Danielette James, 58, a federal custodian who cleans congressional offices five nights a week, says she just wants to see her son.

Eric McIntire, 27, a Marine, told his mother recently that he would return to Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Aug. 15 after seven months in Iraq. James, a 15-year employee of the Architect of the Capitol's office, promptly asked for a couple of days off to join families greeting loved ones at the military base.

James figured it would be a formality. She had 172 hours of vacation time coming, and she asked to be off well in advance, on Aug. 1, she said.

In life and in the federal workplace, however, things are not always so simple. Her bosses turned her down.

"They said a lot of people took off and a lot of people were going on vacation," James said. "And they said if I go, they will discipline me . . . so I didn't go. And I don't think it's fair for a child to go to Iraq and it's dangerous there and you come back, and you can't go see him or welcome him home. I said, 'All right, just give me one day.' They won't do it."

Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the architect's office, which operates and maintains the Capitol complex, said the story is more complicated. The office tried to accommodate James, she said. On Aug. 5, the custodian called in before her regular 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift and asked to be let out of work that night, saying that her son would be in North Carolina the next day, Malecki said.

"Her supervisor did grant that request for the time off, although she didn't give advance notice, which is what we require," Malecki said.

James disputes that account and said her bosses rejected that request and docked her pay when she missed work. She asked for time off at the last minute, she said, because her daughter-in-law telephoned that day to say that her son would be home 10 days earlier than expected. James was on the road with a friend that night and got as far as Richmond before her daughter-in-law called again to tell her to turn around because it was a false alarm.

The next week, James asked to take off on Aug. 15 and 16, again to see her son, Malecki said. "Her leave was then denied based on the fact that her supervisor would have been short-staffed that week and that she had previously requested Aug. 5 off for the same reason," Malecki said.

James scoffed at that explanation, saying, "They're just trying to cover themselves."

She still has not seen her son. She is afraid to drive on the highway by herself, and the person who was going to give her a ride works most weekends. McIntire plans to visit her next month when he gets leave, she said.

"They didn't treat me fair," she said. "I'm angry because I wanted to go."

-- Christopher Lee