Rion Amilcar Scott’s Insurrections is the winner of the 2017 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. The following is an excerpt from the short story collection.
Submissions and nominations for the 2018 PEN Literary Awards are now open will be accepted through August 15, 2017.
The Legend of Ezekiel Marcus
A month after school opened—when the most coveted boys had paired off with the most coveted girls and, for the majority of us, our affections were going tragically unreturned—Mr. Coles, the new art teacher, decided he hated Ezekiel Marcus. It was in the way he shied from addressing Zeke whenever he could, the upturned curve of his lip when he was unable to avoid talking to him, and his clear relief during Zeke’s frequent absences. Mr. Coles wasn’t like most of the other teachers at Alfred McCoy Middle School; he was essentially a good and decent man, so he would have never admitted what was plain to me. Even to this day—wherever he is, certainly no longer a teacher—I bet if I were to ask him about these old times, he’d deflect with his signature joke, I hated you all equally. Then, thinking twice, he’d take the edge off and add, I loved you all equally, too.
We called him Mr. Cold. A name, I think, Zeke made up. Anyway, Zeke was the first one I heard say it during third-period art one day, and my laughter turned from tittering to inconsolable, if laughter can be called inconsolable. Mr. Coles had a young, elfin face with tidily groomed hair on his cheeks and chin, none on his upper lip. He was handsome. Impossibly, even freakishly, handsome—strong cheekbones and a smooth dark complexion—a fact I had to reluctantly admit and one that most of the girls never let anyone forget. Hair all black while most of his peers sported grays and bad dye jobs. And Mr. Coles always smiled, even when angry and trying to be stern, especially when angry and trying to be stern.
All of this is why we treated him poorly and why he overcompensated, first attempting to come across as a pal, a trustworthy big brother, and when that failed turning into a hard-ass for a time, though he was a phony hard-ass, one we could see clear through. Rarely, if ever, did we tremble in fear at his silly yelling and stiff pointing finger. Marshall, Mr. Coles called to me as I choked on laughter after he grew upset from Zeke’s taunting. Marshall, it’s funny, but that’s enough. This just caused us to laugh more. The warmest man in the school, Mr. Cold, then sent Ezekiel into the hallway as his mentor, Mr. Drayton, probably advised him to do. Damn, that’s cold-blooded, Mr. Cold, a proud and smiling Zeke said on his way out to another rise in laughter.
The next time we saw Mr. Coles, he was stiff and stern. Even his movements changed to reflect the new him. We talked through the roll as usual, and by the fifth name he stopped and looked up. In spite of his contrived scowl, he still managed to appear somehow smiling. He stared at Zeke, though we were all speaking. There were always five of us at the front table: me, Zeke, a Puerto Rican girl with curly hair named Jana, and two jokers named Ernesto and Tommy.
Hey, Zeke, you want to go stand in the hallway again? Mr. Coles asked.
I didn’t do nothing, Zeke said. I’m not the only one talking. Why don’t you pick on Tommy and Ernesto?
Either you be quiet or go stand in the hall. Those are your two options. I’m not here to argue with you, Ezekiel.
When Zeke kept talking to us, Mr. Coles ordered him into the hallway. Zeke stood swiftly so that his metal stool toppled to the floor. On his way out he said, Man, we were going to stop calling you Mr. Cold, too, but you keep showing us how cold-blooded you are, so you’re gonna be Mr. Cold from now until whenever.
Zeke, be quiet or it’s the office instead of the hall.
Zeke spent most of the class in the hallway rapping the uncensored version of a dirty song that played every few minutes on the radio stations we all listened to. Shake that ass buck naked, bitch / don’t you fake it, bitch / Shake that ass buck naked, bitch . . . Mr. Coles pretended not to hear him, and that’s how we all knew that this new Mr. Cold was a put-on. His demeanor was a lie, a desperate one. I could understand, Mr. Coles’s true self earned him zero respect, but still, a lie was destined to fail. It was no wonder he was so adrift in the classroom. Much of his behavior was straight from the manual of so many of our educators, but particularly Mr. Drayton, who was old and stiff and smelled vaguely of urine. I’d often see Mr. Coles sitting in the cafeteria joking with this crumpled old white man. Chatting in the parking lot outside their cars. In each other’s classrooms between classes. Mr. Drayton needed an ego stroke and Mr. Cold needed a clue.
