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Look, I’ll be straight with you—and none of this is for publication.  The Secret Service is, after all, secret.  But when Mac pulled me off the President’s detail and assigned me to head Hers, I protested—big-time.  The Service has two missions: protection and counterfeit currency.  This was worse than coins.

“Mac, gimme a break.  Teas, receptions, Barbara Walters.  What’re you doing to me?”

“This one’s different, Mancini.  Or haven’t you been paying attention?”

That stung.  Paying attention is what this job is all about.  And the job was everything to me.

“Mac, I have to be where the action is.  Especially now.”

Oof.  I hadn’t meant to get personal, but it just snuck up.  Which bothered me.  We don’t like things sneaking up.

But Mac understood.  I’d told him about Toni, the separation.

He leaned forward.  “You think you won’t see action with this one?  Our first First Lady who works?  Between her Carnegie Hall concerts and her prize-winning statements, your plate will be swarming.  He’s easy, everybody loves him.  It’s her that causes sparks.  Like you, she doesn’t do teas either.”

She also didn’t campaign, and when she did, she didn’t smile. ….. “Can’t Costick stay on with her?” I asked, stalling for time.  Costick had been her detail leader since Iowa.

“His father’s in the hospital.  Galloping cancer.”

I was about to ask, How fast a gallop, but I canned it.  I tell you, my mind astonishes me sometimes.  What was it Freud said: The unconscious never lies?  If so, I was in trouble.

“Anyway,” Mac said, “she’s going to need our best—and that’s you, Rennie.”

Well, like everybody, I’m susceptible to praise.  “Thanks,” I said.  But it didn’t come out too enthusiastic.

Mac’s eyes narrowed.  “So, Mancini: What’s your problem?”

What was my problem?

Another franca woman in my life—that was my problem!  Sure, times have changed, and the Service “exposes” us to “sensitivity sessions,” but it was coming from all sides.  First, Angela, my oldest, came home from Princeton, said my attitudes were “antediluvian.”  Then Toni got ideas, dropped her mop, went back to nursing.  And Gina, my baby—twelve years old—Gina was talking about going into the Army?  Santo Dio, that’s no place for a lady.  And speaking of ladies, mia carissima madre was encouraging her.  Said Gina would learn “hard skills.”  So, making the best lasagna in all Providence—the white sauce and the green—that wasn’t hard enough?  And now I’d have to take orders from this “outspoken” woman?  Who didn’t even go by her husband’s name?

On the other hand, it was a detail any agent would kill for.  So to speak.

Mac looked at his watch.  “So?  You’d like to return to the field?”

“Va bene, va bene,” I said.  “I mean: fine.”  On duty I watch the Italian, the gestures.  Control is everything with the Service.

“That’s better.  Besides, Ren-boy, she is candy for the eyes.”

Certissimo,  she was a stunner.  Tall, slender, movie-star beautiful.  Red hair.  Creamy complexion.  Very good for 40.  Sure, she dressed unorthodox.  The fashion types were after her already about all that black.   But: She was gorgeous.  Which would make keeping an eye on her both a joy and Mission Impossible.

Mac walked me to the door.  “She is the perfect woman,” he said.  “As such, she’s a target.  It’ll be the test of your career.  But, you’re up to it.”  He shook my hand, squeezing it like he’d done with me and the assignment.  “I want a full report, someday.”

So here it is, Mac: the full report—squeezed.

* * *

I hustled over the East Wing.  The place was in an uproar—boxes all over, movers moving.  As for Herself, I heard her before I saw her: From two rooms away, her belly laugh hit me.  And she’s a non-smiler?  Made you want to smile yourself—which to my surprise I was doing.  Alert: Smiles are not “command presence.”  I composed myself and stepped in.

There she was, sitting on the floor, in Bermudas and sweatshirt, talking on the phone.  She didn’t notice me right off, so I studied her legs.  Woof.

As if in response to the exclamation points in my head, she looked up and flinched.  I pointed to my lapel pin, she waved me in.  She was on the line with her agent talking dates four, five years down the road.  Prague, London, New York.  Sure, I knew she was famous, but I’d never heard her play.  Her detail never teamed up with ours on the campaign trail.

“By the way, Sam,” she said, “performances this year: How many is it now?  Eighty-five?  Hmm, that’ll be a stretch, but good, fine.”

Whoa.  Not good, not fine.  How the hell was she going to finesse eighty-five performances and the zillion social events her wing is responsible for?  Plus the teas and the do-good stuff.  Stretch, nothing.  We were talking bends.  A conflict of schedule.  Major.

She hung up and looked at me.  “I suppose you’re thinking, ‘conflict of schedule.’”

Christ, a clairvoyant!  The surprise shook my head yes.

“I know, I know,” she said, “how to manage the social albatross.”  She shook her head—“I’ll figure something out”—and came over toward me.  I noticed again how tall she was.  Almost up with me, a good 5’10.  A very good 5’10 indeed.

