6270 words, short story
Bonfires in Anacostia
1. The Table
On the left-hand side of the coffee table were stacked three Michael Chabon novels, one each by T.C. Boyle and Tim O’Brien, and a volume of Nathanael West’s collected works. On the right were five guides to maximizing fertility, and two novels by Tessa Dare. In between were two stemless wine glasses.
The table itself was a clear polymer which, were it not encumbered with the remains of its owners’ outmoded bibliomania, would reveal itself as a fully operational touchscreen. It was designed, however, to require replacement as soon as it received a hard thwack: The sort of urbane furnishing that only a childless couple would have purchased.
An advantage of this table, from the perspective of those charged with maintaining homeland security, is that its voice-activated features kept it in a continual state of attentive listening. If the owner kept it in its default, continuously connected networking mode—as 99% of purchasers of these models did—then every word spoken in its vicinity would fall under the expanded electronic surveillance authorization established by a certain executive order signed twenty years ago whose existence would be neither confirmed nor denied by anyone with legal authorization to know of it. That the owners happened to be Robert and Eileen Wexler, mid-level operatives in the DC office of the Cuomo 2024 re-election campaign, did not change the functioning of the table or of those analysts in Prince Georges County charged with making sense of its data-feed and hundreds of thousands more.
The table knew that objects totaling a weight of approximately ten kilograms were distributed unevenly across its surface, that the materials pressing against it were cloth, paper and glass, that Robert had in recent weeks been putting the music of the Talking Heads, an American New Wave band active from 1975 through 1991, on heavy rotation, whereas Eileen preferred silence whenever she was in the room, and that at this instant they had just repaired to their bedroom to finish preparations for a dinner party at the home of Darius and Brandon Gartner-Williams. It also knew that they would sometimes clear enough space to pull up campaign memos, the Post and the Times (both New York and Washington, of each), polling results and Sunday morning talk shows on its screen. The table could not know what was contained within the archaic text delivery devices pressing against it, though it got occasional glimpses when Robert would leave a book open face-down atop it—a habit for which Eileen would chastise him each time, reminding him that it would damage the spine. Neither Robert nor Eileen knew that the table knew all these things, but neither did they trust it fully, which may account for their decision to reconnoiter the dusty shelves of the DC Public Library and that mildewy used book store in a garret two stories above the scrum of Adams-Morgan for some of their reading matter.
Robert entered the room, noted Eileen’s glass adjacent to his, and snorted. “I’m pretty sure none of those books recommend sauvignon blanc to enhance your fertility.”
“You try answering to Ari Levine all day without a bit of liquid assistance,” replied Eileen as she joined him. “When’s the party?”
“I couldn’t even suffer Tyler Colson without my refreshment. Seven o’clock.” The Wexlers’ habit of carrying on two conversations simultaneously was either irritating or endearing, depending on whether one was in a relationship with similar idiosyncrasies.
“Besides,” continued Eileen, sitting on the couch and lifting her glass. “It’s no better for your sperm than it is for my eggs. What’s on the menu?”
Robert paused a beat, as he decided it would be ill-advised to remind her of the test results showing that his forty-seven-year-old gonads were none the worse for wear. “I don’t know. Brandon was freaking out when I called him this morning. He just found out that Camilo’s new boy is a vegan.”
“I need animal protein.” Eileen took another sip. “Ari wanted me to work late. Try explaining to him that I needed to go to my husband’s ex-boyfriend’s party.”
“It’s none of his business. I told him no amount of number crunching would change the situation: Short of a total catastrophe, Andy’s got this locked up.”
“Short of the rest of the country finding out that half the nation’s capital is in flames, you mean.”
“Exactly. It’s out of our hands at this point.”
Robert sat down. There was nothing left to say, but silence did not seem right, either. “We have an hour left before we have to go.” More silence. “You could have a snack.” Eileen was beginning to lean toward the table, and had not taken the hint. Robert stuck his hand beneath the belt of his slacks as if to adjust, but really, to direct her attention the way he wanted.
