Song of the Adjunct

The Promise of Safety

I moved to New Orleans in the fall of 2010, more than a year before the national headlines began to proclaim it our country’s most violent city. And yet, from the moment I arrived—never mind that my rental abutted the well-heeled home of one of my best friend’s parents; never mind that my neighborhood boasts more coffee shops and yoga studios than seems in any way sustainable—everyone with whom I spoke told me I’d better watch my back. This may be the city that care forgot, they told me, but still, you’ve got to be careful. But as I unpacked my life and settled in, and as I strolled up and down Maple Street, past bakeries and galleries, all the Tulane and Loyola bars, the last thing I thought of was violence. What’s to be afraid of, I thought. After all, this is the good part of the city. For Christ’s sake, this is Uptown.

And so, with nerves ever-numbed by this promise of safety, I stumbled back from Madigan’s and Snake & Jake’s on a hundred drunken nights, walked home fucked up and alone in the dark and never worried about a thing. And any time I heard that somebody knew somebody who got carjacked in the Bywater, or that another Crocs-wearing tourist had been stuck up on Bourbon—any time I found myself faced with the evening news, and the anchorman bemoaned some far-flung ghetto where another poor and hopeless kid had shot and killed some other poor and hopeless kid—every time, I’d shake my head and remind myself, that might be your city, but that’s not where you live.

But then came Ash Wednesday. On that morning, as I sat in the third floor of the Liberal Arts building, trying feverishly to type out a new story, trying earnestly to do anything even remotely productive as the last of the Mardi Gras toxins slogged their way out of my system—there came a knock-knock-knock at my office door. I looked at my watch: just after eight a.m., an hour or so before class began on the day an essay was due. I got up and did my best not to groan, knowing full well that whoever was waiting for me in the hallway would merely be the first in a mind-numbing chain of students who just couldn’t quite finish their papers on time—and, Oh Mr. Torrey, could I pretty-please have an extension, and oh Mr. Torrey, could you please, please, please give me one more day?

Jesus, I thought. Here we go.

Only when I turned the knob and opened the door, that isn’t what I found. No, in place of that classic, excuse-making kid, what awaited me was a student and a stranger. First, there was Mary—sweet and quiet Mary—a pale and black-haired freshman from my Tuesday-Thursday class. And second, there like a chaperone at her side, a taller but equally pale and black-haired woman who couldn’t be anyone but her mother.

I greeted them and tried to put on a smile, but inside I suffered a pang of distress. Maybe it was the hangover, I thought. Maybe all the leftover depressants in my blood were making me paranoid. But somehow this little visit felt very much like an ambush, as if any second now this mother-and-daughter team might begin to spout out a series of accusations. Maybe this mother thought I’d graded her daughter unfairly; or worse yet, maybe she had me pegged for some creep of a teacher who’d tried to make a pass. Either way, I gulped a hard gulp and readied myself for the worst. A cold sweat beaded my back.

I asked if everything was okay.

Mary’s mother looked into my eyes then and took me by the hand. She had a kind face, a bit pudgy and flushed—the face of every working-class mom—and she smiled at me in a way I can only think to call gentle. But in a quick second her eyes darkened and her gaze fell to the floor. “We’re sorry,” she began. “Sorry to bother you so early—sorry to barge into your office like this. But—well—Mary, I’m afraid, has had a bit of bad luck. She wasn’t able to finish her paper.”

I let out a breath and at once felt disarmed. Whatever had gone wrong with my student had nothing to do with me, and the ambush I’d feared had been averted. And so I stood alongside them there in the hallway, ready and waiting to hear whatever morsel of routine bad news they needed to impart. One of Mary’s grandparents had died, I figured, that or maybe she had Mono.

I looked at Mary, but she could only meet my gaze in an empty and silent glare.

Mary’s mother nudged her. “Go on, honey,” she said, tenderly. “Tell Mr. Torrey what happened.”

And Mary tried to tell to me—God, how she tried. But every time she began to speak, every time her lips trembled and tried to form words, she sputtered and then stopped altogether. The gears of her mind were turning, but in the end nothing came out. Bemused now and a bit uneasy, my heartbeat perked and I turned toward her mother—her poor mother who could only stand there and shake her head.

“Mary has a concussion,” she said. I nodded dumbly, my mind instantly running thick with everyday explanations—a fender-bender, a fall from a ladder. But as soon as I started to ask, Mary’s mother put up her hands. “Sir,” she said. “I’m here to tell you that somebody hit my daughter. Somebody beat my Mary up.”

