City Paper is not for tourists
On a typical week at Washington City Paper, the staff is concerned almost exclusively with facts: when a certain event happened or will happen, who was or is involved, and what the consequences could be. When we do deal with fiction, it’s usually a story someone tells to cover for a misdeed of some sort, and we’re always eager to poke holes in those tales.
Not this week. As we have in years past, we’re opening the year by having writers from around the region make up stories that nevertheless contain some kernel of truth about life in the District of Columbia, either as it exists now or how it existed some time in the past. The three stories that follow did just that, taking readers past a now-transformed shopping area, to the top of towers, and through the decades in a single apartment. In those same stories, readers will see how places, relationships, and cultural standards change over time.
Whether you’ve resolved to read more fiction in the new year or just enjoy a break from the news, we hope these stories will make you look at the District a little differently. —Caroline Jones
By Joe Flood
Reginald had gotten sloppy. He knew that.
His mom wanted him to go to college. Had the money saved up from her Printing Office job. Almost two decades of work there, churning out the Federal Register near Union Station. She proofed the thick volumes as they came off the line, her hair going gray and her vision becoming worse until she was a stooped old lady, half-blind but always with a smile on her face.
As a boy, Reginald had toured the plant with her, all those noisy machines consuming rolls of paper the size of cars and reducing them down to volumes of inscrutable print.
“He’s going to college,” she bragged, as her co-workers rubbed his cheeks with fingers permanently dark with ink.
But it didn’t work out. Admitted and failed out of College Park after a year.
His fault, of course. He just had too much fun on campus, partying with the frats and becoming the de facto drug dealer due to his DC connections. Of course he knew where to find crack—who didn’t who grew up in the city?
Mom got him a job in the Printing Office. But he couldn’t do the basics. “Just do the basics!” his mother would exclaim, hitting him upside the head. His shift started at 6 a.m. which was impossible. After a dozen absences, he was let go. Fired.
What he could do was find drugs for people. Pot, crack, heroin, PCP—he knew someone who had it.
After a few months of pointing hungry people in the right direction, he decided that he wanted in on the trade. He began holding and selling. Mostly crack, because it was easy and cheap. A $10 rock he could sell for $50. Soon enough, he had thousands in cash stuffed under his bed.
Mom began asking questions. “Why aren’t you working? How come you have money to go out?”
So he found himself an apartment. Dupont East, the landlord said, though they were blocks from Dupont. Much closer to 14th St., with its abandoned auto dealerships and boarded-up buildings.
Lots of traffic down the side streets at night. Hookers in the alleys. A building full of junkies on T Street NW. And crack everywhere.
Apartment 101 was little more than a drafty box. Brown water came out of the tap. The walls rustled with mice. But he could look out onto the street. Onto his corner. 15th and Swann.
Once it got dark, he’d step outside, sell some rocks and then come back in to get high.
Reginald knew his clientele. Most were neighborhood folks. People who looked like him. People who just wanted a little fun. Sometimes, strangers drove by and asked to buy. He was cautious but sometimes sold to them, especially if they paid top dollar. He sold to a guy with an accent because he flashed a wad of cash. The guy came back the next night and bought more.
The apartment door reverberated with a thud. He had put a big deadbolt on the metal door. Again, the sound, shaking Reginald off the couch, where he was watching Family Matters. Urkel laughed at his predicament.
The door burst open. Flashlights found him on the carpet. A dozen men piled into his tiny home, roughly handling him.
Reginald had been sloppy.
It was her first apartment.
Elaine was proud of the achievement and invited her friends to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
“Oh, it’s so cute!” Wallace exclaimed, as the door opened to 450 square feet of living space with a column in the middle of it. He was carrying Champagne, his cheeks red with cold.
Squeezing behind him was Holly, who lived in Cleveland Park.
“That walk from Dupont was something!” she said. “Are you safe here?”
“Yes, it’s fine,” she said. Elaine took cabs after dark.
She put the drinks into a fridge stuffed with snacks from Safeway. The Soviet Safeway, they called it, where the lines stretched to the back of the store and you had to check to see if your produce was rotten.
The three of them settled together on the futon couch to watch Dick Clark. The futon was normally her bed but it could be folded up.
“Are you warm enough?” she asked.
