And Then We Were the Norrises
In the fall of ’85, a few years after my family and I went into witness protection, I started seventh grade at Edward Meany Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona. First period was an art class, which I was late for because I was late for everything back then, even the first day of school. When I walked in, there was only one empty seat left at a two-kid table by the window. Already sitting there was a long-haired white boy who wore a dirty Judas Priest shirt. The outcasts’ table. Everyone else in class was white, too, but preppy, like child models in a catalog. So, of course, I took my place with the outcasts like slipping on an old shoe.
As I sat down, I noticed he was drawing even though the class hadn’t started yet. I kind of peeked at the picture. It was some fire-breathing dragons and castle kind of stuff, so detailed with shading and little stars that it looked like it’d been Xeroxed from a comic book.
I said, “Wow, you’re good,” and he barely glanced up at me, flipping his hair out of his face with a quick turn of his head. He mumbled, “Thanks,” as he hunched over his creation even more.
A few minutes later, the teacher came in and took roll. I heard the kind of names I’d heard at all the other schools I’d attended. “Jones, Jeffrey?” Some boy replied, “Here.” “Mathis, Jennifer?” Some girl replied, “Here.” The teacher then called my name, not my real name, but the one Dwayne, our WITSEC agent, had chosen for me, my new name, “Norris, Charles?” Reluctantly, I replied, “Here.” The teacher, who looked like Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie, grinned and asked if I went by Charles or Chuck.
I told her Chuck since that was what Dwayne said to do.
Predictably, she burst out laughing. “Chuck Norris? Like the Chuck Norris? The actor?”
Everyone looked at me and giggled.
“Are you related?”
It was a joke, actually a pretty messed up one, since I’m clearly black. Nevertheless, I let Tootsie get her laugh. After Seattle, Dwayne told me, at all costs, not to be conspicuous or I’d be the reason my family got kicked out of the program. Logically, I said, “If you don’t want me to be conspicuous, then why’d you name me Chuck Norris?”
Dwayne scratched his cleft chin and looked away. “Because,” he said, “you had it coming.”
Tootsie continued roll. Eventually, she called out, “Silver, Sterling?” and the Judas Priest kid looked up from his drawing and said, “Here.” He was near six feet tall with the first few sprouts of what I was sure would be a thick mustache by the end of the day. With his long, greasy hair and tiny dagger-shaped earring, he looked like the kind of kid who spent his evenings in a dark room blasting heavy metal and sharpening a switchblade. He slowly looked around the classroom to see if anyone, including Tootsie, would laugh at his name, too.
No one even thought about it.
By then, my mother was the only one in the family who would speak to me in civil tones. At dinner that night, she asked if I’d met anyone at school. Before I could answer, my older sister, Trudy, muttered, “Highly unlikely, Mother,” in her little look-at-me, I-suddenly-have-boobs way. It was obvious she hadn’t met anyone yet. She looked a shade more sullen than she usually did. I should’ve felt sorry for her, but instead I flicked a pea that ricocheted off her forehead and rolled to a stop near my father’s plate. He looked up from his food and told us both to can it. Then he kept eating his meatloaf. He still wasn’t taking the whole going-into-hiding thing very well.
“Actually,” I said, “I did sort of meet someone.”
My mother was surprised. She slapped more mashed potatoes onto my plate and dove into her second glass of wine. “What’s his name?”
I clammed up for a sec and bulldozed my food with my fork.
My mother looked at me doubtfully. She’d once been a defense attorney. She got bad people out of bad situations, which made me wonder how good a person she really was. She took another long gulp of wine. “Well?”
I said I didn’t know if I could tell her.
She looked down. I was at that point considered “difficult,” something Trudy relished in.
“He thinks we won’t believe him, which I’m sure we won’t. Have we ever?” she said.
My mother looked at my father and sister cautiously. She covered my hand with hers. “It’s fine. Just tell us his name.”
I hesitated at first, as they all watched me. Then I just blurted it out. Even as I said it, it sounded like a lie. “Sterling Silver?” It didn’t help that I said it in the form of a question.
Trudy failed to suppress a snort. My parents rolled their eyes. I’d had troubles in the past, ones I thought I’d outgrown. I was twelve, but to my family, I was still a little boy. I forked a piece of meatloaf and looked down at Rufus, our schnauzer. Even he groaned.
Phoenix was our fourth city and name change in two years, and it was my fault. Sure, I was good and cagey whenever we moved to a new city or town. I was real spy-like, but eventually I’d let our secret out, and the Federales would swoop in and move us under the cover of darkness. It happened first in Seattle, a city I thought was nice and not as rainy as people think. Then there was Denver, which was cold and gave me nosebleeds. After that, there was a place called Boring, Oregon, which was aptly named.
