The Spies Next Door

You just never know what your lawn-mowing neighbors are up to.

First published in Washingtonian Magazine, August, 2014

“We can neither confirm or deny that this is our first tweet.” The CIA’s first-ever tweet, June 6, 2014.

The two newspapers had been switched, like every other morning, and I knew within seconds there'd be a signal telling me if the mission had been a success. Some agents opt for an upside-down flag in a window, others for a chalk mark on a park bench—tradecraft, we call it—but I was dealing with a particularly old school spook. We had a routine down by now, me and her, and that’s why my daily walks always involved a very specific act: one copy of the Washington Post for another. Each sunrise, I'd tiptoe onto her lawn and looked around quickly to see if I was being watched. With one swift motion I'd reach down and pick up the target object, replacing it quickly with the fresh paper nestled under my arm.

This day, no different. After the swap had been made I beat a hasty retreat back to the street and positioned myself neatly in the shadow of an enormous tree. For a few seconds, nothing. Then in a flash, almost imperceptible to someone not in our line of work, came the sign. The venetian blinds swayed ever so slightly.

She had seen.

Failure. Every day a failure! Let me tell you something—when your six-month-old Golden Retriever puppy rips up the newspaper of your neighbor every single morning, and I mean rips to smithereens, and you’re simply trying to do the right thing by replacing that shredded copy with an intact one of your own, take it from me: make sure the house isn’t owned by retired spies. 'Cause they don’t miss a thing.

Welcome to my neighborhood. All of us knew both Mr. and Mrs. Carlson spent their lives working for the Central Intelligence Agency. In my North Arlington, Virginia subdivision, it’s more of a question of who isn’t retired CIA. I mean, I'm not. I can’t even figure out how to unlock my car at six in the morning without it making two beeps loud enough to wake the whole block—but I do love a good story.

Rod and Pat Carlson had them by the boatload, no doubt, but they never told. At least not to me. Exceedingly reserved, the old couple had lived in the same small house since 1967 and rarely chit-chatted with us newcomers. Rod had a gaunt, Amish look about him, a modern-day Abe Lincoln. You expected to see him swinging an axe. Pat was a wisp, so frail I worried she’d get blown over on windy days. I’d be in line at Safeway and she’d suddenly appear behind me—very ghost-y but always very sweet, too. For years they lived a hundred feet from me and I never thought to ask what they did at the CIA.

Every block has a couple of homes where the lights go out earlier, where the sounds of crying babies subsided decades ago, and where kids don’t bother to try trick-or-treating. “Not that house, Jimmy, it’s dark!! They never answer the door!” Old neighbors. But when those houses contain retired spies, the ante jumps. Kids today would leap at the chance to play secret agent. Grown-ups, too, what with our cubicles and billable hours. Decades from now their stories, which could never be told when they were young and vibrant and, most of all, classified, will start to disappear.

Rod died in 2004 and for the next eight years Pat was on her own. I always made sure to shovel her walk after a snowstorm. She’d rarely ever come out, but I’d see the venetian blinds sway ever so slightly and knew she had appreciated it. That was her way. Only after Pat died in 2012 did I begin to realize what our block had lost.

As my own father was gravely ill, I couldn’t attend the memorial, though everyone said it was nice. “Her children were all there,” our mutual neighbor Kasey said. “In fact, one of them said something funny.”

“Oh, crap. Don’t tell me it had anything to do with Cooper ripping up her mom’s newspapers. I apologized years ago, I swear!”

“Nah,” said Kasey laughing. “What she said was this: ‘Now that mom and dad are both dead, there go the last two people who could have told you who killed JFK.’”


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