A Short Story by Aram Mrjoian
Two months after the World Trade Center collapsed, I bleached my hair like Slim Shady so the other seventh graders would stop calling me a terrorist.
I allowed the chemicals to scorch every hair from the roots of my forehead to the nape of my neck. When I lifted my head from under the faucet’s cold water, I found my hair had turned an unpleasant, burnt orange color. The dull hue of mushy, overcooked carrots. It had an indeterminate, pulpy quality, as if someone had scooped out an enormous, pale grapefruit and plopped the rind on my head, like a helmet. Sickly, tan rivulets leaked down my face. They streaked my skin and fell in cloudy, brown splotches across the white countertop. I felt like a dopey country simpleton. A boy who should be wearing overalls while doing chores around the family farm. After the change soaked in, I laboriously scrubbed at the stained surfaces of the sink and floor. I removed any trace that the color had been manufactured. The plastic wastebasket next to the sink was soon full with wet fistfuls of crumpled toilet paper. After I finished cleaning, I turned off the lights above the mirror. The damp hair atop my head radiated in the darkness—a stinging blaze illuminating my scalp.
Fullridge, Michigan, was not the place to be named Movses Paradikian after 9/11. Even though everyone called me Mo, there was no escaping the bigoted associations of my peculiar name. My seventh grade classmates didn’t have the wealth of knowledge necessary to recognize that Armenians had historically been shafted for being Christian. My father always said Americans were too busy trying to erase their own genocides to bother educating anyone about ours. So the logic was simple. A funny ethnic name meant Muslim. Muslim meant terrorist.
Though my parents were fairly lenient, I had to be clandestine about bleaching my hair. They thought such cosmetic alterations were foolish and nonsensical. My mother shrieked when she laid eyes on me. She could not comprehend why I would expunge my handsomest feature: a mat of hair as thick and black as tar. My father, on the other hand, immediately recognized the look of desperation in my eyes. He could see I was trying to hide in plain sight. He knew more than enough about reinvention. After scanning me up and down, he flapped the day’s Wall Street Journal back in front of his face. From behind the shield of his inked curtain, he sternly stated, “You know better than to upset your mother.”
I knew that when I walked into school on Monday I’d catch some shit for the poor dye job. Seventh graders had a knack for isolating one another’s weird features and making them larger than life. A small change—a slobbery railroad of braces or an uneven hairline—was all it took to become the topic of conversation. After all, bullying was often the art of hyperbole.
My father dropped me off on his way to the office, sparing me a bus ride of humiliating questions from my classmates. He worked in the accounting department for a fruit distributor that trucked Michigan’s abundance of apples and cherries across the nation. He often repeated an awful joke that balancing the books on apples was easy as pie, but the profit margins on cherries were the pits.
On my normal bus ride to and from school, I usually just hung with Jonathan Jenkins in the back row. We would kick our legs out across the small leather benches and exchange CDs in isolation from the rest of the gossiping kids near the front. Jonathan never went by Jon, and we had lived down the street from one another since we were toddlers.
There were no eighth graders on our route, so we laid de facto claim to the rear of the bus. These seats were coveted, because they were farthest away from bus driver Kenny’s constant scowl. He always yelled “watch it!” when we cursed and warned us we would go deaf by high school for blaring hip-hop through our headphones. We knew we’d be pushed back to the front of the bus as freshmen, but Sandy, the high school driver on our route, was supposed to be a bit more chill. She’d numbed herself to teenage melodrama.
On the mornings that my father dropped me off, I would usually just hop out somewhere in the hectic expanse of the parking lot, but today he pulled into the string of idling SUVs near the school’s front doors so I wouldn’t have to run through the rain. I unbuckled my seatbelt, yanked my backpack from between my knees, and reached for the silver, faux-chromed door handle.
“Movses,” my father said, waiting for me to turn and face him. “Remember that it’s not important what the other kids think.”
“I know, dad.” I said briskly, halfway out the door.