Out of politeness, they said they were. The heater noisily chugged under the window. With two windows facing each other, it was impossible to keep the apartment warm. Her first electric bill had been nearly $200! She had taken to turning the heat off during the day and sometimes at night too.
Holly talked work—she was a web producer, whatever that was. Wallace chattered about the gay bars on 17th Street NW and the interesting little places that were opening on 14th.
“Have you been to the Black Cat?” he asked.
Elaine tended to avoid 14th Street NW. Men from the homeless shelter drifted down the sidewalks during the day, looking for sunny spots to spend a few hours.
Near midnight, Wallace suggested that they go outside. “They’re having fireworks on the Mall—I bet we could see them. Can we get on the roof?”
“There’s no way to get up to the roof.”
“There’s always a way to get up to the roof!” Wallace announced.
They put on their coats and left, Elaine careful to lock the door behind her. In the back of the building was a fire escape. Wallace led them up.
“I don’t like this,” Holly said.
“It’s fine! Look!” Wallace exclaimed, climbing up a skinny ladder and disappearing into the darkness.
Gingerly, Elaine followed, holding fast to the iron rungs affixed to the building.
And then they were on the roof, a dark square in the lit neighborhood.
“Oh my god, this is scary,” Holly said. There were no guardrails, nothing to stop them from falling three stories to the street below.
Elaine clung to Wallace, holding on to his arm.
And then, with a boom, it began. Out of the night sky, a blast of color, a rocket crescendo of light flashing over the neighborhood.
Elaine was in love with the city.
The Bulgarians were first. A noisy crew that started late and ended early. Then came the Koreans, just a couple of them. Very polite in the hallway and when he asked them to stop drilling, they did. But the Salvadorans had no such compunction. They pretended not to understand him, even when he spoke Spanish. They had a job to do and they were going to do it.
Aziz complained to the landlord. “The building is going condo,” she explained.
“I know, but I still live here.”
Apartment 101 was his home, crammed with books and papers from his studies. He knew that the landlord referred to him as “the hoarder” but everything he kept, he kept for a reason. And what the reason was—she didn’t need to know.
The building was being flipped. An investor had purchased it and enticed all the tenants to leave. All except Aziz.
He liked his sunny spot overlooking the street. Liked the brick walls, even if they were drafty. Liked the neighborhood, especially Malcom X Park, where he could sit by the fountain and read. He didn’t want much—one room for his materials wasn’t too much to ask, was it?
All the other units in the buildings were being gutted. Grimy carpets torn out. Ancient appliances extracted from their cubbyholes. Formica countertops replaced with cool marble. Aziz looked at the prices on the new units and thought they were obscene, a festival of greed.
“What do you do in there all day?” the investor had asked. He was from Potomac and liked to park his Audi in front of the fire hydrant.
“None of your concern,” Aziz had replied, quickly closing the door.
The man had come by with another offer. $20,000 to leave. His neighbors had accepted far less.
Aziz knew that the law was on his side. He couldn’t be forced from the apartment. He could remain in 101 forever, even if the entire neighborhood became nothing but expensive condos and gaudy boutiques, a playground for the rich to flaunt their ill-gotten gains.
He was a hoarder, the investor explained later for the TV cameras. The flames began somewhere in his piles of papers, the very trash that prevented his escape. But we’re going to get it cleaned up, he said, and put it on the market. Apartment 101 will make a beautiful condo.
The Battle of Dupont: A Story of Love and War in the Nation’s Capital
By Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky
Martina stared down the scope, slowly moving the crosshairs across the Mall. From her perch at the top of the Smithsonian Castle, it appeared empty. Intelligence indicated the Able Men were planning a rally but she saw no one.
Sensing movement off in the distance, she locked on a man in a pressed grey suit, a suitcase in his right hand and a glock dangling by his left. She recognized him—a senior staffer for Senate leadership.
Martina squeezed the trigger. She watched as he dropped the suitcase, grabbed his abdomen, and fell.
More movement. Camouflage-clad men sprung out of hiding, training their sights on her position. She was made.
“Damn. Time to go,” she said to no one and made for the stairs.
