Whether or not the great American novel has been written, the great Washington D.C. novel, arguably, has not. Much that happens here is documented—there is an archive for nearly everything—but the inner lives of our citizens are seriously underreported. Spiritual identities are consigned to the kind of indiscriminate oblivion that the politicians, pundits, and PR agents who often come here at the apex of their careers fear most of all, for in this city of relative powers, where relevance is measured by proximity to influence, the spiritual life is often ignored. Whether this is wisdom or ignorance we may never know—the spiritual powers are not exercised overtly—and yet they are the yeast injected into the mass, the inscrutable and alien body inside the political city, but also, perhaps, the activating ferment that thwarts the city’s politics and the city’s history as a dike thwarts the flood, to raise its level.
It is generally agreed that race and our country’s problems with race must be a significant part of every possible scenario for the construction of the the so-called “great American novel” and central to the answer to every question of whether that book has indeed been written. There are many fine Washington writers, some have even penned candidates for this laurel, but very few of them attempt to do so about Washington. Why? Perhaps because the “power players” most of them choose to write about come here from other places—often at the pinnacle of their careers—and therefore, the deep “bred in the bone” quality, the quality that binds them to their hometowns, and therefore the ground and the grounding that make up the soul of the great novel, is missing. Any quick glance at the New York Times bestseller list will almost always show that there are perhaps more bestsellers that take place in D.C. than anywhere else—numbers two and eight on the list as of this writing are about Washington—and any number of thrillers on the list use Washington, if not as their primary setting, then as the local habitation and name of the many always pressing, always world-changing intrigues that strangely mirror everyday political rhetoric in the sense that the present moment is always portrayed as a crisis. But these books touch very little on the inner lives of our locals.
If the great D.C. novel were to be written, perhaps it would not be about the people giving the speeches in this town but, as the former Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Jonathan Yardley once said while speaking at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award ceremony at Montgomery College, by the people writing them, or better yet, cleaning their offices. These very people are indeed the subject of some recent books of short stories, so if the great D.C. novel has not been written, perhaps it is germinating. Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children, his 2006 follow-on to 1992’s Lost in the City, has been praised for its fidelity to the inner lives of the people of this city. Jones, born and raised in D.C., was influenced by Joyce’s Dubliners, a book of stories about a single city, and writes about the African-American working class in D.C. while creating an archive of lyrical insights into the hearts and souls of its residents in stories like “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River” – lyric insights, moreover, that stand in stark distinction to much of the political, rhetorical, and even literary writing about Washington mostly because they acknowledge and ingest sedimentation while still somehow maintaining their richness and beauty.
And in Jones’ wake comes David Nicholson, whose first collection of short stories, Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City takes its title from a 1932 W.E.B. DuBois article entitled “The Secret City: An Impression of Colored Washington” and gives many of these neglected spiritual matters a local habitation and a name as well. Jones, like Nicholson, traverses the axis mundi of D.C. while at the same time having his characters embark on the same spirit voyages of all human beings—all the while somehow, like Jones, threading the eye of the needle by describing these spiritual realities in Washington D.C.’s unique and quotidian terms, contexts, and conditions.
In “Seasons,” Tyson, an aging ex-Negro League ballplayer, embarks on a spirit voyage that serves to stand in—because there was nothing written down explicitly denying blacks the right to play the game, only an understanding between owners—as a spiritual and historical document attesting to baseball’s history of apartheid. And yet like all great art, the story is not doctrinal, that is, while it argues against baseball, against Washington D.C., and even against America itself and its creedal assumptions, at the same time it oddly affirms all of them and asserts that, even for someone like Tyson, they are a field of dreams.
Because Nicholson is attuned to spiritual realities, Tyson’s dreams, seemingly denied while playing in an exhibition game in 1931 against “Babe Ruth’s Major League All Stars,” can be read, in some sense, at least in retrospect, to have been affirmed. Moreover, while the baseball diamond is a representative American Eden, it has an example, in Tyson’s fate, of how it also has its own original sin, and in Tyson, a man for whom the major league ballpark—when he takes the mound bearing an unimaginable, and in baseball terms, Sisyphean burden—is a walled garden with access allowed not, as the American creed promises, by skill alone, he nevertheless is granted, in that same ballpark, in an existential sense, a window on the real world. Reading this story, it comes to mind that even the man who broke the color line wasn’t the best black ballplayer available, and Tyson, who had already been the starting pitcher twice in the last four days, will be asked to do the impossible, and, if he had been playing for a major league team, the unthinkable, and pitch again.
