About the Author
Barry Graham is a Zen monk and an award-winning, internationally acclaimed author and journalist. He has written for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers, including Harper's, and his works include Before, The Book of Man, and Get Out as Early as You Can. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
The Wrong Thing
By Barry Graham
PM PressCopyright © 2011 Barry Graham
All rights reserved.
The name on his birth certificate doesn't matter. You wouldn't recognize it if you heard it. When he grew up he used many different names. But all through his life he was called the Kid.
He was his parents' first-born, and they referred to him as "the Kid" right from the start. So all their relatives started calling him the same thing. As he grew up, it was how he thought of himself, whenever he did. He had a younger sister, but she was called Celeste and he was still the Kid.
Celeste never seemed to have a problem with anything. The Kid just couldn't seem to get anything right; he always had to know why things were as they were. His parents were second-generation Mexican-American, and they didn't speak Spanish, though they had the accent. They spoke the slang of the barrio they lived in. But when their son spoke the same way, they would pretend not to understand.
"What does 'ain't' mean?" his mother would ask him.
"You know what it means" the four-year-old would say.
"No, I don't," his mother would tell him.
"Yes, you do. You say it."
"It doesn't matter if I say it or not. You don't say it. The word is 'isn't.'"
The Kid would ask her why she and his father used the word if it wasn't proper. She never answered.
At age four, the Kid had a fine vocabulary of swear words. Anytime he swore, his mother would yell, "Where did you hear language like that?" He had learned by then that it was useless to answer, "From you and Daddy."
On his first day at school, the Kid was terrified. So was his mother. She was sure he would become hysterical when she left him there. Some of the other kids did. When their mothers left, they cried and screamed and said they wanted to go home. One little girl kept it up for so long that the teacher stomped her foot and yelled, "Go home, then!"
During it all, the Kid never made a sound. He didn't cry and he didn't speak. He just sat there and watched what was going on. It wasn't that he was happy — he was afraid of the teacher and the other kids, but he was too frightened to say anything. He wanted to go home, but he knew he couldn't go home and so there was no point in crying, which would just get him in trouble. He sat quietly. This is something he would do in similar situations all through his life.
His first few days at school were all the same. But things changed for him the day the teacher started teaching the class how to read. She drew the letter a on the board and told the class, "This is aaaahh." The Kid was fascinated. He couldn't believe it was that easy to put words onto paper, like talking to somebody. If he could read, then people he had never met could talk to him. It wasn't long before he could read easily. While the other kids were moving their lips as they read Dick and Jane, the Kid was reading novels and comic books.
He soon got tired of those. He didn't have much romance in him. He didn't want to read stories that somebody had made up, and he couldn't understand why other people did. He wanted to read about things that had happened. He loved newspapers, even though he didn't understand many of the stories. At least they had happened, and there were photos of the people they had happened to. As the Kid got older, he would scavenge in used bookstores, looking for history books. By the age of fifteen, he would own more than a hundred of them. As he started to understand the stories in the newspapers, he thought he might work for a newspaper someday, taking the photos or telling the stories.
It would never happen. The Kid wasn't a good student, not even in English. He didn't like to read the novels and plays he was supposed to read for class. They weren't true, and, even if they had been true, they had nothing to do with him. They were always about white people, and the characters usually had money. There were no books or plays about someone's mother crying because there was no money and her husband was drunk and hitting her, nothing about a brother or cousin dying of AIDS while in prison. There wasn't much of that in the newspapers either, but there was some. And so the Kid just skimmed the books or didn't read them at all. He averaged a C in English. He did better in history, scoring As and Bs. He had to learn not to argue with the teacher. He had read many history books that weren't on the syllabus, and he knew that some things the teacher said weren't true. But arguing got him nowhere, so he learned to pretend to believe the teacher, and he did quite well.
But that was as well as he did. Math bored him, and so did every other class. He never got passing grades in anything but English and history. More than anything, the Kid hated sports. He was small and frail-looking, so nobody took him seriously as an athlete, which suited him. He'd just try to keep out of the other players' way until the game was over. The Kid's best friend when he was twelve was a boy named Rodrigo. He was very fat. The two of them would hang out on the fringes of a game, talking to each other while trying to seem at least semi-involved in the competition.
One time, the class was playing basketball. One of the players was a big white boy named Gordon Ritchie. At twelve, he was as big as some of the teachers. He was popular and friendly, but for some reason he didn't like the Kid.
During the game, the Kid and Rodrigo were going through the motions, keeping a conversation going as they slacked. Gordon walked up to them. Ignoring Rodrigo, he told the Kid, "You better start playing. Or I'll get you later."
The Kid didn't say anything. He was timid about fighting, and Gordon weighed more than twice as much as he did. The Kid just nodded and moved away, but he didn't make any effort to get involved in the game.
