“One night when Reagan was president,” Jesse said, “I was riding with the prostitution cops looking for runaways. We parked in a vacant lot down by 14th and U. Broken glass everywhere, sparkling like diamonds in the streetlights. Killed our headlights and engine. Waited and watched this shack called the Success Café at the end of the lot. Gave it 20. Popped on the headlights, watched the rats and junkies run.”
“You should have bought that vacant lot,” Ben said. “Now that ’hood is all hip and happening and big bucks.”
“I wonder what happened to the junkies?” the corporate knight added.
Jesse’s smile took in the convivial room. “Do we count Zoloft, Prozac, Valium, Ritalin, Lexapro, Wellbutrin, Lipitor, Viagra, Ambien, baby aspirin and Tylenol PM?”
“Ah,” Ben said, “I think I’ll get something to eat.”
Yvette melted into the crowd.
Jesse caught Leah’s wary eyes on him from across the room.
Drifted her way. Got blocked. Shook hands with a friend whose law license let him lobby. They heard the staff director for a senator they loathed tell a Kensington math teacher: “Then after spending lunch cold-calling for cash, my boss walks back to our office, finds out there’s a tornado in San Francisco and some outdoor market fruit seller in a country we can barely find on a map got killed protesting cops shaking him down, so now the price of gas will go through the roof, plus we’ve got to figure out how to vote on whether or not some soldier from Montana will get shot in a dusty street on the other side of the globe.”
Jesse and his friend edged away, wound up listening to a pollster lecture about a special election in a heartland city Jesse had never seen and that contest’s deep inner meaning for the next national election. The pollster said: “But it all comes down to—”
“Faith,” Jesse said.
He saw Leah, who now stood close enough to catch his words, smile.
Jesse envisioned her arching neck, her lips parting, smelling her bare chest, his fleeting kisses on her flesh. He wanted to hear her cry his name to the stars. He longed to make her laugh.
“I was going to say money,” the pollster said, “but if you want to go with faith…”
“Always,” Jesse said.
His daughter, Alison, slouched into the house through the front door.
She carried her bulging school backpack. Wore thrift store black, a streak of red dye in her hair, a put-me-out-of-my-misery expression, and the beauty of youth that anger can’t hide. Her eyes rolled as her father edged his way through the crowd to stand beside her where, like, no one else wanted to be.
And of all things, he said: “Hi! You hungry?”
“Can we please just go?”
“Sure. But they got a lot to eat.”
“Is there meat on the same table?”
“Have you not been paying attention?” she said.
“Come on. People want to say hi. Besides, you look retro and it’s good to remind them.”
“I’m not going to run some boorzy—”
As in “bourgeois.”
“—some boorzy gauntlet. I’m not hungry for anything here.”
“Too bad, they have chocolate.”
She didn’t let him see her flinch.
“We’ll go this way,” he said.
And, like, can you believe it, he practically herded her through all those people, a “Hey!” here, a “Hi!” there, through the kitchen—OMG, is that Evita?—then into the yellow light of, like, the garage.
Where they were alone.
His daughter heard Jesse inhale. She wondered if he smelled gasoline and rubber from the garage’s monster SUV, the concrete, cardboard boxes, lawn tools hanging from wall hooks, singed moths on the ceiling’s bare bulb.
Her dad said: “Wow, someplace to put something that lets you get in it and go.”
“Yeah, like, where’s any different than here?”
“Can we go now?”
“Where?” he said.
“Wherever you let me! Home. Whatever, I don’t care.”
“Yes you do,” he said. “That’s good.”
He wouldn’t wipe that damn TV father zen smile off his face.
Then said: “The problem with caring is that it hurts. Every time.”
Edged his way around the SUV to the far wall with its workbench and cupboards.
Like, now what? But habit made Alison follow him.
“Imagine having a garage and so much stuff to put in it.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, “this is so like, wild.”
He picked up a silver steel tool. “Do you know what this is?”
Crescent wrench. Mom had used one to tighten the pedals of Alison’s little kid bike. Tonight, standing in that garage, Alison lied and answered: “No.”
“You could use it to beat a dog to death.”
“Dad! Oh, my, God, what the hell!”
He put the wrench back on the tool bench. “Just a thought.”
“Oh my God: Is that what all of you think about?”
“All of us who?”
“All of you back in there in the house! All of you in this damn town! Inside the damn Beltway! You’re so in charge of the whole world, and nobody like me who’s not one of you ever gets to choose and oooh, you’re doing such a great job!”
“Yeah, we suck. So did our parents. So will you.”
“Thanks a lot.” Drama wiggled her hands in the air. “What-ever. It doesn’t matter. Nothing lasts.”
“Absolutely right. Everything vanishes in a blink. All of us are always falling into forever. So actually, we’re making forever. Doing what-ever we can do.”
“Gosh, is this going to be on the test?”
“So will one of your answers be beating a dog to death?”
“You’re so weird! Why can’t you be like everybody else?”
“Is that what you want?”
“You don’t know what I want!”
He opened dirty white cabinet doors to random junk. A torn sheet of sandpaper. Broken Christmas tree stand. Some machinery’s rubber belt. Two pasta sauce glass jars of screws and nails. A tin of paint thinner. And three aerosol spray cans. Alison watched him pick one off the shelf.
Read its label aloud: “Suitable for lawn furniture or grating. Rustproof black.”
Then—like a slow-motion movie scene—he tossed the can to her.
Reflexes—damn volleyball drills!—made Alison catch the spray-paint can.
“Is that something you want?” her father said.
Alison felt the hard cylinder fill her hand. The cold surge of its liquid. The clattering roll of the marble mixing ball inside. She knew where to push her pointer finger to conjure a pssh! swirl of blackness that could trickle down a brick wall like tears.
She stared at her father: “Is this some kind of trick?”
“I suppose so.”
Then he walked out of the garage. Left her holding the paint can she could sneak unseen into her backpack. If that’s what she wanted. She watched him not look back.
James Grady is the author of more than a dozen novels, including Six Days of the Condor, which was adapted into a Robert Redford film. He lives with his wife, the writer Bonnie Goldstein, in Silver Spring.