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I marched back up to the grave after the crowd faded. Washington in July. Uniform clawing at my skin.
Arlington is efficient. A mini-excavator had already arrived to fill in the hole. A workman with graying hair and weight-lifter biceps stooped near the folding chairs, picking up the casings from the salute. He sensed me and straightened his back.
"Done come back for another look, Colonel?"
I nodded. A poor-man's colonel, with silver oak leaves.
"Who this gentleman be, don't mind my axing?" His face gleamed.
"General Farnsworth. Mickey Farnsworth."
The laborer showed a broken line of teeth. "We going to take good care of him for you. Don't you worry, now."
"You can keep on working. I don't mind." But I would have minded. The metal box lay still at the bottom of the hole, kissed with dirt.
"No, sir. We don't do like that. We don't never start till everybody gone. It the rule."
A black bird settled on a green branch, sun oiling its feathers.
"You just takes your time," the workman went on. "I always be glad when somebody come back. People don't come back no more. See what I'm saying? I mean, your wives, maybe. Maybe they does. For a while. But everybody get forgot about equal."
Mary Farnsworth at the graveside, struggling to maintain a dignity worthy of her husband. She stood up straight, and the ceremony was long,and I was afraid she might faint in the heat. I started in her direction when it was all over, but the generals who had lost a rival for promotion flocked around her, cooing sympathy. I could not get past their aides.
"He was a great man," I told the workman. "A hero. Nobody expected him to go like this."
I almost laughed. "His heart would've been the last thing to go." Farnsworth had been in better shape than a lieutenant fresh out of Ranger School. And it had been a big heart, too. I disciplined my voice. "Hit-and-run. He was jogging." I looked up and the sun narrowed my eyes. We had all thought Farnsworth would be the next Colin Powell, and now he was senselessly dead.
The workman smeared the sweat over his forehead and sighed. Looking down through the trees, across the river. Into the marble city. "We all dust in the eyes of the Lord." He gestured with a big arm, sweeping over the white lines of markers, the dead in their thousands. "This place here just like Heaven, Colonel. Everybody equal. No man's stone bigger than his brother's. Every man get fair treatment. See what I'm saying?" He looked at me again. "But people don't come back. Everybody just be forgot. That's the way of the world."
"I'll come back."
The workman smiled. "I be happy to see it."
I smiled, too, for a moment. "You don't believe me."
He shrugged. "No offense, now. I mean, maybe you come back here for a while. Then you forgets. That how it supposed to be. It all right. He still be your friend up in Heaven. Hear every word you say. Hear you right now."
"We shall not see his like again."
The workman nodded slowly. With immeasurable gentleness. "Now, that's pretty." He turned and the sun gripped him. One of his eyes looked as though milk had been poured over it. It was the sort of thing you notice right away. If you're awake.
Suddenly, I felt disgusted. With myself and with the world. I felt I was missing big things all around me. But I had no idea what those things might be. I felt stupid and angry.
"Listen here now, Colonel, sir. You ever needs anything round here, you just axe for old Rickie York. Anything at all. Hear?"
"You just takes your time now." He shuffled toward the shade. "And God bless you."
There was no more time. I had to go back to work. Then pick up Tish's present before the shop closed. And waste time meeting an old friend who was not a friend anymore, because I did not have what it took to say, "Fuck off, Em. You never even return my phone calls. I'm going home to wish my girl a happy birthday."
I felt I should do something else for General Farnsworth. But the human repertoire is limited.
The heat was terrible and my eyes had begun to ache. I looked down into the grave and said, "I'll come back."
The Ivy Club is two blocks from the White House and the suits that go in and out fit perfectly at the shoulders but not at the waist. Instead of a doorman, the club has a human catcher's mitt. He looked at my uniform as though I had wandered over from the delivery entrance.
"I'm here to meet Emerson Carroll."
"Of course, sir. Mr. Carroll expects you in our bar. Do you know your way around the club, sir? The bar is on the second level."
Worn-down Persians on the floor. Museum woodwork. Smell of steamed vegetables and wax.