Normally, WITSEC, the Witness Security Program, provides the witness and family with new names and a location far from trouble. Witnesses are encouraged to keep their first names and choose last names with the same initial in order to make it easier to use the new identity instinctively. Once you screw up too many times, though, that idea gets shit-canned, and they just name you any old thing.
I didn’t hate my real name, Bernard Black, XV. I mean, it would’ve been nice to keep it. Regrettably, my future, like my father’s present, reeked of Financials. We Bernard Blacks, and our family as a whole, went back as far as the 1700s, back to Bernard Black, I, a freed slave who was evidently a whiz with figures. With each generation, my ancestral Bernards all put their mark on the financial world, the black one and a little bit of the white one, with such flair that the Wall Street Journal eventually ran a one paragraph story about our family, calling us The Good Blacks of New York, sometime in the twenties. By the time I came along, however, we were on a three-generation skid. Money had jaded us. Whereas my older ancestors rubbed elbows with Booker T., Marcus Garvey and W.E.B., my father and grandfather were friends with Roy Cohn, Patrick Buchanan, Michael Milken and the like. We were rich assholes. There was no other way to say it. We’d sold out. Even on my mother’s side (funnily enough, the Whites). My parents both attended prep school and the Ivy League and, like many of their classmates, ultimately became employed by some not-so-nice clients.
However it happened, I wasn’t that upset about having that path taken away from me. I became Bernie Brown from Seattle. No more Bernard. Bernie. No more prep. Public. I could be a regular kid, one who, I don’t know, actually lived with their family. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. In the program, it was said that children have an especially hard time making friends. Unable to share anything honestly, WITSEC kids struggle to connect. In my case, only a few months into our stay, I told someone about my family’s predicament. I told them my real name. My sister found out and then my parents. They told Dwayne. Almost immediately, his cleft chin was in my face. We were out of there.
The same sort of thing happened, with a few variations, in every city after that. In Denver, I blabbed. In Boring, Oregon, I blabbed, mostly because it was boring. Anyone would’ve blabbed. Maybe I just couldn’t be someone else. Maybe I kept ruining things because, subconsciously, I wanted everything to be the way it used to be. Or maybe I’d become a saboteur simply because I was a “natural-born shit stain,” as Dwayne had started calling me when my parents weren’t around.
Whatever the case, now we were The Norrises, my mother Enid being Delores, a name she tended to tell people in the manner of James Bond: “Hi, I’m Mrs. Norris, Mrs. Delores Norris.” I was pretty sure she’d already dipped into the wine whenever that happened. My sister Jenny was now Gertrude, a name I thought for sure she’d slit her wrists over. When Dwayne told us our new identities, I immediately called her Nerdy Gertie, Dirty Gertie. Turdy Gertie. But it was no use. She was going to go by Trudy. She said it sounded rich. My father still told us both to can it.
He wasn’t all that happy about being Chuck Sr. now. Dwayne, in all of his wisdom, felt the need to punch up the narrative and give my father the nickname “Big Chuck,” even though my father looked nothing like a Big Chuck or even a Medium Chuck. If anything, he was a Diminutive Chuck, a Miniscule Chuck. So was I, but I had a feeling that was Dwayne’s lame attempt at irony, a courtesy he didn’t grant me. Little Chuck was all I got. When I protested, saying I wanted a more interesting name, Charlie or Carlos or maybe even Carlito, which I thought sounded cool, Dwayne said no. He and his buzz cut wanted to punish me for stepping on his balls. “Little Chuck Norris is it. That’s your name. Now shut the hell up.”
Obviously, he couldn’t foresee my endless ways of adaptation.
It turned out Sterling was in two of my six classes. Our lockers were near each other, our gym lockers, too, and on the way home, we even happened to sit next to each other on the bus. We didn’t say a word until the fourth day. He said, “You’re that Norris kid.”
I nodded. “You’re that Silver kid.”
When we got off the bus and were walking down a street of brand-new tract homes near Bell Road, he asked if I wanted to see his throwing star collection.
Though I’d never seen one, didn’t even know what they were, I said, “Sure. I’m a throwing star aficionado.”
He gave me a puzzled look. “Aficionado. That means you like them, right?”
As I was about to say yes, he took out a round flat piece of metal the size of his palm. It was shiny except for its lethal sharpened edge. He cocked it between his thumb and index finger and hurled it as though trying to maim. It corkscrewed through the air like a fast bird, dipping and diving, until it plunked into a realtor sign in a freshly landscaped yard twenty feet away. We walked up to it, and the metal was still vibrating. As he yanked it out, as it winked in the sun, I thought it looked like a blade from a pizza cutter. I asked if that was right.
“Yep.” Sterling flipped his long hair out of his eyes with a quick turn of his head. “It’s not a throwing star, but it’ll still fuck something up.” He wiped some of the sign’s paint off and asked if I wanted a try.
