Friday, December 15, 2006

By Edward P. Jones

Even before the fracas with Terence Stagg, people along both sides of the 1400 block of Eighth Street NW could see the Benningtons for what they really were. First, the family moved in not on a Saturday or on a weekday but on a Sunday, which was still the Lord's Day, even though church for many was now a place to visit only for a wedding or a funeral. Perhaps Easter or Christmas. And those watching that Sunday, from behind discreetly parted brocade curtains and from porches rarely used except to enter and leave homes, had to wonder why the Bennington family had even bothered to bring most of their furniture. They had a collection of junk that included a stained queen-size mattress, a dining-room table with three legs, a mirror with a large piece missing from one corner, and a refrigerator dented on two sides. One neighbor joked to his wife that the Bennington refrigerator probably wouldn't work without a big block of ice in it. During the move, the half-dressed little Benningtons occupied themselves by running to and from the two small moving trucks, carrying in clothes that had busted out of cardboard boxes during the trip from whatever countrified shack they had left behind. Over the next two weeks, it became clear that the house at 1406 Eighth, with its three bedrooms, would be home to at least twelve people, though that number was fluid. The neighbors could never get a proper accounting, and they would never know who was related to whom.

They came in the middle of October, the Benningtons, bringing children--a bunch of perhaps five, from a two-year-old to a girl on the verge of being a teen-ager. Children who sometimes played outside on Friday and Saturday nights until nearly nine-thirty. And they were loud children, loud in a neighborhood where most of the kids were now in their teens and did no more harm than turn their portable radios up too high as they washed their parents' cars. Then, there was Neil, a tenth grader, and Amanda, a girl of no more than eighteen, who seemed to live night and day in tight bluejeans. She would be wearing them in her yard one early afternoon months later when Bill Forsythe, next door at 1408, stood at his bedroom window looking down at her with his second drink in his hand.

And the Benningtons came with a few young men, who sat on the porch on a legless couch covered with a cheap bedspread, drinking from containers in paper bags. But over the first two months that the Benningtons lived on Eighth Street most of those men, none more than forty years old, simply disappeared, until, by mid-December, the only one the neighbors still saw was Derek. He was a well-built and often shirtless loudmouth in his early twenties, who seemed to go off, maybe to some job, whenever he could get his nineteen-year-old Ford to run; it was the kind of car most of the established men on Eighth Street had owned on their way up to where they were now.

Grace Bennington appeared to be the matriarch; she might have been fifty, but, with her broad weight and her gray hair, it was difficult for anyone to be certain. On a good day, her Eighth Street neighbors might have said forty or forty-five, but on a bad day seventy-five would not have seemed unfair. Only one thing was certain--she had known hard work, and it showed in face and body. She moved about on stubby legs, favoring the outer sides of her feet as she walked, so that all her shoes were run down on those edges. There was also a man who looked far older than Grace, tallish, whom the neighbors sometimes saw. He always came walking up--never down--Eighth Street with bags of groceries, and he was always in the uniform of a train's sleeping-car porter. Finally, there was a woman who was rarely seen, and, when she was, the older children would be holding her hands as they took her for a walk. She wore coats and sweaters even on the warmest days, and that fall and winter saw many good days. She might have been beautiful, but no one could tell, because she was also always wearing sunglasses and a scarf pulled around to cover most of her face.

In early November, after the Benningtons had been in the neighborhood a tad more than two weeks, Sharon Palmer noticed Neil Bennington, the tenth grader, peering into his locker, in the second-floor hall at Cardozo High School. She knew very little about the family beyond what her parents and the rest of the Eighth Street neighbors were saying, and nothing they said was at all positive. Sharon lived at 1409, across from the Benningtons. A senior, she had, in the eleventh grade, become aware of her effect on boys--almost all of them. (Terence Stagg, next door at 1407, for whom she had long had eyes and heart, was a month or so from paying her any attention.) And Sharon, coming rather late to this awareness of her womanhood, had begun to take some delight in seeing boys wither as they stood close enough to her to smell the mystery that had nothing to do with perfume and look into the twinkling brown eyes she had inherited from a grandmother who had seen only the morning, afternoon, and evening of a cotton field.

When Sharon said hello Neil rose slowly, as though he knew all too well the accidents that came with quick movements. He seemed more befuddled by than taken with her femaleness after she told him who she was, and his innocence made her wish that just this once she could turn down the mystery that transformed boys into fools. He squinted and blinked, and with each blink he appeared to get closer to knowing who she was. As the brief conversation went on, it occurred to her that he was very much like one of her younger brothers--Neil and the brother forever had the look of true believers who had to start every sad morning by learning all over again that the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus did not exist.

That day, she saw Neil walking alone down Eleventh Street after school and she separated from her friends to go with him the rest of the way home. She thought Neil, like her brother, was adorable, a word she had just started using. Her father, Hamilton Palmer, saw them turn the corner from P and thought nothing of it. As the morning and afternoon supervisor at the main Post Office, on North Capitol Street, he was home most days by three-thirty. He was watering plants on his porch, and as Neil said goodbye to his daughter Hamilton opened the little gate on the porch that had been installed ages ago, when his children were too small to know all the ways the world beyond the gate could hurt them.

