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Rachel Lopez loves her work, too. By day she is a parole officer, helping people – Lorenzo Brown among them – along a path to responsibility and advancement. At night she heads for the city’s hotel bars, where she can always find a man who will let her act out her damage. She loses herself in sex and drink and more. But Rachel’s nights are taking a toll on her days. Lorenzo knows the signs. The trouble is, he truly needs her right now. There’s an eruption coming in the streets he left behind, the kind of territorial war that takes down everyone even near it. Lorenzo needs every shred of support he can get to keep from being sucked back into that battleground. He reaches out to Rachel – but she may be too far gone to help either of them.
Writing with the grace and force that have earned him praise as “the poet laureate of the crime world,” George Pelecanos has created a novel about two scarred and fallible people who must navigate one of life’s most brutal passages. It is an unforgettable, moving, even shocking story that will leave no reader unchanged.
Lorenzo Brown opened his eyes. He stared at a cracked plaster ceiling and cleared his head.
Lorenzo was not in a cot but in a clean, full-size bed. In an apartment with doors that opened and shut when he wanted them to. A place where he could walk free.
Lorenzo swung his feet over the side of the mattress. His dog, a medium-size mix named Jasmine, rose from her square of remnant carpet, stretched, and shook herself awake. She came to him, her nails clicking on the hardwood floor, and touched her nose to his knee. He rubbed behind her ears, stroked her neck, and patted her flanks.
Jasmine's coat was cream colored, with tan and brown shotgunned across the fur. Lorenzo had saved her from the shelter on New York Avenue the night before her scheduled euthanization. He passed by scores of doomed animals every day but had never taken one home. It was her eyes, he supposed, that had caused him to stop in front of her cage. He tried not to think too hard on the ones he'd passed by. He couldn't save them all. All he knew was, this was one good dog.
"Morning," said Lorenzo. Jasmine looked at him with those beautiful coffee bean eyes. Seemed like she was smiling too. The stand-up fan in the corner of the room blew warm air across them both.
The clock radio that had woken him played on. He kept its dial set on 95.5, WPGC. Huggy Low Down, a comedian in street-fool character, was talking with Donnie Simpson, the morning deejay, who'd been on the air in D.C. since Brown was a kid. It was their morning conversation, conducted by phone.
"You know what time it is, don't you?"
"I think so, Huggy."
"It's time to announce the Bama of the Week."
The last word, reverbed in the studio, echoed in the room. Same back-and-forth, every day. Huggy could be flat-out funny, though. And when he spun music, Simpson tended to play old school, which Lorenzo preferred. Lorenzo couldn't get behind that death romance thing anymore.
Lorenzo Brown peed and brushed his teeth. He swallowed two ibuprofens to fend off the headache he knew would come. He washed down a C and a multivitamin as well.
Still in his boxer shorts, he returned to his room, where he did stretching exercises and crunches on a camping mat he'd laid on the floor. He then worked out with forty-pound dumbbells in front of a wall mirror, pyramid sets that left a rope of vein popping on each of his arms. He did some triceps curls as well. He finished with pull-ups on a bar he'd hung in the door frame, bending his legs at the knees to accommodate his height.
Lorenzo no longer did push-ups. They reminded him unpleasantly of the five hundred push-ups he had done for eight years, every day, in his cell.
Rachel Lopez got up on one elbow, reached for the snooze bar on her clock radio, and silenced the banter coming from the morning deejay and his provocateur partner. She let her head drop back onto the pillow. Her stomach flipped, and a dull ache came from behind her closed eyes.
This will be my morning: three aspirins, no breakfast. Coffee and a cigarette, then out the door. Today is a road day. Get up and do your job.
She opened her eyes and kicked weakly at the sheets, which smelled faintly of cheap male cologne. She got herself up to a sitting position on the edge of the bed and turned the alarm off. The clock radio, a graduation gift from her father, was a Sony Dream Machine, a simple white cube that had looked ultramodern back in '92.
"To wake you up for work now, little girl. No one is going to do that for you anymore. You're going to need the alarm, the way you light the fire on both ends. But that won't last too long. Your body will reject it. Too many late nights; you can't mix them with work."
I'm still mixing them, Popi. The bad Rachel and the good.
