All Along, This Was What Was Supposed To Happen

Stars and Stripes Forever
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Jan. 16 2009 6:58 AM

All Along, This Was What Was Supposed To Happen

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Listen to Curtis Sittenfeld read Part 3 of her novella here:

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.
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Patrice and Aunt Lettie wait in line an hour and 20 minutes for a cab from Union Station to Dupont Circle; by 30 minutes in, Patrice wishes they'd just taken the Metro, but a cab seemed better with their suitcases and Aunt Lettie's cane, plus there's a rumor that one of the up escalators at Dupont Circle isn't working, and the stranger who told her this didn't know whether the escalator was at the northern or southern exit. The apartment she and Aunt Lettie are staying in is on 17th Street where it intersects New Hampshire and S—it's technically not on Dupont Circle at all but three or four blocks north. Patrice is curious how much her cousin Janet is paying and also how exactly Janet and her son selected this apartment. Was nothing available on Capitol Hill, which would have been a much shorter walk to the Mall, or was it just more expensive? Or did it seem less safe? Patrice has already decided that she and Aunt Lettie will rise at 5 a.m. on Tuesday with the goal of getting to the Mall by 6 or 7; they'll have to walk because the Metro entrances will be blocked for people within 2 miles of the Mall.

It is dark outside as she and Aunt Lettie enter the apartment building using keys FedEx-ed to Patrice's office earlier this week, along with directions, from one Gretchen J. Shumacher. (Patrice was relieved to learn the apartment's usual inhabitant was a woman, because she thinks, perhaps unfairly, that women tend to be cleaner.) Though the building has two elevators in the lobby, just beyond the glass doors of the entrance, Gretchen J. Shumacher's apartment is on the first floor, down the left-hand corridor. All the keys work as per Gretchen J. Shumacher's written instructions, and the apartment turns out to be tidy, if plain and not particularly well-lighted. One bedroom holds a queen-size bed—this will be Aunt Lettie's—and the other bedroom features a foldout couch, its mattress extended and made up. This room also contains a large desk and a bookshelf filled with fat novels whose covers show dragons or men on horseback wielding swords; apparently, Gretchen J. Shumacher is a fantasy buff. We're here, Patrice thinks with gratitude.

Aunt Lettie has been subdued since the train ride, and Patrice suspects she's weary, so she offers to pick up food for dinner. Without unpacking, Patrice lets herself out of the apartment and the building and walks south toward Dupont Circle; she has visited Washington a dozen or so times in her life, usually for work, and she's stayed in this area but she doesn't know it well. She passes a Chinese takeout place that's full but, contrasting with other nearby establishments, doesn't have a crowd out the door, and she takes note of it as a possibility. The sidewalks are thick with people and festive energy, as if the city has become one extended block party. Police officers and military personnel are visible at corners, but even they don't detract from the celebratory mood in the air, and Patrice is struck by the thought that when, as a teenager in the suburbs of St. Louis, she imagined city life, this was what she pictured—this density and merriment—when in fact city life is hardly ever like this, or only for certain stretches on certain streets: Fifth Avenue in New York or Michigan Avenue in Chicago. In Philadelphia, she often takes a cab instead of walking home from Renee's place at night, even though it's only half a mile, because entire blocks can be empty, Patrice herself the only one out. Where is everyone? she always thinks in those moments.

As she approaches Dupont Circle, Patrice hears music, and then she sees the band on the far side of the fountain in the circle's center. There are 30 or 40 of them—as she gets closer, she realizes they're adults, not teenagers, as she thought when she was still across the street—and they're all black, wearing maroon uniforms and helmets with white tassels and white gloves. (They must be a marching band.) They're playing a rousing, totally unironic version of "Stars and Stripes Forever," and they're wonderful.

Previously, Patrice has pondered just what it is Aunt Lettie wants from the trip, whether being in D.C. is enough, being on the Mall during the ceremony, or whether there's some more specific moment or sight she's hoping for, and now Patrice thinks, This. This is what Aunt Lettie has come for. Patrice must go get her, in spite of it being several blocks for Aunt Lettie to walk. And will the band have moved on by the time they get back? But it's people and music and patriotism—Barack Obama has been elected, and now he's about to be sworn in!—and she has to try.

Aunt Lettie is initially confused by Patrice's entreaty but amenable. She has been lying in Gretchen J. Shumacher's bed, watching CNN on the television on Gretchen J. Shumacher's bureau. "Wear your scarf," Patrice says. "I think the temperature has fallen."

Outside again, retracing her steps, she tries not to hurry Aunt Lettie, though her aunt's slow pace reinforces Patrice's worry that the band won't still be there by the time they arrive. In any case, she needs to be more careful in allotting Aunt Lettie's energy.

