Alger Hiss



 A fable invented to give them grief


He told Cathy he had to meet a guy about a plan for an offshore radio station. One always had a plan to meet a guy at night. He added the pirate station for verisimilitude, and they did know a man who had a plan for community radio broadcasts through the power lines. He drove to Civic Center, found Betta’s car parked across Grove from City Hall in the Miles wasn’t stupid, sweetheart, he wouldn’t wait out in the fog like that without a gun, but a dame, he’d let a dame up close, a dame with a .44  San Francisco fog, rapped on the passenger window.

She motioned him in, he twisted in the bucket seat to face her, she turned toward him, and as they often did, studied each other, said nothing.

Her fragrance, attar of whatever pheronome, volatile oil, eau de Jimmy’s blood, held him in thrall. Once at a meeting in Boston, he sat next to a woman who smelled like Betta, the only one he ever met, and almost fainted, excused himself, washed his face, returned to a chair on the far side of the room.

“How long do we have?” she asked.

“A while. I’m at a meeting.”

“You’re afraid to come over.”

“To your place? Yeah.” The last time, he’d fallen asleep, come home to Cathy at 5 a.m.

Betta was too much, much too much, that was the fullness of her, right and wrong. He thought of her as the bronze Matisse nude who flows upward from her pedestal in the courtyard of the MOMA, and told her so, when they lived together in New York.

They were bound also by virtual (being in essence or effect, but not in fact) incest. “You are my mother,” she told him and though he never understood what he had done to make that true, it was true and a cause of pride in him, and he certainly understood how she was mother to him.

The result of this cool dry mass of intimacy rolled into by the warm damp air of desire was a virtual (having the power of invisible efficacy without the agency of the material element) whirlwind that could stay aloft for months, then touch down, irrefutable as rock. Jimmy was unfaithful to Cathy, disloyal to Betta, a distinction Betta understood and Jimmy did not.

“Come away from it, darling,” said Betta. “Leave her. Give it up.”

“No.” Said as sweetly as if it were Yes.

To Betta, Cathy was not a person but an impediment, another source of pain.

“Do you love me?”

“I can’t not.”

Betta hated Jimmy’s activism. She loathed male political power, despised its feuding petulancy, rejected its tyrannical definitions and the constant quarrels required to maintain them. To her, politics was tragic.


The salesman cometh




Jimmy sits in a cubicle, typing. His phone buzzes.







Can you please come here?



What’s up?





Jimmy walks rapidly to the reception room. BETTA, the receptionist, stares at her typewriter. Jimmy goes to her, not looking around.



What’s the matter?


Betta looks up at him with hollow pain, hands him a business card, nods at a man seated on the reception bench.



I can’t handle it.


The man is middle-aged, sharp-featured. His clothes are rumpled but cared for. He holds a sample-case on his lap. Jimmy reads the card, reacts oddly, glances at the man again.



(to the man)

Excuse me just a moment.


Jimmy walks through the door behind Betta’s desk to the supply and mimeograph room.




STEVE, who spent ten years in a Texas federal prison on a Smith Act conviction for “teaching and advocating unAmerican doctrines,” collates a pamphlet on a folding table. Jimmy leans on the mimeograph machine, shaking. Steve walks over, concerned. Jimmy hands him the card.



Broadway Stationers
All Your Office Needs


And in the lower righthand corner, the words:

Sales Representative
Alger Hiss


Steve hands him a paper towel to wipe his face. He re-enters the reception room.





(stumbling on his words)

I’m sorry, Mr. Hiss. We print
our own stationary. But...




That’s all right.


HISS clicks the sample-case closed. He had opened it to begin the sales pitch.



I thought you might...


Betta watches them, her face furious and sad.



We would. We would. If we do, we’ll.



I know.


He’s used to it. Jimmy opens the door to the hall, as if Hiss couldn’t open it himself or as for a visiting dignitary. Jimmy and Betta think of Willy Loman. They think of the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They think of the man who planned the United Nations. They watch him through the glass as he fades down the hall. Jimmy, who defended Hiss and lost in his first college debate, thinks America has surrendered all moral respect and authority. Betta thinks politics is tragic.




He leaned forward to Betta, held her face, kissed her, she swept her arms around him, their mouths would not let go. With finger and thumb he pried the buttons of her blouse open, she lifted from the seat to let him pull it free of her skirt. He slid his left hand forward, pulled the cups of her bra outward and up over her breasts, let them heave out, left the bra to hang like a necklace while he worshipped them, saw them with his hands. Then it was all the unstoppable, urgent, slapstick of two lovers in a small car, searing fun and undignified, pants around ankles, panties on the dashboard, and City Hall, invisible through the steamed glass, be damned. When he was suddenly fully, thickly in, joined at the root, they paused, as if then and only then were they knowably together, possessed of each other, and all else, everything outside the car, was a story, a fable, invented to give them grief.