Joyce Carol Oates
Detroit, Michigan. April 1967.
One of them is following me. I think it must be the same (male, Black) figure I’ve seen in the past. But I could be mistaken. From the rear entrance of Starret Hall at the edge of the Wayne State University campus, through faculty parking B, along a littered pedestrian walkway that opens onto Cass Avenue — I am aware of this lone figure behind me as you’d be aware of small flames licking at the edge of your vision. Thinking There is no one. And even if there is someone, I will not look.
Ascending concrete steps, nearly turning an ankle. Walking too quickly. Will not look!
It’s 6:25 PM. Not yet dusk. Not yet, the bright arc lights that illuminate certain near-deserted walkways and corners of the sprawling urban campus.
For days the sky above Detroit has been overcast and wintry. A fine red-ashy haze when shards of sun push through the clouds, from factories in River Rouge. As the sky darkens, the air seems to coarsen. Your eyes and lungs smart, it’s a mistake to walk too quickly—in the desolate streets at this edge of the University, a hurrying figure is an alarming sight.
Sudden shouts, screams — you don’t want to hear.
Rapidly my brain works: is the (male, Black) figuring following a woman who happens to be me; or is the (male, Black) figure following me? If it’s just a (white, lone) woman who is being followed, I will be able to elude the (male, Black) figure —I think. If it’s me who is being followed, the situation is more serious.
I am prepared, this time: I am armed.
In my shoulder bag, a small handgun. Snub-nosed nickel-plated .22-caliber Sterling Arms semiautomatic that weighs more than you’d think, with only a three-inch barrel.
I’ve just come from teaching a class in composition in Starret Hall.
To my students, I am Mz. Mc’tyre. The name usually mispronounced in a mumble as if there is something inherently embarrassing in speaking my name at all.
If Mz. Mc’tyre is being followed, that is not so good.
In this class, which is listed as English 101: Composition, there are twenty-nine students formally registered of whom several have not appeared in weeks. There has not been a single class meeting attended by all of the students including even the first meeting when I’d read off their names and tried to determine, by their murmured responses, whether I’d pronounced the names correctly. (At least half of the names were virtually unpronounceable — by me.) For I was a young teacher, in just my second year of part-time teaching at Wayne State, and eager not to offend.
Two months later, I am no longer that young teacher, I think. But I am still in dread of offending.
Like many new teachers, I hope to be liked. I hope to be respected as well, but will settle for being liked.
Yet, I think that I have failed at being liked.
I am not a full-time instructor in the English Department, nor even in the College of Liberal Arts. I have an adjunct appointment in the Continuing Education Division — “night school” as it’s called, condescendingly. I have a master’s degree in English from the University of Michigan, and not a Ph.D. I have published a few stories and poems in small literary journals but I have published only one scholarly article, in Philological Quarterly. (No one knows this, but that scholarly article will be my last as it is my first.) And so, though I am negligible among the Wayne State faculty, and beneath the radar of those who control tenure-track appointments, still I am hopeful.
My CE (“Continuing Ed”) students are older than the average undergraduate, some of them in their late thirties, forties. Just a few are my age or younger. (I am twenty-six.) The racial proportion of the class is approximately seventy percent individuals “of color” —(predominantly Black)—twenty percent individuals “of Asian descent” —(predominantly Chinese) —ten percent “white” —(including recent immigrants from East Europe). On the whole, the Asian students are younger than the others, and so slender, so youthful, so rapt in attention, they might be mistaken for undergraduates, or even high school students; it’s awkward that the Asian students are generally more skilled in English than their Black classmates born in the United States, though for the Asians, English is a second, recently acquired language.
(Why am I so preoccupied with racial identities, skin “colors”? — I’d never been, until moving to Detroit, Michigan with my husband soon after our marriage, and being hired to teach at a state university with a broad social mission — as the joke was, to teach the unteachable who’d attended Detroit public schools.)
But I love my students at Wayne State! I want to love them.
I think they must sense this. I think they must see the yearning in my eyes, that shifts too readily to unease, alarm, and fear; the yearning that is so very close to woundedness and hurt; yet, an expression of determination, I will make a difference in your lives. Just help me!
Yes, I would be deeply ashamed. If my students knew that their idealistic teacher has been coming to the Wayne State campus armed.
Students in the class who are old enough to be my parents gaze upon me with a curious sort of tenderness, even protectiveness; they smile at my attempts at levity, and nod at virtually everything I say, or write on the blackboard. They are my champions: they like me! One of my few white, male students is a police officer who at the start of the course told me he was obliged to wear his service revolver in our class, beneath his jacket, but that he hoped never to use it — not ever.
