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K. Kvashay-Boyle

Not Me Shot Dead

The main thing that gave them away was the terror of bulletproof body armor, velcroed on like superman pecs and abs, which as you can imagine, came as a shock. And thatís an understatement. It was like my arms fell off. The guns you couldnít even really see at first. Campus, at night, is a manic anthill in a concrete sea. Like if you saw it from the sky it would be all dark, some shitty billboards, some cars on freeways, then: bam! crashed in there between the parking lots and the used cars and the Jenga-stacked apartment blocks, all dark, there are floodlights. Even the outskirts of campus are dark. But the dorms converge at the library and tucked into the bottom corner of Birnkrant there is coffee at Trojan Grounds. And thatís where the action is. Itís so well-lit the birds get confused and tweet all night long. Itís white kids and rich kids and kids studying at the tables, kids smoking on the stairs or locking up their bikes, kids waiting to get buzzed into the dorms, kids with books or dates or in pajamas, sneakers, bathrobes, even fancy sweaters and Prada miniskirts or some such thing, but not everyoneís like that, there are other people, people like me, who would only ever wear a sweatshirt and sneakers, and there we are all centered around the last thing open late.

Trojan Grounds. One a.m.

But the feeling in the fluorescent-lit air is not like late at night. These fountains, theyíre like summertime noon. Theyíre splashing around like firecrackers. The way it looks when there are girls sitting there at the lip of the water? I like the prettiest ones. And there they are. With their books on Darwinian Feminism and Intro to Film Theory, clutching their grande non-fat lattes, eating Doritos, talking on tiny phones. And here I am, Iím running right up the stairs with a little jump in my step like if I were on a skateboard it would look really coolóbut something stops me short. And then itís like I said before, the shock, itís like my arms fell off. Itís like how it feels to bang your nose. Because standing just inside the door, right there, right out in the light, is a man who is huge. And heís too big wearing all black like in movies about L.A. where they rob banks and shoot the witness dead.

The next thing I know I see what it is in his hands and itís a gun. Me: dead as fast as a finger snaps. But no, the girls keep right on talking on their phones. The water in the fountain keeps splashing like a bird beating its wings. And the kids inside the coffee shop, the kids in bathrobes and miniskirts and sweatshirts, all of them start to lie down on the floor. Scared as balloons bursting to pop, all of them.

There on the threshold, I can see it through the window. I can see their faces. But thatís later. Because first we talked the whole dictionary in one flat second of looking straight at each other, me and the guy with the gun.

The swinging glass door between us is no shield but so long as Iím on this side, I think. So long as I stay right here on the steps and not inside on the floor like I never won the lottery or had any lucky thing in my life. And even though Iím holding still, willing stillness inside myself, my anxious hands are someone elseís and they shake like Iím supercharged on caffeine, like miming a basketball star, like tossing dice. But it isnít funny. Itís the scariest moment of my life, scarier still than an appendix out or no money for house payments or the thick sounds of my father drunk on the other side of the unpaid-for-wall in our unpaid-for-house as he flicks on and off the lamp to be sure the bastards havenít cut our unpaid power.

I think these things and warily we glare, me alone in my fear, and that man and the big thoughts that he thinks crowded with the company of the gun, and there is panic on my face and in his tense eyes there is a fierceness, a defiance, and that is what unnerves me.

Iím not tall but if I had to fight I would do it. All of a sudden, standing here, Iím thinking of Shelly and her face. Iím thinking I should already have kissed her by now. But thinking of Shelly is like the Fourth of July: there she is yesterday in the movie theater laughing and it pops and sparks in my brain, then itís the blank sheet of tonight and Iím right here, finding out for real what will happen next and not just wondering about kissing glossy crooked lips. All this goes through my mind like itís been more than seconds since the last thing that happened. But no, Iím trapped in right now like now will never end, and all the while Iím tied in this over-lit night to the fierce, stark eyes of the guy with the gun and whether he shoots me or not I could die right now of cancer or a car accident or an aneurysm. I think of Shelly. I want to run.

