Thursday, June 26, 2008

Buzzards and Beavers

The Washington, DC, area is a trove of rare delights. Whether you live in the city itself or in the Virginia or Maryland suburbs, there is a wealth of things to do, rain or shine, night or day.

One of my personal favorites is hiking. Within a stone's throw of the center of the Western world are parks rife with deer, owls, buzzards, giant carps, groundhogs, nutrias, beavers and a wealth of other flaura and fauna. Few people take advantage of these treasures. I try to.

A few days ago, I was hiking with my friend P next to Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which borders the Potomac for more than 184 miles. Originally, the C&O Canal was a lifeline for communities and businesses along the Potomac River as coal, lumber, grain and other agricultural products floated down the canal to market. Today, it's a haven for wildlife, cyclists, kayakers, walkers and fisher folks.

As we neared one of the canal's 75 locks, we came upon a covey of developmentally challenged children, most of whom seemed to be very young and very uncomfortable in their kayaks. The C&O is not deep, and the children were not in danger, but I'm not sure they knew that. They huddled together as what I assume was a counselor hovered nearby in her own kayak. The kids really didn't look happy, and I began to wonder whether the good-hearted folks who had planned this outing had even asked the kids if they wanted to go. This led to another question: when we sponsor community-facilitated programs for the disadvantaged, are we doing so for them, or for ourselves?

Here's why I ask. I am of the firm conviction that I have never had a selfless moment in my short existence. I believe this is true of others. We do things because ultimately they make us feel good. Whoever wrote the check for the children's outing must have felt good doing it. So did the people driving them to the canal, and the counselor who took them to the water. And, for all I know, so did all the tourists walking the canal and taking in this perfect example of mankind's kindness. But I'm still not in the least sure what the kids felt. They didn't look all that joyful...

Here's installment 30 of Wasted Miracles.

Josie looked at the men. It was important to keep things together, in perspective, as her mom would say. In rehab, particularly the inner city one she’d hated and sat through mostly silent, she’d learned never to back down in front of a black guy. A black guy himself had told her that. “They see you flinch, you be meat.” A simple piece of advice, she’d abided by it since.
She sat up straight, said, “And who might you be?” God, that sounded ridiculous, probably real nervy coming from a white chick with no visible means of escape, but there it was, out of her mouth almost before she realized it. The round black guy pointed to the other man and said, “That is Comfort. He works for me as well. My name is Dingane. Perhaps Herbie mentioned me?”
Josie shook her head.
“Or perhaps he mentioned the Zulu? A lot of my associates refer to me by that name.”
That rang a vague bell, but Josie couldn’t tell where. There was a movie, one of those things shown late in the night, bunch of black guys wearing animal skins charging down a hill and mostly getting killed. She’d seen it some months ago, hadn’t found it particularly interesting. She shrugged. “Sorry.” There was a little quaver in her voice.
The round black guy must have picked it up. “Don’t be frightened, please. I suppose that in spite of his many faults, our late friend Herbie at least knew how to keep his mouth shut. Which all in all is a good thing.” He shrugged, withdrew a small rectangular box from a pocket, took out a cigarette, lit it with a gold lighter that looked heavy. Josie watched him do it, wanted to stand silent, blurted out, “Did you kill him?” And knew immediately it was the wrong thing to say.
The round black guy sucked in his gut, tried to sit a bit taller. “I certainly did not. There was no need to resort to violence, absolutely none. Violence is a tool only fools abuse.”
But the other black guy, the taller one, got a frightened evasive look in his eyes, seemed to grow smaller under the Zulu’s gaze. Josie wondered why. She shrugged. “Whatever.”
There was a pause, a silence, then the Zulu said, “Well, let’s get down to business, Miss Stilwell. Where are my drugs.”
Josie thought he said ‘rugs’ but wasn’t sure. The Zulu did have a funny accent, kind of British but not really. She said, “Your what?”
He repeated. “Drugs. As in heroin, China White, to be exact. As in, a lot of heroin which your late boyfriend, Herbie, stole from me, which accounted for his unfortunate accident, though I am not to blame. Where is it?”
She said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Really.”
The Zulu’s face turned sad. He said, “Oh my.” Then he walked into an adjoining room and returned with a wooden box, a cigar box, Josie thought. He opened it, withdrew a glass object she was all too familiar with. She’d seen people in the street stroke such pipes, scrape them clean for residue, wrap them in small squares of felt or chamois. She’d seen people cry and plead and, in one instance, fight with insane determination over such pipes. She even had one stashed at home, had bought it just to be cool, which looking back was pretty silly. She should have gotten rid of it but it was well hidden, if she ever got home she’d trash it.
The Zulu uncorked a tiny vial, carefully placed a crystal into the pipe’s bowl, lit it without inhaling, thrust it at Josie’s face. She turned her head. At a nod from the Zulu, the tall black guy took Josie’s head in two large hands, held it still, squeezed beneath her cheekbones. Her jaw popped open. The Zulu stuck the stem of the pipe in, slapped her sharply just above her stomach. She gasped. And took it in. Then did it again. Then did it a third time.

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