It was three weeks later that Hamilton Palmer began to think something might be amiss. Thanksgiving had come and gone, and people all over Washington were complaining that it just didn't feel like Christmas weather. Who could think of Christmas with people still in their fall sweaters and the trees threatening to bud? Neil and Sharon turned the corner again, this time accompanied by three other students, who lived farther down Eighth. Before the four left Sharon in front of her house, Hamilton's daughter touched Neil's shoulder and the boy smiled. It was not the touch so much as the smile that bothered Hamilton. He noticed for the first time that Derek Bennington was watching everything from across the street. He could not tell for certain, but he thought he saw Derek smirking.

Two days later, the Prevosts, at 1404, were robbed, with a television the most expensive thing taken. No one said anything, but the neighbors knew it had to be Derek. The next week, the Thorntons, at 1414, had their car stolen. The car was only a Chevy, five years old, but that was not the point, said Bill Forsythe, at 1408. His wife, Prudence, had complained about what a noisy heap the Thornton car was and that the neighborhood was well rid of it. A man's property is a man's property, Bill said, even if it's one skate with three wheels. After the car was taken, someone called the police and they came and spoke to the Benningtons in their house for some fifteen minutes. No one knew what went down, because the police left without talking to any of the neighbors. Derek walked out onto the porch soon afterward and stood, smoking a cigarette. He was alone for a good while, and then his mother, Grace, came and said something that made him put the cigarette out in the ashtray. She continued talking, and for every second she was speaking he was nodding his head slightly.

In December, more than a month before the fracas between Derek and Terence Stagg, Sharon Palmer returned a book she had borrowed from Neil. It was a Saturday afternoon, and when she went up the steps to the Bennington home, she saw that the screen door was shut but the main door was open. She couldn't see anyone from the threshold and she called "Hello" and "Neil," and then she knocked on the wood frame of the screen door. The radio and the television were playing. She did not want to think it, but she felt that this said something about them, maybe not about Neil but about all the rest of them. She waited about two minutes, and after she again called for Neil she opened the screen and stepped into the house, saying "hello, hello, hello" all the way. The woman in the sunglasses was sitting on the couch, and when Sharon asked for Neil the woman said nothing. There was a small child on either side of her, and they were watching a black-and-white television. Sharon immediately thought about the Prevosts' television, but she did not know if it had been color or black-and-white.

"I knocked, but I got no answer," Sharon said. "Is Neil here? I brought his book back." The woman tilted her head to the side as though to consider what she had heard. "Is he here?" The children were silent and their eyes were big, as though Sharon were a creature they had not seen before. Sharon told the woman again that she was looking for Neil. It would be better, Sharon thought, if I could see her eyes. Finally, the woman turned her face toward the next room. "Thank you," Sharon said.

The dining room was crowded with boxes, the state it must have been in since the day the Benningtons moved in. The dining table's missing leg had been replaced with one that had yet to be painted the color of the rest of the table.

"Hello, Neil? Neil?" She stepped into the kitchen, and she was not prepared for what she saw. It was immaculate, the kind of room her mother would be happy with. The floor was clean, the counters were clean, the stove was clean, the tiny table and its three chairs were clean. "Hello?" She turned and looked about the room with great curiosity. When she turned back, Derek was standing at the open screen door to the back yard, watching her.

"You lost?"

"No, I'm sorry. I knocked but no one answered."

"The May maid swayed away to pray in the day's hay," Derek said, not smiling. "Thas why you got no answer."

"I just came to return Neil's book. Is he here?"

Derek shouted twice for Neil. "Well, you can just leave it on the table, lady from across the street."

"He said that I could borrow another one. A book of Irish stories the library doesn't seem to have."

He shouted for Neil again, and, as she listened to his voice thunder through the house, she noticed a small bookcase beside the refrigerator. Four shelves, each a little more than two feet across. He saw her looking at it. "Just leave the book on the table. That readin fool'll get it."

"I can come back for the next one another time." She set the book on the table.

"Which one was it?" He was wearing an undershirt, and it hung on him in a way that did not threaten as those shirts often did on other men. The bare muscular arms were simply bare muscular arms, not possible weapons. It was a small moment in the kitchen, but Sharon was to think of those arms years later as she stood naked and looked down at the bare arms of her husband while the red light of an expensive German clock shone down on him.

"A book of stories--Mary Lavin's 'Tales from Bective Bridge.' My teacher shared two with me and I'm hooked."

"Hooked is good cept with junk, ask any junkie," Derek said, and he looked across at the bookcase. "The almighty reader might have it upstairs or in some box somewhere. His shit is all over the fuckin place." Shit, fuckin, she thought. Shit, fuckin. In a few quiet, swift steps he was at the table. He took up the book and looked at the spine and wrinkled his face. "Hooked, hooked," he said. The same kind of steps took him to the bookcase. He knelt, peered a moment, and put the book between two green books on the second shelf up from the bottom. " 'L' is for Lavin," Derek said, and found the collection. " 'M' is for Mary." He looked at it front and back. "I know one thing for sure: he loves this woman's work, so you bet not lose it. I think the almighty reader is part Irish and don't know it yet." In two more steps he was before her and she took the book and promised to return it just as it was. There was nothing untoward in his face--the lust, the hunger, that was in all the boys except Neil, boys with pimples and boys without. There was no smile from him and he did not look into her eyes, the twinkling and brown. He turned and went to the refrigerator and opened it. "You know," he said, his back to her and the light of the refrigerator pouring out over him, "you shouldn't be afraid of wearin blue." He took out a beer and closed the icebox with great care. "Forget the red. You wear too much red." He did not turn around but found an opener for the beer on the counter beside the icebox.


