The November Criminals
You’ve asked me to explain what my best and worst qualities are. So let me begin by saying that it’s hard, ladies and gentlemen, for me to consider myself a bad person. I mean, I experience qualms, sometimes more serious and sometimes less. Everyone, even a real champion of immorality, sees himself as good. Or as working for the good, no matter if his actions?—?looked at one by one?—?are transparently self-serving, murderous, etc. Kind of a strong argument against the value of terms like good or bad. People feel this way even now, in 1999, when we’re all supposed to be repenting and wailing and gnashing our teeth. But you can’t go through life without making any distinctions. And selling small-to-medium amounts of weed to safe, calm rich kids (which I spent much of my spare time these past four years doing) is not a behavior worth agonizing over. That would make it seem too important, you know? I don’t even need the money.
* * * *
Nonetheless?—?judged by my actions?—?I am a bad person. Let’s get that clear, so you don’t have any misconceptions. For more than one-fifth of my life to date, I was a drug dealer, albeit a minor one, and a client of more successful, higher-volume drug dealers, who are in turn clients of bigger firms, and so on and so on until infinity. Grim, right? Human, but grim. I owned a digital pharmacy scale. An expensive black safe, which at the peak of my prosperity contained
$12,380 in four shoe boxes, the cash organized in bundles by denomination. (How lame is that!) A gun, although that was a later acquisition. A suspicious supply of Biggie-brand plastic bags. A pager. All the sordid, dead-giveaway equipment.
* * * *
I am eighteen years and five days old. I live in a tree-heavy upper-middle-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., with my father, who makes clay pots. He also teaches classes at our city’s semi-renowned art academy, the Cochrane Institute. Classes about how to make clay pots. My name is Addison Schacht, if you can believe it: my dead mother’s dead father was named Addison. Because I am an unknown quantity, I am unpopular, even now, my last year, in my class at John F. Kennedy Senior High School. How unknown, you ask? I could not, under pain of death, tell you where a single member of my class wants to attend college, that’s how little I have to do with them. I have no extracurricular activities beyond the study of Latin and the collection of offensive jokes about the Holocaust. I live on X Street, on the Xth floor, I weigh X pounds. What do you want? An index of my soul? My dick measurements? I could give them; I’m not ashamed or anything. But would they help you understand? This whole involved and stupefying story has been gnawing away at me, though. Which is why I’m writing it. To like unburden myself. I’ve wasted enough time. And I’m not unintelligent; don’t think that. On every practice test I took, my scores were identical to what I ended up getting on the real SAT: 770 verbal and 650 math. This is from three sets of results. How’s that for precision? On my battery of Advanced Placement tests, I scored three fives and two fours. I’ve got nothing else. Except for one silver and one gold medal on the National Latin Exam. Latin literature is devoid of most human feeling, but I’m still proud of my medals: my teachers have been a goddamn embarrassment.
* * * *
Selling weed did not figure in my list of permanent plans when I started four years ago, right after I arrived at Kennedy. Just a little, at first.
But it was easy, and more challenging than my classwork. It also gave me a foothold in the school’s ecology, which I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. I didn’t think overmuch about it. People wanted it, they came to expect I could provide it, and then I found myself the proprietor of a small but flourishing business. I promised myself that I’d stop when I graduated. Just for practical reasons. And I did manage to stop doing it, even before my target date. This was not out of volition. Circumstance played its usual forceful role, in the form of a classmate of mine named Kevin Broadus.
* * * *
Kevin was this quiet, stocky kid, a marching-band geek. I didn’t really know him, except to nod at between classes. And because he was one of the handful of black kids in the Gifted and Talented Program, I was just sort of aware of him. At least until our junior year, when, about five months before the brutal events occurred that got his name in the papers, Kevin did something that I found . . . admirable is maybe the best word. Or not admirable, because it’s presumptuous to admire someone you don’t speak to on a regular basis. But uncompromising. It happened in February. Ms. Prather, our English teacher last year, was going on and on in this artificial way about what’s called “black history.” February, as I’m sure you know, is Black History Month, an occasion of much wariness and nervous self-congratulation among the teachers in the Gifted and Talented Program here at Kennedy. We learn, every year, the same tired story, like a long round in a game: the founders were hypocrites, the Three-Fifths Compromise was bad, the Dred Scott decision was bad, Frederick Douglass good, Booker T. Washington bad, Tuskegee Experiment bad, Tuskegee Airmen good, Langston Hughes good, jazz good, and we’re all still racists today. Thanks for playing! It’s like this compressed version of American history, one that fails to do justice to all the complex nonsense that people get up to in political life, and also fails completely to convey any real sense of how awful life must have been (and in a lot of ways still is) in America for slaves and their descendants. It’s like a gesture. I don’t know how else to describe it.
