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I’VE NEVER SEEN a train run through town. I’ve never heard the distant whistle of a locomotive or the roaring thunder of boxcars being dragged behind. For the longest time the tracks sat alone, forgotten, except for us kids who would play around them, walking on the steel strips, one foot after the other, seeing who could keep their balance the longest. Then the men from the railroad showed up with their machines and stripped the heavy lengths from their ties and trucked them to the scrap yard. The price of steel was just too high, they said, to let them sit there, doing nothing. Soon enough the ties disappeared too, one by one, stolen by scavengers, torn from the ground and used for who knows what. Now all that remains is the old-timers’ memories of the Western Atlantic Railroad and a narrow embankment that runs through the heart of town.
I skipped school today. I skip school almost every Friday, but this Friday in particular, I wouldn’t be caught dead inside those brick walls. It’s Homecoming weekend. You know, that once-a-year celebration when everyone parades through the halls like they give two shits about the school, as if they take some sort of pride in being a Maple Lake Indian. They paint their faces. They dress in the school colors. And at the end of the day there’s a giant pep rally in the gym, where all the members of the football team are treated like heroes, called down to the floor one by one, their arms high in the air, grunting and yelling and giving each other high-fives as if they just won the National Championship or something. And the rest of the school cheers them on, ignoring the fact that they haven’t won a game in years. And what’s even worse is that the rest of the student athletes go along with the whole charade, sitting in the bleachers, cheering them on, without receiving a single bit of recognition themselves. I sat through that garbage three years in a row. I won’t do it again.
So I slept in this morning. Then I drove about an hour, out into the country to have lunch at an old diner that serves their drinks out of mason jars. They claim to be the first place ever to do that, but I don’t know if that’s true or just something they advertise. It must work, because their food is lousy but the place is always crowded. I just need an excuse to get out of town every once in a while, and I find a long drive out that way is much more relaxing than heading the other direction, toward the suburbs and the city.
After lunch I headed back here, not too far behind the school, close enough in fact that I can just make out the building, sitting in the distance like a piece from a board game. I come here to collect the railroad spikes that lay scattered off the sides of the embankment. I sell them to a local antique shop for five dollars a dozen. They turn around and sell them for two dollars apiece. It’s not a very effective way to make money, but it sure beats sitting in school. Plus I like the walk. I like to think that when the wind blows, it’s the ghost of an ancient train.
“Hey! You! Don’t move!” A deep voice booms from over my shoulder. “You’re trespassing on government property. Drop the spikes and put your hands in the air.”
I raise my arms, but I don’t drop the spikes. “They’re mine,” I yell back. “I found them fair and square.”
“Explain it to the judge!”
Some people might be scared in a situation like this, but I’m not. Because I know the deep voice isn’t really deep. I can always tell when someone is faking it. There’s a difference between the actual sound of authority and someone just pretending. “If you want them,” I say, “then you’re going to have to pry them out of my cold dead fingers.”
I turn around to find my best friend Kelly and his brother Reed, who’s just a year younger than us, standing about ten yards away. “Really?” Reed says, his artificially deep voice changing back into that of a teenager’s. “You’d be willing to die over a handful of worthless railroad spikes?”
“You know they’re not worthless.”
“You make more money washing dishes. Why waste your time collecting this garbage?”
“It sure beats sitting at a stupid pep rally. How was that anyway? I’m surprised you two don’t have the numbers of your favorite football players painted on your cheeks.”
“Seriously, though,” Reed says, “you missed a good one this year. You’re going to regret not being there.”
“Why?” I ask. “Did the cheerleaders’ pyramid collapse or something?”
“Better than that. They killed the Indians.”
“They killed the Indians,” I say. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, they’re changing the name of our mascot. After this year we’re not going to be the Maple Lake Indians anymore.”
“And they announced that during the pep rally?”
“Yeah, in retrospect, that probably wasn’t their brightest idea ever.”
Retrospect—Reed’s always using big words like that. “Thousand-dollar words,” as my Grandpa used to say. But then again, Reed is smarter than the rest of us. Maybe the smartest kid in the whole damn school.
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” he continues. “Everybody went completely berserk. The entire gym started booing. Those guys who dress up as Indians for all the games, they all laid down on the ground in protest. Like they’d been slaughtered by the white man or something.”
“The whole thing is stupid,” Kelly says.
“And why’s it stupid?” Reed barks back. “They should have changed the name decades ago.”
“Because of tradition,” Kelly replies. “Our parents were Indians and their parents were Indians and now our children are going to be condoms.”
“Condoms?” I say. “What are you talking about, condoms?”
