August 16th, 2000
Naomi tugged at her box pleated skirt, awaiting her interviewee to let her into his D.C. dwelling. Her mind imagined what stories her fellow colleagues at The Eagle were reporting on right now. Election rigging? Affairs with interns? Money from lobbyists spent on island vacations? Her mind snapped back to the present when she thought she heard an aggressive shuffling from beyond the door in front of her. Silence settled in, and she wondered if she should knock again.
Maybe he forgot. Maybe he doesn’t want the public to know the “intimate details” this personality piece would expose. Dark secrets in the form of answers to, “What is your favorite late night snack?”
She shifted her weight impatiently before noticing her sheer black tights were bunched up around her ankles, a common woe for someone of her short stature. She bent over to pull the fabric upwards just as the door flew open, shining an unflattering light on her position.
Will beamed and waved her in with a cartoonishly chivalrous sweep of his arm. He spouted off all the shmoozee niceties, “How was the drive? Did you find parking?”
Before she could even respond he interjected with, “Look, this next part is off the record,” and gave her the smallest of winks, but a wink nonetheless.
“Because I know what you’re thinking: the place is small--but when you’re battling a divorce behind the scenes, it’s nice to have a cheap place to crash.”
There was only one reason someone would mention a divorce to a reporter, and Naomi’s shoulder blades tensed at the thought of it.
He crossed the room in front of her and plopped down on a leather swivel chair, nonchalantly encouraging her to “Please, have a seat.”
Naomi had been taking stock of the studio apartment as she entered, but took another moment to glance around again for an extra chair. The obvious option was the poorly placed King sized bed--did it really need to be in the center of the room? A beat passed before Naomi realized this wasn’t a joke. She squashed even the remote possibility of the senator bragging in some gross, out of context fashion to his comrades that he had “the reporter with the rack on his bed.”
So she confidently walked over to her next option: his son’s red race car bed emblazoned with a #43 sticker--which was currently being used as a trampoline by his husky child.
“Mind if I jump into your corvette?”
The child was perplexed by her sentence, as if he wanted to respond, “This isn’t a car. It’s a bed.”
“Billy, go on and introduce yourself to the nice lady.”
“Hi.” Then a large inhale to puff up his eight-year-old chest, “I’m William Henry Wilkins the Second!” he exclaimed like his placement in lineage was a superhero power.
Naomi smiled knowingly, Of course you’re a suffix.
She started to press weight into her heels to bend down into the Toys “R” Us furniture when Billy stopped, “Wait! Wait! I wanna show you this!”
She was paid by the word and not by the minute. However, she was also a servant to outward projections of politeness, so she stayed standing and glanced at Will Senior for some sort of clue as to what would happen next.
Will blinked, bewildered, as if his son had never pitched an original idea before.
Billy carefully stepped back towards the middle of his child-sized mattress, threw both arms above his head before taking some light jumps, and then launched himself into a front flip towards the tail end of the car-bed.
Naomi’s eyes went wide, she was about to watch a child be maimed.
Billy miraculously planted both feet on the floor with only some slight post-momentum teetering, but overall, remained the best Olympian in the room.
“Fantastic!” Naomi expelled the word to hide her sigh of relief and slowly progressing annoyance.
“Wanna see me do it again?”
Naomi pressed the bottom half of her face into a smile, but every muscle above her cheeks winced. Will interjected, “Not now, son. Miss...is it Miss?”
She felt the weight of that loaded question, but appreciated that she wouldn’t have to sit through another amateur gymnastics routine.
Naomi took the opportunity to keep the interview moving by decisively taking her seat on the “passenger door.”
“And look at that, Billy! You’ve wooed another hot date into your hot rod.” Will earnestly smiled.
Naomi’s eyes bugged out in a severe glare at Will while her eyebrows contorted like the back of a demon-possessed child.
She pulled out her handheld recorder from her purse and set it on the blue fitted sheet, awkwardly balancing her spiral notebook on her thighs. Will sat comfortably in his chair, leaning back and pressing his fingertips together contemplatively as if Naomi had asked him a question.
“Alright, Senator Wilkins, I’m just here to do a quick little personality piece. We’ll go over light things,” Billy took a big lunge to step back up on his bed.
