Sam Taylor bought the house on Highland Place in 1947 when he first moved to Washington from Wisconsin. It was a Victorian clapboard farmhouse, painted white, with turrets and stained glass windows, built by Senator Percy from Rhode Island the same year that ground was broken for the Cathedral, half a mile up the road. Senator Percy had died there although he had intended to return to Rhode Island in his retirement, and the house went to a Supreme Court justice who was robbed and beaten one September afternoon on his own front steps. An actress whose name did not survive except on the deed lived there with her companion in the '30s and sold the house to one of Roosevelt's people, a Jew, who was the first Jew to buy a house on Highland Place. He was an intellectual man with an accent, the neighbors said. His family was German. Shortly after the end of the war, he died unexpectedly, and his widow sold the house to Sam Taylor.
On one of the rough cement walls in the basement of the house there was a child's painting of a former occupant, a florid-faced man with black hair and the enormous furry body of a brown, four-legged creature, perhaps a buffalo: "My Father as a Greek God, by his son, Ollie," he had written in black paint.
When the Taylors bought the house, they repainted and changed te wallpaper throughout, but on one got around to painting over the picture in the basement. In fact, Natty Taylor had, in fourth grade, painted another picture on the opposite wall of herself in a white robe with hair to her ankles: "Brunnhilde Taylor. Queen," she had written.
Natty Taylor left the house on Highland Place before dinner. She didn't even practice the cello for her first solo recital on Christmas Eve at the Cathedral. Joe McCarthy was coming to spend the evening again.
"For dinner?" Natty had asked.
"Yes," Sam said.
You'd have a common criminal spend the night in the guest room," Ellen Taylor muttered.
"I might, Ellen," Sam said, "if no one else was sleeping there."
So Natty left. She wasn't angry at her father as Ellen was, who'd closed the bedroom door and climbed defeated into bed. But she wasn't going to eat dinner with Joe McCarthy either.
"I'm meeting Filip DeAngelis," she told her father. "There's a party at Dick Carr's in Georgetown."
"Fipip will bring you home?"
"If his mother will let him," Natty said. "Did you see the story she wrote about you and Joe McCarthy in The News today?"
"I don't read stories like that if I can help it," he said. He had been a newspaperman long enough to be selective even about himself. "I don't read obituaries, either."
"Rosa said some terrible things about how you and Joe McCarthy had known each other as children."
"She said you were good friends."
Natty put on her coat.
"We're not good friends," Sam Taylor said. "But Rosa's right. We knew each other as children."
He opened the door for her.
"I'm sorry, Natty," he said. "It's not always pleasant to grow up in this city."
"It's all right." She pulled up her hood against the snow.
The night was snowdamp, thick with soft crystals which melted on her cheeks and circled the street lights with hazy moons. Natty headed straight down Highland Place, walking in the street because the antique mossy bricks of Cleveland Park were slippery even in dry weather. She could feel her father behind her, standing on the edge of their open porch without a coat, watching her move in and out of the shadows from the street lights.
"Do you have boots?" he urged her back.
Yup," she called brightly without turning.
"Take a streetcar to Georgetown," he added.
"And walk on the main streets."
At Reno Road she heard him call, "Natty," and then again, but she didn't turn around. There was plenty of traffic on Reno, and she could easily pretend not to have heard him at all.
On Newark Street Natty heard the familiar rattle of Will Barnes' pickup truck behind her. He stopped and called out.
"Are you going to Dick Carr's?"
"I was just going up toward Wisconsin Avenue," he said when she had climbed inside. It wasn't true. Since he'd let his sister, Eliza, off at Dick Carr's he had been cruising these blocks, hoping for a glimpse of Natty.
The truck smelled of the barn where Will spent most of his time. It smelled of manure from the bottom of his cowboy boots. Natty rolled the window down and it snowed in her lap.
"Is Fil DeAngelis coming to Carr's party?" Will asked.
"I'm meeting him there." Natty replied. "He has basketball practice."
"During Christmas vacation?"
"There's some kind of practice all the time."
It was not common for Fil DeAngelis to be invited to a party at Dick Carr's. They went to different schools and opposed each other on athletic teams, although Dick Carr was no competition for the dark Italian boy, who had, it was predicted, a national future in football or baseball-whichever he preferred. They were not good friends.