* * * *
So: we were talking about Music and Its Relation to African American Literature. And Ms. Prather was in the spitty middle of her oration about how great it was that African American literature was not constrained in the way the other literature of its time was, how it was filled with a new and vital energy, a rhythmic current. A lot of the kids in my class nodded along, some of them actually convinced. And after she had reached her crescendo, waving her hands and making her voice throb, after she had her little like orgasm or whatever, she stopped and looked at Kevin and said, “But let’s ask our resident musician. Don’t you agree, Mr. Broadus?” I wish I could communicate the hideous empty quiet that followed her remark. Everyone craned around in their wooden chair-desk combo sets to stare at Kevin, who gazed at his hands. The afternoon sun slanted down and blanked out his glasses. And he said, “Not particularly.” That’s all. Ms. Prather stood with her hands lifted and her mouth open. She looked hurt, wobbly-eyed at Kevin’s betrayal. The silence persisted. Then Ms. Prather sighed and said, “Well, it’s generally accepted, Kevin.” More silence. Kevin spoke again. “Yeah, but if it’s accepted, why did you ask me.” Someone spluttered a laugh into cupped hands. Ms. Prather had literally nothing to say. So she repeated herself. As though Kevin did not exist. And we continued with our lesson. This is the only clear memory I have of Kevin speaking in class. Again, I don’t want to presume and call it admirable. But it demonstrated real brassiness of balls, in my opinion. I wanted to congratulate him, but he lost himself among the sighing afterclass crowd before I could. It’s lucky, I guess: that would have been a kind of presumption, too.
* * * *
Kennedy is a segregated school, I should mention. Not because black kids are less able or whatever, but because?—?and I’m theorizing here?—?because my neighborhood and the other neighborhoods that provide it with its white students are filled with the kind of parents who just love black people?—?in the abstract. And Kennedy is
majority black, by a considerable margin. And they (the neighborhood parents, I mean) all originally wanted their kids to go to private school, anyway. So all these ex-hippie history and English teachers at Kennedy like twenty years ago set up this little 90 percent white school inside Kennedy, the Gifted and Talented Program, and they let in six black kids or so every year to balm their consciences, and set up pantomimes like Black History Month and Diversity Outreach (which is just as horrifyingly inept as its name suggests). Although if they had consciences would they have set up these internal divisions in the first place? But whatever. Kevin stood out because of all these accidents, these circumstances. Through no fault of his own he was visible. He played in the marching band, like I said: baritone saxophone. And he worked after school at Second Mate Stubb’s, which is a nationwide chain of coffee shops. Their coffee, their whole scheme, is reliable and mediocre, so the artfucky kids at Kennedy mock Stubb’s. Which seems unjust. Reliable mediocrity, I’ve decided, is the most important thing for the continuation of human existence. We can’t get by on Romantic disaster. We would die of exhaustion.