What would this husky young man think, if he knew that his instructor Mz. McIntyre has brought a (concealed) handgun with her to class, several times; a handgun for which she has acquired no permit.
For to apply for a permit would be to make my fear public. And I am very ashamed of my fear.
A number of the students seem immune to my efforts of friendliness. They gaze at me skeptically, or resentfully; their dislike sharpens each time I am obliged to hand back their papers, covered in helpful red ink. At times their dislike shades into contempt, or impatience, not so much for who I am, or who they believe I am, a young white woman with a nervously cheerful manner, but because they perceive me as an individual, not coincidentally “white,” who stands between them and the next, crucial stage of their lives.
To them, education is a ladder. Their courses are rungs. They are climbing the ladder, a rung at a time. They can’t afford to do poorly — to “fail.” They can’t afford to throw away tuition money. They are part-time students hoping to acquire degrees in such practical subjects as business administration, accounting, education, nursing, radiology, social work; judging by the autobiographical information they’ve included in their compositions, all have full-time jobs and most have families including “dependents.”
In the corridors of Starret Hall, in the rarely cleaned restrooms, female students laugh together, sometimes shriek with laughter — it’s disconcerting to hear, especially at a distance, as they seem to be screaming for help. While teaching I’d several times heard female voices in the corridor outside the room, and sudden peals of shrieking laughter, and became so distracted I couldn’t remember what I was saying . . . A sensation of horror washed over me. God forgive me I ignored cries for help. A girl was raped, strangled . . . I pretended not to hear.
Oily perspiration on my sickly-sallow-“white” face, and students in my classroom gazing at me with polite puzzled faces.
The shrieks have been (only) laughter, evidently. Quickly subsiding, and harmless.
Among the compositions my students have written, the most disturbing is one turned in last week in by a young Black woman who stares at me in class with blank (insolent?) eyes that fail to register my attempts at mirth or levity, whom I often see in the corridor before our class, laughing with her friends. Vernella is a hospital worker at Detroit General and has expressed a wish to enroll in the school of nursing —if her grades are high enough. When I pass Vernella in the hall or on the stairs she cuts her eyes at me and mumbles what sounds like H’lo Mz. —(name indecipherable) —with a tight twitch of a smile even as her eyes remain narrowed, coolly assessing. Vernella’s writing has not improved significantly since the start of the course and with the passage of time she has become increasingly sulky and impatient when others speak or read their compositions aloud. She sighs often, loudly; she fumbles in her enormous handbag, sometimes for a tissue with which to wipe her caramel-colored face, sometimes for a crinkly little cellophane bag of what appear to be tiny chocolates. Perhaps because she has worked a full day at the hospital before coming to our class — (as Vernella has informed me, more than once) — she leans her chin against her hand, slipping into a light doze. She is one of those whom I’ve tried to win over, to liking me, without success. She appears to be about my age, a solid, fleshy young woman with grease-flattened hair and dark maroon lipstick-lips. Her most recent composition and the one that has disturbed me is a character sketch of her thirty-year-old cousin serving a twenty-five-year sentence for manslaughter at the Slate River Correctional Facility (once known as the Michigan Asylum for Insane Criminals — but that was long ago), who’d converted to “Black Islam” in prison. Vernella writes by hand, on lined tablet paper, carefully and laboriously like a grammar school pupil and so the impact of her words seems to me both childlike and threatening. Joah be religis to surprise of our fambly, he have his way of speaking that is Black Islam which is beleif that the White Devel is the enemy of all Black People. Joah say the “War” be starting soon in a citty like Detroit where white polis rain agains the Black. Joah say no white persson is worthy of Trust as history from Civil War to know, has reveled, they are all Enemy and will be punisht.
With my red ballpoint pen like any devoted English teacher I drew faint querying lines beneath religis, fambly, Devel, citty, polis, rain (“reign”?), agains, persson, punisht and in the margins of the composition politely I queried Clear? Transition? or noted More development needed or Reorganize paragraph for clarity? I noted Interesting! Excellent! More examples? Though barely literate Vernella’s writing exuded the uncensored ring of truth.
No subject had inspired Vernella until this one. Everything she’d written previously had been stiff, unconvincing. Here, I could hear the breathless indignation in her words. Between us was the pretext that Vernella had successfully fulfilled an assignment that would require revision to raise it to a grade of C.
