It starts with a fist that hits much harder than fingers curled and knuckles raised. There’s a flash that lights up behind my eyes from somewhere in the back of my brain and it’s like twelve years rewind on the playback in my head, and I’m three or four—back in June of 1976. My mom left. Her hair cropped short like a boy’s. The red in her cheeks pushing through like it was winter. She took a garbage bag stuffed full of her clothes and tossed it in the back of a hulking green Buick station wagon with vinyl wood grain that stretched from the front fender to the tailgate. She traded the cold Michigan winters, the life she had been living, for a house somewhere in Arizona, or maybe New Mexico. Wherever it was doesn’t matter. I guess it was as far away from Lansing as she needed to get.
My dad doesn’t talk about her. Ever. He keeps a picture of her in his drawer. I found it a couple of months back while I was looking for cigarettes. I fished around through his underwear and socks, thought maybe that’d be the place to look. No cigarettes, but the picture was there. It’s just her, a faded black and white face showing a wide smile and the gap between her two middle teeth on the top, her eyes looking right off to the side of the lens. The picture crops at the curve of her shoulders, and a thin necklace is lost below the white border. The date on the back, 1968, written in pencil, with a little heart beside it like girls draw when they like you.
I keep a picture of her too. It’s just her in front of a bookcase, posed and nervous, like a room full of people are watching. Nothing doing over the last twelve years though. Not a letter to say she’s alive, or dead, or a card to say happy birthday, none of that. The memory of her snaps like a flash bulb going off—a fraction of a second in the light, then it’s gone. And it probably has everything to do with getting my face punched in, and watching the stars come alive behind my eyelids while I float through the air on my way down. Down. And out.
There’s a taste on my tongue, right on the back. I don’t know what I would call it. And I can smell it too . . . Static. It’s like if you could taste static. Like when the channels go off the air and all you’ve got is the glow from those panicked dots trying to figure out where the picture went.
My old man holes up like a hermit in front of the TV in his bedroom. Keeps it on 24 hours a day, whether he’s home or not. Says he likes the sound of someone in the house when he gets home from work. He’s off the edge. Not like in love with straight jackets, or anything, just on some other level most of the time. He goes to work crazy-ass early in the morning. Spends his fifty hours a week pulling milk from cows so the rest of the world can have something to put on their cereal. He makes it home in the afternoon about an hour before I get out of class. By the time I make it through the front door, he’s already tucked away in his room. I can hear the TV rattling off commercials down the hallway. He comes out every so often, pries open the fridge, lets his arm come to rest on the top of the open door, and bends from the waist, peering in, searching for something. He’s something to see, wearing his maroon house slippers, an old t-shirt just a shade whiter than his arms, and his ball-huggers giving way to a pair of the hairiest legs I’ve ever seen. He’ll stand like that, all bent over, scratching his whiskers or elbow or shifting his balls, for minutes, and never say anything. But his mouth moves, like he’s chewing on words that he’s not quite ready to say. When he feels like talking he’ll ask me what’s been going on. But normally he just taps his finger on the table next to my textbooks. He’s all about me getting that homework done. Tells me I’ve got to work hard in school so I don’t ever have to worry about a future that involves having to hook up liners to the teats of pissed-off heifers all day. I give him a yes sir and a nod. He rubs his finger over the spikes on the collar of my leather jacket.
“Ain’t that something,” he says.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
“I milk ‘em all day, and you dress ‘em up like a porcupine and wear ‘em.”
That’s his running joke. It’s how we get along. We kind of drift in the silence between short phrases. And it’s not like we didn’t hang out when I was little. I mean, he did his best to teach me the difference between a curveball and a fastball in the front yard, and he’d take me to swim at the lake during the summer. It’s just different now. High school is a different place. People don’t get that. The playground days when everybody would hang out together don’t happen anymore. That’s long gone. It’s all cliques: punks, skins, the preppy kids, jocks, black kids, white kids, a couple of Asian and Mexican kids—a bunch of kids confused about where they belong, trying to fit somewhere. I try to figure it out. I bring it up, you know, try to get some advice on stuff, and my dad will just stand there and think on it. Maybe you just don’t talk a lot when you get older. Cause he’ll just pause and rub the tips of his fingers over the wrinkles in his forehead and look around the room like he’s just now realized where he is. He’ll shake his head some and let his mouth open like he’s about to say the smartest thing in the world, then he’ll just look at me, his eyes tired, almost sad, and pat my shoulder as he walks past me and back to his bedroom. “It’s a lot of stuff to take in,” he says. I don’t think he gets enough sleep. I get up in the middle of the night to pee, and I can hear the white noise of the off-air channel as the static strobes blue and the speaker hisses behind his door. This is what growing old in Lansing is. The television takes you to bed.