I took it from him, the first time I’d ever held a weapon other than a lacrosse stick. Without hesitation, I chucked the blade, watching it corkscrew through the air till it hit another realtor sign swinging in the wind a few front yards away. The fact that we could’ve killed someone, or at least scalped them, was quite apparent. Because of that, I thought I should say something like, “Cool.”
Sterling said, “Bitchin’.”
I said, “That means it’s good, right?”
He said, “Fuckin’ A.”
We ran to retrieve it.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I’d never developed the talent needed to be the average boy. I wasn’t tough or particularly athletic. I didn’t care about sports. One of my old gym teachers actually described me as “delicate.” So Sterling and I becoming friends probably seemed odd to others at first. To us, the fact that he was not preppy and I was not white made our friendship inevitable in a very white and preppy school. Luckily, we were only seventh graders so much wasn’t expected of us anyway, especially in public school. I could do my homework and his in fifteen minutes. After that, we were free to spend our afternoons on our knockoff bikes, riding around, having philosophical discussions.
“What’s it like to be black?”
“I don’t know. What’s it like to be white?”
He thought about it. “I don’t know. What’s it like to be rich?”
I wanted to tell him it was way better than this, but I thought that would seem elitist. According to Dwayne, we were never supposed to tell people we’d been rich. “Regular,” he said. “You’re regular people. Average.” I put it out of my mind.
I thought of Trudy and my mother. “I wonder what it’s like to be a girl.”
“It probably sucks. Girls are always sad about something.” Sterling hocked a loogy and did a bunny hop up onto a curb. He slowed and then hit the lip of a driveway and did a little jump, spitting as he lifted off into the air. I did the same, surprisingly without wrecking. He turned and looked back at me, flipping his hair out of his eyes. “I wonder what it’s like to be a fag.”
I waited a second before saying, “How would I know?”
Sterling laughed and put his arm over my shoulder. “Don’t be so serious. It was a joke. You’re cool.” We rode next to each other for a few moments. I looked at him, studying the stubby, coarse hairs over his lip, the tiny moles on his neck. When he finally looked at me and smiled, I felt that same old sensation. I thought, I’ll be okay. I can stay here. I have a friend. I can make this work. The sun was shining. If there’d been birds, I was sure they would’ve been singing.
Though I’d scored high on the Einstein scale on every IQ test I’d ever taken (160-190), in actuality I was still a little dumb. Even so, it didn’t take a genius to see that witness protection would put a serious kink in our family groove. Every time we had to relocate, with only a few of our personal possessions, life seemed to lose its meaning. We were whisked away in black vans, sometimes changing vehicles three and four times. We lived in cheap motels for a few months until Dwayne secured a new residence. Each new house was bare, with someone else’s ghosts hiding in the corners. All I could think about was my old friends, who were somewhere else, in some other land, where I was sure things still made sense.
In Phoenix, especially for us New Yorkers, nothing made sense. The haboobs, the heat, the lack of decent pizza. Every night, my family and I took turns putting our pillows and bedsheets in the chest freezer before bed so we wouldn’t sweat while we slept. We put towels in the car seats so we wouldn’t fry our backsides. My mother often drove around in oven mitts. We were on another planet. Before WITSEC, we’d never really left the east coast, not even for vacation. I’d been at Groton, my sister at Exeter, my parents in Manhattan. But now, with all of us under one roof, we were more messed up than we were letting on. It was a toss-up as to who was worse off.
To combat this, every Saturday, my mother rousted Trudy and me from our beds, where we usually slept till noon, like spoiled rich kids. We’d climb into our Chevy Spectrum to meet my father on his lunch break. Dwayne had found him yet another tax preparer job, this time at Cactus Taxes out on North Central Ave. For lunch, we always met at a burger joint called Wimpy’s across the street. My mother said we could use some more bonding. She said it was so we would be even keeled, so we wouldn’t be so “effed up.” I had a feeling she’d already been hitting the wine pretty good by then. She was a dental secretary now. With all of her education, I’d probably say screw it and get drunk, too. When I was younger, she seemed so smart and alert, even cunning. Now, having to be low profile just made her seem ordinary.
It bothered me so much that I once asked my father how he got us into this mess. We were alone, driving through a carwash, our Spectrum engulfed in white suds. The fact that I’d even asked was a huge step for me since my father always favored my sister. He gave me a sidelong glance and said he may have over-extended himself and made deals with the devil. I said I didn’t know what that meant and he said something about his stuck-up white college friends. I waited for him to elaborate, but he just said, “Don’t worry about it. Adult stuff,” the same thing he said when I told him I’d once seen him holding hands with another woman, a white woman, on a Manhattan street corner.