Near the end of class, Mr. Coles called Zeke back into the room and asked us all to pay quiet attention.
You may have noticed that I am not as open as I once was, Mr. Coles said. Less apt to listen to excuses. More likely to punish. I never wanted to be this kind of teacher. I figure you’ve all had enough hard-ass drill sergeants, but you guys have been so damaged by that kind of teaching that you don’t respect anything else. Not your fault. And it’s not all of you, but enough that I’m forced to change my approach. From now on, if you are not in your seat by the time the bell rings, I am marking you tardy. Too many tardies means you lose credit for the semester. You talk when I am talking, I’m sending your ass out of the classroom. Not to the hallway, but to the office. You don’t work on your art, I’m sending you out of class. We can have a good time, but it’s something you have to earn now.
Damn, he’s Mr. Cold for real, someone in the back said, and Mr. Coles shot Zeke a stone look.
And, Mr. Coles said as the bell rang signaling the end of class, my name is Mr. Coles. Please address me as that and nothing else.
That afternoon during gym class, while the sixth-graders were having lunch, me and Zeke placed bets on how long Mr. Coles would keep up his hard-ass persona. It was a soccer week, and we competed to show the girls who could keep the ball in the air the longest using just our feet, heads, thighs, and chests. Zeke was already a soccer star and could outdribble even the best of the high school students. As we kicked the ball around, we compared notes with others, and it seemed Mr. Coles had given similar speeches in his other classes, but thanks to the presence of Zeke in our class, third period got the harshest lecture.
It’s because of that fucking Mr. Drayton, Zeke said. I know he got in Mr. Cold’s ear and turned him against us. I bet ol’ piss-breath was like, You got to break Zeke’s spirit. I hate going to Mr. Drayton’s fucking class.
Yeah, I said, and now we’re going to hate art class too.
Zeke pointed to Mr. Drayton overseeing the sixth-graders’ post-lunch recreation time and said, I bet I could hit him right in the nose with this soccer ball from here.
You think you Pelé, I replied.
He tapped the ball gently ahead of him. Just strike it in the right spot, you can place it wherever you want. That’s what my coach says. What would you give me if I knocked the shit out of him with this ball?
I had no doubt that Zeke could make the ball sail from the top of the hill down to Mr. Drayton’s face—I had seen him score some impossible goals—but I pretended I didn’t hear him so he’d drop it, and he did.
For the first week of Mr. Cold’s new persona we worked in silent misery most of the time. In history class we learned about the Soviet work camps, and during third period I imagined we were in one, fashioning cheap, meaningless trinkets out of wire and then out of clay or papier-mâché. Mr. Coles taught us to make animals out of newspaper, paint, and lacquer. Zeke chose to work with wire, bending it into a little man on a little bicycle, while most of the rest of our table continued to work with clay. I think that was the most peaceful I had ever seen Zeke, and Mr. Coles complimented him more than once for his demeanor, but to me it was all wrong. Zeke was happiest when he was causing chaos. I made a human out of newspaper and painted it brown and joked that I was creating an Ezekiel Marcus doll.
He took it in good spirits at first, and then one class—I made the joke over and over to a rising chorus of giggles—he unwound a piece of wire from his bicycle and wrapped it around the neck of my Zeke doll. I’m gonna kill that motherfucker, he said. He tried to make us feel as if he was kidding, but I could tell the conformity and silence weighed heavily on him.
Mr. Coles frowned.
Marshall is working really hard, and here you come to disrupt things, Mr. Coles said. I just don’t know what gets into you, Zeke. You haven’t caused any trouble lately, and now this. Go stand in the hallway.
Zeke stormed out as Mr. Coles continued to rant: Lucky I’m not sending you to the principal. The only reason you’re not going to the office is because you’ve been good the past few days. Think about that while you stand there.
That day during gym class a bunch of us ignored the soccer game at the other end of the field. Every few minutes Zeke spied Mr. Drayton down the hill looking stiff and severe.
I hate that nigga, Zeke said.
Why you worried about him? I said. You let Mr. Cold turn you into Meek Zeke.
