“The Circle”

Fiction by Al Burrelli

   The pain of looking at him strapped down on the hospital bed was almost too much to bear. Tubes and wires running from his nose, mouth, and arms connected him to various bottles, electronic devices, and, it seemed, even to the wall itself. One of the many electric devices near the head of the bed was a heart monitor, its round TV screen showing a bright green line that moved horizontally and spiked upward with an electronic beep each time there was a beat of the patient’s heart. A plastic mask had been placed over his nose and mouth and his slow breathing rhythmically inflated and deflated a small rubber bag whose connecting tube was just one more of the many other tubes that were entering and leaving the young man’s comatose body.
    His face was swollen, bruised, and stitched from a number of knife cuts. One arm had been broken and now lay useless in a cast at the boy’s side. The medical report at the foot of the bed told of severe body and head traumas, all caused by a blunt instrument.
    A baseball bat? A two-by-four? Did it matter? The report also listed a number of knife wounds to the stomach and chest, with a great loss of blood and a record of many transfusions. The young man in the bed had been in a coma for two weeks. The only sound in the room was the beeping of the heart monitor. This was the 14th straight night that the visitor had sat in vigil at his friend’s bedside.
    The two of them had been inseparable ever since that day in the school playground when, as teenagers, Anthony first saw Eugene: a small, lanky black kid surrounded by a group of boys, all of them white. The boys were pushing the black kid around inside the human circle that they had formed. Along with the physical abuse was an avalanche of ugly racial slurs.
    The scene was not new to the school, but the black boy was. Generally, Anthony tried to stay out of situations like this, but there was something about the youngster that caught his attention. As the boys shoved the black kid around, the boy showed no signs of fear or panic. He simply kept moving in the circle, much like a boxer, keeping his body and feet in constant motion. His hands were at his sides, suggesting he was not looking for a fight, but his fists were closed, ready to swing out at any boy who might try to hit him.
    What caught Anthony’s attention was the boy’s facial expression. The eyes were clear, focused, and darting everywhere. His face was totally calm. He made a slow turn inside the circle, daring, with his eyes, each white boy to start something. Anthony saw that and admired the courage.
    Then it happened. One of the white boys took a swing. Anthony smiled at what followed. The black boy saw the move from the corner of his eye, turned, crouched, and let the swing go over his shoulder. He then straightened up, and unleashed a blinding left-right punch combination that sent the white kid reeling backward to the pavement.
    The other boys stood stunned and motionless. Anthony knew that in just a few seconds, they would regain their hate-driven anger and would be all over the black kid again. Anthony walked over to the circle. The white boys moved back a little, and Anthony pushed his way through. “Nice action with those fists, kid. Best one-two punch I’ve ever seen.”
    Anthony had his own playground “rep” involving fistfighting, and all the white boys knew it. They automatically stopped what they were doing. Anthony continued, “Why don’t all you idiots just pack up and go home?” The boys backed away farther and without wasting another second, ran off. They didn’t want to mess with Anthony.
    The black boy stood up from his boxer’s semi-crouch, warily looked around him, and finally fixed his gaze on Anthony.  Anthony walked up to him. He extended his right hand and said, “Hi. My name is Anthony.” The black boy extended his own hand and said, “My name is Eugene. Thanks.” Each may have had some hesitation about the difficulties of black-white friendships, but they sensed something special had just occurred. And, so, they shook hands with the firmest of grips, and their friendship was born.  
     What followed was years of shared experiences held together by this bond between them. They were so much alike: both street-savvy, both book-smart, both athletic, and both competitive. They played on the same school teams. They took the same school courses. They took turns winning athletic medals and competed for the same academic honors. But there were times when their friendship exacted a price. They lived in an inner-city neighborhood, and the verbal abuse they had to endure was painful. No racial insult from their peers was spared, from the innocuous “Odd Couple” and “Oreo Boys” to the most evil variations of the N word. The two boys innocently chalked all this behavior up to simple envy.
    They had not yet been fully exposed to such racist ideas like blacks contaminating the nation’s gene pool, or black men seducing and sexually despoiling white women, or that blacks, supposedly being inferior, deserved only the most menial of jobs.
     But there was another, more dangerous situation that threatened their friendship. Anthony’s parents and his two older brothers were never able to cleanse themselves of the early innoculation of racial prejudice that they had received while living in the slum tenements of the city.
    Anthony and his younger sister, Angela, having been born later in a slightly better-off area, had not been given a full dose of racial poison. Regardless, Eugene was never allowed to set foot in Anthony’s house. In addition, Anthony, because of his friendship with a black person, was totally ostracized by his older brothers.