“Hello, I’m Aurelia Buck,” she said, redundantly.  “And you are….?”

“Agent Renato Mancini, at your service.”  I asked how I should address her.

“Ms. Buck is probably best.”

Mizz—still sounds like a bumblebee.

She smiled.  “Some people still think it sounds like a bumblebee—-“


“—and Buck is my name.  Says so on the program, twenty years now.  And this smile business: I smile when something’s funny.”  She laughed.  “Aren’t we defensive?”

She was so gorgeous I could swoon.  And I had objections?  She reached out to shake my hand.  I reciprocated, possibly too vigorously.

“The hands, Mancini, the hands!”  The look of pain on the First Face!  But she laughed—a reprieve.  While she massaged her hand, I noted it was a little wrinkly.  Guess hands go before the neck.  Speaking of necks, this one was perfect.  Behind my Reflectors, I was having a field day.

“So,” she said, “you always wear your sunglasses indoors?”

Again!  “Sorry,” I said, whipping them off.  Come on, man: Get your balance.

She looked at me and nodded.  “Nice,” she said.  “You look interesting.”

Echo, echo: That’s what she said to the President when she first met him, when he was a Senator.  “You look interesting,” the hostess heard her say, “are you?”  Myself, I wondered what she saw in him.  The man didn’t have an off button, not that I saw.

On the other hand, she said I was interesting.  Women usually comment on my looks.

She turned to go.  “Excuse me, I have to go check my 1000-pound baby.”

“Scusi?”  It just fell out.

“My new performance piano.  They’re moving it in now.”

She headed out.  I followed her, my eyes on the ankles, the legs.  Terrific thighs—not like Toni’s.  Building up to a truly great—-

She turned around.  I hoisted my eyes just in time.  “Do you have something else to do,” she asked, “or do you shadow me everywhere?”

“The latter,” I said.  “Besides, I have to examine the piano.  Bombs, bugs, that sort of thing.”

“Wait’ll you meet my tuner.  He looks like Lenin.”

I laughed.  “That’s funny,” I said.  She looked over at me and smiled.  Heaven, I’m in Heaven.

We walked down the corridor together.  I cut my eyes over at her, checking from another angle the cheekbones, the shoulders, the bazooms.  What a view.

At which point, she sighed: “Always on view….”

Too much!  I know artists are hyper-sensitive types, but this was too much.  “Excuse me?” I said, praying for exemption.

Fortunately she was referring to the crowd outside, behind the barricades.  We’d stopped at a window.  She was looking out, I was looking at her.

“Always on view,” she said.  “I guess it goes with the territory.  But then….”  Her voice dropped a little.  “It tends to go with the sex.”

The magic word.  Mac, transfer me!

We started walking again.  “By the way,” she said, cutting through my haze, “do I have a new code name?”

“Yes,” I said, barely remembering.  “It’s Scherzo.”

“Scherzo, eh?  Lively, playful.  Somebody’s attuned,” she laughed.  “Though Cadenza would’ve been better.”

I asked what a cadenza was.

“An elaborate flourish, often improvised on the spot.  If you get my drift.”

I told her I did.  I also told he how ignorant I was about music.

“You and Calvin Coolidge.  I read about it last night.  He said he knew two tunes.  One was ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’—and the other wasn’t.”

I laughed, hard.  Her laugh landed on mine.  “You’ll do,” she said.  Coolidge shot to second place in my personal pantheon of outstanding Presidents, right behind Lincoln, nosing out Roosevelt.

“Scherzo’s all right,” she went on, “but it also means joke in Italian, doesn’t it.”  She looked out the window.  “Which this place could make me, but which”—she said this slow—“over my dead body it will not.”  She looked at me.  “Speaking metaphorically, of course.”

And before I could stop myself I said, “Speaking physically—-“  Jesus!  “Excuse me, m’am, I just wanted you to know—-“

“I know, I know,” she said, touching my sleeve.  “I’m in your hands.”

“I’m in your hands”: Gesu, Maria, e Giusepppe, one of us was talking metaphors.  But the other—most definitely—wasn’t.

* * *

My impression of her?  I was in lust.  Pure, unmetaphorical lust.  Which, combined with the normal stress of the job, meant I’d soon be walking around in shock.

“Normal stress”: Ours is up there with combat pilots’.  Agents on the White House detail rotate out after three years max.  What with the stress and travel, the Service is death on marriages.  It was on mine.  Affairs are common—this is nothing if not a “people job”—but the Service is death on them too.  Liz gave me my walking papers about the time Toni did.

But, I like the Service, the stress.  I’m a competence nut.  I like being tested.

And did we get tested.  Eighty-five concerts averaged one every 4.3 days, and the next, in Boston, was two days off.  White House duty is actually pretty tedious, but when the show goes on the road, attenzione.  Plus this First Lady was the ultimate operational challenge: onstage and stationary.  Made you long for the shoppers and homebodies.