Jana and Ernesto stood nearby along with about a half dozen other students too cool to play soccer. Hey, Weak Zeke, I said too loudly. I looked around at the people next to us, pathetically, hoping their reactions, their approval, would suddenly make me three or four inches taller. Without warning, he shoved me to the ground and kicked dirt in my face while people pointed and laughed. Ernesto pulled Zeke back, and I stood and cursed at him, but I didn’t lunge. Zeke was bigger than me. Even more than looking to avoid a beat-down, I certainly couldn’t afford a beat-down in front of Jana. I watched Zeke angrily as if poised to swing. Zeke shoved past me, pushing his way through a group of fight-gawkers. Jana asked me if I was okay, and while I nodded and preened for sympathy, Zeke was deftly removing the soccer ball from the feet of the clumsier players at the other end of the field. He came barreling toward us while slower players trailed, a cloud of dust in his wake. He waved his right arm like a windmill and pulled his leg back so far I thought he was going to flip, but he didn’t flip, instead he kicked the ball, and I ducked, though there was no need to do so. It sailed over the goal in a magnificent rainbow arch until it struck the unsuspecting Mr. Drayton right in the nose, breaking his glasses and dashing them and him to the ground. Mr. Drayton cradled his face. I could see blood stains forming continents on his white shirt.
The principal, Mrs. Badwell, called me and Zeke to her office during fifth-period pre-algebra. Some snitch said they heard us joking about hitting Mr. Drayton with a ball. Mrs. Badwell questioned us separately, but I feigned ignorance and righteous anger. How could a young boy kick a ball from on top of the field all the way down the hill with the precision of Diego Maradona? I asked the principal, though I said it with much less eloquence, and eventually she chalked it up to an accident.
The Legend of Ezekiel Marcus grew that day. To us he became The Bad Nigga No One Could Touch. Unfortunately, to the teachers he became That Bad Nigger No One Could Touch. Some days I could literally see the target burning red on his back.
Ezekiel’s ascension from badass kid to rebel coincided with us learning about the civil rights movement in history class. During lunchtime on Tuesday he gathered me, Ernesto, Jana, and Tommy near the soccer field and began speaking in a hushed, nervous tone.
Look, he said. We got to take back that art class. It was the only fun we had all day, and now the thing is all somber and shit. Cold’s gone fucking crazy.
Well, it’s your fault, Zeke, Jana said. He was just trying to be our friend and you decided to act like an asshole.
It’s not time to be blaming nobody, Zeke said. I want old Mr. Coles back. Everybody want him back. We need to do what Martin Luther King did and act as bad as can be. Civil disobedience. Don’t nobody call him Mr. Coles. He’s Mr. Cold. When he tries to talk, cut his ass off. And we take the consequences. He can’t send the whole class to the office. Watch, in a week we’ll have nice Mr. Coles back and it’ll be because we took a stand.
That’s stupid, Jana said.
If it’s so stupid, why Martin Luther King do it like that, huh? Zeke said. Why Gandhi do it like that, huh? Didn’t they win? They hit them with some hoses and made dogs bite them, but they won. I’m from Cross River, I ain’t afraid of no fucking water. And ain’t no one in Cross River afraid of some angry dogs. We got angry dogs up in the Wildlands. Who here hasn’t stared down an angry dog or two?
We all nodded, except for Jana.
What I’m saying is, they can’t do nothing to us if we stand together.
I think he’s onto something, Ernesto chimed in.
Y’all dumb, Jana said. Mr. Coles fine as shit. I’m not getting on his bad side for y’all childish nigs. Jana walked away while the rest of us made plans for our revolution. I watched her behind swish and thought seriously about following it, but the moment was so electric I couldn’t bear to walk away. We slapped five on our conspiracy and proposed various disruptive actions. I felt like we were witnessing the birth of the Rev. Dr. Ezekiel Marcus Luther King Jr.
For a week, when Mr. Cold lectured on art history or on some technique, we cut him off to discuss something inane. Zeke would loudly chant his favorite parts of his favorite song, “Shake It Buck Naked, Bitch”: You ain’t really do nothing / I’ma make it do something / Twerk that thing baby now / Let me see ya shake something. We threw clay around the class. Zeke harassed and shamed those who wouldn’t get with the program. Me, Zeke, or Ernesto usually got sent out in the first few minutes. Jana would sit there working on a clay mask, shaking her head. The last straw was the day Zeke gathered a lump of clay, big as his head, and dropped it out the second-story class window onto the shiny red hood of Mr. Drayton’s convertible.
