The switchboard lamps flash to life every hour on the hour, coinciding with the radio newscast. Americans are calling to speak to President Truman, to Vice President Barkley, to Secretary of War Patterson. Instead they get Operator #9, Genevieve Higgins, who answers with a sprightly “White House, how may I direct your call?” and then incurs a litany of grievances. They are angry about rocketing inflation, about Soviet rockets, the price of eggs, the cost of war. A man from Biloxi fumes over a Negro baseball player debuting for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal. One surly woman, convinced The Postman Always Rings Twice harbingers a Communist invasion, is aghast when Genevieve tactfully declines to patch her through to the leader of the free world. “Next time you see Harry Truman,” she says, “tell him Betsy Mare from Knoxville thinks he’s just rotten.”
The woman’s outrage is comical, much like her delusion that Genevieve and the president are acquaintances, that perhaps the message will be relayed during lunch-hour chitchat or hallway pleasantries. The dirty truth about the White House operators is that they don’t work in the White House. They—Genevieve and eight other women, all her senior in both age and rank—are installed next door, seated at a wall-length console in an otherwise cramped subbasement of the Executive Office Building. This remove from the Oval Office has in no way discouraged her mother from crowing to the housewives at church group— specifically those whose sons are single and gainfully employed—embellishing her daughter’s function of screening calls and plugging jacks to an appointment behooving Senate confirmation. One such housewife, a Mrs. Coleman, new to the church, takes the bait. Her son is a police officer. Prior to that, he was an Army private first class who assailed the beaches of Normandy. His name is Walter and, Genevieve’s mother informs her, he will pick her up on Saturday evening.
Walter Coleman is husky, with an overbite like a ship’s prow and, fittingly, a sodden voice that gurgles as if a lozenge were perpetually dissolving on his tongue. He opens the car door for her, the soda fountain door, waits for her to sit first, insists on paying for their ice cream before she has the chance to offer. His manners are mannered, as if he were adhering to a primer on dating etiquette. To Genevieve’s amazement, she finds this endearing. Less so that he prefaces most statements with My mother told me . . . : “My mother told me you sing like Billie Holiday”; “My mother told me you have a secret recipe for the best apple cobbler in the world”; “My mother told me you talk to the president all the time.”
Of course, Genevieve doesn’t know Walter’s mother from a sack of potatoes. He is merely reiterating the extravagant biography her mother fed his mother, an approach Genevieve reciprocates, their conversation more like decryption, translating the puffery of their mothers into the brass tacks of each other. As such, Genevieve clarifies that she sings along to Billie Holiday, that the secret behind her apple cobbler is that she lifted the recipe from a Betty Crocker cookbook, that only Mrs. Burston (Operator #1) and Mrs. Reynolds (Operator #2) deal directly with the president.
None of this deters him. He, too, likes Billie Holiday. He, too, likes Betty Crocker. He voted for Harry Truman but hoped the president would’ve accomplished more by now.
“I’ll pass along your disappointment,” she says.
“No need. I haven’t given up on him yet.”
Genevieve isn’t sure if he is mirroring her sarcasm or oblivious to it. Either way, she is grateful when Walter slurps the last fudgy puddle of his sundae and they reverse course to her house. He escorts her to the door. In the dark his features seem less pronounced, the shadow chiseling his jawline. She thanks him for the wonderful night.
“Maybe next time we’ll go to a movie,” he says. “My mother told me you have a real thing for Cary Grant.”
“He’s all right,” she says, counting on Walter to grasp that she means Cary Grant is perfection and that he, Walter Coleman, is further from that ideal than she is willing to settle.
Walter does not grasp this. Nor does her mother. (Nor does his mother, Genevieve concludes.) It has been two weeks since their date. In that time Genevieve has spoken to diplomats in Bombay, Shanghai, Belgrade, and Ottawa. She was graciously thanked by a five-star general for her rapid assistance in pinpointing an undersecretary at a meeting in the West Wing. She badgered Washington National Airport’s air traffic control to ground a plane because the president’s chief of staff needed a word with a congressman about to fly home. She has affably rebuffed an elderly man who, after reading that FDR’s wheelchair ramps are still installed throughout the White House, called requesting to purchase them. “My legs ain’t much anymore . . .” he said, his voice chapped. “And he was the finest American of our lifetime.”
Yet her parents have no interest in any of it. Her father because table talk upsets his digestion. Her mother because the only call she cares about is the one Genevieve refuses to make. “The boy’s a war hero,” her mother reminds her in the breath after they say grace. “You’re too good to let a war hero take you to the pictures?”
She does not think of herself as too good for anything or anyone. Nor does she see what goodness has to do with fondness. Someone, a Walter Coleman per se, could be her equal in the Kingdom of Heaven and not her counterpart in the crucible of Earth.
“She’ll go,” her father says, tucking a cloth napkin into his collar. “Tell the kid’s mother.”
“Daddy, I don’t want to.”
“One picture show won’t kill you.” He glowers at Genevieve’s mother. “But that’s that. Two strikes and the bum’s out. I don’t care if he had the SS polishing his boots.” Her mother’s smile is that of a victor affecting humility, and poorly so at that. Her father trains his focus on the cinderblock of brisket before him, and at once all that can be heard is knife scraping against plate as he saws through gristle.
Walter arrives late and sweaty. His sleeves are rolled to his elbows and his hands are soot-black. “The engine quit on me,” he explains, tacking on a when-it-rains- it-pours chortle. “But I got her workin’ again.” Genevieve’s mother urges him to wash his hands and refresh with an iced tea. Walter thanks her but maintains they should hurry to make the movie. Genevieve, feeling the warm grace of a reprieve, points out that the movie starts in ten minutes and it is easily a fifteen- minute drive. “We’ll make it in half that time,” he says. “I promise we won’t miss any of the best parts.”
The brazenness with which he attempts to pass off his jalopy for a stock car offends her less than his presumption as to the best parts of a movie he’s never seen—that what he deems “best” would match her estimation. “What a gentleman,” her mother says, seeing them off.
Walter’s driving proves both reckless and fruitless. They reach the theater in record time, allowing them to witness another couple purchase the last tickets. She is simultaneously resentful that she won’t behold Cary Grant’s debonair virility and gratified that the Walter Coleman saga is in its final throes. “That’s too bad,” she says, stepping toward the street. Walter doesn’t move. “You gotta have two more,” he says to the ticket boy, who limply apologizes. Walter bellies up to the window. “No, I mean you gotta.” He reaches for his wallet. How pathetic, she thinks, to bribe your way into a movie you were late for. But it’s not money he is flashing; it’s his police badge. “Because I’m either seeing the movie or I’m seeing building code violations.”
Genevieve is stunned, though she doesn’t object to Walter’s ultimatum. The gleam of his badge outshines the marquee. The ticket boy, petrified, ushers them into the theater, collecting two folding chairs en route. They sit in the back. At some point, popcorn and chocolate soda appear. Whatever scenes they missed bear little impact on the storyline. Cary Grant is a marvel, but when he is offscreen Genevieve’s attention drifts to the seat beside her.
The swell of color has not entirely drained from Walter’s cheeks. He has yet to look at her since they entered the theater, has made no overtures to flank her shoulders with his slab of an arm. She can’t tell if he assumes she is bewitched by his methods or simply no longer cares about bewitching her. This uncertainty nettles her throughout the picture and during the laconic ride home matures into something like indignation as they reach her front door and Walter thanks her for coming out. Genially he pecks her cheek and, if only to awe him—to make sure he departs with the express understanding that she, too, is capable of awe—Genevieve slopes her head, their lips grazing, and then locked.