* * * *
Anyway, it happened at the Stubb’s on Wisconsin Avenue, near M Street, where the hump of the avenue dips down toward the soapy-looking grayish water of the Potomac River. Someone came in one night and slaughtered Kevin and the other two people working there. One had a memorable name: Turquoise Tull. She was twenty-three. The other was some guy named Brandon Gambuto. The shooter just laid into them: two shots in the manager, Turquoise, one in the other guy, and twelve in Kevin, according to the salivating article. By this “feature writer” (according to his byline) for the Post, Archer B. Sexton. (What kind of a name is that? Its components are interchangeable, and therefore it’s nonhuman.) You know the kind of thing I mean: “Kevin Broadus was a model student at Kennedy High School. Turquoise Tull was a hardworking single mother. Brandon Gambuto was an aspiring musician. All of them died last week in what some are calling the most sensational murders
in recent memory.” “These brutal killings have stunned a peaceful Northwest neighborhood.” “Lieutenant James Huang, in charge of the task force leading the investigation, offered assurances that the metropolitan police force is doing everything it can. But residents of the Second Precinct, Huang’s area of jurisdiction, remain unsettled.” Sexton discussed the copious maplike bloodstains, the lack of any robbery, the tribulations of the police. This happened the July before my senior year, this year. We were beaten over the head with the story for the worst, most blinding months of the summer, in the cruel heat and wetness for which our city is famous. For a while people were talking about gang retaliation. I mean, that’s what I thought at first, gangs or drugs. You had to figure that all the extra bullets in Kevin meant something. But he seemed?—?and I say this, as I said, without having known him well or at all?—?too passive to be involved in anything that would require retribution. The local reporters droned on and on about it, but they gave up their gang theory after a day or two and then talked about senseless tragedy.
* * * *
Really? Just think about it: you’re some boring kid working a boring job, because your parents pressure you to, in a boring neighborhood. The heat and swampiness of summers here are repetitive and soul-numbing. The bored mothers, college students, and antique store owners who patronize that particular Stubb’s gaze at you with supercilious anger as they wait for their orders. Your sad-ass manager (who’s made a career out of this, which horrifies you) calls you out for errors sometimes. But she also praises you, which is in its own way worse, the pledge of some defeating mediocrity she recognizes in you and sees as kin to her own. So this goes on for a month or two, no relief in sight. It’s not torture but it’s a chafe against the restlessness that you feel now, the sense that you can encompass anything.
* * * *
And then one night someone comes in?—?someone who looks, in theory, no different from anyone else?—?and shoots you. A man of
average height and build, wearing dark clothes, so any blood won’t show, loose clothes, so the gun remains invisible. Older than Kevin. White, in my mental viewer, although that’s statistically improbable in D.C. He walks with a calmness in his eyes. Calling it emptiness would be stupid. He ipso facto has enough inner strength to plan and realize three murders, which is?—?if I can put it like this?—?more than most people ever accomplish. His hands refuse to shake. He looks around; there’s no one else in the store; he lifts his gaze up to the employees, one by one. The ordinariness of his face is incomprehensible and horrifying, as is his normal brown hair, its color borrowed from some actual person I know. As every physical facet of him is borrowed. And then, radiating his normality, he takes out the gun. What if he kills you second? What if the first shot just maims you, knocks you down? What if the sun hadn’t set? Can you imagine that? Dying on the floor of a Stubb’s with the last of a summer sunset in your eyes? At seventeen? Just when you’ve first tasted autonomy? I mean, I’ve only been having sex for about two years, and I can tell you without hesitation: losing that would hurt just as much as losing life itself. Also driving. I’m not a huge fan of it, but it’s necessary in my line of work, and other people love driving. And college? The prospect of green quads and unlimited drinking and fucking? Or telling off Ms. Prather, the way Kevin did? That’s the sweetness of autonomy.
* * * *
Tragedy isn’t the word for it, in my opinion. I have no doubt that it crushed his parents?—?although it’s also impossible for me to understand their loss; I can think about it but I have no way to grasp it?—?but the real loss would be to you. To you! It’s your life! There’s something selfish about our idea of tragedy, since it depends on other people watching. I guess it’s been that way since ancient times, though, at least according to Mr. Vanderleun, the twelfth-grade English teacher, who talks about tragic irony at least three times a week, and without any apparent awareness of the colossal waste of his own life. Senseless tragedy. Accurate, yeah, but you could
describe the majority of human existence as senseless tragedy, or even existence in general, if you’re a true idealist. Kevin’s mother never went on the local news, and his father just once. Mr. Broadus, tall, bespectacled, with a slight stoop, was begging for the guy who did it to come forward. Though he must have known there was no chance of this happening. When public television finally got its act together, Capitol Ideas (perhaps the world’s most boring program) invited Archer B. Sexton, who is humpy and bald and pomegranate-flushed, onto their taupe set to talk about the case. He was identified as a feature writer/urban historian, in demure white letters hovering beneath the knot of his crimson tie. He basically repeated the points in his article, with a lot of unibrow wriggles, which look hilarious on a totally bald guy. Like a pinned caterpillar, struggling.
