The Walls Have Ears (and Eyes, Too)

I should write this down, because if it turns out not to be nothing, I should probably have a record of it. We aren’t security, but we are supposed to be on alert for anything unusual. Of course, I’m also admitting that instead of going straight from the Senate-side meeting room where I had been sitting in on a pensions subcomittee meeting with the Senator (being chosen for that was still a thrill) I took a detour through the Rotunda. It may be one of the places in the Capitol I could always visit anyway, without needing the I.D. badge that lets me into parts previously unknown. But it’s the most . . . Capitol-like part of the Capitol, if that makes any sense. When I go in there, I feel as if I’m really working at the heart of everything. Much more than in my little cubbyhole at the Hart Building, anyway.

So I detoured there today. Being a weekday and not quite tourist season yet the crowds weren’t as bad as all that, so I could stand craning my neck at Brumidi’s Apotheosis of Washington without attracting too much attention. It’s my second-favorite piece of art in the Rotunda. I go through the Brumidi Corridor often enough I’ve sort of stopped seeing it, but the Apotheosis I have to make a special trip to look at. It’s like I imagine standing in a cathedral must be for people who believe in that sort of thing. Though now if an artist were designing it, I would hope they’d put in a scene, with the Science, Marine, Commerce and all, for History.

I said second favorite. My favorite piece of art in the Rotunda probably should be one of the sculptures from the Statuary Hall collection, or at least Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence. It’s not. My favorite is another Trumbull, General George Washington Resigning His Commission. Washington is standing before the Continental Congress in Annapolis, bathed in a shaft of sunlight, with his lieutenants behind him and civilians looking on. It’s like the entire concept of civilian control of the military and a leader who willingly surrenders power to become a citizen again, like Cincinnatus, all distilled into one painting.

That was a little bit history geek, wasn’t it.

Anyway, I was standing in front of that painting, and the sun was just right from the windows up in the dome to light up the (huge) canvas. I was standing back for a better view, when I had the strangest feeling someone was staring at me. My first thought was someone from the staff had found me playing tourist. Or worse, a Member. Not the boss, she was still in the meeting, but there were plenty of members who’d know where I worked and that wandering around in what was technically the House’s territory wasn’t really in my job description. The next-least-appealing option was another Member’s staffer. Any of the Republicans and a few of my own side would have loved to get me in trouble for gawking. A quick cell phone picture and I’m on everyone’s Twitpic feed as the Senate Slacker. Or the tourist noob, which would be worse.

But as far as I could see, there was no one I knew or who’d know me. There were tours, there were Capitol Police being unobtrusively obtrusive, but no one appeared to be giving me a second glance.

Until I turned back to the painting, and once again felt like lasers were drilling twin holes in my neck.

I spun around, and this time I could have sworn I saw a shadow of . . . something . . . ducking behind the statue of Ronald Reagan (of all the people my native state could decide to honor . . . but I’m digressing again.) I took a step towards the statue but a tour group crossed between me and it, and when they cleared the center of the Rotunda that cranny appeared to be empty of anything except the bronze Gipper. After squinting in a way that probably made the tourists think I was visually impaired, I turned, slowly, back to the painting.

This time the eyes were somewhere to my left.

All I could see was the tour group, and none of them were looking my way. They were all staring up at the relief of the History of America that circles above the paintings and doors, and no one seemed at all interested in what anyone outside the group was doing. Yet I still had the increasingly deep conviction that somewhere in the Rotunda, someone was watching me. The feeling had gone from lasers to the hairs on my neck standing on end, and I was starting to think of all the ghost stories people tell about this building. Of course none of them were set in broad daylight in the middle of the Rotunda, but there’s a first time for everything, right?

I started across the Rotunda towards the Senate-side doors. Whoever found me so interesting was unlikely to have the kind of ID that would allow them to follow me into the not-so-public areas of the Capitol, let alone the exits they weren’t even supposed to know about. Despite the increasing feeling of being stared at intently, sending nervous tremors through my gut, I couldn’t help pausing one more time to peer up at the Apotheosis. When I did, the sun must have come out from behind a cloud or I’d stepped just where it was about to hit, because for an instant I was completely blinded by the warm, gold-white light. I had to close my eyes, and when I opened them again the sun must have gone behind a cloud because the light wasn’t in my eyes any more and I had the oddest feeling I was no longer being watched, either.

The weirdest part is I know whoever was watching me hadn’t left. But for some reason, something they’d seen, made them feel like they had to look away.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m more scared of the eyes, or what it was they’re looking at.


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