The guy with the gun tilts the gun, beckoning me inside. A car horn honks. The night air swarms warm and breezy against the back of my neck. I try to think of one lucky thing. I picture my roommate getting stiffed on the rent because Iím dead. I look at the kids in line crouched flat against linoleum like itís an earthquake drill. The water in the fountain splashes like someone dropped a hundred pennies all at once. I look at the gun and then I do the thing that Iím about to do. He wants me inside and close to the gun and down on the floor.

No, I think, no way, not me, and slowly I shake my head. Not me shot dead.

We both are still. He is sizing me up right now, I know it, and I try to be like someone who would be his friend. Iím standing poised on the threshold. No sudden movements. He doesnít want to call attention. He canít get me if I just stay still. Iím going to make it be cool. I am not going inside there. I hold my breath. Cool. Itís cool. Please be fucking cool. I let the clear glass between us give me strength.

What I donít want, of course, is to get shot. What I donít want is to get close to the gun. All this is true, yes, but also true is what I havenít said: I think I have a pretty good idea what he, standing still with his sweat and his gun, wants to have happen. And the thing that happens next is not cool. He motions again, a curt, smooth lean towards the inside with the gun and his head gesturing as one, and outside the door I donít move except to raise my fingertips and show the palms of my hands and I feel my breath like glue in my mouth and thereís the spark of a quick pause before we understand each other.

And thenóthen suddenly between the two of us an amazing thing happens. Suddenly between the two of us flows a steady, careful current. Thereís a flicker of something. Thereís an invisible handshake, itís a draw, stalemate, an impasse, and suddenly despite the circumstances itís clear we wonít do anything to each other, this man with the gun and me in my sneakers. I can feel it. Iím sure he wants me inside with everybody else, lying on the floor with my hands over my head and maybe he wants this in a pretty reckless way, but he trusts me to just stand still and I just stay like I am and hold as rigidly still as if I were cast in glass, a little see-through statue of me with a little plaque that reads Here Stands Damien Amato, Please Donít Shoot.

When everyone starts to lie down on the floor that only makes the men more conspicuous because of course the men donít lie down. Guns are nothing like guns on TV. Five of them. All of them big. One of the terrifying men leaps over the counter in a smooth acrobatic motion and he knocks into Eduardo, this guy who works there. He grabs Eduardoís head. He is pulling on the hair so that the neck is exposed and I am sure that now Eduardo will die and I think oh please Jesus Christ donít let him die. Eduardoís head is being crushed underneath the powerful thick arms of the terrifying man and Eduardo, who has never been big, now looks like a tennis ball in the jaws of pit bull.

There are black bags and green money, should I do something, I thinkóand suddenly just like that itís over. The gaze is broken. The door swings open and itís over. The terrifying men rush out towards me and I donít even feel myself step aside but I feel the cold metal railing at my back and suddenly everyone around stops short and the terrifying men are hustling, theyíre shouting and they have deadly guns and they jump into a car that I didnít notice before, and then, suddenly like a superhero just in time, a DPS officer screeches out in his campus cruiser and I get the shock of my life: one of the men, my man for all I know, leans from the window of the getaway car and with his gunóbang!óhe firesóbang!óat DPS.

Now people panic. Bang! People scream. The people inside Trojan Grounds flood out and scatter and no one pays for whatís in their hands. In the thick crush of kids I donít see the cars speed away but we can all hear the campus cruiserís siren and the two sets of tires screeching. We also hear the cannonball-crack of guns going bang and that sound is a shock like a white flashlight blasting the black dark. The grande non-fat lattes have been abandoned. At first all the scared faces look fake, like joke masks or peek-a-boo. People have scraped knees. Some people start to cry but mostly in the fluorescent-lit night everyone starts to talk at once and in the swirl of stories, every voice jumping and dipping at once, all the kids gasp and shout at each other and point wildly with me and when the police sirens come thereíre thirty witnesses to choose from.

ē

The backseat of the patrol car is weird with its handle less doors; if we crashed and caught fire there would be no escape. Weíre out in the night now, away from the floodlit flip-flops and backpacks of campus. I like it though, the way the streets look. I wouldnít say desolate, itís true there isnít much around but I would say itís got character. Itís the real L.A. I stare out the window. Hoover, Figueroa, Crenshaw.