“We shouldn’t dilute it,” replied Eileen, not even turning toward him.
Robert bent down to the table, dragged his finger diagonally to define the dimensions of a window, and called up a live feed of the Senate floor.
It was not strictly accurate to describe Brandon as Robert’s “ex-boyfriend,” not with the connotations of past exclusivity that this conventional phrase carried. Brandon and Darius had been together since well before Robert had set foot in Washington; he came to live with them shortly after he started grad school at American, during their brief, turn-of-the-century experiment with polyamory. By the time Eileen, seven years his junior, started coming to the gatherings at the Dupont Circle brownstone—on the arm of Janet—the story had grown too complex and too far distant to be worth telling accurately. That they were still getting invited to what had become the most sought-after soiree among LGBT Beltway insiders, despite the apparent completeness of their switch to heterosexuality and the low visibility of their jobs—he was a fundraising database programmer, she a statistician—was testament to Brandon’s forgiving nature, the increasing self-assuredness of the community, and Darius’ reluctance to let go of anyone he knew would appreciate his jokes, stories and lectures.
Robert just needed to keep tabs on his alcohol consumption. The last time, someone had almost walked in on him and Camilo’s last consort. He suspected Camilo had figured it out, and that this was why a new guest was coming to the dinner. There were three things to wonder about before going to these dinner parties: What would Brandon cook, what new anecdotes would Darius have, and how young and attractive would Camilo’s current boyfriend be. As the senior senator from Ohio asked to be recognized by unanimous consent, Robert considered all three. Of this, the table had no inkling, and neither did Eileen.
“Can you believe the mouth on that kid?” After several hours of hibernation, the table was woken by the sound of Robert’s voice.
“I know,” said Eileen. “Actually what I can’t believe is Darius.”
“Well, all that stuff about the holograms and the riots and the fires.” The utterance of three keywords in such rapid succession switched the table from passive data-gathering to active interface with the analytical mainframes at the Agency. Based on Robert’s and Eileen’s metadata signatures, the Darius in question was identified with a high degree of probability as the same Darius Gartner-Williams who was an analyst with the agency. “Some of that had to be classified.”
“Darius has always known how to walk right up to the line without crossing it. That’s the only way a raconteur like him could have stayed where he is for so long.”
“I don’t know, he just seemed, not upset, but maybe, yes, maybe upset, at what’s going on in Southeast.”
“You don’t think he’d do a Snowden?”
“No way, not a chance. Forget I said anything.” Robert found this injunction of Eileen’s easy to follow, but not the table. The table is not programmed to forget.
From the rustling sounds of their clothes the table intuited that they had taken seats on the sofa. It could not tell, however, that Eileen was reaching for the fly on Robert’s khakis. “Hey, I thought you said we shouldn’t dilute,” said Robert.
“Forget it. We’re nowhere near the right part of the cycle.”
“Is that the truth, or is that the wine talking?”
“Too much wine and not enough food. Can you believe it, lentils and vegetables?” A zipping sound, then a seeming non sequitur: “What did you think of Camilo’s new boy?”
Robert flinched guiltily, as if somehow Eileen’s question signaled some awareness on her part of his indiscretion with Camilo’s last partner, but she wasn’t looking at his face to notice it. “Too skinny. And how can someone that self-righteous be that racist?” Then after a pause, during which he realized that in fact he would love to watch that bigoted little twerp choking on his dick, but that he should not say anything to that effect to Eileen, as the intermingling of violence, hatred and sexuality would be unnerving to her, he took note of the increased exposure of his genitals to Eileen’s manipulations: “Are you sure we should? Ooooh.”
The table soon detected a gagging noise that seemed to emerge from Eileen’s throat. “Before, aah, we go too far, ooh,” continued Robert, “Nice finger work, uhh, ahh, could we try, anal?” The table knew he only ever asked this when Eileen was drunk.
“I’ll get the lube.”
“Don’t bother going upstairs. Vegetable oil’s fine.”
