The dreaded rush home. It was the same every weekday. Cars filled the roads and were filled with pushy people, all urgently trying to get home after a long day. Any semblance of courtesy was not to be found as cars packed closely together, forming a caterpillar of colored metal, as if that would somehow speed their progress. One smoking exhaust pipe after another for as far as could be seen, the owners grasping their steering wheel with both hands, the angry faces, the snarl of lips. Michael hated it.
Ahead was one of Washington’s famous circles, the cars entering one at at time, others dashing around the circle, cutting across lanes, exiting in haste to avoid being swept around again. Michael allowed himself a chuckle. The only time the circles actually worked was when the traffic was light enough not to need them. He suddenly felt the urge to communicate with a fellow traveler and rolled down his drivers window, looking across at the adjacent car, stopped only a foot away. When he caught the driver’s attention he asked, by making suggestive arm motions, that she roll down her passenger window. She ignored him and responded by crowding the car in front of her. Michael sighed and rolled his window back up. At least the noise was somewhat reduced this way. On an impulse, he turned sharply right into a nearly empty side street. As he rolled along, he noticed the litter, the beaten parked cars, the broken or missing glass. This was a poor neighborhood and one which might be hostile to an establishment figure in a suit, like himself. It was not typical of Michael to venture off the beaten path, but Washington is rather simple in its layout. Most streets are either north- south or east-west. Excepting, of course, the large diagonals, radiating like the arms of a star, all from a nidus, the historic and political centers. He turned left at the next corner but instantly realized that it was a bad choice, being even worse than the first. Not only detritus littered the street, but also groups of people standing around, watching as he passed. Even in his peripheral vision, he could see and feel the eyes, the unfriendly faces. In his head he heard ugly epithets they silently willed that he know. A mistake to come this way, an urge to beat the system which wasn’t working.
Michael’s peripheral vision saw a motion before he heard the first ‘whack.’ Then another. A small crack appeared in his windshield, the lower right corner. At first it appeared small, a nearly imperceptible divot, a chip, from which sprang rays of light advancing from the center, the vision of Ra brought to life by the impact of stone against glass. As he drove, the area rapidly expanded, quickly covering the right half of the windshield, then coalescing into smaller divisions, subdividing farther and farther until the largest fragment was measured in millimeters. Michael knew what was to happen next and understood that in a few short moments, the entire glass would be sagging and might collapse into his lap, the car rendered useless by a small stone. Looking around, he preferred not to stop until he reached some area less likely to produce a small gang of angry youths as soon as he emerged from his car. He turned corners again and urged the car along by the pressure of his foot, but the resulting onrushing air pushed the glass inward enough to contact the top of his steering wheel. He had to stop.
Michael pulled over to the curb, leaving the motor running and reaching for his cellphone, trying to decide whom to call first. He noticed the red glow, an indication that his battery was about to expire. Dialing Jennifer first, he allowed it to ring a dozen times, realizing that either she was unavailable or had decided to not pick up his call. Either was possible. His second choice never happened because the phone shut down before he could dial. That was the moment the glass started to fall inward, a fragment at a time, then whole honeycombed sheets, until the only remnants were little jagged teeth at the periphery. Michael got out, brushed the glass from his clothing and stood beside the car, deciding on his next step, when he noticed the adjacent house on the other side of the sidewalk. There was a man watching him from the small porch. At first, Michael felt a sensation of alarm but then realized that the man was older and in a wheelchair. He gave a little wave of acknowledgment which wasn’t returned. Looking back and forth at the street, he tried to determine the best way out on foot. This was an area infrequently visited by cabs and then only when they were called.
“I heard breaking glass,” the man on the porch observed. Michael looked again and realized that the man might not be able to see him, the dark glasses he wore not a fashion statement, perhaps not functional, other than to hide sightless eyes.
“Yes, my windshield just fell out,” Michael summarized, thinking but not adding the helpless feeling he had without phone communication.
“What are you going to do about it?” Yes, that was the pressing question, Michael acknowledged.
“I’ll have to get a ride, but my phone just went dead. What is the best direction for me to walk?”
“I would go north from here. You might not want to do that.” The man’s advice was undoubtedly sound, but where did that leave Michael’s choices? He looked up and down the street again unsure of what to do.
“Or you could come up and sit with me while we call for your ride.”
“I would very much appreciate that,” Michael said and started toward the porch. As if she had been listening, an older woman opened the door enough to look at Michael. She was heavy, with close-cropped hair, sprinkled heavily with grey. Michael could feel the eyes that raked him over much like a scanner at an airport terminal.