But when I heard her play, I longed no more.  Ladies and gentlemen, I almost burst my shoulder holster.  All that sound!  And a woman producing it?  With just one hand?  Because for openers she played a Bach tune Brahms did a variation of, Chaconne, that uses only the left hand.  Impressive—very.  Plus, with Scherzo looking so beautiful in black velvet, the whole scene was a wow.  Which is what I said as she came offstage.  “Thanks,” she said.  “Now see what I can do with two hands.”  I laughed.  “By the way,” she said, looking me over, “you look terrific in a tux.”  Wow again.  Then she whipped back onstage, leaving me in a cloud of perfume and some steamy fantasies about what I could do with my two hands.

What’s that saying?  “Who’s guarding the guardians?”

Too bad she ruined it with that encore, Beethoven’s Contra-Dance.  As Denny, my lieutenant, moaned in my earpiece, “Wait’ll the West Wing hears about this.  ‘First Lady Signals President’s Nicaragua Policy.’”  Which is exactly what the headlines read the next day.

“For crying out loud,” she said on the flight back when the President’s chief of staff phoned.  “The political implications of music?  Look, Buster”—fortunately that was his name—“I chose it spur of the moment.  It was the perfect encore, short and charming.  Like you.”  She looked at me and gave a silent laugh.  “Oh don’t get bent.”

But the West Wing was bent.  Next day the national security advisor went straight to the cameras, harrumphing about “lines of responsibility.”  She was steamed.  “Yes, I know, my responsibility is decoration.  Guess Douglas hasn’t straightened them out yet.  Is anybody listing to the music?”

“Is anybody listening to the music?”: Good question.  Just about nobody.

Except me.

Yes!  Agent Mancini: Providence wienie, Fordham grad, Army grunt, police captain.  Now and into perpetuity, music lover.  Con brio.

O.K., it’s a switch from Tina Turner and Willie Nelson.  But, hey, you hang around genius, you convert.  Once upon a time, sight and touch were my only working senses, but with Scherzo, I cued into sound.  And hers was so—-  The word I finally came up with was “fluid.”  Which was what The New York Times critic said—I checked the ‘Net: “Ms. Buck’s playing is so seamless, so fluid, one must constantly remind oneself the piano is a percussive instrument.”  And to be in the same room when she practiced—White House duty went from tedious to terrific.  I was so snowed I took her home with me—her CDs, that is.  Like her, I’d start the day with Bach—say, Sleepers, Awake—and end it jogging around Arlington listening to her Mozart’s Fantasie in C-minor,  Köchel no 473.  Christ, look at me: umlauts!

And that’s just punctuation.  Because of her I know a mordent from a trill, an arpeggio from a glissando, the component parts of a sonata.  She taught me about shading, dynamics.  Shit, I was learning nuance!

And that’s just musicology.  More important was where the music took you.  Because in the end, she said, tapping her heart, “We aim to move.”

Which got me thinking: What’s playing inside?  I know, I know: Mancini, Toscanini of the female torso, wondering what’s playing inside.  But listening to her, day after day, I began thinking all kinds of questions, like: How’d she get started?  How’d she know she was good?  And coming from me, the corker: How did a girl get it in her head to go for the brass ring?

It was Scherzo herself who gave me the answers.  She was glad to talk.  God knows, nobody else was asking.  Plus, I was around 12 hours a day.

Here it is: As she says, she was born to play.  It was Fate.  “I was three,” she said, “and we were at the neighbors’.  The lady sat down to play—Liebestraum it was—and my fingers began to tingle, my heart did somersaults, my brain went ‘I want, I want!’  If one person could get all that heavenly sound out of one instrument, that was for me.  No question.”

Sounded like Fate to me.  Also my symptoms, especially the “I want” part.

Fate or no, she worked like a Trojan.  Sometimes she’d concentrate so hard on a trick passage, she’d scrunch up that beautiful face.  And if she messed up, she’d go over and over it until it was perfect.  “Then and only then,” she said, “can you inject the passion.”  Too many pianists today, she said, were note-perfect—“technical wizards, like our technical times”—but their playing was sterile.  “And passion is the point, right?”

I could relate to that.  But, it wasn’t a come-on.  She just spaced out when it came to music.

I mean, she’d talk about things like the Soul, which she capitalized.  At first I thought it was high fruitcake.  In the Service you don’t hear about the Soul, and for sure it’s not part of standard American discourse.  But, if you zip the lip and listen to the music, something inside you, well, stirs.  You want to make confession and fly straight forevermore.  So when she quoted Bach—“All music should be made to the glory of God, anything else is but infernal scraping and bawling”—I thought: Sure.  This is the way it should be.

But that’s not the way it went.  Talk about “scraping and bawling.”

* * *

What followed was the norm for this place.  After the honeymoon, the sniping.  Unfortunately, Scherzo’s remark about missing the President’s trip to the U.K.—“I’m a soloist, not an accompanist”—ratcheted the sniping up to bombs-away.

