by Isaac James Baker
The air was warm and thick the night we became teenage killers, one of those sweaty, steamy ones when humidity covers Chicago like a wet blanket. It was the four of us: Sterling , Victoria , Whitey and me.
Sterling was the leader — well, not really the “leader” — we were all anarchists in those days and we didn’t believe in leaders, authority, government, any of that shit. But Sterling was sixteen and he had a car, which meant he determined when and where we were going. To that extent, I guess you could call him a leader.
Victoria was too beautiful to be called Vicky or Vic or some other cutesy nickname. Just Victoria . We always joked with her that she should become the lead singer of a crust punk band and go by the stage name Victoria Victim. She didn’t like that idea. She said she was nobody’s victim.
Whitey was called Whitey because he was a Polish Jew and his parents came from Krakow or Warsaw , I don’t remember which. We thought it was ironic. His grandparents had been through the shit with the Nazis. He told me stories about them, stories so fucked up that when I heard them I just sat there like a deaf mute. After we killed the Nazi, Andrew told me he wished his grandfather was still alive so he could tell him about it. He said his grandfather would’ve been proud of him.
Then there was me.
We were The Musketeers, plus one, and we were ready for Friday night. We all met at Sterling ’s place and hopped into his rusty old Buick, Victoria in the front and me and Whitey in the back. My crew and I were headed out for a great show, The Abused, a thrash punk band from New York. We were gonna drink some beers, sing along with the punk anthems, jump around, pump our fists in the air, slap each other on the back, maybe meet up with some other punks, drink some more beers. We all knew it was gonna be one hell of a night. Anything could happen.
We rolled down all the windows and lit cigarettes, looking out the sweating pedestrians trudging along the sidewalks. Sterling was playing The Damned on The Brick’s CD player.
“Man, can’t we change this?” I asked. I wanted something harder, something I could stomp my shoes to, and The Damned strayed a bit too far into that whole wimpy British new wave kind of sound.
“It’s my car,” was his reply.
Victoria said she wanted to listen to something else, too. Whitey, who was slouched in the back seat with me, was staring out the window at the passing apartment buildings and bodegas. I hit him in the shoulder.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Something else.”
“That’s participatory democracy,” Victoria said. “Sorry.”
“This car isn’t a democracy,” Sterling replied.
Victoria scrunched up her brow.
“It’s not?” She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Sterling , you’ve got to be the change you want see in…”
“Alright, alright!” Sterling huffed. “Spare me the political speech.”
He ejected the CD and Victoria slipped in The Exploited, which Whitey and I agreed was a better choice. The pounding music crackled from the speakers, muffled and scratchy from the countless hours of full-volume hardcore punk we submitted them to.
Sterling reached into a big brown paper bag shoved in between the two front seats. He threw a can back and I snagged it before it hit me in the face, a Pabst Blue Ribbon. We called it “Street Cred in a Can,” and we drank as much of it as our teenage bellies could handle, and then some. Sterling told us he got it from his older brother and we should drink up because we were getting close to the Fireside Bowl, a decrepit bowling alley turned infamous punk rock dive. Victoria chugged hers faster than me and then stuck her head into the back seat to rip a belch in my face. I finished my beer and burped in reply, although mine wasn’t nearly as loud. Whitey took a few sips of his beer and then threw it at a yellow Hummer parked on the side of the street. The can smacked the windshield and spewed frothy brew all over the car. I slapped him five.
Victoria scolded Whitey for littering.
“These are our streets,” she said. “Don’t shit where you eat.”
“It was a Hummer,” Whitey said in defense.
He had a point. After all, Hummers exemplified everything punks hated: materialism, upper class elitism, environmental degradation, macho douchebags, all that shit.
“Fine,” Whitey said. “The next time I see a Hummer, I’ll drink my beer and then piss on the car.”
“Atta boy!” Victoria said. “Fuck with The System, but watch out for Mother Earth in the process.”
Sterling slapped a curb with the front of the Brick as he pulled into a narrow parking spot. He threw the car into park and it groaned like the trip had worn it out. We got out and sat on the warmed hood. We all cracked open our second PBRs.
“To not shitting where you eat,” I said, raising my can in the air. The others said “Cheers” and we downed our beers quickly, hoping the alcohol would drain into our bloodstreams and cloud our minds a bit before the show. The Fireside Bowl was serious about not letting minors buy booze. Rules, regulations, identification cards — in a punk rock club? What a bunch of crap. We hated their rules, but it was the best club in town to see street punk shows.
Victoria collected the empties in a plastic bag and, after searching up and down the street for a recycling bin, she threw it in a nearby trashcan.
