Is Who You Are What You Do? Part 1

Author’s note: Like Charles Dickens, I will publish this serially, as I go about revising each bit. Since it’ll go in order, if you want to start at the beginning, you’ll need to start here and read more recent posts afterwards.  I wrote this novel the summer of 2006, and it is the first of three novels in this series about Charlie Witchell, a DOJ litigator in his late thirties. I’d love to hear your comments as I make my way through this work!

 

9/6/09

 

The crack of the wooden bat as it smacked the ball faded quickly into the cheers of the multiple games occurring along the Mall. Along with the cherry blossoms and a rocketing pollen count, springtime in Washington also hailed the first of several softball seasons where teams from across Capitol Hill and a medley of federal agencies would meet to battle out whatever they couldn’t resolve through memos.

 

“Go Hammer, go! Push it, man. You can make home! Run!”

 

Charlie Witchell gasped as he landed on third plate. Five years ago, he would have made it all the way home, but at 38, his legs were starting to slow down just enough that he noticed the difference.

 

Taunting Charlie and his teammates, a man laughed from the side, “They’re as slow in the field as they are filing briefs. Treasury’s dominion remains unchallenged.”

 

Charlie squinted in the early evening sun—it was his law school buddy and opposing team captain, Mike Ruiz. As his teammate hit the ball, Charlie flung himself at home plate only to be called out.

 

A roar went up from the Treasury side. “We are the champions,” they sang, hoisting the trophy into the air. Charlie hunched over, his hands on his knees, panting. He just didn’t have it like he used to.

 

“Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, Hey hey there, goodbye,” the victors sang, collecting their belongings and crossing the field for a sportsman’s handshake. Mike planted himself in Charlie’s path, the glint of his wedding band catching the sun. “Come on Hammer,” he said, “you owe me a victory brew. Let’s go.”

 

Panting, Charlie straightened up and looked at his friend. “You think winning makes you king of the hill?”

 

“I’m king of the hill,” Ruiz shouted laughing, “We are numero uno and Treasury will reign forever.” He hoisted the trophy above his head and whooped.

 

“Alright,” Charlie acquiesced. “If you think this sham of a victory will make up for your, uh, rumored shortcomings, go for it.” Mike chuckled, waving the trophy in Charlie’s face. They crossed behind other games that were winding down in the fading light of an early May evening.

 

“Keep telling yourself that, Hammer,” Ruiz retorted. “Deal with defeat however you must, but you still owe me a pitcher.” The two men trailed behind their teammates, waiting for the light at Independence Avenue to signal it was safe to cross.

 

The simple wood and glass doors of the popular watering hole, Foaming at the Mouth, belied all the intricacies and intensity of the conversations occurring within. Softball teams mixed with lower level congressional staffers who were chased after by young lobbyists, eager to make their mark. These denizens were the younger set—they yearned for the day when they could join the heavy hitter patrons of The Press Room, which was located over on Constitution. “Crossing the Mall,” they called it.

 

Large copper vats and an enormous polished bar set the tone of the cozy pub. As Charlie and Mike walked in, they were enveloped by the noise of the young and ambitious. Excited to be in Washington, pleased with themselves for having landed here, the early Washington careerists prided themselves on satisfying the stereotype. Someday they, too, would read their names in the Post or Congressional Daily Record. The celebrants spotted the opposing captains and waved them over. Mike proudly placed the trophy on the bar to the applause of his Treasury colleagues. “Buy me a beer, Hammer man,” he said with a smile. “I need that sweet nectar of victory.”

 

Charlie laughed and ordered three pitchers; this was a pattern he knew and had grown to love. At quiet moments, he still couldn’t get over his surprise that he had actually landed in the nation’s capital. Having taken the LSATs on a dare (as a major in agricultural sciences at Virginia Tech), Charlie never expected to do well on the test, let alone get accepted anywhere. But he’d scored high enough that he decided to try his luck and apply to school. George Washington had come through with a partial scholarship and he’d been in DC ever since.