After hearing some sounds emerging from the kitchen, the table detected the removal of ten kilograms of books and other assorted materials from its surface, followed by a pressure totaling about thirty kilograms coming from what appeared, from visual sensing, to be Eileen’s torso. This impression was soon confirmed by ultrafast sequencing of DNA from one of her skin cells: This feature of the table’s was not a major selling point, but when discussed was pitched as a security measure. What better way to track down a ten thousand dollar piece of home electronics, if stolen, than to have the thief’s DNA sequenced and automatically sent to the police? What neither Robert nor Eileen realized was that the table was already in a heightened state of alert, as a result of the keywords Eileen had spoken just a few minutes before, and that the sequencer was not only on, but bypassing local law enforcement and communicating directly with the Agency.
After about fifteen minutes of further jostling, the sequencer also detected human coliform bacteria, and incomplete genetic material originating from Robert. We do not know what happened next, but it must have been especially vigorous: A critical component of the table’s power supply was dislodged from its circuit, and we lost all signal.
2. The Duck
The first thing, always, was to take off the tie, open the foyer closet, and find an empty rod on the cedar tie hanger. The second was to take the kitchen apron out of the same closet, and put it on. The third was to proceed through the combined living room / dining room / hallway across the terra cotta tiling to the kitchen and dock his tablet in the countertop station. The fourth was to find the traffic report on the tablet. With these practiced movements, Brandon Gartner-Williams would clearly delimit his Inspector General self from his domestic Dupont Circle townhouse incarnation, and no matter how maddening the preceding workday had been, he would ready himself and his home and his dinner table for the arrival of his husband, Darius, or Dar for short.
The traffic report was the key, the moment at which uncertainty would take over from ritual and preparation, and the outside world would provide the information necessary to make the next set of choices and motions. For Darius worked as an analyst at a subdirectorate of the NSA whose name, existence, budget and mission were never acknowledged in public documents, at an office in the Maryland suburbs whose nondescriptness on maps and satellite images was so impeccable as to raise suspicion, and his way home required him to drive through the District’s Southeast quadrant. The neighborhoods on the left bank of the Anacostia River had proven resistant to three decades of gentrification and were now the site of regular disturbances, but Darius had explained to Brandon that the traffic reports would be the only way to have any sense of what was happening. The agency had seen to it that the news would not spread to other metro areas, but the armies of functionaries, lawyers, military men, contractors and subcontractors who populated the more prosperous quadrants and suburbs of DC would not stand for censorship of their traffic reports. Cooperative discretion was all the agency demanded in this case.
Strictly speaking, Darius did not need to traverse Pennsylvania Avenue SE to get home. He could have taken the safer route, inching along the Beltway. But Darius was not one to swerve from an available straight line. At least, that was what Dar had told Brandon. Brandon suspected that Darius was insisting that he was no less black than the young men setting barricades and cars alight in the streets, that despite his Falls Church upbringing and UVA and Georgetown degrees that he had no less right to be in that neighborhood than those who were born and would likely die there.
Brandon suspected, but he never asked. Even though they had been together for nearly thirty years, had gotten married as soon as DOMA was overturned by the Supreme Court, had developed matching paunches and grown comfortable with each other’s personhood, he still felt guilty for the casual hurts he had unwittingly inflicted in the early years of their relationship: The crestfallen gaze of a twenty-something size queen, disappointed to learn that a certain stereotype was not universally true, and other things, some more petty, others worse, that he cringed to recall. He had learned over time not to ask certain questions of Dar. He would listen when Dar had something to say, to get off his chest, but he would not ask.
It took a while for the traffic report to come on. The 501c4s had figured out a way to keep their ads from being blocked or noise-cancelled. In the 2024 election season, the machinery of constitutional government continued in full view of the populace, louder and brighter than ever. Brandon turned his thoughts to dinner.
