We asked you for fiction firmly rooted in D.C.—stories that brought us into neighborhoods, and that weren’t just about the District, but of it. Nearly 50 writers answered the call with entries that had strong common themes connecting them. Writing fiction can be a means of reckoning on the page with what confounds us in reality. Your entries provided insight into issues weighing heavily on our collective minds. Gentrification, climate change, Metro meltdowns, the search for housing that feels like home, the search for a kindred soul to connect with. The tales snuck us into a Georgetown mansion, ushered us into a pew in a Petworth church, and sat us on the sidelines of Shaw basketball courts. All with nary a congressperson in sight.
These stories, collectively, reflect a city not on the cusp of change, but one so caught up in it we sometimes find it difficult to recognize our own town. They remind us to appreciate the District as it is, honor its history, and to record the changes underway—for better and worse—in order to be resilient as we move forward. It’s our job to be sure we still know ourselves and respect our neighbors wherever we are in D.C. To share our stories because we are our stories. —Tayla Burney
Hear the authors read from and discuss their stories at our Fiction Issue event at Solid State Books on Jan. 6 at 6 p.m. Find more details here.
By Danielle Stonehirsch
The fish falling from the sky were more than a rainy Sunday inconvenience. They were a real hazard. Millie had heard from Jenna who had heard from Greg that a kid in Columbia Heights had had his neck snapped by a black sea bass at terminal velocity just last week. In this day and age you could do thorough research on car seats, make sure to get all the vaccines for your baby, teach them stranger danger, and still lose your kid to a fish out in the front yard.
That was America now.
Millie’s life hadn’t actually changed all that dramatically though. She had no kids and she worked from her home in Columbia Heights for a consulting firm. She had to start getting groceries delivered to the apartment, which was getting more expensive by the day, and she had cut back on the number of happy hours with what remained of her friends. Her friends had all started having babies, so there weren’t that many left to see anyway even without the fish. She couldn’t say her life was any worse than before, though it was now much harder to date. But even that seemed only a new and amazingly credible excuse to give her father when he asked after his imagined grandchildren.
It wasn’t the same for everyone, of course. Some people were finding ways to make a ton of money, like selling extra strength, extra wide umbrellas designed to support the impact of medium to large falling fish. Home delivery services were getting more diverse and more expensive—home delivery liquor was a huge niche market that exploded immediately. Scented clothing was getting more and more popular as citizens looked for ways to mask the dead fish smell on every street. Fish markets were operating on remarkably low budgets and lower market prices, and while business on the coasts was suffering, fancy fish restaurants were opening all over the Midwest with great success.
Pescatarians were building their own societies off the grid, collecting fish to live on and to sell, shunning traditional money-making activities since their sustenance was now a free gift of nature. Still others went a step further and started worshipping the fish or the god they believed was sending the fish. Pescacults started popping up all over the southeast states like spring daisies, erecting fish-shaped shrines and sculpting fish gods from wood and stone. Christians were insisting it was a miracle of Jesus, a gift to ease their wait for the second coming, and mega churches were flooding with donations. For Millie, the religious fervor manifested in her life mainly as pescavangelists in the Metro making her few trips into the world just a little more obnoxious.
No one agreed on why it was happening, how it had started, or why it had settled exclusively over the United States. Canada and Mexico remained more or less fish free right up to the border walls. An occasional incident was reported within a five-mile radius, but the remainder of North America certainly hadn’t had their lives derailed. United States citizens were fleeing through Texas and North Dakota in droves, forcing Mexico and Canada to build walls to keep their own countries safe from the staggering influx of desperate American refugees.
In the early days, different news channels had different theories and it was all anyone talked about. Millie could hardly stand the workplace and bar chatter, and watched fights break out with disinterest and contempt. Millie had heard everything from miracles of Jesus to climate change to magnetic pulses caused by Earth moving a few millimeters off its axis. Aliens had been a popular idea in the beginning, but after a few months of none showing up to take credit, that hypothesis became the terrain of a small and specific fundamentalist sect in the southern tip of Nevada. Blame was cast left and right, and the president was impeached in the chaos, accused by both major parties of collusion with the Chinese. Now though, after five years with no more information than they had had from the start, most people just didn’t mention it anymore, which in Millie’s opinion was a real blessing. She wanted to just enjoy her quiet existence and find her new normal. Life went on one way or another, and now you just had to watch out for fish falling from the sky in much the same way you once had to start watching out for internet predators and teenagers with selfie sticks.
It was amazing what you could get used to. Millie bought an umbrella and a honeysuckle-scented rain jacket and signed up for a dumpling delivery service. She had even gotten a significant raise at work a year into the fish because too many employees had defected to the Pescacults or fled before the walls were finished, and companies around the country had to start offering incentives to their remaining staff. If Millie was being honest, which she rarely was, this new life suited her better than the old. She enjoyed the minimalized social contact, the increased home delivery, and the lack of stigma around her quiet, indoor life.
On this Sunday afternoon, Millie took her fish umbrella and honeysuckle raincoat out and walked to the Metro. Of all those who had made money from the fish, WMATA had benefited the most. Struggling and on the brink of ruin, the D.C. Metro hadn’t known what to do to save itself from a generation who all owned cars, took Ubers, preferred long bike rides, and rode those oddly compelling neon scooters. Now though, bikes and scooters were too unprotected from air strikes, and too many car owners had had their cars smashed up and dented to run the risk of driving. Metro cars and their thick metal casings were the perfect vehicle for those looking to travel farther than a mile or two, and were blessedly free of the fish smell. With the sudden influx of money, WMATA was able to upgrade their seats, their heating and cooling systems, maintain high standards of cleanliness, and increase their service.
