Camp David made him horny, everything about it — the goofy swimmin’ holes, the timbered dining halls, the motor court cabins done up in a thrift-store Happy Angler motif, like Mamie Eisenhower’s vision of an Adirondack Berchtesgarden. The point of the place was to Retreat, clear the head of leadership in the bosom of the woods, some F. Scott Thoreau-type jazz, but the woods were rigged with the latest anti-SigInt gear, microwave bafflers under underbrush, emitting the acrylic hum of a wounded engine. Tashmo walked the fences in boots and Wrangler jeans, slinging his sixteen just like in the war, always in long sleeves and slathered in bug lotion, because the woods were ticky, and if the ticks bit you, you got this thing called Lyme disease, which was basically old age except you caught it from a deer.
Walking the woods at night, Tashmo heard the bafflers, but couldn’t always find them. The humming wavelength was designed to bounce between the trees and carry forever. The term was propagate, the techies said, the description of this bouncing, like in the Bible (he remembered Vietnam) and Abraham did propagate with Sarah, or like Russia, where they had propaganda instead of democracy. He tried to follow the hum, but he found himself walking in big circles, the moon between the trees, on his left, then on his right. The bafflers he couldn’t find made his dick stand up. Many times on lone patrols he had to lean against a tree and jerk off in the dark just to get his mind back on Jimmy Carter.
He spent a lot of time in the duty hut, drinking rotgut coffee with Lloyd Felker, filling out the logs, watching a wall of CCTV, surveillance cameras sweeping fences all night long. They had motion sensors, infrared, scanners tuned to wide array. They tracked possum for fun and watched Johnny Carson, the monologue and guests, the smutty banter from the couches. They tracked the protest hippies, the anti-nukers trying to infiltrate from the west, saw them coming miles in advance.
Tashmo was a Secret Service agent. He liked to interview the anti-nukers. He considered them hippies and perhaps they were. He offered them cigarettes, went easy on the frisks, gave them exciting jeep rides to the admin shack. He admired hippies, the whole Woodstock thing. They said that Vietnam was bad — he had seen it, and agreed. They advocated free love in the mud — he hadn’t seen it, but he wanted to. But the hippies he met under Carter were a dreary, worried group. He asked them how often they got laid, as hippies, in an average day, sincerely curious, but they could only talk about Three Mile Island, rads and rems and cataclysmic heat-exchanger failures.
Anita was a hippie, a suburban Buddhist, and she vacuumed in the buff. He saw her twice a week, stopping by for yogurt and a blowjob when Carter was at camp. Sex with her was exercise, she said, a brief communion with the honesty of bodies. She grew bean sprouts in the basement, quoted Joni Mitchell, and wouldn’t let Tashmo smoke in the house even if he promised to blow it out the window. There was always a tension with Anita. The tension made it sexy, their little tug-of-war. Tashmo loved her clothes, her jerkins and her moccasins, and secretly he wanted to undress her partially and do the deed that way, but she was always in a rush for total honesty.
"It’s all wrapped up together," Tashmo mused one day as she went down on him. "If we didn’t have clothes, being naked wouldn’t mean too much."
She shrieked in his lap.
He said, "What’s the problem down there?"
"Your cock," she gagged. "It, it — it tastes almost like the smell of Deep Woods Off."
Tashmo said, "Oh that."
He explained about the deer tick infestation at Camp David, how the agents smeared themselves in bug repellent, how it got from his hands to his manhood when he jerked off in the woods, and how he thought of her, jerking off alone. He thought she might be flattered by this honest revelation, but no dice. She made him take a shower with the soap she cooked at home.
He came back with a towel and described his driveway fantasy, Anita kneeling in a buckskin shift, holding the ample dairy platter. He was hoping for a little role-playing, but Anita was aghast. She said he was describing the Land O Lakes logo woman, the box the butter comes in, the ethnocentric squaw. She strode off naked to the fridge, returning with a box of Land O Lakes. Sure enough, there she was, glowing on the package, his sexual ideal, a Pochahontan princess, offering him butter on her knees.
Things were never right with Anita after that, but he didn’t let it get him down. Suburbia was full of wives — wives like lawns, beautiful and useless and tended by their husbands once a week. Upper P.G. County was a civil service bedroom. The husbands in his town were civil service lifers, like the EPA ecologist, or Tashmo and his Secret Service buds, or like Tashmo’s neighbor, Bo Gould, who could sing all seven verses of the Fannie Mae fight song. The wives were mostly ex-flower children, transitioning to something else, like Canadian Anita with her orange Karmann Ghia, her well-thumbed Kama Sutra, and her closet full of suede.
There was something in the air back then, Carter winding down, a funky son of hope, like they were on the verge of a great discovery, and it made him horny, driving past the lawns, buying milk and fudgsicles at the supermarket, women pushing shopping carts in tennis dresses. He followed them for aisles. Shopping made him horny. Working made him horny. Breakfast made him horny — reaching for the Land O Lakes, he spread the melting squaw. Betty Crocker in the flour — what would that be like? Fishy Mrs. Paul, Aunt Jemima dripping syrup, the ripe tomato Contadina wench. These vestals of the Pik’N’Save, always feeding others, but what about their needs?
