guest-edited by Danielle Evans
Ms. Keyes said to show up at the audition she saw in Backstage on time with my photo and resume and to smile nicely.
"Cause I’m black?” I said.
She gave me a look as she stapled some more papers and said, “So you appear to be a nice young man and you get the job and the money that I know you want.”
“I am nice,” I said, but Ms. Keyes just smiled and said, “The report’s still out on that one, DeSean. And DeSean?”
“Somethin’ wrong with the way I’se speak, ma’am?” I said, real ghetto, to annoy her. She rolls her eyes at me.
Anyway, Ms. Keyes, I’m here at this audition on time and smiling at everyone, every single person I see. Ok? I ooze niceness, like of course I’m the kid you’d pick for your commercial. It’s not too hard. I just think about that fee I could get, that grand, and I keep smiling. Though I do notice that none of the white guys here are.
I look over at a blonde standing against the wall – AE t-shirt, nice rack, no butt. When I catch her eye, I see she’s smiling just like me. We just grinning and grinning with our mouths, but our eyes say, “Give me this fucking job.”
Sometimes, at an audition, man, you just know you going to do well. And sometimes, you know you gonna suck, and sometimes, well, whatever happens, happens. I had a good feeling today – felt like no matter what, I was going to get this job. It was the first day this year that didn’t feel like it was one million degrees outside. Our school don’t have air-conditioners, and we just sit in there and melt until November. But that day, the air outside was the same as the air inside and everyone felt pretty good. I skipped out of school after lunch, and took the L to 34th Street. Came out of the ground, saw those big display windows at Macy’s, those big skyscrapers shooting up over in Times Square, and my heart went whoosh, and I knew I was going to get this job.
This audition is for a TV ad for a tutoring service, going to get people to pass the SATs. Or, you know, do well on the SATs. Our guidance counselor says that you can’t fail them, but I know people who didn’t get to go to college ’cause of their scores, so that seems like failing to me. I plan to do well on mine. I might not go to college, but I’m going to make sure I can if I want.
Acting’s a tough business. I’m not a quitter, but you know. My last audition, I made it to the third call-back for the gig, and then they decided to go with this kid in a wheelchair, Ted. To be honest with you, I don’t think Ted necessarily needs a wheelchair. I’m pretty sure I saw him ushering at Gem of the Ocean, when Ms. Romano took us last year, but whatever. Just like Ms. Keyes says, “Someone else’s success isn’t your failure.” Of course, in that case, Ted’s success was my failure. As is pretty much always the case at an audition. But, I take her point.
At the audition, they give us sides to look over. I have mine memorized in 2 minutes – I’m sharp that way, got a whole Shakespearean monologue down in no time at all. This is no Shakespeare, anyway. It’s all “Hey, Susie, I wish I could do better on the SATs.” “Don’t worry, Pedro, I know what we can do!” I mean, if you sat there and tried to think up the most boring and obvious way for a commercial about SAT prep to go, you would come up with exactly what I had in my hand. I don’t know why people don’t try more.
The good news is the “Pedro,” ’course. They looking for a minority. I took a quick scan around the room, and there’s no Spanish-looking people here. There’s a couple of Asian girls, but what Asian girls need SAT prep? So, it’s looking good for the black kid. I pray that Ted doesn’t come in, but I heard he booked at KFC ad, so maybe he’s tight for now.
The woman running the audition – short, bossy, white, just like Ms. Myers, our principal – tells us to find a partner and put together the scene. “Flesh it out,” she says, like we got some August Wilson here, just needs a few character choices. Right. I look up and the blonde is looking right at me – perfect! I jump to my feet and tug my polo down, walk over to her, just a little swag. She’s pretending to study her script.
“Hey,” I say to her.
She tilts her head as she looks at me, and that grin falters just a little bit as she sees I’m taller than her. She says, “Hey.”
“I’m DeSean,” I say. “I was thinking we could work out this scene a little bit. Show ’em something good.”
