I HUNG MY HEAD
I hung my head the day my eighth grade teacher told me I wouldn’t amount to anything. We were working on algebra problems but none of them made sense, no matter how many different ways she tried explaining it. The rest of the class understood but numbers never connected that way for me; I couldn’t figure out fractions neither.
“Greater than”, “Less than”, and “equal to” were all mysteries.
“It’s not that hard,” Miss Lawrence finally said.
“Seems impossible,” I said. “I just can’t do it.”
She crossed her arms and stood over me, pointing at the equations I had scribbled on my paper. “If you can’t figure this out, there’s no hope for you in any other math class you’ll ever take,” she said. “And if you quit, the world will chew you up and spit you out.”
“I’ll get by okay.”
“You won’t amount to anything. You’ll be another kid who won’t mean nothing to anybody.”
Not long after that I dropped out of school. It wasn’t just the math. My Mama didn’t care one way or another – she moved back and forth from tricks to highs and didn’t care about anything in between, and nobody from the school ever bothered calling to find out where I’d been. I figured they didn’t miss a kid who didn’t mean nothing.
I hung my head a couple of years later when one of the corner boys pressed that twenty-two into my hands and told me to hide it beneath my hoodie. “Keep it out of sight,” he said. Guys in the crew talked about the power you felt holding heat in your hand, but I didn’t feel none of that – just cold steel that tugged at my hoodie when I stuffed it in my pocket.
“Want you to walk into that liquor store. The one on Springwood,” Ice said. “Point that deucey-deuce at the old guy who works there. Get him to empty the register, then get all the cash he keep in that little metal box under the counter too.”
“Don’t be no punk about it, neither,” he said.
“Not sure I can do this,” I said. “Ain’t never shot no gun.”
“Nobody telling you to shoot it,” Ice said. “All you got to do is point it at him. He’ll understand what that means.”
He jabbed a thin finger into my chest. “You don’t do this, you got to find someplace else to hang,” he said. “Can’t be part of my crew if you ain’t willing to step up.”
I had been working the corner, slinging pills, crystal, nickel bags, crank, crack, and smack for four years. It was all I had, and all I knew how to do. Working that corner made me somebody – didn’t have no home and no place to go if I wasn’t part of that corner.
I hung my head when I walked into the liquor store, pulling the hoodie over my face so the old Italian behind the register couldn’t get a good look at me. I did like the guys on the corner told me and grabbed an Orange Crush out of the refrigerator then a handful of Slim Jims from one of the display racks. He watched every step I took, eyeing me as I approached, placing both hands flat on the counter and leaning forward as I put down the soda and Slim Jims. I fished the twenty-two out of my pocket.
My mouth went dry and I could feel my hand shaking as I pointed it towards his chest.
“Gun’s bigger than you,” he finally said with a crooked smile. He shook his head and stared at me.
“It’ll do the job,” I said. “Nothing funny about that.”
I only meant to point the deucey-deuce at him like Ice said, but I got startled when the door to the back room opened. Never meant to pull the trigger when his wife walked in – she surprised me and it just happened. Never meant to shoot her in the throat. The guys in the crew were pissed because I didn’t get more than a handful of twenties out of the register, but there was no time to look for that money box. The old guy was moaning and crying on the floor, holding his wife’s body in his arms, trying to keep the blood from spilling out of the hole in her neck – it was only a matter of minutes before somebody else walked in. I didn’t have time to stick around and find more cash to make them happy.
I hung my head when the cops brought me in for questioning. I didn’t think anybody in the crew snitched but the local newspapers wrote that the shop owner could identify his wife’s killer and a neighborhood group posted a ten thousand dollar reward for information on the robbery. The cops were better at math than I was – they put two and two together and came up with me. I hung my head when they marched me into the police station with my hands cuffed behind my back – photographers and TV crews filming every step I took while reporters shouted questions I couldn’t answer. The newspapers made it a bigger story – the “senseless murder of a third-generation Asbury Park store owner who had survived the riots and years of neighborhood crime” – shot by a “poor kid from the wrong side of town who was never going to be somebody who mattered.”
“Why’d you do it?” they yelled – like I had a choice when I pulled that trigger.
For the first time in my life I was alone, so when the cops asked questions I told them everything they wanted to know, thinking that would make it better for me. I didn’t know what else to say or do – I wasn’t good at figuring out problems. I didn’t snitch and I didn’t rat, and I didn’t give up nobody in my own crew because things like that were important. You did what you were supposed to do – you did things that mattered.
I hung my head when the jury came back with a guilty verdict after deliberating less than an hour. The wooden bench the cops had me cuffed to was old, cracked, and broken in spots, and I kept pressing my back into the jagged splinters while the jury read their decision. The sharp points dug into my skin and I liked how it hurt. Later at my sentencing I hung my head and stared at my hands. The judge went on about the horror of my crime, and I listened to the old woman’s family tell me through their tears how much she meant, how much they had lost, and what I had taken away from them. I had no words – at least none that mattered and I didn’t meet their stares. I saw my Mama crying quietly three rows behind them but I couldn’t look at her either. So I hung my head and let their words pour over me in waves, cutting and slicing into me like the broken shells you stepped on when you walked on the beach.
I hung my head when the minister came into my cell, offering me a last chance to confess my sins to God. It was humbling to think that God really cared about me – I couldn’t believe he even knew my name; I wondered if God heard all prayers like the minister said he did and if so, why he didn’t answer all those years earlier when I needed help with algebra.
“It doesn’t work that way,” the minister said.
I asked him how it was supposed to work but he didn’t have that answer. He didn’t really know much of anything except that sooner or later, the State of New Jersey would strap me into a chair and send thousands of volts of electricity ripping through my body until I was dead. I hung my head when I thought about that day – how they would shave my head and walk me into the room with everybody watching. How my life would end in that chair. How everything would disappear into nothing.
And I hung my head when I realized my teacher had been right. That my life – the one they would take – didn’t matter.
That I was just another kid who didn’t mean nothing to nobody.
Kevin Michaels is the author of the novels “Lost Exit” and “Nine In The Morning”, as well as two books in the Fight Card series: “Fight Card: Hard Road” and “Fight Card: Can’t Miss Contender”. His short stories have appeared in a number of magazines and indie publications, as well as Cavalcade of Stars. He is everything New Jersey (attitude – edginess – Bruce Springsteen songs….but not Bon Jovi).
He can also be found at: http://slidingdowntherazorsedge.blogspot.com