Millie walked carefully down the sidewalk, sidestepping the occasional minnow or tuna that street sweepers hadn’t yet collected. In her area the street sweepers were out once an hour, but she knew that just a mile away, in the less gentrified part of town, they only collected every six hours. It was still pretty warm, an end of September warm with low humidity and a sharp edge on the breeze—a perfect day to venture into the suburbs to see her father, the last of her family who remained trapped in the U.S. Her mother had left for New Zealand before the fish began (unrelated), and her brother had been one of the first to get to Mexico because of his status with NASA.
She descended into the Metro station and waited for a train with the crowd of people willing to leave their homes on a weekend. The streets were always empty now, and Metro provided one of the safest and cleanest spaces to interact with the community. Millie had always hated socializing, but there was something comforting in these times about standing among a group of casually chatting people who were not paying attention to her. It was one of the few public spaces left where people felt free to simply linger.
The ride was quick and pleasant, and the walk from the Glenmont Metro to her father’s townhouse was short enough that only six fish banged and slid unpleasantly off her umbrella. She let herself in and climbed the stairs to the second floor, where her father was finishing setting the table for lunch. He had signed up for, among other things, a Sunday lunch international foods delivery service. This Sunday appeared to be Peruvian chicken with some vegetables that Millie did not immediately recognize through their sauces.
“I have incredible news,” her father said as he cut into the chicken, which was on a board balanced precariously half over the sink. Millie sat on one of the bar stools across from him, leaning her elbows on the kitchen island. “Your brother was able to get sponsor rights for both of us. We can leave for Mexico by November.”
“That’s great!” Millie said, because those were the words anyone said if they were lucky enough to have a sponsor. Her father was beaming, and she returned his smile though her thoughts were racing. She was ashamed to feel it was not great at all.
“I can’t believe it’s finally happening. We can rebuild our lives. Go back to work. Take walks. Drive cars. Everything won’t smell like fish. You’ll have a much easier time dating again.” He began to portion out the chicken, his hands shaking with excitement.
Millie did her best throughout lunch to give her father the right answers and return enough of his excitement as he went through plans for packing and travel, what he could sell and what he would have to accept as a loss. Her brother had already found her a new position nearly identical to her current one, her father told her, so she wouldn’t have to worry about anything. At no point did he ask her if she indeed wanted to go.
And why would he? Why would anyone want to stay in a decaying country covered in dead fish? Millie did not want to accept that she wasn’t normal, so she went along with her father during lunch, and for the next few weeks, and on the train ride to Mexico, and as she slept on her brother’s couch for the four weeks before she found a nice apartment nearby in Guaymas where a large American neighborhood had developed. The local immigrants called it the New Washington.
It did feel very much to Millie like D.C. Her new job felt very much like her old job before the fish, when everyone had to be in an office, and she once again felt the pressure to be friendly to coworkers and to attend happy hours. They always went to the same three bars that had a strong American presence and served French fries and PBR, neither of which Millie had especially enjoyed when she was in her own country.
“So what do you do?” Millie was out with three of her coworkers pretending to pay attention to them as a man at the bar to her left leaned into her peripheral vision with his question, uninvited. He had started with “hello,” and “what’s your name,” but Millie had not been paying attention to him either and they came through a fog. At this question, she turned to stare at him. He smiled, looking only for a friendly interaction. This was her fourth interaction with a bar stranger that month and the fourth time one had asked her this question. She could only stare at him, imagining a fat fish falling on his head.
She left without telling her coworkers and went home where she wished for her old-new life where it was perfectly normal not to want to go outside or drive a car or meet friends at happy hour or go to parties with strangers and everyone could work from home without justifying themselves. She was the only person in North America who wanted to get back into the United States rather than out. She was lonely for the first time in her life, when she ought to have been most grateful for the opportunity so many others had risked everything for.
Then a whale shark fell on Mexico City.
By Rhonda Green-Smith
Unattended and unsecured, 19.5 feet in the air, was no place for 8-year-old Ely March Jr. who was not happy nor relieved, in the least bit, when dozens of residents, store owners, and workers gathered onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and V Street SE the morning after he climbed The Big Chair’s 19.5-foot mahogany wood structure. He felt like a man that high off the ground, though 20 years earlier, unbeknownst to him, 21-year-old Lynn Arnold had already taken up residence on the chair, and for more than just a few short hours. She had not, though, scaled the unreasonably large piece of furniture with her own arms and legs like Ely. Instead, she reached the seat of the chair with the help of a forklift and stayed there for 42 days in a 10X10 makeshift apartment. Once the tips of his gloved fingers recognized the fabric of the seat, Ely Jr. hoisted himself up onto his elbows with two extraordinary pushes that catapulted him onto the seat of the chair.
Confused with exhaustion and charged with adrenalized energy, Ely Jr. stood in the middle of the seat and looked down the right leg of the chair, proud of his accomplishment. His mind remembered the staticky voice announcing the successful landing on the moon in the black-and-white film his history teacher played on the television in his third-grade classroom. He remembered his father’s smile and firm pat on his shoulders (a few years ago) for competently reading his great grandfather’s compass that led them back to their campsite in Rock Creek Park one summer evening. As if he knew he would be leaving the world sooner than he would have liked, Ely Sr. trained his only child in wilderness survival skills, which he believed were applicable and conducive to a black boy’s survival in harsh American terrain. Ely Jr. could tie and untie elaborate knots thanks to his father. He could build a fire with leaves and sticks; he could identify the 12 most common constellations across the darkest indigo skies and could open a can of beef stew with his father’s jackknife faster than most men. He could do all of this, but could not bring himself to accept his mother’s decision to move out of the Barry Farm neighborhood one floor up from his best friend Carlos. Sure there was trash strewn about the neighborhood, but Ely Jr. would put on his father’s gloves to help his mother pick-up the juice bottles, the honey bun and chip wrappers, early Saturday mornings before heading to the grocery store. His mother, Mrs. May, assumed the responsibility of trashing the cigarette butts, crushed beer cans, broken beer bottles, and other adult trash. She complained in low mumbles from time to time, but still, it wasn’t enough to leave the neighborhood, Ely thought.
