I thought about the night Gordon got carved up in the car ride on the way to roll on those GTL kids. I hadn’t thought about that in a while. My feelings on that never wavered. I thought about blood. How I used to hate the sight of it, how I liked horror movies because I knew it was fake. There was no feeling of compunction. I felt no remorse. The whole normality of violence in our lives on a daily basis left us apathetic.
I thought about the crash. I thought about how easily that accident could have gone the other way. It was selfish of me but there wouldn’t be this intense pain had we not survived. Others would have to bear that pain. We were brash and reckless, unconcerned by the certitude that we are transient beings, and continually tip toeing on the verge of ruination. We would live out the rest of whatever we made of ourselves, for however long we might continue in this shape and form without Ozzy. His spirit would live on in our remembrance. The realization was enough that I could’ve cried right then and there in the car. Instead I just wanted to hurt someone. Maybe I wanted to hurt everyone. The anger inside me caused my entire body to contract and tense up. I wanted others to know true pain intimately like the way we knew it, for them to know well the loss we felt and what that does to a person.
We thought we were handling ourselves like men. We reckoned we replenished our tears with a cascade of whiskey. It was a testimonial of our mettle, a proper demonstration of manliness to combat our sorrow by throwing punches. Heavy hearts and haymakers. True cowboy shit. I knew cowboys cried because I heard their songs.
Some men are tough, not all, some become tough and some are but soften over time. My father was once tough but the world weakened him. Mr. Craven was as tough as his pick up. Kenny was inherently tough. I knew my friends were firsthand. I didn’t see myself as being so but maybe others did. Mr. Polito was tough as nails. I wondered how hard Mr. Polito would have taken Ozzy’s death. He loved Ozzy just as much as anyone who knew him did. Sadly, Mr. Polito beat Ozzy to the summerland.
Mr. Polito was always in front of his house fucking with his American flag, raising it and lowering it, changing out the ropes. Mrs. Polito has kept it at half mast since his passing. He was always sipping on something, mostly beer or espresso. I don’t think I ever saw the man drink water. He would sit on his porch and feast on his zip shit as he called it, homemade capocollo, sopressata, and salami with fresh mozzarella and provolone. Mr. Polito thought everyone deserved a good beating. Everyone. There were no exceptions. A history buff with a professed love of anything war related and a seething disgust for any kind of betrayal. Death to all rats. His head was always shaved and his face was perpetually at five o’clock. Tank top and jeans, sneakers with no socks. Even in his golden years he would have been down to roll with us.
“Colm, boy. You know how much I hate people,” Mr. Polito rhetorically asked, giving me a beer, and throwing a copy of the New York Post in the garbage can on the side of his house. “I can’t read these fucking tabloids anymore. There is nothing newsworthy in that shit. What was all the commotion on the corner the other night with you and your cousin?”
“What are you talking about?” I smiled, red in the face.
“Don’t bullshit me. I watched the whole thing from my porch. Did the guy deserve it? I bet he did. Try to be a little more careful. That was a little too exposed. If me and Cookie Hill saw you guys maybe others saw you as well. Be more discreet with your vengeance, Irishman.”
“We had an opening and took it.”
“I understand. Hey, have a seat out front. I want to show you something.” Mr. Polito went inside the house and quickly came back holding a large knife. “Look at this beaut. I just got it. Feel the weight of this bitch.”
“Solid,” I said, weighing it in my hand, heavier than I would have expected.
“Do you know what year World War one started?”
I guessed 1915.
“Close, Colm. Not a bad guess at all. It started in 1914 and ended in ‘18. 18 million people died in that four year span. Countless people were injured. Trench warfare at its zenith. They dug trenches zigzagging all across Europe. This lady was some poor bastard’s last hope. It’s German, Nahkampfmesser, close combat knife. If the enemy penetrated the trench, up and over the sandbags and barbed wire, over the parapet, and their out of bullets, they might have caught the receiving end of this. Which means you were fucked. Something like 99 percent of stomach wounds in that war resulted in death. The trench knife is specifically designed to be fatal. Do you know the difference between parapet and parados?”
