Authors: Lara Prescott
A man who I thought I’d seen on the Metro stood at the end of the pond in front of us, watching the ducks. The man was young, wearing a long brown overcoat despite the heat.
“I feel as if we’re being watched,” I told Borya.
“Yes,” he replied, matter-of-factly.
“I assumed you knew.” The man standing at the pond noticed us looking at him and walked down the path, disappearing from view. “Shall we go?” Borya asked. “We don’t want to be late.”
Borya maintained that the surveillance didn’t bother him. He’d even joke about it, addressing whoever was listening by speaking into a lamp or to the ceiling.
“Hello? Hello?” he asked no one. “How are you today?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” he answered himself.
“Are we boring you?” he asked a light fixture. “Maybe instead of what we’re having for dinner tonight, we should talk about something more interesting.”
“Will you stop?” I asked. I didn’t find his jokes funny, and I told him as much. “I’ve faced them before,” I said. “And I won’t do it again.”
He took my hand and kissed it. “We must laugh at it all,” he said. “It’s all we can do.”
As the taxi turned left onto Connecticut, I pressed two fingers to my wrist the way Mama had taught me when I was a child and carsick. The feeling intensified when we hit Dupont Circle. I thought about getting out and walking, but that wasn’t the plan. I couldn’t deviate from the plan—not unless I was being followed.
I was told to hail a taxi at the corner of Florida and T at seven forty-five and take it to the Mayflower Hotel. The hotel was only a short walk from there, but the
they said, were better if I got out of a taxi.
I was told to avoid wearing anything that would make me stand out: flashy jewelry, too much makeup, an ostentatious hat, ostentatious shoes, anything ostentatious. I thought of all those sequined gowns filling our basement apartment, of all the women coming by to try them on and buy them from Mama. I didn’t own a single item of clothing that could be classified as ostentatious. My instructions were to dress well but not too well, to look nice but not too nice. I was to look like the type of woman who frequented the Mayflower’s bar, the Town & Country Lounge. The tricky part was that I was the type of woman who hadn’t even heard of the Mayflower Hotel, let alone the Town & Country Lounge.
For the night, I was no longer Irina; I was Nancy.
The taxi came to a full stop midway through the circle and I checked my hair in my compact, still unsure I’d gotten the look right. I wore Mama’s old fur, which I’d spritzed with Jean Naté—an attempt to mask the mothball smell. I wore the periwinkle and white polka-dot dress I’d worn to every wedding I’d attended for the last five years. My hair was pulled back in a French twist and secured with a silver comb, another item borrowed from Mama. Reapplying the new shade of orange-red lipstick I’d purchased from Woolworth’s, I frowned into the mirror. Something was still off. It wasn’t until the taxi pulled up to the hotel and a doorman opened my door that I looked down and realized it was my shoes: dull black pumps. Dull black pumps with a scuffed left heel. And I hadn’t even thought of shining them. The kind of women who went for drinks at the Town & Country on a Wednesday night wouldn’t be caught dead in anything dull. As I entered the Mayflower’s grand lobby, decked out in red and white roses for Valentine’s the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about my shoes. At least I’d been given a nice purse—a quilted black leather Chanel bag with a double flap and a gold chain, large enough to hold an envelope.
I told myself to project confidence, to become someone who belonged with the well-heeled set—to become my cover, to become Nancy. Gripping the Chanel like a talisman, I passed the bellboys in their tasseled caps, the honeymooners checking in, the huddled men conducting after-hours meetings, the glamorous brunette waiting for one of those men to take her upstairs, the large potted palms lining the mirrored corridor. I walked through the lobby and into the Town & Country like the kind of person whom the bartender knew by name.
I already knew the bartender’s name. It was Gregory, and there he was: prematurely gray hair, white shirt and black bow tie, standing behind the bar pouring a Gibson.
The lounge was busy, but the second-to-last high-backed chair at the bar was free, as they said it would be.
“What’ll it be?” Gregory asked, his nametag confirming what I already knew.
“Gin martini,” I said. “Three olives, with one of those little red swords.”
One of those little red swords?
I scolded myself for going off script.