It was Tuesday evening and the club was nearly empty. Em sat alone in the bar, smoking a cigar over whiskey. He had been a terrible sight at the burial ceremony, and even in this softer light, his face looked ruined. I don't know whether I had been more surprised by the speed of his physical decline or by the fact that he had bothered to turn up at Farnsworth's graveside. Emerson Carroll was a second-tier player edging toward first-tier status. He was big stuff in this town. Dead generals were of no use to anybody.
"You look like Cornelius Vanderbilt," I said.
Em did not get up. He smiled without showing his teeth, and I could smell the whiskey. One of the fundamental rules of social biology is that hard liquor is especially tough on golden boys. He swept his fingers back over his ashen hair, briefly tightening the skin on his forehead. He did not offer me his hand.
"John, I do not believe for a moment that you have the slightest idea how Cornelius Vanderbilt actually looked. Sit down." He had a legacy accent from a New England China-trade family. As a lieutenant, he had been daring and fun, full of wicked stories about the Kennedy kids. He had joined the Army to piss off his father, but the novelty had faded after a single tour of duty. For all that, he had possessed a gift for soldiering, for leading. And he tossed it.
At first, we kept in touch. But the comms broke down over the years. I saw his name in the papers. Sometimes in the political gossip, otherwise in the business columns. By the time I was assigned to Washington, Emerson Carroll was Grand Poobah for Government Relations at Macon-Bolt Industries, the largest defense contractor in the world. He was also a player on every defense panel and foreign relations committee on the Potomac. He invited me to one party. The men talked to the Congressmen they were buying and the women whispered about the Congressmen who were buying them. I failed to measure up.
Now here we were. A shaken fat man at a funeral, Em had begged me to come. He seemed to have regained his composure in the meantime. Maybe it was the booze.
"I thought you had to be dead to join this place."
Em shrugged. "It helps. But it's not a requirement." He noticed me looking at the cigar. "Like one?"
"I still don't smoke."
"Cigars don't count."
"It all counts."
His mouth was as narrow as a knife scar. "Ever the puritan. Although not in all things, as I recall. You'd do fine in this administration, actually. The President has marvelous negative capability." He stubbed the cigar into the ashtray. "Montecristo. Never the same if you relight them. Drink?"
I ordered a beer. Em tapped his glass for another whiskey.
He settled back in his chair and stared at me. "Well," he said finally, "you're looking well, John. All that clean living. Still run every day?"
"What's on your mind, Em? Or do burials just make you nostalgic?"
"Don't be a shit," Em said finally. "I still consider you a friend, John. If a neglected one. Town does that to people, you know. Get all caught up in this government business. Incredibly inefficient, the way we run this country. Never enough time for the important things." He considered his ruined cigar.
"Got it. So what do you want?" I had a special grudge against Em these days. I was one of the legion of staff officers sweating blood to keep an underfunded Army alive, while Em's corporation was about to sell the Department of Defense an airplane that even the official estimates said would cost us two hundred billion over the next ten years—which meant three hundred billion, minimum.
The Next-Generation Fighter-Bomber was going to do everything perfectly. It would be the most capable, survivable, and lethal aircraft in history. Except for the fact that we did not need it and could not afford it, the NGFB looked like a great deal for America. Corporate welfare as an art form.
We had soldiers and their familes on food stamps, living in pits. We didn't have training dollars and our medical care had collapsed to the Spanish-American War level. The threats on the international horizon were thugs with old Kalashnikovs and mass murderers with Elvis haircuts and peekaboo terrorists. There was no mission in sight for Em's three-hundred-billion-dollar airplane. If one popped up unexpectedly, we already had enough techno-junk to do the job. We were short of the dull stuff that mattered. Like infantrymen and trucks. The NGFB was going to break the defense budget. But Congress was going to fund it. Bugger the troops. You could feel the vote coming.
Just in case Senator Schweinefleisch got nervous, Macon-Bolt Industries was running full-page ads in the big dailies telling the country what a bargain the NGFB would be for the national defense and for mankind. It was going to keep America's sons and daughters alive. The Army and Marines would not even need to deploy. The NGFB would bomb the global village with voodoo precision. The "public service" ads were a business expense that would be charged back to the taxpayers by way of the NGFB's funding. It was the ultimate self-licking ice-cream cone.
