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The James Gang

Before the turn of the 60’s decade, before the Weathermen fractured SDS, Billy Ayers and Terry Robbins had become best of friends, fancied themselves as heroic outlaws on par with the Jesse James Gang. They worshipped fictional idealists of the big screen: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and though destructive, in the beginning they were simply two of Tom Hayden’s SDS “foot soldiers” rampaging through the streets of Chicago in October 1969 sporting, as most of the rioters that day, helmets to snub police batons, and heavy gloves for tossing back tear gas canisters. Many carried pipes, bats, bricks, cinder blocks for weapons and readily used their fists. They paved streets with broken trails of storefront glass and car windows. Tipped and burning trash bins accompanied overturned cars. Typical for day one; SDS put twenty-one policemen in the hospital.

Motivated by propaganda lapped up like the sweetest Red milk fresh from Lenin’s teat, their destructive modus operandi learned from the Cubans and North Vietnamese in guerilla training camps at Guanabo and Pinar Del Rio, Dohrn, Ayers and their ilk were and remain the quintessential useful idiots. The communists taught them weaponology, explosives, and manipulation of a tractable media. Consuming Marxist–Leninist ideologies straight from the source, North Vietnamese guidance helped them plan the Chicago upheaval fondly called their Days of Rage. The communist Vietnamese told the SDS and Weathermen to “bring the war home.” They did so for Chicago in 1969, did so for San Francisco police in February 1970, planned heinous attacks for Detroit and New York, and had a bigger surprise in the works for the US Army at Fort Dix.

Yet by mid-February 1970, a rocky relationship had developed between Billy Ayers and best bud Terry Robbins, by then a made man in the Weathermen terrorist cult, a rift that catalyzed Billy’s eagerness to visit the New York commune and mend their friendship. Ayers felt the edginess was disharmonious with group solidarity and that needed fixing, or else rapture finalizing plans for a string of bombings against the Detroit police and others would be less climactic. He just couldn’t drive his enthusiasm for the actions with the speed bump their tiff had caused, and worse, Billy’s gilded status among the Weathermen had faded since Robbins committed to violent action, a shift that curried the favor of John “JJ” Jacobs—the man responsible for casting the spell of discord between Billy and Terry when he declared Robbins, among himself, Jeff Jones and Bernardine Dohrn, as one of the Foremost Four in the Weathermen leadership—an act essentially kicking Billy to the curb. The blight cut him deeply, especially after hearing rumors that Bernardine, the Weathermen high priestess opened herself to all three men in a fuck session to sanctify her edict during a midnight Sabbath in New York. Despite the emotionless soiree, Billy craved sex with Dohrn as much for her mark of approval as for his own sense of self-worth, a tidbit of validation, perhaps, for his plans in Detroit. Maybe she would be in New York to bless him when he visited? Also, Ayers rationalized his trip as an opportunity to refute the indignities Robbins handed him in during a criticism session, or so called weather-fry, a euphemism for a plenary of calculated verbal abuses designed to subjugate individuality and replace it with the consensus of group thought. Robbins’ out caused him to silently question the fervency of his own radicalism.

Larry Grathwohl, a new Weathermen recruit from Cincinnati assigned to Ayers commune in Detroit had him convinced of being an explosives expert—not difficult given Ayers’ kindergarten grasp of military intricacy. Larry, a former soldier, promised him progress against the pigs in Detroit, and if he delivered it, Ayers knew success would boost his own credibility.

Heading for a taxi stand outside Union Station in New York, a bag over his shoulder, hand stuffed in a back pocket, Ayers walked silently next to Larry, his newsreel mind replaying the incident between him and Terry Robbins, continuously punching the play button on the memory then stopping it several times before they’d covered ten feet.

What was it? What was that word, he thought? Ayers couldn’t remember. Insipid? Your commitment is insipid at best, someone in the group said? You are so jejune, Billy...provincial bourgeoisie, someone else said?