* * *
I lift a pack of cigarettes from the carton in my dad’s closet every other week. Salems. Menthol. They aren’t the best, but free is free, and the poseur kids don’t bum off me. He knows I’m taking them. He’ll go around the living room lifting up the newspaper, magazines, couch cushions, pick up just about anything he can lift until I finally give in and ask what he’s doing. He’ll stop, scratch his head, open his eyes real wide—like there’s an emergency, and tell me how we must have been robbed, that the thieves stole his cigarettes. And just like that he’ll walk past me, and whisper, “Lock the windows. Bad folks all around.”
Me and my friends Jack and Claire go off and smoke at lunch. Sometimes, when Jack catches me looking too long at Claire, he’ll punch me in the arm and say, “Take a picture, fucker.” And Claire’s cheeks flush red, and she says, “Jesus, Jack,” then rolls her eyes. I get red too. Claire’s not my type, but she’s fucking rad in her own way. She’s got that preppy thing going: pink, button-down polo shirts, jeans that fit and don’t have any frays or busted knees. Her hair always smells like she just washed it with pine trees or fruit. Took me a while to figure her out. If you saw her walking down the street you’d think she was innocent as hell. But man, she can cuss a cat up one side of the tree and down the other. She’s all like, “You need to wash your goddamn hair, you greasy fuckball.” Like what girl do you know would call somebody a fuckball? Then she’ll tousle my hair and give out a good horror-movie scream as she looks at her hands like they’re melting. And Jack is like, “Maybe if you saw his bathroom you’d have greasy hair too.” And she laughs, and Jack is all, “Fucking soap got up and walked out of that joint.” And I laugh a little and pat down my hair. And wipe my hands on my jeans.
I think sometimes about how my bedroom holds the musk of unwashed socks and shoes that have been water logged too many times. And how I’m supposed to wash my clothes every Sunday, but I don’t because I forget, or because it’s a hassle. It’s easier to just dig around and pull a shirt out of the mess of dirty laundry on my floor. And it kind of makes sense why the ladies aren’t knocking down the walls to get a piece of me. I’ve made out with a couple of girls, like once or twice. They don’t stick around. It’s high school, nobody sticks around. Maybe Jack and Claire. Maybe they’re in it for the long haul. Maybe go to college together after graduation, get married…who knows. But Jack’s got muscles too, and that helps when it comes to the ladies. I tried doing push-ups for a while, thought maybe I would bulk up some. I took a multivitamin every morning and drank a coke with breakfast to give me some more energy. But I could only get maybe fifteen push-ups out before I was face down on the floor in the kitchen, out of breath and tired of it all, looking at the hair and dust balls that hide out under the refrigerator. My dad told me that my body would catch up to me one of these days. I’m a gangly wire-coat hanger looking dude. It’s no wonder I can’t get laid.
Jack says he and Claire do it two or three times a week at Claire’s house. Says her parents are always gone. Says they go on vacations or business trips and have her aunt come over to watch her. Jack told me that her aunt sits out by the pool when it’s warm and gets hammered off margaritas. When it’s fall or winter, she sits inside and drinks Corona with a lime. She doesn’t care at all if Jack wants to spend the night either. He says she even buys them wine coolers and beer. Even cigarettes. Some people get to do it all.
* * *
The best place in Lansing to hang out is this all-ages club, Al’s. No drinking allowed, but kids still get drunk. It’s not that hard. You just go out to your car and pound back some beers and then go back inside and catch a band, and when that band is done you head right on back to your car and have another couple of beers. Last weekend a girl with these really big white-rimmed sunglasses with mirrored lenses totally threw up on Jack’s leather jacket. I mean big yak. Fucking watery bits of some French fry-looking shit. So it’s not like a bunch of kids standing around and drinking cokes. I mean the straight edge kids do that shit. Shave their heads and drink cokes all night. Xs drawn in black magic marker across the tops of their hands like homemade tattoos. That’s about the only way you can tell the difference between the straight edges and the fucking Nazi kids. All the shaved heads in Lansing these days, you never know who you’re bumping in to. I just look for an X on the hand or some Nazi thing, like a swastika or an SS pin on a jacket. Some of the boneheads wear khaki uniforms, complete with the red and white swastika armbands. Lansing can be hard that way. Factories close, people get laid off, and these Nazi kids show up at the mall, trying to recruit. They’ve got pamphlets about Blacks and Mexicans taking jobs, and how the working class white man can’t make a living anymore. Some of these kids around here eat that shit up—hungry for anything that feels new. There’s a lot of hating for the sake of hating going on. It’s pretty much all talk. Bunch of kids pushing and shoving, throwing out threats that don’t lead up to anything. At the end of the day everyone goes home, plops down on the couch and stalls out in front of the TV.
