THE EGAN RABBIT
Meander Casey leaned against the side of The Egan Rabbit, a downtown warehouse converted into a space for small shows and hard liquor. He handed out flyers for his brother’s band. “Only give them to girls,” his brother Corey Casey demanded. “You think I play bass for a bunch of fraternity mouth-breathers?”
“I think you play bass because you can’t play guitar,” Meander said.
“Guys will come no matter what,” Corey said. “Just give them to girls.”
Meander knew it didn’t matter. People don’t notice flyers when their own missing daughter hands them one with her face on it. Anyway, Corey sang for a gutter punk band called The Violators whose amphetamine speed and feedback-from-the-amplifier melodies would treat his lyrics the way an alarm clock treats a dream. Technically, the band’s name was Senor Low-Penis and The Violators, but when Corey—who had unironic dreams of stardom—joined, he referred to his new running mates only as The Violators to make them sound like respectable punks.
The flyers themselves were pretty things. They had a black-and-white picture of Corey staring directly into the camera with his eyes blacked out. Unlike Meander, Corey got his hair from the white side of their family, and he had it teased into a coiled cowlick just right of the center of his forehead. The text under his neck read, “Corey Casey is A Violator.”
On the previous night, Meander swiped his brother’s computer and changed the text to read, “Corey Casey is a Violator of Megan’s Law.” These were the ones he handed out in front of The Egan Rabbit when I saw him on the night of the show. They still looked to be on the upper end of punk rock flyers, but he’d also written that The Egan Rabbit was “The Rockingest Joint Not Within 200 Yards of a Middle School.”
The Rabbit hired Meander because they couldn’t make him leave. He was seventeen, not old enough to be a customer, but no matter how many times they shoved him out the door, he’d show up an hour later, sporting the same fake ID, but now with a showy Irish accent. Finally, the owner, Egan Hopper, decided to keep the kid in the back, hand him a mop, and let him work for the half-dozen free drinks a night it took him to pass out. They hired me because I was Meander’s friend, but also because I was bigger and looked older. That meant I could work the door or the register. Later, Hallahan, the bouncer, could tell me the make and model car belonging to whichever patron was too drunk to notice. While Meander kept watch, I’d jimmy the door and grab what I could from the glovebox and under the seat. This was my audition, and the men at the Rabbit were my judges.
Meander Casey wanted his brother to bring him on as The Violators second drummer. “Each set has something like four or five different drums and the average drummer has two arms,” he told me that evening.
Just then, Corey stomped up to us and grabbed his brother by the lapel. “Hey asshole, show me one of your hilarious flyers.”
“I’m sorry,” Meander said. “I can only give them to girls.”
Corey grabbed his brother’s nose between his fingers and bent his head backwards. “This is my livelihood.”
“Livelihood?” Meander spit at his chest. “I’d rather people think I blew Cub Scouts than play bass for my livelihood. Mark it down, Milo,” Meander said to me. “Today, my brother hits the zenith of his artistic powers, playing the thirtieth coolest music-joint in Lexington, Kentucky on a Wednesday. As the opening act.”
Corey winced. The Violators were opening for Surrender Dorothy, a more successful band. Corey desperately wanted to join the higher profile act, but they needed a bass-player the way most bands needed a second drummer.
The Rabbit only had one rule they enforced. They pinned it to the back room, so it’d be the last thing we saw before we interacted with the public. Not In Front of The World. People came into The Rabbit for drink and darkness and anything auxiliary was waste or threat. Fighting out front was a direct violation of this rule, and so were Meander’s fake flyers. If we got too out of hand, Hallahan would drag us to the wooded part of Orman Park and trample the bejeezus out of us. Sometimes, Egan would tab me as his bruiser, but he knew I’d go easy on Meander. Anyway, I punched like a flyswatter next to Hallahan, who loved meting out Old Testament-style punishment on our spines.
“You going to Prophet’s tonight?” I asked Corey. “Shipment’s in.”
“That man’s a pervert,” he said. “A tumor on a herpes sore on this city that you have to cut out.”