 

A table opened up and Ruiz grabbed it. “Over here,” he motioned to Charlie. A DC native, Mike Ruiz had spent his entire life in Washington, save for his undergraduate years at UCLA. He lived and breathed this city—its sports, its politics, and the relentless, ambitious pace of the driven. Occasionally, Charlie noticed that Ruiz seemed to savor the fierce competition of the city more than anything else. He smiled, recalling the first day at GW when they met in their assigned study group; Ruiz showed him around the city and eventually helped Charlie land a job with a local landscaper so Charlie could pay for whatever expenses the scholarship failed to cover.

 

“So, Hammer, how’re things going?” Ruiz asked, checking his cell for any messages from his wife, Loreen.

 

Charlie smiled. The beer was taking effect and the loss of the championship became less important as the early spring sky changed from blue to black. “Good,” he said, “Really good. The Chief’s asked me to take the lead on what’s looking to be a politically charged case. It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds. I’ve been lobbying for us to continue negotiations with the developer, but Rakowski, who’s co-counsel with me, is pushing to bury them in court.”

 

“The thrill of the kill,” Mike mused, draining his mug.

 

“Yeah, well, it doesn’t make much sense to hit so hard if you don’t need to,” Charlie countered. “You want to save that for when you really need it.”

 

“Couldn’t disagree more, amigo,” Mike retorted as he refilled their mugs. “I mean, why else are you a litigator than to duke it out in court? If you don’t spill some blood, where’s the fun in that?”

 

Charlie snorted. “Easy for you to say; all you worry about is tracking wire transfers and what next inane thing violates the Patriot Act.”

 

“Hey, I may not be on the front line, but my skills are far more nuanced and require a subtlety you only wish you had.”

 

“Keep tellin’ yourself that, Ruiz.” The men laughed.

 

 

The walk home from the Bethesda Metro to Charlie’s modest brick apartment building was always pleasant. Mike had offered him a ride home, but he declined, preferring the transition time that the journey allowed him as he swooshed through the underground tunnels and emerged in the center of consumer activity—downtown felt far away. He marveled at the brightly illuminated storefronts, and variety of ethnic restaurants for which Bethesda had become known. It was all so different from Rossberg; he never wanted to leave. Hanging his suit on the arm of the colonial style lamp post, he fished for his house keys and opened the glossy black front door. As Charlie stepped into the hot, airless hallway, he noticed a message blinking on his answering machine. He dropped his keys in the tray and hit play.

 

“Charlie?” An older woman’s voice called out. “Charlie? Oh dear, you’re not home.” It was his mother; she sounded frightened. “John’s had a heart attack and I’m at the hospital in Lexington. Please come as soon as you can.”

 

He made good time. Given the lateness of his arrival home, by the time he got on the 495, the Beltway was cleared of most traffic and he was able to exit onto 81 South in less than 90 minutes. It was not quite 11pm when he pulled up to Mercy Hospital.

 

“Mama?”

 

“Charlie!” Jeannie Witchell stood up from the long row of orange, plastic chairs that ringed the waiting area. The tv hoisted in the corner near the ceiling was broadcasting a muted news report of world events thousands of miles away. He walked over and hugged her, her short, plump body reaching only as high as the middle of his chest.

 

“Mama, what happened? Is he ok? Are you alright? Where’s the doctor?”

 

It was a moment before Jeannie would let go of her son and look him in the face. Charlie recognized that familiar look of worry and fatigue which pained him as much now as it did years ago. “He had just finished unloading some sacks of meal and tried to climb back onto the tractor when he collapsed. I didn’t see it, but Pardy Tucker came running over to the house yelling for me to call an ambulance.” She burst into tears. Charlie steeled himself and fought back the faint sense of vulnerability he remembered so well from his youth.

 

Charlie hugged his mother and stroked her hair, his mind racing through what his next step should be. “Is he alright?” he asked again.

 

Jeannie nodded into his chest. “Dr. Denson, says we got him here in time, but it was severe and he’ll need time to recuperate.”

 

“Ok, so we need to talk to Dr. Denson,” Charlie stated. “It’s pretty late—is he still here?” He looked over at the nurses’ station, “Can we talk to Dr. Denson, please?” The nurse nodded and paged the MD. Charlie turned back to his mother. “Let’s wait here.”

