Published by the online Defenestrationism in September 2016
(Numbered when I gave a later story the same title)
Ernie’s first awareness of the government’s spying was through the late news. It disturbed his civil libertarian sensibilities, but not his slumber. The government was monitoring people’s e-mail. Outrageous. Still, not a personal concern: He and Susan had agreed from the start never to e-mail each other. There would be more detail by morning; he punched off the television and spooned up next to Penny, who was almost asleep.
He thought of himself as an ordinary man. Happily if not always faithfully married for twenty years; two ordinary teenagers; an ordinary law practice in wills, trusts, real estate; occasional pro bono work for the American Civil Liberties Union. An ordinarily busy man: Too little time for morning newspapers, relying mostly on National Public Radio news during drive time. Occasionally, if something awaiting attention at the office demanded thought, he tuned instead to classical music.
Next morning, it was exactly eight when he backed out of the driveway. NPR devoted a whole five minutes to the eavesdropping, a report apparently drawn from a Washington Post blockbuster. Secret data disclosed by some former CIA operative. It wasn’t only e-mail they were prying into: text and telephone, too, focusing on communications to and from other countries.
That got his attention. He stopped at the commuter-station newsstand, bought the Times, Journal and Post, drove a few blocks to the park and turned the radio off to read.
It was worse than he’d first thought. The Fourth Amendment — to be secure against unreasonable searches — suddenly became intensely personal. The government was looking for patterns of contact between Americans and people overseas. Not reading or listening, officials insisted, just looking at something called metadata — unless a pattern was detected.
He and Susan posted Facebook photos occasionally, sharing with each other by sharing with the whole world. They scrupulously refrained from ‘liking’ each other’s posts. Carefully discreet, unlikely to attract attention. Their guarded, long-distance correspondence and conversations would heighten the physical explosion when she came home on leave in a few months. They would find ways to spend a secret night or afternoon or morning together now and then. He felt himself aroused just thinking about her body. He willed himself to stop.
Circumspect. Seeing the kids through to adulthood was important. The last time, Penny said she’d dump him in a minute if he strayed again. And he loved her, really. Wouldn’t want to hurt her. Let alone provoke a messy divorce.
But he and Susan talked almost daily. Never landline calls: always on Skype, from his office computer after his secretary left for the day, calling her cellphone at daybreak in Hong Kong. A pattern that must surely have been noticed. Intimate calls.
Would the government listen in on longings, on loving words? In J. Edgar Hoover’s day there would have been a file on him. Liberal lawyer, fancies himself a civil libertarian. Indiscretions? Put ‘em in the file. We might someday want to persuade him to back off a case.
Who was to say there weren’t such files nowadays? He put the newspapers in his briefcase, tuned to classical music, got onto the highway.
They would have to stop calling. How to tell her? Not by phone: One more call could be the straw that broke the camel’s back, triggering devastating attention. Not by e-mail or text, either. Still, he must explain a sudden silence, lest Susan try to call him. That could be really disastrous.
Facebook. Some veiled posting only she would be able to translate. By the end of the day, he had it: Begin an innocent-sounding trivia quiz for friends. He Googled. Perfect! “What Gershwin song,” he posted, “did Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers make number 34 among all-time film hits?”
By the next morning, his old college roommate Warren had posted the answer: “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
Anything on her wall? He checked. Yes.
“What 1964 song,” she’d posted, “reached number 9 on Billboard?”
It took him less than a minute to find the answer: “It’s Over.”
Damned government spies.