In a sense, Harry had made a career out of flying just under the radar, his mission to be part of the mortar of a place, a contribution to its holding-together aspect, durable, sustaining. Not necessarily visible.
And now things were about to change.
Harry worked for a Non-Profit known formally as Jobs Initiative Program but locally simply referred to as JIP. Like DSS and SSD, he had spent most of his career in the world of the three lettered bureaucracies. A small fish in a big pond, working for social progress.
The office had relocated some time ago from downtown Buffalo out to one of the edge cities, renting space now in a strip mall. He took pride in what had been accomplished recently, but this certainly wasn’t the first time that their efforts had been so productive. What was different this time was all the hoopla that had been generated about it and about him.
For Harry, the best ideas were the ones that came from the group. There was this remarkable synergy that he could see in those finest of moments, when one and one added up to more than their simple sum. In this day and age, what with the unbearable production of knowledge that would not stop, people should recognize, he figured, that we’re in it together or not in it at all.
For this latest project, Harry was asked to be the principal investigator, the one to oversee the design and implementation. Demonstration project. He had the uneasy sensation of walking out on stage in a darkened theater. For a time it felt as it the audience was no more than a handful of individuals, scattered apart, quietly remaining in their seats.
As the first year anniversary approached, the project was humming along nicely. He knew it was good. What he didn’t know was that it was considered exemplary by others. He was hearing, of late, this dreadful use of language: cutting edge, benchmark, state of the art, ahead of the curve. Outcomes were being touted, pronounced. Worse: promoted. As if this were something other than research.
“Harry, Harry, Harry,” his boss had said, beginning to affect a downstate accent, though the boss lived his whole life in nearby Depew, “you make me so proud”.
It was an informal, impromptu affair on a Friday afternoon, the day that the announcement was received from the national office of their accrediting body. The boss called the 12 of them together, had donuts and a selection of diet cola or non diet ginger ale arranged on a table in the break room, thanks to the usual last minute scurrying efforts of Joan the Wonderful, his shared administrative assistant.
Harry noticed that neither soda was a name brand. You save a little here, you save a little there, before you know it, you’re a real non-profit The donuts sat in a foot long box, its half cellophaned window propped widely apart, an open casket affair. Joan had picked them pre-boxed at the local chain supermarket. Plain. Not even glazed. No one had yet touched a single one as of yet. Perhaps their function was to symbolize something.
Harry heard his boss’s voice calling the group to order. He was making the point, obvious to everyone, that there were three major players from this office, Virginia, Tony and, “yes, the one to whom we are forever indebted, Harry,” which was greeted, embarrassingly, with a small whoop of loud murmurs and outright praise.
“So, ladies and gentlemen,” the boss proudly announced, “here’s the kicker.”
Harry sipped on his warm ginger ale. An image of a horse came to mind, then the horse’s ass.
“These three will be representing JIP on a trip to…Washington…” he said pausing for effect, but not yet hearing any “oohs or aahs”, he proceeded to add “where they will meet none other than…the President himself!” which did, of course, generate a series of celebratory and otherwise surprised noises. Jamisha Olmsted Thompson, not entirely finished with her pioneering and ambitious bite of a donut, said “say what?” Harry had wanted her on the team early on, but the funding, so he was told, prevented adding a fourth person. When Harry looked over at Virginia and Tony, he was a little surprised to see how unruffled they appeared. He also noticed how closely they stood to each other.
There had been a time when travel for work would have seemed exciting, and the annual conference of his Professional Society maintained this expectation for several years. The Society was good at picking places for the annual conferences, which were always held in February. He had been to San Diego, New Orleans, Houston. He sat out the year the meeting was in Cleveland.
As he got older, this idyll turned on some kind of middle-aged hinge and it occurred to him that to come back to a hotel at night was the equivalent of having to stay over at work, was simply work dressed up with large plump pillows. King size bed, for one. They had you. You had been had.
But a trip to the White House? He had not seen this coming. He was thrown off balance, his usual irreverence failing him. Maybe some things were sacred after all. A minor regret: he wished the one in office had been the one he voted for. Still. Mr. President.
They had arrived in Washington the night before, gone out to a late dinner, he and his young colleagues. There were times back home when he felt his role was to be the informal father-mentor, an embodiment of unquestionable real world experience. But here in Washington, at dinner, he began to feel a reversal of fortune, outclassed by the academic brilliance of these two, their articulate uses of jargon. His language for the profession was home spun, and he liked to think it had a disclaiming charm. He could come across as the common man, no nonsense, Truman-like. But Truman was not in the White House. The person in the White House had concentric inner circles of advisers, top notch performers, smart as whips, whips that could cut you to pieces.
