Authors: Lara Prescott
“But the timing makes sense. First Sally leaving, then Irina leaving.” The waitress came and placed our martinis in front of us. “Maybe instead of Sally and Henry, Sally and Teddy were having an affair this whole time, and when Irina found out…”
Norma pulled Linda’s drink away from her. “Now I think you’ve had too many.”
We never did find out what Teddy was doing the week he didn’t come in to work, but we do know that the day he did come in, he approached Henry Rennet from behind as Henry stood in the lunch line waiting for chicken-fried steaks and instant mashed potatoes. Teddy tapped him on the shoulder and he turned. Without a word, Teddy punched his friend in the face. Henry tottered for a second, then fell. His green plastic tray hit the floor first, scattering the scoop of yellow corn he’d been served. His body followed, making contact face-first with the fallen corn and the black-and-white-tiled floor.
Teddy stepped over Henry, kicked his tray across the cafeteria floor, walked to the ice dispenser, got a fistful of ice, and left.
Judy was exiting the line with a cup of chicken soup when she heard Henry’s face hit the floor, like the thump of raw meat on a marble countertop. It took her a moment to realize that the two white Chiclets that had scattered across the floor and come to a stop just inches from her patent-leather kitten heels were actually Henry’s front teeth. The woman next to her screamed, but Judy just sensibly bent down and collected the teeth, putting them in her cardigan pocket. “Just in case they could put ’em back in,” she told us when recounting the story.
Those who hadn’t seen or heard Teddy’s fist connect with Henry’s mouth thought Henry had fainted. “Get a doctor!” someone yelled. Henry sat up, dazed, as Doc Turner—not a real doctor, but an elderly cafeteria chef with a perpetually half-smoked cigarette hanging out of his mouth—emerged from the kitchen holding a frozen steak. “Here you go, buddy,” he said, handing it to Henry.
Henry’s mouth dripped red down the front of his white shirt. He put the steak to one eye, then the other, then his nose. It wasn’t until he tasted something metallic that he realized his two front teeth were gone. His tongue explored the new hole.
Doc Turner helped Henry to his feet. “Must’ve did someone wrong, huh?”
“Who was it?” Henry asked. He looked at the semicircle of people gathered around.
“I just saw the aftermath,” Doc said.
“Teddy Helms,” Judy said. “It was Teddy.”
Henry wiped a glob of bloody corn from his mouth, cut through the crowd, and walked off.
Norma said she saw Henry leaving Headquarters as she was coming in from a doctor’s appointment. “You could see the imprint of Teddy’s Georgetown class ring right under Henry’s eye,” she snickered. “Couldn’t have done it better myself.”
The next day, we got to work a few minutes early to see what the consequences of the lunchtime brawl would be. “Think he’ll be fired?” Kathy asked.
“Nah, that’s how the boys settle things around here. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dulles encouraged it, even. They’ll be back to normal in no time,” Linda said.
We went to work trying to figure out what had provoked Teddy to send his best friend to the dentist. “Let’s work backwards,” Norma suggested one morning at Ralph’s. “Teddy punched Henry, Irina left Teddy, Sally was fired.”
“What’s the connection?” Linda asked.
“Beats me,” Norma said.
And while Teddy appeared in the office the next day, two Band-Aids wrapped around his knuckles, Henry never returned. Norma did come across a bit of intel about his whereabouts, though. How, we knew better than to ask. But she told more than one of us his location, thinking it might be useful at some point.
Two weeks later, Judy surprised herself when she put her hand into her sweater pocket and found Henry’s teeth instead of the tissue she was expecting.
Three weeks later, we returned the wedding gifts we’d bought for Teddy and Irina, happy we’d saved the receipts.
A month later, Anderson brought in a new typist, and we realized Irina was not coming back.
Under a curtain of wet hair, I watched the black water swirl down the drain. The chemicals made me dizzy, and when I lifted my dripping head, the woman who came to make me into a new woman opened a window.
After wrapping my head in a white towel, she instructed me to sit on the old trunk that doubled as the flat’s coffee table. She popped open her shrimp-pink makeup case to reveal a pair of shears peeking out from a purple velvet case, a variety of dyes, two tape measures, foam padding, makeup brushes, black and white fabric samples, and yellow rubber gloves.
She picked through the knots in my hair, combing it out until smooth, then pulled it back. After sawing through it with the scissors, she handed me a guillotined ponytail. I held on to it as she shook up the bottle of black dye she’d used on my head and delicately applied it to my eyebrows with a small brush. It burned more than the slight tingle she’d promised.
After wiping it off, she told me to stand and strip. I hesitated. “Don’t worry, honey,” she said. “I’ve seen it all.” I’d managed to gain back some of the weight I’d lost after Sally ended things, but not much. She held the foam padding to my chest, then my behind. “We’re gonna have to give you a little something extra.”
As she took my measurements, she talked. She told me how she used to work in the Warner Bros. costume department, applying false eyelashes to a temperamental Joan Crawford, inserting shoe inserts to hike up Humphrey Bogart, and scouring every Hollywood beauty parlor to find the right shade of blond for Doris Day. She rambled on about the time she’d walked into a dressing room to see Frank Sinatra’s head between the legs—
hat still on!
