Excerpt

Who is Vera Kelly?

Rosalie Knecht

June 13, 2018 
The following is from Rosalie Knecht's novel, Who is Vera Kelly?. After struggling through high school, Vera Kelly is living in New York, trying to to blend into the Greenwich Village gay scene, and working nights at a radio station. Her technical skills and sharp wits catch the attention of CIA recruiter, leading to Vera Kelly's stint as an undercover spy in Buenos Aires. Rosalie Knecht is a social worker, translator, and writer. Her previous novel is Relief Map.

October 1957
Chevy Chase, Maryland 

On a Tuesday I came home from school to an empty house, watched the evening news, and then took two Equanil caplets lifted from my mother. Nothing happened, so after an hour I took three more, and then maybe more after that, I can’t remember. My mother came home from work after a late evening laying out a special issue of the magazine and found the decorative fish tank in the front hall smashed on its stand and the fish on the carpet. I had apparently stumbled and fallen against it in my stupor, and then climbed the stairs to my room and sat down to write a letter to my friend Joanne. My mother found me passed out on my desk, drooling on my stationery set. She told me all this when I woke up at 4:00 AM in the hospital. “You know you can’t talk to her, Vera,” she said. She had a journalist’s eye for detail.

The doctor kept me in the hospital for two days, and when I came home I was down like I had never been before. They had pumped my stomach, and it felt like everything inside of me had been thoroughly blended with a milkshake machine and then poured out. I was discharged on an overcast Friday morning when my mother was at work, so the housekeeper, Mrs. Cooper, picked me up in the car. She brought me chicken broth in a thermos. I was wearing the clothes I’d been admitted in, a blue sweater that I had to throw away when I got home because there was dry vomit all down the sleeve.

I lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in a brick house on a corner lot with a beech tree in front. My window was the one all the way to the left, hidden behind the leaves in the summer. There were flagstones going up to the front door. It was a very nice house, which I didn’t realize at the time because it looked like all the other houses in the neighborhood, and I’d never lived anywhere else. 

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January 1966
Buenos Aires, Argentina

I met with Nico Fermetti in his kitchen on a Thursday evening after dinner, the two of us sitting in chairs pulled up to a Formica table with a chrome band around the edge. The surface was bubbled and bleached in places from cigarette burns, the pocks in the plastic left over after the ash had been scrubbed out. Nico’s wife hovered at the stove, which he didn’t seem to mind. I didn’t like it. I saw no reason to trust her, and she was clearly suspicious of me. I couldn’t guess who Nico had told her I was. 

I had brought my things in a small, gray hard case, which I kept beside my chair. Señora Fermetti silently offered me a cup of instant coffee with hot milk. I thanked her, although she’d already turned her back, and then burned my lips on the drink and set it down. Argentines never seemed to have this problem. I’d spent the two weeks I’d been in-country with the roof of my mouth perpetually scalded. 

“Let’s see the toys, Anne,” Nico said. 

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“She has to go,” I said, in English. 

“Puf,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. 

“It’s a rule,” I said.

Nico was very tall, well over six feet with a long torso that sloped down to a heavy gut. He had a large bald head and a dark mustache, and bad posture that might put people at ease. He was the contact Gerry had told me about. Officially, he was a foreman for a massive construction firm called Aliadas S.A. Unofficially, he was the man that the president of Aliadas S.A. called if he had a problem. Nico knew everyone and could fix anything. He had spent his life in this working-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires, which meant that he knew every union from the ground up, and he had built houses for the rich for twenty years, which meant he knew the old-money families who summered in Punta del Este and Mar del Plata, the core of the Buenos Aires elite. The president of Aliadas was friendly with the CIA because Communists haunted his dreams. He lived in fear of the nationalization of his company, and some said that as rumors of a coup began to circulate he had started to import rifles from Brazil to his ranch in Corrientes. In defense of his interests, he offered the time and expertise of Nico Fermetti to the CIA

Nico sighed and murmured a few words to his wife. She looked at me hatefully and went out to the living room. I heard the TV snap on, and then the sound of a mournful full-throated male warble. The singer was popular, but I couldn’t remember his name.

I was proud of the bugs. I packed them carefully and lingered over them, and I enjoyed the effect they had on the few people I could show them to.”

“You’re very casual,” I said to Nico, still in English. I could just see the edge of his wife’s gray permanent through the doorway. The angel Gabriel watched me balefully from a framed print above her wingback chair.

“This is my home,” he said.

I lifted the hard case onto the table and snapped it open. I let it sit there open for a moment. I was proud of the bugs. I packed them carefully and lingered over them, and I enjoyed the effect they had on the few people I could show them to. There were nearly three dozen of them, wrapped in cotton batting, beside my other equipment—my transceiver and soldering kit and the extra rolls of wire. 

“No bigger than buttons,” Nico said. 