“Maybe touch on your educational and political background,” Billy began to press his weight into the springs, allowing the gravity to build tension.
“And then dive into who you’re endorsing this Fall.” Billy was now fully jumping on the bed, while Naomi and her recorder slightly shifted in position with every spring-loaded pulse.
Will was completely aloof, “Now, wait just a minute, my father always told me to never discuss politics,” he delivered with a grin.
Naomi was ready to pick up her recorder and chuck it at a wall. She hated that it was her responsibility to make these assholes look as friendly and approachable as golden retrievers. Her job made a gig at the National Enquirer look like a safe space.
“I’m kidding! Let’s start with the most important fact: you’re looking at a Harvard Man.”
Naomi tried to jot down “Harvard” but with all bouncing things considered, it came out looking more like “Haggard.”
Her immediate reaction was not to fret because the recorder would do most of the heavy-lifting, until she glanced at the small piece of machinery most likely only picking up the sound of every bump from the active mattress.
“...and let me tell you, all the brothers of Sigma Chi would tell you they never would have guessed I’d actually follow through with pursuing a career in this, let alone settling down! Hell, some don’t even believe the kid is real!”
Realizing she had missed some sort of stereotypical segue, Naomi snatched up the recorder and placed it on the floor, then rushed to scribble down, “Fraternity quote?”
She was adding extra annotations when there was an odd noise. It wasn’t quite an alarm...possibly an old school bell in the distance?
“Ah, this is embarrassing,” Will opened one of the filing drawers of his desk and reached in. “I didn’t want our precious time to be interrupted, so I stashed my mobile phone in here, let me just turn this off...”
He pulled out a vibrating Nokia and glanced at the screen, his joyous demeanor hardened and he stood to leave the room, “You know, I really need to take this.”
Naomi matched his concerned expression until she realized that in order to retain his privacy, he would be taking the call from the bathroom. She bit the inside of her cheeks to hide her laughing at the fact that this grown man would have to run the sink water for political privacy like he was taking a shit.
Naomi played out a fantasy scenario where she dropped the final draft of this piece on her editor-in-chief’s desk, and then confidently demanded that she be paid the rumored “per diem” rate. Unfortunately, even her imaginary boss denied the request. Naomi didn’t care about politics, but she did care about making rent.
She watched Billy leap off the bed and run to his father’s mini-fridge. He swung the door open with no regards for what lay in its radius, and ripped out a half-drank Diet Coke. He gulped down the liquid like his life depended on it and then placed it in its original spot.
“Wanna see me do a backflip?”
Naomi’s mind flashed to a million other occupations she could be tolerating before expertly responding, “I’m sure your dad would want to see that too. Let’s wait for him to get back.”
“Nah, he doesn’t care about cool things. He doesn’t even get me the cookies I like.”
Probably for the best, kid.
“Can I tell you a secret!?” Billy blurted out, clearly not understanding the concept of a question.
Naomi felt a spike of cortisol and glanced at the bathroom door, hoping his father would walk back in soon. What if this kid spills something crazy? Like his dad rigging the upcoming election?! I’d have to do the right thing and report on that lead, but the threats I’d get from both sides for doing so? Let alone the red-tape I’d have to machete through--ugh and all at this pay rate?
Billy’s voice guillotined her mental spiral, “Today’s my birthday.”
Another sigh of relief, “Oh, well Happy Birthday! Why’s that a secret?”
“Dad said not to tell anyone because it would look bad that he took appointments on his weekend with me.” Billy waddled over to his father’s desk.
Naomi felt a weight drop in her gut as she took a longer look at all the pictures and trophies scattered around the apartment. They were Will’s accolades, not his son’s. Which made the green participation ribbon on his corkboard extra pathetic.
“Well...what kind of cookies are your favorite?”
Billy swung around, eyes wide, “Oreos!”
She knew there weren’t magically going to be sandwich cookies on her person, but she had already started digging her grave by asking. She reached for her purse and peered in, and the sad essentials stared back: a pack of Camels, a mini lighter, several cheap pens from networking events, handfuls of bent business cards, and some loose sticks of gum. She amused herself with the idea of gifting the cigarettes as a lesson to never leave your kid alone with a struggling writer, but handed over the gum instead.