A woman in Sacramento calls the president a son of a bitch. Says the first lady is married to a son of a bitch. That Margaret Truman is the daughter of a son of a bitch. Similar calls flood the switchboard for weeks after the president petitions Congress for $400 million to thwart Soviet efforts in Greece and Turkey. Genevieve does not think the public’s frenzy can intensify, until the Dodgers promote that Negro player from their farm league and the nation is fixated on Jackie Robinson. They love him. They hate him. He must play. He must die. He is the future. He is the apocalypse. Jackie Robinson is Harry Truman with a mitt.
“He’s one of the good ones,” Walter tells her. “That swing, jeezus.”
It has been six months since the movie and still Genevieve can’t say she truly likes him. Nor that she dislikes him. She is, however, used to him—which, she supposes, is in itself a virtue. She would not have thought someone could become familiar without her consent. She did not think familiarity could surprise her. Walter is sweet if not gauche. Doting if not possessive. But he delights in hearing about her workday, her labors wondrously elevated by sheer dint of his curiosity. Whether she’s relating the crank call from a teenager impersonating the treasury secretary, proposing Al Capone supplant Benjamin Franklin on the hundred-dollar bill, or Mrs. Burston directing a butler to check on the president those mornings he snoozes through his wake-up call, Walter is rapt.
Another operator’s husband gets a job in San Diego. Genevieve becomes Operator #8, an occasion Walter believes merits a celebratory drive to Chesapeake Beach. She is bushed, but he is adamant. No sooner do they park than he kicks off his shoes. “Let’s walk in the water. It’s warm enough.” She loathes being barefoot in front of others, even him. Her feet are her ugliest feature. A gnarl- toed and flat-arched birthright from her mother’s side. Feet misshapen by generations of ancestors stomping grapes and trampling on clothes in the wash. She confesses this insecurity.
“I love your feet,” he says, eyes static. “I love every part of you.” He pitches forward and for a heartbeat she fears he’s collapsed. Walter stabilizes on one knee, his breathing audible and minced, Genevieve’s field of vision commandeered by a diamond ring. The ring, it occurs to her. She has long suspected his love, periodically fretted over its admission. The ardor radiating from him engulfs her and the buzz she feels is not fret. Not love, either. More like a second glass of wine on an empty stomach—the sense that if she doesn’t eat she’ll faint. Maybe that’s all love is, she tells herself, the ring girding her finger, Walter teary-eyed.
Something you catch up to.
They exchange nuptials under the eternal gaze of God and their mothers’ church group, the latter of which gifts them a nacre-handled letter opener that is the gaudiest trinket Genevieve has ever held, and rent a one-bedroom railroad apartment on the city’s outskirts. They observe the pattern and cadence of newlyweds, and it is a version of bliss she finds generally persuasive. Walter begins hoarding overtime shifts, his heart set on a detective’s shield and mortgage down payment. As to which ambition occupies the lion’s share of his heart, she does not ask—though, she has yet to hear him effuse about the suburbs with the naked zeal he lends to accounts of chasing down shoplifters and manhandling reefer dealers, has yet to espy him peruse home listings with the gimlet eye he devotes to mugshots.
She does not begrudge him this, tells herself she is no better. As if to verify it, Genevieve prolongs her hours at the switchboard. When not connecting calls, she studies newswires for upcoming sporting matches and the threat of industry strikes, in case the president wishes to congratulate a coach or menace a tycoon. It doesn’t hurt that she enjoys the switchboard more since tying the knot. Genevieve Higgins was permitted a lunchbreak when it was convenient for the other operators. Genevieve Coleman is asked when she would like to take lunch. This newfound deference was not paid her immediately. It began three or four months after the wedding, perhaps when the other operators detected the fervor of Genevieve’s matrimony had cooled to room temperature, could be sipped as comfortably as their own.
The House Un-American Activities Committee is the nation’s cynosure. Citizens call in with names they demand appended to the blacklist. By her third straight twelve-hour day, she has heard the phrase “pinko commie” enunciated in every dialect the country fosters. But it is worth it. Mrs. Reynolds, Operator #2, is scheduled to retire at year’s end. Genevieve, now Operator #5, is confident her work ethic will position her to assume Mrs. Reynolds’s supervisory role. So confident she is practically giddy when Mrs. Burston buttonholes her in the parking lot one evening.
“This will be your last week.” Mrs. Burston’s wizened stare gravitates to Genevieve’s midsection, zeroing in on the lump that appears exponentially larger than it did last month, last week, even this morning in the reflection of her bathroom mirror, and Genevieve’s knees nearly buckle from shame. “Soon you’ll be on bedrest. And then, sweetheart, you’ll have everything.” Mrs. Burston hugs her. “We’re all so happy for you.”
Next she hears from Mrs. Burston is in a card signed by the entire switchboard staff, affixed to a wardrobe of baby clothes. Her son, Tyler, is already three months old and most of the outfits are too small. Walter is miffed by this. Genevieve, however, understands, Tyler having entered the world on the same night the Southern Democrats exited the 1948 Democratic Convention, after liberal party members lobbied for a stronger civil rights platform. By the time anyone at the switchboard had a moment to breathe the president desegregated the armed forces, provoking a fresh hue and cry that required weeks to soothe. She decides against justifying this to Walter, whose own hackles were up for days after the president issued the executive order.
“Kind of them to think about us,” she says.
Weeks later, while dandling her beautiful boy in prelude to nursing, Genevieve glimpses the card. Among the signatures is one name she doesn’t recognize: Bryn Powell. Her penmanship crisp, with aerodynamic curves that embitter Genevieve until Tyler consumes her nipple, his fleshy legs treading the air beneath her arm, his gibbous eyes and larval body like an object lesson in promise.
And it is this promise that governs her and Walter’s worldly decisions: Undertaking a steep mortgage on a charmless bungalow in a well-regarded school district. Walter cramming for the detective’s exam between double shifts, despite being advised to hold off another year. Grocery shopping exclusively on double-coupon days and celebrating anniversaries with a blue-plate special. Accepting hand-me-downs from their mothers’ church group. There is no shame in this, Genevieve tells herself—stresses to Walter during those fleeting interludes when he is home and of sound enough mind to have a conversation that extends beyond his dinner preference and laundry needs. Most of the time she believes she gets through to him, quells his frustrations with the grammar of moral upbringings. He usually makes it home for one meal daily, the three of them at the table, Tyler fingering Walter’s badge between messy spoonsful of pureed carrots.
Walter flunks the detective’s exam. Once. Twice. The third time he crumples the letter and stalks out the door. He does not come home that night. When the phone rings the next morning, three-year-old Tyler’s cockcrow bawling having denied her an hour’s sleep, Genevieve is raring to lace into him. But it is not Walter on the other end. It is Mrs. Burston. Bryn Powell is pregnant and must be replaced. Genevieve accepts the job before it is formally offered.
“Do you want to discuss it with your husband first?”
“There’s no need,” Genevieve says, her tone exacting, her resolve ironclad. A miasma of rotgut whiskey heralds Walter’s entrance. His shirt stains are a palette of folly and self-indulgence. After he crash-lands in bed, Genevieve finds Walter’s wedding band in his trousers. Instantly, she appreciates why her husband did not make detective.