The light at Wisconsin Avenue was red, and Will glanced quickly at Natty, at the straight nose and full lips shadowed in the street light. Sometimes he put himself to sleep at night dreaming of making love to her in the hay he'd stacked behind the barn, leaving a stack unsheathed just for the ghost of her. Will Barnes did not connect except in dreams. In dreams he died for things, and probably would one day in fact. Natty knew that people were afraid of Will. He had no sense of limitations and would do anything.
But in Will's dream of making love to Natty, just before he fell asleep, his own naked body, long and narrow at the hips, would turn into the thick dark body of Filip DeAngelis. In fact, he liked him. There was something simple and noble about the other boy which Will Barnes understood because he'd grown up in open spaces without another person in sight for miles except his own family. There was something unbelievable, too-as though Filip DeAngelis had fallen out of a Roman legend where gods fulfilled in innocent ways man's simple concept of them.
"Did you see The News tonight?" Natty asked.
"You mean the piece about your father?"
"Yeah." She leaned back against the seat of Will's truck and shut her eyes. "He's coming for dinner again."
"No big deal."
"I guess." She rolled up her window. The damp snow had filled her lap. "Except that Filip's mother writes about it all the time."
When Will Barnes' father had been secretary of commerce under Roosevelt, he had fallen in love with one of his young assistants, a boyish girl, strong-minded as he, and fathered Will and Eliza-already then he was over 60 and married to a woman who'd been crazy, put away in California years before. But he divorced that woman and married Nell and lived until the yer of Will and Eliza's 12th birthday. Before he died he'd had for years a national reputation for fierce determination and honesty and a sharp tongue. So Will Barnes understood growing up with your father in the paper every night.
"Don't read The News," he said. He pulled over on R Street in Georgetown just two blocks from Dick Carr's house.
"Do you know about this party?" he asked.
"Not much," Natty said. "Dick told me yesterday that his parents were in Oklahoma. He always has a party when his parents are away."
"An open party?"
"Well, this one's closed. Did he tell you that?"
"He said he was inviting people. Not just everyone," she said. "He did invite Fil."
"Something's going on there tonight," Will said. "I had this funny feeling when I dropped Eliza off a while ago."
Dick Carr did not always include Natty in his parties, which were frequent and well known. She was pleased to be asked. He was not well liked at Sidwell Friends, with a reputation as a bully, but he had a kind of power. He was an enormously tall boy, nearly six-eight, and otherwise undistinguished. He had grown up on an Oklahoma ranch-the third son of a father who had been an oilman and was now a senator.
"Mean," Sam Taylor had once said of Paul Carr. "He's the meanest man in Washington." And people were wary of Dick Carr, whose genetic traces of bad seed were likely germinating beneath the pale surface of adolescence. His favor was important.
Natty had known him from the beginning of her years at Friends School.
"Gimp," he'd shouted at her on the playground when she first arrived in November, 1947, from Wisconsin, after the accident which had damaged her leg. Once he had tripped her when she was in the middle during a dodgeball game.
Later in the fourth-grade year Natty had kicked him in the shins when he cheated at jacks. No one hit Dick Carr; he was too big to hit. Thereafter he treated her with new respect. If he called her "gimp," which he has fond of doing, he called her that behind her back.
Everyone around knew Natty Taylor. Washington was a small town in 1953. Besides, Natty had a different way of doing things. Before she was 10 she had a weekly newspaper, full of moral axioms and absolute truths, which she did up herself and sold around the neighborhood. And when the absolute truth of social justice failed her and the family she'd adopted in Southeast and provided with Christmas two years running bought a TV before the Taylors even thought to, Natty turned to giving miracle plays on the front lawn with all the non-english-speaking diplomatic children playing moral parts.
She played the cello and got good grades in school at a time when that combination was considered suspect-indicative of a girl without the promises of her sex.
She was also a cheerleader. Only the best, the most acceptable, the most representative were selected to be cheerleaders. Natty was none of these. Dressed in maroon and white sand saddle shoes and puffs of crepe paper balls in hand, they'd fly up and down the football field, leaping and jumping and cartwheeling before the crowd gathered for this celebration of the perfect human form. It was a spectacle of the grace and the contained violence of the players, the splash of color and energy in the form of those girls selected to represent their time and cheer the players on.