Macon-Bolt also happened to be the nation's biggest campaign contributor. To both parties. And to every PAC with a downtown address. For insurance, the corporation's CEO, Bob Nechestny, had loaded his boardroom with retired generals and admirals who showed up once a year to earn their half a mil. They slimed through the Pentagon in not-quite-right suits, just dropping by to say hi to their former subordinates. The Mexicans had their style of corruption, we had ours.
Em shifted in his chair. "All right. Look. I'm sorry. I've been a bastard. The original thankless friend. But I do have some questions I'd like to ask you, John. Things ... I can't ask just anybody." He looked at me with an intensity that brought back memories of better times. "I'm asking for your help. At least for the loan of an ear. I'm asking in an unaccustomed spirit of humility. You may be the only person left I can trust."
I knew Em was a con and I put my guard right back up. I wondered how many questions he had. I kept flashing on Tish and the birthday present in the trunk of my car and on sex. A snort of mortality always makes me want sex.
"I can't do an all-night bullshit session, Em. I've got something scheduled."
Em waved that away. "Won't take long. Give me half an hour." He shifted and straightened his tie. Suddenly, he looked like he was having a bad time on the witness stand. "John ... do you know anything about the blast at that French aircraft research site yesterday?"
"Was it a bombing?"
I shrugged and drank. The beer tasted good, but I could get a beer anywhere. "So the newspapers seem to think."
"I'm not interested in what the newspapers think. Don't give me that." Voice cold now. Impatient. Very much the corporate muckety-muck. Em was not steady on course tonight.
"Come on, Em. You want classified information? From me? I don't owe you anything, and I don't break the rules."
"I'm cleared. For Christ's sake, John. I have clearances for programs you don't even know exist. Defense industry has—"
"No way, pal. Call one of your four-star butt boys. Anyway, France isn't my turf. I don't work current intel anymore. I'm just trying to make sure we've still got an Army left when you're done grabbing the money."
"Just tell me what people are saying around the Building. What's the scuttlebutt?"
Then I got it. Or thought I did. "That's cold, Em. Pretty goddamned grim. That lab was your competition, right? The French aircraft industry." I laughed. "You blow it up yourselves? Or just have a streak of good luck?"
Em didn't rise to it. He leaned closer with his wrecked face. I imagined a different sort of life for him then, not all successes and corporate perks.
"Please, John. I need you to come through for me on this. It's more important than you can imagine. Very sensitive stuff. Can't you give me any insight?"
The answer was no. I had seen the footage on CNN, read the Post in the morning, and scanned the Early Bird. A high-security aircraft research facility outside Toulouse had been flattened by a bomb. Midmorning, for maximum employee attendance. Hundreds dead, including some high rollers. Oklahoma City, with red wine for lunch. But I had not read any intel traffic on it.
"All I've got is the POAC stuff," I told him. "Wisdom from the locker room. Same line you're hearing from the media. Algerians. FIS crowd. Bombs for Allah. The frogs have their hands full. `The Empire Strikes Back.'"
Em finished his whiskey and briefly held up a finger in the direction of the bar. "Want another?"
I shook my head. I was not going to play happy hour at the O-Club with him.
"Keep me posted on this one. Anything you hear. Will you do that, John? It's more important than I can tell you right now."
"I didn't think the French were serious competition for you boys."
"They're not. Can't even build the designs they steal. Country's nothing but a museum."
"So why the interest?"
"It's not about competition."
"What is it about?"
"I can't tell you." A bitter look passed over Em's face. "And you don't want to know." He reached for his wallet. The effort popped sweat onto his forehead. "Here." He handed me a card. "This number's unlisted. Use it."
"Em, you've just moved from treating an old friend like shit to treating him like a dumb shit. Why should I help you out on this? Or on anything? So Macon-Bolt can extort an extra twenty or thirty billion from the taxpayer? I don't do Washington intrigue. And I don't trust you."
The bartender hovered again. Em smiled. "It really is good to see you," he told me. "Like old times. You always had that charming crusader streak." Which is why, he seemed to say, you're still only a lieutenant colonel in the Army.
"Okay," I said. "My turn. Just to satisfy my curiosity. What brought you to the Farnsworth show? I figured a major general would be flying way below your radar coverage."
