My first year of high school, we had this white lady English teacher: Miss B. On the first day of class she told us her real name, and it was crazy, all these Xs and Ys and Zs, but none of us could say it right, so we shortened it. She didn't seem to mind. Or at least she liked it better than when Victor Cardona called her Miss Culo, because she had these two skinny little legs, and a butt that stuck out the back of her like a watermelon.
"I do speak some Spanish, Mr. Cardona. And that is very inappropriate," she said the first time Victor called her that. It was the second week of class. She always called all of us Mr. or Miss So-and-so. We always had a couple of teachers like that, cheerful white people who would come in at the beginning of the school year and say something dumb like how happy they were to be here, and they'd normally be gone by winter vacation. Sometimes they'd last all the way through the school year, but they never came back for another. The only teachers who were here every year were the ones who'd grown up in the neighborhood. And even though we didn't ever learn nothing in their classes, they were the ones that you were afraid of, because they knew your parents and your grandparents and would tell them if you were skipping their class or hanging out with the wrong people.
Miss B wasn't really any different than any of the other white teachers in our school. And after the shooting, she left and never came back. She was only our English teacher for a couple months and I don't even really remember that much stuff from her class, except the day she read us a play and talked about how if you went to the theater and there was a gun on stage, someone would get shot by the end. Felix interrupted her and made some dumb joke about how he uses his mom's gun to shoot rats when he's bored, and Miss B got mad and sent him to the oﬃce. I always remembered that class, because after school that day, we were in the park and ran into Johnny Peralta. Johnny and José had been ghting all week, and when we saw him, he pulled out a gun and pointed it at José and said that if he didn't stay the fuck away from Nadia, he was going to fucking shoot him. As we stood there in the park, my head went fuzzy and I felt like I needed my inhaler. Johnny Peralta had just a gun pointed at my big brother, and I kept hearing Miss B's voice in my head, talking about how if you see a loaded gun. . .
But Johnny didn't shoot José right then, and we ran out of the park as fast as we could, not stopping until we turned off Lehigh onto 5th, heading towards home. We had lived on the same block our whole lives. Felix, who was the same age as José, lived three houses down from us.
"Shit." Felix said, gasping for breath. "I thought you was dead, man. I thought that fucker was gonna shoot you." It was a normal Thursday in November: me, José, and Felix had nothing to do. Me and José had big coats because it was still cold and had snowed the week before, but Felix just had his school shirt on. We could see our breath when we walked and it wasn't dark out yet, but the sky was starting to turning purple. at was the week of the bus driver strike, so even if we wanted to spend the $1.85 and go downtown, we couldn't.
José didn't say anything back to Felix, just slapped him on the shoulder and grinned. My big brother was one of those guys who always smiled and winked at people and was tall and didn't have pimples and all the girls liked him. So did the teachers, even though he never did any work and couldn't even read that good. But he was nice to them and never said rude stuff, and so they didn't care if he just put his head down on the desk during tests because he didn't slash their tires or piss on their bookshelf, like Victor Cardona did this one time when Miss B made him stay after school because he started juggling hammers in the middle of class.
The three of us kept walking up 5th, towards Allegheny. The stores were all starting to close, and some of them had pulled their metal doors all the way to the ground. We walked quicker. Even if you thought you were hard, you didn't want to be on 5th when everything started closing and it started to get dark. At least we didn't. People like Johnny Peralta, people who hung around with Victor Cardona's older brother Angél, and got paid to be lookouts, they would be on 5th after dark. But me and José and Felix tried not to get messed up in that shit. We weren't really that good—we got in ghts sometimes and drank Felix's mom's beer on Saturday nights when she was out—but we weren't really bad neither. Not like Victor or Johnny or the other pendejos they all ran around with.
When we got to the next corner, José jerked his head to the right towards King's, and we went inside through the door that was covered with pictures of pizza. It wasn't very crowded for a Thursday. Two old men sat at the table in the back with beers and dominos, and Felix's cousin Graciela was standing at the counter holding her new baby.
"Hey!" She waved us over. Felix leaned in and gave her a kiss on the cheek, rubbing the top of the baby's head.
"Sup," Felix said as she kissed both me and José hello.
"Your white lady teacher's in here," Graciela said.
"I guess so. She in the bathroom right now though. She was sittin' over there before." Graciela stopped going to school in October when the baby was born. She would still show up at the end of the school day, waiting with the stroller by the basketball courts for her friends or to start a ght with Emilio Colón because he wasn't giving her any money for the baby, but she wasn't going to any classes.
The bathroom door opened, and out came Miss B.
"Miss B!" Felix raised his hand for her to slap. "Whachoo doin' in King's?"
"Gentlemen," Miss B said, and smiled, but didn't slap him back. "How are we?"
