At the foot of the Washington Monument, the family asks a stranger to take their picture. The stranger returns the camera with an image of their three faces framed by a white stone wall, no perspective. The boy pokes a stick into the drainpipe of the monument. When he pulls it out, it is coated with sludge. The mother says, Whenever I come here I feel there is so much I don’t know. The father says, They want it that way.
All tickets to the top of obelisk have been sold for the day, so the family boards a red double-decker tour bus. As it pulls away from Union Station, a recorded voice directs their attention to the Columbus Memorial Fountain. The voice says the figure of a Native American man crouched on its left side represents The New World. An old man crouching on the right represents The Old World. At the front of the statue, Christopher Columbus stands in for his own ambitions.
The bus rolls past the MLK statue. The father says, It’s a lot smaller than I thought. Every time I see pictures of it, it’s huge. The mother says, That’s what it looks like when you are lying on the ground. The child clutches a penny, nickel, and quarter in his sticky hand: Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington.
They deboard the tour bus near the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and it is here that the mother finds a pair of eyeglasses in the grass. The child says, Show me what you saw, so she holds them up.
The boy says he is hungry, so the father says, We’ll get you a hot dog. The mother decides to stay put on the bench. She sets the glasses down beside her and takes out her notebook. She writes: white clouds high in the sky. Patches of clover fizz. Rubber flip-flops smacking the asphalt paths crisscrossing the park.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, former soldiers wear military dress or identifying t-shirts. A bricked path, one that makes it difficult to push a wheelchair, becomes an obstacle for more visitors than one might expect. The father says, If it was twenty or thirty years ago, I might have felt a little more in being here, but after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—I mean it should have ended—but it didn’t. And you can see they have plenty of land here to keep building memorials.
The boy eats his hot dog and says, I’m full, even though he has only halfway finished it.
In the evening, as they return to the hotel, the mother and father argue about work: who does too little, who does too much. When they enter the lobby they discover the wife of the President has just finished a speech on the importance of family life. Throughout the room, a political party’s sign indicates the time has come to change how working families are treated. Just looking at the placard exhausts the parents.
After dinner at the diner across the street, which is fine—not as nice as the hotel restaurant that is too expensive anyways—they decide to go for a drive to see the monuments at night.
Passing by the National Mall, the mother wonders how much does it cost to keep the water flowing, especially through the heat of summer. She thinks about the water surrounding so many of the memorials, how the fountains give a sense of eternal movement, explosive yet contained, how the shallow ponds capture reflections of the sky and appear to shorten the distance between this world and the heavens.
From the car the family can see white lights of the Lincoln Memorial, the National World War II Memorial reflecting in the pond and fountain that surrounds them. At the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II two large cranes entangled in barbed wire appear, though wounded, to struggle free. At the Peace Monument for the Civil War, angels weep as they write the names of the dead.
Finally in frustration the boy asks his parents to explain what war is. The mother gets caught up in trying to name all the parties at fault. She attempts to justify conflict by describing the difference between states and countries when the child clarifies that all he wants to know is, How many guns? One hundred?
More, she says.
The boy says, When I am older I will be a policeman, and when I see people carrying guns, I will chase them down and catch them.
The mother says, That sounds very brave. But what she means is something else— something more like, No. Stop.
In the morning, the father, mother, and child take tour of the Capitol. They discover the deep cobalt and rust patterns of tiles installed in the floor. The enormous building also contains a secret train and a barbershop. Standing in the statuary room the tour guide shows the family how its design allowed political rivals to eavesdrop on each other, how sound travels along the walls. The boy points to the figure of MLK and asks, Why does he look disappointed?
The tour guide tells them about the Capitol’s dome, built by slaves, which took eleven years to complete. At its top sits The Statue of Freedom, a figure of a woman draped in a fringe blanket said to be in a traditional Native American style, though not specific. Along with a laurel wreath, she holds a sword and shield, both lowered.
Wendy S. Walters
Issue 16 • Fall 2015