“Do you think any of these herbs want to hear Rust In Piece front to back?” Ozzy asked, pulling his hood up. “I’ll skip all these motherfucker’s songs.”
“Up, we’re up. Viggo,” Ozzy called out over the noise of the bar. “Viggo, game on. Looks like Megadeth will have to wait a bit.”
Ozzy and Viggo went over to the dart board and the match was underway. There was always a chance for violence whenever we left our houses, there was always a chance something bad could happen, the possibility was always present. I felt fine, I felt secure and at home, there was no need to worry. If anything we had home field advantage. The bar, and the neighborhood was ours, so maybe the real problem was that we were too comfortable.
I don’t know if the subsequent generations will claim territories like we had. Was there an expiration date on being park kids? How long would we be able to fend off proper adulthood?
When the time would come for me to leave for the Navy, whether I was going to Boot Camp or Annapolis, I would have to grow up and leave childish things behind. Growing up was something we tried to stall for as long as humanly possible. Maybe I’d get stationed somewhere across an ocean and decide to start a new life over there, it could be anywhere in the world, maybe Japan or Denmark, who knew, it didn’t matter where but I hoped I would find myself. My little town of Whitestone would be forever ingrained within me. Whether I liked it or not. Maybe I’d end up right where I started, back in Queens. I became self aware while in the deep end of my thoughts and wondered if I was talking to myself and if so did anyone notice. Self consciousness always got the better of me.
Martin walked in as I was in the process of weirding myself out. Martin was alone, thankfully. He came up to where I was standing at the bar. Further down the bar behind me was Philip, who was talking to the Winters brothers, Moe and Pat, younger kids from the neighborhood, they were team, they were family. Philip was probably chewing their ears off, trying to scrounge up some street credibility from his torturous night at the Tombs. Philip was wearing a heavy bubble jacket though it wasn’t even below freezing yet, I paid attention to the temperature because of steel and paint specifications. Everything with Philip was embellished, over dramatized with heavy breath. He was always looking for recognition for bullshit things that didn’t warrant any praise or laurels. That was how Philip was and maybe at times it was irritating but we accepted the flaws in the people we loved, we accepted the people we valued for who they were. He was my friend, we were all great friends, and despite my upcoming departure and the uncertainty of our future they would always be my best friends. No distance or petty squabble could affect our friendship or destroy the bonds that we shared over the greater portion of our lives. It would have to take something significantly awful to happen or for someone to change drastically enough to become unrecognizable to end our friendships. It seemed impossible for that to happen to us, maybe with some of our other friends but not with us, not with our circle.
“So are you and Blair back on again?” I asked.
“Can I get a fucking beer at least before a lecture? I just walked through the door. For fuck’s sake.”
“Get a beer. I’m just saying is it really a good move to keep doing this shit? I’m just looking out, man. Earth lessons.” We both knew deep down that the relationship had run its course. She was a wildflower, we all knew that. Martin didn’t do the knowledge that the God was manifesting.
“I’m tired of hearing about this shit. Honestly, I’m going to start choking you guys out. I already know exactly what you guys think so I don’t need you or my brother to keep repeating yourselves. I know it’s wrong. Okay? I know it’s going to end badly, and probably soon, and I know it’s gotten to a ridiculous level of irrelevance. I can admit it, I can believe it, I can think it, but I can’t let it go.”
“Why bother? It makes you look bad, bro. End it.”
“For whatever reason, I just can’t do that. I don’t know what you guys want me to say. We keep finding our way back to each other. No one is innocent here. I think I just need something to disprove how I feel. I need something to show me that what I feel is not really love. I know it could be infatuation but how do you really know? Until I truly hate her this shit will continue. I need hatred for us to grow apart.”
“How is it you don’t hate her already? How could you not?” I asked, and thought about my father and how similar he might have been to Martin. My father was incapable of hating my mother regardless of her transgressions. Maybe that is how you know it’s really love, or absolute foolishness. Why do people stay in toxic relationships?
“I don’t hate Blair. I just don’t.”
“How is it that I can hate her for what she does to you and you’re unable to? How does that make any sense?” It was idiotic to me. I felt like telling Martin right there everything I had heard and I had heard plenty but what for? He wasn’t listening. He wasn’t accepting the truth. He knew it all and just let it be because he chose not to believe. He ate up all her lies. I saw the look on his face and something changed in me. I was going to leave him alone about it and if he was to continue seeing her I would respect his decision. “You’re a good man, Martin. A better man than me.”
