Cup Of Joe
Character(s): Leo, Sam
Category(s): Friendship, Vignettes
Summary: Sam and Leo realize they have a feww things in common. #5 Random Acts of Conversation Series
"I'm saying, you don't put a Starbucks across the street from an elementary school," Sam continued arguing. "We don't let dealers sell drugs within one thousand yards of one -- "
"Sam," Leo interjected, leaning his hip against the desk in the empty classroom. "We don't let dealers sell drugs period." They studied each other for a beat before simultaneously taking deep, noisy slurps of their café latté grandes.
Through the open door, across the hall, they could see Jed Bartlet perched carefully on the edge of a miniature plastic chair. Equally tiny third graders crowded around him on the floor as CJ towered above them all. Every so often the president's voice would boom as he delighted his young audience with his version of Jack and the Beanstalk; a dissertation on the economics of farm subsidies.
Leo could feel the rest of Sam's aborted diatribe churning just under the surface of the younger man. It only took a moment more for it to come burbling out.
"I recognize that the placement probably has more to do with the dense supply of teachers, as well as, I'd imagine, the constant flow of parents dropping their kids off early in the morning, than the actual children themselves."
"My point is, if there'd been a coffee shop this close to my school, I'd have been showing up to class hopped up on caffeine starting in fifth grade," Sam declared, before taking another sip of his beverage. "I can't remember what life was like before this stuff." Dropping his eyes to the large cardboard cup in his hand.
Leo turned his head slowly and peered at the speechwriter carefully. "So there's a possibility it's just the caffeine that makes you, you know, you? And all we'd have to do is switch you to decaf? Note to self," he added dryly.
Sam smiled benignly, and crossed his legs out in front of himself. "Sometimes, Toby gives me tea."
Leo wasn't sure what he was supposed to do with that, and in fact, finally decided to leave it alone.
Sam checked his watch with a flourish, a motion matched unconsciously by Leo. "It's gonna be awhile," Leo mumbled, tugging his cuff down. "I should call Toby." He removed his cell phone, and punched in the speed dial code.
"Yeah," Sam agreed, as he pushed himself off the desk. He slipped his jacket off easily and draped it carefully over the back of a chair. Taking a few slow, aimless steps into the center of the room, he was drawn to a bulletin board festooned with sheets of lined composition paper, tacked onto festively bright construction paper. He walked slowly along the length of the wall, eyes skimming lightly over the many pages, before ambling back to where Leo stood.
After fishing his glasses out of his abandoned jacket, Sam scooped up his notebook from a chair and returned to the board, peering carefully this time at the sheets of paper attached there. Eyes darting back and forth from the display to his opened notebook, Sam began jotting down fragments of sentences.
"Aw, hell. He's in a meeting," Leo said, snapping his phone closed. Noticing Sam for the first time, he waved his chin at the dark-haired man. "What are you up to over there?" he wanted to know.
Sam tossed a quick look over his shoulder before directing his concentration back to his task. "Hm? Oh. These are, some of these are pretty interesting," he answered, indicating the title of the display with the tip of his pen.
" 'Why I'd Like To Be President?' " Leo read aloud. "You're getting the president's inspiration from third grade class projects now, Sam?" he scoffed with light amusement. "Or for yourself," he added under his breath.
Sam's head swiveled around quickly, flashing a shock-filled look at Leo before ducking back around.
Swearing silently, Leo smacked the heel of his hand against his forehead, privately chiding himself for slipping up in front of Sam. The day would come when the topic would have to be opened, and Leo was well aware of Bartlet's growing anticipation of that day; but it was Jed himself who had told Leo to tread very lightly when it came to Sam's future, and Leo had agreed.
"Anything you think the president could use?" Leo folded his arms across his chest, deciding that if Sam was more comfortable ignoring the gaffe, he was happy to comply.
Stepping to the right, Sam kept scribbling. "Well, one kid, Jeri Kimble, says she wants to be president so she can say whatever she wants," Sam informed Leo. "And this one, Windom White -- " Turning to face Leo, Sam flapped an arm against his side in exasperation. "I mean, come on! What kind of parents would name... aw never mind. Anyway, he says he wants to be the leader of the free world so he can ride around in a lime-a-zine." Sam's smile matched Leo's.
"Who wouldn't want to do that?" Leo speculated, nodding his head.
"Yeah, well, it was that prospect that made me leave Gage Whitney," Sam chuckled.
"Nah," Leo said. "You'd have been riding in limousines soon enough, if you'd stayed."
