Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Jackson Place," Ch. 1: Just Watch

Painting of 716 Jackson Place by Robin Rogers Cloud
People sometimes tried to sneak into the White House. Tonight, Emily was sneaking out.

As she opened the door of the northwest gate, the one closest to the West Wing, she smiled guiltily at Carl, the handsome uniformed Secret Service agent who always flirted with her. She only had trouble with high heels when she was nervous, and she had never been more nervous in her life. Stepping over the threshold of the little guardhouse, she tripped and almost fell flat on her face.

“Are you okay, Miss Weissman?” he said, jumping to his feet and peering over the reception desk. As she recovered her balance, he looked at her calves and ankles with an expression of deep concern.

Photo by Paul Matulic
“Eyes front, officer,” she said, smoothing her pleated skirt down the front of her thighs. Carl studied this maneuver as well. “I’m just going out for a second. Be right back.” She opened the door facing Pennsylvania Ave.

He called after her. “Strange night to go out,” he said.

“Strange night, period,” she said, waving so Carl could see she had her wallet and ID. The door clicked shut behind her. The sidewalk was crowded with protestors and tourists, who were all dappled with long summer sunset shadows. The mood was momentous and festive at the same time. She felt dozens of eyes glance at her for a minute. Nobody recognized the short redhead in the navy blue dress.

She smiled to herself. Maybe they wondered if she was the secret love child of the president and his notorious redheaded secretary, Rose Mary Woods.

Then she realized that in two and a half hours, they would know exactly who she was.

It was 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 8, 1974, the day the White House had reliably informed its press corps and the world that President Richard Nixon would announce his resignation.

She turned east, crossed 15th St., walked half a block south, and entered the Old Ebbitt Grill, inhaling air conditioning and the smells of cigar smoke and frying cheeseburgers. She walked quickly along the bar, hoping she didn’t run into anyone from the office. A flight of stairs at the back led down to the rest rooms and a small row of phone booths.

She entered one of the booths, closed the folding door, and took a deep breath. Then she dialed home, reversing the charges. Her father answered, which he only did when he was expecting a call or was worried about something. Otherwise it would ring until Elijah came back or her mother finally picked up. He told the operator he would pay for the call.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call for your anniversary on Tuesday,” she said.

“Your mother was a little disappointed,” he said in his kind voice. Emily could picture him in his plaid sweater and corduroy slacks as he sat at the kitchen table with the Detroit News. Her mother was probably still at the sink, washing the dinner dishes. “I told her you were busy, getting ready for tonight.”

She closed her eyes. Busy didn’t quite capture it. She had been conspiring fiendishly to shatter her colleagues’ lives and plunge the nation into chaos. She wondered if her parents would ever speak to her again. She said, “Did you guys have fun? I hope you took mom out.”

“Top of the Pontch, after work,” he said proudly. They couldn’t quite afford it, but Emily’s mother loved the view of the Detroit River from the restaurant in the Pontchartrain Hotel.

“Well done, dad,” she said. When he didn’t respond right away, she said, “I wish I could tell you more about what I’ve been up to.”

They had gotten used to Emily not being able to talk about work. “We trust you,” he said. “At least it will be over soon.” Sidney and Marian Weissman had despised Richard Nixon for their entire adult lives. They’d voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and George McGovern in 1972. In 1969, they’d even gone to a demonstration against the Vietnam war at Wayne State University, during the October Moratorium. She had been in college in Ann Arbor and had called her father and asked if the Revolution offered a senior citizen discount.

She’d always been more conservative than her parents. They had raised her with a heart for justice and those in need. She’d just drifted toward the political center. They’d finally come to terms with it. But they couldn’t hide their disappointment when she told them she was going to work in the Nixon White House at the beginning of the Watergate summer of 1974.

Emily heard Marian say something. Her father said, “Your mother asked about Irwin. When does he plan to take the bar? You still seeing him?”

Sitting in the darkness, twirling the phone cord with her free hand, she smiled. Sidney’s Irish Catholic bride had become a card-carrying Jewish mother, always wondering about her boyfriends and their professional prospects. Her last year of law school in Cambridge was a breeze. Irwin Fried had been a pleasant distraction. But he was too serious and not sexy, and he didn’t like the Rolling Stones or baseball. “Tell mom sorry,” she said.

“I didn’t like him, either,” he said. “So we’ll see you soon? I assume you’ll get some time off.”

Emily said, “Dad, I need you and mom to watch tonight.”

“Like we’d miss it? Your mother and I have been waiting to see Nixon get what he deserves ever since Alger Hiss.”

Emily and her father had been having this argument since she was in high school. Hiss was a New Deal-era diplomat whom a friend, Whittaker Chambers, had accused of being a Soviet spy. As a young congressman from California, Nixon had ridden the case to political superstardom. “Nixon was right,” she said. “Hiss was guilty. Besides, you were grateful for Vietnam. Remember we said a prayer for the president because of the draft, because Bennie didn’t have to go.” Benjamin was her little brother, now in his last year of college.

“He should’ve ended it four years ago,” he said.

She pressed. “He ended it.”

He relented. “Blessings on him for that. Blessings on you, too. You’ll come see us soon?”

“Please, dad. Just watch.”

Jackson Place, a novel, will be published on July 21 in print and e-book at