Virginia and Tony spoke the shared language of science, they frequently mentioned advisers elsewhere, Kansas, Texas, Cornell, papers that were still in pre-publication. They pumped each other up, enthusiasm and laughter, here and there light touches on the wrist, a samba of tension and release, all with their words, their gestures, their energy.
One of them had just asked him a question.
“Sorry,” he said, refocusing his attention.
“Drifting off,” Virginia teased, “maybe it’s time to think about bed.”
In the morning he called Tony’s room first and after getting no response, he called Virginia’s room. Tony answered the phone saying, “Hey good morning!” in a tone both domestic and full of expectation.
Harry wanted to order a big breakfast and he was thinking of the less expensive restaurant he’d seen around the corner from the hotel. When he floated the idea past Tony, Tony said he was “fine” and, “…okay it looks like Virginia is shaking her head no. I think she is too excited.”
It was a scene of layer upon layer of implied protocol, security, seriousness. Everywhere small groups of people on a mission, power people, trailing off down corridors with aides flowing behind purposefully, stridently. Complex and frenetic dances, stopping to grace a conversation, uncertainty whether this might prove to be a moment of influence.
Harry looked over at his colleagues who seemed to jump the gun at every turn, two steps ahead down the hallway. Offsides. Virginia was wearing a slim fitting red dress that displayed her genetic gifts. Tony was wearing a new Navy suit. He also wore very shiny black shoes that appeared large, even for his tall frame.
Harry had opted for his grey striped suit, rarely worn, newly returned from the cleaners. Not bad. He noted that his shoes were a bit scuffed. A button had popped on his white shirt that morning, but his tie provided adequate cover-up. Fourth one down from the top.
An assistant aide to the under Secretary of…Harry had missed the word… met them in the designated area. Tony and Virginia crackled with energy. Harry craned his neck and looked upward, taking in the whole of this room, the awareness of being in the White House, the sense of it, the loft of the ceiling, the airs within. The assistant aide was explaining something that Tony and Virginia seemed to understand perfectly well. Harry admired the bits of plaster frieze he saw here and there.
A moment of pause, a vacuum of space, Virginia called “Harry!” and when he turned he saw the aide move quickly out of the room, shadowed by Tony. Virginia was in the doorway, waving Harry forward.
Harry momentarily broke into a race-walk-jog which in turn caught the attention of two men wearing corded earpieces that wrapped up the back of their necks underneath bulky jackets. Harry noticed them noticing him and he immediately slowed. They didn’t return his smile.
He caught up to Virginia who had caught up to Tony who still walked very quickly behind the aide who now swept into yet another oversized Colonial room coming at last to a full stop at the enormous desk of a woman who maintained an all important looking appointment book. All he heard was “…a little behind schedule with the Ambassador so the best thing…”very American, efficient, pragmatic, Illinois with a hint of drawl. The aide was nodding affirmatively and before the trio had time to become any more apprehensive, two large darkly paneled doors swung open and Harry saw…my god…saw the President smiling and joking with an elementary school youngster in a wheelchair accompanied by parents? Teachers? The President did a swift side step to stand next to the disabled student, a camera flashed and Harry and colleagues were ushered into the room of the Great Man. Leader of the Free World. Impeccable haircut, always looking as if his hair never grew, looking just like his pictures but now in three dimensions, actually a little taller than imagined, taller, damn.
It was happening already, someone standing to the side of the President gave a short written introduction about their little work group and the President shook Tony’s hand, then was introduced to Virginia and was instantly taken with her, making Harry feel like the proud parent standing on the sidelines, Virginia was shining, saying something about JIP and the project, Tony adding additional brief background explanation, and the President was listening to the two of them with remarkable presence of attention, adding finally that it was because of work like theirs that they would continue to reduce the welfare rolls and bring dignity back to the people of lesser means…the President was approached by another assistant who whispered in his ear, the President nodded and then smiled, only then looking over in Harry’s direction to include him possibly by way of acknowledgement and he may have meant to also shake Harry’s hand but just then a delegation of Transportation Ministers from South America was ushered in and a note was handed to the President who looked at it briefly and then back up at the departing form of Virginia and he called out “Keep up the good work” as Harry felt the gentle insistence of a hand in the middle of his back pushing the material of his brown pin striped suit coat till it touched a middle vertebra almost soothingly, the touch of an expert national-level usher.