Neil came in, with the same befuddled look he'd had the day Sharon introduced herself to him, and Derek pointed to him. "Where you been, boy?" Derek said. "Your girlfriend been waitin. You the worse fuckin boyfriend in the world."

"She ain't my girlfriend," Neil said, and raised his hand hello to Sharon.

"I gave your girlfriend one of Lavin's books, man."

"I told you she's not my girlfriend, Dee."

"Whatever, man." He drank from the beer as he walked to the back door. "You should tell your girlfriend that red really doesn't suit her. She ain't believin me, so maybe if it comes from her boyfriend." He went out the door, and Neil walked her to the front of the house.

Three neighbors saw Sharon Palmer leave the Bennington house that day--her father, Hamilton, from his upstairs bedroom, Terence Stagg, next door to the Palmers, and Prudence Forsythe, next to the Benningtons. Terence was standing at his living-room window and watched Sharon walk down the Bennington steps with a book in her hand. Neil Bennington was a wisp of a boy, not worth the notice of a young man like Terence. But Terence had seen Derek about, and like most of the men on Eighth Street he didn't think much of him; men like Derek had never seen the inside of Howard University, where Terence was in his second year, and they never would. As Sharon waited to cross Eighth, she lowered her head in a most engaging way, lowered it only for a second, as if to consider something, and Terence could see how she had filled out. Filled out in her red sweater, and her bluejeans not trampy tight but tight enough to let a man know if he should bother or not. She had filled out since the last time he had really taken a look at her, and that was a time he could not remember.

Terence was at her door that evening, asking a beaming Hamilton Palmer, who had also gone to Howard, how he was doing these warm days and then asking the father if he might talk a bit with his daughter this evening. Terence and Sharon stepped out onto the porch, and he invited her to a movie and a meal on Friday night. She had had two dates before--and one of those had been with a young man who was brother to her cousin's husband. Sharon was not one to keep a diary, but, if she had been, that meeting of a few minutes with Terence would have taken up at least two pages.

Terence called goodbye to Hamilton Palmer, who came out of the kitchen with Sharon's mother. They asked him how his studies were going, and Terence told them they were going very well and that he was hitting his stride. He was, in fact, going with a fellow Howard student, but Howard students who were not D.C. natives were taught from Day One never to venture into Washington neighborhoods except those where they could find a better class of people, meaning white people, for the most part, and so that girl from Newark would never know about Eighth Street. That Newark girl was so clingy, with her "Terence this" and her "Terence that." And, as he had watched Sharon come across Eighth, he had remembered something that his father, Lane, had recently told him: You are young and the world is your oyster. You shuck it, don't let it shuck you. What oyster would Derek ever shuck? Terence thought, as he listened to Hamilton. Well, fine, Hamilton said about Terence hitting his stride, and he came across the living room with his hand extended.

Sharon, ecstatic, did not get to Mary Lavin's "Tales from Bective Bridge" that night as she had planned. She could think of nothing but the evening with Terence. She tried sleeping, but found it was no use and so got up from bed and sat in the dark at her window, which, like the one in her parents' bedroom, faced Eighth Street. She was at the window again two weeks later, near about midnight three days before Christmas, when she saw Neil Bennington, carrying a small package that was bright even in the dark, dash across the street to her house, take the steps two at a time, and then dash back across the street to his place, his hands now apparently empty. By then, she had had a second date with Terence, and he had kissed her three times, once surprising her as he thrust his tongue into her mouth. She mistook what she felt at that moment for blossoming love. It was a rare cold night for that December, and she was tempted not to go downstairs. But she did. She opened the front door to find a small gift-wrapped package on the threshold between that door and the storm door. It had her name on it. With anxious fingers, just inside the living room, she tore open the shiny wrapping and found in a velvet-covered box a figure of brown wood, nearly perfectly carved. It was of a little girl no more than an inch and a half tall, in a dress that came down to her feet. She had on a bonnet. When Sharon held the figure to the light of a lamp, she could tell by the shape of the nose that it was a black girl. One of the girl's arms was extended somewhat, and there was a bracelet on it. That the bracelet was shining told her that it might be gold; that it was from a boy of no means from across the street told her that it might not be.

She was disappointed, because she did not want Neil to think that there could ever be anything between them, and such a thing, with such intricacy, with such compellingly quiet beauty, told her that was what he was thinking. But she did not want to hurt his feelings by returning the gift. Adorable people should not be hurt. She thought for a day and decided to give him a book, and she chose a small paperback edition of Ann Petry's "The Street." She came up to him as he stood at his locker at school, his head cocked to the side as if he were trying to decide what was needed for the final period of the day. Terence was picking her up after school. Neil seemed genuinely surprised by the gift. "I didn't get you anything," he said, blushing and blinking. "This is straight up embarrassin."

