the mark of Cain

Where to meet Les, the kid with the possible snitch jacket? Not Mel’s Diner — too Jennifer. Not Bernal Park — too Stew. Not the Peking Paradise — too Herb Caen. Cathy settled on Dolores Park. Who’d spot one more intrigue among the hippie tokers, copulating lovers, nude sunbaskers, Mime Troupers on display across the avenue from the downspilling Victorian homes? Les looked like a cowboy thrown from a bull, carried the FBI memo (a photostat, his collective kept the original) in the pocket of his fringed jacket.

TO: Source LO [Les’s initials], FROM: SAC San Fran, SUBJECT: Bernal Hill Action Group (BHAG). The note thanked LO for information related to BHAG’s antiwar activities previous fall, adding that there was apparently a sophisticatory split between J. Edgar Hoover and the SF office:


“The Director desires fullest exposure of the moral depravity of the New Left, especially use of drugs, filthy clothes, shaggy hair, nonconformance in dress and speech, sexual promiscuity, lack of personal hygiene, and wearing of sandals, beads, and unusual jewelry. Our office believes such information is of little practical use in the Bay Area, which seems inured to the culturally bizarre. Please concentrate on more brazen attempts to destroy American society, including but not limited to plans for violent overthrow of the government and, more especially, relations between white New Leftists and Black Nationalists.”

At the bottom of the letter a plea: Buy U.S. Savings Bonds Regularly on the Payroll Savings Plan.

“It was laying there in the back seat of my car.” Les balanced his elbows on drawn-up knees, hands dangling. “Why me? I’m not a leader. We don't have leaders.”

“Then why not you?” said Cathy. The letter, if fake, was clever, sharing supposed internal disagreements with The Director. “Why your group?”

“We’re not that small.” His hurt pride counted in his favor.

“Who sticks up for you?”

“No one really. No one wants to believe it, but they can’t not. ”

“Ann asked me to see you.”

“That’s as far as she’ll go. She’s scared like the rest, afraid it’ll rub off on her.”

“You have enemies?”

“No. If I was an agent why would I leave it out in my car? I know. People do stupid things.”

“Have they kicked you out?” She held the letter to the light, hoped for something obtusely wrong, “Bureau” to be misspelled, a practical joke to be revealed and all set right.

“They treat me like I’m not there. We live in two houses. When they have a political meeting they make me stay in the other one. They can’t decide. Can you put in a word with Jimmy? I mean, you’re a heavy couple. They’d believe you.”

“We don’t know you.”

“But I’m ME. I’m not a fucking FBI informer.”

“Jimmy and I can’t just take your word for it, Les.”

“If I had proof, I wouldn’t be talking to you. I mean, how do you prove you aren’t something? It’s not like I have an alibi. I’ll take a lie detector test.”

“Would that make a difference to the collective? If you passed it?” Did I say IF you passed it, or if you PASSED it?

“No.” His bones wilted, face dimmed. “No one believes that lie detector shit. Fuck! I could prove I’m not Australian. I could prove I’m not a vegetarian. This is like, Prove you were never in Dallas. Prove you never read Catch-22. Prove you never had a racist thought.”

Down the slope the San Francisco Mime Troupe, halfclad in motley, set up their stage.

Somewhere someone, a group of someones, know the truth, and they’re the enemy — that’s the truth whether the letter’s real or fake. No point in asking private-eye questions: did you leave your car unlocked? Was the letter under something, was it in an envelope, blah blah. It exists, it raises suspicion. That no one stands by him is suggestive but of what? Personal conflicts, heightening paranoia, rivalries, jealousies. How easy a calf is cut from the herd.

“Where are you from?” asked Cathy.

“Pittsburg PA.”

“Can you go home?”

He laughed. “Where are you from?”

Yeah, go home to the Bronx, Cathy.

“I don't know any way to prove you innocent or to argue it. If they don’t trust you, they don’t. Nothing I say would make a difference.”


“Or Jimmy. He can’t tell them who you are better than you can.”

“People believe him.”

“Not about everything, Les. Not about things he can’t know.”

“So I’m screwed and tattooed.”

“Being in the movement isn’t the only thing.” Her words surprised her. Something about the view from the height of the park across the Mission to the Bay. “There’s things you can do, good ways of being, that don’t involve groups where the FBI can fuck with you.”

“You’re telling me to leave the movement.”

“I’m saying there’s places less paranoid, where they can’t hurt you, where this,” she rattled the letter, “doesn’t matter and you’re still a decent person with a good life.”

“And the movement that’s been my family gets rid of me. You think I’m a pig.”

“I don’t.” Do I? “If there was any evidence to help you, I would. Stay in the movement, away from the Bay Area. The country’s big.”

“All the evidence I got is my life, and you’re telling me that’s not enough.

“I’m not in your life, Les, I don’t know your life, and the people who do, for whatever reasons.”

“Yeah, don’t believe me.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know how to win this.”

“Yeah, well.” A sloughing wave of the arm. “I’m sorry I wasted your time. Not your fault. Not anybody’s fault I can do anything about.”

She handed him the letter. He shrugged it off. “The mark of Cain? Keep it.”

“Take care of yourself,” said Cathy. “I mean it.”

He started down the hill, saw he was headed toward the Mime Troupe stage, veered, aimed himself at nowhere.

She'd either given a straight-up kid some helpful advice on how to repair his life or disappointed a snitch who'd screwed up and was trying to save his career. Neither felt right.

She held the rat from The Director’s brain. If I put it in my purse and someone finds it, I’d come under suspicion. She lit the letter with her Bic, dropped it in a trashcan, watched it squirm to ash.