It was a time of conventional beauty, almost pagan in its rites of selection. Only the perfect girl children retained.
"I don't know how Natty Taylor made the squad," the captain of the cheerleaders whispered to her best friend as Natty passed by the football field.
"She's good. I mean she's energetic."
"Yes," the captain agreed. "But . . . "
"Boys seem to like her."
"What about her leg?"
"You're right," the other girl agreed. "I don't know how she made the squad either."
Natty had one ordinary leg and one withered below the knee, which she operated like a pivotal stick. She walked with a pronounced limp.
"But you gotta admit," the friend said to the captain, "it's extraordinary that she did make it."
And it was altogether possible that in a whole country of multicolored bleating squads like this one at Friends School, pacing the sidelines of competition, Natty Taylor was the only girl with mismatched legs.
At five years olf Natty had piled her Christmas sled into a tree at her uncle's farm in Manawa and her leg was nearly severed at the knee. Her uncle got her to the hospital and the doctors put her back together as best they could, but her leg never properly developed.
Sam Taylor had sat in the rocker at his brother's house for days looking at the ice-bed course which Natty had driven.
"She'll never marry with half a leg," he thought to himself.
He intruded on Natty's sense of privacy with his concerns.
"I am fine," she'd insist, sensing his fears for her. "I can do anything."
"But you must be careful," he'd say.
Somehow his worry for her safety made her take risks she might not otherwise have taken, as if to force her freedom from him. She was determined to be normal in a time when normalcy of every kind was desirable above all else.
Besides, it was a game with Natty. She wielded her crutches like a general, and when Rusty Slover called her gimp in first grade she knotted her fist and boxed him in the nose, and it bled so hard his father had to come from downtown to pick him up.
Things happen to a child when a body's spoiled at an early age. She need not be so cautious because the damage is done, just as a valuable table irreparably scratched is something different than it was before. To know then that man is vulnerable and destructible-something that many do not know for years until something has failed them, their legs, their brains, their friends, their knowledge of themselves-can give a sense of freedom to be reckless akin to winter birds' struggle for food in frozen ground. There is freedom from expectation, too. You don't expect much from a girl with half a leg, and anything she does is astonishing. In Rome or ancient Greece she would have been discarded from the start. There is no struggle with quite the sense of flying as that from the bottom.
"Hey!" The front door of Carr's flew open. "Natalia." Dick Carr swooped her into the front hall of his house as if he'd been waiting just beyond the door for her to come.
Inside the light snow on her hair melted instantly; her face was wet.
"'s Natty," Dick Carr shouted, pressing his face against her hair. "'s Natty," he called again, louder over the dance music, and this time the foot shuffle stopped abruptly. Someone turned the record player down.
"Natty?" A voice downstairs.
"Yeah," Dick Carr shouted back. "And Will Barnes."
Al Cox slid down the banister in a paper birthday hat.
"Natty . . . beautiful Natty," he sang and swung her around in the hallway. "Come on," Al said, taking her arm. "There's booze." He handed her a cup. cFishhouse punch."
"What's that?" she asked.
"Lethal," Al said and laughed. He pressed the punch cup to her lips and made her taste it. It was sweet on her tongue and burned her throat.
In the recreation room Alexander Epps was standing on the piano in his stocking feet twirling the lid of the garbage can. No one noticed. Will Barnes had not come downstairs.
"Do you know where Filip is?" Natty asked Al Cox.
"Not here yet."
"He said he'd be here at 7:30."
"Well, love, he broke his promise."
The recreation room was dark. Couples wound around each other like pretzels on the dance floor. Natty could barely make out a couple on the couch.
Someone turned the music up.
"Dance?" Al Cox took her in his arms. "Natty . . . beautiful Natty, you're the only girl that I adore."
He tightened his grip around her and slipped his hand down the back of her skirt while they were dancing. It moved swiftly against her bare flesh. She grabbed his hand.
"Jeez, Al," she said and he laughed out loud.
"I hear McCarthy's got a home away from home at your house," Al said.
