Ben Addison was sweating. Like a pig.
And it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In the past three hours, Ben had read the current issues of the Washington Post, The New York Times, Law Week and the Legal Times. Last night, before he went to bed, he committed to memory every major Supreme Court case from the previous session. He also made a list of every Supreme Court opinion Justice Mason Hollis had ever written, and, to be safe, he re-read Hollis’s biography. No matter what the subject, Ben was convinced he would be prepared for any topic of conversation Justice Hollis might raise. In his briefcase, he had packed two legal pads, four pens, two pencils, a pocket legal dictionary, a pocket thesaurus, and a turkey sandwich. He had heard that Supreme Court clerks typically work straight through lunch. Without question, Ben Addison was ready.
But he was still sweating. Like a pig.
As he stood outside the Supreme Court, a half hour early for his first day on the job, Ben was mesmerized by the gleaming white edifice that was home to the nation’s highest court. This is it, he thought, taking a deep breath. It’s finally here. Running his hand through his brand-new haircut, Ben climbed the smooth marble stairs. He counted each step, in case Justice Hollis was curious how many stairs there were. Forty-four, he said to himself, filing the information.
When Ben entered the front doors of the building, he was stopped by a security guard who sat next to a metal detector.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“I’m Ben Addison. I’m here to clerk.”
The guard picked up his clipboard and found Ben’s name. “Orientation doesn’t start for another half-hour.”
“I like to be early,” Ben smiled.
“Right.” The guard rolled his eyes. “Go straight down the hall and make your first left. It’s the first door on your right.”
Following the guard’s directions, Ben walked through the Great Hall. Lined with marble busts of past Chief Justices, the stark white hall was as impressive as Ben had remembered. A sly smile lifted his cheeks as he passed each sculpture. “Hello, Supreme Court,” he whispered to himself. “Hello, Ben,” he answered.
When Ben reached his destination, he pulled open the large wooden door. Stepping inside, he expected to see an empty room. Instead, he saw eight other law clerks. “Brown-nosers,” Ben muttered to himself as he walked toward the only empty chair in the room.
As inconspicuously as possible, Ben sized up his new colleagues. He recognized three of the eight clerks. On his far right was a well-dressed man with stylish, tortoise-rimmed glasses who used to be the articles editor of the Stanford Law Review. To his left sat a tall black woman who was the former editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review. Ben had met both of them at a national Law Review conference at Yale. As Ben recalled, the man with the glasses was a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, while the woman used to be an Old Masters expert for Sotheby’s. Angela was her name. Angela P-something. Finally, seated next to Ben was Joel Westman, a fellow classmate from Yale Law. A political analyst, Joel had spent his pre-law school years as a White House speechwriter. Nice resumes, Ben thought to himself. Struggling to appear casual, he smiled and gave friendly nods to all three clerks. One by one, they nodded back.
Ben nervously tapped his foot against the plush carpet as he waited for orientation to begin. Don’t worry, he told himself. It’ll be fine. You’re as smart as anyone else. But as well-traveled? As well-heeled? That wasn’t the point. Remember your lucky underwear, he reassured himself. Ben had bought the now-fraying pair of red boxer shorts when he was a freshman at Columbia. He had worn them on the first day of every class, to every midterm, and on every important date. During finals, if he had exams on three consecutive days, the boxers would stay on for all of them. He had worn them throughout his three years at Yale and to every clerkship interview. Today’s the day, he decided as his foot stopped tapping, that the lucky underwear comes through in the sacred halls of the Supreme Court.
Eventually, a middle-aged man in a gray, pin-striped suit walked into the room. Carrying a stack of manila envelopes, he approached the podium and scanned the room to count heads. “I’m Reed Hughes,” he said, grabbing the sides of the podium in a solid grip. “As the head of the Clerk’s Office, I’d like to officially welcome you to the Supreme Court of the United States. At the risk of repeating information you’re already familiar with, I thought it would be appropriate to tell you a little bit about what your next year here at the Court is going to be like.”
Within seconds, four clerks pulled out their notebooks, pens poised for action.
Pathetic, Ben thought, fighting the urge to take out his own notebook.