“Goddamn city doesn’t give a damn about the planet,” she muttered.
Victoria led the way down the block to the club. A couple of punk guys sitting on a curb checked her out, eyed her up and down, but they didn’t say anything to her. I walked up beside Victoria to make them think she was with me. With raised eyebrows, they looked up jealously, puffing away at their cigarettes. Punks are good at not trying to steal each other’s girls. Maybe it has something to do with their left-wing, self-induced guilt for being part of the male gender, the gender of The Oppressor, the gender of The System. In the punk scene, if a guy got laid, most of the time it was because the girl fucked him, not the other way around. At least that’s what I’d heard. I would be a virgin for a couple more weeks. It’s kind of funny: I was a killer before I was a lover.
As we approached the club we could hear one of the opening bands slashing away at their guitars. I felt the asphalt below me pulsing with raucous beats, as if the punk band’s riffs were pouring life into the crumbling streets. We paid our eight bucks a piece to a guy with a nose and lip ring and pushed our way into the hall.
The place was already packed. A hot, heavy fog of sweat and cigarette smoke hung in the stale air. It smelled like beer and piss — or maybe just cheap beer, which, after all, smells like piss. There were no fans or windows in the Fireside Bowl. Everything was pretty much black except for a small bar in the back by the bathrooms and the lights on the stage, which flickered on and off chaotically, without rhythm, like a deaf person was running the system.
Once inside, we huddled near the back, assessing the premises. The four of us began moving together to the music, slamming our boots and bobbing our heads. The first band played decent street punk, kind of like early Casualties stuff, but not quite as fast. We were all feeling the buzz and the music. We slammed our shoulders together and punched our fists in the air when the bass, guitar and drums would all stop at the same time. We stomped our boots on the floor together when the music ripped open again. We jumped around, up in the air, sideways, ricocheting off of bigger punks, back to the ground, up in the air again. I was surrounded by tons of people I didn’t know, thrashing around without a care, but I felt more like myself than ever. I was squished between punks on all sides, but I was unchained, free.
During the palm-muted intro to one of the opening band’s songs, Victoria slapped me on the arm and motioned me to come toward her. I danced close by her and as I stuck my head in her direction she kissed me on the cheek. At first I thought it was an accident, like she had bumped into me and her lips just happened to come together on my face. But I looked at her and she smiled. I put my ear to her mouth, offering her the chance to try to yell something to me.
“Let’s just do this forever.”
The drums and bass kicked in and I had to scream so she could hear me.
“Do what forever?”
“This!” She held her hands in front of her, opening her arms before the crowd.
One kid was helping another up off of the floor. A fat guy was letting a skinny kid use his shoulder as a crowd surfing launch pad. Faces, jackets, patches with safety pins, spiky hair and piercings all blurred together into one, a punk rock rainbow rising from the surging crowd. The vocalist was screaming about unity and, during the chorus, he let six or seven punk kids jump up onto the stage and sing the rest of the song.
“Okay!” I yelled in affirmation. “This is it, isn’t it?”
She nodded. The band’s song ended and the crowd breathed in at once, everyone stopped moshing and stuck their heads up to try to suck some fresh air. I was already sweaty and we had just gotten there.
I think I was a little drunk from those two beers. I couldn’t feel much. When you’re packed in that tightly, smashed between so many sweating, thrashing punks, it’s like you almost don’t feel a thing. Almost.
I sure felt it when I was slammed forward onto the floor. My face hit the ground and a bright flash shot across my field of vision. I tasted blood in my mouth and felt throbbing pain in my temples. The force that knocked me down was so intense that I knew it wasn’t just some kid pogo dancing around. This was intentional. I was on the floor because someone wanted me there.
I looked up, stunned, disoriented, at a towering pillar of a skinhead. My vision was blurry for a few seconds, but I quickly realized what I was dealing with. He was the whole package: shaved head, black leather jacket (even though it was one of the hottest nights of the summer), jeans tight around his bulging waist, iron cross on his belt buckle, combat boots like waffle irons. His shirt said something in Old English script. I never got to read the entire thing. I’m sure it was just some racist bullshit.
“Heil Hitler!” the skinhead shouted. All the kids I was surrounded by had scattered like roaches, leaving me sprawled out alone on the floor.
“What the fuck?” was all I could think to say. It seemed an appropriate response.
“Salute! Take pride in your pure blood, white brother!” the man said, his jowls flapping like a bulldog’s. His opened hand jutted out firmly in front of him. A black swastika was singed into the skin on his wrist.
I looked around to see Sterling backed against the wall behind the skinhead. Victoria had her hands over her mouth, her leftist sensibilities no doubt rattled by this six-foot-something mound of muscle, fat and hatred. I couldn’t see Whitey anywhere.
