Story — From the January 2014 issue

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Tom arrived with his suitcase. Its John Kerry sticker did not even say for president, so it seemed as if John Kerry might be the owner or designer of the bag. “I have to leave,” Tom said, sitting down, scraping the chair along the pavement, setting the suitcase beneath the table.

“Before you eat?” she asked.

“No.” He looked at his watch.

“Then order. Order quickly if you have to. Or you can have my salad, if you’d like.” She indicated the watery romaine on her plate.

He scanned the menu, then put it down. “I can’t even read right now. Is there couscous? Order me the lamb couscous. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed his phone. “I’m going to the gents.” His face had a grip of worry beneath the sun-beat skin; his body was lanky and his gait lopey but brisk as he wended his way inside. The suitcase stayed at the table, like a bomb.

She summoned the garçon with a gesture that was a hand flutter quickly pulled away lest the teacher actually call on you. She had no ear for languages — in that way she took after her mother, who once, on her French honeymoon, seeing a sign that read école de garçons, had remarked, “No wonder the restaurants are so good! The waiters all go to waiter school!”

Photographs from Paris by Agnès Dherbeys

Photographs from Paris by Agnès Dherbeys

Pour mon ami, s’il vous plaît,” she said, “le couscous d’agneau.” Was that right? Did one pronounce both s’s, or just one, or none, as in “cuckoo,” perhaps requesting a small musical bird from the park? When lamb was a food, was it a different word, the way “pork” and “pig” were? Perhaps she had ordered a living, breathing creature mewling in broth and fleece. The waiter nodded and did not say, “Anything more for you, madame?” but turned quickly and left. The outdoor tables were apparently all his this afternoon. It was April and the weather had changed into something oppressively lovely, with an urban breeze of garlic, diesel, and hyacinth. Where she ordinarily lived, there was not the same oniony, oily air of possibility as you walked down the street. Winter prairies choked the air clean. And spring was a brief, delicate thing quickly overtaken by tornadoes.

“Here,” Tom said when he returned, trying to lighten the mood. “I think you may have left your notebook in the loo.”

He handed her a small open notebook, clearly his own, in which he had written the lyrics to Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Exclamation marks and curlicues decorated all the lines. As did a small game of tic-tac-toe. The bottom of one page read, “Fish bite the least / when winds blow from the east” and “What is destiny, if you have to ask?” Also, “I love your hair the way it is, for Chrissakes.” That it seemed hilarious made her think, This has always been the man for me.

“I have to fly back to the States,” he said. He put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. She found the few people she’d known who moonlighted in the international-intrigue business to be very high-energy, but there was also a price paid; Tom now seemed tired and defeated. He glanced up and added, “You know, the intelligence world: we’re not James Bond. We’re puny, putrid graspers and gropers, deciding things at home from our laptops, playing on a field that is far too large for us.”

Photograph from Paris by Agnès Dherbeys“Didn’t Richard Burton make a speech like that in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold?”

“That was the speech.”

“The laptop part?”

“You gotta let a guy improvise. Did you order?”

Oui, monsieur.

Merci.” He smiled. She knew that he liked it when she said anything in French. His specialty was languages, including Urdu and Arabic, although only an hour and a half of Urdu, he had once declared, and then his mind turned into a blank blue screen. “And actually only four hours of Arabic,” he said. “And maybe even only five of English: five hours is a long time to keep talking.” Decades ago he had driven cars for a living, from Holland to Tehran, a drug runner (though he had not said this, she had surmised). Then he was recruited by American officials to teach the shah’s guards’ children.

“What did you teach them?” she’d asked.

“Critical theory,” he’d said, his face lit with a desire to amuse. “Movies and Marxism. Of course not real Marxism, nothing so practical as that. Nothing like ‘Here’s how you kill people and throw them in a ditch.’ No, we did very abstract Marxism. Very ivory tower.”

“Ha ha,” she said.

“I taught the kids English,” he mumbled in a defensive tone, “and some of their parents as well.”

“Did you feel the shah was all that bad?” she had asked and then received a long, strange lecture on Chiang Kai-shek and the doubtful, simple-minded shelvings of historical figures. She believed that in the photographs of the embassy hostages, the handsome blindfolded one, tall and bright-haired in the embassy doorway, was Tom. She herself had been a teenager at the time and only decades later stumbled upon the photo online; the likeness took her breath away.

