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John Zagurski AKA



“And this is the story you expect me to believe?” 


Chaz’s Dad, who has insisted I call him Chief Wilson, is staring over the desk at me.

I haven’t seen him blink once since we sat down. 


“But it’s the truth!” My voice comes out louder than I want it to, and I watch as his

eyes widen even further. 


“I mean. It’s the truth, Chief Wilson, sir. I know it was stupid. But it wasn’t my



He snorts at me. “Do you know that Laura Salvatori was unconscious for nearly

two hours? You should be thankful she’s doing better now, or I’d be talking about charging you with assault!”


“But I didn’t….” I feel the tears starting to come and I try to push them back, but

I’m failing. I put my head on the table and almost whisper. “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry.” 


Mom and Dad sit on either side of me, silent. Finally, Mom puts an arm over my



“Chief Wilson…sir. He’s told you everything that happened. Is there a reason we

can’t go home now?”


“The reason is that his story doesn’t line up with any of the four other boys, who all

say he’s been the one running this operation.” 


“With all due respect, sir…” It was Dad this time. “Don’t you think it would be

better to let someone else handle this case? Someone whose son isn’t involved?”


“As far as I know, my son is only involved because of your son!” Chaz’s Dad booms. 


Mom and Dad each let out a long sigh, almost in unison. I can tell they’re making

eye contact above my head on the table. This room is too small and the lights are too bright. I can practically taste the Lysol. I shouldn’t be here.  


“Okay. I guess we’ll have to come back with a lawyer.” Dad stands and pulls me up

by the arm. 


“In the meantime, don’t let your son near my boy,” says Chaz’s Dad as we start

towards the door of his office.


“Same to you,” Mom says with a fiercely polite smile, closing the door behind us.

We walk through the commotion of the police station, surrounded by whispers and snippets of conversation I can’t make sense of. I keep my head down as Mom and Dad guide me to the parking lot. 




It’s not as easy to overhear them as it was in the old house. On Albert Street, my

bedroom was above the kitchen, so as long as Mom and Dad were sitting at the table, I could always hear them through the vents. Now the kitchen is down a long hallway and around the corner. I can barely make out what they’re saying. 


“I’ll lose my job…” says Mom. I can hear that she’s crying too.


“We’ll survive Linds…you know…the union…”


“For all we know, the Chief knows someone in the Union!” Her voice rises, then

falls. I imagine Dad pushing down the air with flat palms. They probably know I’m listening. 


“...he made a mistake…trying to make friends…”


“...wasn’t supposed to…not out here…”


“ know…can’t afford a…”


“His WIFE is a lawyer!” 


“What was I supposed…”


“Did you hear what they’ve all been calling him…our son?”






It’s true, nobody here calls me by my real name. It’s John, by the way. 


We moved here six months ago, and I don’t know what they told you, but I really

didn’t introduce myself that way. All I said was “Hey…I’m John. I’m new here.” Honestly, I was still trying to wrap my head around everything. The new school, new faces, figuring out the cliques and outcasts and bullies. It was a lot to take in. If you ask me, this whole place is fucking weird. 




Nobody really spoke to me for the first three weeks, which I didn’t mind too much.

I just stayed quiet, sat in the third or fourth row of every class, and stared down at my black Air Forces, pressing my back into the cold, blue metal chairs. One thing I learned back home is that sometimes it’s better to be a background character…just fade into the surroundings, you know? 


At lunch, I’d go to the Main Office where my Mom worked. I’d eat my sandwich

and chips at her desk while she answered the phone or made copies, smiling at everyone who walked past. At some point, she’d ask how my day was going, and I’d say “fine.” She didn’t have time for a longer conversation anyway. I could tell she was wishing I’d eat lunch with the other kids, but she felt guilty, so she never said anything. 


I guess it got to feel pathetic after a while though, eating by myself at her desk,

getting in the way of her work. So after the first few weeks, I asked my Dad for money to buy the school lunch and went to sit at the end of one of the long cafeteria tables, trying to find a spot that wasn’t too close or too far from anyone. That’s when the boys sat down next to me.


