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September 16, 2019 | Rome, Italy

Double Nickel

By | 2019-01-03T11:51:58+02:00 December 20th, 2018|"Short Fiction"|
"The Blue Devils’ ascent accords with John Patsy’s appointment to head coach…"

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel titled “Further from Home,” set largely in an imaginary Long Island high school.

Dan’s been watching Larry in the high school hallways since he was a weenie freshman. Larry was hard to miss. His number was above the mean in terms of teenage attractiveness. That’s just a fact weenie Dan told himself when he observed, on his first day of high school, freshman girls audibly exhale and grab their chests in adorably agonized swoons when sophomore Larry passed. Dan hadn’t believed that was a real thing, girls truly behaving like the boy-crazed characters of 1990s television.

It’s not like Dan didn’t know what a good-looking guy looked like. He did for Christ sake. Just like he knew an ugly one. Larry was like the polar outlier, is how Dan preferred to see it; the opposite of a very ugly guy. The way girls fell all over the place, impressing upon each other just how swoony and hot they were for him, like it was a goddamn competition, made Dan sick. So it’s like Dan hadn’t only been watching but also feeling ways about Larry since his first days as a high school weenie.

Larry snagged Dan’s interest for more reasons than his hot number. There was something about Larry, for Dan. Something roused inside him when he saw Larry hook a thumb into his backpack strap and walk a task-oriented pace to class. Dan hated that he even had to grapple internally with the whole good-looking question when he observed Larry during an outrageously early 4th period lunch and wondered why he sat at a table with other unconversant students, as if he were at an urban bus station eating cart-bought food.

He wasn’t obsessed. His passing curiosities only roused within Larry’s visual presence. But then he really had to know. Why was Larry always alone?

***

A month into the academic year, characters familiar to Huntington’s upperclassmen showed up in the high school’s south wing. These were guys who’d once been enrolled Huntington High School students but were expelled for behavioral problems, or sent to vocational programs for aptitude reasons, or had just self-terminated their scholastic journey for unknown but probably troubling domestic reasons. Their arrival was perennial, an attraction like sea turtles nesting. Expected. The hallways sizzled with rumors and reports. Dan heard through the old grapevine the arrivals that surfaced during lunch periods to make sales and new connections for Speedy, then hung around grubbing money.

Speedy was a Huntington household name, a legendary drug lord operating out of the Whitman projects for generations, it was alleged. Speedy’s branded dime bags were emblazoned with a red bandana you had to squint to make out the skull and crossbones on, and were so overstuffed the single-track zip bags had to be stapled shut. It was rumored that there were two other logoed bags, representing quality and price, whose bandanas scaled with the colors of the American flag, blue being the best and highest. High school rumor had it that Blue Bandana was derived from an ancient Acapulco cannabis strain grafted to high altitude Asian kush and cross pollinated with Moroccan kef. Sequent stock was grown in Africa’s unregulated version of Miracle Grow. Dan heard Blue Bandana got smuggled into North America only once per annum, in late summer when tropical storms whip off the west African coast, in a freighter sailing under cover of an amassing hurricane, is why it’s so rare and pricey. Blue Bandana trichomes were so thick and glistening the buds have been mistaken for rock candy, it’d been said. Dan heard a pinch of Blue rolled into a sticky ball the size of a secretly picked booger and smoked off the end of a cigarette could get you psychotically high for 36 hours. Your parents would find you eating a candlestick in your room or something. That’s why James Abramson’s sister went to rehab at Day Top Village, it’d been alleged.

Dan never got the word on White Bandana.

Coach Patsy’s athletes were simply not allowed to take offense to ribbing and insults lobbed on the practice field, no matter how personal or outrageous. No matter how deviant the accusations, how hot the language, Patsy and his assistant coaches monitored reactions and demanded playfulness.

The only brand to be found on the Huntington High School grounds was plain old Red Bandana that students were known to smoke through cored apples and Coke cans and even rolled into pink carbon copy detention slips when certain Deli clerks refused to sell Bambú to minors.