“Yeah, well, I’m Jenny –” she begins.
I say, “Of course you are.” I don’t mean anything particularly by it – I use that line all the time on girls – but she looks at me kinda annoyed, and glances around the room.
She says, “I don’t know. I was thinking of maybe asking him –” pointing to a big white guy over in the corner of the room, head buried in the script.
“He sounding out the words!” I say.
She laughs, and I grin at her.
I say, “C’mon, we don’t have much time.”
She says, “Well, I just don’t know. I was thinking of working with…with someone else.”
I know what she means.
“’Cause I’m black?” I ask her, trying hard to neutral.
“No,” she’s real quick to say. “You just sound kind of drug lordish. That’s all.”
I’ve heard this before. Ms. Keyes said almost the same thing when I told her I wanted to try out for Romeo in our school play last year. Ms. Keyes was directing it and, back then, Ms. Keyes didn’t like me because I was a pain in the ass to her in class.
“I’m not telling you you can’t audition,” she said to me then.
“Oh, good,” I said. “’Cause I’m going to audition.”
“DeSean, it could be a waste of time, is all I’m saying. You’re not really right for the part.”
“How am I not?”
“You’re so tough and smooth,” she said, like those are bad things.
“Is Romeo a pussy?”
Ms. Keyes closes her eyes and opens them slowly. “Which do you want me to be upset about first?” she asks. “That you used the word ‘pussy’ like that, or that you clearly have not even read the play you’re intending to audition for tomorrow?”
“Is this ’cause you already cast Trish as Juliet?” Trish is this really light-skinned Dominican girl at my school.
“I haven’t cast anyone,” she says to me, like I haven’t seen her giving Trish a copy of the script in English class.
“What if I’m amazing?” I asked her.
“You’d have to be incredible – incendiary – for me to give you that part,” Ms. Keyes says. “You’d have to completely change how you come across.”
“Because I’m black?” I asked.
“Oh, please. Everyone auditioning is black,” Ms. Keyes said. “Our whole school is black.”
“Except Angela,” I said. She’s the one white kid in my grade. Everyone else at least a mix.
“Yep, except Angela, and me, and almost all of the teachers,” Ms. Keyes said. “Excellent point, DeSean. You’re right. It’s part of my secret race war that I refuse to promise you a part you haven’t auditioned for yet, and instead am allowing you and all of the other black kids in the school to audition as well. Look, I can give you a copy of the script – which is all I did to help Trish.”
“Ok. Ima show you, Ms. Keyes.”
Ms. Keyes said, “’I’m going to show you.’”
“Yeah, Ima – Oh.” I said. “Oh, I see.”
“It’s Shakespeare, DeSean. Shakespeare.”
“Got it. Wait and see, Ms. Keyes. I can do it.”
“Ok,” she said, like she still doesn’t believe me.
I took the script and left.
Now, same thing with Jenny. I lean in towards her, put a hand on her arm, ’cause girls like to be touched gently. I say, “No, no, no, Jenny. Your thinking is all wrong. You want to audition with me, even if I am a drug kingpin” – she laughs a little bit as I hold up the script – “because it’s clear that they’re searching for multi-ethnicity. Why, you should be thanking your lucky stars, that there’s not an Eskimo girl in the room. So, what do you say?” I pop out the words real clearly.
Jenny looks me in the eye for a moment, and then looks around the room, down at the script. I see that glint come back into her eye – she wants this too – and she says, with the smile, “Yeah, ok.”
We start to walk out into the hallway to run the lines, but she stops me, pulls me back toward the studio.
“I don’t want my mom to see us,” she says.
No matter how many times it happen, still feels like a punch in the gut. “Right,” I say. “You can tell her after we book this.”
“Yeah, maybe,” she laughs. “The fee, it’ll help.”
“Have you been acting for a long time?” I ask her.
“Oh, man,” she says. “Since I was born.” She suddenly looks really old.