"Hungry, that's why we here." Felix winked at her and rubbed his stomach. Miss B was young and pretty, and all the guys in school thought that they were grown enough to irt with her. No one cared that she was a teacher. But Miss B didn't care right back, and talked to Felix and all the other guys as if they were seven years old, except for one time when José patted her shoulder after class, and she turned bright red.
"Me too," she said, pointing to an open, white, styrofoam box with empanadillas, rice, and beans in it on the counter. "That's my dinner."
"Shit, Miss B, you eat Rican food?" Felix clapped, and José smacked him on the back of the head. Felix turned to him, "What. We not in school, I'm allowed to say ‘shit.'"
"Sorry, Miss." Graciela rolled her eyes. "My cousin's a idiot."
"It's fine," Miss B said, taking her plate. "And yes, Mr. Alvelo, I do like the food here. I normally stop by on my way home if I'm working late."
"You not worried you gon' get shot or something?" Felix said.
"Why would I get shot?"
"Mira, lots of people get shot up here, Miss. This North Philly. My boy José almost got shot to-night!"
"What?" Miss B wasn't smiling anymore.
"For reals, Miss," Felix continued. José had moved down to the other end of the counter to order our pizza. "You don't even know. You a lady, you shouldn't be in this neighborhood."
"I'm a lady," Graciela snapped, shifting the baby. "I'm here."
"You no lady," Felix said, trying to duck under Graciela's hand that was moving towards the back of his head. He didn't duck quickly enough. ere was a crack when her palm hit him, and Felix started to laugh. And then so did José and so did I and so did Graciela, and then finally, so did Miss B.
"Well. . . I'll be going then," Miss B said. "Gentlemen. . .Miss Alvelo. . . it was good to see you. I hope I see homework from you tomorrow?"
"Miss B. . . " Felix dragged his hand across his face.
"Right, right," she laughed, then shook her head.
And then she was gone, out the door into the cold. It was dark outside now and I couldn't really believe that we saw her here in the neighborhood at night, because we never saw the white teachers here. We sometimes saw Mr. Torres, the math teacher, because his grandma lived up on Westmoreland, or Mrs. Perez because she still lived in the same house she had her whole life. But never the white ones. They all always left right after school and most of them lived in New Jersey. Felix had asked them about it one time.
We took our slices, said goodbye to Graciela and the baby, and left King's, walking back up 5th. Felix was going on about something dumb that Victor Cardona did yesterday in Miss B's class, but I wasn't really paying attention. I had just burned the roof of my mouth on the hot pepperoni and all that I could think about about was how Johnny Peralta had pointed that gun in José's face. I looked over at my big brother, who was laughing at Felix, and there was a string of cheese from the pizza hanging out the side of Felix's mouth. Four guys were on the corner now, and we didn't know them. José motioned with his head for us to go to the other side, and put our heads down as we quickly crossed to the other side of 5th. We didn't look at them. Me and Felix always did what José said, especially about stuff like staying away from strange guys on a corner, because in this neighborhood, we at least recognized everyone. The wind was starting to blow really hard, and I shivered inside my coat, jamming my hands deep into the pockets. If Felix was cold without a coat on, he wasn't showing it. He used to have a big, white Sixers coat that his mom gave him for Christmas the year before last, but some of Victor Cardona's friends jumped him one day after class last year and took it. When José found out, he went after them and beat the shit out of Victor, but it was too late because Felix's coat was gone.
As we turned onto North Franklin, I could see someone in front of our house, and when we got closer, I realized it was Nadia. She was sitting on our stoop and looked like she'd been crying.
"He fucking crazy, José," she said, getting up when he went over to her, putting her arms around his neck and starting to cry. "He said he was gonna kill me if I went near you again."
José wrapped his arms around her, and over the top of her head, gave me and Felix a look that I knew from a whole life of living with my big brother meant that he wanted me to go inside the house right now and leave him alone with his girl. There had been a lot of them: Estefany Gutierrez, Jasmin Gonzalez, Maria Durand. And now Nadia Rivera. All of them had sat on our stoop with José at some point over the past few months. Sometimes I'd look down from out of my bedroom window and I'd see them kissing or sometimes he'd have his hand up their shirt. Sometimes they'd just be sitting and laughing and talking. Except that night, I didn't really want him to sit out with Nadia. Not after Johnny Peralta. And so I didn't go inside right away. I looked at Felix first. Felix knew José's looks too, and usually would go right back to his house three stoops down or come inside with me, and we'd play dice or dominoes while we waited for my grandma to nish dinner.
"José, man. Are you sure you don't want to go inside?" Felix said slowly. Neither of us wanted to admit we were actually taking Johnny Peralta seriously, but at the same time we didn't want to think about what would happen if Johnny Peralta was serious. "I mean, it's fuckin' cold."