Police sirens blared in the distance and Ely Jr. thought of home—his warm bed covered in soft red flannel blankets, the sound of his little brother Gabriel sucking his pacifier throughout the night. Ely closed his eyes and allowed the city music to lull him into as peaceful a sleep as possible—with the day’s luscious experience at the forefront of his mind, the walk from Birney Elementary School and the long climb up the chair imbedded in his joints and muscle fibers and all nine of Michael Jackson’s songs from his 1982 Thriller album on the back of his tongue to be swallowed, sung again and again and never forgotten.
Closer to the sun than he had ever been before, Ely woke up shielding his eyes from its powerful rays and adjusting his ears to the familiar screech of the bus’ brakes as it moved down the avenue picking up men and women and children. He climbed out of his sleeping bag and walked to the edge of the chair and, to his surprise, police and the Anacostia Fire Station were looking up at him ready to coax him into accepting help down.
“Mr. Ely March,” the Chief began through his bullhorn. “First thing I’d like to say is, you’re a brave young man for climbing all the way up there. I’m glad you’re safe. We’re glad you’re safe,” he added, turning quickly to look at the community standing alongside him. Ely shook his head in agreement with the Chief. “…but we have to get you down, son”.
He looked east up the road in search of the apartment complex he’d be leaving in just a few short days. Ely hopped up on his feet to walk closer to the edge of the chair for a better look at his community in hopes that he’d see his best friend dribbling the basketball or drawing robots on the sidewalk with chalk. The audience below him responded fearfully as he neared the edge of the chair.
“Ely…” the Chief called out. “Go back toward the center of the chair so that we —” The Chief was interrupted by Ely’s mother, whose voice came blaring through the bullhorn with clear directions for him to, “—get away from the edge of the chair, zippen your coat, put on your gloves, and cooperate while the firemen work to get you down.”
As Ely made his way back to the center of the chair, annoyed by the crisp fall breeze, his mother’s reasoning as to why they would be moving from the community in the first place harmonized about his mind to the melody of Michael Jackson’s 1989 “Human Nature.” He remembered the first time he had heard it in his living room with his dad and his uncle Earl and his family crooning and swaying in enjoyment. “Know who that is singing,” his father nudged him, playfully. “That’s your guy MJ. He loves him some MJ,” his father said to Uncle Earl and his wife. “He loves MJ doesn’t he May?” he remembered the smile in his father’s voice. He remembered how proud his dad was at his ability to dance and memorize all of Michael Jackson’s moves and songs.
“Did you hear me Ely James March,” his mother called out to him again pleadingly. Some shop owners hadn’t bothered to walk into the street with the majority. A few stood in between the doors of their shops with their hoods and coats on while others stood watching from inside their shops covered in warmth and enamored by the thriller unraveling before them. An Ethiopian woman Ely recognized stood watching from her hotdog stand and put one finger out to him signaling him to keep his attention on her as she grabbed a bag of chips which she waved at him as an incentive to agree to climb down. Ely saw his barber standing at the end of the block. The crossing guard Ms. Twylla Campbell in her neon green reflective jacket kept her hands clenched together as if she were praying the entire time. Chief Mason reached toward Mrs. May for the bullhorn, but his mother declined and spoke into the mic again in hopes of finally driving some sense into her child who gazed up at the sky, into the growing crowd, and toward his apartment complex at Barry Farm.
“Start heading up,” Chief Mason directed his team.
“No,” Ely yelled down. “Nobody can come up here.”
“Give him a second,” Mrs. March pleaded with the Chief. “He’s afraid. Let me talk to him again.
“Ely, this is about the move isn’t it?” She adjusted her tone to a sympathetic plea afraid to rock the boat, or the chair for that matter.
“You’re going to have your own room. You won’t have to share with Gabriel who’s at home with Ms. Shelly worried about you, by the way,”.
Instead of walking toward the chair, Mrs. May walked farther back from it so she could see him well and to make sure he could see her.
“Please come down from there so we can talk about this over warm cider or chocolate.” The truth was that May March was no happier than her son with how she and other community members felt thrust out of their homes.
As firemen placed the ladder against the chair and headed up, Ely Jr., channeling Michael Jackson, broke out into song and dance. He lifted his glove-covered hands and pointed toward the crowd, his foot in motion ready to twirl around. As if he were Michael Jackson himself, Ely took to moonwalking back and forth, blew a kiss to his mother, and bowed toward onlookers as they clapped, amazed at the young man’s fortitude. No matter where he moved, he had climbed the Big Chair, and that alone would keep him connected to his neighborhood.
By Paul Vivari
In the late ’90s, the courts on Rhode Island Avenue and Ninth Street in Northwest D.C. had a reputation for heavy rims and dull backboards, but next to Barry Farm in Southeast, it was one of the busiest courts in the city. Crowds of locals strained to catch a glimpse of the local legends who gathered there every weekend, the best players from both in and outside of the city drawn by the opportunity to test their skills on the scuffed asphalt and unforgiving chipped orange steel.
Archie Weinblatt was not one of those local legends. Nobody went out of their way to watch him practice free throws on Monday afternoons, when the courts were usually empty and he could get his favorite hoop all to himself, working on his form until he made exactly 50 shots from the cracked foul line. As shitty as his job was, he was grateful his schedule waiting tables in Dupont Circle at least allowed him to have Mondays off, when the streets in Shaw would empty as its tenants went back to work or school, and he could shoot his free throws in relative peace and obscurity.
As Archie approached the courts one Monday in the fall of ’98, his ball tucked under his arm as he finished the short walk from his apartment on 8th and P streets NW, he saw the courts were packed. He had forgotten it was Labor Day weekend, and two five-on-five full-court games were being played ferociously, players far better than he soaring high to block dunks and grab rebounds in traffic, outlet passes arcing and landing perfectly in the hands of their streaking teammates, shots from nearly half-court that touched nothing but the chain netting under the rim.