Confronted with a number of barely literate student writers at the start of the course I’d decided not to grade them at all, out of a wish not to discourage them. (And not to provoke their animosity. I may have been a new, young, naïve instructor, but I was not a fool.) Instead I handed back the weaker compositions lightly annotated in red ink, and arranged for private conferences with the students so that we could go through their work line by line. Having writers read their work aloud is helpful, if laborious. What emerged from the conferences were compositions that were collaborative efforts, but which I could claim were written by the students themselves. There were a few reliable writers in the class who received grades of B and B+; there was a middle-aged Black minister to whom I hoped to give an A- by the end of the course. The young Asian students routinely earned B+, A-, and an occasional A, but no Black student had yet written even an A- paper and I knew that they resented this — “racial discrimination.”
At each class meeting an ever-shifting number of students failed to hand in assignments, or handed in assignments late; it wasn’t unusual for a student who’d missed several classes to return with back assignments and stammered apologies of varying degrees of sincerity. (One of the older students, male, Ukrainian, returned after a month’s absence with a shaved head and battered-looking face, walking on crutches, not caring to explain what had happened to him except he’d been “hospitalized” with a head injury.) Repeatedly I’d had to modify my stern warning that late papers would be downgraded —I didn’t have the heart to discourage someone who was writing at a C level, with obvious effort; yet, each time I made an exception, I was weakening my authority, melting away like heaps of befouled Detroit snow on the pavement. Nor did I want to fail a student because he or she had missed too many classes, as we were supposed to do, following university policy.
I wanted to give high grades. Badly I wanted not to give failing grades. By this point in the semester it seemed inevitable that at least one-quarter of the class might receive grades below C, and those who’d disappeared from the course were supposed to receive grades of F. Vernella’s grades hovered between D and C-; she had not come to see me during office hours, with the excuse that she’d had to work at the hospital, or had problems at home. My heart clutched, thinking of her, and of the animosity in her composition; there was a kind of faux-naïve impudence in the very way she regarded me in our classroom, seated in a desk beside a window, fattish thigh of one leg slung over the other, legs shimmering in silver tights and boots to the knee. Her earlobes were pierced with glittery hoops and her fingernails shone with what appeared to be zebra stripes. She sat in front of a tall long-limbed young Black man named Razal with a face like something scorched who often leaned forward as if to inhale her stiff lusterless hair. Razal poked Vernella, they whispered and giggled together. At such times, I avoided looking toward Vernella at all.
These were not adolescent high school students but adults. This was the Wayne State University Continuing Education division, not the undergraduate College of Liberal Arts but the “night school” — you would not expect of an instructor in this division that she would have to discipline adult students.
Yet sometimes I saw — (I thought that I saw) — Vernella with the young Black Razal —(or someone who resembled Razal) —elsewhere on campus. I would not have wished to concede that, in the myopia of unease, very likely I was confusing my students with strangers who resembled them, for I dared not look at them very closely out of a wish not to force them to greet me, or regard me with “friendly” smiles. Yet, I seemed to see Vernella and Razal often, and couldn’t help but notice how their eyes glided over me, deliberately not-seeing me, as if I were invisible — their anxious white-woman instructor with the obscure last name.
I was sure that they waited for me to pass by so that they could murmur and laugh together.
Since the previous Tuesday I’d lain awake in bed beside my (sleeping, oblivious) husband tormenting myself with the character sketch Vernella had written in her large, childish handwriting on the subject of her cousin Joah — All they beliefs come from the Korran that is Allah word they say. The White Church not to be trust for Jesus was a Black Man like Muhammed so Joah say. I am not in judgement of these for my momma tell us there is Good and Evil in all the racis.
What absurd gratitude I felt, for Vernella’s unnamed mother!
I waited in my office in Starret Hall for Vernella to come to see me as she’d said she would, in the late afternoon, but she hadn’t shown up. This had been the third time at least, since the start of the semester, that Vernella hadn’t shown up for an appointment. Sitting at my battered aluminum desk pressing my fingers against my throbbing forehead, hoping smirking Vernella wouldn’t come. Please please please please please. Do not come please. No relief so vast as the realization that a “problem” student isn’t coming and that you are free to go home earlier than you’d planned.
Or just sit at your desk, feeling depleted as an old tire whose air has leaked out, imperceptibly. No drama, just the slow imperceptible leak. But I am still young! I am — how old? — twenty-six . . . With a dazed smile scratching with a fingernail at some sort of mucus-spillage on the aluminum desk top in the shape of a mandela.
Melancholy romance of such settings: classroom buildings in off-hours. Fluorescent-lit corridors, trash bins overflowing, Styrofoam cups left on window sills and on stairs. Stale air recycled smelling of cigarette smoke and disinfectant, echo of raised voices and thunderous sounds of feet on stairs. If there is graffiti in such buildings it is graffiti executed solely in off-hours.
