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Sing with Me

Sing with Me

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Sing with Me

1,253 pages
22 hours
Jan 7, 2014


In Sing With Me, Carlisle Jacobson begins a teaching career in Washington, D.C., learning as much as he is teaching. Through personal experiences, he learns most youths dont have the advantages he enjoyed in the horse country of northern Virginiaonly a day-trip away from Washington but worlds away from its streets plagued by crime and nearly cut off from hopeas a child of privilege and wealth, with slave owners of the antebellum south in his ancestry. A hunting enthusiast since he was young, Carlisle still is alarmed to learn firearms are used frequently in D.C. for hunting down other people, including one of his student's and a co-worker. His most frequent teacher in learning he has a lot to learn is Lucia Sanspeur, a black woman with ancestry that extends to Colonial era settlers on the Delaware River, including a man who performed a heroic mission during the Revolutionary War despite the white militia leaders disdain for his skills and initiative. Lucias voice captivates Carlisle from their first encounter and her ideas propel him toward understanding that he looks at the world and other people through a sense of white wealth and privilege. When he experiences first-hand the violence and crime that victimize many in the area daily, Carlisles education moves into advanced studies but also comes to nearly a complete stop.
Jan 7, 2014

Despre autor

Michael Spice has lived in the Washington, D.C., area for more than 20 years, observing the often alarming events, activities and trends that affect the people of the area. Michael works as a writer in Washington, and in the suburbs in Maryland and Northern Virginia. He also enjoys time in the Eastern Shore areas of Maryland and Virginia and on the Delaware coast. He draws on his more than 25 years working as a writer to look inside the people and the communities, the institutions and the industries of the Washington region and describe the lives of people who call it home but are far removed from the worlds of national politics and international diplomacy, the symbols most of the nation and the rest of the world associate with the capitol of the free world.

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Sing with Me - Michael Spice



We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Second Continental Congress, 1776

The answer surprised the teacher. Shot? He repeated what he hoped he didn’t hear but kept hearing, a gunshot echoing in his mind.

The answer came from a janitor, sweeping the room, offering what he knew about a student missing class.

How does a nine year old kid get shot, Des! A stack of students’ assignments dropped from the teacher’s hands. He dropped into his chair. If you’re jokin’ with me, you scared the hell outta me!

Des leaned his broom against a student’s desk. He stepped toward the teacher’s desk and was ready to go around and make sure the teacher didn’t drop to the floor. Hey… man… Carl. Des assured him he wasn’t joking. You gonna make it, C-Mac? using the nickname he’d given him to see if that would get a smile or something out of him.

Des wasn’t sure the teacher would be able to get out of his chair, but he had the rest of the rooms in the community and recreation center to do. Carl said thanks, but he was okay and he’d be leaving in a minute.

Had Des waited, he’d know it was more than a minute.

The word, like a gunshot heard clearly but its origin unclear, shocked and slowed Carl the rest of the day, the next three and today, Friday, driving to visit the student in a Washington, D.C., hospital.

At a red light in his MG with the top down, writing on a greeting card resting on his leg, he felt the rain. Just before the light changed. Not a drop here or there but immediately steady from what appeared to be anything other than a threatening sky moments earlier—at least in the span of time that could be loosely called moments since he’d taken even the slightest notice of the conditions. While calling it a storm stretched the use of the term, the teacher on the way to visit a student in the hospital was immediately convinced it was the most severe downpour since the last meteorological event that could also be called a downpour, and he was convinced just as immediately it had been ages since anything as remotely wet hit the area, and, of course, it had to start when the light turned green and he had no choice but to move forward with the traffic under a sky that rapidly and without warning rearranged itself from predominantly blue with scattered, thin clouds to resolutely gray with thick, dripping curtains.

As much as he wished to escape the rain as quickly as he could by pulling the car’s canvas roof stretched over a folding frame out of the well behind the seat, he wished even more to avoid the certain wrath of motorists impeded by someone blocking traffic to transform a convertible in use into a convertible in potential. So, the drivers ahead of him drove forward, he drove forward, the drivers behind him drove forward and he knew the rain became so forceful, bordering on violent and he would later search his memory for evidence that he must have heard thunder during this storm, that it could easily drive forward itself before he could drive forward far enough from the intersection to stop off the side of the road.

Even in what he would describe as the blinding rain he could determine there was no space on the paved roadway to the right of the D.C. end of Francis Scott Key Bridge spanning the Potomac River that any traffic engineer worth his one-way street sign would designate as appropriate for stopping a vehicle. But he decided as decisively as he decided anything in recent memory, which would probably cover about the same amount of time since a storm anything similar to this one occurred, that he’d moved forward enough and he would stop to pull the top up and finally escape the rain. He stopped in a small triangle of pavement marked diagonally by yellow lines, to the right of the two lanes that turned to the right off the bridge in a space caught in limbo in the point at which two lanes of the bridge traffic merged with the two eastbound lanes of M Street.

As soon as he stopped and pulled himself out of his car he was convinced beyond any doubt he had not stopped on an actual road shoulder. If he had, he most likely, almost certainly he knew, wouldn’t have stepped from the driver’s seat nearly into the path of a dark pick-up truck probably driven too fast for the suddenly treacherous conditions. Later on he would wonder, as well as wonder why in the world he would wonder about this particular point of this particular event, whether he first heard the truck’s horn, or felt the mud the truck splashed hit his pants. He wasn’t hurt, a memorable episode of a sudden spike in his pulse as well as a frantic gasp for breath but free of physical harm; still, as if reliving the cinematic milliseconds of memory that precede an accident of singular consequence, he would later try to recall, which came first, the horn or the mud?