“No, I don’t.”
“They don’t teach you this shit in school?”
“No, not really.”
“The parapet wall faces the enemy and the parados wall faces the rear.”
“You know the Irish took heavy losses in WWI fighting for an enemy. How fucked is that? Fighting a war that you have no stake in, for the people who’ve starved you. But nevertheless they still fought. There is respect in that. They used the war to spark the uprising. Smart fuckers. They say there are no atheists in foxholes but I don’t believe that. I think when your number is called, it’s called. You know no one is looking out for you if you’re even in a foxhole. I think that in itself is an answer to the cosmic question. Anyway, You’re a good man, Colm. Just be careful. Don’t bring this shit to your doorstep. Keep the yard clean. You got me?”
I understood what Mr. Polito was saying to me.
“There are a number of things a boy can do to become a man, or that a man can do to build character. Work hard at something. Some fist fight or little lame scuffles in the street and chasing around a piece of ass is not enough to make you a man. You need some real life altering shit to happen to change. Digging a trench builds character, better yet digging a grave is really what builds character. You following? That’s enough advice for today.”
We finished our beers talking about the Mets.
It was clear to me that I had simple tastes and on that drive to commit some Class D felonies that there were very few aspects of this world that I enjoyed and I mostly felt disdain or indifference. I was beyond depressed, and even the adrenaline from various criminalities had lost its edge. Nothing was pulling me out of the hole Ozzy’s absence crammed me into. Majority of the people I admired were dead and gone. The greater part of the living populace were a massive let down. Everything was steeped in disappointment. I, too, was a calamity. Life was saturated with frustration and shortcomings, it deformed my perception and left me imbued with animosity.
Life was a hunt for meaning along hazardous roads with zero visibility to a destination that no longer existed.
What was the point if nothing lasted, if nothing was appreciated? People were deplorable. Very little that you come into contact with in this time can be believed. The world was a coliseum of hypocrites and back stabbers. Barely sophisticated, petty animals. It was hard to stay positive because humans were the lowest of the low and I no longer wanted to partake in this farce. No longer did it seem necessary to just go through the motions. The growing stupidity of this planet overwhelmed the logical mind. It was all apparent in the way the justice system handled Ozzy’s murder. We rolled onward as the earth rotated on its axis against my wishes.
My youth had a punk rock aesthetic. It was one of anger and irreverence, with many high and low points but which are the ones we brood about. I was defiant, rebellious to most authoritative figures who tried to instill their values or ideals onto me. What is being a teenager about if not to rebel? The problem was that we carried it over into adulthood. We harbored distrust for most humans, standing in the park with arms folded, our fists clenched and teeth clamped down. We went from detention and suspensions to central booking and courtrooms. We got yelled at by the principal by day and yelled at by the police at night. We were problems, still.
We were all dealing with our own personal issues and maybe that was why we all connected on a deeper level. We needed a release and violence was the valve.
My thoughts always delved into darker subject matter, which the majority of the time was upsetting but I internalized it, I rarely spoke to anyone about my feelings, my truest and most painful feelings remained under lock and key. I didn’t unearth them from wherever within me they were buried. I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to pinpoint what things fucked me up but you wouldn’t hear it from me. Ozzy and Maeve knew, as well as others, about my father’s debilitation and my mother’s departure, but I never went any deeper than the surface level of my family’s destructive tendencies. I had my hate, I had a surplus of it.
I willed that hate for all those people who made the cut, for the dumb kids we targeted, we headed straight to their park to confront them, to punish them, even if for trivial reasons our lives intersected and butted heads. They were mere cunts whose confidence was fanned by the lies they propagated, generously spread untruths inseminated into the gullible minds of the jocks. They obtained their rep from recreant cheap shots thrown during already won battles and with arrogance purchased by their parents. Sometimes the worst ones are the spoiled and enabled. The thought of them alone made me want to take the chipping hammer I used at work to beat rust off old steel to remove their teeth instead. I was also too self aware to not think that maybe there was a hint of jealousy that made me despise them so much. Envious of their opportunity or not, I still revelled at the idea of destroying those smug smiles that seared my small frail ego, or worse my dissipating soul. I would’ve enjoyed carving out their eyes, blacking out their sheep mentalities and false sense of cool. It was difficult to grasp that anyone could really like these people. I wished them ill. A plague on all their basement apartments.