“Hey, new kid…what’s your name?”


I looked around, like maybe he was talking to someone else. When I realized it was

me, I said “Hey…I’m John. I’m new here.”


“Duh…I know you’re new here. I just called you new kid.” Laughter spilled from

around the table. I didn’t know these kids- hadn’t seen them around and wasn’t sure how to place them. I remember I made a fist under the table. I’d never been in anything close to a real fight, but they didn’t need to know that.  


“So, where are you from anyway?” 




“Ohhhh shit. For real?” 


Suddenly, the boys’ eyes were wide open. You would have thought I’d said “Mount

Olympus” or “Mars,” or something. 


“Yeah. Albert Street - you know, right by St. Anne’s?” 


They nodded, but I could tell by their looks they had no idea what I was talking

about, except maybe the one talking to me.


“That’s near where my Dad grew up…I think.” Another of the boys nearly cut him

off before he finished speaking. 


“Kensington is, like, crazy, right?!”


For a few moments, I froze. What do you say to something like that? Then I felt

their eyes on me and managed to mumble out “Yeah…I mean…parts of it…I….” 


Finally, I said the easiest thing that came to mind. “Yeah…it’s crazy,” 


“Word,” said the one sitting to my left.


“For real. That’s where Freeway is from too, right?” said another. 


“Damnnn…that’s wild bro,” said the first one. “You want to sit with us?” 




Chris, Justin, Adam, and Chaz. 


The next day, I sat with them again at lunch. And the next day. And the next. They

mostly talked about sports and girls, which I was pretty used to. Allen Iverson was definitely just as popular here as he was back home. Same for Donovan McNabb. Then, after about a week, they invited me to hang out after school at Chaz’s house. That’s when I really started to notice how weird things could be.  


“I gotta go get changed.” 


Chaz stood up from one of the leather couches, where we were halfway through

watching Scarface. 


“Word,” said Chris. I was already beginning to wonder if he ever started a sentence

any other way. 


“Chaz’s Dad won’t let him wear clothes like ours,” Justin explained. I guess I was

looking confused. “He says he didn’t make it out of the neighborhood to see his son dress like he was still stuck there…or some shit like that. So he changes every day in the morning at school and then again when he gets home.” 


“How does he afford that stuff though?” I knew the stuff these kids wore didn’t

come cheap. They had Sean John, Polo, Mitchell and Ness throwback jerseys, Jordans. 


“He buys everything with his Christmas and Birthday money.” Justin shrugged. 


“God damn.” I let the phrase slip out. I had to save all my money from shoveling

snow last Winter to buy my Air Forces, and I probably wouldn’t get a new pair until next year, even if Dad is making that “good union money” now. “What about you?”


Justin shrugged again. “My parents buy me this stuff, mostly.”


Like I said... 


“Yoooo, Kensington... “ Adam had quickly gotten in the habit of always addressing

me the same way. “So, back in your hood…were you like…you the streets?”


Here’s the thing. Until we moved here, I spent most of my time watching Anime or

playing basketball with my friends Jorden and Aaron. Either that, or we’d walk around, eat water ice, and try to talk to girls. Don’t get me wrong, Dad moved us out of there for a reason when he finally made it into the Carpenter’s Union. Kensington is rough. But it’s not like every kid that grows up there is hustling by the age of 16.


Here’s the other thing, though. I could tell that wasn’t what they wanted to hear. 


“You know…I did what I had to do.”


“Word. That’s for real.” 


“Gotta make that money somehow.”


“Glad you made it out. So, like, you know…what was it like?”


I definitely wasn’t ready for all these questions. I thought about the kids I used to

see on the corners on the way to school. Or outside the Dunkin’ Donuts Dad stopped at sometimes on his way to work. What would they say to that? I’d never spoken to any of them, even the ones I knew from elementary or middle school. That was the point. You just put your head down and kept moving. Background characters weren’t anybody’s friend or anybody’s enemy, and that’s why we were safe. 