We got the job. Like I say, sometimes you just know. I see Ms. Keyes the next day at school, and I tell her.
“You must have smiled, DeSean,” she says. “No one can top your smile.”
“You got it, Ms. Keyes,” I say. Smiling. “I gotta bring along a responsible adult to the shoot,” I say. I stay smiling, even after she’s turned back to the blackboard. When she realizes I’m still there, she slowly turns around.
“What did you tell them?” she asks, her hands slowly going up to her hips like they do.
“That my mom would come with me.”
“DeSean…” she start to say, which is about right ‘cause my mom’s not gonna be going with me. She is mad Christian, the kind of Christian that is no fun at all and is always telling me what to do and not to do and when to do it and when not to do it.
“It’s OK, Ms. Keyes,” I say. “I told them I’m adopted, and my mom’s white.”
It takes longer than I would have thought, but then Ms. Keyes gets it. She throws the chalk onto her desk and it breaks into about 10,000 pieces as starts to holler at me. But I’m gone, zipped out into the hallway, walking down the English section, walking by Ms. Myers who don’t even ask me if I got a pass, ’cause that’s what I look like, baby: like I know where I’m going.
At home that night, I memorize the script for the SAT ad in less than 15 minutes, and go over it a bunch of times too. It’s so much easier than what I did to get Romeo. Ms. Keyes got me so mad that time. I guess I figured that was my part to have and didn’t see why she wouldn’t just hand it to me. Everyone at school knew I was the best the actor in 10A. Whenever we voted on who’s gonna read what in class when we reading a play, they always voted for me to read the main character. I’d read John Proctor in The Crucible and Troy in Fences already that year, and I knew that just as soon as we started A Raisin in the Sun, I’d be playing whoever the lead guy was in that, too.
But then I got to thinking – the only time I hadn’t read the main character in class was when we read Hamlet. Leroy, this guy in my class, did. He was more of a book person than a theatre person, but he read that part really well, especially considering how difficult it was to say Shakespeare. He almost never messed up a word, just said everything in this low grumble he’s got. I started to worry that maybe Ms. Keyes had convinced him to try out for the play at last – she was always bugging him to “give it a shot.” Jeff as Romeo and Trish as Juliet and me, playing who? I didn’t know any of the other characters, because they’re not in the title.
So I went home that night, and I read the play. Well, most of it, up until the point that Romeo died, and I figured I didn’t have to read past that. The version Ms. Keyes gave me had, like, regular English on one side and Shakespeare on the other. The Shakespeare made almost no sense, but it sounded a lot better than the other side, which made sense but was dumb. It was pretty whack, but I could see why all the girls in my class thought it was romaaaaantic, as they were always saying. Those two, Romeo and Juliet, were really into each other.
Ms. Keyes told us to have a monologue prepared for the audition, and I knew she was expecting me to show up with Troy’s monologue about death and baseball from Fences, ’cause I love it and I used it for all the auditions I’ve ever done at that school. But I knew that it wasn’t going to be “incendiary” enough. I had to do something bigger.
“You should memorize one of Romeo’s monologues,” my friend Dante said to me when I called her to ask what I should do. Dante’s mad smart, always knows what to do.
“Ah, man,” I said because it was already midnight.
“Do you want the part or not, DeSean?”
She was right. So I memorized that part right before Romeo kills Tybalt, the one that starts, “This but begins the woe, others must end.” I thought it was going to take me forever to memorize that thing, even though it was only 8 lines, but I got it down pretty fast. I say it to Dante over the phone later.
“Uh-huh,” she said. “Now when you go into the audition, you gotta be loud and good, ok?”
“Yeah, ok,” I say. I went over the words in my head as I lie in bed that night. Over and over.