Nicholson, and writers like him, are at once de facto historians, who share an obligation to archive events from below and, as a short story writer, have the added obligation to excavate inner experiences, as in this story, the inner experiences of baseball’s casualties. Good writers locate the universal in the particular—in this context, one might call them micro-historians—but for a great short story writer the spiritual particular must always be the starting point, and this is what at the same time makes “Seasons” so real and ambitious, and perhaps answers the question of why writing well about Washington is so hard and perhaps the real reason the great D.C. novel has not yet been written. Nicholson wouldn’t be the first writer, of course, to see baseball as a metaphor for the American dream. The examples are numerous—but in the historical context of the Negro Leagues, through the perspective of a former player, his wife, and family—to find a writer who can channel the actual feelings of these experiences and their aftermath in a Washington D.C. context is gloriously rare.
The black ballplayers, like Tyson, were constantly on the move, riding in broken down busses and overstuffed cars, staying in cheap out-of-the way motels, and moving enclave to enclave, city to city, playing in over two hundred games a season. Life on the lam, on the run, would not have been much different. Indeed perhaps it would have been easier, because these men were easily identified—they were black ballplayers after all—and therefore, at least in some of the southern cities, often hated and despised.
“Seasons,” the third story in a collection which includes stories about a boy who arrives here from Freeport, Bahamas and a curator working at the Smithsonian, revolves around a literal lie Tyson has told the 11-year-old boy who lives in the house his wife has been cleaning in Chevy Chase since before the boy was born. The “lie” concerns Tyson’s encounter with Babe Ruth in an exhibition game about which he has told the boy, named Jesse, that he struck out the Babe in a pivotal part of the game. In fact, Tyson did get Babe Ruth to ground weakly to the mound in the seventh inning, but his surrender of the game-winning home run in the ninth, which he has kept hidden, and the circumstances in which, as details emerge, the fatal crack of both the bat and Tyson’s arm occurred, gives Nicholson the opportunity to portray the dualistic fragmentation of African-American experience not only in baseball, in Washington D.C., and in America itself but in Tyson’s spirit as well. Despite all his achievements, knowledge, and experience of the game, Tyson still feels the need to fabricate a lie to impress a mere boy, a white boy at that, representing the tragedy that he can only see his real achievement in the context of its diminishment which, in the end, will always and inevitably bring shame when he has to fess up. Tyson had access to baseball, to the House of Ruth, but only—realistically, psychologically, and spiritually—as a houseboy.
Tyson and his wife Garnet Odom are living out their middle age with only their mutual intolerance to hold on to and a “rusted, dented Chevy” that they drive back and forth to Chevy Chase and which perhaps stands in for the economic disparities existing cheek by jowl, grid by grid, in the very same city. Garnet, a Dunbar grad who attended Howard “if only for a little while—and he [Tyson] had been the reason for that,” is now a housekeeper. Stuck at home, as they usually are over the weekend, sitting in their steaming living room late into the evening with Tyson still trying to twist the antennae just so to pick up the Orioles game, the real story begins… “but tonight, no matter how much he coaxed the set, the men on the field remained flickering ghosts, refusing to materialize out of the flutter and snow.” This picture is the perfect representation and, in a sense, encapsulation for the “action” that is to follow that same night in which Tyson will be called upon to bring the haunting specters of the Negro Leagues alive to explain his heretofore untruthful and incomplete telling of the game that ended his career. For Garnet, too, sitting on the plastic-covered couch with her Bible in her lap, her eyes “shut against the tears that came with the realization that this was all she had to look forward to,” the night will bring a reckoning with incomplete memory and hidden truths as she will be find herself volunteering new information about where she was on the night of that fateful game.
Nicholson’s Washington is gray, his palette grisaille, even though his stories are set in an imagined version of Bloomingdale, the neighborhood he grew up in, his own Yoknapatawpha County not only because his stories are all set in the same locale but because, like Faulkner’s, they share some of the same characters as they age as well, an imaginary Bloomingdale but nonetheless a Bloomingdale that is today home to a black middle class that Nicholson says most people don’t see except perhaps in the opening credits to Netflix’s Washington D.C. hit, House of Cards, as the camera pans down North Capitol Street where, if it stayed, it would find his secret city. Instead, of course, it moves towards the centers of power and proves, for Nicholson, that DuBois’ point about the two Washingtons never coming together is still relevant, and Nicholson’s Washington D.C., therefore, is less a geographical marker than a condition and, as seen through Tyson’s life, as well as his marriage, a seemingly, at least at first glance, unalterable and irretrievable fate.
Nicholson is witness but—because he is a spiritual historian—also participant in this condition and therefore able to write about a Washington that—at least in its ideal state–represents the American creed, a creed which preaches meritocracy and upward mobility to all willing to work hard and, as the saying goes, play by the rules. The question for Nicholson becomes how a city, a country, and in “Seasons,” a baseball league, once inherently exploitive, can still be accommodated within this scheme when Tyson’s baseball career with the Washington D.C. Dukes is mostly experienced only in the seemingly inglorious aftermath of that career—Tyson ferrying his wife around, watching ballgames on TV, taking trips to the barbershop and most of all, for purposes of this story, lying to a little boy about striking out the Babe.
“When they’d moved onto the Street after the war, there had been squirrels. There were white families on the block as well, and Tyson had unloaded the truck set-faced and stiffly polite, speaking when spoken to, ready to face whatever came. The white people were gone now, and so were the squirrels. And though they still knew most of their neighbors, if not to invite into their homes then by sight to wave to, the block had changed in other ways. The doctors and lawyers and schoolteachers had moved further north or west towards the Park. There were still people like themselves, taxi drivers and government clerks and mail carriers, hard-working men and women who kept up their homes and saved to send their children to D.C. Teachers, Fisk, and Hampton. But there were more women without men and with too many children, and here and there, like a mouth with rotting teeth, the Street was dotted with houses with cracked concrete stoops and peeling paint.”
The white families moved to places like Georgetown, once predominantly African-American, at least the 15-block section south of P Street between Rock Creek and 31st Street NW once known as Herring Hill, and near Georgetown University, which is now laboring under the revelation that it survives today only because of the sale of 272 of its slaves in the 1830s—the names of whom, if they were white and wealthy, presumably, would be on its walls as its greatest benefactors. Part of the twisting of the American creed, after all, is that poverty is seen as a disease and that as African Americans, Tyson and Garnett, because they are relatively poor, deserve bad treatment by the Wilcoxes when they show up to rescue their son. Paradoxically, therefore, it is likely much more a matter of cultural alienation than unease about economic circumstances that disturbs them and makes them feel that their boy, who snuck out of their house in the middle of the night with only his baseball glove to be with his hero, is in danger when they arrive at the house and see that he is fine:
“Jesse,” the boy’s father said. He was all forehead and glasses, a wisp of blond hair pasted down across his naked skull. “You all right, son?”
He is all right physically, of course, but he is crushed because he has learned in the time it has taken for his parents to arrive that Tyson’s lied about striking out the Babe. Indeed when Jesse arrived unexpectedly, Garnet, furious at Tyson, insisted he had to come clean to the boy and Tyson, fortified by whisky and holding his old scrapbook, has just revealed the devastating truth when the Wilcoxes arrive. They insist on taking Jesse home immediately, but Jesse wants him to finish the story and it becomes clear, even to the tinniest of ears, that if success is indeed available to all who are willing to work hard, Tyson had to work harder for so much less than any white ballplayer at the time, and even Mr. Wilcox comes around and relents and approves a coach-player relationship between his son and Tyson.
“That was it, what he’d always known, but never said, not in all these years. Men like Spider Collins and Preacher Bates already knew, and so there was no need to speak of it. Even Lamarr Jenkins, watching the world go by from behind his barber chair, understood. Which was why the barber had said nothing, even though he’d looked at him with a hint of pity, the way he might have looked at a man who had taken to wearing his hair as if he were twenty years younger. He, Tyson, had loved the game. Why else would he have put up with all that came along with it, knowing the whole time there wasn’t a chance in hell he could make the majors where the real money was? He loved it, was sorry now the long, cramped, sweaty bus rides were over and done with, sorry he’d never slump sleepless in the hard seat again, listening to Frog Richmond and Willie Brown chivvying Mule in the back, while Cortez Pettigrew hummed a blues, and Spider Collins and Preacher Bates argued about who was the best hitter the Negro Leagues had ever seen. And Willis Mitchell’s sad whiskey voice coming from up front, remembering the curve he had once had or the way the ball had soared across the sky when he’d hit his grand slam, his only home run in some twenty years in the league.
