I was eight. There were some older boys down the road from me. Johnny Jenkins and Dale McMurtry and Paul Whateverhislastnamewas. They were almost teenagers, and they hung out at the park, near the swings, smoking their Marlboros and swearing their swears and talking about girls and skipping school and how much they hated their parents. They were tough. Sometimes they got in fights, but I never saw any of them. I only heard them talking about it, about how Paul swiped at this Ricky kid and broke his nose, and how Dale punched that same Ricky kid and blackened his eye. But Johnny had them beat. He had knocked a tooth out of Ricky’s mouth and split his lip—with one hit.
Yeah, they were tough, and I wasn’t. I wanted to be, so I approached them one day. It was summer, and it was still early in the morning before the sun was high and the heat was unbearable. Independence Day had passed a couple weeks prior and school was still well over six weeks away. They were smoking their cigarettes and Paul had just flipped a butt away.
I guess they thought I wanted to swing on the playset, because Paul crinkled up his nose and called to me, “You wanna swing?” His dark hair was down to his shoulders and neatly combed for the most part. My dad said only girls wear their hair long, but Paul Whateverhislastnamewas didn’t look like a girl to me. He looked mean, and his stare scared me.
I didn’t turn and run, like I probably should have. Instead, I stood stock-still and shook my head when he asked his question.
“Then what do ya want?”
“I want to join your group.”
The three of them laughed. Dale had been sitting on one of the swings, slowly rocking back and forth when I spoke. He laughed so hard he fell right out of the swing and onto his knees.
I didn’t laugh. Sure, my stomach quivered, and my chest heaved, but I tried to stay under control.
“You want to join our group?” Paul asked.
“Yes,” I said, my voice strong.
1-I was a wimp.
2-I wanted to be tougher.
3-They were the toughest, meanest kids I knew.
4-Before that day, I had no problems with wanting to swear and call people names and whatever. I could even make bad jokes about some of the kids my age.
5-After that day, well … vomit happens.
Paul and Dale exchanged looks. In that exchange I could see they thought I was crazy. They were probably right. Johnny smiled and I should have known I would regret walking up to them thinking I could be cool and tough and smoke Marlboros and talk about what girls looked like without any clothes on and beat up other kids. I should have known better.
Johnny pushed himself off the pole he leaned against. He blew out the last puff of smoke from his cigarette before tossing it aside. It flipped through the air, end over end until landing on the ground, the hot cherry sparking off in several directions, tendrils of smoke still wafting up from the burnt end.
“You want to join our group?”
“Yes.” I think I moved a little, maybe shuffled my feet or something. I’m certain I was tense and terrified, but unwavering even as heat filled me.
Johnny nodded, his upper lip somewhat curled. There was a shine in his eyes, and I knew that was a bad thing. “If you can pass the initiation, you’re in.”
Dale and Paul shot glances at Johnny, but they were smiling, too.
Fast-forward about two hours to a rundown house on South Street a few blocks from the park. “Be there at three,” Johnny had said. I arrived a full ten minutes early. They were already there. Paul and Dale sat on the crumbling top step to the house. Yeah, they were smoking their cigarettes and looking cool as always. I had my first doubts about everything right then. My stomach knotted, and my mouth had become dry somewhere between home and there.
What am I doing here? I thought. Grandpa would be so mad at me if he knew what I was up to.
Then the thoughts were gone. Simply, I didn’t know what I was about to do, so how could I truly think Grandpa would be mad at me? It was the way little kids (and yes, adults, more so) rationalize things.
“You ready?” Paul asked.
“Sure.” Yeah, right. I was about as ready as a terrified virgin in a jail cell full of men who hadn’t seen a woman in a long time.
They stood, walked across the crumbling wooden porch to the gaping doorway of the house. From where I stood I couldn’t see any further inside than where the sun shone. Up the steps I went and across rickety boards that felt like sponges beneath my feet, not bothering to pause at the doorway because I was tough, and I would show them how tough I was.
It wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be inside. The sun penetrated through the dust-caked windows, casting a dim light through each room. I followed them to a back room where Johnny sat in a folding metal chair. A five-gallon bucket sat in front of him, along with a brown box, the lid closed on it.
“I have to admit, I didn’t think you would show.”
“I’m here,” I said, not really knowing what else to say.
“Are you ready for your initiation?”
(NO! NO! NO!)
Even in the gray of the room I saw the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes. He motioned me over. On lead legs I went to him.
“Open the box.”
I did, trying to keep my hands from shaking. Inside was a kitten, an orange and white tabby with pointy ears and bright greenish yellow eyes. It meowed loudly, its mouth wide, tongue as pink as any I had ever seen before or even after.
“Drown it,” Johnny said.
“What?” I faltered.
“Drown the kitten and you’re in.”
I stared at Johnny for the longest time. It felt like the seconds had slowed to hours. I looked down at the bucket to see the water within. Somewhere far away I heard the kitten’s constant meowing. Johnny was smiling like the fool he was, that twinkle in his eyes, and behind it the knowing that I wouldn’t go through with it.