The teacher driving the MG couldn’t ask the driver of the offending pick-up—he, if in fact it was a he and not a she, didn’t even slow down much less stop to inquire about the welfare of the driver unexpectedly turned pedestrian and suddenly mud-strewn—whether the horn preceded the splash. No, the truck wasn’t stopping and the rain wasn’t diminishing and Carl wasn’t doing much of anything for a moment as he considered the water and dirt—combining into a distinct mud texture—across his pants. Water may be the universal solvent, but at this moment it’s not solving anything and it’s actually a partner in crime with the climatic conditions and the soaked driver is convinced he is the sole intended victim. And to think, he would later remember thinking, one moment—whenever that was—he had considered no reason to consider the conditions anything but an ally allowing him to drive top-down on the errand he was attempting to accomplish, and the next moment—albeit, there’s no telling how much time separated the opposing moments of this before-and-after bubble—he considered the conditions undoubtedly an enemy to his very existence.

Perhaps it was recalling the old saying—how old he couldn’t say but one of those considered an adage and one that sounded so old it was probably part of the first cast of sayings given lasting status when cultures began adopting sayings as old sayings—that we talk so much about the weather you’d think we could do something about it that jolted him from examining the front of his pants, and, as he occasionally did when some calamity befell his attire, recalling his mother saying, Carlisle McLean Jacobson, what have you done to your clothes? and particularly recalling her habit of using his first, middle and last names in those moments, to turning to pull the convertible roof over the car.

Pulling the cloth top from its well behind the seat, Carl realized the back of his pants would get decorated to match the front if climbed back in through the driver’s door, putting his back to the traffic. He resigned himself to staying in the rain for the few seconds more he would need to walk around to the other side of the car to fasten the roof. As he did, two or three or maybe more cars, trucks and maybe other types of vehicles rolled past, splashing water and dirt onto the side of his car not safely off the road, but in this sudden downpour he didn’t consider safely off the road a priority. At this point, though, safety grabbed a starring role in the theater of his life and he elected to crawl into his low-slung buggy through the passenger door.

Crawl was the only term to apply to his posture and movement necessary to reaching the driver seat through the passenger door. Though not a large man, right at 6 feet and bouncing between 185 and 195 pounds depending on how much he exercised and how often he had pastries or dessert, Carl still filled enough space inside the car to make a difficult if not precarious job of moving across the passenger seat, over the gear shift and into the driver seat. The job graduated immediately from difficult to dangerous when he placed his left hand in the passenger seat to push himself over the console and the gear shift and his hand slipped on the greeting card he was writing in before he left it on the seat after the rain started and that was covered with water before he pulled over the top. There was little room to fall before his chest hit the top of the gear shift, which wasn’t sharp, actually rounded; but it wasn’t soft either and didn’t bend or flex with the impact. And with his chest stinging from the collision with the gear shift, Carl’s head met the driver seat, which, like the passenger side, was drenched from the ongoing storm.

Carl, sore now as well as wet, knew before opening the glove compartment to place the wet card inside, wondering whether what he wrote on the inside of the card was smeared and knowing the envelope must be ruined, the odds were steep against it containing any sort of towel. Not only did he also not have an umbrella with him, he couldn’t remember—although he realized he had more urgent issues to consider besides towels and umbrellas and the lack thereof—where he last left his umbrella, office, home or unknown location in between. But even if by some twist of fate he happened to use some of the limited space inside his car to store an umbrella that would be at his disposal in this or any other storm, he didn’t think he would want to use it to again get out of the car and open the trunk, where he knew he had several rags he used to wipe his hands while working on the car, either in garages or in emergencies. And if did open the trunk holding an umbrella, he would have to relinquish the umbrella momentarily, cinching the handle between his arm and ribcage, while he manipulated the arm assembly that locked in place to hold the trunk open and had to be manually unlocked to close the trunk. Some day he’d give up trying to unlock the trunk arm without having something in his hands, a bag of groceries, books, and yes sometimes an umbrella, but now wasn’t the time to start that new habit.

No. the rags would stay in the trunk, he would stay in the car, eventually curling himself into the driver seat and, despite his attempt to wipe the seat with his hand, water would stay on it, which absorbed some of the moisture and assumed the texture of a damp cloth. And his pants, pleat-front khakis normally appropriate for a spring day, would match front and back, he was convinced: mud sprayed below his knees and mud forming on the seat. While no mud reached his shirt, the rain reached through it to adhere it to his chest and back. When he looked in the rear view mirror for a break in the traffic to return to the road, his reflection included hair matted to his scalp with water.

Sometimes, he regretted not following the temptation to buy an MG model with leather seats, even the sound of the phrase a forest green MG with brown leather seats painted a pretty picture. This wasn’t one of those times; the cloth-covered seats weren’t as attractive as the leather ones, but they’d fare much better after a wet affront like this, although for the moment they’d become a wet cloth of a seat.

Convertible roof fastened front and back, wipers squeezing a line of sight on the windshield, himself once again behind the wheel and traffic rolling by, Carl turned his attention to returning to the road he had not entirely left. When a break in the line of vehicles appeared and he pulled back into traffic, a break occurred between songs on the station his car stereo was tuned to and the disc jockey said: Rain showers are expected this afternoon in the D.C. area, but nothing serious or dangerous; just the normal April showers that will bring May flowers. Drive carefully out there and stay tuned for our first Road Watch of the afternoon at the top of the hour. Carl slapped the play button for the compact disc player, not particularly to listen to the music but to escape the source of far more information about the weather than he possessed. He wished he had a some country music and could somehow play a CD in reverse because he’d heard if you play a country and western song backward, it stops raining, your sweetheart apologizes, your mother-in-law leaves and your dog comes home—maybe either would help him feel a little less wet, at least not so soaked.