He had the duck that he had been planning to make into a ragout over pappardelle for last night’s dinner party, until he learned that Camilo’s guest, a lithe sophomore from GWU, was a vegetarian. And not one of those “I’ll just eat the salad” kinds, but some hysterical vegan who would take offense at the smells of flesh and fat, horrified at the holocaust of innocent animals to which he had been made a party. Camilo, a notorious chickenhawk, had pleaded with Brandon and Dar to change the menu. They made do with a cassoulet of autumn squash and Puy lentils, and a lot of Puligny-Montrachet.
He remembered the boy’s comment that brought the party to a halt: “I don’t understand why those people have to burn down their own neighborhood.” Camilo dropped a fork. A dozen eyeballs made a circuit from the unexpected guest seated at the middle of the dining room table, to Dar at the head as always, to the ceiling. He went on, “I mean, not those people like, all African-Americans or anything like that, just those people in Anacostia.”
Everyone knew Dar was going to lecture. When he was angry, he got professorial, an image that was helped by the leather-patched tweed jacket he had chosen for the evening. “Those people live in a neighborhood that is an embarrassment to this country, through decades of neglect. The government tried to bulldoze it into shape with urban renewal. Then the market took over, with gentrification, which is why you can live . . . where do you live again?”
“Why you can live in Columbia Heights and have no idea what it was like in the mid-nineties, when Brandon and I met. You remember, Bran?”
Put on the spot, Brandon had to speak, though he didn’t want to. His response was clumsy, nervous and embarrassing. “When Dar and I met, we were both living on U Street. Even that was a little sketchy back then. No one would head up into Columbia Heights unless they had business being there, and the only people with business there were the junkies. Remember what I used to say about Anacostia, Dar?”
“Brandon was very new to DC. Back then the Green Line ended in Anacostia, and he would take it down to L’Enfant Plaza for work. He said the woman’s voice on the Metro, before it was all computerized, made it sound like heaven.”
Everyone laughed at Brandon’s expense. Brandon excused himself: “She really did have an angelic voice.”
Dar took no notice and continued. “I drive through that neighborhood every day, to and from work. Population density kept going up as people got priced out of everywhere else. The houses are falling apart, the roads are rutted like in any Third World country.”
Camilo interrupted: “Like back home in Chile. Worse than Chile.”
“It got better after Barack Obama was elected,” Dar continued. “Some black professionals started moving in, fixing up homes, opening fancy restaurants. Bran and I even thought about buying a condo to shorten my commute to the new job, but, well, Brandon wouldn’t exactly have fit in.”
“Not that I would have minded living there, of course,” protested Brandon, perhaps a bit too insistently.
“Of course, darling. Well, it’s a good thing we didn’t. The Second Depression started, half the gentrifiers lost their jobs and the other half moved back across the river as soon as some desperate fool pulled a knife on them. Then someone got the idea for holograms, a way to make it look to people flying into Reagan National or Dulles like there was not this lingering corner of squalor in the nation’s capital. The people living there didn’t seem to notice the illusions at first.”
“I can’t believe that they wouldn’t notice,” replied the boy.
“Believe or don’t believe, it’s up to you. But I see it every day in my job: Human beings will assume that things remain as they were, until they’re forced to notice a change. The structures were ethereal, easy to miss if you don’t think to look for them.”
“So why the fires?” asked the boy.
“Some genius decided to throw a few white people into the mix, to try and jumpstart another wave of gentrification. You know the type. Young, artists or antiwar activists, skinny vegans . . . ” Everyone tittered except the boy and Camilo, who did his best to mimic the disapproving earnest look on his young lover’s face. “A few young bloods tried to earn their street cred by throwing punches at the strangers, and that’s when people in the neighborhood realized something was happening. They started calling the images ‘ghosts.’ They noticed the shimmering patches in their roofs, the manhole covers in place of holes they had taught their children to avoid, the crackhouses and burnt-out lots that had become mansions. And someone—no one knows who, and I would know if anyone knew—tried to set one of the mansions on fire. And that was when they learned what it took government scientists a year and a million dollars to figure out: That fires disrupt the holoprojections. A well-aimed laser would do the same, anything that directs enough energy and light in the right place, but fires are more affordable. More democratic, if you will.”