“Or am I a fool?”
“Maybe a bit of both.”
“yeah, maybe. But how does the glue look?”
Mad tough, I said.
We talked and it was never more evident of how doomed Martin was. He was setting himself up for some serious heartbreak but I didn’t push any agenda, I didn’t want to contribute to his grief. I just listened to him talk as a good friend should. I wasn’t sure how much more he could in good conscience tolerate from her. He was more like my father than I thought initially. I pictured Martin older and depressed and sunken into his own world of ruin. He would let Blair walk all over him as my mother had walked all over my father until she walked out of the house. I felt sorry for Martin then he stopped talking, he was distracted by something behind me and pointed over my shoulder for me to look. Martin picked up on some tension between his brother and Viggo with the guys they were playing darts with.
They were embroiled in some testy dialogue while their body language indicated hostility. Something discordant was stirring between them. Ozzy was a knucklehead, that goes without saying. Viggo had no qualms about fighting though he should have been more resistant because of his new job. We were all equipped with hair triggers. The birthday party had the numbers but sometimes that doesn’t matter at all. I always felt like Martin, Ozzy, Viggo, Philip and myself were a solid crew. Any number of men can wreak some havoc but a small band can also do some damage as long as everyone held their own weight and looked out for each other. You have to look out for each other. I would never have to worry that any one of my friends wouldn’t mix it up. Brawls were common in that time of our lives. Moe and Pat were on deck also, though I wouldn’t want either of them to get hurt over bullshit, we always tried to look out for them. It was better for them to stay out of it, though they most likely wouldn’t. I knew their parents well, since I was a small child, and I wouldn’t want to have that conversation. I never wanted to have those conversations with anyone’s parents having to explain why someone was hurt or worse. We had seven to their twenty, give or take. Wilhelm Flood or Sonny Winnows could walk through the door at any moment. There was always a chance more of us could show before any punches got thrown, if it absolutely had to happen, if we couldn’t talk through whatever problem seemed to be arising. Maybe we were wrong and misread the entire situation and everything was fine and going smoothly, and nothing nasty would happen. The truth was more times than not that intuition we had was usually accurate, if it felt bad, it was bad.
If a fight were to break out, sadly we were conditioned to uneven playing fields. You had to be smart in these scenarios. You had to size up your opponents, and look for any tell tale signs of weakness. The most important thing was checking to see if anyone was holding a weapon. I tended not to pass judgement on any adversaries. You never know what people are capable of and truth be told, in the majority of the brawls we were involved in, we usually were the ones who were grossly underestimated. Being disregarded or dismissed as an easy win for the enemy always made the victories that much more rewarding, a thousand times more satisfying.
There were many exchanges where I was looked at as being no contest to the people I put my hands up to fight against, whether the reason was that I was smaller or that I didn’t come across intimidating at all to them didn’t matter to me. They thought I’d be easy. Viggo and myself were challenged more so than Martin and Ozzy. If there was a choice to fight Ozzy or me, the opponent would always select me, thinking that the odds of winning were not better or worse, but that it was a sure thing. I learned young that anyone can win any fight. A single punch can end a fight, and a little stamina can often upset someone’s night, a small misstep can leave an ego stinging in the morning. I knew these things firsthand. I went in thinking I might lose, so what? As long as you fought and showed heart, winning was the cherry on top. I wasn’t concerned about it. I didn’t trust people, only my friends, and I wanted them to make it home every night. I also knew that anyone at any point and time is capable of horrific acts. We have done things that we have to live with. I don’t sleep well at night, I haven’t in years.
We left money on the bar and Cheri picked it up and added it to the pile Viggo began. She tilted a bottle of Tullamore Dew up and slipped the money underneath and rested the bottle on top. When the tavern was empty and it was just us the money stayed on the bar but when it was full of random patrons proper precautions were to be taken. No one outside of the circle was to be trusted, maybe even a few inside of it. Cheri was savvy enough to know the rules, and who to watch out for.
Martin and I walked aggressively through the strange group of people, brushing the shoulders of those in our way, some were in the middle of conversations, some looked on and others made remarks under their breath at us. We stood off to the side of the boys to let everyone know whose team we were on, in case they didn’t already know. We waited for the difference of opinion or whatever the reason for the disagreement was to come to a head, and it was coming. The tension was palpable and the others at the party were starting to feel it. The home field advantage might have made us a bit more touchy, a little more abrasive. It was also possible we were more aggressive because we didn’t know how to behave any other way.
