Beat: A Morality Tale

David Winner

The ritual is the best part, the pouring of white powder from the brightly colored construction paper envelope onto the glass table, the chopping of it with an American Express card, the rolling of everyone's twenty dollar bills, the rush of fragmentary joy at the bachelor party after the stuff's been inhaled. But around ten in the evening, they run out. The original idea had been to leave the apartment at about this time for one of the city's hipper more intimidating night clubs, but Alan Stern and his friends are no longer so interested. No club could be guaranteed to admit this small universe of guys, and they wanted more drugs. Alan knows how to get it for them.

“Smoke, smoke,” says the girl walking briskly past him in a neighborhood farther east about twenty minutes later. “Coke?” Alan tentatively asks. He follows her down Tenth Street towards Avenue A, knowing they should converse like they know each other so their purpose won't be obvious. That shouldn't be hard as he has plenty of students in his high school English classes in the Bronx just like her: slinky, dark-faced Latinas, traces of black girl sass mixed in with their immigrant politesse. “Bad weather,” she says, keeping up her side of the bargain. “Terrible,” agrees Alan, just now beginning to come down and wondering how long it will be until he has the bounty to bring back to his friends. A quick glimpse of the intense, almost scholarly expression, as she scans the streets for law enforcement, shows how pretty she is, lithe, graceful.

After they cross Avenue B, she points to a dismal looking bodega on the corner, the kind of place where merchandise is exchanged for cash through a grimy Plexiglas grate. Alan slips her two twenties, but she doesn't look satisfied. Once he's given her a third, she takes off in the direction of the store. “Don't stay in one place,” she tells him. Alan hesitates, confused. “I won't beat you, guy.”

“Beat you,” means take your money and run.

Earlier that same Friday, a hung-over Alan had gone over grammar with his class. “Don't take this the wrong way, guys,” was how he'd prefaced it, “it's not like you really write like this.” The passage he'd photocopied for them, indeed a sort of parody of their writing, was full of sentence structure errors for them to correct. It also had a vague moral lesson.

Juan is walking down Tremont Avenue, Juan thinks he's all that. He runs into Lourdes and Shaniqua and he tries to kick it to them. They think he's kind of a loser, they walk away. They don't like guys who think they're all that they think guys like that are basically assholes...

With the exception of the tall black kid sleeping in back, the students dutifully tried to correct the run-on sentences without commenting on the content. They removed the comma in between “Tremont Avenue,” and “Juan” because it didn't look right and placed a period in between “Lourdes” and “and” because it did. Alan generally stayed patient with his students (“that's close, but...” was his typical response), but that morning -- his head aching, his stomach gurgling -- he found their incompetence hard to take. His voice quavering with frustration, he began to make the corrections himself. “Naw, Mr. Stern,” said Oscar Garcia, the handsome black Dominican kid who Alan was always touting as his smartest student. Oscar slumped at his desk, his narrow torso disappearing inside his Tommy Hilfgers. He looked crushed by the desultory ending of English class. “You want to do it, Oscar?” asked Alan.

“You put a semi-colon after Tremont Avenue.” Etc. After class, Oscar wanted to know when he was getting back the paper that he had turned in early about a week before. He peered eagerly over Alan's shoulder as he went through the motions of looking for it in his folder, trying to contain his anxiety. “I'm sure it's good,” said Alan, tentatively placing his hand on his student's shoulder and keeping it there for a moment when he didn't seem to mind, “I'll get it back to you later.” The discourse back at the bachelor's party consists of the following topics.

1. How fucked up it is that Ian is abandoning them to tie the knot.

2. How fucked up they're getting.

3. How fucked up it was of them to forget to hire a stripper.

That final topic is laced with something like irony. While not exactly “pansy ass feminist guys,” as Ian, himself, put it, they'd all attended colleges in which “girl as fuck object rhetoric,” to once again use Ian's phrasing, was a little discouraged.“

The whole thing feels like a sick joke,” repeats Will for the umpteenth time that evening, “except it's really happening.” Ian's only twenty four, but he's somehow given in to his girlfriend's pressure. Will's outburst calls for more cocaine, but there's nothing left in the construction paper envelope that Alan had recently purchased from the sexy Dominican girl.