Take the social diddle.  Like I predicted, her concert schedule made it a physical impossibility to meet her social obligations: We were out of Washington half of each month.  And even when she was in the city, she was still “unavailable” for stuff.  She had to practice—morning events were out, her practice time—and she had to keep learning new repertoire, the piano literature being humungous.  As she said, “I want to grow in office too.”  Another firecracker statement.

After that Buster did his best to keep her from the press.  But, now that I pondered it, yeah, wanting to grow in office: It’s understandable.

Mancini pondering, understanding?  But really, who wants to regress?  Angela, call your father.

But what really stuck were the state dinners she missed.  Attending a White House dinner is a very big deal—even movie stars get excited and RSVP personally—so if she didn’t show, there was grousing.  She tried to cover by asking the Vice President’s wife to stand in, but that didn’t fly.  As the Veep’s wife said, “They want steak and they get me, hamburger.”  Soon, disgruntled celebs were giving exit interviews from the White House driveway, claiming they finessed contractual obligations to be there, why couldn’t she?

Which became the big issue: her obligations, contractual versus social.  The airtime and column inches expended!  Scherzo stood her ground—“I signed on the dotted line with no purpose of evasion”—but Washington, contrary to its paper-pusher image, loves to party and it squawked “absenteeism.”

“Christ, Mancini, if I fail to show for a concert I get sued and if I fail to show for a dinner I get crucified.  Is this no-win or what?”

It was.  Plus, it didn’t help that when she did show up for events, she didn’t shake hands.  “Ice Princess.”  But she’d learned her lesson at the Inaugural balls.  After shaking 5,000 hands, her arm was paralyzed.  And the next night she was taking on “the Everest” of the piano, Brahms’ Paganini Variations, Books I and II.  That sucker, with all the repeats, runs 45 minutes, no break.

But, she did not cancel.  “No excuses, Mancini, no excuses.”  I had to admire that.

Mancini: admiring a woman?

Another thing: Social events take planning and this she absolutely had no time for, though Buster waved these “duties” in her face.  To extricate herself from guest lists and menu preparation and seating charts, she put in for a half-dozen more staff positions.  Man, the buzz about the expense!  You’d think it was she and not the President who’d asked for a tax hike.  “Christ on a crutch,” she’d say, “sell a missile and make it up.”

It was during this particular diddle that she put it to me.

“Mancini, I ask you: How would you compare the social utility of planning a menu versus working out a cadenza?  Honest.”

Honest?  “No comparison, M’am, short-term or long.  Go for the cadenza.”

“Thanks, Renato,” she said.  “I needed that.”

When I mentioned this to my mother, she dropped the phone.  When I added that she didn’t have to make lasagna from scratch anymore on my visits home, she dropped it again.  “Renato, you got a heart transplant?  My son, you are improving.”

“Ma,” I said, laughing.  “You live, you learn.”

Meanwhile, there was also the political diddle.  Coincident with the “Contra” crisis—and the flak over Air Force One-Point-Five that Scherzo needed for concertizing—there was the uproar over her new piano.  I saw the problem myself when I checked it out: Made in Japan.  Major sin on the part of Consumer No. 1.  When Yamaha launched an advertising campaign featuring You-Know-Whom, labor went ballistic.

And the sound-proofing flak.  Buster, that towering connoisseur, had complained about the “noise” from her practicing—she used the ballroom—so she had the room sound-proofed.  Another expense!  Her response?  She’d compensate by not changing out the White House china.  Which, naturally, the media played as “First Lady’s China Policy: Non-recognition.”

“Oh for crying out loud!” she cried out loud, “does anybody really care about this stuff?”  She was, no kidding, heading for the White House press room to give them “one memorable cadenza,” when I actually laid hands on her person and said, “M’am, go practice instead.”  “Good thinking, Mancini,” she said.  “But first”—and as we reversed, she gave them the bird.

We laughed.  For the moment, the dumbness of things got a laugh.  But I noticed her cheeks were blotchy, her neck had a nasty red rash.  And next day, a zit appeared.  “This place,” she said, “will ruin my complexion.”

Which leads to the fashion diddle.  Classic double-bind.  St. Louis illustrates.

She was in the Green Room—it was intermission—I was outside the door, when I heard her dial Connie, her press secretary, to check the day’s news.  Last week’s “news” was her “mannish” hands.  O.K., they are big, but consider what they do.  From the get-go she was taking hits for wearing the same outfits, “disdaining” American designers, “all that black.”  “Scherzo,” I beamed to her, “don’t ask about news, not with the knuckle-busting Ravel coming up.”

But she did.  “My what?”  My ‘fright mask in concert’?”  She let out a yelp and hung up.

I stepped in.  “You know,” I said, “supreme effort is going to do something to your face.  Fuck ‘em.”

A first: Mancini voting for Art over Beauty.  Also using profanity with a First Lady.

