CJ and Owen alternated behind the wheel; some sixteen hours after leaving Orlando, they arrived home in Washington. It was near midnight and they did not stay up much longer; they had tickets to the Justin Timberlake concert Sunday night. The plan was to spend the day doing laundry and washing the bikes, the truck, and the trailer.
“Morning, Dad.” CJ sat at the breakfast bar, nursing a mug of coffee while paging through the newspaper.
“Morning, bud. You get enough rest?” César ruffled his son’s messy hair on his way to the coffeemaker.
“Yeah, I wasn’t all that tired to begin with. Ozzie and I catnapped on and off while the other one drove. I’m gonna wake him up pretty soon. We need to unload the bikes and return the trailer to the storage unit. You cooking?”
“Yeah, but not for a while. Brunch instead of breakfast. If you’re hungry, have a bagel or something. You can take care of the trailer and when you get back, we’ll eat. Don’t forget Quincy’s coming over to talk to us later this morning.”
The doorbell chimed a little past noon while they were putting leftovers away and stacking plates in the dishwasher. “I’ll get it.” Ritchie wiped his hands dry on his jeans before he went to open the door. Returning to the kitchen, he excused himself to go read in his bedroom.
Quincy Adams lived a few blocks away; one of the neighbors César and Brett were friendly with. He and his wife had hosted the reception where CJ ripped into Marco Rubio for not supporting GLBT rights.
“Hey, Quincy. Can we interest you in a cup of coffee?” Brett pointed at a bottle of wine sitting on the counter left over from the previous night’s meal. “Or maybe a glass of wine? I was thinking of starting early today. It’s the good Australian stuff. From Ozzie’s family’s winery.”
“Yeah, coffee would be great.” Quincy eyed the bottle with something akin to regret. “I’ll pass on the wine. Had a couple of bloodies at brunch with the family. Thanks for agreeing to see me.”
CJ closed the dishwasher’s door, rinsed and dried his hands, and reclaimed his seat. “The dads said you wanted to ask me a favor, Mr. Adams. What can I do for you?”
“Straight to the point as usual, CJ. I like that. I was disappointed you refused to support Marco. However, I was impressed with your work for Clinton. Let me ask you something. What do you know about the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions?”
“Ummm, not a lot. I know ANC commissioners are elected every two years. It’s an unpaid, non-partisan position designed to bring government closer to the people.” CJ chuckled. “How’s that for regurgitating what’s on their website? Anyway, commissioners don’t have a lot of real power. But they can influence how the city commission votes on items affecting their districts.”
“That’s a good, quick summary.” The middle-aged, somewhat overweight man removed his glasses and ran a hand over his silver-streaked goatee. “Okay, I’m here representing a group of neighbors who’d like to recruit you. We want you to run for the spot representing our district in this fall’s election.”
CJ’s jaw dropped and his eyes nearly bugged out. There was no hiding his surprise. He looked at his fathers and the smirk on their faces made him squint. “You knew about this, didn’t you?” The smirks metamorphosed into grins.
A few days later, CJ met with the group intent on drafting him to run for office. By the end of the gathering, he consented to his name being put forth as a candidate. Ozzie and the dads encouraged him to agree, letting him know they thought it would be a good experience for him.
“Mate, it’s bloody nasty out there.” Moments after Owen left the house to pick up dinner at the Chinese restaurant, the skies opened up.
CJ looked up from the papers laying on the breakfast bar’s granite counter he and his fathers huddled around. “You look a little wet, Ritchie.” The crooked grin on his face led to chuckles.
“A little?” The teen’s voice dripped sarcasm. “No raincoat and no umbrella! I got soaked sprinting from the Jeep to the restaurant’s door and again when I ran back. I kept trying to make sure I didn’t slip on the wet sidewalk carrying the box of food. Be right back. I need to dry off and change.”
Ritchie ran upstairs while Owen took the aforementioned box to the kitchen. “Did you guys figure it all out?”
“Dude, this is impossible! For every person CJ drops from the guest list, César adds another one.”
“Fuck you, Jarhead.” César left his stool and helped Owen open food containers. “You slipped in a few of your Marine buddies yourself. I think you may as well resign yourself to a large wedding, Ozzie. No way we’re keeping it under a hundred guests. Hell, it’s gonna be closer to two hundred.”