Driving east on M Street away from the Key Bridge intersection, Carl realized taking the Key Bridge over the Potomac from Arlington, Virginia, into the Georgetown area of Northwest Washington is among the most indirect routes he could use to reach Southeast Washington, extreme Southeast Washington at that, all the way to the Anacostia area near Prince George’s County, Maryland. Choosing a more direct route would have made more sense. And another route probably would not have put him in the position he ended up in trying to pull the roof over his car. As many times as he’d entered Georgetown via Key Bridge he had not noticed the absence of emergency pull-over space at the M Street intersection. Then again, in the six months he’d been in the area he had not encountered such an emergency at that intersection. Come to think of it, in the five years he’d been driving the MG and the nearly 10 years he’d been licensed to drive he had not encountered a similar emergency at any intersection. In D.C., in Virginia, or any other place on the map.

And at no place he’d been on any map did he recall being as distracted as he was before the rain began. It wasn’t just that he was writing on the card when the rain began, he’d been thinking about delivering the card since Monday, since well before he bought it, which was no more than a half hour before the rain. If he knew he’d be so preoccupied by the reason for this trip, he would have considered taking a cab; but distraction wasn’t something you prepared for like a test—how would know if you passed since you’d be too preoccupied to listen for the results?

Several blocks from the bridge, well before he would have to make the first of at least a dozen turns to reach his destination, it appeared the rain had slowed; either that, or the downpour didn’t possess the strength he believed it flexed before. At this moment just moments after his mano a mano with the rain and other motorists, he opted for the latter: the conditions were as severe as he felt while exposed to the sky and the road.

But the pace of the rain did little to hinder traffic now and, with the time approaching 2 p.m. and the start of the afternoon rush hour at least an hour off, he made good time driving from Georgetown on M Street then onto Pennsylvania Avenue, through Foggy Bottom—committing foggy bottom was probably a crime in most states but here in the nation’s capital there’s a community called just that, Foggy Bottom—and into the downtown part of the district, where traffic slowed with the addition of tourist motorists, buses full of tourists, taxis ferrying tourists and other fares and an army of public servants, police officers, parking monitors, National Park Service guides, refuse collectors and others, primarily concerned with the safety and comfort of the tourists. The closer Pennsylvania got to the White House, where traffic was detoured off Pennsylvania and around the home of the president before resuming on Pennsylvania again, the more tourists and the attending public servants there were.

Navigating through the central area proceeded slower than reaching the central area, but the rain had slowed to an occasional drop with the conditions overhead returning to resembling the conditions he last noticed moments—and he still didn’t consider how much time had passed in the period he called moments—before the clouds loosed their flood. With the temperature before the storm hovering in the high 60s and with the same destination on the Fahrenheit scale likely now that the day had pitched a wet tantrum—and recalling his mother’s I hope you feel better now Mr. Jacobson when tantrums marked his behavior as a youth—he’d prefer to pull back the convertible and drive his MG as it was meant to be driven on such a day. When he got it, he already knew days like this were made for driving a convertible; apparently, he’d converted to a convertible attitude before owning a convertible automobile. But as much as he was surprised by the rain in the first place, he considered with trepidation whether to pull over again—although it was likely this time he would find a spot actually off the road and out of traffic and no additional water or mud would be added to his pants—and acted as decisively as he had in deciding to pull over at M Street and the Key Bridge during the storm to not stop, but to continue driving toward his destination, still five or six turns away. And the further he ventured from the Georgetown area in Northwest, the less sure he was of the turns he needed to make.

The windows would come down, now with even the most sporadic rain drop stopped and the dripping clouds returned to thin status though still backed by more gray than blue, but the roof would stay up, lest even the most sporadic rain return.

The prevalence of umbrellas among the pervasive pedestrian spread indicated, as much as he clung to the hope the storm of not 20 minutes earlier was unexpected, many of them, tourists included, expected rain. The law of averages—which political body enacted this law and how it was enforced or how it was amended and whether it could be repealed he had no idea—would hold that at least several of the people on foot and the same number of motorists now in the area would have been caught in the rain, either unprepared or otherwise surprised. But as he looked around at other vehicles in the traffic and assorted people on foot, he failed to detect a single person who appeared even slightly as discomforted by the rain as he had been. Oh sure, here and there a few pairs of shoes muddy or wet or both; but not one pedestrian fashioning mud-streaked clothes or one head of rain-matted hair. His seat felt wetter, the front of his khakis dirtier.

And he again realized the extent of his distraction; being aware of prevailing climatic conditions doesn’t approach any work or responsibility that would demand extended concentration and attention. But he may as well have been up to his B.A. degree, which he intended to follow with a M.A. although he was undecided about returning to Charlottesville or trying one of the universities in or near Washington for his graduate studies, in around-the-clock research as much as his mind had been occupied by the invading forces of questions about, first, why a student of his was hospitalized, and, second, more questions about how could that student be hospitalized for the reason he was.

He heard from Des about the student’s absence after the other students left Monday. He hadn’t talked to anyone else on the faculty at that point, but he would have asked Des first anyway. The coworker who’s talked to him the most since he started at the center wasn’t a teacher or someone in an administrative position. Des Johnson was the primary janitor at the center. Other janitorial employees of the school system also worked there, but Des was the only one assigned there full time. A month into his work there Carl realized he’d expected, without really making any sort of conscious plan about it, to talk with other teachers frequently at the recreation center. Nearly four months since he started, though, and he’s talked more with Des than the rest of the staff combined. Des made himself available to talk more than the rest of the staff combined, anyway.