“Wow!” Tony exclaimed back out in the hallway, “Fantastic!” Virginia exclaimed and the two of them did a ceremonial high five, turning to Harry to include him in the celebratory ritual. Harry offered his extended palm meeting half of Virginia’s damp palm but missing most of Tony’s and actually slapping him on the wrist mistakenly.
They were escorted to the hallway that would lead to the exit. Other White House staffers, those not walking and reading sheaves of papers, smiled at them knowingly, as if to share in their just concluded encounter within these walls of power and influence.
As before, Tony and Virginia walked ahead, while Harry lagged behind. Virginia noticed, stopped and turned, waiting for Harry to amble up. She held out her right arm, elbow bent, as if she might accompany him across some busy and dangerous place of intersection.
When he reached her, Harry took her arm, heard her say “We did it, didn’t we!”
Tony had reached the door and stepped out into the bright sunshine, hesitating and shaking his head, breathing in deeply, grounding himself in the reality of the present. Virginia and Harry followed soon after. Tony turned and gave Harry a look, one that Harry would later recall as rueful.
Without much editing, impulsively, as was his occasional manner, Harry said, “that was aw-ful.”
Virginia turned to look at him, smiling brightly. Harry could be such a curmudgeon, dear heart. “Awe filled indeed,” she teased.
Harry watched Tony put his hands in his suit jacket pockets, a civilized cowboy reaching for his guns, rummaging in the silk lined space. It was almost reminiscent of a Kennedy gesture, embarrassed with an excess of charm and good fortune, a picture from that bygone era. It looked to Harry as if Tony’s pockets seemed to bulge, as if he were making two hidden fists.
They had spoken of having a grand luncheon afterwards. A friend had told Virginia about a wonderful place in Georgetown that served nouvelle cuisine and was not to be missed. Not cheap, but absolutely worth it. They were riding in the cab now, the driver who might be Pakistani looking back at them in the mirror every so often, knowing in some uncanny Eastern way that something out of the ordinary had just occurred, feeling still the waves of energy radiating from his backseat passengers.
A gentle silence ensued. So much to take in. After a short time Tony asked, “Harry, cat got your tongue?”
Harry had been looking at the brownstone buildings, one after another, as if they were slides flying by, projected on a screen, a carousel in motion. He replied, “No, just thinking, letting it sink in.”
“I meant,” said Tony, “when we met the President,” and the Pakistani’s eyes darted upward to the mirror again, flinched in the light.
Virginia was sitting between them both, so when she turned to look at Harry’s face, her own face was mere inches away. She looked neutrally curious at first, then took on a coloring of concern, the more Harry hesitated to respond.
As Harry persisted in considering his response, it was Tony who said “Harry, you’re not a guy who likes to be in the limelight. You’ve gotten good at being invisible.” He didn’t say this with even the slightest intention of cruelty. Still, Virginia chimed in, “that’s not true! Harry is very visible, right here,” and she put her hand over the top of his kneecap and let it rest there, lightly. After a moment she said, “I probably kept you from getting a word in edgewise. I was pretty wound up.”
“No, no,” Harry said, sighing, sighing more heavily than he would have intended, the intonation of a moan.
Tony pursed his lips, held on to the edge of something nearby in their working relationship, then backed off, going for manly distance.
Virginia gave Harry’s knee a gentle squeeze. Harry looked down at the sight of this loving pressure and saw only her hand, as if that alone in the world existed. Very feminine, fine boned, young, nary a line of age, no speckled spots. She wore a couple of rings, three actually. He thought the third ring may have been newly acquired, as he had never seen it before.
Harry returned his gaze back to the neighborhood through which they were passing, windows, door after door, the many hidden lives within this row upon row of domiciles. It wasn’t the first time he had this thought, the overwhelming awareness of the numbers of people in this city, country, planet. More of them to arrive tomorrow, so many versions out there. From the urban speed of 35 miles per hour, he watched through eyes that might have been one-way mirrors, practiced for observation, not for being observed.
The Pakistani glanced backward again, wanting to understand his fare. He saw the three passengers now sitting quietly, each one watching where they were going. It was not for him to say anything. What did he know? He held onto the thread of leading them to their next destination. But they were not yet there.
After a long while, Harry said with unusual seriousness, “Tony, I apologize if I rained on your parade.”
If Virginia had the time to think about it, she would have seen this statement as a sentence that depended entirely on its tone of delivery. Harry had sounded sincere to her, not sarcastic. She wondered if Tony heard it the same way. She didn’t want the men to start fighting, not here in the cab, on this day of days, with herself wedged in the middle, a skirt between suits.
“I…” Tony began, very thoughtfully, spacing his words separately like pickets in a white wooden fence, “don’t…”, with emphasis, “think that you…”, moving to phrases, “appreciate…”, at which point Harry abruptly sneezed, violently.