"That doesn't matter," Sharon said. "It's the season for giving. What are neighbors for?"

"I'll get you somethin, I promise," he said, biting his lip.

"You've already done a great deal. Believe me."

"All right," Neil said, moving his hand slowly down the table of contents. "All right, but I won't forget this. Ever."

More than five years later, on her way to becoming a nurse, she would attend a party at the home of one of her Georgetown professors. Her husband would not be able to be with her that night, but that was the way it had become. She would spend a good part of the evening in a corner with a glass of ginger ale. Just as she was about to excuse herself and leave, a white woman of some seventy years came up to her.

"I have been admiring that wondrous thing you're wearing," the white woman said. "Even from across the room, you can see how unique it is." She looked closer. "The carver must have used up all his eyesight making it. You have exquisite taste." The woman smiled, not at Sharon but at the Christmas gift that she had unearthed only recently from a trunk in her parents' basement.

"Someone gave it to me. It isn't much."

"It is much in that other way," the woman said. "I know a place down on F Street that would give you two hundred dollars for it. Please. May I?" And the woman raised a tentative hand, and Sharon nodded, and the woman took up the little girl in the bonnet and rested it between her fingers and then looked fully into Sharon's eyes. "It's not very old, perhaps less than ten years since it was created, but the artistry makes up for that. If the carver lost his sight, he may have thought it was worth it." That evening, for the first time, Sharon would notice the initials carved into one of the folds of the girl's dress. The initials were far from evident, but they were there if the time was taken to look for them. No, she said to herself, alone in the apartment she shared with her husband, I would not sell it. I don't even know if the carver is living anymore.

It was Amanda Bennington who first got into it with Terence Stagg. Late on a Saturday morning in mid-January, she and Derek had come home from the Safeway. They parked in front of the Staggs' house, across the street, while Derek took bags of groceries into their house and Amanda tidied up the car's trunk.

Sharon Palmer was watching from her bedroom window. Nothing had really been said, but it was known by then that she and Terence were a couple and might well have a nice future together. They had driven up in his father's Cadillac one evening the week before, and she saw Neil watching from his porch. She waved and he waved back. She and Neil were not walking home together as much as they had been, but they still shared books. Derek came out as Terence walked Sharon into her house.

Terence, that Saturday morning, was heading out his door when he saw Amanda fussing around in the trunk of Derek's Ford, which was parked in the spot where his father, Lane Stagg, had been parking his Cadillacs since before Terence knew what good things life had in store for him. It might as well be said that Lane Stagg owned that dot of public real estate. Before his family had awakened, Lane had gone out on an errand, purring quietly away in his new tan Cadillac, which had less than three thousand miles on it.

"Hey, you," Terence said to Amanda, and came down the steps to the sidewalk, too upset to take full notice of her behind as she bent over and puttered in the trunk. He was to excel in anatomy and dermatology when he got to Howard's medical school, but genetics and neurology would nearly cost him his future. Amanda straightened up, holding jumper cables, and looked Terence up and down. "Hey! You know you parked in my father's space?" Then, watching Amanda toss the cables back in the trunk and try to clean the dirt from her hands with a Kleenex that she had pulled from her back pocket, he pointed to Derek's car and said again, "Hey, do you know that you are parked in my father's space?" Since his first month at Howard, he had stopped referring to Lane as "my daddy."

"Hay for horses, not for people. Go down Hecht's and get em cheaper," Amanda said. They were the words of a small child, and they upset Terence even more. "It's a free country, man," Amanda said. "We all got a right to park where we wanna park." She pulled another bunched-up Kleenex from the back pocket of her jeans. She was dark and pretty, and in another universe Terence would have been able to appreciate that. "And besides"--she turned and pointed across the street--"somebody's got my brother's regular spot." That Saturday, the Forsythes, at 1408, had company from out of town, and the visitors' Trans Am was where Derek's Ford would have gone, in a spot covered with the oil that was forever leaking from his car. "We had stuff to take and it whatn't no use parkin way down at the corner. Maybe that Trans Am'll move before your daddy gets back."

"I don't care about that," Terence said. "You're just going to have to move that thing somewhere else."

Grace had been trying to teach Amanda to control her temper, but there were days and then there were days. "First off," Amanda said, "I ain't movin shit. Second off, it ain't no thing. It's a classic. Third off, you better get out my damn face. This a free country, man. You ain't no fuckin parkin police." She closed the trunk with both hands to make the loudest sound she could manage.

"I would expect something like this from trash like you," Terence said.

She flicked the Kleenex at him and he dodged it. "Since it's that way, you the biggest trash around here," she said. In another universe, before that moment Amanda would have liked him to come across the street and knock at her door and invite her to the Broadway on Seventh Street for a movie and a hamburger and soda afterward. She had seen Terence's well-dressed mother, Helen Stagg, quite often, had studied the woman as she came out of her house and looked up and down Eighth Street as if waiting for the world to tell her that it was once again worthy of having her. Amanda loved her own mother, in all her dowdiness, more than any human being, but she knew Grace would never be Helen Stagg. "If I'm trash, you trash."

"Typical," Terence said. "Real damn typical."

"Whas up here?" Derek came across the street, his keys in his hand.

"Derek, this guy say we gotta move the car cause his father got the spot."

