The rest of the world might have forgotten it, but the Atherton family never quite recovered. With sharp, witty, and suspenseful prose, All the Houses reveals their story, as Helen pieces together the political moves that pulled her family apart.
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All the Houses
By Karen Olsson
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Karen Olsson
All rights reserved.
For a few years my father was known. I mean his name was known, in Washington. It floated in the swirl of names around the Reagan White House: not a big name, not a Weinberger or a Deaver, a Casey, a Meese, but one that surfaced every so often in print, toward the end of a piece in The Post. At other times his name was hidden, that is to say he was quoted anonymously, as a source within the administration. A source orbiting close to the sun. He worked for the State Department as a deputy assistant secretary and briefly for something called the Office of Programs Review and then joined the National Security Council staff, where he remained through the spring of 1987. So he was known to the people that knew people.
I remember certain signs of his authority, the deference of other dads, for instance, who asked for his opinions while their daughters, my friends, fidgeted and tugged at their sleeves. I remember the tan-colored telephone in his study that we weren't allowed to touch, which I now know to have been a secure communications device, and then there was the fact that he was so rarely home, and tied up on that sacred line when he was home.
Still, I wouldn't call him a "Washington insider." He never had the social chops for that — no clubby inclinations, no instinct for placing himself at the center of the story. He didn't want to be there, that's my hunch, if only a hunch, since back then I was a girl, and I thought he was important in the way that kids think their dads are important. He was the dad, the smartest man in the world, who left before dawn every morning for his big-deal job (something I felt pride about but hardly understood) and who was more significant to us, my sisters and me, for having built all our wooden beds himself, for snaking the drains when they were clogged, imposing the punishments when we strayed, paddling us down the rivers of Maryland and Virginia in rented canoes, and taking us out for dinner at the Magic Pan or the American Café. And now that I am — I still hesitate to say this — an adult, it's not the peak of his government career but the abrupt ending that I remember most vividly.
One Saturday morning in December 1986, two men showed up on our porch. I happened to be in the front room, prone on the sofa, when I saw them through the window: a couple of men wearing overcoats. I'd been waiting for my older sister because it was basketball season, and on those winter Saturdays we were due at the school gym at 10:00 a.m. sharp. She often made us late to practice, though, and then the two of us had to run extra sprints, a.k.a. suicides. So beforehand, I would lie on the sofa and attempt a kind of ESP summons, trying to will her downstairs by repeating her name in my head, over and over, until the sounds forced their way out of my mouth and I would shout: Court-ney!
That morning I kept quiet. I answered the door. The taller of the two men had a briefcase, his bare red fingers curled around the handle, and the shorter one was carrying flattened file boxes under one arm. They said nothing at first, as though each were waiting for the other to begin, or maybe they expected me to speak up. I didn't say "Yes" or "Can I help you" but just waited. I already knew them to be adversaries. Then one of them, the taller one, asked for my dad by name, and what struck me as strange was not that I'd suddenly found myself acting out a scene from TV (the one in which detectives knock on a door, and the door is answered by a woman or a kid) — no, that wasn't strange, since some part of me still believed that life would eventually take the shape it took on television. What was strange to me was how young the men seemed, younger than my teachers, much younger than my parents.
It was a long time ago, but I do believe that these things I recall are more or less true. A sourness in my stomach. The way my socks slouched around my high-tops. How I found my father after I went to get him: lying on the kitchen floor with his head inside the sink cabinet, surrounded by the spray bottles and desiccated sponges he'd taken out of there. He grunted as he fiddled with the pipes. I told him some men had come to see him, and when he pulled himself out of the cabinet, he had a small wrench in his mouth. (He was always trying to fix something, whether or not he was fixing the sink on that particular day.)
At practice we ran and ran and ran. When we got back, Dad was still in his study, and the men were still in there with him. Our mom had taken a quiche from the freezer, as though these visitors were friends who would join us for brunch once they'd finished whatever they were doing, and I remember how angry she was after Courtney and I, gobbling up whatever we could find, ate more than half of that quiche. Still frozen in the middle. To Mom, the fact that we hadn't heated it up or used forks made things worse. And even then, even as she was asking us how come we had to go and stuff absolutely everything down our craws, the house was so quiet, all fogged up with a silence that her words, or the sounds of the faucet or the refrigerator door, wound their way through without dispersing.
Courtney started up the stairs, and I trailed after her, and just as she reached the second-floor landing, the taller of the visitors came out of the study. For a second or two we all froze: this man (who, I could see now that he'd taken off his coat and rolled up his sleeves, had fleshy arms) and the two of us in our sweatshirts and shorts and damp socks. As if he were one sort of deer and we were another. Courtney tossed out a "hi," like a challenge. From behind I saw her stand up straighter, and when she started walking again, it was the walk of a girl who knows she's being watched. The man looked, then caught himself looking, coughed out a "hello" and turned toward the hall bathroom. Courtney bolted up the next flight of stairs, to her bedroom on the third floor, and I slipped into mine on the second.
