Chapter 1


The end of summer was only a week past and already, it seemed far behind. The past days in Washington had been rather uncomfortably below normal. Very windy, even now as Nicholas Harrison Gabriel fought the evening rush-hour on 15th Street bound for Virginia.

But he didn't mind any of these: the weather or the traffic. This was all part of life inside the Capital Beltway. You get used to it after seven consecutive years in the area. As a matter of fact, he thought as he drove past the classic edifice of the Main Treasury building, that's what makes this town what it is: its own sets of knowns and unknowns.

For instance, the hordes of civil servants that implement or enforce the government bureaucracy daily upon the newborn and the social security recipients alike: there wouldn't be much need for keeping them on the government payroll if they all knew what they were doing and then maybe learned how to do them better later so they wouldn't have to do them again. Most of them have to be kept in the dark, some sort of the netherworld of the unknown, so they could justify keeping their jobs.

On the other hand, there were the givens, the known events before they happen such as an evening logjam on a cold and windy late September workday, the government holidays, the blooming of the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, the July Fourth parade and other such Washington things.

Nicholas Gabriel was on his way home from work just like these hordes of civil servants he was on the road with heading south towards the Potomac. Unlike them, though, he didn't work for the U.S. government. Work was for Hunt, Ingram and Kimura Partnership, PC, Consulting Engineers, up 18th Street between M and L Northwest. And home was a two-bedroom condo in Alexandria near the beltway at Duke and Telegraph. But he wasn't heading straight home either. He was on his way to the Ellipse, a stopover he had made on a few other occasions, to see a friend, a man who introduced himself to him some six months ago at a construction site as Edward McKenny.

Edward McKenny was a bum. A real bum. One of several thousand homeless in the city. But before he was a bum, he was a member of the working class society. Middle class. Family. Wife and two kids (a boy and a girl). He was a man. And he had friends. At least he thought he did.

Everything was fine: the marriage, the job, the kids, the wife. For twenty years. The kids were grown and off to college. There was some talk of a renewal of marriage vows, a second honeymoon. Then he made some decisions which sometimes cost people their credibility at work when they didn't work out, and sometimes cost them their jobs.

When the job went, so did the money savings, the house, and so did the wife. But what hurt the most was the loss of respect especially those of his kids, not to mention that of his wife and everybody else's.

All of that happened in the next four years, followed by the next three of trying to bounce back, getting into another relationship, and another, and another, a process which brought him to the conclusion that women aren't trustworthy people and perhaps colder than men. Not much happened, in terms of employment and personal economics, and human relationships, to regain the respect and dignity he lost in life.

Thus, it came to be that as far as he was concerned, he might as well have lost his life. In the two years that followed which led to this day on a bench at the Ellipse, he descended rapidly into a state of gloomy alienation, relinquished all his cares in the world, what little self-respect he had left and any hope of adding to it.

He turned into a bum. Not a wino, though, which he refused to be called as Nicholas once inadvertently did. He wasn't the drinking type. Beer was the only alcoholic beverage he cared to dull his senses with when he could afford it. But he was a regular bum just like any other seen at the Farragut Square, McPherson Square, Lafayette Park, the Ellipse, the DuPont Circle.

His alienation from humanity ran so deep within him that even among his (present) kind, he was an outcast. He gave no quarters and asked none of his fellow bums. He refused to share a grate with anyone once he had claimed it for the night. Very rarely would he remain on a park bench when someone else came to occupy it.

Of all people, bums or regular humans, it seemed very unlikely as he felt then - six months ago at that construction site up 14th and L - that a fellow like Nicholas, a foreigner... well, a naturalized American citizen, might gain his confidence. He wasn't particularly fond of any foreign nationals with their many accents and alien ways coming over to take over American jobs and everything else that goes with them - housing, schools, the whole neighborhood. At the same time, however, he admired how they virtuously manage to overcome anything that tries to put them down especially some people's attitudes toward them, and make something out of themselves in America.