Maybe the guilt over getting us into our trouble was why he never said much at lunch. He chewed his food really slowly, with an unlit Merit parked behind his ear. He gazed out the window as if somewhere out there was our real life, or maybe just his. Often, as I watched him, I wondered if I was simply looking at myself in the future. Though short in stature, he’d once been a big deal. I’d seen him yell at white people without consequence. At a big Christmas party, I saw my parents, along with all of their white friends, snort cocaine off a silver platter. My father even drove a DeLorean for a short time. Now he looked like someone’s underpaid guidance counselor. All for what? I didn’t even know.
With such a fall from grace, it was no wonder we all ate without talking. We probably looked like the most depressed black family in the world. Trudy sat next to me, her hair straightened and sprayed with Aqua Net like some girl on MTV. I often slurped on my soda as I watched her glittery fingernails, a different color for each digit, dance across her tray of food. All as she ate ravenously. I had no idea what anyone faced in life. Consequently, I barely noticed when she started ordering more food than the rest of us, two cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, an apple turnover, a Diet Rite, a chocolate sundae. She’d always been a bit hefty. I also didn’t notice when she started excusing herself immediately after eating and heading to the bathroom to throw it all up.
I was too busy just trying not to get yelled at. My screw-ups and the fact that I was the youngest made my mother worry over me. She wiped stuff off my face with a little spit on her thumb. She fixed my shirt collar. She told me to tie my shoes, her sweet, tangy wine breath always in my face. Sometimes, while telling me to do this or that, she’d slip up and call me Bernard. For a moment, we’d be back there in the misty past. I’d feel that crush every child has for their mother. I know she felt it, too. She’d crimp her lips as though swallowing something bitter. Then she’d become my real mother, the defense attorney. She’d say, “I’m sorry. I meant Chuck. Your real name is Chuck.” She’d gently press the tip of my nose, like a button, and we were back, in a burger joint called Wimpy’s, in North Phoenix, in the dry, hot state of Arizona. Yay.
Since Sterling and I both lived near Bell Road, the edge of civilization in Phoenix at that time, we were pretty much inseparable by the end of September. My family was in a newer development called Desert Breeze Estates, and his was farther out in an older, loosely developed one just called Desert Sands. The first time he came over for dinner, my family just looked at him as he devoured his cube steak and scalloped potatoes and then asked for seconds. We’d never seen anyone eat like that. I think Trudy was especially disgusted. She headed off to the bathroom. My mother, three vinos deep by then, commented on his Judas Priest shirt, which it seemed was the only one he wore. “That shirt sure is—” She paused to come up with right word, which ultimately escaped her. My father said, “Let’s just say it’s noteworthy and move on.” He slowly slid her glass of wine away from her. She slowly slid it back. Sterling didn’t even notice. He shrugged and said thanks and asked for thirds.
I looked at his hair as he flipped it out of his face. I became fixated on a tiny lint ball on the crown of his head. I wanted to pick it off of there, but when Trudy came back and sat down, I found her smiling at me in a weird way. I kicked her under the table. She kicked me back. When dinner was over, my father pushed his plate away and sat in his recliner, chain-smoking, still in his work clothes. Trudy went off to the bathroom again. My mother stayed at the dinner table, drinking. Sterling and I went outside and burned things with a really big magnifying glass he said he’d found.
The first time I went to his house, he stopped me at the driveway and said, “Wait.”
We were both straddling our bikes. I asked what was wrong.
“Nothing.” He kicked a rock and looked off. “It’s just that you’re rich.”
I looked up his long, dusty driveway and smirked. “Believe me, we aren’t.” I started telling him that we used to be rich. I almost mentioned New York, but I thought of Dwayne. I just said my family had fallen on hard times, which after seeing his house made me feel like a fraud.
“No, you’re still rich,” he said. “Your house is nice. It looks like all of the other houses on your street.”
I said, “That means it isn’t nice and that we aren’t rich.”
Sterling looked up at his house and said, “Forget it.”
The Desert Sands was more of a clump of homes than an actual development. They were dirty and haphazardly terraced on one of the North Hills, all of them surrounded by scrub brush and tumbleweeds, the odd prairie dog poking up out of the dust. When we came up to his house’s carport, some guy was inside painting a dented muscle car with a pneumatic spray gun. He was bald on top with shaggy hair around the sides, shirtless, his brawny arms stamped with tattoos. From the looks of it, he seemed to be painting the car the exact same green that it already was. Sterling mumbled, “Rick. My stepdad.”
I went to raise my hand to wave, but he stopped me. I looked down at his hand on my wrist. There was an old scar on his thumb. His fingernails were deeply bitten. He let go.
