I. Playing in traffic with scrap metal
It was the latest acquisition from a long stint of obsessive-compulsive behavior on the roadways. Ever since we began to drive, we (and by we, I mean myself and the closely-knit team of fellow maladjusted delinquents with whom I shared my high school years) had developed this nasty habit of picking up roadside debris and claiming it as our own. It never did make sense to me then, and even with grown-up sensibilities now, seems patently ridiculous. At sixteen, however, under the influence of an aggressive peer group, you don't tend to consider such things very rationally.
Part of the appeal was, I think, a perverse kind of exhibitionism. There was a weird thrill in our pre-college years that could never quite be equaled by us jumping out onto a busy highway or interstate, turning cartwheels across empty lanes with barely a thought to the possibility of oncoming traffic, snatching the stray hubcab or boot from its resting place on the shoulder or gutter, then hightailing it back to our van, the tires still smoldering with about forty feet of grease behind it from the sudden stop. We were the gallant swashbucklers, the heroes of derring-do, who risked life and limb to claim the unwanted spoils of the asphalt for our own, though for us it often meant a din of wailing horns, and abrasive catcalls lost to the Doppler effect. Oh, how lost and misunderstood we were by everyone in those turbulent times! Woe to us, the wretched misanthropes of adolescence!
We all grew up, in body if not in mind, and went our separate ways, gravitating to various universities of higher learning or menial wage slave jobs. Still, the topic was broached up at many an impromptu gathering in the interstitial period before we drifted apart for good -- reminiscing upon the various antics we pulled in high school. It was after such a meeting on one steamy July night that, heady with inspiration, I found the object in question. I had driven alone to a small parking lot not far where I lived, reflecting on the way our varies fortunes diverged in the past year, when I saw it, barely visible at the periphery of the circle cast by a sickly, flickering streetlight.
I half-staggered a few feet over to take a look, the evening's fare of vodka and Chinese fried rice dancing a wretched tango in my guts. The pry bar was bottle-green, about a yard long, and scratched in numerous places. There were no overt clues around it to suggest why it had been simply left there in the poorly-defined parking space; the claw was a bit stripped, but still in good condition. The most likely scenario I could imagine was that somebody had absently set the thing on the ground and driven off without remembering to collect it, but how many uses can a crowbar have in a shopping center parking lot? Besides smashing wooden crates and windows, that is.
I gave it about three seconds more thought before I realized that I needed to wake up in about five hours to drive the eighty miles or so back to university. Opening up the backdoor of my tiny pre-owned subcompact, I placed my latest trophy on the floorboard -- for the first time, completely alone in the acquisition -- and went the rest of the way home legally drunk, twice almost nodding off at the wheel from the monotony of the dark country roads.
II. Stuck in the middle
Two more weeks of university passed without much incident. I found a stray parking spot early next day on Sunday morning, anchored the old Ford about a kilometer away from my dormitory, and went through the same basic routine of work, school, cafeteria, study, and sleep, during all of which I desperately longed for something more stimulating in a place away from college, which (as this was only my first semester) was quickly becoming stale, boring, and intellectually dry outside of the assigned coursework.
I had complained about this to the small handful of people I had become acquainted with in my dormitory and classes, and was met with the same characteristic blank, incredulous stares -- disbelieving that anyone among their fellow students could possibly find their "lively" alma mater that tired and trite barely past his first set of mid-terms. I was given the usual bevy of recommendations from students and faculty alike, to locate something interesting around campus and get involved in it some way, or (alternatively) get "fucked up really bad on this dime bag I gots right here...hey...where ya goin' punk?"
I didn't have much patience for any of the suggestions that I received, and therefore didn't even try to act on them. There was just something big missing from my life at Uni that seemed so present and stable at home back in high school, that I could never put my finger on. Lack of individual responsibility? No, I had plenty of duties to oversee at school, work, and home. More closely-knit friendships? Probably, but it wasn't as if I were totally without friends or acquaintences here, nor the possibility of spending time with them. The closest answer I could find was the lack of the sort of thrill and excitement that was so much a part of my earlier years, the kind of Goonies-like camraderie that was with us in practically every new undertaking we tried. I realized, after the fact as usual, that stationed between childhood and adulthood, adolescents have this unique kind of gung-ho mentality that drives them above all to explore and experience, supported by a lust for freedom from parental restraints and the desire to find out one's best potential and limits. After high school things seemed a lot more stratified and, more importantly, stabilized. The thought of dodging semi-trailers to pick up lost highway debris would have struck me as immature or irresponsible now, as I was fast approaching my second decade outside the womb. What was of more importance was discipline, order, reliability, and consistency of thought and action. I was starting to view the world in cold, almost purely logical terms. My biggest danger, I think, was in presupposing that others would naturally think the same way that I did. It wasn't long before both attitudes were given a bit of a jolt.