“Want a wrecker?” she asked, still not smiling at him.
“Yes, that’s probably best,” Michael answered, not really wanting to give the number for the White House switchboard.
“That’s a start,” the older man agreed. “Pull up a chair, and we’ll talk until it shows up.” He waved his arm vaguely to a nearby small rocker, obviously there for his wife to use. After Michael hesitantly sat down and looked around, he found the man smiling at him but not in a friendly way, more of an amused, knowing smile that older people do when a younger one makes a bigger problem from a small one.
“My name is Michael. Thanks for the assistance.”
“Not done anything yet…does Michael come with a last name or are you more like Prince and don’t need one?” The amused smile continued, making Michael feel somewhat defensive.
“Greenburg. My last name is Greenburg. And may I ask yours?”
“Most certainly. You should call me Josiah.”
“Is that your first or last name?” Michael asked.
“It’s my name, though May often calls me Joe, as you might hear. I allow that with her.”
There was a long moment of silence while Michael decided if he wanted to attempt any more conversation. He hoped that the wrecker would arrive shortly. “Have you lived in Washington long?” Michael asked, trying to break the silence.
“Yes. Very long. You?”
“Going on 6 years now.”
“With the Government?”
“Yes. A lot of people in this city are.”
Michael studied Josiah’s face trying without success to determine his age. The sunglasses made it harder. He had greying, but not grey, hair on his head, but his carefully trimmed lower lip beard was grey and wispy. His tattered sweater looked like a old comfortable hand knit and covered his arms in folds, leaving his gnarled hands exposed, gripping the arms of the wheelchair.
“You were in Congress,” Josiah declared without looking at Michael. It was not a question but a statement.
“Used to be. No longer. I stepped down last year. How did you know?”
“I can see a little out of one eye. It was they way you stood; the way people stand when they are used to having other people do things for them. I guessed also.” He fell silent again.
The door opened and May leaned out. “Joe. Want anything?”
“Always you, my dear, you know that,” Josiah said before the door closed again without a reply. Josiah chuckled softly. “That always gets her, but she isn’t in the mood today with you here.” He started rubbing one knee which was giving him some pain. “So…an ex-congressman. You should have returned home, wherever that is. You didn’t…meaning you found some work in Washington or your wife didn’t want to leave.”
“Correct both times,” Michael said. “I’m acting as a liaison for my party…and my wife likes it here.”
“And you don’t, do you?”
“I’m feeling disconnected, if you can understand that. I’m not sure I do.”
“Yes. I understand. You are feeling that you don’t belong in Washington any longer, that same feeling also bringing problems into your marriage. If I’m getting too personal, just tell me.”
“No, not at all. You are very perceptive.”
“In my situation, I’ve not much else left but my observations, so I spend my time thinking and analyzing.” The door opened again and May emerged carrying a tray with two beverage glasses.
“Thought you both could use a drink of tea. Your wrecker will be along…but when, I don’t know.”
“That’s very nice of you. Thanks so much.” Michael said. May gave a small smile and disappeared back inside.
“We grew up in the South. In the South, you always drink iced tea on an afternoon,” Josiah explained. “Liaison, you said.” He paused, taking a long drink. “That would mean contact with the other party, wouldn’t it? Does that mean the White House?”
“And the ‘other party’ occupies the White House at the moment,” Josiah said aloud. It was not a question but an astute observation.
“Exactly,” Michael admitted.
“I’m thinking that since your wife has settled in…and you are in a thankless job… that she may not be the shoulder to cry on that she was. She wouldn’t want to hear it.”
Michael was silent. The probing was accurate, inceptive and painful. He took a drink of bitter tea. “Again, you are especially good at putting things together. I’m impressed.”
“I’m not judging you, Michael, you have to believe that. But, my mind occasionally goes places. You might call it a flight of fancy or just speculation. They tell me that Washington has more women than men, and most of the women are single. Is that what you’ve heard also?”
“By observation, it seems true enough,” Michael admitted. You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to see all the young women who were working but also available. The town was full of them. Michael had an uncomfortable feeling that the next query was going to get very personal. He decided to ask the next question and direct the conversation away from him. “What did you do before you retired?” Michael asked.
“That’s simple. I’m not retired. Not at all. I’m doing the same thing I always did, except I’m getting better at it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You see, Michael, I observe, I think, I reason and learn just sitting here as the world goes by. People like you are too busy living to see the things I do. I have time, and I use it.”