It seemed then that Rick finally noticed us. He immediately started grumbling as he wielded his paint gun and a lit cigarette in one hand. He called us “little faggots.” He told us not to kick up any rocks or dust or else we’d screw up his paint job. We mumbled okay and carefully laid down our bikes and went inside. I looked back at him and thought I heard him call us little faggots again. Then I just heard the hiss of the spray gun.
For dinner, his mother said all they had was cereal. There were no introductions. She just sat on the couch, smoking cigarettes in a wife-beater and pair of bikini bottoms. The room had an odd herbal aroma. A stick of incense smoldered in the ashtray along as well as a ceramic pipe shaped like a penis. I looked at it for a second as Sterling made up the bowls of cereal. Then his mother said, “Oh, but fuck a duck. We’re out of regular milk. How about chocolate?”
“With Raisin Bran?” Sterling said. “That won’t be any fucking good.”
I looked at his mother, expecting her to smack him. I’d never heard any of my friends curse in front of their parents, but she didn’t seem fazed at all.
“Sure it the fuck will,” she said. “It’ll be fucking great.” As if she thought she’d made our day, she got the gallon jug out of the fridge. She came up behind me, her cigarette dangling out of the side of her mouth. “It’s brown like you. You’ll like that, won’t ya? All you people do.” Her gums were severely receded, her teeth the color of butter. She slapped me on the shoulder, let out a phlegmy laugh, and went back to the couch.
I dug in, because I felt I should. I said, “Actually, this is kind of tasty. Sort of.”
“No, it isn’t. You’re just being nice.” Sterling got up and poured his bowl into the kitchen sink. He went to his room, and I followed. I looked back at his mother, and she smiled crookedly. “Don’t you two be playing any grab-ass in there, you hear?”
I must’ve furrowed my brow because she laughed so long that I went and caught up with Sterling. Me just turning my back made her laugh even more.
When people sense you’re smarter than them, they tend to not like you. Either you ruin the bell curve or you unwittingly make their lives difficult. This is especially true if they’re an adult and you’re a kid, which was the case with Dwayne. It was unfortunate. A part of me almost wanted to be like him. My life would’ve been a lot easier. He was white, of average intelligence, broad-shouldered and muscular, with a square, symmetrical face. He was married with some children somewhere, I was pretty sure. A gold wedding band usually glinted on his ring finger. Even his cleft chin was somehow appealing, perfectly centered on the tip of his mandible, the mouth of a blossom. Still, I was sure he despised me.
Twice a month, he paid me and my family a visit, showing up in his silver Chrysler K car, sweating in a blue sports coat. Somewhere around his rib cage, I was sure he had a gun snug in a holster. He’d check in with my parents, who smiled in his presence but called him a dolt in his absence. He’d go and sit in Trudy’s room and talk to her, where I was sure she flirted with him. Then he’d come out, point my way, and say, “You, you’re with me.” We’d get in his K car and go somewhere.
He’d ask about school. He’d ask about my family. Then he’d ask if I was maintaining “our cover.” I’d give short affirmative answers and then we’d go to Baskin-Robbins or Farrell’s and I’d watch him eat ice cream. This time, though, he turned to me and just said he had me figured out.
“Really?” I said. “And without me even asking. Thanks.” The floorboards were littered with copies of Inside Kung-Fu with Chuck Norris on the cover.
“You,” Dwayne said, “are prone to infatuation. That’s what always gets you in trouble.” I must’ve sighed because he looked at me and asked what was wrong.
I told him I felt bad. I didn’t bring any grossly overstated opinions about him.
“Huh?” he said.
“You’re psychoanalyzing me.”
“In case you didn’t know, people don’t like that. It makes them feel weird, and it makes you seem condescending.”
“That so,” he said. “You know what some other people like me don’t like? Having some corny ass kid blow his family’s cover every six months, necessitating a new identity and a new home.”
I noticed he didn’t have his wedding band on anymore. There was just a tan line where the ring used to be. I looked out the window. “Let me guess. You just went back to school. MS in Psychology.”
My hunch must’ve been correct because he told me to zip it. He hated when my comebacks were better than his. He had to get all huffy. I told him I was just processing things. I didn’t know if I was still me or if I was slowly becoming someone else.
“See, that’s your first mistake. Thinking about it.” Dwayne threw on his mirrored aviators. “My dad beat the hell out of me when I was a kid. If I stopped and thought about it, I’d probably kill him and me both.” He started to say, “Hell, if my wife knew how to goddamn be one,” but then he stopped.
“I guess I should just suppress my feelings and compartmentalize, then.”
I looked out the window as we passed Metso’s Cocktail Lounge and then The Paris Adult Theater. Dirty, intoxicated people were swaying out front. “From what I’ve heard, that leads to more problems.” One of them smiled toothlessly at me when we passed.
“Fine.” Dwayne destroyed a Chiclet with his incisors. “I can get another psychologist for you to talk to. That sounds like super-duper fun, doesn’t it?”