"I read in tonight's paper that there's pressure on your father to resign the FCC," Al said. "Implication by association, or some such crap."
"He won't, "Natty said.
"That's good," Al said. "He shouldn't." He broke form Natty. "It's hot down here. Want a coke?"
The Coke was spiked. Already lightheaded, Natty set it down behind the lamp on a side table.
Paulette Estinet came up and spoke to Al in French. "Excuse me," she said. "Al and I can only speak to each other in French."
Al put his birthday hat on Paulette's head and pressed her onto the dance floor, leading with his hips.
Natty sensed that the people by the piano were talking about her. She was certain of it, although the piano was across the room and she couldn't even make out who it was, except Anne Lowry, who kept tossing her head in Natty's direction.
"So where's DeAngelis?" Carr Dick asked, pulling Natty down with him in the chair.
"I don't know," she shrugged, at once pleased and cautious to be sitting on Dick Carr's lap. "Basketball, I guess."
"What do you see in him, anyway?" Dick Carr asked. "His nose is too big."
She laughed. "I like big noses."
"Reflected glory," he said. "That's what you see."
"What do you mean?" she asked, sensing in Dick Carr a gentle shift to a less pleasant temper.
"He's a hero. A famous jock." He turned her toward him on his knee. "And you're his sweetie."
"I don't think that's what I see in him," she said. "He's sweet."
"Sweet," Dick Carr laughed. "No jock is sweet, Nat. It goes against the grain."
"As a person he's sweet," she said. "Honestly."
"Let's call the boy to see why he isn't here," Dick said. He grabbed Natty around the waist and playfully kissed her neck.
"I can be sweet, too," he said.
"Sure," Natty said and followed him up the stairs to the library where the phone was. He followed her into the library and shut the door.
Mrs. DeAngelis said that Filip wasn't there just now, that he'd come home from basketball practice and then had gone to a friend's house, but no, she was quite certain that he'd not gone to Georgetown to meet Natty or he would have told her.
"He's not coming?" Dick asked.
"I guess not," she said.
"If he doesn't come, I'll take you home in a while, Nat," he rumbled after her, and she suddenly knew that he'd had too much to drink. Just as she started to open the library door, he kissed her, flipped his tongue into her mouth before she could shake her head away.
Sen. Joe McCarthy sat in the lavender wing chair, his arms hanging lifeless along the sides, his head drooping slightly against his chest. His face, relaxed now, fell in folds and pouches like a spent balloon.
Ed Marlowe, who worked in Sam's office, watched him from the Taylors' kitchen table. He had been watching him for some time, through two cups of coffee Sam Taylor had given him. At first the figure in the living room had seemed to be a black bear.
"It would appear," Ed Marlowe said to Sam, who had just picked him up at the Tavern where he was on the crucial upward swing of a semiannual binge, "that you have a black bear sitting in a wing chair in your living room." By the second cup of coffee the shimmering space between the kitchen and the living room had lost his hair and assumed the empty space of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Half-asleep.
"So," Ed said to Sam, "Joe McCarthy's moved in."
"He's here for dinner."
A special treat."
Ed Marlowe watched McCarthy after Sam had gone upstairs to speak to Ellen, and in the time that Sam was gone McCarthy never moved.
Ed Marlowe was Sam's assistant at the FCC. It was not a designated job. What it meant, in fact, was that a part of Sam's salary went to the support of Ed Marlowe and his wife and their child, because lately Ed could not hold a regular job. They had met when they were both reporters in Wisconsin, and for years Ed Marlowe continued to get and lose good jobs. When he had lost too many, he moved to Washington to be near Sam, and Sam hired him in effect to do a job that wasn't necessary. Ed knew it.
"It's a non-job," he told his wife, Judith. "It's the same whether I'm there or not."
"I don't know how Sam puts up with you," returned Judith.
"He likes losers, Judith."
A man is known by the company he keeps," Sam's chaste Catholic mother would tell him time and time again. And if she was angry she would add for good measure, "You're going to grow up to be just like your father," long after Sam had grown up.