Maggie came in and sat down next to my bed. She asked whether Dad would be arrested. I said the men had probably come to the wrong house, though by then they'd been there for more than three hours. She lay down on the rug and arranged my lip gloss and chapstick tubes into a geometrical design while I turned the pages of a magazine I had already read.
Up in her room, Courtney turned on her stereo, and I could hear the muffled extremes of a song, a pulsing bass joined by the off-and-on babble of a synthesizer's high notes. I guessed that she'd climbed out onto the roof to smoke, something she did even when our parents were home, daring them to go up there and catch her at it. They never did. Wanting to catch her myself, I opened the window for a whiff of the cigarette. Then we heard slow, heavy footsteps descending the stairs, and we hurried into our parents' room, which overlooked the street, to watch as the men carried their file boxes, now filled with the contents of Dad's desk, to a gray sedan.
And did I really see one of our neighbors, Mrs. Morse, watching from her doorway? That might be an embellishment, some stock image that I converted to memory. The day that the FBI agents came and seized Dad's files, I had no idea who they were, what was happening. Even after they left, we weren't told. Although the idea that parents should communicate openly with their children was on the rise in 1986 — we were supposed to have heart-to-heart talks about drugs and sex and feelings — our mom and dad didn't really go in for all that. Drugs and sex were not mentioned, never mind matters of the heart. We were more of a head-to-head family. I used to see this as a failure, the failure to speak honestly and candidly. In my twenties I decided it was my parents' great flaw, though I've since come to recognize that (surprise!) I'm much more like them than I once believed.
What do I really remember from that day, what would I state for the record? We were all in different parts of the house when they came. I was lying on the sofa. Even before the men rang the doorbell, I sensed a shift in the light, or the tone, or the key. A yellowness. They stayed for a long, long time.
And suicides: hurtling forward and back, forward and back, on jelly legs, from one line on the court to another, slapping the floor with our hands. My sister was fast that day. I chased her, flailing, never catching up until the very end, when we stumbled right out of the gym and through the lobby and out the door, drawing icy blades of air into our lungs. As I ran, parts of songs would spin in my head, one bleeding into the next, you and me, my part time lover, and la di da di we like to party and then, when everything else had been wrung out, a bit from the Black Beauty record we'd listened to on our plastic turntable when we were younger. After each chapter had come a sung chorus about the poor horse's plight: Black Beauty! In the wind and the rain! We used to tear around the house singing that.
A few days after my thirty-fourth birthday, in October 2004, my dad had emergency surgery. He went to the hospital with chest pains and was discharged the following week with a huge scar on his torso and a vein from his leg sewn into his heart. He was sixty-three at the time. I relied on Courtney and later Dad himself for reports by phone and e-mail about his recovery, reports that only renewed my anxieties, that only marked the beginning of the wait for the next useless report. There came a spell of cool, windy nights when I'd be in my Pasadena apartment, watching but not really watching the TV campaign coverage, and on the screen would be John Kerry's long mug jawing away, as outside the wind shushed the city with all its own failed campaigns, its canyons full of taillights, and Kerry would remind me of my dad, in a way that was hard to put my finger on, since there was little physical resemblance. It could've been that both of them had been forged by Washington into unnatural versions of themselves, not that I knew what the natural version of Kerry would've been, not that I knew in my dad's case either. Or maybe it was just that both had been kicked in the balls when they weren't expecting it — even though they should've expected it, Kerry should've known they'd come after him with their steel-toed boots on, that they'd hit him with every last thing they could dream up, Swift Boat and all, just as my dad should've known he was getting in over his head back in '85 and '86.
My parents had long since divorced, and my father now lived by himself, which I'd fretted about in an abstract way before then, but after his surgery it was like I'd had an extra thing installed in my own heart, a black vein full of worry. "I'll just come now," I told Dad over the phone. "I'll get a flight tomorrow."
"You don't need to do that. The doctors said I'm doing well. They're transferring me to rehab in a couple days."
"Have you talked to Mom?"
"She called. She was already planning to be in town next week, so she'll stop by, I think."
"I'll come next week too. You're just going to be sitting in that rehab place."
"No reason you should have to sit there too. Why don't you come at Thanksgiving? I'll buy you a ticket."
"I'll buy it. You don't have to buy it."
"Just e-mail me some dates."
I couldn't tell how he was doing. I tried to ask him, for example, whether he was in pain, and he would answer by listing the medications he was taking. Vicodin, Lovenox, Plavix: oddly menacing names all built from the same kit. "I'll have to get one of those geriatric tackle boxes for all this junk," he said. He would make jokes about how he was an old man now, but I suspected it was true, the surgery had marked the close of middle age for him, and now here was the next (the last) act. Although he said he was fine, his voice was thin and evasive.