Rachel showered, shampooing her hair and thoroughly washing her sex. In her bathrobe, at a small table set by an open window, she had her coffee and smoked the day's first cigarette. Afterward, she dressed in a loose, lightweight cotton shirt worn out over relaxed jeans and sneakers. The clothing was utilitarian gear of the Gap school of conformity, the styles chosen to hide her shape. She put on no makeup and added no shine product to her shoulder-length black hair. She was not trying to look unattractive. She was simply aiming to discourage any sexual feelings on the part of the men and women she encountered every day.
At the front door of her functional apartment, she stopped and gathered her tools: several manila files, a clipboard holding forms called "pinks," field sheets used for notations, a couple of pens, her cell phone, her badge, and the keys to her car. She glanced at the mirror hung above the table and looked into her dark eyes.
Not bad, she thought. Even without the war paint, and with what I did to myself last night, I still look pretty good.
Lorenzo Brown ate a bowl of Cheerios while standing in his Pullman kitchen, then showered and changed into his uniform. Walking to the front door, he passed a worn sofa and armchair, and stopped to adjust his grandmother's hope chest, centered behind the sofa's back. The hope chest sat on an old oval throw rug; beneath the throw rug was a rectangle that Lorenzo had cut out and replaced snugly in the hardwood floor.
At the apartment's entrance, Lorenzo picked up a chain leash with a looped leather strap that hung on a nail he had driven into the wall. Jasmine heard the clatter of the chain and joined him at the door.
Lorenzo's landlord, a man named Robie who lived on the second and third floors of the row house where Lorenzo stayed, had left him a long plastic bag, the one the Post got delivered in, on the porch. As he always did, Robie had put the bag under half a brick so that it would not blow away. Lorenzo slipped the bag into his pocket and went down concrete steps to the street. He and Jasmine walked east on Otis Place, up a grade into the sun, along brick row houses with wooden porches fronted by columns, some of the homes painted and kept up nice, others in disrepair. Sturdy oak trees grew on the government strip along the curb.
Lorenzo went up the block, stopping at the short, run-down stretch of 6th Street that was the cut-through from Otis to Newton as Jasmine peed beside a tree. Down there at the corner of Newton and 6th, where Nigel Johnson's mother still stayed, Lorenzo could see a cluster of parked cars, new and late-model Lexus and BMW coupes and sedans, with a black Escalade, tricked with spinners, in the mix. A couple of young men leaned against their rides. The Lexus, a black GS430 with dual pipes and aftermarket rims, belonged to Nigel.
Lorenzo assumed that Nigel was in there behind that tinted glass, sitting under the wheel, talking on his Nextel. Few in Nigel's profession had their troops up and on the street at this early hour, but that was Nigel through and through. He'd had that kind of ambition, and an almost blinding work ethic, since he was a kid. The two of them had run these Park View streets together, going back almost twenty-five years.
As Jasmine finished her business, Lorenzo pulled gently on her leash. They passed the home of Joe Carver, another of Lorenzo's old neighborhood running boys, now living with his aunt. Joe's pickup, a red-and-white F-150 of midnineties vintage, was not along the curb, which meant he was already gone for the day. Joe had been getting steady work as a bricklayer, a trade he had learned in the federal facility in Kentucky, since he'd come out. He'd been on a construction site on North Capitol, south of New York Avenue, for the past six months.
Lorenzo walked along Park View Elementary, where he had attended grade school. The summer-school kids had just begun to arrive, some holding the hands of their mothers, grandmothers, or aunts. He passed the mural painting of successful black folks, Frederick Douglass and George Washington Carver and the like, that covered an entire wall. They'd had pictures up of folks like them in just about every classroom Lorenzo had ever been in, but the pictures hadn't stopped him or anyone he knew from going down to the corner. Lorenzo realized that people meant well, but still.
At Warder, the wide north-south street that paralleled Georgia Avenue, Lorenzo cut left, then hung another left on the east side of the school and went down Princeton Place, where his grandmother still lived in the house in which he'd been raised.
A little girl he recognized, a six-year-old name of Lakeisha, came toward him on the sidewalk, swinging a clear book bag by its strap. Right behind her was her mom, a pretty young hairdresser named Rayne. Rayne was a single mother who undoubtedly led a stressful life but seemed devoted to Lakeisha and always kept herself looking good. She and her daughter lived beside his grandmother, in the next row house to the south.
Lorenzo stopped to let Lakeisha bend down and pet his dog. She had a pretty smile, like her mother's but near toothless, and cornrows with tiny seashells fitted on the ends of her braids.
"Jazz Man's her name?" said Lakeisha.
"Jasmine," said Lorenzo, looking at her fondly, barely knowing her but loving her, as she reminded him of his baby girl.