Even though it was a year and a half old, I popped The Marshall Mathers LP in my Walkman when I walked into the building. Slim was my go-to rapper before I really learned much about hip-hop. It was easy to fall into the fast-paced, meticulous lyricism and roiling angst that oozed from every word. Slim made it easier to pretend like I didn’t give a fuck about what anyone else thought of me. I could let his nasally fury rush over me until I somehow felt more American, more normal, more alive.
I always met up with Jonathan and Rick Cass near their lockers where A hall and B hall intersected. To get there I had to walk the entire length of A hall until it dead-ended, passing by the swarms of eighth graders who had earned the full-length lockers near the front entrance. The endless rows of red lockers felt like a gauntlet. A cacophony of metal doors creaked open and slammed shut above the clamorous din of dozens of kids bantering. A clump of girls gave me a uniform, bizarre stare as I walked by them. One or two passersby glanced as if trying to place me, their faces morphing into walleyed looks of recognition as I neared. A group of boys on the hockey team leaned against their lockers smirking en masse. I sit back with this pack of Zig Zags and this bag of this weed it gives me the shit needed to be the most meanest MC on this Earth and since birth…The din drowned out my music as I got closer to the T-shaped hub where the two main halls met, so I cranked the volume up a couple notches on my Walkman and quietly weaved through the traffic.
“Dude, you actually went through with that shit?” Jonathan asked me as I approached him and Rick.
“I thought you were just clowning.”
Rick leaned into the cavern of his open half-locker. He had the top half and Jonathan had the bottom. He was using the door as a shield while he frantically copied Jonathan’s math homework before the first-hour warning bell cleared the hallway. Rick was more laid back than anyone I’ve ever met and didn’t even bother to turn around from the task at hand to see what Jonathan was talking about. He was busy scrawling out tortuous stretches of numbers, making calculated adjustments to differentiate his work from Jonathan’s pristine equations with lightning precision. Rick was a gifted procrastinator and had mastered the art of not getting caught for plagiarism.
Once he was satisfied with his transcription, he closed his locker and turned around. He examined me for a brief moment, nodding his head.
“That’s dope,” he said.
The chime of the warning bell cut across the hallway. Everyone that had been loitering around jolted into motion at once, smashing into one another to get to class on time. Jonathan and Rick both nodded at me and bolted off down B hall for algebra. I had to go back down A hall from the direction which I came for English class. I was in a rush, but Rick had lifted my spirits and given me the boost of confidence I needed. I sauntered through the dissipating crowd with newfound bravado.
“Hey light bulb!” A voice shouted from my right. Without looking over I knew it was Alex Johnson, an eighth grader who played travel hockey and already had a reputation as an enforcer. The Darren McCarty of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association’s Pee Wee league. He’d given me a lot of shit over the past couple months. Alex was a head taller than me and already ritualistically lifted weights. Even under his gray Redwings hoodie I could see the square build of his shoulders. He had a crook in his nose from where it’d been broken in a bench-clearing brawl at hockey camp last summer. A couple other hockey goons were leaning on the lockers next to his. The new nickname threw me off for a moment. I stopped walking even though I knew I was going to be late for class. I looked Alex in the eyes. He had a slight cleft chin and gaunt jawline that he contemplatively wiggled from side to side. He said, “You’re still a punk ass bitch.”
Before I could think of anything to say he peeled off the wall. His friends followed in his wake. They all cradled black three-ring binders overloaded with unfinished homework in their right arms. They laughed at something as they strolled past a bulldogish hall monitor. The bell rang.
“Come on, Mo.” Ms. Falter’s voice echoed down the hall. She always closed the door the moment she heard the final bell. It was an easy way to mark students tardy. But I knew Ms. Falter liked me and was giving me a free pass by calling out to me. On my last report card she noted that I had elegant prose and surprisingly coherent ideas for my age. I was disheartened by Alex’s bullshit, but kicked up my Sketchers into a light jog over the filthy gray tile. They squeaked with each step until I came to a stop beyond the classroom threshold. I gave Ms. Falter a forced smile and she responded with a look of puzzlement as I passed her. It wasn’t like me to be late. She closed the door without it making a sound – a motion she must have executed a thousand times before.