"Ain't nobody own no parkin spot, neighbor. This a free country, neighbor," Derek said, the keys jingling at his side.

"I'm not your neighbor."

"Oh, oh, it's like that, huh?" Derek said, turning around twice and raising his arms in faux surrender. "You one a those, huh? All right." Amanda had stayed in the street behind the car, but Derek had continued on up to the sidewalk. "All right, big shot. Les just clear away, cause I don't want no trouble. Nobody want any trouble." He stepped back into the gutter. "All I can say is we got a right to be there, as much right as your daddy and that Cadillac of his with that punk-ass color." He looked at Amanda. "You done?"

"Yeah, I'm cool."

"Well, les go," and they waited to cross as two cars passed going up Eighth Street.

"I told you to move that damn thing," Terence said. His knuckles tapped the top of the trunk. "You people should learn to wash your ears out." He spat on the car.

Derek turned. "Just leave that somebitch alone, Derek," Amanda said. "He ain't worth it."

Grace Bennington came out of her house and yelled at Derek to come on in. Neil stood beside her, holding the hand of a girl of seven or eight. "Wipe that shit off," Derek said of the spit, a slow-moving blob on the black paint heading down toward the fender. The car didn't always run, but he kept it clean.

Derek counted all the way to ten, and Terence said, "Tell your funky mother to wipe it off."

"Even you, even poor you," Derek said calmly, "should know the law against sayin somethin like that. Man oh man oh man . . ."

It took but one hit to the lower part of the jaw to send Terence to the ground. He had seen the fist coming, but, because he had not been in very many fights in his life, it took him far too long to realize the fist was coming for him. Grace and Amanda screamed. The Bryants, at 1401, and the Prevosts, at 1404, came out, as did the Forsythes and their company who had the Trans Am, all of them still digesting their breakfasts. Sharon Palmer had watched with growing concern from her bedroom window. She had not been able to hear all that was said by the three, but, already on the path to love, she had admired the way Terence seemed to be standing up to Derek. By the time she got downstairs and out to the sidewalk, Amanda and Grace were tending to Terence. Seconds later, he awoke and saw the women, and told them to get the fuck away from him. Derek was already back across the street, sitting on the legless couch, watching the group around Terence and smoking a cigarette and waiting for the police to show up.

Lane Stagg was more disturbed about what had happened to his son than he would have been if this had been a fight between young men of equal age and status and Terence had simply lost after doing his best. No doubt, Lane Stagg thought, men like Derek Bennington had never learned to fight fair. Terence, after a quick trip to the hospital, was out of it for a day and a half, but he suffered no permanent damage and would recover to become the first person anyone in the neighborhood knew to become a doctor. "Let them crackers," Lane Stagg said after his second drink at the dinner to celebrate his son's medical-school graduation, "write that up in the immigration brochures about how descendants of slaves aren't any good and so all you hardworking immigrants just come on over."

The police came out that Saturday, but, because they didn't like doing paperwork and because no white person had been hurt, Derek was not arrested. He would not fare as well after the complaint weeks later by the white man from Arlington who owned the Bennington home. The white man and his family had been the last whites to live in the neighborhood. "Come on over to Arlington," his former neighbors kept telling him after they themselves had moved. "Over here, the blacks are all off in their own neighborhood, so you hardly ever see them." The white man and his wife had a son, deep into puberty, and the son was growing ever more partial to blondes, which Eighth Street didn't grow anymore.

After Terence came home from the hospital, Lane, working on his first drink, broached the idea of buying the house that the Benningtons were renting from the white man. He sat in his living room with his wife perched on the arm of his easy chair, and across from him, on the couch, were Hamilton Palmer, Arthur Atwell, and Bill and Prudence Forsythe. Lane Stagg started in on how the neighborhood was changing for the worse. And Hamilton, already seeing the Staggs as future in-laws, agreed. He was not drinking. And neither was Bill Forsythe. Prudence had quietly come upon Bill two weeks earlier looking out their bedroom window at Amanda Bennington collecting toys in her front yard. Prudence had watched him for more than five minutes before going to see what had captured him. Bill had a drink in his hand, and Amanda was wearing those tight bluejeans and it was not even one-thirty. "Nice day," Bill said to his wife, already drifting toward happy land and so unable to compose something better. "I'm fucking tired of you getting ideas," Prudence said. "I'm fucking tired of you and your ideas." "Honey," Bill said, "keep your voice down. The neighbors, honey. The neighbors." Meaning not the Benningtons, on one side, but Arthur and Beatrice Atwell, on the other. Prudence took the drink from Bill, and she did it in such a way that the ice cubes did not clink against the sides of the glass.

Lane Stagg, pained about his son, was as eloquent that evening as he would be at the last meeting of the neighbors, years later, as he argued that the building had really not housed the proper sort of folks in years. "What," he asked, "does that white man across the river in Arlington care about our neighborhood?" Lane Stagg had been the captain of his debating team in high school, when the schools had such things. He would have made a good lawyer, everyone said, but the son of a coal-and-ice man rose only so far. His wife, whose father and mother were lawyers, had married him anyway.