And so anyway there began a few former enrollees whom Dan observed to sit with Larry in the cafeteria and sometimes await him after school to traverse the Big “H” shopping center’s parking lot on their way across the Long Island Rail Road tracks. It drove Dan wild with questions.

He finally began asking out loud about Larry’s whole deal, about his speed walking and averted eyes and hustler friends.

The story Dan gathered from older sources started when Larry got bullied by upperclassman Blue Devils football players, at first on account of his clothes, which were hand-me-downs, and his shoes were a brand nobody’d heard of. The word on Huntington High School bullying is that if verbal abuse were a sport, Blue Devils football players were an All-Star team, thanks to their coach’s controversial leadership.

***

The Blue Devils’ ascent accords with John Patsy’s appointment to head coach. Just about everyone in the Division attributed the team’s success to his experimental coaching style: “A psychological schema [he] began developing as an BA student at Albany University’s Psychology program, and where he was lauded as the Great Danes’ star linebacker,” it was reported in the “Long Island Journal” in what had been a sensational profile that stirred up regional controversy. But the results spoke for themselves. The Blue Devils’ drastic improvement in the region’s rankings, as well as in players’ grades, kept Patsy in the town’s graces and the region’s envy. As long as the Devils were winning, administrators at the Huntington Dept. of Ed. holstered their hammers.

Patsy’s psychological schema was simple: emotional conditioning through intense badinage. Heavy banter kept the team’s esprit de corps on a positive valence, according to Patsy’s SUNY Field Experiment report, published in the “Journal.”

Patsy’s athletes were simply not allowed to take offense to ribbing and insults lobbed on the practice field, no matter how personal or outrageous. No matter how deviant the accusations, how hot the language, Patsy and his asst. coaches monitored reactions and demanded playfulness. If an insulted Devil didn’t have the mental legerity to banter he was expected to exercise his goddamn sense of humor, make it drop and give twenty so the next time a rib was lobbed it’d bounce right off his invigorated sense of humor’s muscle.

Patsy demanded his players’ emotions grow as strong and obedient as their musculature. By seeding and encouraging high level ribbing, Patsy molded his Devils’ emotions to ring in high hedonic tones. The more they were ribbed and challenged the more joyous the team’s esprit belled.

Blue Devils built more than a tolerance to ribbing and high impact insults. They soon developed a need. When Curtis Jones told Tommy Paulson to “tell your momma stop changing lipsticks, she leaving a rainbow on my dick,” Tommy laughed in right off, even felt an affection for Curtis the way your average pet owner feels tenderly charged when their dog’s been naughty at home. But if it were someone else’s dog you’d like to kick it.

Same on game days.

On the practice field Patsy’d stand on the four-man blocking sled, his linemen driving it down field. “Believe the champion inside you,” he’d bellow. Patsy’s Devils pushed their bodies right up against their physical limit. Burning muscles, searing lungs, hearts pounding with pleas for mercy—their high-tuned spirits wouldn’t weaken. “Muscle will shear from bone before you quit the field,” was another Patsy refrain.

He expected the same of emotional meat.

But compulsory banter lasted up to a good-natured point, and that point involved degrading the team and/or a mate’s actual abilities. On the other hand’s negative valence, when Curtis told halfback Jodie Herring that he was too short to run even close to a Combine regulated 4.4 in the 40 and so the Devils offense couldn’t execute the Double Option to effect and they might as well not even imagine shining a “Division 3 Champions” plaque, Patsy considered it an insult-the-prophet level sin. He took it upon himself to right such outrage.

Patsy’s disciplinary methods involved a nearby hill. According to Patsy’s schema, the way to an athlete’s averse spirit was through his flesh, and violators were made to run sprints up sharp elevations under Patsy’s withering verbal ordinance until they’d been cleansed, usually meaning to puke or collapse. It was a simple system, and it turned players with disobedient flesh and emotional issues into brand new men—physically hardened, mentally swift, on the field and off.

