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A quarter-century ago—or maybe it was a million years—I dated a full-lipped, morally unanchored charmer named Benjamin, who was in his third year of Georgetown Law. Better to say I tried to date him. One night, because he wouldn’t cut me loose and because I couldn’t cut myself loose and because abjection came as naturally to me then as breathing, I followed him without his knowledge from Badlands down P Street. He crossed Dupont Circle, cut up New Hampshire. Then, a little shy of U Street, he paused in front of a cinnamon-brick apartment building. Like a mariner back from the Spice Islands, he gazed up at a second-floor window, where a lamp was even now extending a tongue of light. He nodded to himself, then made straight for the vestibule, where he waited for the answering buzz. In less than a minute, his shadow—unmistakable with its lacrosse shoulders—flickered across the apartment’s curtains.
This much I knew: He would eat before he did anything else. Twenty minutes later, an order from Trio Pizza arrived. I slipped in after the delivery guy, followed him to the second floor, watched a door spring open, saw a pair of hands—not Benjamin’s.
Apartment 203. The blaze of revelation subsided as I planted myself opposite the door. If I were to have the confrontation I wanted, needed, feared, I’d have to sit there for the rest of the evening, my back against the wall. Instead, I fell asleep and woke an uncertain number of hours later. A slender young man was standing in the open doorway of apartment 203 in a pair of oversized sweatpants.
I lurched to my feet. “Sorry. I’m Knox….”
“Like the fort.”
“Benjamin’s gone, sweetie.” The voice was soft but low, with Carolina vowels. “I doubt he even saw you there, he was in a hurry to get to class.”
Even in my sleep-dazzled state, I could discern two things. The young man was lying. And this lying was a form of charity.
“I’m Joey,” he said. “You should come in.”
He made a pot of Irish Breakfast and poured it out in beer mugs. He fed me Danish and Jiffy Pop. He loaned me a comb. The clock radio on his kitchen counter had ticked just past 11 a.m. when he leaned across his biscuit-crate coffee table and folded his soft white plump fingers around my long thin veined ones.
“You know he’s not worth this,” he said.
It occurred to me to deny it, but in the next breath, Joey said, “I think I’m done with him, too.”
Decades later, I’m still unpacking the grace of that moment: one man able, in just a few words, to free two men, to take them both out of the hunt.
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” he asked.
The answer was no. I had just been evicted from my apartment in Mount Pleasant; my belongings were somewhere in the attic of City Lights; and I was waiting to hear about a studio in Shaw. I was 23. I had come to Washington not for a career but for a boy. And I was dying. But we all were.
“The couch pulls out,” said Joey.
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I lay on that couch for about a week. Joey cleaned around me—he was a terror about dust—and when he got tired of that, he draped the Thursday classifieds over me. “Just in case,” he said. I wasn’t very employable then: two years of a crunchy liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, segments of office slavery, a moderate acquaintanceship with WordStar and MultiMate. But I beefed up my resume as much as I dared and flooded every office in town. No one called back. For cash, I took gigs busing tables at the American Cafe, answering phones at an optometric association, modeling in the deep background of a Sheraton print ad. Sometimes, in a brief flush of solvency, I would offer to write Joey a check for the rent, but he waved his hand at me. “When the ship comes in.”
Never once did I see him write a check of his own, nor could I begin to say whose name was on the lease or who was paying for our groceries—the bowls of citrus fruit on the kitchen counter, the whole chickens in the freezer, the packages of Tuna Helper in the cupboard. They were just there, waiting. Most days, Joey slept until one or two or the afternoon, and it wasn’t until eight or nine in the evening that he would put on his denim shorts and his two Polo shirts and go off to see his friend. Friend being, in this case, a category rather than an individual. The one job I knew him to hold down was as a dancer at the Chesapeake House and only because he invited me, on impulse, to watch him perform.
Of the three guys dancing on the runway that night, he was the oldest—which is to say he was 23—but the most boyish in appearance. He wore a jock strap, gray athletic socks, and white Tretorns, and he moved in a benign fog, as though we were all part of his dream. From time to time, when there was cash in it, he would gyrate in the direction of patrons. They weren’t allowed to touch him, but if they were forthcoming, he might spank them with his penis. I hustled out of the place before midnight. Joey told me later I’d missed the Scottish fantasia.
Our schedules were ideally matched. If I wanted to bring a trick home from Tracks or the Frat House, Joey would already be gone, and by the time the guy was leaving the next morning, Joey was just coming back, laden with rolls and oranges. “Have a blessed day!” he’d call out.
Our only moment of intersection came late in the afternoon when, like an old married couple, we would sit on the chapped leather couch and watch the squawk box. Neither Joey nor I had any sure idea of what was going on in the world, but we both found the news mysteriously restful, like listening to traffic reports for highways you would never travel. So it was that, one afternoon in June, our eyes came to rest on a perfectly unremarkable press conference: three legislators before a thicket of microphones. The third man was halfway through his remarks when Joey said, “Oh. That’s Earflaps.”