Well aware of his thick head of strawberry blonde hair and pasty, freckled skin, he decided not to call any more attention to himself than he already was. He let the game on the near side of the court finish and waited for it to empty, and watched as a half-court game of three-on-three sprang up on Archie’s favorite hoop. The one opposite, with the worst rim out of the four, was still open. Archie decided to take what he could get, and entered the courts through the open gate that led from the sidewalk.
He could feel the stares of the scattered onlookers, some turning away from the full-court game to get a look at one of the whitest boys any of them had ever seen. He was one of a handful of white guys in the predominantly black neighborhood, certainly the youngest, with the others mostly older hangers-on who had lived in Shaw from before the riots. He was probably the first caucasian to voluntarily move onto his block in years. He had gotten used to the occasional jeers and catcalls on the streets, but he was typically left alone, a curiosity more than a target, something to be stared at and laughed about and ultimately ignored.
He walked to the steel pole that held the backboard in place and removed his windbreaker; some hooting started from the sidewalk, where the players from the previous game were still congregating. A group of teenagers who were standing on the other side of fence had all pressed their faces against the black chain link.
Archie walked to the free throw line, in his usual yellow JCC summer league jersey, grey mesh shorts, and old, white Nikes, and dribbled the ball exactly three times. He mentally cycled through the B.E.E.F. method (balance, elbow, eyes, follow through), and set into his shooting form.
His cocked his right elbow to a perfect 90 degree angle, focused his eyes 15 feet away on the rim, flicked his wrist, and launched the ball.
A voice cried out from the group of teens behind the fence.
He tried to hold his follow through, his fingers straight down like he was drying his nails after a manicure, but he felt his arm wobble.
A light volley of laughter followed him as he went to retrieve the ball. Two older men, still sitting against the fence from the previous game on Archie’s side of the court, got their wallets out.
“Got a buck he misses the next one,” said the man on the right, who was missing his left arm.
“You’re on,” said the other man, old, fat, and the only other white person there. Archie recognized him; his name was Rosenthal, but everyone called him Rosie. He owned and lived in a small four-unit building on 6th Street NW that had been in his family for decades, and spent most of his time in a lawn chair either in his tiny hexagonal front yard or watching the games at the Rhode Island courts.
Archie walked back to the line. A few more spectators who were watching the full-court game opposite him had turned around to watch.
He set his form once again and arced the ball toward the rim. There were more shouts of “Miss!” than before as he released, but this time he he held his arm straight and perfectly still after the ball left his hand.
The crowd shouted in unison before the ball even hit the ground.
Archie saw Rosie reach into his pocket, then pause.
“Double or nothing?” he said.
“It’s your money,” said the one-armed man. “You can lose it any way you want to.”
Archie glanced behind him as he retrieved the ball. The three-on-three game on the other half-court had come to a halt as both the players and audience started to gather around the periphery of Archie’s court, and he could hear more betting and side-betting being discussed among the crowd.
He went to the line, and brought the ball up to just above his right shoulder.
Someone shouted. “You better not fuck this up for me, Rockville! I got five ridin’ on this shit!”
The crowd laughed. Archie had gotten used to being called the names of towns in the lily-white Montgomery County suburb. He never bothered to respond that he grew up in Illinois.
He reset his focus on the rim. His arm cocked, he tried to drown out the jeers surrounding him. As he shot, the crowd all cheered “Miss!” at once.
The shot was dead-on.
“Man, shit,” the same guy shouted. More laughter, more jeering.
Rosie looked disgusted as he handed over his two bucks and immediately made a bet on the next shot with a teenage girl on his other side. Archie tried to keep his head down as he walked back to the free throw stripe, but couldn’t help looking around him, seeing the crowd now forming almost a complete circle around him and the basket, the full-court game now also suspended, kids as young as 6 betting pennies or candy or whatever they could find in their pockets. He was pretty sure he saw someone bet half a sandwich up against a pack of batteries. The heavy money was against him making the next shot.
The ball was thrown back to him. He set his form and held it for several seconds, cycling through his head the steps before release, making sure everything was perfect. The crowd began to get impatient.
“Hurry the fuck up and miss, Bethesda!” There was scattered laughter and applause.
Archie tried to shake it off and concentrated on the rim. He brought his arm up. The ball flew through the air.
The crowd roared.
Archie grabbed the ball off the bounce. Why was he still here? He couldn’t concentrate, nothing was going in on this rim, he was humiliating himself. It was time to leave. He headed to the fence to grab his windbreaker; the circle closed in and blocked him from getting near it. He looked around him; everyone was nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, three or four deep. Insults rained down on him. Nobody was letting him through.
Rosie got up from the lawn chair he had brought to the courts, handed the teenager he was betting with a dollar, and waved his arms in an attempt to quiet the crowd as he walked slowly toward Archie.
He was booed loudly and purposefully.
“Holy Moses, kid, what are you doing to me?” he said, reaching Archie and slapping him on the shoulder. “Do you know how long it took me to convince this neighborhood that white guys can shoot?”
“I don’t know. I can’t focus with all these people around. I’m just trying to leave.”
“Leave? Leave? You can’t leave, you yutz. Not until you make one.”
“Because you’re a goddamn freak show, that’s why.” He grabbed Archie’s freckled arm.
“Everybody wants to get a look at the white kid who thinks he can just stroll onto the Rhode Island courts. You want to leave, first you need to prove you belong here. Make sense?”
The crowd was growing restless. An empty Rock Creek plastic soda bottle whizzed past Archie’s head.
“Look,” said Rosie. “You can’t leave until you make a shot. It’s as simple as that. It’s not going to be pretty when you do—there’s a lot of money against you. But you need to show everyone that you’re not a chump. Now get your ass back to the line and hit a goddamn free throw already.”