Outside, she spotted a figure crawling on the ground. Moving quickly to kick his pistol away, she turned him over. His ripped, red soaked shirt told her he had taken a hit from close range. Martina recognized him, too: Joshua Stiller, White House aid. Benjamin must have gotten him. Despite the trap, it was a good day for the Green Energy Alliance: two high-value targets.
Joshua’s eyes betrayed fear. “Help me,” he said weakly. Martina leaned down, slowly licked her bottom lip, and smiled. In an uncharacteristically soft voice she said, “No.”
Seeing Benjamin, she leapt over Joshua and ran to him.
“You okay?” Ben asked.
“I’m good!” She felt giddy.
“It was a setup.”
“Ya think?” Martina responded. “Whatever. We kicked ass! Nice job on Stiller.”
“Wait… what?” Ben asked.
“You didn’t know? That was Joshua Stiller. And I sniped Byron Wilson.”
Ben smirked. It was already a high-point day and it wasn’t even noon.
“Well, anyway, their buddies are on their way,” Martina said. “We need to go.”
Ben held up his walkie-talkie. “Someone from the CBA wants to meet us at Dwell.”
“Oh cool. I love those guys. We can take the orange line to Metro Center and grab the X2.”
Ben sighed. “An Uber would be easier.”
“Let’s try to remember who we are,” Martina shot back. “The environment still matters.”
“There’s an army out there trying to shoot us and you want to wait for a bus.”
She glared, he relented. “Fine.”
At the Metro, Martina scanned the large dots of paint all over the walls, turnstiles, and trains, each splatter a circular reminder of the dissolution of the American political system. The federal buildings, marble monuments, museums. Everything was painted.
The District’s new color palette was an unexpected byproduct of President White winning a Supreme Court-sanctioned third term. Most of the country went about its usual business: Texas produced oil, Hollywood made movies, and Wall Street continued to accumulate atrocious amounts of money.
But the nation’s capital had exploded. By the end of the week, staffers had morphed into mercenaries, drawing lines in figurative sand. It was initially sparked by a Facebook invite for a fight at Dupont Circle posted by the same guy who called for the massive Snowmageddon snowball fight years before. Thousands showed up to express grievances: Clitonites, Berniecrats, Whiters, Able Men, Libertarians, Greenies, DSA. In the melee, the neo-Nazi Dick Rincer lost an eye.
Once the shooting started, it didn’t stop. It quickly spread throughout the capital and no one went back to work; it just didn’t seem worth it. No legislation was being passed in Congress. Federal agencies were eviscerated, their personnel, authority, and morale stripped away. Most federal employees were furloughed. Anger and disillusionment abounded. Interns coming to D.C. to live out Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing instead found themselves in The Hunger Games.
Before things got more out of hand, leaders from different factions met to establish ground rules: Authorized guns only, no shooting in the face, and no breaking any laws… except the obviously unavoidable ones. They devised a point system for total kills with extra points for high-profile targets like Stiller and Wilson.
For Martina, it was all too familiar. At fourteen, the Bosnian refugee had joined the fight against Slobodan Milošević, becoming known as “Sniper Girl” for her uncanny aim. Worried for Martina’s safety, her family fled to the U.S. Now, deja vu set in: Her mother called her daily to ask her to leave D.C.
“Molim te, come home, draga,” her mother would say. “I’m concerned about you.”
“Don’t worry, Mama. It’s fine. It’s not that dangerous and I’m really good at it.”
More importantly, Martina finally felt like she was doing something worthwhile. After years of fighting for public transportation, the arrival of autonomous vehicle companies had essentially washed all her efforts away. Then the president shut down the EPA. The battle was lost.
Being an advocate now was much more satisfying. At a party, a tech entrepreneur told her that busses were for “riff-raff,” not for him. In the past, she would make a painstaking rational argument, carefully weighing what she surmised about the man to earnestly appeal to his sense of conscience on why he should ditch his SUV.
This time she simply cocked her pistol and shot him.
Turning to her boyfriend, Ravi, she was elated: “That felt great!” Seeing his expression, she added, “What? I followed the rules. I didn’t shoot him in the face.”
Trinidad’s Dwell, a carriage house on an alley parallel to Florida Avenue NE near Bladensburg Road NE, was an underground music venue where Ravi had performed many times. Now, warring factions used the dilapidated two-story structure for meetings.
