"You know, I've never gone to bed with a man on a train before," she said, taking off her blouse.
"Neither have I," I said, and I made sure that the door to the compartment was securely locked.
"What innocents we are," she sighed, then: "I wish I had a drink."
"I think you're an alcoholic." I was very severe because Ellen Rhodes is an alcoholic, or at least well on her way to becoming one: but of course her habits are no concern of mine; we are just playmates of the most casual sort.
"I wish you'd call the porter . . . he could get us something from the club car."
"And have him see us like this? a young man and a young woman enjoying an intimacy without the sanction of either church or state. You're out of your mind."
Ellen sighed as she unsnapped her brassiere. "There are times, Peter, when I suspect you of becoming a solemn bore."
I enjoyed, with my usual misgivings, the sight of her slim nude body. She was a lovely girl, not yet twenty-five, with only one marriage (annulled at seventeen) to her credit. Her hair was a dirty blond, worn long, and her eyebrows and eyelashes were black, naturally black, and the brows arched. Her skin was like ivory, to worry a cliché and her breasts were small and jiggled pleasantly from the vibration of the train as she arranged her clothes in the closet of our compartment. I watched her back with some pleasure. I like backs ... only aesthetically: I mean I don't make a thing of it, being old-fashioned; yet I must say there is nothing that gives me quite such a charge as a female back, especially the double dimple at the base of the spine, the center of balance a dancer friend of mine once assured me; although in her case the center was a trifle off since she was usually horizontal when not dancing.
"Darling, will you get my bag out from under the bed? the small one. I seem to recall having hidden the better part of a fifth in there just before we left Boston."
"Very provident," I said, disapprovingly, but I got the bottle for her and we both had a drink, sitting side by side on the bunk, my bare leg touching hers.
"I feel better," she said, after gulping a shot. And indeed she even looked better . . . her eyes shining now, and her face wonderfully rosy. "I love blondes," she said, looking at me with embarrassing intensity. "I wish I were a real one like you ... a strawberry blond exactly...." But then we rolled back onto the bunk. From far away a conductor shouted: "New Haven!"
She moaned softly, her face entirely covered by hair.
"We're almost there. The train's just leaving Baltimore."
"Oh." She sat up and pushed the hair out of her eyes and blinked sleepily at me.
"I hate men," she said simply.
"I just do." She frowned. "I feel awful. I hate the morning."
"'Morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone which put the stars to flightS¹ I quoted sonorously as we dressed.
"Is that poetry?"
"Indeed it is," I said, pushing up the shade and letting in the cold white light of a December morning. "Picturesque Baltimore," I remarked, as the train passed slowly through that city of small shabby houses with white doorsteps.
"Coffee," said Ellen, sitting down with a thump; she is a miraculously fast dresser for a woman . . . a quality I find both rare and admirable in the opposite sex.
If the waiter thought anything amiss when he served us breakfast in the compartment, he did not betray it; not that I minded particularly, nor for that manner did Ellen . . . rather, I had a job at stake and I didn't want to be caught in a compromising position with the daughter of my new client, the incomparable, the reactionary Senator Leander Rhodes, the only adult American male to be called Rhodes without the inevitable nickname Dusty.
"Now I feel better," said Ellen, after she'd finished two cups of black coffee, the alcoholic fumes of the night before dispelled.
In the year that I had known her she was either just coming out from under a hangover or else going into one, with a moment or two, I suppose, of utter delight when she was in between, when she was high. In spite of the drinking, however, I liked her. For several years she had been living in New York, traveling with a very fast set of post-debutantes and pre-alcoholics, a group I occasionally saw at night clubs or the theater but nowhere else.