It was Joey’s habit to give each of his Chesapeake House patrons a mnemonic tag: Cleft Chin, Furry Ears, Menthol Mouth, Chin Skin. Earflaps was named for the blue corduroy hunting cap he sported in all weather. It had the virtue of concealing his head and casting a good portion of his face in shadow. He was a man bent on anonymity. He ordered a single Miller Lite. He spoke to no one, just leaned against the back wall and watched, although on occasion, his hand would run to his crotch. He was usually gone by the time Joey was finished, but one night in December—only a couple of weeks before Christmas—Earflaps was waiting in the bathroom. He rolled up a twenty and carefully inserted it in the band of Joey’s jockstrap.
“Show’s over,” Joey said.
But Earflaps dragged him into the middle stall and bent him over. The man was not gentle, but he was fast. A minute, tops. He grunted just once as he came, then he dropped another twenty at Joey’s feet and hurried out, zipping his pants as he went. At no point did he take his hat off.
“Plus I’m not sure he used a condom, so cross fingers.”
“But how can you recognize him now?” I asked, squinting at the TV.
“Oh, it’s the eyes, see ’em? Nothing but fear.”
“Are you sure?”
“Ain’t a face God could make that I’d forget.”
And yet what an unremarkable face it was, that slab of lightly poached flesh with the shining brow. Anywhere but the Hill, you wouldn’t have given it a second look. Even now I could feel it slipping away—until the name flashed across the screen.
Elliot Manking. R-Kans.
“What’s R?” asked Joey.
“Listen now. I’m going to ask you one more time. This is absolutely the same guy as Earflaps?”
The next day, I went to the Martin Luther King library and started jotting down some notes about the Honorable Elliot H. Manking (rhymes with banking). Third-term representative for Kansas’ 2nd District. United Methodist. Wichita State graduate. Dodge dealership owner. Radio broadcaster. Anti-tax, anti-Communist, pro-defense, pro-life.
Married, with three children.
How easy it was to imagine him riding home from his Longworth office in the champagne-colored Town Car with congressional plates. Saying good night to his young (flaxen, handsome) chauffeur-staffer. Disappearing into his apartment in…Rosslyn? Cleveland Park?…and then creeping out two or three hours later in his redneck armor. Pulling the flaps over his ears, trembling at the thought of the taut flesh awaiting him. Knowing—knowing—every step of the way that he was invincible, that the young men he preyed on would have no way to strike back.
“It’s not right,” I said.
“This Manking character. He’s a fucking hypocrite.”
“’Course he is.”
“Not your everyday bullshit hypocrite, he’s worse. I bet he’s never voted a dollar for AIDS research. I bet he goes golfing with his Republican buddies and tells fag jokes. Limp wrist, lisp, the whole works.”
“I bet you can’t even get him to say the word gay. He probably says homosexual. Sodomite. Goes to church every Sunday and prays for God to strike down sodomites. And then prays for sodomites to protect him.”
“With our silence, that’s how.”
It was a new note for me. Oratorical.
“Geez,” said Joey. “You’re making the news no fun.”
I composed the first letter that night, on stationery Joey had once carried home from the Mayflower. Dear Congressman, We know what you’re doing nights. I sealed it in a white envelope, and then scrawled For Personal Attention of Member.
The next day I sent another: We’ve seen what you do with stripper boys. The next day: Do the voters know?
Just making trouble, that’s what I would’ve told you if you’d asked. Afflicting the comfortable. But one night, staring down at another blank page of Mayflower stationery, I saw my left hand writing, What’s the price of silence? And when I sealed the envelope, I felt a little shiver of power. Being able to bend someone else to my will: surely this was what Benjamin had felt. And all those other men I’d gone chasing after with my fool’s heart. We were a league now.
Over the next week, I amped up the volume. What’s it worth to you?…Let’s make a deal…It’s now or never…Would hate to tell your wife…Then, when I judged the hook to be squarely in, I wrote the real letter, outlining how much I expected to be paid. It was a monthly sum, roughly equivalent to what I would have been paying in rent if Joey had ever asked. My hand trembled a little as I dropped the envelope in the mailbox on New Hampshire Avenue. Every day, for the next two weeks, I checked the post office box. Nothing came.
March was bleeding into April now, and I was, for the first time, harboring doubts about my strategy. What if Manking had never seen any of the notes? What if a staffer had tossed them unread into the nearest trashcan?
“We need to go see him,” I said.
Joey wiped Hot Pocket juice from his lips. “See who?”
“He could be useful to us. He could get me a job. Or introduce you to different guys. Nicer guys.”
“Why would he do that?”
“’Cause he liked you, remember? There was something about you he must have trusted.”
“Is that what it was?”
When Joey still hesitated, I said, “I’ll make you a pecan pie.”