"I'd have been hanging from a rafter with my belt around my neck, if I'd stayed," Sam stated with startling sincerity. He missed the expression of astonishment on his boss' face. "Hey, now here's a good one. 'I would make the Beatles get back together'."
Sam spun to face Leo. "Guess what her name is?"
There was applause from across the hall, signaling the end of the folktale portion of the afternoon's visit. Before the discussion segment began Leo craned his neck to see CJ introducing a number of educators and community leaders to the small, select gathering of press.
Sighing heavily, he hauled himself onto the desk. "So," Leo said. "Anyone look good for vice president there?"
Sam tilted his head sideways and concentrated on one entry for a moment before answering. "I may have someone for you. Darryl Williams thinks everyone should have a job, be healthy, and should give their guns to the police. He also would get the electricity turned back on in his apartment." He scribbled a bit more into his notebook before snapping it shut. "Eight years old," he mumbled sadly. Walking back to where Leo sat, Sam shook his head. "You know, we should -- "
Before he could join The Chief of Staff on the desk, Leo preempted him. "He's not the only one, Sam."
"No, I know. But. Living without electricity in the middle of Chicago, with, with guns. It's the twenty-first century, for god's sake! Sometimes I wonder...." Sam's words trailed away as he kept his eyes down, focused on his pen. He took up position next to Leo. "I want to write a check right here, you know?!" he blurted suddenly, taking them both by surprise.
Leo leaned to his left, bumping his shoulder against Sam's. "I do know. And I do write checks," he told the deputy quietly. "You find your place, and you make a difference, Sam. You do it whether you work in the White House or the prison laundry, as far as I'm concerned. But you have to do it in the most constructive way possible, to help the most people possible. Or you'll go through life always feeling as if it isn't enough."
Leo saw his words sinking in, finding their way into Sam's world view, his image of himself. He knew well enough that Sam had served in a number of capacities, for a number of charitable organizations before he gave up his comfortable civilian life in New York. And he was also aware of the hopefulness the idealistic staffer brought with him to Washington believing he would make a greater difference, on a bigger canvas. He felt weighted down now by the recognition that perhaps Sam had discovered otherwise, before he even finished realizing his own potential.
"You just keep doing what you're doing," Leo advised.
"Anyway," Sam said, shrugging vaguely. He didn't complete the thought. Absently reaching behind himself, he picked up two chalk erasers, and began examining them intently. "Anyway...." he muttered again, just as the objects slipped from his hands and landed at their feet with a dull thud and a dense puff of chalk. "Oops."
The smell of chalk tickled at Leo's nose, and he swiped at it with the back of his hand while Sam retrieved the erasers. "You know what that reminds me of?" he asked. When Sam didn't reply, but sat with downcast eyes, Leo continued. "When I lived here, there was this little dive on Wabash. Blues musicians who could play anything. I once heard a guy do 'Sympathy For the Devil'."
Leo's head tilted up, and his eyes drifted towards the high ceiling. "The smoke was as dense as chalk. The drinks were strong and cheap, the steaks were as rare as a virgin in a whorehouse, and the music was hot." He noticed the thin smile that appeared on Sam's lips, and went on. "I used to sit there for hours, all night, sometimes. Back in the day," he clarified, assuming Sam would understand his reference.
"Sounds very... masculine," Sam attempted. "No, wait. I can do better than that." His expression turned pensive again.
Chuckling lightly, Leo smacked his hands on his thighs. "No, you got it, Sam. That's exactly what it was. Sure, there were women there, but they were a certain kind of women, if you know what I mean." He dropped to his feet and stepped over to his briefcase, rummaged for a mint.
"You don't mean...." Sam indicated his discomfort by shifting on the desk a little. His nose scrunched up vaguely, and he pressed his lips together.
"No, Sam!" Leo barked with laughter. Calming somewhat. "Well, I'm sure some of them... but I mean, they were real dames, you know? They could drink right along with the men, and walk a straighter line out the door at closing," Leo recalled warmly. "You could pick them out the second you sat down. Sharp tongues, fast hands, throaty laughs. Always the same ones, every night."
"Alcoholics," Sam said without thinking. Reddening faintly, he tipped his head in apology. "I'm sorry, Leo."
Leo brushed a hand through the air. "Whatta ya sorry for, Sam? Yeah, they probably were. God knows I was. But there was this feeling there, like everyone belonged, and we all looked out for each other, too. And a lot of those women were singers. Sitting down when their own sets were over, coming from other clubs. Quite a colorful crowd."