“As you know, each Justice is permitted to hire two clerks to assist in the preparation of decisions,” Hughes explained. “The nine of you starting today will join the other nine, your co-clerks, who started one month ago on July first. I realize that all eighteen of you have worked extremely hard to get where you are today. For most of your lives, you’ve been running a never-ending race to succeed. Let me tell you something I hope you’ll take seriously. The race is over. You’ve won. You are law clerks of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
“Did you get that down?” Ben whispered to Joel. “We’re the clerks.”
Joel shot Ben a look. “No one likes a smart-ass, Addison.”
“The eighteen of you represent the best and the brightest of the legal community,” Hughes continued. “After screening thousands of applications from the country’s top law schools, the Justices of this Court selected you. What does that mean? It means your lives are forever changed. Recruiters will offer you jobs, headhunters will take you out to expensive dinners, and potential employers will do everything in their power to hire you. You are members of the country’s most elite fraternity. The current Secretary of State was a Supreme Court clerk. So was the Secretary of Defense. Three of our nine Supreme Court Justices were former Supreme Court clerks, which means that someone in this room has a pretty good shot at becoming a Supreme Court Justice. From this moment on, you are the hottest property on the board. You’re Boardwalk and Park Place. And that means you have power.”
Sitting back in his seat, Ben Addison was no longer sweating.
Hughes scanned his captivated audience. “Why am I telling you this? It’s not so you can impress your friends. And it’s certainly not to boost your ego. After dealing with clerks year after year, I know none of you has an ego problem. My goal is to prepare you for the responsibility you’re about to encounter.
“This is an important job—probably more important than any job you’ll ever have. For over two hundred years, the Supreme Court has steered our country through its greatest controversies. Congress may pass the laws, and the President may sign the laws, but it’s the Supreme Court that decides the law. And starting today, that power is yours. Alongside the Justices, you will draft decisions that change lives. Your input will constantly be sought, and your ideas will certainly be implemented. In many instances, the Justices will rely entirely on your analysis. They’ll base their opinions on your research. That means you affect what they see and what they know. There are nine Justices on this Court. But your influence, the power that you hold, makes you the tenth Justice.”
Hughes paused, carefully adjusting his glasses. “You are now charged with great responsibility. You must exercise it wisely. With that said, I know you’ll take this commitment extremely seriously. If you have the right attitude, our clerkship program can change your life. Now, are there any questions?”
Not a single hand went up.
“Fine,” Hughes said, picking up his stack of manila envelopes. “Then we can get you to your offices.” As he distributed the envelopes, he explained, “Take the one with your name on it and pass the rest on. The envelopes contain your security card and your Court password. The card will let you into any Court entrance, while the password will get you on to your computer. Your secretary will show you how to log on. Any questions?” Again, not a single hand. “Good,” Hughes said. “Then feel free to go to your office. The number is written on the front of the envelope.” As the room emptied, Hughes called out, “If you have any questions, feel free to call me.”
The last one to leave the room, Ben headed for his office, the only one on the second floor. He had met Justice Hollis’s former clerks there during his interview last year. Weaving his way toward the front entrance of the Court, he raced toward the elevator. The elevator operator was an elderly woman with dyed, jet black hair. Wearing a Court uniform that was too tight for her large frame, she worked a jigsaw puzzle on a small table.
“Second floor, please,” Ben said when he reached the woman. When she didn’t respond, Ben added, “Ma’am, I’m trying to get upstairs. Can you please help…”
“Don’t get in an uproar,” she drawled, without looking up. “I’ll be right with you.” After finding a place for the puzzle piece in her hand, she finally looked up at Ben. “Okay, now, who’re you here to see?”
“I’m clerking for Justice Hollis. I’m Ben Addison,” he said, extending his hand.
“I don’t care who you are, just tell me what floor you want to go to,” she said, walking into the elevator.
“Second,” Ben said, clenching his jaw to avoid losing patience. When they reached the second floor, Ben stepped off the elevator and walked down the hallway, looking for the room number that was written on his envelope. “Nice to see you, Justice Hollis,” he practiced as he walked. “Hi, Justice Hollis, nice to see you. How’s everything, Justice Hollis? Nice robe, Justice Hollis—it fits great. Can I kiss your butt some more, Justice Hollis?” Finally, he saw room 2143. Outside the large, ornate mahogany doors, Ben wiped his hand on his slacks, hoping for a dry handshake. Grabbing the brass knob, he opened the door and stepped inside.