Rosie trudged back to his lawn chair. Archie walked reluctantly back to the white stripe. He slowly dribbled the ball three times. He focused on the rim, envisioning his shot as he raised his elbow until his upper arm was perpendicular to his body, his left hand gently holding the ball in the palm of his right. He blew out a sharp breath and released the ball.
He had put more arc on this shot than on the previous ones, and it seemed to hang in the air forever as Archie held his nails out to dry, begging the ball to go in.
The crowd went berserk. The ball bounced straight up into the air, above the backboard, and hung at its apex for an eternity.
The ball fell from its vertical ricochet perfectly into the basket, touching only the chain netting underneath.
“BOOOOO!!!” sang the crowd, hurling profanities down on him as the ball rolled away. Fights broke out over money that was already taken when the ball hit the rim. A teen grabbed the ball, punted it over the fence, and flicked him off. He was being called insults for white people he’d never heard before, like peckerwood. The crowd started to dissipate, temporarily bottlenecking the opening in the fence.
Nobody cared about him anymore. Within two minutes, only Archie and Rosie remained.
“Now you can leave, you lucky schmuck,” said Rosie, and he folded up his lawn chair and left.
His ball now halfway down the block, and his windbreaker torn to shreds by some losing bettors, Archie decided to pass on trying to make 49 more free throws this particular Monday and walked home to P Street instead.
By Ted Macaluso
If you want to stroll in solitude in the D.C. area at night, nothing beats older office parks. My favorite is the Prosperity Business Campus near the Dunn Loring Metro, a mile from my high-rise. No one is there at two a.m. Just two-story brick buildings surrounded by empty parking lots and grown trees. A bush-covered chain link fence hides Interstate 66 and the late-night traffic sounds like waves on a beach. No machine shops polluting the air. No guards; only sodium vapor lamps illuminating curved paths with benches for lunch breaks.
That’s where I first saw her: sitting on a bench in the Business Campus at 2 a.m. It was March and she was the only person I’d seen in my late-night sojourns. She looked like a Victorian novel—white gloves, body covered by an ankle-length floral dress with puffed shoulders, lace collar, veiled hat. She nodded, acknowledging me.
“Did your car break down?” I asked. “Need help? I’m Jim.”
“Oh. No. Taking rest period. I work at Embassy.” She tilted her head toward the far end of the Campus. Her accent was strange. Slavic? Or Portuguese? Almost familiar, but off.
“At the Saudi Consulate?” It was adjacent to the Business Campus. Deputations and consulates are all over the D.C. metro.
“The other one.”
I had never seen another diplomatic building nearby, but let it go. Seeing her, it felt like my world had been invaded, and I was anxious to continue my walk. The next day, though, I took a detour going to work. Sure enough, there was an embassy, a very small cylindrical building, behind the large Saudi edifice. The writing on the sign was strange. It looked like Chinese, but what do I know? As I watched, black SUVs—the ones politicians like—pulled up. One had a NASA logo.
That night, she was sitting on the bench again. I mentioned the SUVs. All she said was, “We’re advising. But your people believe in luck.” She tilted her head and stretched her neck, catlike. “Why do you walk so late?”
“My brother and I own a bar. By the time clean up’s done, I just make the last Metro. Really, I’m lucky walking so late. After tending bar, I need solitude.” I looked at her. “What country you from?”
“You won’t have heard of it.” She adjusted her dress. It shimmered. “That’s impressive, Jim, saving up to start a business.”
“My brother and me? We never could have saved enough. Used the insurance payout from when Mom died. We were fortunate. What do you do at the Embassy?”
“I document culture. For history, yes?”
We kept meeting over the next six months, except of course for the bad nights, the polar vortex that sent temperatures below zero in May, the monster storms. But we met a lot and she was curious about everything: Miley Cyrus, hang gliding. Did I know about permafrost? Would Captain America support or oppose the Second Amendment? The role ocean currents played in the culture of colonial New England. Had I read Coetzee?
“I missed you last night, Jim,” she said. It was late September. Yesterday had been pleasant.
“Been looking for a new apartment. I’m subletting a condo where the owners shortchanged the reserve fund for years. Now they have big repairs and my rent is doubling. Time for a new home.” I exhaled. “I’m lucky there are places nearby.”
She turned her sinuous neck to look at me straight on. One of her earrings briefly glowed purple. “Why do your people dismiss facts and think they’ll ‘luck out?’ Why, Jim?”
I shrugged. “Human nature?”
We talked about luck vs. science and whether to base action on measurement and mathematical models or serendipity and fate. Her body swayed as she abruptly spoke of urban renewal. “When apartments get too run down, Jim, your people let developers evict tenants and plow over buildings. I’ve seen this. Is that what you want?” I hadn’t seen her angry before.
“Your movie heroes are saved at the last moment,” she continued. “Did you know that, Jim? Did you ever think how it shapes your worldview?”
I wasn’t sure what to reply. Both of her earrings were flashing purple. Twenty seconds later they went dark.
“These are important questions, Jim,” she said, finally. “Will people face facts? Pray to a god? Toss a coin? What if you can’t move to a new apartment? What if you dislike the changes new owners—developers—make to your home?” I didn’t have an answer.
It was October when I saw her the last time. “I’m glad you came,” she said. “To say goodbye. They’ve recalled Embassy staff. I’m leaving tonight.”
“There’s nothing in the news,” I replied. During downtime tending bar, I read TheWashingtonPostand hadn’t seen any diplomatic blow ups, just the tornados wrecking Detroit. “Is there threat of war?”
“War? No. Not war.” She squeezed my hand and I went still. She hadn’t been wearing white gloves all these nights. Her skin was silk. “The planet. It’s become unstable. They’re sending all nonessential staff home.” She leaned in. “Few species learn to manage their planets in time. I’ve gathered so many histories.” I stared, slack-jawed.