Owen’s sigh was a sign of resignation. What had started as family and their inner circle of friends had ballooned out of control. The previous night he had thrown up his hands in defeat and removed himself from further involvement. His own list of people was smaller and as long as they were there, he claimed he did not care who else was.
CJ closed his laptop and slid it to the side, gathering up the papers and stacking them atop it. His jovial mood disappeared and his demeanor became stern. “We’ll finish this after dinner. And I mean finish it. I thought we were done when we sent out those save-the-date announcements. I’m so over this shit. If we don’t get the list to the calligrapher, we’ll never mail the damn invitations out.”
César held the refrigerator door open and reached inside. “I need a drink after all that arguing. Anyone want anything other than wine?”
“Water for me, Mr. A. I have some reading to do for school tonight.” Considering he was not allowed to drink much when permitted to, Ritchie’s straight-faced comment elicited smirks from the other men. He was the first one to grab a plate and start dishing out food. The teen made it clear watching the others wrangle with whom to invite had become tiresome after they had gone at it all afternoon. “You guys should just invite everybody instead of pissing off people like you were talking about. Hell, if you’re gonna have a real wedding instead of eloping, you may as well go for it. Stop dicking around and just do it.”
CJ caught up with his classes and turned in all the assignments missed during the week in Florida. He also met with Quincy Adams and the other neighbors supporting his candidacy for the ANC to map out their strategy. Ozzie had a meeting with the Washington Scandals about the upcoming Bingham Cup tournament and CJ escaped the house to hang out on campus with Carson.
He had spent time reading up on the ANC and learning as much as possible about the responsibilities that came along with the position. While surfing the net, he encountered an old article from the Georgetown Voice detailing a student reporter’s twenty-four hours spent inside a maze of tunnels underneath the Georgetown University campus.
CJ convinced Carson to explore the little known space with him. “Dude, it’s just like that article said. The door’s dead-bolted open.”
There might have been a small amount of fear-tinged doubt on Carson’s face as the friends stood in front of the service door in the basement of Old North Hall. “Yeah, but did you notice the no trespassing sign? If I get thrown out of school for this I’m holding you responsible.”
“Stop being a pussy! We’re not gonna get in trouble.”
“Famous last words! How old did you say these tunnels are?”
“The article claimed they prolly date to a 1926 renovation of the dorm. It also said that they’ve been expanded to connect with newer buildings on campus since then.” The widely spaced lightbulbs strung near the ceiling cast an eerie glow and CJ turned on the flashlight app on his phone for additional illumination. Advancing without any rush, they found the twisting layout disorienting; no matter what direction they walked, they invariably found themselves in one of the campus’ many boiler rooms.
“I wonder how often maintenance comes around. You could hide a body down here.” The steam pipes all around emitted a high, insistent whine punctuated by the occasional blast from a half-open valve. A bank of fluorescent lights turned on above a pressure gauge and startled them. Shortly thereafter, as the fixtures turned off without apparent human intervention, they chuckled at the scare. “There has to be a movement sensor or a timer around here somewhere.” The logical deduction did not prevent them jumping a little when it happened again. The type of situation CJ always found cheesy in scary movies. The characters never had the good sense to back out of what everyone in the audience knew was a wrong move.
“Dude, I smell weed!” CJ inhaled with gusto and smiled, the aroma of marijuana was noticeable but not overpowering. As they reached another juncture, he turned right. The various wings of tunnels ran the gamut from well-lit spots to pitch dark ones; the expanse between extremes remained in gloom. In one intriguing corner of the tunnels, they found a valve about four feet above the ground, under which visitors had spent time―an assortment of crumpled paper towels and used condoms littered the ground.
“Crap! I just stepped on somebody’s scumbag. Jesus, CJ, what the fuck are we doing? Remind me to spray the soles of my sneakers with Clorox.” Carson was a borderline germophobe and had a penchant for the dramatic.
Graffiti, mostly fraternity names, crude anatomical sketches, and a few random biblical references covered the walls. There was no doubt in CJ’s mind the secluded area provided a hiding spot for fellow students searching for privacy. An escape from roommates and crowded dormitories. Thoughts of how easy he and Owen had it made him happy. They had rooms in two different houses they could close and lock the doors to if they wanted to be alone.