“I guess you’re Ben.” A woman in her late-twenties peered over the newspaper she was reading. “Sorry you wasted the nice suit on me.” Dressed in khaki shorts and a forest green T-shirt, the woman tossed aside the paper and approached Ben, extending her hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Lisa, your co-clerk for the year. I hope we don’t hate each other, because we’re going to be spending quite a bit of time together.”
“Is the Justice…”
“Let me show you our office,” Lisa interrupted, pulling him into the room. “This is just the reception area. Nancy’s out today, but she usually sits here. She’s Hollis’s secretary.”
Lisa was petite with an athletic build, compact but elegant. A tiny nose balanced out thin lips and blue eyes. Brushing her hair behind her ear, she opened the door to a smaller room. “Here’s our office. Pretty crappy, huh?”
“Unbelievable,” Ben said, standing in the doorway. The office wasn’t large, and it was barely decorated, but the intricate dark-wood paneling that covered the walls gave it an instant sense of history. On the right-hand side of the office were built-in bookcases, which housed Ben and Lisa’s personal library. Stocked with volumes of cases, treatises, and law journals, the room reminded Ben of the libraries that millionaires have in cheesy movies.
On the back wall hung the room’s only picture—a photograph of the current Justices. Taken when a new Justice was appointed to the Court, the official photograph was always posed the same way: five Justices seated and four Justices standing. The Chief Justice sat in the middle, while everyone else was arranged according to their seniority on the Court. The oldest Justice sat on the far left; the newest Justice stood on the far right. Although the photo was only six months old, the Justices’ identical black robes and matching stoic stares made the current portrait almost indistinguishable from the dozens taken in years past.
Arranged atop the navy and gold carpet were two antique wooden desks facing each other, two computers, a wall of file cabinets, a paper shredder, and a plush but well worn scarlet sofa. Both desks were already submerged under a mountain of paper. “From what I can tell, the desks are from the early colonial period,” Lisa explained. “They might’ve been used by some old Justices. Either that, or they’re replicas from someone’s garage. What the hell do I know about antiques?”
As he followed her into the cramped, but sophisticated office, Ben noticed Lisa was barefoot.
“I guess the Justice isn’t coming in today?” Ben asked, pushing aside some papers and putting his briefcase down on one of the desks.
“That’s right. I’m sorry, I was supposed to call you last night. Most of the Justices take off for the summer. Hollis won’t be back for another two weeks, so it’s as casual as you want.” Lisa leaned on Ben’s desk. “So, what do you think?”
Surveying the room, Ben said, “The sofa looks comfortable.”
“It’s average at best. But it’s more comfortable than these old chairs.” Darting to the side of one of the gray metal file cabinets, Lisa said, “This, however, is the best part of the office. Check it out.”
Pulling the cabinet away from the wall to get a better view, Ben saw eighteen signatures written in black marker. “So these are Hollis’s old clerks?” he asked, reading through the names that covered half of the cabinet.
“No, they’re the original Mouseketeers,” Lisa said. “Of course they’re the old clerks.”
“When do we sign?”
“No time like the present,” Lisa said, pulling a black marker from her back pocket.
“Aren’t we eager?” Ben laughed.
“Hey, you’re lucky I waited for you.” With a flourish, Lisa wrote her name on the side of the cabinet. When she was done, Ben signed just below and pushed the file cabinet back against the wall. “I guess you started in July?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Lisa said. “I wish I could’ve traveled more.”
“That’s where I’ve been,” Ben said. “I just got back from Europe two nights ago.”
“Bully for you,” Lisa said as she flopped down on the sofa. “So give me your vital stats—where you’re from, where you went to school, hobbies, aspirations, all the juicy stuff.”
“Do you want my measurements too, or just my shoe size?”
“I can see the measurements,” Lisa shot back. “Small feet, medium hands, average build, big ego.”
Ben laughed. “And everyone said my co-clerk would be a stiff,” he said, taking off his jacket. He had an oval face and a less-than-impressive jaw, but Ben was still considered handsome, with intense deep-green eyes and light-brown hair that fell onto his forehead. Rolling up his sleeves, he said, “I’m from Newton, Massachusetts; I went to Columbia for undergrad and Yale for law school; last year I clerked for Justice Stanley on the D.C. Circuit; and I eventually want to be a prosecutor.”