Genevieve returns it at dinner, concomitant with news of the job. Walter is not happy but he is not stupid. Foggy, he insinuates that she’s loafed around with Tyler long enough, that it’s about time she contributed to the family’s wellbeing. He screws the ring onto his swollen finger and does not look up from his plate for the rest of the meal.
Within weeks, President Truman announces he will not seek reelection. Every other caller derides him as a coward. Even those who brand him a communist sympathizer and Korean appeaser trumpet their displeasure, deprived the glory of his ouster. The calls taper off once each party nominates a candidate, the country abridged to two men, and suddenly no one has a taste for lame duck.
Dwight Eisenhower is slim and mesmerizing, like a magician’s wand. Apt, given the spell he casts over the nation on his path to a landslide victory. The nonchalance with which callers refer to him is discomfiting. “Tell Ike that Gerald Stohls is happy there’s finally a real man in the White House”; “Please let the Kansas Cyclone know my husband and I pray for him every Sunday”; “God, I’d love to toss back a beer and go bowling with ol’ Duckpin.”
This last remark in particular irks her, as it comes not across the switchboard but over her kitchen table. Walter values a president whose bowling prowess rated a nickname. Genevieve voted for Eisenhower, mainly because Adlai Stevenson had no chance and therefore lying to Walter would be misspent guilt. But as they plow deeper into the year, her mood brightens. While her husband and the country relish Stalin’s death and the Korean War Armistice, Genevieve lavishes her gratitude on Walter finally acing the detective’s exam and Tyler’s cosmos of gold stars from kindergarten and Mrs. Reynolds’s senescence coercing her into the retirement the crone had promised to take years ago, Genevieve a lock for promotion.
Walter works on Thanksgiving. It pays time-and-a-half—hardly adequate compensation for Tyler’s gloom. Walter has promised him they will celebrate Thanksgiving on Friday, holding that a Friday Thanksgiving is more special because they will be the only family in the world rejoicing in it. “Not even Mommy’s friend President Eisenhower,” Walter adds, and for some reason this exclusivity mollifies the child. Genevieve does not think a five-year-old, even one who reads at a third-grade level, would comprehend who the president is. What a president is.
She spends her day prepping for tomorrow’s feast. The turkey brine is near simmering when the doorbell rings. It is Walter’s sergeant, along with two uniformed officers. Three men, one face. Walter caught a burglar, who was armed. They exchanged gunfire is how the sergeant phrases it, as if fiery projectiles were Tupperware.
“The bullet’s wedged in his gut,” the sergeant says, “but we got the top surgeon in DC operating on him.” One of the officers stays with Tyler. The other drives her and the sergeant to the hospital. She was so convinced of Walter’s death, she now feels perversely blessed that he is merely splayed on an operating table, an expo of vital organs, prognosis touch and go. After fourteen hours of surgery, the doctor informs her that Walter, miraculously, has beaten the odds. The sergeant’s bear hug cranes her off the ground. Migrating toward the recovery room, Genevieve thinks to ask if the burglar is in custody.
“Custody of the morgue.” The sergeant’s laugh is grainy. “Walt shot him square in the chest. That nigger was DOA.”
Genevieve becomes Operator #2. Most of her colleagues are happy for her or wise enough to pretend to be. Mrs. Dane (Operator #3) and Mrs. Heath (Operator #4), under the shared delusion they should have ascended to the position, test Genevieve’s new authority. They arrive late and then a little later and then later still. Pad their lunch breaks. She cherishes their dismay, each petty transgression affirming her stature. Though as far as affirmations are concerned, none are on par with the president knowing your name.
If President Eisenhower calls when Mrs. Burston is otherwise engaged, it is Genevieve who assists him. She has tracked down Mamie Eisenhower while the first lady was surreptitiously redecorating the Lincoln Bedroom in all flavors of pink, has scared up an entire Senate subcommittee during a congressional recess, has located the secretary of state fly-fishing at a secluded berm of the Yellowstone River. “Don’t forget, John,” she heard the president tell the secretary, “the 100 Year War lasted 116 years.”
Eavesdropping is inevitable. Often the president juggles a half-dozen calls at once. While she never relates matters of national security (or what she surmises pertain to national security), frequently she divulges to Walter what she’s overheard. He spoils for these morsels, cultivates them into a meal on which he gorges other cops during poker night in Genevieve’s basement.
In the weeks and months after the shooting Walter received commendations for valor, laudatory newspaper write-ups, and, most notably, respect. Namely from fellow officers, a fraternity with whom he boozes and gambles and flaunts his under-the-hood glimpse into the engine of government. She chides him for disclosing that which she should not have disclosed, and yet she welcomes their curiosity. Without exception, the poker game will halt mid-wager and the officers interrogate Genevieve—Do Ike and Vice President Nixon actually get on well?; Does Ike hate Joe McCarthy?; Even if McCarthy is a jackass, how does Ike know there aren’t Commies in the Army?—with a guileless stupefaction she suspects would be alien to their wives.
Genevieve comes home late one poker night. The men’s roistering reverberates through the house. She goes upstairs to check on Tyler. His bed is empty. Descending the basement stairs she hears his chirpy giggle, and then Walter’s gruff emphasis.
“You know what they say about Negro fathers: If you haven’t met one, you’ve met them all.”
The cacophonous laughter mutes her footfalls, and there is a collective jolt when she plucks Tyler from Walter’s lap. Several officers appear amused as she upbraids her husband for including their six-year-old in this vulgar spectacle. One smirk, crooked and plaque-caked, on the face of Walter’s sergeant distracts her and Genevieve isn’t fully aware she’s been smacked until she is being hoisted off the floor, her face throbbing, Tyler weeping, Walter pinioned by his new friends.
A child will forgive his father almost anything. A wife will forgive her husband little, and less than he believes. But a mother will forgive her child’s father whatever it takes. That is the inalienable ballast of family: Not love but forgiveness. Not trust but dependence. The same maternal instinct that propelled Genevieve to sweep Tyler off the cement floor and steal away to her parents’ house ricochets her back home two days later, when Walter arrives proffering tulips and self-recriminations.
It is almost a year before the episode repeats itself, though this time he brings peonies. Then seven months, her denying him a fourth beer with dinner, his sorrow taking the form of wilted carnations. Four months. Two. The aftermaths grow fallow, his beelines to the florist rerouted to church. Confession is free and doesn’t require a vase, so she prefers it to bouquets. However, for God to heal Walter she knows He must first tame the barbarous streets that calcified her husband’s soul. It is not entirely the Negros’ fault, she supposes, though they don’t make it easier on themselves. If they dedicated less time to protests about their lot and more time to their families, their communities would not be blighted. Their children would not be lost. Her husband would not be so mulish, concurrently oversensitive and insensitive. “Everything I do is for our family,” Walter tells her one evening after confession, and to her mind they are the most heartfelt words to ever pass his lips.
And it is family that exalts America. The president asserted as much on a phone call to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, days after deploying military assistance to a seahorse-shaped country named Vietnam. “Over forty years in the Army, I never knew a soldier to carry the Bill of Rights into battle. Kodachromes of his girl. Hell, a favorite Bible verse. They’re defending the country, but they’re fighting for their family.”
Genevieve clings to this dictum, be it while assuring Tyler that Daddy loves them even when he blusters, or succumbing to Walter when he stumbles home and mounts her dry. Be it while coping with Americans hysterical over a Supreme Court ruling in favor of school integration or Americans imploring the president to denounce fifteen-year-old Emmett Till’s kidnapping and savage murder. She tells herself these people, all of them, are spurred by love of family—that though love may scarcely resemble love when it is being safeguarded, it is so nonetheless.