When I tell my mother I know just what sheíll say. I know what she thinks of this neighborhood. But what you have to do is look out for the things you wouldnít notice: razor wire, chain link fence, miles and miles of concrete gray and patched-up asphalt where somebody decided I live here and I own this and this is my life and then drew the real names of the streets, in reds and purples and blues with yellow and green, jagged lighting-bolt lines and the fancy calligraphy of a tag thrown up so beautifully it makes me want to be here too. I want a camera. I want it on my wall. And a thing like that makes you stop and think. Because no one ever wanted to be here, at this dismal intersection with broken glass and potholes where thereís nothing happening and where the shops are boarded up, and now, well now I notice it. Now I want to look at it. Now I want that piece of colored beauty with me too. Downtown, Chinatown, South Central. Thatís the real heart of L.A. Itís where L.A. started, before the sprawl, without Rodeo Drive or The Martini Lounge or Westwood, no, here things are packed in tight, itís urban, tall stone buildings and fancy crumbly Victorian mansions, neon Food-4-Less signs, bus stops and one-way streets. I try to look at it and relax.

"Whatís going to happen is this," one of the two spins around to face me and I try to make my heart get slower, "weíre going to pass on by those suspects nice and slow. You recognize these guys, you say the word, simple as that, you hear me?"

"Sure," I say, "yeah, okay," and then I think of it and say, "sir." I read the street signs that we pass. Being in the back of the cop car makes it so I feel bad about the whole thing, like theyíre just going to take me to jail and put me there. Lock me up, toss the key, strap me in and pull the switch. There is no door handle. I couldnít get out if I wanted to. Iíve been arrested before. Once in Texas. The charges got dropped. But the backseat was the same. I watch the streets and I try to relax. I can hear the police radio bursting into silence, then crackling steady white static.

In our patrol car we emerge out of the dull safe dim night of the street, and slice suddenly through the harsh border of cop-light where all shadows are stark and absolute. The blunt aggression of the spotlights makes my eyes ache and I can only imagine how it feels to have them pointed in your face. When we get to where they were caught, we just coast past like weíre headed someplace else. In the light itís obviously them. Lined up on their knees. I can tell right away. I am an eyewitness. All I have to do is say yes if itís them. They shot someone and stole money and it was wrong and I am an eyewitness. I know I have to do whatís right. I donít want them to see me. My throat feels like Iíve been running.

"Take a good long look," says the cop-voice, "and weíre just going to swing on by another time here. Iíll keep it nice and slow."

Itís them, for sure, but itís different too. Without the velcro vests, without the assuredness, they seem like younger brothers of the men who robbed campus. Itís like theyíre waterlogged or something. Like they had to jump in a river to get away. Not really that. But something. I see my one. I donít think he can see me, at least the cops say he canít see me, but I scrunch lower in the seat just in case. I still want no sudden movements. I still want to show my empty hands. I look right at his eyes to see if I can tell whatís going to happen next and I try to hypnotize him like I did before and itís even the same spell: Stay calm, I tell him. Be cool. Itís okay.

But obviously, for him, itís not.

It was really stupid to shoot a DPS officer. The thing is, DPS are all LAPD who either got sick of it, or who want their kids to go to a school like ours, or who were recruited straight out of the academy. But it depends because generally itís a cushy job just yelling at rowdy frat boys or whatever and thereís the Tuition Remission and the higher pay and itís way safer than the street, so depending on who it is, a lot of peopleóhardass well-trained peopleótake campus up on it and opt for Department of Public Safety. But theyíre still basically LAPD. They know whatís up. And they have cop guns and everything. Handcuffs, whatever. To make you feel safe. If youíre rich.

We do a three-point-turn. We make another pass. Itís a hot night. I feel sick. The smell inside the police car is like an old shoe with too much polish. These guys in the line, they donít look much older than I am. Maybe a little bit older. Itís them for sure, and I have to say so. I donít want to, but I do.

ē

Itís later that same week, from behind my book, in my bed, that I first hear the thump as Detective Gonzales knocks his mallet knock on my dorm-room door and I ignore it. First I press my face against the peephole to check. How he got past the front and through the lobby and up the elevator, I donít know. You have to slide your ID card.