I lifted out the six on top. Each membrane was the size of a quarter, with a half-wavelength antenna of four and a quarter inches.

“You could sew it into a jacket, it’s so small,” he said. He looked yearningly at them. I set one in his open palm. “It weighs nothing,” he said, waving his hand gently up and down. “These days, my God, the technology.”

“They’re simple,” I said. “The basic design is twenty years old already.”

“My children must all study electronics,” he said.

The coffee had cooled enough to drink. I sipped it and watched him turn the object over in his thick hands. I had dreams sometimes that I was walking through a mansion decorated with crumbling plaster moldings of fruit and vines and flowers, and there were bugs glowing through the baseboards in rows, pulsing.

“I have thirty-five of them,” I said. “They can be set two inches deep behind wood or plaster. You can go three or four inches behind plastic. They told me you have access to the buildings.”

“I have access to everything,” he said. Aliadas had the contracts for every federal and city building, and Nico could map the wiring of the light switches in the Congreso Nacional for you, or tell you how recently the bathrooms in the presidential palace had been painted, if you gave him a few hours to make phone calls. Nico’s apartment was modest, perched in a three-story building on a side street in Barracas, but there were small touches that gave him away as a big man. The television was color. Lladró pieces lined the walnut-stained mantel in the living room, pastel sculptures of young women engaged in clean-looking farmwork: girl in kerchief with goose, girl in bonnet with goat. In the place of honor, at a startling twelve inches tall, was a clown weighed down with dinner-plate buttons and a ruff, playing a mandolin. I knew how much those cost, and they had to be shipped in from Spain wrapped in yards of quilted padding. The señora’s purchases, of course, and most likely the reason she was willing to tolerate visits like mine at all.

“We’ve had some success with dummy phone jacks,” I said. “You hide the bug behind the plate.”

“Marvelous!” He laughed delightedly. 

“You’re too loud,” called his wife from the other room in Spanish. “The neighbors will complain.” He ignored her. “Where are you living?” he said.

“I have a flat in San Telmo.”

“They give you a nice salary?” he said, raising his eyebrows. San Telmo was an expensive neighborhood.

“A dollar goes pretty far,” I said, evading. Inflation was at 30 percent. He glanced up at me, and I realized that it was rude to mention the weakness of the peso. “It’s a small apartment,” I added quickly.

He set the bug down on the table, measured it with his hands, and then lit a cigarette. He gazed into the bug, as if the membrane were an eye. “This is my new girlfriend,” he said.

“I’m glad you like it,” I said, glancing at the clock. It was getting late, and the buses ran less and less regularly as midnight approached. I returned the bug to its layer of batting. Nico stared thoughtfully at the hard case. “Well,” he said. “Tomorrow I’ll make calls. I’ll find out what work orders we have in. Then I’ll talk to you. We’ll meet at the Plaza del Congreso tomorrow evening, all right? It’s too hot to be inside. Seven o’clock, at the corner of Montevideo and Rivadavia.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You can find your way back?” he said.

“Of course,” I said. I leaned toward the door to the living room and smiled brightly at the señora. “Thank you so much for welcoming me into your home,” I said in Spanish. She gave me a contemptuous look. Nico walked me to the door, kissed me on the cheek, and sent me out into the underlit hallway.

“Seven,” he said.

I stood a long time waiting for the elevator, which did not come. Someone had probably left the gate unlatched on the ground floor, which meant the wood-paneled cubicle would sulk in the narrow lobby until someone came by to reset the latch. I made my way down the stairs in near-total darkness. 

It was ten o’clock and had been dark for less than ninety minutes. The sky was still violet above the low white buildings across the street. It was late January, the height of the South American summer, and even in the dark the sidewalks radiated heat. I paused in front of the building to search my handbag for a cigarette, and this tiny effort instantly started me sweating again, the silk of my blouse clinging to my spine. Back home, my radiators had become temperamental, and I had been trying to warm my bedroom with a kerosene heater that I worried might gas me in my sleep. In Buenos Aires the temperature hadn’t dropped below eighty degrees in a week, and the shock to my system was considerable. In the afternoons, when the heat was most intense, I took naps in the bathtub in my San Telmo apartment. The air of the city, laden with the pollen of jacaranda and palo borracho and diesel from idling buses, had given me a persistent cough that I was aggravating with imported American cigarettes. 

Nico might be all right. His wife might be all right too, for that matter. She was, after all, very scrupulously showing me exactly what she thought of me. That kind of honesty put my mind at ease. I looked up at the windows of their apartment, lit and slatted with venetian blinds—yellow light from the kitchen, blue from the living room where the señora was still watching television. What had Gerry said? “When Nico helps you, he really helps you.” A negative corollary hanging there, unsaid. 