I picked the kitten up. It was soft, and it weighed so little, maybe not even a pound. It meowed and clawed at my hand as I shoved it into the bucket of water. Slivers of pain tore at my hand as the kitten fought for its very young life.
That’s what stopped me. I heard Paul laughing and it was maniacal and terrifying. Then he said, “He’s actually doing it. What a nut job.”
I heard it as clearly as I’ve ever heard anything.
Then I pulled the kitten out. Blood mixed with water spilled off my hand. The kitten still clawed at me, its meows frantic and terrified. I clutched it tight to my chest, taking its claws through my shirt and into my skin as I ran through the house and out the door and down the steps. All the while, they laughed and yelled for me to come back little wuss boy.
As I ran I could hear Grandpa scolding me for such a horrible thing as to try and kill an animal for any reason at all. I cried, and the kitten meowed and I ran all the way home where I lied to Grandpa about saving the kitten and … and I threw up.
That was the beginning of me never being able to say or do anything bad to anyone.
The video played out. The older gentleman, a VFW hat on his head, the two paper bags, one in each arm and the gentle stroll of a man who had lived life the best he could.
I threw up several times before reaching the end of it. Sam—good, patient Sam—rewound it each time, knowing the torture I put myself through.
“As you can imagine, Dequan, I’m not very good at violence. It makes me squeamish. I couldn’t kill the kitten, and it became a pet—Mr. Pouncer—but I guess I already told you that”
“So, what? What do you want from me?”
What did I want from me? Truthfully, something I can’t have back. I shook my head and just looked at him. I knew his facial features, the scar on his left cheek, the dark brown color of his eyes, the corn rolls along his skull, the gold front tooth—the right one, not the left—the thickness of his nose and the bulge in the bridge where it had surely been broken before. I knew all these features. I had seen them so often in the past year or so to know them as if they were my own.
“You’ll know soon enough,” I said and stood. I slid the chair all the way against the wall and started up the steps.
“Where are you going?” he yelled.
“Out for a while. Sit tight. I’ll be back.”
“I need to piss, man.”
I wanted to laugh, but if I would have my stomach would have rolled on me. Instead, I spoke calmly, “Go ahead.”
I made a phone call. It was quick and the answer I received for my request was better than I thought it would be.
“When?” I asked.
“Tonight,” came my uncle’s voice.
My stomach quivered with excitement and trepidation.
“Okay,” I said. “Tonight will be great.”
I was smiling. My plan was coming together easier than I thought it would. Still, I was nervous. What if I couldn’t handle tonight? What if my nerves and stomach got the best of me? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out. I wanted to see this through, even if I vomited up my intestines. It was important and important things are better done than not, as my grandpa used to say.
Uncle Lou arrived around midnight. He parked in the back where there were no lights and the privacy fence blocked all view of the yard. It didn’t matter much. We lived out in the country, away from most folks, and those that were out here with us were a good mile or so away in any direction. The back hatch of his SUV came open, but no light came on. He rounded the vehicle, reached in and pulled something out. It was long, but not rigid, and he slung it over his shoulder.
“Close the hatch, Charles,” he said and made his way up the steps. I shut the hatch and opened the back door. We both went inside, Lou first. I closed and locked the door behind us.
I didn’t need to ask what was wrapped in the tattered green army blanket. I saw the feet sticking out the bottom and knew he had delivered a valuable piece of the puzzle.
“You want him downstairs with the other guy?”
“Yes, if you don’t mind.”
“Lead the way,”
We made our way down into the basement, the light coming on with a quick pull of the chord. The bulb bobbed up and down and from side to side for a few seconds before settling into a slow seesaw motion.
Dequan looked up as we made our way down the steps. He looked like he had been asleep and had been startled awake. His eyes narrowed when he saw Lou.
“Set him down there,” I said and pointed to the wall opposite Dequan.
“What’s going on, man? What’s that in …” His words trailed off when he saw the shoes with a familiar mark on them, the mark of his gang.
Lou set the package on the floor and unrolled the army blanket. What happened next thrilled and sickened me at the same time. Realization swept over Dequan when he saw his little brother’s unconscious body unwrapped from the blanket. He pulled at his restraints and tried to kick his legs at us, all the while yelling all sorts of pleasantries.
-What the —- have you done to my little brother?
-I’m going to kill you mother—-ers.
-I’m going to kill both you mother—-ers.
-Reggie, wake up, man.
-I’m going to kick you’re a—es when I get out of here.
-You’re dead meat, mother—-ers.
I think he likes that one word a lot. But Lou doesn’t. As a matter of fact, Lou doesn’t like many swear words.
“Shut-up, punk,” Lou said and pulled Reggie toward the wall where another set of chains and shackles were. Only these were higher up.
Dequan yelled on, throwing his threats and curses out at us.
“Hold on a second,” Lou said and walked over to Dequan. To him he said, “You got one chance to shut-up. You got that?”