"For Christ's sake, John. Farnsworth and I go way back." His eyes switched to the direct-fire mode. "All three of us do. You and I both owed the guy. Any other battalion XO in the Army would've court-martialed our asses. You would've never even made captain and the DIS boys would've yanked my clearance forever."
"You don't exactly ooze gratitude these days."
Em looked genuinely surprised. "John ... Farnsworth and I were friends. Well ... maybe not what you'd call friends. We didn't take the blood oath of the Templars. But I've seen quite a lot of him these past months."
That answer did not track. I had not worked directly for Farnsworth in the Pentagon, but our projects overlapped and we saw each other often. He and Mary regularly invited me to their home for dinner. At least until Tish entered the picture. Mary did not approve of Tish. But the general had never said a word about seeing Em again. Em's corporation was the Dark Side, out to reduce the Army to a ceremonial battalion so the Department of Defense could buy more solid gold toys with wings.
"He never told me that he'd seen you."
Em did not meet my eyes. "Special-project sort of thing. You weren't read on."
"Don't give me that secret-handshake crap."
He raised his face. Drawing himself up from a well of thought. "Look, I don't know why he didn't say anything. Don't let it hurt your feelings. I know he thought the world of you. He was proud of you. But the project stuff was for real. In fact, that's already more than I should've told you."
"It doesn't track." I looked away from him and stared into the windows of the building across the street. The last office workers were stuffing their briefcases.
"John?" Em said after a pause. "Please. Just close that particular folder. There's something else I need to ask you. It's ... something even more important."
He looked ten years older than he should have. Maybe fifteen. He played with his empty glass.
"John ... do you believe in redemption?"
"As in God and repentance and forgiveness?"
"Not exactly. I mean, yes. But in the here and now. Do you think we can atone for the things we've done wrong?"
"What kind of things?"
His hands were shaking. When he saw me looking, he folded them together. But the flesh still trembled.
"Jesus Christ, Em."
I thought he was going to break down on the spot. But the air changed again. He sat up. And smiled. A smile carved into the face of a corpse. He nodded toward the entrance to the bar.
A young woman in a blue dress had stopped at the head of the stairs. Framing herself in the doorway so we could admire her. The dress was slight—a breeze would have dissolved it—and her legs looked as long as a politician's list of excuses. She carried a wispy briefcase. Her features were the precise sort that make you suspect old families of selectively killing their infants to improve the breed. Hair blond, worn short. No jewelry. Not the kind of girl whose labels stick up at the back of her neck.
She extended her pose for a few seconds before starting toward us. Theater, with plausible denial.
Em stood up. I followed his example. Without losing his smile, he whispered, "She's getting ready to leave me. You get to know the signs."
All I could think was: That girl doesn't need Em.
"Corry, I'd like you to meet John Reynolds, my old Army buddy. John, Corry Nevers."
She turned out to be shorter than the impression she created. She gave me her hand. It was dry and cool. "Emerson's told me ever so much about you."
"Corry's on Senator Faust's staff. She's absolutely in charge of defense policy on the Hill."
I glanced at my watch. Thinking of Tish. More anxious than ever to leave.
"Why don't you two just sit down and get acquainted," Em said. "You always appreciated good wine, John. Corry's a wine drinker, too. I'll go search out something a bit better than the bar blend."
And he left me with her. As soon as he cleared the doorway, she leaned in, breath vanilla, and said, "You don't look old enough to be Emerson's Army buddy."
It was one of those times when you want to say something clever and fail to say anything at all.
She leaned closer. "I suppose he's going on about his redemption thing again." She showed perfect white teeth the way another woman might have flashed thigh. "He's turning into such a bore."
One of the best things in life is a lover who is genuinely glad to see you walk in. Tish gave me a real kiss and the zipper line on her jeans plowed into my crotch.
"Happy birthday to me," she said.
"Happy birthday, Tish."
"I was afraid you wouldn't get home before I had to go."
I could smell the dinner she had made to celebrate her own birthday. "Sorry. I had to stop by and see a friend. Serious stuff."
We had not been together long enough for things to be spoiled.
"Oh? Who?" Asked with that innocence she had preserved through some miracle. Despite her choice of occupations and the tattoo on her shoulder. She hugged me again. "Sometimes I just want to squeeze you."
