“One dollar. Ice cold water, right here.”
A young black man wove between the cars hovering at the intersection of North Capital Street and New York Avenue in the nation’s capital.
Jack watched the sweat roll down the man’s dark face and drip onto the faded emblem of his ‘Skins football jersey. The man pulled a grey cloth from his back pocket and wiped his face.
“Ice cold water,” the man shouted to the black Nisson Maximas humming around him, their AC’s revving the cars’ engines to a brutal groan.
The red light lingered.
Jack watched his father watching the water man many cars in front of them. His dad’s ruddy Midwestern face had turned bright red in the humid swelter of DC. His dad had never been to DC before, not that Jack knew about anyway. He didn’t much care for cities, Jack’s dad didn’t, and certainly not this part of this city.
“Get your cool drink of water right here. One dollar!” the water man sang to the tinted windows. Here and there a dark mirror of glass silently rolled down enough for a dollar bill to appear and an icy bottle of water to disappear inside.
Jack glanced at the sidewalk next to them. Old men lounged outside the corner liquor store smoking butts. Three young women walked by, dragging toddlers by the wrists. One of them fretted about the cost of Pampers.
Jack draped his arm along the open window of his ’71 Corolla and watched the water man move toward them. He felt his father tense and glanced over to see him rolling up the window on the passenger’s side neverminding the oppressive heat.
“Jack sighed. He thought of his dad’s tirades against the urban poor back east. “Lazy sons of guns,” he’d call them, watching the news reports about crime in the cities. “Damn scofflaws. Parasites living off the likes of you and me, buddy. You and me and your mother there, lying in a cold, early grave. Your mother worked herself to death, she did. Double shifts from the dawn of time. People don’t work the way she did, son. Not anymore. Not them hooligans. You stay away from them damn crooks, buddy boy, bleed you dry.”
Jack hadn’t, though. Stayed away from them. Instead, he’d moved here, to the nation’s capital at the height of the crack wars. Beirut, people called it on the news. Beirut on the Potomac. Murder Capital of America. Drug-Lord-in-Chief Rayful Edmond III was in charge, Marion Barry was Mayor for Life, the War on Drugs was raging, and the body count kept rising.
Pop, pop, pop, went the night.
Jack’s father had begged him not to go after his mother died. To leave the home of his birth, of his mother’s grave, his sisters’ children, and his dad’s empty, rickety house. But Jack, with his Nebraska Cornhuskers t-shirt tucked into his Levis, had hopped on to the expressway and driven across the Great Plains of America to be a 3rd grade teacher in southeast DC, aka America’s largest open air shooting gallery. To help salvage the children from Nancy Reagan’s Land of Just Say No.
His father had not understood.
“Why you gotta go off and live in that cesspool kid, with all them low lifes? Ain’t life good enough for you here? And what about your Scout Troop? Who’s gonna look after them when you’re gone? Those kids love you, Jackie boy. They’d do anything for you. Life don’t get any better than that,” his father had said, but he’d looked at Jack with the same ground down despair Jack had seen flicker in his own eyes after Caroline, Jack’s girlfriend, had left. Suddenly married a Marine she’d met at the USO and moved to Camp Lejeune, Florida.
“I know, Pop,” Jack had said, trying to shake off his loneliness lest he become his father. “And maybe you’re right. Maybe it doesn’t get any better than this. But I have to find out. I have to see if I can do this. Get out of Nebraska and make…”
Jack had stopped himself from saying it–make something of himself—words he knew he could never take back. Words he’d spent his whole life avoiding.
Even then, his father’s face had already begin to fall at the mere suggestion of those words, seeming more and more at the ready every day for this harshest of truths. That life in Nebraska was invisible to the big wide world and Jack, Jack wanted to be seen. Unlike his dad whom nobody saw at all any more.
Jack’s dad had taken on a resignation so deep it was irretrievable. And it had begun to suck up Jack as well in those days. After Jack’s mother died and Caroline left. This abyss no longer visible to the naked eye.
“Make some kind of a difference, Pop,” Jack had said instead, looking his father in the eye. “Some kind of real difference. Out in the world. I’ll be back, Pop. I will. Every holiday, every chance I get. I promise.”
His father had swallowed and looked away, out to the ridge of prairie grass that met the sky, the auburn sun shimmering in the day’s demise.
“Just don’t become a slacker, son,” his dad had said.
Jack had struggled not to cry.