“Can I ask you something?” Ozzy said to the taller fellow, with a fucked up skin fade, who just shot his darts. Admittedly biased, I felt like the kid looked like an asshole. His clothes didn’t fit. He shot his darts and tried to close sixteen but failed to do so. None of us gloated or mocked his blunder. We weren’t them.
“What do you want?” he said, scratching the part his barber shaved into his head, making a face to his teammate as if Ozzy was annoying him.
“Why is it every time you shoot your darts you leave them in the fucking board for me to get?” asked Ozzy, as he pulled the darts from the board one by one, and adjusted the flights.
“It’s your turn. You get your own fucking darts.”
“Well, that’s not very polite, now, is it?
“Fuck being polite.”
Right then and there a decision was made, it was unanimous, and one we would all have to live with for the rest of our lives. There will be moments in life that you wish you could retrieve and change, or correct but there is no going back. The course was set. Have you ever made a decision that you made without thinking about the potential repercussions? Have you ever put forth an action that had consequences that you weren’t prepared to accept? We make choices everyday that change the course of our lives. Those changes can be positive or they can pervade your heart and harass your conscience for a lifetime. The anxiety of those mental replays, and all the what if’s have the ability to drive you to the brink of madness. Those moments affect you in ways that are beyond repair, though you may or may not be at fault, you still bestow the weight of the blame upon yourself, and that guilt castigates, there is no way to correct that, and no possibility of ever accepting it. It is the kind of ghost that haunts you but you only see it when you close your eyes. These moments shape a person into who you are, and who you grow to be. They never leave your side.
“What the fuck did you say? What’s up, motherfucker?” said Viggo, as he brought his fists up to a defensive boxing stance, clenched fists, hands swaying in the air. It had come to a rolling boil.
“What’s up?” Said the kid, putting his hands up.
The whole bar grew abnormally quiet, like someone muted the volume on a television, only we were the show. The Vault’s surveillance cameras didn’t record sound, and they recorded in bursts, every 6 or 7 seconds, something like that. The jukebox was on and was like a low soundtrack to the unfolding events.
Viggo said, “What’s up,” one last time but I didn’t hear him, all I heard was “strong arm that kid right there” as Cash Still Rules / Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But The Money) played. Viggo gave a quick glance to Ozzy, and Viggo saw it. Ozzy was locked in, he made a face that was so utterly Ozzy. If you knew him like we did, if you fought beside him, bled with him, then you knew that look on his face was an enthusiastic green light. It was a look that endorsed and sanctioned whatever came next, good or bad, we were facing it together. There was something in his eye, and almost a smirk and he gave it every time. Because Ozzy was in, all in, every time.
If my group of friends were to have a motto, it would read: bad decisions. Impulsi male consuluerint. Bad decisions tend to make for good stories, but not that night. The pandemonium war bells sounded. The end of the world is always inching closer. Peter Cushing was warming up his skeletal hands.
Viggo moved in close, dropped his shoulder and launched a solid right hook that rocked the kid in the face. The kid saw it coming but the punch was fast, he caught it and his legs buckled beneath him. That punch ignited everything. Girls were screaming and crying. I saw their genuflections and agape mouths but heard none of it. I had to give these kids props about one thing, they hung with some good looking chicks. Beer drenched people as bottles flew like exploding comets across the parlour. Irish confetti.
Irish confetti. Irish coffee. Irish goodbye. Add Irish to anything and it just makes it better. Whether it’s hurling projectiles during an altercation, or adding whiskey to your coffee, or leaving the party without saying goodbye to a single fucking soul. It just sounded better. We didn’t even say Irish goodbye anymore, we did it so much it was just Irish.
There were people everywhere, trying to throw hands or whatever they could grab and toss. I don’t know why but I wasn’t worried at all. I had not a single solitary fuck in the whole world. I only had hatred. I had my anger, some pent up frustration and a maddening love for my brothers. A loyalty that combined with those ingredients made a sharp cocktail of aggression. I was drunk and that might have been the reason, but I had been drunk before and felt fear in a brawl. I would still fight but there were times where I did worry, I felt nothing like that, I had no fear. I wasn’t concerned about the possibilities. You could get slashed. You could get stabbed. You could get hit with a pool cue or batted down. Brass knuckles. Black jacks. The Club. Chains. Guns. These were always a possibility. Did I want it to happen, I thought, no. Maybe deep down I might have.
