How to Speak to Sirens
Most of the time, after my roommate finishes slamming the tea kettle around the kitchen, after she’s allowed the familiar tone of the radio newscaster to leak through the walls and finally bangs the door shut, I stay awake. But, because I am on summer break, because my students’ toes are curled over diving board edges, or they are catching the lint from their parents’ rugs, I do not move. Instead, I attempt to pass these dead hours with Zen meditation, the AC rattling onto my exposed forearm making it cold as a morgue. I’m trying to achieve an inner peace. I want the steady air, the cool room, the pinkish sunlight filtering through my sheet to converge into a fluffy cloud of meaning. I want the cloud to become my bed. Then, in a sleepy trance, I want to float upwards, into soft sky blue and empty outer space.
But each time my mind closes in on this—each time I lose the difference between ears and sound—the same image jars me, like an alarm clock.
Kenneth, with his lazy slouch and wide palm—his forefinger and thumb loosely cinched around a meaningless penny. He’s in that same sweatshirt he wore all winter, the one he claimed cost him 200 bucks. For some reason his hair is different. During the school year he’d kept it buzzed short, a slight bolt of lightning carved above his right eyebrow. But here in my day-mare, on the windy observation deck, his hair is a bit fuzzier, a bit more of an afro, though not quite an inch thick. Still the air rifles through it, though not in the same destructive way it splits the stringy hairs of my pony tail.
We’re always on top of the Empire State Building. Depending on the morning, the variables shift. Sometimes we’re alone, sometimes it’s a class trip, sometimes my whole family is there, Mom, Dad and Jill, looking like they did when I was dancing on a stage in the sixth grade. Sometimes there are Arabs—or Indians—sikhs maybe, their hair wrapped in turbans. Not that I’m saying I notice them because they’re terrorists or anything. I just see them. Maybe I notice them because I’m afraid Kenneth will call them terrorists, the same way he did poor Mohammad all year.
I suppose it’s telling that this is the sort of scene that swims into my mind when I’m trying to erase all thought from my conscious psyche. Two weeks into summer it is still Kenneth I am fixed on, his hand with a penny, threatening wildly to toss it over the edge.
Kenneth, I try to explain to him, You could really hurt someone.
Kenneth, you don’t want to kill anybody.
Kenneth, I’m going to call your mother.
But my threats and warnings are meaningless currency—as usual. My authority as cheap as wishes invested with that copper coin. He ignores me, the little shit. He wants a skull cracked with a penny, just for fun. Just like jumping and letting his fingers curl the rim in the gymnasium. Just to say, I did. I can. And I am possessed by all the consequences of my year’s worth of defeat as a teacher—of letting this boy with the basketball hands dribble me around my classroom. My dream mouth starts going up for shots.
Kenneth, you little gangsta shit, I yell.
Kenneth, your little wannabe raps are rip offs.
Kenneth, don’t play, that sweatshirt you’re wearing cost 15 bucks from the back of a truck on Broadway.
The words are like three pointers, my outrage isolated long enough for me to see each one make a swish. And I’m stunned by it, my half asleep body surging with the rise—like the first time I heard myself talk dirty. But then I realize Kenneth isn’t fazed.
You got fat, Miss, he says and then he drops the coin. Like it’s nothing. Like it’s an empty bag of chips on my classroom floor. No! I yell, the dread of my fantasy collecting, calling for a strange action. What to do? Where are the stairs? I want to beat the penny to the ground. So I run—maniacally—towards the 34th street sidewalk, down the empty stairwell.
Sometimes I make it in time. Sometimes that coin shoots so deep into my head that I can imagine the warm, sticky sensation of brain bits on my cheek—the delicious slowing of my thoughts. Those are the good days. The days when all the nervousness dissolves, and I actually do meditate.
Other days I don’t make it and I watch a baby die, or my father, or it shoots through a cab, or it kills a dog on a leash.
Today, my scalp doesn’t catch it. I watch it skip into the forehead of another student of mine; a Special Ed girl named Shantique. Her wide face is always lit in a half-smile, and it is now, spookily, even with blood like the syrup of cherry pie collecting by her eyebrow. Owwwww, she says, with a giggle. Like someone pinched her and she liked it. No, I tell myself.
