The address she gave for our meeting turned out to be one of those pedestrian chain-restaurant/nightspots that perform the unsung service of keeping America's atomized middle class breeding, if barely.
I found it in an acid-yellow and dun colored building tucked into the armpit created by a loud and forbidding freeway on-ramp on one side and a hibernating bus terminal on the other. The building needed paint and a roof; its saucy name and logo, in dated script and design, once offered so confidently, was now mocked by its sagging, dowdy appearance. My faltering spirits stalled as I assessed the place. Arriving late, I sat in my car in the barren parking lot for ten minutes, staring at a faded American flag hanging lifeless and slack over the bus terminal's marginal squalor, not sure why I came and entertaining the notion of turning around. Regardless, it was too late; the agents had made me the moment I pulled up.
Once inside the nearly empty bar I immediately found her. Rather she found me; my attention settled on the darkened corner at the far end of the room as if drawn by a force there. Her eyes pierced the gloom like those of a she-wolf in moonlight, managing even at this distance to project her characteristic expression: intrusive, arrogant confidence. I took in a long breath, smiled, and approached.
"I didn't know they allowed smoking in bars here." I said, trying to affect nonchalance. I clumsily fell into the glossy vinyl booth, producing an embarrassing sort of noise. I made a show of settling into place by sliding my backside back and forth, but was unable to recreate the sound. Not a word from her and I was already at my characteristic, awkward disadvantage.
"They don't. You're late." She said, only then looking up at me, taking a long draw on her cigarette.
"I ran out of gas. Had to hike a mile with a jerry-can." I stammered. "Didn't even have enough to fill it." I mumbled, not really wanting her to hear.
"Sorry to hear that." She said unconvincingly.
She was made-up seductively, with rouge, eye-liner and, I suspected, false eyelashes. An aesthetic which is characterized in some all-male environments as CFM, which stands for "come f--- me." She was wearing a low-cut blouse and some sort of enhancing bra. She tilted her head defiantly as my eyes lingered; she had to check her hand, which reflexively rose to assume its typical thumb-and-forefinger cradle for her chin: the long practiced affectation of a "listening" posture. A slight lapse in her usual steel-girder control. Despite myself, I was charmed by this atypical vulnerability. She recovered and redirected her hand, reaching across and patting mine.
"I'll put this out if it bothers you."
"No, that's alright."
The transformation was jarring. Her style had previously been so studiously conservative that this was the first definitive confirmation I had that she actually possessed breasts. In my mind she was as inseparable from the pantsuit as Gandhi was from his loincloth and wire-rimmed glasses. The stray thought came to mind that the pantsuit serves the same purpose as Mao's Zhongshan suit: a uniform signifying a discrete aesthetic propounding a particular national identity.
"Is there a waitress in this place?" I said nervously, looking about. Then I noticed them, hopelessly out of place in their conservative suits and aviator-style sunglasses, one lingering near the door, scanning the room, the other attempting to use a potted plant for cover.
"Your detail isn't exactly blending in." I said. She smiled.
"Are you kidding? I don't want them to. If I don't keep them close by there's no telling what they'll get into. I could tell you some stories."
"Why do you keep them around then?"
"Window dressing, you know. They look imposing enough." She glanced over at one of them. "Most of the time that is. Somebody has to drive, run errands, clear out the occasional restaurant. You've heard the one about the Secret Service agent who locked his keys in his car?"
"Took him two hours to get the rest of his detail out."
I snorted dutifully. Over her shoulder I could see the television, showing a grim-faced newscaster with the Homeland Security terrorist threat graphic alongside. I didn't note the color-code level. A commercial came on that I knew well, a public service announcement warning against drunken driving. It proceeded through a series of state troopers accosting motorists, blinding them with flashlights, handcuffing one, guiding a drunk's head into a caged back-seat, finishing with a bull-necked, bow-tied trooper in a Smokey the Bear speaking sternly into the camera. I knew the grating voice-over nearly by heart; it played in my head as I watched, a growling, challenging man's voice, indistinguishable in tone and temper from that for a commercial for professional wrestling or a motocross exhibition, hectoring us over a shrill, arena rock style song.
"What have you been doing?"
"Not much really. Working a lot. Reading."
"Reading? I never took you for much of a reader." She reached across and gave my hand a quick squeeze, drawing hers away with a lingering caress. She laughed, as if abandoning a ruse. "Listen, D___, I know you're not some sort of virgin."
"No. But I may as well be at this point." I said, only realizing as I put my glass to my lips that it was empty. She smiled and, without looking away, raised her hand slightly. The waitress appeared instantly.
"I'll have scotch on rocks." I said.
"I'm sorry," the waitress looked fearfully at H____ as she spoke, "our ice machine is broken."
"Oh. Okay. Straight up then."
"Listen," she said, "those others can't do what I can do for you. They can't appreciate a decent, hard-working blue-collar man."
"I think you've mistaken me for somebody else." I said. "I'm not really in that demographic anymore. Rather it doesn't exist. It's out of fashion."
"Don't try to affect cynicism with me, D___, I know you."
"You know what? I think you actually do. But, that ship has sailed. There's nothing we can do for each other at this point. You'll go back to your world and I'll go back to mine. As it should be."
"Well, there might be something we can do for each other." She attempted to narrow her eyes seductively.
An Army recruiting spot came on; rangers hurtling out the back of a Chinook helicopter, rappelling down cliffs, technicians manning sophisticated machines. Someone changed the channel: a split screen, showing the two candidates for president, one in an uncomfortably close, fawning shot, his broad smile contorting the the thin skin over his skeletal features into painful looking folds, alternating with shots of hopping, giddy supporters waving signs and clapping wildly; the other an old man before a backdrop bearing the slogan and name of a lobbying institution, gesturing in a half-mechanical, half-narcotic fashion and speaking in a deliberately mild, sedated manner that contrasted with the mad look in his eyes.
"You ever get the impression that things are falling apart?" I said, surprising myself.
She gave me a knowing, empathetic look.
"You have no idea." She said, with the air of someone relieved of a long, losing struggle. "So, how about we get out of here? I've got nothing better to do. What about you?"
"No." I said, relenting. "I've got nothing at all."