* * * *
Senseless or not, the murders eventually breathed out the last of their public thrill. All the Samaritans lost interest. There was this hideous memorial set up in front of the Stubb’s. Mounds and mounds of cheap, stiff-looking blue and yellow flowers, irises and ragged daisies, still mingled with the baby’s breath florists cram into their bouquets. And you know what kind of people leave flowers at public memorials, anyway. The anonymous, lonely, and deranged, in search of some free-floating emotion, some imaginary connection to the dead. Kevin sort of faded from the scene. Yes, there was slight, lingering unease among my classmates. But it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with them, if you see what I mean: it was contemplative, self-directed. As we had been encouraged to be all our lives, from four years old onward, to look for our own metaphysical condition in others. This effacing process continued until Kevin was only memorable as a disruption in the peaceful flow of events.
* * * *
Then came the third day of school. We had a scratchy announcement about Kevin, about the murders, on the PA. It sounded like the speaker?—?Dr. Karlstadt, our principal and my world history teacher?—?was addressing us from fucking Tartarus, harsh, muted,
and vague. “Attention, Kennedy students. Attention, Kennedy students. As some of you may already know, the Kennedy community suffered a loss this summer. Kevin.” Pause. The mike cut off then, I assume so that Dr. Karlstadt could check her pronunciation. “Kevin Broadus, a rising senior. Our thoughts are with him and with his family.” Pause. I knew what was coming next. “Here are this morning’s announcements. The women’s restroom on the third floor is out of order.” And Dr. Karlstadt continued, in her even voice, detailing the day’s service failures and after-school practice schedules for various intramural organizations.
* * * *
There was an assembly the day after this announcement, as though to reassure us that we never had to think about Kevin again. The choir opened with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” We have an excellent choir, restrained violence in their voices. Their name is the Singing Tigers (the tiger is Kennedy’s mascot), which is a name that I thought was awful until I realized it was, in a bizarre way, amazing. Dr. Karlstadt gave a speech. The microphone kept keening with feedback, and then she’d bang on it with two fingertips, stroking her gull-colored special-occasion scarf with the other hand. “We gather here today to say good-bye to a valued member of the Kennedy community. He’ll be missed by his teachers for his diligence. He’ll be missed by the band, which is now short one excellent saxophone player.” On and on in that vein, for however much time she and the other administrators had blocked out. Then the choir, in gold-and-amethyst robes (Kennedy’s colors), sang “Mary Don’t You Weep” to close things out, swaying in time and clapping their hands, making a communal leaden thud, the beat of a huge hollow drum. Sic transit, right? Even the unremarkable deserve pomps and works. The thing I remember most clearly, though? Alex Faustner, maybe the number one cunt in my grade, sitting next to me and complaining about how “all this”?—?she meant singing “Mary Don’t You Weep”?—?violated her First Amendment rights. She says things like that. She announced this as we were filing out. I wanted to tell her to shut the fuck up.
But she wandered away with her murmuring friends before I could speak. In addition to being a huge cunt, Alex is?—?I’m sure you’re astonished to hear this?—?one hundred percent, rest-of-society-agrees beautiful, long dark hair, slender, a low rich voice.
* * * *
So there it was. Our duty was done. The tombstone inscribed. However you want to put it. And nothing else would ever have happened to me?—?I mean nothing out of the ordinary?—?if I hadn’t gotten high and gone to the Bench with a friend of mine that afternoon. Not a friend. An associate. Just someone I associated with because one associates with people. Out of habit, right? And not to talk things over. That’s what most people my age waste their time doing, talking away all their energy and intention. It’s hard not to, because everything is so undecided, you believe you can transform into anything, overcome anything. No one can look at all that potential and not sink into terror or at least be tempted into lethargy by the apparently luxurious quantity of time before you. What a pretentious asshole, you’re thinking. It doesn’t matter. I know I’m right.