This was basically what fueled his curiosity about the man and caused him to open up to Nicholas, besides the fact that Nicholas helped him get a few days of temporary work at the construction site. He was scavenging at the site for some scrap pieces of plywood or drywall he could use as a lean-to for when it rained (it was late April and it poured frequently then). The carpenter foreman caught an eye of him and was about to have him thrown out to the other side of L Street when Nicholas, a professional engineer who could toss any ordinary foreman about the jobsite at the flick of a finger, intervened.

Nicholas offered to give him a chance to work for what he needed, and then some. He stayed for four days clearing up finished rooms and floor areas of construction remnants, picking up trash piles and carrying them to the trash bins. When he left, he had his lean-to parts, plus eighty-five dollars in his pocket, more money than he had seen at one time in almost three years. He also carried Nicholas' phone number on a piece of paper which Nicholas had offered for him to use to get in touch, for anything.

Whatever form of relationship now existed between the two of them came as a result of human curiosity. The help Nicholas extended to Edward at the construction site was a purely humanitarian act, not at all personal. But later, when he looked into the bum's eyes, he saw a man with a human dignity that still stood out but somehow lacking in the spirit to defend it, pursue it. The man, in other words, simply didn't care as he would frequently mumble on every single occasion of Nicholas' presence.

"I don't give a damn," he would say under his breath, looking at the Washington monument at a distance across Constitution Avenue or the rush of humanity around Farragut Square. "I don't give a damn anymore," he would say again with absolute indifference to all that existed around him.

He wasn't mad or angry, Nicholas had observed. He was just totally uncaring. Empty. Devoid of any desire for any form of recognition or the basic human respects from anyone.

He meant what he said everytime he said it: He didn't give a damn; he didn't care. It was the simple truth about him, the single, most meaningful thing he stood for. He was a bum.

There was no escaping his curiosity when Nicholas learned that this social derelict was once a middle-class wage-earner. And not only that: a husband and a father. A family man.

What happened? How could this be - in America?

People from all over the world would do anything - risk their whole life- savings, even their lives, sell the clothes off their backs if they have to - to come to America. And then start from nothing once they're over.

My parents did the same thing twenty years ago, he thought. They didn't have to sell the clothes off their backs, and they didn't exactly have to start from nothing. But they came, uprooted the whole family from the old country, brought me over when I was twelve, and my sister, two years older, and bettered themselves, their lives. Our lives.

But this - this abysmal human existence. This bum's life. This bum! How could anyone possibly allow this to happen to himself? In America?

What could possibly bring a man to this point of uncaring in life? Here, in America?

Nicholas finally squeezed himself out of the tangle on 15th Street, made the right turn to Constitution and pulled in quickly to the Ellipse where he had no trouble at all finding a space at the perimeter parking.

Edward was waiting for him on a bench facing the White House. He wore a spring coat that must have fitted him nicely ten, twelve years ago when he belonged to the working class and before he lost that middle-class weight, without which now the coat and even the rotting corduroy jacket under it looked one or two sizes too big. He sat with arms folded over his chest, legs stretched out one over the other on a heel, contemplating the mud-stained tip of his beat-up shoes and hardly took notice of the man who stood beside him.

"Wake up, you bum!" said Nicholas abruptly.

"Huh?" Edward muttered, stirring. "Oh, it's you. Hey, don't call me that. I'm no bum," he said, mocking a reprimand of Nicholas. "I might look like a bum, but I'm no bum."

"What the hell are you? Who the hell are you - the Secretary of State? White House Chief of Staff?"

"I'm a human being just like you and the man who lives in that house and everybody else in this stinkin' world. I didn't think you'd show up. Welcome to my bench. Have a seat."

"I got your message," Nicholas said, sitting down while Edward inched away to his half of the bench and straightened up a bit. "The secretary couldn't wait to give it to me as soon as she found me. 'A call from the White House' she said."

"That wasn't exactly a lie. I made the call from that telephone over there," Edward said, pointing to a public telephone several yards away clockwise of the Ellipse with a good view of the White House. "I have to make reference to a specific location I'm calling from -"

"Cut the crap, Edward. What's up?" Nicholas asked, turning serious. "You've finally decided to contact your family and let them get you out of this waste?"