"Is she good?"
"Most of the time."
Lakeisha touched a finger to her chest. "Does she love people in her heart?"
"Yeah, she loves people. 'Specially little princesses like you."
"Bye, Jazz Man," said Lakeisha, abruptly standing and going up the hill toward her school.
"Thank you, Lorenzo," said Rayne, smiling shyly.
"For being so nice to my baby."
"Ain't no thing," said Lorenzo, smiling back, puffing his chest up a little and laughing at himself for doing so. Wondering how she knew his name, remembering that he had made it a point to find out hers from his grandmother. Maybe she had done the same.
"I better catch up to her," said Rayne.
"See you around," said Lorenzo.
Down the street a bit, Lorenzo entered a pedestrian passageway between the school playground and a neighborhood park surrounded by a fence but accessible through an always open gate, and walked onto a field covered in high grass. This was the usual morning route for Lorenzo and his dog. Jasmine stopped in the middle of the field, put herself back on her hindquarters, and defecated in the grass.
Lorenzo looked around, slightly embarrassed, as he always would be, at what he was about to do. He retrieved the plastic bag from his pocket, slipped his hand inside it, formed a glove, then reached down and picked up Jasmine's feces. He turned the bag inside out and tied it off. He and Jasmine left the park, exiting by the south-side steps, and went back down Otis the way they'd come.
Passing 6th again, he could see Nigel, now standing outside his car, talking to the ones on his payroll. Nigel had on a nice powder blue Sean John warm-up suit, with a simple gold chain hung outside the jacket. One of the young men, wearing an Oakland Raiders cap sectioned like a pizza pie in alternating black and white, turned and looked at Lorenzo, made a comment to the tall boy next to him, and laughed. Lorenzo could only imagine what had been said as they looked at him, a square in a uniform, working for rent money and nothing more, holding a bag of shit in one hand and the leash of a dog, and not even a fighting dog at that, in the other. Time was, Lorenzo Brown would have laughed at the sight of his self too.
Nigel Johnson said something to the young man who had made the comment, and the young man's smile vanished. Nigel nodded at Lorenzo with an uptick of his chin. Even from this distance, Lorenzo could still see the boy in Nigel's eyes. He nodded back and went on his way.
Lorenzo left food and water for Jasmine, turned the standup fan so that it blew directly on her carpet bed, and exited the house. He got into his Pontiac and went down to Georgia, where he drove north, toward the office. There he would clock in, check his messages, and take one of the white trucks out for his calls.
Up around 9th and Upshur, in Petworth, he stopped to pay Rodel, the man who cut his hair in the shop set in that commercial strip that ran along the avenue. He'd been light at the time of his last shape-up, and Rodel had let him slide. Coming out of the barbershop, he saw a big man with a dog, a muscular tan boxer, out on the sidewalk. The man, broad of shoulder and back, his hair lightly salted with gray, was turning the key to his business, had that sign with the magnifying glass over its front window. That sign was always lit up at night. Man had been in business there Lorenzo's whole life. You'd be driving down Georgia at night, from a party or a club, or from laying up with a girl, and you'd see that sign? You knew you were close to home. Lorenzo had heard the man coached kids' football too, held practices on the field of Roosevelt High. Joe Carver's boy was in the program. Joe had told him this man was all right.
"Pretty animal," said Lorenzo to the man's back as he passed.
"First time anyone called Greco pretty," said the man, turning his head, checking out Lorenzo in his uniform. The man pushed on the door of his business. "Well, let me get on in here and do some work."
"I heard that," said Lorenzo. "I got to be off to work my own self."
"Have a good one," said the man, the boxer following him inside.
Off to work, thought Lorenzo as he got behind the wheel of his car. Feeling a kind of pride as he turned the key.
By eleven-thirty, Rachel Lopez had already put in a fairly productive day. She'd gone into PG County for her first calls, one in Barnaby Heights and one off Addison Road, a couple of young offenders freshly out on drug-related incarcerations, the most typical cases in her files. Next she'd driven toward a men's shelter down off Central Avenue to check on one of her older offenders, a man named Dennis Coles, but on the way she'd been held up by crime scene vehicles that had converged on a strip shopping center up ahead. The traffic reporter on 1500 AM told her that a robbery-murder had occurred in the area and that a roadblock had been set up by police. She turned her Honda around and drove north to Cheverly. She parked in the lot of a garden apartment complex, where she found the unit of a young man named Rudolph Monroe.
