“Fine” by Pepper O’Brien

“Ow, fuck!” I shouted the moment the cart made contact with my elbow.

“Shit! Sorry!” Danny said immediately, letting go of the cart and coming to stand next to me. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t even looking.”

“It’s fine,” I told him tightly, my jaw clenched and my eyes watering.

“Are you sure? Do you need ice or something?”

I forced a laugh. “Buy me a drink later and we’ll call it even, okay?”

“I can do that.”

My arm hurt like a bitch, but I couldn’t focus on it for too long. I had work to do. Danny carefully continued on with the cart still muttering apologies and sneaking glances at the bruise already forming on my arm.

I plucked the pencil from behind my ear to jot down a reminder for Nick to check out the popping noise on the far left studio speaker. Reporting the news using only the Internet had its limitations sometimes, but we were certainly profitable enough to afford a replacement speaker. The set we had was secondhand from a theater that had been shut down during the budget cuts. I’d hated to ravage the place for equipment, but it was cheap and we hadn’t had any other options when we first started out.

“What do you think it’s about?” I heard Jen, our new intern, ask someone. She was with us for the summer before going back to finish up her Bachelor’s at Columbia. I almost smirked at the naivete behind her question.

“No idea,” said Mike. “Can’t be good, though.”

“Why do you say that?” I liked Jen fine, but on days like this one, it was hard to appreciate her idealism.

“Hasn’t been good for nearly a year. Five’d get you twenty he’s exploited another legislative loophole.”

I silently agreed and placed that bet with myself. Then I got moving. A presidential address wasn’t new anymore. It didn’t elicit the same adrenaline that it used to. I tried to remember the rush of excitement when I first started covering politics. There was so much to learn and so many intricacies to keep track of. When the president addressed the nation, there had been thrill. Lately, though, all I felt was dread.

***

Fours hours later, Danny and I were down the street at Bobby’s, my favorite dive bar. Billy Joel crooned from the tinny stereo and I could hear the cook shuffling around, putting together baskets of fries. We’d arrived with barely a word between us before I ordered two beers and as many appetizers as I could remember without glancing at a menu.

I stared straight ahead, studying the reflections in the liquor bottles. For a while, neither of us knew quite what to say.

“What am I going to tell my mom?” he asked quietly, slumping in his stool and tracing patterns in the dew of his beer bottle.

I adored Danny’s mother. She owned an art gallery and sent the studio care packages when we couldn’t make it home for holidays. More than once, she’d had pizza delivered when we were editing late into the night.

She taught art classes at a few local colleges. Or did. We’d just found out that all public schools would no longer hire part-time or guest teachers, and that arts classes would be removed completely.

That wasn’t all we’d reported, but it didn’t surprise me that it was all Danny had heard.

“Same I told mine when veteran’s benefits got stripped,” I replied, my gaze still on the bottles lined up along the shelves behind the bar. I knew I’d find his face as broken as mine had been in the beginning, and I couldn’t bear to face it straight on, cowardly as that probably was. “Tell her you love her. Tell her she deserves better, and you’re sorry it happened.”

“Dad got laid off more than two months ago. I don’t know what’s going to happen if… fuck, I don’t know.”

I thought about that for a moment, and I pictured Danny’s family in my mind. His mother’s friendly, open smile. His father’s kind eyes and weathered hands. Slowly, the mental image morphed to look like my own family. I thought about my parents in their dress blues, perfect postures, and the proud angles with which they both held themselves.

“You know what I thought at first?”

Danny turned to face me.

“I thought… what do these clowns even need an opposition party for? An administration like that will discredit themselves just fine on their own.”

Danny nodded solemnly.

“The healthcare reform was one thing – as much as we hated it, we all expected it. But then… that entire first week it just kept tumbling. The employment holds, the gag orders, the suspensions, the budget cuts. He hadn’t even been in office a week and his executive orders were already in the double digits, and there was so much resistance. All those marches, all the protests. I had so much faith in us. That we’d get through to Congress and they’d help us end it. I thought there was no way he’d keep it up.”

The lump that had formed on my elbow where Danny had hit me with the cart throbbed as I spoke.

“I don’t know a single person I went to school with who hasn’t had to pick up second and third jobs in the past ten months,” I said. “Half my friends have fled the country and so many others now have marriage licenses no one will recognize as valid anymore. My brother will probably never finish college now. The world’s biggest con artist silenced every scientist who ever made a damn bit of sense and now he’s strangled the artists. It’s not like we don’t fight back. We fight back. But God, it’s… fucking exhausting.”

Our shared tray of greasy fried food found its way between us on the bar and I picked at a mozzarella stick.

“If your brother needs a place to stay, he can crash at my place,” Danny offered, staring blankly at our food.

“I’ll ask him.”

“Kel?”

“Hmm?”

“What happens when the studio gets shut down?”

A zinging pain shot through me at the thought. I’d put my heart, soul, and every dime I had into that place, and panic had crossed my mind more than once about what would become of it if the witless wonder of the White House ever found a way to dig his claws into it.

“We don’t have to worry about that yet. Worry about the people who are already hurt.”

“You think we’re not hurting?”

Pain spread through me, radiating from my bruised elbow to the rest of my body, gripping my heart and snaking its way up through my spine and into my head.

“Not yet,” I told him, taking another swig of my beer. “We’re fine.”

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