III. Sodomy and Chicken Fingers (heavy on the honey mustard and ranch dressing)
The small shop, situated on the fringes of the low-income ghetto that anchored the west side of campus, had been selling nothing but chicken fingers, french fries, and cole slaw ever since its founding back in the 1960s. Originally populated by mostly students, the place soon became a favored hangout for other neighborhood residents, many of whom stayed well up to the restaurant's closing time of 3 am, every night. The surroundings had a bit of a reputation for being a rough place (especially for whites) after dark, but I wasn't particularly worried about that as I parked my bike and made my way to the door.
Inside the well-lit interior, the skinny, dreadlocked line worker looked at me with a fuck-it-all deadpan gaze and waited silently for my request. I placed an order for two combo meals, which came to a double order of five crispy sticks of mechanically reclaimed animal protein, a handful of oversalted fries, two slabs of garlic toast buttered with the kind of wanton excess you can find only in a southern diner, a waxy cup of Coca-cola, more ice than drink, and two little containers of sauce -- one, a special "patent blend" (snicker) of mayonaise and ketchup, which was to be enjoyed by my LAN partner back at the dorm; the other, a nicely blended sweet honey mustard dip with the appearance and texture of melted Velveeta. I slipped the friendly neighborhood merchant a tenner, got two pennies and a paper bag covered with grease spots in return, then set back off into the cloudy, damp night. I was ready to satisfy my hunger, and that of my Quake III teammate.
Immediately outside I was treated to the unpleasant sight of three young men in a smoking circle smack dab in front of my ragged old Schwinn, puffing Kools and expelling the resultant smoke like volcanoes ready to give way at any second. And one of them was leaning right up against my bike, my intended means of conveyance back to my home. I considered the scene for a moment, then stepped up a bit closer as another caught my eye with the kind of irritated expression my roommate was prone to giving me whenever I caught him jerking off in bed.
"Uh, excuse me, but could you let me get to my bike, please? I'm kind of in a hurry..." my voice petering off at the end as the three fellows broke and surrounded me in a loose triangle formation, with one standing before me and two on each of my flanks. But that left an open enough path to my bike to allow me access to its lock, which I fumbled, bent double, with one hand, unwilling to let my daily bread touch the ground where it could be "accidentally" trampled or kicked by one of these shady characters.
They stepped back a couple of yards to give me enough room to work with it, taking in the sight of a long-haired (about down to the nape of my neck), skinny, obviously timid little white boy who apparently thought he hadn't violated any big social norm by setting foot into one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of the city after midnight. Words carrying officious, threatening overtones buzzed over my ears as my perspiration from the strains of unfastening the lock increased, along with the imminence of threat. The murmurings died briefly, in one of those rare precious moments of communal silence, until one of them, a fellow with scarred arms wearing a black-and-blue do rag, taxing his rudimentary wit to come up with something spontaneous, let out with the derisory line that completely killed my evening:
"...motherfucker look like he bout ready to take it up da ass with a quart of ranch dressing..."
The trio of hooligans exploded in a fit of hysterical laughter, and my ears and face turned as red as the McDonald's sign across the street from the new level of derison that was being forced upon me. But I sucked it all in and kept my rage under control, just barely. I had no desire to stick around this place any more than I needed to, nor risk a confrontation with three thugs at once who I would probably never see again, nor chance our greasy dinner being tossed into the gutter sans honey mustard sauce. I mounted the old iron horse, kicked off the stand, and started pedalling down the street, my left hand holding the take-out bag close to my chest.