“I still don’t see how that justifies the destruction. It just seems so stupid, counterproductive.”
“They just want to be seen, their lives to be seen, as they really are. And I think anyone at this table”—Dar swept his hand broadly at the dinner party, consisting of four gay male couples, two pairs of lesbians, and a seemingly hetero couple who had, between the two of them, slept with half the other guests—“would understand wanting that.”
But the lad was too born-in-the-twenty-first century to intuit the breadth of history that Darius had encapsulated with a single gesture, and soon enough, too soon, the word “animals” had been tossed out and Camilo made some excuses about the wine going to their heads and ushered his conquest out the door to his Adams-Morgan studio where there would doubtless be a glass-shattering fight, angry sex, or both.
So the upshot was, Brandon had to do something with that duck. If Darius had a short trip ahead of him, he would just break it down and sear the magrets for tonight so he could get something on the table quickly, then start tonight making confit with the legs for later, and freeze the rest of the carcass for stock over the weekend. If there were bonfires in Anacostia, he would have time enough to roast it. From what little Darius would let fall about his workdays, he understood that a quick dinner would have something to do with the operations branch of the subdirectorate—not Dar and the analysts, whom Dar represented as professional onlookers.
The ads had ended. Brandon listened to the traffic report with ears trained to listen for the unspoken.
3. The Car
Trayvon Allen, age twelve, was the lookout posted to watch the bonfire at the corner of Pennsylvania and 31st SE and alert the block to the arrival of police, fire department, the black cars, or anyone else who looked like they did not belong in the neighborhood. When he saw the black Audi making its way down an otherwise deserted stretch of Pennsylvania, he assumed it was operations, and flashed his mirror at the window of the 3rd floor apartment where DeShawn was camped out.
Something wasn’t right, though. The car was coming at least sixty miles an hour, and accelerating. The driver seemed to be moving the steering wheel left and right, but the car stayed straight, as if someone had aimed it straight at the fire.
The driver didn’t look right either. DeShawn came down with the crew and asked Trayvon, “Who that, T? Ops?”
“Naw, looks like some college nigga. Fat guy, glasses, faggoty suit.”
The black Audi hit the bonfire, which had been built of cop cars, building lumber and gasoline, going at least eighty-five. They could hear the driver screaming from inside the car.
“Hold back, son,” said DeShawn. “That shit gawn blow.” DeShawn began walking backwards, hands above his eyes, and the crew mimicked. Then the gas tank on the Audi exploded, sending shrapnel into the holoprojector at the corner and shorting out the ghosts.
“Should we help him?” said Trayvon.
“He gone. Let’s check him out before ops show.”
The driver had smashed his own window and tried to climb out before the explosion. His dreads were still smoldering and the melted portions of his face looked bright pink against blue-black skin. He still had his ID and lanyard around his neck, the insignia of the agency visible from five feet away. “Shit, they gawn try and pin this on us,” said DeShawn. “To the winds.” At that signal, each member of the crew scattered in a different cardinal direction. Trayvon meandered south, swiping a half-burnt piece of paper off the ground. It had an address in the Northwest quadrant. He shoved it in his back jeans pocket.
By the time five black cars came west up Pennsylvania five minutes later, Trayvon, DeShawn and the other six members of the crew were all out of sight. Ten necks as thick as their heads, mostly white but two black dudes and a Latin among them: These were ops. Different crews, with older men or harder kids, would be sending down sniper fire any minute, but these guys were Kevlared head to toe.
Trayvon looked back at the scene from the Dumpster where he was hiding. Though the college-looking dude was one of their own, the ops looked neither surprised nor sad. He patted his rear pocket to make sure the paper was still there.