I glanced away and then back at him.
“That’s what I thought.” We stopped at a red light, and he turned to me intensely, as he sometimes did. As he gathered his thoughts, his face quivering in front of me, I could see my reflection in his sunglasses, two of me staring back. They didn’t even look like me.
“Listen, I’m not trying to be a hard-ass. But if we have any more problems, you and your family are on your own. And that ain’t no joke.”
“Right,” I said. “Some mobsters will come and kill us because my father laundered some money.”
Dwayne ran his hand over his prickly buzz cut and glanced at me a few times. “That’s not what your father did, but hey, things happens. You think they won’t, but then they do. That’s how life works.” He rubbed his ringless ring finger with his thumb and then picked up his hand exerciser and started squeezing it. “I don’t think you know how lucky you are. Some of my other cases aren’t too pretty. Your family at least had money and education.”
“None of which we got to bring with us.”
It was a point of contention between him and my parents. All of our assets had been liquidated to pay for our relocations. Our pasts were erased. It was something I heard my parents argue about late at night. We didn’t exist. We had Social Security numbers but no birth certificates. During some of my mother’s drunken fits, she often yelled that she graduated magna cum laude from Yale, with top honors from Harvard. Now, as Delores Norris, she was supposedly only a high school graduate. It had gotten to the point that once we even got in our Spectrum, ready to leave for good. My father backed out of the driveway and wound around the neighborhood for a few minutes. It seemed like all of this would be behind us. But he eventually just turned around and we pulled back into our driveway and all went inside like it never happened.
“Sorry,” Dwayne said. “But that was the deal. They agreed to it.” He looked my way and seemed to soften. Having children probably made him empathize with me. He looked at me over his aviators and shook out a Chiclet, which I took.
We pulled into the Paradise Valley Mall, and he asked if I wanted to see a movie. “Chuck Norris, the greatest action star of all-time, has a new film out. Wanna know what it’s called?” He gave me a long look. “Code of Silence.”
For a moment, I thought he was giving me some sort of subliminal message. It was like him to do that. But then he started telling me that he’d seen the movie six times already, that it was a fine film.
Though I was now named Chuck Norris, I said I didn’t know his oeuvre that well.
“Oeuvre?” Dwayne said. “All I know is he kicks mucho ass in it. Good enough?”
I nodded. “Bellísimo.”
Since it was the ’80s, Sterling and I were completely unsupervised. We set things on fire on purpose. We set things on fire on accident. We found out that if you put a lit lighter to the nozzle of a can of air freshener and pressed the spray button you’d effectively make a low-powered blowtorch. We singed our eyebrows. When it was really hot outside, we tried to fry eggs on the sidewalk. It never worked.
We listened to Dr. Demento on KZZP. We bought candy at the Pic N Save, which we called the Pick Your Nose. When it rained, we swam in the flooded streets and parking lots. We rode our bikes around half-finished developments that’d been left abandoned. Occasionally, we entered the houses through unlocked sliding glass doors and windows and would fling throwing stars at the new drywall.
We were boys. We called each other fags, fruits, fudgepackers. We watched movies endlessly. At his house, when his mother and Rick were gone, we’d even sneak into their messy bedroom and watch the scrambled Playboy channel on Dimension Cable. A line of static cut the screen in half, naked white bodies wriggling on either side, Sterling and I both getting boners. He’d say, “You’re not looking at the guy, right?” And I’d say, “Of course not.” Then he’d laugh for a really long time and slap me on the back.
The ’80s seemed so bright and neon, so full of commercials, that you could almost forget the feeling of danger that was everywhere. Nukes. Drugs. Stranger danger. Stepdads. The more I got to know Sterling, the more I heard about Rick and his mother. I sensed Sterling didn’t like being at home very much. He said sometimes they hit him. When I asked if he wanted me to tell someone, a logical option to me, he said, “No way. Are you crazy?” I asked why, and he said, “Because then they’ll just hit me some more.” It was a mode of thinking I slowly came to understand.
A few times, when Rick thought I wasn’t at their house, I’d heard him ask Sterling’s mother why that “little black fucker” was always around. He was usually lifting weights in the corner of their living room or punching a speed bag. Sometimes, he stood over a couple of 55 gallon drums in the back of their carport, stirring something that smelled horrible but that he called “primo shit.” The first time he called me a name, I looked at Sterling to see if he heard, but he seemed to be in a trance as he played Asteroids on his Atari. I sat down next to him, and he did put his arm over my shoulder. But I couldn’t tell if it was to comfort me. He pulled his arm back. Our legs were right next each other. I thought I should move away.