“Oh, Jim, not to fear,” she continued. “We’re not like your developers. We don’t evict lifeforms. We only repurpose after a self-induced extinction concludes.” She rose, curving her neck to face me. “It’s not hopeless. Your sunspot cycle is shifting. In a few years the sun will become cooler for several years. Maybe it will buy your species time.” A purple glow shown through the trees that hid her Embassy. I watched her lope off, into the radiance, earrings glowing amber. She curved her head back.
“Try to stay lucky, Jim.”
Kansas Avenue Seaweed
By Graham Roth
Jonathan woke up at 6:30 a.m., the same time he rose from bed every morning.
Hannah, his wife, was already in the shower.
Jacob was stirring in his bedroom, down the hall from where Jonathan and Hannah slept, on the second floor of their house.
It rained overnight, but had stopped now. The wet, hazy light shone through the trees and cracked through the bedroom windows.
Jonathan could see that Jacob was awake. His eyes reflected like a comic demon on the monotone night-vision baby monitor screen. He was peaceful, rolling over and humming quietly to himself. Jonathan got out of bed and pulled on a pair of jeans. He put on a plain red T-shirt, rubbed his eyes, and found his glasses on his nightstand.
Jacob was making a little more noise now, so Jonathan walked barefoot down the hall to his room.
When Jonathan walked in, Jacob turned in his crib and looked at his father through the white wooden slats. His blonde bedhead poked in every direction.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” Jonathan said, and he picked up his son with his hands under both armpits. He held him up and they smiled at each other. Jacob’s arms hung to each side, while his legs were covered by his zip-up fleece sleep sack. Jonathan held him out over the crib, before lifting him over the railing and shifting his arm under Jacob’s butt so that he could hold him up face-to-face with one arm.
“’Raff,” Jacob said, pointing to the empty space on the floor where the stuffed giraffe used to be before it was moved down the hall at his request.
“Bear,” he said, pointing to the stuffed polar bear that sat on the top of the narrow bookshelf in the corner of his room.
“Dog!” he exclaimed. And he pointed to the window.
“Where? Do you see a dog in the alley?”
Jonathan carried Jacob to his bedroom window, pulled the shades up, and found that the water flowed by just a foot below the windowsill. A black lab doggie-paddled past, holding its head just above the surface. Jacob excitedly cried out again.
“Hannah,” Jonathan called. She didn’t reply. He could hear the shower.
Behind his family’s house, the tops of the trees looked like mangroves. The telephone poles looked like pilings in a harbor, with tangles of cables pulling up out of the water. The streetlights dimmed and flickered on and off. Upside-down recycling bins and garbage cans floated slowly past the window, bobbing south toward Sherman Circle.
“Hannah,” Jonathan called again, louder this time. She didn’t reply. The shower was off. He could hear her electric toothbrush from down the hall.
Jonathan leaned closer to the window and peered down. From the second floor, the water was too dark and deep to see their car, parked behind the house. “We’ll need to call the insurance company later,” Jonathan thought. “That’s a pain.”
Jonathan checked the weather on his iPhone. High of 70 with a zero percent chance of rain. He shook his head.
He noticed that Jacob’s daycare hadn’t emailed or called about closing for the day. “Of course they haven’t.” There were no emergency alerts either.
Jonathan held Jacob’s hand as they climbed down the stairs. Jacob clambered down slowly, one step at a time. He stepped down in big swooshes, lurching from step to step.
It was time for breakfast. He poured out Corn Flakes and cut up a banana, arranging it into a divided-section green rubber breakfast plate with suction cups on the bottom. He poured milk into a small cup, half-way up. He turned on the burner underneath the kettle to boil water for coffee.
While he was doing this, Jacob walked over to their glass front door and pressed his face against the glass.
“Don’t smush your nose,” Jonathan said, ruffling his son’s hair. He squatted down beside him and they looked out the window together.
From this vantage point, beneath the surface, the water was clearer. Streaks of light reflected off of the street signs. Jonathan could see the stop sign across the street. The un-mowed grass in the sidewalk box swayed gently in the current. Littered plastic bags floated by. Their neighbor’s red Toyota was still in its street-parking space, but the back end of the car gently lifted off the ground every few seconds. Across the street, the legs of cats and dogs churned the water beneath the surface. Books, photos, and blankets slowly drifted away from one house. “I guess they left their living room window open overnight,” Jonathan said quietly.
Three sea lions darted past the window. Jacob laughed with delight. “They must have escaped from the zoo, Kiddo. I guess they knew where to find you.”
“Let’s have breakfast.”
He scooped Jacob up under his arm and spun around on his heel. “Woosh,” he said. Jacob laughed.
He put Jacob into his high chair. Hannah came down the stairs.
“What are you doing? We need to go!”
Two sea lions swam past the front door again.
“Where are we going to go?” asked Jonathan. “Decatur Street NW is underwater.”
“This is not normal, Jonathan,” said Hannah.
She spoke quickly. Her tone was measured, but rising.
“Where would we go anyway?” Jonathan asked.
Jacob ate slices of his banana and drank from his cup of milk, placing it back on his high chair tray with two hands.
The water slowly flowed by their windows. Dogs churned their paws. Fish swam by. Cars rolled past or dragged along the bottom, sticking once in a while and then getting pushed again. The lights still turned on and their refrigerator was still cold. No water leaked in through their window sills or under the door.
They decided that after breakfast they would gather up some essentials and see what had happened to their neighborhood.
The cell network was apparently down and they couldn’t get any service.
Their dining room table was made of wood. They decided that they would turn it upside down and use it as a raft. Hannah and Jonathan would carry it up the stairs, and launch it from the middle window in their bedroom, which was on the front side of the house, facing the street. They hadn’t yet seen their neighbors.
After struggling to carry the table up the staircase, and pivot it through the landing near the top without scratching the banister, they put it on the floor next to the windows. Jonathan was sweating and a little bit out of breath.
They headed back downstairs.