"That's the word!" Sam exclaimed. "I meant colorful! And then... this would have been a completely different conversation." He seemed pleased with this, so Leo returned to his place on the desk next to him.
"Ya know what I'm thinking?" Leo asked, a crooked smile forming on his lips. "When the president's having dinner with the mayor tonight, we should sneak away and see if that place is still there." Leo looked at Sam, and his eyes glittered conspiratorially.
Recoiling slightly, Sam studied Leo warily. "You're kidding."
"The hell I am," Leo assured him. "He'll be yapping away for at least two hours. And even if the 'Vous isn't there anymore, I'll bet there's another place around that'll fit the bill." He clapped his hands together in anticipation. "Oh, you'll love it, Sam!"
Sam smiled warmly at Leo, his eyes dancing in the sunlight filtering through the dusty air. "You always get nostalgic whenever we come to Chicago," he observed. "You have some really great memories."
"As I recall, you and Josh tore up this town pretty well on one or two occasions." Leo laughed quietly to himself when he recalled seeing the two of them stumbling back to the hotel from god knew where just minutes before they were supposed to accompany the then-governor to a public appearance.
Sam had a reflective look on his face. "I was sowing my oats," he admitted. "Truthfully, it didn't last very long." There was a dusting of regret to his words, and Leo noticed they had been accompanied by a preoccupied smile.
"There's a lot more to this city than bars and... whatever the hell you fellas were up to," Leo reminded Sam. "There's baseball, and architecture, and politics, and the lake."
"Oh!" Sam yelped. "Leo, did you see?!" He spilled off the edge of the desk, and stood directly in front of the older man. "When we were flying in, did you see the boats? Hundreds, scattered across the entire surface of the water. I couldn't look away; as we soared over them, sailing below us, I got this incredible feeling of being down there. Just.... zooming, you know?" He took a quick breath, then scratched at the back of his neck with embarrassment. "You must think I'm nuts. You have to spend some time on the water to understand why I -- "
"Hey, I know." Leo swiped an unconcerned hand in front of Sam. "I've done some sailing, Sam. I recognize that feeling you're talking about."
"Really?" Sam wanted to know. "I never knew that. You, I don't think you ever mentioned it."
"Well, it was a lifetime ago. But I can still recall that feeling of cutting through the water. And the smell...."
"The smell," Sam agreed wistfully. He drifted a few steps away, eyes opening and closing dreamily. "The smell and, the wind. And tasting the salt on your lips; god I love that. The way it tastes, mixed with skin. There's nothing like sex on a sailboat." He stood for a moment, head tipped back slightly, a graceful, absent smile parting his lips. "That rocking motion; the ocean swelling under you, like it's coming from deep inside your body...."
Leo sat mesmerized for a second, suddenly aware that Sam's voice had dropped to something low and husky. It was a naked sound; raw, exposed.
"Uh." Leo cocked his head. "I wouldn't know about that, Sam. We never had girls on our boats." He saw the remark register on Sam's face, watched as the smile went from loose and languid to tight and self-conscious.
"No. I mean.... no." Sam stood facing Leo, his mouth hanging open, too-blue eyes blinking steadily. "No."
A hearty laugh flew out of Leo's mouth. "No?" he chortled.
"No. I mean.... Argh! See, I was just about to, I was on the verge of suggesting...." One of Sam's arms hung loosely at his side, the other flailed in front as he tried to gather his thoughts to him. "I was gonna say, you were welcome to come with me next time I go out on the water. But then," Sam took a hesitant step towards Leo. "Then I realized, that might sound like I was, possibly, propositioning you, and that - and that...." Sam's helpless expression wilted under Leo's scrutiny. "Well, that wouldn't be right, would it?" he finally offered meekly.
Leo leveled an evaluating eye on Sam and waited until he had him visibly squirming. "No, it wouldn't. Really, Sam, I thought you woulda realized by now, we McGarry's just aren't interested in dating you anymore."
Sam's mouth snapped shut. "But, you were going to take me out tonight," Sam ventured carefully. "That kinda sounded like a date." It was the twinkle in his eyes that gave him away. Leo was impressed; the man could play to an audience.
"Funny," Leo began, in a voice full of teasing. "I never took you for the adventurous type." His own blue eyes glittered with humor, and he took a long, slow pull off his coffee.
Sam spun lazily on his heel, a look of cocky pride on his face. "I'm a hell of an adventurous guy, Leo. I drink tequila; I scuba dive; I even drove from Chapel Hill to New Orleans on the back of a motorcycle once, though the daring part wasn't the motorcycle or our destination so much as the guy I went with was a little scary and not so much with the please and thank-yous." Pausing to take a breath, Sam did another turn, and faced Leo head
on. "So you should remember, the next time you want to cast disparaging remarks my way, I'm down with the danger, dude."