“You just put your head down and keep moving.” It was the best I could come up



“Word…Riggghhttt…Mmmhmmm.” The responses came all at once. 


“So it’s like ‘’get down or lay down,’ huh? Like in State Property?”  It was Adam

again. I swear he owned every hip-hop album, knew the words to every song, and watched every movie ten times. I’d never even seen State Property. 


“Exactly. It’s get down or lay down. All day, every day.” 


I thought about the kids at the Dunkin Donuts again. Did they really say shit like

that? Just thinking about it made me feel dizzy, and I tried to change the channel in my head. Then I thought about Jorden and Aaron and started to feel even worse. They’d either be laughing in my face right now or looking at me sideways. 


“Now that you’re here, we got your back though.” Justin tapped his chest twice and

pointed at me. The whole thing looked a little awkward, but I had to admit, it did feel good to hear. After all, Jordan and Aaron were miles away now, and however weird these kids might be, they were the closest thing I had to friends.




For a few months after that, it almost started to feel normal. We’d hang out in

Chaz’s basement, watch movies, get snacks at Wawa, or go to the park and play basketball. Another thing I had to admit, these kids could play a little bit. I guess it comes easier when you’ve got driveways the size of a half-court to practice in, but still. Playing ball felt good. The double rims and dead backboards were like the chair-desks at school. Solid, steady, familiar. After a while, the boys started to feel that way too. 


Even though they still threw questions at me sometimes, I’d gotten used to making

up answers on the spot, since it didn’t seem to really matter what I said, anyway. 


“Kensington…I bet you there were some fine-ass ladies in your hood, right?”


“You already know!” I’d fake a chuckle and let them laugh and nod at me. 


“Kensington….what were the parties like in Philly bro?”


“Oh, the parties?! They were always crazy. Nothing like out here bro…Philly goes



Jordan and Aaron and I never got invited to parties, not that our parents would

have let us go if we had. Then again, it seemed like these boys never got invited to parties either. Maybe that’s another part of what made it start to feel a bit like home. 


At least, until Chaz had his idea. 




The day it started, I think we watched Belly. Adam was on a big DMX kick that

week, and Chaz pretty much loved any movie he thought his parents would hate. I was just about to walk home when he started talking, whispering really, which was weird since we were the only ones in the house. 


“Fellas…we should really start making some moves around here.” Chaz looked over

his shoulder, like someone might be watching, then whispered again. “Check this out.”


That’s when he brought us all upstairs to his parents’ bathroom, which was so big it

didn’t feel crowded, even with 5 of us inside. He opened a drawer under the sink, and turned around holding two bottles of pills. 


“Percocet,” he said over the bathroom fan, holding up each hand and shaking the

bottles. “Xanax too. My parents got them prescribed last year, but they don’t ever take them anymore. Y’all know what I’m saying?”


“Hell yeah…”




“Ohhhh shit! Word..”


“Kensington. You down, homie?”


I was frozen again, like it was the first time I met them all over.


“What about…” I glanced towards the door and Chaz caught my drift.


“My parents? Please. They’re barely even here. And when they are, my Mom is on

her Blackberry and my Dad keeps his radio on. They don’t even notice that I smoke weed downstairs every night after they go to bed, or how I’ve got a whole other wardrobe stashed in my closet. You think they’re going to notice a few missing pills?” 


I was feeling dizzy again. I walked towards the toilet, swallowing and trying to take

deep breaths. After a few seconds, it passed, and I noticed there was carpet on top of the toilet seat. And then I remembered, this place is fucking weird. 




“Okay, so here’s what I’m thinking…” 


We were back in the basement, Chaz still whispering for whatever reason. “We start

small…I know a few kids on the football team who’ll buy a few of the Xanax, for sure.”


I don’t know why, but all of us started nodding. Like it was contagious. 


“We can do it on the low at lunch tomorrow. You know the teachers are never

paying attention in there anyway. Then…they tell their friends, and they tell their friends, and just like that, we’re making real money! I’ve got another bottle of the Xanax upstairs, plus all the Adderall I got last year when I was failing Chemistry.”