Hannah double-checked Jacob’s diaper bag and found an extra pack of wipes while Jonathan packed up their cooler with bananas, water bottles, and peanut butter crackers.
“Do you think Michael, Cathy, and Davey are ok?” said Hannah. “I’m not sure if Gordo is much of a water dog.”
“I don’t know. They are probably still in their house too.”
Out of habit, Jonathan checked his friends’ WhatsApp group. Nothing.
They packed hats, sunblock, water, and snacks in a backpack, and brought that and Jacob’s diaper bag back up to the second floor.
Out their window, they could see the top of a fire truck’s ladder pushing through the water, the truck rolling by slowly, underneath the surface, down Kansas Avenue NW.
The water was filled with the detritus of the city. Leaves, plastic bags, and clothes all were suspended; gently sloshing past the house.
They loaded up their supplies on the upside down table and climbed on. Hannah and Jacob got on first while Jonathan held it steady from the windowsill. Then he climbed on and kicked off from the house.
Jonathan paddled with a snapped off chair back from the dining room.
They couldn’t see anyone home at Steven and Yvette’s house next door. The current carried them south, toward Sherman Circle. The bus stop was submerged. The trees looked like little islands covered in droopy leaves. The light shined through the treetops and reflected in a column off the water. The false attics made a shallow circle loop around Sherman Circle.
Jonathan stood up and looked toward downtown. He shaded his eyes with his hands.
Above E.L. Haynes School there was a stretch of open water. The roof of the school was just beneath the surface.
They looked down Crittenden Street NW, but didn’t see any sign of their friends.
Jonathan held onto the edge of their table-raft and kicked off the back like it was an oversized kickboard, pointing them down Illinois Avenue NW, toward Grant Circle.
The wind rippled the surface of the water down the street. Small slicks of oil made scattered patches every 10 yards or so. It was sunny, but the city was quiet. The usual gaggle of neighbors walking dogs and pushing strollers was gone. Ms. Linda the crossing guard was nowhere to be seen.
While Jonathan kicked, Hannah sang to Jacob. The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout. He bounced up and down and rocked back and forth.
“Where do you think everyone is?” Jonathan asked.
“Not sure. In their houses? Maybe they left already?” said Hannah.
On Illinois Avenue NW the peaks of the roofs of the detached houses formed two rows of mini wooden breakwaters. At the Webster Street NW intersection, the phone line was suspended overhead, loosening and tightening as the telephone pools shifted and flexed gently in water.
The top of the big tree at the center of Grant Circle formed an island of foliage, surrounded by a ring of house rooftops poking above the surface. To the right was Saint Gabriel Catholic Church.
The steeple was higher above the water than most other buildings.
“Let’s go over there,” Hannah called back.
Jonathan kicked as hard as he could to turn the door toward the church. They glided closer and grabbed onto the stonework. Through the stained-glass windows, they could see down into the sanctuary. It didn’t look like the church was flooded.
Jonathan felt around and realized that the top windowpane was on a hinge. It was at a height that necessitated standing up on the door to push. Jonathan carefully stood up and lifted the pane.
Jonathan held onto the windowpane while Hannah picked up Jacob and stepped through. Jonathan followed and they pulled the table in behind them. Inside the church, they found themselves standing on top of the built-in pipe organ.
“Come on down! Try not to track too much water through the pews,” called Father Kevin.
The priest was a large man with a crew cut and a booming voice. He sounded a little bit like a good-natured high school baseball coach trying to get his players to line up correctly. Inside Saint Gabriel, a group of Petworth neighbors gathered near the pulpit.
Water gently lapped over the window. Jonathan pulled it shut behind them before too large of a puddle formed around their feet.
Jonathan picked up Jacob with his right arm pulled his bags over his left shoulder and started down the staircase to the first floor below. Water pressed against the windows, but through the stained glass animals, cars, trees, and debris were reduced to shadows.
On the first floor of the sanctuary, people had started to establish areas. Some had evidently been at the church since the waters rose.
Jonathan put Jacob down so he could walk. From the far end of the sanctuary, an arm shot up and waved.
“Hey,” shouted Michael.
Davey, six months younger than Jacob, walked as fast as his short legs could carry him up the aisle. When he reached the family, he stood in front of Jacob and put his chin on his shoulder. He hadn’t learned how to hug another child yet. Jacob put his arms around him.
The family was no longer alone. Underwater, a small part of Petworth gathered.
Out of Sight
By Julie Iannone
It’s days like these where I wish I had that camera. To capture the descent of beech leaves, fluttering to rest over grimy pink petals that cling to the brick sidewalk and burrow in its cracks. Dogs. That’s another subject worth pursuing in Georgetown if you’re looking for both beauty and animation. In high school, one of my photos was featured in a glass case with my chalky white signature smudged at the bottom. There was a window, one from the shack in the park where volunteers sold hot chocolate and ginger snaps to ice skaters. It had been locked up all summer, nothing but debris left inside, and I walked into a bush, taking brambles to the waistband, so I could lean against the near window that framed the far one, where sunlight streamed through like a gateway to nowhere. The scene was black and white and so was the film. I lost points for the reflection of a Volvo in the bottom pane.
I linger in front of a yoga studio on Wisconsin trying to work out if the guy next to me holding a pizza is Ben Stein. He jay walks before I can get a good look, but I decide it’s him and it’s the highlight of my week. On the way to the pharmacy, I calculate that in two months I will have earned enough money at the campus bookstore to buy the Nikon with 4k video. Transfer applications will set me back a couple hundred, and that’s what led me to the wonderful world of drug running. My academic advisor knew a woman whose husband’s mother needed prescriptions delivered to her N street residence once a month. Regina Wharton, the wealthiest of widows, pays me FIFTY DOLLARS every time I pick up her beta blockers and milk of magnesia. If I could make a career of it, I would.