It had been a while since he’d thumbed books as a University of Michigan student; some of those words required a dictionary. Learning the meanings committed him to a period of introspective self-discovery, which set him about laying violent plans for Detroit to rejuvenate his hackneyed status since that night his mind forever rewound. He assumed his budding leadership position in the Weathermen would get him a hall pass from submission to a criticism session. But Dohrn made the decisions, and just as Dohrn chose when to present herself for fucking in the orgies, she sacrificed Billy to the communes’ feasting that night, throwing him to the wolves. He figured a Fry would be tough; but he couldn’t swallow his best friend’s damnation. Dohrn even led the assault after she ordered Billy to strip naked and go to the hot seat. A ruthless bitch when it came to a fry, Dohrn laid on Ayers a savage double fisting, a Bernardine standard. And as quickly as her accusations waned signaling for someone else to step in, his supposed friend was first in line. Robbins’ stalked the fringe of the troupe of Weathermen circling Billy Ayers readying for an attack that would change their angry jingle’s animus.

“You’re not moving fast enough with the revolution Billy,” Robbins sneered as he pushed his face an inch away from him, his hair tickling Ayers’ forehead. Terry’s words crawled on his skin. “You haven’t hurt anyone for the revolution. You—you haven’t killed for the Vietnamese like the Americans are killing them. You are not my brother Billy, until you’ve tasted sweet blood of the enemy on your lips. You—” Accusations burped loudly in Billy’s face, spittle flew in his eyes that caused him to blink against the tidal wave.

It’s doubtful Ayers ever went catfishing around his Glen Ellyn suburbs of Chicago, much less ever cleaned one—if he had, he’d get an analogous sense of being skinned like a catfish when Robbins laid it on, spearing him to a thick nail on a pecan tree, then sliced just behind the dorsal barb and skinned with a pair of channel-locks, his thin leathery skin coming off whole like a wet sock pulled from a foot. During a catfish skinning, death doesn’t knock till the innards come out—once filleted, it’s meatless skeleton capped by an intact head gets thrown wide-eyed into a 5-gallon gut bucket, firing nerves slowly mouthing a taciturn danse macabre.

In shock, Ayers gaped repeatedly for air as his friend orgasmically joined the fray. “Yah Billy. Damn right Billy! Are you a pig mother fucker Billy?” Robbins said. Billy felt like the catfish now, a sockless foot—pale, wrinkled, wet and cold.

On cue, orbiting bodies yelled, “Pig mother fucker. Pig mother fucker.” A circling cotillion whirled about him. Naked in a loose-jointed, wooden chair, his hands angrily clasped the edges of the seat in rapid-fire. It creaked noisily when he shifted in it but Billy didn’t hear it over the shouting. The troupe bent at the waist and took turns pressing their mouths solidly against his ear to scream indignities. He felt the chair’s dry joints protest each squirm he made away from their lips intermittently pressed near the sides of his head. As he became sandwiched between two screaming Weathermen, Robbins parked his nose in Billy’s face.

Creak. Groan. Creak.

The chair sounded like desiccated bones on a desert highway shattering under a tractor-trailer tire. Crucified to a cross of wood, his eyes hid from the scribbling behind Robbins, some writing on the wall an innocuous formula: Criticism + Self Criticism = Transformation; words hanging over him like Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. When he blinked, for a moment the words looked to be in delicate shades of baby blue as his friend laid on the acid that burned him like a forge hammer. Bill Ayers looked way back, back to another room down the hallway, to a word drawn over the door leading outside that read: Pig.

“Explode! Explode! Explode. Billy explode! Explode Billy! Ex-plo-fucking-splowd” they yelled, a diabolist hive of accuser’s bunny hopping around him. Billy was the witches’ cauldron they circled and he fumed like the brew.

Full participation was parliamentary, but in a Fry secrets told in confidence became fair game. Billy didn’t imagine confessing his fears to Robbins would become a focus, but they did. Those types of secrets became especially useful for burrowing into the deep recesses of the character. Robbins lacerated Billy then threw alcohol on his wounds.

Ayers shut his eyes to the noise and hated. He hated Terry Robbins incidentally; the Robbins–Ayers love affair had ended.

Billy had taken the hot seat last. Then abruptly, the circle quickly responding to the pull of obscurity the others sought in the shadows, hoping they wouldn’t be called to the seat next, it ended.