This guy Mellow Tree, this total Rasta dude with nappy dreads half way to his ass, runs a record store in town. He’s always at the shows. He’s fucking crazy about punk shows. And he’s like forty. Dude berserkered on some Nazi kid at the last show. This kid was all doing his sieg heil bullshit, right? All goose-stepping in front of the stage while this band Pig Faith was ramming through some punk-metal-speed-thrash. And Mellow Tree went all eight kinds of crazy, I mean screaming at the kid, right in his face, about being a fucking racist. And spit is flying out of his mouth. It’s all foaming at the corners of his lips. Holy shit, there’s nothing mellow about him. And get this, the fucking Nazi kid starts crying and his buddies jump in and try to start something. One Nazi kid pushed Mellow Tree down and then the whole place went all sorts of ape shit. I fucking jumped in and hit the crying kid right in the nose. Popped his ass good, too. Pulled the blood right out of his face. Man, fuck that kid. And the whole time the kid is looking at me, and I’m about to give him another and then I’m being pulled out of this nest of flailing arms and kicking feet by somebody, and the kid is still looking at me. Dead on. Take a picture, you little fucker. I think I said something like that. And I’m all flipping him off and Jack’s got me by my belt and pulling me through the back door and out into the parking lot. And Jack is laughing and telling me to ease up, and he pats me on the back, and he’s still laughing and he’s all, you’re too fucking much, as he’s stuffing me into the backseat of his car. And I’m all screaming, I’ll kill your shit-ass next time. And it’s funny, cause I’m outside and the kid whose blood is on my hand can’t hear a goddamn word I’m saying, but now it’s a show. I just keep it going to keep Jack laughing. And then I see Claire get into the car and she’s shook up and crying. And Jack is still laughing, but just a little, up under his breath. And he’s patting her leg and saying, baby, it’s all right. And then we’re out of the parking lot and driving across town. The night blows cold as we crack our windows to smoke on the ride home. Underneath the big black sky we sit silent and let the hum of the tires on the road carry us. Claire doesn’t say anything when they drop me off at my house. I want to tell Claire that I’m sorry if I made her upset. I want to tell her that it was a stupid move—that I got caught up in the bullshit. I want to tell her to stay, that she and Jack can come inside, or we could just sit on the curb and watch the stars. But I don’t, I just stand there and watch them pull out onto the blacktop. The red of the taillights fade as the road grows away from my yard. It’s not real late, probably ten-thirty. I light a cigarette and see the glow of the TV in my dad’s window. He’s there, a shadow framed in blue.
* * *
Two weeks later Curmudgeon is playing a show at Al’s. Dude they play really hardcore shit. I mean fast as hell, like you’re gonna need six Tylenols to get rid of your headache in the morning. And me and Jack and Claire are there, and everything is cool again, and we’re hanging out in front of the club while one of the opening bands is playing. Just hanging out, smoking cigarettes and thinking about grabbing some beers out of the trunk of Jack’s car when this baby-shit yellow Plymouth Duster full of Nazi kids pulls up outside of the club. But there are really only like three of them in the car, which is weird, cause they usually travel in packs. But they pull in, and they’re scoping the place out. And I’m smoking a cigarette and I’m about done with it, so I flip the butt out in the parking lot and it hits the ground right by their car. Like big shit, right? But they stomp on their brakes and the tires bark. And this cue-ball motherfucker lips off at me for trying to flip my cigarette butt into his car. And I say something back, like, are you fucking kidding me? And I’m pretty sure the kid I popped in the nose is all creeped-up in the back seat. Sitting in the shadows. I can feel eyes on me. It looks kind of like him, you know? And I’m about three beers in and feeling pretty damn nice. And I say something like, get your fucking Nazi asses out of here. And there’s more than a few people watching. And some cute brunette chick with really bright red lipstick is standing in the crowd, and she’s been kind of smiling at me every time I’ve looked her way. And the crowd is all clapping and stuff, and it’s, you know, it’s cool and all. And I see Claire, and she’s smiling and Jack is walking up beside me, and Mellow Tree comes walking out of the club. No shit, right? Standing right there next to me. Me and Mellow Tree and Jack. We’re ready to fuck some shit up, Three Musketeers style. I put on my hardest look. I’ve practiced it before. You don’t just walk around Lansing late at night and not have a hard face ready to show.
