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Volume 12, Issue 1: Pictura

Old Annapolis

Douglas Wilson

Geoffrey walked around the circle, looking back over his shoulder. Legislators and their eager hangers-on scuttered down the stone steps to head off to those very important lunches they would all have forgotten ten days out. Geoffrey turned left down Maryland Avenue and breathed out relief in being away from all self-important state-level handlers and managers. He worked in Washington, and when it came to self-importance, he had seen too much of the real thing to be impressed now.

He had been on this street many times as a boy. Straaawbureees! Bluuubureees! Chairairairees! An old black man with a push cart used to sell fruit and produce down here.
The vote was only two days away. The congressman had explained over and over why he had had to change his position. He had explained it all to his staff, with Geoffrey standing there silent in the middle of them, explaining why this was really an act of political courage. The president wanted air strikes bad, it would sure look like a political sweetheart deal, and so to vote for it would have to take courage.
He wondered where the black man was now. Who was taking care of him? What if he only had one son, killed in a stupid air strike in an off-year election cycle?
The staff meeting had been hot. The congressman represented a flag-waving district, and if the issue involved our boys in uniform, out there in harm’s way, then to support the president on this one was about as politically dangerous for him as voting in favor of National Barnyard Animals Week. His staff was presenting far more of a problem to him than the district ever would. The congressman was a freshman, and so the staff was still more ideological than cynical. The congressman had been the first of them to start to grow in office—a couple of visits to key power brokers had gone to his head like two quarts of bad whiskey. But that had not affected his ability to argue. “We came here to make a difference. We’re never going to be able to do that if I never get into a position where I could make a difference.”
Geoffrey hadn’t trusted himself to say anything. All the people he knew who were in a position to make a difference never did make a difference, because they had all lost their logrolling souls. Here, let me buy that, and I promise never to take it home. So he loathed what his boss was doing, and he knew exactly what he was doing, but he loathed himself for feeling all the same pressures.
He got part way down Maryland Avenue and turned around to look back up the street at the statehouse. Our first war had ended there. Wars could be noble, he supposed to himself, and once upon a time maybe they had been, but which was the last one? The avenue turned into a cobblestoned century, with all the red blood already down the sewer grates. Everywhere he looked, all he saw was ruin from war. Every pedestrian had borne a loss, and every leaning building was a forlorne survivor. Then he saw all the missing pedestrians.
How many sons had died for a bump in the polls? Within living memory, how many widows had surrendered their husbands for the flag, never suspecting that that flag was draped over congressional staff members with little ferret faces making intelligent career decisions? Geoffrey shook his head violently, trying to dislodge the only thought his mind seemed to be able to maintain. And when the voting was all done, how many congressional staff members, even those who had objected, stayed right where they were after the vote because of the beautiful mortgaged house in Georgetown? We’ve moved three times in two years, Susan loves the place, the kids are in a good private school, and who is going to hire Mr. Conscience in that town?
He was projecting his dilemma on everyone and everything he saw, and he knew it, but somehow it didn’t change anything. A white-haired woman came out of a small restaurant, and he saw in her a lonely widow who lost two sons in the first World War. And then she tended flowers for forty more years.
Why had he come down here? It had been ten years or so since he had last been here. His father had made the decision to move back to Alabama abruptly—and had never explained it to the kids. He was an attorney and had an important position connected somehow with Congress. As long as he was making up stories, why not make up a grand one here? His father had faced the same sort of crisis of conscience, had read his boss off, how dare he ask for this, and then taken the family back to their roots. Following in such noble footsteps, Geoffrey savored the confrontation with his boss, and kept it under his tongue for a moment. Then he saw himself sitting in his driveway, trying to frame the story for his wife. They had talked about this, and she said she would support him, but he also knew how worried she was. And then he recalled his parents’ divorce three years after they moved back home. Work that into the story.