No, wake up.
So I do. To the empty apartment, mid-July, second floor, Bushwick. I wake up to my phone blinking with a text message from Ray and use that contraption, that little blink, to will me back to this world. I just push a button and some words appear. They say, Don’t forget J and K’s party. Meet at 86th and Amsterdam at 8.
I groan noooo and lay back on my pillow, examining the yellow water stains of the ceiling. His friends, Jasper and Kate, are older like he is, and I get sick of the doormen, the wine racks, the designer gym toned bodies of their world. It becomes a sick pit in my gut, the way they think my activism is cute, like I am a hippie soldier. They want me to say ‘Yo Miss’ and ‘that shit is whack’ and to tell the story about how one time Jayne was throwing scissors at the other students in the class, and to shield themselves, they all pushed their desks over and lain behind them, like trenches. I am, Dee, the one who teaches in Queensbridge. Where Mobb Deep and Nas went to school. And as they introduce me to one another, they deliver my title with a very distinct tone of voice. One that recognizes my martyrdom as heroic but also shudders a little at the gesture, as if the gesture should explain me. It’s a strange popularity I’ve acquired, being attached to things people are afraid of. And it’s not nearly the same thing, but there’s this dark desire behind the curiosity in their eyes that reminds me of college, how everybody asked me if they’d found my dad in the ticking hours after 9/11.
Ray thinks this parallel is unfair to his friends. But he’s got a foot in their world so he can’t see it. He studies what’s wrong with the food people eat, but he doesn’t watch them eat it. When he first met me all he asked about my class were the books I taught, not about the kids who couldn’t read them.
I send a message back about the party that says, Fine, whatever, Roger that, and then wander into the bathroom, take off last night’s underwear, brush my teeth.
He calls while I have the toothbrush in my mouth, but I answer.
Haro, I say
Hello there m’lady, he says.
I’m bwmshing my tef, I say.
Hmrrrmmm, I say, then spit. I say, Hi.
Why don’t you want to go to the party? He says.
I do, I say, I do, and he lets it drop.
Did you read the paper yet? He asks.
No, I say. I was meditating.
Well there’s an article on the front page of the Science section that you may find interesting, he says, his voice catching a pitch of enthusiasm.
Oh yeah, I ask, Why?
Oh I don’t know, he says, Just some piece about some old worn out scientist yapping about arsenic. Someone called to fact check me yesterday but still I didn’t think there’d actually be so many quotes from me in the article.
Wow! I say. Which part of the study?
The part about the chicken feed. From the research in Iowa.
Ha, I say. I remember that study. I’ve got a shot glass with a cornhusk to remind me.
Don’t you forget it, he says, but then he sighs. Everyone is going to give me hell tonight at the party though. The reporter makes me sound so stiff.
Just read it, he says. Tell me what you think.
I have to walk to the coffee shop to read the paper, so I actually get dressed. I put on a loose cotton dress—a tent, my sister calls it—no bra, no underwear, just flip flops. Outside I walk through the kids out of school. Two Mexican boys in the street volley a soccer ball to one another, racing for the rebound when it rolls away. Around the corner, a football sails past an old woman pushing home a cart of groceries. A boy runs right in front of her to make a stunning catch. Where are the girls? But then I see two, in short shorts and tank tops so clingy I can follow the lusty outlines of their new breasts.
I make plans for next school year as I walk. What will I do with Kenneth? He’s failed again. What will I do without Ruhala, who was always so good. What books will I start with? A poetry unit? The kids will have songs they love from the summer. They could rewrite the lyrics. But what if they chose an artist the principal didn’t approve of? What if they chose 50 cent?
Tupac and Biggie are ok for projects, he said at a faculty meeting. They’re both dead, so there’s something symbolic in that. But none of these guys flashing their bullet holes.
I guess he thinks people fall into the situations they do just to get shot so they can show off the scars, like tattoos.
The coffee shop door is propped open with a rusty kickstand from an old bike. Here are the white kids in the neighborhood, the ones who aren’t sleeping off their hangovers, with their laptops and books. It’s an artsy crowd and it’s nice to look at.