He didn’t jerk off in the supermarket. No, he was strong. He waited till he was in the car. Afterwards, he zipped his dick away, wiped his hands on a moist towelette, and had the best smoke of the afternoon, slouched behind the wheel, watching women in tennis dresses return their carts, unloaded, to the automatic doors, or leaving them to drift on wheels across the parking lot. America. Driving home from Camp David, Tashmo passed the subdivisions spreading over hills, except for one stretch of razor-ribboned fence, undeveloped blankness, several miles worth. He passed it coming back from camp and wondered why this square of forest stood untouched as every hill around it sprouted homes. One night in the duty shack, he mentioned the blankness to Lloyd Felker. They were watching Johnny Carson and the heat-screen monitors, both of which were pretty dull that night. Felker said the thing you couldn’t see behind the trees, the undeveloped heat of P.G. Country, was the black budget at Fort Meade, the National Security Agency.
Tashmo said, "The spy guys?"
"Bet your ass," said Felker. "They have a fleet of satellites, biggest mainframe ever built. They can listen to any conversation in the world. They make us look pitiful. Tashmo later realized that many husbands in his town were commuting to black budgets. He learned to spot them, off-duty at the dump, at his daughter’s school plays, or at Generoso’s on Inspection Saturday. The spies he knew were bearded, brainy, nervous men, good fathers and bad drivers. They would never say exactly what they did or where they did it. They always lived civilian-side cover and Tashmo tortured them for sport.
He remembered the intermission at Mandy’s fourth-grade Thanksgiving pageant. Not a beer in sight and he found himself talking to a dad who said he worked for the FCC. Tashmo toyed with the man, asking intricate questions about spectrum auctions.
"Like what if, for example, I wanted my own band. What exactly are the steps that are involved."
Shirl had made him go to the pageant. Mandy played a singing turkey and Tashmo wreaked his vengeance on this poor fake regulator. The guy-who’s-not-a-spy tried to duck the question. He said, "I don’t work in that part of the slope. The Commission, as you know, is quite a little empire."
"What part do you work in?" Tashmo asked.
"The other part."
"What does your part do?"
"Pretty much nothing about spectrum auctions."
Tashmo told his neighbor, Bo Gould, about the pageant dad, forced by his position to pretend to be a bureaucrat, when he was, in fact, a different kind of bureaucrat. They were drinking Sambuca shooters in the Goulds’ elaborate finished basement, playing with Bo’s HO train set.
Bo was smashed that night. He said, "Want to know what I really do?"
Tashmo said, "You work for Fannie Mae. You sing the fight song. Sing it for me, Bo."
Bo sang a verse —
"O Fannie Mae, O Fannie Mae You spread the credit widely. . ."
Then he waved. "Fannie Mae is bullshit. It’s called cover, Tash. I don’t even know why they assigned me to that one. I requested the President’s Council of Physical Fitness, but they said that cover was taken. I’m on the waiting list, in case a spot opens up. But my real job is listening from space. My specialty is France. I could be fired for telling you this. Hope nobody heard me."
After Bo passed out, Tashmo wandered upstairs, taking one last beer from the fridge, making himself a quick burger with fried onions.
To the living room. How do spies live? Picture-window views of other picture windows. A recliner chair, brown leather. He’d always wanted one of these. Test it out, tilt it back. They look so comfortable, but how the fuck do you get up?
Sip the beer. Where’d I put that burger?
He pushed himself up. Bookshelves always tell a story. He read the spines by the streetlights, Principles of Radio, Birding on the Chesapeake, Michener, Uris, von Clausewitz, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He stepped back from the books and felt the burger squishing underfoot. He peeled it from the carpet and took another bite as Leah Gould, Bo’s wife, padded down the stairs.
Tashmo nodded at her, chewing. "How’s it going, Lee?"
Leah was a handsome woman. She played a bit of tennis at Patuxent Park and when she hit a forehand, she went Uh.
She stared at him that night. She wore pom-pom slippers and a forbidding nightie. She said, "Have you been frying something, Tash?"
It was clearly time to slide. He walked home under the trees, swinging his arms, finishing his beer. He felt it strongly, walking home, the funky hope.
He woke Shirl up, climbing into bed.
Shirl said, "Where the hell have you been?"
"Over at Bo’s. We played with his train set, demolished his Sambuca. Turns out he’s a major U.S. spy."
Shirl said, "It’s three a.m."
She rolled away from him.
Tashmo said that Bo could listen to any conversation in the world.
Shirl said, "What’s it like inside? I heard they were redoing their kitchen."