Iíve been screening my calls. The first few times Detective Gonzales called from the callbox downstairs like youíre supposed to and it was easy. I let the machine pick up. I let him wait downstairs in the sun. I acted not home.

Now as I listen to the insistent authority behind his thumping knock I look over at the other side of the room, the mirrored configuration of bed and desk and chair. If I just slip into the other chair and sit behind the cinematic flat screen monitor that glows with incomprehensibly powerful gigabits and firewire ram and whatever, if I just grab my roommateís shiny new Hilfiger jacket, his empty i-Pod box, his Internet Ready Playstation 2, who could know it was me and not him?

Maybe I should open the door. I walk to my desk. I yank gently at my hair. I should definitely put on shoes first. This is what the police want from me. Itís simple, they say on my answering machine tape. Itís procedure, they say. My blood feels filled up with air and instead of strong itís making me dizzy. They want to corroborate my statement. They want an affidavit. Iím supposed to testify and look the guy who let me go in the eye again and even if Iím thinking be cool, the only point of me being there is so that he can go to jail and stay there.

I hear the key click the lock, and then Mark boisterously swings open the door and stumbles over my hamper. Iím sort of under the desk. Heís got official important documents clutched in his hand and a smile like heís an asshole. "Dude they didnít catch all five thatís balls of steel you got." He shakes the papers. "No you didnít! No, you didnít! Oh, ohóyes you are! Holy shit, dude. A real-life witness. Prime suspect number one." Mark leaves the door open and the stink of microwave popcorn lurks in the hall and coats the air around us. Summons. Taped, by Detective Gonzales, to my door.

"Whatís it say?" I ask and with a discouraging shake of the head, Mark hands the delicate crinkly paper to me. My phone starts to ring. We both ignore it.

"Hey: you saw those homeboys good as they saw you, Dame, and in my book that meansóboo-yaóyouíre screwed." Markís laugh is incredulous. He throws his backpack down on two DVDs and the cellophane makes a weird noise as they scatter. "Whoa, hey," he says, "my bad," and enthusiastically kicks The Sopranos under his desk.

I get up off the floor and sit down on my bed. It squeaks.

"It was me I wouldnít do it is all Iím saying, Dame. Fuck that. Dude think about it: who are these guys? Hoover Crips for all you know. Ghetto-dogs, bro, Iím serious. You think theyíre not gonna come after you? Yeah right, man. You donít know whatís coming."

I imagine it because itís in my brain: a television station picture. The other kids who were witnesses that night are just chalked outlines now and Fox News at Eleven shows Detective Gonzales and a snapshot of the guy who did it. The guy who I know. The guy who knows me. My phone rings.

"Thatís fucked up. Your local Trojan Grounds: itís just a hop, skip, and a roll-and-duck-for-cover away! Ha!" Itís all Markís been saying. Other people say it too. My phone rings. Iím not a coward but I want to do the smart thing.

Over the answering machine Shellyís voice sounds muffled. I tug on my sneakers and walk down to meet her at the callbox. We go for coffee.

ē

Eduardoís there, still being the manager. The breakfast muffins still cost three dollars and eighty-five cents. But now thereís a video camera pointed at the door.

"Um, excuse me," says Shelly when itís her turn in line, "oh hi, yeah hi, uh may I please have a tall non-fat hot cocoaówith foam? Okay thank you, thank you very much." Then she twists her hair up into a clip but I reach out and tug it loose so that the ends fall free against her shoulders. It looks better that way. Softer. She looks so surprised. I feel surprised too. It was like I owned the hair on her head. It was like the clip in her hands was mine. Sheís so careful and pretty. I love it.

But standing here with her, waiting in the line, the truth is I feel a little jittery. Weíre basically in the exact spot where the guy guarding the door, my guy with the gun, my guy who knows my face and let me go was standing on the night of the robbery. I look out the window from his perspective, at the steps where I would have been.

"So I guess they didnít even get a lot of money," Shelly says. "Well I mean it sounds like a lot of money but to think that they have to go to jail for it?"

"Five of them, too. They had to split it."

This guy, Hillel, walks over. "Hey, whatís up?" he says, and I nod.