The boy behind the counter with the white t-shirt, the greaser slicked hair, and the 1954 yearbook glasses is reading Gone With the Wind.
In the Science section of the paper I see Ray’s absurdly tall figure in a lab coat, the same zigzagging smile lines around his eyes crinkling up. I read the article twice—because it’s about him, but also because it’s Science and it’s hard. Even then I only get the gist because I’ve heard it before, because when we lay in bed we talk about what we do when we’re not there and this is the stuff Ray tells me. And it’s not a happy bedtime story. He tells me about how pesticides have arsenic in them, and how the arsenic goes on the corn, and how the corn is used to feed the chickens. And how the chicken poop runs down and pollutes the river when it rains. And if you eat the chickens you get cancer. And if you drink the water you get cancer. And the corn has cancer.
In the article, most of the bad news is quoted straight from Ray’s mouth. The writer describes Ray’s manner as “ratiocinative”, which I guess means driven by the equation of the research, but in the context seems like another word for douche bag. Maybe he thinks scientists don’t have souls; that they like compiling research that delivers bad bad news. Poor Ray. The writer missed his smile lines.
Behind the counter, the coffee shop guy hits his hand while shuffling around for a cappuccino. Owwww, he says, a little call for help, as he shakes it. I smile at him sympathetically, trying not to remember Shantique’s shaky face and the blood from Kenneth’s penny. But I do.
You got fat Miss, Kenneth said, the little shit. And he’s right. The extra twenty pounds are like a physical manifestation of angst. How sad that getting fatter is the only way to understand the meaning of weight.
Besides my sister, Kenneth is the only one to acknowledge it.
During a lecture on Harper Lee, his hand high in the air like he actually cared about Boo Radley, I fell for his engaged posture, picking him right away, then endured his, Damn Miss wasn’t that dress, like, loose on you the first day of school? You pregnant or something?
My sister’s was gentler but not any kinder. We were by her swimming pool, watching my nephew and his friend. She was rubbing sunscreen on my back and I could tell from the slow way her skinny fingers investigated my thickness, that a judgment was being made. Later, when I leaned across her to pick up a magazine she raised an eye to the roll of my tummy and said, When do you find yourself hungry?
Ray doesn’t say anything. After all, I’m not fat. I’m just fatter. And he’s not much of a talker anyway. He spends his days measuring levels of poison in food. The fact that he puts his mouth on me somehow proves I’m not that caustic.
All it is is that I work too much. Once the reading scores in my class go up I swear I’ll take a break. But these kids don’t write sentences. They just copy what you put on the board and hand it in. They think that’s learning.
I put the newspaper back where I found it and wander out the door, getting out my cell phone to dial Kenneth’s mom. It’s time to make sure he’s started his reading packet, and that she’s checking it every night. But after the third spell of rings into voicemail I give up and leave a message:
Hi Gail, this is Miss Gordan. I just wanted to check on Kenneth and see if he’s doing the packets that I sent home with him the last day of school. I know it seems like a pain, but we want him starting 8th grade next year all caught up and fresh. Please, please call me if you have any questions.
What else can I do? Sometimes it’s out of my hands.
Ruhala, one of my students, put it best. Last year, when the classroom was a true disaster, and I was left trying to match marker caps to their bodies, she stuck around and helped toss them back in the Tupperware bin. It was my second year of teaching. I had envisioned that it would be better this time around. I would have been sobbing if Ruhala hadn’t stayed. There was a well of fraudulent tears waiting to spill. I was ready to quit. I’d begun snapping mismatched caps to markers. What did it matter, anyway? And then out of the fog of my head came Ruhala’s voice.
I know Miss, she said, It sucks monkey balls.
Summer days out in Bushwick are slow. I my fire escape up the ladder to the roof for some sun and bum a cigarette from one of my neighbors who’s up there spray painting chairs. Then I flip through a bunch of books I always mean to read, still not reading them, smelling the fumes that waft in the heavy air. I let hours go this way until I can procrastinate no longer and have to dress for the party.
It is on my way down the ladder that my phone rings and I see that it’s Ruhala. I gave her my number the last day of school and she’s made it a ritual to call me. So I stop on the fire escape a floor above mine and answer the phone.
Did you get to meditate today? She asks me.
