Authors: Ellen Feldman
is a work of historical fiction. Apart from the well-known actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to current events or locales, or to living persons, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Feldman
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
SPIEGEL & GRAU and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Edward B. Marks Music Company c/o Carlin America, Inc. for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Fine and Mellow”, written by Billie Holiday. Used by permission of Edward B. Marks Music Company.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The unwitting : a novel / Ellen Feldman.
eBook ISBN 978-0-679-64551-1
1. Married people—Fiction. 2. Intelligence service—Fiction. 3. Cold War—Fiction. 4. United States. Central Intelligence Agency—Fiction. 5. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
Jacket design: Tal Goretsky
Jacket photograph: Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos
If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
E. M. F
Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but anti-political, perhaps the most powerful of all anti-political human forces.
November 22, 1963
HE CURIOUS THING
about marriage, one of the curious things about marriage, is that the same habit that moves you to indulgent tenderness one minute can make you want to pack a toothbrush and a change of underwear and walk out the door the next. That morning I was in the walking-out-the-door mood, though I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Not about this. Not about anything. I wasn’t a fool.
Charlie sat across the kitchen table from me reading the morning papers, drinking his coffee, and humming. No, not humming. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of Beethoven or Bach or a few bars of Gershwin or Cole Porter. He was keening, quietly, through his coffee. Sometimes I find the habit endearing, my own movable serenade. Occasionally I can tune it out. But when I’m annoyed, it becomes as intrusive as a buzz saw.
A shaft of sunlight streamed through the kitchen window and lay between us on the table like a sword. I glanced down at the headlines. Reading upside down is a largely useless skill I picked up working in book and magazine publishing. Charlie is even better at it.
CONGO OUSTS SOVIET AIDES
SUSPENDS TIES TO MOSCOW
My eyes moved to the left-hand column.
OPENS TEXAS TOUR
Charlie looked up from the paper. “Want the
I shook my head no. On most mornings I love the conjugal intimacies of shared newspapers and swapped opinions, but in the wake of last night I would not be so easily seduced.
His eyes went back to the paper, while his hand groped for the coffeepot. I picked it up and poured coffee into his mug, further proof that I wasn’t going anywhere. A woman on her way out the door doesn’t pour coffee into her husband’s mug. His lap perhaps, but not his mug.
He folded the paper in half, peeled back the front page, and tucked it into the fold—the prescribed method for reading broadsheets on crowded subways and buses and at small kitchen tables. I’ve never been able to master the art, but Charlie’s a whiz at it.
He looked up again.
“Stop brooding. She’ll be fine.”
He had caught me off guard. Did he really think I was worried rather than wounded, or was he pretending so he could get out the door unscathed?
“I’m not brooding,” I snapped, then caught myself. I have a fear I’ve never confided to anyone, not even to Charlie, especially not to Charlie. One day someone will bug our apartment, and I’ll hear the snippiness in my voice. I keep making resolutions to moderate it. Sometimes I succeed for weeks, or at least days at a time.
“You were the one who was worried,” I went on more gently.
He looked up from the paper again and arched one eyebrow.
“You were,” I insisted.
Abby had come up with the idea a few weeks earlier. If we trusted Susannah, who lived two floors below us in the building, to babysit her, surely we’d let her take Abby across the park to school. But
when it came to potential harm to those he loved, Charlie worked from a grim actuarial table of his own. He had insisted on grilling Susannah, talking to her parents, and extracting promises from Abby about waiting for traffic lights, steering clear of strangers, and sticking to Susannah’s side like glue, though he knew as well as I that she wasn’t likely to stray. The cachet of arriving in the company of a girl from the upper school was too heady.
I’d had my own reservations, though I’d kept them to myself. I knew my tendency toward overprotection had more to do with my childhood than with my child.
That morning Abby had gone off to school without me. I was handling it splendidly. I had followed her to the door without expressing last-minute worries and warnings. I had not had to fake allergies to cover tears. There had been no tears. I was fine.
Charlie took the last bite of English muffin. He rarely leaves food on his plate. A man who has grown up to a constant chorus of reminders of children starving in Europe, and not anonymous children either, isn’t likely to. Then he stood and, holding his tie with one hand as he bent over the table, lifted his mug with the other and took a last swallow of coffee. I waited for the sigh of satisfaction that always followed the final gulp. He sighed. I would pack only a small suitcase. He started down the hall to the front door, talking about the weather—the weather!—and how it was so nice he thought he’d walk to work through the park. I followed him along the corridor, though I knew I should let him go. It wasn’t the old saw about picking your fights. That was too coarse a view of marriage. It was simply that the incident was not that important. We would both have forgotten it by tonight. Only I had a feeling I wouldn’t forget it. I wondered if I’d be as offended if someone other than Frank Tucker had made the remark. He’d said it the night before, then lurched out of the apartment, the adoring long-haired waif he’d brought to dinner tucked under his arm like a crutch.