When Jonathan and I boarded the bus at the end of the day, the morning’s light drizzle had escalated into globs of rain soaking everything in inconsistent gusts of wind. We were in our usual seats at the back of the bus, listening to music and blankly staring at math homework. We swapped CDs the moment we sat down. Jonathan had borrowed an album from his older brother, Jake, and insisted I give it a listen. Jake was a real hip-hop head with profoundly good taste for a sixteen-year-old. He had given Jonathan an LP by some Chicago emcee I had never heard of named Common. Like Water for Chocolate. I didn’t get the reference at the time. The music seemed philosophically different from the Eminem I’d been blaring on repeat for months. Whereas Slim was all foaming lyrical wit and intentional vulgarity, Common’s LP was far more cerebral. The beats were composed with precision and deceptive depth, despite feeling like they were crafted with ease. I didn’t really understand his lyrics. I gave “The Light” two or three listens. It felt like one of the more accessible songs on the album, and the chorus was catchy. But I couldn’t decipher it. Some niggaz recognize the light but they can’t handle the glare you know I ain’t the type to walk around with matchin shirts if relationship is effort I will match your work I wanna be the one to make you happiest, it hurts you the most they say the end is near, it’s important that we close…to the most, high regardless of what happen on him let’s rely…
We got off the bus to play video games at Jonathan’s house, running down the street and getting drenched in the rain. I knew from my morning shower that the flood of water would exacerbate the grimy, orange color of my hair, so that it almost turned murky brown. It looked like chunks of rotten squash. When we made it under the cover of his garage, we swapped back our CDs. The garage was empty, as usual, because Mr. Jenkins was still at work, and Jonathan’s mom was probably out grocery shopping. She went to the store almost every day, picking out items from a perpetually incomplete list of food she must’ve kept track of in her head. Jonathan and I listened to the rain plummet downward and splash on the driveway.
Without looking away from the downpour, Jonathan said, “Damn man, you have to get off that Marshall Mathers and find some new shit.”
“Slim is hard, dude.”
“Jake says that shit’s stale. He says there’s way better music coming out of the mitten. That Common I gave you, most of the beats on that are from some Detroit guy named Jay Dee. Jake’s got this group called Binary Star too. Two guys that met in Jackson Prison or something. Real Michigan shit.”
I didn’t offer a response. I wasn’t worried about knowing too much about music. I just wanted my anger reaffirmed. To hear someone more pissed off than me. I watched the rain inundate Jonathan’s front yard and saw a couple worms squirming across the cement surface of the driveway as they tried to find a way out of the flood. When the sun came out they would dry up like purple, serpentine potato chips. As if hearing their infinitesimal cries for help, the weather abruptly let up and the rain reduced to mist.
“You know what we ought to do?” Jonathan asked. “We should smoke some weed. We can buy some from my brother. He’s got a stash in a cigar box under his bed. I think my mom knows it’s there, but she doesn’t say fuck about it.”
“You got any Gushers inside?” I asked.
“Fruit By The Foot. No Gushers.”
“Let’s take a box of those out to the woods and get high.”
Jake’s room was overloaded with a combination of stereotypical teenage trinkets and eclectic junk no normal sixteen-year-old would bother purchasing. He had an array of unframed posters tacked up on the wall: a tricolored Rasta portrait of Bob Marley, Miss Hawaiian Tropic in a revealing, yellow bikini, Tupac wearing an oversized Redwings jersey and matching bandana tied at the center of his forehead, Steve Yzerman holding his stick across his waist on the ice. There was also a hodgepodge of random knickknacks and memorabilia hung on the walls: athletic pennants pinned pell-mell, sticky notes lined neatly around Jake’s desk, random doodles stuck above the bed with Scotch tape, bumper stickers from old political campaigns that took place before Jake was born. He had a floating bookshelf of tattered detective novels squeezed between two marble bookends carved in the shape of enormous chess knights. The top of his dresser was invisible under stacks of illegally downloaded CDs, the tracklist labeled on each with black Sharpie marker.
