“From Washington, D.C.? Really?” people say, perking right up when I tell them where I’m from; it seems to start a line of uncontrollable conversation. “My glee club went there my senior year. I just loved the Lincoln Memorial. We went to this great restaurant in Georgetown, an Italian place. You must know it.” You can stop right there. I wouldn’t know it. I haven’t been to Washington in twenty years.
The Washington I grew up in is like the imagined city of Porgy And Bess: entirely mythical and gone. In the very early fifties, it was a small Southern city with a waterfront and streetcars, bleached out by heat, dirty, and thickly humid. The marble buildings, the statues, the wide streets, and the big parks were the least of it: just a flat design on postcards. People moved drowsily through the summers, and old ladies carried cotton umbrellas against the murderous sun and talked in the peculiar drawl of the mid-Atlantic: hoooose for house, abooot for about.
In the slums near the Capitol, tiny bare yards were surrounded by spiked iron fences, the dirt swept into patterns and decorated with bits of bright glass and oyster shells. Big, exhausted-looking women and men without jobs sat in the doorways fanning themselves, watching the passing cars without curiosity.
We sometimes ate in a huge, ramshackle restaurant down by the waterfront, sitting on a second-story balcony, licking oysters out of their rough shells. Below us, young black boys would dance to a penny whistle, using chicken bones as castanets, their loose soles slapping against the pavement. Between dances, we’d shower them with nickels.
We moved to Washington so my father could join the CIA. Much later in life, he still couldn’t tell me why. I just wanted to, he said, as though he couldn’t imagine another job. It made me uneasy, his shift from university professor to Cold Warrior. I preferred the professor, an understandable man in tweed suits who smoked a corncob pipe, who’d glance up from his lectures ready to tell me a story complete with pictures he’d drawn on a legal pad. Instead, my father became a big, moody guy who put on his suit in the morning and came home late at night. What does your father do? kids at school would ask me. I don’t know, I said for years, right up until the day he died.
I found out later that what he did in those early years was go to the public library and read about the Civil War all day. His security clearance was held up, and he was unemployed for two years. It was the McCarthy era. I remember watching the hearings on TV, seeing Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn, boring as evil itself, and how afraid the grownups were, how they talked low together outside on the stoop after my sister and I had gone to bed. That climate of murky fear, close and intimate as rancid breath, had to do with my father going to the library at the crack of dawn, the whispers of our neighbors, and with my saying again and again, I don’t know. I don’t know what my father does.
At his last university job, my father had some mix-up with the Communist Party. American communists then were not the sad sacks they later became, drooping on street corners selling the Daily Worker. Communists were militants who planted themselves in classrooms and campus gatherings, hollering ideological truisms. Once a week, my mother fixed a hamburger-cheese-macaroni-tomato casserole our family called “communist glop” because it was in heavy supply at Party picnics. At any university, communists were thick on the ground. It took a long time for my father to get clear of them.
My mother told me several versions of my father and the Party. I don’t trust any of them because my mother was a romantic; whatever she said was embellished into a good, tidy story. I believe my innards.
Your father was worried to death about you, my mother told me just before she died. He thought you’d be wild as a March hare because he was, too. Our wildness, my father’s and mine, has been misunderstood too long. What others saw as lousy judgment, lack of morals, a cowboy mentality, could be traced right to our noses. We liked to stick them in things. What I’ve inherited from my father is a curiosity that’s like hunger, a big appetite to find out. We were ravenous in our nosiness. And it was, I know, this endless inquisitiveness that sent him sniffing into the Party.
I thought of the Russians as kissing cousins to American commies. I’d see them in their dowdy overcoats, with their long pomaded hair, climbing out of custom black Cadillacs in front of the embassy. My father told me they had stainless-steel teeth like bear traps. Based on glimpses of Russians and dinners of communist glop, I became staunchly patriotic. Even during the sixties, when my friends became Marxists, and painters I knew called themselves “art workers,” I gagged at leftist politics. I remembered my childhood too well: starchy food, fat Russians in dirty wool, the humorless Party workers in my father’s classroom, the gray stone of the embassy, the mud-brown of commie clothes, the tiny print in my father’s political science books. It’s just so goddamn dull, my father complained, talking about anything Soviet.
While in limbo in D.C., my father began to take a lively interest in me. Until then, he’d shown me nothing more than an absent-minded fondness. Like a daddy lion, he had kept an eye on me, played with me when the notion occurred to him, brushed me aside irritably when he had more interesting things to do. Suddenly he shifted his gray-eyed stare my way and decided to teach me chess. We played for hours, day after day.