“Is that bad?” Meander said “If you have to have herpes, wouldn’t you want them on your tumor. Two birds with—I’m thinking out loud.”
“The man is killing you both, and you’re too stupid to do anything about it but say thanks.” Corey turned to take in the view of a purple-haired girl riding by on her bike. “You go up Prospect Hill, not all of you comes back down.”
Corey grabbed his brother by the scruff of his neck and shoved him into the locked side door like he wanted to stamp his face on the metal. He would have done more except I grabbed his right hand and pinned it behind his shoulder blade.
“What’s the least number of unbroken fingers you need to play bass?” I said. “I know it’s not five.”
Corey turned around to smack me in the ear, but Hallahan stepped around the corner, trying to light a Camel. We went silent. Hallahan whistled. When he wanted our attention for his business, he yelled; when he wanted us for Egan’s business, he whistled. It was time to get ready for the show.
The crowd was thicker than normal. Egan scoured the customers for moles from the ABC Board. He knew a reckoning was coming, but he didn’t care. I admired the attitude, even if it was nestled between drunken madness and drunken stupidity.
Meander and I had to keep eyes on everyone: strangers, friends of the band, each other, and ourselves. It had happened before where the singer’s girlfriend puked on stage or the drummer walked out of the bathroom with a gram of coke in his beard. New people were good for when they drank too hard and let the cash and cards slip from their pockets. Old people were good for shielding us from the new people.
The Violators played exclusively to the strangers. Even if there was only one fresh face in the crowd, Corey made the same jokes before his songs—each time pausing, shrugging, and chuckling like he surprised himself. A veteran of his practiced spontaneity, I could see the wires and trapdoors where the magic should be. He’d hammer the guitar like this music was as inevitable and overwhelming as gravity. The lyrics were dishonest, but not in a useful way.
In the middle of the set, Hallahan smacked me in the back of the head. “Can you watch the door, dummy? Keep your hands in your pockets and look stupid like you’ve been practicing.”
“Where’re you going?”
“On a run,” he said, meaning he’d shoot down the street to the darkened parking lot to look for overstuffed cars. At this point, he wouldn’t take anything. He was out to spy, to see if he could match the cars to the patrons or see if anyone left a purse in plain view. There were four different lots we grabbed from—ours, the one Jerry Marimow’s Pub shared with a Christian coffee house, the one by a defunct hotel, and the small one to the side of Orman Park.
When Hallahan went on his runs, I stood by the door, mostly to make sure nobody got a drink spilled on them and ran to the parking lot. Hallahan only carried his phone half the time, so it was a pointless job, but such was life at The Rabbit.
The Violators finished their song, and the guitarist fiddled with a few high notes for the next one. Corey didn’t play right away, but instead scanned the crowd with his hand on his forehead. He stepped to the microphone but instead of singing, he put up his palm to stop the music. The band, confused, kept playing. This wasn’t part of the act.
The drummer stopped, leaving only the guitarist furiously plucking away. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll indulge me for a song or two,” Corey said. “I’d like to bring my little brother here to help on the drums.”
Meander was carrying a tub of glasses backstage when he heard. Almost immediately, he handed the tub to a girl with a homemade leopard print shirt, who had no choice but to take it from him. Meander, who always looked like three parts goat and one part zombie, smiled so large that the strangers in the crowd beside him smiled as well. I ran to the foot of the stage, praying no one would take that moment to wander to the parking lot.
Meander waved to the crowd despite no applause. I heard him ask for the song as he leaned over and reached for one of the spare drumsticks.
“Song’s called ‘Guitar Heart,’” Corey said into the microphone. “Goes like this.” He swung his bass by the neck and slammed it into his brother’s chest, sending him sprawling off the stage. Meander fell onto his side and skidded into the leopard-print girl’s shins, causing her to drop the tub of glasses on top of him.
For a second, there was no sound except the high notes of the guitar. In an instant, someone would scream, then the crowd would go rabid, half of them tossing bottles and half headed to their cars. If I couldn’t control the door, then Hallahan would flog me until my ass was more welt than skin.