"What family?" the bum muttered. "I don't have any family. I never had any family. Don't talk to me about that."

"If that isn't it, then I know what it is. I know what it is. You bought a house in McLean, Virginia!"

"Get outa here."

"Potomac, Maryland?"

Edward didn't even open his mouth that time. He just stared at Nicholas looking somewhere between irritated and seriously desperate to communicate something to another human being.

"I know," Nicholas went on, hoping perhaps to cheer the man up even for one moment of his wretched situation in life or to actually succeed in conning him out of his honest reason for wanting to see him. "You went and got yourself a job out there. A full- time job."

"Please don't insult me. Quit making fun of me."

"Alright, I'm sorry."

"Don't say you're sorry," said Edward, shooting up from his half of the bench, stomping a shoe in a half-step on the ground toward Nicholas. "If you're going to do something for which you're going to be sorry, then don't do it. But once you did it anyway, don't apologize for it. Stick to it. If you made an ass of yourself, then be an ass." And walking a few steps away while gathering the loose coat and hugging it around him against the early fall chill, added: "Just be a goddamn ass just like everybody else out there."

"Alright, alright," Nicholas cajoled, unable to reconcile with the idea that he just admitted being an ass to a street man. "So, can we talk straight now? Is there anything I can do for you? Anything you'd like me to do for you, Edward?"

"No. Nothing," said the homeless man without turning.

"C'mon, Edward. What did you get me out here for?"

"Nothing, I said."

"Then why did you call?" Nicholas now half-yelled. "You must have a reason for it."

"Maybe I do, but why do I have to tell you? Why do you have to ask?"

"Look, man, I haven't got all night. And it's getting darker, and colder. You're used to this kind of life. I'm not."

"Then go home," Edward replied, still not turning, talking to the wind, watching the mist coming out of his mouth and letting Nicholas talk to his back. "Don't let me hold you up."

"Darn right I won't," said Nicholas, getting up quick and walking towards the car.

Halfway there, he heard Edward call: "Got anything to eat?"

Nicholas hadn't intended to leave. He just wanted to see how long it took Edward to drop his cover. To open up. And when, a minute later, the two of them were sitting on the bench again, he knew that asking for food wasn't itself Edward's act of opening up. It was just another cover. Maybe he did need the food alright. But that wasn't it. He needed to unload some inner burden. He was lonely, in his mind, and in his heart.

Why do you have to ask? Nicholas knew he really didn't have to. And the food he brought - a chicken sandwich - which he had in his overcoat lining pocket all along was secondary to bringing himself as company on the bench, or anywhere else around the Ellipse the two of them might wander off to. He sat quietly on the bench while the bum ate, both hands buried deep in his overcoat side pockets, one of them holding two packs of cigarettes he would hand out in the next appropriate moment.

"How's work today?" Edward asked unexpectedly when the chicken sandwich was down to approximately two bites.

"Not bad, thanks. Very kind of you to ask."

"Say, what kind of money do you make working as a -"

"That's not very kind of you to ask," Nicholas rebuffed.

"What the hell does it matter? I don't care."

"That's right. However, I might say that working as a structural engineer for these guys, the partnership firm I'm with, I do okay. I pay the mortgage, and the bills, pretty much on time."

Silence. Then, finally, Edward did open up, saying: "I want you to tell me something, Nicholas. What is important to you?"

"What do you mean important?" Nicholas asked after two seconds of tossing it around in his head.

"I mean - is that it? Paying the mortgage and the bills? Is that all that's important to you?"

Nicholas suddenly felt insulted but laughed at himself for having let himself feel that way because he underestimated the depth of a bum's question. He must not forget that Edward had as much and perhaps more experience in life as a regular person or member of society than he did at this point of their lives. And especially now that the man had joined the lowest of the American socio-economic class - the scum stratum of society, and learned to live on the streets, to do without. He had seen both sides. If nothing else, this one human being, this one bum, had depth.