But did I want them dead? Did they deserve that? Was I capable of murder? I had never thought so but who really knows how far one can go. They weren’t worth my freedom. You couldn’t really justify exterminating people because they’re pieces of shit or because they promote wack brands or bad trends, or adhere to radical politics. I wanted for them to hurt badly, but not necessarily to perish, now if they were to die some other night, by some other person’s fist or some odd act of fate, if they met their maker whoever that may be, well, to be honest I would feel great. I would feel just fine, joyous even. A party might’ve been thrown. Schadenfreude at it’s finest but I was just being honest. I also wasn’t oblivious to the idea that something may be wrong with me and my thought processes and therapy might be better than talking to myself.
I don’t know what they thought of our crew. It was clear that they didn’t think much of us. Our circle of friends were the odd guys out, we were the misfits. A motley crew of various styles and social classes with differing ideologies that just didn’t seem to sit well with others. Majority of the kids repping our team were not considered cool. Most of us weren’t the self absorbed kids who got the newest sneakers when it dropped or the latest thing just because, that wasn’t us, we were not the ones flaunting superiority complexes based on what name was monogrammed onto our clothes. Everlast said the truth, Calvin Klein is no friend of mine. Sure some had nice things, but most of us did not. My Timbs might have been real but my Tommy Hilfiger shirt wasn’t. My mom thought I wanted that, she thought she was hooking it up, but I wore it anyway to make her happy and because I really didn’t care about its authenticity. It wasn’t fooling anyone.
Then we hunted, we stalked our enemies, circling like sharks with nice bits of chum in the water, salivating at the slightest hint of blood. We weren’t waiting to catch stragglers. We wanted them all, as many as possible to satisfy our bloodlust. They were right where Sonny said they would be. Those frauds. Everything about them was false. False personas. False identities. Tellers of tall tales, incapable of truth, inaccurately spinning events, spreading rumors that benefitted them and their fraudulent image. They were the type of people to say anything to maintain their cherished illusion.
I supposed we were all flawed, only they were beyond flawed, deficient in character, and lacking integrity and overall decency. Then it dawned on me the time that some kids who I always presumed were GTL, pulled a knife on Ozzy and myself on our walk home years back.
We were en route to Ozzy’s house from the park, I was going to sleep over, Martin was already there waiting for us to drink beer and watch a movie. We didn’t get far that night because trouble approached. We were not the targets of a potential robbery. We knew exactly what was going on. We were getting rolled. An old teal Ford Tempo crept up on us, clocking us hard as they drove past us at two miles per hour. The car had five people in it. I Imagined there was a discussion inside that car, a council voting on whether or not to engage the two of us. With the odds in their favor it had to be easy to come to a decision. I doubted they were really looking for a test and that was why the car came to a sudden halt. Ozzy was always quick on his feet, fast with a quip or a punch. He armed himself with a snag of an empty Snapple bottle from a recycling pail.
The driver remained seated as three doors opened and quickly slammed closed, the four passengers exited and approached us. A weird sense of dread and panic filled me as the sound of tiny rocks crunched between the road and their sneakers. They came up on us. All of them saying the same thing. What’s up? What’s up? I was guilty of saying that myself when shortly after I would start rolling on people as well. It’s just a funny thing to say to someone before you fight them if you think about it. I guess that’s just the thing to say in those situations. They asked us what was up as they formed the letter Y. They seemed to lose some traction when we didn’t budge, we stood our ground as we were taught to do, they were even more apprehensive as Ozzy popped shit back at them, while brandishing the bottle at them.