And perhaps it was his father in him-a comic drunk, John Taylor, who had died when Sam was 10 and never held a decent job but one, and that, undertaker for the county. But he'd lost the undertaker's job shortly before he died when the casket holding the body of Sara Granger dropped off the back of the wagon while John Taylor was racing his horse too fast across the Wisconsin valley. Sam Taylor had loved his father in spite of the fact that his mother said John Taylor was "no-account" on the hour as though there were confirmation in repetition-that his gloomy older brother said John Taylor doomed the family from the start-that all the neighbors laughed at him behind his neck-that Sam's sister started drinking herself when she was 13 years old, straight bootleg, raw as witchhazel. But Sam's memories of John Taylor were of a warm, intelligent man so full of stories he could make the darkness sing.
"A boy would go to hell for loving such a man, you know," his mother told him. If that was true, it was certain that his mother wasn't going to hell at all.
"You won't like my friends," Sam had warned Ellen when he married her. And she had not.
"We could go anywhere," she'd said in a rare outburst of temper. "We could have the president for dinner and instead we have Ed Marlowe sitting across the table."
And now Joe McCarthy in defeat.
Once Ellen Taylor had taken her childhood friend from Racine to the Capitol just as the Senate recessed for lunch. Sen. Joe McCarthy had passed them, waved at Ellen, and the friend, Marie, had screamed like a catbird. Right in the Senate chamber as though she's been attacked.
"Marie," Ellen had whispered, mortified. "Hush."
"That's Joe McCarthy," she had said.
"It's like seeing the devil in your own bedroom."
"oh, Marie," Ellen shook her head.
But such was the power of Joe McCarthy at the time, even a year ago, when the lives of people were strung together by the madness which bore his name.
Joe McCarthy had come to Sam's because his wife was in Wisconsin with the child they'd adopted and Sam had said whenever-the house was open.
Ed Marlowe was downstairs at the kitchen sink when Sam came down from seeing Ellen.
"I picked you up at the Tavern so you could work tomorrow."
"You caught me in the middle of a decent binge." Ed said, "and brought me back here to meet the devil."
"If that's the devil, then we've nothing to fear."
Sam took two beers out of the refrigerator.
"Are you going to join us in the living room?"
"What do you talk about? The old days in the party?"
"The old days when he beat the stuffing out of me behind Kroger's Market and used the blood from my nose to write his girlfriend's name on the wall."
The older man sat down, rolled a shot glass between his palms.
"I think he's dying," Ed Marlowe said. "Look at him in the eyes. We've been behaving as though he were immortal," he said. "And everybody dies."
Joe McCarthy read the evening paper in a bad light. Sam handed him a beer.
"You saw the paper tonight?" McCarthy asked, tossing the folded paper down behind him. "There's a short piece by that stupid woman at The News about my spending time here."
"I heard about it," Sam replied. "My daughter is in love with that woman's son."
The News is bloodthirsty."
"Bored. It's quiet time."
"Bloodthirsty," McCarthy blurted.
Joe McCarthy had suggested Sam Taylor to President Truman for Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 1947. He suggested him because Sam had a reputation for being competent and wise. Though they had known each other as children they'd seldom seen each other since the war, when Sam had been a special correspondent in Europe. There were no political reasons. Sam Taylor voted, and that was as political and partial as he had ever been until he came to Washington.
In Sam's early years at the FCC they saw each other occasionally, but after the terror in Washington, around the country, they did not see each other at all.
Even as a child growing up Sam Taylor had sensed something in Joe McCarthy that did not settle with a reasonable mind.
After the Senate's censuring of McCarthy, after the country's simpleminded worship of the man turned like a sea change to anger, Joe McCarthy came one night to the Taylors' house on Highland Place. He had been drinking.
After that night he came many others, sometimes alone, often with his wife-empty as the issue he had roared after, almost as if he'd been on strings. Surely the circumstances had been more dangerous than the ravage of one man; they had, after all, depended on the docile acquiescence of the whole country.
Or else the issue had never mattered to him in any deeply personal way. He liked the process and the possibility for winning.
Sam looked at Joe McCarthy, sitting in the bad light. He was bile green.
"You look terrible, Joe," he said softly, not unkindly.
"I feel terrible."
Will," Natty whispered, dancing with him. "Dick Carr must be drunk. He kissed me upstairs."
"Wow. What a special treat."