He didn’t actually ask Des why the student was in the hospital, and when he didn’t indicate right away he followed Des’ comment about the student, Des was the one asking a question. You mean you ain’t heard da rest a dem kids goin’ on ’bout it, C-Mac?

Des coined the C-Mac moniker even before Carl’s first day on the job, when he scanned across his resume after the center supervisor left on her desk after Carl’s visit during the winter. Des read the name and tried to say it. Car… what dat… Carless? . . . hmmm… let’s see… McLean Jacobson. He laughed picking up the trash can near the desk. C-Webb be downtown playin’ ball for dem Wizards and C-Mac be over here teachin’ kids at da rec center.

Carl admitted he didn’t overhear anything about the student being hospitalized from the other students and it didn’t occur to him they would be a likely source for an answer. Besides, he told Des he didn’t think he could force himself to interrupt the students’ after-school fun with a question no fun to ask.

Des laughed so hard he started coughing while continuing to laugh before finally stifling the coughing enough to tell his coworker why the student was in the hospital. You may not wanna ask dem kids but a bunch of ’em be happy t’ give you an answer, C-Mac. He stopped sweeping the classroom floor a moment, looked at Carl and started laughing again but also coughed right away. Been hearin’ bunch of ’em goin’ on ’bout it out on the playground an’ shit. Anyway man, dat kid got shot…

Carl felt shot into his chair. He wouldn’t tell the hospitalized student, if he would ever again have a chance to tell the student anything. He couldn’t imagine anyone who’d been shot, no matter what age and for what reason, would appreciate someone telling them that. You might as well tell a shooting victim, The good news is you’ve been shot, the bad news is I felt like I was shot when I heard about it.

He turned east on Constitution Avenue, before Pennsylvania reached the area of the Capitol Building and sent motorists on a bumper-car like pace in a circle of stops and starts before they had to choose which path to navigate to somehow return to Pennsylvania. He didn’t closely follow the directions he received the first time he drove alone into D.C., and not as a passenger in a family sedan, which despite living most of his life only two hours from the district’s western border wasn’t until the weekend late in the fall when he visited Arlington to introduce himself to the rec center staff. As soon as he crossed over the Potomac from Arlington on the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge on Interstate 66 he realized if there had been any description in the directions of what he would encounter immediately upon reaching Washington he didn’t recall a word of it. He recalled saying, We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, then deciding to simply continue straight at the end of the Roosevelt Bridge, which put him on Constitution. Something about driving in the district, he decided, was conducive to him being particularly decisive; perhaps it was that driving here was often nothing like driving in his hometown in Northwest Virginia at the West Virginia border, where you could relax and enjoy the roads,; and while Charlottesville, Virginia, where he attended college and may return for more, was more congested than his hometown, at least traffic patterns there possessed some order and reason and predictability. In the district, the capitol of the American republic, it struck him that traffic patterns must be influenced more by the habits of foreign nations than by U.S. customs, such was the state of confusion and misdirection and unpredictability he’d become accustomed to in the city. Carl thought of Rome, though he was too young to drive when he traveled there with his family, but he recalled some similarity between the frenzied traffic there and what he encountered in Washington; he could also find some resemblance to the comings and goings of traffic in England, despite the opposite-lane driving which he knew from experience because he was old enough to drive when his family journeyed there—his mother, not one to lose a chance to remark on his appearance or behavior or a combination of the two, uttered numerous Carlisle McLean Jacobson and Mr. Jacobson in the no more than 45 minutes he was behind the wheel of car with her as a passenger while in the London area.

On his initial solo foray into the district last fall, decisiveness put Carl in his MG, top up due to the crisp conditions, onto Constitution and, although he’d passed on chances to search for a parking spot near the familiar landmarks of the monuments Washington and Lincoln, he turned onto Pennsylvania toward the Capitol. He was reminded then when he entered the peculiar Capitol Building traffic pattern he’d been told several times his MG, little and square, looked like it belonged in bumper car rides at carnivals and fairs, particularly when the top was down. But he was not struck then or had ever been by a notion to try out his roadster as a bumper car. What he wanted to do then was park to begin exploring the Mall area and, while it was apparent that parking spaces were at a premium in this mass of motorized mayhem, an open one appeared on his side of the three-lane one-way stretch of road he happened to have entered and it appeared at a time when he had a fleeting second to look anywhere other than at the other vehicles driving in front of him and at times appearing to be driving directly toward him from the sides.

Must be in the front row, he said when he steered the car into the spot, though he had no idea in what row the space could be described as being. When later he related his introduction to the district traffic, he was questioned about whether he actually reached the Capitol area, or whether he double-parked; to a person, all of the people from the district, Northern Virginia or the Maryland side of the community the U.S. Census Bureau defines as a Metropolitan Statistical Area who heard his traffic tale didn’t think he could have simply driven without really knowing where he was going without ending up far from where he hoped to go and, on top of that, actually finding a vacant spot in an area where vacancies occur about as often as in the Supreme Court.

Perhaps because of those responses, or perhaps because he rapidly became a frequent visitor to the Georgetown area without going further into D.C., he hadn’t considered trying his luck again by driving into the Capitol Hill area via the same route.

And he knew he’d push his luck expecting to repeat the same kind of day he enjoyed last fall that first day on his own on the Mall.

