Disclaimer: The West Wing belongs to Aaron Sorkin, et al, as do the episodes “He Shall from Time to Time” and “Mr. Willis of Ohio.”
Author’s Note: Feel free to archive this story where ever.
Only a Friend Can Say
It began, strangely enough, with a bicycle crash.
15-year-old Leo McGarry was standing in front of his new house -- and hating it. He missed his friends in Boston. For a reason that was unfathomable to Leo, his mother had decided to uproot her little family just before Leo started high school and drag them from Boston to Concord.
The new house was nice enough; perhaps more importantly, it didn’t echo with memories of Leo’s father. Still, to a teenager, such things pale in comparison to the crisis of having no friends.
Leo had glumly decided that the rest of his life would be awful.
That’s when it happened.
A blur of red bicycle came flying down Leo’s road, took a corner too fast, careened over a curb, and crashed into a tree.
Leo stood, riveted to the ground, until he heard a moan drift over the thoroughfare. Then his usual responsible nature kicked in, and Leo ran over to help the . . . mess . . . piled up against the tree.
“Hey, you okay?” Leo asked.
“Ouch. Yes. No. I dunno. I think I’m stuck,” a voice said from somewhere under the pile of twisted metal and leaves.
Leo de-tangled boy and bike and came face-to-face with a sandy hared, slightly nerdy, somewhat bloodied boy about his own age.
“Wow,” Leo said as he helped the kid to his feet. “That was quite a crash.”
“Don’t laugh,” the kid said as he brushed leaves and dirt off of his jeans.
“I’m not,” Leo said, but he couldn’t help the upward twitch of his lips.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” the kid asked. “What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from?”
“Whoa, what is this, an interrogation? I’m Leo McGarry. My mom, sister and I just moved here from Boston. I’m 15.”
“Hey, you’re my age! Boston, eh? You know, they had an important tea party there once.”
“Yeah, I know . . . “
“This is going to work out great! I’ve never had a guy my age in the neighborhood. I could show you the sites, introduce you to some people. And you could help me figure out how to launch tomatoes at cars without getting in trouble. Are you busy?” the kid asked.
“No, I’m not doing anything,” Leo said, and he dared hope that he would have a life again.
“C’mon then!” the boy said, forgetting his brush with death and his ruined bicycle.
“Hey, wait. What’s your name?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m Josiah Barlet. But my friends call me Jed.”
As the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” filled the high school gym, one of the graduates in the “B” part of the line turned around and flashed a grin at his friend in the “M’s.”
It was a grand moment, and both boys knew it.
The boy in the B’s launched a paper airplane at his partner in crime. The boy in the M’s deftly snagged it out of the air and unfolded it.
“WE CAN DO ANYTHING!” was scrawled on the inside. The second boy smiled, wrote a new message, refolded the airplane, and lobbed it back.
“BUT ONLY TOGETHER.”
Thank you for your last letter. Any reminder of home helps to take my mind off of this terrible place. Jed, I can not describe to you the squalor, the agony, the heat, the long nights, the sounds, the smells, the things we have to do . . .
Sometimes I wonder if I am still human, or if I’m just . . . I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to think about it.
Anyway, your letters and the stories of your escapades help to take the edge of the horror.
Man, I sound depressing, don’t I? Sorry.
As for your question: Ask her, idiot! Abby sounds wonderful and charming (she’d have to be to love a moron like you), and it looks to me like you are head-over-heels as well. So, buy a big ring, a dozen roses, go on a picnic, get down on one knee, and ASK! As long as you don’t throttle her with trivia and ruin the moment by being you, she’ll say yes.
When she does, go ahead and set a date. I have no idea if . . . when I’m coming home. So don’t wait up for me. If I’m home, I’ll be at the wedding. If I’m not, I’ll just be your best-man-in-absentee from wherever I am – heaven or hell.
That’s it for now. I can’t really think of anything I’ve been doing that would be of any interest. My days blur together. Write again . . . soon! Tell me how it goes!