"I mean I guess they mustíve known, right, about DPS?" Shelly squints. "Because even back during the riots I heard no one like even messed with campus at all, you know, people seemed like they knew about DPS. And then plus that they came right at one?" Shelly sticks out a strong hand, palm up. "Well the neighborhood people donít know that. What time Trojan Grounds closes. So that tells you something. They probably used to work here or like itís their sister or girlfriend or something that works here. Donít you think?"

I donít want her to talk like that in front of people who might later point me out as the kid who saw the whole thing. Is that dumb? Just because the people behind the counter arenít students doesnít mean theyíre criminals or something, I know that. Itís just that I want to do the smart thing.

"And then they shot that guy," says Hillel. "I mean apparently they were pretty serious about this thing. All that equipment? Kevlar vests and all that?"

"Hey," I shrug, "on the run from Johnny Law ain't no trip to Cleveland." Itís from a movie. Bottle Rocket.

"Yeah but apparently they didnít get all of them in custody, right?" Hillel turns to me, "Are youóworried about that?"

I shrug. A worn-out woman slides our drinks over to us. She looks at me like she knows something. Her eyebrows are painted in a crazy exaggeration and her nametagó Lupeadaóbunches up her shirt. Hillel and Shelly and I all walk out into the sun together, past the fountains and into the quad.

"So Damien. What was it like?" Shelly always says my name over and over again like itís going to make me love her and it sort of does. Damien, she says, Oh Damien do you have the notes for our paper? Damien, she says, Hey Damien do you want to get lunch? Damien, she says to me, Damien are you ready? I do actually like it. And she looks so good in her rich girl legs with her sharp knees and fancy red shoes.

"So there I was," I look evenly between her and Hillel, "running up the stairs like a madmanó" and yes I actually do say madman but the truth is I say that part on purpose because what I want is for people to think of me later and I want them to think hey you know Iím not sure what it is about that kid but something about him just reminds me of a real Holden Caulfield type thing. I want to give off that sort of vibe. Because I think itís true about me. But not that Iíd want to say it outright. I want to just leave that feeling with people. With girls especially. "So there I was," I say and Iím standing there outside Trojan Grounds trying to brag and my hand starts to tremble with just the tiniest shake. Itís the first time thatís ever happened. But the thing is, I canít make it stop. After that I give it a name. I donít tell anyone else the name. I call it The Wobblies. Which is sort of stupid, I know. But it happens now a lot.

ē

The trial date is arranged. Thereís a party set for the night before called Pimps Up, Hoís Down. What that means I donít know. Youíre supposed to come dressed as either a pimp or a whore. In high school I did my community service on an outreach program for prostitutes, when I was still in Chicago, and Iím proud of that.

Shelly is a feminist but she doesnít mind. "Itís just a joke," she says. "And I donít want to put them down. Iím doing it in celebration." She makes her eyes go big. "Prostitutes rule!" I do have to admit that Shelly looks very nice dressed as a whore. She goes for dominatrix whore. Which means leather and too much makeup on purpose. To me it looks more like call-girl or starlet. I wear a white undershirt that Larry Flint signed for me once when he came to talk on campus about pornography and free speech and how itís okay to sell people what they want no matter what it is. Before the party I took out a magic marker and wrote ME SUCKY-FUCKY in block letters across the chest. Shelly says itís cool. She crimped her hair. It looks really different. I think she and I both know that if I were buying I couldnít ever afford something like what she is.

We walk. Itís just a few blocks from campus. On Jefferson, past the bright security lights, thereís a guy named Reggie who is homeless and Iím friends with him.

"Hey Reggie," I say as we walk up to him, "how you doing tonight, huh?"

"Look at you, man! Looking mighty fine, my friend. Listen, listen, think you can spare some change for me? For poor old Reggie? Just a little bit of change? Whatcha say, my friend, whatch you say?"

Shelly waits with her hand in her pocket while I give him a smoke. "Youíre really generous to bums," she says after, as we cross the street. She stares down at her red shoes as we walk. "For me I guess I just donít feel comfortable." She looks funny. Maybe sheís going to cough. "You know, like they say nasty stuff to me. Itís likeóaggressive. Sexually. Not all of them, obviously. But you know. Sometimes."