At first it was fun. The chess set was one of our family treasures: very old, carved from bone, the pieces screwed together in intricate ways like tiny, jointed machines. The board was just as fabulous, made with mother-of-pearl and brass. I tingled at the thought of touching the silky smoothness of pearl, of bone. Later, I learned to hate each finicky piece. I couldn’t remember the moves, couldn’t understand the strategies.
“Couldn’t you just let me win once?” I yelled. “I’m only seven years old.”
“But you’d know I was letting you win,” Daddy said. “C’mon now. The bishop moves diagonally, see? You could have checkmated me.”
We played game after nightmare game. I shoved my pawns around, feeling like one of them: no chance in hell I’d ever make it to the back row and be a queen, a knight. I suffered through the hours, blinking in the smoke of his Pall Malls, waiting for him to say, “OK. That’s it for today.” Why did we do this? If I could win a game, would my father start smiling again? Would he stick kitchen matches in his hair, a knife in his teeth, and pretend to be Blackbeard? Would he draw horses for me? I hated the father who crouched over the board beating me at chess, glaring at me like I was a grownup. I never improved, never understood, never took losing with any kind of grace. One day, after a long time, the chess lessons simply stopped.
“I don’t have to play?” I asked, scarcely believing it could be true.
“Nope,” Daddy told me.
“Ever?” I asked. “Ever, ever?”
“Never,” my father said, looking let down and betrayed. I didn’t care. The whole chess-playing business was one of those bad adult ideas to me, like memorizing poems, making pomander balls, embroidering dish towels.
A few weeks after the chess lessons ended, he began to read everything I wrote: stories, poems, journals, a play or two, plus my obligatory writing — school essays and thank-you letters. Daddy read it all, sitting in his overstuffed green chair, red pencil in hand, marking out words, rewriting sentences, all in his tiny, perfectly legible hand. He’d give the pages back to me, and I’d write them over, then hand them back to him to reread and mark through again. “I corrected this once,” he’d say irritably, almost to himself, scribbling busily. He’d hand it off to me like I was a hard-working clerk, a tiny Bob Cratchet. “Fix it,” he’d say. “It’s too abrupt. You need to have more of a transition.” And off I’d go to my room to rewrite on my Big Chief tablets.
Several years after my father died, I read about Colette and how her first husband, Willy, locked her in a room to write a certain number of pages every day. The book pointed out the cruelty of locking Colette in a room to churn out a set number of words. I didn’t see it. She was, after all, in a nice, quiet place with lots of paper and some extra pens. What was so terrible? What would the author have made of me at age ten, hunched over my sixth revision of a thank-you letter?
And so, while men in gray suits padded around our apartment complex questioning our neighbors — “Has Ted Walker ever advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government?” — Daddy bent over widelined paper and edited my essays on Virginia’s natural resources. The result of my writing and rewriting, of having no bit of paper left private, was that words became like air to me: a medium I moved through without effort or thought, a bug in the wind.
“Everyone appreciates good writing,” my father would say happily, shaving his red pencil to a needle point with his penknife. (No pencil sharpeners in our house; my parents believed low-tech was character-building.) “You’ll see that someday, doll. You can always get a job if you’re a good writer.”
“Are you a writer?” I asked him once.
“Well, I write,” he told me, “but not many people read it. I wanted to be a fiction writer. I tried to do it, but I didn’t have anything to say.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. My father told the most wonderful stories with different voices for each character. He lumbered around the living room playing each role. As I grew older, it became clear to me that he didn’t just grind out estimates for the Agency. “If the CIA didn’t exist, I’d have to invent it,” he’d tell us. He liked the romance of it: the safe houses, the couriers, the drops.
“I’ve noticed something about intelligence people,” said a British friend of mine after I told her about growing up in the Agency. “They always have this very odd self-confidence,” she said, looking me full in the face. It’s been pointed out to me before — a detachment that’s often misread as arrogance, something else my father taught me.
“If the KGB gets you, what do you do?”
“I say, ‘My name is Ashley Walker, and my father works for the government.’ ”
“What if they ask you what he does?”
“I say, ‘He works for the government.’ ”
“Do you say anything else?”
“No, only that. Over and over.”
“That’s my girl.”
I had no idea what else I could say. If the Russians snatched me and pulled my hair, what could I tell them? That sometimes we met Daddy in Foggy Bottom? That he rode in a carpool?
I knew, though, that we had to be careful about what we said and did. Through the years, sometimes he was home and sometimes he wasn’t, and none of us knew why. Secrecy, like the humidity, surrounded us thickly, kept us uncertain and sluggish. I imagined that my father worked on The Secret. I envisioned a big hive with men in blue suits swarming over it like drones, doing pointless tasks for The Secret: carrying things to it, writing things for it, feeding it, caring for it. The Secret, more powerful than our family, bigger than my father, more important than anything we wanted, ruled us like a sleepy termite queen.