"I was a fighter pilot in Vietnam," Leo reminded Sam with a casual air of superiority.
Leo nodded his head once in silent affirmation that he was, indeed da man here. Checking his watch once more, he sighed in bored agitation and tapped the toes of his handmade Italian shoes on the floor. "Baked potatoes the size of a cat's head," he muttered, then cut his eyes over to an astonished Sam. "The place. Tonight," he clarified.
"Of course," Sam agreed skeptically.
A burst of excited noise rose from the other room, shouts of 'Mr. President! Mr. President!' stabbing through the underlying flow of chatter.
Leo aimed a significant look at Sam, and raised his eyebrows. "Sounds like he let it drop." Putting down his coffee, he stared studiously ahead at the writer. He could see Sam's body had tensed; his shoulders were squared, and he had a look of determined protectiveness written across his face. "Easy."
"We..." Sam stepped closer to Leo and dropped his voice. "Shouldn't we go in there to help defend him?"
After crossing his arms over his chest, Leo let his head fall and shook it slowly. "Sam, we agreed. If we go rushing in there to defend him, it's going to look as if -- "
"We were rushing in there to defend him. I know." The bitter quality in Sam's tone brought Leo's head up.
"Hey, you think I liked making this policy shift?" he challenged, getting fully to his feet. "I didn't, Sam. I hated it, and the foul taste it's left in my mouth isn't going to be washed away with a $4 cup of coffee." He stalked over to the bulletin board Sam had inspected earlier, and let his eyes skim over the display. "If one of these kids wants to come up to me, tug on my jacket and ask me why we're cutting funding for pre-school programs, by god, I'll sit cross-legged on this floor and explain to him all about redundancies."
Leo's body turned slowly towards Sam, and his voice took on a menacing, serrated edge that made Sam's face go still. "But I will not stand here and clarify it for you, dammit. You're one of us, Sam. Don't make me begin to question that."
He saw Sam's mouth tighten into a thin, taut line. The alert posture of a moment ago deflated noticeably, and Sam couldn't look at Leo, his eyes swinging away in displeasure.
Leo felt his own heart grow a little heavier, and sighed deeply. "Sam..." Four conciliatory steps brought Leo closer, but just as he reached his companion, Sam turned away, making a flamboyant show of reaching for his coffee cup, blowing on its already cooled contents before sipping charily.
In his political life Leo had worked with dozens of eager young men and women, full of vim and energy enough to light the world afire. He'd come to recognize that one of the most satisfying parts of his own character was his ability to keep their enthusiasm stoked. He was good at it, and he'd used that gift to convince Jed Bartlet to run for president.
But Sam Seaborn was another animal entirely. There was no need to light a fire under him. There was no shortage of ideas or sincerity. With Sam, it was all about directing the intrinsic energy and immovable convictions into something that worked in the real world.
And it wasn't a job for one man, two, or even three. It took the entire senior staff to keep a lid on Sam's passions, and stay him on a practical course. Leo batted away the memories of the private, late night discussions he'd been having with President Bartlet over the last few months. He agreed the bright young writer's time was coming, but Leo wasn't sure he had enough left in him to help Sam see it through.
Drained and depleted, Leo walked to the desk and hefted himself onto it.
"I apologize, Leo."
"No, Sam. I'm the one "
"This wasn't your idea, I know that. Taking my frustration out on you isn't fair or appropriate."
Leo was never sure if Sam was aware of the way his apologies derailed many a good heads of steam. Another thing Sam never seemed to get a handle on: how anger and frustration could be channeled into something powerful and constructive. In Sam's case, it was usually a destabilizing factor, and not the fuel it was to someone more seasoned and savvy to the disappointments that came with public service.
Leo picked up his sagging coffee cup and scowled at the cold contents. "People actually pay to drink cold coffee?" he mused.
"Forget it, Sam," the veteran politician said dismissively. "I don't disagree with you; I've just moved on."
"Okay," Sam brooded.
"You gotta move on, Sam."
The uproar across the hall had faded back into a leveled and respectful debate, and Leo watched Sam stare in the direction of the president for a few loaded moments, until his body language signaled that he had relinquished his disappointment.
A restless wave of energy churned inside Leo, and he got to his feet and began pacing the floor of the classroom, to the bulletin board and back. He had never been to his daughter's school, and wondered mildly if it looked anything like this one; paint along the ceiling peeling like badly sunburned skin, the windows clouded and scarred by years of city grime.