I am a hard-working public relations man with very little time for that kind of living. I would never have met Ellen if she hadn't been engaged for eight weeks last year to a classmate of mine from Harvard. When the eight blissful weeks of engagement to this youth were up, she was engaged to me for nearly a month; I was succeeded then, variously, by a sleek creature from the Argentine, by a middle-aged novelist, and by a platoon of college boys to each of whom she was affianced at one time or another and, occasionally, in several instances, at the same time. Not that she is a nymph. Far from it. She just likes a good time and numerous engagements seem to her the surest way of having one.
"Won't Father be surprised to see us together !" she said at last.
"Yes." I was a little worried. I had never met Senator Rhodes. I had been hired by his secretary who had, I was quite sure, known nothing about my acquaintance with Ellen. My contract with the Senator was to run three months with an option in March and then another after that ... by which time, if I were still on the job, the National Convention would be meeting and the Midwest's favorite son Lee Rhodes would go before the convention as the people's choice for President of the United States, or so I figured it, or rather so I figured Senator Rhodes figured it. Well, it was a wonderful break for the public relations firm of Peter Cutler Sargeant II, which is me.
Ellen had been more cynical about it when I told her the news in Cambridge where we had been attending a Harvard function. In spite of her cynicism, however, we had both decided, late at night, that it would be a wonderful idea if we went straight to Washington from Boston, together, and surprised the Senator. It had all seemed like a marvelous idea after eight Martinis but now, in the cold light of a Maryland morning, I was doubtful. For all I knew the Senator loathed his daughter, paid her liberally to keep out of Washington ... nervously, I recalled some of Ellen's exploits: the time last spring when she undressed beneath a full moon and went swimming in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York, shouting, "I'm coming, Scottie Zelda's coming!" in imitation of that season's revival Scott Fitzgerald ... imposing on the decorous 1950's the studied madness of the 1920's. Fortunately, two sober youths got her out of there before the police or the reporters discovered her.
"What do you think your father's up to?" I asked, resigned to my fate: it was too late now to worry about the Senator's reaction to this combination.
"Darling, you know I hate politics," she said, straightening one eyebrow in the window as frame houses and evergreens flashed by.
"Well, he must be planning something. I mean, why hire a press agent like me?"
"I suppose he's going to run for the Senate again."
"He was re-elected last year."
"I suppose he was. Do let's send George and Alice a wire, something funny . . . they'll die laughing when they hear we're on a train together."
"You know I think it's quite wonderful your father's done as well as he has considering the handicap a daughter like you must be to him."
Ellen chuckled. "Now that's unkind. As a matter of fact he simply adores me. I even campaigned for him when I was fifteen years old. Made speeches to the Girl Scouts from one end of the state to the other.... I even spoke to the Boy Scouts, lovely young creatures. There was one in Talisman City, an Eagle Scout with more ..."
"I don't want to hear any of your obscene reminiscences."
She laughed. "You are
evil, Peter. I was just going to say that he had more Merit Badges than any other scout in the Midwest."
"I wonder if he's running for President."
"I don't think he's old enough. You have to be thirty-five, don't you? That was ten years ago and he was seventeen then which would make him . . . how old now? I could never add."
"I was referring to your father, not that Eagle Scout of infamous memory."
"Oh, Daddy. Well, I don't know." Ellen was vague. "I hope not."
"It's such a bore. Look at the time poor Margaret Truman had, trailed by detectives and guards everywhere."
"If you were a nice girl like Miss Truman you wouldn't mind."
"Oh . . . !" And Ellen Rhodes said a bad word.
"There would be all sorts of compensations, though," I said, trying to look on the bright side. "I think it would be very pleasant having a father who was President."
"Well, I don't. Besides, I don't think Mother will let him run. She's always wanted to go back to Talisman City where we came from originally."
"That would be nice for you."
Ellen snorted. "I'm a free spirit," she said, and, all things considered, she was, too.2
We parted at the Union Station. Ellen went home in a cab and I walked across the square to the Senate Office Building, a white cake of a building in the shadow of the Capitol.
Senator Rhodes' office was in a corner on the first floor, attesting to his seniority and power since he was, among other things, Chairman of the Spoils and Patronage Committee.
