Anytime you want to know the difference between fact and truth, just read a routine obituary.
The names are there, the dates, the outline of a life. But none of the juice. None of the real things, the reasons why, after all, we remember a person.
Bill Evans died of leukemia on Thanksgiving morning. He was 73, and for nearly 40 years he was one of those people in the big downtown buildings with lots of windows that no one looks out of, one of those people who quietly keeps Washington going, and maybe the country, too.
A Washington bureaucrat: There are thousands and thousands of them here, and they retire and die and get their names and dates in the paper, and that's that.
He was William T. Evans, a labor lawyer who started as a stenographer in the first months of the New Deal, got his law degree at night school, rose in the Labor Department to the post of special assistant to the general counsel. It's all in the obit. The commendations and citations he won through the years aren't listed, but you understood that in the end he was at the level where they hand out commendations. He retired in '71.
For 35 years he had lived in the block on Reservoir Road where his wife Martha had been born. She was a Lamasure, of a venerable Washington family, and the morning after she died unexpectedly in 1979 he met us in the back yard as he returned from a walk with her old poodle Bebe, and told us in two words, "Martha's dead," his voice raspy with outraged disbelief, his eyes streaming.
From our house next door we saw him every day after that, sitting in his chair in the closed porch, reading and rereading the newspapers and magazines like The Nation and Washington Monthly, watching and rewatching the news on TV, the analyses, the discussions. He knew everything about American politics, it seemed, from the philosophy to the nuts and bolts, always viewed from his basic position as a liberal Democrat tempered by seven decades of observant and humane living.
People loved to drop in, be offered a drink, and talk, often for hours, while he sat in his chair, smoking steadily but not frantically, working on his vodka-tonic.
He would drink them through the evening, never as many as you thought. You could go there and get talking, or watching the football game, and put away two or three drinks and then notice he was still on his first. Every so often he would get up, go to the kitchen, ritually cut a new wedge of lime with a paring knife on a little cutting board, renew his ice cubes and pour another drink.
Sometimes you could get him reminiscing about his year in France with the Navy during World War II, a rollicking odyssey from Place Pigalle to Gertrude Stein's salon, where a friend took him once. Or his boyhood in the Bronx, or his bawdy exploits with the 7th Regiment of the New York National Guard, the elite "Silk Stocking regiment," which he joined "so I could give the girls a Park Avenue address." (His housepainter father opposed it because the 7th was sometimes used to break strikes.) Or Prohibition days in Washington, where he found the gin undrinkable after New York's plush speak-easies.
He was a walking Baedecker of Washington's restaurants and night clubs, where people fled for a bit of relief in the dizzy days when the New Deal was going to save the world and every lowly secretary had a mission in life and no one thought twice about working through the night. And the Saturday night train back to New York: It was a Who's Who on wheels, with the likes of Rexford Tugwell and David Dubinsky and half the FDR brain trust bumping in the aisles. Exciting times.
He had been everywhere, it seemed, knew all the old Washington hands, remembered how San Diego looked before the war when it was still charming, had seen the workers' shanties where Hoover Dam was being built, had been to Ireland several times with the Arts Club. Thursdays, he checked in with his cronies at Nick & Dottie's Black Steer, across from the old State Department.
After Martha died, the horizons gradually pulled closer. (Oh, the Martha stories. She wore her kindness as casually as her slippers. It was her son Robert who said once, "Nobody ever had three strikes with Martha.") Several days a week Bobby rushed back from his job as facilities manager at the Freer Gallery to have lunch with his father.
Then this summer Bebe had to be put down, so the daily dogwalks stopped -- Bill in his Irish cap slowly progressing around the block at the other end of the leash -- and then Bill came home from his traditional visit to Bethany Beach with swollen ankles. Went to the hospital, came back a wraith. A grandniece went to live at the house. He carried on, but he needed naps now, and transfusions. This month he returned to the hospital, and this time he stayed. His brother Frank came down from New York. The family took turns being with him.
By Thanksgiving Eve his system had stopped working entirely and he couldn't even drink water. He allowed as how he would love a vodka-tonic. So Bobby went back to the house and brought him a flask and his Harvey's Restaurant goblet and some ice cubes and a lime and the paring knife and the little cutting board. He assembled the drink with style, dipped a swab in it and swabbed a bit in Bill's mouth. They had a party there, the family, and some of his favorite nurses came in, and it was a pretty jolly scene.
Then Bill pulled his half-glasses down his nose, as he always did when he had an announcement to make. "Well, ladies," he said. "Now I'm going to hit the sack."
It was about as good an exit line as you could want.