"Emerson Carroll. Doubt I ever mentioned him. Not really a friend anymore. Ancient history. We used to get into trouble together."
Tish laughed. "I can't imagine you ever getting into trouble. Mr. Perfect."
"We were all young once."
Tish put on a ridiculously serious look. "You're still young."
The ten years' difference in our ages was a sensitive point with her. Tish did not care, but her friends were shits. About a lot of things.
"Well, old Em isn't. He's got one foot in the grave. Drinker. Big success at all the wrong things. You wouldn't approve."
"I like your friends." Which was true. Tish liked everybody. And I wished more of my friends liked her. The guys leered, while their wives closed ranks against Tish's age, and her chopped red hair, and the cat leanness of her. And the music.
"Listen, cowgirl. I want you to just turn around and face away from the door. And stay there. No peeking. I've got to get something out of the car."
She turned around as smartly as a recruit, then stood with a knee cocked and one hip higher than the other. I wanted to carry her upstairs.
I went out to the car and got her present. When I came back in she was still standing at ease.
"Okay. Turn around."
Tish had been playing the guitar since she was a kid in Indiana and she would have known this was a Gibson and the approximate model just from the shape of the case. But she was still going to get a surprise when she lifted the lid.
"John," she said. Her eyes went hyper-alive.
"Well, check it out. And happy birthday."
She undid the latches like a kid tearing off wrapping paper. Then she knelt before the opened guitar coffin, a Buddhist in front of an altar. She did not even touch the instrument.
"John ... is that ...?"
"An original. For the most original woman I know."
She touched it then. Stroking the neck. Ebony fingerboard, mother-of-pearl insets. It was an old Les Paul Gibson, the rocker's equivalent of a Stradivarius. Finally, she lifted it out of the case. A Les Paul is awkward to hold unless you've got it strapped over your shoulder. Tish just clutched it against her ribs and breasts. Without even trying to shape a chord. Then she began to cry.
"Nobody's ever been so good to me," she said. "Not in all my life. Nobody."
We lay in bed with the dinner downstairs waiting. Whatever might have been incomprehensible to others about the John and Tish Show, there were plenty of good things on the program. The twilight came in the window and her white flesh shone.
"I wish I didn't have to play tonight," she said.
"I've got to get going."
She rolled closer and I held her. My nose touching the little line of earrings.
"Thank you," she said.
"Taking it with you tonight?"
"I didn't mean about the guitar. Thanks for being you. But thanks for the guitar, too. It's wonderful. You're from Fairy Tale City."
"I'm anxious to hear you play it."
She roiled her skin against me. Cool, a little wet. The ear retreated and hair rushed my mouth.
"I'll play it for you first. I'm not going to take it tonight. I have to get used to it." She flipped onto her back and dropped her head into the pillow. "It's scary, you know that?"
"The guitar. It probably cost more than my car."
It had cost a lot more than her car, which had more rust than paint. Tish raised the issue in a voice that had no greed in it, only wonder. She had lived a musician's vow-of-poverty life for a decade. Credit cards maxed out until they were voided. She was not much of a cook, but she meant well and she was a mistress of kitchen economies. Her Telecaster and amp had been her primary possessions. When I met her, she lived in one clean room.
"If you're thinking about your car," I told her, "it means it's broken down again."
I could feel her blushing.
"Can I borrow your car? Just one more time? To make the gig. I'll be careful."
"You know you can borrow the car." I rose onto an elbow, admiring the dark lines and palenesses, not wanting her to go anywhere. "You have time to eat something before you go?"
She rolled toward me and shadows moved against shadows. "I'll get a sandwich at the club. It's free for the band. There's another way I'd rather spend my time."
There were plenty of things that did not match up in our relationship. At the Pentagon, I worked the kind of hours that unions had fought against at the turn of the century. Tish played evenings, or did late shows like tonight. Her friends, who had missed the integrity of the sixties but not the prejudices, wondered what Tish saw in a fascist baby-killer. My friends were convinced they knew exactly what I went for in Tish. We blew them all off and stole every moment we could between the end of my workday and the beginning of hers. We lived for the weekend afternoons.