He remembered Mallory once mentioned asking Sam to come to her school for a personal tour to see how vital parent involvement was in maintaining programs like the arts. He couldn't recall for sure now if Sam had ever gone, but was pretty certain he would have been subject to a lengthy lecture on the subject and a fifty-page position paper if he had.
A glance at the man leaning against the desk stopped Leo in his pacing. "You do know I care, don't you Sam?" he found himself asking before he realized he was the one unable to let it go.
"Of course I do," Sam answered without looking up from his hands, clasped in front of him. "Just so long as you never forget I do too."
He didn't want it turning into a contest, Leo argued with himself. A small part of him still chafed at the presumption that Leo McGarry's hands held the reigns of Jed Bartlet, and was solely responsible for keeping the president from breaking from the middle of the track to sprint towards the far left.
He allowed himself the briefest of moments imagining what it might be like, holding Sam's reigns in his hands. But Leo backed away from that vision as quickly as it came, knowing in his heart he was too old for that race.
"...all of them work, some more than one job, and they can't spare the time to come and work in the classrooms, or help clean the place up," Sam was saying, snapping Leo's attention back.
His confusion didn't seem to daunt Sam in the least. He was also on his feet now, looking up at the peeling paint Leo had just noticed moments ago. "You're talking about getting parents involved?" Leo asked, pretty sure he knew where Sam was heading.
As if he didn't hear the Chief of Staff's question, Sam continued on, pointing at different aspects of the room. "Three light bulbs out; cracks in the linoleum that, seriously, I almost tripped over."
Leo snickered to himself, hastily pulling on a sober face when Sam looked up at him curiously.
"Did you notice?" Sam said. "No computers. And Mrs. Whitman told me that there's no internet access for the ones they do have, because -- "
"No phone lines or cables in the classrooms," Leo finished. "I read the prep material, Sam." He looked up at the filthy windows again, and noticed the way the sunlight fought its way past the layers of grit.
A couple of buckets of hot water; a few rolls of paper towels. The money to buy them, and the hands to make it all happen, he reflected. It didn't seem like such an insurmountable goal.
"Family leave. Sort of."
Leo swung his gaze around to look at Sam. "What did you say?" he prompted. A burr sat under his skin, a grain of an idea that was already worrying away at him.
"Like family leave, only not for the family. For the school," Sam went on. "I don't know; incentives for businesses who let their employees spend so many hours a year in a school, either helping in a classroom or just -- "
"Pitching in on a project, like special clean-up days. And if extended family members weren't exempt -- "
"In Latino and African American communities that's a pretty substantial segment," Sam agreed eagerly. Bright with excitement, Sam's eyes danced along the surfaces of the room, cataloging and calculating as he went.
"It would take a lot of study," Leo cautioned, already assessing the amount of time and work needed to get something like this off the ground. "Could it even be done on a federal level?"
"I don't know," Sam answered truthfully, but with a ring of impatience.
"Or would it be more workable on a state level?"
"Probably," Sam agreed more happily, already reaching for his notebook.
Leo laughed quietly. There was no way he was getting into something like this. God, it was the last thing they needed right now. It was someone else's job, not their problem. ...And he'd be dammed if he was going to pull Sam back from it.
Let that be someone else's job.
Leo came up behind Sam and peered over his shoulder. His scrawled handwriting already filled six lines of the pad, and Sam nearly bungled the notebook when he reached up to adjust his glasses.
"You're gonna do that now?" Leo asked incredulously. Sam's 'why not?' expression brought a crooked smile to Leo's lips. "We've got a date tonight, remember?" he teased.
Sam's pen paused, and he looked up at the older man. "I'll be ready," he said, his voice an implausible mixture of both assurance and doubt. "I'm prepared to put all policy issues aside, Leo. Tonight we get down and, I assume, funky." He smiled mischievously, showing perfect, white teeth.
Leo nodded solemnly, and tucked his hands behind his back. "No one's getting drunk; no one's getting laid. There will be no fistfights. And the president doesn't know," he pronounced.
"Worried you'll fall into bad habits? That you'll corrupt his bright, innocent aide?" Sam asked playfully.
"Afraid he'll want to come with us," Leo admitted. He turned away at the sound of applause from the other room, and walked back to the desk to begin retrieving his belongings. "Tonight is just us," he told Sam, his voice sandpapery. Hurrying him along with a sweep of his hand, he added, "Just two old political warhorses, having a night out on the town."
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