* * * *
This associate was called Digger Zeleny. Not on her birth certificate, but that’s the nickname she and everyone else uses. (Real name: Phoebe.) We’d known each other since the beginning of our time at Kennedy. She was a frequent, reasonable customer of mine, and an acknowledger of my in-class sarcasm, as I was of hers. Her nickname is weird, I know, but she’s even gotten our teachers to use it. I asked her about it, right after we met, and she refused to tell me. This was four years ago. But a week later, when I sold her weed for the first time, and we ended up smoking some of it together, she came clean. When she was a kid, she had a sandbox in her backyard, where she spent most of her time digging. Not making castles or fake pies and hamburgers or anything, just digging and filling the hole, and then digging some more, and mumbling to herself the whole time, Dig-dig-diggety-dig. She continued this practice when she started kindergarten, and some genius in her class started calling her Digger. To
make fun of her. So she bashed him in the face with her plastic shovel, and then with her bucket, and afterward refused to answer anyone who didn’t address her as Digger. She took proprietorship of the insult. She’s that hardheaded. Her parents had to take her, she told me, to a psychologist to get her to revert to Phoebe. But she defeated him too, and Digger she stayed. “I never liked Phoebe anyway, that much,” she muttered through a mouthful of smoke. “I suspect I was named after that guy’s sister in Catcher in the Rye. I started suspecting when I had to read it, I mean. So fuck that.”
* * * *
We cut out right after the assembly?—?there’s a little-known exit in the corridor that curves between our main chancel-like building, which is always filled with this horrible brown light, and the auditorium?—?and headed over to the Bench, which is a cedar bench set in a small deer park on the expansive property of a private school down the street from Kennedy, Brent Academy, named after our city’s first and least corrupt mayor, Robert Brent. We discussed a lot of initial trivia, and then I just let her talk, so I could avoid the real subject. She was telling me something about her mother, who’s a doctor, an in-depth fumbler in other people’s machinery, not some dermatologist or something. Her mother hates me. Understandable. Even though she doesn’t know the full extent of my relations with her daughter. We were stoned, a bit thick-lipped but still compos mentis. I sat there and watched her tweaking her hair and shoving the glasses back up onto the bump, that little Mediterranean bump, on the bridge of her nose. A path of scalp stood out, a demarcator, in Digger’s dark hair, a dumb dead white line. Shadows curtained the grass at our feet, which was still lush, and crept up over our ankles?—?a heavy cloud was passing. And then we were in the September light again. I was so high my head ached, a beating numbness above the roof of my mouth. Weed is the consummate drug for adolescents, because it induces that weak-shit sense of potential I was just talking about. This cloud swooped over us and cut off the light, and the sudden shift jarred me: here’s the light, here’s the darkness. Nobody
wants to go into the darkness, to cross that line, right there, over by the clump of pines, that rooftop, whatever. The physical specifics don’t matter. Nobody wants it, it’s not at all what is wanted, but you can’t help looking at it, at the dividing line, and wanting to cross it anyway. The whole time Digger was telling me this story about her mother fishing a forceps out of someone that another surgeon had left in.
“And you can’t tell anybody. It would be proof of malpractice anyway. And it was this old black lady. So it makes the hospital super-vulnerable, legally.”
“What like just passed over us?” I mumbled.
“Dude, a cloud? What are you talking about? You are fucked up.” She chortled, and then I was off into the trees, to get out of the light and into the shadow, which cooled my hot forehead. My limbs hurt now, a dull body-wide ache. From the thicket I heard her call out my name twice, and then give up. It took a few minutes to recover my composure. I was still hideously stoned, though, in that phase of weak hilarity.
“Dude, Kevin Broadus. I mean, what do you even do with that,” I told Digger, still leaning against a tree.
“Are you all right?” she trilled.
“Do you think they’ll find the guy?”
“The guy who killed him. I don’t know. Whoever. The guy.”
“Dude, were you even friends with him?”
I huffed out a long breath. Grinding my shoulder against the comforting wrinkles of the bark.