To his credit, Dwayne wasn’t completely off with my “infatuations.” In Seattle, something had happened. In Denver and Boring, too. There was the word “close.” Bernie and Steve are getting too close. Marvin (me) and Peter are too close. Bobby (also me) and Ricky are too close. Their father or uncle or mother would start to think something about me and my family. Some of them were God-fearers. Maybe I was too nice. Maybe I was too different. Wherever we went, we were the only black family anyway. Maybe that had something to do with it.
With Sterling, I wasn’t sure what I felt, but there was a pull. I liked doing boy things, it turned out. Sterling not only taught me how to use nunchucks but to use them without hitting myself in the balls. He taught me how to open and close his butterfly knife, which he called a balisong, I think to impress me. He said his real father, a former Marine, taught him. Sterling’s big blistered hands manipulated my small soft ones. Hold the safe handle, fling the knife open with a flick of the wrist, let the handle rotate in your grip. The knife was open. Do it in reverse and the knife was closed. There was the vertical open, the horizontal open, the double rollout. The metallic chatter of the knife opening and closing was soothing to both of us. Flick. Click. Flick. Open. Flick. Click. Flick. Closed. I became infatuated with the knife. When shut, you would never think there was a blade inside.
I asked where his father was, and he said California and then he scratched his head, as though he wasn’t quite sure. “But he’s coming for me.” He smiled as he flicked the knife. “Real soon.” It sounded like an unrealized dream, one that he’d probably been holding onto for some time. I thought it best not to ruin it for him. He said his father moved a lot, was what his mother and Rick called a “dirty hippie.” Neither of us really knew what that meant since his mother and Rick were pretty dirty themselves. The vulgarity of life, as my grandfather used to say. We were in the middle of it. It sent us farther into the world to figure things out for ourselves.
By the middle of the first semester, we’d gone from innocence to destruction to the taboo, which just meant that we’d sneaked into a few R-rated movies. But we stepped our game up. We cursed around grown-ups. Fuck. Bitch. Dickhead. Somehow, when I wasn’t paying attention, Sterling had developed the unique ability to show up with things he said he’d “found.” His butterfly knife. That big ass magnifying glass. More throwing stars. The latest issue of a porno magazine called Black Tail. We kept a lot of these treasures stashed in Paradise Valley Park, in a huge bush that was hollow in the center. It was so big we could crawl inside and hang out under the canopy. We sat cross-legged and looked at these things. My heart beat quickly as we played with the butterfly knife, as we flipped the pages of the magazine, me trying to just look at the women. Sterling openly rubbed his crotch, always saying the same thing, “Look at that ass. Look at those tits. Look at that puss.” I sort of twisted the waist of my pants to make them tight against my own dick. We got to the back of the magazine and laughed at all the ads for VHS tapes for sale. Sex Wars. Indiana Bones and the Temple of Womb. Frisky Business. When it got dark, we put everything but the butterfly knife in a little ammo box we’d buried there inside the bush. We jumped back on our bikes, and Sterling said, “Man, I’ve really gotta get my hands on one of those tapes, right?”
My privates were still a bit warm. I was almost afraid where this would go. I wondered if we were heading too far into the taboo. I wanted to tell him that he should probably stop “finding” things. We could think of other things to do. But when I looked at him, I thought of his home life and the fact that now he was happy. I said, “Sure. That would be cool, I guess. Why not?”
I didn’t see Sterling for a few days after that. I knocked on his door, but there was no answer. I thought maybe he’d gotten in trouble for stealing, that he was locked up somewhere in a juvenile facility, but on the fourth day, his mother slowly answered the door. She was in her usual tank top, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. She could barely keep her eyes open. “Oh,” she said. “Sterling’s gone. He’s gonna live with his father for a while. He didn’t tell you?”
I said no, but I wasn’t sure whether to believe her. She said she wanted her kid to live different places. “Not just this hellhole.” She said, “You know what I mean?” as though I weren’t just a kid. Something in the distance caught her attention and she watched it for a moment. Then she laughed. I sensed this story was her version of the events. Inside the house, I heard Rick grumble, “Good riddance. I was tired of that little shit anyway.” I asked her how long Sterling would be gone, and she seemed to lose her train of thought. Her tired, bloodshot eyes curled up briefly under their lids. I reached out and touched her arm and she woke up. “Don’t worry,” she said. “He’ll be back.” She turned and wandered away from the open door and into the back bedrooms. I saw Sterling’s butterfly knife sitting on a table in the foyer. I walked far enough inside to reach in and grab it.
