James Whorton Jr.

 

James Whorton Jr. is the author of Angela Sloan, recent­ly released from Simon & Schuster’s Free Press, and two oth­er nov­els, Approximately Heaven and Frankland. A for­mer Mississippian and for­mer Tennessean, he lives in Rochester, New York with his wife and their daugh­ter. He is an Associate Professor of writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture at SUNY Brockport, and an edi­tor at Blip Magazine.

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Leaving DC

Ray and I left by the front door at nine in the morn­ing.  I had on my cran­ber­ry tunic dress with a ribbed white mock turtle­neck under it, white socks with small dog heads on them, and my black oxford shoes.  Ray wore his usu­al out­fit, except that he’d put on a neck­tie under his wind­break­er.  We set out across New Hampshire Avenue at a stroll pace.

The side­walks were busy with sight-seers.  We stopped at a bench in Lafayette Park while Ray smoked a Raleigh cig­a­rette.  The  sun­flower knap­sack was packed to bulging on my back, caus­ing me to perch at the front edge of the bench.  I watched a man in a blue busi­ness suit kneel to pick up a quar­ter that had been lying heads-up on the side­walk near­by.  He glanced at me then looked away.

It is Christmas morn­ing,” Ray said.

In oth­er words he felt that we were being sur­veilled.  Ordinarily in clan­des­tine work, when you dis­cov­er you’re being sur­veilled, you abort the oper­a­tion and go home.  But this was some­thing dif­fer­ent.  I asked Ray what we were going to do.

Let me think a minute,” he said.

I felt eyes all over me, like flies on my skin.  Across the street, by the White House fence, a tribe of hip­pie kids sat in a half-cir­cle knock­ing on drums.  All were bare­foot­ed, with soles like tarpa­per.  Then the drum­ming stopped, and a boy in a brown cor­duroy suit began to read off a speech about Cambodia.  He didn’t think we should be bomb­ing the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong who were head­quar­tered there, he said.  Someone in the crowd took his pho­to­graph.  A few peo­ple wan­dered away, and the oth­ers closed in tighter.

Someone called out to the boy, “Didn’t I see your face in the post office?”  That won a cou­ple of sour laughs.

Ray sat very still.

From the crowd there came a sud­den shuf­fling of shoes.  Up by the fence, one of the female hip­pies had brought out a gaso­line can.  There was a cho­rus of groans as she doused the head of the boy in the cor­duroy suit.  People backed into traf­fic, and cars slid and stopped short.  A woman ran, swing­ing her child by the length of his arm.  It was the way you might swing a bag of laun­dry if for some rea­son you had to run away with it.

The boy in the cor­duroy suit sat straight and still, cross-legged and bare­foot.  His mop of hair was stuck flat to his skull, and the cor­duroy was dark where it had been soaked.  The oth­er hip­pies had backed their drums away to a safe dis­tance.  The girl set down the gas can and pre­sent­ed the boy with a book of match­es.

I grabbed Ray’s arm.  “That boy is about to burn him­self,” I said.  I was on my feet, but Ray held me back.

The boy pro­duced a pipe from the pock­et of his cor­duroy suit jack­et and stuck it in his teeth MacArthur-style.  He struck a match and brought the flame to the bowl, puff­ing at the stem as though kiss­ing it.  He worked up a good tall plume of white tobac­co smoke.  He snuffed out the match on a wet sleeve.

It must have been Kool-Aid in the gas can, or maybe fruit punch.  The hip­pies were pass­ing the can now, sip­ping from the spout, let­ting the red drink drib­ble down their necks.

A woman with her hus­band and child cried shril­ly, “Is noth­ing seri­ous?”  To which the boy in the cor­duroy suit replied in a dreamy space-man voice, “Everything’s equal­ly seri­ous, baby.”

I stud­ied Ray’s straight-nosed pro­file.  I sup­pose he had guessed right away that the self-immo­la­tion scene was a bluff.  Sizing up a sit­u­a­tion fast is a skill clan­des­tine offi­cers live by.  I saw that I would need to learn it.

Ray leaned close and said some instruc­tions in my ear.  I said them back and he nod­ded once, a kind of check-mark he made with his head.  He stood on his cig­a­rette.

We walked south, along­side the White House.  In an upper win­dow of the Old Executive Office Building, I saw some­one in a white shirt turn his back.  We cut across the Ellipse and joined the crowd on the National Mall.  The atmos­phere under the June a.m. sun was fes­ti­val-like.  A thou­sand human beings were on the grass, or on the straw that cov­ered the mud, tak­ing in the United States cap­i­tal.  We had walked ful­ly past the Natural History Museum before Ray touched my arm.  We turned back and climbed the steps.  Inside, sev­er­al hun­dred small voic­es shout­ed in no par­tic­u­lar direc­tion.  The bod­ies streamed in through turn­stiles and eddied at the rail by the stuffed bull ele­phant under the rotun­da.  Ray tugged me by my wrist through the churn­ing crowd.  We didn’t go fast.  He want­ed who­ev­er he thought was fol­low­ing us to keep up a lit­tle fur­ther.