4. The Kid
Ordinarily a trip to Dupont Circle would be a simple matter of getting on the Metro, but things hadn’t been ordinary in a long time. The Green Line had started bypassing all Southeast stations ever since the bonfires began, and the fare was well above Trayvon’s hustle. If he had a flat map of the District in his mind he might have been able to calculate that the address was only a two-hour walk away. But the uprising and repression had warped his mental map of the city, transforming the Anacostia River into an impassable singularity. That he felt drawn to the address despite this wise caution was inexplicable through Trayvon’s conscious thought. His path did not follow a straight line, but proceeded faster than a straight line trajectory would have taken him, as he slingshotted his way around obstacles known and observed: checkpoints, cop cars, black cars, vigilante gangs of yuppies in street mufti, and the cameras. For a black kid in an ash-stained white T-shirt, the District was more hazardous than an asteroid belt for the Millennium Falcon.
So by the time he arrived at the front door of the Gartner-Williams house, four hours had passed since the accident, agency representatives had come and gone, the duck, slightly overdone, had been sitting on the counter getting cold, Brandon’s tears had pooled in a crease of the leather sofa on which he was lying, and Trayvon was starving. No lights were on in the house, and he hesitated before ringing the bell. Hesitated, but the same drive that had brought him this far led his finger to the button. The button activated not only the bell, but also a camera at the top of the doorway. If Trayvon had noticed the lens, he would have fled, but it was too dark on the street for him to suss it out.
Brandon hesitated before deciding to answer the door: It could, he reasoned, be the agency with more details on the circumstances of Darius’s accident. Despite his decision, the ten-foot walk from the sofa onto which he had collapsed was like swimming through the Mariana Trench: slow and bone-crushing. In that time, Trayvon had multiple opportunities to re-consider, re-re-consider, and re-re-re-consider, and he had just begun to pivot his left foot away from the door when Brandon’s voice creaked, raw, from the intercom. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The second question confused Trayvon a bit. For four hours he had undertaken this fool’s errand contrary to his own conscious volition. “I . . . I saw something,” he said, retrieving the scrap of paper and holding it up to where, he now reasoned, the camera must be.
Brandon couldn’t make out anything on the screen, but assumed it had something to do with Darius. His hope and trust opened the door before his fear could countermand it. “Come in. What did you see?”
“An accident. A black man in a black car. I found this.” Trayvon stepped across the threshold and handed the paper to the white man with red eyes. Brandon recognized it as a scrap of a receipt from Darius’ auto repair shop. “Did he live here?”
“Yes, he did. Please, come inside.” Ordinarily, Brandon enjoyed being a host above all else. A twelve-year-old kid from the wrong side of town would not usually be on the guest list, but his instinctual hospitality overrode his mistrust and distracted him, momentarily, from his grief.
The smell of the duck reminded Trayvon of his hunger. He hadn’t eaten anything since his sugar-cereal breakfast. “Smells good in here.”
“Are you hungry?”
The thought crossed his mind that this white man could be a government agent, or a child molester, but his stomach growled in response. Admitting his poverty to this white stranger was out of the question, though, so all he said was, “I can eat.”
“Come on in. I’ll get you something to eat.”
Trayvon followed Brandon into the kitchen. When they reached the counter, Brandon noticed that he hadn’t turned off the tablet yet. He removed it from the dock and, with the same fluidity of motion with which he had started his kitchen prep earlier in the evening, hurled it against the exposed brick. The sudden violence and the crack of the screen made Trayvon jump back. “Why you do that?”
“I hate the news,” said Brandon. He gestured at one of the stools opposite his work area. “Sit down. I’ll cut you some duck. Do you want the leg or the breast?”
“I never had duck. Is it like chicken?”
“Yes and no.”
“I’ll try the leg.”
“I didn’t get a chance to cook any vegetables. I can make you a salad.”
“Tha’s’a’ight. I’ll just try the duck.” Trayvon wasn’t sure if he’d ever eaten a salad, and he didn’t want to have his first here. The white man and the duck were strange enough.