We met in one of those Georgetown book-and-music stores where the clerks dress in black and spend their lives waiting for a break in their "real" occupation. It was after work and I was in uniform, picking up my fourth copy of Marianne Faithfull's Broken English. It was The Recording Nobody Ever Returned.
I noticed Tish. Couldn't miss her. Picking through the discs with that red hair and a cast-off undertaker's suit that was the thrift shop's answer to Armani. But it took me only a few seconds to file her under What-do-you-do-with-the-body-in-the-morning?
She was the one who got things started.
"Excuse me," she said. "You might not like that one."
I looked at her as though she had slapped me.
"I mean," she said, "like ... you don't look ... I mean, have you ever heard that? It's uh ... colorful. I mean, I just wanted to be ..."
A Gen X girl scout, helping me across the musical street.
"I bought my first copy of it on LP," I said. "In Germany. In 1979."
"I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to be rude. I mean ..."
With an emotional sunburn on her face, Tish pushed a flame of hair behind her ear and stared at me. Waiting for punishment. When I got her full face and read the eyes, there was a vulnerability to her that made me soften my voice.
"You a Marianne Faithfull fan?" I asked her.
"Are you kidding? She's a god. That's her all-time greatest. It's one of the best albums ever. If I could just make one recording like that ..."
We had coffee where they knew her and she asked me to come hear her band. The music was good enough, but not great. Tish played with passion that veered into frustration, as if she could not move the music from her soul to her fingers without losing the best of it. I told her I had enjoyed myself. And it was true. I had enjoyed watching her. She had the look, if not the gift. I pegged her as one of those minor talents damned to appreciate greatness without possessing it.
I liked the feel of the air around her. I admired her earnestness and loved the mick hair. In the beginning, I also got off on spiting her friends. Who imagined me grinding innocents between my jaws. She, in her patchy naivete, wore a little black dress that showed the blue guitar tattoo on her shoulder to Mary Farnsworth's dinner guests. Then she compounded her sin with a heartfelt comment about Newt Gingrich. Nobody bothered to learn that she also did volunteer work with inner-city kids and loved nineteenth-century English novels, accepting each word with the avidity of a child. We taped every BBC miniseries so we could watch them together. At night she held me as if I were the only man in the world.
"Got to go," my birthday girl said at last, kissing me once and rising.
"Wake me when you get home."
She showered and went out with her hair wet.
I listened to her footsteps on the pavement, then I listened to the city sounds. Bus grunting to a stop on the corner, dropout moms laughing with each other as they strolled home to Indian country. The urban surf of cars. Sirens. A boom box proclaiming doomed identity. The air-conditioning unit kicked back in. Capitol Hill, America's ground zero.
I pulled on my shorts in the darkness and went downstairs. Tish had made vegetarian lasagna for her birthday dinner and I fetched my plate from the setting she had arranged on the kitchen table.
There was a note under the plate. It said:
This isn't my real birthday anymore. My life started over the day I met you.
It struck me that I should have gone to hear her play on her birthday. But my mornings started early, and we had worked out our patterns. I went to the important Saturday-night gigs. And Tish understood. But I sat there over her make-this-last-until-payday lasagna and felt as though I had failed her.
I put my food down the garbage disposal so she would think I had eaten it, and went back to bed.
More city sounds. A domestic scene in the yard of a house two doors down that had been turned into rental units. An automobile alarm. Faint jazz from a neighbor.
I could not stop thinking about Farnsworth. And about Em. I could smell Tish on the sheets, and missed the feel of her. The best nights of my life were those when she was not working. Yet I could not imagine a long-term future with her.
I lay there awake, sensing great things moving beyond my range of vision. Except for the hour with Tish, it had been a very bad day.
When I did crash, I crashed hard. I have no idea how long the doorbell had been ringing before it registered on me. I jerked up. Tish had a habit of forgetting her keys. Or her wallet. Or the be-on-time watch I had given her at Christmas. I found my shorts again and pounded downstairs, yelling, "Coming."
I yanked open the door and found myself an arm's length from Em's girl. She stood in the cast of the hall light, still perfect, wearing the same tease-the-peasants blue dress. But her eyes had changed.
"Em's dead," she said. "They killed him. Help me."