Bobby Carpenter likes grapes. Green grapes, seedless, and he likes to gobble them a bunch at a time.

The White House is smaller than he expected. The Anacostia River is dirty but the Tidal Basin looks clean.

"I would like to rent one of those (pedal) boats some time," says Bobby Carpenter with finality. "I would like to take it out and take some pictures." The sunlight dances off the Tidal Basin. "I like photography," says Bobby Carpenter.

Bobby Carpenter likes scallop and mushroom soup, the hot soup of the day at the Barrister Restaurant, where he is having lunch at an outdoor table. It is the first brilliant fall day of the year. Nobody on the street recognizes Carpenter, which suits the barely-18-year-old hockey player whom the Boston papers dubbed "The Can't-Miss Kid" just fine.

The nickname was uncalled for, says Carpenter. "Say I fall down and break my leg. Then I miss out all around. I can't play pros, I can't even play college."

Bobby Carpenter does not read about himself in the newspapers, and that is not just because of the Boston papers and their nickname. "I just don't like to read about myself. I never did."

Carpenter likes things neat and precise, without mystery, without chance. His best subject at St. John's High School, where he had a 93 average, was math. St. John's, he says with pride, was rated the second-best scholastic high school in Massachusetts, not counting the fancy prep schools.

Carpenter is happy that the difficult negotiations with the Washington Capitals are over and his career is under way. For awhile he was in doubt, contemplating four years at Providence College. But, he concedes, his ambition "ever since I can remember" has been to play hockey in the National Hockey League.

Now, he says, "I know what I'm gonna do for the rest of my life. It's good. There's no confusion. There won't be any more last-minute decisions about what I should do. If I make enough money I won't have to work any more. If I retire in my late 30s or early 40s, I'll be set for life."

Ryan Walter, the captain of the Capitals, the team with which Carpenter has signed a $500,000 contract to play hockey for the next three years, says the youngster's toughest adjustment will be to living away from home.

"That's the way it was for me and (Mike) Gartner and Darren (Veitch)," says Walter. "We all came here when we were 19."

And what will they do to ease the transition for Carpenter?

"Teach him how to wash dishes," Walter laughs.

Roger Crozier, hockey veteran and assistant general manager of the Capitals, scouted Carpenter last year when he was still playing high school hockey. How long did it take Crozier to get a reading?

"One period, that's all you need." said Crozier. "It's like watching a plow horse and a thoroughbred. There's no comparison. After one period you could see, he can do everything."

The Capitals brass thinks Carpenter can play in the NHL. He is widely regarded as the best U.S.-bred hockey prospect ever. After a week of skating with the veterans at Fort DuPont rink in Southeast Washington, Carpenter thinks he is NHL material too. Not that he ever had any doubt.

Carpenter is not big like the rough, tough NHL grownups. The Caps list him as 5-11, 180 pounds. The 180 looks optimistic. "But there are other things to compensate for that," he says, smiling. He's quick and remarkably light on his skates. At Fort DuPont it was just players, about 35 of them, no coaches on the ice. When Walter called an end to the practice session, Carpenter stayed in, grinning, banging pads, flipping pucks at the net, faking, passing, going one-on-one with whomever strayed near him, until only five people were left on the ice.

He gets along well, he says. "Of course, I haven't met all the other kids yet."

After practice Carpenter showered and slipped into his Calvin Kleins, a red Lacoste shirt and Topsiders and headed for the sunshine. He hasn't bought a car or found a place to live. "I'll take care of all that when I make the team," he said, dispatching instantly issues that could easily occupy most 18-year-olds' thinking for months. Carpenter simply pushes them aside -- not time to think about that yet.

Carpenter's father is a sergeant in the Peabody police force. "He's just what you'd expect," said Lou Corletto, the Capitals' publicist, "strict, big, tough. All three kids (a 20-year-old sister and a 15-year-old brother called "The Bear") are like Bobby. Very mature, very responsible."

Carpenter started playing hockey in the Peabody youth programs when he was 2 or 3 years old. He moved up an age bracket every two years. No single coach was particularly influential, he said. "There's not one person who can teach you everything about hockey, because he don't know everything."

He was always good at hockey. "I can play everything," he said. But by his freshman year in high school he had given up baseball (good pitch, no hit) and football, which his father played as a scholarship athlete at the University of Connecticut.

At some point during his preteen years he decided on his goal -- to play in the NHL. Since that time "that's all I wanted," he said.

The singularity of that purpose briefly clouded negotiations with the Capitals this summer, when talks threatened to collapse over a no-cut clause. Carpenter wanted assurance that he would play for the parent team, not be dispatched to minor-league Hershey for seasoning. The Capitals balked.

The no-cut clause was eventually thrown out, a decision Carpenter views today with equanimity. "I came here to play for the Washington Capitals," he said. "I didn't come to play for Hershey and I'm going to do everything in my power to stay here.

"I don't think there's one guy out there who would rather play in Hershey than Washington. But if they do send me there it's to help me, not to punish me. They know the game. They have the experience. You got to work for the management, not against them."

The Capitals are flush with centers, Carpenter's position. What if they should ask him to move to wing?

"Oh yeah, if they need me. Whatever they say. They own me now. But if they tell me to play goalie," said Carpenter, breaking into a rare and completely genuine grin, "then I know I'm in trouble."

As for specifics about the way he plays, his strengths, his weaknesses, Carpenter has a ready, shopworn answer. "I don't discuss my game. I just don't talk about it."

The White House impresses Bobby Carpenter. So does the Washington Monument. "That's a very big building." The Reflecting Pool is full of water. "They filled it up," he says, craning his neck to see from the car. "It was empty when I was here before."

He may have his entire life planned out, but he is still 18. Barely 18. He's in remarkable control and at the same time bursting with interest, curiosity.

The secretary in the Capitals' office watches him swagger in for a television interview. He doesn't say anything. Neither does she, but she smiles her best "what-a-guy" smile as he breezes by.

Is Carpenter worried about the NHL? "Nothin' worries me," he says. "There's no need to be worried. It only causes problems."

Will the NHL heavies be gunning for him, the new kid with the big contract? "They have to worry about their own game. If they come after me, that's taking away from what they do."

Hockey is not a brutal game, not like football, he says. "Those (football) guys are crazy. They go out and try to kill somebody." It's only rarely that things get out of hand in hockey, he says.

What Carpenter likes best about his new life, he says, is being alone, completely responsible for himself. "I enjoy it. You're totally independent 100 per cent of the time. You do what you want. It's total freedom."

The burdens of that freedom don't frighten him. "You think things out and you do what's right. If you think you're doing right and it goes wrong, there's nothing you can do. You can't be blamed. But if you're totally unprepared and you go ahead and do it anyway, that's your own fault. It's nobody else's fault but your own."

He is riding through the bleakest slums of the East Capitol Street corridor on the way to Capital Centre. He listens to the story of a basketball player who came from Washington poverty, who had all the court skills for a college and possibly pro basketball career.

But the basketball player couldn't handle college scholastics. He dropped out and disappeared.

"That's his fault," says Carpenter, matter of factly.

Bobby Carpenter has been to Europe to play hockey every year for the last six. He has seen the world. He loved it. Still, he is impressed by the crush of people in lunchtime Washington. The Lincoln Memorial is bathed in autumn sun. "Wow," says Carpenter.

But he saves his highest accolade for an unlikely monument. Route 214 cuts through the slums and across the city line. A four-lane access road winds off in Landover. Perched in a sea of macadam sits his gawky new headquarters for the next three years. The Capital Centre has won no architectural awards.

"It's a beautiful building," says Bobby Carpenter.