“Boorrrrrrrring!” Lisa said, slouching back on the sofa. “Why don’t you just give me your resume? Tell me about yourself. Loves, hates, favorite foods, sex scandals, what your family’s like. Anything.”
“Are you always this nosy?” Ben asked as he hopped onto the corner of his desk.
“Hey, we’re going to be living in this room for the next twelve months. We better start somewhere. Now are you going to answer or not?”
“My mother is an executive for a computer company in Boston. She’s the aggressive, street-smart power-mom who grew up in Brooklyn. My dad writes a liberal op-ed column for The Boston Globe. They both went to the University of Michigan and met in a sociology class. Their first conversation was a fight: my father went crazy when he heard my mom say that salary level had a direct correlation with intelligence.”
“All right. Controversy!” Lisa said, sitting up straight.
“They get along really well, but we can’t discuss politics in the house.”
“So where do you fall politically?”
“I guess I’m somewhere between moderate and liberal,” Ben said, illustrating his point with his hands. “I’m the product of a bi-partisan marriage.”
“Any girlfriends?” Lisa asked.
“No, I think my dad’s pretty much narrowed it down to my mom.”
“Funny,” Lisa said.
“I live with my three best friends from high school,” Ben said, sitting on his hands.
“You ever been in love?”
“You ever been called intrusive?”
“Just answer the question,” Lisa said.
“Only once, though I’m not sure I can call it love. After law school, I took a two month trip around the world—Europe and Asia, Bangkok and Bali, Spain and Switzerland, everything I could see.”
“I take it you like to travel.”
“Very much,” Ben said. “Anyway, in Spain, I met this woman named Jacqueline Ambrosio.”
“How exotic. Was she a native?”
“Nope. She was a marketing consultant from Rhode Island. She was starting her travels in Spain, and I was at the end of my trip. We met in Salamanca, took a weekend trip to that beautiful little island, Majorca, and parted ways five days after we met.”
“Please, you’re breaking my heart,” Lisa moaned. “And let me guess, you lost her address, could never find her again, and to this day, your heart aches for her.”
“Actually, on my last day there, she told me she was married, and that she had a great time revisiting the single life. Apparently, her husband was flying in the next day.”
Pausing a moment, Lisa finally said, “Is that story bullshit?”
“Not a bit.”
“Wasn’t she wearing a wedding ring?”
“Not when we were together.”
“Well, then,” Lisa said, “it’s a good story. But it definitely wasn’t love.”
“I never said it was,” Ben said with a smile. “How about you? What’s your story? Just the juicy stuff.”
Lisa kicked her feet up on the red sofa. “I’m from Los Angeles, and I hate it there. I think it’s the toilet of the great Western restroom. I went to Stanford undergrad and Stanford Law only because I enjoy being near my family…”
“Boorrrrrrrring!” Ben sang.
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” Lisa said. “My dad is originally from L.A.; my mom’s from Memphis. They met, and I swear this is true, at an Elvis convention in Las Vegas. They collect Elvis everything—plates, towels, napkin holders, we even have an Elvis Pez dispenser.”
“They have Elvis Pez heads?”
“Some lunatic collector in Alabama put sideburns on a Fred Flintstone Pez, filed down the nose, and painted on sunglasses. My parents went nuts and paid two hundred bucks for it. Don’t ask; they’re total freaks.”
“I don’t suppose your middle name is…”
“You got it. Lisa Marie Schulman.”
“That’s fantastic,” Ben said, impressed. “I’ve always wanted to scar my kids with a really funny name, like Thor or Ira.”
“I highly recommend it. Being taunted throughout childhood is great for your self-esteem.”
“Let me ask you this,” Ben said, “do you twirl spaghetti?” Lisa scrunched her eyebrows confused. “I think there are two kinds of people in this world,” Ben explained, “people who twirl their spaghetti on their fork to make manageable bites, and those who slurp it up, getting it all over themselves. Which are you?”
“I slurp,” Lisa said with a smile. “And when I was little, I didn’t eat anything white, so my mom had to dye my milk and my eggs with food coloring.”
“What?” Ben asked, laughing.
“I’m serious. I used to hate the color white, so she used to make my milk purple and my eggs red. It was tons of fun.”
“You used to cut the hair off your Barbie dolls, didn’t you?”
“As soon as I pulled them out of the box,” Lisa said proudly. “The little bitches asked for it.”
“Oh, I can see it now,” Ben said, laughing. “We’re gonna get along great.”
