LORENZO BROWN OPENED his eyes. He stared at a cracked plaster
ceiling and cleared his head.
Lorenzo was not in a cot but in a clean, full-size bed. In an
apartment with doors that opened and shut when he wanted them to. A
place where he could walk free.
Lorenzo swung his feet over the side of the mattress. His dog, a
medium-size mix named Jasmine, rose from her square of remnant
carpet, stretched, and shook herself awake. She came to him, her
nails clicking on the hardwood floor, and touched her nose to his
knee. He rubbed behind her ears, stroked her neck, and patted her
flanks. Jasmine's coat was cream colored, with tan and brown
shotgunned across the fur. Lorenzo had saved her from the shelter
on New York Avenue the night before her scheduled euthanization. He
passed by scores of doomed animals every day but had never taken
one home. It was her eyes, he supposed, that had caused him to stop
in front of her cage. He tried not to think too hard on the ones
he'd passed by. He couldn't save them all. All he knew was, this
was one good dog.
"Morning," said Lorenzo. Jasmine looked at him with those beautiful
coffee bean eyes. Seemed like she was smiling too. The stand-up fan
in the corner of the room blew warm air across them both.
The clock radio that had woken him played on. He kept its dial set
on 95.5, WPGC. Huggy Low Down, a comedian in street-fool character,
was talking with Donnie Simpson, the morning deejay, who'd been on
the air in D.C. since Brown was a kid. It was their morning
conversation, conducted by phone.
"Donnie?" "Yes, Huggy?" "Donnie." "Yes, Huggy." "You know what
time it is, don't you?" "I think so, Huggy." "It's time to announce
the Bama of the Week."
The last word, reverbed in the studio, echoed in the room. Same
back-and-forth, every day. Huggy could be flat-out funny, though.
And when he spun music, Simpson tended to play old school, which
Lorenzo preferred. Lorenzo couldn't get behind that death romance
Lorenzo Brown peed and brushed his teeth. He swallowed two
ibuprofens to fend off the headache he knew would come. He washed
down a C and a multivitamin as well.
Still in his boxer shorts, he returned to his room, where he did
stretching exercises and crunches on a camping mat he'd laid on the
floor. He then worked out with forty-pound dumbbells in front of a
wall mirror, pyramid sets that left a rope of vein popping on each
of his arms. He did some triceps curls as well. He finished with
pull-ups on a bar he'd hung in the door frame, bending his legs at
the knees to accommodate his height.
Lorenzo no longer did push-ups. They reminded him unpleasantly of
the five hundred push-ups he had done for eight years, every day,
in his cell.
RACHEL LOPEZ got up on one elbow, reached for the snooze bar on her
clock radio, and silenced the banter coming from the morning deejay
and his provocateur partner. She let her head drop back onto the
pillow. Her stomach flipped, and a dull ache came from behind her
This will be my morning: three aspirins, no breakfast. Coffee
and a cigarette, then out the door. Today is a road day. Get up and
do your job.
She opened her eyes and kicked weakly at the sheets, which smelled
faintly of cheap male cologne. She got herself up to a sitting
position on the edge of the bed and turned the alarm off. The clock
radio, a graduation gift from her father, was a Sony Dream Machine,
a simple white cube that had looked ultramodern back in '92.
"To wake you up for work now, little girl. No one is going to do
that for you anymore. You're going to need the alarm, the way you
light the fire on both ends. But that won't last too long. Your
body will reject it. Too many late nights; you can't mix them with
I'm still mixing them, Popi. The bad Rachel and the
Rachel showered, shampooing her hair and thoroughly washing her
sex. In her bathrobe, at a small table set by an open window, she
had her coffee and smoked the day's first cigarette. Afterward, she
dressed in a loose, lightweight cotton shirt worn out over relaxed
jeans and sneakers. The clothing was utilitarian gear of the Gap
school of conformity, the styles chosen to hide her shape. She put
on no makeup and added no shine product to her shoulder-length
black hair. She was not trying to look unattractive. She was simply
aiming to discourage any sexual feelings on the part of the men and
women she encountered every day.