The guitarist was helping. So long as the high notes kept coming, people could believe it was part of the show. I heard myself clapping before I knew why. I tried to get the audience to follow along, but they weren’t having it.
I walked on stage. Corey Casey wiped the sweat off his face with his t-shirt. The drummer hit the high hat to go along with the guitar. It didn’t sound like a song yet. Corey bit his lip and spit on the ground at my toes. I didn’t know what to say, so I closed my eyes and put both hands behind my head. The music kept going and I started to hear the pattern—the looping, the hook, and then the chorus. I wanted to hear it one more time, but then he hit me.
I reckoned it would hurt like a cleat to the chest, more of a push than a punch. But Corey must have cocked back and treated my spine like an uncoordinated kid treats a tee-ball stand. It knocked me from the stage, sending me sliding across the floor on top of the leopard girl’s spilled glasses. This time people laughed. I rose to my knees. The Violators had started playing a song. They were already on the chorus—I must’ve lost time. For a moment, the bass stopped, and I heard a loud thump. Someone fell on my ankles. It was Lemon the Soundman, except he was smart about it and landed carefully so as not to cut his hands. He hopped back to his feet, quick as a calico, then lifted me up. There was a small line formed to the side of the stage now, people waiting for Corey to pound the devil out of their chests with his bass.
Lemon yanked me out of the way, just before the drummer for Surrender Dorothy tumbled on top of us. Corey knew better than to hit him like he hit me. Now that it was an act, the crowd bought into it. They were here to see Surrender Dorothy or to get drunk. So long as this was a dance and not a fight, they’d stick to their plans.
I rubbed my eyes. In the line for the stage, I saw Meander, still clutching his chest from the last time. That was his sense of humor and his sense of life—loud and uncomplicated. He laughed at busted noses, a bowl of soup to the face, people being where they shouldn’t and falling down when they should stand. Lemon grabbed me by the chin. “The door, numbnuts, the door.”
By the time I made it to the doorjamb, my chest was pounding. The pain was shooting from the middle of my breastbone, pushing out to my ears and kneecaps. I pitched forward and spit out a mouthful of blood.
Hallahan walked across the parking lot. A group of three smokers came up to me. “You okay, man?” One of the strangers put a hand on the curve of my neck. He smelled like cherries and menthols.
“He’s going to puke,” someone said.
“No he’s not,” said the man holding onto me. “I think he’s been—I don’t know. You okay, buddy?”
Hallahan put a hand on each side of my ribcage and stood me up straight. He couldn’t have known he was doing it, but each of his thumbs pressed against the edges of my bruise. “Someone fuck with you, my man?” He spoke delicately, like an unformed word was as unappealing as an uncooked quiche. “Let’s get you to the mattress,” he said, clapping me on the back of my neck and shoving me to the side of The Rabbit. The mattress was an un-sheeted bed in the side room backstage. On weekends, the mattress went to whichever worker drank himself helpless first, but occasionally Egan used it to store a sick customer.
When we got around the corner, out of the sightline of the smokers, Hallahan squeezed my neck and hugged me close. “You got it, honey,” he said. “Slow and steady.” He looked like a side of bacon had grown a moustache, but he had tremendous gentleness in his hands. If he’d been born weak, we might’ve been friends.
An hour later, I woke up on the mattress alone. There was a slight pain in my side, more of a distraction from the overall throb in the middle of my chest. From the main room, Surrender Dorothy sounded like they were winding up for a big finish. My mind was a bright, shining blank. As I blinked myself into awareness, I saw a boxy blue shape blocking the doorway.
“Rise up, Lemur, and get your kill.” It was Egan Hopper, holding a cup of tea, the steam fogging his glasses. He called me Lemur because he’d read that lemurs were the most vicious and lazy of all the big cats.
“Who’s got the bar?” I said.
“What’s wrong with you,” he said. “What is going on in your head?”
“I got hit,” I said. “Senor Low-Penis and the Unfulfilled Ambitions brained me.”
“Make sure you get your breathing patterns back.” He gave me the teacup, and I brought it to the side of my face, like it was my head and not my chest that ached.
