Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's Going On: A Political Fiction in Nine Episodes

Episode One: The Jagged Ride Home

Dante drove up the Hill between two Senate Office buildings, past the Supreme Court, then left on East Capitol Street. His rear view mirror filled with Congress's dome, its pale ivory drenched pink by September's setting sun.
Rhea rode beside him in their dented silver import that had ravaged Detroit. The radio played D.C.'s murdered hometown star of their youth --Marvin Gaye singing `What's Going On.'Rhea's wedding ring hand lay on her crimson skirt. She wore that musky perfume that drove him crazy. She always knew how to drive him crazy. Earlier as they'd sat at the restaurant on their monthly date night, she'd pressed the blue pill of a controlled substance called Viagra into Dante's palm, a legal gift to her from her clinic's corporate drug dealer.

The cell phone vibrated in Dante's shirt pocket.

Like a fool, he answered it as they drove past the Folger Shakespeare Library, barely got out "Hello?"before 22-year-old 'Trey battered his ear with: "Dante, they're shooting people! It's on again! War!"


"Liss Gardens! By the subway. Bodies in the street 'n' everybody saying it's all gonna blow!"

Dante's eyes darted from the windshield and what he couldn't see to where his wife rode beside him, her eyes as hard as the road humming beneath their wheels and that look that said more than she knew.

From the phone came: "Dante, what you gonna do? Should I –"

Dante gripped the steering wheel. "Call Liss folks we know. Ask them how they are, get them to chill."

"I'll go down there an'-"

"No, you're On Paper. You can't take street exposure. I'll call you."

Dante hung up.

Push-buttoned the radio from Marvin's poetry to local news.

Turned to look at his wife.

She said: "No."

"Baby, you don't – I don't even know what's what."

"I know you, Dante Jones. You promised your street time was history!"

The radio talked up a story about the big money baseball team that had gotten the Feds' anti-trust OK to move to D.C. three years earlier.

"Rhea'," he said, "I'm just gonna –"

"You are just gonna drive us home. Don't tell me your Coalition partners are all off helping Omaha. Now you just work the Life Skills classes. And help on GED prep, and -- "

Radio said: "We have reports of a shooting at the Metro stop near Liss Gardens, with three confirmed victims. Stay tuned for –"

Rhea push-buttoned the radio off.

"And don't you answer that phone!" she said.

"It's gonna ring whether I answer it or not."

"We're going home." Rhea shook her head like she did when she had to give bad news to patients at the clinic. "You're done with that."

"Still my city – our city. Our country. 'Still people like us."

"People like us don't shoot people." She stabbed her finger at him. "Don't tell me about you in Vietnam or the what-next: you did your time."

"Liss Gardens was my last gang truce. Maybe it's not over."

"It's never over." Her voice softened. "I'm live and breathe proud of you, but it's somebody else's turn to step up. You aren't some street-walking Henry Kissinger!"

"I know who I am," he said as the windshield filled with a sports stadium named for assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

"'You want to be Henry Kissinger," said Rhea, "go into politics."

"What I do is politics."

"Don't tell me about politics!" Rhea reached back in time for the voice she'd used to forbid her now-grown children to be stupid. "Politics is who gets what. Who gets to do what to who. You're not going to do this to me! To us!"

"Politics is who you choose to be. The rest is just the doing."

"Just the doing?" snapped Rhea as their silver car followed the road onto the bridge over the river. "Oh that's catchy. Slap that bumper sticker on your chest, it won't stop bullets."

She shook her head. "Bad enough you go out there looking for people who want to kill each other, wild young men with eyes so full of hot blood they can't see no tomorrow, you politicwith them while stepping on the shadow of hyenas like Red Luther."

Their silver car left the bridge.

Dante said: "Don't say `Red.' Call him `Luther' or Mister–"

"Call him `Mister'? Him with a gut-shot colostomy bag on one side and an Uzi slung on the other? Whatever you call him, he doesn't care about your politics, he's a gangster."

"Every gangster is born in politics. That's where laws come from."

"Your Luther comes from the Devil. I never want to meet him. Never want you to breathe the same air as him again. Pastor Doss and you claim everyone can redeem themselves, buthim...he's Luther like in Lucifer."

The cell phone buzzed in Dante's shirt pocket.

He turned left at the corner with the shopping mall bank rescued by ex-President George W. Bush's $700 billion bailout.

Rhea softened her tone. "Baby, all I want is you and the chance to grow old that we earned. You've come so far, so hard, you deserve that."

Maybe so, but we're all stuck with what we get.''

Dante drove into their quiet tree-lined neighborhood that like the rest of the District sat on turf carved out of America to avoid diluting the Congressional power of other turfs called states. Blocks of middle class houses he'd seen a thousand times flowed past his windshield.

Seven blocks from home, he said: "Look, I'll just make some calls."

Six blocks away, he negotiated: "If I go in, it'll just be to pass this off."

Five blocks away, streetlights winked on.

Four blocks – What's that?

Parked down across the street from their home.

A black SUV. Tinted windows. No neighbor's car.

Three blocks. Remember.

Their silver car slowed. Parked at the curb.

Rhea said: "What are you doing?"

"Slide out and walk back around the corner to Ben and Margaret's. You got your phone, I'll call --"

"Dante! Look at me! What is this? What – Did you see...?"

"I love you, Rhea. Go now. Don't look back."

She whispered: "We're in this together!"

"Then trust me. Work with me. That's how it's going to be OK. Go now. Walk – walk -- to Margaret's. I'll call you in a few minutes. Don't call anybody until you need to call somebody."

"Don't you –"

He said. "We get later."


He said nothing until they said they loved each other. Her door opened, she flowed out into the fading evening light, closed her door: going, gone. It took everything he had not to watch her walk away. To hold that so near black SUV in his eyes. Let it be whatever it was.

When he knew she'd had time to vanish, Dante steered their car from the curb, drove onto his block, pulled on his headlights and lit up the SUV. Shapes inside of those tinted windows: three – no, four people. He parked in front of the truest home he'd ever known, right behind their green Ford built in a Mexican factory that Rhea used for work.

The doors on the black SUV stayed closed.

Those tinted windows stayed up.

Dante shut off his silver machine. Rolled down the window.

Heard autumn leaves stirring in the night trees.

A neighbor's TV.

The thunder of his heart.

Who you choose to be

Dante left the keys in the ignition.

Got out of his car.

Tomorrow – Episode Two: Smoked Mirror Windows

What's Going On
is fiction. All characters and incidents, except for historic references, are purely fictitious. Copyright: James Grady

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