“How much do we sell them for?” asked Justin.


“Kensington - how much do Xannies and Percs go for these days?”  


“How the fuck should I…I mean…how would anyone know? We might as well just

say $20 per pill. It’s too high, but they can afford it.” 


I was talking out my ass, but as far as they were concerned, I was the expert. Like



The nodding returned, facing me this time. I looked down at my shoes, tapping on

the carpet. The dizzy feeling came back, even stronger this time.


“Shit…I gotta go…I’ll see you all tomorrow.” I was running up the stairs as Chaz

called out.


“Be ready, dawg…we’re gonna need you…”




Chaz made the first few sales, because he knew the kids. But after that, he started

sending the rest of us out from the lunch table every day. I guess he liked feeling like the boss. Like his Dad, kind of. 


That’s when the nickname really started to catch on too. Pretty soon, everyone in

the school was calling me Kensington. At first, I just let other people introduce me that way, but eventually, I started introducing myself with it too. I still don’t really know why, except that it felt good for people to know who I was for a change. There was always a certain look they’d give me, when I showed up at a lunch table…something like a mix of fear and admiration. I liked getting that look. Plus, I figured we’d run out of everything after a couple weeks anyway, then it would all blow over and I could go back to being John, if I wanted. I was right about that, too. The first part.


We ran out of the Xanax first, then the Percocet and the Adderall. For a couple

weeks, I really thought the whole thing was over and done with, which was more than fine with me. Then Chaz showed up one Monday with brand new Jordans, ECKO jeans, and a big-ass smile on his face. He’d been saving up for new clothes with the money we were making, which I was still stashing in a shoe box in my closet. But he’d been in a bad mood since our pills ran out. 


“FELLLASS…don’t even worry…we’re back up in this bitch!” 


We were sitting around the lunch table, like always, Chaz’s backpack between us on

the floor. 


“Don’t look now…” he was whispering again, ”but my cousin came to visit us this

weekend, and he brought me two big-ass bags of weed gummies. We’re gonna make some serious dough. I took one yesterday when Mom and Dad were at this gala thing for her work. I got so high I had to hide in my room all night when they got back.”


“Damn, homie. Let’s get crunk!” said Adam, the newest Ying Yang Twins song

spilling from his headphones.


“Word…I’m so down!” Chris jumped in. 


“Me too.” 


Because, at that point, what else could I say?


“Okay…I told Laura from Calculus I’d give her and her friends the first batch.”

Chaz looked a few tables over, caught Laura’s eye and gave her a smile and a head nod. Her table burst into giggles and I could tell he was feeling himself. “Be right back.”


He tried walking to their table like 50 Cent walks in videos, half dragging one leg

while holding his pants up with one hand. I wanted to tell him he should stop attracting attention, but the other boys didn’t seem to notice or care. We were all too busy trying to act like this was normal. 




Of course, it all changed later that day, when the school went into Shelter-in-Place,

and we heard the ambulance, while everyone sat in their 6th period classrooms and quietly tried to guess what was going on. Then, when I finally got to my next class, the loudspeaker came on again. 


“Adam Morgan, Charles Wilson, Chris Davis, Justin Ardito, and John Zagurski,

please report to the Main Office immediately.”


I could hear the squeaking of the chairs and the shuffling bodies as the rest of the

room went silent, everyone turning to stare at me. I stood and walked to the door without looking up. 


When I got there, Mom was already inside Principal Oden’s room, facing away

from me. I could see the outline of Chaz’s Dad’s face beside her. They had us sit in a row of chairs against the wall. I was sitting closest to the door and trying to make out what they were saying inside. I could hear the different voices, but not the words. They were keeping very quiet, for now. After fifteen minutes, Mom finally came out.  


“Chaz, you can go in first,” was all she said. I just kept staring at the floor. I heard

the door open and shut, then Chaz’s voice surging through the tempered glass.