It was not a long meeting, but before it ended the good neighbors of Eighth Street decided that they would raise the money and buy the house and rent it to more agreeable people. "Let's drink to that," Lane said, and stood up. About then, Sharon Palmer came down from upstairs, where she had been comforting Terence. The medicine had finally overcome him and he had fallen asleep. "Thank you, sweet Sharon, thank you, thank you," Lane said, and he set his drink on the table beside his chair and put his arms around her. "It was the least I could do," she said.

After everyone had left, and his wife had gone to bed, Lane sat beside his son's bed. He had enjoyed his house for a long time, and it saddened him, beyond the effects of the liquor, to think that he would not see his grandchildren enjoy it. He loved Washington, and as he sat and watched Terence sleep he feared he would have to leave. He was hearing good things about Prince George's County, but that place, abutting the more redneck areas of the Maryland suburbs, was not home to him like D.C. He had heard, too, that the police there were brutes, straight out of the worst Southern towns, but he had come a long way since the boyhood days of helping his father deliver coal and ice throughout Washington. "Dirty nigger coal man and his dirty nigger coal son," children had called them. And that was in the colored neighborhoods of maids and shoeshiners and janitors and cooks and elevator operators. But he was a thousand lives from that now, even though he wasn't anybody's lawyer. With his reputation as a GS-15 at the Commerce Department and a wife high up in the D.C. school system and a big Maryland house and a son on his way to being a doctor, he could let the police in Prince George's know just what sort he was.

The good neighbors were helped by one major thing: the white man and his wife across the Potomac who owned the Bennington house had been thinking for some time about moving to Florida. Lane Stagg, Hamilton Palmer, Arthur Atwell, and Prudence Forsythe met with the white man on the highway in Arlington named for Robert E. Lee, in a restaurant that was named for Stonewall Jackson. They offered him thirty-one thousand dollars for the Bennington house. The white man whistled at the figure. Arthur Atwell was silent, as usual. He was semi-retired and liked to think he had more money than he really did have. The white man, Nicholas Riccocelli, whistled again, this time even louder, because the thirty-one thousand sounded good--he really had no idea how much the house was worth. For several moments, he studied a cheap print of a Dutch windmill on the wall beside the table and thought about how many days on a Florida beach thirty-one thousand dollars would provide.

Riccocelli said to give him a week to think it over, but he called Lane Stagg in four days and said they had a deal. The white man had never had any trouble with the Benningtons and so he felt he owed it to Grace and her family to tell them himself formally that they would have to move. He came late one Saturday afternoon in early February. When Derek told him that his mother wasn't home, Riccocelli wanted to know if she would be gone long.

"If there's something important," Derek said, "you can tell me." And when the white man told him that they would have to be gone in two months, Derek turned from his spot in the middle of the living room to look at Amanda and Neil standing in the doorway to the dining room. "Can you believe this shit?" he said. Then, to Riccocelli, he asked, "Why? Ain't we always paid rent on time? Ain't we?"

"Yes, but the new owners would like to start anew."

"Who are they?" Derek said. "You tell em we good tenants and everything'll be all right."

"I'm afraid," the white man said, "that will not work. The new owners wish to go in another direction altogether."

"Who the fuck are these people? What kinda direction you talkin about?" Derek said, and came two steps toward the man.

"Why . . . why . . ." Riccocelli was unable to complete the sentence, because he had thought their neighbors would have somehow let the Benningtons know. "Why, your neighbors around you." The man sensed something bad was about to happen and backed toward the front door. Where, he wondered, was the mother? She had always seemed so sensible.

"Get the fuck out!" Derek said, and grabbed the man by his coat collar. Riccocelli opened the door and Derek pushed him out. "You sorry motherfucker!" The woman who always wore sunglasses, seated between two children on the couch, began to cry, and the children, following her, began crying as well.

"Derek, leave him alone," Amanda said. "Leave him be."

Out on the porch, Derek still had Riccocelli by the collar. He pulled him down the stairs. "Derek!" Amanda shouted. "Please!"

"Don't hurt me, Mr. Bennington." The ride over from Arlington had been pleasant enough. Riccocelli was a small man, and his eyes barely came above the dashboard, but he enjoyed driving. There had been gentle and light snow most of the way from Arlington, and a few times he had seen lightning across the sky. Snow and lightning. How could a day like that go wrong? He would miss the snow in Florida, he had thought as he drove across Key Bridge. Now, as the two men stumbled and fell down the steps to the sidewalk, there was rain, also gentle, but the sky was quiet. "You mustn't molest me, Mr. Bennington." Riccocelli had parked behind Derek's Ford, and Derek half pushed and half carried him to the car and slammed him against it. "You come back and you dead meat."

After Riccocelli had gone, Derek went up and down both sides of the street shouting to the neighbors to come out and confront him. "Don't be punks!" he shouted. As he neared the Palmers' house, Grace came around the corner, and she and Amanda and Neil, who had been standing in the yard, went to him. "We got babies in that house, man! It's winter, for God's sakes!" Derek shouted. Sharon opened her door and came out onto the porch, but she was the only neighbor to do so. "We got sweet innocent babies in that house, man! What can y'all be thinkin?" His family was able to calm him, but before they could get him across the street the police arrived.