So Dan could totally understand that if Larry didn’t regularly exercise his emotional muscle it wouldn’t have been only ball busting but also heart wrenching when his pre-stained clothes and counterfeit footwear were pointed out and laughed at on his very first day in high school. These were upperclassmen ribs from the cream of the athletic crop, veterans of Coach Patsy’s verbal conditioning hot off preseason “Hell Week” practices. Real psychic henchmen. As the stories Dan sought and heard go, Larry didn’t say a word in return. He put his thumbs under his backpack straps and beat the late bell to class.

What defense did he have? It was just something a freshman had to weather, especially if he was cute. Which, again…

***

Dan learned the bullying got worse one day when Cheryl Grovogel picked Larry out of an anonymously freshman lunchtime table. Cheryl was a Junior. Pretty as they come. Her mother worshipped with Larry’s mom at St. Paul’s Lutheran and had been deacons and served on the Church’s alter together when Larry’s mom was pregnant with him. Cheryl’s mouth went oval when she spotted Larry in the cafeteria. “My friends were all like who’s that fresh meat and I was like oh my god I know him stop, ew. Not like you’re gross but like ‘ew’ as in, he’s practically my cousin ‘ew’ kind of ‘ew’,” she said sitting. They spoke casually, ignorant to the murmurs and nose pointing from a nearby upperclassman table until Tommy Paulson, wearing a Blue Devils jersey and carrying an empty plastic Sprite bottle, lumbered over and pulled the chair out from under a freshman weenie.

Diagram of football play on black chalkboard.

Tommy sits next to Larry in his personal space, thigh touching Larry’s thigh. Tommy’s not looking the least bit friendly even though he’s grinning. Larry’s silent table mates suddenly feel a need to explore other high school climes, and are unceremonious about leaving Larry to fend alone. The Blue Devils home opener kicks off in few hours. Tommy’s a senior. Jersey number 55 but the Devils call it Double Nickel. Straight brown hair pushed back and gelled there.

Dan’s seen Tommy’s “Captains” picture in the Devils trophy case in the school atrium, along with action shots from Tommy’s senior year, the first season the football team made the Division quarterfinals.

There’s no visible stubble on Tommy’s pre-game chin. He has a dozen moles on his face and receding into the hair on his temples. Tommy’s about the size of an industrial furnace. Larry senses fire in him. He holds the green Sprite bottle by its top and bops Larry over the head with it. Larry feels his flight instincts rev. Patsy’d label him averse, conflict-wise. Where Larry’s from you don’t get to flee. You either shut a conflict down or take your beating. In his neighborhood taking flight means to become a target for abuse and disrespect for the rest of time. Larry looks through Tommy’s forehead to a horizon he imagines the sun setting on.

“You know this girl,” Tommy asks, bopping Larry again. “What’s goin on, huh? You know this girl right here? Look at me. You know this is my girlfriend?”

“Tommy stop it. Stop it,” Cheryl says as if Tommy were a dog licking himself somewhere nauseating, and it sounds more like “sstp’t.”

“Why you talking to this girl here,” Tommy asks and bops Larry’s head. “Huh? She don’t talk to scrubs like you.” Bop.

“Sstp’t Tommy. Just sstp’t.”

Larry lets the nerves fizzle, staring through Tommy.

“Where you from, Ethiopia?” Tommy says, insinuating Larry looks like a starved child in an ongoing famine. The Devils at Tommy’s table are on a team wavelength and give him aural support. “You ever slid down the shower drain by accident,” he says grinning. Bop. More supportive laughter. “Wormy looking dick,” he adds.

Bop. Larry almost wishes to be punched, to get a real one over with beating-wise. Just have it be done with. Larry knows if Tommy touches him with anything more than an empty bottle there’ll be administrative hell to pay, a suspension, possible removal from the team. The cafeteria is a safe place, allegedly, which doesn’t make him feel better. There’s a playfulness about Tommy’s bops and menace he knows won’t draw attention from lunchtime aides. There’s a lit flare in Larry’s stomach, it feels like. He begins to physically shake.