I opened the door of his office and walked into a high ceilinged waiting room with a desk and receptionist at one end. Several petitioners were seated on the black leather couches by the door. I told the woman at the desk who I was and she immediately told me to go into the Senator's office, a room on the left.
The room was empty. It was a fascinating place, and while I waited I examined everything: the vast mahogany desk covered with party symbols, the hundreds of photographs in black frames on the wall: every important political figure since 1912, the year Leander Rhodes came to the Senate, was represented. Leather chairs were placed around a fireplace on whose mantel were arranged trophies and plaques, recording political victories . . . while above the mantel was a large political cartoon of the Senator, handsomely framed. It showed him, his shock of gray unruly hair streaming in the wind of Public Opinion, mounted upon a spavined horse called Political Principle.
"That was done in 1925," said a voice behind me.
I turned around quickly, expecting to find the Senator. Instead, however, a small fat man in gray tweed, wearing owl-like spectacles, stood with hand outstretched, beaming at me. "I'm Rufus Hollister," he said as we shook hands. "Senator Rhodes' secretary."
"We've had some correspondence," I said.
"Yes sir, I should say so. The Senator's over in the Capitol right now . . . important vote coming up this morning. But sit down for a minute before we join him and let's get acquainted."
We sat down in the deep armchairs. Mr. Hollister smiled, revealing a handsome upper plate. "I suspect," he said, "that you're wondering exactly why I engaged you."
"I thought Senator Rhodes engaged me."
"He did, he did, of course . . . I was speaking only as his . . . proxy, as it were." He smiled again, plumply. I decided that I disliked him but then I usually dislike all men on first meeting: something to do, I suppose, with the natural killer instinct of the male. I tried to imagine Mr. Hollister and myself covered with the skins of wild beasts, doing battle in the jungle, but my imagination faltered: after all we were two Americans living in rooms centrally heated and eating hygienically prepared food got out of cans . . . the jungle was remote.
"In any case," Hollister was saying, "I thought I should brief you a little before you meet the Senator." He paused. Then he asked: "What, by the way, are your politics?"
Being venal, I said that I belonged to the same party as my employer; as a matter of fact, I have never voted so even if I did not entirely admire the party of Senator Rhodes I hadn't perjured myself.
Mr. Hollister looked relieved. "I don't suppose, in your business, that you're much interested in politics."
I said that, aside from my subscription to Time
magazine, I was indeed cut off from the great world.
"You don't have, then, any particular choice for the nominating convention?"
"No, sir, I do not."
"You realize that what I tell you now is in the strictest, the very strictest confidence?"
"I do." I wondered whether or not I should cross my heart; Mr. Hollister had grown strangely solemn and mysterious.
"Then, Mr. Sargeant, as you may already have guessed, The Senator's Hat Is In The Ring."
"Senator Rhodes will announce his candidacy for the nomination for President on Friday at a speech before the National Margarine Council."
I took this awesome news calmly. "And I am to handle the publicity?"
"That's right." He looked at me sharply but my Irish, piggish features were impassive: I saw myself already as Press Secretary to President Rhodes: "Boys, I've got a big story for you. One hour ago the President laid the biggest egg...." But I recalled myself quickly to reality. Mr. Hollister wanted to know my opinion of Leander Rhodes.
"I hardly have one," I said. "He's just another Senator as far as I'm concerned."
"We, here in the office, regard this as something of a crusade," said Mr. Hollister softly.
"Then I will, too," I said sincerely. Before he could tell me why the country needed Lee Rhodes, I remarked that I happened to know his daughter, that, by chance, I had come down on the train with her. Was it my imagination, as they used to say in Victorian novels, or did a cloud cross Mr. Hollister's serene countenance? As a matter of fact, it was worse than a cloud: it was a scowl.
Copyright © 2011 by Gore Vidal. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.