Martina and Ben arrived to find Billy, the leader of the Communist Black Alliance, resting in the old leather sofa upstairs. Martina and Billy greeted each other.
“Hey, man! I know you!” Ben exclaimed. “I saw you at the Battle of Dupont!”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Billy said.
“You shot out Dick Rincer’s eye!”
“No, that wasn’t me.”
“I saw it! Hey, no judgment. If it had been me, I would have shot the son of a bitch in the face, too.”
Billy looked at Martina to say, “Hey, it was before the rules were in force.” Martina just shrugged.
Billy then got to the point. “The CBA wants to help you in Ward 6.”
“Why?” Martina asked. “Don’t you have enough to worry about with 7 and 8?”
Billy laughed. “Man, no one even comes east of the river and we want to be part of the action.”
Before Martina could respond, sniper fire from the front windows flung the room into chaos. Another trap.
Billy was hit. Martina and Ben jumped out the back windows. Martina thought she heard Ben shout “Bernie would have won!” as he crashed through the glass. They landed on strategically placed mattresses below.
Martina stood. She could see Ben had taken one in the back and was struggling to sit up.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I think so.” Another shot hit the ground. “You should go.” Martina ran to her house just a few blocks away.
Reaching her porch, she could hear Ravi practicing a song, yet another melancholy tune. Before the Battle of Dupont, Ravi had been legal counsel for a Senate committee but saw his furlough as a chance to focus on his music. The problem was no one went to shows anymore. Plus, he seemed to get shot a lot.
She opened the door, saw his stained shirt, and knew he had been hit. “Oh my god, Babić, you okay?”
“I think so,” he said as he continued to look down and strum his guitar. “It really hurts.”
“I can imagine. It looks like you took a whole barrage. What happened?”
“I was going to Petworth to pick up a microphone and some Whiters were at the fountain. They couldn’t have known what faction I’m with.”
“Well, it’s kind of easy to tell you’re not with them,” Martina responded. “Go take a shower and get that paint off. I can’t wait to tell you about my day.”
Ravi looked up and said “I love you.” Martina wanted to say “I love you, too” but found herself wishing Ravi was a little more ambitious. Would it hurt him to pick up a gun every now and then and help out? And now their weekend plans were ruined. It was in the rules, after all.
As Ravi left the room, he turned.
“Do you ever think about getting out of the District, maybe moving to Portland and living normal lives?” he asked.
Martina gazed at her boyfriend for what seemed to Ravi like an eternity. Smiling, she licked her bottom lip, and in an uncharacteristically soft voice said, “No.”
Downtown, Joshua and Byron were sitting at the smoky bar of Shelly’s Back Room. Joshua held his cigar in his right hand, clutching his heavily bruised side with his left.
“Those paintballs really hurt close range.”
“I got hit from a thousand feet away and it still hurt bad,” Byron retorted.
“Who was that girl? She was mean. It’s just a game.”
“Some people take it too seriously,” Byron said, downing the rest of his bourbon.
Visiting Aunt Laurie
By Rhonda Green-Smith
On an oddly serene Saturday morning, right in the middle of winter 1986, I learn so much of what I need to know about life in just one day. I do not hear my mother humming in the kitchen, nor can I smell vanilla pancakes, breakfast potatoes or eggs, and for a while I begin to think that maybe I have my days mixed up, that it’s Sunday instead of Saturday. In a tiny two-bedroom apartment east of the Anacostia River, I wake up to a bustle of brown sparrows chirping and flapping uncomfortably close to my windowsill as if they’re trying to tell me something. They fly over to the rooftop of the building directly across the street—pecking at a fresh dusting of snow and I’m wondering why they waited so long to migrate to the south.
When I am done watching the birds, I walk into my mother’s room and stand at her bedside and wait for her to wake up. She is not smiling nor is she frowning and this makes it hard for me to figure out if she’d rather be asleep or awake. Three deep lines appear and then disappear near the corners of her eyes and for a moment I can see what others see when they look at the two of us —I can see a little part of me in her, a little of her in me. I wave two fingers in front of her face casting shadows of bunny ears across her cheeks and forehead. She can’t hear me laughing, but I cover my mouth just in case. Traces of burgundy lipstick settle into the thin intersecting crevices that zigzag and crisscross her lips. It reminds me of a tricky maze I’d seen on the back of my breakfast cereal boxes. Her room doesn’t smell like heavy cigarette smoke the way it used to. Fumes still linger, stifled somewhere in between the coffee she likes to drink in the morning and a blueberry candle she lights in the evenings.