I thought I’d eventually learn what The Secret was. Someday, when I was old enough, my father would call me down to the living room and tell me. Then I’d understand how our lives had become so fragmented, cracked like a china plate that could never be mended. I’d understand why he always left when the phone rang, why we couldn’t have friends, why he finally divorced my mother, why my sister and I were sent away for a time. The Secret would be a single sentence, and when I heard it, I’d feel relief, like an overcoat worn too long coming off at last.
The Secret infected us with hypervigilance. For a time, we lived next to a Czech family who’d escaped from the Soviets. Sometimes the mother would talk about what they’d run from. There were spies everywhere, she’d say while Pavilina and I played with our Tiny Tears. Children spied on their parents and reported them. Later I’d think, What’s so different? In my family, we spied on each other, read each other’s mail, pawed through belongings, listened on the phone extensions. What were we looking for?
Lying on my bedspread, I’d feel a fury in my bones at The Secret. I wanted to be a pirate, a logger, a beatnik. I imagined a breezy life free of the whispers, the trips, the Agency people who came and went. If I could just get away from D.C., I’d think over and over, I won’t have secrets.
I banged against our locked-up lives like a fly whamming against a glass window. I began my first life apart from my family, secretly writing stories late at night, but my drafts were always found. My journals were discovered and read. My letters were intercepted. None of this crap is true, my father said, shaking the pages at me. Of course not, I thought, it’s fiction. But I didn’t say anything out loud. Once I ran away to New York and spent a few ambiguous weeks wandering in the Village, living here and there, glorying in the blankness of my days. My father tracked me down to the Rienzi, where I was making an espresso last for hours. Get your ass home, he said on the phone. He met me at the train station, white with rage. Driving back to Arlington across Key Bridge, I leaned my face against the cold glass window while my father bit off sentences like stalks of celery. I’m deeply, bitterly disappointed in you. Crunch. Do you know the risk you put me in? Crunch. What if you’d been kidnapped? Crunch. Who did you talk to? Crunch.
My hot rebellion, our family’s snoopiness, the Agency hanging over us like thunder all disappeared in time, dissolved like sugar sculpture. My father died suddenly of a heart attack in the Pentagon during a high-level security meeting. My husband took the phone call and turned to me, pasty with shock. How can you say my daddy’s dead? I screamed at him, snatching the receiver away. I drove seven hours straight to Washington for the funeral. Sitting in a big black car, wearing sunglasses and a black suit, I stared ahead at the wedge of motorcycle cops and flags leading the procession of limos. At the funeral home, my stepmother pointed out the German diplomats, the Brits, while I felt the weightlessness astronauts must feel. By the grave, guns were fired into the air. We were given a flag, and I left.
Time to start your life. Time to be what you want to be. In my twenties, I thought there could be an end to one thing and the beginning of another. But I was to discover my father had never needed to worry about me. I was full of silence, private about everything I’d learned in my Washington childhood. I’d absorbed the secrecy I was taught, could not unlearn it. I stayed a secret writer. I’d think of publishing, and my mind would go blank as paper. I went clammy at the idea of writing about The Secret. I didn’t know what The Secret was, had never known, but I protected it, hiding what I wrote, lying often, letting few people know me. It was the way I loved my father.
I became a university teacher like my father. I taught art history. I’d talk about Gauguin — everyone’s fantasy of freedom. From this day on I will paint, said Paul, and he zipped off to Tahiti. And there he lived, with gentle ladies who wore no tops, and he painted like a crazy man, changing the course of modern art, or at least carving out a few interesting tributaries. After he died, a postcard of a painting by Puvis de Chavannes was found tacked up by his easel. Puvis de Chavannes was the most admired academic painter of his day — a candy-box classicist. Odd that Gauguin would post a reminder of the very thing he hated, the art he’d taken such care to leave behind.
As I wandered into my forties, I felt more and more that my past was an accident, something I’d dropped into like a visitor. I felt unaccountably cheerful at times, as though my life were a kind of weather, moving and becoming. I became another kind of person entirely and greeted myself like a friend I’d finally met. The fear and the secrecy, so long a part of my character, became lighter and finally wore away. The world that had been small as an ice cube, small as a yard, opened and bloomed in my middle age. I’ve learned that love is a shape-shifter: first it’s one thing and then another.
I don’t know that my father would have called it love: his incessant editing of my writing, his drilling me in secrecy, his awful chess games. But it’s my name for it. And like Gauguin’s postcard, my memories are a note from home — tacked up to tell me we’re always free and we never are.