These are the years when Walter evolves into a sergeant and supplements his paycheck by instructing night classes at the police academy. When Tyler excels in school, teacher after teacher gushing over his aptitude. When Operator #2 promises her fellow Americans that those in power are doing the best they can for those who empowered them. These are the years when she believes it.
President Eisenhower secures reelection handily. Genevieve is pleased with the nation’s decision. Moreover, she is relieved the switchboard will be spared the overhaul of a new administration. Though the operators shy away from political chin-wagging, she would stake a month’s salary they, like her, always vote for the incumbent. Of course, she’d never ask. What would be the point?
Anyway, why compare candidates when you can compare children?
Tyler, for one, whose persistent straight-As leave her colleagues jealous. Even Mrs. Burston, whose prized grandson is a few years older and an honor-roll mainstay, turns sheepish when Genevieve trots out Tyler’s first-place science fair ribbon for a chaotic experiment involving a baking soda-and-vinegar explosion that ruined his dungarees and titillated his classmates.
As a reward, she and Walter take him to see The Spirit of St. Louis. Before they exit the theater, Tyler declares he will be a fighter pilot. For his birthday, Walter splurges on a B-29 Superfortress model kit, the two devoting weekends to the behemoth’s construction. One night she comes downstairs to find the kitchen table overspread with dime-size bulkheads and wheel plates and a bomb mount, the palpable musk of adhesives leavening the house. Her boys hard at work, famished for dinner.
Genevieve turns on the radio. The oven is preheating when an adenoidal newscaster interrupts Bing Crosby with a special bulletin. She tenses, bracing to hear that the tragedy she has dreaded all these weeks has come to pass. The specter of violence has loomed over Little Rock, Arkansas, since the president dispatched federal troops to ease school desegregation. She is panicked, despairing over the carnage about to be revealed as well as the carnage that will no doubt ensue throughout the country following such a revelation.
The Soviet Union has successfully launched a satellite into space.
Walter’s grim expression matches the newscaster’s tenor. Sputnik, he says, and the stars feel closer than Arkansas. Tyler dashes to the window, his eyes resolutely skyward. “Don’t be afraid, sweetie. It can’t hurt us. It’s just a . . .” She’s not exactly sure what it is but knows to be scared of it.
“I’m not afraid.” Tyler is not simply peering at the stars. He is gawking, rubbernecking the heavens. “This is the hippest thing ever.”
Walter’s bearing turns as sober as a requiem. “Ain’t nothing ‘hip’ about it. The Commies just beat us to space.”
Tyler’s lips quiver and his forehead puckers. At first, she thinks it is shame. But as it prolongs, his stare dim and unflinching, she understands it is disgust. “So what? If they can get there, that means we can too.”
Later that night, after Tyler exhausts himself from wailing and she straps an ice pack to his puffy face, after Walter relinquishes hope that another broadcast will retract the initial bulletin and the Commies will again be as earthbound as everyone else, after she scours beneath furniture for B-29 shards and slinks around the block to dump the garbage bag on a neighbor’s curb, Genevieve opens the downstairs windows. For hours she endures the chill, until the last whiff of adhesive dissipates and, mercifully, all she can think about is the cold.
The end of the world lasts several months. Despite the president’s numerous avowals that Sputnik poses no existential threat, Deena Mackleroy from Spokane is unpersuaded. “My daughter’s science teacher told her we’re not a world power anymore.” Russel Gordon of Terre Haute, who has stargazed on his porch nightly for the past thirty-five years, contends that new celestial bodies have materialized. “’cept they’re not really stars,” he says. “They’re warheads in disguise.”
The calls are queerly alike but also harrowingly distinctive, much the way every hand approximates every other hand until you scrutinize the fingerprints. They are aggrieved and hawkish. They are chastened and forlorn. They are horrorstruck, and Genevieve is one of them. The ominous frisson of one surrounded. A nation held hostage by gravity, distrustful of its skies. Were she not answering the switchboard, she’d be dialing into it.
And yet she feels beholden to the gauntlet of her days. These taxing stints that expel her into the strife and strain of home too depleted to hound Walter about missing yet another dinner to bask in the hero worship of his academy recruits, too dazed to prod Tyler about his goings-on. Having grown accustomed to her son’s one-word summations regarding every facet of his life, Genevieve is stumped when his principal calls to ask her for a meeting. Tyler scored in the ninety-ninth percentile on the state standardized exam and the school believes he would benefit from skipping a grade and entering junior high in September.
“I won’t know anyone,” Tyler says at dinner.
“You didn’t know anyone when you started at this school.” Walter’s tack has changed since he began teaching at the police academy. More poise, less furor. He does not scold Tyler. Rather, he steers him toward the inevitability that is a father’s will. “You made friends once, you’ll do it again. That’s the secret to success, being liked wherever you go.”
Junior high school is ruthless. A small boy made smaller. Tyler joins before- school clubs: math, stamp collecting, chess. Afterschool clubs: debate, history, science. It is dark out when he embarks for school and dark out when he shuffles into the house, the Tyler of her recent memory resembling a silhouette in a nocturne.
But she is proud—as all mothers of studious and well-heeled boys should be—even though, at times, she feels displaced. He does not ask for her help with homework, does not ask her to drive him to his friends’ houses on weekends, does not ask for new toys. The less he asks for, the more incapable she feels. His needlessness, her uselessness. She reminds herself that he has entered adolescence, was in fact heaved into it by her and Walter, who now teaches at the police academy three nights per week and sporadically invites fawning trainees to Sunday dinner.
But she is proud. It is undeniable. Evidenced by her chronic preening about his grades and extracurricular gumption, be it to her mother or her fellow operators or, on occasion, a caller who invokes her own children’s welfare in regard to a recent presidential initiative. He survives seventh grade and she is proud. He survives eighth grade and she is proud. He finds a summer job at a movie theater, one that pays a nickel above minimum wage, and she is proud. “My first date with your father was at the movies,” Genevieve tells Tyler.
“The movies were our second date.” Walter does not turn his head from the TV, awaiting the evening newscast. “First date was the ice cream parlor.”
She hesitates, certain he is wrong. “But weren’t we—”
Walter hushes her as the newscast begins. All anyone can talk about is the race for president. Though, really, all anyone can talk about is John F. Kennedy. Even when they drone on about Vice President Nixon—his experience, his reserve, his prudery—it is clear they are juxtaposing him with the gallantly boyish senator from Massachusetts. The senator and his glamorous wife.
“Silver-spoon playboy,” Walter labels him after the newscaster confirms the senator is pulling away in crucial swing states. Her husband’s animus is more religious than political, a canonical belief that no man warrants every blessing under the sun. Rarely does she entertain these jeers, nor point out that the senator has been a public servant most of his life—like she has, like Walter has. This is the shape her love for him has taken, a silence that conforms to accommodate his pride and preserve the delusion that wealth and tender eyes are all that separate a Walter Coleman from a John F. Kennedy. “Just a spoiled, empty-suit who’s never done real work.”
“He fought in the war,” Tyler says, taking a swig of juice.
“Bull. I fought in the war.” Walter’s face reddens. “Your father fought in the war. Kennedy was just there.”
Genevieve encourages Tyler to get ready for work, but he speaks over her. “He got a Purple Heart.”
“Wonder how much that cost his old man.” Walter chuckles. “Tyler, there are two kinds of smart, and you’re the wrong one.”