And, as for that audition, like I said, sometimes you just know. When it was my turn, I said my name, took a deep breath and started, “This but begins the woe,” and Ms. Keyes’s head jerked up, like she’d been asleep until I started talking, but now she was wide awake. I finished, and she say to me, “Romeo, away be gone!” which I managed to remember is the next line in the play, so I yelled back at her, “O! I am fortune’s fool!” and I ran off stage, back through the auditorium, and out the door into the school, and then right outside to the football field. I ran the whole way home, because I knew I had gotten that part, because it was like I could still hear Ms. Keyes laughing when I knew the next line. It rang in my head that whole night, so that I couldn’t sleep at all.
The day we shoot the commercial, I go over my lines as I wait for Ms. Keyes at the 2/3 stop at the Junction for 10 minutes. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to call Dante to pretend to be my older sister, when Ms. Keyes finally shows up.
I’m eating a donut, and she says, “You get me one?”
“Um, no,” I say.
“Uh-huh,” she says. “So, DeSean, how are you going to say thank you to me for helping you out like this?”
“Um,” I say.
“I’m missing church, you know.”
“I don’t really feel bad about that, Ms. Keyes. I’m missing church, too. And that’s pretty awesome.”
“I like church,” she says.
“You want a cut of my fee?” I ask her.
“No!” Now she’s even more upset.
“Well, then, what?”
“What did you even tell your mom?” she asks.
“That I’m going to church with Dante and her family.”
“And if she calls Dante?”
The train turns the corner into the station screeching, and she shakes her head at me, drops the subject.
At the location, the director, who’s named Judd – “Like Oklahoma?” Ms. Keyes says. The guy doesn’t get it, and I see Ms. Keyes lose interest in him. Too bad. If she got a date out of this, maybe she’d be less annoyed with me. Jenny shows up with her mom, who barely looks at me.
“It’s really nice to meet you, Mrs. Reynolds,” I say in my proper speaking voice as I shake the mom’s hand.
“You too,” she says, but sour, like she just ate some a lemon wedge.
I’m kinda hoping Ms. Keyes will make conversation with Mrs. Reynolds, so that the lady loosens up a bit, because it’s affecting Jenny, too, I can tell. She keeps glancing at her mom, nervous. But Ms. Keyes folds her arms and watches the shoot setting up around her. Mrs. Reynolds takes a call on her cell phone and marches away, talking about kill fees or something, and Jenny rolls her eyes at me.
Judd shows me and Jenny where to stand, and we run the scene before we get make-up. We’re filming outside of a building at NYU, the side closest to Washington Square Park so it’s quieter. That’s why we’re doing this on Sunday morning, too. After that, we get sent to the make-up and costume tent. As I slip into the Rocawear jacket they have for me, I’m trying to get a feel for all of this, trying to figure out if it’s going to go well or not. I walk over to the wall to warm up, start saying some of my first Romeo lines:
“Ay me! Sad hours seem long,” I say to myself, biting out the words to get my mouth awake. “Was that my father that went hence so fast?”
Ms. Keyes is still standing by the shoot, watching them put the lights up. I can’t tell if her mood’s improved or not. Judd inches up beside her. “I’m still hung over,” he says loudly, like he wants to impress her, but he picked the wrong topic if that’s his goal. There’s nothing Ms. Keyes likes to do more than lecture on the evils of drugs and alcohol. But she doesn’t take the bait for once, just looks over at Jenny, getting her make-up done by some lady in the tent. I’m leaning up against a wall, out of the way.
“Is it hung over for drugs? I mean, can you be hung over from drugs?” Judd wonders. Man, he still trying. And still loud, too. I can hear him the whole way over here. “Was that my father that went hence so fast?” I bite out again, over-articulating but trying to stay quiet, so no one laughs at me.
“I wouldn’t know,” Ms. Keyes says to Judd, also loudly, in exactly the same voice she use when Isaiah or Durrell start talking ‘bout which girls in the class are easy. Like icicles, that voice. Jenny finishes up and walks over to me, like we switching places, and then I see that the make-up lady is ready for me, that we actually are switching places. I head over to her little tent thing.