I hadn’t thought about how badly all this could end. None of us did. Honestly, I thought we would mop up. I went against my own principles and fell into arrogance, I thought they would be no competition. From Viggo’s first punch, the commotion broke out and immediately drew us to the back of the bar. I broke a Beck’s beer bottle over the head of a party goer, and squared up with another. I tried to keep track of my friends, the ones that I could see while trying to protect myself the best I could in the ongoing chaos that lasted less time than you would think. I found myself next to the neglected pool table. Martin was fighting with two kids and holding his own. They seemed scared to really engage him, as they threw punches and retracted their hands back quickly after but Martin would still tag them. I saw a third kid coming up from behind Martin, trying to help his friends out. I grabbed the kid I was scraping with and sent him across the room into tables where some girls were sitting. The kid never saw me coming, just as he would have made contact with Martin, I clocked him as hard as I could and he went down awkwardly and wriggled on the floor, holding his face, disoriented. Martin and I then squared up with the two he was trading shots with. They had nothing and before we knew it we were beating the fuck out of them. It seemed glorious. Philip was kicking some kid who was on the floor by the back door. The Winters’ brothers ate a little shit but were now working over some large goon. Viggo had knocked one kid out and was out boxing another. I remember feeling proud that we could handle a group this large. Then it ended. Sometimes these things just come to an abrupt end. Sometimes it’s because they give up, and sometimes it’s out of sheer exhaustion. No gas left in the tanks. They were raising white flags.
The fury fizzled out as people looked around to assess the damage, to clean themselves up, to dust themselves off. It seemed to be over. No more chaos. No more excitement. No more bloodlust.
“Are you alright?” Martin asked me.
“I’m good,” I said. I tried to think if anyone got a shot on me. I had blood on me but it wasn’t my own. “You?”
“I’m great. You see Ozzy?”
No. It dawned on me that I hadn’t seen him since the beginning of the fight. Where the fuck was Ozzy. I didn’t know where he was during the fight. A grave mistake. I immediately felt terrible that I had lost sight of him. I’m sure he was fine, he had to be fine. Ozzy could always handle himself in this type of setting. The Cravens had reputations for being good with their hands. Tough kids. These guys we fought were all pussies, we didn’t know that for sure going in, but in the end that was the truth. They shouldn’t have been mouthing off to anyone.
It was all calm then everyone’s attention was drawn to the middle of the establishment, back by the dart board but a little closer to the front. There was a waist high partition wall that divided the bar in half. There Ozzy stood bleeding from his face, barking at the two kids who he and Viggo were playing darts against. The cause of all this bullshit. Before there was time to process what was happening Martin was running toward them with Viggo, Philip and myself in tow.
We converged at the start of the partition, where the kids were standing near Ozzy. Viggo and Martin were enraged, screaming at the kids as I wondered to myself why no one was getting at him. Then I saw the knife. The tall kid, the one Viggo set it on, was lumped up and standing behind his Cricket teammate, who chirped and waved the knife in his right hand. It was a steak knife. Somewhere someone’s silverware set was short a piece. A stainless steel knife with a black handle. German steel, serrated, but crafted elsewhere in the world to keep costs down. A tool intended for cutting food, not meant for carving people up. Did he just draw the weapon or did I only just notice it? Had he used it? No one seemed to be injured. These thoughts ran quickly through my head. I didn’t know any of these people. I didn’t know any of their names before that night, but one individual’s name I would learn and never forget. Carlton Ailse.
Carlton raised the knife and lunged at Viggo, attempting to stab Viggo in his face over the barstool Viggo had grabbed and used the chair to keep Carlton at bay. Viggo was trying to tame a pathetic, cowardly lion. Although Carlton had a knife he still looked shook, frantically stabbing through the air, left and right and in our direction as he slowly walked backwards toward the exit. Every step back Carlton took we followed suit. Martin threw a chair at Carlton, and he ducked out of the way. Martin bounced shuffle pucks off his face. I was to the left of the melee, closer to the bar, Cheri stood off to the side holding her face while others hid and cowered in corners and underneath tables. I took any beer bottles or glasses abandoned on the bar and threw them as hard as I could. I was a closer for the Mets on the mound looking for the final strikeout in the bottom of the ninth. I wanted to hit Carlton in his face and knock him out so we could disarm him. I don’t know what would have happened to him if we did knock him out. It wouldn’t have been good. Why couldn’t we put this fuck down? I’ve seen lesser beings get knocked out easily. I could have ran to the back to grab a pool stick. I could have done something more to incapacitate this kid. Some of my projectiles, as well as the shit my friends were tossing hit its intended target, some bounced off his face deflecting and shattering glass all over the front entrance of the bar. I’m sure we hit some of his friends that were standing behind him, waiting to run out of the door. He was unaffected by any contact, it may have been his adrenaline, or the fear for his life that kept him focused and spastic. Maybe it was whatever hard drugs he was on.
