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
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
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
No, I think, no way, not me, and slowly I shake my head. Not me
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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,
"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
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.
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
"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
"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.
"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.
"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
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?"
"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?"
"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?"
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.
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
"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,
American Non-Required Reading, Politically Inspired Fiction, and