These kids scare me.
They scare me with those steely glances half-hidden under sideways slanted baseball caps. They scare me with those baggy pants, those cell phones seemingly taped to their ears as they crouch in corners, gather in cannabis-scented throngs, throw dice, trade whispers, flash wads of cash and swear.
But scariest of all are those t-shirts. No, not the ones that read ‘Don’t want no broke bitch’ loudly emblazoned in calligraphy – the ones that memorialize their dead homies, young bucks slapped down by a storm of gunfire before turning fifteen. Nothing scarier than a kid that knows how tragically short life can be, how the party can veer into a blood-soaked nightmare in seconds. A kid strapped with that knowledge doesn’t give a fuck. And a kid that doesn’t give a fuck will plant lead in your chest for bus fare home before you can beg for a running start.
I teach English to high school freshmen who stopped giving a fuck shortly after outgrowing their last pair of diapers. Today the class doesn’t give a fuck about Oedipus Rex. They tend to their hair, they text, they sleep, they send sneers my way and happily accept the lackluster grades I dish out.
And they watch Tyrus.
It took about twelve seconds for me to figure out that he was the focal point, this circus’s ringleader. A few tics later I came to understand something scarier: he was me thirty years ago – with an updated wardrobe and a prison-ready snarl a million times more lethal than any I would have dared sport.
With every badass antic, every alpha dog howl, Tyrus reminds me of who I was – and who I likely would have remained if I hadn’t seen the body.
The body was a ripe surprise waiting for me next to the dumpster at the end of our block. It was curled in the corner like an afterthought, swept to the side and forgotten like a bad high school haircut. With eyes alertly aimed at nothing and a grimace only grandma could love, this bullet-ridden object lesson told me everything I needed to know about the glamorous ride of gang life. I knew right then I didn’t want to be fitted for a double-breasted lead suit. And I didn’t have the stainless steel heart needed to play the role of the tailor. So I scrambled back home, vowing to shift directions to whatever street would keep that body from being my fate.
Maybe Tyrus will shift directions himself. Or maybe he’ll wind up becoming somebody else’s object lesson. Right now the only certainty is that he doesn’t know the answer to my question:
“Why did who do what now?”
“What was Oedipus hoping to escape when he entered the city of Thebes?” I repeat.
“Oedipus? Ya’ll heard a’ him?” He asks the class. “We got a Eddie here, that’s Edishia hidin’ under that weave. I got a cousin named Medius – but Oedipus? Never heard of the motherfucker.”
Accidental insight aside, he is out of his element in the classroom. He is a jungle cat perched atop a box of kitty litter. He peppers his speech with jokes and veiled threats, promising to erupt into something dangerous, something he needs to be to survive and prosper is his world.
Tonight at the school dance he’ll be right where he belongs. And I’ll be cowering in the corner, waiting for the storm to pass.
I’ve been drafted to serve as the chaperone of tonight’s school dance. It means Cassidy – the school security guard – and I are the lone grown-ups here, the only ones not seeking drugs, firearms or five minutes of semi-public dry humping.
The place looks and sounds like you’d expect – but louder and shinier. Between naps Cassidy makes rounds, generally eyeballing the kids and making it clear that she has a gun that she’s not afraid to use. She’s a small, pale woman with a freckled body that might as well read Made in Ireland on the small of her spine. She couldn’t get lost in this crowd if she wanted to, but tonight she flashes a scowl that is meant to create distance. And maybe a little fear.
“Keep your eyes locked on that one,” she says, nodding towards Tyrus. “I got a tip off that something’s coming his way tonight.”
I’m not sure what that means, but as Tyrus strolls inside it’s hard to aim your gaze anywhere else. He commands attention like light commands flies. He drifts in and out of conversations with one group then another, back and forth between real live talkers and bodiless barks from his cell phone. He’s multi-tasking. At work, at play, easing tensions with promises, raising tensions with threats. Bargaining, hustling, surviving. He’s exactly what I wanted to be at fourteen. And I can’t imagine anything scarier.
Cassidy and I are not especially close. We’ve known each other for four years now and I’m still not sure if Cassidy is her first or last name. But tonight we’re the best of buddies – or so it must seem to anyone foolish enough to believe their eyes. Our bodies are pressed uncomfortably close as we appear to slow dance and engage in intimate chitchat. But really Cassidy is giving me regular updates on the Tyrus-related activity. She starts with this:
“The tall skinny guy in the Bulls jacket – don’t look, don’t look – that’s Chi Slim, big supplier from Chicago.”