“At least I am one,” Tyler says. Walter is rabid, Tyler undaunted, their voices booming.
Genevieve is dumbfounded. She is spooked. She is, despite herself, proud. Even as Tyler bolts from the house, a full night and day passing before he returns. Her child, who can talk and talk back. Whose large, generous heart pumps blood as red as his father’s.
The country is enthralled with the new first family. Call volumes triple, Americans as likely to pose tacky questions as to lodge a complaint. Does the president sound so Catholic in real life? Does Jackie Kennedy speak French in real life? Are those children actually so cute in real life? As if the news footage and radio addresses are stagecraft, engineered to heighten the burlesque of government.
This mania extends to her home, unfortunately. She had hoped Walter’s disdain for JFK would have subsided by the inauguration, or that Tyler, now a freshman, would have turned his focus to matters more immediate and adolescent. This pipedream sustains a fresh blow nightly. Family dinners are more like catered feuds that span the gamut from Soviet threats to nuclear proliferation to welfare programs, except they are about none of these things. They are about two men who want to be right. Who, barring that, demand to be heard.
“Prince Jack really stuck his foot in it with Cuba,” Walter says after the Bay of Pigs invasion. “Maybe his daddy can write Castro a fat check and make it all go away.”
“How can you possibly be against anti-nuke protesters? Listen to yourself!” Tyler shouts after Walter endorses police in Berkeley who brutalized demonstrators.
“God, Khrushchev is making an ass of Prince Jack,” Walter says after construction of the Berlin Wall commences.
“Maybe the real problem is that we have power-mad tyrants like you training cops, so we just end up with more power-mad tyrants as cops.”
“A momma’s boy like you has no idea what it takes to wear this uniform. My recruits are gonna be the finest officers on the force, and most of ’em came from nothing. Like me. Hell, I have a girl in my class who’s tougher than you are. Braver than you are. Who would save your ungrateful hide from whatever trouble your mouth brought on. A girl, Tyler.”
The bickering is raucous but seldom violent. Those instances when Walter loses control, the skirmishes are swift, Tyler fortified by the muscle mass of puberty and able to keep his father at bay. Then Tyler flees the house. Sometimes he is gone for hours. Sometimes days. She presses him for his whereabouts. He claims to have holed up at the library, to have nested in the movie theater’s projection booth, to have read Isaac Asimov in the Automat until dawn. She can finger these lies before hearing them. The way his Adam’s apple beetles, the flutter of his left eyelid. She learns to press harder. “With a friend, all right?” is the most he finally concedes. “Lets me crash when I need to.”
“Does he have a name?” she asks, exasperated.
Tyler doesn’t hide his irritation. “Lee. We work together at the theater.” “What’s his address?”
“Mom, are you writing a book?”
“I hate not knowing where you are.” Though what she truly hates, what cores her heart and dignity, is nagging him for answers. Plugging one void with another. The world hollowing into a cavity down which she must plummet. “Just tell me, where does Lee live?”
Tyler’s demeanor softens. A visage too lenient to be condescension, too cocksure to be remorse. “Someplace better than here.”
A month before midterm elections, Genevieve arrives at work to find Mrs. Burston loitering in the parking lot. Her eyes are ruddy and her voice tremulous. She is retiring. “To spend more time with my family,” she explains. “I wanted you to hear it from me first.” Genevieve is happy for Mrs. Burston and thrilled for herself, the obvious successor to Operator #1. She inquires as to Mrs. Burston’s last day. The old woman stammers. “It . . . it was yesterday.” Mrs. Burston ensnares Genevieve in a lumbering hug and then putters to her car. It is not until the following week, after being promoted with minimal fanfare, Genevieve ascertains that Mrs. Burston’s grandson published an op-ed in his college newspaper, excoriating the president while expressing sympathy for the Soviets. “I heard the Secret Service wouldn’t even let her in the building,” Mrs. Heath says, repulsively smug.
Mornings gain an awesome heft, as it falls to Genevieve to make the presidential wake-up call. She is self-conscious about her tone, mindful that she may be rousing the president from a dream. Her voice permeating his bleary mind and dubbing over a declaration of eternal love spoken by the first lady or a proclamation of a conquered Soviet Empire articulated by his top general. Even groggy, President Kennedy is cordial. “Thank you, Mrs. Coleman,” he says, his brogue like a stroll through Boston. This salutation becomes the highlight of her day. She, Genevieve Higgins Coleman, the first voice heard each day by the commander in chief.
As such, she is crestfallen upon receiving a memo suspending all calls to the president, who has contracted a nasty cold. Day after day his schedule is cleared, and she dreads the worst. When next she hears his voice—robust and strident—it is in a nationally televised speech announcing a naval blockade of Cuba and the prospect of a nuclear missile strike.
The switchboard is bombarded in the first days of the crisis. On Day 4, the situation deteriorating, nuclear war seemingly inevitable, call volume nosedives. Still, Genevieve keeps vigil over the phone lines, just as Walter does his precinct. Tyler is staying with his friend Lee, which under these bleak circumstances is an unexpected comfort. Late at night on Day 6, a call comes in from the Vatican. Sister Angelina notifies her that Pope John XXIII wishes to speak to President Kennedy. The gravity of the moment is suspended, Genevieve at a loss to discover the Vatican’s operators are nuns. The rationale by which a member of an order is designated to the switchboard confounds her. Sister Angelina, so devout and steadfast she is invested with facilitating His Holiness’s communiques. Sister Angelina, whose cluttered soul can minister to nothing more sacred than a phone plug.
She patches through the call. “Holy Father,” President Kennedy says, “we need your help. Premier Khrushchev will not—” He pauses. “That will be all, Mrs. Coleman.”
Genevieve startles, and only once she disconnects does she perceive the magnitude of her breathing. The switchboard is dark, save for the pinprick of this call light, and she feels utterly forsaken. The president ordained with the nuclear launch codes, the Pope with the sovereignty to absolve him for the hell he wreaks. The call light glows for over an hour, and then abruptly vanishes. Christianity, it occurs to her, means having only to say you’re sorry.
At home, she is pleasantly surprised to spot Walter’s car in the driveway. She wants to profess her love, impel him to take her to bed. She finds him upstairs, in Tyler’s room. The dresser drawers have been upended, the mattress flipped, the books scattered. Walter barely glances at her, examining the crevice between the wall and Tyler’s bed with a flashlight.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
He stops cold, his stare piercing. “Let me tell you about your son . . .” he begins, and by the conclusion of his rant she is flummoxed. Reefer. Arrest. Girlfriend. Negro. She tries to parse Walter’s account, her wunderkind caught smoking reefer in a sleazy neighborhood. Resisting arrest. Balking at the free pass offered him once the cops realized he was a sergeant’s kid unless his girlfriend got off, too. Maylee Sanders.
“My son making it with some goddamn tar baby! And now the whole department knows it. You think my men are gonna take me seriously? And what about my cadets?”
“Walter, your men respect you. Everyone res—”
“Annette was right there when they told me.” He notices Genevieve’s puzzlement. “The girl in my class I told you about. The one who wants to be a detective. One second I’m helping her train for her shooting exam, the next I’m the father of a hooligan.”
“Don’t you dare call him that.”
“So help me God, Ginny, if you knew about this girl . . .” His glare completes the sentence.