Philip had gone over to check on Ozzy, asking him if he was alright. Ozzy said he was fine. Ozzy explained that he was hit in the face with a beer bottle by the taller kid after he stood up from Viggo’s punch. Blood was coming out of multiple facial cuts but nothing severe. A beer bottle is a funny thing. You can have a bottle broken across your face and nothing can happen at all, not a scratch, or you can be disfigured and horribly scarred for life. Ozzy had a few small gashes but nothing too terrible, superficial at first glance, you might even say lucky. Philip found it odd at the amount of blood on Ozzy’s hooded sweatshirt. It didn’t add up.
“Do me a favor Ozzy, lift your shirt up.”
The glass storefront door to the bar was shattered. The long rectangular vertical windows on both sides of the door were also broken. The neon beer sign was busted and dangling. The old Mets clock was on the floor, destroyed. Collateral damage from the Irish confetti. These were all things that could be replaced unlike a human life.
Carlton didn’t talk anymore shit. He didn’t say anything to us, not a word. He just seemed like he didn’t know what to do next. He wanted to keep the animals at bay, and we were animals. We were provoked and blood thirsty. How dare this coward pull a knife out on us? We were livid, but also careful not to get cut. The friends he had with him dashed out the door, which was now an empty piece of anodized aluminum with a handle. Once he went out, we pursued him as he ran down the street passing his friends who had jumped into a beige Ford Explorer. Pat Winters spider webbed the windshield with a brick he found on the floor, and his brother Moe tried to rip one of them out of the backseat as they peeled out with the door ajar.
Carlton had run to a convenience store down the street, he kept looking over his shoulder, hoping we had quit chasing him. Martin, Viggo and I had not. He had hopped over a three foot wall in the parking lot, but the wall dropped another three feet on the other side. He was standing in the backyard of another dive bar, one that we never went in. When I thought of that place I thought of old coke head dudes, but then again that was every bar in Whitestone.
Carlton was trapped, hiding the knife behind his back, pretending he was unarmed. I wondered if he could relate to those soldiers left alone to die in trenches during times of war. This was war and he looked scared to death despite the false face he wore, despite his bad acting. I wondered if he spoke to God in his mind, if he asked him for help. I’d love to know if he got a response.
“Drop the knife. We’ll shoot the fair one,” said Viggo, who picked up a ceramic potted plant and dropped it on Carlton’s face, smashing it into pieces, though he was unaffected, he was as frantic as ever as dirt fell from his mouth.
“What knife? Come down. There’s no knife, I promise,” said Carlton, with dirt and sweat pasted on his face. “Come see for yourself.”
“I’ll fight you. You fucking pussy,” said Martin, spitting in his face.
Carlton wiped his face, and swung the knife up at us, hacking at the air, “You fucks.”
I should have jumped down into the pit. I should have given up the body, sacrificing myself, taking one for the team to get at him. This was all happening because we merely thought he pulled a knife out. If only I had known. If only we had the proper foresight.
“Hey,” said some drunken hero coming out of the bar. “What’s going on over here?”
“Mind your fucking business,” said Viggo, to a small group of men walking towards us. I understood where they were coming from. From their perspective there were three guys, with the Winters brothers making five, so five young men yelling at one. It looked like we were the bullies in this scenario. It appeared to them that we were harassing him but unbeknownst to them he had pulled a knife and tried to stab us. They should have minded their own fucking business. “This is none of your concern.”
“What the fuck did you say to me?”
We wound up getting into it with the drunken older men in the parking lot. It created a distraction and a moment for Carlton to flee from his crime. Carlton went into the bar through the back door, threw the knife in the bathroom garbage pail on his way out, and exited through the front door like nothing happened at all. We allowed the culprit get away. He was gone but we would learn his name. An odious name that would forever fill me with a burdening feeling of regret and hatred. It was not over and might not ever be. We failed to look out, letting Ozzy down, and that was something we would have to live with for the remainder of our lives.