“Is fucking Corey still out there?” I asked. “Ninety percent of anything that’s gone wrong here signs his name with a Casey at the end of it. I’m going to tie that man’s balls to a race car.”
“Listen to your revenge-minded self.” Egan had the thick glasses and wholesome smile of a cartoon on the side of an ice cream truck, but he pulsed with the anger of a man who practiced never raising his voice. “Talking your killer talk. Revenge can’t be parceled out, dollar for dollar and penny for penny.”
I took a sip of the tea, and it warmed my bruise on the way down. “I saved that fucking show. I did good.”
“My God, listen to you,” he said. “Just listen to you.”
“You’re good at saying, ‘Listen to you,’ but I’m not convinced you know what it means.”
“You sound just like him, you know?”
“It’s true,” he said. “Out there, when you act tough, you sound like a kid. But here, when you’re genuinely mad-dog angry, I know you’re Aaron’s brother.”
“When you knew him, he was a kid.”
Egan kicked the door closed behind him. “You like Meander because you think you’re the same. And you hate Hallahan because he can hurt you. But Meander is much closer to being Hallahan than he is to being you. Those two don’t think.”
“Which is what you say about me when you talk to them.”
“Would they listen?” Egan said. He was in his late twenties, but he had a spattering of pimples under his right temple that him look younger. He wiped off his coke-bottle glasses with the bottom of his shirt and then repositioned them on his face. “Do I lie to you? Have I sold you on us all being family? You want family? Get yourself born from a better snatch than the one God put you in. This is business, and business eats and bleeds loyalty. Do you know how to foster loyalty from an employee?”
“Talk about his mother’s vagina?”
“It’s honesty.” His grin hung on the corner of his face like it was weighing down his lips. “I’ll always speak to you honest as I can. Hallahan is useful because he’s big and he’s faithful. He does what I ask, and he likes doing it, which means he’s thorough. Meander’s useful, but not as much. He’s good company, and he’s desperate for friendship, which can make him valuable in a pinch. Best thing about him is he brings you on board. Meander’s more skull than brain, but you’re different.”
I still had blood in my mouth. I tasted it as I rolled my tongue around on the back of my teeth.
“Right now, you’re on the drunkard’s mattress,” he said. “This ain’t where anybody wants to be, but it’s where you are. Where’re you going from here?”
“Enough with this,” I said. “You want to talk to me, talk to me. Stop making it a game of mother-may-I? Tell me where I’m going because you obviously know.”
“That’s the way you ask a favor?” The smile left his eyes. “Okay, hotshot, since you’re in a hurry to resume your life as a cum-rag for this bed, let me get to the point. You know how we make our money. And it’s not whiskey shooters and bottles of Bud. And it’s not tickets to see eyeliner rockabilly like Surrender Goddamn Dorothy. You’ve been in people’s cars, and you know what Lemon’s slinging.”
The song came crashing to an end with a smattering of slowly rolling drums.
“Nickel and dime stuff is fine, and maybe that’s what you want.” He grabbed the tea, finished it in one swallow, and dropped the mug on the mattress. “Next step for you is cars. I’ve got a shop in Lawrenceberg that can’t be traced back here. It’s a real bump in salary, and you can get paid whichever way you want. Cash, dope, or goodwill. But no one ever chooses goodwill.”
“You got Hallahan on this too?” I said.
“Think about it,” he said. “Take your time, and sift through what I told you. In the meantime, watch the company you keep.”
“You mean Meander?”
“Not only Meander,” he said. “You’re young, and this is the time to max out, the only time you’ll have. You got a girl?”
I shook my head.
“Get one,” he said. “Get two. Don’t piss your nights away talking power chords and precious lyrics with the Casey boys.”
“You said it’s not Meander.”
“Not just him,” Egan said. “It’s you that matters, not your wastrels.” No matter the situation, Egan never spoke with his hands, instead draping them at his sides like he was holding two basketballs in the crook of each elbow, but he punctuated these sentences by moving his chin from side to side. “Get you a girl before you get old. It’s better when you’re older, but it’s not the same. You miss out now, you can’t make it up again. What’s the name of that redhead you hang around?”