 

About ten minutes later, Fred Denson met the Witchells in the waiting area. A wiry man in his mid sixties, he had moved home to Lexington right after graduation from UVA. He’d seen a lot of cases of aging farmers trying to do too much with too little help; the era of small farms was coming to an end. Too much work and too little recompense. Better left to the young ones to settle on how to create an economy out here, because farming wasn’t it.

 

Shifting into his litigator mode as the physician approached, Charlie introduced himself. “I’m John’s nephew. I here from DC and was hoping you could brief me.”

 

The MD surveyed the young man standing before him; he recognized the type. As farming made way for an economy based on tourism and outdoor adventure activities, Doc Denson had frequently been on call when some fancy Washington type got hurt doing something stupid in his kayak or got himself shot while trying to bring down a pheasant. It seemed to him that the idiocy quotient seemed to rise with every passing GS level. Inwardly, he shook his head; the local economy needed their dollars, but with them came more aggressive everything. He mourned the passing of a gentler era. This young fella would likely be no different.

 

“Yes, Mrs. Witchell here said you’d be coming.” The men shook hands. “Your dad—“

 

“My uncle,” Charlie corrected.

 

“Your uncle? Well, ok,” the MD paused, he hated being interrupted. “He suffered a massive coronary this afternoon and is lucky to be alive. He should recover just fine, but there are a few other tests I’d like to run in the morning.”

 

“What sort of tests?”

 

Dr. Denson surveyed the patient chart. “Oh mostly routine,” he shrugged. “The sonogram showed a cloudy area in his chest and I’d like to get that x-rayed before we send him home. He’s going to be here a day or two, anyway. All strictly routine—nothing to worry about.” Years of experience had taught Fred Denson to underplay any concerns.

 

“A cloudy area in his chest?” Jeannie slowly repeated. “He used to smoke a lot—well, everyone did—but gave that up nearly twenty years ago.”

 

“Now, Ms. Witchell,” Dr. Denson replied, using his most soothing voice, “no sense in getting yourself all upset ‘bout things we don’t know to be the case. Why don’t you and your son go back home, get some rest, and return tomorrow? The patient needs his sleep and I’m not available to supervise the tests until sometime late morning. Y’all go on. He’ll be watched closely, I promise.”

 

Jeannie shook her head, resistant to the idea of leaving John, but Charlie ushered her into the parking lot. “Come on, mama, let me take you home. We’ll be back in the morning. John’ll be ok; the doctor said so.” He opened the passenger side door of his dark green Jetta and waited for his mother to get in.

 

Jeannie turned back to the hospital and stared.

 

“Come on, mama. It’s late and you’ll feel better when you get some rest.” She nodded and sank into the seat. Charlie strapped on her safety belt before walking over to the driver’s side. She looked so small and tired. “The doctor seemed confident enough,” he said encouragingly. Pulling out of the parking lot, Charlie ran through his options: perhaps he could call in some chits and get John examined by a specialist in DC—no, better to wait until after the test results come back and he’d seen John for himself.

 

The forty-five minute drive back to Rossberg was quiet. Jeannie slumped against the car door, exhausted. Even though John wasn’t her husband, they had shared a house since the day she brought little Charlie back from Norfolk. As a recent Navy widow, she didn’t have anywhere else to go but her husband’s family farm. John had taken them in as if they were his own and it had been like that ever since.

 

Having escorted Jeannie to her room, Charlie stretched out on the living room sofa to sleep. His eyes drifted across the family photographs—John and Eddy as boys playing in the Wahonsett at the back of the farm property, Eddy’s framed PFC certificate displayed on the wall right next to a picture of his grandfather, John Sr., serving as a sergeant  in the 29th Infantry Division, a snapshot of Eddy and Jeannie at the Justice of the Peace when they married, John on his tractor years later, and several of Charlie growing up in Rossberg—playing on the same river banks, formal class photos, running cross country. His eyes lingered on the photo of the three of them at Charlie’s law school graduation. He recognized the anxiety his expression belied—his embarrassment by the homely clothes and back country manner his mom and John brought with them when they drove up for the ceremony. They were beaming at the camera but Charlie simply looked apologetic.

 

He never liked that photo.

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One Response to “Is Who You Are What You Do? Part 1”

  1. EcoMeg Says:

    Loved the first part – can’t wait to read what happens next!

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