But she was rattled.  So I said, “Look, why let the style crap get to you?”

“Because”—and here’s the double-bind—“it’s the same message I hear in my head.  ‘More color.’  ‘Try a new hairdo.’  ‘Big hands.’  I just hope they stay off my fat knees.”

Fat knees?  I wanted to say her knees were perfect, but then I thought: What have knees got to do with anything?  And maybe her overheated fears were related to my overheated fantasies?

She tore on.  “I hear other voices too.  I hear—see—Eleanor Roosevelt saying to me: ‘Let the career go, Dear, and dedicate yourself to your unique humanitarian role.  Signs of decline are all about, the nation is in a psychic Depression, it needs a ministering angel.’  She’s powerfully persuasive.  What’s tickling the ivories compared to her contribution?”

I was about to say beautiful music is a contribution too, when a very worried concert manager appeared.  I picked up the Ravel and, taking her elbow, guided her backstage.  “That’s a lot going on in your head,” I said.

She nodded.  “Is it like that for you?”

“Nah, all I hear is ‘Don’t forget to pick up your cleaning’ and ‘Go for it.’”  Not to mention Denny screaming in my earpiece, “You need cover?  You need cover?”

“You’re lucky,” she said.  “I tell you, Renato, it’s enough to cause a wrong note.”

I couldn’t let her go like that, so I held up the Ravel: “Go for it.”

“Thanks, coach.”  But instead of checking Ravel one last time, she checked herself in my Reflectors.  “How do I look?” she asked.

She’d had better days.  “Bellissima,” I lied.

“Thanks, I needed that.”  And, squeezing my arm, she was gone.

Normally I’d react to the physical contact, but that lost look on her face unnerved me.  Suppose Scherzo hit a wrong note?  But, she didn’t.  She’s too much the pro, though in the Ravel she repeated a section three times instead of the customary two.  I was across the way when it happened.  I saw the faraway look in her eyes—she was in automatic, a place a pianist “never ever should be”—and when she realized it, she flinched.  But, she saved herself.  I was proud of her.

On the flight back, she brought up her near-miss.  “Almost got away from me, Mancini.”  She sighed.  “Always, always, always: ‘How’m I doing?’ and ‘How’m I looking?’  Guess which one counts most?”

Then, eyes sparkling, she looked at me.  “All right, Mancini.  What does count most?”

Oh no.

“When you met me,” she pressed on, “your first thought was….”


“Honest now, Mancini.”

“Your repertoire.  Absolutely.”

She erupted in a belly laugh.  “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”

I laughed too.  “That was then, this is now.”

We were pushing protocol to the max, but we blinked—just in time, woof—and pulled back from the line.  I made a vow, though.  If it would help, if it would relieve some of the pressure, I’d never think bazooms again.  Just credentials.

When I said something along this line to Toni—I called about seeing Gina on her birthday—she dropped the phone.  When she got back on the line, she sounded winded.  “You?  Simpatico?  Renato, my estranged husband, how you’ve changed.”

“Toni,” I said, “you learn, you live.”

* * *

Clearly, while Scherzo wasn’t the sort to break down in sobs, the combined diddled was getting to her.  And leave it to Buster to combine it for her.



O Maurice!  Where is thy briefcase?
O former desk-mate!  Where is thy brio?

Maybe it’s my imagination acting in a highly irregular way, but Maurice’s presence is still so vivid that I look over at his old desk and, I swear, it actually “vibrates” with his “aura,” if you’ll pardon those expressions.  Believe me, I’m not one to talk about vibrations and auras.  Not at the Institute.  That kind of locution could get you terminated.

Though, come to think of it, “terminated” is strange locution itself, don’t you think?

Anyway, Maurice hit this place like a meteor.  He also lasted about as long.  But while he was here, my-oh-my, did he dazzle.

You see, things here in Public Information are pretty routine.  Our job is to look up facts and figures for the ordinary citizen who needs help on account of all the information exploding these days.  It’s not what’s known around here as “seminal thinking,” more like “sominal.”  Still, I’m thrilled to be part of the world-famous Institute, “the Valhalla of think tanks.”  I’ve been here nine years, ever since graduation.  I’ll get a certificate if I make ten.  Here’s hoping.

But Maurice never even made it to ten months.  Right from the start he was, well, so unorthodox.  Take his debut.  We’d just come back from break and were getting set for the 5:00 mailing.  As always, Amalia positions her enormous body vis-à-vis her computer, while Randall leans way back in his chair, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling.  Amalia says he’s awaiting divine intervention, but I say he’s awaiting a nasty fall.  Me, my modus operandi is to open all my reference books, number my note cards—and panic.  I’m always afraid I won’t get it all together by 5:00.  I keep thinking of the guy who loses an argument with his neighbor just because I didn’t get all the particulars down for him.  He could hate me for that, you know.