Defiance was heavy at work when he spat into Lou’s face. He started to say something, but his lip was split and the back of his head hit the wall before he could get anything out. His body sagged and his head lulled on his shoulders. My stomach flipped, and I felt supper try to come back up. I held my hand over my mouth, forcing it back the best I could, even as cold sweat peppered my face.
Lou came back to where I stood next to Reggie. He was wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt. He said nothing as he hoisted Reggie to a standing position.
Let’s fast-forward again, this time about six hours.
Uncle Lou and I had finished restraining Reggie a little after one that morning and agreed to set things into motion the next day, and what a long day it would be.
We woke—I slept very little, though Lou seemed to sleep like a baby—had a cup of coffee and some toast, grits and eggs, and made our way downstairs.
The brothers were asleep. I’ll be honest here: I wasn’t sure Dequan was still alive. Lou had smashed his head hard into the wall the night before. For all I knew, he had killed him. That would have been bad if it would have been true. The last year would have been wasted and then what? I didn’t know.
Lou walked over to Dequan and kicked his leg. Dequan woke with a startled scream that made me smile a little. No, my stomach didn’t shake or rock or roll—the last year or so I worked on trying to control it, but honestly, I hadn’t succeeded very often. But I was getting better at it.
“Wake up, scumbag,” he said and kicked Dequan’s leg again,
“I’m awake. I’m awake, man.” The defiance that had been in his voice and on his face the night before was gone, replaced with that dog’s been kicked too many times look.
Again, I smiled.
Then Lou walked over to Reggie, the younger of the two brothers who hung from his arms, his legs slightly buckled beneath him.
“Wake up, Sunshine,” Lou said and patted the side of Reggie’s face. The younger brother stirred, his eyes fluttered, then he was awake and the blank look of confusion filled his face.
“Where … where am I?”
“Hell,” Lou said. I flinched. My stomach woke up and the muscles twitched.
“Reggie? Reggie? You okay, bro?”
“Be quiet, Dequan,” I said.
“Reggie? Reggie? You okay?”
Lou’s jaw flexed and he yelled “Shut-up!”
“I just want to know—“
Lou leveled a punch to Reggie’s gut. The air rushed out of him and he tried to pull his legs up but couldn’t quite muster the strength. He struggled for air, his mouth gaping open and his eyes clinched shut, tears trickling from the corners of them.
“Why’d you do that?” Dequan yelled and pulled on his chains. He winced. I guessed his muscles were stiff from being stuck in the same position for a couple days.
I pulled my chair from the center of the room and placed it about ten feet from Dequan and sat down.
“Listen up, Dequan. This is very important. That man over there is very angry. This man, sitting here in this chair, is not very happy either. You see, you owe us some pain …”
My stomach gurgled when I said that. I bit back the vomit and swallowed. I continued.
“That man is going to get that pain one way or the other, either from you or your brother.”
I nodded to Lou.
He punched Reggie in the jaw. The younger brother’s head snapped to one side. His lip split, bled and immediately began to swell.
Dequan turned his head as soon as Lou struck his brother.
“Oh no, Dequan,” I said, “you need to watch this.”
“Why are you doing this? We ain’t never done nothing to you.”
“That’s not true,” I said and nodded to Lou. Another punch, this one to the eye. Reggie let out a small yelp of pain. My stomach lurched.
“What did we do? I ain’t never even seen you before, man. What did we do to you?”
I looked at him. His left eye was swollen mostly shut, his lip busted. Blood had crusted on his shirt.
“What did you do?” I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question, but I didn’t. Instead, I spoke softly. “You hurt people because you can. That’s enough for me.”
I nodded and waved a hand at Lou. He turned to Reggie, a glimmer in his eyes—one like what I saw in Johnny’s eyes when I was a kid—and punched him and punched him and punched him …
“Play it again,”
“I think you’ve had enough, Mr. Hanson.”
“No! Just one more time. Please.”
“Why? Why are you doing this to yourself?”
“I have to.”
Officer Sam played the footage. Again, the older man rounded the corner, the camera’s angle catching it from almost a block away. He carried the two paper grocery bags, the VFW hat sat on his head. He wore thick glasses—coke bottle thick, my mom would call them. Nothing changed. He was still minding his own business.
Then it happened. Six men appeared on the screen going the opposite direction. They were just ordinary men, until they reached the old guy. They were about to pass each other. That’s the way it should have been. The old guy passing the group of six. And if it would have stayed that way …
One of The Six turned his head to the side as they passed each other. Just as the One passed the old man, he turned back, his hand in a fist and swung for the old man’s face.
The gist of the rest of the video:
-The fist connected.
-The old man’s head whipped to the side.
-That head hit the brick wall beside him.
-The grocery’s fell from the old man’s arms. It’s clear there was a jug of milk in one of the bags.
-The old man fell and hit his head on the edge of the sidewalk.
-The Six laughed.
-The One knelt and slapped the unconscious old man.
And I threw up.
To be continued on Tuesday, May 12th …