I would tell him the same thing, that I was fine, but in fact I'd had a tough year. My boyfriend and I had broken up, I'd briefly dated another man who revealed himself to be an awful and disgusting person, and then I promptly dropped into a depression like it was a hole in the sidewalk. I began to dread leaving the apartment. I would stare out the window at the sunburned man on the corner, who would arrange fruit in upturned straw hats of the same kind he wore on his head, jumbo strawberries and pineapples so sweet you could practically smell them from my bedroom. He sold these marvels for not very much money at all, the prices marked in childish handwriting on pieces of cardboard. As summer wore on, I'd spent more and more of the day in bed, watching C-SPAN. I looked forward to the speeches of Senator Byrd the way other homebound women might look forward to Guiding Light or Oprah, and I sent long emails to my sisters complaining about Congress and the Bush administration and Karl Rove and so on. How boring it was to be depressed! And in this case, the boringness of my depression somehow got all muddled with the boringness of our nation's capital. I had bad ideas about how to jazz things up. I'd been trying, fitfully, to make the switch from production crew person to writer, and to that end I'd found myself a manager named Phil Franklin. He would call, and I would float notions for movies, say, a film in which malevolent robots from Dallas take over the White House. Or a television series called Appropriations, about short, ugly male lobbyists and their hot wives.
Phil was a decent but impatient man who had prominent ears that he was self-conscious about and that he would try to hide by wearing one of those snap-brimmed tweed caps — which only made him look goofier, since the L.A. weather for the most part wasn't tweed-cap weather. And anyway the ears stuck out from under the cap. This futile cap nevertheless seemed right for him, as Phil was theoretically capable of listening but was always half-covering his ears, generating too much interference to listen for very long. I couldn't make it through a sentence without hearing him start to type on the other end of the line. Granted, the quality of my pitches might have had something to do with it. We had agreed on a brand, the Helen Atherton brand, a quirky-funny-girl brand, not compatible with robot political thrillers. "People don't go to Sur La Table to get their oil changed," Phil told me, and I couldn't decide whether he was being sexist or just unhelpful. "They go there for kitchen shit," he said.
The real problem, though, was that my whole sensibility had not aged well. In my twenties, everything had been funny, everything had been absurd. Back then, "quirky" had positive connotations. But some time after my thirtieth birthday, I started to feel as though I were parodying myself when I tried to be amusing, and besides, I wasn't as quick as I'd been, or as up-to-date. My timing was off. My jokes became barbs. I felt like this somewhat desperate single woman who was trying too hard. Not a summer month went by that I didn't spend a thousand dollars going to somebody else's wedding. Occasionally I would call one of my sisters in tears, and I would talk about leaving Los Angeles, because it was the only way I could think to change my life. "Maybe I should just move," I'd say.
There was a time when they would encourage me to hang in there, but lately they were more likely to offer suggestions of where to move, such as Missoula, Montana. That came from Maggie, who must've had some fantasy about Missoula. And Courtney hinted that D.C. was a different place now than it had been when we were growing up. I might like it if I gave it a chance.
Hell to the no, I thought when she said it. Ever since I was a teenager I'd made my own special thorn out of Washington and its faults. The segregation, the small-mindedness, the wonks. The "Where do you work?" The acronyms in response. The weight of institutions and of so much self-inflation. The blazers, the pearl necklaces, the bow ties, the stuffed shirts, the eager-beaver bullshitters. The rules and regulations. The righteous nonprofits. The low, drab buildings and the alphabet streets, the statuary, the Potomac, the traffic circles, the Metro, the Tourmobiles, Wisconsin Avenue, Mazza Gallerie! My lame hometown, that is to say the soft, white, northwestern portion of the city where I grew up. Throughout high school and college all the futures I imagined for myself unfurled themselves elsewhere, anywhere else, Rome, Missoula, Mongolia, the moon, if only because I thought nothing good would ever happen to me in Washington, D.C. Nothing bad either. Nothing at all.
Excerpted from All the Houses by Karen Olsson. Copyright © 2015 Karen Olsson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
For a few years my father was known.,
I remember a weekend afternoon ...,
He still lived in the house ...,
My first days at home with Dad ...,
"Did I ever tell you about the time ...",
I left my father at the AU campus ...,
When I was a kid the news was full ...,
I can picture Dick Mitchell's hairy legs ...,
Later, in retrospect, that abortive pool party ...,
I went to that job on the day of Dad's panel ...,
When we picked him up the following day ...,
"You should come up to New York with me" ...,
Dick Mitchell was Dad's best friend ...,
With the help of the Internet I found a place ...,
My father and Dick Mitchell both moved to Washington ...,
I had nocturnal bouts of sister-nostalgia.,
Mid-August, 1986: the city ...,
No one else could rile me the way Courtney could.,
"So Dad," I would say to my father on the phone ...,
"It's fifty percent pure bullshit" ...,
Nobody sleeps. The men tasked with ...,
My neighbor Daniel didn't seem to observe ...,
Although Tim is the one who works on the NSC ...,
Dad had received all the usual holiday invitations ...,
For better or worse (in the end, probably worse) ...,
Christmas was a challenge ...,
The next day I wished I were a wanderer ...,
It had been so reassuring to be ferried around ...,
And then I was disturbed by a different piece of news ...,
I'm not great with endings. Neither was Lawrence E. Walsh ...,
A Note About the Author,
Also by Karen Olsson,