It was then I noticed one of our adversaries whose both hands were raised in the air, using his left hand to point to his right hand, in it was a knife. I felt strange, not as much scared which I was but a feeling more in tune to watching the Mets blow the lead in the ninth. My feeling was more like what the fuck, in a moment of condemned acceptance. Was it bad luck? The probability of things like this in that era was high. The wrong walk at the wrong time on the wrong night. The reality was that it could happen to anyone at any time, anywhere in the world. It seemed inevitable then that one of us if not both of us were likely to get stabbed or cut, not something you get voted for in your junior high school yearbook. A nice awkward photo of you with a bad haircut with a caption underneath, most likely to become a pincushion or vacation at Rikers Island.
I attempted to negotiate some peace, a detente between factions. They had demands. They wanted Ozzy to disarm, they wanted him to drop the bottle to which his response was, ‘fuck no’. I reasoned that it was clear we didn’t know them, if they were looking for someone in particular, well then it wasn’t us. There was no need for hostility or any scuffle to go down. They could just hop back in their shitty whip and be out, no harm, no foul. If you asked me if it was the GTL kids, I couldn’t honestly say it was even though it most likely was. This predated our beef with that crew by a few seasons. Not only did you have to watch out for people whom you actually had beef with but you had to be on your toes for any crews that might be rolling for other kids in your neighborhood or out of sheer boredom.
“Put the bottle down.”
“Put down the fucking bottle.” I wouldn’t have thought the bottle in Ozzy’s hand would have given us some much leverage. They were cautious despite the chatter. Strange how apprehensive they were to engage the two of us. If they wanted to, they could have easily set it on us. Maybe they hoped we would punk out and run, then they could brag and talk shit all the while deep down they weren’t fully committed. If the situation was reversed and we rolled on two scrawny adolescent boys a bottle wouldn’t save them from the reckoning. We would have left our prepubescent selves in puddles of blood, toothless. But we wouldn’t be the type of grown men who patrolled around the streets looking for junior high school kids to fuck up. It spoke volumes about how the cunts behaved. They were willing to stomp us out or try to stab us but none of them were willing to take a bottle to the face in the process.
Ozzy said, “Fuck you,” as he pumped faked the bottle at them, making them all flinch.
Ozzy said fuck you to anyone who deserved it and maybe a few who didn’t. It didn’t matter if you were his parents, a teacher, a principal, a foreman, or his boss. He was respectful until you lost his respect. Few people like Mort Durfee, ever regained his respect back.
There was a lot of goading and about five feet between us. I found it odd that the whole time we stood before each other they didn’t rep any crew, nor did they ask us what we wrote or what crew we pushed.
“Look man, we don’t know you. We have no problem with you guys. Just get in your car and be on your way,” I said, in a poor attempt at diplomacy.
“Fuck these kids.”
“Fuck you, you fucking old herbs,” said Ozzy.
“I don’t know who you are looking for but it’s not us. We live here. We’re just trying to get home without incident.” I hoped I wasn’t sounding like a complete pussy, though it felt like I was. “Just leave, man. Just leave.”
“You know what little man, you’re right.”
“Yeah dude, this doesn’t have to happen. Everyone just goes their separate ways.”
“Shut the fuck up,” he said to his boys who chirped louder and louder behind him. He walked toward me with his hand held out. “We good, right? You kids are real hard rocks. I respect that.”
I felt relieved but it was momentary. I shook his hand and he pulled me into a half assed hug. I had done it. I mediated the conflict, it was all sorted out. No problem. As he turned his back to me to head back to their Tempo, he spun around and I felt the blast of a lightning fast sucker punch, as if I got hit with my own sledgehammer, he buried his fist into the bridge of my nose, my eye and cheekbone, my naivete got me dropped like the energetic felling of a failed bridge. It was all one fluid motion. I had made a big mistake. I let my guard down. I trusted this man at his word. A meaningless handshake and a hard lesson learned.