They danced over to an empty corner. "Do you still have a funny feeling about this party?"
"I do. But I don't know why." He did know that Carter Harold had asked his sister to a party at the Carrs' and Nell had made him come to watch out for Eliza, since she didn't trust Carter Harold, with good reason, but she didn't trust Eliza either. When Will had arrived at Carr's with Eliza he knew something was up. First off, only a few people from Friends had come, and those who had sat in the recreation room fell quiet as he walked in with his sister.
"Hi, Will," they said.
"How're you doing?" they asked.
"We're having a sort of meeting, but we'll be finished soon."
"The party'll start then."
What was odd was not the meeting they were having-Will was accustomed to selection and exclusion-but their good manners. As the night went on he knew something was happening which he wasn't in on-and poor lost Eliza, flat on her back with Carter Harold, was probably not in on it either.
"It's late," Natty said. "I promised my father I'd be back early."
"What about Filip?"
"He's not coming."
"I'll take you home," he said. "Wait here. I'll go get the car."
"Watch Eliza while I'm gone," he said. "And I'll meet you out front in about 10 minutes."
Carter Harold took Natty in his arms to dance.
"You having a good time?"
"Sure," she replied.
"Where's Filip?" Carter asked.
"He didn't come."
"Problems at home, I hear."
"You have a ride home?"
"I thought you were here with Eliza." Natty looked over at Eliza who was lying flat on the couch, her eyes open, looking at ceiling.
"Out of it." Carter crossed his eyes. "Fishhouse punch."
"Will Barnes is taking me home in a second," she said. "You'd better watch out for Eliza till he gets back. She could be sick. She looks awful."
"Yes, she does."
A new record dropped.
"Circle," Paulette sang, taking Al's hand and Carter's away from Natty's waist. "Let's do a circle dance."
Natty took Dick's hand and Al's on the other side.
"Come on, Eliza." Al tried to drag her off the couch.
"Circle dance." She groaned and turned away.
The circle formed. Like automated tops they moved up and down in and out, staccato rhythm to the music, rolling their hips like putting, swishing their long skirts.
"Anne," and Al swung Anne Lowry into the center of the circle and she went around from partner to partner, swinging in under one arm and out to the next partner.
"Natty," they called as Anne fell back into place. "You're next." And Natty, in the familiar circle dance, starting around the ring.
Halfway around she was conscious of a kind of violation, nearly imperceptible. An accidental hand on her breast, below her waist, on her stomach as she went from partner to partner. Now certainly that was Peter von Trotten's hand which glanced her breast as she passed under his arm and on around the circle.
"You're terrifically subtle," she said to Peter. Carter Harold pulled her next to him and kissed her ear. The lights went out before she got away.
"Carter," she said."I thought you were growing up."
"It wasn't me."
"That's surely you." She took his hand away from her waist, but he had her tight. Her skirt ripped at the waist seam halfway around.
"Jeez." She pulled away. "Now I've nothing on."
"Just as I'd hoped," he laughed an plunged his hand down the back of her ripped skirt. She wrestled away from him, biting his shoulder half in play, and holding her skirt around her, found her way to the stairs by the light in the hall.
Dick Carr stumbled into the hall as she was leaving.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing," she said. "Except I seem to have lost my clothes and I've got to go home."
"How come? It's early."
"It's after one." She let go of her skirt so that it fell in folds halfway down her slip. "My father will be pleased."
"Yeah," he said, smiling slowly. "You look like it's been a knockout party."
Will Barnes was on the front step waiting for Natty.
"Nat." He pulled up his collar against the cold. "Di you see this?"
The lights on the front porch of the senator from Oklahoma's house were hot yellow against the early-winter blackness beyond, lighting the boxwood wreath made of fine china, the antique sleigh bell above the knocker, the gray velvet cat whose forearms were stretched and nailed in a T, spread beneath the china wreath.
The cat was dead.
There was a tag tied with a string to the cat's back leg-a Christmas angel tag cut of of blue construction paper with writing on it.
Natty took the tag and read it.
"Samuel Taylor. Chairman of the FCC 1947-1954." CAPTION: Illustration 1 and 2, no caption, By Lisa Gladstone; Illustration 3, no caption