“It was all that kid Kensington’s idea…I swear!”


His voice was loud enough that all of us looked up. I noticed Mom was back at her

desk, crying into her hands. Then I saw it. The three other boys had all started nodding.


An hour and a half later, Dad met us at the police station.  






Chaz’s Dad is on the local news. It’s a press conference, right in front of the High

School. I can see Principal Oden in the background, and Laura, and Chaz’s Mom. And there in the corner of the screen, is Chaz, in a navy blue suit and striped tie. I barely recognize him at first.


“As has been reported, this week we were made aware of a series of drug sales that

took place here at Montgomery High. I want to assure all of the parents and members of our community that everyone responsible for these acts has been apprehended and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible. There is no place for drug dealers in this town, and I will personally do everything in my power to make sure it stays that way.”


A few cameras flash as he takes a breath. You can see he’s sweating a little in his

uniform. He puffs his chest out and speaks loud and slow, like he did at the police station. Like he wants you to know he’s the one in control.


“Furthermore, I would like to address the rumor that my son Charles was also

involved in this operation. Sadly, this is partly true. I want to state clearly that, to the extent he was engaged in illegal activities, there will be consequences. Both at home and through the legal process. However, I also want to be clear that he did so under the influence of another student, whose family recently arrived here from Philadelphia. Kensington to be specific. The same neighborhood where, as some of you may know, I was born and…”


Mom turns off the TV. In my head, I see Chaz and his Mom coming to join his Dad

at the podium, embracing for the cameras. Chaz crying into his Dad’s shoulder. 


I turn and walk to my room. 




Later that night, I’m listening through the walls again. It’s earlier this time, not long

after dinner. I’m supposed to be working on the assignments they’ve sent home with Mom for me to keep up with the class during my suspension. For now, I’m suspended “indefinitely,” which could be forever as far as I know. I did most of today’s assignments earlier anyway. 


It’s only Dad’s voice this time, which throws me off at first, but then I get it. He’s

on the phone. And he’s in the bedroom, so I can hear him pretty much word-for-word. 


“Hi Chief Wilson. It’s Frank. Frank Zagurski.”

“I know you can’t talk about the case while it’s ongoing…”

“Well, I called because I heard your news conference today. And I hadn’t realized

that we actually grew up not too far from each other.” 

“I was just hoping we could talk. You know, man to man.”

“Listen…you know what it’s like. Moving out here. Trying to give your family a

chance at something…different.” 


The way he’s talking is off, but I can’t figure it out exactly. He just doesn’t sound

quite like…Dad. 


“Well that’s what I’m saying. I know how hard you worked to get here…I mean,

shit…it took me 3 tries to pass the test for the Carpenter’s Union, and another 5 years to find a sponsor before they’d let me in. But I…”

“I’m not asking you for anything. I just thought maybe you’d understand where

we’re coming from here. How important it is for John to stay in school. To stay out of trouble.”

“I didn’t say a word about your son. What I’m saying is…”



I don’t hear him hang up. But a few seconds later, the door opens and closes as he

walks into the hallway. It’s not quite a slam, but it’s not soft either. 




Here’s another thing I overhear one night. Chaz has an uncle in prison, on his Dad’s



I don’t know why Dad acts so surprised by it. Plenty of people where I grew up

know someone doing time at Graterford. Aaron’s brother Richie was there for a few years when we were younger. He came home with some stories that were enough to convince all of us it was a place we never wanted to be. Then again, when I left, Richie was thinking about getting back in the game. At least that’s what Aaron said, back then. I haven’t talked to him or Jorden in months. 




Dad and I are watching an old Western in the living room when the lawyer calls. He

puts her on speaker and the words start pouring into the air, like one of those poison gasses they tell us about in science class. 


“Possession with Intent to Distribute.”


The phrase makes my stomach heave. For a minute, I can’t tell if I’m crying or

sweating. Mom’s talking, asking questions, but I’m barely hearing them. I’m thinking about Richie, and the stories, and about Aaron and his Mom whenever they’d come back from visiting him. I could always tell when they’d gone. It was something about how Aaron acted afterwards - not just sad, or tired from the long drive. It was something worse than that. You could feel it just by looking at him.  


