feels no pity for her. He feels nothing for her. She clutches him like they’re dying; she doesn’t make a sound.
All of this becomes a habit.
Two months into Elaine term as Secretary of State, Bud gets caught fucking a prostitute. TJ is in Berlin, reading books until his eyes ache, sleeping with boys who are a week younger than him but have eyes wide and innocent and nothing like he’s ever been. He’s alone when he finds out, flipping through television channels at ten in the morning, thinking of doing a few more lines before getting up. He leaves everything but his passport when he goes. Takes the first flight out and doesn’t sleep at all on the way to Washington, doesn’t close his eyes. Doesn’t breathe.
The world ends in the moment when he walks into his mother’s office, the lines around her eyes ageing her ten years, her hands curled tight around a glass and he doesn’t recognize her. A stranger sitting behind his mother’s desk, her lips not painted red and takes a breath and says, “I’ll kill him.” A voice not his own, darker, older, the hints of an accent he lost years ago coming back. A voice that will haunt senators and congressmen and bureaucrats in the years to come. TJ Hammond at his deadliest. TJ Hammond just before he offers you your downfall on a silver platter. “If you want me to, I’ll kill him.”
He stays after that. Moves into the house as Bud moves out of it. Buys more suits than he’s worn since he was sixteen. Gets clean enough to function but keeps the bruises under his skin, rolls his sleeves up when he needs shock value and no one can take their eyes off the track marks coating his arms (if you look real closely, if the light falls just right you’ll see they’re a map. Washington D.C. stretching out across his skin, old and faded bruises, scars that won’t ever heal. TJ carves a city into his skin so he’ll never have a chance to forget, never have a chance to start anew. Never be anything but what the world made of him.) TJ fits as close to the image of politicians son as he can but he was never meant to be simply someone’s son and he still wears the leather jacket and he still snarls and people start to fear him.
At some point Elaine Barrish stops making enemies and leaves it to her son.
The laundry list of his sins runs about as long as the one of his mother’s accomplishments. The laundry list of his sins measures up to his fathers. The laundry list of his sins could topple an empire, his own, but no one believes the last one.
Bud dies at sixty-seven. Too soon some say. A heart attack in the night, too much weight and too much anger (and too much sex but no one talks about this. The dead have their dignity, whether or not it was theirs in life.) Bud dies ten years after TJ stops speaking to him. Neither lived to regret the schism. (Neither lives, in the end, but that’s a story for another day.)
What do you want to hear? A last sordid detail? There isn’t one. You heard about the funeral, saw the pictures. It isn’t enough for you, is it? Well too damn bad. Not everything is a performance piece.
(Somewhere in the background TJ laughs. He sounds like his mother. Or maybe all these years she sounded like him.)
Oh these boys, they lost their innocence so young. Oh these boys, how long did they hate each other? How long did they resent each other? Oh these boys, born to be kings in a world that outgrew such archetypes. Oh these boys, desirous of everything, even each other.
After Douglas’s second win, he throws an arm around TJ, who tells The New York Times (with perfect diction and not a hint of smirk), “We make a great team.” They’re sitting in the Oval Office and TJ’s glass has more than water in it and Douglas has gone all grey and the world is going to hell but it always is. They’re the Hammonds and this is what they do. There are no brave faces; no excuses and all mistakes are dealt with eventually. (People will say they don’t make mistakes but this generation, Bud’s sons, they learned from his shortcomings. You want to know what goes on in the President’s bedroom? You’ll have to get an invitation, and the guest list is a bit full at the moment.)
TJ plays his mother’s attack dog for three years. Then Douglas runs for state senate and TJ makes one call (to a friend of a friend of an acquaintance) and the opponent runs afoul of a scandal.
“You thought you could do this without me?” On anyone else it would be an honest question but TJ never leaves well enough alone and his humor is foul and he’s a smartass to the last.
“You were busy.”
That sound you hear—that’s the closest the Hammond boys ever get to enjoying a comfortable silence.
You want an ending to this story? You want a clean break, something to take home to the kids. It’s politics darling, it doesn’t work that way. But let’s say we’re feeling generous; let’s try a few.
TJ overdoses in his barely furnished Georgetown townhouse. A secret service agent finds his body, takes his pulse, and calls an ambulance even though there’s no hope. They hold the funeral in Arkansas, a town where TJ hasn’t stepped foot in decades. In a town that remembers him as a little boy who burned too hot and wanted the whole world and was prepared to sell even himself for it.
Douglas finishes out his term quietly. Retires to Boston where Anne keeps practicing medicine and neither of them ever touch politics again. TJ never leaves Washington, never drives past the city limits. Works for senators and congressmen, gets six Presidents elected and three run out of town. Never stops doing drugs, never stops fucking anything that walks, that catches his eyes, that makes him fall in love. Never gets married. Never stops being front-page news. Dies in his office, old as sin, with a glass of whiskey in his hand, a stash of cocaine in the nearest drawer, a presidential hopeful scheduled to meet him ten minutes past the hour.
TJ lives forever. Haunts the halls of the House and serves President after President after President. Watches wars and economic crises come and go. Sees every crime and every scandal unfold. TJ becomes the city, swallows Washington whole, makes it his playground, his bedroom, the cabinet where he keeps his drugs.
Because that’s the truth. That’s what Washington D.C. is; what it was from the moment TJ first stepped foot there. D.C. is the city of addicts, power the most common drug but everything can be found. Keep your L.A. Keep your New York and your London and your Paris. Keep your second rate cities and your capitals where men don’t lose their minds and their souls. Keep everything you can get your hands on because Washington D.C. belongs to TJ Hammond and he’s never letting go.