As soon as that metallic thud struck, we could hear Mr. Drayton in his downstairs classroom emitting a sound like the final wails of a wounded wolf. He dashed up the stairs, leaving his class baffled and teacherless. Me and Zeke sat in the corner suppressing our laughter while Mr. Drayton screamed at us all.
By the next week it seemed something had shifted. Mr. Coles arrived to class looking not broken but hopeful for once. Like it was again the first day of school. Like we were all eager learners and not the assholes we had become. He was fresh-faced. Shaved all that hair off his cheeks. The man looked less like an authority figure, more like a boy. He no longer fought the losing battle to suppress his smile. When someone called him Mr. Cold, he chuckled and said, Now, now. We were confused at first. Thrown way off guard. We still talked over him, and flashes of annoyance still passed over his face, but he shrugged and took the discussion in the direction of whatever interested us, which is how we spent much of one class discussing “Shake It Buck Naked, Bitch.”
You know you be listening to Dem Freak Boyz N Motion, Mr. Cold, Zeke said to our amusement.
You mean, Dem Zeke Boyz, Mr. Coles replied. I’m tired of seeing Dem Zeke Boyz in motion. You should sit your ass down sometimes. No, just kidding. I know the song. What? You guys think I’m too old to listen to what’s out there? Not my thing, though. I do like how some of those rappers take that George Clinton and James Brown stuff I grew up on and recreate it. Yeah, as a collagist, I can certainly appreciate that. I tell you what, class: on Mondays, Tuesdays. and Wednesdays I’ll bring in some of those songs your rappers sample, and if I don’t have to send anyone out of the class those first three days, you can bring in your music to play the rest of the week.
There were some cheers. Applause from the back. If we were confused before, at that moment Zeke and I and everybody else understood that our plan had worked. We declared total victory. Mr. Coles gave us a sorry what-have-I-done? look. Jana winced at our excitement, but he also smiled. How could she not be happy about taking our class back? We sat through Parliament on Monday and James Brown on Tuesday, but by Wednesday we had commandeered Mr. Coles’s boombox, and for three days straight we danced in our seats and played little else but “Shake It Buck Naked, Bitch.”
Silly kids. We could never see that we were causing the breaking of a man’s spirit. Brutally unraveling him. That when he went home to relax, to watch a television show, to drink a beer, to make love to a woman, he would hear our shrill voices and see our smirking, rude faces. Perhaps I say this to elevate myself. To give meaning to times that have faded from everyone’s memory. Maybe I just want to justify my obsession with bygone days. And why do I keep up this obsession, huh? Why do I carry this memory like cross wood on my back? Maybe it’s because I saw a homeless man beneath layers of dirty blankets on Alan Street and he had the face of Mr. Coles and I couldn’t bear getting closer to find out if it was him; to find out if I had helped to fatally wound not just a man’s career but all of his life. Maybe this vision was a symptom of the obsession—in other words, I saw Mr. Coles’s face because I am crazy about the past, not because it was actually him. What are the chances that it was him, huh?
Sometimes I see Ernesto and he’s dressed in a suit, looking respectable. A lawyer now, brokering deals. And only if you know how to look can you see the rowdy preteen’s face upon his. I only see him on my lunch break at the bookstore or at a fast food joint—we work two blocks from one another—and we only talk in five-minute bursts. Though we mention meeting up on the weekend, we both know such a meeting will never happen. When I bring up Mr. Cold or Ezekiel or Mr. Drayton, he says, You still remembering all that shit? It is what it is, man. Let it rest.
One time I mentioned Mr. Cold, and he said, remember Kelli? That was crazy, right? Shit was funny back then, but . . . Hey, he said changing the subject. Did I tell you my wife is about to have a little girl?
That’s great, Ernesto. The world can’t have enough little black girls.
I’m one and done, boy, Ernesto continued proudly. Wife want another one, a boy, but the world got enough men, right?
This excerpt is taken from Insurrections: Stories by Rion Amilcar Scott, published by the University Press of Kentucky (2016).