Brandon put a plate in front of him, then a fork and knife, and placed the duck leg on his plate. “What do you want to drink?”
“You got Kool-Aid?” Brandon shook his head, so Trayvon answered, “I’ll just have some water.”
“Sparkling or still?” Trayvon looked at him like he had grown a second head, so Brandon just ran an empty glass under the tap.
“The man in the car, what was he to you?”
Brandon set the glass in front of the kid and waited for him to look up into his eyes before answering. “He’s my husband.”
“You gay?” Trayvon, remembering his grandmother’s lessons about being polite when folks offered their hospitality, had tried to suppress the hint of disgust in his voice, but he had failed.
“Yes, we’re gay. Were gay. I am gay. Darius was my husband.” This was Brandon’s first attempt at applying past tense to Darius, and it ended in renewed tears. “Why did you come here?”
“I saw the accident, but it didn’t look like no accident.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I live there.” Trayvon was not about to mention anything about his role in the construction and maintenance of the bonfires, comparatively minimal as it was, to this gay white dude. His husband had been with the agency, and for all Trayvon knew, so was this guy. Though he figured that if they worked at the same place they would have both been in the same car, but that didn’t mean this guy wasn’t still government. Government was all over the place.
“What did you mean, it didn’t look like an accident?”
“Like, he was trying to turn the car, trying to steer the wheel, I saw him, and I’m sure he was trying to slow down, too. But the car kept going straight, and faster. Like someone had set it up that way.”
“He wouldn’t have died if your friends hadn’t set up the bonfires.”
“I don’t know nothing about no bonfire,” lied Trayvon. “And nobody I know, knows how to make a car do that,” he said, returning to the truth. “I just came here ‘cause I figured, if he had peoples, they might want to know what I seen.”
Brandon sat silently, shaking his head every minute or so as a new thought occurred to him. After the first headshake, Trayvon started eating the duck. After the second, Brandon pulled a piece of crispy skin off the carcass, folded it, put it in his mouth, and started chewing, his only bite since the agency had informed him of the “accident.”
After several minutes of silence, Trayvon had finished the duck leg. “Thanks,” he said. “That was some good shit. I’m’a go home.”
“It’s well after curfew, kid. The cops’ll arrest you. You can stay here.”
“You can have the bed. I’ll stay out here, sleep on a couch, if I can sleep at all. I’ve been thinking so much about Darius, I realize, I’ve completely forgotten my manners. We haven’t been properly introduced. What’s your name?”
Trayvon hesitated, considering whether he wanted to sleep in a bed where two dudes done all kinds of nasty gay shit, or whether he wanted this one to know his name, weighing the unknown risks of each against the known risks of being a twelve-year-old black kid out after curfew. “Trayvon,” he said.
“Are you named after . . . ?”
“Yeah. I was born the year he died. Momma liked the name.”
“Hi, Trayvon. I’m Brandon,” said Brandon, extending his hand. Trayvon shook. “It’s not safe for you to go back out before the morning. Please, rest here.”
Trayvon’s legs and feet reminded him of the fatigue of his six-mile walk. “A’ight.” Brandon pointed the way to the bedroom. Once Trayvon found the bed, he fell face first into it and went directly to sleep, in t-shirt and jeans, smearing soot onto the duvet.
5. The Wake
It was ten o’clock in the morning, and Camilo’s lover Travis was still asleep, completely naked, and lying on top of the comforter. Camilo had been awake for two hours, and in that time had showered, made coffee, cooked breakfast, eaten breakfast, gotten dressed, and dug around in his stash for a bottle of pisco he could bring to Brandon and Darius’ house—scratch that, now it was just Brandon’s, he had to remember—as a means of comfort. He had spent the last five minutes watching the sweat pool in the curve of Travis’s lower back and his shoulders rise and fall with each breath. Now his patience was at an end. He considered rimming the young man, as a kind way to wake him, but quickly ruled it out. For no reason he could discern, he felt as though Travis’s contretemps with Darius must have had something to do with yesterday’s accident. He was angry, and it wasn’t the kind of anger that he could express through fucking. Holding the pisco bottle by its neck, he prodded Travis in the shoulder with the bottom.
