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.
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.”
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.