Crime and Punishment
TetanusThe following excerpt is taken from the short story "Tetanus" which is part of a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates callesd "Give me your Heart". Hear a social-worker named Zwilich interviews an eleven-year-old boy called César about his latest crimes.
"Well, César. So yo've been busy."
Zwilich whistled through his teeth looking through the boy’s file. He’d been
taken into police custody five times, twice within the past three months.
Vandalism, petty thefts, disturbances at home and at school, glue sniffing. A
previous caseworker had noted that one of the vandalism episodes included
"desecration of a cemetery" and another the torture of a stray dog. It was
noted that an older neighborhood boy had tied a rope around César’s neck
and had yanked him around, causing him to faint, when he’d been nine;
another time César had fashioned a noose and stuck his own head into it;
yet another time, more recently, he’d forced a noose over his six-year-old
brother’s head. He’d been picked up with two older boys for stealing from a 7-Eleven store, and not long afterward he'd been arrested for vandalism in the rear lot of the 7-Eleven store. He'd been several times suspended from
school. Following these incidents he’d been assessed by Family Services
psychologists and counselors and given sentences of “supervised probation”
with required therapy from Family Court judges who hadn’t wanted to
incarcerate so young a child. But Zwilich thought the next judge wasn’t
going to look kindly on all this.
The prosecutor for the case had told Zwilich that he intended to ask the
judge to incarcerate the boy in a juvenile detention for thirty days minimum.
César Diaz required psychiatric observation as well as treatment for the glue
sniffing, and it was "high time" for the boy to learn that the law is serious. Sour, prim as a TV scold, Zwilich’s colleague said, How are kids going to
respect the law if there aren’t consequences for their behavior?
Zwilich sneered: Who respects the law? Whose behavior has consequences?
He’d said, “Hell, this is a small child who’s been arrested. Look at him, he’s
Now in the counseling room, Zwilich wasn’t so sure. Fury quivered in
César’s tightly coiled little body; halfway you expected him to spring up at
you, like a snake baring its fangs.
“…want to hurt your mother, César? Your little brother? You love them,
don’t you? Tell me.”
“Didn’t hurt nobody. Shit what Mama says.”
“I think you love them. Sure you do. Why’d you want to scare them, César?
César shrugged, sniggered. You tell me. […]
The boy was mimicking older boys he admired, neighborhood punks, dope
dealers, the slatted rat-eyes, jeering laugh, junior macho swagger. In a boy
so young the effect was as comical as a cartoon that, upon closer inspection, is
Zwilich knew these kids. Some were "juives", others were adolscents, "youths". Their souls' deepest utterances were rap lyrics.
He pitied them. He was sympethatic with them. He detested them. He feared
them. He was grateful for them: they were his "work".
You would wish to think that César Diaz, so young, could be saved from them. Removed from the neighborhood, which was poisoning his soul, and
placed – where? In a juvenile facility? But the youth facilities were
overcrowded, understaffed. Zwilich admired some of the administrators of
these facilities, for he knew of their idealism – their initial idealism, at least
– but these places were in effect urban slum streets with walls around them.
[…] The boy’s laughter was like a sharp shattering glass and getting on his
nerves. If the boy was made to spend a single night in the juvenile facility,
he’d be punished for that shriek of a laugh. He’d be punished for his runny nose, and
for his smell, and for being a runt, a loser.
Césaré was demanding to know where's Mama? was Mama here yet? and Zwilich said his Mama wasn't here, and César said, his voice rising, Where's Mama? I want to take me home, and he wasn't laughing now, tears of indignation shone in his eyes, and Zwilich said, "César, your Mama told us to
to take you and keep you as long as we want to. Your mama said, 'I don't want César in the house anymore, I'm done with César, you keep him.'"
Zwilich was a perfect mimic of Mama's furious voice. Fixing his somber counselor's eyes on César' face. […] César stared at Zwilich now in stunned silence, his mouth quivering. César couldn't be more respectful than if Zwilich
had slapped him on both cheeks, hard. You didn't tell an eleven-year-old that his mother didn't want him, but the impulse had come to him, not for the first time in circumstances like this, but for the first time with a child so young, an impulse as strong as sex, overpowering, irresistible, a wishto create somethign - even misery, even self-disgust - out of nothing. […] Zwilich relented. "César,
hey." Stood and approached the stricken boy. César's eyes shone with tears, which gave him the look of a fierce little dog. When Zwilich touched him to comfort him, tohe boy cringed. "César, your mama didn't mean it. She called us - a while ago and left a message for me.
'I love my -'"
So swiftly it happened then, Zwilich would live and relive the assault and never quite comprehend how César grabbed his right hand and bit his forefinger before zwilich could shove him away.
12 7-Elevn - convenience store, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week
23 TV scold - someone who persistently voices criticism on TV
42 "juives" - abbreviation for juvenile delinquets
Aus: Joyce Carol Oates, "Tetanus" (excerpt),
in: Give me your Heart, London 2011.