I looked at the night sky for a second, the moon peered out from behind the silhouette of the tree branches above me, and before they could pounce or stab me, I jetted, which I would regret for a lifetime. Ozzy launched the bottle and followed suit, which I’m sure with his innate talent for throwing bottles, he probably connected with one of their faces, hopefully. We ran down the street, hauling ass the short distance to the stores to see if anyone was around to regroup and defend against these fucks. No one was there. Everyone had gone home. The kids in the Tempo never double backed, they didn’t come back around to find us. I felt like a coward, standing in front of the tagged payphone, my face throbbing, a pain I had never felt before and my nose leaking with blood. I remember standing there and idolizing Ozzy in my mind. He wasn’t scared at all or at least he didn’t look at it. I admired how fearless Ozzy was. If he was afraid then I admired how well he was able to mask that fear. He stood beside me and only left because I did. He was ready to go however far it would have gone. I made a note of that. I wanted to diffuse the situation, more so than I wanted to fight what seemed like a certain loss, that was my problem, I needed to change my mentality to always thinking we were going to win no matter what. We knew it would have ended badly for us, and it sucked but it could have been much worse. We would really never know what might have been if we fought, maybe we would have hurt them too. It left me with one of the many shiners I would become accustomed to sporting over the years.
My eye closed up. I couldn’t open it if my life depended on it. Ozzy kept asking me if I was ok to which my reply was yes, though I wasn’t. I realized I lost my Walkman in the process. The headphones were still around my neck, the cord dangled, connected to nothing. The pouch of my hooded sweatshirt was empty. I was pissed as was Ozzy. My Cannibal Corpse/Deicide tape Kenny made me was in it. I hoped they died on their way home. We looked for it on the walk home, It wasn’t anywhere to be found. It fell out of my pocket when I got dropped and they must have snatched it after. I slept on the Craven’s couch that night. We didn’t watch the movie Martin rented. I never even asked what movie it was. I tossed and turned the whole night, replaying it over and over, wondering about all the different outcomes. I had been punched in the face before then, but that fucker’s sucker punch was the hardest I have been hit up until that night, and the most painful.
Mr. Craven noticed me the next morning as he got ready for work. He tapped me on the shoulder, I rolled over and looked at him through one good eye and said, “Here. Put this on it.” He handed me a bag of frozen peas. Green Giant. He didn’t say anything else and I wasn’t feeling so talkative. I nodded.
The GTL guys were fucking assholes. The type of people who called you a ‘pussy’ as five of them jumped you. It didn’t matter that you stood and raised your fists to fight them, alone even. They clearly misunderstood the meaning of the insult. They were the type of guys that when they ran into you at a neighborhood bar when they were alone would shake your hand, and bullshit with you and act like everything was cool. It was a ploy. If you saw the same person with his crew they would try to play you out, by acting like a hard rock and trying to flex. They barked, trying to goad you into an altercation not because they actually want it but to impress their friends. They might even just set it on you. You shouldn’t be offended by how fake they are, or caught off guard by them. Their behavior was familiar and predictable. Those fucks couldn’t help themselves. They didn’t think for themselves. They based all of their decisions on the thoughts of others. They were worse than sheep.
I wasn’t concerned if they hated my guts or if we had unending beef. I only cared about consistency. Keep it honest, steady as a painter’s hand. Don’t front. Don’t act like we’re boys when we’re not. Don’t hug me and then bad mouth me to others. That shit always comes full circle, even if some shit talk takes a longer route. The Galaxy was small, way too small. Maybe I was just old fashioned. I wanted to be a man of my word, a man of integrity even though youth itself is often undignified. I guess it was a ridiculous notion to hold others to the same standards I imposed on myself.
My left ear rang and my earlobes were boiling, flushed with blood. Was it good or bad when your left ear rang when people talked about you? I could never remember correctly. I assumed it was bad.
