A Firing Offense - By George Pelecanos


TORN LOTTERY TICKETS and hot dog wrappers—the remnants of Georgia Avenue Day—blew across the strip. At the district line a snaggle-toothed row of winos sat on the ledge of a coffee shop. A poster of the mayor, a smiling portrait in debauchery, was taped to the window behind them. The coke sweat had been dutifully airbrushed from the mayor’s forehead; only a contaminated grin remained. My Dart plodded south under a low gray cover of clouds.

I steered my car into a space a couple of blocks down and killed the engine. Several strip joints had closed on this part of the avenue in the past year, ostensibly a reaction to pressure from local citizens’ groups. The reality was that frequent, serious ass-beatings and one biker murder had closed down the clubs by way of revoked liquor licenses. Now the street was irreparably lifeless, a sodden butt drowning in the rot of a shot glass. A bathhouse and the Good Times Lunch had survived.

In the Good Times Lunch an industrial upright fan stood in the rear, blowing warm air towards the door. Malt liquor posters hung on the walls, showing busty, light-skinned women held by mustachioed black movie stars. Of the eight stools at the counter, three were occupied by graying men drinking beer from cans, and a fourth by a route salesman in a cheap suit.

Behind the counter were a sandwich block, grill, four baskets hung in a large deep-fryer, and a stocky little Korean named Kim, who walked with his feet wide apart and had forearms that appeared to be made out of brick. I took a seat at one of the remaining stools.

Kim acknowledged me with a slight tilt of his head. I ordered a fish sandwich, fries, and a can of beer. He brought the beer, and I tossed a quarter of it down as I watched him dump the frozen fish and potatoes into the same fryer basket. For the next five minutes I took long sips of beer and occasionally glanced out the window at the mounting northbound rush-hour traffic on Georgia Avenue.

The only sounds in the carryout were that of the fan and the barely intelligible music coming from Kim’s radio, the dial of which was set on WOL. I thought of work, my reprimand, and my indifference to the subject. No one spoke to me.

I guess that was the day everything began to come apart. The day of my reprimand. The day the old man phoned me about the boy.

A rock gets pushed at the top of a hill, and it begins to roll, and then it doesn’t matter who did the pushing. What matters is that nothing can stop it. What matters is the damage done. So how it started, I suppose, is insignificant. Because what sticks now is how it ended: with the sudden blast and smoke of automatic weapons, and the low manic moan of those who were about to die.

* * *

EARLIER IN THE DAY, the name “Ric Brandon” had printed out across the screen of my desk phone, indicating an interoffice call. I had sipped my coffee and let the phone ring several times until the process reversed itself. His name disappeared letter by letter, from right to left. The call was then forwarded up to Marsha, our receptionist. Presently my phone rang again. It was Marsha.

“Nicky?” she said.


“Ric Brandon’s looking for you,” she said tiredly. “He’d like to see you in his office as soon as you have a minute.” Her words hung in the receiver apologetically.

“Thanks, Marsha.” I picked up my coffee and headed for the john. The sound of printers, typewriters, and distaff voices swirled around me as I stepped down the hall. Passing Marsha’s desk, I smiled and tapped the “Elvis Country” plaque that she had proudly set next to the switchboard.

I pushed open the door to the men’s room and moved to the sink to wash up. In the mirror I saw the scuffed-up heel boxes on a pair of wing tips beneath the stall door. They belonged to Seaton, the controller. His trousers were around his ankles as he stood urinating into the toilet. I splashed some water on my face and looked in the mirror: I was thirty years old, and had drunk several beers backed with bourbon the night before.

I had figured out, incorrectly as it turned out, the reason for Brandon’s summons. One day earlier he and I and an executive from one of the local factory wholesalers had gotten