<1971: Concord, New Hampshire>
Leo McGarry stood back, surveying the scene. He had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek to keep his laughter from bubbling through his lips.
“Bad day at the statehouse?” he asked innocently.
“It’s not funny,” Jed said. His arms were folded across his chest and his glare alternated between his friend and the station wagon. Or half of the station wagon, anyway.
The other half was on the other side of a . . . seriously damaged . . . garage door.
Jed’s stoic attitude was too much for McGarry, who finally gave in to his mirth.
Jed sighed loudly and waited. “I’m glad I’m such a source of amusement to you,” he said.
“Oh . . . Wow,” Leo said as he wiped tears from his eyes. Then he glanced at the grumpy statesman standing next to him and lost his composure again.
“Are you going to help me or just stand there and mock me?” Jed asked.
“Can’t I do both?”
“It’s not funny.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it isn’t. Abby’s going to kill me.”
“You’ve got to admit, it’s pretty . . .” and Leo was off again.
“Leo! Stop that!”
McGarry could only lean against the station wagon’s scraped rear bumper and gesture helplessly.
Barlet looked at his hysterical friend, the back half of the car, the now-pathetic garage door, and back at Leo. Then he ruefully shook his head at the whole ridiculous situation and allowed himself a small smile.
The smile was a mistake; it was a chink in the armor of annoyance. After a moment, Jed dissolved into the same useless state as his companion.
<1993: Concord, New Hampshire>
“Hello?” Governor Josiah Barlet said into the telephone beside his bed. It was late; late calls were never any good.
“Jed, it’s me.”
“Leo! Where are you? Jenny has been frantic . . .”
“Jed, I’m in trouble. I . . . I can’t remember the last 3 days. Help me, please.”
“Okay, Leo, it’s okay. Where are you?”
“I’m laying in the middle of some parking lot . . . a hotel, maybe? I’ve got my face in the asphalt here, Jed, and I don’t think I can get up. I am completely messed up. What have I done to myself?”
“What have you done? You’ve done exactly what I’ve been begging you not to do for the last 30 years. And it’s not like this happened over night.”
“I know, I know. I just couldn’t . . .”
“Are you on your cell phone?”
“Okay, keep talking to me. I’m going to find you. And then we’re going to get you to a rehab center, all right?”
“Hang on, buddy.”
<1996: New Hampshire>
“So Leo,” Josiah Barlet said as he handed his visitor a coke and sat down on the couch across from him, “is this just a friendly visit, or did you come up from DC for a reason?”
Leo shrugged and allowed his gaze to wander. “What, I need to have a reason to see you?” he teased.
“You’re welcome any time and you know it. It just seems strange to me that you show up at my door in a business suit, fail miserably at small talk while I get you a drink, and then fidget in my living room. So you’ve either hit your head very hard, or you’re here because . . .”
“ . . . Jed, I’ve got something to ask you,” Leo interrupted.
“How would you like to be president?”
There was a long pause. “Of the United States?” Jed finally said.
“No, of the Federated States of Macronesia,” Leo said sarcastically. “Yes, of the United States.”
Jed glanced up at his wife, who had come in from the kitchen at Leo’s startling question.
“You know,” Jed said slowly, “I think I’d like that.”
Leo leaned forward and rubbed his hands together. “Let’s do it, then.”
“What can I do for you sir? You did what? Oh, for crying out – it cost $4000, you know. I don’t know what I was thinking lending it to you, considering your history with bicycles. How did – oh, I see.
“Well, I guess you’ve got to expect these things. Annie is precocious. She’s also smart. She’ll get over it. Yes, I’ll have the Secret Service look into it.
“No, no, no, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. I’m more pissed about Annie. Its not like I was riding the thing very often anyway.
“Yes sir. Right. See you soon. Goodbye.”