When the men went out with Carter, their families get together for potluck supper on Miss America Night, or had cookouts with games and prizes for the kids by the picnic shelter in Patuxent Park. The wives of the detail made an effort to be friends, even though they had nothing in common except the fact that their husbands had been thrown together by the whim of the assignments wheel, guarding a president none of them had voted for. The wives might not have picked the same husbands again, given the opportunity, and surely didn’t pick, as friends, the wives of men their husbands hadn’t picked, and the kids picked no one, not Carter, not their fathers, not their fathers’ coworkers, and not their fathers’ coworkers’ kids, yet everybody was supposed to bond at these events, and every family brought a dog. The dogs fought, humped, and ran way. The kids blamed each other’s dogs and screamed until they blacked out from lack of oxygen. It seemed like a perfect hell to Tashmo, but Shirl said it was good to get together once a month, eat potluck with Sue Rhodes and Lydia Felker. It was good to get together and watch the world broadcast premiere of The Way We Were or the Miss America, root for good old North Dakoty, the brave deaf girl from Oregon whose singing was disturbing, Hawaii’s always pretty but never seems to win, and what the heck is up in Massachusetts? Is Neet illegal there?
He went to a few picnics, watched the wives. He didn’t jerk off at the picnics. No, he waited till he got home and Shirl was definitely sleeping. He had an iron rule: no Secret Service wives, look and lust, but don’t touch. He tried to obey this rule, to masturbate the urge away, but despite his diligenceÑwell.
He’d be packing to leave Camp David and another agent would catch him in the bunkhouse.
"Hey Tash, you going back?"
Tashmo would crack wise. "See me packing, dipshit?"
"Listen, do a favor. Goddamn wife can’t change a fuse. She says half the house is dark. It’s on your way home, man."
Or: "I got some dirty shirts. Hey Tash, you heading back?"
He’s thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three, driving down the Balt-Wash in his suedest phase, smoking Trues, drinking beer, listening to Hot Country Hits, pulling through the cloverleaf, heading like a missile for his buddies’ bedrooms.
This happened many times: the wife is under Tashmo, cradled in his arms, his St. Olaf medal falling on her breasts. The doorbell rings, a pair of sweaty Seventh-Day Adventists. They showed up every third day in that part of Maryland.
The wife looks toward the door. "Let’s not get it."
"No," says Tashmo, full inside of her, "I don’t think we should."
He didn’t feel too guilty, cuckolding agents his own age. He figured that after seven years or so, a marriage works or doesn’t, all by itself. Nothing he did when he dropped off laundry could have any influence, and the last thing Tashmo wanted, ever, then or now, was influence. The junior agents were a different deal, Texans, Californians, and Midwesterners, young husbands recruited out of Crim Division stations near their homes, where their wives could see their mothers and their sisters every weekend. The Service did these couples a disservice, he believed, bringing them east when their marriages were fragile, new and tenuous, untenured, dumping their wives in the Balt-Wash Corridor, putting the husbands on the road. The wives didn’t know anyone in Maryland and along comes Tashmo with his Trues, his boots, and his impressive mastery of fuses.
The wife is barefoot, living in the dark, possibly unable to cook. She’s wearing jeans cut under her belly, her frizzy Orphan Annie hair tied up in a tube sock. It’s not like he came with anything in mind, but she offers to show him where the fuse box is, and her jeans and her feet slap the floor as she walks, her ass going this way and that. The house smells like pot and pot pourri. He takes out the old fuse, screws in the new, and throws the knife switch. Nine lamps go on, two radios, a blender, and a blow dryer in the bathroom. Tashmo thinks this little waif must’ve gone around trying each appliance, thinking — what? It’s not the fuse?
The wife’s a little sheepish in her jeans. "Takes a man’s touch, I guess."
Bullshit in the wicker chairs and they have a beer. She’s summarizing the latest issue of Esquire, which is open on the coffee table next to the clamshell ashtray, the lidless jar of Noxema, and the digital clock which blinks 7:32, 7:32, 7:32, blinking as a warning so you’ll know that it’s not really 7:32.
He hooks a finger in her belt loop. "These are fine. Where’d you get ’em?"
She names a store in Fresno and they tongue-kiss. Swiveling heads, all the yummy noises, the lift-off of the tank tip, a joint operation, and, underneath, the blazing nurse-white glory of Maidenform bra. The jeans are wiggled out of — she turns her back shyly. Her panties are a color called mello yello. Her toenails are a color called pearl.
There are far too many items on the bed, little Chiclet pillows for decoration, others with arms for reading on, and the normal sleeping pillows, which are also in the way, and it seems he’s pulling pillows from his ass.
He mounts her.
She says, "Ouchie."
Her legs are badly burned in the back. She says, "I fell asleep in the sun."
They try again. She’s on top, jouncing titties swinging to her rhythm, nipples circling his face, making him a little dizzy. He grabs her nipples to hold them still and she cries, "Yes!"
This was how it started with Lydia Felker. It was early summer, 1980. Carter was ahead of Reagan in most polls. Outside, the hired men were cutting lawns.
Excerpted from the novel Big If, published by W. W. Norton and Company. Copyright © Mark Costello 2002.
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