Everyone else stood back as far as they could get, fear burning in their eyes. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of them. There was only one Nazi. He stood alone, defiant, his huge, oppressive shape demanding all the attention. He and I were now the show, and all eyes were on us.
“Salute!” he commanded again. “Now!”
Standing to my feet, wobbling, I spat blood on the floor. I remember being worried that I had lost a tooth. I remember thinking that adult teeth don’t grow back. I pondered this fact like it was some spectacular mystery I had just now finally understood.
I told the Nazi that I wouldn’t salute him, that I wanted no part of his hateful system, that he should go fuck himself. I did all this by saying, simply, “No.”
He didn’t ask me again. Pounding the ground with his boots, he stamped toward me.
That’s when my mates jumped in. They threw off their self-preservation instincts and dove in to protect me. I didn’t even know most of these kids, but they knew I was in trouble, and punks protect their own. They leapt on the skinhead’s back like a pack of wolves working together to take down a bear. The Nazi threw one kid off with a snap of his thick right arm, sending him sliding across the floor into a wall of other punks. Two others clung to his jacket, but he shook them off by thrashing his limbs.
Right before he was about to reach me, his fists readied in front of him, Sterling jumped up and gripped his arms around the skinhead’s neck. The Nazi threw his arms back, trying desperately to pound Sterling hard enough to force him to loosen his grip. But Sterling was determined. Nothing could force him to let go. At that moment, two punks attacked the Nazi’s legs, ripping them out from under him. The giant fell flat on his ass with a resounding thud. Sterling still held his grasp, refusing to budge, trying to choke the massive fascist.
The Nazi was down. We’d done it. But we didn’t stop there. Hell no. The violence spread like poison through my veins, through all of us. We had tasted blood, and we wanted more.
I stomped on the downed skinhead’s chest as hard as I could. I was a skinny kid, so I couldn’t have done too much damage, but I kept kicking and kicking until my feet hurt. The Nazi kicked and punched in defense. His steel-toed boot slammed a kid in the face so hard I heard his nose break like splintered wood. The kid, blood streaming from his face, fell backward onto the floor screaming. His screams sounded oddly hilarious. While the Nazi’s punches and kicks were heavy and powerful, he was slow, and the punks moved fast, hitting him with dozens punches and kicks each second. The whole time he kept screaming, “Bring it on you traitors! You scum! You white niggers!”
Each time he yelled at us we hit him harder.
Whitey, out of nowhere, entered the fray. Down on his knees, he smashed his fists into the skinhead’s neck. Whitey slammed him in the temple, recoiled in pain, and screamed that he had broken his wrist. But wounds would have to be tended to later. The battle wasn’t over yet. We kicked the Nazi in the ribs, the face, the neck, the legs, for what must’ve been several minutes, although I’m not sure. Amidst the pounding of flesh on flesh, time seemed to stand still.
Through the chaos, someone screamed “Stop!”
Several punks jumped back like their mothers had caught them doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. One by one, we stopped punching and kicking. The blood in our veins slowed. We all took breaths as the rage began to drain from us. It was Victoria who had screamed. She pushed herself between us and the Nazi, shoving and shooing kids off of his body.
When everyone backed off, I saw just how much blood was splattered on the floor. I looked at my shoes. The toes were smeared red. Nothing looked particularly special or pure about this blood. What the hell was the Nazi talking about? His blood was a dark, dirty red, just like the stuff that comes out of your nose if you pick it too hard.
Victoria pressed her fingers against the skinhead’s throat, kneeling.
“He’s dead,” she said.
I tried to swallow and almost choked. Now that the battle was over, I felt a thick, pulsing pain in my mouth. I ran my tongue across my gums. I had lost a tooth, one of the ones on the bottom. It was an adult tooth, I told myself, one of the ones that would never grow back. I cursed aloud and kicked the dead skinhead in the belly as hard as I could.
I got down on my hands and knees, searching around the club’s floor for my tooth. I don’t know why. It’s not like a dentist could’ve stuck it back in. It didn’t matter, though, because I couldn’t find it anywhere. There was just too much blood.
ISAAC JAMES BAKER was born in Belmar, New Jersey, in 1983. He grew up surfing and causing trouble on the Jersey Shore long before words like “Snookie” and “The Situation” further diminished the Shore’s already terrible reputation. He writes poetry, short stories and novels, and is working on his master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. His novel, Broken Bones, the story of a young man’s struggle in a psychiatric ward for anorexics, is forthcoming from The Historical Pages Company. He lives in Washington, D.C.