A couple of hours later, they emerged on the other side of campus and made their way to Carson’s dorm. His roommate was not there and CJ plopped himself on the free bed while Carson sat at his desk, wiped his shoes with chlorine soaked paper towels, and recounted his trip to the beach over spring break for the umpteenth time. He raved about the Notre Dame girl he banged three days in a row.
“Dude, you mention eating her pussy one more time I’m gonna barf. You keep it up, I’ll start describing what Ozzie’s cum tastes like.”
“Gross! Spare me, okay?” The scrunched up face led to another bout of laughter.
Harbin Hall was laid out as a series of eight-room pods. Four to a side, each half in the shape of a C,bracketing a central wet room containing toilets, sinks, and showers. From his position, CJ could see the other three doors in Carson’s side of the arrangement. He watched as an average-height bespectacled guy knocked on the one next to his friend’s room.
A moment after the door opened, the visitor recoiled, a look of shock on his face. “What the hell? That’s disgusting! No wonder you always keep your shirt on.” The man’s face traveled up and down; CJ assumed he was scanning the room’s occupant. His volume rose. “You’re… You’re just like the asshole in the White House. A closet bigot. You both should be hung.” He spat the words out, disdain and repulsion battled for supremacy in his tone.
CJ’s eyes shot open at the outburst; Carson sprung from his chair and dived on the bed, staring out the open door to get a look at what was happening.
“What the fuck, dude? What you screaming about?” The response came from inside the room just before a face became visible in the doorway. The speaker had a noticeable southern accent. CJ glanced at Carson with a questioning expression. “You have any idea what’s going on?”
“That’s Steven―always Steven, never Steve―Weeldwan’s room. He’s the one from Mississippi I’ve told you blasts southern rock all the time. I’ve heard enough Petty, Alabama, and Skynyrd this year to last me a lifetime. No idea who the other guy is.”
CJ watched as the face in the doorway came out further into the hallway. It belonged to a pale-skinned guy with brown hair reaching halfway down his back. He wore an open robe revealing an incipient gut CJ was certain owed its size to one too many beers. The unknown man pointed at Weeldwan’s torso. “You asshole! You have a swastika tattooed on your stomach and a confederate flag above it? What are you? A KKK member? You gonna start burning crosses around campus?”
“Fuck you! I’m proud of my heritage. And proud of being white. And I ain’t about to let anyone put me down because of it.”
The visitor and the dorm resident faced each other in the small space, their rising voices attracting attention as the other doors in the hallway opened. “You can be as proud as you want but not around me. It’s obvious you’re too stupid to do the math. My name’s Ruben Cohen. If you can’t figure out I’m Jewish and that that Nazi shit’s offensive you’re even dumber than I thought. Find yourself another study partner, dickwad. No way am I spending time with an inbred racist.” Cohen turned to walk away and noticed CJ and Carson staring at him, sitting side-by-side on the edge of the bed. “Sorry, guys.”
“It’s fine, bro. Come here.” CJ stood and motioned for Ruben to come into Carson’s room, closing the door after the guy entered. “You okay?”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I can’t believe him. We’re in the same study group and I stopped by to give him some notes. Guess he wasn’t expecting me and that’s why he was shirtless when he opened the door. We don’t know each other real well but I never imagined…”
“It’s cool, dude. I would have prolly reacted in a similar way. I might even have thrown a punch. I’m CJ by the way. This is Carson. It’s his room.”
“Nice to meetcha both. Contrary to what you just witnessed, I’m not a raving lunatic. I grew up hearing my grandmother talk about losing her family―my relatives―in the holocaust. Kinda have Naziphobia.” A tiny smile creased his face for the first time.
“You sound like CJ when he has to deal with homophobes.” Carson pointed at the small refrigerator atop his long, built-in desk. “There’s Cokes and a couple of beers in there. You want anything?”
“Nah, thanks. And thanks for giving me a chance to catch my breath. I better get going. Guess I’ll have to join a different study group. The professor’s getting an earful from me next class.”