Back in the dorm lobby, I tossed the bag on a clear table available and fished out its contents. Eric, clad in flip-flops and a New Order t-shirt, lurched over with a bicycle bottle (one part Everclear to three parts mineral water) to take inventory of his supper, somewhat lightly misted from a drizzle that began about two minutes away from home. We ate in silence until he decided to comment on my palpable declination of cheer:
"Hey, Deckard, man, is there something wrong? You look like you're about ready to throw down or beat your head against the wall, though I can't decide which."
I shrugged and gulped down a barely-chewed mouthful of fries. Both options done simultaneously would have probably been good solutions to confronting the anger and self-disgust that were consuming me that night. Why did I decide just to shut up, take this kind of abuse, and ride away without even acknowledging it? Was I really convinced that I was doing myself, my sense of self-esteem, or my own image any favours by refusing to admit the existence a problem and hoping it would go away? Did I have a serious inability to stand up for myself or anything else important in the face of direct opposition? Heavy questions these were, that made digestion of heavy food even more difficult. I tossed the scraps of my meal in the can and made my way up the stairs to the room, where I found my roommate already in bed but still conscious, a white-flecked, stiff comforter spread over his thighs. His eyes narrowed into disgusted slits at the sudden intrusion, and I managed to greet him and flip off the lights at once with one swift flick of my middle finger.
IV. Courage and a Crowbar
I cut the wheel hard to the left and eased up to the curb between a short little grey VW and one of the monstrous hunks of steel that General Motors calls a Chevrolet Suburban. It's December now, with the drizzle of the summer having given way to sleet and hail. Ice pops and bounches on the thin aluminum skin of my Ford as I cut the wipers, lights, and engine, leaving only the radio on, tuned to the local college station.
Soon the weather lets up a bit to a medium-strength rain blown by gusty, sharp winds. In stark contrast, the music on the radio intensifies in terms of sheer laughable badness with WHAM!'s "I Want your Sex." I cackle madly and jerk the volume knob to the right, gleefully pummeling my eardrums with overloaded bass, bad synths, and George Michael's voice.
So I'm enjoying myself in my own little, self-contained bubble, content and relaxed in the fact that I too, can act like a fool without anybody's explicit permission. Near the end of the song, however, a flicker of movement through the windshield catches my eye. There are people out on the street, even at this late an hour. I put the music down a few bars (as if that would improve my eyesight) and direct my attention through the glass.
There are two of them, a man and a woman, each in their late teens. They had first entered my field of vision during the last chorus of the song, the man in lead with a very serious, very determined, and very pissed-off expression on his face. His companion, about six inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter drifted behind him, linked firmly to his movements by his heavy hand attached to her slender forearm. She shows obvious signs of discontent as she practically stumbled to keep up with his lunkering but regular steps, brown feet in black sandals skittering over the rough concrete footpath. I had been taking this all in at once, unsure if I was playing witness to a simple disagreement between boyfriend or girlfriend or a forthcoming date rape, when they caught sight of me alone in my car, the windows still reverberating with the fading rhythms of George Michael. Suddenly feeling conspicuous and more than a little silly by my position, I consider just gearing up and pulling out of the lot as the girl's face, a mask of pure terror, contorts itself into a silent scream for "HELP" combined with a restrained lunge in my direction.
My conscious thought process melts to bits from there as my protective instincts take over. I wrest the scavenged crowbar from the backseat like some kind of postmodernist sword in the stone and land on the slick roadside, the asphalt slapping the soles of my Doctor Martens with a hard jolt.
Now, this, I think, is something that needs a bit of visual elucidation in order to appreciate correctly. Imagine, if you will, an old Escort, pumping out WHAM! at full volume, parked in a dark rainy parking lot surrounded on all sides by dilaphidated cinder-block housing projects that my state likes to pass off as residence halls. The driver's side door is abruptly kicked open by a bearded, slender, sharp featured elfin-looking waif clad entirely in black from head to toe, replete with knee high boots, leather jacket, and a wool cloth cap that makes him look like some 1970's Pacino-esque rendition of an Irish street gangster. Add to this a green crowbar balanced in both of his off-white hands and you have a scene that virtually no-one in middle America can reconcile with conservative notions of bravado and masculinity.
But it was the very model of the best I could be. I was the dark knight in shining leather, and quite possibly the only form of resistance against her getting raped, beaten, or possibly worse. Pumped up with defiance and supported by testosterone and adrenaline that my glands were producing in overdrive, I hefted the crowbar and took an overt fighting stance toward my foe, who was staring slack-jawed in astonishment (and probably disgust) at what was unfolding. He did not move or let go of his companion.
