Short Stories 366:233 — “South Congress,” by Bryan Washington

coverPrior to this story from Lot: Stories, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story centred around dealing drugs evoking this much empathy. Even that’s not right, not the right words, but I can’t think of better ones right now, so it’s how I’ll put it. “South Congress” follows Raúl, a Guatemalan who is in the US without documentation or work, and who drives for a drug dealer. His English is too heavily accented (and broken) to garner him access to much else, and the string of smaller jobs that he’d previously managed all dry up. So, through an accident of timing, he drives.

There are two relationships at the core of this story, but at first you only really see the one between Raúl and the other man in the car, Avery, an older Black man who has definitely seen more, and who is the first to really look and see Raúl in a meaningful way, and their progression from strangers to their kind of amiable friendship or partnership or mentorship in dealing drugs is… well, it’s kind of wonderful. Warm. It’s not a word I imagined using to describe selling drugs, but there you go. You can feel Raúl, and feel for him, and it’s honestly reads as a kind and solid friendship throughout most of the tale, building up in layers the way friendships do, all while they deal drugs to locals, and Avery chats about his life, and—most of all—his son, of whom the man is incredibly proud for finding a way out/onward from all of this.

Avery isn’t by any means a saint, and there is a lot of cold, jaded, and careless lack of empathy in his declarations of the world to Raúl, so when the story turns at the end, I don’t think I can say it’s shocking, since Washington leaves enough crumbs in place to let you feel a rising tension. But it feels all the more fragile and painful for what has come before it, and we see everything through Raúl’s eyes, which adds another layer of pain and loss. Ultimately, “South Congress” left me feeling damaged, which I suppose is very much the point, but still in a kind of wonder at the two relationships: one I just watched unfold, and the one I didn’t get to see as it crumbled.

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