He found himself across the street from the Hammond/Harwood house. George Washington had danced there the night before he resigned his commission. He had ordered men into battle, knowing many of them would die. But the return answer was immediate; he had done it for the sake of honor and duty, and not to be able to hear the pollsters chortling in the back room over a two-point rise in an overnight tracking poll.
For crying out loud, he was a staff member for a freshman congressman from a backwater district filled with trailer parks. How did he think he was so important? Why did he think that if he resigned, the machinery of cynical politics would grind to a halt, and every bereaved mother and widow in the nation would crowd gratefully up to him to press his hand?
He turned around. Francis Scott Key had lived in some place along here when he was a student at St. John’s. He had heard a rumor that his piano was still in there. The rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our civil servants were still cooking the numbers.
Geoffrey knew he was being cynical. How did he know that this was happening all over Capitol Hill? Snippets of conversations overheard at power lunches, snatches of arguments caught while standing in congressional elevators, stuff he had read. But he knew it was happening in his office, right on schedule, just as a cynic would have predicted. Cynicism was just realism on steroids.
Straight on was the Naval Academy. There was the place. Work hard, get a congressional appointment, father and mother so proud, beat Army, work as never before for four years in order to acquire the skills necessary to serve those who would massage election results in important swing districts with bombs. He remembered once seeing a complicated formula that had been faxed around during Clinton’s second term attack on Iraq. Some wit had figured out how many votes each cruise missile bought. He had not had the poor taste to calculate the votes in terms of severed limbs.
However he put it, his problem always came back down to the one fundamental, unsettled question. What was he going to do? His sons had been fencing in the back yard a few days ago with a couple of old sawed-off mop handles. He and Susan had watched out the kitchen window without saying anything, but they were both pleased beyond words. That small war had been filled with chivalry. One had dropped his sword, so the other stepped back and bowed—and then the fighting resumed. Neither one had been drafted into the fight for an upsurge in the poll numbers for an underdog in a tight race in the Midwest.
John Paul Jones was buried just inside the gate there. Geoffrey walked down into the crypt under the Chapel, passed by the silent Marine on guard, and looked for a long time at the marble sarcophagus. I have not yet begun to fight. I have not yet begun to analyze the numbers. I have not yet begun to spin the results. I have not yet begun to support our boys in uniform. I have not yet begun to appear on CNN with live coverage in the background.
What was he going to do ten years from now when his sons were being sent off to some hellhole, not to defend their nation, not to protect their families, but to do something that everyone inside the Beltway saw as an adjunct to domestic politics? Petty domestic politics. What would he say to Susan on the way up to Dover to receive the remains? The honor guard would perform honorably—he had seen them on television plenty of times. They knew their business. The right words would be said, and they would have been quite lovely had they not been lies. He would know why they died, and he couldn’t tell anybody about it. He couldn’t accuse anybody, wheel on them, point a damning finger, nothing. He had been on the dispensing end ten years before on that vote authorizing air strikes on—where was that place again? He had had a little trouble with his conscience down on Maryland Avenue but had gotten over it. Old historic places make you nostalgic. They fill you with maudlin quirks and rogue sentiments. But he still had nothing to say, and in his mind’s eye he saw them give Susan the flag off the coffin. It was a long ride back to Georgetown, back to work, back to try to make a difference. You have to be in a position to make a difference.
This was ridiculous. He came up out of the crypt and walked back up toward the state house. The argument was one thing, something to be said for the argument, but these images were pulling him to pieces, these stories, that he kept making up.
He turned into an old bookshop just before State Circle. The first book island had a stack of coffee table-sized books piled high, all military histories. One on the top was opened, filled with photographs. He couldn’t even tell what war it was, but the trench there was filled with mothers’ sons. It was good to run across a story he hadn’t made up. He realized how feeble his imagination was.
Across the street he picked up a cup of coffee and a roll. He came slowly back outside, and stood on the curb for a moment. He knew he had made up all the stories. And he knew they were all somehow true at the ground floor. When he got back to the car, he would have to decide. He took a sip of coffee and began to look forward to the relief.

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