In front of me was a thin glass vase containing a single white rose. I picked it up, turned it clockwise in my hand, sniffed it, and put it back—as instructed. Then I hung the Chanel by its gold chain on the chair back’s left side. Then I waited.
The man to my left hadn’t so much as glanced my way when I sat down. He was reading the sports section of the
and looked like every other man in the place—a lawyer or businessman on a one-night trip in from New York or Chicago or wherever those types came to the District from. The word to describe him would be
and I wondered if he’d describe me that way too. I hoped so.
Gregory set my drink down on a white napkin with the Mayflower’s gold insignia, and I took a sip. “You make a damn fine martini,” I said. I hated martinis.
I’d been told there wouldn’t be any sign of it—that the man sitting next to me would slip the envelope into my purse without detection, that if I didn’t notice it, he’d done his job. The man closed his newspaper, swallowed the last of his Scotch, threw down a dollar, and left.
I waited fifteen minutes then finished my drink and told Gregory I was ready to settle-up.
Reaching for the Chanel, I half expected it to feel different. But it didn’t, and I wondered if I’d done something wrong—that maybe the man reading the sports section was just a man reading the sports section. I resisted the urge to check and left the Town & Country, passing the potted palms, a man waiting for the elevator with the glamorous brunette, a retired couple checking in, the tassel-hatted bellboys.
Walking up Connecticut, I did my best to keep my cool, to not let the adrenaline cause me to break into a sprint. Stopping at P Street, I looked at my watch, a Lady Elgin given to me along with the Chanel. Within seconds, the number fifteen bus pulled up to the curb. I took the second-to-last seat in the back, in front of a man holding a green umbrella in his lap. As the bus passed the two stone lions guarding the entrance to the Taft Bridge, the man behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked the time. I told him it was a quarter after nine. It wasn’t. He thanked me and I set the Chanel down and pushed it back with my heel.
I got off at Woodley Park and walked toward the zoo. At a red light, I held out my hands to let the newly falling snowflakes hit my gloves, then dissolve into minuscule puddles. I wondered: Is this what it’s like to have an affair, to have a secret? I felt a rush and could see why Teddy Helms had told me that one could get addicted to this line of work. I already was.
I’d applied to be a typist, but they gave me another job. Had they seen something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself? Or maybe they just looked to my past, to my father’s death, and knew I’d do whatever was asked of me. Later, I was told that such deep anger ensures a type of loyalty to the Agency that patriotism never can.
Whatever they’d seen in me, for my first few months at the Agency, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d chosen the wrong person for the job.
The Mayflower test changed that. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I had a greater purpose, not just a job. That night, something unlocked in me—a hidden power I never knew I had. I discovered I was well suited to the work of a Carrier.
During the day, I took dictation, transcribed notes, stayed quiet during meetings, and typed and typed and typed—all the while making certain I didn’t retain any of the information I was typing. “Just picture the information passing through your fingertips to the keys to the paper and then disappearing from your mind forever,” Norma had instructed me on my first and only day of training. “In one ear and out the other, you know?” And all the typists said the same thing:
Don’t retain what you type; you’ll type faster if you’re not thinking about what you’re typing; it’s classified information, so even if you remember it, you’d better pretend you don’t.
“Fast fingers keep secrets” was the Pool’s unofficial motto. And yet I wasn’t sure any of them followed their own credo. Even in my first few weeks, as I was just getting to know the girls, it was clear they knew everything about everyone.
Did they know everything about me, too? Did they know about my other position? The extra fifty dollars per paycheck? Did my typewriter dinging a beat slower than theirs make them wonder? Did they notice I drank two more cups of coffee than they did and had bags under my eyes?
Mama sure noticed. She brewed a pot of chamomile tea and froze it into ice cubes to place on my eyelids. She thought I was dating a new man, and implored me to bring him home to meet her before I disgraced her name in the neighborhood.
But what did the women in the typing pool think?
Was it the reason they hadn’t exactly accepted me into their ranks? Of course, they were always polite and friendly, saying
in the morning and a
Have a good weekend
on Fridays. But I can’t say they were overly welcoming. I wanted to be part of the group, but didn’t want it to
like I wanted to be part of the group. One might think this scenario plays out only in high school or college, but the politics of friendship are tricky at every age.
