By Jan Shapin
They were cutting across the baseball diamond, he remembered, through autumn-yellow grass on the way to the lake. “It’s called a desire path,” she said, gesturing to the trace of beaten earth that doglegged left of second base on through center field until it disappeared into the woods. “A landscaping phrase my mother used. Not ‘shortcut’—that implies convenience.
"Desire is rarely a convenience.” He watched her consider what she’d said, back away from the implication. “It leads to a lake? I like that, a way forged to the unseen.” She paused and then added, “Hopefully not something that will disappoint.”
By the time Japan surrendered, Andy’s disappointment extended to just about everything. In November, when they let civilians exit government work, he’d turned in his papers, said good-bye to his colleagues at North American Aviation, sold the couch in his one-room apartment, wedged his few remaining worldly goods in the back of a ’37 Ford pickup and moved to his hideaway inside Sequoia National Forest.
No phone, no electricity, no neighbors and, he hoped, no memories. But in this latter expectation he was disappointed.
There was Ilse and other things: his mother, his pa, his disorganized upbringing. His ex-wife and daughter, the hash he’d made of that. Other disappointments: the labor movement, the New Deal, his various bosses. Mostly, though, he thought about Ilse, that summer of 1934, whether he was the one who’d made a mess of things or her. Whether it was even a mess at all. Whether it was the most important coming up for air in his whole life.
He’d first laid eyes on her on Flag Day, 1934, on the Mall in Washington, in a tent set up for visiting dignitaries by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. She was with Anna Mae, an old friend of his who was back from the Soviet Union en route to Seattle to visit her father.
“Andy,” his friend cried, pulling away from her companion. Anna Mae’s large frame and piston elbows hustled over to where he was standing behind some stacked-up picket signs. “Come meet Ilse Tollman!” Anna Mae presented the woman like a well kept pet, a trim figure encased in an ink blue suit, belted, with a row of pleats that marched around shapely hips. The woman was sleek, certainly, and elusive, and Andy had the urge to reach out and touch the chestnut shine of her hair. Instead he was forced to submit to Anna Mae’s sticky embrace as she pressed him in an unwanted hug and whispered in his ear, “Andy, I need to talk to you!”
That was the last thing he wanted to do, talk to Anna Mae, from whom he had parted on not very good terms some dozen years before. But he did want to meet this Ilse Tollman, whose name rang a bell, and when he voiced that thought they all had a good laugh—tollman, rang-a-bell. “It’s my husband you probably know, he works for Frances Perkins.”
Ah, yes, Madam Secretary of Labor Perkins, President Roosevelt’s good friend, the ally of organized labor. Just like Andy to be interested in the wife of a man he should be careful not to antagonize.
“What does your husband do for Mrs. Perkins?” he found himself asking as he untangled Anna Mae’s arms from around his neck.