Monroe's mother, Deanna, answered the door. She was around thirty, heavy and unkempt. She wore a family reunion T-shirt over jeans. Big gold hoops hung from her ears.
Rachel could hear the sound of a cartoon show blaring from a TV set somewhere back in the apartment. That would be Jermaine, Deanna's youngest, age four. Rachel made a point of learning, and remembering, the names of an offender's kin. Jermaine would be sitting in front of the set, Rachel guessed, drinking sugar-heavy soda, his hand in a bag of Doritos or potato chips.
"Hey, Miss Lopez," said Deanna. Her eyes were welcoming, but she did not ask Rachel in.
"Rudy ain't here."
"We had an appointment," said Rachel. Not sounding annoyed, but stating a fact.
"I told him you was comin'," said the mother.
"Do you know where he is?"
"He went to talk to this manager."
"Up at the Popeyes."
"On Landover Road?" said Rachel, hoping that was the one. She had spoken to the manager there before; he had two brothers who had been incarcerated and was not averse to hiring offenders.
"Yeah. I seen they had a position open there, had one of those signs up in the window. Rudy knew y'all had a meeting, but I told him, you need to jump on that opening quick. You understand?"
Rachel said that she did understand and that she was glad Rudolph was motivated in that way.
She wasn't angry at all when this kind of thing happened, because the time an offender spent actively pursuing employment was quality time, much more important than any meeting with her could be. That is, if Rudy really was out looking for a job.
"Tell him I came by," said Rachel.
"Nice earrings," said Rachel before she said good-bye.
"Thank you," said Deanna with a smile.
Out in her car, Rachel checked her NA schedule, which she had printed off the Internet, then glanced at her watch. There was a meeting on East Capitol about to convene. If there wasn't much city-bound traffic, she could still catch the tail end of it, sit for a while, and relax. While she was resting, say a prayer.
The dog was a black rottweiler with tan socks and tan teardrop markings beneath its eyes. It stayed under a rusted rust-colored Cordoba, up on cinder blocks, parked in the paved backyard of a row house in the two hundred block of Randolph Street, west of North Capitol.
Lorenzo Brown had seen the dog before. He had left an Official Notification form on its owner's door back in July. The shelter violation had been reported by a neighbor. Next to chaining, it was the most common call.
Lorenzo sat in his work van, a Chevy Astra, idling in the alley behind the row house, looking through the lens of a digital camera. The dog had come out from under the Cordoba and listlessly barked one time. Now it was staring at Lorenzo curiously and without aggression, its tongue dangling out the side of its mouth. Lorenzo snapped off a shot and took note of the home address, which had been stenciled on a No Trespassing sign hung on a chain-link fence. Then he drove out of the alley and went around the block, parking the van on Randolph near the front of the house.
As was his habit this time of year, Lorenzo left the motor and air-conditioning running to keep the van cool. Once outside the Astra, he locked the door with a spare key. He surveyed the block, a typical D.C. strip of brick row houses topped with turrets. Here, near Florida and North Capitol, the rep of drug dealing and gang activity was strong. But there was no evidence of criminal enterprise today. Construction vans and pickups dotted the curb. Spanish music, thin vocals and surging horns coming trebly from the low-end boom box of a housepainter, blared from the open windows of a house. A white girl in a pantsuit, a real estate agent, Lorenzo supposed, stood on the sidewalk, talking on a cell while she nervously smoked a cigarette.
Several longtime residents sat on the porches and stoops of their homes, watching the white girl, their eyes showing amusement. Behind the amusement was discomfort. They realized that in the near future their corner of the world as they knew it would cease to exist.
"Uh-oh," said a man sitting on a rocker bench on his porch as Lorenzo crossed the sidewalk and went up the steps of a residence. "What J.J. do now, cause the police to make a house call?"
"You see a gun hanging on his side?" said a neighbor sitting in a similar type of chair on the porch of his own dwelling.
"I can't even see your wide behind without my glasses."
"That's the dog man, fool."
Lorenzo heard such commentary often when he entered a neighborhood. To the street-challenged eye he did look like some kind of police. If not police, an official, or something more than a meter man. He wore a sky blue shirt with a Humane Society badge pinned to his chest. He wore dark blue cargo pants and heavy black boots with lug soles, useful for climbing fences. He carried no form of protection, either clipped to his belt or concealed.