“My friend Mike,” Judd says to Ms. Keyes, as if Ms. Keyes was all like, “Oh, hey, I wanna hear more about your drug habit,” instead of like “Fuck off, dude.” “My friend, Mike, he scored this amazing weed when he was shooting a webisode down in Miami…”
Ms. Keyes’s been staring hard at Judd for the last few minutes, but now she’s had it. She looks as mad as when my mom told her I wasn’t going to be an actor.
It was parent-teacher conference night, at which my mother always, always shows up. Every single one goes the same way. Mom starts out looking pretty happy, ’cause the teachers are always nice to her, glad she’s there, because they thrilled any parents showed up. But then, as the news comes that I’m not, like, an A+ student, well. The smile, it goes away. I took Mom to Ms. Keyes’s last, because I’m hoping she’ll tell my mom all about how I’ve improved in class. One of the conditions of me getting the part in the play was that I had to maintain an A in English, which I did. But Ms. Keyes made things worse, because she told my mom that I have a “gift” for acting.
“The Bible say we don’t seek no glory for ourselves, you see,” Mom had said to Ms. Keyes.
“But you’ve seen him on stage, Ms. Stafford,” Ms. Keyes said back. “You can see how good he is.”
“Hmm,” Mom says, not wanting to be rude to a white lady, but not giving an inch.
“You saw Romeo and Juliet?” Ms. Keyes said to Mom, and I see her start to realize that she hadn’t met Mom at the show.
“It’s not a Christian play,” Mom says to her.
Ms. Keyes sat back in her seat, like she can’t believe it.
“But, oh, Mrs. Stafford,” she says, “Oh, but DeSean was wonderful in that part. I am so sad you feel that way.”
Mom shifts in her seat a little bit, and looks down at her hands. “We make sacrifices, you see,” she says to her hands. I wait for her to finish the thought with “For the Lord,” as she usually does when she’s telling me why I can’t do something I want to do. But she doesn’t say anything else, just lets that sit all by itself. Ms. Keyes’s frown kept getting deeper, so I know she’s mad frustrated.
It was real quiet in the room. I remember sitting between them, as they face off over Ms. Keyes’s desk. Irresistible force, immoveable object, the two of them. Who’s going to win? Turns out, it don’t matter, because Durrell pulled the fire alarm and we all had to evacuate the building, and Mom says we going home so I can start studying for my Algebra test. Joke was on her, though, ’cause we had to leave before I could get my Math book from my locker.
Anyway, that’s how Ms. Keyes’s looking at Judd, the same look she gave my mom, like that was the stupidest thing she ever heard. And she says to him, “I’d prefer you not talk about drugs around DeSean.” Her voice all of the sudden sounds British, I swear.
Judd kind of laughs at her, leans in and says, “I think he probably knows about drugs, honey.”
Oh, man. Even those gangstas who are 21 and still sitting in Freshman classes, the ones who only show up enough long enough to get their attendance taken, they know not to call Ms. Keyes “honey.” Judd stupid.
“DeSean and I, we’re from South Brooklyn.” Now, she’s from Park Slope, which is the exact opposite of South Brooklyn, so that’s a lie. I try to listen harder while the make-up lady mutters about how my skin so dark, she’s gotta look for a different base, and Jenny does these elaborate vocal warm-ups, like she’s getting ready to sing some Sondheim on the street, rather than five lines about test prep.
“There’s a lot of drug dealing in South Brooklyn,” Ms. Keyes continues. Judd standing there looking at her, like he can’t move, making me wonder if he’s still coming down off a high.
“A lot of people get shot, get hurt, killed,” Ms. Keyes says. Jenny’s making a trilling sound.
“Yeah, but Mike bought the weed in Miami,” Judd says, holding his hands up to her like he won this round.
