by Christopher Paslay
The following memoir was cut from the final version of The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility. The book, which is part memoir, part education commentary, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this September. (Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.)
In November of 1998, I learned that one of my students was living with his father in the apartment below mine. I was in the lobby of the building getting my mail one Saturday afternoon when I glanced up and saw Kevin, a boy in my sixth period class, carrying his bicycle down the steps. We made eye contact but neither of us said anything. I stood there, holding my mailbox key in my hand, not sure how to react. I wasn’t proud to be living in this particular apartment complex, so the first thing I felt was embarrassment. I’d moved in the first of the month, not even two weeks before, because the college buddy I was rooming with in my old apartment had gotten a new job and relocated. I couldn’t afford the rent on my own so I was forced to move.
Kevin turned and disappeared out the front door with his bike under his arm. I don’t believe this, I thought, wanting to hide. I was on the first month of a one year lease and already I knew I’d made a mistake, that I’d made my decision in haste. Sure, my new apartment was cheap, but money wasn’t everything. The complex was cramped and musty, and the tenants were mainly elderly people on fixed incomes. And the place smelled. Not all the time, but once or twice a week an odor came from the basement that I figured was a bad sewer line. It was totally disgusting. I called maintenance and complained, but nothing was done.
The place also had roaches. I didn’t see any for the first two weeks, so when I was unloading groceries from my car one day in the parking lot and my neighbor asked me about them, I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Have you seen the roaches?” he said to me. The man’s name was Bruce, and he happened to be the father of my student, Kevin, but at the time I didn’t know this. He lived in the apartment right below mine.
“Roaches?” I said.
“Yeah, this place’s loaded with them. You’ll see ‘em sooner or later, believe me.” He was standing on the front steps smoking a cigarette and he flicked an ash. “So how do you like the place?”
“It’s fine,” I said, not wanting to offend him.
“It’s a shit hole,” he said, “but it’s cheap. You won’t find any place cheaper in the entire Northeast.”
It was true. I’d shopped around for two whole weeks and this place had the lowest rent by far. At the time, it was $375 a month for a one bedroom.
“Okay, so take it easy now,” Bruce said, tossed his cigarette in the grass and went inside.
I brought my groceries up to my apartment on the third floor and put them on the counter in the kitchen. As I was putting them away, to my horror, I saw a big fat black roach crawl across the cabinet. For a moment I felt panicky, like my entire life was falling apart right in front of my eyes. How was I going to live like this for another eleven months? How was I going to do it?
Get a grip, I said to myself, standing in the middle of the shoebox-sized kitchen and staring into space. It’s no big deal. It’s all how you look at it. Anyway, what are your options? Move somewhere else? You can’t, you signed a one year lease. Are you going to call mom and dad to come and help you? Forget that, you need to become a man. So you’d better suck it up there, Christopher. You’d better suck it up and stay strong.
I calmed down a bit. I was only 26 at the time, so I had thick skin. At college I’d lived in fraternity houses almost as bad, so I knew how to make due. The whole situation was a test, like my first year freshmen students, and I was going to pass it. I’d get tough and stay focused. Put my nose to the grindstone. If one of my students could live here, so could I.
I put away the groceries and made my dinner.
* * *
By the end of the month, I’d settled in. I paid an exterminator to bug bomb the place so the roach problem went away for a while. Every so often I’d run into Kevin, but these situations were awkward so we never had much to say to each other.
Then, out of nowhere, tragedy struck. It was a Saturday night around midnight, and I was sitting in my living room playing with the new iMac computer I recently purchased, checking out that new phenomenon called the “internet”. I was on a chat-room website writing back-and-forth with a woman who claimed to be single and an elementary school teacher from Tennessee, when I heard screaming coming from the apartment below me. My adrenaline started pumping immediately, and I turned from my computer to stop and listen more closely. Then I heard the sound again, what I thought was screaming. Or was it someone laughing and horsing around?
It stopped so I went back to talking with the woman on-line. We began flirting, and the woman invited me into another chat-room that was for “adults only”. Before I could decide how to respond, I heard a loud crash below me, making the apartment shake. I ran and looked out the window. Nothing was out there. I walked back to my computer and felt more thumping and banging below. I began to get scared. Something didn’t feel right and I wondered if I should call the police.
I didn’t. Instead I explained to the woman on-line what was happening and asked what she thought I should do about it. Before she could answer I heard glass shattering. It was extremely loud and there was no mistaking it. I picked up the phone to call the police but then heard a siren outside and saw flashing red lights reflecting off my apartment walls. I ran to the window and saw an ambulance pulling in front of the apartment building.
I hung up the phone. Someone had already made the call. Freaked out, I signed-off with the woman on the internet and went to bed. It took me an hour to fall asleep. The next morning I got up and went to the gym. When I got outside I saw the remains of some broken glass on the sidewalk, and a block of cardboard in the window of the apartment below me—the apartment Kevin lived in with his father. This freaked me out even more. What the hell happened last night?
When I got back from the gym, on the way up the steps to my apartment, I ran into a group of people on the second floor. They were coming out of the unit Kevin lived in.
“What happened last night?” I asked one of them.
“Bruce passed away,” a man told me. He shut the apartment door, locked it, and walked passed me. “Excuse me,” he said.
He’s dead? I thought, stunned. My worst fears had come true. As I lay awake the night before my mind came up with all kinds of crazy scenarios—murder being one of them—but I never thought it would be true. That’s if he were murdered; I still didn’t know the details.
The whole incident ate at me for days. Freaked the shit out of me. Kevin was absent from school but I’d heard nothing official about his father, not from the principal, not from the counselor. I was too spooked to ask.
Then one day I got my answer. About a week after the tragedy I came home from school and parked my car in the lot behind the apartment. As I got out of my car I saw Kevin with another one of my freshmen students named Joe. They were both on bicycles, cruising around the parking lot.
“Hey Mr. Paslay,” Joe called to me. They rode over to me and stopped. I waved to them, and remember staring at Kevin curiously, wondering what a teen who just lost his dad would look like; I know if I lost my father at age 14 I would have been a traumatized wreck. But Kevin didn’t look any different than he always did.
“You live here?” Joe asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, embarrassed.
Joe nodded. “That’s cool.” He could sense my unease. “You don’t have to worry, Mr. Paslay, we won’t say anything. We won’t tell anybody where you live.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Did you see the ambulance here last Saturday night?” Kevin spoke up.
I told him I had.
“Well that was for my dad,” he said. “He overdosed. I came home that night and found him.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, floored.
“It’s okay. I’m probably going to go to live with my mom in New Jersey. I might be transferring out of Swenson soon.” Kevin popped a wheelie. “You ready Joe?”
“Yeah, I’m ready.” Joe waved. “See you Mr. Paslay.”
“Bye,” I said.
The two rode away.
A month later, after Kevin moved to Jersey with his mom, Joe told me the details from the night Kevin’s dad died. He said Kevin came home around midnight, an hour past his curfew, and found his father hunched over the dining room table with a needle in his arm. He knew he was dead because he had turned blue. After Kevin called 911, he lost his temper and started screaming and smashing things in the house.
“Oh my God,” I said to Joe.
But the tragedy didn’t end there. A year later, when I asked Joe how Kevin was doing with his mom in Jersey, Joe would inform me that Kevin had been killed riding a dirt bike on a back road in Toms River.