It wasn’t a particularly warm day, but it was windy and it was clear and he imagined he could not only see the windows of the Capitol from the steps of the Lincoln Monument at the opposite end of the Mall, but through the glass and into the rooms and halls where the nation’s legislative questions were posed and answered. Before he’d even reached the Mall from his particularly convenient parking spot, he felt it welcoming him, actually heard it welcoming him. He was walking up the slight slope from the roads surrounding the Mall toward the Washington Monument and he was hearing a percussion cadence of some sort ahead in the distance. After a few moments, he felt he was walking in step with the cadence, a steady, metallic beat; but he saw no marching band and no stacks of speakers anywhere. On the vast open lawn between the 555-foot obelisk and the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Monument, always a favorite spot for resting sore feet while discovering the nation’s capital, he saw what looked like hundreds but was probably only dozens of kites in just as many shapes and designs dotting and coloring the sky and dipping and bobbing according to the kite handlers’ controls. But no band or amplifiers nor anything that, or anyone who could be drumming the cadence pacing his first solo march on the Mall. Ccarrinngg, right, ccarrinngg, left, ccarrinngg, right, ccarrinngg, left, ccarrinngg, right, ccarrinngg, left."

He stumbled out of the cadence when he saw what was drumming. The wind, brisk and cool, turned the 50 flagpoles surrounding the courtyard around the Washington Monument into steel drums for the chains needed to raise and lower the flag; ccarrinngg, ccarrinngg, ccarrinngg.

The wind didn’t coax a metallic sound from the kites but when he walked past the monument toward the kite fliers he heard the wind whipping through and around the flying designs of balsa and paper, or cloth or nylon or plastic or, as he would learn, any combination of materials the kite fliers could dream to try. A box kite of red and yellow and blue sheets of plastic hummed like a high-velocity draft blowing through a narrow vent; a 6-foot shield of pink paper with three 12-foot tails lined with pink bows rattled like a bride and groom’s car leaving a wedding; and the one Carl accepted an offer to fly, three 4-foot triangles of black cloth stacked and linked at each corner by 18-inch balsa rods and with a 10-foot tail at a corner of the lower triangle, purred like a sewing machine stitching an endless hem. Over his head, dozens of colors and just as many sounds; in the distance, the chains beating a rhythm on the flagpoles; and ahead of him, thousands of names on a wall which reached his eyes and echoed around his head with the rhythm and color of history he’d never come across in any textbook.

Carl didn’t talk with his father about visiting the Vietnam Memorial while he would be in Washington to meet the people he’d be working with in the winter. His father has not talked about visiting the wall of thousands of names on the Mall since it opened in 1984. He occasionally talked about serving in the Army and being in Vietnam after graduating from Virginia Military Institute, getting married in 1965, being commissioned as a lieutenant, assigned to run a supply unit in Saigon and promoted to captain while there before returning to Virginia and starting his business in 1969. He called his work a desk job but he didn’t talk much about it and he talked even less about the work done by most of the men he’d known who’d gone to ’Nam. The only time they were in Saigon was the day they got there, he told his son. They didn’t leave. Their names would be on the wall along with the names of the other men and women killed during the U.S.A.’s involvement in the conflict halfway around the world between half of an Asian nation ruled by communists and backed by the Chinese and the other half colonized for most of the century by the French and backed by the United States with help from other free nations interested in keeping Vietnam free of communism and free for commerce. Mr. Jacobson didn’t repeat their names to his son but his son would have been at the wall all day and would need a second day at least to find the names among the stacks and rows of the marble wall shaped in a shallow, wide V and angled down from 15 feet tall at the center to less than 2 feet at each end. And he would have needed much clearer vision to find any name. He didn’t recognize any name he saw as he walked toward the center, nor did he recognize what he was feeling. A smooth, shiny, endlessly imposing surface of names and names and names and names and a dark, mourning, silently honoring symbol of lives and lives and lives and lives and he thought he knew why his father hadn’t talked about visiting it. Maybe he’d find the names of the men he knew who arrived through Saigon but never left through there, but maybe the wall would move too much for him too. Maybe his father wouldn’t recognize any names he saw but as Carl rested his mind on the steps of the Lincoln Monument he believed his father would recognize what he would feel at the wall.

He had not been into the downtown area or the Mall area as often as he anticipated when he learned he would be working just outside the District of Columbia. When he had, like today, he crossed over the Potomac on the Key Bridge, which connected with Virginia in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, about 10 minutes from the recreation center where he was assigned to teach; unlike today, though, he had not driven or been a passenger east of the area of the Capitol.

He learned from a street map of the district that the city was divided into four quadrants with the Capitol as the focal point. The same map did not include an explanation of why the quadrants spun around the hub of the Capitol although the Capitol was far from the center of the area that is the district. So, while Southeast and Northeast appeared to be sprawling lazily over large slices of the total, Southwest and Northwest appeared to be elbowing for all the space they could find out of scarce morsels of the same pie, with the more northern of the two grasping a bit more but much less than its eastern neighbor. The misappropriation of the quadrants dated to the decision in 1846 by residents of the district’s region south and west of the Potomac, seeking better chances to develop their properties, to remove their communities from the federal district and return them to Virginia, turning the 100-square mile square into 69 square miles between razor straight borders to the northwest, northeast and southeast and a serpentine border formed by the Potomac to the southwest—not a topic in any history text he could recall; at any rate, without the Virginia piece, the pie appeared to have lost a big bite even before it was ready to be served. And there would not be equal slices cut from such a misshapen creation.

Continuing east on Constitution, he entered the Northeast quadrant, passing office buildings for the Senate and Union Station Plaza to the north and the Supreme Court building—without a vacancy sign on its marquee, actually without a marquee—to the south just east of the Capitol, away from Georgetown, Foggy Bottom and the rest of Northwest, away from any area with which he’d become even vaguely familiar. Distracted or focused, errand or joy ride, this part of D.C. was brand new to him.