Sometimes in the corridor there are footsteps, subdued voices, laughter — abruptly silenced as if cut off by a giant hand.
There may be one security guard in Starret Hall, several floors below and if I called for help, if I screamed, he would not hear. That is why I have brought the “semiautomatic” with me, that I have never (yet) fired.
My body stings with perspiration, at the prospect of even fumbling for this gun in my shoulder bag. Daring to remove it, “display” it. Lift it in my hand, “aim” it —“fire”. . . .
I will never do this, I know. I can never do this.
Joah he says he Know what he know. Since incarcceraton Joah be a wiser man and older saying he will never make Mistakes in the White World ever again, when he is releast on parol.
We are three months before the race riot of sweltering July 1967. But no one can know that, in wintry April.
The secret handgun: a purchase from another instructor. A secret from friends as from my unsuspecting students. And my husband. Drew had given me rudimentary lessons in using the gun. Safety, how to load, what kind of bullets, how to clean. (Not that I planned on cleaning the gun.) How to aim the barrel, how to “gently press” the trigger. Assuring me that I didn’t really have to be skilled at using a firearm, all I’d need to do was allow anyone who was threatening me to know that I had one — I was armed.
Like me Drew was an adjunct teacher which is to say temporary, expendable and near-anonymous. He had a master’s degree in English and “communication skills.” Of course, he was white.
He was leaving Detroit, he’d said. Moving across the continent to Seattle. He’d given up trying to establish a life here in this city that was paved-over like a great parking lot yet had the feel of shifting-sands, that could fall away beneath your feet and suck you down to Hell.
If I can get to Cass Avenue. And across. And to the parking garage. There is likely to be — well, there might be — someone in or near the parking garage, at this time —another faculty member and so there
would be two of us, and only one of him.
Frightened white faces, like mine. Snug inside their pockets, worn against their hearts, or hidden in their shoulder bags or briefcases, secret weapons like mine?
Probably not. Possibly.
Would I dare remove it? Would I dare —lift it, aim the barrel, press my terrified finger against the trigger? Shoot another person, even in self-defense?
Drew had said, you don’t have to aim it, even. Just reveal it, that would be enough. Fire it into the air. Fire wildly. And scream. Just to demonstrate you aren’t defenseless, helpless.
Wildly now I am thinking I will do this! I am strong enough.
Here, to my right as I approach Cass Avenue, is the six-foot concrete wall covered in graffiti, that has drawn my eye since the start of the fall term. On this ruin of a wall is a tangle of impassioned scribbles like the art of Miro, Klee, Picasso — not a primitive or crude form of that art but near-identical to it. I inquired about the startling graffiti but no one was very helpful. My questions were met with looks of bemusement, disdain — Sorry! No idea. It all looks the same to us —ugly.
Briefly, before other distractions intervened, and the responsibility of teaching remedial English became a sort of obsession, I’d contemplated the possibility of writing an appreciative essay on the graffiti, and taking photographs of the “art.” I have to concede, I’d imagined making an impression with an essay of this sort, that might appear in an intellectual literary journal, and draw attention to the (white) (woman) author as well as to the unknown artist. . . . But with the passage of months the graffiti has begun to fade into the general shabbiness of the urban campus. The artist hasn’t revisited the wall. I want to protest to him — But you are special. You shouldn’t remain anonymous.
He will remain anonymous. Maybe he isn’t even alive any longer.
The mortality rate for young Black men in Detroit is said to be nine times higher than that for their white counterparts. Likelihood of incarceration, even higher.
At Cass, I cross the wide, windy avenue as swiftly as I can without breaking into a run or turning an ankle like a fool. Slow-moving traffic on the avenue, city buses, trucks belching diesel exhaust, but mostly sidewalks are deserted at this hour at the scruffy edge of the campus.
Behind me whoever is following me accelerates his pace, crossing Cass against the light on long striding legs.
Calmly I am thinking It is just a coincidence. This person is not really following me.
Calmly I am thinking He can’t know that I am armed. As soon as it is revealed, in whatever way it will be revealed, he will disappear.
I would not have to fire the gun, I was sure. I would not have to kill another person.
Yet my heartbeat has quickened. Almost, I’m unable to breathe. Not panic. A reasonable apprehension, in this place and at this time. Sweat breaking out beneath my clothes which are the remnants of winter wear — dark-crimson down coat with a hood, black woolen trousers, knit gloves. For weeks in March the temperature seemed frozen —literally —at 32o F; only grudgingly has the air turned warmer.
The last time I’d been followed off campus whoever had been following me seemed to become discouraged when, on Cass, a city bus wheezed to a stop to disgorge passengers with whom I mingled like a clumsy white goose among dark-feathered Canada geese —what relief! I’d almost laughed, I was so elated. And when I’d glanced back, the (male, Black) figure seemed to have vanished.
