The next day, back in Washington, DC, the heat descended on the city like a heavy wet woolen blanket. Even in the air-conditioning of the West Wing offices, the humidity seemed to seep in and dampen even the least good humor. Economics Advisor Dr. Eddie Cooper did his best to lighten things up by staging a mildly raucous birthday party for himself over the lunch hour, but it seemed to Sharon that the laughter and noise were more about beating back the tension of the day than good cheer on the Coop’s behalf.
It didn’t help that members of the opposition in Congress had been making snide comments about how several members of Mark’s advisory team all seemed to be having issues in their personal lives. Sharon thought the sniping was particularly unfair since it was only Karen and Warmonger who happened to be having issues, nor were the issues anything of their own making but brought on by outside circumstance.
Still, she could see that Mark was taking it rather more personally than he should have. It didn’t take long for Sharon to consider. Not that she wanted to, but it was the right thing to do. So she sent the text message to Mark and shortly received the answer – he was happy to come to dinner.
He wasn’t that happy when he arrived. Gloom closed in around him as if the humidity had taken root in his soul. Sharon had already planned on having a chopped salad with bacon and tomatoes on top, but she asked Mark to do the chopping and he went at it with rather more relish than less. That didn’t stop him from immediately cleaning her good knife. Sharon found herself smiling.
“What’s that about?” Mark asked, his eyebrow quirked.
“What?” asked Sharon.
“You’re smiling at something,” he said, turning his attention to running the towel over the dark gray blade.
“I just really appreciate the way you clean off my knives as soon as you’re done,” Sharon replied. “I noticed that the first time you came over for dinner.”
“It seems like the obvious thing to do,” Mark grumbled as he slid the knife into its spot in the knife block. “It’s a nice knife.”
It was a good knife, a basic butcher’s knife, about 8 inches long, wicked sharp, with a light tan wooden handle striped with the dark grain of the wood. Sharon had a small paring knife and a basic serrated knife as part of the set. There were a couple other dark-handled knives in the block next to the kitchen sink, but Mark had noticed that Sharon didn’t seem to use them unless Mark had gotten to the light-handled ones first.
“It’s pretty special.” Sharon gently stroked the handle of the knife. “It’s one of the few things I actually own. Let’s get dinner served.”
“Fine, but you’re going to have to finish that story while we eat.” Mark was finally smiling as he dished out the salad into bowls and Sharon poured the wine.
Sharon shrugged and they sat down. “Well, you know I don’t have a lot of things.” She waved at the room around her. “This is all my friend Carla’s stuff.”
“You have clothes,” Mark said. “I know I don’t pay that much attention, but you’re not wearing the same thing day in and day out.”
“No.” Sharon couldn’t help chuckling. “That is the nice thing about Washington power wear, though. It does all look alike, and I don’t have nearly as many suits as you might think. Besides, clothes, for me, are more of a temporary thing. I rotate stuff in and out of my wardrobe all the time. I only have a couple dresses, a few tops and some jeans that I’ve had for longer than a year or two. The rest get donated as I see new outfits I like.”
“Okay. So tell me about the knife.”
“That. Well, that’s kind of a long story.” Sharon toyed with her salad for a moment, then took a sip of wine. “I think I told you about how when I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of stuff because we moved so often. It was just too hard to haul around all the time. So when I got my first real job out of college, I kind of went nuts. My brother Michael bought me a condo, and I spent a fortune hiring a designer and started decorating it. I was going to buy furniture, art, everything. The problem was, because of my job, I was almost never there. I was spending almost all my time on the road. And then when I was there, it didn’t feel like me. It was almost empty, but that wasn’t it, either. I did have one room finished, but it felt like corporate housing. Then after about a couple years of this, I was having some trouble with the front door key after a trip, and my next door neighbor called the cops on me. He’d never seen me before and thought I was breaking in. And he worked at home. I mean, how sad is that?”
Mark laughed. “That’s pretty sad.”
“And then shortly after that, I was at this crafts festival, and I saw that set of knives. You have to understand, what stuff I did have in the condo was pretty much off the shelf, manufactured, nothing terribly unique.”
“That explains why it looked like corporate housing.”