“These have sugar in them.”
Billy took the pieces and shoved them in his pocket. He’d realize later that spearmint was not the same as Hubba Bubba. He ran back to his father’s desk, grabbing a small object.
“I think I’m gonna ask my dad for a cell phone.”
Naomi looked up from her purse and watched Billy pretend to talk into a small device.
She slowly let the words fall out of her mouth, hoping she was wrong, “Billy...is that your dad’s calculator?”
“Nope! It’s his phone! Dad lets me play Snake on this one, because the other one gets hot.”
“What do you mean, ‘gets hot’?”
“Cause it burns! He says it’s a burner phone!”
Naomi glanced back at the bathroom, gears whirring in her head.
The bathroom door opened. Will took one step into the room before his eyes darted from the empty space on his desk where the second cell phone was originally placed to his son’s grubby little hands. Both males had wide “Oh, shit” eyes, which really brought out the familial resemblance.
Will started to cross the room, blood rushing to Senior’s face and completely draining from Junior’s. He lunged at his son, snatching the device from him, but it was several moments too late. Naomi’s flight response eventually kicked in and told her to stand. Will was now awkwardly holding two phones, trying to regain a less suspicious posture but his eyes were wild.
“Look whatever Billy told you about this phone is off the record,” Will’s voice turned from authoritative to defensive, “in fact, as his legal guardian I don’t give consent for anything he said as a minor to be put in your little article.”
She looked at Billy, tears welling up in his eyes. His cheeks turned rosy and every part of his face contorted to hide his embarrassment. After all, he was just an American boy, there was no room to express emotion here.
“I didn’t question his intention to play “Snake” until you charged at him.”
Will’s face broke into a toothy smile, “Ah, kid’s gotta learn he can’t always be getting into my stuff--little rascal.”
He aggressively tousled Billy’s dirty blond hair, causing tears to spill over the edge of his eyelids and allowing the dirt and oil to create new cowlicks. Maybe it was because Naomi felt awkward in the presence of a disciplinary moment, or maybe her already small dose of daily patience had run out but her mouth took over and delivered curtly, “I have to meet with another client today in Baltimore and I don’t want to sit in rush hour traffic.”
Will took a step that blocked her direct path to the door. “Did you need to know who I’m endorsing this Fall?”
“Would it be whoever was on the other line of your burner phone?” Naomi ducked out of his way and was out the door.
* * *
Naomi sat across from The Eagle’s editor-in-chief, Arnold, her leg jittery from caffeine, while the bags under her eyes remained dark.
Arnold set down the pages in front of him and looked over his rimless glasses. “You know, when I hired you, I could tell you weren’t a journalist.”
Naomi’s gut ached at these words. While it was never her dream occupation, rejection was still rejection. Arnold had just read her final draft and her two weeks notice.
“I’m not going to miss you as a journalist. A journalist would have spent the weekend pulling up Wilkins’ ties to the Marsh campaign and connecting the dots. And they would have definitely stayed at his apartment to further investigate what that call was about the moment they saw a second phone.”
“But I will miss you as a dutiful employee. You did the right thing by calling me when you left. I got Peter out there to play his Harvard-Alum Card so he could wrap up the interview while scraping more details to put together an investigative piece on what appears to be the early stages of electoral fraud.”
Naomi’s eyes went wide, Well shit, maybe I should stay in politics if I have a clairyoyance for it.
“I appreciate you finishing your assignment. Obviously The Eagle can’t run your ‘Open Letter to An American Prince.’ Who I assume is the Senator’s son?”
“It’s sweet. Your ability to offer him sympathy for his horrible 9th birthday, followed by the solace that his life as a whole will never have real troubles due to several layers of demographic privilege, all delivered with a snarkier tone for those reading between the lines is... it’s really something.”
Naomi couldn’t believe that even after underdelivering on a simple personality piece, she was getting high marks.
“With your permission, I’ll send it along to a friend of mine at Franklin & Oakwood so it doesn’t get lost with the fan mail and cold queries. Hopefully they can get you an advance sooner rather than later, because we won’t be paying you for this one.”
* * *
Thank you for reading! If you'd like more fiction from Olivia Hill, please enjoy "Brunch".