“Bless you!” said the driver, in his softly accented speech.
“Thank you,” said Harry, recovering, looking at Tony with a what-was-that-you-were-saying? look.
“OK,” Tony rebooted, looking across Virginia’s slim lap, her creamy hand upon Harry’s knee, just now moving to rest on her dress, Tony speaking more quickly now, “I don’t think you appreciate who you are, what you bring to the table, to the team.” After a brief pause, “Christ, for a long time you were the whole team.”
Harry returned his gaze, across the valley of Virginia, who ever so slightly leaned back in her seat, out of their line of fire. Harry smiled, said in a mentor like tone, “a lone person does not a team make.”
“Aah,” said the driver, enlightened, possibly about an alternate route he had not previously considered.
Tony looked perplexed, and then not so much annoyed as deprived. He shook his head slowly, side to side, the sign of negating something…an idea, an effort, an old feud. “Did you know I came here because of you? I bet you didn’t know that.”
Now it was Virginia’s turn to look puzzled. She said, “Here?”
“I don’t mean here-Washington, I mean to this job.”
“Oh,” she said.
Harry turned to Virginia, deflecting the attention for a moment. He asked her, “and why did you come?”
“To this job”
With only the slightest pause, deadpan, “the climate of course.”
Harry looked away, mused thoughtfully: “There is nothing quite like those grey winter skies”.
“Exactly,” she agreed.
“You don’t want to talk about it,” said Tony in a sing-songy voice from childhood, teasing.
“My point precisely.”
They rode on quietly for a short time. Tony said to no one in particular, “my old adviser said to look up this guy in Buffalo, knows his stuff, ahead of the curve.” To Virginia he said, “you know that man next to you wrote one of the seminal papers on urban employment, made predictions ten, twenty years in advance of everybody else.”
The back seat atmosphere tensed slightly. After a moment Tony asked, “Were you disappointed that you didn’t get to speak to the President? “
Harry was looking straight ahead, “Hardly.”
The two younger colleagues looked at each other.
“Hardly?” Virginia asked.
“I couldn’t stand the damned self importance of the place. They’re undoing years of hard fought progress. And they make it smell pleasant. Like cologne.”
There was a pause. Then Virginia said in a quiet voice, “All that energy, power, hard intensity…I thought it was sexy.”
The two men looked at each other. The driver looked at the two men.
“Sexy,” Harry repeated.
“I can buy sexy,” said Tony.
Harry waited a minute. “Maybe you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Talk about what?” Tony and Virginia said like a couple on cue.
Harry looked at both of them, “That was my thought.”
“Talk about what?” Tony repeated.
Harry tilted his head, as if looking over the tops of the glasses he would have worn if it were not for his contacts. “This uncoupling…”
“Uncoupling?” Virginia asked.
“From where we thought we were going. Getting away with it because you can. Letting yourself get distracted with other priorities. But haven’t we, after all, just gone backward?”
The driver looked up sharply.
Tony and Virginia looked at each other. “Harry,” Virginia started, “I hope I, we, didn’t…”
“…they’re undoing years of progress,” Harry interrupted.
“They are?” Tony asked.
“Hello!” Harry said with an edge to his voice.
“Well now,” the driver said suddenly, spying the restaurant up ahead, “I think we’re finally getting someplace”.
Virginia was gathering her thoughts. To the ceiling of the cab she said, “We all have our own points of view.”
“Politics,” Tony concluded.
Virginia shifted her gaze, looking at Harry’s shoes, his knees, giving him her focused appraisal. “But you really didn’t feel the seduction of that place?”
There was no immediate answer. After a brief moment she voiced her next thoughts in a breathy drawl, words shaped like a woman slinking across the floor, “That was really something else.”
This would have been a moment to have a cigarette, but no one smoked.
With a hint of dismay, her colleagues sensed that she was about to shift gears again, re-button her business attire. She said, “Maybe it has more of a pull on women, women who haven’t been allowed to break through glass ceilings, walk through the halls of power in reasonable numbers.”
Harry and Tony exchanged glances and then both looked at the mirror framed eyes of the cab driver who looked back at them, first the one, then the other.
The cab started to slow down, the driver said, “Here we go…” with a voice full of additional intent, or maybe it was just that accented lilt of graciousness, energy, immigrant dreams on the road toward completion. The driver added, “…coming at last, and it will cost you…” hesitating to calculate the amount.
“…Plenty,” Harry’s voice chimed in from a crowded back seat “Seduction always does.”