Kelly smiles. “They’re changing the name to the Maple Lake Trojans.”
“Trojans?” I say. “How’d they come up with Trojans?”
“It’s better than Indians,” Reed says.
“How do you figure?” Kelly wants to know.
“Because the term ‘Indian’ is downright ignorant,” his brother replies. “It’s the twenty-first century for Christ’s sake. Nobody uses the term Indian anymore.”
“What about the Cleveland Indians?” I ask.
Reed’s eyes widen and he looks off into the distance as if I just asked the stupidest question ever. “I don’t know,” he says, turning his attention back towards me. “I’d imagine the Cleveland Indians have better lawyers than the Maple Lake school district. Why are we having this argument? We all know it’s Native Americans. Not Indians. Native friggin’ Americans!”
“Calm down,” Kelly says. “You don’t have to be so passionate all of the time. If the term Indians is so ignorant, then why can’t we be the Maple Lake Native Americans?”
“Because there aren’t even any Native Americans in our school!” Reed shouts. “There haven’t been any Native Americans in this region for over a century, because our ancestors killed them all. The only reason our school took the name ‘Indians’ in the first place is because some ill-bred idiot back in the 1940’s loved John Wayne movies and thought it sounded cool. It’s about time we stop being so disrespectful.”
“Well, my ancestors were Greek,” Kelly says, “and I think the name ‘Trojans’ is disrespectful.”
“Our ancestors were not Greek,” Reed shoots back. “They were German and British.”
“I’m just trying to make a point. No matter what, somebody’s going to be offended. Plus, we still don’t know who your real father is. You could be Greek for all we know.”
“One more word and I swear…” Reed crouches into a wrestler’s stance.
Kelly quickly mimics his brother. “Let’s do this.”
Not a week goes by where Kelly and Reed aren’t about to go to blows with one another. It’s usually over something stupid, something that’s not even worth arguing about in the first place. But that’s just the way it’s always been. They’re brothers, born not a year apart, and yet they look nothing alike. Kelly is tall and lean with sandy blond hair, while Reed is a good six inches shorter, more compact, with dark brown hair. If you saw a photo of their father when he was our age, you’d be hard-pressed to tell him from Kelly, so we always joke that Reed’s real father must be the milkman. If I said it, it was funny, but if Kelly brought it up, they were fighting words, which always makes me wonder if there isn’t a bit of truth behind it.
“You going to make a move?” Kelly asks as they circle each other. “Or are you going to make me wait here all day?”
“Why do I have to make the first move?”
“Because you started it.”
“I started it? What are you talk…”
Before Reed can finish his sentence, Kelly shoots a double-leg and takes his brother down on the hard gravel. Reed tries to scramble into a better position but before he knows it, Kelly has slipped behind him and has him in a rear chokehold. “You done?” Kelly asks.
Reed taps his brother’s forearm. “I’m done,” he says.
“Tell me you love me.”
Kelly tightens his hold.
“Okay. I love you.”
“And I’m the best big brother ever.”
“And you’re the best big brother ever.”
“Good boy.” Kelly releases his grip, springs to his feet, and holds out his hand to help his brother off the ground. “Come on, we need to get down to the Flats before the fight starts.”
“Fight?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Kelly says. “Jared Collins wants to fight Nick Hester.”
“Nick Hester? That rich prick,” I say. “No way he shows up.”
“I guess we’ll find out.” Reed brushes dirt from his pants. “I’m riding with you, Tommy.”
We head down the embankment to my old Jeep Wrangler which is parked on a service road that runs parallel to the old tracks. Reed hops in the passenger seat, I start the engine, and we’re off down the dirt road, Kelly following behind in his rusted-out pickup.
“You’re a smart guy,” Reed says. “What do you think about the school changing its mascot?”
“I like the idea.” I jerk the wheel to avoid a deep rut. “Think about it, right now our mascots are a bunch of nearly naked boys running around in loin cloths. Maybe next year we’ll have a bunch of completely naked girls, running around in full-body condoms. Then we’ll see how long the name ‘Trojans’ lasts.”
A half-mile or so down the road we pull up to a spot everyone calls Graffiti Flats. There used to be a bridge where the tracks crossed the old Highway 30, but after the new thruway was completed, parts of the old highway fell to ruins. The town eventually stopped maintaining them altogether until they became little more than abandoned roads with more dirt than asphalt. The railroad bridge was removed about ten years ago, the steel, sold for scrap. All that remains are two adjacent walls of chipping concrete, twenty feet tall, which have become a set of canvas for juvenile delinquents who moonlight as street artists. A six-pack of beer, a few cans of spray paint, maybe a couple joints, and suddenly every wannabe skateboard punk starts channeling their inner Banksy. In the heat of the moment, everyone’s a genius and everything’s a masterpiece. Sober, not so much.
