“I’m a little obsessed with the ways men come to terms with one another, or don’t. Especially within that grey area,” Bryan Washington told Nikki Shaner-Bradford of the Paris Review. “And I’m deeply interested in the many different forms that mentorship can take, and how certain kinds of experiences and knowledge are passed down.”
Washington was talking about his collection in general, but he might easily have been talking about “South Congress,” a story about a middle-aged Black drug dealer in Houston who takes on an undocumented Guatemalan teenager as his driver.
The young man, Raúl, is an illegal immigrant living with his aunt in her “dilapidated piss-yellow complex downtown” and working odd jobs at a Thai diner and dry cleaner for cash under the table. When he meets Avery, who deals drugs out the front window of his Corolla, he falls into a much more lucrative gig, worth “more than a couple grand a night.” And in Avery, he finds a kind of father figure to replace his biological father who had taken off for “who knows where.”
The story, like others in Washington’s debut collection, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize for writers under forty, is about marginalized characters finding a semblance of community; like other stories in the collection, it avoids cliché and stereotypical notions of particular classes and categories of people. The relationship between Raúl and Avery is nuanced and delicately calibrated and Avery provides the young man with a sense of stability and protection.
This is nowhere more true than in a scene featuring the two being stopped by a cop because Raúl has run a red light. The teen is petrified and imagines his time in the country is up – ironically, given that he has got away with working for a drug dealer without incident. “Months and months of riding dirty all over Houston, and here he was: about to be deported for missing a red.” Except that Avery intervenes with the policeman, whom he clearly knows, glad handles the officer and claims that Raúl is his nephew. In many places in the U.S., being a Black man stopped by a cop would be a liability; in this instance, Avery’s savoir faire and reputation in the neighbourhood aids him in helping Raúl escape punishment.
The scene serves to underscore one of the story’s central concerns, which involves the status of Avery and his business in the community. Avery could easily be assumed a target of law enforcement and various other racist factions, but he is well liked and deferred to in part because his clientele crosses racial and economic boundaries. Practically everyone wants some of what he is selling. “Desire don’t discriminate,” Avery tells Raúl. “Desire’s gonna swallow every motherfucker out here.”
What Avery provides for Raúl is a sociological education in the nature of drug use among the denizens of Houston’s South Congress neighbourhood. In this, he bears a certain affinity to Rodney, the veteran dealer in Richard Price’s novel Clockers, who also takes an impressionable young man under his wing. Pretty soon, Raúl is able to identify each class of client by the drugs they are interested in purchasing:
Kush was all the bums could afford. Spice for the Arabs busing tables on Gray. The doctors asked for coke and the valets asked for coke and the oil and gas crowd wanted whatever cost the most. E for the housewives, hash for the doormen, and pot for anyone who didn’t know what they were looking for until Avery asked respectfully, demurely, if a little cannabis would do.
Avery is many things for Raúl: part sensei, part bodyguard, part teacher, part surrogate father. The irony is that his one great failing is as a father to his own college age son. “People got to make their own choices,” Avery tells Raúl as a way of rationalizing the potential damage his profession might have for the people who buy from him. The giveaway that he recognizes the harm he is responsible for comes when he tells Raúl that if he were to find his son on the streets buying drugs, he would “break his motherfucking neck.”
All of Avery’s bluster about being “equal opportunity pharmacists” finally proves empty, in a scene of violence following which he, too, abandons Raúl. But even here, there is a sense of passing something on, in the way Washington suggests above. Watching Avery, Raúl feels compelled to intervene, but restrains himself because he has the impression he is “watching something sacred.” Here we have men interacting in one of the grey areas: for all of his street smarts, Avery is ultimately not able to rescue the thing that means the most to him.
In the story’s concluding moments, there is the echo of an exchange the drug dealer and his protégé had about what might prompt otherwise stable, healthy people to leave their homes to purchase street drugs. “It’s hubris,” Avery says. When Raúl confesses unfamiliarity with that word, his mentor replies sagely, “Don’t worry about it. … We’ll never have the pleasure.”