Sharon nodded. “Probably. I did have a couple good pieces of art. But the rest of it was pretty generic. I was about to buy the knives when I stopped and asked myself if I really needed them? And I left them. And I got back to my condo and realized that I didn’t need pretty much everything that was in there. So I made a list of everything I genuinely needed. I figured a few cooking utensils because I do like to cook, my guitars, a few books, my art, and that was pretty much it. And I really debated about the kitchen stuff, only I knew I had a longer-term assignment coming, where I was going to be in Germany for about six months, and being able to cook for myself would be a good thing. And I kept thinking about that knife set. They were hand-crafted. The knife maker was right there in the booth, showing his customers exactly how to keep the edge on them, how to clean them and keep them. So I went back to the festival and bought just the butcher knife, the paring knife, and the bread knife. And I spent the rest of that month before leaving for Germany, selling off or donating everything in that condo, except the clothes I needed and those few things on my list. And then I sold the condo and gave Michael back his money.”
“Wow.” Mark chewed thoughtfully. “That’s impressive.”
“Maybe.” Sharon shrugged. “It’s just how my life is. I keep the barest essentials, including my cast iron pan and my knives, and the guitars. The art is on loan to a couple galleries back in Orange County. I’ve got my books on my ereader now, so I don’t even have to lug those around, and a few gowns and cocktail dresses that I like. Some of it stays at my parents’ place while I’m traveling, and then when it looks like I’m going to be in one spot for longer than a few weeks, I have Mom ship stuff out to me. I’ll rent a place and if it’s unfurnished, I’ll buy a few essentials, then either sell them or donate them and I’m gone.”
“That’s pretty counter-cultural.”
“I suppose. It’s going to be really interesting being around here for any length of time. I’ve had the same job for several years, but I’ve only had a few assignments that lasted longer than six months.”
“Oh.” Mark felt something in his stomach twist.
“Funny thing is, I’ve been wanting to settle down in one spot for a while now.” Sharon glanced up at the ceiling. “Carla’s supposed to be working in Africa for the next couple years, but she’s already hinted that I can keep living here after she comes back. There’s plenty of room and I’m thinking I might.”
“That’s good to know,” said Mark, his stomach slowly unclenching.
Sharon suddenly smiled at him. “Now, it’s your turn to tell me your sad story.”
“Nah.” Mark felt his stomach clench again, but for a different reason.
“Oh, come on. You’re practically the first person I’ve met who cleans up after himself without being asked.” Sharon lightly jabbed him with her fork. “There’s got to be a reason.”
“Okay. Yeah. You can blame that one on my grandmother. My dad’s mom grew up poor. Since my family has been in the jewelry business since whatever ancestor it was came over here from Norway, my folks have been fairly comfortable. But it was my grandfather and my dad who really built the stores up into the big national chain that it is. And that’s when they got wealthy. But Grandma never quite lost that sense of… I don’t know what you call it, ordinariness, I guess. And whenever I was at Dad’s and later when I went to live with him, I was expected to clean up after myself. The first thing I do when I get out of bed in the morning is make it. It’s a habit. I can’t shower or get dressed until that bed is made.” Mark chuckled. “It drives the White House housekeeping staff nuts because I’m not supposed to do that sort of thing. But I can’t help it.”
Sharon nodded. “I know. I’ve seen the staff glaring at you when you wash the dishes. It’s like they can understand wanting to cook. But clean up after it?”
“Yeah, and speaking of.” Mark pulled out his iPhone and glared at it.. “I thought I felt that buzzing. Yep, it’s Johnnie texting. I have to get back.”
Johnetta Washington was Mark’s Chief of Staff and she seldom texted unless it was urgent.
Sharon looked for her Blackberry. “Is it anything serious?”
“So-so. It’s a late vote on one of the appropriations bills. Johnnie was just letting me know about it, but I’m thinking I’m going to have to bug Jean and Gus and get a statement turned around right away.” Mark stood with a small sigh and picked up his now empty bowl.
“Leave it,” said Sharon. “Consider it my treat. Especially since I have to catch an early flight tomorrow.”
Mark frowned as he set the bowl back down. “That’s right. You’re going out to L.A. for Karen’s hearing.”
“Yep. If you want, I can keep you posted.” Sharon got up and walked Mark to the basement door, where the secret entrance to the townhouse was. The building had been built by a randy senator from the 19th Century, who had installed a secret second door to the street for his various lady friends.
“Why don’t you?” Mark said. “And I’ve arranged to buy lunch for you guys on the day of the hearing, so don’t be surprised.”
“Okay. I’m sure Karen will appreciate it.”
There was an awkward pause, then Mark quickly turned and left. Dinner with Sharon had been extraordinarily relaxing, but thinking of her was getting very much less so.