“Do you have any questions for me, John?” says the voice on the phone, catching

me off guard. 


“Uhhhh no. No ma’am,” is all I can manage to get out. 


“Thank you so much, Ms. Miller,” Mom says before they hang up. I realize I’ve

been sweating, not crying, which is good news I guess. Nobody says anything for a while. The whole house, the whole block, is quiet. It’s always so quiet here. I think about the Western, playing on mute in the living room. 


“Well, it sounds like we’ve got a decent case, at least,” says Dad eventually.


Mom nods, but doesn’t say anything. She’s been quiet lately too. Sometimes it’s like

she’s just too mad to even speak to me. Then other times, she comes in my room and just hugs me, squeezing tight for a long time, without saying a word. 






By the time they let me back in school for Senior year, our house had a new garden

and fresh paint in almost every room. Mom and Dad said it’s something I should be proud of, but only after they said I was going to pay off my lawyer fees one way or another. The good news is that Ms. Miller got me off with 2 years of probation and counseling, with no record once I turn 18. The bad news is that both Mom and Dad had to practically max out their credit cards to pay for it, so I’ll be working around the house for free for at least the next year, plus trying to find another job. 


When I showed them the money I made from the pills, Dad just shook his head and

said “You’re gonna need a hell of a lot more than that.” Then he took the shoebox and walked away. It was about $150. Less than an hour of the time we paid the lawyer for. Less than what Chaz probably gets for his birthday most years. That’s the thing, I realized. Back home, if someone started hustling, it was because they wanted things they couldn't get any other way. Sure, it could be new shoes, or clothes, or an X-Box, but it was also food or money to pay their phone bill. I’m not saying that makes it better, just that it’s different. These kids have all of that and more, and it still wasn’t enough. That’s what I think is really so weird about this place. Out here, it was never even about the money. 




The day before school started, Mom and Dad sat me down at the kitchen table and

made me promise them a bunch of things. I promised to stay away from all the boys, especially Chaz. I promised not to do anything that would even make people think I was acting out. “Keep your head down,” as Dad said. I promised to check in with Mom every day during lunch to let her know how things were going. Lastly, I promised I would make everyone call me John. “And hold your head high when you say it,” Dad said. When they finally let me stand up and go to my room, I still didn’t know if my head was supposed to be up or down. 


The next day, I put on the all-black Air Forces. They were too tight now, and dirty

from all the painting this summer, but Dad said he’s not paying for new ones until I finish paying for the lawyer. Since Mom gets there 30 minutes before school starts, I sat at her desk while she made coffee and greeted her coworkers coming back from summer break. When the first bell rang, I picked up my backpack and walked towards my first block Anatomy class. 


I didn’t know what to expect stepping out into the hallway, since I had no idea what

anyone had said or heard about what happened, and I didn’t know what I would say if anyone brought it up. Luckily, the school was extra busy and noisy on the first day, so it was easy to get lost in the crowd for a little bit. Until I got to the stairwell and saw Chaz coming down as I was going up. 


It took forever for us to pass each other - like it was happening in slow motion - and

it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I’d been holding my breath. Neither of us said anything. I wondered if he got the same talk from his parents the night before that I did. He was wearing a pair of white and black Adidas this time, and his jeans were definitely a lot less baggy. But I could tell the stuff was new, and he was topping it off with a maroon Phillies hat, size sticker still sitting on the flat brim. Maybe he snuck it out of the house in his backpack, or maybe his Dad made an exception for the Phillies. Either way, it wasn’t my business anymore, not that it ever really was.

Francis Strickler is a “teacher who writes,” originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. His work explores themes of masculinity, identity, and privilege, seeking to challenge the spoken and unspoken norms and values of his upbringing. He currently lives in Rhode Island where he works as a Special Education and Writing teacher. 

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