The first one or two blocks of the 10 blocks he would pass before he would turn revealed nothing dissimilar to what he’d seen elsewhere in the city, older buildings, mostly brick row houses with some of cinder block, kept for the most part in good repair with little debris along the road. And he considered for a moment—how long these moments that dotted his time he perhaps at one time would consider but not this day—he’d perhaps accepted exaggerations as gospel, that Northwest was no different than it’s counterpart in the east, or the east and west of the Southern half of the pie. That moment passed quickly, though; the homes were probably no older than the ones he’d passed for several blocks, but appeared much worse for wear. Maintenance, apparently, had not been performed recently on the exterior of the structures or on the small yards in front, and it wasn’t clear whether items strewn about most of the yards were debris waiting to be taken away by garbage crews, or debris not set aside as garbage but that would remain in front of one yard or another until some person or another happened to place it at the curb for the garbage pick-up.

Waiting at a red light at Constitution—Constitution Ave. NE, with the quadrant indicator following the name stressed as a necessity to describe any address in the district; Don’t end up in Southeast when you’re lookin’ for Northwest, Des told him—and Seventh Street, he leaned over the steering wheel to look up and down the block, curious about the appearance of the homes off what appeared to be a major artery through a neighborhood. But it wasn’t the appearance of the structures that piqued his curiosity as he stared south from Constitution. Although the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and not any holiday of which he is aware, plenty of people, mostly men it appeared and too many to count, filled the small yards outside each of the homes on the block of Seventh north of Constitution. The shower passed more than 20 minutes ago now and little evidence of it remained, other than a few puddles in the street and along the sidewalks. If they were outside before the rain and were driven inside by it, they didn’t take long to return to their street-side gathering. Must be some special neighborhood event going on, he concluded, otherwise they would be at work or school or still inside.

Granted, he was taking time off from his position at the Arlington after-school program to complete this errand. Although personal in nature, the errand was explained by his job; the reason for the errand’s destination, the reason for the distraction that had him uncovered when the storm covered the area.

But it didn’t appear many, if any, of the people filling the yards on the block of Seventh Street Northeast were on errands away from their jobs, or were on their jobs. He didn’t recall from the descriptions of the district neighborhoods away from Northwest and downtown that entire blocks would be full of people in the middle of a weekday afternoon. And as far as he knew and could see, there were no monuments, museums or other attractions that would have folks congregating on the street.

Months ago he realized traffic patterns in Washington, D.C. were diametrically opposed to those he grew up with and those he knew in Charlottesville, but waiting at the light and scanning the block north of Constitution, he was struck that living patterns in some of parts of the city apparently were also unknown in the town near where he’d lived with his parents, Berryville, Virginia. Hey gang, say hello to Carlisle, he’s not from around here and here isn’t his home or his college town or his anything. The house Carl lived in with his parents, and where his parents lived for three years before he was born and still reside—his mother, fond of names and of applying them to things as well as people he’d become aware, insisted on referring to her residence as Grace Acres, a name that always, without fail, prompted Carl’s friends to exclaim Green Acres! and begin singing the theme song from the old television show of the same name, . . . fresh air, Times Square…; his father approved the addition of a wrought iron screen with Grace Acres spelled in it over the gate at the main entrance as well as a large oak plaque with the words carved in it attached over the front door; however, he called it simply his home though he would more than occasionally, usually in the company of other businessmen, refer to the 155 acres of land in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains as his estate—wasn’t in a neighborhood of homes and the closest residence was more than a mile away, about five miles driving, but he spent plenty of hours with boyhood friends who lived in residential areas and shared an apartment with two other students during his junior and senior years at Virginia. And in Berryville and in Charlottesville, unless it was a holiday, he didn’t recall encountering a large number of people gathering outside their homes on a weekday. Unless it was a holiday of some sort or another, there would be little chance on a residential street on a weekday afternoon in any season of the year of finding more than two or three housewives in their yards talking about their children, their children’s schools, their in-laws and their mortgages—the same housewives were even more active communicating with each other on the telephone and when either snow, rain or, more rarely, heat kept them from their front-yard conferences, their phone lines were even busier. Sometimes when outside they would be holding an infant, or keeping a toddler close; but they wouldn’t be among a group of men, too many to count, just passing the time in their front yard or on their neighbor’s porch in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

He would have continued looking to the south and at the people he saw habituating that block if not for a blast of the horn from the car behind him to remind him the green bulb of the red-yellow-green arrangement indicates go. He continued east on Constitution, not being stopped by red lights at the next several blocks so he quickly scanned to the north and south to determine whether the scene of Seventh Street would be repeated. There appeared as he rolled by to be a few people on the blocks, perhaps he didn’t have time to clearly see each street as he drove past, but he wanted, and chose to think he would not have found a block similar to the Seventh Street crowd if he were stopped at another traffic light on Constitution before he reached 11th Street and turned south. The pace of traffic picked up on 11th, which moved him faster toward his destination but at the same time disappointed him because he wouldn’t be able to inspect, and confirm his belief about, the blocks along the cross streets as he had along Constitution.

His curiosity piqued, he decided—driving in D.C. and being decisive, like hand in glove—to turn off 11th and drive south along a street that offered a better chance to inspect the surroundings. He didn’t consider it a risk of losing track of the route he was following; it was merely a matter of driving parallel to 11th until he returned to 11th before it crossed the Anacostia River. He turned west from 11th onto East Capitol Street for a block before turning south again on 10th, but now in the Southeast quadrant, where he got a closer look of what looked similar to what he saw on Seventh from the red light at Constitution.

And the people in the street on this block, again most of them men, got a closer look at him driving by in his forest green sports car, wondering why he had the roof up on such a nice afternoon.

