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