“This Chi Slim guy? He’s known for playing hardball – just like Tyrus. Last time they did business, things almost came to an ugly conclusion. Guns drawn, threats, all that. Not this time.”
“Why not this time?” I ask.
“Cause this time I’m gonna’ step in and slam the door shut before they cross the finish line.”
“Shouldn’t you be calling … backup or something?”
“Why? Because this wispy little white girl can’t handle herself all alone? I’ll be fine.”
We break away from our staged embrace and she circles. I’m not sure who looks more excited, Tyrus or Cassidy.
I stride to the bathroom, not sure where things are headed and not sure if I want to stick around to find out. I’m washing my hands, lulled in by the placid rush of water, when I have a visitor: Tyrus.
He greets me with a grin he couldn’t fake if he had to on a witness stand. A grin that reminds me that he really is just a kid – waist-deep grownup drama aside.
“What’s the ups, Mr. Worthington?”
“Hello Tyrus,” I offer. I have nothing else.
Well, why not try this:
“Look… Tyrus,” I say to him on his way to the stall. “I know I’m just an English teacher, and I don’t know anything about what you’re doing or what you’re not doing and I suppose you don’t care about what I’m thinking or what I was thinking when I was your age or anything…”
He juts his head forward, eyebrows tilted.
“You been drinkin,’ Mr. Worthington?”
“I’m fine. Just…”
Another eyebrow tilt.
“Go home, Tyrus.”
“Yeah, go home. Just… go. Get out of here, out of this mess. Out of this life.”
He bubbles into slow laughter. And he’s fourteen again. A kid, not a drug dealer or suspected felon, but a baby-faced high school freshman who might get in trouble for breaking curfew or not turning in his homework on time.
There’s something safe about the place he’s standing while frozen in mid-laughter. But it doesn’t last long. Three hooded thugs – Chi Slim among them – rush inside and blur past me like I was a lamppost. All four meet in the stall.
And I can’t move.
I can’t seem to lift my feet when the fragile silence in the stall shifts into awkward mumbles, then full-throated screams. There’s too much echo to know what’s being shouted but I know enough about this world to know that the words themselves matter little.
The chaos rises to a sharp crescendo and is only cut short when four – or maybe five – shots slap into the night. If I could move I’d be in the next time zone by now. But movement would be demanding too much of my body right now with the world exploding like this.
With a furious kick at the stall door, Tyrus emerges, stunned to see me planted at the sink. The fourteen-year-old is gone, felled, or maybe chased away by the gunshots of a few seconds ago.
At this point, everything happens in slow-motion streaks like a scene from an art-house film that’s trying to hard to be remembered.
The bathroom door opens with another bang – it’s Cassidy, gun drawn and face shriveled into a fist.
“Do not move, Henderson! Do you hear me?! Do not move!”
But it’s too late – he’s moved, and yanked me by the hair to his chest. His gun jabs into my face and his grip refuses to yield. There is more screaming, more trading of growls. But I can make nothing of it because I’m feeling too much of everything right now. Too much heat, too much anger.
“You’re not gonna’ win this one, Henderson!” Cassidy screeches.
He knows this already. He can hear the sirens closing in from the distance.
As his eyes narrow into something demonic I wonder if he really wants to win this one. Maybe he just wants a way out. His laser-like gaze meets mine and he seems to have found his exit strategy. I can feel his pistol’s snout creeping into my left nostril, but I can see nothing but the backs of my eyelids. This is happening too quickly, too quietly. This is not the way I always pictured the end.
Under my left foot is a hand sprawling from under the stall. It sputters around, teetering on the cusp of lifelessness. It reaches up and tags Tyrus’s ankle. Startled, he jerks back. That gives me a second. A second to spring free and fall to the floor.
And it gives Cassidy a second to fire seven shots at her target. She finds his chest, his belly, his neck and the side of the stall four times.
His body jerks and contorts, seeking to dance itself free, but never getting there. His eyelids peel back to reveal a sense of shock he has no right to feel. After all, it’s not like he didn’t know he could wind up here. He’s seen the t-shirts, he’s heard the warnings. I told him to go home. I told him to get the fuck out of Thebes. But he just had to dive into this unhappy fate, face first and eyes slammed blissfully shut.
As his legs become rubber and abandon him, his body slaps at the floor and his arm curls around my neck in a way that probably means nothing, but, for the moment, feels too goddamn much like my six-year-old hugging me goodnight to be an accident.
I originally had Oedipus Shrugged published on Beat to a Pulp. Check them out!