She is not scared but melancholy. Swearing she knew nothing, Genevieve is humbled by its truth. Walter leaves the room in shambles. She spends the night returning it to pristine condition, making Tyler’s bed before staggering into her own. Walter is fast asleep. It is a sight more disquieting than his fury, this snap metamorphosis from warpath to slumber unnerving her in a way his hasty outbursts never have. Then again, how would she prefer him to be? She’s not sure, having long ago ceased imagining better versions of Walter. Of herself. Undressing for bed, she thinks of Sister Angelina, with no one to go home to but the Lord.
Genevieve snuggles against his vast shoulders. They are still here, she reminds herself. As is the world.
Khrushchev assents to remove his missiles from Cuba and Kennedy pledges not to invade the pesky island and Tyler’s duvet remains unruffled. Genevieve has not seen her son in weeks. All she knows is that he and Maylee were cited by the judge and released on their own recognizance. Walter forbids her to look for him. “That boy lives here again, it’s cause he begged me.”
She capitulates. In part because the inherent fickleness of youth ensures an imminent reunion. In part because she fears that to chase him would be to lose him permanently. Tyler’s self-reliance must rupture. His certitude must implode. He needs to need—money, food, clothing, the inimitable love of a mother—and submit to a higher power. Though it becomes increasingly difficult to envision herself embodying such power, a mother who can’t account for her son, a wife whose husband opts to hunt down burglars and train cadets over sharing a bed with her.
She calls the school every day in the first week, consoling herself with assurances of his perfect attendance, that proximity to home has not lightened the onus on education she instilled in him. A month passes. A season. His report card arrives and it is exemplary. Summer. At church, Mrs. Crane mentions having seen Tyler while visiting family in Birmingham. “Little Tyler Coleman standing alongside a mob of Negros. For a minute, I thought he was in trouble.” Genevieve tamps down her astonishment and cobbles together a tale about his acceptance into a program for exceptional students. Mrs. Crane winces. “He told me he was working with Martin Luther King’s folks.”
She could ferret him out any time. Genevieve reminds herself of this constantly. The FBI. The IRS. The Birmingham Postmaster. “This is the White House calling . . .” and in minutes she would unearth him. Demonstrate that no matter where he rests his head he is not beyond her grasp. It is this credence that shepherds her through the day. This faith that accords her hope in tomorrow. Even when tomorrow brings newscasts of protestors in Birmingham squaring off with irascible, nightstick-happy police. Throngs of crusading youth inculcated with the myth that they are exponents of Arcadia. They are legion. They are futile.
If the switchboard has taught her anything it is the fallacy of strength in numbers. There is strength in strength and nothing else. You may call your president but he will not answer. You may voice your malady but you will not be restored. She studies the quaky footage for a face like her own and recognizes nothing beyond the deluge of water cannons.
One night the phone rings at an odd hour and she lunges to answer it. The caller immediately hangs up. It happens again not an hour later. “Tyler, wait!” she screams and the line goes dead. She is awoken by a third call. It is early, and Walter is fast asleep beside her. Genevieve lifts the receiver, speechless, striving to coax him into the dead air.
“Walt, baby,” says a woman. “Don’t be mad. I know I’m not supposed to call. She there with you?”
Genevieve manages a raspy, plosive uh-huh.
“You left your badge here. Must’ve fallen out of your trousers.” The woman’s laugh is willowy, callow. “You want to pick it up, or should I give it back tonight?” Uh-huh. “Affirmative, Serge. See you at class.”
The school year begins without Tyler. The attendance office calls and she cooks up a whopper about him visiting family. Various teachers and administrators reach out over the next month. With each query Genevieve aggrandizes the story, spinning the yarn to include a great-aunt, sickly and destitute, whom Tyler could not bear to have relegated to a sanatorium. The ease with which they adopt this figment rallies her, briefly. “Yes,” Genevieve tells the vice-principal, “I am proud of him. And you know my Tyler; he’ll make up the work.”
She does not let Walter in on this fairy tale, just as she does not confront him about his bald-faced lies of overnight shifts tracking fresh leads on cold cases. Yes, she feels resentful. Yes, she feels betrayed. Not because he is cheating. With his student, a girl likely half Genevieve’s age. (There have been many such girls, Genevieve imagines, and better they are left unsatisfied than she.) No, she is angry because he is pathetic and ordinary and beneath her, and she has known as much since the night they met. Because, despite this knowledge, she stayed the course. Charting the milestones of domesticity. Dispelling her qualms through the panacea of ritual.
She muddles through the following weeks. One night, restless, she ambles downstairs for a glass of milk and hears Walter on the phone. His voice is docile, his profile illumined by the refrigerator’s 60-watt bulb. “. . . you gotta trust me . . . Annette, don’t say that . . . Yes, we’ll have the whole weekend . . . I love you, too.” The next morning she finds a note taped to the refrigerator: Big break on a case. Call you from the road.
The president and his staff are in Dallas. Their absence, combined with it being the Friday before Thanksgiving, prevents Genevieve from distracting herself with the business of government. Perched over the switchboard, she visualizes Annette: supple features and homespun naïveté. This woman for whom her husband proclaims his love within earshot of the wife he vowed to love forever. Who is he to love again? Who is he to love without her?
And suddenly it is not a hypothetical Annette at the forefront of Genevieve’s mind but a concrete Tyler. Her sense of clarity is nothing less than palliative. She is about to dial the Birmingham county clerk when all the switchboard bulbs light up simultaneously.
“Is he dead?” The man on the line is panting.
“Is who dead?”
“President Kennedy, for God’s sake!”
Appalled by the question, she nearly yanks the phone plug. It is then she hears the grief-stricken voice of Mrs. Dane. Of Mrs. Heath. Of the entire switchboard. Several operators, inconsolable, need to be sent home.
“Did you know him well?” a man from Reno asks, and Genevieve recalls the president’s impromptu appearance at last year’s Christmas party, the peculiarity of being in the presence of both his voice and body. “Very well,” she says, and for an instant it is true. “Please tell the first lady . . . I mean Jackie Kennedy, not the new first lady . . . tell her and those beautiful children that they’re in our prayers,” a woman from Missoula says. “I didn’t vote for him, but God, I know what it’s like to lose a son. My heart goes out to the family,” a man from Dubuque tells her, and Genevieve wonders if this man actually believes the Kennedys give two hoots that he empathizes with their loss. Or perhaps he simply needs somewhere to register his anguish. A repository in which to commemorate this juncture. This night when the nation’s fathers and sons should axe their grudges and open their arms.
It is after 8:00 pm when Genevieve exhorts her staff to go home. As the other operators trickle out, Genevieve dials Birmingham. The county clerk supplies her with a phone number linked to a boarding house where mail has been delivered to a Mr. Tyler Coleman. She accepts the clerk’s offer to connect the call. “Please tell Mrs. Kennedy she’s in Alabama’s prayers,” the clerk says, and Genevieve promises to do so.
A woman answers at the boarding house. “May I please speak with Tyler Coleman?” Genevieve says.
“Who’s this?” The voice is young, woozy.
“This is the White . . . This is his . . . Please put Tyler on. It’s important.” The young woman is silent. Genevieve considers it is Maylee, a know-nothing interloper who likely regards her as a jellyfish married to a tiger shark. Though Genevieve cannot write off this woman, a stranger more familiar with her son than she is. At hearing her voice, Genevieve suddenly craves to know everything about Maylee, is desperate with hope that, despite his hubris and insolence, she raised him to seek out the love of a good woman.
“Please! I need to speak to him.”
“Lady, he’s not here,” she says. “You want to leave a message?”