Her pretty red shoes click against the scuffed concrete but mine donít make a sound. I look at her fancy hair. Thatís never happened to me. I have nothing to say to that. When I donít answer we listen to the distant helicopters and the rushing freeway sounds in the street. I wouldnít say Iím proud of it like theyíre prizes but you know I am glad Shelly knows Iím friends with all the people around here like Reggie and that I always give money, or cigarettes if I donít have money. Iím sorry but there is such a thing as the right way to be. Thereís such a thing as being open. And you know in a lot of ways itís easier to just stand on a street corner and have a smoke and some banter with a guy. Thereís no pressure. Itís so easy for me to feel at ease. Itís so easy for me to see what we have in common Ďcause weíre just two guys standing there. Compare it to whatever the fuck Iím supposed to say when my roommate Mark opens his second computer and jokes that he ought to call our room Kinkos. What the fuck am I supposed to say to that? Thereís an old crumpled coke can I kick and then Shelly kicks it and then it clatters in the street.

"Boy," Shelly turns and with her too-much-makeup-on eyes she gives me this look like itís my birthday, "I sure am cold." I know what that means. Okay, I think, okay definitely put your arm around her. I look at her. Okay, I think and I want it to be what Iíve already done, I donít want it to be what I still have to do next. Shellyís other dates, Iím sure, get her porterhouse steaks and lobster dinners. I jam my hands in my pockets and then I take them out and feel my hands get cold. I look at her feet. Watching those milky legs slip past each other I start to think about how I should buy her something to drink later, maybe if Chanoís is still open, but no, tonightís a bad idea. I donít have any money tonight. Okay, I think, do it now. I try to catch her eye to see what sheís thinking but suddenly sheís acting shy and she wonít look. Iíll bet that in Shellyís pocket right this very second she has lots of money. Or at least enough money. A thing I noticed is that when we walk she keeps one strong hand in her pocket all the time and itís only weeks later that I find out thatís where she keeps her mace, which surprised me, yes, but that still doesnít mean there isnít money there too.

We turn down 29th street. Itís fastest this way, if we cut through The Row, but then we have to deal with frat boys yelling fag at us like weíre interlopers trespassing at their white-flight country club. I make sure I can walk past and be ready for it. My arm just hangs there next to me, but even if I didnít do it the fact that she wanted me to feels good. I can smell Shellyís flower perfume. The sorority houses all gleam. The sorority houses really are nice. So big. Like huge piles of cake. With pretty lawns. And fresh paint. Supposedly they have maids in there and everything. People who cook for them.

Weíre walking and then just like thatóbamóI see a dollar on the sidewalk. Just like that. A lone dollar smiling up at me. "Hey, hey," I say, "check it out." What luck.

"Wow," Shelly smiles, "how cool."

I look at her and then I bend down but itís too late. I pick it up without knowing any better. A car drives past, but itís too late. It isnít until immediately after that I realize someone set this dollar bill here on purpose. Specifically for people like Reggie. Or people like me. People who might need to pick a dollar bill up off the ground. So that weíre sure to get what we deserve. You see, the thing is, whoever coyly set the dollar there on the cement also shit on it. Yes. Shit. There is wet shit carefully arranged on the dollar bill so that whichever out-of-luck bastard sees it can decide how badly he wants it and what heís willing to do to keep it. And today thatís me. I didnít know any better. Now I have some callous frat boyís wet human shit on my hand. I drop the dollar. Shelly has her own hand anchored firmly in her pocket. We look away from each other and neither of us say anything until we both glance up, thank god for the distraction. We can hear the whump-whump-whump of the helicopter and from where I stand I can watch the distant stream of spotlight jerking through distant streets I canít see, looking for whoeverís running.

"Well then," I try to look at her and feel what sheís thinking, "Take me to the volcano." Itís from a movie. My hand. I sick my hand in the lawn grass. Which doesnít help much.

"The party?"

"Hey, you're not the car you drive," I say, but I let it hang flat in the air, "you're not the contents of your wallet, no, Shelly. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world."

She just looks at me. Usually sheís smart but the one thing is, sheís too stupid to ever know when Iím joking. Itís like she never saw a movie before in her life. She smiles hopelessly. Sheís confused. Itís from Fight Club.

