Purebred Hustle

Fiction by Evan Morgan Williams

They arrested Benito Luna in the principal’s office Friday afternoon. Arrested him for the murder of Jontiel Robinson the week before, the corner of Yamhill and 199th, the apartments beneath the tall firs. To be clear, there would be no flowers left on the sidewalk for Jontiel Robinson—such a punk, he was—but the arrest was a wuss move. They lured Benito from class for a little chat with the principal, and when he gets to the office, they throw the cuffs on him. They could have arrested Benito at the apartments. Everyone knew where he lived. Even Jonteil knew where he lived! Benito wasn’t hiding. He wasn’t on the run. He was coming to school every day! Okay, maybe arresting him at school was easier. They avoided a scene. A standoff. I mean, the apartments aren’t exactly friendly turf. Like, the social services people won’t drive down there without a police escort, and the ambulances won’t either, not even the pizza guy. But hey, I’m a teacher with a Volvo, and I drive down 199th when the freeway is backed up, and if I can hack that street, they can hack it too. It’s a gloomy drive, even in the daytime, all those tall firs, all those busted cars, but on a busy Friday afternoon, it’s the quickest way to get out of here.

So they frisked him in the office. They drew the shades for that. They found nothing, of course. A little weed and a one hitter. No gun. No cellphone. No colors. See, unlike the wannabees, Benito doesn’t mix his hustle with school. But I’ll tell you what else they found. The principal drops by my room after school and hands me a paperback of Call of The Wild. That’s how I know they frisked him. My name and room number were written in sharpie along the top of the book. See, Benito had a Siberian husky dog, and I thought this book was a connection we could have. Maybe he would even learn to like to read. He had the book inside his hoody when they searched him in the principal’s office. Hell yeah, he did.

So the principal hands me the book, and I tell him, straight up, arresting Benito at school was a wuss move. I tell him that all our street cred was gone, as if we had any. The school was fair game now. The school had just become turf. Welcome to the god damned fight.

The principal didn’t like it when I swore, but that didn’t stop him from doing the same. He said, “Benito fucking murdered someone. He deserves what he gets.” An f-bomb from the principal? Guess I deserved that, calling him a wuss.

I said, “Yeah, arrest the punk. I’m glad he got arrested. But not here.” And I’m literally smacking the table with the palm of my hand. See, I was thinking about my classroom. My books. My students. I was thinking about my job to teach them to read. That’s my hustle. No one messes with my hustle. I said, “You just made us complicit.”

The principal looked a little stuck on complicit, so he said, “Whose side are you on?”

“Hey, I’m just saying.” I held up my hands. “It’s a bad situation. That’s all. Benito was doing good in my class. He was up two reading levels in eight months, going on three.”

“Kids do that, even the bad ones. We are the solid rock, the one safe space.”

“Not anymore.”

Principal said, “Anyway, Benito said something about a dog?”

I was about to smack the table again, but I stopped my hand. Jesus, what about his dog?

* * *

His dad was all in.

His uncle was all in.

His brothers were all in.

His cousins. All in.

They had their hustle and I had mine.

On the weekends, they gathered matsutake mushrooms in the woods and sold them to the Asian restaurants, door to door. In the winter, they cut Christmas trees and sold them in a vacant lot. Did they have permits for any of this, the mushrooms, the trees, the vacant lot? And where did the drug-dealing fit in? One hustle gives you cover for another. But you need to understand about mushrooms and Christmas trees and vacant lots: these were turf wars too. Benito’s family took guns to the forest. That was all the permit they needed, right? And when they finished picking mushrooms or cutting Christmas trees, they set up soda bottles and fired their guns.

I know this stuff because I asked Benito about it. I taught the dude to read, and when you teach someone to read, you ask questions along the way. You listen to what a kid says. That’s how Benito told me about his Siberian husky dog. He had a genuine purebred Craigslist husky dog. And did anyone care about that dog now? His family, they were all in, so who had time for a dog? Was there any room in their hustle for someone to care about the dog?

* * *

I rehearsed all this for my ex-wife. Didn’t get too far in the execution, though. We were in front of the old house, transferring the kid. It was my weekend. She told me about the soccer game and gave me the gear. Apparently, I was on the hook for orange slices. She told me about the astronomy project that was due. Some sort of model of the solar system. She asked me about my plans for the evening routine.

I stuffed the soccer kit into my car and said, “My student got arrested for murder.”

She said, “Not here, not now.” She was kissing our little girl goodbye.

“Funny you should talk about place and time. They arrested him at the goddamned school.”

She said, “No.”