Along the wall on the right side of our narrow hallway are two pieces of dark green luggage packed with some of my good clothing. My mother has decided that a visit to Aunt Laurie’s for a short while would be good for both of us, and though I don’t agree, I decide that it’s best to not talk back, just let things be. I have never spent one day away from my mother and though Aunt Laurie is one of the most interesting grown-ups I know, it feels as though I’m going off to a foreign country. I’ve decided to wear a pair of black jeans and an old red sweater that I haven’t seen in years. It had been my favorite outfit for quite some time, until Noel Fuller told me that he was tired of seeing me with it on. I retired it from school after that. Because it is perfect for a visit to Aunt Laurie’s, I try pulling the hooded fleece over my head but it won’t budge. My head is stuck near the neck of the sweater for what seems like hours. I’m pulling at it until my ears start to burn and I’m out of breath. I’m looking around at all the little lint balls inside and am imagining them traveling up my nose and settling on my lungs with every inhalation. There isn’t enough air inside. I’m feeling dizzy and smothered. I’m going to die. I pull one more time and the sweater comes down burning my forehead and ears before it settles around my neck.
My mother is awake. I can hear her shuffling around in her room. She looks into my room and waves, unaware of my near brush with death.
“You’re up early,” she says.
“And you’re up late,” I say not loud enough for her to hear me.
“It’s snowing,” she says.
“Yes I know. That’s why I put my clothes on already.”
She doesn’t apologize for waking up late and I decide not to mention it.
“Are you excited about visiting Aunt Laurie?” she asks yawning and smoothing her hair back so she could cover it later with a warm hat.
I pretend not to hear this question. “I’m going to go play outside for awhile” is what I offer instead.
“You can’t,” she says. “We’ve got to get a move on it before the snow comes down harder.”
I follow her into the bathroom where she brushes her teeth and washes her face. I do the same.
“That’s good,” she says looking at my face and teeth. “Don’t ever leave the house without washing your face and brushing your teeth, no matter what. Be good and proper to yourself and always wear earrings too.”
“OK,” I say feeling hot and tired of walking around in a sweater and jeans.
“Did you eat breakfast?” she asks.
Did you fix me breakfast I want to ask her.
“No, not yet,” I say.
“You have to learn to fix yourself breakfast. I’ve shown you before,” she says, walking into our kitchen and grabbing cereal from the pantry and milk from the fridge. “I’ve shown you just what to do plenty of times.”
“Yes ma’am,” I say remembering that today was my day to fix my own self some breakfast.
“You can’t sit around and wait until someone does it for you. Aunt Laurie will take care of you as much as she can, but still. You’re a big girl. So lovely and smart. That don’t mean nothing if you can’t do things for yourself.” She’s not squinting and her jaws aren’t clenched. She’s not upset with me for not thinking to fix my own breakfast.
I’m nodding my head to all of this. Watching the snow pile up outside, she starts to pick up pace. We are in her room and she’s still giving me instructions on how to live without her, but it’s so much information, I can’t sort all of it.
“There are going to be times when you feel alone, but you’re not. You’re not alone,” she says staring into space before finding herself in her mirror attached to her dresser. “There are millions of people in the world that you can talk to—millions of places to visit. Life is about improvising, finding a way through it all. Meet people, visit places, and you’ll manage. She’s nodding her head to her own advice. Though I can’t recall any stories of new people and travel, out of all the ones she’s told me. I take my last bite of cereal and repeat out loud what she’s just told me.
She’s having one of her moments so I drink my milk without her having to remind me that I should.
“I’m having hot flashes,” I finally tell her knowing that she can understand how I’m feeling because she’s been having plenty of them ever since she’s come home from the surgery. “I need a glass of water,” I say.
“You’re not having hot flashes,” she says grinning.
She likes to repeat what I say to her.