Just as Charlie was about to get us underway with his “It’s showtime, folks,” in walked the Director with Maurice.  Now, my heart always flip-flops whenever I see the Director.  He just exudes scariness.  And he has the same effect on Dr. Selzer, our division chief.  Dr. Selzer grabbed his jacket and scrambled to his feet and—well, he looked like a dummy shot out of cannon.  Amalia was fearless though.  “Chiggers,” she said, “the Czar visits the provinces.”  I wish she’d be more subtle.  I mean, she sits right in front of me.

Through all this Maurice just stood there, with his blazer draped over his shoulder and his beat-up old briefcase dangling at his side and his curly brown hair just sitting on his head, looking like Michaelangelo’s David.  Except that Maurice had his clothes on and instead of white marble he had a nice tawny tan.  And those eyes!  They were the color of espresso, with just a touch of cream.  He was a very nice sight and I confess I felt certain “stirrings.”  But I considered my engaged condition and deep-sixed the urge.  (Franklin and I have been affianced for eight years.  I can’t make up my mind about my heart.)  Meanwhile Amalia, a free woman and smitten on the spot, trumpeted “I think I’m in love, I think I’m in love.”  Everything about her quivered—her frosted hair, her muumuu, her swivel chair.

As is his wont, though I wish it weren’t, Dr. Selzer introduced his new employee to all twenty of us—one at a time—making a fool of himself, again, with his harrumphing and cuff-pulling and repeating over and over, “Maurice has just hired on with us.”  Really, is there anything more embarrassing than a person trying to be cool who hasn’t the aptitude for it?  I always hide behind my reference books and wait it out.

But this time my eyes were riveted on Maurice and not because he looked so nice, but because he looked so bored.  Bored?  How could anybody be bored their first day on the job?  My first day I was throttled with nerves.  Anyway, when Dr. Selzer got to us in the back for his finale, guess what Maurice did?  Maurice, standing next to his new boss, rolled his eyes and smirked.  Smirked!  Somehow my arm, shocked, extended itself and I shook hands with him.  (I notice women doing that more and more, shaking hands.)   Maurice said “Aha” and gave me a little bow.

He sat down at the desk next to mine—only inches away—and began removing stuff from his briefcase: a volume of Voltaire, signed photos of Lech Walesa and Bette Midler, a maroon velvet pillow (to cushion a wound, he told me later, he’d got getting out of Chile).  When he had everything in place, he stared at the center of his desk for a long time.  Then, very slowly, he turned toward me and looked deep into my eyes—deeper than anybody ever has—and smiled his crooked smile.  I was so fascinated I couldn’t blink.  Inside my head a big banner unfurled that said: “Major Influence Enters Her Life.”

Likewise, Maurice had a major influence on the Institute.  Sort of.

Things started out O.K., though Maurice caused a big stir that first week when he sat at the senior fellows’ table in the dining hall.  Such a boo-boo, though Maurice laughed about it.  “Rattled the sociology of the place, didn’t I?”

Indeed.  You see, the senior fellows are the resident geniuses (Maurice called them “the mandarins”).  Each of them has so many degrees that with my puny B.A., I could never talk to them.  I mean, what do you say to a genius?  “Hi, there”?  Anyway, it’s their mission to conduct those terribly important research projects about the state of the world that you hear announced in the news.  Very dire stuff.  Their books have two-part titles hitched together with a colon, like “Terrorist Demands: Negotiate or Shoot?”  And, as Maurice noted, “They part their names on the left.”  There’s G. Edward Barkle and R. Igor Tribble and D. Dudley Deldorico, to cite only three.

The one that got Maurice was C. Warwick Breitenstein.  “That’s gotta be Curt.  Curt Breitenstein and I were in the Peace Corps in Malaysia.  I’m going to call him.”  And before I could stop him, he’d dialed Dr. Breitenstein’s office.  Imagine!  “Hello, Stratosphere, this is the basement calling.”  Fortunately Dr. Breitenstein’s secretary said her boss was out testifying somewhere, which gave me time to explain to Maurice about hierarchy and protocol.  But Maurice laughed.  “Jesus,” he said (if you’ll pardon that, plus the forthcoming), “they don’t piss perfume.”  My shock must have shown, because he patted my arm—right near the elbow—and said, “Curt’s an old buddy.  Don’t worry.”

The way he told it, he and Curt—Dr. Breitenstein—were like brothers.  In Malaysia they’d built a water system together and got thin as rails because the food was so hot they could eat only rice for two years.  It sounded like what’s called a “special experience.”  So when Maurice and I went down to lunch the next day and he spotted his old friend, off he sprinted, heading for what he thought was a reunion but what I knew was disaster.

Sure enough, when Maurice sat down, it was as if a leper had wandered into a spa.  Conversation crashed to a halt and heads snapped toward him as in a military parade.  And the way their noses were twitching, you’d think they’d smelled something bad.  I still can see L. Wright Hardley, mouth open in mid-thesis and forking pointing up, a French fry impaled on it.  It was awful.

