Volume 12, Issue 1: Pictura
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 harms 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 officea 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. Were never going to be able to do that if
I never get into a position where I could make a difference.
Geoffrey hadnt 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
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
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?
Weve 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 didnt 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 abruptlyand 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. Johns. He had heard a
rumor that his piano was still in there. The rockets 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
Clintons 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 bowedand
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 honorablyhe
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 couldnt tell anybody about it. He couldnt 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 onwhere 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 minds 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 couldnt even tell what war it was,
but the trench there was filled with mothers sons. It was
good to run across a story he hadnt 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.