I had to prepare for my work at the Universidad Central, one of the largest public universities in Buenos Aires. Gerry had briefed me. The CIA had been getting reports for years that the KGB was recruiting among the Marxist students. Marx was au courant, a strange handmaiden to Freud in the echoing hallways of the UC. Most of the Communists among the students were harmless, but some were KGB, and in the last six months there had been signs that Moscow had issued orders to activate. I had been given extra money to pay the foreign student fees at the Facultad de Psicología. I was enrolled in two courses for the fall semester. I marveled that after all this time, and under these circumstances, I was going to college.

I walked along Alvarado, mapping and remapping my route back to the bus that had dropped me off. Most of the streetlights in Barracas were out. Most of the streetlights across the city were out quite a lot of the time. In Barracas there was little to relieve the darkness but the light from ground-floor windows, and many households had already gone to bed. At the corner of Vieytes a shop was still open, and the proprietor and I regarded each other with muted surprise—a woman walking alone so late, a shopkeeper with his gate still up after the dinner hour. It was one of the makeshift, all-purpose shops common outside the Centro, the front room of a house made over with a counter and a few racks of packaged sweets, a shelf of flour and oil and newspapers, crates of Quilmes beer stacked beside the door that led to the parlor behind. A scene of domestic harmony was just visible through the doorway: a dog lying on a hook rug in front of a television. I felt a twinge of loneliness. The shopkeeper and I nodded solemnly at each other as I passed.

Miss Kay was probably not that bad. In fact I could tell she wanted to like me, which was probably why my first instinct was to lie to her.”

Always know where you are. The bus came quickly, and I ascended into the light. If you were left alone here, on this corner you’re passing with trees on one side and a long whitewashed warehouse stretching away into the dark on the other—could you find your way home again? Gerry encouraged me to think this way, to constantly worry at the fabric of my composure. To always have two plans. If the bus broke down at this corner, I would follow the Avenida 9 de Julio north a long way to the Autopista 25 de Mayo, and from there it was only six blocks to my apartment at the corner of Chacabuco and Carlos Calvo.

I knew where I was. I could find my way home again, forward or backward, in any direction.

 

October 1957
Chevy Chase, Maryland 

The visits with Miss Kay started the week after the Equanil and the hospital, and were a condition of my continued enrollment at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Miss Kay was probably not that bad. In fact I could tell she wanted to like me, which was probably why my first instinct was to lie to her. She was young. She was the counselor. She worked in an office off the home ec room on the second floor, and I had to go up there during sixth period twice a week.

“Do you get along well with your mother, Vera?” she said the first day.

“Not really very well, no.” I was being arch. My mother said that was one of my bad habits, and that I wasn’t as clever as I thought.

“Why is that?” Miss Kay said.

I was knocking my knees together under my skirt. The skirt was an inch too short, but everything else was in the wash and I’d been getting away with it all day. It made me self-conscious, though, when I sat down. My sweater was itchy as well. I wanted to get home and take everything off and lie in the tub.

“She’s angry at me a lot,” I said.

“About what?”

“About sneaking out, or failing Latin, or my friends. She hates my friends.”

“Why?”

“She thinks they’re a bad influence,” I said.

“Are they?”

I shrugged. “Maybe they are.” Joanne was my best friend. After junior high, her mother pulled her out of the public schools and sent her to a Jesuit academy in Silver Spring. We spent the weekends together at her house, and we spoke on the phone every evening until her mother made her hang up and take her bath and go to bed. We had gotten drunk on stolen schnapps three weeks before and been caught. My mother had forbidden me from seeing her, and her mother wasn’t letting her near the phone. Being separated from Joanne had knocked the color and light out of everything. 

I cleared my throat. I’d seen a psychologist when I was twelve, for about two months after my father died, because I wouldn’t eat. The psychologist had an exaggerated expression of concern on his face all the time. We would sit in leather chairs in the front room of his house in Georgetown and a Pekingese would come and scratch at the door halfway through every session, and we would both pretend not to hear it. Miss Kay didn’t look concerned, just absent, like she had a jingle stuck in her head and was trying to remember the words. 

“I wasn’t trying to kill myself, if that’s what they told you,” I said.

“What were you trying to do?”

“Sleep. I have insomnia.” I had never slept well, and it had been worse lately. I hadn’t slept more than two hours in a row since I was banned from seeing Joanne, and I felt half dead. 

“Your mother would like an apology,” Miss Kay said. “Maybe it would help to write it out. Could you try working on that at home?” I agreed to work on it at home. 

I’m sorry for scaring her because she thought I might die and also when she first got home she thought someone had broken into the house because the fish tank was smashed. I’m sorry for the consequences of my actions which are that she does not trust me home by myself and has to pay for extra hours from Mrs. Cooper in the afternoons and she lies awake at night worrying according to her. I’m sorry because I could have ruined my health and I am no longer trustworthy.

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From Who is Vera Kelly?. Used with permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2018 by Rosalie Knecht.




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