“Chill, I’m not tryin’a talk to your girl we’re, like, just talking,” Larry says, showing his palms.

“You’re not talking to her you’re just, like, talking to her?” Bop.

“Nah chill,” Larry says.

“Nah chill,” Tommy repeats. And bops.

“Sstp’t. Just sstp’t.”

Larry says nothing. His concentration is all on his shuddering muscles and shivering bones. He’s trying to rev down the instincts, show control, hide fear. He’s never been in a fight. He’s neither flown. He once got jumped in the Whitman projects. Another time, Keef Hatten had ripped the hat off his head then made him arm wrestle to get it back. Larry’s flight instincts had redlined but he’d got down on his knees and arm wrestled Keef and while he was busy with the arm wrestling Keef’s brother Willy picked Larry’s pocket. Larry briefly thinks of his mother. He wants Cheryl to explain to Tommy that they’ve known each other since they were in diapers.

Bop. Bop. And bop.

“Tommy sstp’t!”

“Aright Cheryl,” Larry says, and he’s bopped. “I’ll see ya.” He leaves his unfinished food behind. Tommy’s following him, bopping him on the head, telling him to pull up his pants and insinuating the next place the bottle goes will make him wish he’d never let them sag, and he should try having some respect for himself and stop wearing clothes his dog wouldn’t shit on, plus more insinuation about what may end up in Larry’s rear end for specific time periods if he doesn’t heed Tommy’s warning never to let his eyes wander within 180 degrees of Cheryl again, even by accident.

That was Larry’s freshman year’s week two, is what Dan heard. And he heard it got worse as the months dragged on.

One day, after some extreme lunchtime ribbing, Larry decided to brown bag his lunch and eat peacefully in the library. His whereabouts were quickly sniffed out. Devils smell fear and it drives them wild, spiritually. Two of Tommy’s teammates waited outside the library doors in a hall with no lockers nor reason of any scholarly kind to be there leaning against the wall, and when Larry appeared at the end of the period they said I thought I smelled something, then followed him, ribbing him athletically. They called him Bass Head, which nickname recalled the low-pitched notes the Sprite bottle made against his skull while also insinuating that Larry looked like a vagrant South Huntington crack fiend.

The Blue Devils home opener kicks off in few hours. Tommy’s a senior. Jersey number 55 but the Devils call it Double Nickel. Straight brown hair pushed back and gelled there.

Bass Head Larry. It didn’t catch on outside the Blue Devils cream, in terms of the civilian high school population. It remained property of the Hunt. Athl. Dept. It’s use mounting in frequency on days when Devils prowled the hallways in jerseys. Ribbing Larry was like a pregame warmup.

Cheryl may have kept a peaceful distance, but to her secret credit she mobilized her girlfriends to Larry’s defense.

For a few days the Devils went quiet. No shoves in the back. No holding up No. 2 pencils and aiming an eye and saying where’d you go Bass Head I can’t see you behind there; no stepping on his sneakers to “clean off the dirt” saying they ain’t Reeboks they’re Ree-nots. Because Cheryl’s girlfriends slapped their boyfriends’ shoulders and told them they were being rude assholes. Cheryl secretly extracted promises that they would give their boyfriends shit, privately, if the boyfriends kept it up. And they did, the girlfriends gave their boyfriends personal shit for bullying poor Larry, and the ribbing was put to a swift end. For a few days Larry walked the hallways in peace, thumbs in his backpack straps, eyes averse to the athletic cream and upper-class girls alike.

Within a week the ribbing restarted, predictably, and was worse than ever, predictably. Anyone’s guess whether girlfriends punched jerseyed shoulders and gave boyfriends private shit anymore, although Larry noticed the worst happened out of girlfriend eye and -earshot. Not that he dared look in the girls’ vicinity, in heed of Tommy’s admonishment.