Genevieve terminates the connection and battles back tears all the way home, breaking down at the sight of Walter in the living room. “Drove back soon as I heard.” She runs to him and he reeks of perfume and she has never detested him more. Never been so gratified to suffer his embrace.
In the subsequent weeks and months a president is laid to rest, his assassin is assassinated, and a new president endeavors to upraise the downhearted nation. Lyndon B. Johnson addresses Congress with the single-minded exuberance of a cattle auctioneer and the American people with the steely pragmatism of a butcher. She does not look forward to placing his wake-up call. That any man, no less a president, would greet a caller with “For shit’s sake, already? Don’t patch through anyone til I’m off the can” is a degree of crassness to which Genevieve cannot acclimate.
Until she does. Much like she acclimates to dispatches about lunch-counter sit-ins that flare into race riots and montages of Negros godlessly battered. Much like she acclimates to sleeping alone and solitary weekends and monitoring newscasts with an observance akin to supplication. Pleading with God that Tyler’s name is not among the roster of wounded or detained protesters, conciliated when the newscaster segues to foreign bloodshed, like in Vietnam. A volatile republic about which the president takes evermore frequent calls from generals and diplomats. A problem that is not Genevieve’s problem and so she welcomes it.
Soon even her own problems no longer weigh on her like millstones that might be dislodged by the brunt of solutions. Instead they feel elemental. A modified atmosphere in which she has trained herself to breathe: LBJ; Tyler; Walter; Annette. Annette—like a swearword Genevieve is too prudish to mutter, a trespass from which Walter is incapable of turning back. However, he does come back, always, eventually, temporarily. His homecomings an abominable comfort but a comfort all the same.
In late spring Ladybird Johnson tasks Genevieve with getting hold of a man at a hunting cabin in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. After some maneuvering, she gets him on the phone. But when Genevieve connects the call, the voice she hears is not the first lady’s.
“Wilson, you dumb sonofabitch.” President Johnson is fuming, his rage as wide as it is deep, expanding with every breath. It is the rage of the betrayed. Wilson, who operates a television station owned by the first lady—who, the president reminds him, keeps his family fed and clothed with paychecks signed by the first lady—has aired a story that the president plans to send American troops to Vietnam. Wilson, gasping, stutters a response that the president summarily quashes. “Now listen and listen good, I am not shipping our boys to Vietnam. End of story. Bunch of gooks want to skin each other raw, hell, that’s more bones for the village dogs. So help me God, if I hear any of your people, of my people, my goddamn people, say I’m gonna do otherwise . . .”
The station manager continues spewing apologies after the president has hung up. Genevieve holds the line and her breath, lending an audience to his penance as she waits for him to hang up first. To realize he is alone.
Later that week, Walter galumphs in from the precinct and hovers beside her. He is meek yet sullen. The look of a man who needs you to believe he is as miserable as he is about to make you. A man who hopes you recognize that leaving is an affliction comparable to being left. Genevieve thought she was prepared, but in this moment she understands that nothing sufficiently prepares you for abandonment. Not even abandonment itself.
“You planning to cook anything?” Walter asks. “If not, I can pick up burgers.”
He stays home night after night, even when he’s scheduled to teach. His explanations for taking a sabbatical from the academy are inconsistent and tortuous and unsolicited, and she knows it is over with Annette. It is over and Walter was not the one to end it. She looks at him and sees nothing to break, and it is this nothingness that stings most.
Dinners are curious. He prods her for stories from the switchboard, palace intrigue, as if keen to be caught up on missed episodes of a soap opera. While she should attest to phoning Birmingham on the night President Kennedy was killed, she blabs about President Johnson having JFK’s Kelly green telephones uninstalled in favor of instruments that are Johnny Appleseed–white. While she should describe in vexing detail her second call to the boarding house three months later, after learning of white civil rights workers mauled by police in neighboring Bessemer, only to be informed that Tyler and his old lady skedaddled some time earlier, the wheezy voice on the other end griping about a twelve- dollar outstanding balance, she prattles on about Ladybird Johnson reducing Mrs. Heath to tears over an inadvertent disconnection.
In bed, he surprises her. There is technique and hunger. Or his technique is hunger. Regardless, Genevieve savors it—the sex, the garrulous meals, the Sunday drives—for the spell of the encounter, and then dismisses it wholesale. This is the only way she can stomach him, respect herself. Sequestering these idylls from the scablands of their marriage. Their life together counterfeiting their life together.
July 4 falls on a Saturday and Walter pushes for a long weekend in Virginia Beach. “Fireworks. Crab cakes. It’ll be a gas.” He rattles off activities like he is chairman of the local tourism board, and she catches the bug of his enthusiasm. They do everything he promised and then some, sampling fudge along the boardwalk and trying their luck at carnival games, the days perfect and perfectly orchestrated. Her bliss endures through the fireworks extravaganza, splashy detonations galvanizing the sky, Walter cozying up to her on the beach blanket. “Didn’t I promise you the best fireworks you’ve ever seen?” he says, and Genevieve is as certain Walter made that promise as she is that it was not her to whom he made it.
“You did,” she says. “You were right.”
They stop at a soda fountain on the way home. On the radio, a newscaster reports that two police officers were killed and several more gravely injured in a firefight outside Washington. Walter drives with a lead foot and keeps the radio tuned to the news, alarmed his men are among the deceased. Each news bulletin ratchets up the death toll. Arrests have been made but no details released. Walter announces that he’ll drop her off at home and then zoom over to the precinct. He banks a right and Genevieve sees their home up ahead. The charmless bungalow with the steep mortgage in the well-regarded school district. The one with the smashed window and three police cruisers parked out front.
Two weeks earlier a Negro named Roland Biggs strode the three miles to the auto repair shop where he moonlighted and never came home. Three days later he was discovered, naked and shackled to a maple tree, his flesh rived from heel to widow’s peak, the gravel embedding his lacerations a roadmap of the miles he was dragged by car. Police investigated. A man named Reed Judson, who had taken offense at Roland Biggs’s snickering at a racy joke made by the chief mechanic about Reed Judson’s wife. A man who, the day after Roland Biggs’s disappearance, had his Chevy Impala serviced for the second time in a week, shelling out for new tires and a fresh paintjob, at a different garage, the name and location of which he couldn’t recall, was questioned and released in time to cheer on the Orioles in a come-from-behind victory against the Yankees.
This much Genevieve comprehends. An atrocity that is a minor variation on countless prior atrocities. It is what comes next that she can’t fathom, can’t absorb, her body physically numb as Walter lays out the working theory of what transpired after Boog Powell’s ninth-inning moonshot, from Reed Judson incinerating in a car explosion over the weekend, with the remnants of a pipe bomb found rigged to his fuel tank, to an all-hands-on-deck investigation that led police to a shuttered building where the shootout occurred, killing five officers and six suspects, to a lone man escaping the perimeter, tracked to the home of Sergeant and Mrs. Walter Coleman, and then apprehended ransacking clothes and blankets from an upstairs bedroom.
“He told the cops he lives here,” Walter says. “That he was picking up his things.”
They are allowed to see Tyler before he is officially booked. The officer who chaperones them to the holding room regards them with a sour mien. He opens a door to a cramped holding area. A mucky, snarled-haired man is handcuffed to a table. Again Genevieve thinks a mistake has been made, solace blossoming from all corners of her body.
“Mom,” the man says, his voice shearing her comfort at the root. “I didn’t have a gun. I was just there.”