* * *
After taking the Metro’s red line to Dupont Circle, Ben walked home. A block from the subway, he saw Tough Guy Joey, the neighborhood’s angriest street person. “Hey, Joey,” Ben said.
“Screw you,” Joey snapped. “Bite me.”
“Here’s some dinner,” Ben said, handing Joey the turkey sandwich he had brought to work. “Lucky me, they feed you on the first day.”
“Thanks, man,” Joey said, grabbing the sandwich. “Drop dead. Eat shit.”
“You got it,” Ben said, continuing toward his house. Passing the worn but cozy brownstones that lined almost every block of his neighborhood, Ben watched the legion of young professionals rush home to dinner down Dupont Circle’s tree-lined streets. Almost home, Ben inhaled deeply, indulging in the whiff of home cooking that always flowed from the red-brick house on the corner of his block. Ben’s own house was a narrow, uninspired brownstone with a faded beige awning and a forty-eight-starred American flag. Although it was August, the front door was still covered with Halloween decorations. Ben’s roommate, Ober, was quite proud of his decorating and had refused to take them down before they got another year’s use out of them. When Ben finally walked through the door, Ober and Nathan were cooking dinner. “How was it?” Ober asked. “Did you sue anybody?”
“It was great,” Ben said, dropping his briefcase so he could undo his tie. “The Justice is away for the next two weeks, so my co-clerk and I just worked through some introductory stuff.”
“Your co-clerk—what’s he like?” Ober asked, adding pasta to his boiling water.
“She’s a woman,” Ben answered.
“What’s she look like? Is she hot?”
“She’s pretty cute,” Ben said. “She’s spunky, very straightforward. There’s no sense of bullshit about her. She’s got nice eyes, pretty short hair…”
“She’s a lesbian,” Ober declared. “No question about it.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Nathan asked as Ben shook his head.
“Short hair and straightforward?” Ober scoffed. “And you think she’s not a lesbo?”
“She did offer to fix my car today,” Ben added.
“See,” Ober said, pointing to Ben. “She just met him and she’s already strapping on the toolbelt.”
Ignoring his roommate, Ben opened the refrigerator. “What’re you guys making?”
“Anita Bryant is boiling the pasta, and I’m making my stinking garlic sauce,” said Nathan, who was still wearing his tie even though he had been home for a half-hour. Military in his posture, Nathan’s square shoulders didn’t budge as he moved the large pot of spaghetti to the back burner of the stove. “Throw some more pasta in—there’s only twenty boxes in the cabinet.” Carefully, he moved his sauce pan to the front burner. “So tell us how it was? What’d you do all day?”
“Until the Court officially opens, we spend most of our day writing memos for cert petitions,” Ben explained. Looking to make sure his friends were still interested in the explanation, he continued, “Every day, the Court is flooded with petitions seeking certiorari, or ‘cert.’ When four Justices grant cert, it means the Court will hear the case. To save time, we read through the cert petitions, put them into a standard memo format, and recommend whether the Justice should grant or deny cert.”
“So depending on how you write your memo, you can really affect whether the Court decides to hear a case,” Nathan reasoned.
“You can say that, but I think that might be overstating our power,” Ben said, dipping his finger into the sauce for a quick taste. “Every other Chamber also gets to see the memo, so you’re kept in check by that. So let’s say an important case comes through that would really limit abortion rights. If I slant the memo and recommend that Justice Hollis deny cert, all the conservative Justices would go screaming to Hollis, and I’d look like a fool.”
“But I’m sure on a marginal case, no one will really notice—especially if you’re the only one that reads the original petition,” Nathan said.
“I don’t know,” Ben said, shaking his head and leaning against the counter. “I think your Napoleonic side is showing tonight. This is the Supreme Court. There’s a fierce code of ethics that goes along with it.”
“I still can’t believe you’re clerking for the Supreme Court,” Ober said as he peeled garlic over the sink. “The Supreme-fucking Court! I’m answering phones, and you’re hanging out at the Supreme Court.”
“I guess you didn’t get your promotion,” Ben said.
“They completely dicked me over,” Ober said quietly. With two distinct dimples that punctuated his pale cheeks and light freckles that dotted his nose, Ober was the only one of Ben’s roommates who still looked like he was in college. “The whole reason I went to Senator Stevens’s office was because they said I’d only answer phones for a few weeks. That was five months ago.”