Arthur Atwell died of a heart attack at the end of February, not long after the Benningtons moved, and two days before Derek got out of D.C. jail. Arthur's widow, Beatrice, found that despite all Arthur had said there was not much money, and so she had to back out of the Bennington-house deal. She moved to Claridge Towers, on M Street, into an apartment with a bathroom where she could hide when thunder and lightning came. Everyone was sad to see her leave, because she had been a better neighbor than most. Those still in on the Bennington-house deal did manage to buy the house, but the good neighbors rarely found their sort of people to rent the place.

Sharon Palmer Stagg's car had been in the shop two days when she finished her shift at Georgetown University Hospital one Saturday night in March. It was too late for a bus and she thought she would have a better chance for a cab at Wisconsin Avenue, so she made her way out of the hospital grounds to P Street. She was not yet a nurse, but she did have a part-time job as a nurse's assistant at the hospital, where she often volunteered on her days off. Near Thirty-sixth Street, she saw a small group of young men coming toward her, loud, singing a song too garbled for her to understand. She was used to such crowds--Georgetown students, many with bogus identification cards that they used to buy drinks at the bars along Wisconsin Avenue and M Street.

She had been married for nine months. She was a little more than three weeks from meeting the white woman at the party. Terence Stagg was in medical school at Howard. His maternal grandparents, the attorneys, had been killed in a car accident by a drunken driver who was himself an attorney, and they had left their only grandchild more money than was good for him. Terence and his wife lived quite well in a part of upper Northwest Washington where the likes of the Benningtons could only serve.

Just before Sharon reached Thirty-fifth Street, the group of young men walked under a street light and she could see that two of them were white and the third was black. The black student, six or so feet from her, said to the white students, "I spy with my little eye something good to eat," and the three spread out and blocked her from passing. "I always have these fantasies about nurses and sponge baths," the black one said. She was wearing her uniform and that had told them all they needed to know. They came to within three feet of her and one of the white students held his arms out to Sharon, while the other two men surrounded her. She did not hear the car door behind her open and close.

The black student touched her cheek and then her breasts with both hands, and one of the white students did the same, and both young men breathed sour beer into her face. Sharon pulled away, and the two looked at each other and giggled. As the black student inhaled deeply for another blast into her face, something punched him in the side of the face and he fell hard against a car and passed out. "Hey! Hey!" the white student who had had his hands on Sharon said to the puncher. "Whatcha do to our Rufus?" The puncher pulled Sharon back behind him and she saw a face from a long time ago and her knees buckled to see it. He might well have been a ghost, because she had not seen him in many years. "They spoil the best nights we have," Derek said to her.

The white student who had not touched her pulled out a knife, the blade more than three inches long. Derek reached into his own pocket, but before his hand came out the white student had stabbed him in his left side, through his leather jacket, through his shirt, into the vicinity of his heart, and Sharon screamed as Derek first faltered and then pulled himself up. In a second his switchblade was out and the blade tore through the student's jacket and into his arm, and the student ran out into P Street and down toward his university. "I wanted to keep this clean," Derek said. "But white trash won't let me."

"We didn't mean anything," the second white student said as he sobered up. He raised his arms high. "See--"

"Oh, you fucks always mean somethin," Derek said, holding his knife to the man's cheek and flicking it once to open a wound in the cheek, less than an inch from his nostrils. The man crumpled, both hands to his face. His black friend was still unconscious, and the man with the arm wound was shouting as he ran that they were all being killed by niggers. Derek sheathed the knife and returned it to his pocket and then pulled Sharon down the street to his car.

Within moments he had driven them down P, slowly, across Wisconsin, and to a spot just before the P Street Bridge. He turned on the light and inspected his side. "Shit!" he said. "Bad but maybe not fatal. Damn!"

"Let me help you," Sharon said.

After looking in the sideview mirror, he continued down P Street again, slowly. Two patrol cars sped past them, and she watched him watching them go in the rearview mirror. "Dead or alive, the black dude won't matter," he said to the mirror, joining the traffic moving around Dupont Circle. "But them white dudes are princes and the world gon pay for that." He became part of the flow going up Connecticut Avenue. "And it happened in Georgetown. They'll make sure somebody pays for that. But they were drunk and so describin might be a problem. Real drunk." He seemed unaware that she was there. "Thas why you never went to college, Derek. Black people gotta leave all their common sense at the front door. College is the business of miseducatin. Like them people would ever open the door anyway." She feared he might pass out, and she was comforted by the fact that in the near darkness of the car she could not see blood creeping around to the right side from the left. Two more police cars passed them, screaming. "They gonna pull that one patrol car they have in Southeast and the only one they got in Northeast and bring em over here to join the dozens they keep in Georgetown. You watch, Derek," he said to a carved wooden figure dangling from the rearview mirror. "You just watch."

"Derek," she said. "Stop and let me help you."

They had crossed Calvert, they had crossed Woodley, and he looked at her for the first time since they had entered the car. "I lied," he said. "I lied. Red wasn't a bad color. It was way good enough for you. Any color you put on is a good color, didn't you know that? You make the world. It ain't never been the other way around. You first, then the world follows." They were nearing Porter. Two blocks from the University of the District of Columbia he stopped, not far from her condominium building, which had one of the few doormen in Washington. "You can walk the rest of the way home," he said. "All the bad thas gonna happen to you done already happened."