I’m frowning at her smiling at me. Her smile turns into a long hard cough. The cough is so loud it’s enough to split her right down the middle, in two. I walk over and pat her back three times, the same way she pats mine. She covers her mouth and turns her face away from me even though I cannot catch the cancer from her. When the coughing isn’t so bad she puts her jacket on and grabs the green luggage against the wall. I take one last look around the apartment because something tells me that it’ll be awhile before I see it again.
The snow is coming down harder in slow spirals, each layer wrapping around an old hardwood tree next to our car, and settling in its thick brown groves. We’re in the car, me next to the suitcases, my mother and her purse up front. She’s warming the car and while we’re waiting for it to stop humming and shaking, I notice something that somehow changes the course of things. Our Matryoshka nested doll set is tucked inside one of the smaller pockets on the side of the suitcase. The nested doll set is something that’s never left the house since my grandmother, whom I’ve never met, gave it to my mother as a child. We played with them as much as we could possibly play with limbless hollow dolls. It was her favorite toy as a child and because she could not part with it or bring herself to give it to me as the sole owner, we settled on sharing it.
She does not turn the radio on so we drive out of the city in silence, past the Hechinger mall where nice dresses and blouses are and then past Union Station where people from all over the world come in and out of D.C. We are quiet, just the shaking of the car until she decides, out of nowhere, to offer me another piece of advice.
“Listen to Aunt Laurie. Do whatever she tells you to do even if you don’t like it. She knows what’s best for you.”
“OK, I’ll be good,” I tell her.
The coughing starts again and each time it does, I cross my fingers and hope that what I’m imagining is impossible. I’m always thinking that one day the loud hacking will crumble her into a million colorful puzzle pieces that I’ll need to put back together.
By the time we reach Aunt Laurie’s house I feel stuffed like the green suitcase my mother is pulling out of the car and onto the sidewalk. The snow is up past my ankles and coming down even faster than this morning.
Aunt Laurie is standing in front of her big house as if she’s put the whole thing together by herself. She is tall and skinny and has hair that reminds me of cotton candy, a special chocolate edition. She opens her arms wide enough to fit the both of us in. We walk into her great big house and I have a feeling that I will become the daughter, the best friend, the husband, and all the other things she’s never had.
I sit down on a shiny red bar stool looking at all the wonderful things that I can not touch here. There are toys sitting on the kitchen table that I suppose are from Aunt Laurie to me, to ease the transition. The wood floors are so polished, I look forward to dropping a snack on it and looking at myself when I go to pick it up and eat it. No plastic on the furniture. Real fruit in the fruit basket and real flowers in the vase sitting on the kitchen table. Oil paintings on five of the walls, and a glass cabinet with expensive trinkets, a bookcase with way too many books for one person to ever read. My eyes are full. Aunt Laurie’s house looks like one of the many ads that my mother has dog-eared in her JC Penny catalogues. I can hear them sniffling in the room and just before I start to feel lonely, they come out.
“Well,” my mother says to Aunt Laurie, “I’m going to head out before I get stuck out there.”
I shrink underneath her words, down to the size of the final wooden doll inside of the nested doll set. Aunt Laurie, with her big and fluffy light brown hair, walks us to the door. She and my mother have already said their goodbyes and so she lingers in the background while we spend what feels like our last moments together.
My mother kneels down in front of me on one knee, she looks different—sick. I reach into my coat pocket to take out our favorite thing in the world. I give her half the set and put the others back inside my coat. She hesitates to take this because she wants to pretend, for my sake, that today is not the end. That the toys still have two owners.
We hug for what seems like an entire school-day and I don’t mind at all. She is swallowing—hard. She doesn’t realize how tight she’s hugging me and I can barely take a deep enough breath to inhale. She is untying the silk scarf from around her neck. I have asked to borrow it a million times, though I know now that the black and white flowers cascading down a large tree stitched in the middle are better suited to her than me. I feel dizzy and prickly. We walk out into the snow, Aunt Laurie standing close behind to carry me inside, in case I fall apart from all of this.
My mother, her jeans soaking wet from kneeling in the snow, can’t seem to bring herself to get up and walk away—so I walk away, backwards, and it feels as though I’m drifting just a little above the ground. Before I realize it, Aunt Laurie and I are watching my mother from her doorway.
“Mom,” I call out to her before I close the door, “It’s cold. Get up. Go.”