—of an actress she wouldn’t name. “He didn’t even look up,” she said. “Just mumbled into her hoo-hah for me to come back in twenty minutes. I never pegged Ol’ Blue Eyes as the generous type.”
I said nothing as the woman told her stories. Normally, I would’ve found her highly entertaining, but I wasn’t in the mood, and she was the kind of woman who could talk for forty-five minutes without realizing her audience had fallen asleep.
I’d arrived on a plane eight hours earlier and was exhausted. It was the first plane I’d ever been on, and when I stepped out onto the tarmac, even before my makeover, I became more than a Carrier—I became a new person.
I’d asked for it; now here it was. I had more than an assignment and a one-way ticket: I had a chance to become someone else, a clean slate. So I took it. Heartbreak can be freeing—the weight lifted, no one left to hurt or be hurt by. At least that’s what I told myself.
The woman packed away her scissors and dyes and gloves. She swept my hair off the floor and put it into a small plastic bag, packing it away in her case. Before leaving, she told me a florist would deliver the nun’s habit to me in a box meant for long-stemmed roses. She opened the door and turned back toward me. “Lovely meeting you, dear.”
“You too,” I said, even though we’d never even given our names.
I locked the door behind her and walked over to the cracked mirror hanging above the bathroom sink to see the stranger in its reflection. I ran my fingers through my few remaining inches of hair. Licking the tip of my finger, I rubbed a spot of black dye off my temple and told myself I could be anyone now.
As I dressed, the thrill dulled. What would Sally think of my transformation? What would Mama have thought? I cupped my hand against the back of my neck. Mama would definitely have hated it. Sally would say it was a
Teddy would’ve said he loved it, even if he didn’t.
After Mama’s funeral, I didn’t want to be alone, so Teddy stayed at my apartment, on the couch. On nights when I couldn’t sleep, Teddy would read to me—essays in
The New Yorker
by E. B. White and Joseph Mitchell, short stories by men whose names I’ve forgotten. Once, on the night when I told him I couldn’t marry him, he read to me from a stack of papers in his briefcase. He hadn’t told me he was the one who’d written what he was reading until he finished, revealing that it was the first chapter of a novel he’d been working on for years. I told him I loved it, that he must finish it. “You really think so?” he asked. When I said I wouldn’t lie to him, he asked if that was true.
I had trouble meeting his gaze, but forced myself to. “I can’t marry you.”
“We can wait. For as long as you need. You’re still grieving.”
“No. It’s not that.”
“What is it, then?”
“I don’t know.”
I could feel him holding his tongue, not saying the words hanging between us. “I think you do.”
“Is it Sally?”
“What? No…I have trouble making friends. Real friends, anyway. She’s been a good friend to me.”
“Nothing has to change. I know—”
“I don’t think you know me like you think you do.”
“That’s the thing. I do.”
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“I’m saying I just want to be with you—whatever that means for you.”
But I couldn’t understand. I didn’t want to understand. “What does it mean to
? What do
“A wife,” he said. “A friend.” He sniffed up a tear. “You.”
“What do you think I am?”
He bowed his head. “Be honest with me.”
I told him I was, and he asked that we sleep on it, to give it time before making any decisions. I had agreed, mostly to get away from seeing him like that, and we parted—him to the couch and me to my bed, where I spent the night listening to him tossing and turning in the other room.
The following day, a storm knocked out half the power in the District. As Teddy drove us to the office, we didn’t speak or turn on the radio. The only sound was the windshield wipers battling the driving rain. When we pulled into the parking lot, I slid off his grandmother’s ring and put it on the dash. He slumped forward, and I left him like that. I had nothing else to say, and I feared anything else would either hurt him more or stop me from getting out of the car. I’d been the one to end it, but it felt as if I was breaking my own heart—not the way Sally had, but in a way that made me feel even more adrift, as though I’d cut the one tether still holding me to the ground.
Teddy didn’t come in to the office that day, and I didn’t see him before I left. He’d retrieved his suitcase and was gone before I returned to the apartment. The next day, I was called into Anderson’s office and questioned about my relationship with Sally. I was told she’d been fired and that my relationship with her had been suspect, which I denied convincingly enough for Anderson to say he believed me. They were the ones who had taught me to become someone else, after all, to lie about who I was. And turning my new power back onto them felt good.
It was all too much to think about. And yet there in Brussels, looking at myself in a mirror halfway across the world, I still couldn’t put it out of my mind. But I needed to. There was no turning back. The mission had begun.
I wrapped my hair under a scarf and set out for the rendezvous point. Brussels was buzzing, the moon a half disc above the city. The streets were packed with fairgoers from around the world. Passing a crowded café, I overheard people speaking French, English, Spanish, Italian, Dutch. As I cut through La Grand-Place, a group of Chinese men and women stood in the square’s center, gazing at the top of Hôtel de Ville while passing around a box of chocolates. Two Russian men passed so close that one brushed my shoulder. Did the one in the fur cap look at me a moment too long? I didn’t turn around or quicken my pace. I just kept my gaze straight ahead and kept walking.