Ninety percent of muggings, rapes, even homicides in Detroit are what the police label opportunistic. Meaning the victim happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad luck. Nothing personal.
But this evening there’s no bus. At least, no bus that’s going to stop. And there’s no one on this stretch of pavement except me, conspicuous in my pale skin as a mollusk shorn of its shell.
White devel. Enemy Black People.
My husband had said, You don’t have to teach there. You don’t have to teach at all.
I’d said, But — I do.
He said, Look. You don’t.
It was true: my husband had a good job and could support us both. Some measure of old-fashioned pride lay lodged deep within him. A man should support his wife. A man should not allow his wife to work in demeaning or dangerous circumstances.
Wayne State is in a high-crime area, my husband said. He’d meant to be kindly and not bullying.
High crime area was an expression commonly heard in the media, seen in print. As commonplace in Detroit and vicinity as the parallel expression exclusive suburb Grosse Pointe.
What is the proportion of Black and white citizens who are armed?
Recently it was revealed that there are at least two firearms for each citizen of Detroit though in the same news article it was acknowledged that this was a figure compiled from gun registrations only. Many more “firearms” are not registered as they are illegal purchases and of these, many are in the possession of individuals under twenty-one.
Crime in Detroit is “predominantly Black” —and yet, victims-of- crime in Detroit are “predominantly Black.” White citizens have fled and are fleeing to “white suburbs.”
But we have not yet fled. We are stubborn, or guileless. We are not yet ready to make the leap.
The (male, Black) figure is approximately twenty feet behind me. He isn’t gaining on me —he has slowed his pace since running across the street. I can hear something —whistling? Humming? Is he singing under his breath?
Dark skin. Young, lean, and edgy like a boxer who’s too tall for his weight, and his arms and legs too long. No jacket, bare muscled arms, denim cap pulled low over his forehead.
He’s a stranger — I think. He is no one I know.
No one who should know me.
We are headed east on that short, narrow street off Cass. Suddenly it seems to be dusk — the red-hazy air has darkened. I’m walking swiftly in the awkward way in which people walk when they believe they’re being followed but don’t want the follower to know that they’re aware of being followed —head slightly ducked, shoulders stiff, arms tight against my sides. My veins are flooded with adrenalin like hot acid and I feel a kind of crazy elation — wanting to break into a run. But I know that this would be a mistake. He will know, then. It will be acknowledged between us.
How exposed I am feeling, a (lone, white) woman. At the same time trying to console myself — He’s a student. He’s from the university. He doesn’t want to hurt me.
If he could see me now my husband would chide — Why did you stay so late in that building, who did you imagine you were waiting for? Furious chiding me —What are you trying to prove? That you don’t need a marriage, you don’t need me?
Ahead is the parking garage. Five floors, near-empty, my car on the third level. I can’t step inside, into that dark interior. In my panic I think — Should I run? But where?
Should I fumble in my shoulder bag and reveal it — the illegal, terrifying pistol?
Once I have done this I will have crossed over, I am thinking. All that is secret will be revealed. And if I “fire” the gun — my life will be changed, irrevocably.
I know this. This is inescapable.
I am panting, sweating. A roaring in my ears like a great cataract.
And then, I’ve made a decision: I have turned to the man who has been tormenting me, and I am holding my shoulder bag in such a way that I can reach inside, if required; and I will not hesitate, if required.
I am trembling badly but my voice is stronger than I’d expected. I am saying, “Excuse me! Are you —do you —want something?”
My question seems to have taken the man by surprise.
“Ma’am? What you sayin?”
He has no idea how desperate I am. No idea what I am carrying in my shoulder bag. I am not the type, he has been thinking. But whatever he’s been expecting, he has not expected me to turn and confront him.
Of course, I am very nervous. I am trying not to stammer. “
I’m asking — are you following me? Why are you following me?”
“Ma’am! Not following anybody.”
Wariness in his eyes, that are large, and hooded. And a kind of bemusement. His lips draw back in a wary smile. “
But I think you are. I think you’ve been — following me. You’ve been following me since . . . ”
Now that I can see the man’s face, I realize that he’s a former student of mine, from the first semester I’d taught at Wayne State. But it isn’t clear if he remembers me.
His name is — Ezra? Ezekiel? His last name, I can’t recall.
Ezekiel had been the first “casualty” among my students — as I’d thought at the time. The first of my Wayne State students to disappear with no explanation from a class of mine.