Black folks weren't shy about discussing his presence, in his presence, in the same way that they would tell a stranger, straight up, if they did or did not like his outfit or new car. On the flip side, when he entered the white, wealthy neighborhoods of Ward 3 on business, there were no Greek choruses and few questions.
"Look here, J.J. ain't home." It was the one who had identified Lorenzo as the dog man, shouting from his porch.
Lorenzo ignored the man, continuing on until he reached the house, one of a few fronted by a portico rather than a porch. There he saw detailed stonework arching the entrance and colorful tile inlaid on the floor.
Lorenzo knocked on the door, despite having been told that "J.J." was not home, suspecting that even if he were home, he would not answer the door. Lorenzo began to fill out an ON form, set on the clipboard he carried, as he waited. Soon he heard footsteps behind him and the voice of the middle-aged man who had called out to him from the neighboring porch.
"Told you he wasn't home."
"Thought I'd try him anyway," said Lorenzo, keeping his eyes on the form as he filled it out, feeling the man beside him, smelling the hard liquor on his breath and the perspiration coming through his pores.
"You ain't gonna find him at this residence."
"What, he doesn't live here no more?"
"I'm sayin', he ain't never gonna be in at this hour. J.J.'s got a day job."
Lorenzo had met this fella before, the last time he'd come through, and he'd smelled this same way. Man in his fifties, still young enough to work, not working, drinking liquor while the sun was straight up overhead. Bags under the eyes, teeth missing, "retired" with fifteen good years still in him. He was wearing one of those tired-ass Kangol caps too.
"Jefferson's my name. I'm a friend to J.J.—John Jr."
"John Jr. got a last name?"
Lorenzo Brown wrote the full name of the resident on the form. It was easy enough to get from the criss-cross directory back at the office. But office time was not Lorenzo's thing.
"I'm a Humane Law Enforcement officer, with the Humane Society. My name's Brown."
"I know who you are," said Jefferson, in neither a friendly nor an unfriendly way. He did not offer Lorenzo his hand. "You came through here earlier this summer."
"Don't look like much has changed. What I can see, the situation with his dog is still the same."
"He been meanin' to get around to it, though."
"You say you're a friend to him?"
"I am," said Jefferson with weak pride.
"I'd like to show you what J.J. needs to do to keep his dog. I'd hate to have to take it."
"You mean you'd snatch that girl?"
"I wouldn't take pleasure from it. But I'd do my job."
"How 'bout you meet me in the alley?"
Jefferson looked around the street as if to consider it, as if he had anything else to do.
"Okay?" said Lorenzo.
"Gimme five minutes," said Jefferson. "I need to urinate."
You mean you need to have you another drink, thought Lorenzo. He nodded at Jefferson before going back to the van.
Lorenzo drove around to the alley and waited. Five minutes stretched to fifteen. He whistled softly at the rottie, and when the dog came to the fence, Lorenzo put his knuckles through the diamond space of the links. A dry muzzle touched his hand.
"All right, girl," said Lorenzo. "You all right with me."
The dog's eyelids had curled inward and appeared to be growing into its eyes. Besides this bit of sickness, it seemed to be well fed and in decent shape. Its owner had left a stainless steel bowl of water beside the car, though the water, most likely, had now been rendered hot by the moving sun. Health issues aside, there was no real shelter for the dog, except under that shaky car. Maybe the owner felt he had done enough. Lorenzo surmised that this was not a crime of deliberate abuse, but rather ignorance.
The alley smelled of excrement, garbage, and something that had once been alive and was now in decay. The August heat and the lack of breeze made the smell strong and sickening.
Two boys wearing long white T-shirts over blue jeans walked down the alley, going by Lorenzo Brown. They chuckled at the dog, which moved back a step as they passed. The T-shirt-and-jean combination was the uniform of choice for young men in the lower ranks of the drug game, but Brown had noticed both white and black kids in the suburbs, straight kids, honor students, whatever, wearing the same hookup. The suburban kids got their fashion sense out of The Source, off CD covers, and from the hip-hop videos run on 106 and Park. For all Lorenzo knew, these two could have been playing studio gangster as well. They gave him cursory eye contact but made no remark as they passed. If it had been his partner, Mark, white and therefore fair game, back here, these boys would have said something, made him the butt of some quick joke. They'd have to, because it was in the contract. But Mark wouldn't have cared.
Jefferson came up the alley and stood near Lorenzo. He smelled more strongly of liquor than he had before.
"Awright, then," said Jefferson.
- On Sale
- Aug 6, 2013
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Back Bay Books