The Pool invited me to lunch with them a few times, but that was before my first paycheck, when I had only enough money for my bus commute. By the time I did have money to spare, the lunch invites had dried up.
I wanted to believe their standoffishness was a product of my having taken their friend Tabitha’s place, though couldn’t help but think it was something else, something that had plagued me my entire life: the feeling of being a constant outsider, of being most comfortable alone. Even as a child, I preferred to play alone. I’d pretend our small kitchen pantry was a fort. I’d create elaborate plays with puppets cut from brown paper bags and glued to Popsicle sticks. I was happiest playing by myself. When my little cousins would try to play with me, I’d end up scolding them for messing up one of the puppets or not playing the character exactly how I’d wanted them to. They’d get mad and leave, and I’d tell myself that that was fine. It was easier to convince myself that it was I who didn’t want to play with them.
Regardless of feeling out of place, I took to the day job fast. And although I typed slower than the other women, I was steady and accurate.
There was more of a learning curve with my after-hours work.
On my first day, when I asked just how I’d be trained, I was given a slip of paper with the address of an unmarked tempo office that overlooked the Reflecting Pool—the office where I was to meet the officer Teddy Helms each day after I clocked out.
The first time I met Teddy, I was struck by how much he resembled a movie star playing a spy. He was a few years older than I—tall, with brown hair, long delicate fingers, and handsome in the way men like that are expected to be. Several members of the typing pool were absolutely gone for Teddy, but I never really saw him like that. He did look like the type of man I’d fantasized about as a young girl, though—not as a lover or boyfriend, but as the older brother I’d always wanted. Someone who’d teach me how to fit in, how to be less painfully awkward, someone to protect me from the high school boys who’d flip up my skirt in the hallway. Someone to help support Mama and ease our financial burdens that came and went with each spent paycheck.
Teddy was quiet at first, saying I was the first woman he’d ever trained. In the OSS days, women had been entrusted with blowing up bridges, but just a few years later, the Agency was still testing the waters to see what we were capable of.
Teddy was different. “If you ask me, women are well suited to be Carriers,” he said. “No one suspects that the pretty girl on the bus is delivering secrets.”
Teddy and I got to know each other well in those first few weeks of ’57. He was the kind of man one feels comfortable with from the get-go—someone you’d find yourself telling more in the space of an hour than people you’d known your whole life.
Teddy had come to the Agency after being recruited by one of his lit professors at Georgetown. He studied political science and Slavic languages and spoke fluent Russian with a practiced accent that could fool any Muscovite. During our trainings, Teddy would switch between English and Russian, saying he enjoyed any opportunity to practice. It was a joy to be able to talk to him in the language I used only with Mama. He’d ask question after question: about my mother’s dress business, my childhood in Pikesville, my college days at Trinity, my shyness. No one had ever asked me questions like that before, and at first I balked at his boldness. But before long, I found myself unspooling my personal history to him.
Perhaps I felt so comfortable because he had offered up facts of his life so willingly. I discovered he had an older brother who’d died a few years back. How Julian had returned from the war a hero just to get drunk one night and wrap his car around a tree. How Teddy felt that he’d never live up to the reputation his brother had left behind, how his parents chose to remember only the hero Julian had been by enshrining his photo above the mantel next to the folded flag they’d been given. Teddy said he initially wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps and enlist in the Army, or join his father at the law firm that carried their last name, but ended up drawn more to literature. As a result, his college mentor guided him toward a different profession.
Teddy would pour us whiskeys from the bottle he kept in his desk and wax poetic about the role he believed art and literature played in spreading democracy, how books were key to demonstrating that great art could come only from true freedom and how he joined up with the Agency to spread that message. He’d say Russians valued literature as Americans valued freedom: “Washington has its statues of Lincoln and Jefferson,” he said, “while Moscow pays tribute to Pushkin and Gogol.” Teddy wanted the Soviets to understand that their own government was hindering their ability to produce the next Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky—that art could thrive only in a free nation, that the West had become the king of letters. This message was akin to sticking a knife between the Red Monster’s ribs and twisting the blade.