Because he’d dropped out of the course without securing permission from the University, I’d had to give Ezekiel a grade of F. I’d have given him an I (“Incomplete”) if he’d requested it, but he had not requested it. Ezekiel’s attendance in the course had been sporadic and unpredictable and in class he’d shifted almost continually, maddeningly in his seat beside a steam radiator, legs too long for the desk, head lifted at an odd angle as if, beneath my voice, or drowning out my voice, he was hearing another, more crucial interior voice, or an intoxicating interior music. Often Ezekiel’s face crinkled in frowns, grimaces. He smiled, but not at me. His eccentric behavior seemed to disconcert some of the other, more subdued students, but except for his occasional blunt stare he’d never seemed threatening to me or to anyone. I had not quite dared to call on him, but a few times he’d lifted his hand to answer a question of mine, with the demeanor of a school boy.
The fact was, I’d felt a tinge of loss when Ezekiel disappeared from my class. There’s no rebuke to an instructor quite like an empty, abandoned desk in a classroom. No more clear sign of failure.
Now, I am hesitant to utter Ezekiel’s name, for fear that I have remembered it wrongly. I don’t want to insult him, confusing him with another (Black, male) student.
Maybe, I have remembered him wrongly.
Ezekiel has thrust his hands deep into his pockets as if to force me to see, he isn’t dangerous. His trousers are tight, no room for any handgun though there might be room for a slender knife or a razor — I am thinking.
There is something impudent about this handsome young Black man’s bemused drawl: “Maa’aam? Maybe I was followin’ you, seein’ it was you.” He laughs, loudly. “Thinkin’ it was you, Mz. Mc’tyre.” So he remembers my name. He remembers me.
Yet, until this moment it hasn’t been clear if he’d known who I was. Like me, he hadn’t remembered. And he mumbles my name as if enunciating it clearly would suggest an awkward intimacy between us.
We are standing on the sidewalk near the front entrance of the parking garage. There is less than ten feet between us. In my extreme unease I’m hardly able to speak, nor even how to compose my face. Should I be smiling in recognition of Ezekiel, or in relief? Should I be as wary as before? Should I be frightened?
Ezekiel removes one of his hands from his pocket, to stroke his jaws that are covered in short bristly hairs. Until this moment, I hadn’t noticed that he has a beard, a goatee. (But Ezekiel hadn’t had a beard when he was in my class, had he? I was sure he had not.) Though he wants to suggest that he’s in supreme control of the situation, Ezekiel is still surprised by my turning to confront him — the last thing he’d expected was this white, lone woman turning to him, to challenge him, in this desolate place.
He is eyeing my shoulder bag. I think I see this. Eyeing my large bulky quasi-leather shoulder bag in which I carry a paperback textbook and student papers but also car keys and a wallet. Money, credit card. Not much money, but Ezekiel could not know that.
And the heavy little handgun. Ezekiel could not know.
Rapidly my mind works — has Ezekiel been planning to follow me into the garage, though it’s clear that he has no reason to enter the garage, and would be announcing then that he is purposefully following me; has he been following a solitary woman he didn’t recognize as a former instructor of his; and with what intent?
With a bright glistening grin Ezekiel asks, as if we’ve just run into each other casually on the sidewalk: “What you doin’ here, ma’am? You teachin’?”
I tell him yes. Briefly, with a small smile yes.
Ezekiel is older than I remember, in his early thirties perhaps. Is it ominous, in this chilly weather Ezekiel is wearing a soiled gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut crudely off at the shoulder, as if to display his tight-muscled arms? I can see veins in his biceps, veins in his forehead. He seems to be perspiring: oozing oily beads of sweat, as in a drug high. >Is he high on drugs? Is he deranged? A wave of dread comes over me, one of Ezekiel’s hands remains inside his trouser pocket. . . . He is fondling the edge of a knife blade, is he? — or, with equal surreptitiousness, the edge of his genitals. Is he touching himself? Defiantly, in front of me?
I am staring at Ezekiel’s face. I am (resolutely) not looking at his hand slow-moving inside his trousers. Yet, the terror comes over me, obviously Ezekiel has a knife, Ezekiel would not be without a weapon in the inner city of Detroit if but to defend himself, and if Ezekiel has a knife, he is now drawing his forefinger over the blade, caressing, calibrating its sharpness; he is imagining how he will use this blade, how he will use both hands (of course) seizing my hair, yanking me forward, and down, down on my knees, deftly he will position me so that he can bring the knife blade swiftly across my throat, and with enough force to sever the skin, the tissue, cartilage, a vein, the throbbing carotid artery — this will not be a frenzied slaughter — (I think) —but something like an execution. And very swiftly and deftly executed, for it has been planned and, for all I know, it has already been executed. It has been memorized.