Sort of, I say. What did you do?
Oh nothing, she said. I watched TV with my cousin.
You should read a book, I tell her.
You should go shopping, she tells me. Or to the beach. I thought you said you were going to go on a vacation far away from New York.
Ha, I say. You’re right. I did. Any suggestions?
Bangladesh, she says. I’ll go with you. We can stay with my uncle.
Her voice is wobblier than normal, like it’s forcing itself to speak slowly, and suddenly my teacher alarm is buzzing.
Honey, I say, What’s wrong?
She clears her throat and then says, I didn’t know if you heard about Kenneth?
Kenneth? I say, feeling the buckling of my nerves, Did he bust his face on that skateboard again?
And then I look down the grates towards my own fire escape, towards my bed.
No, she says. He got jumped, real bad.
How bad? I ask.
I’m not sure, she says, but I know he’s in the hospital. Jamal told me. I saw him at the store. He said that some gang kids did it and that one of them got arrested.
Oh my God, I whisper. Oh my god, ohmygod. I sit down. I put my back against my neighbor’s window. I let my legs dangle.
And then in a flash I see Kenneth—tall and skinny with a stupid grin, standing in my empty classroom, though he should be sitting down. He’s in detention. There is a checklist of assignments for him to accomplish before he can leave for the day.
He walks behind me at my desk, peaking at the screen of my computer.
Miss, he asks, Can I show you something?
His face is like a child’s. Without the class around him there no reason for menace in his eyes. No reason for him to bend his knees and launch up, letting his fingers graze the fixtures of the fluorescent lights.
So I say yes.
And he pulls up a website with a fight scene, a graphic kung-fu movie where the smaller guy gets his arms twisted behind his back before he is lifted, spun, and thrown to the floor. The whole time Kenneth is whistling and hooting like he’s watching the final seconds of an NBA playoff. I want to stop the thing but I let it play out. I watch the blood run from the loser’s nose. And when it’s over I look at him horrified and he says, You ever see someone get their ass beat in front of you?
The words find me on the fire escape.
Miss, Ruhala says. Miss are you there?
I push my toes out of the thongs of my flip flops and let them fall the three stories to the alley below.
I’m here, I say.
Miss, she says, I think I heard the ambulance last night. I was trying to watch a movie in my room. I yelled out my window at the sirens to shut up. But when I heard it was him I felt so bad. And Jamal said he might have brain damage.
It’s ok sweetie, I say. You didn’t know. But listen, a teacher taught me this once. Whenever you hear a siren, you should say a prayer. It doesn’t matter what religion you are.
Ok, she says.
If you hear anything else please call me. And be safe. You are such a good girl.
She laughs at this. I laugh too. When did I become a mom?
Then I climb down the ladder, take a shower, and put on the same dress, but with underwear and nicer shoes this time. I wonder to myself, if Kenneth weren’t in the hospital, would any part of my routine be different?
Then I walk to the subway and go towards Ray, thinking about my father, how I didn’t see the plane hit his building in real time. I watched a rerun, like everybody else. This isn’t real, I told myself. Things like this don’t happen. I was only a freshman in college. I’d been there like a week.
Once I get to the Upper West Side, I try calling Kenneth’s mom four more times on my walk to the party, but she doesn’t answer. And I get it, I understand, she thinks I want to know has he done his packet.
Ray is waiting outside the brick apartment building, wearing a button down plaid shirt tucked into dark blue jeans. In the fading sunset I can see three gray hairs. He puts his big scientist hand on my bare arm and kisses both the corners of my eyes, the way I usually do to him, on the wrinkles.
You look beautiful, he tells me.
You look ratioactive, I say.
He laughs. I think it’s ratiocinative, he says.
Yeah, I say. That. And I poke him at his belly button, and it is like a secret button to his arms. They open, then close all around me.
Inside, Jasper and Kate have laid out pate, flat breads, a conversation worthy decanter of a Lebanese cab syrah blend. Most of the guests are intrigued by its origin—not many wines from that region—but are unimpressed with its taste. I drink my glass quickly and move on to something dry—a chardonnay from who-knows-where.