"No, that's not it. Of course not," he said to the street man, beaming with belligerence. "Don't be fucking smart with me now!"

"Well, then tell me."

"For one thing, if paying the mortgage and the bills are all that's important to me, you wouldn't be eating that sandwich, and I wouldn't be sitting here with you right now."

Edward held from taking the last bite while he regarded Nicholas through the corners of his eyes. The few moments of silence that followed spoke to each of them the words that neither one had to say to the other. Nicholas knew that Edward understood his answer. And Edward knew that Nicholas knew that he understood. He finished up the sandwich and began searching meticulously for something in his coat pockets with both hands to make sure Nicholas noticed.

"What else," he said, "do you consider important? For yourself. Money? Women? Fast cars?"

"You think I'm a shallow person, don't you?"

"Not at all, my friend. Not at all."

"Of course I'd like to have money, women and I don't know about fast cars. But I'd also like to be good, very good at what I do, if not the best, but better than most. And I'd like to be recognized for it. Have some respect. That's what's important to me, too. What are you doing? What - you got fleas all over?" Nicholas asked as Edward continued frisking himself.

"No," Edward said. "I'm looking for my cigarette. I thought I had one I saved earlier." And before he could say another word, an unopened pack of Marlboro dropped on the bench beside him so suddenly he thought at first it fell from heaven. He stared at it a moment in disbelief. A whole pack!

Then he picked it up, broke the seal on the flip-top box and took out a stick. He found a book of matches in his hip pocket and lit up. While he did so, Nicholas said: "That stuff's eventually going to kill you."

"Is that what you're trying to do?" asked the street man, exhaling the cigarette smoke in satisfaction. "Kill me?"

"I'm not kidding you."

"What's there to kill? You can't kill a dead man. I don't think that's what you bother with me for. I think the reason you're sitting here with me now instead of being in bed at home getting laid with some woman is because one, you're a natural-born soft- hearted sucker and two, I remind you that things could be worse than it is now in your own life. This helps give you strength. And this is one other thing that's important to you but which you're not saying, you liar: to know that though there may be others up there above you, spittin' down on your face, there are others here below you that you could do the same thing to. So if you think I'm gettin' a chicken sandwich and a pack of cigarettes free, look again. I have to be a homeless person, a street man, a total failure, for you to know that you're not doing so bad for yourself after all."

"You're sicker than I thought you were, you know that?"

"But I don't care," Edward continued, ignoring Nicholas. "You can do anything you want. Here, you want to spit on my face too? Spit on my face! Everybody else in the world has done it."

"That's not what I'm doing. That's not what I want to do, and you know that, so cut it out!" Nicholas looked at the homeless man sideways and added: "You want to know what I see when I look at you? You really want to know?"

"Yeah, I want to know. What?"

"I see a defeated American. And I just can't accept that. Or I refuse to believe that. Not after a whole life back in the old country of seeing all those western heroes, all those John Waynes and other American characters, tall men of virtue, strong in body and spirit. I just can't believe you!"

"You've been a victim of American commercial propaganda. Maybe that's one good thing you came to this country. To learn the truth."

"Okay, then let's forget that. Maybe I was too young. Too naive and impressionable. What about all those people, including me and my family, immigrants who flock to this country past and present and make something out of themselves, some of them practically from nothing? Some of them totally hopeless in their own country, rejects, bums, and they come to America and rebuild their lives. A rags-to-riches story in many cases. You're already here. You were born and raised here. And what happens? You go from a comfortable suburban living to a bench in a city park!"

"They have a different story to tell!" Edward yelled, giving Nicholas a start. "Everybody has a different story. In their case, and in your case and all the rest of you foreigners, you have an America to go to. I don't! I'm already here!"

They backed off for about a half a minute, a long half-minute during which Edward sucked and enjoyed the Marlboro while some resentment gnawed inside of Nicholas for being referred to as a foreigner. He expressed this to Edward when he spoke again, especially, he said, when this year is a special year for him being his twentieth anniversary of coming to the United States of America. Also, that he had been a citizen, an American, for the last fourteen years.