He did not want to run. Call it a trick of nature. That day Tommy’d bopped him over the head in the cafeteria, he’d acted on instinct, and he’d survived. Now flight was preserved in his nature, is how Larry looked at it with great shame. You survive when you run, but as a loser. Then again, same happens when you fight an unbeatable adversary. Maybe it was better to die violently than to survive frightened. The question kept Larry up at night. Hadn’t he waited for the blows to come? Hadn’t he stood his ground and accepted an outcome: the end?

Especially the shoe stepping got worse, which was like a gateway contact to more frequent and severe contact, evolving into trips and pushes against lockers. Devils even tried the old stuff-a-weenie-all-the-way-inside-a-locker gag, to cage Larry in there hanging from a coat hook. Lucky for him, Huntington High School’s lockers are too shallow to fit a human body inside, even one as skinny and compliant as Larry’s.

He was trapped inside himself, it dawned on Larry. Tommy had encased him in his own confusion. Larry accepted the beating that never came. He wanted the beating, the end. He bowed and complied to minor assaults as a starved man kneels to pick among fallen scraps. It was only a game to the Devils, one they couldn’t lose, is what made it such frenzied fun. Larry wanted to lose the game and make it stop.

Larry’s eye contact aversion and fast tracking between bells had the perverse opposite effect of Tommy’s warning. Larry’s compliance catalyzed the Devils, and the more they shoved and ribbed the more cooperative he became, even to a point of courtesy. Whenever Tommy darkened the hallway ahead, Larry’s eyes pulled focus and he paused, head slightly bowed for Tommy’s inevitable hair tousle (“You being a good boy? Huh? You little shit.”), which was not good natured, and hurt, and was the reason Larry went to the House of Fades barber shop and spent three weekly lunch budgets and went hungry in order to have his hair cut really short.

When Larry walked into school the following morning the Devils were eerily calm. They observed silently, hesitating, Larry’s head like a loose ball in the open, almost too good to be true. Larry’s new haircut practically glowed and pulsed, like a neon arrow pointing to all kinds of insecurities to prod and rib. And yet it seemed somehow defiant. These were the type of field experiment circumstances Coach Patsy had built his schema upon.

Who knows how Patsy would have rectified the outrage when Larry was surrounded by Devils in the second floor west wing bathroom—the one near the Science Labs that made for ingenious bathroom jokes—leaving him soaked in toilet water and corresponding body fluids, and gashed above his right eyebrow from either a fist or the toilet’s porcelain rim, or both, Larry wasn’t sure.

***

“How your pops, man?”

“He’s inside.”

“He good?”

“He’s alright, I guess.” Larry’s coiling the hose on his house’s 9th street facing side. The fence between him and Caesar Calderon is a kind found nowhere else he’s ever been, decorative wire-fence with loops at the top, several of which are bent in from Larry smashing them, at age 8, with the axe handle his dad kept in the closet by the front door.

“He cut the lawn for us again,” Caesar says from his driveway.

“Nice.”

“Yeah, but now I gotta sweep the grass off the blacktop.” The driveway’s a two-track dirt path to a dilapidated garage. “That was a joke, man.” Larry’s unscrewing one hose from another. Caesar’s family moved next door after Mr. Wandt’s wife died and he left for a Florida retirement and put the house on Section 8. Caesar’s 19, a former Huntington High School enrollee who terminated his scholastic journey when his girlfriend got pregnant before either could legally drive. Everybody calls him Tyson, as in Mike Tyson, and no one who sets eyes on him needs to ask why. Caesar’s wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt with “All Weather Tire” printed on the front and his work’s address and phone number on the back, and Timberlands. He’s holding what appears to be mail. Larry won’t look directly at him. “School good?” Caesar asks.