After dinner, me and the kid lay on the rug and played Trouble, and we talked about tomorrow. Our tomorrows were known things. The soccer game. The solar system. We had a lot of tomorrows, and we didn’t have to hustle to make our tomorrows happen. I put the kid to bed, went to my backyard deck, and waited for tomorrow. I tried to forget about school, forget about Benito, forget about that dog, but when you try to forget a thing, you bring the thing into your mind all over again. You can mess yourself up with this. My students knew all their tomorrows too, but in a very different way, a hopeless way. But still they hustled. They amazed me.

I sat on that back deck and wondered how to repair the school’s reputation, which meant repairing my own reputation, but I came up with nothing. I sat out there until I could feel the darkness as a cold presence on my skin. I mean I could feel it and hear it. And I thought, maybe I should go get that dog. I thought about Call of the Wild. The way the dog lay by the fire, and then it looked out at the darkness and wondered about it, and you’re looking out there too, and even though you can’t hear the same things or smell the same things as the dog, you are right there with the dog, looking out beyond the fire. You and that dog are right there together in the firelight, and the whole point of the light is to show you where the darkness begins.

Someone needed to save that dog.

* * *

A lot of my students have been arrested for murder. Benito was not the first, and he will not be the last. There was Mauricio, trying to prove himself, shooting that dude at the county fair, standing in line for the Tilt-A-Whirl. Right in front of the guy’s kids. Didn’t he realize if you had to prove yourself that hard, you were never getting in? You were just helping the higher-ups settle a mess without getting their hands dirty. Then there was Zion, who shot a drug dealer over his package. Right through the driver-side window. Why pay for what you can get for free, I guess. And last month there was a drive-by during a vigil on 172nd avenue. It wasn’t my student who was shot dead, not this time, but the crowd was holding a vigil on the sidewalk, right where he died, and this SUV drives by, and it’s popping, but folks in the crowd popped back, and those were my students in the crowd doing the popping. Later the car shows up at the ER with a body bleeding out. Too late. Benito was not involved in any of that. Like I said, he keeps things on the down low. Jontiel was probably poking his ugly mug in places it did not belong. And what matters most is the arrest went down at the school in the light of day. The one safe space. I do my hustle here. We sit at the big table and read the books and I listen to my students’ words, and we’re right there together. And when the bell rings, the students don’t want to leave. Well, of course they want to leave. But they like to come back too. And we hustle all over again.

* * *

I tried Benito on a lot of books.

I tried the The Outsiders. I said, “Thug life? Got it right here…”

Benito slides way down in his chair. “They’re too white, bruh.”

“Benito, I’m not your bruh.”

I tried Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. I said, “True story, actually. He was all in, but he got out, and he wrote a book about it.”

Benito pulls his hood over his head. “Nah. That’s a snitch right there. That’s some bullshit.”

“Benito, you don’t have to swear.”


“Are you high, Benito?”

He smiles and looks at his friends across the room. He says something in their native Purepechan language, and I guess it was funny, or maybe the kids were too scared not to laugh.

But I can out-hustle this. “Tomorrow then. You come in tomorrow clear, okay, and we’ll test your reading and get you a new book.”


We fist-bumped.

“I’m serious. I’m going to ask you.”

“Bet. Hey Mister…”


Then he tells me, “I got a new dog…”

So he tells me about the husky dog, and I grab Call of the Wild off the shelf, and I teach him about the Klondike gold rush, and the packs of dogs pulling the sleds, and some of the dogs are good guys and some are bad guys, and how it was a struggle to survive, and that’s when Benito opens the book and reads, and his face has that calm look like he’s in the story now and the room has fallen away.

“I’m going to ask you what’s happening. Right here. Tomorrow”

“Bet. I got this.”

What he won’t do for himself, he’ll do for the dog.

* * *

I had another weekend, and me and the kid were playing Trouble on the rug. I got yellow, she’s got green. We set up two stuffed animals to play the blue and red. I asked her about getting a dog, and she was fine, but I’m not sure she really understood. The light around the fire? The darkness beyond? Did she understand?

The ex was an even harder sell. In the morning, we met on the sidewalk outside my place. She didn’t understand at all.

“Have you planned for this? A dog in a townhouse? Have you ever had a dog?”

“The light and the darkness…”

“Obviously, you have not.”

“The call of the wild…”

“What? Who? Is this about that boy?”

“It’s about his dog.”

“You don’t need to get a dog. You need to get a life.”