“Did you confront them?” Ben asked.
“I tried everything you said,” Ober explained. “I just can’t be as aggressive as you are.”
“Did you at least threaten to quit?” Ben asked.
“I kinda hinted at it.”
“Hinted at it?” Ben asked. “What’d they say?”
“They said they’re sorry to hold me up, but they’re gearing up for an election year. Plus, there are at least a hundred people who would take the job in a heartbeat. I think I might have to urinate on the personnel manager’s desk.”
“Now that’s a good idea,” Nathan said. “Urination is a solid response for a twenty-eight year-old. I’ve always heard it’s the best path to a promotion.”
“You have to be more forceful,” Ben said. “You have to make them think losing you would be the end of the world.”
“And how do I do that?”
“You have to present the total package,” Ben explained. Noticing Ober’s pale white oxford shirt, he added, “And you have to dress the part. I told you before—don’t wear that shirt. With your freckles and that blond hair, you look like a total kid.”
“Then what am I supposed…”
“Put this on.” Taking off his jacket, Ben handed it to Ober. When Ober obliged, Ben continued, “That fits you pretty well. I want you to wear my suit and tie. It’s a good make-an-impression suit. Tomorrow morning, you’ll go back into work and ask again.”
“I can’t ask again,” Ober said.
“Maybe you can write them a letter,” Nathan suggested to Ober. “That way you don’t have to do it face-to-face.”
“Absolutely,” Ben said. “If you want, I’ll draft it with you. Between the three of us, you’ll have a new job in no time.”
“I don’t know,” Ober said. Taking off the jacket, he handed it back to Ben. “Maybe we should just forget about it.”
“Don’t get frustrated,” Ben said. “We’ll get you through it.”
“Why don’t you tell Ben your scratch-off story,” Nathan said, hoping to change the subject.
“Oh my God, I almost forgot! I’ll be right back.” Ober ran out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
“We’ve really got to help him,” Ben said.
“I know,” Nathan said. “Just let him tell his story—it’ll put him in a good mood.”
“Let me guess: does it have anything to do with the lottery?”
“P.T. Barnum would’ve loved him like a son.”
“How can he be so addicted?”
“I don’t know why you’re surprised,” Nathan said. “You were in Europe for six weeks. Did you really expect the world to change while you were gone? Some things are immutable.”
“What took you so long?” Ben asked when Ober returned.
“You’ll see,” Ober began, his hands hidden behind his back. “So there I am, walking home from work in a pissy mood. Suddenly, I see a new poster in the window of Paul’s Grocery: ‘We Got Lottery!'”
“Grammar is everything at Paul’s,” Nathan interrupted.
Undeterred, Ober continued, “First I bought a scratch-off. I scratch it and I win a dollar, so I buy another ticket. Then I win two dollars!” his voice began to race. “Now I know I can’t lose. So I get two more tickets and I lose on one and win another dollar on the second.”
“This is where normal people stop,” Nathan interrupted.
“So I get this last ticket!” Ober continued. “And I scratch it off, and I win three bucks, which I use to buy Snickers bars for all of us!” From behind his back, he threw Snickers at Ben and Nathan.
“Unreal,” Nathan said as he opened his candy. “Do you realize that you jumped through every hoop that the lottery commission set up for you?”
“Who cares?” Ober asked. He swallowed a huge piece of his candy bar. “I haven’t had a Snickers in months. I figured it’d be a nice way to celebrate Ben’s first day of work.”
* * *
A half-hour later, the three friends were seated at the kitchen table. “Honeys, I’m home!” Eric announced as he kicked open the front door.
“Can he have worse timing?” Nathan asked. As Nathan put down his fork, Ben and Ober walked toward the living room.
“The good son has returned!” Eric announced as soon as he saw Ben.
“It’s about time,” Ben said. “I thought you ran away.”
With a half-eaten sandwich in hand, Eric embraced his roommate. Wearing an unironed button-down and creased khakis, Eric was the sloppiest of the roommates. His thick black hair was never combed, and his face was rarely shaven. The darkness of his light beard was heightened by his bushy black eyebrows. Only a few millimeters from touching, they created the perception of a constantly furrowed brow. “Sorry about that,” Eric said. “I’ve had a deadline every night this week.”
“Every night?” Ben asked, confused. “For a monthly?”