But that wasn’t all.  By then the entire dining hall was hushed, so the audio was excellent when Dr. Breitenstein turned to Maurice, swallowed laboriously, and without a flick of recognition announced in tones that rang like a xylophone, “I’m so sorry, but that’s Doctor Barkle’s seat.  Unless you’re his guest, of course.”

Well, I was beet red.  So was Maurice, though not from embarrassment.  After that Maurice went out for lunch, which was understandable, except he went when he felt like it.  When I mentioned the lunchtime shifts assigned to us, Maurice smiled, patted my arm—lower this time, right above my wrist—and said, “I eat when I’m hungry.”

* * *

Well, that sets the setting for you.  I’m not what you’d call prescient (I don’t have the training), but even could peek down the road and see I’d probably be standing there but Maurice wouldn’t.  I mean, you join an organization, you mind the rules, right?  With Maurice though, rules did not register.  Non computare, as he’d say.  Granted, Dr. Selzer doesn’t actually tell you the rules.  After his intro, you’re on your own.  Still, you naturally pick these things up, don’t you?

For example, there’s our policy that all requests coming to the Institute get a response, each and every one, including the diatribe we occasionally get—actually they’re quite regular—from the guy who goes on and on about how the U.S. should get out of the United Nations but never actually asks a question.  The first time Maurice got one of those, he fired back a note saying “Your request is incoherent.  Try again.”  Well, not only is that against policy, but it’s hardly the language that’s specified in the Institute’s style manual.  When Dr. Selzer saw Maurice’s memo—he checks our stuff before it goes out—he started moving stuff around on his desk real fast.  He didn’t say anything to Maurice, though.  He’s not that kind of boss.

Amalia tried to help.  Since she never consults the manual either, she gave Maurice her copy, wrapped in memo paper with a big smile button taped on top.  I could have told her that wouldn’t go over, but I didn’t want to interfere.  Besides bearing an unflattering resemblance to its sender, Amalia’s smile button was bound to rub a worldly guy like Maurice the wrong way.  I mean, you could tell by the way he held his cigarette—between his thumb and forefinger, pointing down—that Maurice had been around.  He was nice about it though.  He put the manual next to his Voltaire and, nodding to Amalia, slipped the button into his pants pocket.  Later he told me he’d almost shrieked because he gouged his leg with the pin, but he had learned to stifle sounds while a stowaway on a freighter.  See what I mean about worldly?

Another thing that got Maurice in hot water was making up citations, or “cites.”  You see, we’re supposed to “source” the information we send out, like a warranty.  I visualize the guy who’s having that argument with his neighbor nailing it with a truly great cite like, “You’ll find it in The Congressional Record, Vol. 110, Pt. 18, 88 Cong. 2 sess. (1964), pp. 23653-65.  So there, Alfred!”—my idea of Beauty.  Anyway, Maurice was so erudite—he knew all the Seven Deadly Sins, and what Plessy v. Ferguson was about, and Joan Crawford’s real name, and the phonetic alphabet, and the etymology of tycoon, you name it—that he hardly ever looked anything up.  He’d simply dash down the information, give the logical source, then ask me for a number—“Any number, sweetheart”—to use for the page.  I’d just look at my watch and give the time.  Me!  Oh we were audacious!  And: He called me sweetheart.

Anyway, what with his erudition, Maurice could economize on time and he’d reach his quota by noon, asking Dr. Selzer for more.  Meanwhile, the rest of us were mired in indexes.  Naturally Dr. Selzer got suspicious about the speed of his new employee, so he checked Maurice’s cites and found “discrepancies” as to the pages.  Maurice took the hint and started looking up stuff he already knew.  Even so, he was still faster than the rest of us.  Obviously, knowing the answer in advance gives you an edge.  Dr. Selzer kept him under surveillance, but that didn’t bother Maurice.  As he said, “It gives the boss something to do.”

* * *

You know, it really was amazing what Maurice knew.  And I’m not talking about the zillion facts he had at his fingertips.  Besides, Maurice thought facts were boring.  “That’s why this job will narcotize me,” he said.  Though myself, I look on facts as friends in a world that’s “strange and loony.”  That’s how Maurice called it.  “Strange and loony.”

No, what I’m talking about is how Maurice got his facts.  For example, he knew the elevation of the Jungfrau—because he had climbed it.  And Joan Crawford’s real name?  “Got it from Lucille herself,” and he dazzled me with the story about being her guide up Macchu Picchu.  That’s the thing about Maurice.  He got his facts firsthand.  Not like Randall who’s memorized The Guinness Book of World Records and pesters you with “Hey, guess what?”

But there’s more and I’m not sure I can put it into words because it’s just a feeling and I’m not good with, you know, feelings, but: I got the feeling that Maurice knew other things—mysterious things, beyond facts.  Extremely dire stuff.  And, I got the feeling that he’d learned these things with bullets zinging past, or gazing out the window of the Trans-Siberian Express.  It was just something about him.  I mean, when he smiled, his mouth did, but his eyes didn’t.