Ms. Keyes leans in to him. “DeSean’s dad got shot to death just a couple of years ago. Drug deal gone wrong. He was caught in the crossfire.”
Judd drops his hands, looks at her like he’s scared.
“Shot right in front of him. That’s how he ended up with me,” Ms. Keyes says, looking over to where Jenny’s standing. She’s expecting to see me, out of earshot, and when she gets Jenny popping her Ps and Ts instead, her eyes circle around to catch mine under the make-up tent. Within ear shot.
“Was that my father that went hence so fast?” I think to myself.
So the thing is, of course, my daddy did not get shot to death just a couple of years ago. I mean, that I know of. But I wouldn’t really have any idea, ’cause I never met the guy. Neither had Ms. Keyes, as I am sure you can figure out. The expression on her face when she sees me closer, sees how I heard her, that’s a new one to me. Like she’s embarrassed, or even afraid.
Judd grabs Ms. Keyes’s arm. “I didn’t know,” he says, as she looks at him, startled. “Oh, my God, I didn’t know.”
“It’s OK,” Ms. Keyes says, and looks back at me, worried.
Judd following where Ms. Keyes is looking, looks at me, too. “Hey, man,” he says, sounding friendly to me for the first time to me. “You any good?”
“The best,” I say automatically, which makes Jenny laugh. She’s come back to the tent, too, sits down in the chair to watch me as the make-up lady, who’s managed to concoct something as dark as me, I guess, starts to smear the base on me.
“I might have a film job for you,” Judd says.
“Yeah?” I say.
“Let’s see how this goes,” Judd says. “But a friend of mine’s shooting a horror film, and he needs a couple of kids for some of the school scenes.”
“I like horror,” I say.
“Yeah, let’s see how it goes,” Judd says, but he’s looking at me differently. He starts to walk over to where the camera guy is setting up.
“It pay?” I call after him. Then, I correct myself and say it louder: “Does it pay?”
He doesn’t hear me. Suddenly, Jenny’s mom is back, and she starts pulling at Jenny’s hair.
“This isn’t flattering,” she says to the make-up lady, who shrugs. “It makes her jaw line look weird.”
While they’re arguing over Jenny’s hair, I look over to where Ms. Keyes was, but she’s gone. Before I can think about what she said, or why she said it, Judd is back in the tent, hustling me and Jenny over to the cameras. Turns out we only got about a half-hour left on the permit, which cuts off at noon, not one. Suddenly, I find myself with my back-pack slung over my arm, facing Jenny, who’s getting her hair redone by the make-up lady. I realize I’m not sure she even finished putting base on me.
“Hey, Judd,” I call over to him. “I don’t think my make-up’s done.”
“Joanne?” he asks the make-up lady.
“Oh, he’s fine. He’s so dark, it won’t matter,” Joanne says, as she re-braids Jenny’s hair. Judd nods and turns back to the camera. I look over at Jenny’s mom, who motions for her to stand up straighter. Jenny sighs, but does it. I look around for Ms. Keyes, but she’s still AWOL. Thanks a lot, I think.
Judd asks us if we’re ready to start, and positions us so that Jenny’s leaning against a tree and I’m next to her. He steps back and looks at us in the camera’s viewfinder, then grabs my hand and puts it up against the tree above her head, like I’m hitting on her.
“No way,” I hear Jenny’s mom say. Judd glances over at her.
“Drop your arm, DeSean,” he says.
I leave my arm up for one more second, look at Jenny, but she’s staring off down the street, like she can’t wait for this all to be over. I drop my arm. Where’s Ms. Keyes?
“Ok,” Judd says. “Let’s run it once here for time.”
He calls action and Jenny says, “Why do you look so bummed out, Nelson?”
I shrug and say, “Hey, Susie, well, I just got my SAT scores back, and they weren’t good. I sure wish I could do better next time.”
Judd stops us. “Hey, DeSean,” he says. “Can you give that more of an urban spin, you know what I mean?”