"Congratulations," Edward said with little interest. "May you live a long and happy life in America. Enjoy."

Nicholas' reaction turned from resentment to irritation. "Isn't there anything at all that means something to you?" he asked and immediately felt stupid for having done so for he almost read the answer on Edward's lips even before it came out of them.

"No," said the homeless man, "nothing at all. Not a damn thing."

"I'm getting pissed," said Nicholas matter-of-factly. "I think I'm getting pissed."

Edward turned his head slowly to look at him.

"You shouldn't let me do that to you," Edward said.

"I know. I shouldn't."

"There used to be a lot of things that mean something to me. Like those things you said are important to you now. Credit and recognition, respect, competitiveness, winning." Edward paused, contemplated the south view of the White House. "Not anymore. They're not important to me anymore."

Now Nicholas felt sad, and afraid. Afraid that if a single human being could come to such a state of hollowness, so could he. It's alright if the man was ninety-eight years old, he thought, half blind, half deaf and bedridden twenty-four hours a day. But the man was in his mid-fifties, able-bodied and alert as a thirty-two-year old man as he was.

"One comes to a point in life when -" Edward continued, now gazing uncaringly at the silhouettes of the coming night above the trees around the Ellipse. "- after having done so much for some of those things, and then some, and then some more, they just lose their importance to him. You... you just don't care anymore. Somehow it doesn't matter if you lose or win. It seems, with the passing of time, everything becomes less important, less valuable, less exciting, less of whatever the hell it was before, until.... " A last puff of the Marlboro before it was tossed away on the grass. "...until it means no more to you than a warm potful of piss, or even a cold one." He switched his eyes to Nicholas and looked at him defiantly.

Nicholas inched subtly away to his end of the bench. He was trying to decide whether he must pity this man or be angry with him. Is this man mentally unbalanced? he asked himself, but somehow the more drastic question that came to him was: Is the man right, or wrong?

These he must tell Emil in the old country. The whole scene: everything since he came to sit on this bench. If what Edward just said was true, he wondered what had really become to this point in time, of Emil's lifetime ambition to do the same thing he and his family did: come to America? He wondered, too, what sort of true awareness, and maturing - ideological, cultural, and everything else that comes with growing up and getting older - he might have come to now at his age of twenty seven years which might have made that ambition less important while living all his life in the old country. Back there, beyond the west coast, across the Pacific Ocean in that ancient island melting pot of a country.

They had been writing to each other for years. It hadn't stopped for more than two months on a stretch. They were good friends, and remained so. All those twenty years since he left when he was twelve, and Emil seven.

He loved that boy, like the younger brother he never had. Took care of him, looked after him since he was two or three. To this day, it was never clear to him if their families were any blood relations at all. But they were neighbors, close neighbors, and in the old country, that was as good as being blood related.

By now, Nicholas thought, he must know just about as much as he does what it's like living in America with all the things he'd read from the letters through the years. What it's like being here.

He must. Just about, before today.

Nicholas decided to listen to what Edward told him a minute ago - that he shouldn't let Edward piss him off or he simply should not be pissed at Edward. And on his own, he also decided that he shouldn't pity him or be angry with him. The things they understood at this point that one represented to the other did not, and should not, provoke any kind of reaction on a personal basis. Each of them must realize - and he assumed Edward did all along (you shouldn't let me do that to you) - that the basis of their human relationship was out of pure curiosity.

"Looks like it's going to be another cold winter soon, much like last year," Nicholas said to lead them off to a different course, the weather, traffic, anything, scanning the gray firmament above Washington. "That was a terrible winter. Worse than I've ever seen here. What did you do to get through it? You went to the shelter, I hope?"

"What does it matter what I did or how I did it? The point is I survived. I'm here, aren't I? No, I did not go to the shelter. I don't like it there. I hate it there. I told you that." Once again, Edward caught himself looking straight at the White House. He noticed the light in a couple of second-floor windows just turn on. "You want to know something?" he said partly to himself. "The man who lives in that house and I are the same age."