“Dude, before you leave. Let me give you my name and number. If the idiot gives you any flak, you call me. I’ll deal with him.” CJ retrieved his phone from the back pocket of his jeans and slid his index finger over the fingerprint reader to unlock it. “And if you want someone to confirm what happened when you talk to your teacher, you let me know.”
“What dorm are you in?” Ruben removed his glasses and wiped them with the edge of his shirt.
Carson took two sodas out of the fridge and tossed one to CJ. “He’s not in the dorms. He lives at home. His house’s like a block away from campus. Right next to the Exorcist Stairs.”
“I know the place. I’ve seen it whenever I take the stairs to get to M Street. Big house!”
“Bah! It’s okay. Anyway, let me text you my number.” CJ had taken a stand against racism and homophobia in the past. Anti-Semitism was not something he had encountered a lot. His trip to Israel and the chants he heard in Charlottesville had raised his awareness of it, however. If this guy needed help talking to his professor, CJ would be happy to step in. “Stay in touch, man. I’ll help anyway you need me.”
CJ left school after his last class, rushed home to change, and rode his motorcycle to the Pentagon. He had arranged a meeting with his father’s old commanding officer.
“Thanks for seeing me, Colonel.” CJ saw the man now and then but not as often as during his high school days.
“You’re still my favorite of Martha’s student’s, CJ. I’ll always make time for you.” The colonel was married to CJ’s old high school principal. “So, what can I do for you?”
“Ummm… It’s about Brad Kennedy.”
“That’s the redhead friend of yours, right?”
“Yeah. He graduated with me and enlisted right afterwards. He also happens to be Ozzie’s cousin. Anyway, he’s one of our groomsmen. He’s requested leave so he can come to the wedding but nothing yet. I’m starting to get worried the Army may be dragging their feet.”
Colonel Edward gave CJ a crooked smile. “And you want to see if I can help speed the process up?”
“Is there a chance? I mean, I know you’re a Marine but I thought maybe…”
The man reached for a pen and scribbled on the pad atop his desk. “I’ll make a few phone calls. Let me see where it takes me and I’ll let you know. So what have you been up to?”
CJ shared his and Ozzie’s experience at Daytona Bike Week, his plans to run for office in the fall, and the exploration of the tunnels beneath the school, which led to recounting the incident he witnessed the previous weekend.
“I don’t know what to tell you, CJ.” Colonel Ray Edwards leaned back in the chair and waved his unlit cigar around. “The confederate flag’s part of our history and shouldn’t be forgotten. However, that doesn’t mean it should be glorified. After all, a bunch of traitors created it. People who wanted to destroy the United States.”
“I never thought of it that way, Colonel. But, I understand what you mean. It still baffles me the guy would tattoo the flag and a swastika on his body. I wasn’t expecting that from someone at GU. He has to have some smarts to get accepted to the school. My buddy who lives next to him told me the neighbor always kept a shirt on so he’d never seen them before. I think the jerk realized the tattoos wouldn’t be popular at a place like Georgetown.”
“That’s because he’s a coward. Most bigots hide their true nature. Think of all those white hoods used to conceal the identity of the men wearing them. You’re no stranger to homophobia. I’m no stranger to racism, and you just experienced anti-Semitism. I have a feeling it won’t be the last time you see these things.”
“Yeah, I’ve been figuring that out.” CJ paused and reflected on his recent experience. “I think this bothered me more because of my visit to Israel. The holocaust museum in Jerusalem left me crying. Wondering how people could be so cruel.”
“Don’t lose faith, son. I’ve seen things get better in my life and I’m certain they’ll keep improving. We’ll always have bigots but it’s going to take people like you to keep them in line. People willing to speak up and take a stand. To quote Dr. King, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’” The colonel glanced at his watch and stood. “Hate to throw you out, but I have a meeting to get to. I’ll make some calls to Army brass and ensure your buddy gets enough leave to come to your wedding.” The man gave CJ a crooked smile as he walked the young man to the door. “Have to keep my wife happy anyway. I think Martha would be displeased if the entire Squad wasn’t there for the ceremony.”
Thank you, Mann Ramblings, Kitt, and Reader 1810 for your hard work.
This story would not be possible without your assistance.