I know what he means. I start to feel this bad feeling bubbling up in my chest, like panic. But I don’t feel like just agreeing, so I say, “Can you give me an example, Judd?”
“More with your natural accent,” he says.
“This is my natural accent, Judd.”
“Oh, my God,” Jenny’s mom says and looks at her wrist, where she don’t even have a watch on.
Jenny leans back against the tree, waiting.
Judd sighs, then forces a grin and says, “Oh, come on, man, say it like this: ‘Hey Susie, well, I just got my SAT scores back, and they’re no good.’”
“Oh, like that?” I say.
“Yep,” he says.
“Ok,” I say.
He glances at his phone, then tells the camera guy we’re going to shoot this one, and we get ourselves set back up again. Jenny is looking at me with a half-smirk on her face, as though she can’t wait to see what I’m going to do. Just before we start, I look around, and still, no Ms. Keyes.
“Why do you look so bummed out, Nelson?” Jenny says.
“Well, word up, Susie Q,” I say. I don’t even know what’s happening, the words are just pouring out of my mouth. “Because I’m just a colored boy, I don’t know how to do so good on my SATs. Do you have any ideas, you fine cracker?”
Judd is yelling “Cut!” over and over, and Jenny’s mom yanks her away from me, hissing that she knew this was going to happen. I don’t see how she could’ve since I didn’t know it was going to happen. Judd is looking around for Ms. Keyes.
“Where’s your mother?” he says to me.
“She ain’t my mom,” I say. “My mom black like me.”
Judd doesn’t look surprised, just grabs my arm and drags me over to the park bench up the block.
“Look, bud,” he says. “We got 20 more minutes to shoot this commercial.”
“Yeah?” I say.
“Do you want to be in it or not?”
Ms. Keyes comes around the corner just then, with a box of cupcakes from Crumbs. She takes in what’s happening – the crew waiting, Judd gripping my arm, Jenny and her mom arguing off by the tree – and says, “What’s going on?”
“This kid –” Judd begins.
Ms. Keyes’s voice comes out real low, and she says, “My kid.”
“He’s not your kid.”
“Yes, he is,” she says, real fast, then stops and takes a deep breath and looks at me. Then Ms. Keyes says to Judd, “Look, let me talk to him. Here, I brought everyone cupcakes. Can you give them out?”
“We have, like, no time,” Judd says to her, but he takes the box.
“Give us five minutes,” Ms. Keyes says. Then she grabs the box back for a minute and lifts a cupcake out. Judd leaves with the rest of them.
I wait for Ms. Keyes to ask what I did, but she don’t, she just stand there, holding that cupcake. Finally, I ask her if she wants to know.
“Not really,” she says. “Because I am sure whatever it was, what I said caused it first.”
“Maybe,” I say.
“I can’t believe I said that. He just made me so angry.”
“He’s infuriating,” I agree. That was one of our SAT vocab words last week.
“He really is!” she says. “So. I bought these to say I was sorry. And because I was hungry, and wanted a cupcake. But you should have this one.” She tries to give me the cupcake, but I push it away, saying, “I think this is maybe not cupcake-fixable.”
“Oh, DeSean, I really am so sorry. I don’t know why I said that about your dad -”
“You’re not sorry about that. You sorry you got caught.”
Ms. Keyes takes a deep breath, and lets it out. Then she nods, and I think maybe she going to cry.
“I’m still sorry now, DeSean,” she says, and her lower lip look like it’s going to give out, so I say, “It’s OK, Ms. Keyes.”
“Do you forgive me?” Ms. Keyes has this whole thing about how when someone says they’re sorry, they’re asking for forgiveness if they really mean it, so you supposed to give it to them, if you mean it too and blah blah blah.
“I forgive you, Ms. Keyes,” I say, but my voice cracks a little bit as I say, so we both end up standing there like fools, both of us looking at her cupcake, like there’s nothing deserving of our attention more at this moment than it.