“Fine,” Larry says. Huntington High School is on austerity, and he lives within a two-mile radius, meaning he doesn’t qualify for bussing. Larry’s neighborhood is a depression in glacial moraine, geologically, meaning the walk is downhill from any direction, and why his dad has a joke about this is where the sludge collects. Grass clippings wipe from the wet hose onto his jeans and he stops to brush them off. Caesar’s brother, Moses, is a grade below Larry, and chubby. He’s got three sisters whose names Larry can’t remember, ever, and he’s always listening for their names, and when someone says one of the names Larry repeats it to them right away, trying to stick it in his memory and to keep them from discovering that he’s forgotten it.

“You gonna have a attitude or you gonna come over when Moses gets home and get this workout in?”

“You being curt,” Caesar observes. “You know that word? Curt?”

Larry shakes his head no.

“Means like you got a attitude, man.” Caesar’s shuffling through what is several days-worth of mail. “You gonna have a attitude or you gonna come over when Moses gets home and get this workout in?” There’s a Weider bench and iron plates with their weight embossed on them in LBS and KG that Caesar, Larry, and Moses drag from the garage three days a week and work out together. Larry’s dad’s always saying Jesus, Caesar’s built like a brick shithouse and asking when’s Larry gonna put on size.

“Maybe,” Larry says.

“Maybe. See, that’s curt,” Caesar observes. It’s a few days into November and this day is T-shirt weather. The grass had stopped growing but then there was a late warm snap and the grass grew imperceptibly. Larry’s dad has an almost millimetric sense for the lawn and a strong opinion about what height it should be. He’d mowed and watered, leaving the hose in the lawn.

“This for you,” Caesar says, holding what’s likely a bill that was mis-delivered, walking towards Larry at the wire fence. Larry’s holding one coiled hose he’s drained the water from, keeping his eyes on it, not looking at Caesar. The whole right side of his head is gored, is how it feels, and it’s not that he doesn’t want Caesar to see it it’s just he doesn’t feel like explaining it, all the months leading up to it and then getting to the inevitable question why didn’t he do anything about it, stand his immediate ground and fight back? You take your beating up front, you learn here on the tracks’ south side. He can’t tell Caesar he hiked when Tommy bopped him on the head like a field mouse, and he hasn’t stopped hiking since. Far as Larry’s concerned he deserved it, made himself a target in flight, zipping through his academic life like a clay pigeon.

He turns to Caesar and takes possession of what is definitely a bill with official stamps and markings Larry can tell are going to set his dad off, and Caesar sees the ding above his brow, lid a ripe blueberry, shining with medical ointment. Caesar’s seen his share of dings, which is a whole other reason they call him Tyson. Caesar says nothing but he’s making faces like he’s chewing something hard, and Larry can practically hear his mental gears turning. When he reaches across the fence and puts his hand on Larry’s shoulder, nodding in emphatic agreement with his internal dialogue, Larry knows a response is under way, because Caesar doesn’t fly.

“I got you,” Caesar says. And for a flickering moment Larry feels relief that makes his knees weak.

***

Larry and Caesar lived within smelling distance of Miguelina’s, a cinderblock building on the corner of New York Ave and The Place to Go for home-made beef patties. Front windows plastered with Musica fliers. Internal appearance like candy in rotten teeth. Larry’d been walking the two blocks since he shed his diapers. A Lloyds radio/cassette player behind the counter played either merengue or baseball and that’s it, ever. Larry’s known the counter lady his whole life. Everyone calls her Muñeca, which Larry misheard as Monica back in his diaper days and has called her Monica ever since he first came in solo to pick up the usual short-list grocery items.