“Let me clarify,” I said. “It’s not that I don’t know what girls are, nor am I boycotting them. What I’m saying is I don’t right now have a girlfriend, and what you’re saying is anything to avoid my question, which is, who are you talking about?”
“You going up the hill tonight?”
Thomas the Prophet, I thought. Thomas and Egan hated each other, and they both had points. I was determined not to take sides, because while I liked Thomas better, he was twice as useless. Anyway, it amused me how they each thought the other cornered the market on degeneracy.
“Kick a tire or two on what I just said.” He opened the door. “We’ll take care of you no matter what you do.”
“Let me ask you something,” I said. “Why you call yourself Rabbit?”
“Hopper,” he said. “Egan Jackson Hopper. I kept waiting for someone to nickname me Rabbit, but I got bored and named myself.”
“You’re middle name’s Jackson? Why not call this place The Jack Rabbit?”
“Can’t do that.” His smile was back. “That’s what they expect you to do.”
Those days, the only bonafide adults we had vying for our attention were Egan Hopper and Thomas the Prophet, who described himself as “a philosophy dealer.” The rest of Lexington described him as an “inexpensive dealer” and that kept his house full. After most shows at the Rabbit, the band, the staff, a few of the regulars would trek up Prospect Hill and park at Thomas the Prophet’s house, take whatever drug he offered and drink from his endless supply of booze.
Thomas was only a decade older than us, but he was aging in dog years. He had a swallow of success, working for an advertising firm. One of his ads for a gum-flavored soda went national, and for about twenty minutes he was a warm commodity. It didn’t last, but he held onto his money, and when he moved back to Kentucky, he wrote occasional ads for local business and small-time political candidates. He looked like a five-year-old’s drawing of a handsome man—he had the ingredients for attractiveness, but the proportions were off. Thanks to a snakebite in his youth, his left hand hung off the side of his wrist, turning his arm into an oblong checkmark. To some, that hand served as an extension of the man: unneeded, unnerving, and not quite finished.
He lived at the peak of Prospect Hill in a hulking shell of a house originally meant to be a duplex. He started tearing down the dividing wall, but abandoned it halfway through. Instead, he hung paintings of his friends on the drywall, and when he ran out of canvasses, he finger-painted directly on the wall itself. The house was too big for one person, so he routinely housed anyone who needed a bed. It was rare the morning sun would find the house empty of stragglers from the night before.
Prospect Hill itself was a neighborhood on the rise twenty-five years earlier. The houses around Thomas’s looked every bit as dingy, but much smaller. Frequently I’d see the neighborhood children playing with Thomas’s power drill or covered in his green house paint after a block-wide paint fight.
I hitched a ride up the hill with Meander, the back of his car smelling like week-old banana pudding and pizza crusts. “If he shows up tonight, I’ll kill him,” Meander said. He shook his head and rolled his unlit cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other. “If you think I’m joking, fuck you too.”
“I believe you,” I said. “You talking about Corey?”
“No, not Corey. Stop fucking around, okay?”
“Who then?” I said. “Who do you want to kill?”
“Little fucker.” He looked at me, temporarily ignoring the road. “You are not a serious person. People say that about me, but it’s because I hang around you.”
“I still don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Jesus, Milo.” He lifted up his shirt. “Does that help at all?”
“I’m not trying to be a hard-on, but what am I looking at?”
He looked down at his own chest and then back on the road. “It’s bruised,” he said. “Tomorrow you’ll be able to see it better, but that’s a nasty bruise.”
“He burned me,” Meander said. “I was down already, begging him to stop, but he kept going. Then he put his cigarette out on me.”
“What’s the world coming to?” I said. “Meander Casey reaching his threshold for pain before he hits the wheelchair.”
“He wouldn’t stop,” Meander said. “I asked him nice, then I asked him mean, I yelled, and I even threatened him.”
“Okay, of those, only asking nice will work. The rest are counterproductive.”
He smacked the steering wheel. “They’re going to fire me, man.”
“Egan tell you that?”