“Besides,” I say, “what you said is not the worse thing anyone’s ever said about me.”
“No, but it was a lie,” she says. “I’m not supposed to tell lies.”
“Everyone does,” I say, shrugging.
“You should eat that” I tell her.
“You sure you don’t..?” she asks, then gives up and starts peeling away the paper. While she eats, I say, kinda low, “A lot happened while you were gone. And it made me pretty angry.”
She looks at me for a long moment, then looks over at the crew. They’re all eating cupcakes. The make-up lady’s chowing down. Ms. Keyes looks like she’s going to walk over there.
“Did they say something?”
“Kind of,” I say. “Jenny’s mom didn’t want me standing too close to her, and Judd told me to say my line like I’m in Boyz N the Hood.”
Ms. Keyes looks disgusted, even with icing on her lip.
“If I shoot this commercial the way he wants me to,” I say to her, “then – I don’t know. I don’t want to talk like that.”
Ms. Keyes sighs, and looks even more disgusted.
“I’m fortune’s fool, Ms. Keyes,” I say. “Just like the play.”
She shakes her head at me, and says, “Oh, DeSean. You’re not fortune’s fool. Being treated the way everyone treated you today, it sucks. It’s humiliating. But, still, you know, that’s acting.”
I lean against the wall of the building.
“This one time in college, I did so good – so well! – at an audition,” she says, still looking at the crew. “And they didn’t call me back. So I asked the director, and he told me, ‘You were the best audition, but I wanted someone who’s beautiful for the part.’”
We stand there for a long minute, and then I say, “Did you tell him ‘You’re only saying that, ’cause I’m black?’”
“What? But I’m not –” Then she sees me grinning, and laughs. “Oh, my God, DeSean. You really aren’t a nice young man, I swear. You should go to church with your mom more often, get yourself straightened out.”
“They’re not treating me badly just because I’m an actor,” I say to Ms. Keyes, still smiling.
“Yeah, I know,” she says, smiling back at me, like we both think this is funny.
Then, I remember something. After rehearsal for R & J one day, when Ms. Keyes was walking with me and Dante to the bus stop, I asked her why she didn’t think I could play Romeo at first.
“Well, to be honest, DeSean, you have a lot of anger,” she said to me.
“Me?” I said to her. “I’m not angry. What I got to be angry about?”
Ms. Keyes just looked at me, without saying anything.
“So, what, my audition was so good that you could see I could hide my anger?” I ask her.
“No, you were still pretty angry,” she said. “You just showed me that maybe Romeo is an angry guy, even before the play begins.”
“What’s he got to be angry about?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Some people were just born that way.”
That’s who I am, I think now, at the shoot. I’m an angry guy. Not a guy who sells SAT prep courses. And not only was I born that way, but I got things to be angry about.
I drop my smile, and look at Ms. Keyes real serious. I say, “Ms. Keyes, let’s go home.”
“Well…” she begins.
“Ima go home,” I say, slinging my backpack over my shoulder again.
“Yeah, ok,” she says, and wipes the icing off her face.
And we just turn and walk off down University Place towards the L train, like it don’t hurt at all to walk away from a thousand dollars, like everything fine between us, like I got a dad, and a mom that gets me, and Ms. Keyes and I are not burning up with the anger we got inside of us, like it’s not roasting us away inside, like we good, like we all good.
Shannon Reed taught high school theatre and English at a public high school in Canarsie, Brooklyn for four years. "DeSean" is one in a collection of short stories she is writing based on her experiences there. Shannon's fiction and non-fiction work has been published in Mud Season Review, Terrain Journal, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Vela Magazine, the Billfold and The Yearbook Office, among others. Shannon is also a playwright, with 25 productions and readings of her work around the U.S. She is currently at work on her first novel, while finishing up her MFA in Fiction at the University of Pittsburgh where she also teaches. Links to her work online can be found at her website, www.ShannonReed.org.