Banquo’s Ghost in Paterson

Martín Espada

ralph dennison jr. (1989–2014)
paterson, new jersey

This was the first day of class in Developmental English at the community

college. Your marker squeaked across the board, jolting the students at 8 a.m.:

What are your hopes for this course? What are your concerns in this course?

Ralphie wrote in his notebook: I want to major in Business Management.

I want to open a soul food restaurant in Paterson with my sister. I am afraid

I won’t finish the semester. Sometimes I make bad choices. When he handed

you the page torn from the other pages, you saw all the letters swirl in cursive,

as if from a fountain pen, the way he signed his name, the striding R in Ralphie.

One morning at 8 a.m., he sat in the second row and giggled at every word,

the fumes of weed steaming from his body. The studious girl in the first row,

just here from Lebanon, twisted around to say: Ralphie, you stink. You told

Ralphie to leave, and so he left, apologizing as he bumped into desk after desk

on the way out. He was twenty-four, up all night, a street festival in his brain.

Ralphie found you one night in your basement office where the floor leaked,

seepage between the tiles from the bathroom next door. I’m in trouble, he said,

not trouble like the row of Fs in the gradebook open on your desk, not trouble

for all the classes he missed. I’ve been talking to the police and the other gang

knows, he said. Ralphie kept repeating, like the chorus of a song bouncing in

his head till he could write it down: I’m in trouble, I’m in trouble, I’m in trouble.

A week later, Ralphie stopped talking. A bullet split the braids he tucked

behind his ear, another informer face down in the gravel on Rosa Parks

Boulevard. His sister told the papers: He was trying to turn over a new leaf,

but her words bled out into the gravel. The city would not keen for a man

just out after eighteen months in prison for sale of drugs in a schoolyard.

No one said a word about Ralphie in Developmental English. They raised

hands to ask about the chapter on sentence structure. The girl in the first

row from Lebanon said at last: This is what happens here. We have to move on.

His chair in the second row sat empty at 8 a.m. for the rest of the year. You saw

Ralphie sitting there without a word, Banquo’s ghost in Paterson, his assassin

shouting: Never shake thy gory locks at me, his classmates hearing nothing.

You saw the cursive letters no one teaches anymore, the perfect R in Ralphie.

Martín Espada is the author of Floaters, which won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, and a Letras Boricuas Fellowship.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


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