She moved his jacket aside and saw where the blood had darkened his blue shirt, and when she touched him the blood covered her hand and began to drip. "Come with me and let me help you." And as she said this her mind ticked off the actual number of years since she had last seen him. Three days later she would have it down to months as well. She took a handkerchief and Kleenex from her pocketbook and pressed them gently to his side. "It's bad, but manageable, I think. We need to get you help, though."

He took her hand and placed it in her lap. "Let me be," he said. "You best get home. You best go home to the man you married to."

"Come in. You helped me, so let me help you."

"You should tell that glorious husband of yours that a wife should be protected, that he shouldn't be sleepin while you have to come home through the jungle of some white neighborhood. Tell him thas not what bein married should be about."

She took the bloody handkerchief and Kleenex and returned them to her pocketbook. She did not now want to go home. She wanted to stay and go wherever he was going to go to recover. She snapped the pocketbook shut. Her father had walked her down the aisle, beaming all the way at the coming together of his two favorite families. The church had been packed and Terence had stood at the altar, waiting, standing as straight as he could after a night of drinking and pals and two strippers who had taken turns licking his dick.

"You best go home."

"Please," she said. "Let me stay."

He reached across her and opened the door. "And one last thing," he said. "Neil been at me for the longest time to have me tell you it was never him. He was always afraid that you went about thinkin he was stuck on you, and he wanted me to set the record straight. He was always doin my biddin and now I'll do his and set the record straight." How long can the heart carry it around? How long? The answer came to her in a whisper.

She got out and shut the door, and he continued on up Connecticut Avenue, his back red lights, brightly vital, soon merging with all the rest of the lights of the Washington night. The man in the shop had promised that her BMW would be ready by the end of the week. Terence's Mercedes had never seen a bad day.

As soon as she locked the door to their condominium, she heard the hum of the new refrigerator, and then the icemaker clicked on and ice tumbled into the bucket, as if to welcome her home. The fan over the stove was going, and she turned it off, along with the light over the stove, the two switches side by side. In the living room, she noticed the blood on her uniform; if the doorman had seen the blood, he made no comment. In the half-darkness, the spots seemed fresh, almost alive in some eerie way, as if the blood had just that second come from Derek's wound. Bleeding. Bleedin. She had emerged unscathed. The overhead fan of grand golden wood was going, slowly, and she considered for the longest time whether to switch it off. In the end, she chose to stop the spinning. Her family had moved away from Eighth Street when she was in college, more than two years after the Benningtons left. And they had been followed by the Forsythes and the Prevosts and all the people she had known as she grew into womanhood. We are the future, Lane Stagg had proclaimed at a final dinner party at the Sheraton Hotel for the good neighbors. Who was left there now? Bad neighbors, her father had called those who came after them. Bad neighbors. The dinner party was held not long before the first contingent of whites had come back and planted their flags. The motor on the fishtank hummed right along; the light over the tank was on, and she turned that off. The stereo, which had cost the equivalent of seven of her paychecks, was not playing, but the power light was on, and she pushed the button to put the whole console to rest. She placed one finger against the fishtank, and all the fish in their colorful finery ignored it. Her father had risen at that hotel dinner and given the first toast, his hand trembling and his voice breaking at every fifth word.

Terence was sleeping peacefully, his arms and shoulders bare, and one foot sticking out of the covers, the fine German clock's dull red numbers shining down on him from the bedside table with the reassurance of a child's night-light. Her father hated such clocks, the digital ones that told the time right out; he believed, as he had tried to teach Sharon and her brothers, that children should learn to tell time the way he had learned, with the big hand and the little hand moving around a circle of numbers. She stood in the doorway and watched Terence and the clock, and for all the time she was there he did not stir. A burglar could come in, she thought, and he would never know it. She could stab him to death and end his world and he would never know it. She could smother him. The whole world could end and he would not know that, either. The insurance they paid on all that they owned--not including the cars and their own lives, which had separate policies--came to $273.57 a month. It is worth it, the white insurance man had said as he dotted the final "i," "because you will sleep better at night knowing you are protected." Knowing. Knowin.

She got out of her clothes in the bathroom, took off everything she had on, even her underwear, and found that the blood had seeped through all the way to her skin. She held her uniform up before her. She stared at her name tag and found it hard to connect herself with the name and the uniform and the naked person they belonged to. Am I really who they say I am? Bleeding. Bleedin. None of Derek's people had ever used the "g" on their -ing words; one of the first things she herself had been taught early in life was never to drop the "g." The "g" is there for a reason, they had told her. It separates you from all the rest of them, those who do not know any better. Sharon did not shower. Another Sharon in another time might have been unsettled by his appearing from nowhere, by the thought that he had been following her. But the idea that he had been there, out there in weather of whatever sort, out there in the dark offering no sign and no sound, out there for months and perhaps years, seemed to give her something to measure her life by. She did not yet know how to do that. After she turned out the bathroom light, she stood in the dark for a long time. In their bedroom, she decided against putting on underwear and so got into bed the way she came into the world. Terence stirred, pulled his foot back under the covers, but beyond that he did nothing. Almost imperceptibly, the rightmost red number on the expensive German clock went from two to three.

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