Afterwards, the Kid was sitting on a bench in the locker room, tying his shoelaces. Gordon came in. Without saying anything, he punched the Kid in the face. "Do what I tell you in future," he said, then walked out.
The Kid lay on the bench, holding his face, bleeding from both nostrils. Some of the other guys felt sorry for him, and some of them laughed at him. Rodrigo got him some toilet paper and he pressed it to his nose. "You okay, man?" Rodrigo said.
"Yeah," said the Kid. His voice was shaking and it sounded like he was going to cry, but he didn't.
They had English class later that day. Gordon sat behind the Kid. As the class went on, the Kid sat at his desk with a pen in his hand, but he didn't write anything down. He just sat there with the pen in his hand.
Nobody saw what happened next, or else nobody admitted to it. A couple of people said they saw the Kid stand up, turn around quickly, and sit down again. But neither of those people was there at the time.
The teacher had turned her back to the class and was writing on the board. She heard something and looked around. Gordon Ritchie was coming towards her, reaching for her, whimpering. The Kid's pen was sticking out of Gordon's face. The Kid had stabbed him with it, stabbed him so hard that it pierced his cheek and impaled his tongue.
The teacher backed away from Gordon, trying to take in what she was seeing. Bubbles of blood were coming out of his mouth. Some of the children ran out of the room. Others screamed or cried. The Kid just sat at his desk, as though there had been no interruption to the class.
* * *
It would often be said that the Kid could not fight without weapons, that he was a coward when you got him unarmed and one-on-one. But few people would ever want to test that theory, because it would also be said that, having beaten him, you would have to go into hiding or else never stop looking over your shoulder. Because the Kid would be patient, and, when you least expected it, he'd pull something out of a pocket or from under a shirt, and you'd bleed.
* * *
If he was white and his family had money, the Kid would probably have been given therapy and then sent to a Montessori school. But he wasn't white, and the family was poor. So he was locked up for a while and then let out and sent to another school. And if it made any difference to him, nobody knows about it.CHAPTER 2
The Kid liked the barrio. It felt like home, even though his parents didn't give him a home, only a place to stay. He was never abused in any way that Child Protective Services could have acted on — his father rarely hit him, and his mother never did. They didn't even raise their voices to him very often.
But they didn't do anything else with him either. They never talked with him or asked him about what he was doing, his friends, or the books he was reading. All they had, they gave to his sister. The Kid had four shirts, two sweaters, one coat, and one pair of pants. Celeste had a wardrobe. The Kid's room contained a bed, a dresser, and nothing else, not even a radio. Celeste had a TV and a stereo system that their parents had bought for her on credit. There were many days when the Kid went to school without a cent in his pocket, but Celeste never had to.
The Kid didn't mind at first. When he was very young, he didn't know he was poor. He just assumed it was normal. As he got older, he began to realize that Celeste had more than he did, and that kids who didn't live in the barrio had more than his entire family. The other kids at school were afraid of him, so not many of them made fun of his poverty. One who did ended up transferring to another school out of fear that the Kid would do something to him — and, in some stories, the Kid still found him.
But the other kids didn't have to make fun of him. He felt it anyway. The worst time was when the school was showing a movie as part of a history project. The movie was free, but the teachers created the atmosphere of a movie theater, selling soda, hot dogs, nachos, and popcorn, thinking it would be more fun for the students. It was, but not for the Kid. He didn't have any money. It wasn't too bad during the movie, but afterwards, when the students were hanging out, talking with the teachers, the Kid was the only one not eating and drinking.
"Don't you have a Coke?" one of the teachers said. She was trying to be kind. The Kid could tell that she was going to offer to buy him something. But he didn't want her to know, and he didn't want the other kids to know, so he just said he didn't want anything. The teacher let it go, but she knew. The other kids had heard her, and they knew too.
The Kid was never able to ask for anything, or even take most things that were offered to him. At his first school, when he'd been friends with Rodrigo, he'd sometimes go to Rodrigo's house when the family was having dinner. He'd sit at the table with them, but he'd never eat anything. Rodrigo's mother would offer him food, and he'd always want it, but he'd always say no, that he wasn't hungry. He didn't know why he did that, but he always did.
By the age of fourteen, the Kid had more money than most of his peers. He could always find a job, though he could never keep one for long. And he was already selling drugs.
His parents never asked where his money came from, they just told him that he'd better not ever bring the cops to their door.
And the Kid was content.
He didn't mind his parents' indifference. He had never known anything else. And he was indifferent to them, and to Celeste. He didn't mind them, but he didn't particularly like them, and he certainly didn't love them. As long as he had a room in their house, they served their purpose.
He liked being in the house. He liked walking through the barrio on cold winter evenings, seeing the lights coming from the houses, thinking of all the families cozy inside, sitting in warm rooms eating and talking and watching TV. The Kid liked doing that too, going into his parents' house and sitting in their living room reading a history book. His father would have come home from his warehouse job and would be watching TV or talking with Celeste. His mother would be in the kitchen, making dinner. The Kid was grateful to be there.
Not that he ate the dinner his mother served. Her cooking was vile. Because of her, the Kid had a lifelong dislike of Mexican food. Even in the summer, when the barrio was full of people cooking carnitas outdoors, the Kid couldn't join in. He knew the food was excellent, but the smell was so close to the smell of his mother's cooking that his brain couldn't talk his stomach into it. He liked the feel of all the people hanging around outside, cooking and drinking beer. But he wouldn't eat the food, and he wasn't old enough to drink.
From the age of thirteen, the Kid did his own cooking. When he'd complained about his mother's cooking, she'd said, "If you don't like it, don't eat it. Cook your own dinner." She didn't mean it, but the Kid took her at her word. He went to the library and got some books on cooking. His mother didn't have much of the equipment mentioned in the books, and there were many ingredients he'd never heard of. It didn't matter. He made do with what he had. When a recipe included ingredients he wasn't familiar with, he'd go to the store and ask about them. It wasn't long until he could quickly figure whether an ingredient was essential or just a garnish.
His mother didn't like her position as family cook being challenged, but there wasn't much she could do about it. Her husband and daughter both preferred the Kid's cooking to hers. He would bake or grill fish, stir-fry vegetables and meat, cook pasta, bake bread, and marinate pork, lamb, or chicken. He liked cooking for his parents and sister, even though he didn't like them much. He loved being able to do something well, to produce something that people appreciated and that made them feel good. For the rest of his life, the Kid would hate restaurants that served uniform, generic food, prefrozen and heated up by rote, like items being assembled on a factory conveyor belt. What the Kid liked about cooking was the care that went into it. He said that when you were making a meal, you should always be thinking of the people who would eat it. "Then you'll do it good" he said. "You'll do it nice."
When he grew up, the Kid should have been a chef somewhere. But that couldn't happen, because he'd have had to go to a college, a cooking school, and that was something that couldn't happen for him. That wasn't who he was. And he could never have tolerated being the cook in some joint where you just take something from the fridge and put it in the microwave.CHAPTER 3
When people say that the Kid couldn't fight unless he had a weapon, they're mostly right. It's true that he didn't like to use his fists. He never grew to be more than five feet six, and he never weighed more than a hundred and twenty. Most men were stronger than him, and he knew it. He'd probably never have learned anything about fistfighting if his first girlfriend hadn't been a boxer.
The Kid was fifteen and spent most of his evenings hanging out. After cooking dinner for his family, he'd wander across the barrio to the house of a guy named Tommy, who was twenty-one. Tommy's place was a gathering point for kids. His door was always open, and when you walked into his living room it was like walking into a bar or café. There was no carpet on the concrete floor, but there were three couches and some chairs. Tommy had gotten one of the couches from his mother and the other two from thrift stores. He worked in a copy shop, and aside from that he just hung out full-time. On any evening of the week, there would be anywhere from twenty to thirty kids there, aged from about fourteen to twenty-two. The room always smelled of weed. On weekends there were parties, and as many as a hundred people might be there before the cops showed up to send everybody home and bust whoever they could for drugs or curfew violation.
Lisa hung out there a couple nights a week, the nights when she wasn't training. She was fifteen, and she spent most of her nights at the boxing club. She hadn't had a fight yet, because there wasn't an abundance of teenage female boxers to choose an opponent from. But now they had found someone for her, and she was about to make her debut.
She was heavyset, but not fat, with the big hair, heavy makeup, and big earrings favored by cholas. Some of the guys were attracted to her, and others thought she was gross. But nobody came on to her except for some of the older guys. She had a mouth, and the younger guys were afraid of her.
Excerpted from The Wrong Thing by Barry Graham. Copyright © 2011 Barry Graham. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"The Wrong Thing" was a serious genre stretch for me--I don't read a lot of crime fiction, and only picked this up because of my PM Press membership. I read the novel, or more properly novella, on a lazy Saturday morning, and for that purpose it was enjoyable. The book follows the brief life of The Kid, a young man of Latino heritage who falls into a lifestyle of crime. The book is deadpan with a lot of social commentary on the traps of poverty and marginalization. Perhaps the best moment of the book actually comes at the end when we meet the narrator for a moment; had this part come earlier, I think it would have been a stronger tale. I wasn't particularly impressed by the book's craftmanship while reading it, but now that it's over the short saga is sticking in my head, and I am baffled by how to feel about The Kid--surely a guilty human being, but also one whose every impulse towards good has been maligned by evil systems. This is a relevant text about the problems of "criminals," especially those who commit crimes that would be wrong in any conceivable good society (as opposed to those who merely break silly or immoral laws). Should one be judged only on the worst actions in one's life, or the best? How could we break away from a punitive justice system? Would a more restorative system have saved The Kid and his victims? The book poses excellent questions and a case study to complicate the answers.wordabouttoturn.blogspot.com