* * *

So Benito bought his dog on Craigslist. Paid for a rabies shot, a nice collar, and a leash. Taught him a few tricks. And he took his dog to the mountain whenever they picked mushrooms or cut down Christmas trees. Probably let him off leash so he could run around. But not when they brought out the guns. That dog was back on leash for the guns. Probably kept him on leash around the apartments too. See, on 199th street, you had to have structure, even simple things like how you come and go from your house, where you parked your car, where your kids played, and where they stayed away. I had been down that street before. It was a shortcut when the freeway was gridlocked. There was never traffic through the neighborhood. Who the hell would go through there? But you teach in this area long enough, you know about the shortcut on 199th. Sometimes, driving through, I saw Benito with the adults, circled on the sidewalk beside the apartments, beneath the tall firs, waiting for the kindergarten bus; he was there to walk his little sister home. He had his Dutch Bros cup. He had my book in his pocket. His dog at his side. On the leash. The kindergarten bus was always safe, not anymore, but it was safe then. And Benito and that dog looked out for each other and the little sister too. Meanwhile, down on 198th, you could see Misael and his kid brothers running the corner. Not Benito. He was in deep. When the family wasn’t in the forest, they did their business strictly indoors. They did business only with people they knew. There were structures to this. The dog was always there. On a leash. At Benito’s side. That was a good dog.

Couple weeks in, it was Benito’s turn for another reading conference. I asked him about the book, and I asked him about his dog. I said, “You know, in the novel, Buck started out as a loyal family dog just like yours.”

Benito said, “My dog ain’t no family dog. He’s my dog. Mio.”

I said, “Is he all right in the neighborhood? Buck was kidnapped, you know.”

Benito said, “He knows his way, but you can’t let him loose. You have to watch him all the time.”

I tried to teach Benito the skill of visualization. An easy piece, but he didn’t have it yet.

I said, “When you’re in the forest, what do you see?”

“Oh, man, trees.”

“What do you see on 199th?”


“Visualize it. See it in your own mind. The apartments beneath the trees…”

Benito’s eyes were closed. He was trying so hard. “I don’t see anything.”

“What do you see. Look inside yourself.”

“That ain’t fair, mister.”

“They’re in the woods in the Klondike. What do you see in the book?”

“I don’t know. More trees? Hey, if someone comes at me, I’m opening my eyes.”

“Is it snowing in the woods?”


“That one scene, the dogs are laying around the fire. See it? The light. The dark. What do you see?”

“It’s all right.”

“The dog, Buck. Is he becoming more wild? How about the big fight with Spitz?”

“Someone comes at you, you do what you got to do.”

“In the woods, anything? Visualize it. Keep your eyes closed if you have to.”

“Visualize.” He smiled.

* * *

So the other students saw Benito reading Call of the Wild, and now they wanted to read it too. I gave out all my extra copies. I got Benito and Julia Ramirez reading together page by page. Right there together at the big table, taking turns, page by page.

Benito says, “She’s so smart, dawg.”

I said, “Benito, you’re smart too. And don’t call me dawg.”

“Sorry, mister.”

“So Julia, you love dogs too. Right? What breed do you have?”

Julia says, “A chihuahua. She’s named Chulita.”

Then Benito says something in Purepechan. Julia knew what he said. And I knew I could get it later from her. I knew it because her face was calm. Her eyes were calm. And calm was enough. I could get it all later. I told myself there would always be later. There would always be a private time. You try to hurry this hustle, you mess it up. You plan for your tomorrows.

* * *

It took two weeks for the school to become turf. I come to work, and someone has shot out a window of the office. Then they shattered the announcement board outside the school. Couple days later the taggers come in, and they marked the brick walls with their logo. CBK. It stood for “cold blooded killers.” It wasn’t a threat, just a dog pissing on a tree. But it was my tree.

* * *

I was talking to my ex-wife. I said, “So we looked at dogs on the internet. On Craigslist you can—”

“What are you talking about? The astronomy project…”

“The Call of the Wild.”

“Jenny needs help, okay. That’s your job.”

“My hustle.”

“Whatever. You work on it together.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You map out the light and the dark. The fire in the night forest. There’s room for all of us here in the light.”

“You’re being weird!”

* * *

The day they arrested Benito, I was on my planning period. I was up in the office to visit the counselor. She’s there for the students, right, but I swear the teachers are her best customers. She got me through the divorce! I saw Benito sitting outside the principal’s office, waiting, the curtain drawn. I told the counselor I would finish our talk another time.

I went and sat by Benito.

He had the book. He was using a hall pass for a bookmark.

“They just called me up here. I don’t know.”

We looked out. The secretary was busily tapping on her computer. I leaned close to Benito and said, “So how’s the book going?”