“Tyler, don’t say another word.” Walter motions to the one-way glass.
“No, you gotta understand. They found out I was good at science. Offered me money to make firecrackers. Big ones, for Independence Day.”
“Tyler, shut up. Please.” Walter is emphatic.
“I didn’t know about the bomb,” he says, and Genevieve’s body goes slack. Bomb, Tyler says again, though she does not perceive the words that precede and follow it. Her attention swallowed by his jutting Adam’s apple. The insect-like flutter of his eyelids. She can practically smell the smoke.
“I had no idea what they were planning. I was there just to get paid, then I was—”
Walter’s fist wallops the table like an anvil. “Not another goddamn word! I’m going to take care of this, you hear me? I know you didn’t do anything. I know that.” His voice quavers, and Genevieve has no doubt that Walter believes it to be so, both their son’s innocence and his own propensity to deliver Tyler from such wretched decisions. Because the truth does not matter. The truth does not hold a candle to the future.
“Listen to your father!” she shouts at the shaggy face, who, with a bewildered aspect, turns mute. Heeds Walter’s meticulous guidelines on how to comport himself with the police and in jail, trusting in a lesson of trust no one, which the man, her son whom she couldn’t pick out of a lineup and prays no one else can either, cottons to without difficulty. Less like he is being taught something new than he is being reintroduced to his creed.
She ventures to work each day believing it will be her last, flabbergasted when the Secret Service fails to intercept her in the parking lot. At home, Walter touts the newest angle he is pushing, the favors he has called in, the old friendships he is exploiting for the benefit of their child. But the angles are dead-ends, the favors expired, the friends impotent. It is a brutal accounting, though he does not shy away from it, no matter how far down the ledger he plunges, how humiliatingly divisible he exposes himself to be.
And then, finally, a breakthrough: One of Walter’s former cadets, now in the FBI, arranges an off-the-books meeting with the prosecutor assigned to Tyler’s case. Their optimism is short-lived, Walter apoplectic when he comes home after the meeting.
“The fucking Army, that’s the only plea deal on the table. Turns out there’s a memo going ’round to pressure defendants into enlisting. The Army or a fifteen- year minimum, that’s just how the bastard laid it out for me.”
Genevieve is flustered. “That’s . . . that’s good . . . isn’t it? He can serve two years and then come home. Finish school. You always wanted him to join the Army.”
“I wanted him to join the Army I served in. Ginny, Vietnam isn’t Germany. There’s no honor in whatever hell LBJ is gonna airlift those kids into.”
She is at once verging on laughter and tears. Her every doubt and regret in life, nullified, her life restored by her life’s work. “Walter, the president’s not sending them. I heard him. Overheard something I shouldn’t have, really. But I heard it. He’s not sending Americans to Vietnam.”
Walter is dumbstruck. “The news, they keep saying how bad it’s getting.”
She tries to remember LBJ’s lurid quip about flayed Vietnamese and dog bones, but it eludes her. What she does recall, however—what she wishes she could flash like a badge and deposit in Walter’s palm—is the president’s conviction, his oath. “He doesn’t care about Vietnam. Not one bit.”
This succor buoys her through the night, until the three of them are reunited in a visitors’ meeting space at the county prison. Tyler’s hair has been trimmed and his face shaved, preferential treatment surely brokered by Walter to inoculate him against epithets of “radical” or “pinko,” from being pegged as anti-this or pro-that. And it works. Tyler resembles no one except their son— their son who would never enlist in the military, who hates the government for the same reason he hates his parents: he cannot change them. Just as he cannot be changed. She can see it now, what has always been there.
Walter spells out the plea bargain, his tone sedate, his reasoning comprehensive. He is prepared to fell any and every objection Tyler mounts. Genevieve knows this and knows it doesn’t matter. Tyler remains silent, kneading his face with his hands like he’s getting reacquainted with its contours.
“All right.” He chews his lip. “Two years as Uncle Sam’s puppet. I can live with that.”
Euphoric, she clutches Tyler’s arm. “Thank you. Thank you, God, thank you.”
Tyler shudders, ducks his head. “I’m not doing it for you. Maylee and I . . .” He takes Genevieve’s hand, his callouses chafing her fingertips, and suddenly he has no face, just eyes, a singularly incandescent gaze capable of liquefying her.
Of keeping her intact. “I want to be there to raise my child,” he says. “That’s all I care about.”
The district attorney releases Tyler into Genevieve and Walter’s custody the day before he is to report to Fort Jackson for basic training. They are leaving the courthouse when a woman shouts Tyler’s name. She is Negro and lithe and no more a woman than her son is a man. Tyler makes introductions. “I’m so glad to meet you, Mrs. Coleman. Mr. Coleman.” Even terrified, Maylee is congenial.
Tyler invites her back to the house and she grows skittish, looking first to Genevieve and then to Walter, who himself is taken aback. “You’ll have dinner with us,” Genevieve says. “Tyler’s last home-cooked meal for two years.”
The drive home is quiet. The afternoon is quiet. Dinner preparation is quiet. Maylee offers to help. Genevieve demurs, but the girl chops vegetables all the same. She is considerate and sweet, conclusions Genevieve draws with the fluency of a blade slicing a carrot, because what greater measure of a mother is there than the woman with whom her son bears children?
“Tyler never mentioned where you live.”
“I’m staying in Rockville with my cousin for a week maybe. I’ve got a friend in Greensboro who’ll let me crash until the baby comes.”
“North Carolina. That’s far.”
Maylee steadies the knife, bemused. “Far from what?”
The men come down for dinner. Maylee sits beside Tyler, their knees touching, and he loads up her plate before his own. Walter has hardly spoken since the courthouse, and she does not know if it is fear or shame. She no longer believes there is a difference.
“Maylee,” Genevieve says, “did you know that Mr. Coleman was in the Army?”
She shakes her head.
“Walter, tell Maylee about the time in France when you were late getting back to curfew and bribed your commanding officer with wine.”
“It was champagne.” Walter pauses from his food. “The real stuff. Won it in a poker game, aces over sevens.”
“Tyler plays poker,” Maylee says. “He won us two bus tickets in Chattanooga.”
“Who do you think taught him how to play?” Walter says, and they both look to Tyler for confirmation.
“I was bluffing,” Tyler says. “Kept raising the ante ’til everyone chickened out.”
Walter cackles, mashed potatoes dripping off his fork tines. “More impressive to win with a bluff than a royal flush.” This tickles everyone, the laughter fraught but welcome.
“Mr. Coleman,” Maylee says, “what was basic training like when you were in the Army?”
Walter pitches forward. “I was shipped off to Fort Benning, and let me tell you . . .” and for the next hour he does, this sweet stranger so attentive, Tyler thawing, asking questions of his father like the answers might be useful later on, Genevieve keeping the plates full as if the cure for tomorrow was meatloaf and pineapple upside-down cake.
But tomorrow will come and Tyler will leave. And Maylee will stay with them, in Tyler’s room. Genevieve decides it then and there, will not accept no for an answer, not from anyone. It is that simple, because there is nothing she wants more. Two years. Then the Army will discharge Tyler with discipline and sense of country, and she will have her son and Maylee will have her husband and that baby, Genevieve’s grandchild, will have its father. Her gaze veers from Maylee’s belly to Tyler, and yes, she is proud. Her son who will be a soldier, who will be a veteran, who will become a businessman or a doctor or a lawyer or, just maybe, a rocket scientist.
Her son who will be a father, and what a wonderful father he will be.