But he had said no, he had gotten out a month beforehand. The closed-then-open-again secrets of his work enchanted and paralyzed her, like the frog who fatally acclimates to the heating water.

He paid for everything in cash.

“Everyone looks bad now,” he’d said. “Not just the shah.”

He held up the carafe of Côtes du Rhône, raised his eyebrows optimistically, and cocked his head. His hair was the color that strawberry blond became in middle age: bilious and bronze, as if it had been oxidized, then striped with white like a ginger cat.

“No wine,” she said. “It leads to cheese.”

She had hoped to lose weight in time for this trip, but alas.

“You must not say anything if I tell you this.” He paused, studied her, considering.

“Of course not.” Did she look untrustworthy? Why did she not seem like a person of integrity, which she felt she was? It was gracefulness she was perhaps missing; people confused the two.

Tom poured some wine and drank. “In London they are reporting torture incidents involving American troops in a Baghdad prison. Someone took pictures. It is a disaster, and I have to get back.” He took another swallow.

“Are the troops okay? What do you mean?”

“The troops are kids. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re sheep.” The waiter brought the couscous and Tom made a stab at his lamb. “It’s all about to blow. The British papers are getting ready to go to press with it. It’s going to be a scandal as big as My Lai.”

“My Lai? Well, let’s not get carried away,” she said, though who was she to utter such an airy thing?

His hand was trembling and he slurped his wine. “I’m serious. Believe me: the name of this prison will be a household word.” And then he said the name, but it sounded like nonsense to her, and perhaps it was, though her terrible ear for languages made everything that was not English sound very, well, mimsy, as if plucked from Jabberwocky”: the mome raths outgrabe.

He jabbed at the air with his fork. “They are the same unit I was in when I was in the Army thirty years ago. And taking their orders from military intelligence: the most notorious of oxymorons. I rue my time in Tehran and Cairo; I rue my ability to be consulted.”

“You needed the money —”

Photograph from Paris by Agnès Dherbeys“I’m sorry, but there are no more lecture slots available at this time!” he said, spreading his mouth into a smile that was like a star shining its far illusive light from long ago. “All slots have been filled by contestants who auditioned earlier!” She would never see him smile like that again. In truth probably she wasn’t seeing it now. He looked through her a bit and lowered his voice. “I said to them, whatever you do, don’t flush Korans down the toilet. Whatever you do, don’t have them be naked in front of a woman. Whatever you do, don’t involve them in any sexual horseplay whatsoever. Do not pantomime fellatio — which is probably good advice for everyone. I warned, Don’t take a Sharpie and write children of akbar on their faces or put women’s underwear on their heads. Whatever you do, don’t try to reconstruct your memories of seeing Pilobolus at the civic center when you were eight. It will demoralize and degrade them.”

She thought she could see what he was telling her. Don’t code for do. It was what doctors sometimes did for the terminally ill who wanted to die: Whatever you do, don’t take this entire prescription all at once with water.

Where did they get their ideas from then? The Internet?” Did he himself not believe these prohibitions were articulated this way as cover? When you fled one room of moral ambiguity, it was good to have a nice, overstuffed chair awaiting you in the next. But you then perhaps became your spook self, your ghost self, restless in a house you never knew was quite this haunted — and haunted by you.

Photograph from Paris by Agnès Dherbeys“The Internet!” Tom said, scoffing. “The Internet just reflects what’s already in the human mind. Perhaps a little less so. Cruelty comes naturally. It comes naturally to everyone. But if one is confused, and it’s hot, one’s bearings get even further lost. The desire to break something down so you can dominate it. Where did this idea come from? Whatever happened to simple cleverness? Instead we’ve got nude interrogations and sandbags soaked in pepper sauce?”

“But you — are MI.”

“IM?”

She shifted in her seat. She couldn’t recall if she had ordered any bread with her salad. “The whole planet is based on being at the right place at the right time,” she said, lost herself.

“No! No!” he cried, seeing her eyes narrow into a squint. “They were supposed to de-conflict, not gitmoize.

“You are simply a consultant. You weren’t responsible,” she said, unsure. Tom, she knew, had had a close childhood friend on Mohamed Atta’s plane. Sitting right up in first class with the terrorists. “Oh my God, what a horrible shock,” she had said when he had told her the tale in a coffee shop back home.