     Although this racial mixing between the children had shattered the unity of both families, Anthony, Angela, and Eugene did manage to spend many happy hours together. But the lives of all these individuals would be shattered by the most threatening racial event that the families could possibly imagine: Eugene and Angela became lovers.
    Anthony’s family exploded with rage and hatred at this disclosure. “We won’t have it.”
    “But, Mom, she’s 18!”
    “Shut up, Anthony. In a way this is all your fault!”
    “But they love each other!”
    “I never want to hear that again. Just the thought of my Angela in bed with that black boy is a horror, an obscenity.”
    Anthony’s two older brothers came up to him. “Listen kid. What’s happening should not be stronger than blood. We want you to put a stop to it. You talk to your friend. Tell him how the family feels. Make him back off. Or, brother or no brother, we will beat you and your friend to within an inch of your lives. And I’m telling you, Anthony, if I ever see you and your friend together again, I will be looking at two black boys. Do you fully understand that? For your sake, Anthony, I hope you do. Now, tell your friend we want to talk to him tomorrow night behind the Main Street Cinema. Tell him it’ll just be your two older brothers. Tell him if he doesn’t show, we’re going after his sister, to sort of even things up. He’ll know what we mean by that. And, Anthony, if you know what’s good for you, don’t show up there!”
     It was closing time at the Main Street Cinema. Anthony’s two older brothers and four other men walked down the alley to the back of the movie house. They really ­didn’t believe that Eugene would show up. The area was poorly lighted.
    One of the six men called out, “Eugene, are you back there?” Someone stepped out of the shadows. It was Eugene. “I’m here,” he said. The six men circled him quickly. One asked, “Are you alone?” There was silence and then, “No, he isn’t.”
    It was Anthony’s voice, and he stepped forward. One of his older brothers shouted, “Christ, I told you not to be here! Run! Get out of here now!” Anthony looked at his brother.
    “I thought you said there’d only be two of you.”
    “Sorry,” the brother said, “I was always lousy at math.” Nobody moved or spoke. They all sensed that something ugly was about to happen. Eugene saw the insane anger and hatred in the eyes of the men surrounding him, and he broke the silence.
    “Anthony, do you remember a long time ago, when we were kids? I was in a circle just like this, and in the same kind of trouble. You took charge then, Anthony, and we walked away together with no one getting hurt.  Do you remember?”
    For the first time in their friendship, Eugene thought he saw a look of hesitation and confusion in Anthony’s eyes. “What’s it going to be, Anthony? In here with me, or out there with them?”
    Anthony, at first, made no response. Then he spoke. The words were totally unexpected, and cut into Eugene’s heart. “Give it up, Eugene. I’m begging you. Give it up! I don’t want anybody to get hurt. Give up this thing with my sister! Give it up!”
    Eugene suppressed the pain that Anthony’s words had caused. He lasered his eyes at Anthony and calmly said, “I won’t give her up, Anthony. I can’t.” Then he said softly, “Stand in here with me again, Anthony.”
     Anthony turned his gaze to the men surrounding Eugene. The dim light made it difficult for him to see if they were carrying anything that looked like weapons. If he knew his brothers, they probably were. He looked at Eugene. “I’m going for help, Eugene! I’m going to get help!” He turned and started to run. But he did not run fast enough to escape hearing Eugene’s screams and shouts as the men attacked him. As he ran, the screams grew fainter, but they were not faint enough for him not to hear Eugene calling out his name over and over again. Finally, he had run far enough so that there was nothing to hear but the silence. But he knew that back there, behind the theater, the beating was still going on.
     For weeks, he played the scene over and over in his mind. Why had he not stepped inside the circle to stand with Eugene. Why? Was he afraid of the beating he knew was coming? Had something in his friendship with Eugene turned less than totally sincere? He never openly talked about it, but he had always sensed that Eugene was really more talented, more gifted than he was. Had this envy become strong enough to make him run from his friend’s side? Or was it possible that the involvement of his own sister with a black man brought to the surface some hidden racist feelings about black and white sexuality that he had never known existed in himself until now? He had betrayed his friend. He could not explain it, either to himself or to anyone.
     He looked at the young man lying in the hospital bed, his body horribly stabbed, beaten, and wired. Speaking softly, he said, “Eugene, I’m sorry! I’m sorry for what I did. I don’t know what happened. I’ll make it up to you, Eugene. My parents won’t let Angela come to see you, but I’ll get her here, I promise.” As he spoke, the oscilloscope monitoring Eugene’s heart flatlined, and the machine began emitting an unbroken, steady beep that began filling the room, finally finding and piercing Anthony’s very heart.

    Al Burrelli, a former English teacher, has devoted time in his retirement to writing short stories, several of which have been previously published by The Star.