“Hallahan did,” he said. “Laughing at me while my chin’s bouncing off the concrete. Says every bit of trouble in the joint comes signed with a Casey at the end.”
Egan ordered this as my payback. Was that what he thought I wanted? I looked at the side of his chin where Hallahan’s boot had been. Nothing showed, but when he stopped talking, I heard a hitch in his breathing, making me wonder if he’d cracked a rib.
“If he comes up Prospect tonight, trying to be my buddy, you know what I’m going to do?” He slit his throat with his thumbnail. “Pow. No joke. Murder.”
“Did that knife go ‘Pow?’”
We passed Leckett’s Ark, home of Thomas’s down-street neighbors, Roxy and Monroe Leckett. Roxy and Monroe were my age, but their parents were out of the picture. We called their house The Ark because every afternoon, Roxy laid out whatever food she didn’t want for the feral neighborhood animals. On any given night, you could come across raccoons and squirrels and cats and dogs and opossums all scouring the yard for supper. Once I saw a deer. Inevitably the animals turned on each other, and because the Lecketts rarely cleaned the carcasses, they became food for the next night’s grazers. It helped that Roxy and Monroe were twins. Even the people were lining up two by two.
Occasionally, Meander liked to drive off the road and into the yard to scare the assembled animals. He claimed he’d once hit a hedgehog, but I didn’t believe him. The dogs were howling, and he was staring out the side window into the Ark.
“Don’t do it,” I said. “Just keep going.”
“You don’t think I can?” Meander pulled to the side of the road and stopped the car. “You don’t think I will?”
“What’s the point?” I said. “It’s a bad idea.”
“Not to hit them. Just scare them a little and make them scatter. That way, I’d give Thomas a little peace from that racket.”
I reached under the seat and took out his emergency bottle of rum. Meander drank sweet liquor—once I’d even seen him dumping sugar and cream into his bourbon and coke. “Take a sip of this,” I said. “It’ll be good for that bruise.”
“I can’t lose my job,” he said. “It’s my main motivation for drinking.”
“Egan likes you,” I said. “Well, he doesn’t, but he doesn’t like anyone. And the temp agency ain’t sending anyone to replace you. And Hallahan—”
Meander stiffened. “You think I’m joking, right?”
I reached over and honked his horn three times. My hope was to send the animals away from the yard and into safety, but just as many scurried into the road by our car. It didn’t matter. The honking worked like an alarm for Meander, waking him up and knocking the smoldering pity from his eyes. He took the rum bottle from my lap, took a long swig, and sloshed it around his cheeks like mouthwash. Then, without a word, he drove us up the hill to Thomas the Prophet’s house.
Just inside the door, I saw Harmony Dulles, a crabapple-cheeked girl from school, smearing finger paint onto one of Thomas’s bed sheets. “They’re upstairs,” she said, not looking up. She put a glob of yellow on the side of her hand and chopped at the sheet until it turned into a checkered smudge.
I knelt down to her level. “How does he seem tonight? Mood-wise?”
She flitted her hand back and forth to mean fifty-fifty. “Some of the Rabbit people are up there, so I came down here.”
Meander looked at me and mouthed “Hallahan?”
I shook my head like I knew.
He sprinted toward the staircase. Harmony didn’t seem to notice, and when I looked at her again, I saw her eyes were blank and pink as a hamster’s. I hesitated for a moment, and then sprinted after Meander.
I was just in time to grab at the ankle of Meander’s blue jeans, but not enough to slow him down. As he kicked away from me, I banged my elbow into the bannister. I heard his footsteps thumping up the stairs and growing softer, then some scattered voices shouting greeting and recognition at Meander. The bump on my elbow redoubled the pain in my chest.
A loud thunk and a peal of gratified laughter came from above. Not yet, I thought. I bolted upstairs. The first person I saw was Corey sitting splay-legged in front of a doorway, passing a hash pipe to the girl with the leopard print shirt.