At the front door of her functional apartment, she stopped and
gathered her tools: several manila files, a clipboard holding forms
called "pinks," field sheets used for notations, a couple of pens,
her cell phone, her badge, and the keys to her car. She glanced at
the mirror hung above the table and looked into her dark
Not bad, she thought. Even without the war paint, and with what I
did to myself last night, I still look pretty good.
LORENZO BROWN ate a bowl of Cheerios while standing in his Pullman
kitchen, then showered and changed into his uniform. Walking to the
front door, he passed a worn sofa and armchair, and stopped to
adjust his grandmother's hope chest, centered behind the sofa's
back. The hope chest sat on an old oval throw rug; beneath the
throw rug was a rectangle that Lorenzo had cut out and replaced
snugly in the hardwood floor.
At the apartment's entrance, Lorenzo picked up a chain leash with a
looped leather strap that hung on a nail he had driven into the
wall. Jasmine heard the clatter of the chain and joined him at the
Lorenzo's landlord, a man named Robie who lived on the second and
third floors of the row house where Lorenzo stayed, had left him a
long plastic bag, the one the Post got delivered in, on
the porch. As he always did, Robie had put the bag under half a
brick so that it would not blow away. Lorenzo slipped the bag into
his pocket and went down concrete steps to the street. He and
Jasmine walked east on Otis Place, up a grade into the sun, along
brick row houses with wooden porches fronted by columns, some of
the homes painted and kept up nice, others in disrepair. Sturdy oak
trees grew on the government strip along the curb.
Lorenzo went up the block, stopping at the short, rundown stretch
of 6th Street that was the cut-through from Otis to Newton as
Jasmine peed beside a tree. Down there at the corner of Newton and
6th, where Nigel Johnson's mother still stayed, Lorenzo could see a
cluster of parked cars, new and late-model Lexus and BMW coupes and
sedans, with a black Escalade, tricked with spinners, in the mix. A
couple of young men leaned against their rides. The Lexus, a black
GS430 with dual pipes and aftermarket rims, belonged to
Lorenzo assumed that Nigel was in there behind that tinted glass,
sitting under the wheel, talking on his Nextel. Few in Nigel's
profession had their troops up and on the street at this early
hour, but that was Nigel through and through. He'd had that kind of
ambition, and an almost blinding work ethic, since he was a kid.
The two of them had run these Park View streets together, going
back almost twenty-five years.
As Jasmine finished her business, Lorenzo pulled gently on her
leash. They passed the home of Joe Carver, another of Lorenzo's old
neighborhood running boys, now living with his aunt. Joe's pickup,
a red-and-white F-150 of midnineties vintage, was not along the
curb, which meant he was already gone for the day. Joe had been
getting steady work as a bricklayer, a trade he had learned in the
federal facility in Kentucky, since he'd come out. He'd been on a
construction site on North Capitol, south of New York Avenue, for
the past six months.
Lorenzo walked along Park View Elementary, where he had attended
grade school. The summer-school kids had just begun to arrive, some
holding the hands of their mothers, grandmothers, or aunts. He
passed the mural painting of successful black folks, Frederick
Douglass and George Washington Carver and the like, that covered an
entire wall. They'd had pictures up of folks like them in just
about every classroom Lorenzo had ever been in, but the pictures
hadn't stopped him or anyone he knew from going down to the corner.
Lorenzo realized that people meant well, but still.
At Warder, the wide north-south street that paralleled Georgia
Avenue, Lorenzo cut left, then hung another left on the east side
of the school and went down Princeton Place, where his grandmother
still lived in the house in which he'd been raised.
A little girl he recognized, a six-year-old name of Lakeisha, came
toward him on the sidewalk, swinging a clear book bag by its strap.
Right behind her was her mom, a pretty young hairdresser named
Rayne. Rayne was a single mother who undoubtedly led a stressful
life but seemed devoted to Lakeisha and always kept herself looking
good. She and her daughter lived beside his grandmother, in the
next row house to the south.
Lorenzo stopped to let Lakeisha bend down and pet his dog. She had
a pretty smile, like her mother's but near toothless, and cornrows
with tiny seashells fitted on the ends of her braids.