The fallen woman, suddenly limp, inconsequential on the filthy pavement. Terrified eyes now blank. Mouth open, but no sound emerges — she is mute, her speech has been taken from her. Possibly she has tried to press her fingers against her throat — to apply pressure to the exploding artery. But she has bled out within minutes. All this has happened already, it is foretold. Beneath the backflung head, a perfect pool of blood.
Even with the gun, this could happen to me. There is no way I could get the gun out of my shoulder bag, back off and begin to fire — Ezekiel is too quick-witted, and possibly, he is too practiced at wielding a knife.
Yet, numbly I hear myself say: “Yes. I’m teaching the same class —composition. In the same building, I think the same classroom. At the same time, Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
Ezekiel, who has been gazing at me with rapt attention, as if seeing something in my face of which I am unaware, doesn’t seem to have heard this. He’s making a murmurous sound Uh — yeh? — uh-huh! O.K. maa’aam!
Yet, at such a time the bizarre thought comes to me, what it would be like to call such a person brother.
Ezekiel, my brother. Ezekiel — is that your name? ￼
As if he has sensed my terror Ezekiel begins to speak rapidly, with a bright damp-toothed smile. He is trying to explain to me —something — that isn’t altogether coherent. Such speech is a way of placating terror —as an adult might address a frightened child while advancing upon the child holding something behind his back, or secreted in a pocket. Half-consciously, I step back. Between us there is the pretext that this is a normal conversation, a friendly conversation; the pretext that I’m able to understand him without difficulty, for I am nodding and smiling as teachers invariably do with students, to show sympathy, and to encourage; here is a (female, white) instructor, a (male, Black) student near the campus of a sprawling urban university with a mission to educate all citizens. Yes, it is a reversal, a tacit insult: the instructor is younger than the student. This seems wrong. This seems unjust. Perhaps it is “racist.” Yet, it is unavoidable. I can’t apologize for the person I am, as I can’t apologize for the myriad circumstances that have brought me here, or for the (conspicuous) color of my skin. And I am now recalling, prompted by something Ezekiel says, how at the end of the last class he’d attended he’d told me that he had to go inside for a while and didn’t think he could finish the course. In shame he’d lowered his voice so that I could hardly hear him. So that others standing nearby couldn’t hear him. At the time I had no idea what he meant but later, hearing a night school colleague speak wonderingly of a student who’d actually been arrested in a classroom in Starret Hall, led out of the room handcuffed by two uniformed police officers, I realized that Ezekiel must have meant that he was going inside what was called, somewhat euphemistically, a “correctional facility” —he’d been, to use the familiar Detroit term, “incarcerated.”
No one went to prison. Criminals were incarcerated. W
hatever Ezekiel’s crime, it couldn’t have been very serious. Or he’d been allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge. The sentence couldn’t have been long. (Was Ezekiel paroled? Had something happened, he’d been released?) For now Ezekiel is standing before me, his former English teacher, smiling and smirking, not certain what he seems to be telling me, or what his intentions are.
Still, he is tracing the outline of the knife inside his trousers. He isn’t carrying a gun, there isn’t room for even a small gun inside those trousers. He isn’t touching his genitals —I am sure, it’s a knife blade. Above and to the left of his groin. A slender knife would fit there, as a handgun would not. His bluish-lidded eyes half close, his fleshy lips retain a dreamy smile. He is imagining it: the swift deep cut. The explosion of blood that is not “white” but a dark, satisfying red. Yet, in a resolutely calm and friendly voice I am asking Ezekiel if he’s taking courses this semester at Wayne State and he shrugs enigmatically — maybe yes, maybe no. (The question has flattered him, I think. It is also unexpected. It is causing Ezekiel to rapidly reassess the situation — and himself.)
Overhead, the sky is streaked with red, splotched like fraying clouds. The air smells of chemicals, diesel exhaust. I wonder if I should compliment Ezekiel on his muscled arms — Do you work out, Ezekiel? In a gym? — but the thought comes to me that this is too familiar, too intimate, and probably Ezekiel would have to say he’s been working out in prison.
That is, a correctional facility.
And I might ask him, blindly, daringly — Is this Slate River? Do you know an inmate approximately your age there, a Black Muslim, his name is —Joah? The cousin of one of my students this semester . . .