The words at first did not make sense. I flinched and fixed my stare again on Mary, seeing then what I’d missed before. Both eyes were shaded and swollen. A blue bruise hovered over her mouth like a lonesome cloud. And as I gaped at this ugliness made by violence, Mary’s mother went on, kept right on talking, the words pouring out of her like a chant as she explained that it’d all happened only the night prior—that Mary had spent Mardi Gras day on her own, wandering up and down St. Charles, and that after the parades had rolled, after the day was spent and she’d had her fill, she figured she’d make the easy walk from the Garden District to the streetcar at Napoleon; only, it didn’t happen that way, and instead she found herself thrust suddenly into the midst of a gang of boys, young boys, high school boys, found herself all at once surrounded, the boys circling her like sharks, cursing her, calling her a bitch and a cunt while grabbing for her purse, until at last Mary—Mary, who in my Tuesday-Thursday class never spoke above a whisper, Mary, who spoke so low that often I had to step up to her desk and lean in simply to hear her—until Mary started to panic and screamed for the police, screamed help, help, help as loud as her soft voice would allow, and then the boys, the young boys, panicked themselves, all four of these boys, began smacking her face and clutching her wrists, and then one of them, the biggest coward of the bunch, thought it a better idea to close his fists and punch Mary in her face, to crash his balled hands into her face until her nose bled, until all she could do was collapse onto the pavement, and then, even then, the boys still kicked her.

I stood in the hallway with an unhinged jaw and listened for what felt like hours. And in the silence that followed, as I swiveled my head from mother to daughter, I found myself struggling to accept what I’d heard.

“And where,” I began, “where did you say all this happened?”

“Uptown,” she said. “River side of Napoleon.”

“That’s right by me,” I told her, and she nodded.

“Us, too,” she said. She looked at Mary and gave her a smile. “Didn’t used to have to worry about this sort of thing around there. Used to be the one place you were fine.”

Jesus, I thought. I turned to Mary and told her how sorry I was, that I wished she hadn’t ever had to endure something so terrible. She nodded blankly and nibbled her lip. And I figured that would be the most she could muster. But then she tilted her head in thought and said this to me very carefully: “Mr. Torrey, I’m sorry I don’t have my paper.”

I couldn’t work the rest of the day. Every time I stared into my laptop, every time I peered out my window, I found myself captive to a mind that refused to stop playing the scene of my student being beaten in the streets. I had never before known anyone touched by such violence, and the idea of it left me saddled with a sense of injustice. After all, I thought, Mary was just an eighteen-year-old girl, just a kid enjoying Mardi Gras, a college freshman strolling along her hometown’s most affluent and picturesque avenue. She must’ve felt perfectly safe that day—the same way she’d probably felt on every other day of her life. And how could you blame her? It was a cool and pleasant afternoon, and all around her friendly-looking people were drinking and laughing. She must’ve felt good that day, must’ve felt safe and happy right up until the moment she made a wrong turn onto a random street and found herself faced with danger. And even as those strange boys surrounded her, even when the situation became something threatening and foreign—even then I believe she imagined that things would end up okay. But then they came upon her, and I don’t know what it is she could’ve thought then—or how she’d ever feel safe again.

Later that week, I found myself anxious to tell my students about what had happened to Mary—to warn them, I guess, to make them aware. And so, in the waning moments of an afternoon section, I told the story precisely the way Mary’s mother had told it to me, told it with italics on the word Uptown—in a way that let my students see how badly shaken the news had left me. And most of them seemed shaken too. Most of them stared back at me with headshakes and looks of concern. But one boy in the back did not. He was broad-shouldered and black, with thick arms and a deep-slow voice. And once I’d finished my story, after all his peers had had their chance to oooh and aaaah and exclaim how terrible it was, he sat there and stifled a laugh. I wanted nothing more than to ignore it, but after it went on for what felt like too long, I gave him a cross look and asked him what in the world he thought was so funny.

He put out his hands and shook his head, saying he was sorry, that he wasn’t laughing about the girl.

“Then what is it?” I asked.

“Just all y’all Uptown people,” he said. “Y’all got too much safety.”

“What do you mean?”

“Too much safety can be a bad thing, Mr. Torrey. Too much safety means you forget to watch your back.”

William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey |