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