“That visualize thing? I tried it, mister, and it ain’t working so good.”

He showed me the book. He blinked his eyes. “I mean, I know what’s going on, but I don’t see it.”

“That scene where the dogs look out beyond the fire… tell me.”

“They look out, but they stay by the fire.”

“What do you think that means?”

“Oh man. I don’t know.”

“See it. Feel it. Breathe it. The smoke. The cold. The flames.”


“I’m not your bruh. Think about picking mushrooms or cutting Christmas trees. The guys in the book are looking for gold, one big strike, and so are you, in a way. Think about how it feels. How it smells. All that. It’s in the book. You can visualize it from what you live.”

“It’s not like that, mister. Sometimes I don’t feel anything. You know what I’m saying?”

“So it’s just a hustle, and nothing more?”

“It’s a good one. You got a hustle too, right? How much they pay you guys?”

“Well, the longer you teach, the more you make. Like me. I get health insurance too.”

“That’s a good hustle, guey.”

“Keep reading while you wait. What are you waiting for anyway?”

“I dunno. They just sent me down.” He flipped his hall pass into the book.

So you see, I was in the main office when they arrested Benito. I was sitting in the waiting chairs. That’s what you did when you saw your students in the principal’s office, you sat and listened. You learned a few things. You learned their edges, their own light and dark.

The curtain was closed behind us. I said, “Well, I’ll see you.”

And he went inside.

I was impugned.

* * *

The thing about a fire, it only keeps you warm while you’re feeding it logs and paper. The fire is only as bright as you can keep it going. And when darkness envelops you, because it always does, all you want is to see a way beyond.

* * *

Julia Ramirez was reading Call of the Wild alone. We sat at the big table. I admit, I’d been having some trouble with my hustle. The principal had been coming in to watch, and it was throwing me off. Maybe his hustle was to watch my hustle. I don’t know. I didn’t have time to think about that. Students had to learn to read.

I said, “Your partner is gone, Julia.”

“That’s all right. A lot of kids don’t come no more.”

I’m thinking they don’t come because of the arrest at school. I said, “You’re still reading, though.”


I pointed at the book. “Could it really happen, Julia? All the wild instincts coming back? I mean, you have a dog. Chulita? Do you see the wild instincts in her?”

“Sure, but she’s so little! I put a pink bow on her collar. Actually she’s a he, but I call her a she.”

“Julia, I have a question. Why did he do it?”


“It’s all right.”

Julia did not look at me. Her face was not calm. And I listened. Because I always do. She said, “Okay, Jontiel maybe was saying some stuff. Like maybe he was coming for Benito’s dog. Jontiel was a punk. Everybody knows. Omigosh, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right.”

“People are saying you were there, teacher.”

“I was so not there.”

“Dude, everybody says you were.”

“Don’t call me dude.” I was ready to smack the table again, but this was just a kid, and I know when to keep my cool. Anyway, the principal was there and—

“I’m sorry,” Julia said.

“It’s all right,” I said, “I’m sorry too. Now let’s keep reading. Imagine little Chulita at the head of the sled dogs.”

“Oh my gosh! You’re so silly!”

* * *

My kid and I, we made the solar system out of yarn and gumdrops. All the planets and even some of the moons. We ate the leftover gumdrops, and then we went outside to the deck and lit a fire in the barbecue grill. We got warm and snug together in a lawn chair under a blanket. We used a flashlight to point at the sky. The sparks and the firelight hid the mysteries of the stars, but I showed the kid Venus and Mars, bright enough to shine through. And, at the edge of the sky, we saw the trees, and the neighbor’s trampoline, and their barbecue grill. Their Corvette under the canvas hood. Maybe there was something good out there. Farther off in the darkness, we heard the train. We got lucky and heard an owl. My kid hooted just like that owl. We laughed.

My kid in the light will never know about the darkness.

* * *

Three weeks out, I went to 199th for the last time in my life. I didn’t know what I was going to do, maybe just square up with Benito’s dad, let him understand that I was not involved. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Benito’s dog. I went down there and parked my Volvo along the broken cars beneath the tall firs. Maybe I could set things right by taking care of that dog.

Up and down the street I asked. I used my best Spanish. “El perro de Benito?” I even trilled my Spanish rr’s. No one knew nothing. I asked the circle of folks waiting for the kindergarten bus, and I could see by the way people walked away from me that it was going badly, but maybe it wouldn’t go so very bad. I mean, I was harmless. I clearly didn’t have a gun on me.

I went into the apartment courtyard. The trees were tallest here, and the shade was darkest. Benito’s family lived on the first floor. The sliding door to their patio was open, and I looked in. It was dark, and it smelled like the earth and beer and something else. An oily smell. I didn’t know. I knocked. I stepped into the darkness.