From the room behind him, I heard the thunk again. I opened the door, expecting some version of a fight. Instead, it was a crowd of people, some hunched over in hysterics, some passed out asleep. In the middle of it all, was Petey Peyote, usually pale but tonight almost translucent. He collected bottles and cleaned up at The Rabbit, and sometimes after a good night, Egan would send him home with an extra twenty dollars in his pocket. When he came up on Prospect Hill looking to score, some people tried to take it off him. His real name was Pierre Graniaux, but he let people call him whatever they wanted so long as they bought him the occasional beer or bottle of Ale-8 to help the meth kick in. Now, he rolled around the center of the floor, breathing heavy.
The lights were off and it took a second for my eyes to adjust to the dark. Thomas the Prophet sat Indian-style in front of his own closet, hunched over with his chin hanging above his knees. Shea Stanford, my oldest friend, sat beside him, slowly massaging the back of his head, her fingers running through his long stringy hair. Meander stood in the opposite corner, glowering, but laughing his unhinged hyena howl—his telltale sign he didn’t understand the joke. Lina Darby, lead guitarist for Surrender Dorothy, said, “Come on, Petey, do it again.”
At that, Petey hopped up, moving from flat on his back to crouching in a two-point position almost instantly, without even using his hands to balance. Then Lina flicked one of her cigarettes so it sailed end over end just above his head. Right as it started its descent, Petey jumped from a flat-foot position backward, biting at the cigarette and collapsing on the floor.
“They give him a bump each time he gets it in his mouth,” Shea told me. “What? It’s Lina’s thing, not mine.”
The joke must’ve been wearing thin. This was the third thunk since I’d come in, and the laughs sounded patchier each time.
I didn’t much like Petey, but I had no desire to watch him break his jaw. I wanted to leave, but I saw Meander surveying the back corner. He cracked his neck back and forth and kept his hands in front of his chest like a toy boxer. He wanted to fight.
Lina stepped out of the way, and I saw Hallahan standing behind her, fiddling with the sprigs of his moustache. His chin was lined with a ring of smoke from his thin black cigar. I shook my head, but Meander wouldn’t look at me. If he took a swing, they’d kill him. It was a matter of seconds. I felt a light strain in my knee and let it buckle, howling in pain and collapsing on the floor.
It was enough for a moment’s distraction. “He kicked me,” I said, moaning and pointing behind me to a sleeping Thomas the Prophet. “He got me right in the knee.”
Shea Stanford raised an eyebrow. Of all the people in the room, she alone knew I was lying, but she bit her tongue.
“He didn’t mean to,” I said. “But he got me real good.” The room was standing over me now.
“You got your ass kicked by an unconscious man,” Lina Darby said. “That’s like getting raped by a sex doll.”
“Don’t take that shit, man,” Hallahan said. He threw his zippo across the room and it landed straight between Thomas’s eyes. This prompted others to empty their pockets and throw their keys and loose change at Thomas, though no one else had Hallahan’s aim.
“It wasn’t his fault,” I said. I tried to smack away the debris, but it was a lost cause. When I tried to interfere, I got smacked in the head by a contact case and a barrage of nickels. All the while, Thomas never stirred, not even when someone hit him in the side of the mouth with a battery.
Just then I saw two hands poke out from under his armpits. It was Meander, trying to lift Thomas the Prophet’s upper body. I stood and grabbed him by the ankles, and we carried him across the hall and dumped him onto his bed. I rolled him on his belly.
It struck me for the first time how similar his bedroom looked to the floproom in the back of The Rabbit. They really were almost the same, Egan and Thomas. The hatred had long roots. In time, it would spill real blood. I sensed that even then, but it didn’t feel urgent. That’s just the nature of blood and time.
“Look at this guy,” Meander said. “He’s tore up worse than Christmas wrapping. Who gets fucked up this bad?”
“You do,” I said. “I do. We’re in his house, using his junk.”
“But this?” Meander waved a hand over Thomas. “He looks dead. You don’t believe Egan, do you? The pervert stuff?”
“Those are rumors,” I said. “He lies about everyone. Yesterday, he told me you tried to drink a bucket of paint thinner because you thought that was how you huff it.”