But the band is there. Now they're playing "Living in America," and some people are dancing, people of varying ages and races (is it jaded for Patrice to think she has rarely observed a scene like this outside a soda commercial?), and the people who aren't dancing are using video cameras or regular cameras or cell phones to document the people who are. Aunt Lettie leans over and says, "That girl must weigh 400 pounds. How does she blow on that thing?" She means a trombonist in the second row who is indeed large, though Patrice doubts she's 400 pounds. Does this comment mean Aunt Lettie isn't enjoying the performance?

"She must have strong lungs," Patrice says.

"Janet's sure getting fat, but you've kept your figure," Aunt Lettie says. "You ought to tell her to go on a diet."

Yeah, when hell freezes over,Patrice thinks. She gestures toward the band and says, "Aren't they good?" The musicians have segued into "Yankee Doodle," which delights the crowd.

Aunt Lettie turns her head, squinting for a moment at Patrice, then says, "Your momma couldn't understand why you never found a man, but I always said to her, 'Patty is a girl that knows herself and likes her own company, and ain't nothing wrong with that.' "

For several seconds, Patrice is speechless. Her relatives flit around this topic constantly when she's in their presence—if she's being honest with herself, she can admit that it's the reason she's not in their presence more than once or twice a year—but they never land on it this squarely. And certainly no one ever defends her singleness; even her own sister, when she visits Brenda in London, says, "But don't you want someone to grow old with?" in a way that implies Patrice has been arguing against such a scenario. At last, because she still can't think of anything better to say, Patrice murmurs, "Thank you."

****

After dinner at the Chinese restaurant—Patrice anticipated getting takeout, but a table opened up, and they grabbed it—they return to the apartment, and Aunt Lettie gets ready for bed while Patrice sits in the living room typing a message to Corinne and Renee on her BlackBerry. Aunt Lettie spends a long time in the bathroom—Patrice can hear her humming to herself—and when Aunt Lettie's out, Patrice knocks on the door frame of the open bedroom. Aunt Lettie is sitting on the edge of the bed; she's wearing a long-sleeved, turtlenecked, pale-pink nightgown and has removed her wig. Her real hair is thin and mostly gray, smoothed back against her scalp. "Did you take your blood-pressure medicine?" Patrice asks. This is basically all Janet gave in the way of instructions.

"I sure did, baby," Aunt Lettie says.

"Do you need anything else?" Patrice asks. "Is the heat high enough?"

"I'm just fine." With effort, Aunt Lettie swings her feet up onto the mattress. Her ankles, Patrice notes, are heartbreakingly bony. Something about the absence of her wig makes her seem extra vulnerable, and Patrice considers tucking her in and kissing her forehead, but acting on this impulse would probably make them both uncomfortable.

From the doorway, Patrice says, "OK, well, sweet dreams. If you need me, just holler."

She crosses the apartment and opens the door to her own bedroom. She's pretty sure there's an overhead light, but she can't remember whether the switch is on the right or left, and she feels along the wall with her palm. Not there, not there, not there … she extends her left arm, finds it, and flicks. When the room is illuminated, the head that pops up from a pillow on the far end of the pull-out couch is not in and of itself terrifying—it's the head of a genial but disoriented-looking middle-aged white man, a balding fellow with a bushy sand-colored mustache, wearing a blue T-shirt—but it's the fact of anyone there at all, of a stranger in this room, that makes Patrice shriek. She is so startled, so totally unprepared in this moment to stumble upon another person, that a scream of exceptional pitch and duration escapes from her mouth.

The man holds up both hands, palms out, as if in surrender. "Lady—" he starts to say even before her scream has ended, and then again, "Lady, relax. All we're doing is trying to get some sleep."

"Patty, what is it?" Aunt Lettie calls, followed by the sounds of her scrambling out of bed and then, it seems, knocking over her cane. "Lord have mercy," Patrice hears her aunt say.

He could not be an intruder, she tells herself, grasping at logic, willing her pounding heart to slow, her entire body to quit shaking. An intruder would conceal himself, waiting to pounce, or he'd be gathering silver or electronics to steal. He would not be sleeping. This is when another head pops up from the other side of the pull-out couch, causing Patrice to gasp anew. The second person is an adolescent boy with pale skin and shaggy brown hair and—the faint glitter takes her a second to discern—a hoop earring at the corner of his lower lip. He glares at Patrice. "Who the fuck are you?" he says.

Coming Monday: The White House, racial tension, and porta-potties! Oh my!

Curtis Sittenfeld (@csittenfeld) is the author of the novels Prep, American Wife, and Sisterland.

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