I arrived at the address my handler had given me on rue Lanfray, just off Ixelles Ponds. Standing in front of the grand Art Nouveau building, I was awed by its five stories of intricate inlaid wood and the swirling mint-green iron that climbed its façade like ivy. The entire house belonged inside an art museum. Ascending the curved cement staircase to the double front doors, I told myself I belonged there; or rather, the person I had become did. I pressed the gold buzzer once, counted to sixteen, then pressed again. I felt a light flush of perspiration at the nape of my neck. A man dressed as a priest opened the door. “Father Pierre?” I asked, in Russian.
“Sister Alyona. Welcome.” The sound of my new name caused my chest to loosen.
I shook his hand firmly, as Sally had taught me. “Pleasure.”
“We started without you.” I didn’t know his real name, nor did I know if Father Pierre was even Catholic. He wore the collar but had an ivory cashmere sweater draped over his shoulders as though he’d just returned from playing golf. In his early thirties, Father Pierre was blandly handsome with thinning blond hair, cerulean blue eyes, and a reddish beard. He ushered me in, and I followed him upstairs.
The flat was furnished with the luxurious but eclectic décor of someone who was new to money and had hired someone to give him taste. The mix of modern Danish furniture, seventeenth-century tapestries, and folk pottery gave the effect of wandering into a museum that had been shaken up inside a snow globe.
I was on time to the minute but the last member of our team to arrive. A man and a woman were already seated on a kidney-shaped couch, sipping cognac in front of a barely lit fireplace. The man known as Father David was the agent in charge of our mission. The woman, Ivanna—her real name—was the daughter of an exiled Russian Orthodox theologian and the owner of a Belgian publishing house that printed religious material. She was also the founder of
Life with God,
an underground organization that smuggled banned religious material behind the Iron Curtain. Her group had been working in conjunction with the Vatican since the fair had opened, and we were to follow her lead in how to most effectively distribute
Ivanna and Father David looked up when we entered but did not smile or stand. There was no need for introductions: they already knew who I was, just as I already knew who they were. I sat on the edge of a white linen lounge chair and they continued.
On the sleek black coffee table in front of them was an exact model of Expo 58, complete with blue-tinted mirrors representing fountains and pools of water, miniature trees, sculptures, flags of every nation, and the Holy See’s ski-sloped, white-roofed City of God pavilion—the location where the mission would take place.
It had been Ivanna’s idea to use the fair as a means of proselytizing, but it was Father David who took the idea and made it the Agency’s own. He believed Expo 58 would be the perfect location to get the book back to the USSR, and with it, to incite an international uproar over why it was banned.
Father David was soft-spoken but commanded attention, steady and confident as Chet Huntley on the nightly news. He also looked more like a priest than Father Pierre did, with his Boy Scout haircut, delicate pink mouth, and long fingers that one could picture holding up the Host.
Father David pointed to the model, showing us the separate routes we’d take in and out of the fair each day. If we suspected we were being tailed, we were to duck into the Atomium—the fair’s centerpiece, which stood a hundred meters tall and depicted the unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. We were to take the lift to the top of the aluminum structure, where there was a restaurant boasting a panoramic view of Brussels and a waiter ready to assist.
After giving us the overhead view, Father David moved the model to the floor and unrolled blueprints of the City of God. He pointed to the spot where Rodin’s
stood. “Father Pierre will be stationed here, circulating within the crowd to evaluate any Soviets who might make for potential targets,” he said. “Once they are identified, he will signal Ivanna by scratching his chin with his left hand.” He traced a path from
to the Chapel of Silence, his long fingernail scraping across the paper. “Ivanna will then usher them to the Chapel of Silence, where she’ll screen them for propaganda interest. If a target is receptive”—his finger moved around the Chapel’s altar to a small, unnamed square room—“she will escort them here, into the library, where I’ll be waiting with Sister Alyona.” He looked at me, then continued. “After a final assessment, the handoff will occur.” He pulled his hand back from the blueprints. “Oh, and one more thing: from here on out, we will only refer to
as the Good Book.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his legs. “Any questions?” When no one answered, he took us through the plan again from start to finish. Then he took us through it again.
With the plan cemented in our minds, we sat and talked, drinking red wine from teacups and smoking. Only then did I ask it: “The Good Book—is it here?” Ivanna looked at Father David and Father David nodded. “They were taken directly to the fair earlier today, but we have one here.” She walked to the foyer closet and pulled out a small wooden crate covered by an old mat. She removed the mat and picked up a book. “Here,” she said, handing it to me.
I was expecting it to feel illicit. I was expecting to itch with dissidence. But I felt nothing. The banned novel looked and felt like any other novel. I opened it and read aloud in Russian: “They loved each other, not driven by necessity, by the ‘blaze of passion’ often falsely ascribed to love. They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet.” I shut the book. I didn’t want to think of her. I couldn’t.