"Damien."

"That outfitís wearing you, Felix." Joe Versus the Volcano. She touches the skirt.

"Why canít you just say what you actually think, okay." Shelly looks at me and in that broad pretty face her mouth is a tiny fist. "Thatís so fake, Damien. Itís like youíre making fun of me or something. God."

I look at her. We keep walking. I smell the shit on me and I think about the other witnesses from the night of the robbery. It isnít the safe outskirts of the suburbs here, and still, even here they think this place belongs only to them. White flight in reverse. I think about all the jokes. Trying to cut the tension. I think about how I had to be with them. Sit with them. Get clumped together as kids like them. I think about how while they were all staring at his shoes, I am the only one who actually looked into the eyes of the guy with the gun. And there was a kind of respect between us that could have happened between any two guys. He wasnít some ugly crackhead. He wasnít a pimp or a cop killer. No, there was trust and there was respect and maybe thatís what Iím like too, maybe Iím like what he was, and maybe Iím not like what Shellyís like.

As we cross the street Shelly tugs at the hemline of her skirt. Shelly says nothing and I think about how it was morning by the time we witnesses each sat in the orange plastic bucket seats at the police station and how we each had to fill out the same forms. I think about this one jerkoff kid who was wearing a t-shirt of a fat woman scrubbing a floor with a mascotís foot on her back and the words My Maid Went to UCLA, and how he kept saying ĎWelcome to the ghetto, dude I was so fucking scared! Boyz in the Hood, yo dude Iím there.í How he looked around at us like we all thought the same thing and how he kept going: ĎWelcome to South Central, right, dude, right? What kind of hella scared were you when you saw those machine guns! Black guys with machine guns! Hey, welcome to prison, bro, is all I got to say. Donít drop the soap.í The choppy staccato of his laugh. ĎThatís what they get. They even try and mess with us and thatís what they get. Mess with us and the cops bust out the ghettobird and you know you canít hide from that, ghettobird patrol, yeah thatís how they caught them, yo. Fuck them. Theyíre drug dealers, dude. Crackheads. They do this all the time.í

I think about that asshole and how much I hated being with him. Shelly and I keep walking and weíre almost there. My hand smells like shit. I want to cut off my hand. We can hear the sounds of other parties. I look up at Shellyís pretty face. "Hey listen," I say, "you want to go to the beach?"

"What, now?"

"Itís only like fifteen miles. Did you know that? And there are people here who grew up right here, only fifteen miles from the beach, who never saw the ocean their whole lives. I read that. Thatís common here. Isnít that crazy?"

"Weird."

"Yeah, thatís what I mean. Itís horrible."

"It is, no yeah, it totally is. Itís horrible." The music. Itís loud. "Itís so weird to think of that. Can you imagine?" Shelly looks at me for a minute and neither of us say anything. We stop walking. Now is the time for us to kiss, I think, and I feel my wobbly hands start to shake. "Damien," she says, "hey Damienóletís wait and go tomorrow. When itís light out. Okay?"

ē

Itís startling how even this early K-Martís glacial blast of air-conditioning is full power. I walk around slowly and I wonder if there are department store security guards eyeing my worn-out sneakers and my baggy pants. There are no windows and even over the tinkly music I can hear the lights hum. I make my selection carefully. I am a connoisseur. I feel the fabric first. I touch everything. Blood shoots through my head.

Thereís a dangerous way to understand people. What it is is a certain kind of vulnerability or openness to the moment, like in acting when you have to feel whatís happening between you and the other person that very second and trust it. Itís really intimate and itís how you know someoneís character. Itís like you have to be open and reflect back at them like a window with a mirror at the end, except the thing is, thatís when itís easy to get your feelings hurt. Because the trick is, if someoneís a nasty angry person you have to have another skill. Where youíre able to be a rubber ball and let it slide off your back, or deflect away from you and just bounce away off somewhere else. Then when youíre inside yourself, keep it positive and try to just be normal. Donít let the other personís nastiness get you. They can fuck off by themselves. Youíre solid and they canít have anything from you except what you give out. Itís hard though, to be able to switch like that from fluid to solid, from exchange to deflect. It is hard. Iíll admit that. But usually itís worth it.