We park our vehicles among the others, about thirty yards away from the Flats. If we were to drive any closer there’s a good chance of getting a flat tire. Besides being a canvas for graffiti, the concrete walls double as a target for empty beer bottles. As one can imagine, the ground is now littered with shards of broken glass. As we walk up to the crowd, the sun is shining at the perfect angle, causing an infinite sparkle beneath our boots, as if we’re walking down a street that has been bedazzled with rhinestones, like on the girls’ jeans, the ones that go in and out of style every few years.
About fifty people are standing around. Some are talking, some are painting, some are staring at their phones. Most everyone is drinking, smoking, or chewing tobacco, or a combination of the three. But the one thing we all have in common is that we’re waiting. We always seem to be waiting. It’s got to be the favorite pastime for people who live in small towns—always waiting on something better to happen. Today we’re waiting on a fight, which isn’t at all uncommon. It always seems that somebody wants to fight somebody else. Today that somebody is Jared Collins, who’s pacing back and forth like a madman in a prison cell. So, now we’re all waiting on Jared, who is waiting on Nick Hester, who is probably waiting on someone or something himself.
“So why does Jared want to fight Nick so bad?” I sip on a Genesee Cream Ale that I snagged out of the cooler in the bed of Kelly’s truck.
“Nick stole his girl.” Kelly spits some tobacco juice on the ground.
“Figures,” I say. And it did. Jared was better looking, smarter, and more athletic, but he couldn’t stack up against Nick, who had a wealthy family and a spanking new convertible. Given the choice, girls always seem to go for the money. “No way he shows up.”
“You don’t think so?” Reed says.
“Not unless he wants to get his ass whooped. Jared might be small, but he’s a good wrestler. Ordinary people never stand a chance against wrestlers.”
“He said he’d be here.”
“Let me guess. It was in the hallway with a whole bunch of people standing around.”
“He’ll be here,” Reed reiterates. “I’ll bet you a six-pack of beer he shows.”
“You must be drunk already.” I extend my hand. “Put it here, buddy.” We shake on it, which is as good as a signed contract in our town.
“I guess you owe me a six-pack,” Reed says with a smile before we’re even done shaking hands.
“What are you talking about?”
He nods his head, and I turn around to see a red convertible with the top down slowly approaching us.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I’m not the only one who’s astonished. Everyone stops what they’re doing to direct their attention towards the car crawling down the dirt road.
The convertible stops when it reaches the other parked cars. I can make out Hester behind the steering wheel and his new girlfriend in the passenger seat. I can’t tell what they’re saying, but it soon becomes apparent that they don’t like what they see. It must be the size of the crowd that spooks the lovebirds, as if they were under the impression that there wouldn’t be a crowd to begin with. The car jerks backwards until there’s room enough to do a three-point turn, and faster than they arrived, they’re gone, speeding down the dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust behind them.
The sound of teenage discontent echoes off the concrete walls. There are a lot of “fucks” and “shits,” but more than anything, the word “pussy,” as in “Nick Hester is such a fucking pussy.” Jared Collins is yelling it at the top of his lungs, as if the words will somehow summon Hester back to the Flats. When he’s finally tired of shouting, he throws a bottle against the concrete. This starts a chain reaction of flying glass. Once every empty bottle is shattered, the noise settles down, and once the noise settles down, George Morris takes the silence as his cue to steal the spotlight, to address the crowd as if he’s our fearless leader or something. “I came here to see a fight!” he yells. “So somebody better fucking fight!” Nothing in his statement rings true. He didn’t come here to see a fight. He came here for the same reason as everyone else—to drink and smoke and forget about their worries. Just like every other afternoon. It just happens that today, there was supposed to be a fight. Plus, that quote, I’m pretty he sure he stole it from a movie, but can’t remember which one. Half the things kids say anymore are lines they steal off a screen somewhere.
“So, who’s it going to be?” George yells. “Who’s going to fight my man Collins over here?”
It’s no argument that George Morris is an imposing figure. That’s partly due to the fact that he’s tall and muscular, with a shaved head, a black goatee, and arms covered in poorly inked tattoos, but it’s mostly because he’s older than everyone else here. He dropped out of high school before any of us were even freshmen, yet, despite the age gap, he’s still a fixture at all our gatherings. I don’t think anybody much likes the guy—after all, there’s a reason he doesn’t hang out with people his own age—though everyone seems to tolerate his presence, but mostly because he’s old enough to buy booze.