Regina has one available portrait on Google Images, and though I’ve forgotten the specifics of her face, the word white comes to mind. Apparently, she’s home when I visit, but the only person I interact with is the housekeeper, Blanca, who waddles to answer the door and checks the bags before paying me one bone-straight bill. October is different because Regina spends the month in Nantucket and Blanca travels home to Honduras. Today, I’ve been instructed to locate the hide-a-key that’s clamped to the base of a potted hydrangea, bring the bags into the kitchen, collect my money, and go.
I take my time walking through the neighborhoods. Heat rolls over me in waves, but soon enough I’ll have back my layers and the woolen hat with ear flaps that hangs above my bed like a dream catcher. For now, I enjoy the look of greenery trailing down from rooftops and the curled iron gates which section off two-by-four gardens against the backdrop of barred windows. Everything’s narrow, dirty, uneven, and alive. Some tartan-clad girls trot behind me, crinkling baked goods and pushing each other, not hard, just enough to make nervous drivers tap their brakes. I veer right to let them pass, but they scream and run giggling into an alley.
At the corner, I cross the street to avoid construction. I figure they’re repairing the sidewalk, but upon further inspection, I see a flowerbed built around an oak tree and the piles of bricks will be placed and mortared to the perimeter. The owner of the adjacent house, a tall Greek man, hovers over the workers and is brief with his directions before retreating behind a candy apple door. Not one other house on the block has a flowerbed.
Regina’s house is the grandest I’ve come across, with no adjoining neighbors and a half-circle driveway connected to a coveted garage. I imagine entertaining heaps of people in there, gorgeous people I’m fond of but can’t identify. The hide-a-key clicks into place and I pause. My co-worker once singled out this house on our walk back from a department lunch. She claimed it had been a hospital during the Civil War and ghosts of slain soldiers have been seen glowering from the windows with bayonets through their brains. How spooky to think a reclusive old woman bunks with the dead and surely vacations in October to escape their peak disturbance. I’d like to see a ghost almost as much as I’d like to snoop around the premises.
I move quickly through the foyer, as I’ve gathered snippets of mahogany and leather from previous visits. While the exterior of the house is pristine and sleek, grey stone, freshly painted shutters, the inside affirms a nineteenth century existence. The walls are burgundy. There’s a fireplace in the parlor with real wood stacked in the hearth and the chairs are all patterned linen, straight backs, toothpick legs. Not even the kitchen is modern. A spiral cord phone hangs from the wall next to a retro fridge and basin sink haloed with stained glass. The kitchen table is green and clashes and it shouldn’t be there because there’s no room. I think Regina should knock down a wall, and I imagine her doing it, sledge hammer swinging low in her chicken-armed grip.
Like Blanca said, the money is on the counter in an envelope and I take it. I consider being decent and leaving. But, since I’ll never have another chance, I embark on a tour with brevity in mind. The dining room is spacious and set for a yuletide gathering. I hope she leaves it like that all year long. I examine her hutch and the Lladros within. Two children in lederhosen stealing a kiss, a topless mermaid sunbathing, cherubs crowding two lovers on a gondola. Each scene a burst of energy, frozen and dust laden. Under a spell. The bay windows overlook the backyard, a feature as enviable as the garage, and cut grass adorns the patio like powdered sugar on a pancake. I wonder how much the gardener is paid and whether I can get in on that gig.
Beyond the staircase, I find what I believe will be my greatest discovery. An elevator, with accordion doors and black mirrors that distort me to non-recognition. There are buttons one, two, and three. I press three and it lights up. There would probably be a sign if it wasn’t safe to use. I close the door and latch it, prompting the carriage to rise carefully, as if not at all. It docks with a jolt, enough to get my heart pumping, and when I collapse the door, I suspect I’m in a different house. The hall is light and airy blue, like a beach house with hardwood floors. The windows are open and the breeze, felt only above the city, smells like honey-coated car exhaust. My instinct is to descend to the second floor, a realm of its own I imagine, but my attention is diverted to a trembling, defecating Maltese, a breed I know only from pictures. It stands on what is essentially a stained yellow diaper stuck to the floor with adhesive. When finished, the dog skitters over and tries to bring me down by the calf. I crouch and it darts into the next room with the urgency of someone fleeing a monster. Blanca, I say. Nothing.
It occurs to me that Regina must be on the other side of the wall with her puppy cradled on her forearm, wondering if there’s a ghost in the hallway agitating animals and operating the elevator. I think about not wanting to lose this job as I make an adrenaline-fueled move into the open doorway. My vision whites out for a moment, like the flash before exposure. When restored, I see her standing before the open French doors, billowing hair emulating her sheer dressing gown which pops like drip of acid against the wholly white room. My scalp needles, and I want this photo so badly, but I wouldn’t deign to pull out my phone. I look for a while.
Disturbed voices rise from the street below, and as I move closer, Regina appears like a god looking down in despair at her creation. It’s the Greek man again, high on his stoop, staring down a city official who stands aggrieved beside the half-finished flowerbed, the mounting conversation being: Where did this come from? Golly gee, I just don’t know. The rise and fall of Regina’s chest is imperceptible. I think if I step back and keep moving it would be like I had never been in this house at all, but leaving is a tragic thought. I crane my neck and see the Maltese standing at attention in front of Regina, only paces from the decorative oval deck with a railing spaced wide enough for the dog to somersault through. I fear scaring an old woman, but decide coughing is the most responsible introduction, and when I do so, the dog springs like a popped kernel. Regina tilts her chin in my direction. I take this as an invitation to reveal myself.
Her eyes are gorgeous like the eyes of two storms, torrential clouds both soft and devastating, rains enough to revive a dying earth. She does not blink or know where to look, but I’ve never felt so seen in my life. She asks, was it not enough? I reach into my pocket and feel the envelope holding my pay. It’s perfect, I tell her, and she nods in agreement. Perhaps, she says, you’re looking for something else. I don’t know what she means but I think that’s fine. I’m content now, standing shoulder to shoulder with her as the battle unfolds at our feet.