“What?” He laughed, and immediately, I knew it was true. I turned from him so he wouldn’t catch the recognition in my face. From behind, I heard a choked wheeze. He’s about to confess, I thought. Don’t admit it, just laugh it away. When he didn’t speak, I turned around and saw Meander hunched over the bed, strangling Thomas.
The choking sound. Which one of them did it come from? He was killing him. But he couldn’t kill him, not if he’s already dead.
All the while, I couldn’t find my feet. Instructions were building in my thoughts, distant and unwelcome as a siren four cars behind. Do something, I told myself, and I felt myself moving. But I wasn’t.
Then the bed broke. Meander slid off and collapsed laughing. Thomas gave a burbling noise and rolled onto his side. “The fuck?” I said, too stunned to yell. “The fuck are you doing?”
“You see that?” Meander said, gurgling on his own laughter. “He’s all—that man’s stone dead knocked out. I never seen someone so gone.”
I put my fingers on Thomas’s throat. He was still breathing. “Were you really choking him?” I said. “What’s wrong with you?”
He shook his head, with every motion, his laughter lightened until it ran out. “I can’t lose my job, man,” he said. “Not for some gropey shit-sack like him.”
Thomas the Prophet was still alive, and I had the proof of that drumming through my fingertips. Part of me wondered if the pressure was actually moving down, from my fingers to his pulse and not the other way around. What if I was the one killing him?
I did nothing. I felt myself rooted to my sneakers, barely noticing as Meander loped out of the room.
I expected to see Hallahan on Thomas’s stoop, but instead I saw the girls—Harmony, Lina, and Shea—huddled in an awkward triangular hug. They didn’t make natural allies, but they fit as snugly as dishes in a dishwasher loaded back to front.
When I got closer, I saw Lina weeping.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
I expected a scowl when Lina turned to face me. She protected the circumference around her friends more fiercely than most people protected their assholes, but she smiled, looking sweet and dizzy. She never wore makeup except the nights she played, and then she smeared it all over like a child making a mud pie on her eyes. Now it was wet, and it made her face look like a 3-D picture, the actual shape buried deep beneath a cascade of colors. “It was my fault,” Lina said. “I was just messing around.”
“Peyote dove for one of Lina’s smokes and cracked out a tooth,” Shea said. “He only uses his teeth to scare children.”
“But he was bleeding so bad,” Lina said. “It was just a joke. Tell them.”
“So this was a permanent tooth, right?” I said. “Not like a baby tooth or nothing like that?”
They stared at me and then at each other. “Are you serious, Milo?” Shea asked. “He’s, like, thirty.”
I wish I could create an invisible box around their sadness, extending upward, so it couldn’t escape and drift into the rest of the night. All my mistakes felt beautiful enough to withstand their judgment, but only when I kept them close, in this house, away from the infinity of stars. If I push back against the rest of the world, against the endless nighttime, then I could hold onto our sadness, our injuries, everything that makes us part of one another. People say all things old can become new again, but they don’t mean it. It’s only new now, in the instant before we name it.
A glint of streetlight curled under Shea Stanford’s ear, lighting up her cheek. She smiled openly now, the shared guilt drying off her face. She was getting better, the body moving faster than the mind.
We were thieves, all of us. My chest was cracked, my nose was leaking, and my friends stood in front of me, crying and recovering. Upstairs, Thomas the Prophet must be moving away from his nightmare of being lost underwater, his scarf caught on the hull of the boat, tightening around his neck. Tomorrow, he’d wake up and face the world, but now, all he knew was he’d escaped the ocean. We didn’t have to improve, only recover. I could face myself, take the medicine of the mirror, but only if I held us all together and didn’t let our pain seep away.
The dogs at the Ark at end of the street screamed toward space and a wave of crickets answered them. When I was young, the world was green and full of ungrateful animals.
WILLIE DAVIS is the winner of the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize (judged by Zadie Smith) and The Katherine Anne Porter Prize (judged by Amy Hempel). His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Kenyon Review, Salon, The Berkeley Fiction Review, and storySouth among other places. His debut novel Nightwolf is forthcoming from 7.13 Books.