At this point whether his roof was up or whether it was down, and even the immediately recent experience of pulling the roof over the car while stopped precariously close to a busy road in what he considered a blinding storm, wasn’t remotely close to his attention. Where he was trying to keep his attention was on the road in front of him to keep from driving into the cars, trucks and other vehicles parallel or roughly parallel parked along both sides of 10th, some parked closer than others to the curb and others parked not close at all, and from hitting the dogs in the street or darting into the street. But as he tried to navigate the thoroughfare, his attention also was drawn to the homes on both sides of the street, and to the yards in front of the homes, most of which showed glaring to gross need of paint and other repairs. More people apparently not working or attending school on a weekday. And, apparently from the style and condition of the clothes they wore, most of them not coming from or going to any place of employment. Not everybody wore a dress shirt and tie to work—in fact Carl’s position required only a sport shirt supplied by the county with the county recreation office logo and either khaki slacks or shorts—but he couldn’t pick out one person in two blocks of 10th south of East Capitol wearing anything resembling clothes he’d consider appropriate for working attire. Not even a uniform from a McDonald’s, Taco Bell or other fast-food franchise. He also couldn’t find anyone in front of the yards on 10th who appeared to be wet, who appeared to have, like him, been surprised by the storm and at least slightly moistened before finding cover. Of course, with the shower 30 minutes in the past, anyone who’d been rained on would have had time to dry out; even his clothes could be described as at least beginning to feel less than soaked.

He didn’t find any men, women or children on 10th in the Capitol Hill neighborhood south of Constitution surprised by the rain; he found someone who surprised him more than any storm ever had.

With the car’s top up, the radio and CD player off, the windows down on the pleasant afternoon in the first week of April and rolling by the homes below the posted 25 miles per hour limit, he began to make out snippets of the conversations taking place in front of the homes on both sides of the street. It occurred to him he was listening to the block in stereo. And hearing expressions he’d not heard previously; seeing mannerisms and gestures he’d not seen previously; and several of the men, some of them apparently young boys, none of whom he was aware of meeting previously, were calling to him, obviously expecting him to listen as he drove past.

Yo, sports car, he heard from the right side of the road, yo, man, yo, I gots whatchoo needs.

And from the opposite side, if he was accurately discerning the stereo of voices from the street: Roun’ da corner, homes, you be wantin’ my rock.

Although driving slowly and although absolutely mesmerized by the block of faces and voices—nothing, no way, distracting him from this! This was the climatic scene in a thrilling action-adventure film! And he was the star of the film!—he couldn’t link faces to the phrases apparently of some sort of recognition or welcome. He had no idea what they thought he wanted from them or what they were offering. He wanted to acknowledge their salutations, at least to wave at them, but he could determine no more than the direction the words were coming from and he had no idea who was saying what. And as far as he could tell, he had not met any of the people in front of the houses on both sides of the block of 10th Street south of Capitol Street north of where he would have to return to 11th Street to cross the Anacostia River.

At the second stop sign after he drove four blocks on 10th, four figures began approaching his car from a yard on the northeast side of the corner, walking around a pile of debris, possibly trash left for the refuse crews, to reach the street. In the time it took four maybe five vehicles to go by on the cross street before it was clear to proceed and for a police car to race by with its siren screaming a block away on 11th Street, he glanced over at the group walking through the yard on the corner, glanced back at the traffic and then back at the group—a man perhaps in his mid 20s and three teenagers, none older than 16 or 17 and one as young as 12 or 13—as they walked around the debris on the sidewalk. Each of them wore heavy and baggy and dark pants and equally heavy, baggy, dark shirts, and three of them wore black or other dark-color baseball caps, turned to the side or twisted with the bill at the back of their heads. The fourth one, probably the youngest, made up for the absence of a cap with sunglasses, two pairs, both with large, dark, oblong-shaped lenses within multi-colored frames and one pair over his eyes and the second pair tilted back on his head. And as they passed the sidewalk onto the street, he realized he could hear them approaching: each wore an assortment of heavy, gold or gold-colored chains and medallions, ringing a metallic rhythm against their baggy shirts.

He looked up to find the cross street clear and began crossing the intersection, but stepped on the brake when one of the teenagers stopped in front of his car. The youth turned away while staying in front of the MG, apparently motioning to someone down the street. Carl moved his hand on the steering wheel to press the car’s horn but paused. Sharp tapping on his car’s metal window frame drew his attention to the side. The tapping came from a hand adorned with several large rings and the hand and rings belonged to the oldest of the group. The window tapper was close enough to the car the roof cut off Carl’s view and he couldn’t see past the chest of the body covered in a black shirt with red letters attached to the hand with the rings.

Before he could say anything, and he was thinking of what in the world he could possibly say, he heard a voice that must have come from the body attached to the ring-laden hand and standing next to the window. Fo’ the car, man, give you a few rocks… . My boy up there be likin’ your ride, see what I’m sayin’.

His boy up there must be the youth, wearing two pairs of sunglasses, standing in the road in front of his car, blocking his way and now facing the car, swaying side to side and front to back, pulling his arms back and forth as if he were waxing the car. Smiling, he must actually like the car, Carl granted, but he refused to accept the youth could be old enough to have a driver’s license so he could have no use for the car regardless of how well he liked it.

At any rate, he had no thought of trading it for anything, especially for the few rocks the man with the ring-adorned hand offered. When he turned again to the side, the man at the window was kneeling. His cap, tilted to the side, bore a Georgetown emblem—was he a student, what year, what major? Carl considered—and his baggy shirt advertised Perry Ellis fashions in red block letters; he held a small pouch, like the one Carl used to hold his marbles when he was young. Was it marbles this man wanted to trade for his MG? And if this were some sort of yard sale, shouldn’t they place their wares on tables in front of their homes and wait for people to stop their cars and walk up to inspect the goods? He’d never heard of a yard sale offering curb-side service.