“I loved it,” Tyson said. “God’s truth, Jesse—I loved it.”
“Better than you did any woman,” Garnet said bitterly, still peering through the curtains. “No woman could have come close.”
Tyson looked over at her shamefaced because he could not deny the truth she’d spoken. But she had understood. Once, long ago before it had gone wrong between them. She had; he knew it.
“Switch on the porch light, sugar,” Tyson said, before he turned the page. “Now, this here’s the one you saw this afternoon in the barbershop, Jesse. Me and the Babe shaking hands.”
The question becomes how can a system—baseball, the American pastime, at bottom, for people like Tyson, a system, like the country itself, inherently exploitive–be accommodated, in the presence of the little boy who Tyson has begun to see as his pupil, if not his baseball heir, within the rhetoric of equality and fair play upon which the game and the country is built. After Jesse begins to understand, if not forgive, Tyson’s lie, he asks why Tyson agreed to pitch for the third time in less than one week:
“Why’d you do it? He asked, voice as forlorn as if he’d been there, had sat stunned as Ruth rounded the bases and came trotting into the knot of waiting All Stars while the Dukes shambled off the field. “You never pitched again. Why’d you do it?”
“I had to, son. I had to.”
“No you didn’t. You coulda just said no and sat on the bench.”
“Coulda,” Tyson admitted. “Doc wouldn’ta said nothin’, nobody else neither. Maybe I just wasn’t thinking straight.”
But that wasn’t it. He’d known what he was doing when he’d gone to Doc. And he’d wanted to jam the ball past Ruth, had wanted to show every white man in the park—no, every man—that the Dukes were as good as any team in the majors. Because there was the All Star—Doerr? Giacometti? He’d forgotten which one—who’d come up to the Dukes’ bat boy and said, “Lemme rub this little nigger’s head for luck.”
But that wasn’t it either.
The truth was, he had done it for love. For Mule and for Frog, for Spider and Anderson and Wilkins Turner, for Preacher Bates and all the rest whose names and faces had faded in his memory. For Garnet, in case her parents had relented and she’d come and was watching. The truth was he had done it for love.
“I told you,” Tyson said. “We couldn’t get to play on their teams. But I didn’t do it to show ‘em. I did it–” He stopped, embarrassed at what he might reveal that a man kept hidden because to name it was to risk losing it. “I did it because they needed me. Dixie Dukes was my team. They needed me.”
The boy and the man looked into each other’s eyes a long time, as some secret knowledge passed wordlessly between them, and Jesse nodded, his face clearing.
Some riddle is solved in this passage—not only for Jesse but for Tyson, too, and the Wilcoxes, and who knows, if people still read books of shorts stories, the riddle of race itself. Perhaps the secret is love, love that comes from understanding, the kind of understanding that springs up when conversation is permitted, give and take, speaking and listening, the one thing we sorely lack now as a country. Tyson’s “lie,” after all, at this point in the story suddenly seems small, not only to Jesse but to Garnet as well, and the sense of peace that the retelling seems to make possible, not only for Tyson and the boy but that almost exudes from all the characters in the room, suggests that the fruits of ignorance and inanity can still be somehow made beautiful—or at least allow, if not refashioned for retelling, a rewarding experience—for if truth doesn’t have a moral dimension, conversation does, dialogue does, great fiction does, and even if human life is not sacred, the unlocking of the innermost secrets can be, and often is, sacramental.
There are many fine writers in Washington but precious few who write stories about the secret city. Its contradictions and its fault lines of race, politics, and geography are often described, but rarely the fault lines of its spirits, its souls, if you will, and Nicholson, a Washington native now in his sixties who reconnected with an entire contingent of his Sidwell Friends class of 1968 when he read from his book at Politics and Prose along with another Washington D.C. native, Jeff Richards, author of Open Country: A Civil War Novel in Stories, both books published by Richard Peabody and his Paycock Press. George Pelecanos, whose novels are set primarily in Washington and a candidate himself for authorship of the great D.C. as well as great American novel, called Flying Home the read of the summer, and Nicholson, like his fellow short story writer, Edward P. Jones, seems bent on describing the sometimes hunched backed, sometimes soaring spirits of the unseen city.