"Jazz Man's her name?" said Lakeisha. "Jasmine," said Lorenzo,
looking at her fondly, barely knowing her but loving her, as she
reminded him of his baby girl.
"Is she good?" "Most of the time."
Lakeisha touched a finger to her chest. "Does she love people in
"Yeah, she loves people. 'Specially little princesses like
"Bye, Jazz Man," said Lakeisha, abruptly standing and going up the
hill toward her school. "Thank you, Lorenzo," said Rayne, smiling
"For what?" "For being so nice to my baby."
"Ain't no thing," said Lorenzo, smiling back, puffing his chest up
a little and laughing at himself for doing so. Wondering how she
knew his name, remembering that he had made it a point to find out
hers from his grandmother. Maybe she had done the same.
"I better catch up to her," said Rayne. "See you around," said
Down the street a bit, Lorenzo entered a pedestrian passageway
between the school playground and a neighborhood park surrounded by
a fence but accessible through an always open gate, and walked onto
a field covered in high grass. This was the usual morning route for
Lorenzo and his dog. Jasmine stopped in the middle of the field,
put herself back on her hindquarters, and defecated in the
Lorenzo looked around, slightly embarrassed, as he always would be,
at what he was about to do. He retrieved the plastic bag from his
pocket, slipped his hand inside it, formed a glove, then reached
down and picked up Jasmine's feces. He turned the bag inside out
and tied it off. He and Jasmine left the park, exiting by the
south-side steps, and went back down Otis the way they'd
Passing 6th again, he could see Nigel, now standing outside his
car, talking to the ones on his payroll. Nigel had on a nice powder
blue Sean John warm-up suit, with a simple gold chain hung outside
the jacket. One of the young men, wearing an Oakland Raiders cap
sectioned like a pizza pie in alternating black and white, turned
and looked at Lorenzo, made a comment to the tall boy next to him,
and laughed. Lorenzo could only imagine what had been said as they
looked at him, a square in a uniform, working for rent money and
nothing more, holding a bag of shit in one hand and the leash of a
dog, and not even a fighting dog at that, in the other. Time was,
Lorenzo Brown would have laughed at the sight of his self
Nigel Johnson said something to the young man who had made the
comment, and the young man's smile vanished. Nigel nodded at
Lorenzo with an uptick of his chin. Even from this distance,
Lorenzo could still see the boy in Nigel's eyes. He nodded back and
went on his way.
LORENZO LEFT FOOD and water for Jasmine, turned the standup fan so
that it blew directly on her carpet bed, and exited the house. He
got into his Pontiac and went down to Georgia, where he drove
north, toward the office. There he would clock in, check his
messages, and take one of the white trucks out for his calls.
Up around 9th and Upshur, in Petworth, he stopped to pay Rodel, the
man who cut his hair in the shop set in that commercial strip that
ran along the avenue. He'd been light at the time of his last
shape-up, and Rodel had let him slide. Coming out of the
barbershop, he saw a big man with a dog, a muscular tan boxer, out
on the sidewalk. The man, broad of shoulder and back, his hair
lightly salted with gray, was turning the key to his business, had
that sign with the magnifying glass over its front window. That
sign was always lit up at night. Man had been in business there
Lorenzo's whole life. You'd be driving down Georgia at night, from
a party or a club, or from laying up with a girl, and you'd see
that sign? You knew you were close to home. Lorenzo had heard the
man coached kids' football too, held practices on the field of
Roosevelt High. Joe Carver's boy was in the program. Joe had told
him this man was all right.
"Pretty animal," said Lorenzo to the man's back as he passed.
"First time anyone called Greco pretty," said the man, turning his
head, checking out Lorenzo in his uniform. The man pushed on the
door of his business. "Well, let me get on in here and do some
"I heard that," said Lorenzo. "I got to be off to work my own
"Have a good one," said the man, the boxer following him
Off to work, thought Lorenzo as he got behind the wheel of his car.
Feeling a kind of pride as he turned the key.
Excerpted from DRAMA CITY © Copyright 2005 by George
Pelecanos. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown and Company,
an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.