U. S. History

His name was Dario. He came into class and slipped between the desks, like he wasn’t hauling a load of grief. He was nineteen—tall, bean-thin, dark face like a blade, vigilant eyes, patchy beard. The buttons on his pink Polo dress shirt were fastened to the neck. He set a foil-wrapped pizza slice on the desk. “I’m gonna have to leave early,” he said. “I got a funeral to go to.”
I stopped passing out worksheets. “Oh,” I said cautiously. “I’m sorry.”
He was quiet.
“Was it someone close to you?” I asked 
“My brother.”
He could’ve been talking about the weather. That’s how he said it. But with those two words the room changed. Some gloomy alchemy of empathy and helplessness fell upon the class: seventeen city kids and me, their U.S. History teacher. In our uneasy stillness an implicit promise went up: we would listen. 
“Oh, man,” I said softly. “I’m sorry.”
Funerals were not uncommon at our school. Each year, students were shot in their neighborhood or someone else’s. Some years it was one or two that died, sometimes more. It was never zero. Many of these students had inhabited the world so vividly that, years after they’ve left it, the mind still rebels against the facts of their deaths. Here, in the middle of my career, I could fill a classroom with these incandescent souls. 
The first was Vincent, whose cramped, cursive script filled his essays with carefully organized thoughts. In the late 1990’s, Vincent delighted in the music of Juvenile and the pronunciation of Slobodan Milosevic. Under slightly better circumstances, he’d probably have gone on to a first rate college. Then I’d have fewer reasons to think of him. But his solid academic skills were of limited use in West Baltimore, and after a while his school attendance became irregular and his class work gradually took on signs of indifference and he was shot on the same street where he’d lived most of his life. I never learned why, only that his friends sped him to the doors of Shock Trauma and fled. Over the years, I’d come to understand that such murders occurred over disagreements many people would regard as trivial, but the violence was almost never random. Vincent had been a perceptive and sensitive kid, and I have wondered whether he knew his life was in jeopardy.
More than a year after Vincent’s murder, I got a call from Sanae, a former student who had been a friend and classmate of Vincent’s. She had by then graduated and was working at a Walgreens. She asked if I could take her to the cemetery in Lansdowne. She both needed a ride and didn’t want to visit Vincent’s grave alone. I really didn’t want to go, but I agreed. 
The grounds of this cemetery were untended, the narrow asphalt lane pitched and frayed. We parked and began wandering around, looking for Vincent under the broiling July sun. Wooden stakes, upon which were the scrawled names of the dead, greatly outnumbered head stones. The rows of stakes were everywhere, some broken, some flattened under a tangle of grass, some whose names were completely faded. Dripping sweat, we walked the grounds, tearing at the weeds and tall switch grass, vainly searching for Vincent. After a while, it began to feel hopeless. Ahead of us, a platoon of stakes capped a gentle hill and banked away. Still, we kept on, searching. Eventually, we spotted a lone groundskeeper, sheltering under a shady tree. He rose, sloth-like, put on his sun-hat and walked us to Vincent. 
Afterwards, Sanae and I went to a Ruby Tuesday’s and, over hamburgers, talked about Vincent and other kids from those years who’d gotten got. Kenneth, who went out of his way not to get mixed up in anything, resisted a stick-up boy, and in an instant was gone. TJ, an introspective hardhead who created ribald box cartoons that showed the folly of youth, fought another young man, won, and then died on his own front steps when the rival returned that same night strapped with a sawed off. Trey, whose fingers and palms coaxed slick beats from the desk tops, got into a neighborhood beef that ended with his body in a dumpster not three blocks from school. 
Now, I regarded Dario, sitting in the back of my classroom, and again offered a muffled apology. 
We were waiting—all of us waiting—for somebody to show that we had heard Dario and that we understood, or for Dario to say more.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He lowered his head and stroked his hair forward. “I can’t call it.”
And then you saw it—on his face a glaze of sorrow so deep he looked utterly bereft. 
We waited.
“That was my little brother.” His voice trailed off, and he made an effort to swallow.
I took a seat. 
“I’ve been up all night,” he said. “Keep hearing his voice.”
Some students had turned towards him; others had not budged, reluctant, perhaps, to get too close. A few held their faces low, chins dipped almost to their chests.
“We gonna fight,” Dario went on. “Best believe that. When I see him, we gonna scrap. He ain’t even supposed to be out there. He don’t bang like that. That’s not him. Should’ve kept hisself in school. Instead, his dumb ass go and get himself killed.” He clasped his hands behind his head. “Yeah, we gonna fight.” 
It was October. Fall was coming on, a chill in the sky. Outside, in the alley, leaves and trash eddied in the wind.
“I wish there was something I could say Dario,” I said. “Something wise or helpful or soothing.” 
“You can’t say nothing, Mr. Shapiro.” He sounded like he felt bad for me.