Charlie reached the door, turned back, and leaned down to kiss
me. We usually kissed goodbye on the mouth, nothing smoochy, just enough to keep the franchise. I turned my cheek. I will never forget that.
One tweed shoulder was already through the door.
“So that’s it? We’re going to pretend nothing happened?” I had sworn I wasn’t going to say anything.
He stopped and stood with his head down, his eyes closed. It was his patient stance, and it was a ruse. Everyone thought he was unflappable. I knew what it cost him.
“Nothing did happen.”
“Where were you last night?”
He turned back to face me. “You know what he’s like when he gets in his cups.”
“If we know what he’s like, why do we keep inviting him to dinner?”
I waited through another long-suffering pause. He thought those moments of silence demonstrated his reasonableness. I found them more provocative than a taunt.
“Because he’s an old friend. And because I want to persuade him to start writing for the magazine again. Anyway, I thought you thought he was a stand-up guy.”
“That was a long time ago. For one specific act. All I’m saying is that the comment was insulting, and you could have called him on it.”
“Now there’s an idea whose time has come. Get into a fight with a drunk who, when he’s fried, likes nothing better than taking swings at old friends and busting up the premises.”
“What if he’d said those things about negroes?”
“Or Jews? Would you have called him on it then?”
He stood staring at me from the depths of his murderous patience.
“Look,” he said quietly, “I’m not suggesting you had an easy time of it, but your ancestors were not auctioned off in a Southern slave market. Nor did your entire family go up the chimneys of Auschwitz.”
“This has nothing to do with me. It’s about principles.”
“Okay, let’s talk about principles. Frank Tucker, our guest, made a boorish remark. He’s a bad drunk. We all know that. But he didn’t murder anyone. Or sell out his best friend, which is more than you can say about some people we know. In fact, if you remember, and I’m sure you do, he went to jail for not selling out his friends. So can we just keep some perspective on this particular principle?”
I wanted to. But the memory of Tucker’s lubricious voice and oily smirk as he leered into my face—the comment was made to rile not the waif under his arm or Charlie but me—distorted my perspective as grossly as a fun house mirror.
“I have to go to work,” he said.
“I’ll see you tonight.”
I imagined him walking into an empty apartment. I’m home, he’d call. The silence would mock his words. Red, he’d shout. The sound would echo through the empty rooms. Nell, he’d try. Still no answer.
“Will you call me when Abby gets home?” he asked.
“Someday she’s going to grow up to be a woman.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, though he knew. Each of us knew how the other sparred. That’s the part the love songs don’t tell you.
“Then she, too, will be, according to your good buddy Frank Tucker, too dumb to do anything but type, file, and fuck.”
He turned and started down the hall toward the elevator.
“See you tonight,” he called without looking back.
I closed the door and stood listening to the elevator opening, then clanging shut and beginning its descent. The sound was the gnashing and whirring of ordinary life going on.
I made my way down the hall to the kitchen. I was already regretting my outburst. The sword of sunlight still lay on the table, but it had inched around so it was pointing at me. I glanced at the clock over the sink. Abby and Susannah would be getting on the crosstown bus.
As I started clearing the breakfast dishes, I caught a glimpse of myself in the side of the coffeepot. Like most people, I usually manage to arrange my face when I know I’m approaching my reflection in a mirror or window. Held at the right angle, my nose isn’t long but retroussé. The heavily browed raccoon eyes I had hated as a teenager struck me now as a nice foil for my hair, which all those years ago my mother’s friend Mr. Richardson had compared to the reflection of fire on burnished copper. Who would have thought that Mr. Richardson, who was in what he called the insurance game, had a poetic streak? But when I’m not on my guard, my mouth gives me away. Some boy in my past, not Charlie, not even Woody, someone with no staying power, had once called it sensual, but even then I knew it was a line. My mother had it right. Stop pouting, she used to say. You have a discontented mouth, she sometimes added. Look at yourself in the mirror, I wanted to shout at her, but never did. My job was to soften the blows she thought the world rained on her, not deliver more.