These parties in these apartments remind me of how my parents entertained when we used to live close by, before we moved to Connecticut, before my parents moved to the mountains in Vermont. All those parties and I’d never learned the polite things to say. I’ve never been comfortable around grown-ups.
Except Ray I suppose. As we stand by the window he twirls my hair.
So what did you do today? He asks.
Oh nothing, I say. Read a book, drank some coffee, talked to Ruhala on the phone.
Ruhala? He says, How’s my junior Science nerd?
Bored, I say. But I told her I’d take her shopping soon. Or to Bangladesh.
Ha, sign me up, he says. Can I come?
Sure, I say, You can use your ratioactive powers on the chickens before we eat.
He pinches me then goes to refill our wine. I love beating a dead horse.
With my next glass comes a woman with a strong opinion about its buttery finish. This opinion leads into a story about her vacation and her vacation to a short narrative about one of her kids, and I let her rattle on so I never have to talk. Just a well placed question every now and again.
When I can take no more, I step outside to the balcony of their apartment, interrupting a man I haven’t met yet and his cigar.
Care for a Cuban? He says.
Sure, I say, Why not?
He fishes the box out of his pocket and lights it for me, puffing it up and making the end a little soggy before handing it over.
Don’t inhale, he warns.
I’ll try not to, I say.
Then I puff and the smoke goes straight into my lungs, and I let out a hack.
Told you, he says.
What can you do? I say.
The day Kenneth asked me if I’d ever seen anyone get their ass kicked I almost told him about my dad. About how, after waiting in a stairwell for two hours and forty two minutes he made it out, sprinted fifty-three blocks north and sat in a bar called Carmen’s all day, covered with dust. He stayed there until 5am, almost twelve hours, nursing his glasses of McClellan’s, neat, everybody else with their eyes glued to the TV, running outside, running back in, the waitresses a wreck. He stayed a fixed point on a barstool. He doesn’t remember if he even peed.
My mother, who worked in midtown, went to a coworker’s apartment and waited. She watched the woman water all her plants, she said, then they turned on the radio and watched their phones. When she finally got through to me, she told me, Your father is dead. Little did she know he was thirty blocks away.
Me and the man listen to the same city moving below us, and I wonder if he thinks about the fact that the towers are gone. If anyone does on a normal basis. Or if they look around it, or past it, the way you do when you notice a soldier is missing an arm. Our lips smack the brown paper of our personal stogies, our faces hide behind smoke. My tongue tastes both dirty and sweet, and I take sips of my white wine to neutralize it.
You’re a natural, the man says.
Thanks, I say.
Down below an ambulance turns the corner to go uptown towards the hospital, its siren wailing. Please God, I say to myself.
I watch a stormy colored haze sneak upwards from the man’s mouth, and I think of spirits.
I thought I was a ghost on earth, really. That’s what my dad said. That was his reason for not coming home.
Kenneth, I think, if he ever gets the chance, won’t explain himself. I’ll walk into the hospital, he’ll have an IV drip, bandages, the whites of his eyes sunset pink and he’ll just laugh. Nigga laid me out, he’ll say, But he’s got one coming.
I bet if he can chew the hospital feeds him chicken.
The door opens, and Kate comes out wearing the drunk grin of a hostess.
You’re smoking a cigar! She says. I’m telling your students!
I put my one hand in my pocket, and the other behind my back, like I’m innocent, and she laughs, punching the old guy.
What are you doing out here, letting this senior citizen corrupt you? Come in, we just put out a roasted beet salad that is really just lovely.
I see people inside through the window eating the dainty portions they’ve dished themselves on tiny plates.
Down at street level there are throngs of people, walking towards the park, walking away. It is summer after all, and there are games and cookouts and diamond rings and I do’s to deliver, to keep the world moving, to keep us procreating and fed. Who are they all fooling?
Suddenly all I want is a penny, or a quarter, or a nickel—just some change. Something that can bust a skull or the sidewalk from the fifteenth floor, to at least sound an alarm. But I’m wearing a dress without pockets and my purse is on the chair next to Ray where I left it.
Come on, Kate says, linking my arm like a camp counselor. But I shake it off. I hold my smoking cigar up at her as an excuse.
Not yet, I tell her. I have to put out this fire first.