We only had one tie between us, so that’s what I wore, and Joey borrowed a blue oxford shirt and a pair of cordovan loafers, which were two sizes too large and required him to skate across the floors of the Longworth Office Building. When we got to Manking’s office, Joey just popped the shoes off his feet and held them to his side. The receptionist was a petite young beauty wrapped in scarves, icily self-possessed.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“We’re from the congressman’s district.”
“Normally, we encourage folks to make an appointment before they stop by. Only ’cause the congressman’s super busy.”
“That’s OK, we’re happy to wait.”
“Are you sure? I really can’t guarantee you anything.”
“We’re not in a hurry. Can you just do us a favor? Can you remind the congressman we met at the Chesapeake?”
She frowned. “Is that a restaurant?”
“So he’ll remember meeting you?”
We sat on a scratchy maroon couch under a Kansas flag. An hour passed. Two. Three.
“I wish I smoked,” said Joey. He tottered out into the hallway and stretched his arms toward the ceiling. “Oh,” he said. “There he is.”
Greenhorns that we were, we hadn’t reckoned for the other door, the one through which the lumbering, heavy-shouldered figure of Elliot H. Manking was now emerging.
“Congressman!” I called.
He kept walking. From nowhere, a staffer—a boy no more than 20—appeared at the congressman’s side, wedged against him like a buttress. Joey and I circled them around.
“Do you remember us, Congressman?”
The teeth were tiny gray studs, but the head was massive, the voice improbably large.
“Why, sure I do! It’s great to see you. Now listen, boys, you just talk to my scheduler, we’ll get you in.”
“Don’t know if we can wait that long.”
With a daring that astonishes me even now, I slid the card straight into the pocket of his broadcloth shirt. The blank index card, scrawled with our phone number and the single word CHESAPEAKE.
“Hold on now,” said the staffer, but Manking put up a hand. “It’s all right.” He gave his pocket a light tap. “Got it right here, okay? You boys take care now. Someone’ll be in touch.”
But the apartment phone was silent for the rest of the day and the two days following. I lay on Joey’s couch, trying to decode my last glimpse of Manking—those small weak fierce brown eyes. No fear there, no malice. Maybe nothing at all.
By Saturday evening, I was so tired of waiting that I fled the apartment. I assumed I was trolling for sex, but I ended up singing tunes from Carousel at the Friends piano bar and then stumbling back a little past midnight. Much to my surprise, Joey was home, sitting on the couch, lost in the mask that was Bernard Shaw.
“You’re watching without me,” I said.
He didn’t say anything.
“Any pie left?” I asked.
I can’t tell you how long I went on in that vein. Or how long it took me to notice the angle between Joey’s head and his shoulder.
The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, which, for want of any other evidence, would go down as a natural cause. By then, I was too numb to protest. When I was asked for Joey’s next of kin, I realized I couldn’t call back a single name, let alone a hometown.
Three days after they carried him away, the phone jangled me out of my mid-afternoon nap.
“Am I speaking to Knox?”
“Hi, this is Rosemary.”
“I’m the legislative director for Congressman Hale’s office.”
I sat up. “Yeah?”
“We’d like you to come in for an interview.”
And in that moment—you have to believe me—I couldn’t discount the possibility that I actually had applied. Hadn’t I responded to every blind ad the Democratic Study Group and Republican Study Committee had tossed my way? Wasn’t it possible, just barely possible, that Congressman Hale’s office had been one of the tossers?
“We’d love it if you could come by at three tomorrow…”
“Sure.” I drew the phone from my ear, then drew it back. “Can you tell me just one thing?”
“Where is Congressman Hale’s district?”
I don’t remember the interview. All I recall is the administrative assistant in his too-short tie and his seersucker suit. “Come on board,” he said.
My job was to merge mailing lists, but on the strength of my new salary—fifteen thousand a year—I rented an English basement near the Ellen Wilson projects. Eventually, I got a legislative correspondent job with an Ohio Republican, a scholarly sort with hair flopping over his eyes. Then, after a couple of years, I switched to the Congressional Research Service, where I have been ever since, responding as neutrally as possible to all policy inquiries, sporting a limited ensemble of cardigans. In a few years, I’ll be up for full retirement. I have some notion of traveling.
Congressman Manking, you may remember, lasted four more terms before being felled by a stroke at a Lincoln Day dinner in Junction City. For some weeks he lingered, then slipped away for good in a Topeka hospital room, with his wife and children around him.
Not so long ago, a man I loved told me I was silly to blame Manking for anything.
“I blame myself,” I said.
“It’s the same thing! You conspiracy theorists need to have some cabal doing all your dirty work when the hard truth is there is no cabal. Nobody cares enough to arrange our deaths. We’re not that important.”
And it seemed to me then—it seems to me now—that if Joey isn’t important, nothing is.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said.
Louis Bayard is a Washington novelist and reviewer. His next book is Roosevelt’s Beast.