“You know it's kind of late,” says a more rational member of the party, “and we're already pretty toasted.”

A pause for decision. A nod to more reasonable behavior or a dive into further excess? Alan's not willing for the evening to end. He recalls the sensation of trying to sleep when your body bursts with artificial energy, your head and stomach ache from drink. He slips his shoes on and heads out the door. Alan jogs at first, the first block disappearing in an energetic daze, but soon his heart palpitates worryingly. Even athletes, he's heard, can die from exercising on coke, so he walks instead.

But the next long, slow block discourages him. He'll feel down and depressed by the time he's gotten there, and the folks at the party will have lost interest if not outright gone home. So he hales a passing cab.

“Where to?” asks the driver.Which presents a problem as he heads more to a general region, a series of East Village streets known in that era for the vending of narcotics, than a particular address, but the cabbie doesn't seem suspicious when he just names an intersection. When he first gets out of the cab, he sees only bunch of kids standing in front of what must be some sort of club.

“Smoke, smoke,” says a passing black kid, interrupting Alan's reverie.

“Coke?' goes Alan's inevitable refrain. The black kid signals for him to follow, and soon they're heading east, the same direction in which the Dominican girl had led them earlier in the night. “Hot out tonight,” is all Alan can come up with for conversation. “Fuck yeah,” says the kid. Alan hands him the requisite twenties and prepares for the wait. The kid disappears down the block, presumably up one of the buildings in which they're selling tonight or into another bodega/cocaine dealership. Sitting down on the stoop, he tries to get his heart from beating so anxiously and his mind from creeping into weird and dangerous places. He settles on the oddly comforting trip he'd taken with his parents out west, the one time they'd camped. You'd have expected disaster from the situation, a marriage that had just about had it, suburbanites in the great outdoors, but his dad, who'd been an eagle scout, made camp with admirable efficiency, a fire lasting well into the evening. They stayed up passed midnight looking up at the stars, and...

“Mr. Stern! Yo, Mr. Stern!” His heart skips several frightened beats before racing even faster to make up for the lost oxygen. It's his star pupil, Oscar Garcia. “Hey man!” Alan says, overeagerly attempting normalcy. Oscar Garcia doesn't seem to notice how messed up he is. “Really nailed it, didn't I, Mr. Stern?” “What?” “That sentence,” he says, his mind still back in class, “that run-on sentence.” “Fuck, yeah,” stammers Alan, “fucking knocked that sentence.” Oscar looks confused, a bit taken back by his teacher's sudden enthusiasm. Maybe he fears he's being made fun of. “Fucking run-on sentence king,” Alan goes on. It's just at this point that Oscar (Alan guesses) begins to wonder what his teacher is doing on this street corner at this hour, why his talk is so fast and slurred, his face is so red. “You going in there?” asks Oscar, pointing to the heavy metal/goth bar they happened to be standing in front of. Alan stutters incoherently, not sure what to say. It might look better if he were, but Oscar would soon figure out that he wasn't decked out properly.

Alan prays to himself that the black kid won't actually show up with his cocaine. His thoughts clump together hysterically. If Oscar figures out what he's doing on the street corner and tells the school, they'll fire him, and he won't be able to pay his rent. His father will be pretty disappointed if he has to lend him more money. Alan feels a light tap on the back of his shoulder; the black kid has emerged out of nowhere. He nods at Oscar like he knows him, deposits another construction paper envelope into Alan's hand and darts away down the street. 

“You're scoring, man?” mumbles Oscar, surprised and disappointed. “Yeah, I guess,” says Alan, covering his mouth with his grubby smelling hand, “you won't...” But he can't get out the embarrassing words, “tell the principal.” Suddenly hit by a mid-drinking hangover, crashing too, he sees his life like those quirkily scandalous items on the news, the teacher caught buying drugs by his student. But Oscar's attention has strayed to the package that Alan clutches in his other hand. “Let me look at that,” he says, peering at the red construction paper. “That's shit,” he tells his teacher after he's gotten a better look, “you got beat, Professor Stern.”