In the corner of the room, there was a peculiar table hockey game (likely the slow-going garage woodwork of some cheap and crafty father) that Jake purchased at a neighborhood rummage sale. But Jake’s most prized possessions were a collection of pristine board games. He kept the boxes organized alphabetically on a six-foot bookshelf in the room’s back corner. He and his friends often played after they’d ventured into the nearby woods to smoke a couple spliffs. No one was allowed to eat in his room while they played, no matter how bad the munchies hit. It was too much of a risk to soil Monopoly’s frail paper money with potato chip grease or sully a Scrabble tile with sticky ice cream sandwich fingers. Also uncharacteristic was Jake’s collection of fisherman’s caps, which were kept at the top of his closet in individual cubbies. Since Mr. Jenkins was a fairly successful investment broker, he could gift Jake and Jonathan with authentic Redwings jerseys on birthdays and Christmases. There were a half dozen hanging in Jake’s color-coded closet, blazing a streak of red across the middle.
Jonathan and I always knew Jake’s intelligence got in his way a little bit. He was erratically high functioning. Before he started smoking weed, he’d skipped eighth grade and won a statewide high school essay contest as an underage freshman. Earlier still, in middle school, he made it to the finals of the statewide spelling bee, but missed the word “unguent” on purpose so he wouldn’t have to go to nationals. He could switch between guitar, bass, and drums with ease, despite never spending much time practicing. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins basically let him do as he pleased, because they knew he’d be able to get into a good college without difficulty—somewhere like the University of Michigan if he wanted to be close to home or somewhere like Stanford if he wanted to escape the Midwest’s gray winters. I think he was perpetually stoned just to slow his brain down. No one could blame him for wanting to mellow out a little bit.
Jonathan pounded on Jake’s door so that the noise thudded over his music. Jake was playing Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan. I recognized it because my dad listened to it sometimes while he read the paper. Jake opened the door. He was wearing oversized blue basketball shorts and a tenting gray Tigers tee, a black Greek fisherman’s cap askew atop his head. He was stoned and his eyes were dewy—the whites a tumult of irritated pink.
“New look.” He said, walking back toward his desk where his American history textbook was spread open. He sat down backward on the chair to face us, his arms wrapped around the wooden back support. “So what can I do for you, baby bro?”
“We need some weed,” Jonathan said.
“Shit, why?” Jake asked.
“We just want to get high.”
Jake tugged at his cap and mulled it over while he looked down at the beige carpet. The wailing harmonica on Dylan’s “I Want You” faded to silence before rising on “Stuck Inside A Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.” The change in tracks appeared to awaken an eerie energy in Jake. His eyes widened and his mouth curled into a devilish smirk until it seemed he involuntarily bared his teeth.
“Okay, baby bro.” He said. “But give me a few minutes. I’m almost finished with this assignment.”
He walked us to the door and closed it behind us. We went down to the basement and played N64. Jonathan had rented Mario Tennis from Hollywood Video and we finished a couple matches while we waited for Jake. His controllers were old and the joysticks were too loose to dash across the court effectively. A crust of chalky plastic shards and dirt scratched against the ball joint at the joystick’s base. We were sprawled across a brown velvet sofa where Jonathan would lose his virginity five years later. Jake walked downstairs and glanced around the basement out of instinct. He looked jittery.
He pulled a dime bag from his pocket. “Here you go, friends.”
“Is it good shit?” I asked.
“The best, Movses.” Jake said sympathetically. He always called me by my full name like that. As if we were wrapping up an after school special. “Give it a sniff.”
I dunked my nose into the bag and inhaled. It had the earthy, skunky odor I had come to associate with Jake’s bedroom.
“How much do you want for it?” Jonathan asked.
“This one’s on the house. Next time it’ll cost you ten.”
Jake handed Jonathan a rolling paper. He swiveled on his heel and did a bowlegged jog across the basement and back upstairs. We looked at the small parcel of bud. It was just enough to fill a decent joint. It wouldn’t be for another month that we realized Jake had duped us. After we had retreated to the cool cavern of the basement, he transferred some of his weed from one baggie to another, leaving behind the dank aroma we already recognized, even though we had never smoked. When we got old enough to smoke with Jake, he’d always joke about it when he came home from Ann Arbor for the weekend.