"Mira, Felix, give us a minute, will you?" Nadia snapped, pulling her head out from where it was buried in José's chest. "Just ‘cause no girls will go near you don't mean that you gotta be all up on me an' José."
Felix didn't say anything, he just glared at Nadia and then held out a hand for me to slap. His ngers were freezing. He looked at José again, but José looked away and didn't say nothing.
"Fine, I'm out," Felix frowned, and for the first time that night, shivered, and then turned and walked back to his house. Realizing my brother was serious, I climbed the three steps and went inside, leaving him alone with Nadia Rivera. I didn't feel like talking to my grandma, who was in the kitchen cooking, and I just went straight to my room, kicking off my sneakers before falling down on the bed. It was hot inside, but I still had my coat on, and I lay on my back and stared up at the ceiling. I didn't want to look out the window that night. Part of me was mad at José, because when someone points a gun at you and says they'll shoot you if you go near their girl again, you don't go near their girl again. At least I wouldn't have. But I didn't have the rep José had. I wasn't tall and strong and the entire neighborhood didn't love me the way they loved him. I guessed that José was thinking he was better than Johnny Peralta, and this was his way of calling Johnny's bluff in front of the whole block. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore, and so I ipped over and raised my eyes just high enough off of the pillow to see out of the window. Down on the stoop, José and Nadia were kissing.
I used to have a dream when I was younger that I was playing on the basketball court at school and a dog started chasing me, trying to bite me, and in the dream, I couldn't move. I couldn't run. And when I saw Johnny Peralta out of the corner of my eye just then, the same thing happened. He was walking down North Franklin Street, with his hood pulled up over his head. His coat was open and I could see something shiny jammed into the waistband of his pants. He was heading right towards my house, towards the stoop where my big brother was kissing a girl, and I froze. José looked like he had no idea that Johnny Peralta was walking towards him. He didn't look like he heard his sneakers crunching on the leftover snow. Johnny Peralta was walking faster down North Franklin Street, past the Dávila's, past Crazy Frankie Consuelo's, and past Felix's house. I suddenly thought about my grandma downstairs cooking dinner. I thought about Graciela and her baby, three blocks over. I thought about Miss B sitting in a house somewhere in New Jersey, eating empanadillas and not having anything to grade, because no one ever turned in homework. I thought about how José used to get in trouble at school when we were little for getting in ghts with people who tried to beat up me and Felix. I tried to yell, because Johnny Peralta was now standing in front of my stoop, in front of my big brother, with a gun in his pants, wanting to shoot him for kissing Nadia Rivera. I tried to yell, but no noise came out. The air got caught in my throat and I couldn't breathe and I didn't know where my inhaler was. And then I saw Felix come running out of his house, in a t-shirt and shorts and bare feet. And I saw Johnny Peralta scream at José and I saw José break away from Nadia and Nadia screamed and Johnny Peralta reached for his waistband and I closed my eyes because my big brother was about to be shot and there was no way I could watch.
I sometimes wonder why that night made Miss B leave, why it was the final straw. Just because no one had really liked Johnny Peralta that much anyway, and besides, she had been okay through the other stuff, like when her tires got slashed and her purse got stolen and Victor Cardona stopped calling her Miss Culo and just started calling her ‘nena' instead. But after the shooting, she stopped showing up at school. She was late the day after it happened, and looked all rough and pale when she finally came in. And then the next day she didn't show up at all. And then that turned into two days, and then three days. Before we realized it, we hadn't seen Miss B in weeks. Eventually in January, we got a new English teacher. Mr. Pacheco was a little Mexican man who wasn't from the neighborhood, but was good at getting us to shut up and stay quiet, just like Mr. Torres. We didn't learn nothing in his class though. The only people we ever learned anything from were the white teachers who tried really hard to make us care about school, and who let José get away with doing no work because he was nice to them and didn't do things like catch cockroaches and put them on their desks like Victor Cardona did. But there wasn't much point in paying attention in their classes, because they never stayed.
In February, Graciela told me and José that she saw Miss B at Felix's trial, sitting in the back of the courtroom by herself, and that she didn't even look over when Graciela said hi to her. We didn't really believe the part about her being rude, because Miss B had always been so nice and anyway, Graciela was the biggest chismosa in the neighborhood and always made stories up about people. But other than that, other than the one time, no one ever saw Miss B ever again. Whenever me and José would go to King's at night, I'd try to hang around extra long, hoping she might come in, but she never did. And one time I wanted to look her up in the phone book, then I realized that I didn't even know her name.
Genevieve Moinuddin is an American writer who received her MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Her stories have previously appeared in the Human Genre Project and the University of Glasgow's Sushirexia Anthology. She currently lives in Bosnia and Herzegovina.