“Yeah,” he’d said, hopelessly, “you don’t expect things like that to happen except in coach.”

Now, again, she didn’t know how to console him. “You’re speaking as if you were Death itself.”

“Perhaps I am, little girl. Let’s go for a walk and see if you return.” He began to rub his temples. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but! I have a good idea for a cure,” he added, smiling slightly, as if he were afraid he had made her nervous. He turned his hand into a pistol shape and placed it at his temple, his thumb miming the cocked hammer.

“That might only wound,” she said. “It might only blind you, and then you’d never be able to find a gun again.”

“How about this?” he said, and pointed his finger into his mouth. She could see the creamy yellow of his teeth, his molars with their mercury eyes.

“It’s really an extreme way to get rid of headaches, and it still might not work.”

“I’ve got it,” he said, and with both hands placed an index finger on either side of his head. “That do it?”

Laughter in the midafternoon night. The daylilies in the Plexiglas table vase had already called it a day.

“Veterinarians really have it down,” she said. “It’s so much more humane than human medicine — especially the endgame. They’ve got the right injections. No bad morphine dreams.”

“That’s why I’m getting my little puppy suit ready,” he said.

“Ho ho.”

“If you’re suicidal,” he said slowly, “and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’ ”

He had headaches that could be debilitating, but he had always hid in his apartment when they came on, so she had never seen how crippling they were. Two years later, when he had a chip implanted in his head — a headache cure, experimental, cutting-edge, but who could not think of The Manchurian Candidate? — she would go visit him, bring him lunch, listen to him joke about his shaved-off hair and the battery pack implanted in his chest. Someone, it seemed, was experimenting with him, but he did not say who, precisely. He was susceptible to charming leaders and group activities despite his remarks about sheep. He was also simultaneously stoical about it all. Still later, when the chip was removed, sloppily, and the trembling that had begun in that café overtook the entirety of him, leaving him frail, unsteady, leaning on a cane, filling out retirement forms — “Apparently I was in the control group and the control group does not experience the experiment” — she would drive up to see him in one of the cottages in the veterans’ lakeside compound in the northern part of the state. But the woman at the reception desk always said, “He’s just not seeing people today.” Uniformed guards would check her car at the security gate, and once, when she got home, she found one of their cell phones in her trunk. Mostly, if allowed, she would walk the grounds and seek out his cottage — he had his own, like a high-ranking officer, so his GS number was probably substantial. Still there was no response, even though he had replied by email that yes it would be good to see her. He never answered the door the four times she had gone to see him and the nine times each she had knocked.

“By the way,” he added now, “make sure I don’t have one of those ostensibly green funerals where they put the unpreserved body on view on a giant heap of ice in someone’s blazingly sunny back yard. I want a church. Also? I have my music picked out.”

“Okay.”

“Just plug my iPod into some speakers in the front of the chapel.”

“Anything in particular we should play?”

“Oh,” he said, “shuffle will do.”

Her own iPod would be an embarrassment: Forbidden Broadway, Sting, French for Dummies.

Photograph from Paris by Agnès DherbeysShe looked around at the café’s brass-rimmed tables and the waxy cane chairs. Then she looked back at Tom. He was in a state of pain and worry she had never seen him in before. Back in their once shared hometown, through the years, first when he was married, then when she was married, they had looked for each other across rooms, hovered near each other at parties, for years they had done it, taut and electrified, each stealthily seeking out the other and then standing close, wineglasses in hand, spellbound by their eagerly mustered small talk. She would study the superficially sleepy look his face would assume atop his still strapping figure, the lowered lids and wavy mouth, and emanating from behind it all his laserlike concentration on her. The more a lovely secret was real, the less you spoke of it. But as the secret came to evanesce, as soon as it threatened to go away, it grew frantic and indiscreet — as a way to hang on to its own fading life.

Now they had gotten lucky at long last and neither of them was married anymore — though anything that was at long last, and that had involved such miserable commotion, was unlikely to be truly lucky. They had arranged this rendezvous in faraway France, and neither of them knew its meaning, for its meaning had not been determined out loud. “Is this a date, or independent contractors in semi-prearranged collision?” he had asked just last night, and then spring rain poured down upon them, shining the concrete, dripping off both their eyeglasses, which they removed, and she kissed him.

A private car now pulled up at the curb.

“Good God,” he said, “the car came so fast.”

“Keep eating. That comes first. Eat whatever you can. The car can wait.”

She could see he had no appetite but was force-feeding, pushing the food in as if it were a job. Small bites of the lamb. “People are sheep,” he said now, chewing. “Stupid as sheep. Actually with sheep at least one of them is always smart and the others just turn their brains off and follow. ‘What’s Maurie doing now?’ they ask each other. ‘Where is Maurie going? Let’s follow!’ The flock is the organism.”

“Like the military,” she said.

He swallowed with some difficulty and at first did not say anything. “Yeah. Occasionally. Civ-mil has never worked properly as a unit.” He pulled a bay leaf out of his couscous. “Bay leaves are bullshit,” he said, flinging it down on his plate. “What will you do with the rest of your time here?” he asked, rounding up the remaining food with this fork, pushing it into small piles, with rivulets and valleys.

“I’ll find things,” she said. “But it will not be the same without you.”

He put his fork down and grabbed her hand, which put a knot in her chest.

“Remember: never drink alone,” he said.

“I don’t,” she said. “I usually drink with MacNeil/Lehrer.” She assumed he would call her when he got to D.C.

He withdrew his hand, fumbled with his wallet, threw some cash on the table, and grabbed his bag.

They got up together and walked to his car. The blue-bereted driver got out and opened the door for him. Tom tossed the bag in the back and turned to her, about to say something, then changed his mind and just got in. When the door shut, he lowered his window.

“I don’t know how to say this,” he said, “but, well — keep me in mind.”

“How could I not?” she said.

“That’s something I don’t ask, ma chère.” She lowered her head, and he pressed his lips to her cheek for a very long moment.

“May our paths cross again soon,” she said, stepping back. And then like a deaf person she made a little gesture of a cross with the index fingers of each of her hands, but it came out like a werewolf ward-off sign. Inept even at sign language. As the car began to roll away, she called out, “Have a good flight!” His head turned and bent toward her one last time.

“Hey, I’ve got all my liquids packed in my unchecked bag,” he shouted, not without innuendo. She flung one palm to her mouth to blow a kiss, but the car took a quick right down the Rue du Bac. A kiss blown — in all ways. But she could see him lift his left hand at the window, like a karate chop that was also a salute, as the car merged and disappeared into the fanning traffic.

Years earlier, at a Christmas party of a mutual friend, their spouses both out on the wintry summer porch smoking, she had found herself next to him, in the kitchen, jiggling the open bottles of wine to see which one might not yet be empty. The day before, along with a photo of prizewinning gingerbread houses on display at the mall, he had sent her an email: “I just took three Adderall and made these for you.” In the next room, Bob Dylan was singing “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

“What is the thing you regret most in life?” he asked her, standing close. There were perhaps a dozen empty bottles, and she and Tom methodically tipped every one of them upside down, held them up to the light, sometimes peering into them from underneath. “Nothing but dead soldiers here,” he murmured. “I’d like to say optimistically that they were half full, not half empty, but these are just totally empty.”

Photograph from Paris by Agnès Dherbeys“Unless you have a life of great importance,” she said, “regrets are stupid, crumpled-up tickets to a circus that has already left town.”

His face went bright with amusement and drink. “Then what happens to the town?” he asked.

She thought about this. “Oh, there’s a lot of weather,” she said slowly. “It snows. It thunders. The sun comes out. People go to church and sit in the sanctuary and sometimes they see escaped clowns sitting in the back pews with their white gloves still on.”

“Escaped clowns?” he asked.

“Escaped,” she said. “Sort of escaped.”

“Come in from the cold?” he inquired.

“Come in to sit next to each other.”

He nodded with satisfaction. “The past is for losers, baby?”

“Kind of like that.” She wasn’t sure that she agreed, but she understood the power of such a thought.

His stance grew jaunty. He leaned in close to her, up against the kitchen counter’s edge.

“Do you ever feel that no one knows what you’re talking about, that everyone is just pretending — except for me?”

She studied him carefully. “Yes, I do,” she said. “I do.”

“Ah,” he replied, straightening his posture. He clasped her hand: electricity burst into it, then vanished as he let go. “We’re all suckers for a happy ending.”

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is the author of six books of fiction. Her next collection, Bark: Stories, will be published in March by Alfred A. Knopf.

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  • Tim

    This is completely wonderful.

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