“Hey, remember that time you guys got completely baked on oregano and thyme?”
I let Jonathan roll the joint. He said he’d seen Jake do it a hundred times. Jonathan pocketed the jay, some Fruit By The Foot, and a couple cans of Vernors from the basement refrigerator. I found a pack of kitchen matches next to some candy-striped birthday candles in a drawer in the mudroom. Jonathan’s mom still hadn’t come home, but Mr. Jenkins caught us on his way in from work while we were zipping up our coats. His black suit and matching leather briefcase gave him a look of austerity.
“Where you boys headed?” he asked.
“Just out to the woods, dad.” Jonathan replied. “We’re going to try and build a shelter.”
I was grateful Jonathan had an excuse on deck, because I had no idea how to maintain our cover. Mr. Jenkins kicked off his loafers toward the floor mat. They clunked in a heap of tennis shoes and wingtips. He was a VP at a trading firm and looked fatigued, weary from a long day at the office.
“Give my best to your parents, Mo.” Mr. Jenkins said. With his obligatory niceties put to rest, he stumbled off into his house.
The sun had fallen and it was cold enough to see our breath. I exhaled ephemeral clouds as if practicing for when we smoked the joint. The sheet of brown leaves on the ground had turned to mush in the rain, but they still rustled as we kicked them with each step. We had only walked about a quarter mile when we stumbled upon a dead fawn, all knobby limbs curled beneath a frail body. Its one visible eye was a pearly, black orb, unflinching in its lifeless gaze. We stopped to look at it. Jonathan looked back toward his house to make sure we were clearly out of view. We were hidden behind a curtain of oaks and birches, but there was still a dewy haze from the floodlights on the Jenkins’ back patio.
“You got those matches, Mo?”
I handed him the pack. Jonathan stuffed the joint between his lips and lit a match, but it fizzled out before he could get the flame to the paper. He repeated this process three or four times unsuccessfully, so I moved closer to him and cupped my hands in front of his face to block the wind. When we finally coaxed the joint ablaze, Jonathan took a couple shallow puffs and tried to casually inhale. He coughed, but managed to stifle his hacking long enough to pass the joint to me. My whole body twitched in the cold. I inhaled as hard as I could and tried to hold the smoke in, but soon I was coughing along with Jonathan. We both spit strands of bubbly saliva at the trunks of nearby trees until we got our breathing back under control. Jonathan lobbed me a can of Vernors so I could clear my throat.
When we reached the nub of the joint, Jonathan stomped it under the sole of his black Pumas.
“You know, Mo.” Jonathan said. “Alex Johnson is spreading that light bulb shit. I heard Nancy Gregor talking about it today in bio.”
“Fuck, it’s better than Mosama.”
“Yeah, man. I know. It’s just why do you care what they say anyway? Your hair’s not going to change anything.”
“I don’t care, man. No one wants to be called a terrorist. My dad even caught flack at work. Guys on their lunch break asking him about extremism as if he was an expert on all this shit when we’re fucking Armenian.”
“That sucks, man.”
“I just needed a change. That’s all.”
I said it definitively, ending the conversation. This was a trick I’d seen both my parents use. Say something vague with enough force for the other person to get hung up and drop the subject.
We shifted back and forth from our heels to toes trying to keep our blood flowing, waiting for the weed to kick in. We each ate a strawberry Fruit By The Foot, allowing the gummy ribbons to droop from our mouths like limp lizard tongues. I thought the strawberry flavor was stronger than normal, even though my mouth was scorched from the smoke. Jonathan knew I thought Nancy had a cute ass. She had come back from summer camp curvy and tan. I’d been crushing on her all year. It felt like an unnecessary blow to bring her up, even if I knew he had my best interests at heart.
“Are you feeling anything?” Jonathan asked.
“Not really.” I said.
“Jake told me once you don’t get high the first time. Maybe we just need to buy some more for later.”