“Beat?” asks Alan, forgetting for the moment what the expression means. With no concern about the passersby, Oscar takes the package from Alan's hand and opens it, allowing the contents to slip out onto his hand. The white color is the only thing about the viscous paste that at all resembles cocaine. “That's okay,” says Alan, genuinely beyond caring, “no big deal.” “No big deal?!” says the exasperated Oscar Garcia, “you got beat!” “How much you pay for that?” “Forty.” “Just give me twenty,” says Oscar with a sigh. He may not approve of what his teacher's doing, but he doesn't like to see him ripped off. It occurs to Alan that if Oscar Garcia were to turn him in at this point, he would have to face the consequences of dealing himself. In fact, having Oscar buy him cocaine gives Alan some job security. Besides, Alan turns out not to be so fucked up and exhausted as not to want to prolong his evening with more drugs. He pulls a twenty out of his pocket, and Oscar takes off with it down the street. It's the best price Alan will ever get unless Oscar beats him, of course.

You'd have to assume that the run-on king would be made of higher moral fiber. Which turns out to be true. A few short minutes later, he reappears, bearing a yellow construction paper envelope, which, as he tells Alan, has “extra” in it. Forgetting for the moment the complications of having your student as your dealer but remembering his drug etiquette, Alan asks Oscar if he wants to come back to the party and do a line or two with his friends. “Naw,” replies Oscar without irony, “I don't do drugs.” “Okay, well thanks, see you next week,” says Alan, beginning to head down the street to look for a taxi back to the party. “But, you know, I can come back with you for a while,” says Oscar, his voice faltering for a moment, lonely, a little bit dejected, “meet your friends.” The obvious words, “not such a good idea,” are just too far down Alan's throat.

For the first part of the taxi ride, they don't have a lot to say to each other but about half way there, Alan finds his voice. He has some questions for Oscar. What was he doing downtown? If he was dealing, shouldn't he be dealing up in The Bronx? Alan wouldn't be buying on the street if he knew he might run into a student. “I'm downtown a lot,” says Oscar, “my cousins live around here.” These Dominicans have so many cousins, thinks Alan, remembering his own two cousins in Ohio with their suburban homes and already-started families. “How did you get to be a teacher?” asks Oscar when they're stuck at a traffic light a few blocks away from the party. Alan takes a while to answer. Oscar can't really be that interested. Oscar can't really understand. A callow kid comes to New York after college and takes a series of lame-ass jobs: from advertising assistant for a detergent company to temp receptionist to his disastrous attempt at waiting tables.

At first Alan skips the part about being blown off by his girlfriend (who'd stayed in the Midwest) but when he alludes to it (even though it's not strictly in answer to Oscar's question) his voice cracks with embarrassing emotion. He sounds even worse when he claims that being hired as a last minute replacement at the high school has been the closest he's been to finding something he's good at. The kids screw around on him, sure, but he's treated at least marginally like an authority. “A good teacher,” says Oscar Garcia, sounding suspiciously sincere, “a really nice teacher.” Oscar is perceptive enough to figure out that Alan's friends are freaked out by his presence at the bachelor's party, particularly after Alan's introduced him as his student.

After wishing everyone an awkward goodbye and shaking their hand for the second time in ten minutes, he leaves to take the subway back up to the Bronx. The sensible members of the party go home pretty soon after Oscar, leaving Ian, the bachelor, William, whose apartment it is, and Alan to delve into the remaining cocaine. Their more and more fragmented talk makes less and less sense as morning approaches. The red-faced trio replays the evening's conversation, punctuating their words with unconvincingly wise-guyish obscenities. “Fucking shame, Ian man, fucking shame.” “What the fuck.” “Fucking shame, you're fucking getting hitched.” “Fucking stripper, man, shit.” The yellow construction paper envelope provided by Oscar Garcia gives out around four in the morning, and Ian staggers back to Brooklyn. Not bothering to ask if he can stay the night, Alan just leans back on the couch, stares up at the paint-chipped, moldy ceiling and begins the long vigil for sleep, his mind thankfully empty of thought, his body too numb to feel the aftershocks of all it's been through. 

