“It’s not the hand that cuts,
It’s the hatred deep inside.”
—Joshua James, ‘Coal War,’ Build Me This (2009)
The air has grown even colder when I emerge from the darkness of the bar, my breath steaming in the cold air, releasing a fog that glows orange under the halogen bask of the bridge lights above. I look across the street to the Black Dogg and wonder if Mark is still inside. Crashing at his place would be the easiest thing.
Suddenly, I feel a painful crack against the back of my head, and I crumple to the ground in a ball. My face lands in the gutter next to the curb, and I can feel freezing mulch from the gutter clinging to my cheek as a searing pain rattles through my skull. I lay there for several moments before I’m finally able to open my eyes. When I do, I can see the young boy from earlier in the evening, Jack Collins’ younger brother.
What was his name? Tyson? Ian?
I try to remember, put the reverberating waves of pain make it impossible to focus. I open my mouth to try to speak, but the boy kicks me in the stomach. I can feel the air from my chest expel in a massive grunt, and I start gasping for air, sucking in tiny bits of gravel from the road and nothing more.
The boy stands above me for a few seconds, muttering curses and spitting down at me. He pulls his leg back to kick me again, and I close my eyes, tensing my body and readying myself for the blow. I think about trying to stand, but I’m not sure that I have the strength, even if I had the time.
A second later, I hear a scuffling sound. Surprised that the blow hasn’t arrived yet, I open my eyes to see Mark standing over the boy, raining blows down on him with a clenched fist. I push myself onto my hands and knees, bits of gravel poking into my palms.
Mark stops pummeling the boy and walks over to pull me to me feet. “You alright?” he asks, steadying me at the shoulder. “I just happened to look out the window as he walked up to you. Saw the little shit hit you in the head with that bottle.”
He pointed to the ground where, a few feet away, lay an empty bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. I reached up and felt the back of my head, a goose egg already forming, a stream of warm blood flowing out of a good-size gash just behind my right ear.
Mark turns toward the boy, who is still struggling to stand. He’s lying in a heap on the sidewalk against the outside wall of Garrett’s. Mark turns back to me and flips his thumb at the boy. “What do you want to do with that cheap-shotting little pussy?”
I look down at the side of the boy’s face. Our conversation before had been too brief, but now that I know he is Jack Collins’ brother, it seems obvious. They look alike, the same chiseled jawline and comic-hero cheekbones. I want nothing more than to stomp on his pretty face, to crack open the sculpted lines.
“You want to take a shot at him? He deserves it.” I look at Mark, and he is staring down at the boy, neither repulsed by or proud of his work. He has always been a man willing to live his life according to his own moral compass, unfazed by other’s definitions of right and wrong. To him, a situation like this was simple. The boy’s attack was a cheap shot, and cheap shots deserved retribution. A basic rule of manhood.
I shake my head slowly. “Let’s just go,” I say firmly. For years, I have been nurturing my desires for retribution. Looking down at the boy lying on the sidewalk, retribution seems pointless. “You mind if I crash at your place tonight?”
“Nah,” says Mark, then he spits in the boy’s general direction. We turn to walk away when we here the boy’s voice.
“You’re a fucking little bitch!” The boy still has not managed to pull himself up to his knees, but he musters enough will to spurt out the insult. He’s halfway up on one knee and trying to stand, but he keeps slipping to the ground. Blood is running out his nose and one of his eyes is already beginning to swell shut.
I turn back to him, take three quick steps, and kick him in square in the ribs. I can’t be sure, but I think one of his ribs pops as my boot lands in his side. The boy lets down a high-pitched squeal, like a frightened cat, and slinks back down to the ground.
I stand over him, breathing heavily. The mixture of booze and fading adrenaline has left me woozy and shaking. I look down at my feet and notice that the boy spit blood on my boots when I kicked him. Now he’s lying motionless on the ground, moaning softly.
Mark grabs my shoulder and pulls me away. “We’d better get outta here,” he says. “Someone might have seen.”
“What about the cops? There’s going to be trouble, we’re going to….”
He grabs me by the shoulders and gently shakes me. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “I can take care of this.”
As he pulls me off towards his car, I glance over my shoulder one last time at the boy lying on the ground. He’s in obvious pain, but he’s starting to sit up, leaning against the wall of Garrett’s for support.
When we round the corner, I see Mark’s car. “You’re still driving the old beast, huh?”
Mark laughs. “Fuck yeah, I am,” he says. “She’s a classic, man.”
The car was a forest green 1964 Chevrolet Impala that he had rescued from a junkyard when we were still in high school. He spent years restoring it, little by little.
I slid into the faux leather passenger seat, cringing from the effort. “I think that little shit might have broken one of my ribs,” I say. “Of course, I think I returned the favor.”
Mark laughs as he plops into the seat and turns the ignition, the massive engine roaring to life. He rolls the window down as he peels out of the parking lot, flipping off the boy as we drive past, leaving him sitting in a thin cloud of smoke from the tires.
Mark reaches forward and clicks on the stereo, one of the few modern updates he’s added to the vehicle. Immediately, John Cougar Mellencamp’s voice fills the cabin of the car.
…Well I cannot forget from where it is that I come from,
I cannot forget the people who…
I reach forward and click off the stereo, and we ride the rest of the way to Mark’s apartment in silence.