"I think you'd better leave her alone and get out of here before somebody ends up getting hurt," I called, keeping my voice steady but my countenance warping into a look of pure wrath.
My confidence, however, was sliding rapidly to the depths of hopeless panic. This guy was big, bigger than I would have ever reckoned from a distance. He wasn't particularly tall (in fact about an inch or so shorter than I) but his upper body bulged with overdeveloped, muscles, the crowning achievement of many thousands of pounds of weight training and gallons of Creatine cocktails. I could see his face clearly for the first time, and was mildly disgusted to see his heavily bloodshot, highly glazed dark brown eyes, sliding around weakly in their sockets. He was badly drunk (something I could smell even five meters away) and, with an undeniable look of stark fury to match whatever I was putting out, he released his subject with a rough shove.
Then he began to walk toward me.
I almost dropped the crowbar from shock. This guy had called my bluff and decided in a split second that he was of greater risk to me than I was to him, even with a heavy metal club at the ready.
Now it was my turn to stand slack-jawed. Three distinct possible outcomes began to coalesce and solidify in my imagination as to what was going to happen next if I stood my ground, like links in a Choose-your-own Adventure Book. I will list them in chronological order:
1. Sneering with contempt, the angry boyfriend charges you like a raging bull, outraged at your intrusion into his personal business. You lift the crowbar up to defend yourself but too slowly to strike before he plows you to the ground, sending the rusty weapon clattering across the pavement. He pins you down with one hand and goes to work with the other, sending one punch after another into your face like a steam piston, crunching the bone and cartilage underneath. His fist stinging red, he turns you over and grabs you by the hair, slamming your head onto the concrete curb until your face is a gory, broken mess, and leaves you unconscious by the roadside.
2. The bodybuilder snarls and springs at you like a wild animal. Frightened for your life, you aim a forehand swing at his left hip, catching him in the lower back with the blunt claw end. He yelps, slams you against the side of your car, and bends your wrist toward your body until it breaks with an audible pop, drawing a horrid scream from you and the crowbar from your now useless hand. Moving onto the whole arm, he tugs it at an impossible angle until it dislocates with an awful snap, sending you to the ground in ungodly waves of pain, barely conscious of anything outside your own personal agony.
3. You stand your ground and swing wildly as the man approaches, hoping to at least dissuade him from coming any closer. But with a swift lunge and accompanying kick, he sends you to the ground with your crowbar in his hands, whereupon he beats you to death with strike after strike, ceasing his attack only after he notices the blood has stopped flowing from your incapacitated body.
A fourth possibility popped up, one that involved simply dropping the crowbar and running until I hit some kind of populated place / barrier that would thwart off the ass-whooping that he had clear intent to deliver. Perfectly reasonable to trade the possibility of a keyed paint job and/or smashed window for my pride (the second time that year) and an intact skeleton. Pity that inspiration hit only after the other flights of fantasy had run their course.
I backpedaled a bit, cocking the crowbar for a clumsy strike to the head that he probably wouldn't even feel anyway. But just when he came within striking distance he hesitated, looking a bit confused at first, then doubtful. He was beginning to realize the possibility of getting seriously hurt, by a stranger who was ready to use every recourse available to stop him. Or so I thought. "Yeah, you got it, just back the fuck up!" I screamed at him, angling the wrecking bar for emphasis.
He withdrew, expression fading away from doubt to outright terror, taking flight down the street as fast as his white New Balance sneakers could take him, his woman screaming words of discouragement at a high and shrill volume as he barrelled past her. I slammed the bar down vertically for the added effect, yielding a nice loud *PANG* sound that was as unnerving as fingernails on a chalkboard.
From behind came running three young men in shorts and t-shirts, one of whom was clad in a black-and-blue do rag. They passed our position and ran after the stumbling figure as he was struggling his way up a muddy hill. And over the muffled screams of my would-be opponent from the hillside and somewhat louder belts of Siouxsie and the Banshees from my stereo, I bade the young lady a good, safe night, jumped into my chariot, and left the scene of the crime for a somewhat safer haven, the rain having fully stopped by now with only a trace of ozone in the air to mark its onetime existence.