(From the Season 1 episode “Mr. Willis of Ohio” by Aaron Sorkin)
“I needed to speak to you about something,” Leo said to the President.
“I should have told you earlier but...I moved out of the house. Jenny’s asking me for a divorce,” Leo said, his face grave.
The President stared at his friend. “You’re kidding me?” he asked.
“Leo, you’re kidding me?!”
“No! . . . Jenny was not happy.”
“Because you weren’t spending enough time with her??”
“Yes, but that’s not the –“
“Marriage needs attention Leo,” the President interrupted. “It can’t run on auto-pilot. C’mon it’s not your prom date we’re talking about here, we’re talking about your family!”
“Well, Mr. President thank you for pointing that out,” Leo said in barely controlled anger. “I tried to squeeze in as much time as I could between my wine-tasting club and running your White House.”
“When did it happen?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“And you’re just now telling me?” Jed was hurt that his friend would keep such news a secret.
“Honestly, I know how you feel about Jenny,” Leo said. “I thought you’d think that somehow you were responsible for it, and you’d turn that guilt into an inappropriate anger toward me, which frankly I can live without right now.”
Jed threw Leo an exasperated look.
“I can’t imagine what made me think all that . . .” Leo continued in sarcasm and under his breath.
“Fix this Leo,” the President commanded.
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“It is as simple as that. You’re the man. Fix it.”
“Mr. President –“
“Fix it,” Jed repeated.
Leo clenched his jaw. “Goodnight sir,” he said, making the respectful title nearly a curse.
(From the Season 1 episode “He Shall From Time to Time by Aaron Sorkin)
The President of the United States looked up from his bed as his friend gingerly walked in. The hesitancy and pain in Leo’s eyes was unmistakable. Jed felt strangely ashamed.
“Abby told me about your conversation,” the President began. “The kind of Multiple Sclerosis I have is called relapsing-remitting. I’ve known about it for the last 7 years.
"I have a normal life expectancy,” he continued, “and recover fully after an attack. Fever and stress are two things tend to bring on an attack.” He looked up at Leo and hated feeling this weak in front of him.
McGarry looked around the room for a moment. "Well, you're President of the United States, you're delivering the State of the Union Address tomorrow night, India and Pakistan are pointing nuclear weapons at each other. And you have a 102 fever. So I guess we're out of the woods.... “ Leo tried to keep his voice even but his sarcasm and fear broke through at the end.
“Jed, of all the things you could have kept from me...." Leo sighed as he sat down.
"You haven't called me Jed since I was elected."
Leo ignored the comment. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Cause I wanted to be the president."
"It wouldn't have stopped me from getting you here. And I could have been a friend."
"You've been a friend."
"But when it was time to really...."
"When I was lying on my face in the motel parking lot you were the one I called," Leo reminded his friend gently.
Jed’s shame returned, and he changed the subject. "When you stood up there today I was so proud. I wanted to be with you. I tried to get up and I fell back down again.".
Leo knew what Jed was experiencing. It was hard to admit weakness, it was hard to tell people that you had a problem. "I know the feeling," Leo said.
“Leo, I’m sorry.” Jed was dangerously close to tears.
“Don’t worry about it,” Leo said out loud. But the subtext communicated his love and unwavering support better than words ever could.
Leo McGarry had moved quickly through halls on many occasions; his job as White House Chief of Staff demanded swiftness even on normal days.
Today was not a normal day. And Leo was running.
This, despite the various parts of his body that were sending twinges of pain to his brain.
The Chief of Staff made a quick turn and, with no ceremony, crashed through the doors of George Washington University Hospital
The Chief Executive was stretched out on a gurney, half undressed as doctors moved around him. Despite being caked in blood, and fear, Barlet allowed himself a tiny smile of relief.
His chest heaving, Leo locked eyes with the President. For one hushed, charged moment, each man looked into the other’s soul.
The silence was eerie, but understandable.
After 40 years of conversation, the two friends had crossed into the one moment for which there were no words.
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