Mr. Marcus remembered Justin as a bright kid. A little on the mischievous side, but smart nonetheless. A bit of a dreamer, too. Always reading comics or talking about the latest video game or movie. Justin, unlike the real troublemakers, always sat near the front of the class. Every now and again Justin would play some silly prank, talk out loud, crack a tasteless joke, but he was never rude or disrespectful.
So what had happened since Justin left junior high? What turned Justin from the potentially brilliant scamp, to the convicted murderer awaiting sentence? What could society have done to make things better? Was it television’s fault? Was it those crazy rap songs?
What hurt Mr. Marcus most of all was the potential Justin had. Though Justin did not know it, he had some serious poetical skills. Mr. Marcus had read some of his poems that he wrote for another teacher. They were smooth and easy on the tongue and evoked vivid imagery and feelings. Justin was great with words, but not so good with math and science. During the year Justin was in Mr. Marcus’ homeroom, Justin barely passed his math and science classes. As a matter of fact, Mr. Marcus had to speak to his math teacher to let him slide and give him a passing grade just so the boy would not have to do summer school.
But that was okay. Nobody’s good at everything. Mr. Marcus told Justin the same thing the next year when they were discussing which high school he should go to. Justin really wanted to go to Brooklyn Tech which was known for having an excellent math and science and engineering program. Mr. Marcus told Justin to be realistic and practical. After all, students had to take a test to get into Brooklyn Tech, and then the curriculum was very difficult. And Justin just was not all that good at math and science. He told Justin that he should focus on his poetical skills, and refine those talents. Who knows, Mr. Marcus had joked, maybe he could even become a rap artist. Mr. Marcus thought that was a valid strategy; Justin should do anything to get out of the ghetto.
The court appointed defense attorney called Justin’s mother to the stand. She was a broken, sad, hollow woman. Beaten by life and the men in her life. She had three sons; one dead, one in prison and Justin. Her scrawny arms still bore the marks of needles from a lifetime of addiction. Mr. Marcus felt she was partially to blame. She should have been a better mother. Instead of getting high and selling herself for poison, she should have been trying to take care of her sons. Here she was contributing to the prison population when she could have birthed three doctors or three lawyers or three executives. Or maybe just three good men. She looked sad, but she got no sympathy from Mr. Marcus.
Her testimony was important. She had to convince the jury her son was not all bad. She gave her name and relation to Justin. The defense lawyer got her started by asking a few softball questions. And then, like the overworked pro he was, he got her to open up.
“I know I could a’ done better. But I was messed up back then. I was getting’ high ‘most ev’ry day. My ‘dictions kept me from gettin’ any kinda good job. Ev’ry time I got somethin’ good, I’d mess it up by stealin’. Whenever I got me a little bit o’ money, I’d go blow it on dope. That’s just the way it was back then. I ain’t like dat no more, but like dey say, the damage was done.”
“Do you think your addiction affected Justin negatively?”
“Of course it did. I used to shoot up right in front a’ him and his brothas. I’d get messed up and spend the whole night passed out on the bathroom flo’. I’d wake up the next mo’nin’ and Jesse, dat’s my eldest, he’d be gone, and Justin and Jerry’d be in de kitchen makin’ dey own breakfast.”
“What about your friends? Couldn’t they have helped with your boys?”
She gave the lawyer a crazy look, though they had discussed these questions numerous times before. “My friends? My friends? I ain’t have no friends back then. Anybody who did care ‘bout me left me alone ‘fore I could pull them down too. The only people I hung out with were other dopeheads and dealers and such. I was straight gutter back then. I even pros’ituted mahself for dope. That’s all I could do after I couldn’t find work. I had jons comin’ into mah house, with mah boys sleepin’ in the other room. We’d do our thing, sometimes they pay in cash sometimes in drugs. Then I’d be out for the night. I hope none of them ever did anything to mah boys but I never heard of it.”
“Where was Justin’s father in all of this?”
“He died ‘bout ten years ago. He was sellin’ for some big dealer and tried to sell a little bit on the side. One day a couple of dudes come by our house, kick in the do’ and come in with guns and stuff. They daddy had a gun too, but he was caught by surprise; din’t even had time to get his pistol. Dey made all of us sit in the middle of the living room and pointed guns at our heads. Jake, dats they father, was beggin’ them not to hurt his kids. They was cursing at Jake and callin’ him a cheatin’ nigga and sayin’ they gotta make an example for the other dealers not to be dealin’ on the side. Jake was just beggin’ them to leave his family alone, and Justin was only a little kid back then but he wasn’t cryin’ he was just quiet and watchin’ the men and they guns. I think he thought it was just a TV show or somethin’. They made me open my mouth and stuck the gun in so hard it knocked couple a’ mah teeth out, and I was scared and cryin’ and Jake was scared and cryin’, and Justin was just watchin’ it all. He wasn’t scared, least he didn’t look it, and he definitely wasn’t cryin’. Then Jesse tried to fight them men, but he was only fo’teen. They knocked him down and started kickin’ him in the stomach till he spat blood. He had to have surgery afterwards. When Jake saw that he jumped up and tried to fight the man, but the one holding the gun in my mouth took it out and shot him in the back right there in front of all his kids. Then the one that was kicking Jerry grabbed me and dragged me back to the room…and I tried to fight him, but I was too weak and too tired and scared…so what could I do?”
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