I nev­er saw who was fol­low­ing us, but I am con­fi­dent some­one was.  Ray’s judg­ment has to be trust­ed on this.  He taught sur­veil­lance and sur­veil­lance detec­tion at the Farm for sev­en years.  I believed him and still do.

In the Ice Age exhib­it, a wax Cro-Magnon fam­i­ly stood togeth­er in furs on a hump of hard sand.  The moth­er pressed a baby to her shoul­der while the father, in a half-crouch, watched into the dis­tance.  A sad, con­fused-look­ing young­ster was near­by.  Whoever had paint­ed the whites of the youngster’s eyes had gone out­side the lines onto his eye­lids, and I think that was what made him look so nut­ty and des­ti­tute.  It was as though a sen­tence had begun to form inside his head.  His way of life was chang­ing, and he was unpre­pared.

The gallery was long and nar­row.  People bunched up around the signs that explained the Cro-Magnon diet and so forth.  Ray grabbed me by the armpits and lift­ed me off the floor.  He pushed me into and through the crowd.  A woman gave a yelp when I kneed her.  When Ray had mus­cled us through to the end of the gallery, he dropped me to my feet and I ducked my head.

Arkansas,” I heard him say.  That was a sig­nal mean­ing diverge.

I veered left like a shot down the wind­ing stair­case.  The slick leather soles of my oxford shoes clicked clean­ly on the dished-out mar­ble steps.

 

***

 

Special haz­ards exist for a female in clan­des­tine work, and one of them is the ten­den­cy of women to talk in the ladies’ restroom.  Back in Williamsburg, out on drills with Ray, I would some­times go dis­guised as a boy or as a series of boys, and I know from expe­ri­ence that a nine-year-old can walk into a men’s room stall with red hair and come out with his hair dark brown and no one will say a word to him or even notice, because that’s how a men’s room oper­ates.  A girl by her­self in a ladies’ room, how­ev­er, is com­mu­ni­ty prop­er­ty.

At the ladies’ room on the ground floor of the Museum of Natural History, every stall was occu­pied and the line went out the door.  I had been stand­ing there not two sec­onds when a woman broke off con­ver­sa­tion to ask me what was wrong, and four oth­ers turned to look.  You see what I mean.

The point was to keep mov­ing.  I peeled the tunic dress over my head and with nine women star­ing got into a set of green den­im over­alls.  I shook out a can­vas shoul­der bag and shoved the dress and knap­sack into that, and I tucked my hair into a blue beret.  It was ugly, but it was some­thing I could get all my hair into.  Then I left the ladies’ room and slipped out the rear exit of the muse­um onto Constitution Avenue.

It was bright out, daz­zling.

I took a cab to the Capital Hilton and passed through the cool, dim lob­by.  The peo­ple in chairs were inat­ten­tive, lulled by the air con­di­tion­ing.  On 16th Avenue, where the cabs line up, I told a dri­ver to take me to Capitol Hill.  That took twelve min­utes.

I walked some blocks along the row hous­es.  The side­walks weren’t busy.  I stopped to exam­ine the hen and chick plants in someone’s brick planter, then turned and walked back the way I had come, check­ing the few faces I passed.  I was alone.

From the cor­ner of Second and F I jogged to the front of Union Station.  I bought a tick­et, got on a train, and put my face in a copy of Newsweek that some­one had left on the seat.  As the car filled I count­ed heads.  When the train moved there were twen­ty-six peo­ple in it, the same as the num­ber of let­ters in the alpha­bet.

From the knap­sack I brought out a flat­tened wax paper pack­age con­tain­ing a let­tuce and baloney sand­wich with may­on­naise.

 

***

 

I made the mis­take of let­ting my thoughts wan­der.  Where was Ray?  Suppose he got held up.  A per­son could be knocked down by a taxi while cross­ing the street on the way to a recon­ver­gence, as hap­pened to Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember.  I imag­ined Ray hurt and myself alone in an unfa­mil­iar city.  Saliva pooled on my tongue.

Ray was not my father in the bio­log­i­cal sense.  Other peo­ple didn’t know that, because it was our cov­er.  Even with friends inside the Agency, there was no need to dis­cuss such things.  Why would there be?  We didn’t see a need.  It is eas­i­er to live your cov­er if you live it all the time, day and night, in pub­lic and in pri­vate, and even when you’re alone.

This was not our first bugout.  Ray adopt­ed me in a city that was then called Stanleyville, in a coun­try that was then called the Congo.  We’d moved around a bit.  The time in DC was all right.  We had a fur­nished town­house on I Street, and we ate well at the Peoples drug­store or Howard Johnson’s or a cou­ple oth­er places that had the kind of food we enjoyed.  During the day I attend­ed pub­lic school.  At night Ray set­tled in at the kitchen table.  We kept the tele­vi­sion there, since our land­la­dy Mrs. Edel for­bade smok­ing in the room where her couch, piano, and draperies were.  He’d have a drink while we watched the news togeth­er, and after I went upstairs he’d have many more.  I nev­er kept track of bot­tles, but he’d go through a cou­ple trays of ice each night.

I knew he drank too much.  However, the thing about “too much” is this.   How much too much is too much?  A per­son can eat too much every day of his life and still die old.  Some peo­ple think too much.  For Ray and me, I saw no rea­son why things could not go on as they were.

I was wrong, but sort of right, too.  We were leav­ing DC, but not because of the drink­ing.  Outside forces were to blame.

I shut my eyes and breathed in a steady and delib­er­ate fash­ion.  I tried to think of my body as a machine that would do what I asked it to, so long as I man­aged it cor­rect­ly.  I made myself bite into my let­tuce and baloney sand­wich and chew.  The vine­gary smell of the may­on­naise helped me to feel bet­ter.  I always bought Hellman’s may­on­naise, nev­er the store brand.

When I was done, I squeezed the wax paper from my sand­wich into a hard ball, like a peach pit.  I must have gone into a trance after that, because I jumped when the con­duc­tor touched my shoul­der.  “Charm City,” he said.

From the plat­form I ran up an iron stair­way to the sta­tion lob­by.  I found a ladies’ restroom, emp­ty this time except for two girls some­what old­er than me who stood at the mir­rors.  One brushed her hair while the oth­er observed her dream­i­ly.  I shut myself into a stall.

The girls spoke.  One had plans to buy a gold­fish, and she was try­ing to choose a name.  “Bubbles,” she said.  It was not a very bright idea, see­ing that gold­fish do not espe­cial­ly give off bub­bles as far as I am aware.  Think about that.  The oth­er girl sug­gest­ed the name “Helen Sanchez,” which caused them both to gasp and scream.   My, but it was awful­ly fun­ny to them.  They were still howl­ing and bent, claw­ing at each other’s sweaters, when I slipped out of the stall and pushed the green over­alls into a waste­bas­ket along with the ugly beret.  I was hap­py to be back in my com­fort­able red tunic dress.  The hair brush lay on the sink rim.  My own hair could have used brush­ing.

Like a machine built for one pur­pose I walked my body across the sta­tion, dodg­ing fam­i­lies and hills of lug­gage.  I emerged into sun­light in the city of Baltimore, Maryland.

The cab at the front of the line was green.  I didn’t like that–the oth­ers were yel­low.  But you can’t make them go out of order.  I took the green cab down­town then switched to a yel­low one that brought me back up North Charles.  I paid the dri­ver and hopped out as he slowed for a red light.  The city was new to me, but I matched up what was around me to the map in my head.  I walked sev­en blocks in what would have looked on the map like a stair-step pat­tern.

Inside the Golden Monkey Restaurant I was met by a wiry, dark, mean-look­ing Chinese girl.  I told her I was here to meet a gen­tle­man.  She led me past a carved wood­en screen and some pot­ted philo­den­drons to a cor­ner where Ray sat with his back round­ed and his right eye swollen almost shut.  She left me with him.

I walked into a door edge,” he said.  “Were you fol­lowed?”

No.  Are we safe?”

Before he could answer, the mean-look­ing Chinese girl shot out from behind the wood­en screen.  She set a glass of beer in front of Ray.  She gave me a hard, silent appraisal and left again with­out ask­ing what I would like to drink.

I didn’t like this place at all.  The floor was grit­ty, and the heart-leaf philo­den­drons were dying of thirst in their pots.  It takes some seri­ous neg­li­gence to kill that plant.

Ray’s arm shook as he brought the glass to his mouth.  “We are absolute­ly safe,” he said.

He was sweat­ing a good deal.  He shook out a red cloth nap­kin and dabbed at his fore­head, using care around the swollen eye.

There is no rea­son to be wor­ried,” he went on.  “Go to any post office, Angela, and look at the slobs they have on the most want­ed list.  If the FBI can’t appre­hend a bunch of hip­pies who bombed the Pentagon, how can they dream of appre­hend­ing you and me?”

I don’t know.”

Well, they can’t.  Tell me you’re not scared.”

I’m not scared.”

Good.”

When the Chinese girl came back, Ray ordered more beer and a large meal of Chinese food.  Her English was excep­tion­al­ly poor, and Ray took care to include the num­ber of each menu item and see that the girl wrote it down cor­rect­ly.  Her hos­tile man­ner had noth­ing to do with us, I con­clud­ed.  She was angry at some­thing in her own world, which was a world we would soon be dis­ap­pear­ing from.  Ray left her an over­sized tip, as was his habit what­ev­er the ser­vice.