Flats of mushrooms were stacked everywhere. And the Mexican TV was blaring some sort of Price Is Right show. I didn’t know. Another hustle. I saw empty cans of beer on the coffee table. And two small handguns waited on top of the TV. Guns exist in waiting. Until they’re not waiting anymore. And it was so quiet in that apartment, and those mushrooms were so fresh, and those guns were so shiny in the dark, that I knew where Benito’s dog was.

They took him to the forest and let him out of the van. Maybe they shot him, or maybe they shot towards him to make him run, and then they drove away. Wouldn’t be the first dog someone ditched in the woods. It would be a fight to survive, like Call of the Wild.

A voice in accented English said, “You’re the sonofabitch from school!” Benito’s dad was coming in from the bathroom.

I said, “That ain’t me. They played me too.”

“I fucking kill you!”

I held up my hands and said, “He’ll get out. He’s a juvie. They can’t keep him past eighteen. Dies y ocho. Maybe an ankle bracelet.”

“Fuck you.” He was reaching for one of those guns.

I blocked his hand. I took his wrist. We yanked arms back and forth. I said, “Listen, I am not part of what happened.” We were close enough to be breathing the same wet air. I held his wrist as tight as I could and said, “This ain’t my hustle.”

“Fuck you say?”

“There is the light and the dark and—”

I won’t say that when you’re looking at a gun, you think differently. There isn’t time to think at all. But looking back, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t going to fire. But he could have. And looking back, I am certain that I wasn’t trying to save Benito, wasn’t trying to save the dog. I was trying to save myself. And I should have known that you don’t involve anyone else in that. It is lonely work, saving yourself. How could I not have known?

Benito’s dad stumbled and crashed into the flats, mushrooms flying everywhere. I ran for the screen door. I ran for my car. I ran like that poor dog must have run. Maybe Jonteil ran just like me. But I had nothing to fear. A few wild shots into the trees so the neighbors would know he was a boss. The trees had more to fear than the guy in the Volvo, squealing away. Because he was nothing. Anyone on the street that day would understand.

* * *

I’m no savior. I just want an easier time. I want a shorter way home when the freeway backs up. I smoke a little herb myself. Not that ghetto skunk shit. Dispensary fineness for me. And I like to do a good job. I got my hustle, and it’s teaching these kids what they should already know, how to read, how to love to read, and no one messes with my hustle, with my test scores, with my students working at that big old table in my room. I put my names on my books so when the kids walk with them, people know my name. You see, this is not Benito’s story. It’s my name on those books. This is not Benito’s story. I know whose pain I feel.

* * *

That night, curled on the lawn chair on the deck, I told my daughter about Call of the Wild. There was this dog named Buck. And he had a good life, but he was taken away. It was a hard life now, but he never gave up, and he got strong. He became so strong… And he had to choose between living by the firelight or living in the dark forest. Damn near gave her the word hustle, right then and there. And I told her we would not be getting a dog.

I gave the kid the flashlight, and she pointed it into the stars. I said, “Who will you impugn with that thing?”


“Expose, illuminate with blame, accuse with light.”

“I don’t know.” She sprayed the flashlight’s beam across the trees. “I don’t know what you mean at all.”

I’ll be glad when this situation with Benito is over. I’ll be glad when all of it is over. I’ll be glad when I can get on to thinking about superior things rather than calculating my route home around the latest boy gunned down. My hustle feels shorter than it used to, and I wonder if one of my tomorrows will find me sitting in that chair outside the principal’s office waiting on my own surprise meeting. The principal, the personnel director, and the union rep. But I’ll be glad for it. I’ll be glad when I can talk to my kid and actually care about the same things. The solar system. Gum drops. Cuddling on the deck in the dark and playing the flashlight around. See, my kid, she doesn’t ponder the mystery in the dark. She makes the mystery known. We cuddle in the lawn chair, and she looks out at the night, waggling our flashlight, not to see where darkness begins but to see how far the light can go.

Evan Morgan Williams

Evan Morgan Williams is the recipient of a 2024 Oregon Literary Fellowship. He is the author of three collections of stories: Thorn (BkMk Press, 2014, winner of the Chandra Prize), Canyons (self-published, 2018), and Stories of the New West (Main Street Rag Press, 2021). He has published over 75 stories in literary journals including Kenyon Review, Witness, Zyzzyva, and Alaska Quarterly Review. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana (1991), and he is a three-time mentor in AWP’s Writer to Writer program.

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