He stood, naked, as everyone silently watched him skulk ashamedly into the kitchen to his clothes piled on the stained linoleum floor. He stared silently at his feet while he dressed. Damn straight, he thought, going towards the side door, avoiding the mumbled “far outs” and “heavies” he knew would follow him. As he entered the hallway down from the living room where the fry was held, Billy looked over his shoulders and saw the unmistakable, kempt by comparison Terry Robbins following him out, a content smile accompanying his pretty-boy face. Ayers’ self-consciousness over his looks as compared to Terry’s stirred his contempt, especially considering his suspicion that Terry had banged Diana, Ayers’ convenient girlfriend.

Terry Robbins followed him into the yard.

Billy Ayers heard him slink across the torn carpet behind him. “Hey man, you dig a smoke?” He said, a wry smile flashed over his shoulder. Robbins didn’t notice Billy’s left hand nervously thumbing the lid to the metal Zippo he held in his hand.

“Joint or a cig?” Robbins asked.

Things between people were supposed to be cool after a Fry, water off a duck’s back—shit through a goose, no big deal, no grudge betwixt the proletariat. Robbins stopped in the narrow hallway, pressing his back against the wood paneling to let a couple enter a bedroom to screw. “Looks like the fucking’s gonna start soon, we better smoke now.” Robbins missed seeing Billy exit, his eyes fixed on the ass of a young blonde sauntering into a dark bedroom trailed eagerly by Mark Rudd. Like a diseased mosquito, he’d bleed her virginity onto some dirty clothes on the floor then brag later about how he’d fucked a sixteen-year-old.

The door would barely close. A piston’s hydraulic wheeze marked Billy’s exit.

Robbins leaned towards the noise. “You say you got some skunk?” He blurted then looked around but saw no one. “Shit.”

looking around and seeing no one. In the few moments, it took to realize he was alone, ruffling clothes and low moans began floating at him from behind the thin wall. By then Ayers had already gone twenty or so feet into the yard’s tall grass and lingering snow. Before Robbins followed, Ayers stepped into the shadow of a large shed, his back turned as Robbins entered the rental property’s weed choked backyard.

The Zippo illuminated his face. A cigarette glowed furiously in Ayers’ mouth as he tumbled the little steel rectangle in his right hand savoring the lid’s warmth. He heard Robbins crushing through the tall grass and slosh through a pocket of snow directly behind him.

“Mother fucker,” Billy said uncoiling his fist in an arcing roundhouse punch landing squarely on Robbins’ thin jawline. He felt a brief glimmer of remorse hitting him but—

Terry Robbins crumpled sideways to the ground, rolling into a textbook parachute-landing fall. Dazed and confused, the mingled look of shock and pain had replaced the grin he carried outside. “Whuh, whuh, what?” He gurgled. Beads of sweat broke on his forehead; his arm struggling from beneath his pronate torso, fingers splayed probing his lips for blood then gingerly tracing his jawline.

Billy Ayers was sure he saw a tear, and it pleased him.

Ayers was self-impressed with the impulse. He ignored the crumpled body and considered a moment the weak skyline of low rent single-story homes in the sub-suburban Detroit neighborhood. He lifted his fist to his face for study, turning it in full circles, twisting his wrist to odd angles. The numbness of spent power felt good, his knuckles white and ridged in a clenched fist, the back of it mottled from the brute force of contact with Robbins’ jaw.

Ayers knew not to hold a grudge after a Fry, that was the gig but he didn’t appreciate being the focus and he didn’t expect to catch shit from his best friend. “So much for the puckish days,” he said aloud without looking down at his former bud.

Robbins’ mind tumbled, and he felt dizzy. Lying supine and spread-eagle, he imagined he looked like a wounded snow angel in the tall grass, just with limited snow. Ayers decided to leave. He could have walked around him, but he didn’t. He stepped over Terry’s body as one might avoid a carpet stain. Terry tried desperately to touch Ayers’ leg as he went by. Billy didn’t look down until the moment Terry let his dejected hand plop flat and noisily back into the grass. Billy Ayers smiled lifting his head and headed towards the screen door to the house.

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