Ezekiel’s bluish-dreamy hooded eyes blink slowly. Pointedly, Ezekiel glances around. No one on the street. No one inside the parking garage. Yet, a half-block away at Cass, there is a stream of traffic. And now, street lights have come on, as if grudgingly. At any moment, a Detroit police cruiser might turn onto this narrow side street and drive slowly past us. At any moment, two (white) police officers in the cruiser, clearly visible beneath the windshield. More than once I’d felt myself saved from similar ambiguous situations in Detroit, an empty stretch of sidewalk, lone individuals or teenagers behind me suddenly very quiet, and then — the police cruiser . . . Though afterward recounting the experience to colleagues and friends — (not ever to my husband!) — I’d underplayed my vast heartstopping relief, and ridiculed my fears.
As if he’s made a decision, as if (perhaps) he understands perfectly all that has rushed through my mind, Ezekiel says in an oddly elevated voice, as if he hopes to be overheard by witnesses, “Ma’am, I’m gon’ walk with you, you look like you need somebody walkin’ with you.”
He removes his hand from his pocket. Like an overgrown boy he adjusts the cap more securely on his head.
Quickly I tell Ezekiel that I’m going to the library, to meet my husband. I am not going to the parking garage after all.
Ezekiel smiles, hearing this. He’s amused, he knows that I am inventing, out of desperation; such invention is natural to him, and he admires it, in me.
I tell Ezekiel that I don’t need him to walk with me. I thank Ezekiel but repeat, I don’t need him to walk with me.
Ezekiel frowns happily, shaking his head. “Ma’am, I goin’ to the lib’ry too, infact. That’s where I’m goin’, we c’n walk together.”
“Ma’am, we goin’ there. Over that way, in’t it?”
And so my decision is made for me: I will not need to fumble in my shoulder bag. I will not need to reveal the gun shaking in my (white) hand. I will not need to (blindly) fire at Ezekiel staring at me in quick-dawning horror. I will not need to cross over into that other life.
I am relieved — am I? I am numb.
And numbly then setting out in the direction of the university library, with my former student. And neither of us has been revealed to the other. And neither of us has been exposed to the other. Now I see the name of the short, dark block: Trumbell. Ezekiel is protective of me, even chiding — “Ma’am, crossin this street, better watch out.” As if the gesture is altogether natural, Ezekiel dares to take my arm —closes his strong fingers about my arm, above the elbow. The gesture seems to be unpremeditated and curiously impersonal but I am sweating profusely now and fear that I will smell of my body.
“Ma’am, watch out for them fuckin’ potholes . . . ”
Fuckin’. It is a rude little nudge, this word. Ezekiel speaking to his former instructor in a way to convey both concern and sexual disrespect.
Once across Cass we make our way onto the near-deserted campus. We are a strange couple — you would glance at us curiously, and perhaps you would stare after us — Who are they? Not lovers — are they? Will one turn upon the other, to inflict harm? To murder? We pass a graffiti-covered wall but it is undistinguished, uninspired graffiti — not graffiti to which I would wish to call Ezekiel’s attention. And passing a row of darkened wood-frame houses, remnants of a residential neighborhood, renovated, with “modern” facades — CAMPUS MINISTRY. THIRD WORLD CENTER. PSYCHOLOGICAL COUNSELING. AFRICAN- AMERICAN HOUSE.
Tall arc lights illuminate this central part of the campus. Here, it isn’t quite so deserted. Ezekiel is saying that he “go to the lib’ry” every night at this time. Ezekiel insists upon escorting me into the dour granite building, up the steps and inside, where there is a blast of overwarm air, and a security guard seated at a turnstile checking I.D.’s. Here, Ezekiel holds back. And I hesitate.
The guard is a middle-aged Black man. He is wearing a uniform, and it appears that he is also wearing a holster and a firearm. “Ma’am?” he says. “You comin’ in the library?” He has recognized me as a university person — graduate student, younger teacher. He is aware of but has scarcely glanced at Ezekiel hovering a few feet behind me.
Seeing that I’m agitated, though making an effort to appear calm. My tremulous lips, dilated eyes. Clammy-pale skin. Gripping the unwieldy leather bag in both hands. I will need to retrieve my wallet from the bag, will need to rummage desperately in the bag to find the wallet, for there are other items in the bag including, in a compartment, the bulky little gun which is a secret, and which no one must know about; and from the wallet I will need to extract the laminated plastic I.D. card with my wanly smiling miniature face, but these complicated maneuvers are much for me to grasp at the moment. Barely I can hear the security guard’s voice through the roaring in my ears.
“Ma’am? Somethin’ wrong?”
Something wrong? At first the question seems to baffle me.
“No. I’m meeting my husband here. Inside — here.”
My voice is cracked. My throat is very dry. The gravely frowning security guard cups his hand to his ear, to hear more clearly this barely audible guilty-sounding reply.
When I turn, Ezekiel has vanished. As if he has never been.