“He doesn’t know about your job,” Nathan said, walking into the living room. “Remember? He hasn’t been here for six weeks.”
“No more Washington Life magazine?” Ben asked.
“No sir,” Eric said, scratching his head with vigorous pride. “Just when I thought I was going to spend the rest of my journalistic career covering local antique shows and the best new restaurants, I get a call from the Washington Herald. They had a staff writer opening in the political bureau. I started two weeks ago.”
“You’re working for a bunch of right-wingers?” Ben asked.
“Hey, it’s may be this city’s secondary paper, but it’s got circulation of 80,000, and they’re all mine!”
“That’s fantastic,” Ben said, slapping his friend on the back.
“And by the way,” Eric said to Ober, “guess what they’re putting on the crossword page?”
“Don’t toy with me … a word jumble?” Ober said, grabbing Eric by the front of his shirt.
“WORD JUMBLE!” Eric screamed. “Starting next month!”
“WORD JUMBLE!” Ober repeated.
“JUM-BLE! JUM-BLE! JUM-BLE!” the two friends began to chant.
“Ah, what entertains the ignorant,” Nathan said, putting his arm around Ben’s shoulder.
“I have to admit, I really missed this,” Ben said.
“They don’t have simpletons in Europe anymore?” Nathan asked.
“Funny,” Ben said as he turned back to his jumble-obsessed roommates. “Hey, wonder twins, how about getting back to dinner?”
“I can’t,” Eric said. Taking another bite of his sandwich, he explained, “This is dinner for me. Tomorrow’s edition beckons.”
* * *
Later that evening, Nathan walked into Ben’s room, which was arguably the best decorated room in the house. With an antique oak desk, oak four-poster bed and oak bookcase, Ben was the only one of the four roommates to actually care about matching anything. For a period, Nathan had thought about working on his room, but he reconsidered when he realized he was just doing it because Ben had done it. Three professionally framed black and white pictures hung on the wall over Ben’s bed: one of a half-completed Washington Monument, one of a half-completed Eiffel Tower, and one of a half-completed Statue of Liberty. Ben was pack-rat when it came to memorabilia. On his bookshelf were, among other things, the keys to his first car, a personalized beltbuckle his grandfather had given him when he was nine years old, the hairnet Ober used to wear when he worked at Burger Heaven, the hideous tie Nathan wore to his first day of work, the visitor’s pass from when he interviewed with Justice Hollis, and his favorite—the gavel Judge Stanley had given him when his clerkship ended.
“Still catching up on your mail?” Nathan asked, noticing the stack of envelopes Ben was flipping through.
“It’s amazing to see how much junk mail one person can amass in a six week period,” Ben explained. “I’ve gotten three sweepstakes offers, about fifty catalogues, a dozen magazine offers, and remember last year when Ober was watching Miss Teen USA and he called the eight hundred number to order us applications? I’m still on their mailing list. Listen to this: ‘Dear Ben Addison. Are you the next Miss Teen USA? Only the judges know for sure, but you can let the world know about your participation by ordering from our selection of Official Miss Teen USA products.'” Looking up from the letter, Ben added, “I think I’m going to order Ober a Miss Teen USA sports-bra. Once he’s on their mailing list as a buyer, he’ll never get off.”
“That’s a fine idea,” Nathan said, sitting down on Ben’s bed.
“So, tell me, what else is going on around here?” Ben said, throwing aside the letter.
“Honestly, nothing is different. Eric’s around less because he’s always on deadline.”
“I guess he still hasn’t done the deed?”
“Nope, our fourth roommate still remains a virgin. And he still contends it’s by choice—waiting until marriage and all that.”
“I guess Ober’s still riding him about it?” Ben asked, knowing the answer.
“He’s been riding him since eleventh grade,” Nathan said, smoothing back his red hair, which he wore cropped short to disguise his receding hairline. Nathan was the first of the roommates to start losing his hair and if he was in the room, baldness and hairstyles became forbidden subjects. Extremely competitive, he didn’t like to lose at anything, and to him, his retreating hairline undermined his entire appearance, eclipsing everything from his determined posture to his angular jaw.
“And this new job at the Herald? It seems like Eric’s really happy with it.”
“Are you kidding?” Nathan asked. “Eric’s been flying since he got this position. He thinks he’s king of the world.”