A week went by and then two. I wrote Sterling a letter and left it at his mother’s, hoping she’d send it to him. A week later, I got a letter back. It was written in his chicken scratch. He apologized for not saying goodbye. He said his father, now a truck driver, stopped one night and picked him up. He was living in Los Angeles. He said kids from Arizona were called “zoners” there, but that he’d already earned the respect of some “surfer dudes.” The last line said, “See, I told you he was coming for me.” He didn’t once ask about me. I went to our bush in Paradise Valley Park and read it a few more times. Each misspelled word made me miss him even more. I looked at Black Tail. I studied the men and rubbed my crotch. I even ordered one of the tapes from the back, which, with a simple money order, was surprisingly easy to do for a minor. It arrived in only a few days. I popped it in our VCR when no one was home. There were no opening credits. The screen just went from static to a scene with a black man and a white woman. I thought of Sterling. I watched it a few times, hiding the tape in my bottom dresser drawer like a weapon afterward. Eventually, I just threw it away in a dumpster behind a mall.
I got used to being alone again. I stayed in my room, playing with the butterfly knife, as Rufus the Dog slept on my bed. I began to feel as though this was how the rest of my life would be. I realized I’d only known Sterling for three months. It’d felt like more than that. I went back to our bush in the park one day and was startled to find some older kids looking at our things. I told them that it was our spot. They laughed and pointed at Rufus next to me. “Who? You and your dog?” I told them it was my stuff. They said, “Not anymore, gay boy.” They told me to go home.
I began to wonder if my family and I were now finally settled, if this was what was supposed to happen in every other city we’d lived in. Maybe we’d all accepted a certain misery. Maybe we’d adapted. For some reason, I began to hate Sterling for it. He’d gotten out of his purgatory and left me in mine. He’d been rescued. I sometimes dreamt that I’d wake to my family packing all of our stuff and leaving in the middle of the night. But in the morning, everything was still the same. My dad was at the dining table slowly smoking a Merit as he read the newspaper. My mother was next to him rubbing last night’s wine from her eyes. Trudy was in the bathroom, curling her hair. I was the only one still holding out hope.
On the day of school pictures, I came outside to wait for the bus and found Dwayne in his K car parked along the curb in front of my house. We were due for a visit, but this seemed unplanned. I looked down in the window, and he was staring toward the North Hills, looking almost directly at Sterling’s house. His eyes were pink. His buzz cut was a little long and fluffy. His wedding band still wasn’t on his finger, just the tan line. He looked over at me, his head wobbling on his neck. He slid on his aviators and tiredly said, “You and me, buddy.” He slapped the passenger seat. “I’m taking you to school.”
He’d been drinking. It was obvious. I could smell his musky, stale breath in the car. He shook a pile of Tic Tacs into his palm and threw them in his mouth. When he crunched on them, it sounded like he was eating little rocks. I got in.
“So what’s new?” He gently thumped the wheel with his hand, as though to a song only he could hear.
I said, “Not much. You?”
He touched the base of his ring finger again and cleared his throat a few times. “Same poop. Different toilet.”
I looked back out the window.
“Is everything okay with you guys?” He was suddenly keyed up, as though he wanted a task. “Should I be worried about anything?”
I shrugged. “Maybe we’d be okay if you just left us alone.”
After a moment, he said, “I can’t do that.” He glanced at me shyly. “Besides, I don’t want to. I like you guys. You’re a nice family.” His voice cracked in an odd way as we rode past Metso’s Cocktail Lounge and the Paris Adult Theater.
I asked if everything was okay with him. “You’re acting different.”
He immediately said, “Am I?” as though it was a funny thing for me to say. Then he touched his ring finger again. He held it as if it was broken. Suddenly, his smile melted, and he covered his jaw with his hand so I couldn’t see. “Fuck,” he said a few times and, “God, I love that woman.” He crouched over the steering wheel and proceeded to bawl.
After a moment, I put my hand on the shoulder pad of his blazer. I could feel his muscles trembling underneath. I said I was sorry for his loss.
He wiped the tears from his eyes and smiled. “You know, you’re a good guy for saying that.”
When we pulled up in front of my school, there was a line of kids snaking into the gymnasium, where pictures were being taken. I realized this picture would make my life here official. There was nothing I could do. In the yearbook, my face would be next to my new name. It would be me but not me. I wondered how much of my life would be spent pretending. I turned to Dwayne. “Do you think we’re all going to be okay?”
I wasn’t sure he understood, but the way he whimpered somehow made me feel better. “One day, I hope.”
I got out of the car and left him there. I waited in line. When it was finally my turn, I stood on an X in front of a white background. The photographer held up his hand like a conductor starting a symphony. He smiled. I smiled back. In my mind, I could see Sterling on a California beach with his father. I could see me and my family living happily in New York. I could even see Dwayne. “Perfect.” The photographer lowered his hand. “Hold it right there.” I held still. I kept smiling. Even though I knew the flash was coming, I swore I wouldn’t blink.
Chris Stuck is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has twice been a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He was recently awarded a 2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship, and his stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Bennington Review, Callaloo, and Meridian. He is currently working on a novel and shopping around a short story collection.