"Is that so? Interesting," said Nicholas, looking at the mansion too. "So what?"

"I could've been the one living in there now."

"You're right. What would you do if you were president?"

Edward spoke without interruption for the next several minutes during which Nicholas questioned off and on what he was really doing sitting in a park bench in the cold listening to a bum talk about economics, life's philosophy and running the U.S. government?

"On foreign relations and policies," Edward said with determination, "the first thing I would do is invade Cuba and re-indoctrinate the population with our ideologies and way of life. It's a question of culture over there, basically, you understand: Anglo versus Hispanic, that is. That's why you never hear Castro speak a word of English, even if he went to Harvard. Next, I'd straighten out that mess in Central America good. Clean up this whole side of the world first. Land the Marines. Then the Army. Re-activate the draft if needed. Then I'd go back to Southeast Asia and get even with those gooks over there.

"On the question of the economy, I'd go protectionism. That's really the same thing everybody else is doing, especially the Japanese. It doesn't matter who's doing it - the government or the people. If they don't want to buy our goods, then let's not buy theirs. Simple as that. Keep 'em out of the country. That would cut down the unemployment. That's one way, anyway. Another is to put them in the military - the unemployed - and send them out to fight in Cuba and all over the world. War is good for this country. It creates work. Generates economy. Keeps everybody busy and out of trouble."

Nicholas nearly broke out laughing at that.

"On the social and domestic front, I would work hard to emphasize the role of the family to maintain law and order in the American society. Parents who don't discipline their children to the minimum legal standard of social conduct, work and study habits would be subject to prosecution. The same thing goes for schools all the way up to college. Teenagers who become pregnant get sent to farms supported mostly with fines levied on their parents and their boyfriends' parents.

"Children of senior citizens would be held not only morally but legally responsible for the maintenance of their parents' mental and physical well-being. Anybody who shows any kind of disrespect to the elderly would pay dearly with time and money.

"All drunk drivers are to be executed right at the site of a fatal accident in the event of one. The same goes for drug dealers and pushers caught in action. Finally, I would establish a national funeral kitty, some kind of a presidential commission that obligates every taxpayer to contribute to, so everybody is assured of a decent funeral. That would eliminate rip-off undertakers. Get rid of the funeral industry altogether. That's right. We'll let the government take care of its dead and the living of themselves and one another."

This part about the funeral kitty understandably must, Nicholas thought, have come out of an immediate personal concern the bum had at the possibility of one day finding himself dying on a city street or park or in a trash bin.

He couldn't wait to write to Emil about all these. He could probably start tonight after dinner.

"Election is coming up in a few weeks," Nicholas said after Edward ended his presidential platform speech. "Who are you going to vote for?"

"Nobody," Edward replied coldly. He was back to his usual mood of indifference to the world. "Although I'd like to see somebody else live in that house instead of that nincompoop sissy in there right now."

"Me, too. He let just about everybody kick his butt around. The Russians, Castro, the Jews, the Arabs, the Vietnamese, the Iranians. It's sickening."

"I don't care. Who gives a shit?"

"Listen, I got to go. It's getting late."

"Go, go, go," said the homeless man with which Nicholas understood he really meant 'yes, go and continue to live your life in pursuit of those things that are important, or are still important to you.' In that, Nicholas also heard a farewell with some undertone of gratitude although he could not expect the man to mouth it.

But he was wrong. The man found the words to mouth it with. As Nicholas rose to head to the car, Edward said boldly: "Chicken sandwich was good. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

These last words they spoke without looking at each other. In fact, Nicholas was already making the slow steps to his car while Edward remained on the bench looking at the shadows of the cold night at his feet. When Nicholas fished for his car keys while still a few yards from the car, he felt the other pack of Marlboros in his coat pocket.

"Hey!" he called back to the man on the bench who turned around and got up slowly. "I almost forgot. Catch!" And he tossed the pack which Edward caught with both hands.

As he turned away to get into the car, he waved to acknowledge a hand the street man raised weakly with the pack of cigarettes.

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