Speaking of facts, I never knew Maurice’s academic background.  I don’t even know what school he went to, and that’s a major gap, because your school(s) are the mother credential here.  But with Maurice, “non importa.”  He did mention once an “outstanding Master’s thesis.”  Of course Randall thought that meant a thesis Maurice never handed in.  But myself, I prefer to think Maurice meant one really terrific piece of work.

What little I do know about Maurice I learned mainly on our breaks.  Every day at precisely 2:59:45 Maurice would lean over and whisper, “Amiga, let us go in search of the perfect doughnut.”  The first time he said “Amiga,” Amalia thought he meant her and, flash, she was ready.  Big mistake.  Amalia monopolized the conversation, describing the ten greatest doughnuts in her life, complete with sound effects.  Maurice was masterful at stifling his yawns, a skill he said he’d acquired during various job interviews.

Since Maurice was so nonstandard, I never knew what we’d talk about on break, and that was so exciting.  Imagine: no agenda!  Sometimes our discussions were triggered by a request he’d gotten, or maybe he’d notice the book in my purse and that reminded him of how he’d met the author on a march in Alabama or in a bar in London.  Or sometimes he’d ask me what I thought about some current event, and I’d strain my mind’s eye at the day’s headlines I’d scanned, and then Maurice would editorialize in a real lyrical way.

And, sometimes, he’d astonish me with questions like, “Why don’t you and Frank get married?” or “Have you noticed there are no women at the senior fellows’ table?” or—listen to this—“Can you picture your death?”  One time he picked up his doughnut and looked through the hole and said, “So, Amiga: Are you happy?”  Really, how should I know?

I often wonder why Maurice honored me with his company.  I mean, Maurice had accumulated so much charisma and wisdom, whereas I—well, I still see myself as the Daughters of the American Revolution “Good Citizen” that I was in high school.  Maybe it was the handshake I gave when we were introduced.  If so, to be honest, that was more Zeitgeist than me.  Or maybe it was the first time he asked me for a page number and I gave him the time of day and he said, “Thanks, sweetheart.  You’ve got potential.”  Potential for what?  I never did ask, and he never did tell.  I wonder….

Of course it was Maurice who had potential, bundles of it.  Except as the weeks went by, it became clear his potential was not going to pan out at the Institute, as I will describe.


Being about the nature of friendship in the Capital City

Hello, I’m your docent for this afternoon’s tour.  By your maps and cameras, I see you’re turistas, no?  Heigh-ho, follow me, please.

We begin with this painting by William Merritt Chase, American, 1849-1916.  Note the brushwork, the composition, the subject matter….

Group: Today I feel frisky—very.  So, gather ‘round whilst I go “off the record.”  Closer, closer, closer.  Cozy, no?

Ladies and gentlemen, I have always thought it the height of anomaly, the absolute apogee, that a painting titled “A Friendly Call” should hang here at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  Indeed!  In this city any call is more likely to be telephonic than one-on-one, and as to purpose it will be fact-finding rather than friendly.  As though social calls required a purpose.

But that’s life in the Imperial City, where it’s de rigorous to put in 14-hour days, place 100 phone calls, and push ponderous piles of paper for the sole purpose of plying one’s pwecious input on behalf on some puny piece of public policy!

Yes, my husband is one of those, and last night—-!

Never mind.

Oh to be sure, tete-a-tetes do take place here.  But, believe me, they are scheduled lon-n-n-n-ng in advance, then cancelled, then rescheduled, then—–  Well, see that pillow on the floor?  As I’ve always imagined it, it was pitched there—whomp—by the hostess driven b-a-t-s by a soon-to-be-former friend phoning her fourth cancellation, citing the exigencies of schedule—in time-consuming detail, mind you—and doing so at the far-gone hour of 11 p.m.  Yes, Washingtonians call until all hours.

And once the rendezvous does takes place, well, after so much planning, rescheduling, deciding on site—Your place?  My place?  Where place?—it plays like Historic Event: ceremonial and brief.  Not “fun.”  My dears, I have done High Tea in twenty minutes.

Understandably, then, to extract something from the event, I go with written agenda—yes!  Though given the teeny-tiny time-frame allotted the personal, plus the general lack of spontaneity here—this city is so Federal Reserve—one seldom gets past Old Business.  And if one does press on to the New, one often gets cut off at the very newest part.

For example, I once had tea with a friend who revealed, whilst leaving the tip, that she was having an affair with the “secretary.”  But before I could ask “Upper-case or lower?” off she’d sped.  Then she was away two months, so when I caught up with her six months later—factoring for more scheduling, rescheduling, blah-blah-blah—my question, once burningly new, was now an Olden Moldie.

What I’m saying is: Public policy is top priority here and friendship tends to get tabled.  My dears, a “best friend” is one you see once a quarter.

Is it like that where you come from?