As he yells amongst the crowd, nobody speaks up. Most people are quick to watch a fight, but few actually want be part of one. “What about you, Tommy?” When George points at me, I notice a capital “H” tattooed above the knuckle of his index finger. “Why don’t you fight him? Or are you a pussy, too?”
I don’t know why George picked me out of the crowd. I’m sure it’s just random. I don’t think he’s intelligent enough to make a conscious decision. A mind like his simply doesn’t work that way. He’s like a junkyard dog, trained to do only one thing. I was probably just the first person to enter his line of vision once he was done yelling.
“Why would I want to fight him?” I ask. “We’re on the wrestling team together. I’m on his side. I wanted to see him kick Hester’s ass.”
“You should fight him,” George replies, “because you’re a fucking pussy.”
That word again. It seems my generation simply can’t get enough of it. “That doesn’t even make sense,” I shoot back. “If I’m a pussy, like you say, then wouldn’t I not want to fight him?”
“So you’re admitting to being a pussy?”
“You know,” I say, “I didn’t think it was possible, but you really are stupider than you look. And what the fuck are you doing here anyway, hanging out with a bunch of high school kids? Shouldn’t you be a senior in college by now?”
“College is for pussies.”
“That’s your answer? College is for pussies? High school must be for pussies too, because I heard you never even graduated. I mean, how stupid do you have to be to not graduate high school? I hardly even go, and I’m going to graduate with flying colors.”
I can see George growing more and more irritated with every word out of my mouth. “High school is stupid,” he yells, “and…and…”
“And what?” I want to know. “And I’m a fucking pussy? Why don’t you look in the mirror? You’re nothing but a pathetic piece of shit. Nobody here really likes you.” I look around the crowd. “Ask anyone. You know every small town has an old pathetic loser who still hangs out with high school kids. That’s you. You’re that guy.”
“You want to go, you pussy?” George spreads his arms as wide as he can reach. “Come on, let’s go. Me and you, right here, right now. Or are you too pussy to fight me?”
I should knock him on his ass while his defenses are down. I mean, what kind of idiot picks a fight with their arms spread out like that? Plus, if things do get out of hand, if I do find myself getting pummeled, Kelly and Reed will have my back in an instant. But knowing that still doesn’t make me feel any safer. To be honest, I’m scared. I’ve wrestled over a hundred matches in my life but I’ve never been in a real fight before. My stomach is tied in knots. And it feels as if the whole world is closing in on me. And that George is suddenly ten feet tall. So, I say the first thing that comes to mind, something that I probably stole from a movie somewhere. “You’re not even worth my time.” And then I walk away. Away from George. Away from the crowd. Away from Graffiti Flats, and its colored concrete walls and shattered glass. I walk to my Jeep and hop in the driver’s seat.
“Walk away,” George yells. “Just like a fucking pussy!”
I shut my door, start the engine, and begin to drive away. I don’t make it twenty feet before I hear something hit the back of my Jeep. I slam on the brakes, shift it into park, and jump out to inspect what happened. There’s a beer bottle in pieces on the ground and a long crack across the width of my rear window. George is standing in the distance, again with his arms spread out wide. “What the fuck are you going to do about it?” he yells.
Nothing. I’m going to do nothing about it. I’m going to hop back in my Jeep and drive away. Maybe George is right. Maybe I am a “pussy.” But at least I’m not a pussy with a black eye or a broken nose. I’m shaking as I drive home. I breathe in and out, trying to regain my composure, but I can’t stop thinking about George and his disgusting goatee and his repulsive tattoos. I daydream about killing him. I daydream about taking a knife and stabbing him in the gut over and over again, blood pouring out of his body like a waterfall. I daydream because you can’t get in trouble for daydreaming.
When I get home, my dad’s truck isn’t in the driveway. It’s Friday. Payday. Which means he went straight to the bar. I walk through the front door, which isn’t locked, partly because small towns like ours feel safe, but mostly because we have nothing worth stealing. The place is a mess. I take a few minutes to gather all the empty beer bottles up and place them in a plastic bin in the garage. Then I take out the garbage, which stinks like spoiled chicken. I fill the sink with dirty dishes and run the faucet to let them soak overnight. Once the place looks halfway decent, I open the refrigerator to find half a case of Keystone and a few pieces of leftover pizza. I grab a beer and a slice and head to my room to read an old paperback copy of an S.E. Hinton novel. I sip on the beer and think about how another day has gone by, just like last year, and the one before that, where not a single person has wished me a happy birthday.