I picked up the box of Kleenex from my desk and walked it over to him, grateful to be able to offer this small gesture. But at once Dario set it aside on the window sill.
Kevin capped his juice bottle. “Man, I don’t know what I’d do. You doing better than me, bro. If that’d happened—I’d be so torn up I’d be going crazy.”
“That’s how it be out here.” Brandon was a prickly boy, a sullen clock-watcher given to sulks, and he was scolding us for forgetting.
  Dario cut his eyes at him. “Nah, man. This don’t make no sense. It was over something petty.” 
“That’s what I’m saying,” Brandon went on. “It be the littlest thing. But you get the wrong one toting that steel?” He wagged his head. “Man, people get killed for stupid stuff nowadays. It’s either somebody think they gonna run your pockets or girls or—”
“—This man knows that.” Teresa locked eyes with Brandon. “This really not the time.” 
“You all tryna sit here and act like we’re not living this every day,” Brandon said. 
“That’s not what we’re saying.” Teresa smacked her gum.
“Alright, yo’.” Brandon shook his head, aggrieved, his thumb working the clicker on his pen.
Derrick, a big kid heading to Del State on a football scholarship, checked him. “Chill, bruh.” 
Brandon blew into his cupped hands, stood, went to the window, cranked it open, and spat. Ordinarily, I’d have told him to use the men’s room for that. This morning, I said nothing and only watched. I thought he might leave, but he sat again.
Dario stared at the ground. “I ain’t mad. He’s just speaking the truth.” He looked at the wrapped pizza slice, as if suddenly remembering it. He peeled back the foil; the cheese glistened and the foil was streaked with oil and red sauce. 
“I can’t eat this,” Dario said. “My man’s went and got it for me when I came out the house. He said ‘you gonna need something on your stomach’. And he went in the carry-out and got that for me. But I can’t eat this.” He turned to Alford, the student closest to him. “Yo, you want this, yo?”
Alford wore glasses and a linty pea coat, which he drew tighter around him. “No. I brought my lunch,” he said apologetically. 
Dario held it up. “Anyone want this pizza?” 
He set it on the desk, creased the foil closed and drew a long breath. 
I looked at him. He looked rough, like he’d been out there a while, years maybe, grinding and chasing a dollar anyway he could. And you wondered how it would ever get better for him.
“I can’t even be around my family. They keep getting all mushy. I mean crying till they got snot coming out of their nose. All that carrying on—I can’t do it.”
Derrick spoke again, “You gotta cry sometimes. You gotta let that out.”
“I don’t know.” Dario squinted, his face full of questions. “It supposed to do something, but what it do?”
A chair scraped the floor. Through the slatted blinds, bands of sunlight fell across the room.
Wesley was in class that day and he asked, “What’s your brother’s name?”
“Minta,” Dario said. “We call him Minta. When he was little, he couldn’t never say mint right. My aunt, my Mom, they thought it was funny and it just stuck. He still that way—adding on to words and whatnot, playing with them.”  
Wesley nodded. 
“Feel like I’ma get home and he’s gonna be hiding in the closet,” Dario said. “Laughing at how he got us trippin’. Minta’s always got jokes, and that’d be just like him. Pop out with my nephew’s light saber and surprise everybody. He be taking shit too far. I’m telling you. He extra.”
Marcel, who often entered the room already in mid-rap, joyously taking us through another of his rhymes, had not said anything yet. Now he swiveled his chair to face Dario. “You alright, yo’?” Worry pinched his eyes, and a plaintive concern thinned his voice. 
Dario did not answer and Marcel repeated the questions. “You alright? You good?”
A small shrug went through Dario’s shoulders, and Marcel went on. His questions grew louder—“You alright? You good?”—then softened again as he turned them into statements of assurance. “You got this, yo’. You’re alright.”
We watched him.
Marcel was light-skinned, a dreamy pencil-chewer with neat close hair, and slender arms to go with his slender shoulders, and it was as if having started, he could no longer stop. He set his elbows on his knees and smiled a strange smile, his words stretching to a plea. “C’mon, D.  You’re good, yo’. You gonna be alright. C’mon.” 
Irritation flickered in Dario’s eyes and cleared. “I’m alright. I’ma handle this.” 
Marcel fought something in himself, looked like he might start again, and gave it up. His pleas fell away, and it was quiet then. Teresa stopped chewing her gum and watched him. Derrick turned one of the twists that styled his hair. Brandon made eraser crumbs on his desk. Kevin peeled at the label on his juice bottle. Alford’s hands remained sunk in his pea coat. The other kids were quiet, thinking their thoughts. And there was only the silence of our mourning.
Adam Schwartz
Adam Schwartz’s stories have won Poets & Writers’ Maureen Egen contest, Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn contest, Baltimore City Paper’s story contest and have been published in Arkansas Review, Mississippi Review and Little Patuxent Review. He has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. For seventeen years, he has taught high school in Baltimore City.