“Wake up, already! Wake up! Levantate!”
“What the hell, C? It’s Saturday.”
“I told Brandon we’d be there in the morning. The morning’s almost finished.”
“I didn’t like him.”
“Naw, Brandon’s alright.”
“Darius isn’t even cold in the ground, and you’re talking shit about him? He was my friend. We’re going to help Brandon out.”
Travis pulled on last night’s clothes, and they made the twenty minute walk down to Brandon’s in silence.
The doorbell woke Trayvon. Brandon, having hardly slept, was in the kitchen brewing more coffee. When he opened the door, Camilo spoke first. “How you holding up, Bran?”
“Not so good, Camilo. It’s good to have friends around.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” offered Travis.
“Thank you . . . . What was your name again?”
“Thank you, Travis. My mind’s just been . . . ”
“Of course, Brandon,” said Camilo. “Let’s go inside. Is anyone else here yet?”
“No, nobody at all. Bobby and Eileen are coming soon, and Susan, too, but Cassie has to work today.” As they traversed the foyer, Trayvon entered the open kitchen.
“Is that nobody?” asked Travis.
“Oh, my god, I forgot,” muttered Brandon. Then he called, “Trayvon, let me introduce you to my friends.” Trayvon approached hesitantly. “This is Camilo, and this is . . . ”
“Travis,” said Travis, who remained aloof. Camilo offered his hand not in a shake, but as if to try and draw the boy’s hand up for a kiss, an offer not taken by Trayvon.
“Trayvon saw the accident.”
“Ay!” gasped Camilo.
“So he’s one of the rioters, then?” said Travis.
“I think I should be going,” said Trayvon, assuming the most proper, schoolroom tone of voice he could recall. “Thank you for letting me stay here, mister.”
“Brandon,” insisted Brandon.
“Thank you, Mister Brandon.”
“No, please, stay. My friends are coming over for brunch, and I want you to tell them what you told me last night, about Darius.”
“I don’t know if I should.”
“There’s nothing to worry about, Trayvon. My friends know powerful people who should know the truth. We can keep you safe.”
“Have you ever had a pisco sour, son?” asked Camilo, brandishing the bottle.
“He’s way too young, Camilo. Twelve.”
Camilo looked down at his shoes, reassuring himself that the boy looked mature for his age, then offered: “I’ll make you one, Bran.”
“Too early, Camilo. But let’s go in, and you can be a dear and put a splash into my coffee.”
6. The Bridge
The surveillance cameras on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge across the Anacostia River were knocked out by a power outage just after six p.m. on Saturday. The cause of the outage did not need to be investigated, since everyone whose responsibility it would be to investigate it was already disposed to attribute it to a nearby bonfire.
When the body of Trayvon Allen was discovered the following day in Fort Hunt, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, anyone who was in a position to investigate his cause of death saw plainly that it was due to a fall from a great height. If he was taking a circuitous route from the Dupont Circle area to his home in Congress Heights, he might very well have been crossing the Douglass bridge during the time when its surveillance cameras were out.
No bullets were recovered from his body. We repeat: No bullets were recovered from his body. Anyone who says otherwise is engaging in irresponsible speculation.
Joseph Tomaras now lives in a small town in southern Maine, following sojourns of varying length in New York City, Washington DC, Durham, Nashville, Urbana-Champaign, Binghamton, Albany, Great Barrington, Lake Placid, the indistinguishable suburban expanses of Palm Beach County (Florida), Athens (Greece) and Los Angeles. His fiction has appeared in The Big Click and FLAPPERHOUSE, with other pieces soon to appear in Phantasm Japan (Haikasoru) and M (Big Pulp). His opinions on the precise shape and trajectory of our present handbasket can be found at skinseller.blogspot.com, and he masochistically encourages strangers to yell at him on Twitter (@epateur).