When Iím with Shelly for instance I get this feeling like Iím just reaching, held still frozen in shock and scared a little bit and just stuck there perpetually in the act of reaching. Like sheís a diamond ring. Behind glass. And Iím just some kid in dirty pants. And when she looks at me, when our eyes meet, itís like one of us has a weapon pointed at the other one, which to tell the truth is not exactly an unpleasant way to feel when sheís the one with the proverbial weapon and itís not a real one and sheís not some big guy and especially when the end result is us maybe kissing.

I ignore the other shoppers and they ignore me. I touch the bright double-thick terrycloth. When youíre open and you look at someone itís intimidating because suddenly how they are is inside you. But I donít know how Shelly is. I canít tell yet.

I reach out my hand. I pick only the nicest things. Things I know Shelly would like. Bright colors. I reach out my hand. Soft fabrics. I reach out my hand. Durable. Gaudy. Mine.

ē

There I am that afternoon and I run right up to her porch and I do a little jump that skips up the buildingís doorstep. Itís already hot out. A kid whoís leaving holds the rusty security gate open for me so instead of buzzing the code for Shellyís apartment, I just walk in and go right up to her front door. It happens so fast and I feel so good, so giddy, that I donít even think of what to say.

"Damien," she laughs and I can tell sheís into me by the way she says it. "Hey, uh, nice hat you got there."

I spread open my arms as best I can, and I want to hug her. "Get your bathing suit, come on." I say. "Letís go."

"Hey but isnít that court thing today?" She laughs at my crazy outfit. "I thought you said that?" She touches the floppy straw hat.

"Yeah, yeah it is." I canít stop smiling. "I donít know if Iím going. I mean itís later anyway."

She cocks her head at me and her brow crinkles. "Well donít you have to?" Then like magic I watch her notice it about me. First she notices the new shirt: Hawaiian Luau print. Then she stares down at my new feet: flip flops. Neon blue. The plastic price tag is like a big leaf caught there between my toes. And her face gets this funny look. Both towels are pristine. Theyíre so soft. And huge. The size of a bedroom blanket. One has an orange cut-out sailboat on it, and the other one is hers with a bright daisy. On both the anti-theft plastic scanner hangs discretely off the top left corner. Also I have swim trunks. And sunblock. A beach ball. Brand new. The department store will never miss them, I know it. The rich kids, the frat boys, the step-moms, they can get theirs somewhere else. Now these belong to me.

"Damien," says Shelly and thereís already something I donít like in her voice, "Damien, you know you canít let them scare you." Her eyes donít know what to focus on. They just flit around and I want to reach out and reassure her but I have all this stuff and my hands are full. "I mean Iím sure it was awful," she says, "I mean I canít imagine, but, well you do know, right, that theyíre just a bunch of guys who made a dumb choice? You know that, donít you?" She looks straight at my face. "That theyíre not like some mobsters on TV who could find you again or something." She looks at the towel, its bright colors chopping up the plain terrycloth space. "Mark might say that stuff, but heís wrong. Damien," says Shelly and her cautious voice is suddenly a rope around my throat, "they seriously could have killed that guy, itís amazing they didnít." She stands there, imploring, and itís like sheís already someoneís mother, like sheís already my mother. "Hey you canít just give up and let them get away with it," she says. "Damien, you donít want them to get away with it, do you?"

And I donít. They shouldnít. I want everyone whoís wrong to serve their time. I want it all to be even and fair. I want the sinners in hell and the pure of heart to prosper in heaven. The real truth is that when my mind is clear in the middle of the night thatís what I want. But standing there at rich Shellyís beautiful doorstep with the magnetic scanner itching at my back all I can think is that while I was at it I should have gotten a boogie board too. And when she opens her mouth I put my hand over it like I also own that now and I know I can because I know it belongs to me. I know it. I can take it home under my coat and I can keep it. And use it. And have it. "The beach," I say, "letís go."


K. Kvashay-Boyle's work appears in Best of McSweeney's, Best
American Non-Required Reading, Politically Inspired Fiction
, and elsewhere.

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