When he gets up to pee several hours later, it's full-blown morning outside. He replaces his mouth's foul taste with a fingertip full of William's toothpaste, but he can't get back to sleep. Oscar Garcia is on his mind. Alan isn't gay or anything, but Oscar is the only person he can think of who seems reliably into him. Since their painful divorce a bunch of years ago now, his parents have been too self-involved to think much about him, the girlfriend found someone else immediately, of course, and the kind of guy friends you get fucked up with are generally only good for that.

Oscar looks at him with appreciative dark eyes like he's actually a useful person. But what has he done for Oscar? Not bothered to grade his papers and encouraged his dealing. Several hours later, Alan steps out into the glare of an early spring afternoon. He doesn't stop at the subway station as he can't stand the thought of waiting on the steaming platform or sitting in the unforgiving fluoresce of a train. His legs ache at first as he walks uptown, so that he has to stop in the middle of the block a couple times like an old man. But once he manages to build up a little speed, the air lightens around him, the frying food (from diners, brunch places, Chinese take-out joints) doesn't make him wretch quite as much. But at about the halfway point of his walk, while passing the desolate office buildings of weekend midtown, a devastating question occurs to him. What will he do once he's back at home? His two apartment mates are gone for the weekend and each activity he imagines (sleeping, cereal-eating, television-watching) feels more empty than the last. It's while watching teenage boys skateboard on the sports channel in his disheveled living room, his eyes glazed over with the thought of his own lost youth, that he has the good fortune to notice the folder of unmarked essays that's been expanding ever since he grew bored with slapping grades on papers early in the semester. Several of them are written by none other than Oscar Garcia, and the least he can do for the guy is get his work back to him. Alan's got no choice in the matter. Someone outside of himself -- several people if he counts his other students -- expect it from him.

Oscar's first essay tenderly (a bit sentimentally) describes the time he'd gone back to the D.R. when he was thirteen to see his aunts, uncles and cousins. It far exceeds Alan's length requirement and follows his suggestions about using lots of adjectives a bit too literally. Oscar walks passed the “trashy, smelly, dirty, ugly beach,” to swim in the “warm, clean, fresh, beautiful, salty sea water.” A nighttime power outage makes the finca (some kind of farm house, Alan guesses) feel “cramped, filthy, odorous, but warm hearted.”

Oscar's relatives are also “warm hearted,” as well as “kind, handsome, caring and loving,” the polar opposite of Alan's relatives in their neo-colonial housing developments who were, as Oscar might have put it, “mean, stingy, cold and ignorant.” After he's gotten through about a third of the papers, grading at least one by each student, it's almost ten, and he's hungry enough to order in some Kung Pao and drink a beer. He senses something dangerously close to optimism the following morning when he remembers that he can finally return some of the essays to his class.

The A he gives Oscar Garcia at the end of the semester (as well as the glowing recommendation a few months later) helps him get into college. And despite what they say about good deeds not going unpunished, Oscar's articulate if overly adjectival enthusiasm on the student evaluation form tips the delicate scales in his teacher's favor when the principal was leaning towards letting Alan Stern go after one semester at the high school.

It's something of a turning point.


David Winner

David Winner is the fiction editor of The American, an international monthly magazine based in Rome. His writing (fiction and nonfiction) has appeared in The Village Voice, Phantasmagoria, Berkeley Fiction Review, Cortland Review, Fiction, Confrontation and British literary magazines such as Staple and Dream Catcher. He won first prize in The Ledge magazine's 2003 Fiction Contest as well as being nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. A short film based on his story was recently shown at Cannes.

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