“No, it’s fine, it’s just like it doesn’t matter. Your story like kind of fucked me up, I guess.”
She squinted at me, saying, “You are all over the place, dude.” And then returned to her narration. Dr. Zeleny?—?I’d met her a few awkward times, as I snuck down from Digger’s room?—?was as tiny as Digger. Tinier, maybe. The first time we met, she was wearing a short-sleeved periwinkle Oxford, which revealed her muscle-clotted
forearms. The thought of her sawing open someone’s chest cavity, the blinding operation lights glancing off her fine-modeled avian head, terrified me as much as it made inevitable sense. The single occasion we’d spoken she’d thrust out an arm for a shake, her corded wrist manacled in a matte-silver Gestapo captain’s watch. Digger looks nothing like her, except that they’re both short. I gave up trying to explain to her about Kevin. I had nothing to explain, really, just a gaggle of stoned, moronic, unrefusable thoughts. So I listened to her talk about the hospital problems some more. My jaw clenched, along with my fists. I wanted to hit someone. For my own stupidity, I guess. But there was no one to hit, so I shook Digger’s hand and walked to my car.
* * * *
I went to sleep when I got home, for an hour or two. In the car, I’d listened to the gargling radio, but I couldn’t stand it after one song, so I rolled down the window and listened to the wind inhabiting my neighborhood. The house was dark when I walked in?—?not dark but dim, as it is when my father is in his studio. He shuts off every light. And pulls the shades. This always mystified me, but it’s easier just to open them than to inquire or argue. But that night I stumbled through the dim house shivering, and slept with my heavy shoes still on. Have you ever noticed how heavy shoes are if you fall asleep in them? Like they contained reminders of gravity, of your bound state, right? An hour or two of sleep, and then my father woke me up. He had turned on the light in my room, which I had relocated to the basement in seventh grade. It’s comforting and windowless there. Secure. He had turned on the lights and bent over me, and his hilarious ponytail had slipped over his shoulder and was painting the air under his chin. “My Greek urn,” he mumbled, “exploded.” “I don’t know what to say,” I answered. The whole intrusion had the stagy, rushing tone of a dream. “It exploded. What’s the fucking point of all this?” My father cannot react to inconveniences without finality, without mentally removing himself from the landscape of life. This makes it easier (I think?) for him to suffer no reaction at all
to major problems or catastrophes. So call it an adaptation, maybe. I knew where he was going with his speech, anyway: Sometimes I think, Addison, I just fantasize sometimes about throwing myself under a bus. His usual rhetorical capstone.
* * * *
He also always uses my full name, in consequence of which I have never developed a nickname, in consequence of which everyone else, from Dr. Karlstadt on down, calls me Addison. He finished his speech about suicide, and I gave him a look of . . . what? Sympathy? Consolation? He accepted it and patted my shoulder, the clay still staining his nails and the faint webs of wrinkles on the skin between his fingers. My father’s hands, I should note, are huge, the paws of some clumsy, lugubrious animal. I was drenched in sweat. I felt as though I’d been swimming for hours against a nameless and powerful tide. Just from one afternoon of school. We overestimate our fortitude. After my father left me, I tried to do my calculus. No luck. I tried to translate some of the Aeneid. No luck. I lay back down, dressed and iron-quiet, and struggled into sleep an hour before sunrise. He was already burning pots when I woke up and checked the backyard, where the kiln is. I could see eyes and leaves of fire lashing out from its ash-colored bricks. Almost feel the sucking heat, in fact.
* * * *
I made some coffee?—?which tasted, as usual, like earth?—?and I drove to Kennedy, early as fuck, and smoked some cigarettes at the Flagpole. This is the flagpole in front of our school. The flag is at permanent half-mast: the crank has rusted and no one can or will replace it. There’s a big vacant concrete court between you and school when you sit there. Smokers have used it as a meeting place for as long as I’ve been at Kennedy. I got through half a pack, watching the light, looking for shadows, which don’t exist at that hour in the fall. All the asphalt looked blue. This, I came to believe later, was the day when it began. When the whole process started that left me freed of my part-time occupation. And maybe even in possession of knowledge I lacked. But you’ll have to judge that for yourself.