In this election “season” these spirits appear to be short circuiting the whole arrangement by finally demanding more than rhetoric from both sides and, strangely enough, therefore creating the conditions of attention in which the great Washington D.C., if not great American novel, might be born. For the great writers of the spirit, ground zero of this internal battle is always in the eye of the beholder, and for Nicholson the voyage of the spirit takes place in Washington D.C. In his stories Kierkegaard’s dictum that life must be lived forward but can only be understood backwards plays out in D.C.’s neighborhoods in the perpetual batter’s box of the present, and in “Seasons,” the lack of understanding that makes injustice possible plays out in a living room conversation in Bloomingdale, in walking distance from the power centers where similar conversations start but light years away in terms of the spiritual resolution this one confers.
Tyson is always looking for the ball thrown high and inside from Garnett and is surprised when she begins to soften during his retelling of his encounter with the Babe in front of Jesse and, eventually, the Wilcoxes, and in the end, at least for one night, their marital conflict is resolved. And though the so-called American Dream has eluded Tyson, he has nevertheless found and explained to those assembled the dignity of the struggles of his daily life—and has described an America that, if not an Edenic reality—afforded—at least in the ballpark—at least once, Edenic promise.
“And so Garnet stands and crosses to her side of the bed. In a little while, by mutual, unspoken consent, they move towards one another. The curves of their bodies fit, hip to thigh, chest to breast. The house is still. Outside, for a moment, the restless city sleeps. They have come this far together; it is not for them to say how much further there is to go. But in that time, they have weathered and worn against each other, reaching an accommodation, as a tree establishes its roots around a stone, or water wears away rock. They have each other, for better, for worse, and each of them knows it.
Perhaps they will make love, as they have not for some time, skin against skin, flesh against flesh, finding salvation in surrender. Things will change, a little perhaps. Only the morning will tell. But that does not matter. For they hold each other. And right now, neither is alone.”
His obsession with baseball not only leads him into a love-hate relationship with Garnett but also casts the boy, Jesse, as both the source of his danger and the agent or angel who could propel him in his quest for something spiritual that could affirm his importance. Tyson wanted the physical life as much as Garnet wanted to transcend it but both, however, wanted to overcome the isolation that their physical existence in Washington D.C. had imposed on them as individuals. In this process Garnet finally admits to her own lie suggesting that morality and love may have, on the contrary, a strange kinship with immorality, suggested in the story by the gleam in her eye as well as her barely suppressed smile every time Tyson did something she insisted was wrong. When Tyson, for example, called her “Sugar” when Jesse suggested they don’t tell his parents when he arrived at their door in the middle of the night:
“What are you laughing at? It wont be you that has to pay for this. No sir. Its been sixteen years I worked for Mrs. Wilcox. Sixteen years—I remember the day this child was born. And now it’s all gone. I just hope you’re satisfied.”
“Now, hol’ on a minute,” Tyson said. “I ain’t the one told him…” Her face darkened with fury, “Sugar,” he said. “Sugar…”
“Sugar? Hmmph! It’s too late for that now.”
“We don’t have to tell them,” Jesse said.
Garnet whirled on him, exasperation battling fondness on her face, before she sighed and made a little sound—tsst!—between her teeth.
And when Tyson reaches the climax of the story, how his arm broke down from overuse while pitching to the Babe, Garnet finally admits, for the first time, her lie to him. Unbeknownst to him, she had been there to see (and gruesomely, hear) it happen:
“It sounded just like somebody breaking a stick,” Garnet said, looking at her own reflection in the mirror. “I bit my lip so hard the blood ran.
“Nobody else seemed to notice. And it was loud with all those people cheering, it was like I was all by myself. You know how you think things when you’re all alone? Tyson, I know it was wicked, but I let myself think what I’d wanted the whole time.
“I was glad it happened,” she said. “you wouldn’t ever be able to pitch again, and you’d have to leave the road and settle down. You weren’t going to Mexico, But it wasn’t meanness, Tyson; selfishness, maybe, but it wasn’t meanness.”
She came to him, then, kneeling by the side of the bed and taking his hand, looking up at him with pleading eyes.
“I wanted you, Tyson. I wanted you. And to keep everything else I already had because I wouldn’t give it up to have you. I was ready to, but when you hurt your arm it meant I could have you, and not just letters and a phone call before you had to run to get a sandwich because they were almost done filling the bus with gas. I wanted you.”
Tyson reached to pull her up, to draw her to him, to hold her. “I know,” he said. “I know.”