Larry avoided Mig’s when a certain group of south side teenagers hung out by the payphone. Waiting on the opposite corner, he’d heft a foot against the insurance offices’ brick wall and pretend to retie his shoe. He knew what to look for. Speedy’s hustlers accessorized their outfits as a show of force and unity. Could be an anchor charm, a parrot feather earring, weird buccaneer looking boots, even an eyepatch, Larry’s seen. If it harkened piratic, you were looking at a hustler. Higher positions’ looks were more outrageous, like full-on costumes, is what you learned growing up south of the tracks. Larry once saw a guy leave Miguelina’s in a gold brocade gothic jacket—black velvet coattails with a million buttons, for Christ sake—and get into a Mercedes Benz, a Jolly Roger flying from the antenna. A real big shot, Larry thought. Although there was that house down the street Larry watched get raided one bright summer afternoon. It was all over the local news later, the raid, what a big load of cash and weapons and marijuana they’d found. But in the mugshot Channel 2 broadcast over and over, just the tip of the guy’s beard was blue. Goes to show, you can never tell.

Anyway, the young ones were seriously vicious and always looking to prove a point. When he saw teens in red pants and shiny black belts with brass buckles or something, he didn’t go near the place.

Unless, like on this day, he went with Caesar.

And on this day, Caesar had a plan.

***

The tension between Larry and the Devils seemed to recede with his eye’s swelling. The lull in ribbings and shoves could’ve been mistaken for peace, though Larry’s not feeling peaceful at all, even when certain upperclassmen nod respectfully in the hallway. Larry sees it more like they’re thankful he didn’t snitch and get them suspended, or worse, kicked off the team. Blue Devils football has had its winningest season in generational memory.

It’s a Friday, and the Division Quarterfinals game day.

Larry’s ding is a crusty sliver, eye socket tie-dyed yellow and green.

The high school cafeteria and south wing hallways from the renovated theatre to the car-and-wood shop bays are a Red Bandana black market. Speedy’s pirates are careful to carry regulation backpacks and silence their beepers and not wear hats or violate the dress code in attention getting ways. They slip in and out of the student flow, hiding in bathrooms between periods, reappearing with the tardy bells’ rhythm. Word today is certain stapled bags are especially shwaggy, with lots of seeds and stems and what appear to be pencil shavings, and don’t be shy to shop around. There’re more hustlers today than on your usual Friday, according to the circulating word.

Larry’s lunch is 5th period this year. Your average high school Friday word travels fast. Before the late bell rings duly enrolled scholars are already buzzing Larry’s table. He’s sitting with the arrivals—three pirates. There are three more by the vending machine. Scholars shopping for Red Bandana are turned away with an unceremonious fuck outta here, and Larry wonders how the word will spread on that. He’s nervous. The plan’s been set in motion and he has no control now. “Where’s Caesar?”

The emotional hurdle for Larry involves the Devils in his lunch period who’ve done him no wrong, never ribbed nor shoved. He has no ill will concerning the neutrals. He’s got no control over their fate once what he’s set in motion unfolds.

“You see him today?”

His illest wishes are for the five Devils who were in the Science Hall bathroom that day. Only one of them has fifth period lunch. Tommy Paulson. Moles on his face. Hair pushed back and gelled there. Jersey number double nickel. Larry’s told the pirates. He’s only in the cafeteria on gamedays, for school spirit’s sake, when he doesn’t exercise his senior privilege to drive someplace for lunch. “Like if he doesn’t come what do we do?”

When the late bell rings the rest of the motley clothed hustlers take a highly visible seat at Larry’s table. Leather wrist straps. Colored ribbons braided into hair. Monmouth caps. An actual baldric, which looks ridiculous over a Carhartt sweater.

It’s not so much a plan as a license. Anyone wearing a Blue Devils jersey is a target for open assault. Just go get’m is the mode of this operation.

A few Devils have gone through the lunch line and now carry trays and take individual seats with what appear to be girlfriends. “Tommy Paulson, double nickel,” Larry says as the pirates stand and rub their hands appetizingly and mumble shit’s about to go down for real to each other. Respiration has audibly risen. They move together at first. It’s a scene. Heads turn.

Two pirates break towards a single blue jersey at a tableful of girls.

“Double nickel,” nodding toward a table near the windows.

Tommy’s sitting with two Devils. More might be on the way, Larry doesn’t know. Two pirates circle northward. “Double nickel,” Larry repeats. “Got’m,” someone says real close to Larry. It’s like Larry’s legs are moving on their own, a machine he rides. There’s a crash and the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound of a chair pushing back hard that gets the whole cafeteria’s attention. Lunch aides move at an unexercised bodily pace towards the commotion that now bares the speed-frame quality of your life and death struggles. The whole cafeteria’s gone silent. Aides shouting “stop” mix in and out of mortal threats and terrified girlfriend type screams. Blows land with the sound of potatoes dropped from height.

Tommy’s up from his seat, eyes game-focused. It’s clear he’s ready to intervene on his teammate’s behalf when he’s confronted by several pirates. “Double nickel!” And, finally appearing through the emergency exit door, Caesar, in sweatpants and his work’s T-shirt he’s turned inside out for identification purposes when the local law is sure to be summoned.

Whereupon seeing Caesar, Larry’s redlining flight instinct powers right down, and he feels a sudden spike of adrenaline and cold anger. He feels solid, planted, like you couldn’t drag him out of here now. Plus there’s another emotion he’s never known, but if he had to name it he’d say vengeance.

“What the fuck is going on,” Tommy says.

“This double nickel here, yo.”

“Yeah whattup, you Tommy boy?”

Larry’s in there. With the pirates. He’s among them.

“Larry. Bro, what’s going on, man,” Tommy’s saying. He’s backing up, hands out front as if waiting to catch something delicate when Caesar steps in front of him, blocking Larry’s view.

Dan doesn’t totally believe the parts in the story where knives were wielded and someone’s finger needed to be surgically reattached, but he has full faith, drawn from the characters Dan personally observed Larry intermingle with, that serious wrong-side-of-the-tracks violence occurred, and he knows for a fact that Tommy Paulson was too severely injured to play in the Quarterfinals that day.

The score Dan read in the Devils trophy case recorded a blowout, insinuating Huntington High School’s athletic cream got their asses kicked twice that day.

Dan learned that’s why Larry was left in loner-type peace for the rest of his scholastic journey, and the pirates’ recurrence, while strictly business, was a reminder that he was to be considered unfuckwithable and left to fend.

By the end of Dan’s weenie freshman year, near summer when clothes are shed, Larry’s thin body had noticeably thickened and knotted under Caesar’s backyard weight routine, bringing to Dan’s mind Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues, and he said so out loud when girls began to swoon. “Whoa, lookout, it’s Larry Fitch,” Dan would say, away from Larry’s earshot. It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but it also didn’t come off mean. There was just no way Dan had an interest in insulting Larry outright, not if he wanted to keep his fingers. Plus he had this unbeckoned affinity for Larry that continued to form and take fond shape, secretly, even while Dan took a weenie’s pleasure in poking holes in Larry’s ballooning reputation when nearby girls became audibly girlish.

***

Now, on Dan’s first day as a Huntington High School Junior, as a Blue Devil and a brand-new Monster, he feels an energetic snap when he spots Larry in his English Lit class. It’s like Larry’s made Dan a believer in certain kinds of nonphysical force. He wouldn’t call it attraction. But he’s drawn to Larry in a way that’s hard to explain or evoke.

Dan goes and sits at the desk beside him. Larry’s arms are crossed and Dan observes a tiny feather tattooed on his wrist. He’s wearing a pre-stained shirt with an autobody shop’s name printed in orange block letters, baggy jeans, and a brand-new pair of Nikes Dan imagines Larry saving up his money to buy for himself, which fills Dan with an emotion he’d be embarrassed to describe out loud.

“Whattup,” Dan says. He isn’t sure why, but he has to make Larry his friend.

About the Author:

Erik Rasmussen
— Erik Rasmussen is the author of the novel A Diet Of Worms (Mastodon 2018) and the Editor-In-Chief of At Large magazine. He is at work on his second novel, Further From Home.

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