And so I yell real loud. You fucking heard me! Get your goddamn Nazi asses out of here. And now it’s like everybody around me starts flipping them off and yelling shit. And the brunette girl is a little closer and still watching me. She smiles a little. And I pull a cigarette out of my pack and light it. I take a drag and let the smoke fall from my nose, just like those cartoons of when a bull gets really pissed off and is about to charge. The guys in the car get nervous or something, like they damn well should be. They’d get their asses handed to them, fucking with this crowd. So they fucking yell something like fuck you and some sieg heil bullshit and give it some gas, lay some rubber down and smoke up the parking lot as they pull onto Main and head east. The brunette girl with the bright red lipstick slides up next to me. I hear the sleeves of her leather jacket as she crosses her arms and leans into my shoulder. Her hair smells like cigarette smoke. She’s got a dog-chain necklace connected with a tiny padlock around her neck. This could be love. And she’s talking the skin off my ear. I don’t hear a bit of it. I keep thinking of her lips. Holy shit, her red, red lips. There’s a smudge where the lipstick has touched her teeth, and I want to pull her top lip into my mouth and suck on it. Suck on it for days. And she’s all like, hey, you want to go in and catch the show? And her hand brushes against mine. She heads in. I’m two inches behind her, floating in her shadow.
Curmudgeon is ramming through a set, and it’s like a soundtrack going two hundred miles per hour around us but we’re all slow motion, making out, and she’s got her hand in my back pocket. And Claire walks by and shrieks, like an excited shriek, like a get some shriek.
“Christ, come up for air,” she says.
This girl, she pulls away from me. Her lipstick is all smeared. Some on her, some on me. She squeezes me where she’s holding me in my pocket and a little smile creeps out of one side of her mouth. She’s all, we’d be more comfortable in my car. And I’m all about it, and scared shitless. But there’s no way I’m not going out there. Holy shit, look at her. I mean she’s never said we’d have sex, but I bet I get to go up under her shirt at least. Maybe more. And Jack is always like, just be cool, don’t rush it. Which is easy for anyone to say when they’ve been getting laid forever. So me and this girl head out into the parking lot. And she’s pulling at my arm, and I’m following her and being stupid, like half-skipping, some dumb shit thing like that, like, hey, I’m gonna be all happy and in love with this girl I just met, cause she’s the one for me. I mean, look at her. Fuck, she’s hot. And we’re walking out to the far part of the parking lot and I’m all joking with her like, holy shit, did you park at the end of the world? And she laughs and just keeps pulling me and we pass some fucking burnout kids smoking out in one of the cars. They’ll get five or six kids in a car and totally smoke themselves into the atmosphere. It’s fucking lame. Like, hey, I know you’re in there, the whole car is cloudy, you’re not fooling anyone. Anyway, we get to the back of the parking lot where a grey Corolla is parked and she pulls me against her for a kiss. And I mean she’s kissing me real hard and it’s cold for May, so she hugs real close to me. And she’s like breathing all heavy and her kisses are hard and sloppy, and I’m fucking in heaven, right? Like practically busting through my zipper and dry humping the shit out of her leg. And I can hear the burnouts open the doors and get out of their car. And she grabs my ass and pulls me tight against her. Our belt buckles clink. And in my head I’m thinking, I bet those burnouts are getting an eyeful and I reach up to grab one of her tits. And she pushes me away. And then it’s all going down, the sound of heavy boots clopping toward us, hands taking hold, feet kicking, too many things all at once to get a clear picture.
Somebody grabs me from behind, and whoever it is, they’re one big son of a bitch and they smell like beer. At the same time the girl I was just about to get lucky with takes a step back and kicks me square in the balls. The guy holding me is yelling some bullshit in my ear that I can’t make out because it’s too loud, and too close. My head hurts immediately. There’s nothing left in my legs to keep me standing after that first kick. I feel like I’m going to puke. Somebody punches me in the ribs, over and over, stopping only after a few beers foam up and spill out of my mouth. I choke a little cause I get hit again before I can catch my breath. I get punched in the side of my face. Then in the neck. There’s no air. And I can hear Jack from far way and his voice is desperate. And then the kid whose nose I caved in, I catch him running toward me and something metal on his hand, like rings or something catches the light before it hits. A flashbulb bursts, and the picture is taken. And the stars come out behind my eyelids, and the sounds around me suck away. It’s just like that, like watching the television without sound, while the tape in the VCR rolls in reverse and pauses at different scenes before rolling on to the next one: A shadow in the window framed in blue. A taillight fading in the distance. Split-finger fastball. The green Buick turning left at the end of the block. A picture in my hand of a woman with a boy’s haircut in front of a bookcase. A fraction of a second as the flashbulb snaps. And my eyes don’t open. And I can feel them kicking me: ribs…back, stomping my knee against the ground. And I can smell their boots, just before one of them catches my face. And then I can’t feel them kicking any more. And somewhere behind my eyes the stars blur. There’s a taste on the back of my tongue. Static.