I looked down at the dead fawn. The brown fur was velvety smooth and I could count the ribs down its side. Its hooves were muddy and black but faded to the pale color of dried chicken bones near the tips. The split down the middle of its feet made me wince. It looked painful, even though I realized it was no different than the space between my own toes. The one visible eye started to make me anxious. Like we were being watched.
“Let’s just forget it tonight, man.” I said. “We’ll cop more from your brother over the weekend.”
We reentered Jonathan’s house and walked straight toward the basement, hoping not to reek of smoke. Mr. Jenkins had his feet kicked up on an ottoman in front of the television, a Collins glass in hand. A mangled slice of lime was curled over the rim. On the television, I saw a picture of Osama bin Laden above the ticker tape newswire on CNN. In his portrait, he had the demeanor of a jovial schoolboy, the resting smile of someone remembering a pleasant joke.
The next day at school, Alex Johnson asked me what it was like to be in bin Laden’s boy band and I took a swing at his face. My backpack straps weighed me down and limited my range. My clumsy right hook grazed his jaw and I could tell it would bruise, but he was used to such treatment and too adrenaline-charged to notice. By the time I’d followed through, he had connected squarely with my nose. It began spouting blood over my lips and down my chin. I could taste the iron of it swishing between my teeth and dribbling down my throat. A hall monitor yanked Alex toward the principal’s office and another shouldered me to see the nurse. My nose wasn’t broken, but it wasn’t long before the skin around my eyes turned swollen and took on a plum complexion. We were both sent home for the rest of the day. My father had to leave work to pick me up. He didn’t say a word on the ride home.
The car jolted to a halt after we rolled into the driveway. He turned off the radio and sighed. “Movses, your mom’s going to be pretty upset. I understand why you did what you did. But you need to know, violence is never the solution.”
“Dad, he was calling me a terrorist.”
“I know what he called you. The principal explained. What he said is awful and bigoted and deserves consequences. But you must be above it.”
“And what if it doesn’t stop?” I asked.
My father sighed again. “That is why you must be above it,” he said. “Because in my experience, it won’t.”
I clung to hip-hop in my adolescence because I found peace in the repetition. A catchy song could cling to my mind for days, and once I’d memorized the lyrics I could recite full verses like litanies during any mundane moment. A good beat was a call to prayer. Strong lyrics were scripture. It was an ancient oral tradition that had evolved into something wondrous. My favorite songs adapted to comfort me in any situation. They used the infectious quality of rhyme to guide me through good times and bad. I could as easily have fallen into the distorted power chords and falsetto screams of alternative or the bubbly redundancy of pop, but I didn’t. Hip-hop gave me permission to feel depressed, elated, violent, horny, dismantled, rebellious, intelligent, disoriented. The list goes on. In time I’d shake off my allegiance to Eminem and branch outward. I’d find new artists, ones without the same fortitude for meter, but who ultimately had more interesting things to say.
But that night, after I was banished to my bedroom with a glass of water and a peanut butter sandwich, I fell back into the comfort of the music I had come to love. I completed three-dozen math problems and read fifty pages of The Pearl for Mrs. Falter’s class, bobbing my head to Slim’s jagged anger the entire time. I listened to the LP three times through from start to finish. After hours of studying, I nodded off with my bedside lamp still aglow and Steinbeck’s novella tented across my chest, the pages crinkling obliquely. Dido’s chorus on “Stan” was the last thing I heard before I fell asleep. I woke up the next morning before my alarm chirped, waves of achiness surging across my face with each inhalation. I went into the bathroom to wash my face and I could hear my mother downstairs puttering around the kitchen brewing coffee. The earthy aroma wafted all the way upstairs. I flipped on the bathroom light switch. The flood of light caused me to squint and my entire face seized up with pain. The pouches under my eyes sagged with clotted blood. I brushed my teeth to rinse the aridness from my mouth and scratchy throat. I spat a glob of rabid foam under the stream of running water and craned my neck up to look at myself in the mirror. At the base of my forehead I could see the minuscule nubs of dark roots, buried coals nestled under my flame of bleached hair. My scalp pulsed with heat. I felt more like my true self already.