“Show me a man can do an honest day’s work, and I’ll show you what this country is made of,” Jack’s father had said, tightening his jaw and twisting his head to one side the way he did. “Them raggedy-looking gutter bums back east, ain’t worth the twitch of a dead chicken.” ”
Jack had held his tongue back then, careful as he had not always been, about berating his father for his bigoted views. “Pop, you can’t say crude things like that these days,” Jack had told him over and over again. “ People won’t put up with that kinda talk anymore, and you’ll get your old fool self fired and then where will you be? ” And he nearly had, Jack’s dad, gotten himself fired for cussing out a black guy at the ammo plant for clocking out early one day a few months before the plant closed down for good and Jack’s dad and the black guy and damn near every other working stiff in the valley had lost their jobs and all that remained for them was Al’s Bar and Grill and the small respite found in the brotherhood of drinking men.
“Ice cold water, folks, one dollar,” the man in the sweat-soaked ‘Skins jersey bellowed again, raising his bottles of cold water high in the mid-day sun and letting the condensation from them drip down his bare arms.
The red light turned. A dozen cars crept through before the light turned again.
Jack inched his Corolla closer to the intersection and waited for the next go round.
“Ice cold water,” the water man shouted, pulling four cold new bottles out of his cooler covered in burgundy and gold stickers of the Hogs, the beloved offensive line of DC’s football team.
The ice water man was moving toward them now. Jack watched him approach and looked over at his dad.
“Who is this guy?” his father asked. “Is he here all the time?”
“Every day, Pop,” Jack said quietly, silently praying his father wouldn’t make a scene.
“And that’s all he does, sell water? He don’t try to sell you no drugs or nothing?” his father asked.
“No Pop, just cold water.”
“Huh. It always this hot here?” his father asked, wiping his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Always, Pop,” Jack said, watching the light, waiting for it to change. “DC’s built on a swamp, people tell me. Come August you can tell.”
“Well, that’s the damn truth,” Jack’s dad said.
“Water. Ice cold water,” the ice man sang, getting closer.
From a couple cars ahead of them a woman’s arm stretched out holding a dollar, and the ice man handed her a water.
Jack flipped on the fan from his broken AC but it only blew out air that was hotter than the outside so he clicked off.
“He’s out here every day, huh?” his dad said.
“Every day, Pop, rain or shine.” Jack gripped the gear shift tighter.
Jack’s dad suddenly rolled down his window. Jack tensed and jiggled the gear shift in neutral.
“Huh,” Jack’s dad grunted again.
“Yep,” Jack said, pushing in the clutch.
“Is that a fact?” Jack’s dad suddenly shifted his weight and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.
Jack watched the light. It was still red.“You thirsty, son?” his father asked, pulling two dollars out of his wallet.
“Parched,” Jack said, holding his breath.
“Young man,” Jack’s dad shouted to the water man.
The ice water man looked over at them.
“Two ice cold waters, please,” Jack’s dad said.
The water man trotted over, shaking the condensation off the outside of the bottles.
“Here you go, mister. Ice cold water for the working men,” the water man said, handing the waters to Jack’s dad and shoving the two dollars into his pocket.
“You betcha,” Jack’s dad said and nodded his head ever so slightly at the water man. The ice man wiped his brow with his arm and nodded ever so slightly back. He stepped toward the car behind them.
“Wait, son,” Jack’s dad said suddenly, and the ice man turned.
Jack’s dad pulled another dollar bill out of his wallet.
“Drink one for yourself, young fella,” Jack’s dad said, handing the man the dollar. “It’s hotter than Hades out there and a working man’s gotta stay safe. You stay safe now, hear.”
Just then the light turned green.
Jack shifted the car into first, eased up on the clutch, and gave the old Toyota the barest bit of gas the way his dad had taught him years ago.
As they made their way slowly through the intersection Jack’s dad twisted his body around, stuck his right arm out the window, and waved to the water man, who took a long swig of water and waved back.
“Water, ice cold water, one dollar!” the water man shouted to the newly stopped cars as Jack and his dad disappeared down the road.
DC-based Texas writer/theatre artist/arts educator Elizabeth Bruce’s debut novel, “And Silent Left the Place,” won Washington Writers’ Publishing House’s Fiction Award, with distinctions from the Texas Institute of Letters and ForeWord Magazine. She has had prose published in USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malawi, and India; one of her stories was nominated by the Australia-based Spadina Literary Review for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. She has won a number of fellowships, and her education book, “Theatrical Journey Playbook: Introducing Science to Early Learners through Guided Pretend Play,” published by CentroNía, won the Next Generation Indie Book Contest in Education and was a finalist for 3 other indie book contests.