I thought about how I wanted their houses burned down to nothing but ash. I wanted their worlds ripped apart. I didn’t want to breathe the same air as them, let alone occupy the same borough, state, country or planet with them. I had to find a new world like Al Green. There was nothing I wanted to have in common with them. There was nothing I wanted to share with them. Absolutely nothing. I wondered if they hated us as much. I would think of them less and less as I got older, until they diminished into indifference, but I still wonder why they lived.
We had packed three cars. Forgive me father, but it had been quite a while since my last roll up. Things had died down in the neighborhood over the last couple of months, which probably best for everyone. The park we were going to rush was accessible from many entrances. Two cars were parked on one side of the park, hidden behind the houses and trees. We parked on the street down from where they were hanging out. We gave each other time to assemble and the others would wait for us to set it.
I pulled the spray sock over my head, tucking my hair back into the cowl. I handed the other spray socks in the pack of twelve to Martin, Viggo, Wilhelm and Sonny. We masked up because there were too many rats out there and none of us wanted to catch a case. Not that it would be too hard to figure out exactly who we were. We were all dressed for a funeral. This also marked the first time I think we ever rolled on anyone in suits. We placed our suit jackets in the trunk of Sonny’s car. The whip was a hand me down but he loved it. We all did. Sonny drove a bad-ass ‘88 Cadillac Coupe Deville, a sky blue two door with white canvas top and matching white leather interior. It smelled like a cross between pizza and beer, with a hint of Cool Water. The Purple Tape made a home in the dashboard.
The jackets piled up next to a milk crate full of Krylon and Rustoleum spray paint, unopened packs of labels stolen from the Post Office in Whitestone Village and equipment from our old softball team. Sonny’s tag was Dials, and he had style but wrote graffiti sporadically. There were also an assortment of weapons he procured. Sonny had a golf club that belonged to his deceased grandfather, which was streaked with paint from someone’s car I had hit with it last year. There were a couple of aluminum bats, one was dinged up pretty bad but the others could still be used for its original intention. There were some tools, a rubber mallet and a chain. There was something for each of us.
We made our choices and Sonny slammed the trunk closed. From where we stood up the street from them we saw them all hanging out, having some beers, talking and laughing at something presumably idiotic or trite. Then I saw something that made it shittier.
“Martin, do you see it?”
“The moment we pulled up.”
Blair was parked in front of the park with the car running, and talking to one of them through the driver’s side window. The kid was bent over with his forearms resting on the top of the car door.
“You alright, bud?”
“Yeah.” It was an impossibility that Martin could be alright on that day or night, or possibly for the rest of his life. What he saw, or whatever vivid thoughts ran through his mind were pittance in comparison to the severity of death.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m finished,” said Martin, chugging the last inch at the bottom of forty ounce Olde English. He twisted the cap closed tight. He looked at the bottle, as if he was weighing some unsaid options or reassurances inside his head. I could hear inside my own head those epic battle scenes in movies when a king or soldier would yell out commands in vast fields. Archers! Martin took a step back, found his target and released the bottle with all his might. As soon as the recycled brown paper that covered the glass left Martin’s fingertips we were off and running toward the enemy full of heartache and fury. No words and no warning other than the bottle connecting with and shattering Blair’s back windshield, shock and awe.
We fought while there was no great war to define our generation. We didn’t have any world wars, no Korea or our own Vietnam. We were children during Desert Storm. I remember the drills in elementary school, sitting indian style underneath dirty desks. We were still years away from 9/11 and going to war with Iraq and Afghanistan. We didn’t have the call to arms that others had to make us men. Instead we had the park. It doesn’t compare but that was what we had. We made our little crews. We had friendships that were unbreakable and some that would crumble and fade away. Together we engaged in our own battles and shed blood. We displayed heart and valor in a way most people would never understand. We rushed those kids, with our hearts pumping with hate, and in the end, it would just be another story. A story for nights at the bar when we’re older, if we’re fortunate enough to grow old, reminiscing about our drunk and disorderly youth when we’re fat and bald and tired and weak and defeated, and each one of us will know how badly we missed those days, those days before Ozzy’s death, before we learned that we were indeed, destructible and mortal.
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