“Do I detect a bit of jealousy?” Ben asked.
“Not at all,” Nathan said. “He spent two years getting a graduate degree in journalism—I’m happy he’s finally writing about something more than local yard sales. I just wish he was around more.”
“Don’t give me that,” Ben teased. “You couldn’t give a crap whether he was around more. You just don’t like the fact that he’s doing better than you are.”
“First of all, he’s not doing better than me. Second of all, I don’t mind that he’s doing well, I just wish he’d be a little less selfish about it.”
“And jealousy rears its ugly visage.”
“You know what I mean,” Nathan said. “Whenever Eric takes on anything, he becomes obsessed with it. He did the same thing when he was in grad school, the same thing when he was writing for that literary magazine, and the same thing when he started at Washington Life. I know he thinks he’s both Woodward and Bernstein, but I wish he’d pay a little more attention to his friends. As it is, I don’t think I’ve had one solid conversation with him since he started this job. He doesn’t have time for us anymore.”
“You want to know what I think? I think you’re way too competitive. You always have been; you always will be.”
“This has nothing to do with my competitiveness. It has to do with friendship.”
“Give him a break,” Ben said. “He’s still new there. I’m sure he’s just trying to make a good impression.”
“Maybe,” Nathan said as he picked up a pencil from the desk and began to doodle.
“Forget that. How’s life at the State Department?” Ben asked. “Have you taken over any third world countries in the past few weeks?”
“Alas, no. It’s been pretty much what I thought. My boss has been in South Africa for the past week, so it’s been slow. But I think they want to keep me around. I figure they’ll put me in the S/P in a few more months.”
“The Secretary’s policy planning staff. They do all the policy work for the department. People from the S/P usually feed into the major think tanks.”
“You and a bunch of big brains pondering our existence, huh?”
“Someone’s got to think about running the world,” Nathan said as he doodled an outline of the United States. “Meanwhile, what about you? Your first day at the Supreme Court. That’s no mall job.”
“I know,” Ben said as he fidgeted with the clasp of his datebook. “I just hope I’m okay starting in August instead of July. I felt kind of lost today.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Nathan said. “You haven’t missed a thing. Besides, your co-clerk had a month head-start.”
“I guess,” Ben said. Walking over to his bookshelf, he began to reorganize his books.
Nathan watched his friend for over a minute. “It’s okay to be nervous,” he finally said. “It is the Supreme Court.”
“I know. It’s just that everyone there is so damn smart. They can name every Court precedent for the past twenty years; I can name the original cast of LA Law. That’s not going to get me far.”
Without knocking, Ober walked into the room. “Who died?” he asked, recognizing the anxiety on Ben’s face.
“He’s just worried that the Supreme Court will be intellectually intimidating,” Nathan explained.
“Big deal,” Ober said as he sat on Ben’s bed. “Tell them you can name the entire cast of LA Law. That always impressed me.”
“I’m a dead man,” Ben said as he continued to re-organize his books.
“Ben, stop with the books. You have nothing to worry about,” Nathan said. “For your whole life, you’ve been at the top of the intellectual ladder. You went from Columbia, to Yale, to a clerkship with Judge Stanley. Now you’re working for Justice Hollis, one of the best Justices on the Supreme Court. Either all of your success is a fluke, or you’re just stressing. Which do you think is more likely?”
“He’s probably a fluke,” Ober teased.
“Shut up, pinhead,” Nathan scolded. “Ben, you’re the ultimate over-achiever. You used to alphabetize the crayons in the Crayola 64 box. You researched the aerodynamics of the whiffle ball…”
“He was the only one of us who didn’t eat the Play-Doh,” Ober added.
“Exactly,” Nathan agreed. “Besides myself, you’re the smartest person I know.”
Now smiling, Ben turned toward Nathan. “I’m smarter.”
Holding back his own laughter, Nathan said, “Three letters, buddy-boy: S-A-T.”
“Just because you beat me by a measly hundred points on the SAT does not mean you’re smarter,” Ben said.
“The test does not lie,” Nathan said as he walked to the door. “You may have the street-smarts, but when it comes to unbridled intellectualism, you can call me master. And Ober, when we were little, none of us ate the Play-Doh. We used to pretend to eat it, just to watch you.”
As Nathan left the room, Ober turned toward Ben. When Ben started laughing, Ober shouted back, “I knew that!”