You ain’t lookin’ for somethin’ man, you in da fuckin’ wrong place, the man holding the pouch said. Ain’t talkin’ long fo’ I’m doin’ somethin’ see what I’m sayin’.

Looking for something? Carl asked, turning briefly to the front to see the youth who liked his car, now with both pairs of sunglasses tilted back on his head, stepping closer to it and toying with the chrome emblem, the letters MG enclosed in a ring, adorning the front of the hood. The two others who approached the car were to the right, sitting on a bench either intended as lawn furniture or left as garbage.

Thas’ it, lookin’ for some rock, asshole, the man at the window responded, leaning closer to the car from his crouch, close enough for Carl to notice orthodontic braces over his teeth and then consider whether they could have been applied by the same orthodontist who straightened his own teeth nearly 10 years ago; would this conversation in the middle of the street about some sort of transaction the possible Georgetown student wanted to make but of which Carl had no idea reach a point where that question could be addressed?

Don’ matter none, my boy mother fuckin’ likes da ride. Standing up again, and Carl knew they weren’t going to exchange orthodontists’ names.

Carl, later to realize the irony that he and his car survived one storm, a natural phenomenon, only to encounter another, a man-made spectacle, would readily plead guilty to on occasion operating the MG at high speeds on roads with more curves than most, sometimes in the company of other drivers in similar vehicles and with similar intentions, but at no time had he considered navigating an obstacle course of men and women, boys and girls. Nothing could be more bizarre: Through the first turn, where a young mother and her first child are sitting, car number 3 leads a tight pack of racing competitors.

So, decisiveness didn’t allow a pause to consider it. At about the moment he realized his pulse was experiencing a bit of a spike, though nothing more pronounced than during his earlier encounter with the elements and other vehicles, it occurred to him that with the pouch-holding man to the left, the car-admiring, sunglass-happy youth in front and the two others to the right now petting one of the dogs roaming the street, none of the four was left to block the rear.

And to the rear went the forest green roadster some say resembles a carnival bumper car, in a hurry, while a police car’s siren echoed by a block away on 11th, going the opposite direction from the one minutes before.

He didn’t have to move far from the corner where he was accosted, or from the pouch man’s perspective, offered a business deal, to be free of the apparent threat. The four didn’t chase him, the two on the bench didn’t even leave their seats and the younger one idly slid one pair of sunglasses over his eyes, and no one from the dozens in the other yards on the block did more than give a slight turn of the head to the sight and sound of a sports car in rapid reverse in the middle of 10th Street, momentarily chased by two barking dogs, probably not strays but roving the street as though they were, around other vehicles parked close or not so close to the curbs on both sides of the street on a early spring weekday afternoon offering hints of warmer weather dampened slightly by a brief shower.

When he reached the block he’d already passed, he wanted to turn south toward 11th Street, but the street was one way to the north and he had to drive north to go south. North for a block, then east on a one-way street until he reached a road that allowed southbound traffic. But before he could return to 11th Street, he had to turn east another block to reach a road that intersected 11th and returned him to his planned route toward Eastern Memorial Hospital on the south side of the Anacostia River.

Staying mostly clear and comfortable the rest of the afternoon. The radio station revisiting its weather forecast. But it’s cooling some tonight before turning mostly cloudy tomorrow with some early afternoon rainstorms expected. Watch out though, a bit more serious than the little one we had today!


If any of the four who accosted him, admired his car and offered some sort of deal on 10th Street was carrying a gun, Carl didn’t see one. He didn’t even consider the possibility then. Just as he’d not even considered one of his students could have been shot before Des told him. Not even after Des told him and he noticed students in the rec center playground this week playing as if they were shooting or being shot. Not even today on 10th Street when he heard the metallic rapping against the window frame. That handguns could easily be concealed beneath the baggy shirts they all wore also didn’t strike him.

A wound, or worse from a gun or any other weapon for that matter, simply wasn’t even an option among the possibilities before he learned why the nine year old boy from the after-school program at the recreation center in Arlington was hospitalized. Not even when the boy, Arthur Lucash, was described as being in critical condition. Not even when no one at the center volunteered what Carl assumed, that Arthur was injured playing sports or riding a bike. Or, in what would be the absolute worst-case scenario, he’d been hit by a car.

Although Arthur’s condition was still considered critical, he’d been moved from the intensive care unit, Carl’s first stop, into a semi-private room in the pediatrics section, where the first reference by a staff member at the front door produced 3E as the room number before the second inspection of a chart by a second staff member produced 3B and the end of the hunt.

Carl didn’t take any more elective detours and didn’t have any problem reaching the hospital after crossing the Anacostia River on the 11th Street bridge and didn’t encounter another pedestrian obstruction after his hasty exit from 10th Street. It occurred to him while over the river—as if traversing the body of water elicited insightful introspection in a sort of metaphysical way even though he couldn’t see the river from his seat in his low-riding sports car on a bridge with solid concrete barriers on the sides—he could return to that same area of 10th Street tomorrow and not find the same scene. He’d probably have no reason to be in the Capitol Hill neighborhood then, but if he did and if he returned to the same block in the same car and if it was even at the same time of the day, he concluded that a repeat of the same sort of meeting between him and representatives of the neighborhood, as it were, would not occur. The four who’d approached his car, one of them apparently admiring it fondly, as well as the rest of the men and women on the street there and on Seventh Street, where Carl wasn’t party to an impromptu meeting but saw the same type of street-side congregation, could not have a reason to spend a second straight spring afternoon apparently doing nothing and would have to

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